Paige Yang grew up with her mom’s Chinese side of the family in Kailua, Hawai’i. As the oldest granddaughter, she’s very close to her grandmother from Zhongshan, China.
Yang says her superstitious grandmother taught her Chinese traditions growing up, from calligraphy and Chinese proverbs to games like Chinese chess and checkers.
“My grandmother has had the biggest influence in my life,” she says. “I cling to all of her stories about her childhood in China and the cultural practices that she learned and handed down to me.”
Yang remembers celebrating Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Qingming festival, when Yang and her family would pay respects to ancestors by visiting their graves. They brought gifts like tangerines and bao, or stuffed buns, and they burned incense and paper money to send those who came before.
Yang’s entire family lived in the same neighborhood, and her mom is one of five children.
“I was at my grandmother’s house every day and would stay the night a lot,” Yang says.
Growing up in a Chinese family, she says that she always wanted to be a doctor. Still, Western biomedicine never resonated with her because she felt it didn’t address the spirit and emotions adequately.
Yang was pre-med in college and studied Mandarin. She studied abroad in Hangzhou, China, during her junior year and took a one-on-one traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) course from Dr. Zhang, a professor at Zhejiang Zhongyi Xueyuan.
“That course completely changed my aspirations and career path,” she says.
After graduating from college, she spent a gap year abroad in China, taking more elective classes in TCM theory before returning to the United States and studying at the American College of TCM in San Francisco, receiving both her master’s and doctorate degrees.
“I do the work I do because of the profound changes I see take place in my treatment room and on the treatment table,” she says. “I often feel like in the U.S ‘sick care’ system, people are not heard, seen, or provided with thorough enough healthcare.”
Yang laments how little time most patients get with their doctors.
“I often find my patients have a lot of the answers to their own health questions, but nobody sat with them to flesh it out,” she says. “My patients feel so empowered when they’re heard and their ideas about their own bodies are validated.”
She offers several fully or partially sponsored treatments each month to her Hawai’i community in order to reach those who may not otherwise be able to afford acupuncture.
TCM treats a person as a whole entity instead of looking at individual organs and symptoms. Treatments are often very specific and customized to each individual. TCM doctors like Yang seek a deep understanding of their patients’ lifestyles and inner states.
If you’re seeing a TCM doctor for the first time, expect to fill out a very detailed intake form and questionnaire that covers topics such as:
- sleep patterns
- menstrual cycle, if applicable
- the size and shape of your stool
“Two patients with similar illnesses might get completely different herbal prescriptions because they are two different people,” Yang says. “Our medicine really follows the patterns that we find in nature and how we see them expressed in the body.”
Yin-yang theory, for example, is completely unique to Chinese culture.
“It can be hard to explain to a lot of people who aren’t familiar, but it’s a core principle we look to in order to harmonize the body,” she says. “We look at the relationship between yin and yang in the patient’s body and their environment.”
Derived from Taoism, yin-yang is a non-duality concept. This means it represents the idea that all things are part of a larger, indivisible whole.
These opposites depend on each other — without one, the other couldn’t exist. This nonduality reflects the interconnection of all life.
“They’re codependent,” Yang says. “And we say that they are mutually consuming. One gives way to the other and their balance is always changing in living beings.”
Yin is correlated to nighttime, the moon, fluidity, stillness, and femininity as a philosophical principle. Yang symbolizes the sun, daytime, action or movement, and the archetype of masculinity.
“Decolonization, to me, means not taking from another culture against their wishes or without their blessing,” Yang says. “My work directly reflects this, as I’m a Mandarin-speaking Chinese acupuncturist who gives back to the community and stands up for cultural misappropriation.”
Yang studied Mandarin for 10 years, lived in China for 2 years, and studied TCM for 6 years before receiving her doctorate degree. She predominantly serves an Asian community in Hawai’i.
“I’ve tried to make sure there are no holes in my practice,” she says. “My Chinese patients feel really good about this medicine that was born out of their own traditions. When they see a young woman practicing the medicine in full confidence, and they see how well the medicine supports them, then they begin to feel proud of their heritage.”
In Kailua, Yang treats her neighbors, friends, family members, and former classmates.
“It means more to me that I have that additional investment in their outcome,” she says. “I feel like it goes both ways and my patients are also more invested in me. Our relationship is stronger there.”
In recent years, elements of TCM have become suddenly trendy.
More recently, there’s been a rash of celebrities and influencers posting TikTok and Instagram videos of their gua sha skin care routines.
“I think it’s great that TCM is trending because it’s such a wonderful medicine, and it’s nice that people are more interested in it,” says Yang.
Still, she does have concerns.
“If the people spreading the information don’t have the proper training, credentials, or expertise and are positioning themselves that way and teaching about a TCM modality without being a TCM practitioner, then I do think it’s harmful,” she says.
Yang points out that there are a lot of contraindications and risks involved with any modality. It could ultimately cause harm and reflect poorly on TCM when tools and techniques are misused and misunderstood.
There are many misconceptions about TCM that she hopes to dispel, too.
“A lot of people think we use endangered species animal parts in our herbal pharmacopoeia and that’s totally not true at all,” she says.
Yang notes that anti-Asian racism spurred by COVID-19 have made these prejudices worse.
Many people also don’t understand that TCM is a preventive medicine, she says, just like regular exercise or a healthful diet.
“I hear people say that TCM must not work or last very long if you need to keep coming back,” Yang says. “Some patients come regularly for health maintenance and that’s been misconstrued to thinking the results don’t last.”
Sanitation is another concern for some new patients. Yang has had patients ask her if she reuses needles.
“It’s like they’re confusing acupuncture with a nail salon,” she says. “Of course everything is single-use and sterilized. We have to do a clean needle technique to graduate [with a degree in TCM].”
To avoid cultural appropriation, Yang suggests investing time to study the roots and origins of the practice, remaining humble, and not assuming that you’re an expert.
Anyone who wishes to practice TCM modalities should invest in going to TCM school in order to become a certified practitioner of TCM and ask for blessings from their teachers, she says.
If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, gua sha, or Chinese herbal medicine, seek out an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individual who practices TCM, if possible, or someone who was trained by one.
“Decolonizing TCM means investing time, money, and humility in studying the medicine in order to receive the minimum four-year master’s degree while also lifting up Chinese classmates, having reverence for Chinese teachers, and formulating ways to give back to the Chinese community,” Yang says.
“My patients have their own answers,” Yang says. “They might have a difficult case and Western medicine wasn’t able to help them, but after talking to me, they know exactly what’s wrong. We are empowering our patients to realize that they have the answers.”
In her practice, Yang carefully considers the spirit and emotions, even when treating physical ailments.
“That’s for the most part absent in Western medicine,” she says. “In Chinese medicine, one of the core principles or understandings is that our emotions make us sick. There are external evils like pathogens or viruses, but we also have these internal evils, which are our emotions. They can make us just as sick, if not sicker.”
Yang notes that underlying emotional causes show up in the vast majority of the people she treats.
“I feel like 90 percent of my patients come in with some emotional distress, whether that’s anger management issues, irritability, anxiety, depression — and that can be the root of their issues,” she says.
Yang recommends a few techniques for stress management and sleep hygiene at home, like banishing screens from the bedroom, getting to bed by 10 p.m., and finding positive outlets to manage stress.
These can include:
“It’s important to identify your outlets and be really consistent with it,” she says. “It requires discipline, but sleep and stress are the two big things that you can actually be proactive about, more so than emotions.”
Yang doesn’t advise trying acupressure at home on your own.
“I would advise that you need a teacher versus a YouTube video at home so that the potency of the medicine isn’t lost and tainted for future generations,” she says.
This can encourage the use of incorrect techniques, incomplete instructions, and dilution of the effectiveness of the practice.
Yang’s own study of TCM is ongoing, and there’s always more to learn.
“Even those with more than 30 years of experience still don’t recognize themselves as masters,” she says.
Acupuncture alone is not TCM, nor is cupping, gua sha, or herbal medicine.
Thinking of TCM merely as a new spa treatment to try or a trendy addition to a beauty routine leaves out the tradition’s rich history and breadth of knowledge, as well as a valuable lens through which to see and experience health.
Yang hopes that people realize TCM is a full medical system, developed over thousands of years with a rich cultural heritage. As such, it’s much greater than the sum of its parts.
Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in luxury travel, food, wine, and wellness. Her work appears in Condé Nast Traveler, Robb Report, Departures, Bon Appétit, and Travel + Leisure.