Thursday, January 27, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 8 - Back Home

Today was actually really hard. As mentioned in my previous post, things made a definite turn for the better after my frustrating test day on Monday. Last night, and on into this early afternoon, our room was like a big love-in. That made it really hard to leave.

It wasn’t all love though. There is one other Haliboji in the room (let’s call him Haoliboji #2), who I hadn’t mentioned at all before. He had been a mostly grumpy and stand-offish character the whole week, and it didn’t help that he was directly across from me. It was unpleasant.

Still, I give him the benefit of the doubt. The man always had bandages hanging off of his neck and arms and he looked not simply “near death”, but magnetically drawn to it. He was in rough shape. I had a hard time sympathizing with this man though as he seemed to mistreat his ajuma constantly (let’s call her Ajuma #3). She was of the curly-haired/heavy make-up ajuma group, and I can honestly say that I never once heard either of them utter one word to each other. He treated her very rudely and seemed to resent her presence, and she responded by applying more foundation and lipstick.

Well, today, Haliboji #2’s ajuma left. She packed-up her overnight bag and make-up kit and made her way out of the room, saying goodbye to us, but not to her Haliboji.
It turns out I judged the situation all wrong. I get all the dirt from Ajuma #4, you see, filtered through the rabbit’s translation. Turns out that Ajuma #3 was Haloboji #2’s third ajuma over the last couple of weeks. The dude goes through them like kleenex, and now he was moving on to a new ajuma who would be arriving that afternoon. Apparently, he got rid of this one by telling her that his family would be with him for the rest of his time. Unfortunately, the recently let-go Ajuma #3 ran into the new recruit in the hallway and learned the truth. Haliboji #2 just isn’t easily satisfied.

Ajuma #4 has a different take on the whole thing:

(Loosely as translated through the rabbit)

Ajuma #4: “That ajuma (Ajuma #3) was not a good ajuma. She was never smiling and she didn’t like to talk. She only liked putting on make-up and she never washed her haliboji. You HAVE TO wash your haliboji! Look at him – his hair stands-up like a chicken and he probably smells bad. I always wash my haliboji. I MUST! If I don’t, he will smell and I can’t have this bad smell. It’s not fair to me or to my haliboji.”

As she said this, her haliboji (#1) listened and nodded with understanding. Haliboji #2 (looked-on with disgust).

I guess I have to agree with Ajuma #4. Ajuma #4, you see, takes absolutely zero crap from anyone – even when she’s holding the bedpan. If her haliboji doesn’t want to wake-up for breakfast, then the whole hospital wing is going to hear about it. He’s not in the mood for a sponge-bath? Not for long. Ajuma #4 can’t abide by lazy ajumas who don’t wash their halibojis and who can blame her? She’s got a tough job. Families who can’t be there for the bedside care of an elder 24/7 hire these ajumas to pretty-much live in the hospital for who knows how long. It can’t be an easy thing for either party. Who wants to suffer the indignity of being an 83 year-old incontinent former school principal and having a very in-your-face stranger tell you that it’s time to roll-over because it will help the bowel-movement ease into the bedpan? She’s hardly quiet about it. From her side, well, not only is she the one holding the bed pan, but her job is basically to live in a hospital with very ill people, going home only on Saturdays or for times when the patient’s family agrees to be there in her stead. In retrospect, it’s a minor miracle that more ajuma/patient relationships don’t end in mutual bloodshed.

Anyway, today I had my I.V. taken out and I made my way to the shower where I scrubbed-down in the patient-safe lukewarm water for the last time and got back into my street clothes for the first time in a week. When I got back to my room, all ajumas, ajushis and halibojis were pretty excited about my new appearance. They told me I was “handsome”, “beautiful”, and “sexy music”, which is always good to hear.
Thankfully, due to some other hospital business, I had a couple of extra hours to kill until it was time to go.

I remember my mom, when her and my dad made spent a day with my friend, Tanya, here in Seoul a year and a bit ago, bursting into tears when she realized that it may be the last time she would meet Tanya. They had a spent an amazing day together – Tanya taking the day off work to show my parents around – and my mom was suddenly overwhelmed with gratefulness for Tanya’s kindness, and the thought of impending loss of a new friend. Living half-way across the world just cuts-back on the probability of future meetings.

In a lot of ways, I’m like my dad, and in others, I’m like my mom. From the time I woke-up this morning, I was excited about going, but also dreading the goodbyes. The last two hours passed with a lot of laughs, and a lot of photos. Everyone, it seems, has become a Mukmuk fan in the past week, and they all wanted a photo – even Haliboji #2’s new ajuma. I had my photo taken with Haliboji #1, and when he saw the playback on my camera, he uttered his first English word since my stay began: “Nice!”
Today, before I left, I hugged all of the people in the room and exchanged email addresses with everyone who wanted to have their photo with Mukmuk sent to them – nurses and doctors included.

In a place where we all, regardless of our age, end-up feeling a bit like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, it’s hard not to become close – despite the high probability of stepping on each other’s toes.

Today, one of my roommates received some hard news: that a cancer had returned and spread to his lymph nodes. He seemed to have no concept of how dire the news was, but was reading our faces and it soon started to sink-in. Everyone to a man (and woman) did their best to encourage him until his meeting with a specialist in the afternoon. It’s amazing, really – up until about three days ago, none of us had barely spoken to each other unless absolutely necessary.

I said goodbye to each person in the room and wished them luck. After signing-out downstairs and paying for my stay and the new meds, the rabbit pointed-out that she still had Ajuma #4’s pen. She suggested that I return it and it would give them all a nice surprise. I couldn’t do it though – apparently this hospital stay did absolutely nothing to toughen me up. I don’t want to be a teary foreigner when I had apparently and unwittingly already done so much to give the room a favourable impression of tall white people with “high noses”. The pen stayed on the 1st floor and will be easily replaced. Knowing Ajuma #4 as I do, she likely stole it from an orderly anyway.
I’m now home with the rabbit and enjoying some delicious Duen-jeong jiggae and we’re about to sit down to watch a Korean movie she’s been wanting to show me for a while. It’s called The Man From Nowhere. I’m looking forward to it.

Here are some photos of the friends I made last week. I wonder what they are up to tonight.


Me - trying to break the ice on day 2 with some pound cake.


Receiving my last injection of antibiotics through the I.V.


With Ajuma #4 as Haliboji #1 looks-on.


People I will miss.


Haliboji #1.


Dr. Robyn Kim.


The nurse who wanted to know how many bowel movements I had each day.


My rabbit and I.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 7 - My Last Night

Well, it looks like I’m getting out! I will be released tomorrow, and I’m glad about it, though I also know that I will miss this place in a strange way once I leave. I have been recalling my second stint staying in hospital for an extended period. I was 13, and the little dude beside me with some serious ailments and a very cute lisp was much younger. Every couple of hours, throughout the day and night, he had to submit to syringe-wielding nurses, and was brave up until the day before I left, where he would whimper himself awake to a nurse’s nudge, saying “No more pokethes! No more pokethes!”

Tomorrow. Another guy who will miss this place is none other than Mr. John Thomas, who today went back to the prison he had been staying in prior to his arrival here on the same day I was admitted. That’s right – prison. Turns out J.T. was actually an inmate (no idea what he was in for) who had been staying in my room along with other folk in the vulnerable sector for over a week. Again, I don’t know that this sort of thing is common practice or anything, and I have no idea what he did to be incarcerated, but I did hear today that J.T. had been in prison for 15 years already and would be apparently serving more – starting today.

I knew that there was something about him that made me uncomfortable – aside from the penetrating stare and tendency to expose himself, I mean.

In the end, I can’t be too hard on the guy. He was on his best behaviour when Ian visited yesterday and he even went so far as to address me for the first time – coming over to my bed to offer some candy, which – looking back – I’m glad to say was wrapped. Wait – did he offer us oranges as well? I don’t remember…

Anyway, J.T.’s presence, as well as a couple of other incidents, have given me sufficient pause to question the practices of Korean hospitals. For one, I have a fellow teacher at my school (let’s call her Mrs. Lee... there are a few of them) who happens to have a sister-in-law working here at Eulji Medical Center. On my second day here, Mrs. Lee called me to see how my deep vein thrombosis was going along.

“How do you know?” I inquired.

“My sister-in-law checked your file.” Was the answer.

So, I found myself wondering why it’s okay for in-laws to by-pass the doctor/patient confidentiality rule. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have the concern, but in the case of a guy who might (knock wood) one day be suffering from something a little more personal, I shudder to imagine how quickly such information would spread about the entire workplace. Is nothing sacred? For real.

Anyway, I am turning a page today – mainly because I’m leaving and have a brand new lease on life. I never really got too down here (everything was simply too interesting), though my test day was certainly a low point. I’ve been lucky to have a ton of visitors, and a rabbit constantly by my side, so there’s been a lot of love – even a skype call or two with friends and family back home. Shane even got to meet Ajuma #4 over the internet today. Point is, it’s been okay, and despite the undeniable weirdness of the experience in the details, on the whole, I might just miss being here.

Last night, Ed and the rabbit popped me into a wheel-chair and took me on a hospital tour for about an hour. It was my vacation in-place of Thailand. We stopped by the Mini-Stop convenience store in the B1 level, and that’s where I recalled what is surely my earliest memory. It’s funny because I had been recently talking with friends about my earliest memory, and how odd it is that it is from a time when I was so sick. It’s not a big deal, but it’s from a time when I was barely two years-old, and had been hospitalized for inflammation of the epiglottis brought on by constant high fever. Apparently I turned blue and had to have a tracheotomy to get the old lungs going again. The event changed my life in more ways that I suppose I can accurately measure, but I don’t remember any of that aside from how it’s remembered to me – usually by my mother. I do, however, clearly recall my dad pulling my sister and I around the hospital in a wagon while she and I sucked on green popsicles. That’s it – my earliest memory.

So, it was with a few pangs of nostalgia, home-sickness, and gratefulness that I accepted Ed’s kind offer for a melon ice-cream bar last night when he stopped wheeling me about in front of the Mini-Stop. It wasn’t a popsicle, but it was green. Obviously, I missed my sister and the people who used to pull us around.

I’m very lucky. The icing on the cake of my discharge from the hospital is that the bill is going to come to half of what I thought – the total will actually be just over 500,000 won (about $450 CAN).

Of course, I’m lucky in a thousand other ways. One learns a lot when Ajuma #4 decides to open-up the vault. For one, unlike J.T., I’m not heading back to a prison where I’ve been beaten countless times, further damaging my already strained mental faculties. I’m also not the guy beside me, who is in here for his 3rd liver surgery as a result of alcohol abuse, and I didn’t sneak out of bed last night during the soccer game to head to the Mini-Stop and down two bottles of soju before the wife came-by for her visit (the rabbit heard this story and mentioned that she would never make faces at that man’s wife again – behind a curtain or not). I’m also not 83 years-old with obvious respiratory and diabetes-related complications, and I have both of my legs, unlike the man in the opposite corner of the room who grimaces in pain near tears when it’s time for whatever he’s being injected with.

In short, I suppose my attempts to describe this experience with humour and fish-out-of-water observances has at times, in retrospect, made me a bit of an asshole. I guess I used to think that was something I was incapable of being, until a friend suggested otherwise a couple of years ago. Really, this was a week of cabin-fever, with a bunch of assholes trying their best not to be – all to varying degrees of success. Even the suicidal alcoholic offered to return my meal tray each time after I was finished.

A teacher visiting today mentioned that if I can survive a week in a Korean hospital, then I understand all there is to know about Korean culture. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I really hope that’s not true. I will miss this place though, and apparently, Ajuma #4 will really miss me. I guess I showed her my best side through this past week. This afternoon passed quickly with the rabbit by my side and Ajuma #4 at Haliboji’s. The conversation was challenging, but full of laughs. Even Haliboji got in on the action and offered a few laboured words which the rabbit translated for me. I suppose not all elder Korean men are against inter-racial marriage after-all – Haliboji wants us to have babies 발리발리 (“quickly, quickly”) and Ajuma #4 seems sad to see me go tomorrow. Who else will she ask for leads on foreign women to date her “not handsome or rich” nephew? She’s invited the rabbit and I to her home in Dangoggae of all places when Haliboji is out of here – one way or another.

Anyway, it’s been weird, and a little bit wonderful too. Tomorrow is going to be so quiet. At least I get to take my favourite nurse home with me.

No more pokes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 6 - Visitors

Now that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m doing my best to look forward to a few days of teaching next week. I do wonder though if I’ll be excused from my suggested duties. Truly, I do have 6 sick days remaining that I can take this year. I might be tempted. I had this weird pride thing that up until this past July, I hadn’t yet taken a sick day during my time in Korea. This past summer, I took one day for sun stroke-induced fever (it was an exam day when I didn’t actually have to teach), and then the big collapse of last week. I say screw it – next week’s classes are going to be filler – though the winter break continues for another month, there are four days inserted into the middle of the holiday for seemingly two purposes:

1) Middle School grade 3 (grade 9 in Canada) graduation – a noble exercise, though one that should maybe be celebrated at the end of the students’ last semester, as opposed to shoe-horned into their vacation.

2) “Regular Classes” (in the loosest possible sense of the word) for one week for all three grades in an attempt to placate parents who are less-than-pleased with teachers having a regular school break. We wouldn’t want teachers to seem lazy, would we? Of course not – let’s get back to work. These “lessons” usually end-up being video viewing sessions, but if my presence is required, as per usual, I’ll try to whip-up a fun and interactive lesson just so that at least I am entertained.

Anyway, I guess I’ll find out the week’s plan soon enough.

About my ankle – it looks fairly normal though there is some obvious muscle atrophy in my calf. Though I was forcing myself to walk for three weeks, I wasn’t using the normal muscles required because my Cellulitis just wouldn’t share. So – that would be why I ended-up at the chiropractor. Looking at my ankles, you can see some darker areas which were once red. Under the outer layer of skin, these areas are as hard as bone, and then the muscle/ligament suddenly softens-up once you cross-over into the unaffected area. This is apparently a result of the once-swollen and stressed tissue now shrinking and withdrawing into itself. It’s going to take some time to get back to normal, but I’m really hoping that I am prescribed some walking and some stretching. I’m tired of this bed rest non-action.

Today, a word about visitors. It seems as though these hospital rooms are as much for visitors as they are for the actual patients. On the one hand, it’s lovely that everyone here (even Haliboji) has someone who can be here to assist with the day-to-day that has suddenly become a challenge. On the other hand, well, there are a lot of unpleasant things on the other hand.

For one: people seem to have a really hard time shutting up. I understand that there are things on the mind, but in such close quarters, it’s not always necessary to loose them on the world. Last night, my immediate neighbour’s wife visited for the first time. She made Hurricane Church Lady from a couple of days ago seem positively mousey. She came into the room at around 8:30pm – and stayed until about 11:00 (90 minutes past the visiting limit). This, I wouldn’t really mind – she is his wife and all, and people can spend the night (if they are quiet), but she came-in, kicked-off her shoes, hopped onto his bed with a giant bag of cookies (displacing her in-firmed husband to the side) and continued to cackle and roar with Haliboji’s ajuma longer into the night. You should have seen the rabbit’s face, which was safely hidden behind our drawn curtain.

It appears that Mr. John Thomas and his live-in father with be leaving today as well. This pleases me. This be the Thomas clan of the food garbage and soup bags left by my bed. Today, John Thomas, having partially finished with his tray of breakfast, decided to lope his way over to my corner of the world, slide my temporarily removed splints out of the way, and place the tray right beside the foot of my bed on the windowsill – an act actually more challenging than bringing it back to the kitchen cart in the hallway. No, he was not trying to be kind by offering me to finish his food. If he had, he could have placed it on my table.

JT's father, too, seems to have taken to regular abuse of the nurses. He seems to disagree with everything and appears to have no qualms about violently complaining about his food. Dude is awoken (as we all are) every morning at 6:00 am (if not before for injections) and he announces the dawn with prolonged and amplified audible stretching, which sounds kind of like this. Every sip of water, bite of food, or slight movement of the hand seems to be validated only by a deep sigh or murmur from within. Seriously, man – you may as well check yourself in and see what ails you.

I just don’t get it, and I don’t think it’s a Korean thing, so much as it is a generational thing, or perhaps an up-bringing thing. I am clearly the youngest one here, but all of the visitors I’ve had have been so comparatively polite and respectful. They arrive and greet me, and usually bring some kind of sharable treat which they offer around the room before joining me at bedside for a short visit. When the rabbit does stay-over, she does so with reverence for the fact that people who stay in this room are suffering enough, without having to listen to the constant braying of others. I do get the fellowship and the sounds of chatter can also be therapeutic for some, but for others, well damn, man. Respect that fact that you are not the only ones crammed into these less-than-perfect living conditions and act accordingly.I'm not the only one thinking this way. It appears that a couple of ajumas are not far from forming a violent pact for the sole purpose of retribution against Tarzan and his overinflated sense of entitlement.

My visitors so far:

Thursday: Maria

Friday: Ed, Jisun (Ed’s co-teacher), and Jessie (the Korean co-teacher from the school I partner with for English camps)

Saturday: Chloe, and Lee Su-hyeon (English co-teachers form my school)

Sunday: Ed and Maria

Monday: Test Day

Today: Ian, followed by my school principal and a handful of other teachers

…and every day, and some nights, the rabbit. I can’t express how amazing she has been for me. I know it’s hard for her as she inexplicably feels somewhat responsible for not bringing me to the right doctor sooner. When my sister diagnosed my condition over the internet, the rabbit was filled with guilt and it’s been tough to convince her that she shouldn’t be. Neither of us are doctors and she had gone out of her way to seek-out various forms of treatment – not an easy thing to do with her busy schedule, and whenever she’s here, she respectfully makes inquiries for details from each doctor and nurse that she encounters. Each night she stays either until she has to leave to get home for early work the next morning, or she bundles-up in my clothes on a mildly-padded bench beside my bed and goes to sleep holding my hand. She’s an emotional girl and there have been times where I’ve seen her tears just before sleep. When I inquire as to why, her only response is “your leg…”. She’s also not afraid to show-up and force me out of a funk by playing a game, looking at photos, making me extra healthy treats, or telling me to stop being so gloomy at times. Aside from the tears, we always say goodbye or go to sleep quietly giggling – usually in response to the other sounds in the room. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 5 - Test Day

***Spoiler Alert for the Family Back Home: I Don’t Have Deep Vein Thrombosis***

It’s 6:19pm and everyone in the room has their gaze fixed firmly on WWE Raw. I used to watch wrestling back before I figured out it was fake, and I wonder what the Koreans make of it. UFC is big here – or was when Choi Hong Man, the giant Korean bruiser was actually winning the odd bout.

I’m a little sad today to note that my favourite room mate has up and left. He looked to be in decent spirits the last time I saw him, despite the fact that he resembles this guy, or this guy’s dad. It’s actually because of his turtle-like appearance that he so endeared himself to me. He could away be counted-upon to give a smile, and his wife (who was always by his side) was always offering to take-away my meal trays after I was finished, even if it was sometimes so that she could finish-off whatever was left. Truth is, I’m probably going to look a lot like that guy when I’m his age, and I can only hope I’m as cute. It’s about all I’ll have going for me.

Today was a frustrating day. I had leaky I.V. arm all day, and the little bitty that goes into my arm had to be replaced and relocated 6 times – not counting the time when I had to have some funky liquid pumped into my arm in order to aid with the bone scan visuals. That’s always disappointing when the juice starts leaking out of your arm and blending with the blood to make an orange mess. It seems fine now though and I couldn’t be more grateful. I still have a syringe full of antibiotics pumped into my arm 3 times each day, and without the I.V., it would be a house-call of pain knocking every 8 hours. With the I.V. however, they just open up this zany valve half-way up the hose and pump it in there. It feels mildly irritating – cold and warm at the same time (like a shot of vodka, I suppose) as it makes its way through the veins in my arm. It’s much better this way.

Anyway, today was the big test day. Since last Wednesday night at about 11pm, what I’ve wanted most in the world has been an ultrasound on my leg to look for blood clots so that, if they are found, doctors could do whatever it is doctors do to make sure said clots don’t find their way to my heart or lungs. Today, I finally had that chance.
But first: the bone scan! One of the doctors who appears at the foot of my bed each day, followed by a team of white coats, told me yesterday that he wanted to do a “bone scan” to make sure that the Cellulitis (which is what I had) hadn’t gotten too friendly with the leg bone connected to the ankle bone. Twice today I was wheeled down to the dark places where people lay on slabs and get popped slowly in and out of the big machine like a personal pan pizza. Results were apparently good. No bone infections here.

The ultrasound was a bit of a piss-off. As mentioned, I had really been looking forward to this one – not because I like middle-aged men of any ethnicity rubbing cold jelly on my inner thigh, but because it was the test that would let my family sleep after being scared for my imminent death since the middle of last week. I was wheeled down and introduced to a female nurse who spoke to me using fairly decent English. She informed me that she would be translating for me and led me into the room. The male technician then asked me in Korean what my problem was. He really seemed to have no idea as he signaled “Broken?” with body language. Ummm… did he not get the memo? I have to say, I thought it was normal practice for hospitals to provide necessary information to each technician, nurse, doctor, and orderly that deals with a patient. How could this guy running my favourite test not know why I was there? Anyway, he ran the test in about a minute – on only my left leg. The English-speaking nurse, apparently frozen in a state of Korean deference to her male superior, didn’t translate for me when I asked why he wasn’t scanning the other leg. I left there confused and frustrated, and it wasn’t until my regular doctor, (Mr. Kim) spoke to me in the afternoon that I was at all confident that anything today had gone according to plan. Even the bone scan had its complications regarding the juice I’m supposed to get shot-up with before-hand, but the story is too tedious to relate here.

Anyway, at the end of the day, it appears as though I’ll be leaving here at the end of the week. It was Cellulitis after-all, for those keeping score at home, and it did a fair bit of damage to me legs as I hobbled around to and from work for nearly 3 weeks while other apparently less-informed doctors told me it was a mild sprain and threw various colored pills at me. Hey, I’m not a doctor, but then again I’m also not getting paid like one. If I were, I would like to think that I would recognize a fairly serious skin and muscle condition, as well as symptoms for a potentially fatal cardio-pulmonary blockage. For real, people.

Anyway, it looks like another 4 days of rest and antibiotic shots 3 times a day at the hospital. For those who know what this means, my Wednesday night emergency C-Reactive Protein blood test was 2.4 (likely lessened by the pills I’d already been given by Dr. Random and Dr. Shot-in-the-Dark) and today’s test was a 0.5. The normal range is 0 – 0.3.

Well, it’s getting late, but the TV appears to be far from off. The ajuma taking care of Haliboji is softly humming-along to traditional Korean songs being sung on what must be the peninsular equivalent of the Lawrence Welk Show. Tomorrow I’ll try to write more. This is going to cost me a fair amount of money by the way – likely over $1000 – and that’s with my insurance taking care of a great deal of it. These tests aren’t cheap and insurance doesn’t ease those at all. Good times. Medical care is great in Korea if all your body requires is attention from a clinic-dwelling blindfolded knife-thrower, but for anything else, you will pay. Missing Canada when I hear this news. My refund for the Thailand ticket had better go through. One step closer to student loans.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 4 - The Food

It's snowing today, so it makes the fact that I'm stuck in a hospital bed a little more palatable. Also, I received news via a text from Ian that the Flames went ahead of Vancouver on two quick goals. Nice - keeping the losing battle alive.

...and I see Vancouver just tied it up.

A true hurricane of a woman just stormed into our room while lunch was being served. I'm guessing she just came from church as she was done-up in her Sunday best. She announced her presence with a boom and pretty much hasn't stopped bellowing since. She appears to be part of Mr. John Thomas' family, guessing from the fact that she had no qualms about shedding her massive fur coat and laying it across his lap while he was trying to eat hospital food on the bed tray. She appears to have settled-in and she should be here for a while. Sigh...

Anyway, the food...

It's hospital food. Like most Korean meals, there are at least a couple of side dishes, rice, a soup, and some other random stuff (in my case, some kind of fish). The Staff have been very kind to me and have been going really out of their way to adjust dishes for a vegetarian. As it has been since I've come to Korea, I waver from time to time regarding the eating of seafood. I guess I need protein from somewhere, so, while I'm hospitalized, I figure that some fishy protein at each meal isn't a horrible idea.

All in all, it's not horrible. The soups are okay, and the rice is rice, and the side dishes are tolerable, although the kimchi is definitely on the lower end of the quality spectrum. As anyone who has eaten kimchi with regularity for a time would testify, there is good kimchi, and there is bad kimchi. The stuff served here is certainly the latter. It just tastes kind of synthetic, so I tend to avoid it. But for the most part, I'm eating all they give me. I should qualify my lukewarm endorsement by stating (rather obviously) that if you aren't already used to Korean food, the hospital food I've been eating since Thursday would be almost certainly inedible to anyone.

When it's time to eat, the curtains open-up and we all shuffle-down to the foot of our beds to where the lap table comes up. For some reason, the table isn't up toward the head of the bead where you might think it would be. Eating here is kind of a social thing and we all kind of nod at each other while we slurp our seaweed soup, watch Korean singing daytime TV, and take turns farting. I wouldn't want to be rude by leaving too much of my food uneaten. Visiting ajumas are kind enough to offer to remove my tray when I'm done, as it is a bit of a challenge for me to wobble down to the nurses' desk with an I.V. tower AND a tray of dishes while on two casts. I thank them with a tangerine and a smile.

As mentioned, the staff are also very kind. After my first Korean-style breakfast of a fishy soup, the dietitian came into the room to introduce herself and ask if I had any specific food requests. I replied that I don't need any milk to drink (I still take some in my coffee, but I can't remember the last time I drank a full glass or mini carton of milk), I won't eat any beef or pork, and that's pretty much it. She asked if I wanted a "Western-style" breakfast, and I asked what that meant. She replied: "Bread", so I naturally thought "toast". The following morning, breakfast arrived - two HUGE croissants with strawberry jam and a plate of French fries. Considering that I'm not moving much at all while I'm here, I'd really rather not flab-it-up with a bunch of baked and deep-fried starches. I ate one croissant and one cold and soggy fry, full of guilt as I know they made special arrangements for me, and called it a meal. The nurse asked why I didn't finish, and I replied that one croissant was more than enough, but excessive thanks for her kindness.

The next day, I was served a plate of 5 slices of white bread (with the crusts cut-off) which appeared to have been fried lightly in a pan. I think the assumption is that I'm a Burger King/Taco Bell fed American. So, I've been strategically eating and leaving in an attempt to get more veggies and fruit. So far, I've seen a slight increase in greens, and I'm sure that by the end of the week I'm going to have a veritable salad bar on my lap. I really do hate to complain, and I've made a point to not do any, but while I'm not using any calories, I'm going to watch my intake. Despite the fact that I'm no longer able to go to Thailand, I don't want to do too much damage to the severely ripped and cut beach body I've been working so hard on. I'm really bad at sarcasm.

Also, in relation to the food we've been eating, a nurse came into our room last night to ask all of the patients how many times we emptied our bowels today. I was on the lower end with 1, and Haliboji took first place with 4. Apparently, as the rabbit translated for me, Haliboji evacuated a lot with each bowel movement. So that's why everyone was audibly in awe at his response.

The hurricane woman just wandered over to my area, moved Seong-sook's umbrella and bag (she's not here right now) and deposited a bag of food garbage, a container of soup, and a random bag of who-knows-what on the window sill beside my bed. She looked at me the whole time she was doing it. Her husband voiced protests on my behalf but she waved them off. Classic.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 3 - Hello, Neighbour!

When I moved into the 7-person room yesterday at around 2 in the afternoon, I was lucky enough to have another bed beside the wall. This meant that the foot of my bed pointed directly toward the restroom and though the room is all about close-quarters, most everyone’s attention was directed away from my side of the room toward the window wall where the TV is. The TV, by the way, goes on every day at 7:00am and doesn’t get shut-off until 10pm. It’s 15 hours of Korean TV goodness that the entire population of my room can’t seem to get enough of.

The exception of course was when I entered the room yesterday afternoon and all faces swung to meet mine – including the face of Mr. Big Eyes / John-Thomas-In-Hand who I am now sharing a room with.

I guess it’s pretty surprising to see a foreigner in the 7-person room. How do I know? Because Seong-sook was able to translate the chatter in the room roughly as follows:

Ajuma #1: Why is he here?

Ajuma #2: He is American, why is here here?

Ajuma #3: Isn’t there a foreigner hospital?

Ajuma #4: Hey, where do you think we would go if we were in America? We would go to an American hospital. Don’t be so surprised.

Ajushi #1: How old is he?

Ajuma #4: his chart says 35. He’s not 35. It’s a mistake.

Seong-sook #1: No – he is 35.

Ajuma #1: Who are you? Is he your husband?

Seong-sook #1: Not yet, but soon.

(General murmurs fill the room)

Seong-sook #1: (quietly to me) They are so “country”.

One part I’m missing is that I had been carrying Mumuk in my hospital pajama pocket, so they likely thought I was mentally-challenged – how rare then for a Korean lady to not only be marrying a foreigner, but also a special foreigner. Apparently they thought that Mukmuk was very cute. So I’ve got that going for me.

All in all, the room is mostly friendly, though I can’t say I will ever completely get used to having so many people in here. For every one of the 7 patients, there is ALWAYS at least one other person. The pull-out bench that serves as a place for guests to sit when visiting also serves as a bed for family members or friends who wish to spend the night. So, at anytime, there will be 14 people hanging-out in a room that is maybe a bit larger than my parents’ living room – just to give you an idea.

As I write this, there are 7 patients, and 12 visitors – Mr. John Thomas has 5 visitors all crowded onto his little piece of earth having a kimbap picnic, and the room is alive with loud-ass visiting – which is at times literally true as some of the older patients have no shame when it comes to flatulence. It’s really not a big deal.
Big news today is that I moved from the wall bed to a newly evacuated window bed.

The good:

1) I can look outside from time to time. The natural light really can’t have a price on it.

2) I don’t have to smell the pungency of urine that was awakened by a lazy swipe of a water-wet mop under the bed by the cleaning lady this morning.

3) I have a window-sill and approximately 8 more inches of space, which is nice for visitors.

The bad:

1) I am now in line with most everyone’s eyesight as I’m pretty much right under the TV. I play a little game, which involves me typing, then looking-up quickly and counting to see how many people are staring at me as opposed to the TV. I have always caught at least one.

2) I’m a bit further from the bathroom, which means that the chances are increased for my fuzzy cast bottoms to collect a beard of curly black hairs on the way to the bathroom and back.

3) I’m right under this effing TV that is always on (Roxy – you’d be loving the first-run Korean Drama action all day long.

All in all, I don’t mind the window seat, and I’m doing my best to just “blend-in”. I can draw the curtain from time to time and get a little privacy, and I suppose I’d rather hear the TV as background noise than some of the things I would hear without it. I also wish I could understand more Korean, as the room seems to have developed a bit of a sense of community, in which clearly I am the odd-one-out, and moving about the room to offer oranges or pieces of pound cake, though appreciated, only goes so far.

Before I sign-out for now though, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my old neighbour, the great, graying, round, and permanently grumpy-faced “Haliboji” (Grandfather). This guy breaks my heart. His bed was next to mine before I moved to the window bed and he’s having a really rough time. He’s an older man (haven’t read his name plate, so I can’t be exact) and he has oxygen tubes in his nose. He is apparently diabetic, which I found out when I tried to offer him some pound cake, and he really struggles at night when he lies down.

Haliboji hasn’t had anyone come to visit him yet, but I really hope that changes soon. He has a 24/7 helper (ajuma #4) who sleeps beside him on the bench at night, gives him sponge baths, changes his bedpan, and wakes him for meds etc. It’s quite the relationship – most of the day, and periodically at night, through Haliboji’s wheezing and gurgling (which, by the way breaks my heart more than it bothers me – the dude is not in good shape) I hear his ajuma yelling in Korean: “Grandfather! Wake-up. Hey!!! Grandfather!” Then cue his barely audible protests.

I don’t know why, but I can’t help but feel close to Haliboji. I never knew either of my grandfathers, but it wasn’t hard to sympathize with this man who seemed to be, in a sense, all alone. Anyway, it makes you think of many things – especially the importance of friends and family. I hope he gets some visitors soon.

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 2 - Where I'm at

Let’s see… I checked-in on Thursday afternoon, and it’s now Saturday morning. It’s easy-ish to lose track of time here – despite the fact that everything is pretty regimented in terms of timing (meals and so-forth).

Anyway, I’m apparently going to be here for a while, so I thought I’d take a moment to comment on my surroundings.

Let me start with emergency here at the Eulji Medical Center. I suppose it’s not too much unlike other emergency places I’ve been to, but a few things stood-out as surprising – most notably, the dude who was situated in a bed across from mine and to the left, who was crouched down on his knees and had perhaps the largest eyes I’ve ever seen on a human being. I was apparently the most interesting thing to cross his path that day, so he naturally did what any other abnormally large-eyed man would do in my presence, and whipped-down his pants and whipped-out his John Thomas to evacuate into a bedpan in full view of the rest of the rather busy room while keeping his gigantic peepers on me the whole time. I kept Seong-sook’s eyes averted.

When we arrived at emergency, we entered the double-doors and found two middle-aged women pushing each other and very near blows. Security was there making sure things didn’t get out of hand, but they seemed to be handling it more like NHL referees, with a philosophy of “let them slug it out until they’re tired, and we’ll jump if one of them looks in danger of falling backward and hitting her head on the ice.” Turns out that they were family of two opposing cars involved in an accident. Two of the injured party were being treated while I waited there, so, between the hours of 11pm on Wednesday night and 3am on Thursday morning, I saw a dude with his face and leg smashed get wheeled to and from the emergency operating room, while family fought over the situation. Another woman had her head bandaged-up pretty badly, and based on the way the other family members were walking, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that everyone involved was completely drunk.

It was a pretty small room, and it was mostly open – even the door to the operating room was open, as I discovered when I made a trek to the only restroom and walked right by a wide-open door where I turned to see a team of doctors tossing bloody gauze into a bucket and a dude (Mr. Smashed Face & Knee) moaning away.

So, this reminded me of a couple of things: Emergency rooms are never pleasant places to be, and there are people much worse off than I am right now.

Sadly, and much to my frustration, the doctors at Emergency that night seemed to have no clue what to do about my ankle. Though we had phoned to make sure that the place could do the proper blood and ultrasound tests for DVT and Cellulitis before we left the apartment, when we got there, we were informed that the proper technicians wouldn’t be there until the morning. That’s a frustrating things to hear and I was mostly concerned with what I would be able to report back to my sister with. It’s hard when you have people at home waiting for answers and you’re not getting any to pass-on. They also kept telling me that my situation "wasn't an emergency" and kept asking why I was there. I kept thinking that they were lucky my sister wasn't there, as she would likely rip all of there throats out one-by-one like a scene out of Let the Right One In.

Anyway, back home for a bit of sleep, a quick trip to school to help set-up English Camp, then back to the hospital to check-in.

As we were told earlier, it was going to be hard to get a cheap room. Here at Eulji, as I imagine it is in other such hospitals, there is a wide range of rooms available, at least in terms of how many people will be staying in them. At the high end, for roughly 90-100 per night, are the rooms for one or two patients. Then, there are rooms for 5 people for 45 per night (where I spent my first night), and then on the most affordable end are the rooms for 7 people, for just over $10 per night and where I'll find myself for the remainder of my stay.

There are a lot of us crowded in here. Let me see if I can describe it accurately…
For each person’s “area”, there is a single bed, much thinner than a regular bed at home of course. I’m going to say it’s about a meter wide. We also have about two feet of “extra space to one side of our bed for visitors. On the other side of that two feet of space is another dude’s bed – divided only by a curtain. To tell the truth, it’s about as much space as I had in my capsule hotel in Tokyo, though this room is naturally taller to allow for doctors and IV towers to stand. It’s pretty much a normal room, but everyone is forced to be on VERY friendly terms with each other.

People fight tooth and nail to get into the cheaper rooms, and I think that me being a foreigner actually had something to do with me getting into one earlier. How are the cheaper rooms, well… let me get the shit out of the way first… in my previous room, I’m pretty sure there was actually a shit-smear on my wall, which the rabbit and I worked vigorously to clean-off. That made me a bit sad.

Upon moving into my new room, Seong-sook noticed a smell near my bed, so she looked underneath to find not one, two, or three, but 5 partially filled bed pans which had presumably landed with a sloshy dance on the floor. The nurses apologized profusely and fished them out one at a time. Apparently, the guy who lay here previous to me was a tad incontinent and his helper more than a tad lazy. Seong sook went directly to town on every conceivable surface – even in and out of drawers and cupboards – with some disinfectant moist tissues to clean things-up a bit.

What I’ve got is a cozy-ish bed, curtains, a chest of drawers/cupboard for my stuff, a nightlight, and outlets to charge all of my electronic goodies. I’m a pretty self-sufficient cat here, though it would be nice to have more space, if only because I feel badly for the rabbit or anyone else who comes to visit me. There is a roll-out raised-mattress/bench thing that comes out partially from under my bed, but that’s not a lot of space.

Anyway, the good news is that there is also a lot of good that comes with being in a room with many others. I’ll get to that in my next post. Also, I am so thankful for my kind rabbit.

Medical update: they really don’t want me to move, so they’ve casted both of my legs with half-way-around hard casts wrapped in tensor bandages. They are still thinking more toward Cellulitis and I’ll be having the ultrasound and now a “bone scan” on Monday. I get pills and antibiotic injections into my IV tube three times a day.

Next post: my neighbours, my visitors, and the food.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 1 - What I've Been in For

As I look back on my more than 3 years in Korea now, I can say that I’ve now “been to the hospital” more than a few times. Let’s see if I can recount them all, by cause and subsequent event:

1) My right, middle finger nail – attempting to stop a fast-closing classroom door, I was too late, the door closed on my nail, and it immediately went black and developed a hateful pulse of its own. The next day, after a sleepless night of throbbing pain, I had the pleasure of visiting a clinic where the doctor rummaged around in his desk drawer for a paper clip, heated it – held with tongs over a Bunsen burner – and then plunged it into my nail to release a baby fountain of blood before squeezing the shite out of my finger nail with cotton-covered tongs in an attempt to get more blood out. Weeks later, when it fell-off, I gifted the blackened nail (with a tiny paper-clip-sized hole in it) to one of my students. It was fun.

2) Some bones that I can’t name in my left hand – reacting to the blind rage that came from being disrespected by a colleague for the last time, I decided to punch a door frame, and subsequently shattered some bones that I can’t name in my left hand. A visit to a larger hospital revealed that I had two choices: a) use a temporary and removable cast for 2 months and recover at 85% ($300), or b) Have pins inserted into my hand with a more permanent cast for three months at the cost of roughly $3,000 dollars and heal at 95%. As I was going to Thailand in just over two weeks, I chose option a) and the cast was off in the water in under a month. Look at my hand today and tell me if it has healed at 85 or 95 percent.

3) My right thumb ligaments – while playing soccer with my students at lunch, one student decided to throw a hip-check at me, which jammed my thumb into my hip and apparently did some seriously nasty damage. Each day, for about a week, I had to go to a clinic nearby my school for some “treatment”, which involved ice-packs, heat packs, and then funky little electrodes being attached to either side of my thumb and going off rhythmically in an attempt to shock the tissue back to life. It was mostly comfortable, though it got painful toward the end of each daily treatment.

4) My big toe nail on my right foot. To read more about this one, click here, here, and here.

5) Unknown swollen ankle and foot condition – this is where I find myself today: admitted to a hospital for an extended stay for the first time in a foreign country. After two weeks of hobbling-around town trying my best to be a good partner teacher and run a successful and energetic winter English camp, I gave-up halfway through the final week when a fairly nasty fever took-over on Tuesday night and I knew there was no way I would be able to help lead a group of 21 students an hour away on a subway to a field trip to COEX Aquarium – then back. The hobbling I did there the two previous weeks was catching-up with me. The following night, something possessed me to send photos of my lower left leg to my sister, who happens to work in cardiology at the Alberta Children’s Hospital back home in Calgary, Canada. She was immediately concerned, showed the photos to her doctors at work, and in viewing them in consideration with the described symptoms determined that it was very likely that I have either Cellulitis (Microsoft tells me I’m spelling that wrongly) and/or Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), which basically means infected and swollen muscle and deep skin tissue and blot clots in major arteries in the leg.
When reading the fine print, I saw that there is a chance (however small – 3%, I believe) that the latter can actually be fatal – a blood clot dislodging from the leg can lead to the heart or lungs and then I would be a family footnote at the age of 35 – an age I’ve only been able to “enjoy” for less than a week now. I took my sister’s long-distance advice and went directly to emergency at the closest hospital – my rabbit by my side – and the next day I checked-in for proper blood and ultrasound tests. As you can see, the Gout I’d been going on about, wasn’t really Gout at all – I love all the misdiagnosis that led-up to this. More on that later…

Monday, January 17, 2011

Goutpia!



Well, I went for blood tests today - and I'll get the results two days later. By the way, today's my birthday! So far, I celebrated by teaching day 1 of the last week of Winter Camp, and by getting syringes put into my arm and then a cast applied to my left ankle. To tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to the test results, just so that my leg can stop swelling-up. I honestly look as though I have the left lower leg of an obese person. It's all a little bit grotesque. I've taken photos, but I much prefer these Struwwelpeter-esque renderings of Gout personified by demons of varying size. The above one is a visualization of how I might have contracted the condition had I been a chubby, alcoholic, 5-string cellist in the early 1800s who never left his house.

This coming weekend, my lovely rabbit, who has been so kind to me, and whom I would be in much trouble without, will kindly be taking me to a mountain resort called "Waterpia" which is supposed to have healing mineral waters, hopefully from a source other than what the name would suggest. In fact, the "(Uto)pia" suffix is a very common one here in Korea - much like "story". For example, if you want to get your nails done right, you can often find a shop named either "Nail Story", or "Nail Pia". The same goes for pretty much everything else: a music shop -"Musicpia!" A pet shop - "Petpia!" I don't know why they didn't just call it "Watertopia!" Shortening the suggestion makes me think of urine. It can't be helped.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gout! Gout! Shout it out!


So... that pain in my ankle could very well be... Gout!

A friend suggested the possibility, and after class on Saturday, I headed to a joint specialist and chiropractor in Yeuido to have a look at my ankles, which really aren't looking so good these days. He almost immediately thought that Gout might be the cause of all my woes of late.

First, the man and his team of muscular nurses, bent me every which way in a successful attempt to re-align my pelvis which had gone a little out of whack as I attempted to maneuver through the work week while favouring both ankles. Dude was putting his entire body weight into some of the torquing. Miraculously, after all of the snappage and resistance exercises and stretches he had me do, the pain which had been developing in my knees and hips was gone. Just gone. Nice work, sir.

I've got blood tests on Monday to confirm that this is indeed Gout, but all signs point to it. I'm actually happy about that for the most part, as at least it gives me something to focus on and work towards ridding myself of. I wasn't satisfied being told that I had a grade 2 sprain in both ankles without having sprained them.

But wait a second, after a bit of searching, Gout is what's known at the "Rich Man's Disease" - not really a "disease" per-se, so much as it is a "condition". It is one brought-on in most cases by excessive drinking and MEAT EATING! Being that I am not an excessive drinker (I might average-out, when all is said and done, at about 4 beers/month in my adult life) and I've been a 99% vegetarian for more than 15 years now.

Here's hoping that blood tests get to the bottom of this crazy Gout mystery. In the meantime, I'm kind of shy about it - though not shy enough to prevent it from making an appearance here on my blog. I have been hobbling-about to work like a 90 year-old man the past couple of weeks, and the pain killers given to me by the doctor on Saturday have done wonders, but there's something about the name "Gout" that just doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps it's because Gout rhymes with "trout". Perhaps it's because the name conjures-up images of old, smelly, and generally unhealthy men with gnarly attributes. In fact, when looking at my ankle this afternoon, my lady-fair told me that I looked like Shrek. Sigh...

What is a Korean?


Just over a week ago, in preparation for my Saturday class lesson on multiculturalism VS integration, I conducted a short survey of my students - all 19 of whom are high-level English speakers and are in the last or second-to-last year before heading to university - just to give you context. I asked students the following question: "What is a Korean?" in the hopes that it would invite all manner of answers. My motivation was to get a sense of where the class stood on definitions to determine citizenship for "foreign-looking" residents - or rather those citizens who would be less-successful in convincing their friends and colleagues that they were of a desirable "pure" parentage, and were themselves therefore also "pure-blood" Koreans. In other words: can people who aren't "Korean-looking" have any hope of becoming Korean citizens? As this country struggles with the "less-than-palatable" realities of opening-up its borders to more and more foreigners while striving to be "The World Best" in any internationally measurable sense, it's an interesting question to ponder, and a fun one to discuss with an eager group of students who are not used to approaching such taboo subjects in a school setting.

Above is the first photo listed after doing a Google image search for "Korean". Below are some of the highlights of the responses I received...

1) A Korean doesn't like boring things and a Korean wants results fast.

2) A Korean is a person who lives in Korea and lives and eats in a way that most Koreans do.

3) Someone who has lived in Korea for their lifetime and thinks that he or she is Korean.

4) Someone who has the racial mind of Korea.

5) Someone who is very passionate and has a little bit of haste from passion.

6) A Korean is a person who dislikes Japan and loves eating Kimchi. They are brave and adventurous people and don't like to lose. They are united very well.

7) A Korean is powerful and energetic!

8) A Korean is someone who really loves Korea, is proud to be Korean, and wants to be a member of Korean society, even if they look different from "native" Koreans.

As a Canadian, I'm simply approaching this issue from a different place. I have friends who are clearly ethnically Korean, but were born in Canada or the U.S., and they each identify more with their country of birth. This is such an easy concept for me to grasp. To most Koreans however - at least in my experience - this isn't the case.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Two Eyes - One Dream

I've been napping a fair amount after coming home from my English Winter Camp, which I will post about one of these days.

Last night, we decided to avoid window draft and instead sleep on a triple-double yo situation on my heated floor. Good call. Apparently, I slept like a baby.

Today after I got home from school though, I had an hour nap while waiting to meet the rabbit to visit Mr. Acupuncture.

In my dream, I was in a house that I didn't recognize, and I was disoriented. My eyes were acting-up: if I closed one eye, seeing out of the one that was opened placed me in a room different from the one I remember being in. When I closed that I and opened the other, I appeared to be somewhere else.

This was true in a physical sense as well, but it worked in the opposite way from what my eyes were showing me. One eye seemed to show me standing near the top of a set of darkened stairs, but I could only feel the banister physically when that eye was closed, and another one opened to show a sunny kitchen area. When I closed the eye that revealed the kitchen, I could see the banister, but feel the acccoutrements of the kitchen - the counter, sink, backs of chairs etc. Looking back on it, the kitchen in my dream was very much like my mom and dad's kitchen back home. The stairs however, were not.

Anyway, it was very vivid and disorienting, and I wonder if it came from lying down on my floor, and perhaps opening one eye to see, half-consciously, that I was in a different sleeping position from the usual. Regardless... it creeped me right the eff out.

Achilles Acupuncture


On December 30th, I went skating at Seoul Plaza (in front of City Hall) with a few friends. It was great - I even found skates to fit me - 300 mm size, though they were a bit odd - they had this strange kind of folding hinge clasp that you find on ski boots, and while they were adjustable, they never really felt like they fit correctly.

Anyway, it was an hour on some pretty shabby and crowded ice, but I honestly loved every minute of it. I like skating, and though I'm not great at it, I don't think it would take too much for me to get better.

A couple of days later, I found that both of my Achilles tendons were feeling excruciatingly stiff in the mornings. Soon, the pain went all the way around to the front of my ankles as well and I didn't quite understand how or why. As I write this, it's been over a week and a half since I went skating, and there's still major pain and swelling my both of my ankles, but mostly the left. It looked and felt like a badly-sprained ankle. Hard to walk on and puffy as all heck.

Anyway, on Saturday night, the rabbit took me to a clinic in Sinchon to have them look at my ankle. They put me up on a bed and drew the curtain, and then I saw shiny sharp things. I really had no idea that this was an acupuncture place. Anyway, 15 minutes and 8000 won later, I was all de-pinned and sent on my way.

It didn't really work though. So, the rabbit took me to a better place near my house tonight. What's up with the North of Seoul? The guy stuck 28 pins in both of my legs, and followed it up with Dr. Ho-style electro-suction madness. I was there for nearly 30 minutes of treatment, and all for 5000 won. What the hell is up with Sinchon?

The best part was that the doctor let the rabbit try-out the electro-jelly shocker thingy (Sandy - what's the thing really called?) on the backs of my legs while he went to go check on another patient. Fun stuff.

Anyway, it didn't hurt nearly as much as I thought it would. I don't know how far the little guys go in, but you do feel them - just a little discomfort, but tense your muscles in any way while they are in there and then it's not at all a good thing. I am glad to report though that at the end of today's experience, my left leg does feel a bit better. Still, I'll wait for tomorrow morning to deliver a true verdict.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Dragon Hill Spa


My dear friend, Lex, decided to invite a whole whack of foreigners to join her on a trip to what seems to be considered Seoul's "grandest" jimgilbang yesterday evening. Lex digs on jimjilbangs, and she wanted to see how many pleasant foreigners shoe could crowd into one before she ends her winter visit of Korea and heads to Australia to pursue her masters.

Dragon Hill Spa is located very close to Yongsan Station - Yongsan being the area that holds Korea's largest US Army base. I mention that to note that the staff are very used to dealing with foreigners, so it wasn't a horrible thing for a large-ish group of us to descend on the place.

Dragon Hill is only the 3rd jimjilbang I've been to since coming to Korea. I kind of dig on the jimjilbang experience in some ways, but in other ways, I could really take it or leave it.

Basically, a jimjilbang is a public bath-house with bath rooms segregated by gender. Each bath area might have anywhere from 2-12 baths, ranging from 10-16 degrees or so, to the hottest I've seen being somewhere around 47 degrees. There are of course steam rooms, and dry saunas as well - some of the latter being co-ed.

Perhaps the strangest feature of the jimjilbang experience, for me anyway, is the co-ed "sleeping" room. Usually, this is a very wide-open and fairly well-lit stone tile floor heated from underneath. There are no mats - only stiff vinyl blocks for pillows - IF you can find one. I didn't measure the temperature of the floor, but it's hot. Myself, as well as most of my friends were waking up fairly regularly to wipe sweat off of our faces while spreading ourselves out as much as possible in an attempt to cool-down. It's a BIG room, and there was scant floor space available by midnight. You had to step-over people wherever you went.

You thought I was going to say that the strangest part of the jimjilbang experience is the nakedness. Well, that's partly true. I'm not a huge fan of being the extreme minority in a room where dudes of all shapes, sizes, and ages are swinging-about and not-at-all shy about looking to see if the tall foreigner has the same bits and pieces that they do. It's a little disconcerting, but one gets used to it.

I don't know - on the one hand, I like the fact that at the end of the night, or whenever you feel sleep chasing you down, there are literally hundreds of strangers packed fairly close-together (kids and all), in our little Dragon Hill shirts and shorts, and comfortable enough to go to sleep. Last night, the finale (I think) of a very popular Korean TV Drama was playing out on the flat screens around the main room and it seemed as though everyone was watching. I don't know that I've every had that experience outside of televised sporting events. I was charmed.

My friends and I visited the restaurants, got fruit smoothies, had some Korean beer, and then eventually found a clear spot up the steps near the "throne" in the main room. There, you bet your ass we played a game of Catan right under the steps of the Joseon-era throne. It wasn't disrespectful or anything, as we had seen plenty of people frolicking on and around it all night, but we did feel lucky to scam the best seat in the house, which would also soon become our sleeping area. Lex's friend, Ryan, and I were declared the Monarchs of Catan after the game and marked the occasion with a photo atop the throne. Being that I didn't have my camera with me that night, and being that Lex hasn't emailed me the photo yet, this one of the throne balcony in an empty main room (from google) will have to do...

At around 2am or so, the lights dimmed (only slightly) as the room seemed to be suggesting sleep. I tucked my bag into a corner of the throne area balcony, under the watchful eye of my friends, and went off to brush my teeth. When I came back, everything was still there, but a young mother and her 3 or 4 year-old boy had taken my spot. Before I could get a good look, Lex pre-empted my protest by letting me know that the little boy had cancer - how could she say know. Right - there was the little dude with a white face-mask and a shaved head, and looking none-too-well. I moved my stuff over a bit so that I was perpendicular to them, and lay my sweater down as a pillow, then, seeing as the little guy didn't have one, took-out my white t-shirt from the sweater and folded it up like a tiny pillow and offered it to the boy. He took it, put his head down, as did I, and I woke-up probably not more than a few minutes later to feel the little dude's hand rubbing my arm in his sleep. A good memory.

All in all, as much as I appreciated the time I had (good company and all), I don't know that I'll be going back to Dragon Hill Spa anytime soon. There's nothing particularly relaxing about it for me, and it's not exactly cheap if you want to spend a substantial amount of time there. Korean food and drinks are marked-up a fair amount - to nearly double the price of what they would be across the street from the spa, which is understandable, but frustrating when one is in there for the night.

But back to the relaxing bit. Yes, it is nice to wake-up and have the option of getting into the baths one more time before heading wherever it is you're heading, and it's cool to lounge-about in pajamas and in public with your friends, but that floor, even if you can get-over the hardness, is effing hot, and that's not how the Davey likes to sleep unless he's in the tropics and he has no choice.

Also, not to seem like a parting cheap-shot, but if I'm being forthright and honest, Seoul's "best" jimjilbang pales in comparison to what was supposedly a middle-of-the-road Onsen (Japanese public bath) that I visited in Kyoto. I guess Dragon Hill has been around a while, and I realize that everyone has his or her own standards of cleanliness, but I saw things in the Men's shower and bath rooms that would make your over-heated blood run cold.

Still, if you've never been - go, and try sleeping on the floor surrounded by people who are used to it, and see how it is for you. I'll do it again, but likely not until I do so in an attempt to save some cash on my next Korean road trip.