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SFU researcher bridges Traditional Chinese Medicine with First Nations communities
How do different conceptions of health and healing affect our medical experiences? This question intrigued Simon Fraser University (SFU) student Maggie Ka-ying Tsang who, like many Hongkongers, grew up using both traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Western medicine depending on the care required.
“I compare and contrast the worldview of how modern medicine and TCM view the human body,” says Tsang. “In TCM, your body is considered to be an open vessel that is constantly interacting with the environment. When you are sick, it’s not just that there is something wrong with a certain part of your body, it rather reflects an imbalance of the whole system.”
As a student in Hong Kong, Tsang studied philosophy, particularly the German tradition of hermeneutics, to provide a refreshed perspective of TCM. This drew her to SFU’s Department of Humanities’ master of arts program, which allows students to pursue cross-disciplinary research projects. Tsang recognized the advantages this flexibility would provide her research into the nature of TCM with reference to modern medicine.
Tsang’s MA research has been recognized by the Laurine Harrison Graduate Thesis Award as well as Paul Tai Yip Ng Memorial Award, which is given to an outstanding paper on intercultural issues, particularly as they apply to people in or from Canada and the Asia Pacific region. Yet what Tsang also values greatly from her time at SFU is the personal growth she’s achieved as a researcher living in a foreign city.
Tsang’s first years at SFU were transformative: leaving her family and starting a new life in Vancouver as an international student, working as a teaching assistant and tutor marker, and presenting her research at international conferences. Like many ambitious students, Tsang worked an off-campus job. At the Burnaby Village Museum, she researched the contents of a Chinese herbalist shop exhibit and provided insights into the lives of immigrants who would have run such shops in early 20th century Chinatown. Thanks to Tsang’s contribution, the museum is upgrading its exhibit to offer visitors an introduction to TCM in the context of the long migration history of Chinese-Canadians.
Tsang graduated with an MA in humanities in 2019 and is continuing her academic journey at SFU by pursuing a PhD at SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences. She is building upon her master’s research by following up on a 2017 pilot project launched by SFU researchers that re-introduced TCM to First Nations communities in B.C. The initial introduction was done much earlier.
During the gold rush of the 1850s, First Nations people in B.C. and Chinese immigrants to Canada had close connections through intermarriage and friendship. Most of the 10,482 Chinese settlers in B.C. near the end of the 19th century were men; around one in six Chinese men formed families with Indigenous women.
“From oral history we know that the two cultures exchanged medical knowledge.” Tsang says. “Their descendants would have experience using TCM.”
Tsang will work with First Nations communities to explore whether TCM can support Indigenous peoples’ healing journey. There are similarities between the cultures’ worldviews regarding the holistic mind-body connection and plant-based medicines. B.C.’s Medical Services Plan does not cover TCM or acupuncture for Indigenous people. Tsang intends to use her research to advocate for changes so that TCM and Indigenous approaches to healing could be included in health insurance coverage.
Balance, a key tenet of TCM, is something that many people, including researchers like Tsang, could benefit from.
“We may be consumed by our never-ending work, not knowing when to stop and take a break,” she says. “This is why we have to live a more balanced lifestyle and make enough social time to balance out our relatively isolated work.”