Don Mei's story
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( DON MEI )

Don is Swiss German on his mother's side and Chinese on his Guangdong-born father's side. Don resisted joining his family’s Chinese medicinal treatments business for many years, but gaining an interest in his Chinese roots in his late 20s, he found his passion helping people integrate Eastern philosophies beneficially into their lives. He now runs the China Life clinic and has incorporated a range of fine Chinese teas as an extension of Eastern health remedies.

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  • Don Mei 2

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name is Don Mei, I’m a founder and one of the directors of China Life, which is based in London. We specialise in Chinese medicine and everything related to Chinese medicine including teas, herbal tonics and acupuncture.

Don, could you tell us a bit about your family heritage?

My mother is from the Swiss-German part of Switzerland and my father is from Guangdong, South China. He was brought up for the first five or six years on mainland China, then he moved to Hong Kong and from there he came over to London, met my mother and the rest is history.

Would you say you’ve had a British upbringing?

I was born here, and I had a British upbringing in the sense that I was brought up in London, but I would say that my family upbringing was different because it was Swiss-Chinese and there are different cultural nuances between them. It was only later on in life that I realised how British I am, how Swiss I am, how Chinese I am.

"I’ve found that I’ve suffered from stereotypes of what an English person is to Chinese people. When I go to a Chinese restaurant and I order certain meals, congee for example, they tend to look at me and say, ‘Do you know what that is? Are you sure you want that?’"

Could you tell us a bit more about how you discovered more about your Chinese identity and more of your thoughts during that time?

The first time I went to China I was in my late teens, and a few things struck me. At first it was the simple things, like how people eat – my family dinners always had that Chinese approach with the obligatory steamed rice somewhere, which was absolutely necessary with every meal no matter what we were having. Up until then I didn’t realise how strange that was, but it was only afterwards that I realised that not everyone eats white rice with every meal. So going to China, seeing how people eat and seeing the way that they serve each other, the way that elders are served and respected with tea and food – those are things that I took for granted. I didn’t really make the connection with it being a Chinese thing until I saw it in China and recognised that I didn’t see it in the UK so much.

You said that looking at things in a macro sense is perhaps symbolic of Chinese values - how would you say that compares to the Chinese medicine that you practice, looking at things more holistically?

It’s absolutely linked – Chinese medicine looks at patterns of disease and various symptoms, and tries to join the dots to find the syndrome or the pattern, which is the underlying cause of the condition or illness. Western medicine uses a much more microscopic approach; it looks at the symptoms, the causation of that symptom, the functionality in that minute area of the body and tends not to link up the symptoms. Chinese medicine tends to throw everything into the same pot rather than split it out into ‘this is the job for the psychotherapist’, or ‘this is the job for the physician’.

"I remember as a very small child hearing my father speaking while I was asleep, walking downstairs and seeing him with a newspaper furiously practicing his English. So I know that he was very determined to fit in and not be considered an outsider."

The whole way that Chinese medicine and Western medicine differs, I think you can pretty much extrapolate that out to a major difference between East and West. I’m fascinated with tea because tea is the first tier of Chinese medicine – it provides that link between food and medicine. There tends to be a much more clear separation in the Western world between ‘that’s medicine’ and ‘this is food’, which is unfortunate I think because the first medicine is food.

You said that your mother is from Switzerland and your father is originally Chinese, do you know anything about what it was like for them being married in Britain then?

I know a little bit from the stories that they have told. I think that my mother was very young and she met my father in Spain actually, on a holiday when he hitchhiked from London. Then she came over here and I think that it was very exotic for her to be going out with a Chinese man. I think that her family were, not disapproving, but quite surprised about it. I know that when he went to visit her family it was a big culture shock for him: he’d never seen snow before, it was all a bit of a shock and he was the only Chinese person in this small village in Switzerland. I’m sure there was lots of pointing and gazing at him. It was strange for him but my father loves that, he loves the attention, so I don’t think he would have had any problem with it.

In the UK I think my father was very determined to integrate himself into British life, into London life. He did not isolate himself and only have Chinese friends, I think most of his friends were from the UK and he was very determined to do that. I remember as a very small child hearing my father speaking while I was asleep, walking downstairs and seeing him with a newspaper furiously practicing his English - repeating and repeating. So I know that he was very determined to fit in and not be considered an outsider - I think that his whole approach has been about integration.

Have there been certain stereotypes – Chinese, British or otherwise - that have confronted you in your life?

I think because I’m mixed race, people tend not to be able to place me that well. I have had everything from, ‘Are you Hawaiian?’ to ‘Are you Turkish?’ and ‘Are you Italian?’. In fact a lot of the time I’ve found it’s the opposite; I’ve found that I’ve suffered from stereotypes of what an English person is to Chinese people. When I go to a Chinese restaurant they give me a fork and a spoon and I have to tell them I’d like some chop-sticks, or if I order certain meals that have been my childhood food, congee for example, they tend to look at me and say, ‘Do you know what that is? Are you sure you want that? Its very traditional’, so I’ve had a lot of that kind of reversal actually, which is quite funny.

How about your trips for business or travel when you go to China – how has that experience been for you?

It’s fascinating. What’s interesting about it is that the Chinese suppliers tend to not know how to place me. Usually they know I’ve got Chinese upbringing but because I don’t speak Chinese very well they tend to treat me as a Westerner, which is interesting especially when you are buying tea. In China they have tea for the foreign market, and then they have the good tea, and then many different grades of the good tea. So usually my trips in China involve a lot of banging on doors and saying to them, ‘I need you to give me the good stuff’!

"I think that Chinese culture can be biased towards negative publicity – cheap goods from China, or Chinese medicine is something from the backstreets. So my ambition is to help push the positive aspects of Chinese medicine and culture."

What are your ambitions for the future?

My father would probably hate to hear me say this, but I don’t think I’m a very ambitious person. The things that are important to me are more the principles of the things that I do, rather than becoming super successful. I think that Chinese culture can sometimes be a little bit biased towards negative publicity – cheap goods from China, or the impression of Chinese medicine being something in the backstreets that’s hidden and a little bit dark and shady. There’s no question that the media tend to jump on any little scare story about Chinese medicine. So my main ambition is to help to provide a counter-point to that and push the positive aspects of Chinese medicine and culture.

My name is Don Mei, I’m a founder and one of the directors of China Life, which is based in London. We specialise in Chinese medicine and everything related to Chinese medicine including teas, herbal tonics and acupuncture.

Don, could you tell us a bit about your family heritage?

My mother is from the Swiss-German part of Switzerland and my father is from Guangdong, South China. He was brought up for the first five or six years on mainland China, then he moved to Hong Kong and from there he came over to London, met my mother and the rest is history.

Would you say you’ve had a British upbringing?

I was born here, and I had a British upbringing in the sense that I was brought up in London, but I would say that my family upbringing was different because it was Swiss-Chinese and there are different cultural nuances between them. It was only later on in life that I realised how British I am, how Swiss I am, how Chinese I am.

""But as I’ve grown older and as I’ve travelled to the East, I’ve started to realise things that I hadn’t noticed before which demonstrate how Chinese my upbringing was."

Could you tell us a bit more about how you discovered more about your Chinese identity and more of your thoughts during that time?

The first time I went to China I was in my late teens, and a few things struck me. At first it was the simple things, like how people eat – you know, my family dinners always had that Chinese approach to eating where lots of dishes were put down with the obligatory steamed rice somewhere, which was absolutely necessary with every meal no matter what we were having. Even if my mother was cooking endives wrapped in Swiss cheese, it was always served with white rice. Up until then I didn’t realise how strange that was, but it was only afterwards that I realised that not everyone eats white rice with every meal. So going to China, seeing how people eat and seeing the way that they serve each other, the way that elders are served and respected with tea and food – those are things that I took for granted. I didn’t really make the connection with it being a Chinese thing until I saw it in China and recognised that I didn’t see it in the UK so much.

From there, I think it started to spread a bit more with every trip to China, to the point when I started to realise that the way that I was looking at things was probably a little bit more Chinese than I realised - especially the way of looking at things in a more of a macro sense - looking more at patterns and symbolism in things rather than analysing the detail or the microscopic way of looking at things. I think that slowly it started to dawn on me that my father - even though he was a very busy man and didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time explaining Chinese culture to us - his effect was pronounced and definitely is an intrinsic part of who I am now.

You said that looking at things in a macro sense is perhaps symbolic of Chinese values - how would you say that compares to the Chinese medicine that you practice, looking at things more holistically?

It’s absolutely linked – Chinese medicine looks at patterns of disease and various symptoms, and tries to join the dots to find the syndrome or the pattern, which is the underlying cause of the condition or illness. Western medicine uses a much more microscopic approach; it looks at the symptoms, the causation of that symptom, the functionality in that minute area of the body and tends not to link up the symptoms. The other side of it is that Chinese medicine looks at the psycho-emotional aspects of someone’s health. The Western viewpoint is much more structural – you are an isolated body, you have nerves and veins that are all linked up and have a structural effect but are not linked with the environment, the weather, the pollution or with your life style. They also don’t link with the emotion and the mental psychological side of how that can affect your health, whereas Chinese medicine tends to throw everything into the same pot rather than split it out into ‘this is the job for the psychotherapist’, or ‘this is the job for the physician’.

"There tends to be a much more clear separation in the Western world between ‘that’s medicine’ and ‘this is food’, which is unfortunate I think because the first medicine is food."

The whole way that Chinese medicine and Western medicine differs, I think you can pretty much extrapolate that out to a major difference between East and West. I’m fascinated with tea because tea is the first tier of Chinese medicine – it provides that link between food and medicine, which is a link that is very well known in China and unfortunately seems to have been lost a little bit in the Western world. There tends to be a much more clear separation in the Western world between ‘that’s medicine’ and ‘this is food’, which is unfortunate I think because the first medicine is food.

Tea is an interesting first rung: one thing which is maybe my obsession but that I found quite interesting is that because the Chinese loved tea so much they didn’t feel the need to use glasses because it was always drunk with porcelain or clay, whereas in the West they drank wine, which meant that they produced glasses and the manufacture of glass, really, was non-existent in China. A lot of historians believe that the fact that the West developed glass meant that they then developed microscopes and lenses and their whole way of looking at the world became affected by that production and that industry. The Chinese way of looking at the world in a much more patterned sense and a much more outward looking sense could be related to the fact that they drank tea.

How long has China Life been here for?

The parent company, Acu-Medic, has been around since 1972 - so a long time, maybe 40 years. China Life as a brand started off in 2006 and the shop opened in 2007 so its relatively new.

How have you found Western perceptions and acceptances of Chinese medicines have changed over that time to where we are now?

It’s changed dramatically since the 70s. The change has been quite remarkable over the last 20 years mainly due to word of mouth, which is what’s so wonderful about Chinese medicine - once you help people they tend to talk about it. Very little has been spent on advertising or marketing Chinese medicine but now more and more people are moving towards it, because they know people who have directly benefited from it. But still, they tend to wait until they are very ill, or until Western medicine has failed them, which is unfortunate because even though Chinese medicine is very good at treating chronic problems and lifestyle-related conditions - which Western medicine tends not to be so good at - the unfortunate thing is that Chinese medicine is excellent at preventative care, which is why China Life was opened.

"I remember as a very small child hearing my father speaking while I was asleep, walking downstairs and seeing him with a newspaper furiously practicing his English. So I know that he was very determined to fit in and not be considered an outsider."

You said that your mother is from Switzerland and your father is originally Chinese, do you know anything about what it was like for them being married in Britain then?

I know a little bit from the stories that they have told. I think that my mother was very young and she met my father in Spain actually, on a holiday when he hitchhiked from London. Then she came over here and I think that it was very exotic for her to be going out with a Chinese man. I think that her family were, not disapproving, but quite surprised about it. I know that when he went to visit her family it was a big culture shock for him: he’d never seen snow before, it was all a bit of a shock and he was the only Chinese person in this small village in Switzerland. I’m sure there was lots of pointing and gazing at him. It was strange for him but my father loves that, he loves the attention, so I don’t think he would have had any problem with it.

"I’ve found that I’ve suffered from stereotypes of what an English person is to Chinese people. When I go to a Chinese restaurant and I order certain meals, congee for example, they tend to look at me and say, ‘Do you know what that is? Are you sure you want that?’"

In the UK I think my father was very determined to integrate himself into British life, into London life. He did not isolate himself and only have Chinese friends, I think most of his friends were from the UK and he was very determined to do that. I don’t think he had that much trouble fitting in, as I say he likes attention so if he stood out I think that would suit him quite well - he would use that to further his exploration into London and what it is to be British. I remember as a very small child hearing my father speaking while I was asleep, walking downstairs and seeing him with a newspaper furiously practicing his English - repeating and repeating. So I know that he was very determined to fit in and not be considered an outsider - I think that his whole approach has been about integration.

Have there been certain stereotypes – Chinese, British or otherwise - that have confronted you in your life?

I think because I’m mixed race, people tend not to be able to place me that well. I have had everything from, ‘Are you Hawaiian?’ to ‘Are you Turkish?’ and ‘Are you Italian?’. I think it’s harder for the stereotypes to stick onto me. In fact a lot of the time I’ve found it’s the opposite; I’ve found that I’ve suffered from stereotypes of what an English person is to Chinese people. When I go to a Chinese restaurant they give me a fork and a spoon and I have to tell them I’d like some chop-sticks, or if I order certain meals that have been my childhood food, congee for example, they tend to look at me and say, ‘Do you know what that is? Are you sure you want that? Its very traditional’, so I’ve had a lot of that kind of reversal actually, which is quite funny.

How about your trips for business or travel when you go to China – how has that experience been for you?

It’s fascinating. What’s interesting about it is that the Chinese suppliers tend to not know how to place me. Usually they know I’ve got Chinese upbringing but because I don’t speak Chinese very well they tend to treat me as a Westerner, which is interesting especially when you are buying tea. In China they have tea for the foreign market, and then they have the good tea, and then many different grades of the good tea. So usually my trips in China involve a lot of banging on doors and saying to them, ‘I need you to give me the good stuff’! They also tend to think that because they are born in China and they live in China they have more of a birthright to know more about tea than I do - I have to be very polite about the fact that I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and I’ve studied a lot about Chinese tea. I know a fair bit, so I pick them up on their lies or things that they may be able to get away with Westerners.

"I think that Chinese culture can be biased towards negative publicity – cheap goods from China, or Chinese medicine is something from the backstreets. So my ambition is to help push the positive aspects of Chinese medicine and culture."

Chinese tea has many, many different grades – grade A is what they tend to give you but grade A actually tends to be about grade D. Then there’s grade A*: that’s a special grade, then there’s super special grades and everything above. It definitely takes a while for the suppliers to trust that my palette and my knowledge is sufficient enough that they can pull out the good tea. I think a lot of it is to do with the language. I’m trying to learn Mandarin because unless you do they don’t really take you as a Chinese person.

What are your ambitions for the future?

My father would probably hate to hear me say this, but I don’t think I’m a very ambitious person. The things that are important to me are more the principles of the things that I do, rather than becoming super successful – all of that is lovely but really what matters to me with this place is helping people to get better, promoting Chinese medicine and trying to get people excited about the positive aspects of Chinese culture. I think that Chinese culture can sometimes be a little bit biased towards negative publicity – cheap goods from China, or the impression of Chinese medicine being something in the backstreets that’s hidden and a little bit dark and shady. There’s no question that the media tend to jump on any little scare story about Chinese medicine. So my main ambition is to help to provide a counter-point to that and push the positive aspects of Chinese medicine and culture.

How would you describe the integration of the British-Chinese community in the UK to date and what are your hopes for the community in the future?

I definitely feel like British Born Chinese tend to have the approach of integrating, getting on with their lives and mixing into society, which I think is a really positive thing. It tends not to isolate them and it means that they can influence British culture. The downside of it is that - I believe - there’s less of a community spirit regarding British Born Chinese. I don’t think that there are many groups that really pull British Born Chinese together; I’m not sure if that’s due to a lack of effort or due to the fact that they’ve tried but not many are taking up the offer. I definitely feel like British Born Chinese should get together a bit more and should celebrate their Chinese roots, without foregoing their forward-thinking, integrative stance.