I was born in 1950 into an herbalist family in Guangzhou, Southern China. We moved to South Vietnam because my father got a contract as a Chinese herbalist in the Cantonese Hospital in Cholon, the sprawling Chinatown adjacent to Saigon (Now Ho Chi Minh City).
After completing his contract with the hospital, my father decided to stay in Cholon and opened an herb shop of his own just two blocks away from home. Living next door was Grandma on Mom’s side. She was a midwife operating a small 10-bed maternity ward. We felt like having two homes which were connected through a backdoor.
We maintained a home office catering to many clients who came at odd hours. Since my father never said no to his clients, the rest of the family helped out when a client came unexpectedly (We had no phone and no advance-booking tradition). During the flu season when the workday typically started at 6 AM and ended at midnight, the whole family was mobilized including the kids. Among the four siblings of two boys and two girls, I ranked second, and was the most willing helper because I found the job more interesting than school work.
I often wondered how Dad could remember all the herbs being used. Dad showed me the classical herbal dictionary where about 1000 herbs were listed and described. “Try to learn five a day and you’ll be done before the year’s over.” So this became my goal before turning a teenager. It took me about an hour to read and remember five herbs. I was also encouraged to spend time at the shop to look at, feel, smell and taste them. I was surprised they did not taste as terrible as the tea brewed from an herbal mixture. Several months later, I was proud to show that I could identify most of our inventory even if blindfolded.
Learning the herbs is only the first step. The art of Chinese medicine involves putting together the right mixture of herbs that reinforce rather than conflict with each other in order to bring about a cure for a particular illness of a particular person. It is always custom-made according to the condition of the patient.
Dad taught me not to be lazy intellectually. By that he meant not to copy blindly from the many “ancient secret formulas” floating around, and not to take the words of those “wise men” for granted. A good herbalist should draw his own conclusion based on knowledge and experience, tempered by logic and empirical evidence. The only criterion of a good herbal prescription is its cost-effectiveness, not where it is copied from.
As time went by, I found myself often sitting next to my father to observe how he interfaced with each individual client employing the cardinal rule of “Look, feel, ask and pulse read”. We kept a record of the client’s condition for each visit and the corresponding herbal mixture being formulated. Gradually, I could understand the reasoning and subtleties in the process of writing an herbal prescription.
While Dad graduated from the Guangzhou Herbal College, my training involved apprenticing with him, which was an acceptable alternative for entering the herbal profession. Since we owned and managed the business, my herbal education was a 24/7 immersion because it was actually our livelihood around which most activities revolved.
As the Vietnam war began to escalate, we moved to Hong Kong in 1964 where most of our relatives had long settled. In 1968, I left for college in America to study Physics, a subject I had scored high in the public certificate exam and my teachers said I was good at. However, I ended up with a B.A. in Economics (Berkeley) that I really liked. This was followed by 6 years of work in Hong Kong in the economic consultancy profession, capped by an M.A. in International Relations (Chicago) in 1978. The following year, my family immigrated to America where I first worked as a technician in Silicon Valley, then as an engineer after obtaining an M.S. in Engineering (Stanford) in 1989. During those years, while my father carried on his herbal profession uninterrupted, my herbal training turned into a hobby due to the demands of a full-time job, higher education, and raising a family of four after getting married in 1979.
In 1993, something unexpected happened. My company went through a massive layoff, a victim of the personal computer revolution. I suddenly discovered the potential of partnering with my father in the herbal business. We opened an herb shop called Herbs & Tea in San Jose. Since we were the only duos operating the business, it became a 24/7 immersion just like the good old days, except that the clients might phone beforehand for a consultation and would not come during odd hours anymore.
I find it very satisfying for being able to help my clients solve their health problems. In the process, we also become friends. After all these years, I have finally heard my calling and settled in the profession I truly love. It may seem like a long wild detour, but I think fate has brought my career back in a great circle to where I originally began as a little boy.
Although my father wished that I would follow in his footsteps, he never insisted upon it because he wanted to see me develop my other potentials. On the day we opened the herb shop in San Jose, Dad was so happy that he was moved to tears. He said we were finally in full control of our own business and destiny. He also said that in this profession, you could never retire if your clients still wanted to see you. Dad passed away in 2006, one year after seeing his last client at the age of 96. I guess this is also my fate because I am still professionally active although having retired officially since 2015.