The Olympics are here! Nations from all over the world are competing in swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, ping pong, weightlifting, and so many more sports. It’s an exciting time for everyone. And yet, with all the athletic feats being accomplished daily, the whole world seems to be focused on one particular practice of Chinese medicine: Cupping.
In Asia, you probably already know it well, but it’s taking the whole world by storm! Thanks to American gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps and a few others from the American swim team who underwent a cupping procedure prior to the olympics, everyone in the West has been wondering about those strange red circular marks on their backs.
Westerners were genuinely perplexed:
“Have they been physically abused by their swim coaches?”
“Maybe the water in Brazil is so polluted it caused an ugly skin reaction! After all, the diving pool turned green a few days ago.”
“Were they temporarily abducted and examined by aliens with octopus-like suction tentacles?”
Of course, any Chinese or other Asian person knows better. This is the telltale mark of the famous cupping procedure! In fact, cupping may have been in use for more than 5,000 years, and yet many Westerners are just hearing about it for the first time.
My first cupping experience
When I began teaching young students in China, I soon noticed strange bruising on one of my student’s neck and back. It looked painful, and I was a little worried about the student’s wellbeing, but I ignored it. Then, after a few more weeks, I noticed a few more students with similar bruises on their necks and backs. Some of the bruises were circular, and some were actually long lines that seemed to follow their neck and back bones. “Wow, what is happening to my students outside of the classroom?” I thought to myself.
Finally, I asked one of the local Chinese teachers what was happening to the students’ backs. She said, “Don’t worry, it’s a natural therapy that we use here in China.” I thought it was very strange that a therapy could cause bruising like that, but I was intrigued! I had to try to the therapy, it sounded like a fun adventure in ancient self mutilation!
I asked one of the Chinese teachers to take me to a proper shop where someone performs cupping. So we got on the bus and she guided me to the place.
When we arrived, I looked up at the building and saw that it was a massage parlor. Uh oh. A foreigner going into a massage parlor looks bad. Anyone going into a massage parlor looks bad! A little embarrassed, I walked in with the Chinese teacher and she helped me to purchase the cupping therapy.
Fire and mysterious jars
I was asked to take off most of my clothes and lie face down on the table. By now, my Chinese colleague had already left me alone with the cupping therapist, and I really had no idea how this procedure was done. So, I was a little nervous, but I couldn’t see anything that was going on because I was looking straight at the floor!
I was trying hard to listen carefully to the therapist’s commands and understand what was happening. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a trey of glass jars clinking together. Then my back was rubbed with some type of oil. I felt one of the cold jars pressed against my back, and then I heard the sound of a cigarette lighter being lit!
What was happening?! My sensitive skin being exposed to flames! Actually, it wasn’t bad. I felt only a little heat from the flame of the lighter, and this same action was repeated over and over again on various places all over my back. “Tong ma?” the therapist asked me over and over again. “Bu tong”, I replied.
As I lied on that table, the feeling I had was as if the world’s strongest vacuum cleaner was sucking my skin slowly but surely up into the hose of a vacuum. I thought the skin bubble might suddenly burst and leave me with a gaping flesh wound.
Thankfully, the skin never burst, and the therapist slowly began to take off the jars. I thanked the therapist and went home. When I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t believe how my back looked. Dark maroon spots everywhere! I quickly took a few pictures and sent them in an email to friends and family to explain the procedure. They, too, were shocked, but very intrigued.
The end of my crazy cupping adventure
The truth is, there is a great deal of interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) among Westerners. Most Westerners don’t know of any concept like “yin” and “yang” and how eating certain types of foods or using certain types of procedures can help people maintain good health. So, one of the great things about studying at a university in the West will be having the opportunity to share what you know about TCM, and maybe you can take one of your fellow classmates to get a cupping procedure done!
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