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The Daily Tar Heel

Herbs aren’t just for cooking

The next time you catch a cold, buy a pear. Any old pear will do, but the Chinese “duck pear” is the hacking cough’s worst enemy, as I recently learned.

Three days ago, in my family’s two-room apartment in Shanghai, I woke up with my head throbbing and my throat scratchy. I could barely swallow. Perhaps it was the dust that clouds the Shanghai atmosphere. Or perhaps I stood, drenched in sweat, in front of the air conditioner one too many times. For whatever reason, my immune system has not been enjoying China.

Falling ill in a foreign country is never fun, and China’s polluted and overpopulated streets are prime dwellings for all kinds of germs. But restoratives come in many different, obscure forms, including traditional remedies many of the older Chinese generation still turn to.

The first day, Mom made me gargle salt water — a common fix for a sore throat. It helped, but only for a couple of hours. I sneezed and coughed my lungs raw for two days until my aunt, a Shanghai native, suggested the pear. That night, Mom came into the bedroom with a bowl of mushy pear halves and melted sugar, which I learned must be all-natural and stuffed into the core of the pear. The entire thing is steamed in a pot of boiling water for two hours. Delicious to the taste buds, soothing to the throat.

Even now, I am waiting for my second “cup o’ pear” in two days to cool. The duck pear mixture is resourceful, yet it’s one of many antidotes that have become outdated. But in China, with a history that consists of more dynasties than we have fingers, tradition is how the people hold on to their roots.

These past few weeks, I’ve seen apothecaries that would shame the shopkeepers of Diagon Alley. Barrels of smelly herbs, dried mushrooms and leaves line the hallways of these stores. Strange pastes and murky brown liquids sit on the counters with labels written in black calligraphy. Toothy ladies stand, ready to bombard customers with herby facts.

But it’s not just toothy ladies and locals who take advantage of nature’s gifts. In 2000, the World Health Organization reported about 60 percent of the world’s population uses traditional medicine. Healing properties and alternative practices, such as acupuncture, are applied even in hospital settings.

In the department of hematology and oncology at Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, cancer patients’ families occasionally request traditional Chinese healers to help with the treatment and recovery processes. According to a 2003 World Health Organization analysis, acupuncture — one branch of traditional medicine — helps alleviate pain from cancer and negative effects of chemotherapy. Acupuncture is also used to treat neck and lower back pain, hypertension and depression.

So the next time you reach for Tylenol, consider Googling a few au natural remedies. Perhaps acupuncture is a little extreme, but I guarantee you can find one to match that migraine. As for me, my pear is getting cold.

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