The Haven
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The Haven

My Hate-Hate Relationship With Vinegar

On a related note: bribery works better than exorcisms

Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

During my teenage years, I was told I was allergic to various kinds of meat. Be it pork, beef, or shrimp, my family constantly nagged me to avoid them. I was always skeptical of their warnings because of their abstention from certain foods for spiritual and religious purposes, and I for one am not religious. For instance, my entire family avoids eating beef because they believe that cows are sacred creatures, and that consumption of beef would bring bad omen to their lives.

My family also believes in astrology, and often consults an astrologist on ways to improve various aspects of their lives. When they asked the astrologist for advice on how my life could be improved, he advised my family that I should avoid eating pork. Thus, my pork intake was limited.

In order to convince me to avoid eating my favorite meats, my family used the excuse of allergies to dissuade me from having any. I was doubtful of my supposed allergies, but I couldn’t completely rule them out, because from time to time, I did experience itchiness on various parts of my body, followed by raised skin and bumps.

At some point, I started to get sick of not being able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. To prove that I didn’t have the supposed allergies, I took matters into my own hands. I performed “scientific experiments” by intentionally ingesting illicit contraband (i.e. pork and shrimp). I found very little correlation between the time I ate meat and my skin reaction. When I presented my research at the symposium of my family dinner, they weren’t having any of it. Although I was not able to pinpoint the cause of my skin condition, my family naturally decided to blame food for it.

Doctors couldn’t diagnose me with anything at that time, but upon doing research years later, I realized that the symptoms were awfully similar to the ones of dermatographia, or skin writing.

According to Mayo Clinic, “Dermatographia is a condition also known as skin writing. When people who have dermatographia lightly scratch their skin, the scratches redden into a raised wheal similar to hives. These marks usually disappear within 30 minutes.”

Dermatographia (aka skin writing). Photo by R1carver on Wikimedia

That was word for word what I experienced.

Though it was more likely that I was being attacked by my white blood cells, my parents firmly believed that I was being attacked by evil spirits instead. So, they got to work.

They reached out to a relative of ours who was trained in traditional Chinese medicine. After a week or so, the family relative got back to us with a prescription. To this day, I’m still not sure how much influence spirituality has on traditional Chinese medicine, but I have a strong hunch they are heavily correlated.

I say that because her prescription for my “allergies” was to slather myself with vinegar-soaked joss paper.

Joss paper, often called spirit, hell, or ghost money, is a type of bamboo paper, usually yellow in color, used in Chinese ancestral worship by burning them. This burning of golden money is to offer prosperity for the deceased, usually performed during funerals and Chinese New Year.

A different version of joss paper (aka hell, ghost, or spirit money). Photo by tobym on Flickr

Now that you’re filled in on what joss paper is, let me repeat the previous sentence in case you didn’t understand it the first time — the cure for my allergy-like symptoms, was to slather myself with vinegar-soaked joss paper.

In other words, I was to douse my body with acetic acid using spirit money used in Chinese ancestral worship.

Thus, for the coming weeks, like a 3-month Spotify trial, I had something new incorporated into my life. It was like getting at-home massages by a massage therapist on a portable massage table, except they were vinegar soaking rituals performed by my aunt on her bed.

Imagine stumbling into a room that smells like 5-year-old unrefrigerated pickles, only to stumble upon a big half-naked chubby Asian boy on his stomach covered in pieces of coarse yellow-colored paper.

I wish I was making this up.

This went on for weeks. Every weekend during that unforgettable period of my life, I got slapped with soggy bamboo paper on a bed. I’m surprised it didn’t grow into a fetish.

What made this whole experience that much better was the fact that different members of my family partook in my suffering. My aunt would volunteer one week and my grandmother would the next. My grandfather and my uncle would sign up to be on-call in case the regular shift takers fell through.

Their effort to fill the shifts paid off. A couple months after 3 weeks of this new-age Chinese torture (step aside, Chinese water torture, this one’s the real deal), sure enough, my skin condition was gone. Perhaps there’s a correlation, perhaps there isn’t — it could just be that my body cured itself over time, and it was simply a coincidence.

However, I’ve had the pleasure of not being able to forget this trauma over the years, and the more I think about it, the more things make sense. Let me explain:

There are two parts to the cure: spirit money and vinegar — the former to deal with the netherworld and latter for the physical world. Because my family was convinced I was haunted by evil spirits, it makes sense that spirit money was involved. What happens when someone more powerful in a power dynamic screws with you? You bribe them away. On the other hand, the use of vinegar makes sense as well. Vinegar is a type of acid, and acids can generally cause skin burns. Think about it, there isn’t time for skin to itch when it’s burning instead.

The family relative was a genius.

Though I am still not fully converted, Traditional Chinese medicine will forever hold a place in my heart — well, it has definitely held a place on my skin.

With that much golden paper infused in me, I better be rich when I die.

Coldplay’s Yellow was probably actually written for me. It went like this before they changed it. You’re welcome to sing along:

[Verse 1]
Look vinegar
Look how they smell on you
And everywhere you go
Yeah, they were all yellow
She came along
She wrote a cure for you
And all the things you do
And it involved “Yellow”
Then it started to burn
Oh, what a thing to have done
And it was all yellow

[Chorus 1]
Pork skin, oh yeah, pork skin and bones
Oh well no bloody meat for you
You know, the thing you’re eating so
You can’t keep eating so

[Verse 2]
You doused in joss
You doused in joss for them
Oh, what a thing to do
’Cause, you were all yellow
You were not fine
You really were not fine
But, what a thing to do
And it was all yellow

[Chorus 2]
Your skin, oh yeah, your skin and bones
They itched, all over everywhere
And you know
You know, pork is better fried
It really is better fried

[Bridge]
It’s true, look how they smell for you
Look how they smell for you
Look how they smell for
Look how they smell for you
Look how they smell for you
Look how they smell

[Outro]
Look vinegar
Look how they smelled for you
It will never forget you

Okay, maybe.. Just maybe, Coldplay didn’t write a song about me and then changed it last minute. However, I can assure you that everything else in this article is an unexaggerated, word by word, personal account.

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Kaung Shein

Kaung Shein

One of my best friends said, “Life sucks and then you die.” We are all out here just trying to figure out how to die at a later time and make life suck less.

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