I was in an adorable dress at a dinner party with friends from Poland (all of these points are relevant) when someone asked about the bluish-green circle peaking above the zipper on my back.
“I beat her” immediately offered my sweet husband (from Brazil), who never ceases to delight in implying USAmerican foolishness by feeding the stereotype of the macho, wife-beating Brazilian.
“Nooo…” I said, “my son and I went to Chinatown for cupping. Have you heard of it?” Now it was my turn to delight in implying my own cultural coolness by trying something so “different” and not of the US culture mainstream. “You know it’s 4,000 years old in China. Isn’t that so funny that I was scared?
Right, they all said, and then began sharing stories of childhood in Poland when their moms administered cupping for everything from a stomach ache to a fever, but mostly for the sniffles. “The worst part was sitting still for 15 minutes. Oh, and you couldn’t go outside and play afterwards because of the risk of infection.”
So, two things here. One, “wait, what—this is a common thing?” and, two, “wait…what risk of infection—should I go home now?”
There’s so much wrong in this story it’s hard to know where to start. As is my style, I’ll start with the lesson learned related to intercultural communications. It is in this process of understanding and recognizing one’s bias (i.e. that USAmerican medicine is the norm and then there’s everything else) that you can arrive at the shift of “us vs. them” as a hierarchy, to “us and them,” or even better, “us inclusively,” as options—it opens up an entire world of possibility.
So, now back to the other things wrong with the story. Note that this is not a “aha you’re racist” wrong, it’s more of a “boy do I feel silly about my own assumptions and ignorance now that I’ve researched it more” kind of wrong.
Let’s start with the cupping…what is it? (see below for deets on what cupping is like from my experience.)
Web MD (it’s on the Internet, it must be true) says “Cupping therapy might be trendy now, but it’s not new. It dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures…During both types (wet or dry) of cupping, your therapist will put a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs, or paper in a cup and set it on fire. As the fire goes out, he (or in my case she) puts the cup upside down on your skin.”
Web MD says the cups are left in place for up to 3 minutes. In the Chinatown/Polish child with a fever versions it was more like 15 minutes. I also just read that with wet cupping they “use a small scalpel to make light, tiny cuts on your skin” to draw out blood…so glad I didn’t know that was even a possibility beforehand.
The source for that scalpel detail? It’s from the British Cupping Society (BCS). Really…BRITISH cupping society is a thing?
British Cupping Society…is Cupping Cultural Appropriation?
Yes, BCS is a thing—they do workshops all over the world. A most recent one was in Saudi Arabia. And, it turns out, as the rabbit hole gets deeper, Britain didn’t appropriate cupping from China because…It wasn’t invented in China!
More about that in a minute—first a quick lesson on cultural appropriation: Some people have issue when one society “appropriates” or takes as their own a custom from another culture. Cultural appropriation can range from harmful to benign, depending on the context. Everydayfeminism.com explains nicely here. (A sample bad instance: “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced against Its People.”)
But here’s the funny…after searching “British vs ancient Chinese cupping, just to see if/how the practice was appropriated for “western use,” I found a Chinese website, China Highlights, which actually states that Cupping “isn’t clearly a Chinese invention.” In fact, this article traces it back to Egypt and ancient Greece, also citing popularity in the 1700’s in Western Europe and use in Islamic culture following a recommendation by Mohamed.
This article says archeologists found jars in the East that might have been used for fire cupping about 1000 BC, but adds that the “Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world describes that in 1550 BC the Egyptians used cupping. (WebMD also references the Ebers Papyrus.)
So How Mainstream is Cupping?
Shanghaiist calls cupping a “typical” remedy in an article on 11 traditional Chinese therapies that will weird you out. Cupping is not one of the 11 but rather the common one that everyone does, as opposed to these 11 strange ones.
A quick search on Yelp with “cupping” and my northwest-side Chicago zip code yields 64 results, including a place (AcuBalance Wellness Center) run by three women (who are white) barely two miles from my house. Cupping is included among “Oriental Medicine Techniques” offered on their website (although their reference picture shows only a subtle rise in the skin, as opposed to the globbing welts of skin the size of tennis balls unnaturally filling the glass that we saw and experienced in Chinatown).
And as long as we are digressing…Oriental…Can You Say that?
This of course begs the question of the use of the word “oriental” which has been banned from all Federal documents since May. But, as this Asian-American Doctor who in her own words practices “Oriental medicine” points out “A funny thing I noticed is that my Caucasian (dare I say Occidental?) colleagues, not my Asian colleagues, are most eager to remove Oriental from public discourse.) Wait…so AcuBalance can keep the name? If there’s a Federal ban, maybe not so much?
And in Conclusion, back to that Bias Thing
So now that I have gone from a dinner party to cupping to cultural appropriation and beyond, I have circled back to these conclusions (in addition to the aforementioned insight into intercultural communications under Bias Alert):
Cultural arrogance (or fear of being offensive fed by cultural arrogance—conscious or not) can get in the way of due diligence.
In other words…OMG…I just looked on Yelp at the place where we went for cupping, Mercury Acupuncture and Massage Center, and saw some scary reviews mixed in with the good ones. In not wanting to question the practice too much I actually didn’t do the same level of research I would have done had I been looking for a doctor, massage therapist or other practitioner. My only question had been whether the procedures hurt or not. (It didn’t.)
The unconscious block was a sense that if I question too much it will belie a bias that I thought cupping was inferior to Western/accustomed practice and would therefore come across as offensive. Or, questioning brought unease that I would come across as foolish for not knowing something that I “should” have known if I had been more culturally sensitive. (Action for next time…do your research BEFORE your visit.)
Learn something new with someone you love.
I glossed over the “son” part. Some may have been stopped from the get-go by whether this was an appropriate mother-son outing. It was. He’s 15 and more adventurous and braver than me (I made him go first to overcome my fear…Mother of the Year).
But not only did we share the adventure of trying something new together, we also engaged in all of the subsequent conversations—Western vs Chinese Medicine, stereotypes and misunderstanding, fear and “discovery” of things that the vast majority of the non USAmerican world population have known about and followed for years.
And even if those conversations were from the perspective of a teenager making fun of his mom (oh, that’s where the aforementioned unease of appearing foolish came from)…I feel good that I’ve done my job to expand his perspective.
3. I still looked really good in that dress.
And now, the deets… What is cupping like?
The short answer is that it didn’t hurt and that my back felt amazing for a full-week afterwards (actually could stand up straight first thing in the morning). I would definitely do it again.
The office was set up more as a medical suite out front, scrubs and all. Although when I didn’t exactly understand the procedure (language barrier) the receptionist got the “doctor” who opened up a procedure room to quietly show me someone else mid-treatment. (Red flag? HIPAA?)
As to my incessant asking of whether things would hurt or not, the “doctor” administering the procedure said usually no but possibly more if you were older or had bad circulation. She thought I was both, I sensed, because she kept saying things like “You old.” “You bad circulation.” She suggested that it would hurt less if I got a 10-minute massage to loosen up my skin. (Upsell, anyone?) So Lucca and I went for the chair massage in the lobby. My guy massaged really, really, fast kind of like your husband when he doesn’t really want to give you a massage and he’s hoping you’ll go “that’s okay, you can stop.” And for Lucca his was more of a deep massage where she apparently kept digging her knee into his back. But at least it kept its purpose of loosening up our skin.
We then went into two separate rooms, although the ceilings didn’t go all the way up so we could hear and talk to each other.
Lucca didn’t elicit an agonizing scream and run from the room so I assumed it was safe. Other than a quick look to verify what tools she was using (it looks like those little round bulb vases you can use as centerpieces at dinner), I chose meditative breathing to relax and remain in the present, as she heated the cups (not hot enough to burn) and began to place them on my back. I pointed out my old back surgery scar to avoid, and then asked for a couple cups a little lower, on my gluts (low back ache sometimes caused by a pulled glut).
There’s a momentary fear when the skin is pulling apart and getting sucked tight into the cups and you panic a little thinking what if it doesn’t stop sucking and my skins literally splits apart, but it does, and as she massages your scalp, possibly to distract you from the tightening skin, you are left wondering how on earth you had that much skin in the first place and what cupping would be like on someone who was overweight (note if you google cupping images, there are no obese people doing it).
And then 15 minutes later she comes back and removes the cups. The 15 minutes for Lucca was more awake and aware (aka not relaxing), for me it was a chance to drift and nap, nice for me in the middle of the day.