Archive for January, 2008

Sick in (not of) Korea

It started back in early December.  At a friend’s house, suddenly dinner just did not seem to agree with me.  I excused myself and left everything I had eaten in their nicely-decorated bathroom.  Just food poisoning, I figured.  I was planning for Tod’s arrival, and it didn’t seem worth following up one problematic meal - the first I had had since the week after my arrival.  Two weeks later Tod was here and we went out to dinner and stayed up late talking and finally fell asleep on the same continent for the first time in four months. 

 I woke up the next morning viciously nauseous and I’ve been dealing with it ever since.

Nothing makes you miss home like being sick.  Culture shock, language difficulties, unfamiliar food, suicidal bus drivers - I have learned to like or live with just about everything in Korea.  But when a wave of nausea can come out of nowhere at any time, any place, I of course feel like staying home, in bed, for the duration.  Or even better, just going home. 

Instead I braved the Korean Medical System.  Other than a flu shot, I had managed to stay completely clear of all things medical here in Korea and I have to admit “exploring national health insurance” had not been on my list of things to do.  Not wanting to commute into Seoul, I checked the extremely well-organized internet pages for foreigners needing health care in Korea.   They suggested Ajou University Hospital International Health Care Clinic in the nearby town of Suwon.  This is the medical center where U.S. airmen from Osan Air Force Base and soldiers from Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek go when they need care beyond what can be provided on base.  That seemed a pretty good recommendation.

I have no idea what health care is like for the ordinary Korean.  From my perspective, I have never had such personal health care.  An English-speaking staff member handled my paperwork and walked me from the clinic (a one-room waiting area) to the specialized division I needed (in my case Gastroenterology).  She checked me in, pointed me out to the nurse, and left.  A bit panicked, I pulled out my Korean-English dictionary and rapidly looked up words I might need - nauseous, pain, last week.  The doctor however spoke pretty good English and understood me quite clearly.  We arranged for a medical procedure the next week, and my English-speaking guide appeared, filled out my insurance paperwork, and took me downstairs to pay my bill.  I was in and out in less than 45 minutes.  When I returned for my medical procedure, it was the same - my guide walked me through the building, took my weight and blood pressure, and checked me through all the procedures.  I panicked a bit when left with a Korean-speaking nurse, but an English-speaking nurse appeared and all went smoothly.  My guide reappeared in the recovery room with Tod.  After Tod and I ate lunch and I spoke with the doctor, the guide walked me through paying the bill. 

Having never had this procedure done before, I do not know what it would cost in the United States.  But I do know a colonoscopy, a similar procedure, is $6000-$10,000.  The total bill for my initial consultation, procedure and follow up discussion?  $335.  I was put on a premier US drug for two weeks - total cost $35 for 14 pills.   $35 would barely cover my prescription copay in the United States.  Waiting time for the procedure - 1 week, and only because I could not come in sooner. 

Yet there were other startling differences from U.S. health care that I felt less comfortable with.  No one took my blood pressure until they needed it to calculate how much sedative they could give me.  Same with taking my weight.  No one ever took my temperature.  No one ever asked me about drug allergies and no one took a health history; if I had anything wrong with me that was not in my stomach, I was going to have to volunteer that information, not wait to be asked.  Privacy was more limited.  My name was posted on a board outside the doctor’s office so people would know how many people were in front of them in line.  We all waited directly outside the doctor’s office and if you sat in the right seat, you could hear most of the doctor-patient discussion.  

I do not know whether Korea’s national health insurance limits the kind of care Koreans can get, or forces unreasonable waiting times, or limits their choice of doctors, as opponents of national health insurance claim happen with that type of system.  But their medical system seemed quite up to date, and is internationally known for being more likely to perform too many than too few tests - they have all this amazing medical equipment and they are inclined to use it.  I am curious how my reimbursement will happen in the American medical system.  My Saint Anselm policy does cover faculty while abroad; you “simply send in the receipts”.  We will see if it will be quite that easy.

I am now on a second set of drugs and things continue to get better; it is a process of trial and error, less satisfying than a simple “take this and all will be well”.  My symptoms seem to be a side effect of my acid reflux disease, aggravated by the daily stresses of living abroad - not serious, just really annoying.  On good days I travel to Seoul; I found the most amazing spa there with shiatsu massage and jade-lined heat rooms and salt-rock saunas to warm winter-cold bones.  On bad days, I stay home and write blog entries, syllabi, a peer review on an article, a book review.  Since I do not teach again until March 6, I have plenty to time to get this illness under control; this is a “good time” to be sick.

Living abroad means being open to new experiences every day.  Some are expected, most are not.  I am grateful most of my experiences have gone amazingly smoothly, including my interactions with the Korean medical system.   Stay tuned to see what adventure happens next - I’ll be as surprised as you are.

1 comment January 28, 2008

A visit to the DMZ

A stone's throw from North KoreaEvery once in a while I am reminded that I am serving my Fulbright in one of the only countries in the world in the middle of an ongoing, formally declared war.  Granted, it is currently a very quiet war and it looks pretty likely to stay that way.  However the election of a new, more conservative South Korean President has raised “the North Korea issue” quite a bit recently. 

With this background in mind, Tod and I took a USO tour to the Demilitarized Zone.  It lies about an hour north of Seoul and runs 155 miles across the peninsula.  Having already traveled in North Korea on my Diamond Mountain tour, I expected some of the same reserved but engaged interactions between North and South Koreans.  Not here.  This is where the war is still happening, where U.S. and South Korean soldiers died as recently as the 1970s, where shots were fired in this century, and where both sides take their job very, very seriously.

Propaganda Village, North KoreaOur tour began with the bus trip from Seoul.  Within half an hour we were driving between two endless lines of barbed wire, which protected the road and a few nearby farms from invasion.  After passing through the Southern Line Limit (the southern border of the DMZ) we reached Panmunjom and Camp Boniface (named after a U.S. soldier killed by an ax-wielding North Korean soldier during a tree-trimming incident that became an international skirmish).  We had a briefing by a U.S. soldier attached to the U.N. force that patrols the DMZ.  U.S. soldiers are now less than 10% of that force.

I am a little fuzzy on when we passed through which security protocols, which probably makes the U.S. military happy; they are understandably worried about information going from their offices, through blogs, to the North Koreans.  But in general, we were taken to a couple of observation posts, from which we could see North Korea.  Unfortunately we were there on a terribly foggy day, but we could see “Propaganda Village”(Gijeong) where pro-North Korean slogans used to be broadcast 24 hours a day at South Korea.  The flag flown there weighs 600 pounds when it is dry and the flag pole has been raised twice, to ensure it is higher than the flag pole on the South Korean side.  South Korea also has a village on the border called Freedom Village (Daeseong), which is under the control of the UN.  Villagers are not obligated to pay taxes in South Korea or do military service; however they are required to abide by strict curfews and other restrictions. 

White posts mark the borderWe also visited the Joint Security Area where troops from both North and South Korea are present.  We could look across at the North Korean guards watching us through their binoculars.  The UN force has long imposed a dress code on those visiting the DMZ, so that North Koreans can not use images of Americans in cut-off shorts, torn jeans, or slogan-bedecked t-shirts as propaganda that Americans are poor or degenerate.  These have been relaxed some in recent years.  However the ban on pointing still exists, lest the North Koreans say that Americans are all eagerly asking the guards for permission to emigrate over to North Korea.

The Military Armistice Commission building is used jointly by North and South Korea for talks on unification and other issues related to the armistice that governs the two nations.  When we walked inside the building it was the only point where we could cross the line dividing North and South Korea.  The line is marked by white posts spaced about every 5-10 feet for all 155 miles of the border.  In the MAC area, the line continues as a raised concrete line between the buildings.  Even in the MAC building, the microphones down the center of the table marked the divide.

South Korean border soldierSouth Korean soldiers chosen for their intelligence, loyalty and size guard the DMZ whenever tourists enter the area.  They have ball bearings in their shoes so a few of them sound like a crowd and they wear sunglasses to intimidate the enemy.  Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, they do not smile, move or acknowledge your presence.  Of course many tourists felt the need to test their resolve, a move almost as stupid as wildly pointing to the North Korean guards. 

Four tunnels from North to South Korea have been found, largely due to the help of the North Korean tunnel planning expert who defected in the mid 1970s.  The latest tunnel was found in 1990.  We toured tunnel number 3, which is over 1500 yards long, 6 feet wide and supposedly 6 feet tall, though I regularly hit my head.  It was blasted out of solid rock in order to permit 10,000 armed soldiers to invade South Korea.  We could tour the parts that are in South Korean territory and I can only imagine the national shock when the tunnel was discovered - it was a bit shocking just to walk in it.

ginseng farms behind the barbed wireWhat makes the DMZ tour so fascinating is the sense of unreality.  Grim-faced South Korean guards contrast with the humorous and folksy US soldier who clearly has done this tour many, many times.  We were banned from taking pictures in some places for security reasons, so most tourists then took a million pictures wherever they were allowed.  We watched a film that stressed the DMZ’s role as a nature preserve and expressed high-flown hopes for reunification.  We then looked at exhibits that stressed the brutal nature of North Korean actions against South Korea even after the armistice.   We came up out of the invasion tunnel into a gift shop.  Outside, on the other side of the barbed wire, were ginseng farms. 

Few South Koreans have visited any of these areas.  They need special permission to enter the DMZ.  Thus the entire DMZ “tour experience” has been created for foreigners, not for those who participated in the history, or for the people who have to live with its consequences.

It was not really a war zone, and yet in other ways, it was.  The soldiers there really do risk their lives every day, even if the altercations are few and far between.  They would argue the altercations are rare BECAUSE they are there.  The US and Korean flags in the Military Armistice Building have been replaced with plastic ones after North Korean soldiers used the cloth ones to polish their shoes and blow their nose; on both sides, the propaganda war continues. 

Soft seed blossoms on the barbed wire at third tunnelTwo friends here were kind enough to give us a piece of DMZ barbed wire, a gift given every year to active duty US military personnel.  So I will have a piece of the DMZ in my office when I return.  Once again I can hope that some day it will be a historical relic, a symbol of an era dead and gone.  But for now, the war continues.

(For more pictures from the DMZ, click on any picture in this blog and then on the set titled “DMZ” or go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157603782726591/  )

2 comments January 26, 2008

Staying the Night at a Buddhist Temple

Golgulsa's 7th Century BuddhaWe are awoken at 4 am by the rhythmic striking of a wooden block (moktak), while a novice monk chants and then rattles our doors.  It is dark and cold as we hurriedly dress and head up the hill to morning prayer.  The stars are still visible, with Venus shining blue where Mars had shone reddish the evening before.  A seventh century carving of Buddha is lit high up on a cliff, facing out toward the still-far off dawn.

Sitting cross legged on the floor, we listen as the maroon and yellow-robed monks chant Buddhist sutras.  About 30 high school children surround us in the prayer room.  They are poking each other to stay upright and awake.  At 5 am we turn to sitting meditation, focusing on our breathing.  We try to ignore the novice monk walking the room with a bamboo stick, tapping those who slouch or who have been distracted by the cold.  Then it is walking meditation, which begins in agony as muscles that have cramped and feet that have fallen asleep try to carry us uphill.  At 6 am we file down to Buddhist breakfast (paru gongyang), a Sunday celebration of food and those who produce and prepare it.  We are taught to focus solely on our food, to eat quickly and thoughtfully, and to clean our bowls carefully, wasting neither a grain of rice nor a sesame seed.  That focus is a bit broken as we race to finish before the head monk does, since his timing determines when they come to check our bowls.

Amanda and my room at GolgulsaThese are a few scenes from our one night stay with the Buddhist monks of Golgul Temple in Gyeongju South Korea, near the western coast.   Many Buddhist communities welcome overnight visitors as a source of income and an opportunity to expose more people to the tenets of Buddhist practice.  This particular temple focuses on the preservation and transmission of sunmudo, a martial art originally developed among Buddhists in Korea.  It was used by “fighting monks” who were central in the defense of the nation from Japanese invasion in the 16th century. 

Our stay began with an explanation of what would occur.  Then we moved into our housing, dorm room like accommodations with Korean-style bedding in the middle of the temple grounds.  Tod has his own room on the men’s floor and a former Saint Anselm College student and I shared one on the women’s floor.  Then we wandered, checking out Golgulsa’s famous ”caves,” which are deep ledges on a weathered cliff side, where monks could sit and meditate for hours at a time. Buddhist shrines have been set up all over the cliffside.  Even with stairs, a handrail, and a rope, it was tough going - one could easily imagine the difficult time monks had in the 7th century, climbing up in the dark.  After breakfast on Sunday we climbed it in the dark and watched the sun rise over the distant mountains under the benevolent eyes of that 7th century Buddha.

Golsulsa's caves and BuddhaOur schedule said we were to spend part of the evening chanting and then participating in sunmudo training.  We had no idea how strenuous this would be. Buddhists bow before Buddha 3 times upon entering or leaving a room, multiple times during chanting, 108 times once a day in prayer and 3000 times in times of need.  Properly practicing Buddhists must have leg muscles of steel!  A bow in the Seoul style consists of the following:  Stand with feet together and hands palm to palm in front of your chest.  Squat and bring your knees to the floor.  Bring your hands to the floor, so you are kneeling and then bring your head to the floor.  Balancing on your elbows, bring your hands up and rotate them as if you were throwing something over your shoulders.  Return your hands to the floor, move your weight back onto your feet, put your hands palm to palm again, and stand.  After 30 bows we were moving slowly enough to skip every other one.  At 60 bows I lost count.  When we were finished, I was grateful.  Then we began stretching for sunmudo training!

Luckily training for us consisted of breathing exercises used to center the mind, and some basic sunmudo moves emphasizing balance and strength.  By the end, even bed on a thin mattress in a dorm room sounded absolutely heavenly.

Gameunsa PagodaWe ate three meals at the temple.  All were vegetarian, emphasizing the Buddhist belief in the sacredness of life.  They were also remarkably plain, as Korean Buddhists do not use garlic, onions or most spices.  Dinner and lunch were served cafeteria style and focused on really tasty bean sprouts, various greens, and soybean-paste soup.  We were warned not to take any more food than we could eat; our trays would not be accepted with any leftovers on them.   This was a marked contrast to traditional Korean eating patterns.  We wondered if it helped to mark how different Buddhist life was from the more modern, abundant world outside the temple.

We finished our visit with some side excursions to other Buddhist sites in the area.  Gameunsa’s stone pagodas were built in 682 AD by King Sinmun.  His father, King Munmu, had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time.  Munmu was buried in “the world’s only sea tomb” amid these off shore rocks, where he hoped to turn into a sea dragon to protect his people forever. We also saw Girimsa, a much larger, somehow more peacefully laid out temple.  Perhaps the focus on prayer rather than martial arts affected the feel of the temple, or perhaps it was simply we enjoyed its flatness, rather than hiking up a 20% grade before every meal.

King Munmu's Sea TombOne day and night barely introduced us to a religion that has been in Korea since the fourth century A.D.  But it was a fascinating start. 

For images from other Buddhist temples and gravesites I have visited during my stay here, please click on one of the pictures in this blog.  From there, click on the words “Buddhism set” on the right hand side of the flickr photo page.  The Buddhism set has 45 images from at least 10 temples.

Add comment January 20, 2008

Japanese Food in Korea (Ilbon Umshik or Il-shik)

Japanese food in Korea seems to come in two types:  everyday sushi from the corner store and special occasion food.  I decided Tod had to experience Japanese special occasion food, Korean style.

We went to a place I had been for lunch with a colleague and his family.  We ordered the least expensive dinner item on the menu “Special Side Dishes, $40 per person”.  The waitress spoke some English and assured us that the meal would include “sushi, sashimi, and Korean food.”  Japanese food seems quite expensive, compared to the huge plate of raw fish one can get at a Korean sea-side restaurant (see my blog entry called “The Western Coast” at http://blogs.saintanselmcollege.net/bethsalerno/2007/12/12/the-western-coast/).   However, Japanese meals have amazing variety.  Here is what appeared for our $40 per person.  I have interspersed cultural commentary with the menu.

Starters:

*A small bowl of juk (rice porridge)    *Cabbage salad with sweet, nutty dressing

*Cucumbers, carrots, garlic scapes (stems) and hot peppers with dipping sauce

*Sliced ginger, pickled radish, and pickled pearl onions 

*Wasabi, soy sauce, and red hot sauce for fish.

Course 1:

*Mioku (thick, salty sea vegetable), shrimp and raw oysters in light cold broth

*Sliced octopus with cucumber in hot sauce

*Sashimi salad with cabbage, kim (dried, crunchy seaweed) and hot sauce

Course 2:

*Red snapper sushi  *Sashimi plate of white and silver fish

*Sealife plate of oysters, scallops, conch or whelk, and two unidentified crunchy things   

Both the sashimi and sealife plates were decorated with orchids, a plastic dolphin, small pine trees, marigold blossoms, and shells, and all the food was placed atop large mounds of glistening white noodles which you do not eat.  At moments, there was barely enough room on the table for the silverware.

Course 3:

*Doenjang Soup (kind of like Miso soup - a soybean based broth with mushrooms and scallions)

*Cooked white fish steak - buttery and plain.

*Cooked fish filet with slow-roasted carrot, onion, and garlic.

At this point, I recognized the general outlines of the meal from previous outings and warned Tod that there were likely to be at least two more courses.  He stared at me.  From then on, every time he heard the cart rolling down the hall he looked a bit like a deer in the headlights.  But we plunged bravely on. 

In Korea, it is tradition that guests should be served more food than it is humanly possible to eat.  That way everyone is sure to have enough to eat of whatever they like best, while the host is seen as extremely generous and caring.  One simply cannot think about the wasted food if one wants to be properly polite and honored.  Eating everything on the table would be both rude and suicidal.

Course 4:

*Haemul nurungi soup (a thick, gelled soup made from seafood and the scorched rice at the bottom of the rice cooking pot)

*Mussels, baby octopi, and other unidentified sea life with noodles in red sauce

*A whole fish covered with tuna slices so thin they looked like slightly burned paper and tasted wonderfully dry and smoky.  The fish also had hot sauce and scallions.

Course 5:

*Prawns (still in their shell with heads attached) deep fried in tempura batter with a Chinese sweet and sour sauce with hot peppers

*Tempura Vegetables and shrimp (absolutely no hot sauce in sight!)

Course 6:

*Rice with sesame seeds, two kinds of fish roe, and dried, crispy seeweed in a hot stone pot, so the rice crisped on the bottom and made the dish quite crunchy

*Maemultang - equal parts water, leftover fish parts, and red pepper powder with a few greens thrown in.  Unbelieveably hot.  Tod had two bowls and said the inside of his ears were sweating.

*Kimchi

Dessert:

Plum Juice

We ordered green tea early on and got a bottle of ice water with a tea bag.  It was good and kept us through half the meal when we again ordered green tea and specified “hot please”.  Koreans do not drink water with their meals usually, preferring to get their fluids from the foods and soups, perhaps drinking a glass of water at the end of the meal.

At the end of our meal, we could not drink water.  We could barely move.  We immediately agreed to skip the cab and walk six blocks to catch the bus.   Too many special occasion meals like this and we would definitely explode!

I am not wholly sure what is “Japanese” about the meal, other than the sushi and sashimi.  Many of the dishes were quite Korean and others may have been Korean-ized.    Perhaps it is like Japanese food in the United States, which also likely bears only a passing resemblance to what is eaten in Japan but is immediately recognized by Americans as “Japanese” - sushi, tempura, grilled shrimp filleted by a knife-wielding chef and tossed to you.  Koreans recognize the combination of dishes above as part of a “Japanese” menu.  We recognized it as good food worth eating, though next time, we’ll skip lunch and possibly breakfast too, in order to prepare enough space.

1 comment January 17, 2008

Welcome to My World - My Husband’s Visit to Korea

Tod at Seoul City HallHappy Solar New Year to everyone!  My extended “absence” from the “blogosphere” this past month was due to my husband’s 3 week visit to Korea.  E-mail and 3-cent-a-minute phone cards kept us connected during our four months apart, not to mention surprise packages and old-fashioned hand-written letters.  However, nothing compares to being together and I did not want to “waste” any of our time writing blog entries! 

You will hear about our various adventures over the next couple of weeks.  Some entries will even have pictures, when I remembered to take them!  The most interesting part however was getting to watch another American adapt to Korean society.  I have gotten so used to the crowding, hurrying, language and customs of Korea, that I had forgotten how overwhelming they can be to a new person.

By New Hampshire standards, Pyeongtaek is a major city.  With almost 400,000 residents, it is four times the size of Manchester.  I tend to think of it as a small agricultural town in comparison to Seoul’s 24 million people.  But Tod saw it compared to Weare New Hampshire’s 8000 very spread-out residents.  Through his eyes I experienced once again the amazing population density here in Korea.  Koreans’ sense of body space is very different than Americans and one is pretty constantly jostled, brushed against, or leaned on whenever there is a crowd.  As in American cities, most people are in a constant state of hustle, so anyone trying to figure out where to go (or simply sight-seeing and dawdling along) is an obstacle to forward progress.  In Korea, the hurry extends to bus drivers and taxi drivers who engage in what feel like life-threatening driving feats to shave 5 minutes off their arrival time (think “New York City cab driver” and then add attitude).  This “ppalli, ppalli” or “fast, fast” personality has rocketed Korea from third world to first world economy in less than 30 years, but it does leave one a bit bewildered in the subway station.  On the other hand, an amazing number of people stopped to ask us if we needed help - always in English.

Samgyeopsal (Grilled Pork Belly)After two weeks, Tod commented that he was surprised there was so little variety in the food.  I was a bit astonished - he had eaten kalbi and samgyeopsal (grilled beef and pork) as well as Buddhist Temple Cuisine, which is vegetarian.  But we realized what he meant was that all the food he was eating was recognizeably Korean.  In Manchester alone, an adventurous person can eat Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Irish food, to mention only a few.  This is pretty standard in any good-sized American town.  But in Korea, you have to search a fair bit harder for non-Korean food, though Chinese and Japanese dishes that have been “Korean-ized” are widely available.  I think this says something important about America’s acceptance of diversity in the past few decades, while Korea is still trying to adapt from its previously multiracial society to its rapidly multicultural one.

Buddhist Temple Cuisine at SanchonBeing with Tod also showed me how many things I now do automatically, though I had never seen or done them five months ago.  When I hand something to someone, I use one hand for young people, two hands for people senior to me, and one hand with the other hand near my elbow for equals.  The first time I handed something to Tod this way, he looked at me baffled and I asked him what he was so confused about!  I half-bow to new acquaintances, bring bags to the supermarket, get my vegetables weighed and labeled in the produce section (not at the checkout), eat neatly with metal chopsticks, navigate city buses, subways, three kinds of trains, and two kinds of taxis, and read signs and communicate in a language that to Tod was “circles and lines”.   Five months ago some of those actions felt completely overwhelming.  Now I often take them for granted.

Seeing Korea through Tod’s eyes gave me a strange “double vision” - I could see Korea the way I had when I first arrived, and yet also as I see it now.   It makes me wonder what the country will look like in five more months when I take my leave from here and head back home. 

Add comment January 15, 2008


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