SENSATIONAL SURPRISE: My Chinese herbal medicine internship & China trip 2018

I’ll start by saying, I’ve traveled all parts of the globe extensively but the reluctance to go to China for me was very real: the pollution, the politics, the food, the busyness, and my own health… I had so much fear and resistance, even after studying and practicing Chinese medicine for 10 years. I had mixed emotions, but when the opportunity arose again, as a 3-week internship to complete my Master’s degree, I was super excited to see and experience how Chinese Medicine is being practiced in modern China today.

First impressions:

Flying into Nanjing was such a pleasant surprise. It was green, there were lush mountains, and the air seemed incredibly clear. Already my anxieties were drifting away… As I was waiting for our interpreter Mathew at the airport I ordered some highly overpriced food and a glass of Ju Hua (chrysanthemum) and Gou Qi Zi (Goji berry) tea, which was very refreshing after a long flight. These are two of our common Chinese medicine herbs.

Similar to when I arrived in Nepal as part of a life changing 2-month acupuncture immersion programme, I instantly felt at home. I loved the hustle and bustle, the ancient looking buildings, lanterns, city walls and the aliveness of the place. Everyone was super friendly and we all settled in well. Our apartment was small but functional and I was joined by my lovely colleague Nicola and her partner and I instantly got the sense this was going to be an adventurous, fun three weeks.

We did some serious foot km’s that first weekend. We walked, got lost, walked some more, saw some incredible sites, hiked some serious stairs, ate delicious food, took in some awesome temples, tombs, and massive stone animals. We also soaked up the good vibes of the night markets, with lots of teapots, silk scarf, and art shops, along with all sorts of knick-knacks. Walking there, there were lots of groups doing choreographed movement. I can only describe this as a mix between Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and dance performed to varying music styles. I was heartily amused. After figuring out the metro and how to buy a ticket, lots of miming involved, it was super easy to navigate and get around. Overall we ended up using our feet as transport for most of the trip, which felt grounding after so much intellectual study. All round these were great first impressions of this once in my mind ‘feared’ country.

The hospital, Dr. Huang Huang & Qigong:

Gastroenterology Dr.

It was a short walk in the mornings to the hospital which for the first week was extended via a morning street market to get our Jian Bing’s (Chinese savoury crepes). My mouth is salivating just thinking about them! So delicious, but eventually they upset our bellies too much and we then tried dumpling soup, tea eggs, fruit or sesame pastries which were also yummy, but maybe not the best breakfast option. The congee, porridge places mostly only opened later in the day!

The first day we got our coats, name tags and had a small tour around the hospital and then got straight into it. The consulting rooms were small, especially when packed with a few rows of interns, clinical assisting doctors and lines, or mobs of patients. Absolutely no privacy, although there was a small partition which was sometimes used to examine more private areas if required. Our first week was spent in the dermatology ward where the primary complaints were acne, (so much acne!) eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, urticaria, warts, alopecia, lots of hair loss, and psoriasis, among others.  This was all very interesting. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), 10 cases of acne could all be treated differently depending on their different underlying patterns. This is one of Chinese medicines principles in treating the patient, not the disease and one of the reasons why modern research is difficult to accurately assess TCM.

One of my frustrations was how the doctors prescribed herbs. They didn’t prescribe a ‘formula’, they just seemed to list a massive number of single herbs (15-20) for their individual actions and indications instead of looking at the whole prescription as a synergistic composition as in the classics. This I found was quite a western way of prescribing and hard to follow, but we did try and fit formulas into the prescription which was good learning but not always possible.

The rest of our time was split between the gastroenterology department, gynecology, oncology, and Qigong classes. In the gastroenterology department, some of the common presentations included gastritis, abdominal pain, diarrhea, halitosis, Helicobacter Pylori, stomach ulcers, among many other digestive complaints. In the gynecology ward, we primarily saw fertility issues, menstrual irregularities, dysmenorrhea, menopausal hot flushes, uterine and ovarian cysts, and Pre-menstrual tension (PMT). In oncology, it was split up into the various stages of cancer. I personally found this the hardest ward. There were so many emotions and heartache, which got me thinking of death and dying and how we process and support this in our society and in our community. We observed consults of many types of cancers: colon, rectal, throat, tongue, lungs, brain, esophagus, and so on.

Dr. Huang Huang

They were massive days in the hospital (sitting on tiny hard stools). It was a very welcome respite to spend the afternoon taking part in the university Qigong classes, although I must say they are very disciplined and I felt like I was in a hardcore gymnastics class! It was pretty intense compared to the wonderful weekly classes I do with my colleague Stephen Thomas at Hobart Traditional Acupuncture. It was still a great experience and I’m sure we gave them a good laugh! We got to walk through the university herb garden prior to one of the Qi Gong classes too, but coming into winter it was pretty sparse.

We were also incredibly lucky to observe and have a consult with one of my Chinese medicine and herbal idols Dr. Huang Huang, who along with his clinical practice is an author and teacher. I learnt SO much in those 4 hours and would definitely head back to China to spend more time with him. He spent more time with each patient, feeling pulses and using abdominal palpation… he is a super humble, kind doctor and I could tell he loved teaching and sharing his knowledge, experience, and wisdom. He practices more classically and uses formulas with fewer modifications, and keeps things simple. This simplicity is from his vast knowledge, experience, and wisdom and I believe it has a greater effect on the body with its precision and accuracy. I LOVE the amazing composition of classical formulas. It’s such an art. For me, the real beauty of Chinese herbal medicine is in the flavors, natures, and inter-relationships of herbs, and their specific dosages and preparation methods.

Some other interesting observations:

Doctors used herbs alongside other pharmaceutical medications and prescriptions and are trained herbalists as well as western doctors. Patients are responsible for their own health records which are not kept at the hospital. The Chinese as a whole embrace taking raw herbs and do so willingly and gratefully. They have a service to cook your raw herbs for you in a massive kitchen in massive pots which smelt so delicious. Doctors saw approximately 80-100 plus patients per day and acupuncture is performed in a separate ward. There was a special gynecology ward with famous doctors. Patients sometimes had bags full of medications and herbs and readily combined Chinese herbs with their other ‘western’ prescription medications. I witnessed a strong sense of family. Often the whole family accompanied each other and all chimed in together to complete the health history. Every pharmacy in the city has a full herbal dispensary to fill your herbal scripts, and there is a doctor present, often retired, to take pulses and provide a brief consult and prescription if needed. The doctors all seemed calm, compassionate & objective. Everyone carried at least one thermos with herbal tea, warm broth, soup or congee.


Tea Eggs

All the food was super tasty, and then we realised, yes, of course, it’s all jam-packed with Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Everything has MSG, a flavor enhancer, and luckily we didn’t have any major allergies or reactions to it. Our interpreter told us the story of its origin, derived from an abstract in seaweed by a Japanese chemist, and in Chinese dietetics, it is very cold in nature and he mentioned it’s drying effect. I haven’t done any further reading or research on it but I found this interesting. There are lots of fruit shops where you can get all kinds of tropical fruits, and even Kiwi fruits, no doubt imported. There were lots of street markets in the early mornings with food carts and tiny hole in the wall kind of steamed bun shops and big pots with tea eggs. The train station was also filled with food stalls with all kinds of foods on skewers, and lots of bakeries with artificial looking pastry things which I didn’t try. There’s also Starbucks, Gloria Jean’s, KFC and McDonalds everywhere which I also didn’t try. Well, I had one Starbucks coffee which I paid an arm and a leg for and it was very unsatisfying. I gladly stuck with my concoction of teas I made up in my awesome ceramic teacup which has an inbuilt strainer. The money system was interesting too, and a lot of places only accepted bar code payments through WeChat. We also had a period where every time we ordered food we got lots of poultry feet! I love the fact that they use all the parts of the animal and I’m sure it’s super healthy but I still found this hard to stomach.

Other adventures & impressions:

We squeezed every inch of time out of our trip and explored and adventured as much as we could without tiring ourselves out too much. For our second weekend, our interpreter bought us tickets on the overnight sleeper train to Beijing which was an adventure in itself. We spent Saturday exploring the forbidden city before heading out to the Lakeside Great Wall which was a dream come true for me. Finding our accommodation was hilarious and by the time we did, the whole village was on board helping us out. I was laughing so much I was crying. I love to travel for these moments in time and the memories and emotions which get stirred up in reflection. Having human connection and a lens into a different culture and way of life sparks such a fire inside me and a deep sense of connectedness and oneness, in our world which at times seems more and more disconnected from community and human contact. The essence of a trip for me is about the people and the connections and the sensations and growth in myself that I return with. China definitely had a lot of this.


The time flew, well it was more like that familiar travel time warp feeling, I’m sure you know the one… And as much as I had a great time I was so ready to head back to Australia and finish my final exit exam in Melbourne and wrap up my herbal Master’s degree. I completed my final exam and handed in all my remaining log books and assignments. What a surreal moment that was. It was now time for integration, rest, recovery and celebration. Although I felt a great sense of achievement when I was handed my certificate a month later at the RMIT graduation, I knew and felt it was more about the entire process and the amazing practitioners I got to meet, observe and practice with and the friends I made along the way. My herbal learning will definitely continue for the rest of my life.

Along with my acupuncturist license, I’m now a registered Chinese medicine herbalist and dispenser with AHPRA. I look forward to seeing you in the clinic (you can book in here) and please reach out if you have any questions or comments.

Note: These are purely my own personal observations, experiences, and reflections.


Anna Helms

BHSc (Acupuncture) MASc (Chinese Herbal Medicine)

Acupuncturist & Chinese medicine herbalist & Dispenser, Hobart, Australia