When I was around 6, my maternal grandmother came to live with us from Chongqing. She was a stately, no-nonsense lady who wore embroidered blouses, loose skirts, short silk stockings, and sensible shoes.
One time, a cockroach shimmied up her trousers; without missing a beat, she whacked it against her leg and shook out its remains. On another occasion, she instructed my 4-year-old sister to fling a dead rat we’d found over the fence into my neighbor’s backyard. Then all three of us fled inside and washed our hands.
She also kept the grownups in line, acting as a mediator between my parents and I during particularly heated disagreements. At social gatherings, Grandma regularly won games of mahjong and sipped shots of baijiu.
But there was one area especially in which her wisdom and experience seemed to know no bounds: traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Before Grandma, my sister and I took children’s Tylenol; after Grandma, we forced down mysterious herbal pills and foul-smelling concoctions.
The ones I hated the most were packets of tiny black pills – 40 or 50 of them in all – designed to bring down a fever. Grandma would pour them into my palm, hand me a glass of hot water, and watch until I choked down all the offending beads. I could never get them in my mouth in one shot; they rolled out of my hand, into my clothes, into the back of my throat where I coughed them back up again. “Good,” said Grandma. “Now take these three times a day.”
Her favorite diagnostic tool was simple but effective: examining our poop. Whenever my sister or I got sick, she’d calmly stroll into the bathroom and peer at our efforts with the repose of a mountaintop guru. “You have excessive internal heat,” she might say. Not knowing much about TCM back then, I interpreted that to mean my intestines were on fire.
However, I started to change my mind about Chinese medicine when our family cat came home injured from a fight. His white fur was stained with blood and raw skin showed underneath one ear. My mom took him to the vet, who said he would need a $600 shot. Taken aback by the cost, she brought him home and my grandmother got straight to work.
She boiled pigs’ ears with a bunch of other ingredients I still don’t know about. She then blended the formula into the cat’s dry food for a couple of weeks. Almost miraculously, the skin underneath his ear started to mend and fur grew over it. He regained weight, his coat becoming lustrous and even again.
After that, I regarded my grandmother as a kind of mystical folk hero who knew something the rest of us didn’t. She’s obviously doing something right; she’ll be turning 98 this September. Now living in Shanghai with my parents, Grandma definitely takes longer to get around and her hearing is even worse than I remember, but she still makes inappropriate jokes, gambles in her spare time, and startles others with casual auto-acupuncture sessions.
Photos courtesy of Sijia Chen