In Korea, the second you come down with so much as a runny nose or, I dunno, a grazed knee, the unprompted advice from the nearest Korean will be automatic: Go to the hospital.
It took me – and most other foreigners I know – quite a while to work out that ‘hospital’ really meant ‘doctor’. Konglish, I suppose. I just thought everyone was being terribly melodramatic the first few times, when I complained of a mild headache, or sneezed a couple of times. The hospital? I asked in alarm, panicking that they could see something I couldn’t, and I was in urgent need of medical treatment. Even when I realised that they meant ‘doctor’, I still found (and find) it kind of absurd. Mind you, I come from a country where there have been national advertising campaigns urging us not to go to the doctor for trivial aches and pains. Talk to your pharmacist! Get some over-the-counter medicine! Better yet, stay home and have someone get it for you so you’re not out in public spreading the germs! If you walked into a doctor’s waiting room coughing and sneezing all over the place, you’d be eyeballed and tutted at like a condemned criminal.
Here, on the other hand, it’s expected. Required, even. You can go to the pharmacy, of course, but if you’re looking for anything stronger or more complicated than headache pills or hangover remedies, you’ll probably be disappointed. I have yet to find anything decent for sinus problems and allergies, and miming period pain was certainly an interesting experience but largely unsuccessful.
Back home, I would just call into Boots or the pharmacy at Sainsbury’s and browse by myself for whatever it was I needed. I would only visit the doctor in an emergency, or when I didn’t know what was wrong. Here, because I can’t just browse in the pharmacy and don’t like going to the doctor, I tend to put it off and suffer on in the hope that whatever’s wrong will just go away by itself… which is how a simple cold once again developed into a full-blown chest infection that saw me finally sitting in the doctor’s waiting room on Sunday evening, wishing for blissful unconsciousness.
I started to cough just as an ajumma was sitting down next to me, and she promptly got straight back up and went to sit at the other side of the room instead. As I continued coughing – the windows and doors rattling wildly in response – two other people rose from their nearby chairs and moved away. I really don’t blame them; I sound like I have TB. I tried to stop coughing, which, as anyone who’s ever tried to stop coughing in a quiet public place knows, is like trying not to laugh at an inappropriate moment, or trying not to think about kebabs and cheeseburgers when you’re drunk. Cough – cough – gasp – hack – cough.
Drink this, said a little old woman, appearing as if by magic at my side and sitting down next to me with a cup of green tea. She was a patient, like me, not a member of staff, but she had apparently taken pity on the poor foreign girl, shunned and struggling to breathe in the corner. I gratefully accepted the tea and took a few sips, my cough subsiding enough for me to register the frail arm that was now around me, and the hand that was gently stroking my hair. Slightly bemused, I chose to ignore it, as is so often the easiest solution here. Thank you, I said croakily but sincerely, taking another sip of tea and coughing a little less dramatically. The hand continued to stroke my hair, and the old lady began murmuring things I could not even make out, let alone understand. It was soothing, in a strange sort of way. No one else was paying us the slightest bit of attention, as if this kind of thing was perfectly normal.
Awma awdi-ay? she asked suddenly, the first words I could distinguish in an otherwise somewhat witchy-spell babble. Where is your mother?
This, too, was a little odd, given that I’m in my thirties and have been living fairly independently since the age of 18. Did I look like a lost child, all of a sudden?! Um… Ireland, I replied in some confusion. The poor woman looked heartbroken, and I suddenly wished I’d lied and said my mum was waiting outside in the car. She went off into a torrent of heartfelt words of comfort and pity. Of course, I am just assuming that that’s what they were, since I understood none of it. But the hand was still gently stroking my hair the way I sometimes do to calm a crying 6-year-old, so it seemed like a fair assumption.
I was called in to see the doctor, and got up with a smile and a thank you to my new friend, whose eyes were filled with concern and sadness. I really must present quite a pathetic figure at times. As I turned to go, she suddenly flung her arms around me and hugged me – a little awkwardly, since her head only came up to my chest – before grabbing my face between her hands and giving me one of those ‘great aunt’ kisses. Then she let me go, and I staggered away in total bewilderment – but with a smile on my face.
As a friend commented on my Facebook status when I shared the tale: That’s a wonderful moment to show the kindness that is everywhere here – always comes with a little strange!