Saturday, March 29, 2008

Medical Services in Korea

I've had an intermittent dull ache in both of my ears for over two weeks. I finally went to the doctor on Thursday, accompanied by a secretary from work. The doctor found no sign of infection and suggested the pain might be stress related. Although the onset of pain corresponds to the beginning of my work in Seoul, I find it odd that my ears are feeling the brunt of my stress.

My diagnosis is not the point of this anecdote. The point is that the Korean medical services industry outshines the American model.

I walked into the ENT office- conveniently located across the street from my school- with no appointment. Now imagine a parallel scene in America:

An individual without an appointment walks into the doctor's office. He/she doesn't need to go to the ER, but just wants something checked- to be on the safe side. The surprised secretary repeats the given information questioningly, "You don't have an appointment?" To not have an appointment is practically unthinkable. The waiting room is already full of people who've been skimming through a mediocre selection of magazines long after they expected their names to be called by the nurse. When was my appointment supposed to be? This is what people in America with doctor's appointments- scheduled months, or even a year in advance- do: they wait. I'm not exactly sure what would happen to that individual. He/she would wait even longer than the scheduled patients? He/she would be turned away?

This is not what happens in Korea. You don't need an appointment to see a doctor; it's not even necessarily expected for most offices. In my case, the preliminaries took less than 5 minutes: my secretary explained my problem and I wrote down my name, cell phone number and address. Then we were thanked and asked to sit down. Just before our conversation stalled and became awkward (around the seven minute mark), a nurse called my name and I saw the doctor. Without health insurance, I had to pay 13 dollars for the visit.

Going to the doctor can be that easy.

Getting prescriptions filled can be similarly hassle-free. The secretary hands you the typed prescription (no worries about messy handwriting!) and you go to the pharmacy. My neighborhood has 5 pharmacies in a 3 block radius. You hand over your prescription and the pharmacist fills it right then. You're on your way in five minutes.

Why would this level of service seem like a miracle in America? Why would most of us be impressed to see our physician at the scheduled time? America probably has the most highly trained medical personnel in the world. It's about time that such excellence spread to the deliverance of medical services.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Something New Part 3: Seoul Gives Back

Going to Seoul normally empties my wallet and sometimes even requires an extra mid-weekend trip to the ATM. I’m not always sure why- there’s never been any singularly pricey purchase; Seoul is just an expensive city. I can easily spend more in a weekend in Seoul than what I spend in a week and a half in Cheongju. The weekend of March 8th began no differently. Even though I wasn’t teaching on Monday until 6 and could have stayed longer, my wallet decided that I should accompany it back to Cheongju that Sunday evening. My plan was quickly derailed.

After exiting the recital hall of the Seoul Arts Center on Sunday around 9:30pm, I switched on my cell phone and promptly got a call from my boss.

Here is an approximation of the start of our conversation:
“Are you still in Seoul?” he asked urgently.
“Good. I have a proposition for you. Do you want to teach a 2 week novel class in Seoul?”
“Yeah, I’d definitely be interested! When does it start?”
“Tomorrow at 9.”

After working for my boss for over a year, I’m no stranger to disorganization and last minute changes, but I was definitely caught off guard by this request. I had some reservations about taking on this class, namely that I hadn’t read the novel before and would need to commute between Seoul and Cheongju, but the advantages were numerous. My co-teachers would be able to cover some of my classes so I wouldn't have to go back and forth every day. The class sounded interesting, I would be paid more than normal and I could have extra time to explore Seoul. Most importantly, here was an opportunity to diverge from my normal schedule and environment. I decided to take him up on the offer and we agreed to meet at 8 to go over the details of the class. I hurried back to the apartment I was staying at, booted up the computer and scoured I read what I could and felt basically equipped to give an overview of the book in the morning.

I arrived at the office by 8. My boss wasn’t there. We later talked for ten minutes before I had to go into class.

Since I'm editing this post two weeks later, I've already finished teaching one session of the class. The class met 9-12, Monday thru Saturday for two weeks. We read “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles for the first week and “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston for the second week. The writing portion of the class was structured around a writing text called “Evergreen”. The students wrote a 30 minute essay in class and another essay for homework. In addition to reading the book and writing the essay for homework, the students had to memorize 30 vocabulary words and prepare for a daily quiz. Sound intense? This was the students’ spring break.

It’s been two weeks since I drafted this blog entry. Why has it taken me so long to post it? I was busy the first week preparing for the Seoul class. I only had to teach Monday and Wednesday in Cheongju, but I didn't have a computer at the other apartment I was staying at in Seoul and couldn't update. The second week, as detailed below, was rough. Chris had visitors and he needed the other teachers to cover some of his classes, which meant they were unable to cover mine. I had to teach every day in both Seoul and Cheongju.

The Week of 3/17 - 3/22 Tally:

10 bus trips between Seoul and Cheongju-> 15 hours on the bus
5 6am cab rides-> 1+ hour
5 afternoon cab rides-> 1+ hour
10 subway trips-> 1+ hour
waiting for various modes of transportation-> 1+ hour
walking to/from work/transportation-> 1+ hour
6 classes in Seoul-> 18 hours
11 classes in Cheongju-> 22 hours
= that's why I haven't updated

Sustained by many cups of coffee and a newly acquired ability to nap on buses, I made it through my most intense work week yet in Korea. It went by quickly, probably because I did little besides teach and commute. I wouldn't want to adopt this routine for a regular schedule, but it wasn't as horrendous as I thought it would be. When I went to bed between 11 and 12 and triple-checked that the alarm was set for 5am, I resigned myself to being tired the next day. By acknowledging the absence of opportunity to get sufficient sleep, I actually got rid of my normal sleep anxiety and slept deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the Seoul class and this probably contributed to my generally positive attitude throughout the week.

After teaching the second day in Seoul, my other boss called me and asked if I'd repeat the class for another student. I agreed. The next two weeks should be comparatively pleasant since the other teachers will be able to take my Cheongju classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

I'll post again soon (haha, "soon") about my students and the office in Seoul. Back to work!
Something New Part 2: A Soulful Performance

My weekend trip to Seoul (3/8) was focused on a Sunday evening piano recital at the Seoul Arts Center, an impressive complex with a concert hall, a smaller recital hall, a theater and at least one small museum. I had casually looked at the concert schedule awhile back but never got around to booking tickets. After emailing a former student about Tanglewood, the summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I decided that one year without a classical concert was woefully too long. I’d go to any concert regardless of the program. Luckily I found a recital for duo piano works, which featured 4 sets of Korean pianists. The Gershwin seemed a little stiff, but the first half of the program was enjoyable enough. The real entertainment began with the last set of pianists. All of the women performers were dressed in elaborate evening gowns and were extremely elegant- except for one.

This pianist had a goofy smile and an awkward gait. As she made her way to the piano, I couldn’t help but notice her cleavage. Now, normally I wouldn’t think it appropriate to write about cleavage, but Korea rewrites the rules. Cleavage is rare in Korea- and not just because the women are generally very petite. Women generally wear high necklines; I’ve even seen women wear turtlenecks at clubs. And so, it was a particular surprise to see cleavage at a formal concert. This pianist happened to be a particularly animate player, but it was not her bounciness that attracted so much attention from the audience, and especially from the 7 teenage boys who sat in the row in front of me. The pianist’s repeated inhales were so loud and distracting that the boys were doubled over in their chairs or were hiding behind their programs. The boys’ just-barely-contained exuberance was so infectious that soon the 3 proper looking Korea women sitting next to the boys (and directly in front of us) started giggling as well.

Each sniff, seeming louder and longer than the previous one, sent another ripple of muted laughter and shaking shoulders down the row. In his effort not to laugh, Tedd covered his mouth and accidentally (?) nudged me with his arm, which he propped against the armrest. I was not immune to the spreading giggling and had to take a firm bite on my lip and a fixed gaze at the ceiling to stifle my urge to laugh. Worn down by the repeated SNIFFS, one of the Korean women actually laughed out loud!

Not only did the pianist sniff, but she also managed to pucker her lips and contort her mouth into such bizarre expressions that much of her musical performance was completely lost on me. The audience seemed relieved when the performance was finished and clapped especially loud for this pair of pianists. Bravo!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Quest for Something New: Part 1

I’ve tried a variety of Korean foods, but I certainly haven’t exhausted the possibilities. Some things are just off my list: dog meat, silk warm larvae, and any variety of dried fish, squid or octopus. Call me close-minded, but I just don’t have any desire to try these and I don’t feel the need to prove anything. I’ve been eating Korean food consistently for over a year and believe me, that’s a feat deserving of respect! But I do feel the need to expand my horizons. So for dinner last week, I tried my best to sound out the names of dishes that had no accompanying pictures on the menu. Our collective knowledge of Korean food words is pretty limited so we generally order from restaurants that have picture menus. This selection method hints at why we tire of our routine dinners.

I quickly learned why my choice that evening didn’t deserve a picture. Most Korean dishes accurately reflect their names, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I sat down to my kimchi-bap. Just as the name suggests, I got a plate of kimchi and rice. Bon appetite? My choice wasn’t exactly adventurous and I’m not quite sure what I was expecting… but I was expecting more than just a pile of kimchi and rice. Some things just are as they claim to be. Reassuring? Maybe in another context.

Since dinner was less than filling or satisfying, I suggested a trip to Baskin Robbins after work. I opted for the new flavor, black sesame, which was basically vanilla ice cream with black sesame seeds. It was just ok.

I try something new in hopes that it will be better than what I know I already like. Sometimes I make a great discovery, but all too often I walk away wishing I just ordered something I knew I’d like. Do I learn my lesson? No. The allure of something new and great is too strong.

Conclusion: I am not deterred! I am determined to find more Korean food that I like.