Unsurprisingly, I got a last minute message asking if I could get a medical check before my contract starts. Health checks are usually required not by immigration but by individual offices of education so I calmly called a local hospital and set up an appointment with the international center. If you think I have enough command of Korean to navigate a hospital on my own, you are wrong. Although, I appreciate your confidence in me.
I asked the nervous woman who had taken my temperature by the hospital doors where the international center was. She looked at me in confusion so I switched it to “foreigner center”. She answered hesitantly that it was on the third floor. I thought the receptionist who answered the phone before said first floor but I couldn’t find the center at all, and the hospital is not big, so I resigned myself to confusion.
Above a small exam room was “International Center” and yet the panel next to it said “OBGYN”. There was a single patient on a bed so I figured that was wrong. I called the center and she said they were located on the fourth floor.
The fourth floor was the sport rehab center and the kidney center so I called again.
“Uh… I’m lost. I’m by the kidney center.”
“Oh, stay right there. I’ll come get you.”
Wow, what customer service! I can guarantee you this would never happen at the massive 8 building hospital campus I went to in Seoul. It helps that this hospital is small.
A young woman in a cropped black sweater, black wool miniskirt and black tights came to rescue me. She directed me to join her in the elevator back to the first floor. With a slight Korean accent, “first” and “fourth” sound very similar.
“Our office moved. We made temporary signs but I don’t they’re big enough.” She gestured to a paper I had seen but not bothered to read.
An older woman with a felt flower pinned to her jacket looked between us and then commented to the attendant who in turn told me, “she says you’re pretty”. I bowed thank you to the woman as we got off the elevator.
Of course, I was wearing a mask and a giant knee-length padded jacket, so only my eyes were visible. Ever since my online course last year, I’ve had low self esteem in regards to my face; 20 hours a week of looking at yourself in the worst possible lighting will do that to you.
Plus, I’m so used to seeing only my eyes that I often feel the rest of my face doesn’t do them justice in the moments I can finally peel my mask off. My eyes never garnered attention in the US so the compliments sometimes feel particularly weird. Everyone thinks Phantom of the Opera’s half face is super handsome until he takes off the mask.
Am I alone in feeling uncomfortable showing my face now? I suppose this is just one of the many various COVID traumas we can all expect to face, including discomfort in crowds and having hand sanitizer on one’s person at all times.
The attendant asked about my new job, since it was required for the paperwork, and we chatted for a moment about the city. I told her I heard there are a lot of navy guys there but I shouldn’t date them because they drink a lot. She giggled and asked, “do you want to date a Korean guy?”
I spluttered, unsuspecting of the turn. Why does this seem to be the theme of the month?
“Uh, no, I just mean… my friend’s husband is in the air force so he told me navy guys are bad and air force guys are good.”
The attendant let me leave my puffer jacket in the international office and led me back into the elevator then a locker room where I changed into the shirt robe without batting an eye at the other women around. The gym showers prepared me for this moment!
But I thought the shirt was a bit strange. Like a bathrobe, I had to tie the waist straps then readjust the lapels lest my entire chest be exposed. I walked around the third floor of the thankfully small hospital braless and with more clavicle on display than I’ve ever shown in Korea.
I shrugged it off until I saw another woman waiting in the radiology area. She had tied the robe in the back which means I had put the shirt on backwards.
Well, too late to fix now!
There was no running back to the changing area so I sauntered into the radiation room and figured I’d just grace everyone with my scandalous sliver of upper chest (that mind you is a regular cut for casual American shirts). You’re welcome!
When I returned to the dressing room after my series of quick examinations were complete, I was alone and got a good look at just how potentially scandalous my robe could have become. Let’s just say it’s thankful I didn’t have to bend over.
I looked at the triangle of my bony chest in shadowy relief (I blame this on lack of access to a bench press) and realized that in the soft light of the mirror I was a lot smaller than I thought. I mean– I’m not small by any means but rather I was not the large foreigner I usually imagined in my mind. My female roommates are short and petite and in addition, our house lacks a full length mirror so I never have a good idea of what I look like in a neutral setting. It always come as a surprise to see more than half of my body at a time.
This seems to be a winter symptom, too. Growing up in Florida I saw my limbs fully exposed every month of the year.
It brought back a conversation I had with my teacher recently. I told her that I wanted to make a better butt and reduce cellulite and she looked at me incredulously. “Everyone has cellulite,” she dismissed. “You’re already thin,” she said (let me point out, this is not true; I’m quite average for a Westerner, or large for a Korean but then, maybe this is the point). “If you said you wanted to eat a certain way for your health I could support you 100 percent. But not if you’re doing it for looks alone!” My teacher is a pretty cool lady.
As we wrapped up and I paid 90 dollars for this exam as it’s visa related and thus sadly not covered by national health insurance, the attendant asked for clarification.
“Can I ask you a question?” She said. Uh oh was my first thought but she continued.
“At the dentist station, I say ‘do you have any toothache or loose teeth?’ but my clients often seem confused. Do you know why?”
I told her that loose teeth and lose teeth sound very similar though the meaning is quite different.
“Then how should I say it?”
I pondered and didn’t have a great answer, except for the immediate but unsaid clearer pronunciation, until I left the hospital. Ask instead, “do any teeth feel loose?” Or maybe switch the two clauses and buff up the phrase to “Do you have any loose teeth or toothaches?”
I didn’t want to give her a huge long sentence to say instead of her go-to phrase, so I don’t think I was much help at all.
We passed by a girl coming out of the office in a white puffer jacket and at the same time we noticed that my jacket was no longer on the waiting sofa.
Another nurse caught our confusion, laughed, and pointed to where my jacket had been folded up neatly on an office chair out of site. I think, only in Korea. How lovely!
I had to fast before that appointment so I found a nice little bakery cafe across the street. All the workers were kind and weirdly, I understood all the Korean of our interaction. And no one complimented my language skills which means I’m slowly morphing into one of them.
There was a cute section of the cafe that was completely empty. A young man behind the counter saw my confusion and we made eye contact. He didn’t look away and answered that of course I could sit over there. Proactive customer service is not a thing in Korea so what a nice treat.
After a few hours slowly eating my “American Brunch” I packed up and returned my tray. The cashier from earlier was sitting nearly out of site, eating something out of a takeout container. We locked eyes awkwardly, noodles halfway to his mouth and I turned around to let him take his lunch break in peace. The little window into the bakery area also showed a girl and two boys in white aprons, crowded together in a corner eating out of to-go cups. I bet they were all watching something on one person’s phone but it reminded me a little of a puppy pile.
While winter storms, the pandemic, and government negligence rage on in nearly apocalyptic levels of decimation in the US, Korea has let me stay and build a safe and happy life given the unprecedented circumstances.
I looked out the cafe window and thought, not for the first time, living here is almost too easy.