Illustration by Jessai Flores
The following is not an account of one AAPI student’s experience. The following is not an account of one American’s experience.
I slather Tiger Balm across my face even though it makes my eyes tear up. I use the white kind, the cooling and non-staining one with mint, never the burning-hot red kind. I’ve never seen the red kind housed in my family’s medicine cabinet. Then again, the one in the medicine cabinet has some man’s face on it and is greener, so this probably isn’t the right one either. But it gets the job done. The cabinet’s at home and home is in Hong Kong, where I was born and raised, so I won’t be able to check for a while anyway. I rub it over my chest and my neck and wherever the sinuses are meant to be. To combat the Yague, I must complete this ritual, stinking of camphor and menthol before bed to breathe easy.
I’ve sourced it from that Asian grocery, the Hong Kong Market at 71 Whitney Avenue, a place some told me would be a substitute for home. They only state this if they realize I’m international; my accent is an adequate American disguise. Tiger Balm for stuffiness, Gan Mao Ling drink sachets for the cough, Nim Jiom lozenges and Pei Pa Koa syrup for the sore throat. I tick things off on my Notion checklist quickly, though I had to WhatsApp video call mom for the Gan Mao Ling. I’ve seen the white box with green overlays before, but I just want to double-check it’s the same.
Yes I take vaccines and go to the surgeon and dentist and pediatrician. Yes I am on the Yale Health Insurance Plan. But for the common cold? The Yague? I do what I’ve always done and attempt to source what’s always been present in the medicine cabinet, the panacea nestled behind band-aids and benadryl.
When a suitemate grows sick, I’ll offer them free-reign of these four products. I’ll shake the Nim Jiom lozenge tin as if they hold a secret, I’ll present the Pei Pa Koa syrup like I’m a self-help influencer peddling the “traditional” sacred herbs of some far-off civilization during an ad break. They like the Tiger Balm, and the Nim Jiom lozenges really are no different to the cough drops they treat like candy. Self-Orientalisation is my defense mechanism in a nation that’s not my own.
I rely on these rituals as a reminder of my internationality. They are acts of defiance solely performed to reinforce my confidence as a non-American. I’m fine with Americans, but I do not live an American experience. It’s an internal issue; I would not wish to assign blame to anyone besides myself. Breathing in the bitter, stinging odors of what would be simple drugstore products elsewhere, I’m simply aware that home is an ocean away.