I’ve known my friend Geri for over 40 years. Our friendship dates back to the mid-1960s when she came from Taiwan to the west coast to study biochemistry at the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco.
My parents had signed up for a program to host international students. I’ve no idea which one. I was not involved. Their charge was to befriend this young female doctoral student and provide a temporary home for her until she could get settled on campus. Naturally, their first task was to meet Geri at the airport.
But there was a back story. It was awkward and confusing. I still wince when I remember it, at least the parts I can recall.
I had just left home. Two college girlfriends and I had rented an apartment in an old Victorian house, the three of us resolved to share these digs for our upcoming senior year. Like school girls holding hands, we embarked on our road to independence by setting up house.
Not a big deal, really. I was twenty, after all. Just part of the process of working out my timid---by ‘60s standards---rebellion from parents, the middle class, and a small Catholic college. Still a school for women and as yet untouched by student activism.
An only child, loved and cossetted, I had exhibited moderate promise in high school. Adept, but alas, absent some overriding talent or single-minded passion. Now I was adrift in the liberal arts and close to college graduation.
This apartment announcement alarmed my Mother and Dad. Three years of private school tuition payments suddenly jeopardized. My grades had already dipped. And they did not know, I think, about the chilly interview I’d recently had with the college president---called in privately after some protest statement I can no longer remember.
Even more disturbing for them was the shadow of the young man whom I was dating. He was five years older than me, involved in the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. They supposed (correctly) that my apartment idea was bolstered by romance. The lofty moral tone of “the movement” already pervaded my language in family apartment discussions.
Still, along with parental confused disappointment, there was the vacant bedroom I’d left behind.
Geri was about my age and, as things turned out, she helped fill the void my move created.
Deeply absorbed in my modest rebellion, I have no memory of my parents’ preparation for their student guest. But I was on hand at their house that first day when Geri arrived after a twelve-hour flight from Taipei.
In contrast to the recent months of family tension, this day my parents were upbeat with anticipation. Smiles all round. A relief for me, but tinged with a creeping sense of my outsider position.
Conversation was animated, arms gesticulating and eyebrows rising like commas to assist communication. Moments of mutual comprehension eliciting bursts of elation. Getting accustomed to Geri’s accented English.
By late afternoon, Geri was exhausted; she had a headache. My Mom’s offers of aspirin (in these pre-Tylenol days) were politely declined. Geri retreated to her suitcases and boxes deposited in my old bedroom. She delved into her pharmacopeia brought from home and produced a small hexagonal jar of a glistening, milky salve. She rubbed it on her forehead and lay down to rest.
Tiger Balm had entered our lives. It never left my Mother’s medicine cabinet. Decades later, when moving my Mom to an assisted living apartment, I found three jars in different strengths.
Geri completed her PhD and then worked in research labs. She too shared an apartment with her campus girlfriends. She met her future husband, also from Taiwan, who had come to the US to study engineering.
With longtime friends of my mother and dad as surrogate family, Geri was married in my parents’ garden. My father gave her away. I was a bridesmaid along with her Chinese girlfriends.
The Taiwan graft onto my family brought many joys to my parents in later years. Photographs show visits with two little boys born in America bringing afternoons of boisterous family life to my parents.
I was not there. I had married the unapproved young man. The anti-war movement and the counter culture swallowed up the next three years of my life.
But that was long ago.
Geri and I are retired now. When we meet our main topic is health.
It is time for TCM, traditional Chinese medicine.
At the computer, Geri rolls through screen after screen of Chinese text. After much searching she finds it: a picture of ten hand exercises to stimulate the body’s meridians. You know, she says, gets the chi going in the channels that govern our internal organs: the small intestine, large intestine, stomach, liver, spleen, kidney, heart, lungs, bladder, and gall bladder. Then there’s “the triple warmer” (cavities of thorax, abdomen, and pelvis) and the governing and conception vessels through which yin and yang flow. Of course.
The simple, black and white thumbnail sketches on the left side of the page are easy to follow. The Chinese characters on the right? Not a clue.
It looks like this:
Every morning you firmly tap parts of the hand, punch the palm of the hand, and tug the earlobes and press the palms to your face. And whatever else you can figure out from the pictures.
Geri advises: “You can just do it when you first wake up, when still lying in bed. Gets you ready for the day.” Your chi will decline in late afternoon. No exercise after 7 pm.
Several times a day Geri lies down for twenty minutes on a contraption to stretch her spine and legs. It looks like a padded ironing board attached to a second board at a right angle. Keeps the hip joint flexible and extends the lower back. We compare notes; my yoga poses have a similar effect.
My partner Dennis is hugely skeptical. Geri---a scientist---smiles subversively. “You have to believe,” she says.
My own inherited health traditions have returned to me in later life. Advice remembered from my southern grandmother. Use cold pressed castor oil for all skin irritations. Wear a broad-brimmed hat in the sun. Choose an “osteopathic” physician over a medical doctor. Remedies from her Kentucky childhood and her experience of married life in frontier Idaho. She had a midwife for childbirth---three times.
Not much compared to over two thousand years of TCM. But it brings me closer to my forebears. My grandmother was just a few years older than I am when she repeated her remedies to me---who ignored them.
So I do the hand exercises and use the castor oil. And think about traditional medicine. I’m in another phase of change now. Just one year short of 70 and once again things are awkward and confusing. Funny thing, though. I’m beginning to look back more gently at my youth. I think it must be TCM.
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