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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

The Implications of Tongue Color

“Stick your tongue out” the doctor directed. The patient, a pocket-sized septuagenarian, obediently let her mouth flop open. “So, what do you notice about her tongue?”, the doctor asked as she motioned for us to take a closer look. Each member of our Bridge Year cohort peered inside the patient’s gaped jaw and commented; “It’s yellow” one of my classmates noted. “It has indents along the edges”, said another. “Precisely!” exclaimed the doctor, “In TCM, we believe that these observations are indicative of the patient’s overall health”.

A few weeks ago, our Bridge Year group toured the largest TCM — Traditional Chinese Medicine — hospital in Yunnan Province. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a young doctor who informed us that she was about to perform acupuncture treatment on a 75 year old, female patient, and promptly led us into an office. The small space was overrun with towers of documents and aproned, bespectacled hospital staff attempting to maneuver their ways through the labyrinth of desks. At the center of the chaos, I spotted a dot of red in the sea of white coats: the sweater of a wizened, wide-eyed woman. She was perched on an office chair — ankles crossed, mouth shut, a look of bewilderment on her face. The doctor led us to her and, as aforementioned, we examined her tongue. We were then instructed to take the patient’s delicate wrist and feel her pulse. The doctor wanted us experience its uneven quality first hand.

The doctor then helped her patient up and led us all to a room down the hall. Here, the patient climbed onto a table and lay down on her side. As the doctor briskly cuffed the patient’s pants, she told us to take note of the dryness of the skin and proceeded to explain that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that the yellow tongue, uneven pulse, and dry skin are all symptomatic of kidney problems. She carefully inspected the patient’s papery leg and jabbed a needle above her ankle. As she reached for the next needle she explained that although she recommended dialysis (all TCM doctors at this hospital are also certified in “Western” Medicine), the patient, in search of a less invasive treatment, opted for acupuncture. She then lifted the patient’s shirt and began inserting needles into her back. “Comfortable?” asked the doctor. “Yes” squeaked the patient –the first and only time we heard her speak.

Although extremely fascinated by the key beliefs of TCM, what struck me most about our tour of the hospital was the lack of privacy. In the United States, just about everything is private: one’s score on an exam, one’s salary, and often even a woman’s age. The thought of a doctor inviting a group of foreign teenagers to observe a medical treatment without the patient’s permission is unfathomable. Our group not only observed, but also peered inside a patient’s mouth and described her tongue aloud. The doctor recounted not only the patient’s medical issues, but also her thought process when choosing her treatment. No one in the hospital seemed to think this behavior was out of the ordinary. We did not invade the patient’s privacy, for here, there seemed to be no sense of privacy in the first place for us to violate.

Our trip to the TCM hospital solidified what I had already begun to notice, but hadn’t yet fully registered, about life in Kunming: it is less private than life at home in the States. For example, my host family sleeps with their doors open, strangers often ask me personal questions, such as how much I weigh, and the bathroom at the school where I teach English consists of a trench with no stalls, and when I use it, I often end up engaging one of my many elementary school students in conversation.

Despite my American upbringing, I am surprisingly not bothered by this lack of privacy. In fact, I find it quite refreshing. Although many assume that certain Chinese practices, such as posting students’ grades publicly, cause more tension amongst classmates than in the U.S., I wonder if this is always the case. Shrouding other students’ grades in a cloud of mystery as we do in America, places undeserved importance on the matter. By having a society collectively deem that certain information, such as a lady’s age, should be kept private, it implies that it is something to be ashamed of.

Here in China, I have discovered that I feel completely comfortable watching a dental procedure through a street front window, or telling strangers on the bus that I weigh 51 kilograms. Living in such a comparatively open society has made me realize that although I acknowledge that many of my fellow Americans highly value their privacy and understand why (it protects our freedom), I simply do not share this strong value in a day-to-day sense. As Bridge Year marches forward, I am excited to continue to reflect on some of my other questions about privacy. What do the topics that Americans tend to keep private indicate about our other societal values? Are there certain topics that Chinese are generally more private about than Americans that I have yet to discover? Does the lower amount of privacy in China foster a greater sense of community? Have the structures of the governments in each country influenced the cultural value of privacy? Vice Versa?