Sunday, September 30, 2007


Translator, How Do You Say “Quack” in This Language?

Of the few Korean words that I know, two of the easiest to learn are Hangeul-mal. When someone uses this, they are asking you to (or asking if you can) speak Korean. I deduced its meaning after about my seventh trip to a doctor's office in this country, when I realized the physician was asking the person I brought with me as a translator if I could speak his language.

Few of the natives of this country seem to feel the burden that I bear, which is to enlighten all who would ask questions whose answers are painfully obvious with the cleansing fire of sarcasm. They always give the abrupt response that means "No," rather than something I feel would be more appropriate, like "Yes, he speaks it incredibly well. The reason why I, a Korea, have chosen to escort this foreigner to your office is actually because I want to learn the language from him."

Perhaps my bursts of imagined banter are particularly bitter in doctors’ offices because nothing good ever happens there. Whenever the seasons change in Korea, foreigners, regardless of whether or not they are 90-pound recovering anorexics or gold medal decathletes, come down with flu-like symptoms.

Unlike in America, where we tell those feeling slightly under the weather to just get some rest and drink lots of water, the Koreans we work with will always say, "You should see a doctor." The first few times, the foreigner goes along with it, since this is a different country, and here an untreated flu might mean something much worse than in America, like death, brain damage or the early onset of male-pattern baldness.

Well, after two years here, I've come to find that there are, in fact, four differences between seeing a doctor for flu-like symptoms and not seeing a doctor for flu-symptoms. If you don't see the doctor, A) you won't get to spend an afternoon sitting in a room full of people sicker than you, B) you won't get to give the hospital/clinic $15 worth of currency for their services rendered, plus $5-$10 more of currency that the pharmacy will charge later that day, C) you won't get a week's worth of tasteless pills that you get to remember to ingest after every meal, and D) while you may know already that you're supposed to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water, you won't get to hear it directly from a guy in a lab coat who wasn't sharp enough to immediately realize that you brought a Korean with you because you can't speak Korean.

Either way, you're going to have spend an afternoon or two getting some rest and drinking plenty of water.

For all of these reasons, my immediate reaction to anyone who tells me that I need to see a doctor is indifference, if not outright scorn. In June, when I first felt back pain after 18 years of playing tennis, someone naturally suggested a visit to a clinic, to which I probably responded that I'd just stretch more before my next match.

When it occurred again, I probably responded by saying I'd do more strength-training exercises to help my lower back.

When the pain persisted, I finally relented to the chorus of hypochondriacs and agreed to have my back examined in Seoul. "Maybe you should get your back x-rayed," someone suggested.

"Right," I probably responded. "And maybe I'll get blood drawn and my prostate checked while I'm there."

They insisted, so I got the x-ray. After putting on a gown designed to properly fit the typical Korean middle school-aged girl, I laid on my back under the machine. Then, I laid on my sides under the contraption, and then I laid in a kind of combination of the first two positions, which actually requires you to clutch the side of the table to keep from tipping over. Then I found that in the final required formation, the x-ray technician will push you into the shape of a ball for one more scan. I don't what he says as he's doing this, but I like to imagine that when he's finished he quips, "In this position, sucking your thumb is optional."

That finished, I can have the dignity of proper clothing restored, then learn about the doctor's diagnosis and prescribed therapy.

"He says your spine is crooked and that you shouldn't play tennis," my translator says.

"For how long?" I ask.

"He says that you should find another sport."

Since then, I've pictured what this doctor would say if he were treating a recent amputee, who asked him, in innocent wide-eyed curiosity, if their arms could be re-attached.

"Use your legs!" I imagine him saying.

My fiancée offered to make an appointment for me at the special spinal department at the hospital where she works in Chuncheon. Suddenly, I couldn't wait to see a qualified physician, provided he'd tell me something encouraging, namely, that I didn’t have to give up the only sport I’ve ever loved.

After another round of contortionist positioning for x-rays, I was told that my spine was getting better, and given a pamphlet with core exercises and proper sitting positions at my work desk. He also said that tennis is hard on my back and that I shouldn't play until the pain subsides.

In that case, you can see me on the courts tomorrow. Thanks, doc!

Doctors are not necessarily responsible, no matter where they are...
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