Ramen doesn’t have much nutritional value. This may seem rather obvious to anyone who has attended college on less than a rock star budget, but at eighteen this observation constituted a discovery. Neither, I found, does McDonalds, or the majority of the food typically served at pensions in Korea. And often, what these foods hold in nutritional value is counterbalanced by what they lack in calories.
The human body is like a woman. It may tell you that it’s okay to do what you want, but deep down it expects you to see the error of your ways. Should you be incapable of recognizing and correcting your various faults for an extended period of time, the human body will, much like a woman, eventually express its dissatisfaction. Some times this process takes mere days; sometimes months; but in the end the result is always the same: you will be sleeping on the couch.
While walking with two classmates to hear a speech on Korean culture at school one afternoon, I became painfully aware of how sunny it was. I squinted my eyes to block some of the light, but it was also becoming increasingly difficult to walk in a straight path. I took a seat for a second to regain my composure. Trying in vain to begin walking normally my classmates suggested that we go visit the infirmary. I insisted that I would be fine, but my zigzagging across the school roads did little to help my case. At the infirmary the nurse asked me to lie down so she could take my blood pressure.
The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of an ambulance, which I immediately tried to get out of. “I’m fine! Really…I just need...hospital car…um…I’ll go home. Thanks!” My fellow American classmate assured me that, per opinion of the medical staff, this was not exactly true. My teacher, who had been called out to help deal with language difficulties, gave me a sidelong glance. “Ahyu…kinchanayo?...ahyu…”
I was joined at the hospital by my two classmates, both of whom, like myself, were operating with a second-term level knowledge of Korean. Trying to discuss a brain scan in Korean after three months of language class is not an experience I would like to recreate. As a claustrophobic individual, trying to insure that I would not have a CAT scan was of particular concern. “If small…no. I don’t like small. Get worried…if small. Very worried.”
I’m fairly sure that they placed me in the mental ward of the hospital, based on the patients surrounding me in the hallway as I waited for my brain scan. All the elderly were particularly fascinated with my being a foreigner, but one lady seemed particularly intrigued with my presence. Trying to make a foreigner feel at home, she addressed me in what was to her a foreign language. It was also, unfortunately, a language foreign to me. I do not speak Japanese, and I’m fairly sure that nothing of my appearance gives even the slightest suggestion of Asian extraction. As old as she was, her knowledge of Japanese was surely a vestige of colonial rule. This sad fact did little to change my inability to speak Japanese, however. One of my classmates, a Japanese man, translated her words, and then I would answer her questions in Korean, which would lead to her posing another question in Japanese.
I only saw a doctor one other time that year in Seoul. That visit was also precipitated by a nutritional issue, if a slightly different one. Though I had learned from the first incident that ramen did not constitute a meal, I had yet to learn how to regulate my intake of spicy foods.
Korean food isn’t spicy to the point where it is painful to the touch. What is painful is the cumulative effect of three square meals consisting largely of pepper paste, or gochu jang. I weighed around 83 kilograms at the end of my senior year of high school; four daily bouts of diarrhea had put me at a spry 77.
When one has diarrhea at such frequent intervals, there is a tendency to plan one’s days around defecating. If I knew I was going to meet up with a friend, I would plan to shit in advance. If I knew I was going to the gym later that evening, I would eat sufficiently early to let the food reach my rectum. I quickly learned which subway stations have the best toilets. And while the average Korean might spend one hour per day watching television, I spent one hour per day shitting out barely digested meals.
After seeing traces of blood on my toilet tissue for such time that I came to expect the daily red stains, I called Mr. Kim, a man whose family had taken me under their wing since I had come to the country. Every Sunday they took me to their house for lunch, dinner, and conversation, and introduced me to several individuals with whom I would become close.
I was hesitant to call him because I knew what their reaction would be, but there was no other option. I needed the name of a doctor. As I expected though, Mr. Kim didn’t give me a name. He told me to take a cab to his wife’s office, where they both met me to make the drive across the city to the office of a pediatrician with whom they were friends. I felt guilty during the hour-long drive; like a child taking advantage of the kindness of these surrogate parents. It was one of the few times that I sat in the back of their car.
Diarrhea wasn’t exactly covered in any of the dialogues at my language school, and I can’t say that listening to Mr. Kim discuss my diarrhea with the doctor was particularly pleasant. The appointment, however, was thankfully over in a few minutes, the doctor deciding that I would do well to rest for a few days, and consume a prescribed paste to coat my stomach prior to eating meals.
Rather than charging me for services rendered, the doctor in effect paid me to be her patient by taking us out to dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. And as if she had not properly reimbursed me for the honor of discussing my bowels, she then proceeded to hire me at a rather profitable hourly rate to be her son’s English teacher (She seemed concerned that I might refuse because the wage was too low, though it was about four times what I would make a few months later upon repatriating). This is to say nothing of the guaranteed free meals that I would receive while later teaching.
There is a word for all this in Korean, “Jeong (정).” It doesn’t translate well into English, though my dictionary says it is “compassion, sympathy, tender feelings.” “Jeong” is the reason that an older individual might give a younger acquaintance an envelope filled with currency notes, or that a young student will never pay for a meal when those present are employed. It’s also the reason that the Kim family let me stay in their house that night, and, though I did not take them up on the offer, suggested that I stay with them for a few days until my health recovered.
I had experienced this “jeong” in various forms since my first day on the peninsula. My second day in the country I awoke to my friend Paul’s grandmother folding my clothes and placing them neatly in a stack by my luggage. She couldn’t speak English, and at the time I couldn’t speak Korean, so she took her right hand and rubbed it on my face, smiling. I couldn’t imagine my own grandmother doing this, and truthfully wasn’t sure I wanted to.
Two years later while dicking around outside of the newly constructed “Technomart (featuring such incredible technology as escalators and elevators!)” with Paul, when it occurred to me that I had not seen his grandmother in the intervening time. Paul called her, and as she was close by she came to the pavilion at which we were sitting. She kept repeating “Pangawoah!,” or, “I’m so pleased to see you!” clenching my hand as if it were a life preserver, only letting go briefly when part of her story was deemed sufficiently emotional for it to require hand gestures. Apparently this is a common trait of the mysterious Korean grandmother, but I’m still fairly certain that passerby wondered why a fragile, elderly Korean lady was chatting with and holding the hand of a twenty year old white boy seated next to his Korean friend.
She told me about the difficulties she had encountered growing up on Jeju Island. Orphaned at a young age, she quit school at age thirteen to tend for her younger siblings, sacrificing her own education to eventually enable her younger brother to attend Seoul National University, Korea’s version of Harvard. She continued her story, talking about later difficulties, financial and otherwise, she had encountered as her country made the transition from third to first world. A few minutes in, Paul turned to her, incredulous.
“Grandma! You never told me any of this, and you tell him? You want to switch
grandchildren?” (“할머니, 처음 들어보는 거예요! 그래도 친구한테 이런 얘기를 다 하시네요! 손자를 바뀔래요?”)
“Oh, I just didn’t tell you because you weren’t mature enough” (“니가 아직
미숙해서 얘기 안 했지...”)
Paul and I were born three months apart.
Leaving his grandmother to go back to her volunteer duties at the hospital, and promising to stay in touch (she wrote me a Christmas card giving me the following advice: “Dolsey-kun! If you don’t plant a solid foundation in these days, you will have nothing to harvest in the way of higher education later!”), Paul and I left for some food. Spotting a ramen house, I quickly turned the corner in search of something more substantial.