28-year-old Michelle Tan hopes to teach youths that TCM is not just for the old.
I used to think that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was all about bitter medicines and herbs, and older relatives telling me to avoid “heaty” foods whenever I develop a wet cough.
That was until I chanced upon @herbologysg on Instagram. Enticed by the mouth-watering photos of food, I excitedly tapped them, only to realise I wasn’t just looking at a normal photo of oats – this bowl of oats contained goji berries and chrysanthemum.
Taken in by these recipes for TCM-infused food disguised as ordinary food, I tapped on the photos only to realise the account wasn’t only for food. There were also nuggets of information on TCM concepts, all explained in terms that made it easy for me – a TCM rookie – to understand.
I soon learnt that the account was run by Michelle Tan, a 28-year-old currently in her second year of a TCM course. She had created the account to educate the younger generation on TCM, and decided to start with our national language: food.
I sat down with Michelle to talk about her journey with TCM, and why she started her Instagram account.
Like most youths, Michelle didn’t use to believe in TCM, even though most of her family were practitioners.
Forty years ago, her grandfather migrated from China to Singapore, bringing over the TCM trade and encouraging his children – including Michelle’s mother – to study it. As a result, her entire extended family practises TCM under one of their 10 TCM clinics.
“When I fell sick in the past, my mum would prescribe some TCM medicine, but I never had the discipline to finish the course of medicine,” Michelle said. “Then I would go back and say: ‘These TCM herbs don’t work lah!’”
With age, she grew more aware of the need to maintain good health. The fitness enthusiast compared TCM with going to the gym.
“People are willing to spend hundreds of dollars every month to go to the gym and work out their bodies. Similarly, I think TCM is an investment because ultimately you’re also adjusting your body to the optimal level of health,” said Michelle.
As she started striving towards health and wellness, she signed up for a TCM course which she would attend after work at a local technology company. After a year, she quit her full-time job to focus on TCM.
Now, she helps out at her parents’ medical hall and clinic in the day and attends her TCM classes at night.
To Michelle, TCM has become “more than just herbs and therapies”.
A major concept of TCM is balance, which states that balance between various elements – such as our five main organs – in our bodies is the key to maintaining good health. Michelle pointed out that many often forget to slow down and check where we are in terms of our health.
“TCM requires us to take a step back, slow down, listen to our bodies and take a check on where there can be an imbalance in our bodies,” she said.
Michelle’s belief in TCM increased when it helped her recover faster from her ovarian cyst surgery. Despite finishing her course of hospital medication and having sufficient rest after her surgery, she still reported feeling breathless, lethargic and dizzy after two months.
She said: “After I took some TCM herbs recommended by my mother, I could jump back to the gym after two weeks.
“I never had such an extreme incident before, so it was an eye-opener.”
Regarding people who think TCM is just placebo medicine, she said: “One thing I learnt from my very first class was: It’s not that TCM cannot be proven by science today, it’s that scientific theories are not sufficient to explain TCM.”
Even if TCM has been proven to be beneficial, many still prefer Western medicine as they find it “more effective” or “less controversial”.
Michelle pointed out that Western doctors only tend to test for a specific substance or virus.
If a sub-healthy person – someone who is neither healthy nor sick – were to go to a Western doctor with complaints about a mild or chronic symptom, that doctor would likely only conduct tests. If their test came back negative, the doctor would say that there was nothing wrong with them.
“When you feel pain or discomfort and it can’t be tested by a lab test, I don’t think you can call it fake. You can’t say it’s not there,” she said.
However, she doesn’t believe TCM or Western medicine is better than the other – both have their pros and cons. As a matter of fact, she still studies Western concepts in her TCM course, and is expected to have a strong foundation in concepts like biochemistry.
Instead of rejecting Western medicine, Michelle said: “If the Western doctors cannot offer satisfactory solutions where patients can observe good, lasting effects, then the patient can consider TCM as the alternative. I think that’s the best way to strike a balance between the two.”
“But if you really need to go to the hospital, please go to the hospital,” she quickly added with a laugh.
As for contentious elements of TCM, such as consuming endangered animal parts including turtle shells, Michelle said that more physicians today are opting for natural herbal alternatives, given the ethical implications of trading endangered animal parts.
She assured: “Regulation currently also exists in Singapore to prevent the sale of body parts of endangered animals, so the industry is changing and improving.
“It’s important to read the learnings of our ancestors, but we need to apply a modern take to them.”
Michelle, who still has five years to go in her TCM course, has already started putting a modern twist to TCM, making food fused with TCM ingredients and posting about them on her Instagram account.
With her creative recipes, Michelle hopes to educate the younger generation on TCM, as well as bust the common misconception that all TCM food is bitter as it really depends on how they are cooked.
For those who still find TCM herbs too bitter, Michelle advises consulting TCM physicians who prescribe the medicine in different forms, such as powder (herbs that have been grounded down) and tablets.
As for advice for youths who wish to start implementing TCM in their lives, she gave some general tips: going to bed before 11pm, eating a variety of foods and avoiding cold drinks.
Still, she cautioned against taking any advice that can be found online, as there is no “one size fits all” solution in TCM. Instead, she suggested seeing a certified TCM physician who can provide tailored recommendations, treatments and lifestyles depending on an individual’s body constitution.
“There’s no quick-fix medicine or a Panadol for bad health. TCM is ultimately a journey that involves sustaining healthy habits in all parts of your life,” she said.
For those who may still be reluctant to change their lifestyles, Michelle’s Instagram account is a good stepping stone towards TCM – other than recipes, she also posts bite-sized TCM knowledge.
As someone who has adequate knowledge of TCM and is proficient in Chinese, Michelle “translates” her findings from the TCM course into layman terms. She hopes that her account can help bridge the gap between ancient Chinese texts about TCM and the younger generation that knows nothing about TCM.
She said: “A lot of people are interested in trying out TCM, but they don’t know how. I strongly believe that education is important to help people make informed choices about how to use TCM in a safe and effective way.
“As someone in the same generation, I want to contribute and be a trusted source of knowledge. I’m happy to have created this community and I hope to share more than recipes.”
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