I am Korean American. Growing up, this meant some basic things, like eating various stews, speaking Korean with family, or celebrating two New Year’s and Thanksgivings. To a lesser extent, my Korean roots also influenced remedies that my family uses on simple illnesses, all the way from indigestion to chronic pain and sprains. In surrounding myself with forms of healing that are not traditionally American, I’ve come to realize that my medicine is as much a part of my culture as everything that is more “obvious” is. They are as normal to me as cough syrup is to any American individual.
In fact, I believe that through comprehending the forms of healing that I engaged in—and still depend on—you can understand my cultural identity a bit more. Don’t worry, I won’t dump a bunch of technical information on you. Just sit back and surround yourself with the stories I have to share about acupuncture, cupping, and pricking.
As a child, acupuncture was something that I knew existed but never dabbled in. Part of it was never having an injury serious enough to warrant acupuncture, while the other part was a shying away from the image of it—that cluster of silver needles sunk into skin. It wasn’t that I doubted the efficacy of acupuncture; in fact, because I had witnessed my mom’s relief after her appointments, acupuncture to me was simply medicine, not “oriental medicine.” It was that I simply didn’t want to be treated with something that seemed so tangibly painful.
But in eighth grade, I sprained my wrist. My mom insisted on acupuncture, yet it was only after a couple weeks (when I grew tired of the stupid, sweaty brace) that I agreed to one visit.
My mother and I arrived at an acupuncture clinic located at the back of a church. Everything was familiar to me—the herbal smell of the waiting room, the chitchat of the Korean ladies with gray perms, the curtains that sectioned off each clinic space. I was led to a corner room, thrust into an earth-toned environment, where the golden lamp barely illuminated the beige walls and wooden bed. The supply table beside the cot sported needles of various shapes and sizes, as well as sterile wipes and towels. I would be lying if I didn’t say I almost chicken out right then, but I managed to hold on strong while the acupuncturist examined my wrist, prodding for pain and massaging specific sections.
I didn’t even notice the first needle. I had glanced away for one moment, yet in the next, a needle was sticking out of my wrist. Just like that. The second one, however, I paid attention to. The acupuncturist deftly lifted a needle, put the point against my skin, then tapped the top. In a half-breath, a metal sliver jutted from my hand. It was as if the acupuncturist had coaxed it out of flesh. This time, I did feel a tiny prick, but I was too engaged in the novelty of it that I barely gave it thought.
This procedure—lift, place, tap—went on fifteen more times. By the end, even my unhurt wrist had birthed a couple of needles. The pain had ranged from no sensation to a lead pencil jab. In the end, my porcupine wrists were left basking under a heat lamp for ten minutes or so before being rendered free of the needles.
And so went my first acupuncture experience. It had been one thing to accompany my mom on her acupuncture appointments, a witness to her bliss, and another to experience the relief myself. For a few days after, my wrist throbbed less and moved more freely. I made weekly acupuncture appointments a routine for a couple more weeks, by the end of which my wrist had healed completely.
Being on the receiving end put into perspective that delicate balance between pain of healing and relief from the initial injury. It reduced not only my irrational fear of acupuncture but also my apprehension of other forms of treatment. (In fact, I transitioned from shying away from shots to having staring contests with the needle as it delivered an invisible vaccine!) Most importantly, being privy to that painlessness helped introduce another layer of connection of between my mom and I, a sort of shared perspective—or even secret—that said Oh, that pain? Just tap some needles into it.
In the back of my house is a closet, and in that closet is a hefty red-and-gold box full of translucent cups and a hand pump. For as long as I can remember, the cupping kit has been in my family’s possession. And for longer than that, I’ve been my mom’s go-to cupping person.
In this way, cupping is more familiar to me than acupuncture; I’ve been an agent in the process for quite a while, mostly as the giver and sometimes as the receiver.
The healing begins when my mom complains of back pain. It’s always the upper back, that junction where the neck meets the shoulder. While I bring out the kit from the top of that closet, my mom lies on her stomach, back exposed. I take a seat by her head, let her voice guide my hand as I press down on certain points on her back; she is the one telling me exactly where I should place the first cup.
I press the flat side of the cup on her shoulder, holding it steady as I fit the nozzle of the hand pump (although it’s more like an air gun) onto the rubber tunnel at the point of the cup. With a few swooshes, I force air into the cup until it sticks right against her skin, held there via suction. Already, the skin caught inside the cup darkens from beige to mottled red—the color that indicates that blood flow has increased. I know from experience that cupping feels exactly as one would imagine, like a vacuum has been placed on your skin and tightened it, a mildly uncomfortable yet deeply relieving sensation.
With the first mark set, I travel down the line of her back, enacting the same fate with five more cups, then switch over to the other shoulder. At my mom’s request, I cup other parts of her back but rarely mess with the spine. From this point, it’s a game of attentiveness broken by moments of action. Cups lose their suctioning power relatively quickly, and as per my grandmother’s recommendation, cup and skin should be aligned for at least ten minutes. This means that these rascals tend to slowly escape by sliding off the back, and it’s my responsibility to pump more air into the ones that seem like they’re coming loose.
Once time is up, I loosen each cup by rotating the rubber top. To force the change in circulation to be more gradual, I frantically knead the cupped spot for a couple of seconds. At this point, my mom’s whole back is covered in these neatly placed battle wounds—angry red circles, ranging from pale to purple-red. She always asks me to point out the darkest spot, confirming (almost proudly) that the pre-cupped aching was the worst there. The circles will fade within a week or two, but until then, she’ll inevitably receive some looks from folks unfamiliar with cupping.
But if these looks are the only side effects from cupping, both my mom and I will take it over any other pain-relief method. The effects are almost miraculous. It goes like this: before the process, I can barely turn my neck. Even if I manage to do so, my upper back throbs. My body feels tight; I’m unhappy. In comes cupping: the method feels like someone has tightened the already tightened parts of my body and then let them loose just as quickly. It’s like they’ve squeezed the pain out of me—one moment, I’m grumbling; the next, I’m all smiles because my shoulder doesn’t feel tight anymore. It’s instantaneous. Often, it’s all it takes to rebound from a night of wrong sleep.
As “alternative” forms of medicine have become more popular in the United States, I’ve become accustomed to my friends’ familiarity with acupuncture and cupping. Yet the third form of healing that completes my holy trinity of Korean medicine has never gained traction, partly because it’s such an unconventional solution to a unique problem: indigestion.
Pricking is for the days when I eat five thousand slices of pizza in one sitting, or when I inhale my food, or, according to my mother, when I sit with bad posture when eating (hunching over because it’s cold). It’s when the food I’ve recently consumed feels like it’s stuck, undigested, in the upper part of my organs, creating this uncomfortable-verging-on-painful pressure in my chest. I need to burp, but I can’t. It’s all-too-familiar.
When I was younger, my mom was the one to prick my finger. Now, I’m comfortable enough that I can navigate it on my own. So I like to think that I have double agency in pricking, both as caregiver and patient.
First is a systems check. Are my earlobes cold? The tips of my fingers? It’s conventional knowledge, at least in my family, that indigestion is present when the body reacts in this way. Now, is the point between forefinger and thumb tight? I knead-pinch this spot with my opposite hand. If it feels unnaturally painful and hard to the touch, then again, indigestion could be on the cards. In fact, because it is a pressure point, kneading-pinching this spot helps the food go down more easily, indicated by burps and a softening of skin.
Only then do I pull out my supplies: a benign-looking pen, sewing thread, and a paper towel. The pen sports a disposable needle at the end; when I click the top, just as I would do with a normal pen, the needle shoots out and in. It takes a millisecond.
I rub down my arm to “move” the blood down to my fingers, then tightly wrap the thread around my thumb right below the knuckle. The upper part of the thumb, caught in a torrent of blood, should be swollen and purpling. I prick the point right above the knuckle with the pen-needle and observe as black blood blooms from the wound, ready with a paper towel to smear the gelatinous liquid off my thumb. (The color of the blood is important, as the darker the blood, the worse the indigestion is. It’s an indication that the blood is impure.) After two or three drops of blood emerge from my thumb, I facilitate the bleeding by squeezing blood out of my thumb, until nothing comes out of the puncture. The last step is unwrapping the thread, a whoosh as circulation is set in motion in the upper portion of my thumb once more.
The relief that I receive from pricking is even more instantaneous than cupping. When that first drop of blood is released, that pull in my chest lessens, my whole body sighs. Once I prick the other thumb, the tightness in my chest is almost completely gone. It disappears once I burp—something that either happens immediately after the first prick or after a few minutes. If the tightness is still there (and this is rare), I’ll repeat the process on my other fingers. My mom once told me that when she experienced an especially bad episode of indigestion, her mother bled out all ten fingers and toes!
Sometimes, I chug a Korean herbal drink after, rightfully named “gas medicine” because it functions like flavored sparkling water, just in a fancy glass container. And so the food in my stomach prances happily into the process of digestion.
Acupuncture. Cupping. Pricking: my holy trinity of Korean medicine. I don’t expect you to try these processes out immediately after reading this. (In fact, please talk to a professional—or me—if you want to try any of these forms of medicine out!) But I would like to point that this is the healing that I grew up with, that I feel most connected to my cultural roots with. In a way, engaging in Korean medicine heals me in many ways, in my relationships with family, my connection with a culture that precedes me by thousands of years yet still remains all around me, and finally but most importantly, my physical body itself.