My friend and I committed to another surfing lesson, and I privately committed to not flirting with anyone lest I be let down again. It looked like it wouldn’t be a problem this time. Our instructor of the day looked serious and responsible, as though he had taken a brief respite from being a military officer to teach surfing.
It was hard to think of him too severely what with the comical white cast of intense sunscreen on his face. All the surf boys have gotten dark, as evidenced by their casual shirtlessness around the shop– a fact of which I’m extremely jealous. I wish I tanned as easily as Koreans but I’m cursed to a pasty existence.
But the General said the magic words as I pushed myself against the extremely strong tide again and again, tiring myself out.
“Let me help you.”
On the exceedingly rare occasion I hear this sentence, I am struck. It’s at the precise intersection of what I need and what I want.
My Korean teacher pointed out as much as I claim to have outgrown my perfectionist tendencies, I have not. I realized this during this second surf lesson. I thought I had outgrown it somewhere along my string of Cs in college chemistry but I was wrong.
I feel I must do everything alone while secretly, desperately wanting assistance.
I stopped for a moment, feeling defeated by the ceaseless waves, and asked myself if I even liked surfing.
Grimly, I realized my drive to catch a wave came from the need to do it right rather than enjoyment. But then I shrugged. The end result would be the same: I still battled the tide to get one good ride, and the joy came from accomplishment.
During our break time between hour one and two, I felt my (pasty) face stinging. I had left everything back at the surf shop and looked around at who I could ask for sunscreen.
The two separate foreign women lounging by their surfboards didn’t have any. I looked towards the trio of men next to them. They had been filming what I can only assume was not a parody rap video; two of the guys hopped around waving hand gestures while us beginner surfers had fallen off our boards time and again in the background. Not sure this is the “coolest” look for aspiring rappers.
But this is a situation I know well, so I walked up to the trio who had since finished their video and were lounging, fishing cans of beer out of a huge beach bag.
I asked in Korean, “sorry to bother you but do you have any sunscreen?”
The videographer stared at me. I repeated myself; this is a common occurrence when a Korean doesn’t expect Korean to come out of my mouth. He answered in English. I confirmed with him in Korean then said thanks and went on my way.
They certainly didn’t seem to have much swag in this situation…
My friend commented in surprise, “in that huge beach bag, really all they have is beer??” She’s a responsible adult and their lack of preparation was unbelievable.
Our group eventually made it back to the surf shop and my friend and I, plus another young woman from South Africa showered. But Ellie hurriedly told me that the other woman had injured her foot and needed to go to the clinic.
“I think we should go with her,” she whispered in sympathy. Ellie, once again a responsible adult.
I wholeheartedly agreed, remembering every time I’ve almost cried in a Korean hospital, and offered to drive us there. Our patient Niki was in a lot more pain than I had realized, and Ellie and I told our most embarrassing stories to keep her mind off of the fact that her big toe nail had been almost fully ripped off by some hidden rocks.
I missed the hospital entrance twice and then pulled up to the emergency doors like a taxi driver. “I’ll meet you after I park!”
The waiting room was tiny but much less battered-looking than the emergency room in Changwon where I spent half the night. Three young security guards in stiff leather shoes, no good for running after escapees, allowed me to sign in as her guardian.
Niki and I entered the emergency room through the sliding doors, leaving Ellie behind to wait what would turn out to be nearly five hours.
Right past the doors were three chairs. Another waiting “room”. We could see the strip of desks in the middle where all the nurses and doctors sat. On our side were a series of doors and hallways, and on the other side of the desks was the rest of the emergency room with curtained partitions.
We watched old man after old man be wheeled in and wondered what on earth was happening. One man in a faraway place made the most horrific retching sounds, as if he was possessed by a demon.
A young male nurse, who later said he was an EMT, crouched down to Niki’s toe, ignoring the chaos around us, and poked at her toenail while she clutched hard at my hand. A few moments later, he led us through the door to the immediate left of our pleather office chairs.
There were two surgery rooms, or not quite surgery rooms as there was no sterile barrier. The second room was through the back two double doors of the first. I thought of the Lizzie Borden house with no hallways.
He sat her down on a rolling stool and placed her foot over a metal bucket. I tried not to laugh, it just seemed so primitive.
He washed her toe with an entire quart of saline while she hissed in pain, wrapped it up, then directed us back outside to the chairs. Niki asked him for his name, and then if he was single.
“What are you doing??” I whispered.
“I’m trying to find a man for Ellie,” she replied.
The EMT told us he was 27 and single, and then, because everything was already absurd, I asked to take a picture of the EMT rolling Niki out on a wheelchair. He obliged and now she has a photo in her phone.
Later, two doctors directed us back to the surgery room, and we walked past an old man getting treatment in the first room to the second room. I shrugged; Asia Time. I guess I can just go wherever?
Niki asked for their names, ages, and single status. I’ve also asked for the names of people treating me, and was touched that she and I have similar pain coping mechanisms. Not that relationship status was a part of my coping, but maybe it should be going forward. A relationship isn’t going to match make itself!
However, she called them by their first name as soon as they answered and I could feel the automatic flinch. Calling a stranger by their first name in Korea is a big no no, especially if they’re a doctor, but acceptable if you’re inviting someone to fight you in an alley. Their forced humbling was still kind of funny.
The shorter doctor with smoother English explained that he would numb her foot with local anesthetic and then take the nail off completely to clean the sand and debris out from the nail bed. After x-rays confirmed that all the sand had been removed, he would place the nail back on her nail bed and stitch it l to her toe to protect the new nail as it started to grow back.
The two doctors looked at me, standing tall and holding her hand.
“You don’t have to watch.” They told me.
I looked them right in their eyes and said, “No, I’m going to.”
Niki was in a lot of pain and I suspect that the doctors should have waited at least five more minutes for the anesthetic to set in before digging around at her dislodged toenail.
I held on to her hand with my right, and her shoes with my left. We had a running joke that I was her guardian, her daddy.
The slightly older doctor, 29 in Korean age and therefore still younger than me, wheeled her to the x-ray room where a jolly technician gently pushed me out of the room and got to it.
When she was wheeled out a moment later, she told me that he was 35 and single. The other two doctors were dating and had met their pharmacist girlfriends through blind dates.
The tech confirmed there was still sand and the slightly older doctor wheeled her back to surgery room number two to keep digging it out. The sheet covering the bed, was dribbled with brown iodine and I idly wondered how they get stains out.
Moments later she was wheeled back to the x-ray room by a jolly older gentleman who exclaimed that her Korean was very good.
The x-ray tech said, “ah, we meet again,” and I appreciated his subscription into our little bubble of whimsy.
The two doctors updated me on the procedure while she was away and I asked them for the Korean word for “doctor’s note” so we could be sure to get one on our way out for her employer.
I repeated after them and typed into my notes app. I heard the two quietly comment on my good Korean and I puffed up in pride.
I felt like a real guardian and an equal. When Niki was in pain, they explained what was happening to me. I asked them clarifying questions and also helped when they didn’t understand certain words.
“I’m on birth control.” She mentioned. The younger doctor looked puzzled.
“What do you mean by that?” He asked.
“피임약” I supplied and he immediately understood.
The pain shot had finally started to settle in and the subsequent sand removal had her sitting up and taking pictures of her mangled toe to send in her family’s group chat. I complimented the doctor on his smooth English. I also asked them if they used the products from the first medical company I worked for.
“Yes, we use their suture kits,” he commented. When I explained I used to be an engineer there the information didn’t seem to compute.
What’s a girl like me doing in a place like this? Was the vibe.
I found my way to the second basement, out of four, to pick up her prescriptions from the night pharmacy. Inexplicably, the security man with bleached hair that was just in reception somehow ended up at a desk on this abandoned basement floor.
Was he a ghost? Maybe those leather shoes were faster than I thought.
He politely guided me to a young woman in a large room who didn’t ask for ID. Niki’s prescription paper was enough. Asia Time giving us a boost!
Niki peered up at me at the end when all was left was to wait on the follow up appointment confirmation.
“You know, I get it. I see the daddy aspect.” She concluded.
I’ve never been a fan of the term, at least how it’s used in awkward tik tok prank videos, but I found it rather fitting.
I liked being an advocate for someone. I like protecting people. I like being tall and big and having a physical presence to throw around. I like being an equal. I am at your eye level, both figuratively and literally. I am unavoidable.
I liked talking with the doctors, asking them if they use the products from the company I designed for, being the one they look at first to impart updates because my charge is in pain and without shoes.
It was not how I expected to spend Saturday night but exhilarating nonetheless. For me, not Niki.
None of us had eaten since noon and now it was 9:30. I realized in the earlier rush my bikini had been left behind at the surf shop and we had to return to a group of shirtless boys, and manager, before closing to pick it up. The General seemed surprised but pleased to see us, and the instructor from our first go round cracked some jokes. I held up the bikini as explanation and he laughed.
We three were hungry and exhausted and made our way to a pizza shop in Haeundae. Just our luck, though, the usual midnight closing hours had been capped at 10pm due to new Covid measures. Luckily, takeout was allowed and while we sat in the restaurant waiting along with other groups, a famous rapper came by.
The starstruck employee asked him to sign a pizza box and I peered in interest at the signature. Nope, still don’t know who that is.
We eventually took our steaming pizzas and breadsticks to an abstract statue on a dais and claimed a quadrant to eat. The other quadrants were occupied by Korean groups doing the same. I hoped that the Covid monitors patrolling the beach not twenty feet away couldn’t spot us. Foreigners would be the first to be made an example of.
Our night ended with us laying on this marble dais like human sacrifices until Niki declared it was time to take a taxi home. Ellie agreed, and suddenly the adventure was over.
I still had to drive an hour home and as it was already midnight, I decided to get road snacks. Ellie had bought skittles earlier in the day and my craving came back; I hit up four convenience stores in a row only to find them sold out.
Luckily, some dudes at the first store taught me the Korean word for skittles, “suh kee tull juh”, and we had a laugh about the wildly different pronunciation. I eventually found sour skittles at one place and even though it was nearing one, there were still people out wandering with 7-11 coffees or looking for friends.
The day was not over, according to Naver maps, which took me on a wild and incorrect path across Gwangan bridge, the star of many of my photos when I lived in Busan. I circled the same highway exit three times before I resorted to my car GPS which clarified I had to take the ramp on the far right, not the middle right.
Finally at my apartment, I passed out in bed, only barely changing into pajamas. I thought, I must tell my Korean teacher this as she’s always delighted by my range of experiences.
Anything can be an adventure, though maybe it’s not always what I had planned!