by Joyce Zhang
“Just move the incense sticks up and down three times and put them in this holder.” I remember being told the first time I prayed at the family altar as a kid. I noticed that practically everywhere in the alter-carved into the altar itself, on the candle holders, and underneath the Buddha statue - was a flower . I had no idea that these flower symbols were representative of a real flower, but I knew one thing for sure - they were really pretty.
On another day, my parents were watching yet another Chinese historical drama, but something piqued my interest this time. The TV screen showed that same flower as all those flowers in the altar. I just had to ask my parents what it was, and I finally learned that it was called lian hua (莲花) or a lotus flower, which then led to a bunch of google searches.
I never saw a lotus flower in person when I was younger, but luckily I had the internet. In my spare time, I enjoyed drawing and drew the lotus flower (top photo), which over time grew to be one of my favorite flowers. The lotus flower is gorgeous and perfectly symmetrical for people like me who love paying attention to detail. Even better, parts of the flower are a common ingredient in my parents’ cooking. Lotus flowers, seeds, and roots are frequently used in herbal medicinal soups and traditional Chinese cooking. Whenever I had a stomach ache or cramps, my mom would always make soup with lotus seeds and roots because in her words, the lotus is good for “cleaning out your stomach.” Since I left home for college, it has been a while since I’ve eaten these dishes.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Yunnan, China with students from all over the world. We almost always ate lotus during our meals. I especially loved introducing the lotus root to my classmates, who have never had traditional Chinese food before because it was one of my favorite foods growing up. It was really nice to share a bit of my culture with others and it brought me back to my childhood when my parents would make various dishes with lotus root, or soups and tea with lotus seeds and flowers. We also learned about traditional Chinese medicine, including medicinal properties of my beloved lotus flower. Various parts of the lotus including the seeds, petals, and root contain fiber and various antioxidants that promote an overall healthy digestive and immune system. As a result, they are common ingredients included in many herbal medicinal treatments for ailments like diarrhea, loss of appetite, and palpitations. Traditional Chinese medicine treatments and their effects have been recorded over many years since ancient times, so it provides a unique approach to medicine compared to modern Western medicine.
The best part of the study abroad, however, was that I saw a lotus flower in person for the first time. The Yunnan province is the most biodiverse area in China. In every park we visited, there was always a huge lake or pond with a vast expanse of just lotus flowers, and their leaves. It was surreal to see. As a kid, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to see a single lotus in person, let alone hundreds of them in just one lake! This past summer experience abroad really brought me back full circle. I learned to appreciate what I loved as a child and even learned how to make these traditional dishes for myself at college since I can’t always have my parents’ cooking.
Joyce is a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, and she is currently applying to medical schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photos and Drawing Courtesy the author.