On Friday morning I awoke with the very strange sensation that I couldn’t properly straighten out my right foot. It felt tight, like I had been curled into a box for several months, and my ankle was the last part of my body to uncurl, like the innermost ring of a snail. I still don’t know how it happened.
I tried to fix it. I soaked it in hot water, I walked around my apartment, I tried to massage it into submission; nothing worked. Finally, I left for work 30 minutes early, hobbling the entire way and dreaming up all the horrible things that could happen if I didn’t heal fast.
My co-teacher met me in the parking lot.
“You have to go get acupuncture,” she said. “Let’s call the boss. Field trip day, you don’t need to be there,” she said.
A stroke of luck. The field trip is mostly in Korean. My boss argued with my co-teacher a bit, he did, after all, want me there for the pictures. But in the end, she won. It was obvious that I needed to see the acupuncturist.
Koreans are generally always going to the doctor for one thing or another. As an American, I’ve adapted the mindset that the doctor is an unnecessary luxury unless I’m in desperate need of medical attention. Even with insurance, the fees are simply unaffordable. Last year, I payed over $300 to get wax removed from my ear. A 10-minute procedure. I’ve been curious about the constant doctor visits that my Korean friends are always taking, but I had no real reason to go myself. Until Friday.
“I really don’t know what happened,” I said while we were in the elevator going up to the office.
“Ah, maybe Korea is stressing you out?” my co-teacher asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I lied.
“I think Korea has too much stresses. That’s why everyone is always sick,” my co-teacher mused.
“So, maybe I’m becoming Korean?” I joked.
“Ha! Maybe…” she laughed.
In the office, I took the usual 20 minutes to remove my shoes while my co-teacher explained the situation to the receptionist. There was a bit of a fuss with my foreigner card and calling my boss and checking and re-checking the internet. I didn’t actually need a translation of what was going on, before they told me, I already knew.
“Ah, Tasha, our boss has not set up your health insurance yet,” my co-teacher sighed. “Instead of 8 dollars, you will have to pay 30. Is it okay?” she asked.
“Of course it’s okay,” I said. I wasn’t surprised that my boss hadn’t yet set up my health insurance, but it also didn’t make me exactly happy. However since the full-price of acupuncture in Korea is a fraction of what it would be in the States, I wasn’t too upset.
After writing down instructions for the taxi to bring me back to school, my co-teacher waved good-bye and left me in the acupuncturist office.
I sat calmly. I considered texting friends, but decided against it. Instead, I amused myself by imagining my ankle being turned into a small, misshapen porcupine. I watched the receptionists and they eyed me with bemused, sympathetic faces. A man walked in, quickly removed his shoes, and walked to the back. I saw him take off his coat, and lay down on one of the narrow beds. A regular, I guessed. Finally, right at 9:30, the doctor lead me to the back.
I sat on the table and the doctor removed my socks and pulled up my pants legs a bit. He began feeling my ankles and asking what hurt and what didn’t. “Pain?” he would ask as he bent my foot downward. “Aniyo,” I replied. “Pain?” he asked as he bent my foot upwards. But I didn’t have to answer in Korean to that, he could tell by my sharp intake of breath. Mostly the Doctor didn’t speak English and I don’t speak much Korean, so we didn’t have very much communication.
Then he motioned for me to lay down, and the receptionist brought out a small metal try.
I’m not sure what I was thinking when I stepped into the acupuncturist office on Friday morning. Was I thinking that they weren’t actually going to stick me with needles? Maybe. It was definitely something I hadn’t really taken the time to think through. My co-teacher said I should go, and my ankle was in terrible shape, so I went.
When they stuck in the first needle, it felt just like you would expect, it felt like being shot by one of the tiny arrows from the indian in the book, The Indian in the Cupboard. I felt my jaw drop. Both the doctor and the receptionist giggled. I hadn’t known they were watching me but then I realized, of course they would be watching the foreign girl’s face during her first acupuncture experience. I laughed, too, and then, realizing that my mouth was still hanging open, I closed it. They laughed again.
From that point on, the doctor just kept sticking needles in me. I would feel a slight cold sensation, and then a prick, and then a tiny metal rod would be hanging from my skin. He didn’t put any needles in my hurt foot, instead, he wrapped that with hot packs and set it under a red heat lamp. About six needles went into my left foot, two in my hand, and two more right in my forehead. Then, the receptionist closed the curtain around my bed, and said “15 minutes,” and they both left the room. I was left to listen to “California Dreaming” as I contemplated life. When I got bored of that, I used my itouch camera as a mirror to watch the needles in my forehead sway manically as I moved my eyebrows up and down.
The doctor came back and removed the needles. Ting, ting, ting, I counted them as he dropped them into the metal tray and dabbed at my skin here and there where there were drops of blood. There was more massaging and moving around of my ankle, and then the doctor told me to turn over.
What happened next, I’m not sure. There were tubes hooked up to a machine, and the tubes had some kind of suction power. And then, there was what I can only describe as the feeling of a tiny little machine gun shooting right into my ankle. Do you remember the movie Small Soldiers with Tommy Lee Jones? Well, I totally had flashbacks to that movie. It felt like I was being shot 20 tiny little soldiers. Then, the doctor turned on the machine. Did it electrocute me? Did it pull all the muscles in my leg into a funny contortion and then ring them out like a wet towel? Yes, yes I think it did. The sensation only lasted for about 30 seconds, but it was poignant for sure. Then the doctor turned down the power, and left the room while the machine sucked at my legs for a bit. I sat up in the darkness to examine my leg. There was a clear bottle with some sort of liquid obviously being pumped into the tiny holes in my leg. But what was it? No idea.
As I was paying the receptionist, I watched as the doctor treated another patient. He was using a kerosene lamp to heat up little glass cups, and then he was sticking the cups onto the back of the patient. I imagined it was painful, since the patient was covered in red circles. After that, the receptionist walked me out of the office, down the street and to the road so that she could get me a cab and tell them where to take me. “Tomorrow, you come back, okay?” she said while we were in the elevator. “Okay,” I said. Sure. Why not?
One unexpected benefit of being lame for Friday was that I actually got to experience what having desk time is all about since I didn’t have to teach my two 80-minute kindergarten classes. I sat at my desk and made a powerpoint for one class, and a game for another. It was a somewhat relaxed day and I walked (hopped) into all four of my afternoon classes prepared for once. Also, my kindergartners gave me tiny fistfuls of sympathy snacks and they let me use their milk to water down my terrible instant coffee. “Teacher, it’s like you’re dancing!” said one of my elementary students when I hopped into her class.
“Yeah, it’s kinda like that,” I said. “Except, it isn’t…”