"The main problem is the wet," Allen said.
As Dr. Lee kneaded her knuckles deep into my neck, I pondered the meaning of this statement. With my face buried in the bedspread, I couldn't see Allen's face. Perhaps if permitted a glimpse, I would have discovered upon it some clue as to the riddle of his words.
Did he mean my neck was wet? Well, it was covered in some traditional Chinese medicine used by Dr. Lee. But, by all accounts, the medicine was the problem’s solution, not its cause.
Had my apartment flooded, unbeknownst to me, as I lay there mid-massage? That was possible and had actually happened once before. Such a scenario would indeed be "wet," but seemed to have little connection to the current situation.
Just as I was about to call "uncle," Allen offered another clue. "Wet. The air is wet."
How this related to the pulled muscle in my neck, I couldn't say. The pain was ebbing, but my befuddlement was as prevalent as before.
"Ah, you mean the humidity," came Jake's voice, from somewhere on my right. At this, some of the clouds of confusion began to shift, but any relationship between moist air and neck muscles remained shrouded in darkness.
Unconcerned with the current riddle volleying around her, Dr. Lee sprayed more of her spice and mint-scented oil, following the path of the pulled muscle with her fingertips, from neck to lower back.
Allen gave a sound of acknowledgement and swiveled into view, rolling by on a wheeled desk chair.
Dr. Lee helped to turn my head sideways, eliciting a groan of agony as the muscles shrieked in defiance, and rattled away in fluent Chinese.
"Many foreigners are not used to the humidity," Allen translated. "And so this can happen."
Not for the first time since arriving in China two months prior, I marveled at the medical differences between this culture and my own. In America, a doctor would have attributed a sore neck to the physical stresses of my job, not to any sort of climate condition. As an English instructor at a local Chinese kindergarten, I lift, tote, chase and wrestle 2 and 3 year olds each day. Jake, Allen and Dr. Lee are employees of the same school. Jake is an English instructor like myself, Allen is a Chinese English teacher, and Dr. Lee (aka: Chocolate) is the school's doctor.
Earlier in the week I had pulled a neck muscle, and the pain had since become unbearable. Upon learning of my condition, the doctor and Allen had accompanied Jake on an impromptu house call. After shoving open the balcony doors in my bedroom to let fresh air pour in, Dr. Lee had motioned for me to lie, facedown, on the bed. Eying her stash of traditional medicine, I remembered a prior experience at her mercy.
Weeks previous, I had gone to work with a migraine gift-wrapped and FedEx'd straight from Hades. With no pain killers of my own, and feeling like H. Potter with his scar ablaze, I visited Dr. Lee. As the doctor urged me toward a stool, I surveyed her medicine cabinet, hoping for some familiar sight: Advil, Tylenol, or perhaps my dearest ally, Ibuprofen.
Dr. Lee flitted around, grabbing a thermometer, flashlight, and small foil packet from her cabinet. She stowed the thermometer under my armpit, tested my forehead for warmth, and scanned my throat with the aid of her flashlight. Then she mixed the packet’s contents with warm water, creating some unknown tea-hued brew, and urged me to drink.
As she plucked a green box from her stores, I thought, “Ah, serenity at last.” But, relief twisted into confusion as she slipped not a bottle of pills, but a glass, oil-filled container from inside. She dabbed a bit of the substance onto her hands and rubbed her palms together vigorously, as if attempting to start a fire on some desolate, frozen tundra. She placed her warm palms against my temples, and the tingly scent of peppermint tickled my nostrils. Her magician’s hands kneaded skillfully, siphoning out pain as if in ribbons.
Under Dr. Lee’s care for a second time, I marveled at the continued absence of pain medicine. Instead, she used her own hands for pain relief. If I’d pulled a muscle in America, I likely would have taken something for the pain, rubbed it a bit, and waited for the healing to begin.
“Becky,” she said, breaking my contented haze. Tugging gently on my arm, she directed me into a sitting position. She carefully turned my head to the left, then to the right, to stretch the sore muscles.
Some Chinese words flowed between the doctor and Allen before Allen asked, “Does your neck feel cooler?”
At my affirmation, he nodded and said, “Okay, then the doctor’s nearly finished.”
Looking at me worriedly, Allen said, “You must have a good rest. Even if your neck hurts, you must sleep. If you feel worse later, then you must go to the traditional Chinese hospital. If you feel better, then the doctor will come back this afternoon.”
Now, one day later, I am feeling better than I have in days. Last night and again this morning I massaged my neck with the medicine left by Dr. Lee. Though still sore, most of the ache is gone. And I haven’t had to take anything for the pain.
Medicine used by Dr. Lee