Breaking point

It’s mid-term time so for the past three working days my day has ended at noon. Yesterday I took this opportunity to make a trip to Seomun Market (서문 시장) with Main Co. So far, so painless…

After picking up a cute animal-eared bonnet for my friend’s baby, I was ready to escape the bustling rabbit warren that is Seomun Market when MC invited me along to her appointment at a traditional Korean medicine clinic. As part of my pre-Korea research I read about the practice of traditional Korean medicine (한의학) but in the seven months intervening I haven’t seen very much evidence of it’s popularity. Being a waygook in Korea you occupy a specific bubble, detached from a large part of the culture – although you catch flashes you never get the full picture. MC knows this so she makes a point of inviting me along to any specifically Korean things that she thinks might interest me, and these little forays into ‘real’ Korea generally pay off. My visit to the traditional Korean medicine man, however, did not.


As I followed MC out of the market I envisioned turning down a narrow, deserted alleyway and ducking through an unmarked door that would open onto a dark, cavernous room heavy with the scent of ginseng and unidentifiable herbs. The walls would be lined with endless weird and wonderful items, bottled and labeled. There would be rows of ornate Chinese medicine cabinets with thick, dusty tombs detailing the human anatomy stacked on top of them.  Every other surface would be covered in scales, pestles and mortars, test tube racks, perhaps a bubbling cauldron or two.

Basically I was prepared to walk into Potions class

Well I was right about the ginseng. But for the most part my expectations were about 70 years out of date. It turns out that traditional Korean medicine clinics are pretty much identical in appearance to western clinics, right down to the dogeared womens’ magazines. I think MC could sense my disappointment as we took our seats in the noticeably comfortable, well-lit waiting area. She encouraged me to think of a medical complaint so that I could join her in the doctor’s office and receive a traditional diagnosis of my own. Intrigue restored, I mentally composed a fictitious ailment and followed MC into the doctor’s office.

As in the reception, there was a distinct lack of cauldrons inside and the doctor himself looked suspiciously like a regular doctor. I began to wonder if MC had duped me. MC went first and I took a seat to observe proceedings. First the doctor asked her some seemingly routine questions. MC said 네 (yes) a lot. Then he seemed to take her pulse on both wrists for an inordinate amount of time. This was followed by more questions, then MC stuck out her tongue for inspection. More questions, many more 네s. Finally the doctor prodded MC’s legs for a bit before closing her file and pronouncing his diagnosis – “Acupuncture.”

With me in the hotseat the doctor went through the process again, aided by MC’s translation. I was informed that I have a comparatively weak heart, lungs and stomach. “What should I do doctor?” I asked eagerly, hoping to be prescribed some exotic, vitalizing concoction. “Acupuncture,” he said. MC was nervous because she hadn’t had it for many years and she thought it might hurt but I was unconcerned. As I told MC sagely, a friend had recently had acupuncture and had reported that it was entirely painless, we had nothing to fear. I practically skipped into the treatment room.

Instructed to lie down on adjacent beds, curtains were drawn between us. In broken English the doctor told me to lose my skirt and advised that what was to follow would “hurt probably”. Still I was unconcerned, and so was entirely unprepared for the acute pain brought on by doc viciously stabbing me in both thumbs and big toes with a hat pin. After squeezing about a pint of blood out of my wounds the good doctor set to work covering every visible portion of my flesh in needles via a disconcerting and unpleasant jabbing, wiggling motion that made me shiver all over.

Satisfied that I resembled a pin-cushion, the doctor placed a type of hot water bottle over a free patch of abdomen and a heat lamp over my feet before disappearing. I now have no doubt that under torture I would confess and surrender all of my friends and family immediately. Over the next 30 minutes I considered throwing in the towel on at least three occasions. The doctor needn’t have told me not to move, if I so much as attempted to shift my weight my muscles twinged in protest. Glancing down at the forest of needle ends made me feel sick and the panpipe music offered little respite as it was overpowered by regular sharp intakes of breath as the doctor set to work on other patients. Finally, needles removed, MC asked hopefully, “Do you feel well?” I rubbed my aching legs and eyed my blotchy reflection pointedly.

After paying for our torture session we were given an infernal brown liquid to drink. It tasted not dissimilar to the tortoise jelly that I had the delight to sample in Hong Kong.


And drinking it produced an identical reaction, which MC, the receptionist and the random pair of ajummas got a big kick out of.

 Korean medicine has officially been ticked off of my to do list.



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