When I was 5 years old, I came down with a nasty case of chicken pox. My memories of the experience are hazy, but I distinctly remember using a marker to play a game of connect the dots on my torso, creating constellations out of the angry red spots on my chest and stomach. I also remember my mom producing a small, ridged flask to dab its viridescent oil on my blisters and the peculiar scent of that oil: sharp yet soothing, brisk yet medicinal, like Mentos coated in cough syrup.
Once I recovered, I didn’t give much thought to the stuff for years — until last summer, when I made the mistake of going on a nice picnic in Prospect Park. The heat was at its thickest and muggiest; I wore an oversize T-shirt and loose-fitting shorts and, engrossed in The Metamorphosis, stayed there reading until the light disappeared. Then I went home and went to bed. Upon waking, like Gregor Samsa, my entire body had transformed — not into a big bug but into one big bug bite.
I had mosquito bites everywhere: legs, arms, back, front. I counted 52 in total. I slathered myself in Benadryl, but the relief was all too temporary. As the unbearable itch of one bite would subside, five more bites would flare up. All I could do was lie paralyzed in a starfish position, terrified that the slightest movement or friction would restart the torture.
Unable to stand it, I called my mom and asked, “What’s that green stuff you put on me when I had chicken pox?”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” she said. “It’s feng you jing.”
Feng you jing is a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and a mainstay in many Asian households’ bathroom cabinets, recognized for its lurid green tint and distinctive smell. Different feng you jing manufacturers have each developed their own proprietary blend, but its core ingredients are almost always menthol, methyl salicylate, chlorophyll, camphor, and eucalyptus oil. The result is an emerald-hued elixir with a minty fougère aroma and a cool, tingling sensation when applied topically — perfect for relieving itchy, inflamed skin.
I immediately picked some up from a Chinatown pharmacy, and where the Benadryl failed, the feng you jing succeeded with flying colors. Though I felt a slight sting upon initial application, its calming effects immediately took hold, and hours went by where I’d nearly forget about my agonized state. (I suspect there was also a psychologically therapeutic element at play, surrounding myself with a familiar scent from childhood.) I used it about three times a day until I no longer felt like jumping out of my skin.
Then, long after the mosquito bites had healed, I found myself reaching for it more and more as a quick, easy cure-all for minor afflictions. If I detected a headache coming on, I’d pat a drop or two on my temples to preemptively ward it off. When I was chronically congested from seasonal allergies, one bracing whiff blasted my sinuses wide open. I’m also prone to motion sickness, so if I felt dizzy or nauseated, feng you jing became my own modern-day smelling salts, helping to steady my nerves and revive my senses. And while I’m not quite at that age yet, it’s also known to alleviate arthritic stiffness and muscle pains.
Waft feng you jing under the nose of most any Chinese person and they’ll instantly be transported back to summer vacations and camping trips, where it was as much of a packing-list essential as Band-Aids and toothpaste. Its closest equivalent might be Vicks VapoRub: Both are panacean remedies with an invigorating tingle, so widely used and beloved that they’ve been elevated to cultural icon status.
Mosquito season is fast approaching — here in New York, it begins in late April and lasts until October. This year, I’m good and ready: I stopped by the same pharmacy and stocked up on three bottles of feng you jing (it also acts as an insect repellant!), but you can just as easily find the brand I buy on Amazon. Try it out for yourself; you may find this versatile verdant tonic quickly becoming your new medicine cabinet VIP.
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