Lightning Korea

A few of my gigs – a couple in the Midwest come to mind, and thankfully only a few – lack any sense of connection to place – an airport, a hotel, a course in a convention room.  My lightning visit to Korea is one of those.  My luxurious hotel suite – 4 fluffy bath towels, aromatherapy oils, internet – is on the 32nd floor, and the view outside is an unappetizing cement wasteland around the intersection of two highways – only one building of mild architectural interest – think Marriot Milwaukee.  The haze limiting the view’s extent is blamed on China’s sandstorms, but it looks just like the industrial pollution of Taiwan to me.  I arrive after midnight, but am able to sleep in since we are starting at 4 pm.

So my impression of Korea comes from the gym I visit to ground myself the next morning, a huge oval affair overlooking a pool, with a beautiful sculpture of a rough black meteorite melting in gold down a pedestal.  The treadmills are state of the art – linked to TV’s, and besides the usual stairmasters and ellipticals and free weights, there are electric roller massage units – I cannot resist trying them, letting my belly be rolled into shape – and those belt massagers you see in satirical old pictures – a fat woman being roughed and jiggled around by a vibrating cloth belt.  I try that too, especially after seeing a thin old Korean man use it in a number of inventive ways, including over his shoulder and around his thighs.  But I prefer hands.

Dr Kim ferries me back and forth to the venue – a kind, gentle, and very awake fellow combining Taoism with avid and shrewd promotion.  He expected 250, but we have to make do with 150 – the Korean Integrative Medicine Society, or KIMI.  I am surprised to see my name on a large banner over the convention hall where we meet, and momentarily confuse KIMI with KMI.  The event is sponsored by a supplement company – also Dr Kimmy’s enterprise – and a strange machine by Stylex that purports to solve genu varus (valgus is apparently nearly unknown in Korea) by passively rotating the knee against resistance.

I am up on a podium, before a sea of Korean faces in dark coats and ties.  The audience is perhaps the most educated I have ever encountered – as I sign the certificates for a parade of MD’s, PhD’s, and a few PT’s and DOM’s – Doctors of Oriental Medicine.  Dr Kimi translates line-by-line, exhausting for him – and gone are my jokes and stories as I shoulder the job of giving a straightforward exposition of my ‘research’, received stonily while I lecture.

I am inundated at the breaks, though, for pictures, book signings, questions – apparently Anatomy Trains is a major textbook in Korean rehabilitative medicine.

At 10 pm we finish, and Dr Kim wants to introduce me to a few friends at the bar.  I expected Korea to be combination of Chinese and Japanese, and in some ways it is, but the Korean accent is not on the spectrum, it’s another set of sounds altogether, so I am having great trouble understanding Dr Cunh (think the ‘K’ sound with a unpronounceable deep throat groan after it) as we ride together in the back seat.  A tremendously successful prolo doctor (with impish good looks – the kind to steal some father’s daughter away and deliver her back glowing, awkward, and happy) who treats his patients  – 50-70/day of them – with proliferant injections based on Anatomy Trains principles.  He is trying to explain his enthusiasm for my contribution, but with the new accent, his limited English, and my bleariness, “I can cure it all with MRI’s” becomes “I can cure all hemorrhoids,” in my mind, setting the conversation askew for some minutes.  My Korean visit is full of these misinterpretations of their attempts at English.  In the end, like the Japanese, I just smile blankly.

The bar we go to is not much better – an Abbey Lincoln wanna-be (my guess, a service-man’s wife or former wife) is belting out jazz standards, and her ear-splitting Phoebe Snow high notes pierce the stratosphere, and make conversation impossible.  I finish a beer and beg off.

Next morning, I get to see a little of Seoul as we drive.  (We are back to driving on the right – it is funny to think that the native home for the steering wheel on a Honda, Toyota, Lexus, or Nissan are all on the left.  And have you noticed?  People on the sidewalk follow the same convention – I was forever having to dodge Tokyo’s pedestrians as they would dive to the left to avoid me as I dived to the right.)

Seoul is a cobbled together, drab cement and haphazard construction, not at all like the sparse beauty that is Japan.  Dr Kim says it: “Seoul is not a city for living,” as we sit in hectic Boston-esque traffic, “Maybe a city for making money, but not for living.”  The yellow haze around the pentacle of the sun and my red, gritty eyes confirm that China’s increasing desertification is blowing over Korean airspace.  Even the Han River looks yellow as the Gobi flies overhead.  The American Army compounds abound, and are all surrounded by outward facing razor wire.  Dr Kim says that no Korean people wanted the division of the two Koreas – that it was entirely engineered by Russia and America.

The second day is a long one – in the breaks I am taking pictures by the score – a gay photographer keeps me smiling as I lean into one short garlic-eating doctor after another, shaking hands and grimacing breezily into the camera.  But the tone is that Anatomy Trains could contribute significantly to rehabilitative medicine here, if we can lay out a series of easy strategies for structural support post-injury or post-surgery.

Finally, at 6:45 we are done the second day – non-stop from 8am – but we are headed out to eat – the obligatory last meal again – with the local Rolfer, the head of KIMI and his wife.  They give me a lovely if overdone abalone jewelry box as we sit cross-legged at the low table.

The meal arrives in small courses.  The specialty of the house is ‘bubble fish’, which turns out to be the infamously expensive blow fish.  Tough, rubbery, and nearly tasteless, it appears in every course – the skin is served shredded seaweed-like in a cup, then readably thin slices of sashimi, then another flash-cooked in sesame leaves.  This fish is a delicacy whose sublime pleasures escape me – and as well I get a hint of the famous paralytic poisoning on my lips and tongue.  You have to have a special license to serve this stuff, the brain and eggs are so deathly poisonous.  Not as bad as pig intestines, but other fish are a better time.

Compensation is the sashimi course – slabs of what can be described as Kobe toro – beautifully marbled pink, melt in the mouth stuff that I could have used an entire meal of.  Unfortunately the next dish is insufferably, mouth-numbingly hot, and aside for more beer, I stubbornly but politely refuse to eat any more.  I miss a fishy soup, but then everyone is ready to go.

I am totally exhausted, but Dr Kim insists that I should see Seoul Tower, and we wend our way by taxi to a hilltop park, climb to the peak in the dark, and up the elevator to see the lights of Seoul.  They are like other city lights, and, despite the fact that they are treating me as an honored guest (they really do – it’s entirely natural), I signal gently but firmly that it is time to go – but it is still a long busride back to the car, from the car to the hotel, to stuff the suitcase, to bed.

I have held my cold at bay with adrenalin and sheer willpower, and will drug my body into submission for the long ride home – but I bet a period of recuperation awaits.

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