Since my ride across continents on the 7 Train, I knew I’d revisit Flushing. I return during the Lunar New Year, only to discover a district yet more wonderfully chaotic than usual. Every smell and sound is amplified along with the size of the crowd. This type of neighborhood—where you can literally feel the culture oozing from every gritty pore—excites me.
Exploring every facet of a place like Flushing’s Chinatown is something a person like me has to do. But this visit is special in that it cannot be defined purely by exploration. I have an alternate goal, for which I can credit spinning. As a rookie Soul Cycle enthusiast, my body is not yet accustomed to the vigorous activity that is stationery cycling, so my lower back hurts—badly. I’ve gone for massages, and have taken a few muscle relaxants, but neither seems to do the trick. Today I’m in search of a solution outside the bounds of traditional Western medicine.
Every New Yorker has heard of the storied Chinese pharmacies stocked with unconventional ancestral medicines for all ailments. I imagine being scrutinized by a traditional Chinese herbalist, then being prescribed the “guaranteed cure” for my pain. I want to place my trust in a holistic Chinese healer. So to the end of Queens I have ventured, in search of someone who can solve my horrible back problem.
Walking through the broad, densely crowded thoroughfares, I keep my eyes peeled for the pharmacy a friend pointed out on a previous journey. Pinpointing the right one is actually quite challenging since hundreds of pharmacies and healers line the streets, and each store looks remarkably similar to the next. The only differentiation between storefronts seems to be whether the neon signage out front advertises “foot care,” “teeth,” “herb medicine,” or some other specific medical specialty. For every ailment and body part, in Flushing’s Chinatown there seems to be a store that claims to sell the cure. In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of shops, I’m distracted by the enticing food stalls, the bellowing vendors and the incessant flow of foot traffic.
After a few dizzying twists and turns through crowded byways and a detour to an underground foodie heaven, I find the pharmacy I’m looking for. Situated next to some of the best Peking steam buns one could desire, I’ve reached the golden pot of a destination at the end of my rainbow—I hope.
Inside, I’m immersed in ginseng root, the strong scent of various herbs, and heaps of foreign teas. After spending 20 minutes gaping at the inventory within this tiny shop, I make my way back to the pharmacist’s counter. Patiently, I wait for her to wrap things up with the multi-generational group of clients stockpiling medicines ahead of me.
When it’s finally my turn, I’m surprised but thankful that the woman in charge is fluent in English, my only tongue. I describe my predicament, assuming she’ll respond with a few follow-up questions. Instead, with a profound sense of purpose she heads to the wall of medicine and pokes about the boxes, all labeled in Chinese. Most of the boxes look like the decorative accents one sees on a side table. Eventually, she hands me a box with a dragon emblazoned on it. “Here,” she says. And that is the extent of her directions. But something about this lady’s quiet certainty assures me that whatever’s inside this small dragon box is the key to my salvation. Three dollars (yup, $3!) and a bag of raw almonds later, I’m on my way.
Back in the comfort of my apartment, I open the curious box. I find a strong menthol ointment inside. The scent alone seems as if it could cure a multitude of diseases. Hopefully it can handle my back pain. As I rub the deep red sticky substance all over my lower lumbar region, intense heat penetrates the area. It’s as if I’ve applied a heat pack, without the physical part. Within minutes I feel more mobile. The sharp pains that used to accompany every movement have subsided. Relief, at long last!
Unfortunately, 20 minutes later the heat is gone and the pain returns. I’m disappointed, but hey, at least the stuff was cheap. At this rate the magic dragon potion will last only a few days.
That’s when it hits me that there may be another solution to my predicament. I can use the menthol rub to offset the painful impact of a cylindrical foam roller. With the help of the special ointment, I will exercise my muscles back into shape. East meets West in the battle to diminish Sarita’s pain!
Photos courtesy of Sarita Dan