Thursday, June 15, 2006


Catching the Migukin Fever

I left on the way to South Korea at 6 a.m. on Aug. 21. The first time the idea of leaving the country crossed my mind was probably at 9 p.m. on Aug. 22, when I arrived in guest housing for orientation and found out that my shower was a) a kind of handheld faucet kept in the same small room as the washing machine and the Watos, the Korean commode brand of choice and b) in a room whose windows exposed the showerer to the public.

True, we weren’t exactly on ground floor, but it was easy for my overactive imagination to picture patrons of the fitness gym across the street taking a break from their treadmills and stationery bikes, grabbing some popcorn and saying “It’s 9 p.m., time for naked Migukin* show!”

However, I enjoyed my experience next several months, which wasn’t even dampened by my first encounter with flu-like symptoms in early October. I awoke from an afternoon nap to discover that, despite the 15-20 pounds I had already lost, my legs alone felt as though they weighed as much as Asia Minor. At this point I called my teaching coordinator, a South African woman named Mimie whose voice was so shrill it could peel grapefruits from a distance of 150 meters.

“Don’t worry Rob, we’ll take care of it,” she said over the phone, as I watched my tangerines in the kitchen unsheathe themselves and the bedroom floor tile peel. Previously, it had been a source of great pride that I had only taken one sick day in two years working at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, and that was when I’d had my wisdom teeth removed. However, I actually didn’t mind missing work on this particular afternoon, a sentiment I probably couldn’t disguise despite my best efforts.

“Yeah, Mimie, sorry I can’t teach screaming hyperactive kids the proper way to say ‘seagull’ this afternoon,” I said. “I’m also distraught by the possibility that I won’t be teaching adult classes until 9 p.m. tonight and then waking up at 7 a.m. tomorrow to start the work day again. Seriously, I might throw myself from my fifth-story window had I the strength to open it.”

The second time I encountered flu-like symptoms was in December, which was also the second time I considered leaving the country and going home. At this point I had lost 30 pounds and wondered if I was losing an extra kilogram with each guttural cough. “I’ve got chills and I can’t feel my hands,” I probably said out loud, and a gaggle of Korean high schoolers probably repeated after me, thinking they were learning a popular Migukin party phrase.

But I didn’t go home in December, and January and February were uneventful months, at least in terms of health.

March and April were different. First, there was a standard flu case with muscle aches, runny nose and sore throat, which caused me to miss a day’s worth of classes. Then came teacher’s retreat at the end of March, in which I and at least 80 other teachers drank contaminated water and found ourselves retreating to the hwajangsil** all weekend.

During an evening that I spent in the fetal position preparing to relive that evening’s lasagna in a series of installments, I reached several conclusions: 1) The Watos is a fine piece of craftsmanship capable handling a large volume in one evening, 2) I don’t know about nuclear or chemical, but I’m pretty sure Saddam hid his biological weapons in that lasagna, and 3) I’d had enough.

Upon returning to my institute I requested a two-month leave of absence. It was granted and would begin in May, continuing until the start of July. It was a difficult decision at the time, but fortunately April reminded me of its necessity. There was, for example, the time my students strained their ears to listen to the Migukin with a wood rasp for a voice saying “Okay everybody, today we’re going to learn a new word. Repeat after me: ‘Laryngitis.’”

Then, about week later, a student in my 7 a.m. session began the day by asking an atypical question in an English conversation class: “Teacher, why won’t you open your right eye?” Its plentiful secretions had caused it to get stuck together overnight, but when it finally did unfasten I could use its brilliant burgundy hue to my advantage: I could tell junior students that I would come get them at night if they didn’t learn how to pronounce “th.”

That day, I saw an oriental medicine doctor who gave me acupuncture. I still don’t know if putting 15 needles in my ear and one in each wrist actually served any purpose other than for the clinic’s staff’s amusement. I imagine them watching on hidden camera saying, “Pass the popcorn. The only thing better than naked Migukin is squirming Migukin!”

But the doctor did give me a dose of inspiration when he said to me, “Your immune system is very weak. You need rest.” When I return to Korea, the next phrase I intend to learn will be for him: it will be an approximate translation of “Ya don’t say?”

*Which is the Korean word for Americans, as opposed to the American word for Koreans, which is “Lee.”
**Which is the Korean word for restroom. If restrooms have a word for Koreans I’ve yet to discover it.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]