American acupuncturists and cultural appropriation.

With the shooting in Atlanta directed at Asian-Americans, I feel the moment is ripe for acupuncturists here in the US to begin to unpacking the shadow side of our profession.

When we go to school to become acupuncturist, we go because we’re enamored of this different way of looking at the body. We go because we know there’s benefit to this non-scientific way of medicine, and in our education, we fall in love with it a bit.

What we don’t talk about, or even much think about, is what it means to be a non-Asian practitioner of a form of medicine that is deeply rooted in Asian culture. Our education is steeped in the old model of colorblindness, and we gleefully immerse ourselves in the five elements, zangfu theory, qigong and Taoism.

What are we doing when we do this? What is the harm?

This is something I’m still exploring for myself. I know that there’s harm in ignoring the racism that Asian people and Asian Americans endure in this country. I know there’s harm in exoticism, something Asian cultures routinely have directed at them. There’s negligence in not acknowledging what changes we’re necessarily bringing to the medicine as non-Asians.

I’m an American practitioner of both Buddhism and East Asian Medicine. I chose to practice these things because I believe that European-American culture doesn’t have all the answers. Yet I am participating in cultural appropriation the moment I stop thinking about what it means to cherry pick from other countries, cultures and societies the things I like, and leave behind what I don’t understand or agree with. I’m participating in a racist system when I don’t think take into consideration the history my country has of imperialism and colonialism, and the debt owed to BIPOC peoples.

In learning and practicing this medicine, we must fully take into account the cross cultural nature of this work. We need to stop blindly learning the taboos and superstitions that are woven into the fabric of EAM, and really look at what’s behind them. We must stop thinking of our medicine as being frozen in time and instead consider it as dynamic and informed by historicity, landscape and culture. We must take into consideration ourselves as American and European born practitioners steeped in our own land and culture, instead of trying to ape things as they have always been done.

It may not seem like it, but this is a profound way of respecting the origins of our medicine by fully acknowledging our own bias. The more we ignore what we ourselves are bringing into it, the more we participate in that exoticism and appropriation. When people immigrate to this country, there is a dialogue that happens on a very personal level, an trading of ideals, beliefs and values. This is an amazing opportunity, and also a loss.

We must face that the same is true for this medicine, and stop imagining that it is a pure way of looking at things, frozen in time and encapsulated solely in texts like the Shang Han Lun and Neijing. Yes, these are foundational works. But they exist in historical context.

To believe in purity is to unconsciously uphold a racist system, one that imagines that there is an ideal time and place to return to where everything was in balance. This has never been true, not in Asia, not in Europe or the good old days in America. There has always been conflict and disparity, and by practicing with this in mind, we prime ourselves to reckon with that which exists today in our own society.

Teaching the past as mythic and superior is harmful and propagandizing in any context. We need to grapple with things as they are now, and do a thorough accounting of the state of our profession as it exists in this country. Only then can we advance and take full ownership of what we’re able to offer.