Doctor Tony

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 / 1:48 PM

Through some complicated game of telephone when I was 13, my mother got word of a Vietnamese herbalist in San Francisco. It was 2002, and after months of spraying that awful Rogaine formula on my head with no results, my parents were ready to try something new.

Vinh Khang Herbs & Ginsengs was located in New Chinatown in the Richmond District. During all the years we'd been visiting San Francisco, I never knew such a thing as "New Chinatown" existed. I was used to the overcrowded bustle of the "old" Chinatown that attracted tourists and film crews, but New Chinatown was different: it was quieter, cleaner, less grandiose--but the area was more diverse than its name hinted. The stores were a mix of Chinese, American, Vietnamese, Burmese, Irish, and more. It was as if this "new" area of an old city existed to catch the outcasts from the places they once called home. Would it catch me too?

The second we entered Vinh Khang, the mixture of pungent herbs hit me and I gagged. It was bitter and sweet at the same time, claustrophobic all around. I wanted to turn around and leave, but Mom guided me toward the tall glass counters.

Half of the tall store was devoted entirely to drawers of various plants and herbs. Two middle-aged Asian women worked efficiently, scooping contents from the drawers onto rows and rows of pink butcher paper. They barely stopped to read the labels of the drawers, they just knew what to grab. One by one, the women would pick up the papers filled with herbs and dump the mixtures into plastic bags, tie them shut with one quick gesture, and packed the bags away into larger plastic grocery bags. Neither women blinked an eye as they worked. 

Across from the women was an assortment of people waiting for their orders. Some were waiting to see the doctor, and when it was my turn, I walked to the back and sat on a stool as Mom spoke in rapid Cantonese with the man behind the counter.

Doctor Tony was an old Vietnamese man with dry, bony hands and gray hair. He spoke three languages, one of which was broken English. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance, though I wasn't sure what I was expecting. Was he a shaman? A magical healer? I wasn't sure what being an "herbalist" actually entailed.

He asked me a series of questions about my sleeping pattern, diet, and other habits and bodily functions, and took notes as I answered, but I couldn't understand how it was all connected. What were my words telling him? I was too nervous to ask.

"Put your wrist here," Doctor Tony instructed. He set a small purple pillow on the counter and I followed his command. He checked my pulse and I kept my eyes on his face as he stared off to the side of the store. A few extra scribbles on his notepad later, he set his pen down and told us to come back in an hour. 

We left. I was still confused.

The hour passed slowly, and when we finally returned to Vinh Khang, one of the women handed my mother two large grocery bags filled with smaller bags of herbs. Doctor Tony also sold us a special clay pot that would boil the herbs into a liquid tea. "One bag a night," he said, and sent us on our way. Before we left, I watched Mom pay at the counter. Later I would find out each small bag cost $7.

When we got home that night, we boiled the first bag of tea. The house instantly filled up with the most horrendous smell: it seemed to find its way into every room of every story, and into the closets and behind closed doors. It was nothing like Vinh Khang smelled; I would've taken that in a heartbeat over the smell the liquified herbs gave off the minute the clay pot was plugged in.

Forty minutes later, when the herbs were done boiling, Mom poured out the tea into a mug and sat me down at the dining room table. The tea was a dark brown and it looked thick and unappetizing. I looked at Mom and she gave me a reassuring smile as she placed a small item wrapped in purple and white paper next to the mug. It was a sweet plum--a reward for muscling through.

The first sip of tea brought tears to my eyes immediately. It burned my throat and I gagged. Don't cry, don't cry. I closed my eyes and took another small sip, and then another. I started crying after the sip that followed that.

"OK," Mom said. She took the mug from my hands and pushed the sweet plum toward me. "You don't have to finish tonight." She wasn't mad, she was smiling. It was either sympathy or pity, but I didn't try to argue. I watched as she poured the nearly-full mug of tea down the drain.

I unwrapped the plum and ate it quickly. It was comforting and took away the guilt I felt for not being able to finish the tea. I felt weak--weaker than normal--and I was sure if I stomached the tea then my hair would come back. That's why we were doing this, right?

We visited Vinh Khang every two weeks for about a year. My parents spent almost $2,500 (plus the cost of gas money and the toll to travel between Sacramento and San Francisco) by the end of our visits to Doctor Tony. My hair never grew back.

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