Skin marks from cupping used to be "evidence" of child abuse against Vietnamese parents. Photo by Amy Selleck, Portland OR, [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The red spots on Michael Phelps and other U.S. Olympic athletes must have felt like vindication to generations of Vietnamese refugees who have had to avoid “cupping” and the related “coining” cures.

For years, Vietnamese arriving on U.S. soil have been warned not to engage in these folk remedies, lest they be falsely accused of child abuse. Children would arrive in school with skin marks from cupping or coining, and teachers would call the cops on the parents.

Cupping, called “giác” or “giác hơi” in Vietnamese, involves heating the air inside a cup and putting the cup upside down on the body. The hot air creates a low pressure system like in a hot air balloon, and when the cup is put on the body, it sucks on the skin leaving the now famous round red hickey-like marks seen on TV world wide. If not done correctly, cupping can result in burns.

Coining or “cạo gió” in Vietnamese, consists of oiling and then rubbing the back of the patient with a coin. The coin is sometimes clasped in a stick so that you can hold the stick instead of the coin directly. The rubbing also leaves skin marks that can be mistaken for bruises.

This video shows how coining works.

YouTube video

The thinking behind cupping and coining is similar to the concept of chi in martial arts, also called ki as in “Aikido.” While a martial artist masters the movements of the “chi,” literally “air” or “wind,” the cupping or coining practitioner seeks to remove “bad air” or “bad wind” from the sick patient. Cupping supposedly sucks out the bad wind, and coining rubs it out.

But when a child shows up in school and it’s time to change for gym class, friends and teachers are bound to notice those skin marks. So they ask the kid, and the kid may say something like this:

“My Mom burned cups and put them on me.”

Next thing you know, Mom’s in jail.

You think I’m kidding; I’m not. Numerous Vietnamese were prosecuted exactly like that. Many pleaded guilty and now can’t get a job working with children because they can’t pass background check.

A picture of skin marks from coining appeared in the journal Pediatrics in October 1976 in a letter by three Army doctors and a civilian doctor. Photo by Maj. Gentry W. Yeatman et al.
A picture of skin marks from “coining” appeared in the journal Pediatrics in October 1976 in a letter by three Army doctors and a civilian doctor. Photo by Maj. Gentry W. Yeatman et al.

Not everybody is ignorant of the practices. As early as 1976, just one year after the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived, a group of pediatricians recognized that the ancient practices of cupping and coining could lead to false accusations of abuse. Writing in the journal Pediatrics, four doctors, three Army and one civilian, warned that “all physicians should be familiar with this condition in order to eliminate undue concern about child abuse in Vietnamese children.”

But that warning did not stop numerous district attorneys from prosecuting Vietnamese parents based on nothing more than the D.A.’s inability of understand an immigrant’s culture.

Even in 2000, a quarter-century after Vietnamese landed here, a Vietnamese mother was brought to Dependency Court on grounds of child abuse.

The charge? The kid had told the teacher those marks on his back were because his Mom was “beating him with a coin on a stick.”

Now, the more accurate verb is “rubbing” not beating, but for an immigrant, English learner kid, that seemed like a reasonable translation.

It being 2000 and all, I’m sure there was someone in their office who’s Vietnamese-American. But no, the social worker and D.A. just had to drag the mother to court to try and take her child away.

Kiet Huynh was the attorney appearing on behalf of the mother, and he essentially called out the prosecution for their ignorance.

“I basically told the D.A. and social worker that their ignorance might have been excusable 10, 15 years before that, but that we had been here for more than 20 years and that point, and they should have known,” Huynh said.

That particular case was eventually dismissed, but the chilling effect remains. Warnings were passed along — if you’re Vietnamese and you do cupping or coining, you can be prosecuted.

But, apparently, if you’re Phelps and you do cupping or coining, you get on the front page and Kim Kardashian wants to do what you do.

My liberal friends may be tempted to allege white privilege or class privilege. I don’t think that’s the case here. A major reason for the different outcomes is not because of race or class but because Phelps and the Olympians are not kids and nobody can be prosecuted for what the adults want to do with their bodies.

But that is not the whole story. My liberal friends do have a point. Let’s do a thought experiment.

Suppose we are watching the Little League national championship game on TV and we notice the same skin marks on the kids. What would be our first thought? (A) “Their parents abused them!” or (B) “What are those marks?”

If your answer is (B) then there is something of a privilege at work here, just not along the line of race and class. I claim that it’s along the immigrant vs non-immigrant line. We are less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to strange imported practices.

The world is vast, and there are lots of cultural practices you’ve never heard of that are not dangerous but still look weird. A non-immigrant American that does it can have the benefit of the doubt. An immigrant does it, and all kinds of suspicion arise.

Let’s suppose a Mexican is accused on smuggling drugs. But the guy says, I thought that was a block of cheese, I thought I was smuggling kilos of cheese, not of cocaine. (Actual case in federal court in Santa Ana.)

Now if you’re the jury would you believe the guy?

At first it sounds weird. Who the heck would ever smuggle cheese?

But what if I told you cheese smuggling is actually a thing? (Because cheese sold in the U.S. don’t taste the same as the original!) What if I told you cheese smuggling is so prevalent the California Department of Public Health actually made a brochure warning about it?

Now do you believe the person may have told the truth? (Cheese smuggling is also illegal but that’s another issue.)

We often function based on the “smell test” — if it doesn’t smell right we don’t believe it. But our smell test is culture-specific and is particular to our own limited experience.

Especially when dealing with a culture far different from ours — not based on American taste, not based on Western science, not based on Greco-Roman ethos — we have to be even more cognizant that our “smell test” may not work.

Hao Nhien Vu formerly authored a popular blog about Little Saigon politics called The Bolsavik.  Before that, he was an editor for Nguoi Viet Daily News.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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