• Millie Liao

What Chinese Herbal Medicine Taught Me About My Identity

Pu gong ying, Huangqi, Mujin Hua, Tao Ren. Together, these herbs, roots and other seemingly unidentifiable substances boil together in a pot, producing a murky brown liquid with a putrid smell that infiltrates my entire house, and makes me cringe in remembrance of the bitter taste it leaves on the tongue.


These are the herbs that my mother boils every night in hopes of reducing the growing tumor on the side of her chest. After being diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, my mom has undergone two surgeries, three months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of Chinese herbal medicine regimens, which have together reduced her tumor to half of its original size.


(My mom and I a couple months after the end of her chemotherapy treatment.)


I’ve always believed that it was the combined efforts of the surgery and her own spirit and strength that ultimately brought about her steady recovery, but to my mom, her Chinese herbs were nothing short of her second life source. Maybe it was their ancient origins, dating back to the legendary Chinese doctor Shen Nong, who traveled across the entire Chinese empire, testing herbs and recording their effects and treatments. Or maybe it was their mystic appeal, as they were once given to mighty emperors as a promise of immortal life.


But most strangely, my mom seemed to have some sort of deep connection with the process of concocting her gut-churning potion, excitedly explaining to me the name, purpose, and historical usage of every sliced herb and sun dried root as she placed it into the boiling pot of water. It was as if she was carefully curating a mix of various little pieces of artwork.


Since a young age, I had gotten used to living my life on a spectrum of “Asian” to “American”. In order to assimilate and fit into my predominantly white elementary, middle, and high school, I exhibited my “American” side of the spectrum, and limited the “Asian” part of me so that it was never brought up.


(Me in 6th grade, performing in a local production of the musical Annie Jr.

I was the only Asian American in the entire 63 member cast.)


But I didn’t realize that by constantly rejecting my Asian identity, I started to develop a hatred towards it. I limited my cultural activity to a minimum, refusing to practice cultural traditions with my family, avoiding interaction with other AAPI students out of fear that I would be grouped in with them, and arguing with my mom over jeopardizing her health with the “weird Chinese drugs” she took.


In response to my behavior, my mom simply told me,


We are Chinese. And we can never change that, no matter how hard we try.


We cannot live on a spectrum, because even at our most American, we are still every bit as much Asian.


Once my mom shared this with me, I was finally free of the spectrum that had once confined my identity. I was free to be more than just Asian or just American, but a unique combination of both. I started to exercise my power over my own cultural identity, and reclaimed the part of me that was lost when I was trying to assimilate. My first step in this process was starting my own Chinese herbal medicine regimen. After setting up meetings with Chinese herbal doctors, and learning about each unique herb and its role in supplementing one’s health, I began to brew my own medicine alongside my mom each night. By putting in the conscious effort to become more culturally aware, I was able to discover more of my own identity and find parts within my Chinese heritage that I really cherished and loved.


Next, I signed myself up to study Kung Fu at the US Shaolin Kung Fu Center, where I am now a top-level advanced Shaolin warrior. I not only learned countless Wushu forms and styles, but also applied Kung Fu’s emphasis on balance and meticulousness to all areas of my life. I also dedicated myself to learning the art of Peking Opera, a traditional Chinese form of theater, which allowed me to use my love for performing to share Chinese legends and stories with audiences from across the world.


(Me, right, and a friend performing Peking Opera at a renowned Chinese Arts School in Beijing)


But I realized that only strengthening my own cultural connection wasn’t enough - I wanted to help other Asian American youth fully accept and appreciate their own unique cultural identity. Thus, I began organizing local community healing spaces for AAPI students to share their experiences of racial discrimination and uplift and empower each other to reclaim our culture. By May of 2021, I had built a base of over 500 students in Los Angeles who were passionate about organizing for AAPI justice. Harnessing this passion, I organized students to take action and help pass legislation providing relief to victims of anti-Asian hate crimes in California. After successfully securing $150 million for relief funds for the victims, I saw the power of the youth voice, which can change the lives of all of society for the better.


(I spoke at events such as the “Protect Our Students” press conference, calling for protection of AAPI youth from

anti-Asian discrimination and bullying within classrooms.)


This inspired me to found my own statewide coalition, Youth Against Hate, which focuses on uplifting youth voices fighting against social injustice, including but not limited to AAPI issues.


YAH has over 10,000+ student organizers who launched over 700+ student-led campaigns to reform their school systems, their local political systems, or even national systems of oppression. Coalition members first attend leadership training before forming teams and executing campaigns that change the world. I am constantly blown away by the dedication and self-confidence of my fellow student organizers, and they inspire me to keep working on my own identity.


(Photos of Youth Against Hate organizers and I in front of the LA City Hall after our rally against anti-Asian hate crimes in May 2021.)


Even now, I still wince as I drink my herbal medicine. But it has become an unskippable part of my day, and as I stare into the pot of herbs, the smell no longer disgusts me, and the color no longer feels foreign. In fact, I can’t help but excitedly whisper to myself the names of each herb as I mix them into the pot: Pu gong ying, Huangqi, Mujin Hua, Tao Ren. This beautiful, bitter pot of herbs, a mixture of experiences, both American and Chinese, becomes an extension of me. This pot of herbs has helped me to fully realize, and accept, my identity.


(A joyful photo of my mother and I in 2018. One of my favorite photos ever :))