And qi is . . . ?
CL: Well, qi is what separates a dead man from a live man. Qi promotes circulation and organ function. It’s the source of all movement and energy. Qi is what transforms our food into something usable as an energy source. It comes from three sources: your parents, from the absorption of food, and from breathing air. These combine to give us the energy to move and think.
BM: Do you agree with all of these concepts, or are you just telling me the official view of traditional Chinese medicine?
CL: I agree with the concepts. But I think the terminology makes it all too mystical, and muddles the ideas.
BM: Getting back to your studies in Beijing–do you speak Chinese? Or did you study in Chinese?
CL: My Chinese is very limited, because I came here when I was five. [Laughs.] In fact, my Chinese is embarrassingly poor. But the academy has translators, to translate lectures; we used English textbooks; and a lot of the doctors speak English.
It’s difficult to translate a lot of Chinese concepts into English. They’re just totally different. You can’t translate every character into a corresponding word.
BM: What differences did you find between Western and Chinese medicine?
CL: In China, a lot of the patients know all the acupuncture theories; they know all the [acupuncture] points. They know a lot more than a lot of the doctors that are studying there. It’s amazing. But they have been brought up in traditional Chinese medicine, so they understand it–what kind of points you’d use for what kind of disorder. It’s a people’s medicine; it’s not an ivory-tower kind of medicine, like it is here, because Western medicine is practiced so that the patients don’t understand what you’re doing.
It’s just like the legal system: you keep the language high-tech, you’re not speaking the vernacular. But that’s what Chinese medicine is: vernacular. It’s spoken in terms that people understand.
The Chinese treat every patient differently. It makes it harder for a Western doctor to study Chinese medicine: [MDs] expect a set treatment for a set problem. But there’s an infinite number of variations in people, and in the disorders they have. Just like there are no two snowflakes that are alike, there are no two humans that are alike–there are no two disorders that are alike, and there are no two treatments that are alike. That’s the beauty of Chinese medicine: you can’t put everybody into the same box.
BM: Is it true that, in Illinois, only MDs can practice acupuncture?
CL: They passed a law, the Medical Act of 1987, that said that medical doctors, osteopaths, or chiropractors who are certified can do acupuncture, but no one else. That’s the only legal way to do acupuncture in the state of Illinois. So Illinois is still one of about 10 or 15 states in the United States that does not license nonphysicians to practice acupuncture. They don’t have a certification law [for nonphysicians], so there are a lot of people who are practicing now without a medical license, and I think some people have been arrested–token arrests have been made–in the last five years. But the phone book is full of people who are practicing acupuncture without a license; the state registration people haven’t really cracked down on it.
BM: Did you go to medical school with the idea of becoming an acupuncturist?
CL: No. I never thought about doing acupuncture until two things happened. I think that, one, I became really disillusioned with Western medicine, and I was looking for something; and number two, I found that acupuncture was useful for my own personal problems, and over a period of time I realized that it probably suited my philosophy and personality more than Western medicine.
Although I’m still a Western medical physician, I don’t like to prescribe medications. I think the main thing is that, in order to be honest with myself, I would have to be able to take the treatment I prescribe. If I was going to prescribe a medication and I really wouldn’t take it myself, I didn’t feel good about that–whereas with acupuncture and herbs, I do it all the time myself, I get acupuncture treatments, and I feel good about it. I think it’s a matter of conscience.