When colleges in Boston and across the country shut down in March, my life was thrown into chaos and for the first time, I was on my own. From finding an apartment to rent for the summer to budgeting for groceries, I was thrilled by the complete independence but also overwhelmed with loneliness. My family is more than 8,000 miles away in Vietnam and although I’ve never admitted to feeling homesick, I longed for my mom’s home cooked dinners and reminisced on weekends spent at my grandparents’ house.

When I was younger, my parents would drive 2 hours on the weekends to drop me off at my grandparents’ house, which was also my grandpa’s clinic. He was a famous traditional Vietnamese medicine practitioner.I spent hours helping him package pills and powders of all shapes and colors into pre-labeled bags that filled bamboo baskets. After he passed, my memories of the clinic also faded and as a Pharmacy student in Boston, traditional medicine doesn’t come up very often, until lockdown in March.

I was spending so much time alone that trips to the grocery stores were special occasions. I made a point to go to Asian supermarkets, to make food that reminded me of home, unlike the dining hall food I’d become accustomed to in freshman year. When I found Jia Ho Supermarket in Boston’s Chinatown, it immediately became my favorite because of the small pharmacy counter right at the entrance, with all kinds of medicines imported from China, Vietnam, Japan, and more. The elaborate packaging design with florals and colors unlike what you would find in CVS, on boxes all crammed in clear display cabinets, reminded me of home. So I began writing, digging into my own memories and family history, and gradually became curious about other cultures’ medicines. The more I read, the more I wanted to write about all these amazing cultures and people behind health practices and medicinal products- that’s how my book, Pills, Teas, and Songs was born, during a global pandemic 8,000 miles away from home. 

The book is a collection of 11 stories about medicinal and wellness practices across the world, such as traditional Vietnamese medicine, Ayurveda, Black midwifery, indigenous healing ceremonies, and more. I want Pills, Teas, and Songs to be a beginner’s guide to cultural health practices that encourages readers to be curious and dig deeper into the origins of health practices they adopt. 

Writing a book in the middle of a global pandemic was an interesting experience and it certainly wasn’t easy. With all the time in the world, I thought it would be easy to crank out a book in no time. However, just putting pen on paper required a lot of determination, which I’m sure you can relate to because pandemic fatigue hit us all. 

What kept me going was the interviews I did every week with people all over the world, from Inner Mongolia in China, to India, Russia, and the US. Besides reading research articles and watching documentaries, I wanted to hear firsthand from people from the cultures I was writing about. We talked about home remedies in China, haldi doodh (a South Asian drink made with turmeric and milk), herbal traditions in Russia that persisted during the Cold War, the Coahuiltecan people’s use of peyote, and more. 

Although I recognize that it’s impossible to cover every culture and their medicine in a single book, I focused on giving voice to people from non-Western cultures, especially women-of-color. There is a double standard when it comes to medicine: on one hand, non-Western medicine has been delegitimized, yet Western society has also appropriated and exoticized traditional practices that have cultural and historical significance. For example, burning sage and smudging has become popular on social media recently, yet most people who adopt these practices do not consult or purchase supplies from Indigenous people, instead opting for sellers on Amazon or Etsy. In my conversations with Indian-American friends, I also learned how the aromas and colors in their lunches have been made fun, yet “turmeric lattes” are now trendy. 

Through writing Pills, Teas, and Songs, I’ve also learned a lot myself and became more connected with my own cultural identity. In Boston, when I mention that I’m Vietnamese, most people would associate this with the war and as a result, I don’t often share stories of how I grew up in Vietnam or my family history. However, the writing process has made me look deeper into my own lineage and I learned that I come from a long line of Vietnamese doctors/healers. Traditional Vietnamese medicine is extensive, unique, and has survived centuries of invasion and colonization. Being able to learn and be part of transmitting this knowledge to future generations is an opportunity that I’m grateful for. The time I spent writing and looking inwards during quarantine has given me growth and solidified my identity as a daughter of Vietnam. 

Pills, Teas, and Songs is for anyone who is curious about cultures and people. If you’re like me and simply love to learn, my book will take you on a journey centered around medicine from China, Russia, India, to Nigeria, Peru, and more. Through the book, I hope to inspire curiosity and cultural understanding because medicine is personal yet is something we all grew up with and are connected by. 

As a writer, I’ve always focused on poetry. However, if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to do everything you’ve been afraid to do. I’ve always been hesitant about writing nonfiction and committing to writing a whole book, but medicine is a topic I’ve grown up with and this book is a culmination of everything I’m passionate about: healthcare, cultures, history, and people. Pills, Teas, and Songs is a product of learning and listening to people whose backgrounds are different from mine, because writing about cultures, especially those that are not your own, requires patience and humility. 

Pills, Teas, and Songs is available to preorder here.

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  • Debby Nguyen is a full-time pharmacy student at Northeastern, a New York Times-featured writer, and the author of her debut book Pills, Teas, and Songs.