Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Long View

Moving to a foreign country is a chance to take yourself out of your comfort zone and experience things in a way you normally wouldn't. Notice that I said, "chance," as I definitely see this as a positive thing. Growth happens when you're challenged. Your muscles won't get bigger unless you stress them literally to the point of breaking and then allow them to rebuild. A similar thing happens when living in a foreign country: it hurts like hell while it's happening but afterwards you realize that you've grown from the experience and are just a little better off because of it.

I have lived overseas before. I spent a year studying the language in Japan and was often confronted with challenging and dismaying situations. Having met and surpassed them, I recognize that I have become a better person. This was on my mind when I signed up to teach English in Korea with the EPIK program. And being assigned to a small town in Gyeongsangbuk-do was even better: there was no way I could get through a year without experiencing some personal growth. This was not to be Seoul, where foreigners are a 100-won coin a dozen, and where familiar things are as nearby as the corner Starbucks. No, this was to be the countryside, where no one spoke English, where there were few if any familiar stores or products, and where things would be very different. In other words: pure, unadulterated Korea. I accepted the position with relish, welcoming the kinds of tests that I knew would make me a bolder and better man.

Romantic notions about personal growth and the cold, hard, day-to-day reality of life in Korea are, however, two very different things. I am well acquainted with that unwelcome houseguest called culture shock, who moves into your head and never really leaves, no matter how hard you try to evict him. I prepared myself for the little things and quietly set about conquering them one by one: a diet of spicy food that wrecked havoc on my digestive system; clothes that never seemed to dry, no matter how long they hung on the line; building management that was seemingly incapable of keeping a steady supply of gas flowing to my apartment; and suddenly going from 38 years old at home to 40 in Korea in a matter of months. All of this I could deal with, and did, largely in the public eye of my school. When the entire staff knows you've had chronic diarrhea—indeed, when the entire town knows—your skin gets thick pretty fast.

However, you cannot prepare yourself for everything.

At this point I should probably explain about my feet. I am not a sickly person. In fact, I have been blessed with pretty good health. I rarely get sick even when people are disgorging phlegm and collapsing in paroxysms all around me. I have never had a cavity and never broken a bone. But my feet, my poor feet. They crack, they pop, they're always sore. Although there's no history of it in my family, and although I have always worn comfortable shoes, I ended up with bunions. After putting off surgery for five years because of the horrendously long recovery time, I finally relented earlier this year and had my feet cut open, the bones broken and reset, and then put back together. The recovery time stretched out even longer when I developed complications and had to have additional surgery. All told, I was off my feet for around four months. And then I came to Korea.

I can't place the blame entirely for the problems that developed on this surgery. In fact, my doctor here tells me there's no connection at all. But like an old man who measures his days by his aches and pains, I just want to complain a little. And it sets the stage for what's to come.

Fifteen years ago I had surgery for an ingrown toenail. It was quick and somewhat painless and after a few days I stopped worrying about it. Until I arrived in Korea, that is. Granted, my toenails have bothered me off and on over the years but never badly enough to see a doctor about. But after a few days of walking around Jeonju, where I was attending EPIK orientation, I knew something was wrong. My right big toe was starting to hurt and there was a frighteningly yellow liquid oozing out from where the skin overlapped the nail. I would find out later that this was pus but at the time I didn't want to think about it. I hoped that if I just put it back in the shoe the issue would go away.

I finished orientation and moved on to my placement, a small town called Hamchang in northwest Gyeongbuk. I started teaching at Hamchang School, an all-boys school with both middle and high school classes. As a first-time teacher, I threw myself into my job: I planned lessons, I tried different teaching methods, I worried about how to manage classroom behavior, and I looked for resources and help online and asked for it from new teacher friends. And all the while, my toenail showed no sign of improvement. It wasn't killing me or anything, in fact the pain was quite manageable (more than some of my classes, even) but the issue was plainly not going to go away on its on. Finally, the day my health insurance paperwork arrived, I asked a co-teacher to take me to the hospital.

There is a giant, brand new hospital right across the street from my apartment. I often see patients trudging around the block, I.V. drip dragging behind them like an arthritic dog. The hospital entrance is so close I could even crawl there if I had to—which didn't seem all that far off the mark given the state of my big toe. Fearing for the worst but hoping for the best, I asked Mr. Lee to take me there.

Mr. Lee is one of my six co-teachers. He recently spent half a year in England learning new methods to teach English to second-language learners, so he knows what it means to live in a foreign country. Between him and Mr. Jang, my head co-teacher, I'm pretty much covered for whatever I may need. They've both lived in this area for most of their lives. In fact, they're both alumni of our school. There's very little they don't know about our area, and usually I defer to them on things like where to eat dinner or where to find the good bargains. But when it comes to my body, well, that's another story.

When you're sick, when there's something wrong, when you're in pain, you just want your mommy. If she's not available, you want whatever you're most familiar with and for Westerners that means big, shiny hospitals. Often the most harrowing travel stories are the ones that involve unplanned visits to strange hospitals and odd doctors. You might not remember exactly what you what you had for dinner that night in Cancun but you'll never be able to forget getting stitches when you cut your thumb trying to open an after-dinner Corona.

Mr. Lee really wanted me to go to a local doctor, one just down the street from school. Actually, one above the bus station. Bus station? "But there's a big new hospital right by my house," I protested. "It looks so clean from the outside. And there are no buses there." Mr. Lee insisted that the local doctor was more experienced than any hospital doctor, and was in fact something of a foot specialist.

So it was that I found myself being stared at in a country doctor's waiting room on the second floor of a bus station. I was motioned into the dimly lit doctor's office, which was more of a wide hallway than anything we might call an "office" or even a "room." Privacy is a concept seemingly not familiar to this corner of Korea and so all during my consultation other patients traipsed in and out of the examination room, coughing and wheezing and being generally unwell. I put my feet up on a table, the doctor said I didn't need surgery, his nurse swabbed it with iodine and wrapped it in gauze and they sent me on my way.

A few days later it started to bleed. After taking a look at my toe, which I was asked to display in the teacher's office, everyone agreed that I should get some medical treatment. Mr. Lee asked if I wanted to go back to his doctor and, assuming I definitely needed surgery now, and remembering the dark office and the Grand Central Station approach to privacy, I said I wanted to go to the big new hospital instead. "But my doctor has a lot of experience," Mr. Lee protested. "Hospital doctors are too young." No, no, I thought. I don't want some horse doctor carving up my toenail in barn-like darkness. Big new hospitals are better.

At the big new hospital, under bright lights and in complete privacy, sequestered away from all the expectorating elderly in the waiting room, a young doctor looked at my foot, thought for a few moments and then asked me pointedly if I thought I needed surgery. "Why are you asking me?" I sputtered out incredulously. "You're the doctor." He then had a long conversation with Mr. Lee in Korean, which could be summed up as, "Let's wait and see."

I did not feel comforted in the least bit. My toenail was still bleeding and all this young whippersnapper had done was push repeatedly on the side of the nail and make me howl. Mr. Lee shared my doubt in this youngster's skills as an M.D., so back we went to the country doctor. There, in the half-light of his hallway examination room, patients going back and forth like they were at the DMV, the country doctor explained to me that prevention was the best medicine, and that even if I had surgery the problem could recur again in as little as a month. His English was pretty good but I wanted to make sure I absolutely understood what he was saying so I asked him the same questions repeatedly in different ways, and he patiently answered them all. "The bleeding is a sign that the toenail is healing," he explained. That's all I needed to hear. My fears were finally allayed.

When I got back to school, my toe once again swabbed in iodine and wrapped in gauze, I relayed to Mr. Lee what the doctor had said. "You were right," I told him. "That doctor is great. He really made me feel at ease." And as Mr. Lee headed off to his next class, I added, "From now on, he's my doctor too."

Since then I have done my best to follow the doctor's orders and stay off my feet but this is not always possible. I'm living in a new country and want to experience all that it has to offer. When I stay at home at the weekends I feel hobbled and depressed, like I'm missing out on life. I see pictures of my friends on Facebook frolicking in Seoul and Busan and then feel sorry for myself and my bum toe.

Part of me wishes the doctor had just cut out the bad nail that day. Maybe it would have fixed it or maybe, like he told me, the problem would just recur again. Prevention is the best medicine, essentially. I'm trying to believe this is the case but it's hard for me, as this notion is all but lost in the West where quick fixes rule the day. We can't imagine waiting for anything, not even our own bodies. I cut my finger the other night trying to open a package with a pair of scissors and became extremely worried when the cut hadn't completely closed up by the next day. Ultimately, we'd rather go through the pain of surgery now and get a quick fix than wait for something to heal on its own.

"Koreans don't like to harm their bodies," Mr. Lee explained to me. "You know Confucianism? Our bodies are gifts from our parents, whom Confucianism teaches us to revere. We should not do anything to harm this gift." This is essentially what the country doctor told me too. Western doctors are so quick to suggest surgery, even when it might not be necessary. But wait a minute. Wait a month. Wait and see.

Recently the toenail has gotten a lot better, although it's not perfectly healed just yet. It sounds like it's going to be a long process, more of a change in lifestyle than anything a quick surgery could fix. "Actually," I thought to myself the other evening while I was poking at the nail to see if it had healed, "isn't that a lot like my desire for self-growth?" Korea is not a quick fix for whatever ails my soul. It's not going to slap a band-aid on me and send me on my way like a Western doctor. Korea requires the long view.

And what a view it is, too.

This was my entry to the 2010 EPIK essay contest. I didn't win. If the subject of the essay seems familiar, it should: it's an extension of a previous blog post, entitled Changing The Way I Look At Things.

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