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Tim Vukan, one of the growing number of foreigners who study traditional Chinese medicine in China. Photo: Courtesy of Tim Vukan
Diarra Boubacar, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctor from Mali, has recently become a hot topic on Chinese social media. It surprises many Net users that a foreign doctor could practice TCM so well.
"I really hope the TCM skills of us foreign doctors would be recognized in China," said Boubacar, who mainly works at a TCM hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
The first ever foreign post-doctoral fellow in TCM, he has been practicing TCM for more than three decades.
On December 6, the Chinese government published its first white paper on TCM, which delineates the policies and measures on TCM development, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The paper stressed TCM development as a national strategy and stated that TCM is going international, having already spread to 183 countries and regions.
It is still a novelty to see foreign TCM doctors in China. But the frequency has increased with growing foreign interest in TCM. Metropolitan talks to a few practitioners to see what it is like to be a foreign TCM doctor in China.
Dealing with distrust
Not everyone trusts a foreigner with Chinese herbs and needles.
It often happens that patients are very skeptical when they see a foreign TCM doctor, even after Boubacar became fairly well-known as the "miracle-working foreign doctor" in his neighborhood.
Just a few days ago, a woman refused to let him treat her mother. "If my mother's condition worsens, whose responsibility would that be? I won't let your kind of foreign apprentices treat her," Boubacar recalled the woman saying.
"I can totally understand that," said Boubacar, adding that his strategy is to let his skills speak for themselves instead of arguing with the patients.
He turned away to treat other patients and when he returned, the woman apologized and asked him to treat her mother. Apparently, she had heard of his skill and competence as a TCM doctor from other patients while he was away.
Tim Vukan, 36, a German who holds a master's degree in TCM from Zhejiang Chinese Medical University in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, has also met patients who didn't trust him.
He tries to put his patients at ease by explaining their illness to them in Chinese, using specific TCM terms so that they can trust that he knows what he is doing.
"Often, people ask a lot of questions. I see it as a way of gaining a better understanding of foreigners like me. There is nothing wrong with that. I am happy to share my opinions," he said.
Doctor Diarra Boubacar, a well-known TCM doctor in Chengdu, Sichuan Province Photo: IC
From theory to practice
Becoming a qualified TCM doctor requires years of hard training and effort, a feat made more difficult when one is a foreigner.
"Chinese medicine is hard to understand. Every time I attend a class or lecture I need some time to get back to the way of how Chinese medicine looks at things," said Vukan.
"For foreign students, ancient texts are very fascinating. We want to learn from them because we believe it's best to learn from the roots and origins," he said.
Among the texts he studied is Huangdi Neijing, or "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine." Seen as the fundamental doctrinal source for TCM for over two millennia, it is a must-learn for all TCM students.
The ancient language of the classics is also challenging. Learning with the help of translators, who often do not have a medical background and cannot fully translate the ancient doctrines, is of little help.
Foreign TCM students need to achieve a high level of Chinese language proficiency, said Vukan. He has been learning Chinese since 2004.
To work as a TCM doctor in China, international students need to get licensed. But only foreigners who did their undergraduate TCM studies in China and practiced for a year under the guidance of licensed doctors are eligible for the licensing exam, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
Also, opportunities to practice are not so easy to get.
"We spend a lot of hours in classes. And clinics are often swarmed with patients so that there's little time for doctors to let their students practice," said Vukan.
For him, it's important that theory and practice be combined in a better way to help the student become a good doctor.
"For example, in pulse diagnosis, it's not enough if students don't actually learn from really taking a patient's pulse. And students have to use needles on their own to become a good acupuncturist," he said.
Nyiam Li Yi, a 29-year-old Malaysian who is reading for a doctorate in medicine at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, has been studying TCM in China for 10 years. Her academic focus is on the theoretical framework of TCM classics.
Most of Nyiam's classmates are looking to find jobs in either TCM clinical practice or TCM education.
"Most would want to start up their own clinics, health centers and Internet-based services such as websites," Nyiam said.
According to her, compared with learners from the West, the majority of the international TCM students and researchers in China are from Asian countries, especially South Korea and Malaysia, where TCM is comparatively more prevalent.
Many TCM students would return to their home country, but Nyiam hopes to stay in China and work as a TCM doctor after graduation.
However, according to Boubacar, foreign TCM students in China are faced with an especially challenging situation after graduation, regardless of whether they stay in the country or not.
Most of them are not able to have their own TCM clinics where they can use both internal and external treatment methods. They can do acupuncture, moxibustion and cupping, but not herbal remedies.
"The fact is that 99 percent [of the foreign TCM majors] I know are only doing acupuncture," he said.
One of the reasons is that they are not educated or experienced enough to use herbal remedies well. Another is that, compared with acupuncture, people hold a rather skeptical attitude toward TCM remedies that are ingested.
It's also very difficult for foreigners to get opportunities to really see patients and practice TCM in China, at least not independently, according to Boubacar.
To get recognized, Boubacar advises foreign TCM students and practitioners in China to invest more time and energy in learning TCM. Study it in Chinese and take more well-known older Chinese doctors as teachers, he said.