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Healing traditions
Americans have only recently begun to experiment with body work, herbs, acupuncture, and other forms of Oriental medicine. Cambodians have been doing it forever.


DON’T EXPECT TO find chamomile or kava root in the plastic bags and brown-paper packages on sale at the Oriental Culture Institute in Lowell. The herbs in the tiny Cambodian shop look more like sticks and bark than pretty yellow flowers. But if you’re looking for dried snakes or gecko skin, you’ll find those in the glass case by the door.

Down the road at the Trairatanaram Temple in North Chelmsford, Sary Chhoeun sits on the floor behind an elderly Buddhist nun. Leaning into the older woman, Chhoeun repeatedly scrapes a copper coin along the nun’s bare back, creating long, red bruises along the lines of her ribs. Chhoeun explains that she’s “coining” the nun to treat her upset stomach.

Twenty years after fleeing their troubled homeland, Cambodian immigrants in Massachusetts still turn to traditional healing when they feel ill. Sometimes that means an herbal steam to clear up a head cold. Other times it means a trip to the temple, where Buddhist monks ward off bad karma. For these immigrants, traditional medicine represents more than healing; it is an enduring link to the lives they left behind.

To Western eyes, these practices seem more superstition than science. But some American doctors are beginning to appreciate the value of alternative medicine and the healing power of prayer, and recognize that many Cambodian healing traditions can be traced to Buddhist practices and ancient Chinese medicine. Medical workers who serve these Khmer communities no longer try to force Western methods on immigrants. Instead, they are trying to understand Cambodian healing traditions, and to find ways to mesh them with modern medicine. The newly opened East-meets-West Metta Health Center in Lowell, for example, offers not only acupuncture but also cupping, a form of acupressure extremely popular in Cambodia in which heated glass bottles are applied to various regions of the body. And the clinic staff includes doctors, nurses, social workers, and a Cambodian expert in traditional healing.

Back at Trairatanaram Temple, the nun, Yiv Khuy — her head shaved as tradition dictates — holds a towel to her chest and leans forward. Sary Chhoeun puts all her weight into rubbing the oiled coining tool on the nun’s back. Chhoeun’s husband Chhom, a computer technician, looks on. “We don’t do it on our children,” she explains. “It hurts. My husband and I do it, and my mom too.”

Chhoeun holds up a quarter. She explains that they often use the American coin, both here and in Cambodia, where, ironically, there is no coin currency. Meanwhile, the nun speaks in Khmer and Chhoeun translates. She voices a devotion to traditional healing that nearly every Cambodian immigrant shares: “If I don’t do this, I won’t feel better,” she says simply.

THE JOURNEY that brought so many Cambodians to Massachusetts began in 1975, when the murderous Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh and drove the entire population out to communal farms. Most Americans learned what happened next from the 1984 film The Killing Fields: over the next three years, more than a million Cambodians perished, victims of disease, starvation, or execution. The rest toiled in prison-like work camps, barely surviving starvation-level rations, torture, and forced labor. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1978, Cambodian families fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Eventually, thousands made it to Lowell, which is now home to the country’s second-largest Cambodian community (after Long Beach, California).

Back in Cambodia, Western-style medical care was — and remains — unfamiliar and prohibitively expensive. So when Khmer refugees began arriving in Massachusetts, many knew only the traditional methods. As they settled into places like Lowell, Lynn, and Revere, they gained access to neighborhood health clinics and state-of-the-art hospitals. Nevertheless, many have continued to practice traditional healing, partly as a way of retaining cultural ties with their homeland. In Massachusetts’s Khmer neighborhoods today, Cambodian healing abounds. The Kom Pong Thom grocery store in Lowell’s heavily Cambodian Highlands neighborhood sells cupping kits. There’s a Chinese herbalist on the other side of Westford Street. And virtually every Cambodian-born Khmer you ask claims to practice coining routinely.

These practices present a challenge for Massachusetts hospitals and public-health clinics: how should the health-care establishment ensure that Cambodians receive proper medical care without criticizing or ignoring their traditions? Some hospitals, like Lowell General, now hold cultural-awareness sessions for employees and keep interpreters on staff. And Lowell Community Health Center has gone even further to offer Khmer patients medical treatments that incorporate their traditions.

Earlier this year, realizing that some Cambodian patients were afraid to tell doctors about their use of traditional medicine, the Lowell Community staff set up the Cambodian-targeted Metta Health Center. “As our own Western practitioners became more and more familiar with traditional healing, they became more open to the possibility of combining that with Western medicine,” says Dorcas C. Grigg-Saito, Lowell Community’s director.

The Metta Center is housed in a converted Jackson Street mill, along with several Cambodian service organizations. All clinic signs and literature are in Khmer, Laotian (another large Asian group here), and English. The waiting room is decorated with rainbow-bright paintings of temples and traditional apsara dancers. The acupuncture room is equipped with bottles for cupping. You Noun, an aging Cambodian scholar who has written a book on traditional Cambodian medicine, serves the Metta Center as a consultant. And if someone needs to talk to a spiritual adviser — an important component in the Cambodian concept of healing — clinic staffers send him or her next door to the meditation center run by a saffron-robed Buddhist monk.

To run the Metta Center, Grigg-Saito tapped Sonith Peou as program director. As a young man in Cambodia, Peou had been planning to attend medical school in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge shut it down. His father was an army officer, so his family received particularly harsh treatment, Peou says. They were sent to the rice fields, and Peou’s father was eventually taken away and presumably executed. Health care in the rice fields was practically nonexistent: there were no antibiotics, no doctors, and no hospitals to speak of. Peou’s mother and two of his siblings died from malnutrition and disease. Then in his early 20s, Peou burned herbs into his skin to treat typhoid fever, and he believes that helped him escape his family’s fate.

After the Vietnamese invasion, he fled to Thailand, where he worked in the refugee camps’ medical clinics. He continued working in the health field after coming to the United States, and ended up at the Metta Center after moving to Boston from North Dakota.

Today, Peou rarely practices traditional medicine, but he realizes that many of his fellow refugees still cling to the older ways. He understands that when they arrived in a strange land, still reeling from the horrors they had endured, it offered a familiar path to healing that worked — and still does. “One thing we are is survivors,” says Peou. “We try to survive. That was the one thing we knew how to do. Western medicine was a new concept to us. We are still learning, but it will take a while.”

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Issue Date: June 21 - 28, 2001

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