A few days after my first serious relationship ended, my mother offered to bring me to an acupuncturist. Her grounds for concern: I was having trouble sleeping and keeping food down, and I was scheduled to fly back for the new semester in just another two days.
And so I found myself in a small waiting room, giving the receptionist my legal name, and writing out the other one in Chinese characters. I can still remember cool fingertips on my inner wrist, and faint metallic taps, which I suppose were the needles going in. I remember lying, stomach gurgling, in a dimmed room, and closing my eyes.
It’s an incongruous phrase. Something about the relation of these two, normally unaffiliated words has fascinated me since.
At first I thought this phrase was incongruous, and thus interesting, in the way an oxymoron is incongruous and interesting. But oxymoron doesn’t fully capture the way ‘breakup’ and ‘acupuncture’ fit together for me. English oxymorons, such as ‘passive aggressive’ or ‘same difference’, present a contradiction without resolving it. ‘Passive’ and ‘aggressive’ are seen as diverging, and so the mind pauses, stuck between two irreconcilable terms.
But there are different conceptualizations of difference and oxymoron in other languages. Certain Chinese phrases set up opposites together not for contradiction, but to indicate a range or dialectic approach.
For example, a common measurement word such as ‘length’ (长短) is literally a combination of two opposite words: ‘long-short’. ‘Long’ and ‘short’ are opposite qualities, but they also naturally unite to form one idea–length as a spectrum, of which each opposed word is one extreme.
Similarly, 男女 (lit. ‘man-woman’) refers to gender. Man and woman are conceived of as two elements within a unified concept of gender. It’s not a contradiction, but a dialectical whole. This conception is embodied in many more terms, and relates to the philosophical system of yin and yang.
So, setting disparate things together doesn’t have to be jarring. When opposites aren’t divided by a fixed line, their differences can be synthesized into a broader whole. So my idea of breakup acupuncture, too, has its incongruity–and its harmony.
Many incongruities come together in this phrase. For one, relationship troubles are primarily emotional and mental matters, and acupuncture is a physical treatment. But mind and body overwhelmingly came together to form this experience: along with other symptoms, I couldn’t stomach meat for a full week1.
Another possible incongruity in these terms is due to the distance I maintained between my love life and my family life–a distance which quickly broke down during this time. The issue of my breakup was fairly unfamiliar to my mom; acupuncture, as a representation of her support, brought separate worlds together.
And so, as an oxymoron, a dualism, and a story, breakup acupuncture represents in its two parts both the intensity of the individual-emotional-romantic experience and the power of my family bonds. It captures for me how my healing took place in between these two worlds, just as I live in both. Just as we all live in many incongruous, harmonious worlds.
1 There are more phrases like the above examples expressing this duality: 形神 and 身心, meaning ‘body and soul’ and ‘body and mind’.