On the Trail of the Cockroach 

Monday, June 20, 2005

For an article, I needed to interview a Chinese pharmacist about cockroach medicine.

At the first pharmacy the lady behind the counter said she didn't speak English. Judging by her clothes - the half-uniform that passes in Mainland China for anything outside of casual Friday - I could probably have switched to Mandarin and harass her with my cockroach questions. She looked terrified of me so I had pity on her.

In the second shop, I snatched away a business card. I'll phone them later and quiz from where they can't see me.

At the third shop, Mr. Pho Bich Nga and I tried a different approach. We began waving around the Chinese medicine Viagra-knock-offs with their ancient Chinese porn packaging.

That got their attention.

"Can I help you?" said one of the pharmacists.

"Yes, I am a freelance writer and I am researching the medicinal uses of cockroaches in fighting constipation. Can you answer some of my questions?"

His face blanched and he told me he doesn't speak much English. He handed me over to a coworker, one not wearing a white lab coat.

The new guy protested that the pharmacist knew more than he did. I looked over my shoulder to see the pharmacist run out the back door.

"Besides, I don't speak much English," said the new guy.

"That's ok. I can speak some Mandarin."

Cornered, he answered that yes, cockroaches can cure constipation but they are far too expensive to be worthwhile.

He opened a low drawer and pulled out a square tin box without a lid. It was filled to the middle with roaches. He explained the difference between these roaches, wingless, southern ones, that cure fractures, and the roaches that cure constipation.

He took out another box from the same drawer that held the roaches. He plonked this box on the counter.

Then he stuck his hands in to let the scorpions trickle through his fingers. A scorpion and a scorpion fragment catapulted onto my notepad.

He picked up the whole scorpion but left the fragment on my notepad.

"Are you sure you don't want to know about scorpions?" he asked. "They're even better for constipation."

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