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Oyster Shells

January 4, 2019

I visited a Chinese herbalist yesterday, a small, bright-eyed man with a gentle manner. The clinic’s reception room was piled high with boxes of pungent herbs that I could smell from the street. The treatment room was furnished with a small table and two chairs and a towel-covered examining table with a pillow sheathed in green synthetic gauze. There were charts featuring illustrations of bodies traced with lines and dots with Chinese names next to the dots.

It all felt very familiar. I have used Chinese herbs on and off for years and find them very effective for certain ailments. I first came across ‘kampo’ in Japan where the herbal system runs in parallel with the modern, science-based medical system.

I told this to the herbalist but he wasn’t interested in chit-chat. He asked me about my digestion. I told him I don’t eat fish or meat.

‘Hmm,’ he said in a disappointed way. ‘Vegetarian.’

I nodded. ‘But I eat eggs and cheese. Not all the time but, you know, a bit.’

This didn’t interest him either.

‘What about oyster shell?’ he asked.

I shook my head. Who eats oyster shell? Seaweed, yes. Oyster shell, nein danke.

The herbalist was persistent. ‘Oyster shell,’ he repeated.

I shook my head again.

He was putting together a prescription, he explained, and wanted to know if I would allow oyster shell to be included.

I didn’t see why not. It wasn’t the oyster after all. I told him how I’d once discovered cicada shells (the skin discarded by moulting cicadas) in some herbs prescribed in Japan. I’d noticed insect legs when I tipped the contents into a pot prior to boiling them up.

The herbalist smiled for the first time. ‘Ah, cicada skin,’ he said. ‘Very good herb.’

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