What My Grandma understands.
What I NOW UNDERSTAND.
Have you turned to something reluctantly in the past, but now that very thing has become your first priority? This question sums up my relationship with the “White Flower Oil” (白花油 Ba fa yau) product.
Many people my age hate “White Flower Oil” because of the suffocating, pungent, long-lasting smell it releases. In fact, I recall my Dad telling me about how one of his coworkers exclaimed angrily and loudly in Cantonese “WHO APPLIED THE GRANDMOTHER PERFUME?! (邊個擦阿婆香水呀?!)” in the office. Funny enough, I don’t mean to explain the joke but the reason why we can all laugh about this incident is because nearly every Hongkonger would agree that this product is specifically unique to HK’s elderly population.
I understand this joke because I am currently living in a village where an overwhelming number of elders reside. There was often the recognizable, stingy, suffocating, pungent, extremely noticeable long-lasting smell that my partially-sensitive nose could smell from a meter away before greeting the elder women of the village face to face or simply walking past one of them.
I had the knowledge as a child that these appliances were bound to have brought SOME type of physical relief to people’s pain, but I simultaneously thought about whether it was THAT necessary considering its bad smell. But only when I used the product with an increasing frequency in the past few years was I then able to fully comprehend the RELIANCE that one could have with it.
I still remember my first encounter of the use of White Flower Oil. I had a stomach pain that I couldn’t ignore, and my Grandma helped me apply it. I had a strong rejection of it, but I had no other choice because there was no solution to ending my extreme stomach pain.
Ba fa yau is among one of the key necessities in my Grandma’s bag, and it is Grandma who introduced the Chinese medicated oil to me during my childhood because of my frequent stomach pains.
Back then, the smell was almost suffocating to me that I remember repeatedly telling my parents and grandma that I couldn’t breathe. Just then, my stomach pain stopped as abruptly like how it had started. During the times I unknowingly applied an extra few drops, there was a burning sensation on the skin of my belly. It was from this that I reminded myself not to tap more than a few drops on the area of pain. After this horrific experience, I swore that I would never again use ba fa yau on multiple occasions, but every time I had no choice but to use it to alleviate the pain and every single time without fail it worked wonders.
I had a phase of eating ice cream nearly every night after dinner as a 12 year old , and often had a great stomach pain. Though I was aware of the oil as an option, I would only sometimes use it due to my fear of its burning effect.
I remember another time when I experienced a throbbing headache and the urge to vomit but being unable to, on a long car journey for a school visit. I told my mom, and then she asked the parents if they had any medication to relieve the pain. One parent handed White Flower Oil to me and I tapped just two drops on my forehead and – BAM! Everything felt great again. It was only at this moment I realized the multi-purpose quality of it.
I remember relying on Ba Fa Yau when I had my IGCSE exams. I wanted to vomit and could not eat anything on the exact day before my exam. I applied it to my belly, under my nose, and my forehead to distract me from thinking about the food I just ate which would stimulate my vomiting. During the week of exams the White Flower Oil had become my reliance. I am not sure if it was because I was more tolerant as an older person, the smell did not faze me too much. The things that made the oil terrible and insufferable as a child became the reasons for why I use it now especially during extreme times of fear, anxiety and sickness.
I am not sure if it was whether I easily developed stomach ache after eating breakfast too quickly from waking up late to head to school or that I had random feelings of needing to vomit, I decided to keep ba fa yau with me to go to school just in case.
Right when I moved up to University, the traveling duration from my home to University was a few hours, and because lessons were rather early this meant my sleep was cut short. Adding to that, I was already fearful in a different environment even after months of attendance. I could not calm my nerves. It was the fear, anxiety along with the sickness from the extreme traveling time and sleeplessness that was the ultimate contribution to my fall – being diagnosed with the Herpes Zoster Virus (生蛇). The sign that I needed to change my sleep schedule to strengthen my immunity.
But unfortunately this change was not immediate, demanding time. The White Flower Oil had become my comfort, shelter and safe zone. It was something that determined the outcome of my day. It was the thing that often sheltered others from danger – preventing me from vomiting my breakfast during morning rush hour traveling – you could imagine the chaos. I bet the people on the train absolutely loathed the smell of ba fa yau from me, but opposingly I needed the smell.
Due to the negative connotation associated with the use of White Flower Oil amongst HongKongers, relating it to being backwards, old women and unsupported, “weird” would be the word to describe a person my age using the White Flower Oil. Call me selfish – but unless you need to use the product, you wouldn’t understand its powerful healing. For me it becomes a necessity, something I keep with daily. While you hate the smell of it, I depend on the smell of it to keep my day going. Now I understand why my Grandma did not fail to suggest White Flower Oil to my problems.
Now my grandma applies methyl salicylate cream （冬青油軟膏）for her joint pain, and while my family members find the smell nasty, I similarly find the smell alarming but its familiar smell is not something I reject anymore. I often crack jokes with my Grandma about how her Methyl Salicylate could compete with the White Flower Oil I use for being the most “pungent-smelling”!
In conclusion, this is not me providing some witty, selfish commentary about how I use White Flower Oil shamelessly. It’s my ultimate testimony of why it’s metaphorically “the air I breathe”, marking the journey from my changing perspective with the White Flower Oil, transitioning from hatred to dependence. This is an excerpt from my life growing up with the oil that breaks the long-standing stigma HongKongers have against it!
My changing perspective about the White Flower Oil is simple because it solved many of my problems growing up, both physically and mentally. The lesson from 白花油 is that sometimes hatred against something probably dissipates once I carefully experience and learn the power of it because that very thing could bring possible change to my life.