Learning and Unlearning with Debby Nguyen: The Power of Culture & Medicine

Featured Image: New Degree Press

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Debby Nguyen is the author of her debut nonfiction book: Pills, Teas, and Songs, a New York Times-featured poet, and a Pharmacy and Data Science student at Northeastern University.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Briefly discuss Pills, Teas, and Songs: Stories of Medicine Around the World and what readers can expect to get out of this book.

Pills, Teas, and Songs: Stories of Medicine Around the World is a collection of 11 stories on different medicine and healthcare practices across various cultures. This book explores the intersection between culture and medicine. It’s not necessarily a book that tells you what health practices to adopt. It’s more so for people who want to learn about deeper issues like cultural appropriation, racism in healthcare, and how colonization affects healthcare.

What does “home” mean to you? How have you coped with living away from home?

This is something that I’ve been exploring or struggling to find meaning in. When I grew up, I always thought home is wherever my family is — wherever my parents, brother, and grandparents are. But right now, I’m so removed from it. I’m 8,000 miles away from where my parents live, and I have to find a new definition of home. My definition has definitely expanded, and now it’s become more abstract. For example, I keep my mother’s bracelet and I have medicine that my dad gave me when I had left as a memory of home. I also think about whether I’m building a home for myself here in Boston — my home away from home. So, this concept of home grew and I’m still in the process of figuring out what it all means.

Where does your passion for healthcare and writing stem from?

It started out as two very separate things. With healthcare, it’s something that I’ve been surrounded by my entire life. My grandfather, my great grandfather, my great, great grandparents — for as long as we can remember — all practiced traditional Vietnamese medicine. So, when my parents opened an independent pharmacy when I was little, I grew up around this understanding of medicine as being a very natural practice. However, something I struggle with is this notion of “do I like this because of the environment I grew up in, the expectations my parents have for me to follow their footsteps, or is it because I genuinely want to get into healthcare?” I am still grappling with those questions today, but I know for a fact that I love writing, culture, and medicine. I think it’s so fascinating a simple concept such as taking care of the ill can manifest in so many different forms.

With writing, I’ve always been a creative person. My parents had me and they were 24, two years after college so they were very busy. I grew up drawing a lot and found ways to keep myself preoccupied. It’s a hobby that I’ve developed over time.

My parents weren’t like typical Asian parents where they kept me away from doing creative things. They said, “whatever is good for you — whatever you like, we’ll put you in classes.” So, they actually took me to art classes when I was little, which I don’t think a lot of Asian parents do. I guess this was where those two hobbies kind of crossed paths and I am glad they did.

Let’s discuss your research process. How have you organized anecdotal pieces and research into a streamlined theme or message?

First, I sat down and realized that of course, my book has limitations. It’s a fact that you cannot write about all cultures, or even one culture, and how they practice medicine in a single book. Because within one culture, there could be so many different practices. That was something I recognized from the start. I decided that if I can’t make it as big as I want it to be, then I would fill it with bite-sized stories to pull people in. In terms of the technicality of writing, I would say I first broke it down by deciding the location for each story. I wanted to include as many countries as possible because traditionally, research or anthropology research is usually conducted by white people. When they write about non-white countries, the story comes from an observational point of view and not from the voice of the people being studied.

I find that a little demeaning, in that if someone came to my country of Vietnam and wrote about us and did not have our stories, our voices in the forefront, I wouldn’t feel very good about it. I thought about that when I built my interviews because the center of this book really comes from the people I interviewed. I’m grateful that they were able to trust me, a complete stranger, to ask for their personal stories.

What was the process of getting published? Have there been any challenges you’ve faced along the way?

I would say publishing is still a very non-diverse industry. For someone like me, a young woman with Southeast Asian heritage, it can be hard to find my own voice. In the beginning, when I was drafting out what I wanted to write, there were people that said, “you should write a book that could sell.” I simply thought if it was good, then it would sell. But anthropology, which is more educational, might not sell as well compared to a how-to book that tells you what to do with your health.

For example, books like ‘how to follow a traditional Chinese medicine diet’, or ‘how to bring Ayurveda into your everyday life to become healthier’ feel very commercial. It’s selling our way of life. The market is so saturated with these kinds of books because it sells. To shift away from that is difficult, but I believe in what I’m doing, and I believe other people see it too. There has been a sizable audience so far who has supported me. So, I wasn’t wrong to say that people are curious, and people want to learn.

How has this research changed your perspective, and what have you learned or unlearned along the way?

The pandemic has changed me. Being alone for months at a time made me think a lot about my family, where I come from, my identity…

I’ve definitely unlearned my idea of what healthcare is. I feel like a lot of people used to think like me where they thought medicine was just about healing disease and making someone better. Simple, right? But in quarantine, I realized that diseases are so complicated, and healthcare is beyond fixing the disease with medicine. It’s about how to make sure someone is truly healthy in body and mind.

When I wrote a story on indigenous medicine, specifically with the Lakota tribe, I learned that if the whole community is not healthy, then an individual cannot be healthy. It was something that I never thought of until I saw how people in the U.S. were not taking care of other people, which led to more people getting sick. I don’t think in other contexts, it would have been as clear as it was. It was a very big moment of learning because I had always paired the idea of healthcare with the individual rather than the community.

This view of eurocentrism is almost unconsciously embedded in media ecosystems and throughout global industries — what are ways we can combat this ideology in our everyday lives and in our learning?

It starts with people like us — people who are immigrants or have immigrant roots. It starts with us understanding where we come from, learning about our identity first, and then branching out from there.

I’m an advocate for learning everything about yourself, your family, your ancestors, your heritage, and then from there, you can teach other people about it. I like to think that people are well-meaning and even if they are not from your culture, they will listen. That might be optimistic with the state of the world right now, but I like to think that most people want to learn.

For a very long time, I pushed away the idea that traditional medicine or Chinese medicine was something valid. Even though I grew up with it, nobody talked about it at school. In high school, I did a lot of scientific research, and traditional medicine never came up in conversations. I didn’t see it being taught or discussed in college. So I told myself it was something that belonged back at home, to my grandparents and to my dad. But it was also a piece of me that was lost — it’s a part of my identity.

How are you taking care of your health and wellness in the midst of this pandemic?

I’m still figuring it out because things change by the week or by the day. I’ve put systems in place to keep me organized with my time. During the pandemic, I have a lot of free time, but I like to be productive. That’s how I take care of myself, by having a creative project to work on. But now that I am busy with school again, I try to give myself time to rest. I keep my Saturdays completely free of work. I go to the farmers market, I read, I watch anime, and these things make me happy.

Being really in tune with myself has been the common thread in how I built these systems. I know exactly when I get tired, which is around 10 pm. So that’s when I put my work down and go to bed, unlike last year, where I would keep working until I finish my tasks. This was a product of my culture; in Vietnamese, we have an idiom that says, “if you haven’t finished the work, don’t go to bed.” It’s also a lot of unlearning from what I’ve grown up with as well as giving myself more space to rest.

Is there a particular moment or piece of writing that has inspired you?

I did have one moment with a book that really moved me. It was an art nonfiction book called Hong Kong Apothecary. It’s created by a Hong Kong photographer who went around cities and photographed old medicine stores and medicine packaging. I don’t know why, but the photography was just so colorful and beautiful. The book was filled with stories of how designers and doctors in Hong Kong and in old China worked together to create these meaningful, medicine packaging designs. I realized that there was so much history and art history that was put into medicine, and I wanted to do something with it.

I kept the book with me throughout quarantine and eventually started writing because of it. I thought to myself if there was so much history, why don’t I know more about my own Vietnamese culture and family?

Where do you see yourself after finishing up school? What is a big goal of yours — something you want to live for or hope to change?

I feel that in our culture at large, there is an emphasis on planning ahead. But to be honest, I just do whatever feels right for me at this time. And right now, I really like anthropological medicine and that’s what I’m doing. When you plan ahead, sometimes you don’t allow yourself to explore different paths that might lead to good times or bad times.

This book I’ve written does not come from a place of me wanting to add to my career, but it is very personal. As I said before, it wasn’t something to commercialize. I just want to put this out there for my readers to learn. I’d say in five or six years, I hope I still have this mindset of growth and not confine myself to a single career because creativity is so important. Though sadly, it’s not valued enough in the world. I do hope that I am able to continue being creative, whether it’s with writing or painting, or making ceramics.

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Pills, Teas, and Songs: Stories of Medicine Around the World is set to launch in April 2021. Keep an eye out for more news and updates on Debby’s Instagram and website.