There's a blog post that I've been wanting to write for a long time, but it deals with such a big, complex topic that I haven't known where to start. However, there's such an irresistible invitation in this month's Acupuncture Today, that I think it's just time to dive in. Check out this quote from Jeffrey Grossman's article about marketing:

” How do people see you and your practice? Do you promote yourself as an acupuncturist in what you wear; i.e., a clinical jacket with mandarin collar? Do you wear authentic Chinese attire? Do you ever carry around a small plastic meridian doll? (By the way, when I began my practice, I did this for a while. It got attention and new patients. It gets people talking and provides an opportunity to interact with them.)”

OK, before I start in on the stuff I care about, can we get this out of the way: I don't even want to think about what kind of “attention” I would get if I were to carry a SMALL PLASTIC MERIDIAN DOLL around my neighborhood. Not to mention “new patients”.  Oh my GOD.  Hey, wait a minute, is this going to be another one of those Acupuncture Today articles that the author claims is a satire, after I start complaining about it? 

So, yeah, you could make the argument that this article is not to be taken very seriously. But still, it's a great, irony-free example of that big complex topic I've been trying to figure out how to write about: Orientalism in the American acupuncture profession. As I've said before, I'm not an academic writer, and Orientalism is (in part) an academic topic, and so I have to apologize in advance for not doing it justice. What I really want to talk about are mostly just my own, not very sophisticated, personal reactions to a white acupuncturist asking me — another white acupuncturist — if I wear “authentic Chinese attire” in order to market my business.

What Orientalism means to me in this context is feeling entitled to take pieces of someone else's culture and heritage, and use them as decoration for my own purposes.  Merriam-Webster defines “authentic” as “conforming to or based on fact…conforming to an original…not false or imitation…true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.” So what, exactly, would be authentic about me wearing a jacket with a mandarin collar in order to influence how people see my practice? Wait, I know!  My PRIVILEGE would be authentic — my white, Christian privilege.

We all know, of course, that whiteness doesn't really exist.Human beings are 99.9 identical genetically, and race is a social construct, not a biological reality. But American society doesn't see my genes, it sees my skin color, which is white, which at this point in time (though not for very much longer) is the skin color of the majority, the privileged majority. Orientalism means white people in Western cultures getting to define themselves as the human norm, and non-white people as Other, not-normal (and sadly, sometimes, not even particularly human). Throw in some more generalizations about “Oriental” people which benefit, one way or another, white colonizers:  exotic, mysterious, inscrutable, backward, dangerous, sensual, primitive, inferior, and available for domination.

Being white in America means being able to be in control when it comes to the topic of race: not having to think about race unless you choose to; automatically occupying that default “normal” setting, the setting that calls the shots.  If I want, I can think of myself as not really having a race; I can tell myself that I'm just a person, after all. Which is true, biologically, and pretty disingenuous, sociologically. Because I can tell myself that all day long, and it's unlikely anybody will contradict me; whereas if an African American woman, or an Asian American woman, or a Native American woman tells herself she's just a person and she doesn't really have a race,  American society is not going to let her get away with that for more than, oh, two minutes or so.  Someone or something (probably someone white or some institution controlled by white people) is swiftly going to remind her that race is something she has to deal with whether she wants to or not.

Whiteness is not authentic (conforming to or based on biological fact), but white privilege surely is authentic — conforming to and based on plenty of depressing facts and figures. If you doubt me, check outthis recent report on how much it sucks, on pretty much every possible level, to be a person of color in Portland, Oregon — progressive, friendly, predominantly white, Portland, Oregon. My adopted hometown. It's very concrete, not academic or abstract at all: if you are not white and you live in Portland, your income is likely to be HALF of what it would be if you WERE white. You are three times more likely to end up in the corrections system, and you are SIX TIMES more likely to be killed by the police. The take home message is that the more of us white people there are in one place, the harder life becomes for everyone else. In part this is probably because we can pretend race isn't a factor — look, all of us white people, we're all just people, default normal people, obviously there's no need to think about race or racism, right? Meanwhile our white privilege, which can also be translated as “institutional racism”, is quietly and efficiently turning people of color into defacto second class citizens. We have so many advantages, and we don't even have to know about them; lucky us.

So, my fellow white acupuncturists, given that context, adopting the symbols and “authentic” cultural signifiers of people of color? For any reason at all, but especially for marketing? RUDE. Very, very rude.

I have been just as guilty of this particular rudeness as any other white acupunk. When I opened my clinic, I went to the local garden store (the A-1 Birdbath and Concrete Company, owned by Romanian immigrants) and bought a couple of statues of Quan Yin to put in the treatment room. My original business logo had Chinese characters on it. I even had a silk Chinese jacket. It didn't occur to me that there was anything wrong with this picture, at the time — I mean, I was trying to establish an acupuncture clinic, right? What's an acupuncture clinic supposed to look like?

As I got deeper into the business of providing community acupuncture, deeper into treating people like myself, people from similar backgrounds and social classes, my need for authenticity grew. I thought a lot about my roots, my own heritage and culture. I grew up around people who didn't all speak English all of the time; they lapsed into German when they got emotional; they were not fully assimilated in any number of different ways. One consequence of reflecting on my roots was that I eventually went back to the church I was baptized into. A lot of immigrants are Catholic and a lot of Catholics are immigrants, or descended from immigrants; I joined the Catholic parish in my neighborhood, which is full of immigrants of a dizzingly wide variety, and I was happy. Really happy. Praying with lots of people who don't all speak English, and who don't have much money, and who are not all white, it turns out, means that I am home.

And! The Catholic hierarchy! The Catholic patriarchy! One of the most ancient, most rigid, most oppressive bureacracies in the history of the world! My spiritual family includes Pope Benedict, the very same guy who thinks that women priests are on the same level as pedophiles; what a charmer. That's the thing about being authentic, about being true to your own culture and your own heritage — it's not something you can put on and take off like a jacket with a mandarin collar, when it's convenient for you. You are stuck with the parts that you hate, and they're wrapped around all of the parts that you love. There are costs associated with being authentically part of any culture. People who aren't part of that culture, who are just putting on and taking off the superficial elements when they feel like it, aren't paying those costs.

So, I went back to church, and one day I walked into my clinic and looked at my Quan Yin statues and realized belatedly, those aren't decorations, those are symbols of somebody else's RELIGION. Oh my God, what is the matter with me? I'm white and entitled, that's what's the matter with me. I started hauling all my Oriental decorations out of the clinic. One of the receptionists, who is also white and a Christian, asked me what I was doing. “It's like this,” I said, “how would you feel if you walked into some business owned by, oh, Buddhists, and they had pictures of Jesus all over the place just because they thought they were PRETTY? They had no idea what they meant, they just liked how they looked? What would you think of that?” She started to giggle. “That would be funny. It would be silly. It wouldn't make any sense.” “Yeah, exactly,” I said,  “we're being ridiculous. And rude.”

I should add, at this point, that there are still a few decorations left at WCA that are Asian; for example, a piece of cloth with Japanese characters tacked over our doorway that I suspect might be a dishtowel. It was a present from Yoshi, the acupuncturist who taught me and Skip Jingei pulse diagnosis. He said the characters meant “good luck” but of course for all I know, what they really mean is, “You were my worst students and I wish you luck because God, do you ever need it. Please do not come visit me in Japan.” But Yoshi gave it to us, so we're keeping it. The Tibetan prayer flags came from a business down the street, owned by Tibetan immigrants, that started up about the same time that WCA did; they gave them to us and also wished us luck. Those things are like the giant iron planters that one of our patients who is a welder made for us, or the original abstract painting our former bookkeeper gave us for Christmas; they're not in our clinic because they're Oriental, they're in our clinic because they represent a connection we had with a real person — an authentic connection.

So, while we're talking about privilege, there's no avoiding the part about how we white Americans took another culture's medicine (actually, several different cultures' medicine) to use for our own purposes. And there has been a discussion, in Acupuncture Today no less, about how maybe we shouldn't use the term “Oriental medicine” to refer to that process, because it's no longer politically correct.  So there aren't any Quan Yin statues in my clinic anymore, but there are still six white people practicing acupuncture. If I were serious about addressing my entitlement, if I wanted to experiment with NOT practicing wholesale cultural appropriation, maybe I should think about giving up acupuncture in favor of say, homeopathy? You know, the vitalist medicine that was invented by Germans?

The big problem with that, of course, is all the patients who have come to depend on acupuncture; homeopathy isn't quite the same thing. And though I could stop practicing acupuncture right now, I couldn't change the authenticity of my privilege, the fact that being white allows me to take pieces of other people's cultures and get away with it. I've already taken a bunch of different pieces, and I've been using them for 16 years or so. Given that I can't change the facts of my privilege or my history, I think it's worth looking at HOW I'm using a system of medicine that is part of somebody else's culture and heritage. And though it doesn't lessen the basic injustice of my privilege,  it matters to me that I am trying to use acupuncture in the way that Sun Si Miao (and Miriam Lee) declared it should be used: without regard to financial gain; with an attempt to treat everyone equally.

This is where I find the discussion among white acupuncturists about the relative political incorrectness of the term “Oriental Medicine” to be ironic. Wince-inducing, actually.  As long as our profession is so plainly disinterested in using acupuncture to actually relieve suffering for people that need it; as long as we so transparently promote acupuncture as a kind of lifestyle accoutrement for the most privileged people in our society; as long as we ignore the real obligations associated with healing, while wanting to play dress-up with the trappings — no matter what we call it, we are Orientalising the hell out of acupuncture. We're treating it as an ornament, a trinket, an exotic plaything.

Acupuncture doesn't deserve that. What it does deserve is for us to try to humbly serve it. With our selves, our whole selves, our authentic selves, or as close to that as we can get. A thriving community acupuncture practice is all about being who you really are, and trying to treat people with respect for who they are. A thriving practice is basically a whole lot of relationships in which you work at being honest, being kind, and giving what you have to give; it's not about manipulating how people see you/smell you/feel you/ewww. When you have privilege, in the way that white people have privilege, it's potentially more challenging to be authentic. If we can just take pieces of what belongs to everyone else, how do we know what is really ours? So we have to dig deeper. We have to dig down into our hearts, into the uncomfortable parts of our identities and histories and cultures, the parts that we don't get to put on and take off like silk jackets. Privilege is attractive and it's convenient, but it's not particularly good for your soul. As white acupuncturists, we have an opportunity to acknowledge all the unearned privileges we have in American society by freely choosing to do this, to do something hard: to not just borrow or steal someone else's authenticity — because we can — but to do the work to find our own. Put down the plastic doll, roll up your sleeves, and good luck, everybody.

Thanks to David Kato and Tyler Nguyen Phan, for bringing it up.

Author: lisafer

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  1. Seriously? I gotta carry a doll to find patients?

    Thanks, Lisa. I recall one professor saying to the graduating class near the end of our acupuncture education, “…and please, PLEASE do not hang anything with Chinese or Japanese writing, do not call your clinic “Kuan Yin something or other acupuncture healing clinic”, don’t wear your white lab coat or your tai chi silks, and don’t make acupuncture out to be some mysterious Ancient Chinese Secret that only you, with your $60,000 education, can understand.” I owe that man a huge debt of gratitude. Because of that 30 second pep talk I have named both of my clinics after the town that they were each located in, have given countless community education lectures in which I never mentioned Qi, Blood, Yin or Yang, and definitely NEVER carried a plastic meridian doll around with me. Actually, that one I never considered, and the thought of it really made me giggle!

  2. your blog


    The waters run deep in that mind of yours. I love it. I came from a family of union Labor leaders and contrary to what the news and movies make labor leaders out to be, I remember my father and grandfather being out there to fight for the little guy which included all races. It was a different time then and there are now some unions that are part of the problem, but what you wrote in todays blog reminds me of attitudes and thoughts that came from my dads mouth. I can tell you that my CAN  clinic has freed me from having to pander to the top 15% in my quest to help relieve pain and suffering. 

    Yours in Health,

    Dr Frank Ervolino

  3. Your observation about what constitutes rudeness in the world of

    acupuncture is so true.  I keep my little Buddha statue on my desk just because I like it and I am sentimentally attached to it.  But it is important for me to separate out what is acupuncture/herbs to use as medicine and what is cultural overlay that I feel unqualified to represent.  To tell the truth, some days, even days that are filled with happy patients, I feel confident of my skills but not confident that I understand where it all came from.

    My door is open to all the communities of color in my area but I can see how those communities may not consider open what I consider open.  You have hit a homer in a painful and real way about how it is easy in white privilege (but I challenge that many of my patients, though white, do not have access to that privilege, topic for another discussion perhaps) to wear any jacket or don any hat we choose just because we can.  And our expensive educations ensure for us that it is something we deserve and have earned through our own efforts.

    Being aware of it is one thing, figuring out ways to diminish its influence in my clinic is another.  

    Thanks for the post. 

  4. .

    i had a teacher who said something to us in first semester that actually took a little while to sink in with me. he said, “don’t go to acupunture school to become an acupuncturist. use this as an opportunity to become yourself.” it rings even more true today. patients, people, will always appreciate authenticty much more than they appreciate a salesman.

  5. Notes from halfway in between

    Ah, Acupuncture Today those evil wankers who eat, sleep and breathe marketing (; where would CAN be without their delightful counterpoint to our very existence?

    I just hope that the brush stroke aren’t too wide and everyone isn’t all painted the same shade of poor deluded honky.

    When I married my wife she told me that I became half Chinese. Magic? Maybe, she does have mysterious powers like being able to shut me up with a single look. In fact, just after writing that I got an angry phone call from her along with a Darth Vader-like choke. Usually I only get that when I imply that Tibet may be it’s own separate country.

    At any rate, my wife took me to tailors to get me the fancy silk jacket, nice shirts and all sorts of Chinese art and cultural knick knacks which now decorate our home and my clinic. Sometimes I feel a bit strange surrounded by so much from another culture, but then I think, what else would I have? Is our culture just a TV on the wall, some ugly Klimt print, or worse yet, a coloured line on a white background for $800? Is this what white people should have on the walls?

    I know that this is a far cry from carrying an acupuncture prop (and that’s what an acu-dummy is, a prop carried by an actor) everywhere, but there must be some middle ground between being an asshat and looking fine in a silk suit.

    That personal connection is very important, gifts in the clinic from friends have story and meaning. I just hope that no one will call me an imperialist culture thief when I go to my Wing Chun class, volunteer at Mulicultural events while wearing my fancy duds, or even holding hands with my wife and our dashing little half breed…

    China makes a good example for a lot of aspects of our modern lives. Bruce Lee had issues training as a youth because he was 1/4 German; when his classmates found out, they refused to work with him. Even people from other villages, or different family names were mistrusted. If anything good (among the 99% bad) came from their Cultural Revolution, it’s that the secrecy and protectionism was removed from the culture. Thirty years ago I would not have been allowed to go to China to work in hospitals there and my wife would probably have been arrested as a spy for consorting with a capitalist swine/foreign devil.

    These days, every Chinese person I meet is proud, never insulted, that I chose to pursue so much that we associate with China: acupuncture, speaking Chinese, martial arts, fancy pictures on the walls, delicious spicy food and more. I’ve even met a couple of Asian supremacists who believe that Asians are the pinnacle of human evolution, and far from having anger towards me, they love (with a hint of condescension) that I have seemingly kowtowed to their superior culture. Very odd. Stranger even than seeing farmers and welders in China wearing three piece suits in the fields and on construction sites. I dont feel like a Sinophile, although it’s getting harder to argue this point all the time.

    It’s wrong to say that North America has no culture of it’s own, my First Nations family & friends would kill me. More true, and probably still wrong is that our culture is the only true multiculture because of the historical migrations; splitting in the Mid East and meeting again on the other side of the world.

    In my rambling way, what I’ve been trying to say is that if we are free to choose our own path and to discover what holds meaning for us as individuals then maybe we need to worry less; both about how we are perceived in doing it and in our perceptions of other people. Well, except for some cock carrying around a conversation starter.

    Maybe it’s true that we can separate the practice of acupuncture from one culture, Otzi the Iceman did and that was over 5000 years ago. China and Japan certainly made it the practice that it is today, but since we don’t really know where it started (I’m thinking aliens) I think that we are safe to pick it up and run with it the way we feel works.

    Thanks to Lisa for something to think about over my morning tea.

  6. Awesome!

    Thanks for posting this and a big Thank You for bringing to light Said’s seminal work on “the Other.” I’ve brought this up to some people on a few occasions and it’s fallen on deaf ears with a strangely confusing look of “huh?” And then a “I don’t believe that” as they say this while wearing their “acupuncture drag.” (you forgot the other quintessintial accoutrement: Chopsticks in the hair…LOL)

    But seriously, your post in a very strange way, reminds me of the movie “The World of Suzy Wong” from circa 1960 or so and then the Broadway musical which became a movie, which then became a Broadway musical (albeit a more “politically correct” version) “Flower Drum Song.”

    Looking at the main character of Suzy Wong, one can easily see that the actor, Nancy Kwan, is bi-racial (not full Chinese). I guess that would make it easier to “swallow” so to speak. Fast forward to the debut of Miss Saigon and one finds one of the leads character (who, in the script is Asian) being played by a Caucasian male with “Asian” make-up–slanted eyes, etc. The retort was from British Equity was along the lines of “artistic integrity and freedom” as justification for maintaining a white male in a lead role portraying an asian character. Interesting take is that rarely is a lead character in any seemingly “white” production (7 brides for 7 sisters for example–don’t quote me my musical/movie knowledge is really quite limitied) a person of color, unless the script “actually calls for it.”

  7. Questions of identity ethics and authenticity

    Lisa – your analysis of white privilege-acu marketing is as usual, “spot-on” as they say here in Scotland.

    I find myself here unexpectedly to help my mother who had a medical emergency while on holiday – but I bring it up here as it offers interesting reflections on questions of identity and privelege.

    I’ve never been to Scotland or Europe before, and whenever I go someplace new, I am dimly aware of  a largely unconscious process of assessing the socio-cultural landscape and my perceived place in it.

    At first, I was confused, meeting university students from Tibet, India, China in the youth hostel. It wasn’t my image of Scotland.  BMWs and Jaguar’s, fancy tea rooms and Gothic cathedrals, and some homeless ladies asking for money to buy some chips (i.e. cheap food)  – now that’s a more familiar stereotypical image of northern Europe.

    White privilege still rules here too. Easy to forget that though. So easy. Because, as you’ve said – one of the fundamental privileges of being white is that we don’t have to think about it. In fact, it’s rather expected in white society that we don’t think about it. Which is why it is so hard to become aware of it.

    There, I said the phrase – white privilege – that people (white that is) seem to have so much difficulty saying. There is a historical legacy of oppression (i.e. racism) based upon skin color. And it is up to us – if indeed we are serious about living authentically – in alignment with truth and health and good Chi (all of those are mutually reinforcing) – it is up to us – especially those of us who are white – to look at the conditioning within our minds which takes us out of authenticity and into deception – cultural appropriation for our own selfish ends. That I believe is the most essential point you make Lisa. 

    If we are truly committed to helping heal our communities – and not simply a very narrow range of people who can afford our services – then we must act in ways which are harmonious with not merely individual health – but community health, social health and even world peace. All of these are connected.

    In terms of my own authenticity, I’ve struggled with this question of self-identity alot over the years. As a white American, I’ve grown up during a time in which much of our cultural inheritance is being rejected. If I don’t want to be all of those things – the greed and superficiality that seems to go hand in hand with the privilege, then who am I?

    At some point, I decided to become a Buddhist – which is not the religion of my ancestors. Although the Dalai Lama doesn’t encourage westerners to become Buddhist as he acknowledges it can cause problems with family, he also acknowledges that it is each person’s right to choose whatever religion makes the most sense to them.

    So, I don’t feel any guilt over sense of inappropriateness about adopting a religion outside of the norm in America. And I’m not trying to steer this discussion into religion (it’s already sticky enough without that layer). Except that Buddhists believe in  in reincarnation. I actually believe that in my countless rebirths I have lived in every race. Been every shade of skin color from very dark to very pale.

    So the one million pound existential question becomes – do I – when looking for my cultural-racial-identity, think just in terms of the present life (white), or countless previous lives.

    A third option (the Buddhist one I think), is to not identify at all. Or rather – to see the flow of changing costumes over infinite time – and realize I’ve been a part of all races, cultures, and skin colors (and even species) – and understand that it never stays the same. Some time I am born as oppressor, some time as oppressed.

    I’m not trying to “spiritualize” this conversation but rather sincerely encourage each of us to explore the topic of what our identity is – a topic that I think is most confusing for white folks.

    Bringing it back to the (white) – self-interested conditioning that most of us received in acupuncture school – we need to tread carefully in our relationship with Asian medicine, avoiding the acquisitive mentality of western materialism/imperialism that likes to take what is foreign, repackage it, or brand it as our own, and then profit from it.

    My discussion of the overlay of reincarnation is not an excuse to ignore our inner motivation for doing what we do. I remember once asking one of my Buddhist teachers how one could tell when the (unenlightened) ego was operating in our mind. He replied by saying that usually there is a very subtle, but distinct odor. In other words, if we are paying close attention, we know when we are being authentic, and when we are putting on a show.

     Lisa’s second to last paragraph really zeros in on mainstream acupuncture’s pretentious way of dealing with cultural appropriation. A while back, I groused on my Facebook page about how our local state acu-chapter has spent years lobbying the state legislature and now we have a new more politically correct title that we can all use – East Asian Medical Practitioner. Yes, it does add a useful distinction for herbalists – but that’s an awful lot of political manuevering for a new title, when the profession still seems oblivious to the issue of access (affordability) to our medicine – the white elephant in the middle of the room. I requote Lisa’s excellent summary from above:

    “As long as our profession is so plainly disinterested in using acupuncture to actually relieve suffering for people that need it; as long as we so transparently promote acupuncture as a kind of lifestyle accoutrement for the most privileged people in our society; as long as we ignore the real obligations associated with healing, while wanting to play dress-up with the trappings — no matter what we call it, we are Orientalising the hell out of acupuncture. We’re treating it as an ornament, a trinket, an exotic plaything.”

  8. amen, sister.

    lisa, thank you.  really, thank you.

     this is so on-point.  such necessary discussion that i have not encountered elsewhere.   

    let’s keep this can of misappropriated worms open.  

  9. story

    Someone told me this great anecdote about the Dalai Lama – I think it is true. He was commenting on all the Westerners in India / Dharamsala who walk around dressed in Tibettan garb. He said: You can try to be Tibetan, but you can never really be Tibetan, because your nose is too big.

    I think that’s pretty funny and gets the point across.