May | 2011 | A portrait of one Korean Adoptee–Kim Yunmi Dot Com

Archive for May, 2011

Ethnomedicine essay

This is an essay I did for my cultural Anthropology class (Magic, Witchcraft and Religion) I received an A on it. This details a trip to a Korean spa and Korean medicine.


First, I should disclose that I am a Korean adoptee. My adoptive parents are Hungarian-Romanian and Russian Jew. In May 2008, I went to Korea and in Korea I have a Korean father, whom for political correctness, I call Appa, which is the Korean word for “dad.” He lives in Korea and became a Buddhist monk after my adoption. Because he is a buddhist monk he knows Korean cures and ethnomedicine. While I was in Korea, I developed a severe stomach ache when I was visiting him and he used these cures on me, assessing it was a combination of factors, but the major one being food poisoning. The principal cure he used was acupuncture, however, he also used other means of healing at the same time, for example, assessing my birth chart, assessing how I sleep in correlation to my birth chart, dousing for ki, assessing how I eat, how I hold my body, ying-yang balance in my food and mixing both western and eastern medicinal practices. It was quite lively, partly because of who Appa is and partly because he was avid on teaching me and his friend next to him what he was doing–thus used me as a demonstration tool to teach his friend what he’d learned through his monk training. I know from my translations this was not unusual and he spent a great deal of time trying to find all related causes for why I would get sick and didn’t pin it down to one cause, but a variety of causes, psychological, spiritual and physical. Due to this previous experience, I decided to go for the shiatsu massage at a local Korean spa to figure out one aspect of his assessing skills.

The Spa website said that the Shiatsu massage involved qi. This is a Chinese spelling for the Korean word “ki” (hard K). This would be animatism. I assessed my problem as two factors, stress and neck pain. I use the computer quite a bit and write, so my right side of my neck is often stiff. I wanted to see if I could cute this.

The Spa itself, while it includes the Shiatsu also insists that the guests come and relax early on. They prescribe that one should come at least forty-five minutes earlier than any scheduled appointment. I followed this suggestion as part of the ethnomedicine. I also got another treatment which they put before the Shiatsu massage, even though I asked for the Shiatsu first in sequential order. This is the asakuri scrub, which I will describe briefly for the sake of full disclosure.

I had asked my cousins to come with me, not because I wanted to study for the Shiatsu massage, but because I thought it would be more fun and that traditionally in Korea a group of people go to the spa, they usually do not go alone. The people were, my paternal cousins whose mother is in my patriline, and their cousin, who is not directly related to me, but related to their father.

The rules of the spa are that one cannot wear a bathing suit, thus nudity is the rule. There are no men allowed at this particular spa, and most spas in Korea and Korean spas in the US, when allowing both sexes are segregated. We were told to put our shoes in a shoe locker and shown our regular lockers for our things which contained a robe and bath towels.

In the Korean spa there are 3 saunas, none of which I used, a jade heated floor, which is like the traditional Korean ondol–which is a system where the entire floor is heated from underneath the floor and is a point of Korean cultural pride for Koreans, and three tubs. We were told that when going to the sauna one should shower after going to the sauna, to drink a lot of water, and to monitor our temperature and also to take a shower before getting into the related pools. The pools were three temperatures, very hot, medium hold and very cold. I know from my study of Korean socialization and language acquisition that warmth is a big aspect of Korean socialization–warm clothes, tight close fitting socks and so on, so I wasn’t surprised to find that several of the American women complained that the tubs were too hot for them, and the majority of the women that used the really hot pool were Korean.

I spent most of my time before the shiatsu in the regular hot pool, which probably helped to soften some of the aches and pains in my shoulders and the cold pool. I took this as part of the ethnomedicine itself, since I had experienced that Korean medicine often involves a variety of techniques often throwing many things at the problem before the problem is considered resolved.

The locker keys we were given had numbers on them. The ladies called our numbers in broken English. The first thing I was called for was the Asakuri scrub. I will go over this briefly for the sake of disclosure, though I’m not sure this would have any effect on the shoulder pain aspect of the ethnomedicine I was there for.

Asakuri scrub is where the usually older women (termed “ajumma” in Korean) scrub with almost Brillopad mittens all over the person’s body to rub off dead skin cells. I had read previously that this is a common Korean spa treatment, so I wanted to try it. The Americans always said it was really hard. I expected this to be the case considering that one of the major parts of Korean social life is touch and feel. When someone is upset in Korea, there is often hitting and greetings can often be a lot more physical. In fact, Koreans have to learn about personal space which there is almost no concept of and also the American concept of privacy when coming the the United States. Physical touch is also a huge part of Korean socialization as well. Firmly hitting the back of a baby’s back when it’s crying is seen as comforting. Thus, I expected the scrub to equally be hard which would be consistent with this thought pattern and also with my previous experience.

The scrub itself wasn’t that bad and in order of effectiveness, I think this was more effective long term than my shiatsu massage. The lady did scrub her heart out by putting in her full body weight and it was oddly relaxing. She did not scrub my breasts at all, but around them, so there wasn’t any feel of embarrassment there. She gave me a squirt of a facial and then told me to go shower and return.

I picked up my key and her payment envelope, which looks like the Korean style of payment envelope–one that opens like a manilla envelope.

I was called for the Shiatsu shortly after this treatment.

The shiatsu, unlike the other treatments at the spa–the facials and massages, happened in a secluded room on the second floor. A separate woman did these treatments that the one that did the scrubs. This was different from the experience in Korea where seclusion was not a major part of the ethnomedicine, but being in the same room as other people moving about was part of the treatment. I assessed this as a possible American Influence from my previous experience at an American spa where massages were also done in seclusion. Seclusion also seems somewhat like one of the ritual states–liminal. Because of this, I was a little surprised to find it secluded considering that the majority of the other massages were done in public.

The woman who attended to me did not speak very good English. And for whatever reason, my Korean did not code switch for that particular day all that well, even though I did make some feeble attempts, it was hard to concentrate on what she was doing to my body and also asking her questions. Also unlike my previous experience, she was very insistent that I relax, not speak, and silence was maintained for the majority of the treatment. Based on this, I had to pay attention to what she was doing, and used my previous experience with Appa and his explanations of what he was doing to assess some of the things she was doing when I could not communicate with her and was forced to compare and contrast the two.

She did not play music or burn incense like my experience at an American massage place. She also turned off all lights to the room so that the only light came from a single window in the door. This also struck me as somewhat like a ritual practice of a liminal state– another sign of seclusion.

First, I purposefully did not tell her what was wrong from what I was told in class. I waited for her to ask me what was wrong if she would ask me at all. She did not ask me, so I didn’t tell her. Instead, she had me lay face down, relax and pressed with her stacked thumbs over various points in the back of my body. I asked her if these were pressure points and she confirmed they were. I knew from Appa that pressure points were points of ki and they can accumulate too much “bad ki” if they are blocked. When I tried to ask her about this she told me to relax and it became silent again.

This left me to study what she was doing to my body. She would press with her thumbs at least two times before moving on. I figured out that she was assessing the pressure points of my body. This was dissimilar to Appa, since I’d told him beforehand what was wrong with me and while he did further assessing using pressure points, he did not do the same kind of thorough assessments, but focused more on using pressure points for the problems at hand and testing my stress levels.

She focused mainly around my shoulder blades and my spine for the initial check. Even though I had said nothing about why I was getting a Shiatsu massage, she found that both shoulders were tense. She asked me if my shoulders were tense and then I said it was from computer use (in Korean). Because of this, she shifted focus to my neck. She pressed at the ends of my neck muscles, particularly the one that joins at the shoulder much harder than the initial presses. She would press with her thumbs with her body weight at least three times with each successive press harder than the previous time. She also pressed with her thumbs at the point to the left and right of the muscle where the muscle joins the occipital part of the skull. Each round warranted more and harder presses. She also pressed at the muscle that joins at the parietal part of the skull. To be very honest, it hurt and hurt a lot, however, I did not object because when I was in Korea and objected to Appa, he called me a wimp, cajoled me and said that Americans must be soft. I also knew that pain was part of the Korean healing process from this previous experience and I didn’t want to mar my data. So when she asked in Korean if it hurt, I answered no. So she pressed harder and to her heart’s content.

She assessed without telling me that my right shoulder was worse than my left and thus worked this one more.

After a few rounds of this, particularly focusing on my neck, she worked from those point out towards my extremities, first out towards the head, then along the shoulder blade to my arm, and then down my spine towards my toes. This is a feature of Korean ethnomedicine I learned in Korea. Working outwards from the bad points and working it towards the extremities, in acupuncture, this is released by letting out blood, usually through the fingers, in the acupressure, she chose to do it by pressing between the first finger and the middle finger and also the thumb and first finger. There were similar points in my foot at well. She did not work the muscle itself at any time, but worked to the left and right of the muscle in question and left and right of my spine. She favored the arms to release the ki from the neck and slapped my arms before working on the hand pressure points.

She then moved back to assessing pressure and then focused on my lower back, which apparently was having trouble. She pressed to the left and right of my spine and about an inch to the left and the inch to the right of the spine. When I was in Korea, Appa said this was one of the reasons for my stomachache and said it was because I had very bad posture. I should hold myself in a Korean way so I didn’t seem like a grandmother. I found those two same points in my back to be painful and though I didn’t cry out or say anything she still focused on this part of my body. I was mildly aware that my lower back wasn’t doing well. From this point, unlike Appa, she worked the energy down my leg more. It might be because he was aiming to end the acupressure with acupuncture, and she was purely doing acupressure that she chose to work it down my legs.

Everything she worked down my body towards my toes from the points in my back, pressing in the previous mentioned spot of between my big toe and the next toe. Appa had told me that this is one point where one can assess the stress level of the person and also on the big toe where the nail is joined by the skin. She used the one between my toes. She then moved to my calves. She repeated many of the same assessing pressure points and then again, worked on the left and right of the muscle, but not directly on it.

One the way down, she found that my lower calves also had problems. She pressed more times than before. However, she skipped this for the moment and worked on my back. She pressed the exact same points that Appa had, however, she did it with a lot less mercy. She did not use the other pressure points in my back that Appa used, however, she did check them over with two light presses.

She found nothing wrong otherwise on the front, and thus sat me up and hit my back with her fits in six places on my back. Appa had done the same thing, thus she worked it afterwards down my arms, just like he had, and pressed between my fingers. She did this twice before having me kneel, grabbing my arms then putting a knee to my back, which if I understand correctly is really reflexology.

She declared my treatment done, I asked her how my ki was and she said, “good” and directed me out of the dark room.

I went downstairs and spent most of my time from then on on the Jade floor which has Korean-style blankets and was comforting to me.

The treatment did leave bruises and stiffness which I hadn’t expected. I had forgotten that Appa had also left bruises when doing his treatment, but I only remembered after I had the bruises. What was interesting is that when I held my body wrong, the bruises would remind me in one way or another that I was doing so. It hurt more to hold my body incorrectly than correctly so it made me more aware of my movements. In a weird way this made me learn for the time my bruises were there what had gotten me into my previous state. However, the long term effects of the treatment, despite this did not last long. While the pain was diminished greatly, the stiffness still returned, despite my best efforts to correct my posture for those days during the bruises. Going to the spa, however, did a lot for my mental and psychological levels, relieving a lot of overall stress. Even my cousins who chose to go with a traditional massage from the korean ladies there, report that they still feel relaxed after this time.

I had expected the tremendous amount of pain involved. The Korean facials when I was looking for a place to do my assignment, are also painful and involve needles. The Asakuri scrub is also painful to an American mindset, the acupuncture was also painful, so it would follow that the acupressure would also be painful and part of the healing ritual. I hadn’t expected, however, that there would be seclusion. This feature was not congruent with the majority of the Korean practices, which are mostly done communally and with a group.

In this case, etiology was said to be natural–physical use of the computer and thus caused a blockage of ki in my body. She did not assess any further causes, which was different from my previous experience where everything that Appa could think of was used to assess the cause, including divination through dousing of ki. And the cause was my fault, not someone else’s.

However, she was the one that gave the diagnosis and though it wasn’t spoken, I was aware that she was assessing beyond what I had originally intended to treat. In this case the diagnosis was done naturally and supernaturally. Naturally through pressure and supernaturally through ki.

She did not tell me to drink any water or introduce anything to my body, so she only used the physical aspect of my body. This differed from Appa who used Korean medicine to also cure my stomach ache.

It is interesting to note that Korean ethnomedicine doesn’t seem to use one method to get rid of ailments. Rather that it uses a variety of methods to try to get at the problem. Even if one were to segment the shiatsu, there is an element of reflexology in it. But the fact that the front desk put the Shiatsu second, and insisted that their guests show up early also shows this aspect of Korean ethnomedicine. I was also interested in the fact that Korean ethnomedicine reflects Korean socialization in many ways, the communal feel, the lack of embarrassment, the physicality, the lack of idea of privacy or really private space, all reflect what I know of Korean socialization as well and principles of Korean communication. And that pain is a key part of Korean ethnomedicine. From a western view this might seem like a horrid way of doing things because one does not know what was directly effective, and thus doesn’t mean one gets a sense of the scientific control group, however I think this is a cultural attitude towards medicine that is heavily reflected in the attitude of the spa and in my previous experience in Korea–that for certain ailments you launch it with everything you’ve got in your power to directly heal it. Whether that be spiritual, supernatural, psychological or physical.

Tour Guide to Korea

If you’re adopting from Eastern Child Welfare, they have good accommodations for adoptive parents. If not, look for a hotel near the 2, which will give you easy access to all of Korea.

The best guides for Korea in general are: Lonely planet and the Moon Guide to Korea. Both you can get through amazon.

I’d also recommend visiting GOA’L which has accommodations for getting translation and also materials to help you understand adoptees–some parents might find it overwhelming, but the information, including maps of Seoul are useful. (Most hotels have maps as well, but they have a K-drama map. You can insert undignified girly squeal here) Even if you don’t find the maps or the paraphernalia useful, I think the material, newsletter etc helps, plus there is always an adoptee on hand who may be able to help you feel a bit more connected to what you’re about to do (they won’t support or congratulate you, but I think talking to people online kind of disconnects you from the idea that Adoptees grow up)

I think the top things to do in winter are: – Ride the orange (3?) and the green (2) lines. It’s only 3,000 for one trip. And you get a really good view of the river. It’s fun day or night with different views of Seoul you wouldn’t get on the standard tour. Plus it’s a great way to chill out.

- Drink Hot Chocolate in Myeong dong. If you take the exit from the two, then go straight past the convenience store on your left and keep going until the end of the block, you’ll spot on your right a shop with coffee (it’s on an incline, up a hill past an electronics store). The name reads something like Leodinas? (somethings like that). They have the best hot chocolate and nice little confections.

- Street food near a College campus. Myeong Dong, I learned, is for wimps. What you need to do is take the orange line to the university area– let yourself wander around the shops and in the college campus area and you’ll find real street food–the stuff they hide from the public.

Here is a guide:

If you go at night, you get something more authentic and also you can get something called “Odeng” which is better later in the day anyway and will warm you up. You might stare at it and think Odeng is fish cake, but it is so much more.

Foods in Korea on the street are more seasonal than they are in the US. You might get a hot dog in NYC any time, but it’s likely that sweet potato on the hot coals is not going to be there in the spring.

- If you need help with food options and trying new things out in that department, a safe one to get for winter is Bibimbap, which helps you get a sense of the variety of the dishes. It’s also a good option for the vegetarian, though you’ll have to say “No meat” “kogi anjuseyo.”

If you plan to go out of Seoul, I highly recommend the train system which is cheap and will get you across country quickly. I highly suggest the Teddy bear Museum on Cheju and to try the “Sushi” in Pusan.

If you want to go to Jeolla for whatever reason they specialize in mussels and in “hot pots”, but rarely do people visit there.

If you taste real kimchi from all three locations, you get a different view of the cultural landscape, from the shrimp flavor of the north with the course hot pepper to the Jeolla tradition of clams and mussels. And then you can taste the oysters in Kyeongsang… and see so many that you don’t think it was possible.

(Still have to try the last region… Kang Nam. =P)

If food motivation isn’t your big thing and trying out a culture of food and you want to take it easy, I highly recommend going to the market. You might think that a Korean market is like any other, but if you go to a few, you’ll see the organization,the thought, the presentation of the products matter. Plus, it gives you a really good sense of the people and how they survive on a day to day basis, which you can’t really get from another source.

Markets also tend to specialize in various fairs, such as fish, or in vegetables, or in cloth. Plus on a cold day, the koosoo noodle soup, makes one feel all warm inside. (If you’re allergic to seafood, going in winter is the worst time of the year for that.)

If you have time, push the palace into it. Personally, I found a lot more value to the palaces after watching a few Joseon dramas, because I could peer inside and imagine the lights all aglow, with the king on the throne, in his gold-embroidered robes and see the ministers at his feet, crying out edicts and apologies and saying “Jeonha” in unison. Drama brainwashing can do that to you. =P But it’s almost like seeing a ghost that way, so that it doesn’t seem so dry from the plackards (though Korea does its best in this area).

Last thing to say is that Koreans are very helpful, very stubborn, very passionate and tend to go out of their way to help people. So don’t be afraid to ask for help. Some people will spend time making sure you get in the right direction. I met an Ajussi that carried my suitcase 2 blocks just because and then triple checked I was going to the right place. Some of them will physically go with you if they have time. Don’t count on it–and I wouldn’t automatically trust everyone (say with a purse), but don’t refuse help or be timid either.

Also be careful of taxis–the bus is not that scary and public transportation is cheap–ask hotels for directions and if you *must* take a taxi it shouldn’t cost more than 30,000 to get around Seoul. Ask hotel staff ahead of time what it should cost. Taxis are not regulated by laws like in the US. They will swindle you.

It does snow in winter, though.

I think the more you try, though and the more you explore off the beaten path, the more you find that the country is a lot of fun in different ways from the one you’re used to. Korea has that too. Though the back streets are icy, you can see people picking at it early in the morning with pride, greeting each other heartily to friends. And if you’re lucky you can catch them doing things like Go-Stop.

But yeah, top picks, Street food, Myeong dong, GOA’L and catching a glimpse of Seoul on the 2 line/3 line. If you were to do nothing else, touristy, do that.

Psychology of my Family

It’s funny how Appa and my Mom sync together. It’s as if they are on the same wavelength sharing some kind of universal brain on how to cause me loads of stress at the same time.

After I cut off communication with both–though for different reasons, they still try to contact me.

After they contact me, I have to mutter to myself, “Functional, not normal–what is functional–not normal.” Because if I don’t I’m likely to say, “I wish I had normal parents.” Which just leaves me completely powerless to do anything. Functional tells me to take action and that I have some degree of sane control.

So after a year I cut off communication with Appa (For various reasons, including second abandonment, keeping me from Eomma, lying about Eomma, keeping me from the women in my family.) he contacts me again and says, “I’m sorry for leaving you and Cheon Yong (My brother’s Korean name.)” I suspect it’s drunken dialing. You know, where you are crying into your drink about life’s woes? Appa does that with his drinking–only e-mail.

He doesn’t say sorry.

Then he sends me another mail, just the subject line, “How are you doing?” in Korean.

Then he sends me another letter, “I have your younger Aunt’s (paternal) phone number. It is here.” He isn’t helping the situation by not saying sorry, but he’s a man who likes to save face.

At the same time, my mom is doing the same thing, minus the drink, plus the MJ, at almost the same timing. (I cut her off after she made my ex-therapist cry and give up. Since a professional couldn’t handle her, I didn’t know how to–I didn’t have the time, patience, energy, nor the resources since my mom cut me off in the middle of my college education during the worst recession since the Great Depression. BPD, NPD, or whatever she is… her problems as much as she would like to blame on me are her problems.)

First letter: How are you doing? We would love to hear from you. (We meaning her and my dad, but really meaning her because she can’t own herself. Owning herself is too scary.) She’s added to her e-mails this time her work signature, which my ex-therapist pointed out as a point of control for my Mom.

Second Letter: There is a wedding of a cousin that you don’t know at all and we would like you to come.

Third letter: Why aren’t you answering?

Fourth letter: Well if you are going to come let us know.

Fifth letter: (from my Dad who was probably needled by my mom because he’s codependent to her borderline.) We are going to a cousin’s wedding because there is a cool art museum in (the state mentioned.) This just serves to make me more mad.

Sixth message, through AIM, same one. They don’t get I’m not speaking to them unless necessary.

So feeling a little frazzled and immature, especially after Appa is doing the same sort of thing on his side, except a fraction more mature than them, I post, “My ex-therapist said my mom is borderline, my dad is codependent and they are both in denial,” below my name in the AIM. The icon for my dad goes red and I snark at it, “Bet you’re smoking MJ now.” And then some frustrated lines about how he has anger issues he just won’t face and more immature material about I bet if they stop smoking MJ, their marriage would fall apart.

I spend the day stressed, reminding myself despite everything I want that what I want is neither functional nor realistic, as sad as that is. I say over and over, “You can’t control people. You can’t control people.” Boundaries and limitations. No longer am I able to be naive. I shift my focus on if I should contact my father’s younger half sister–my Aunt that gave me and my brother snacks with her friends when she was in High School. I have a vague impression of what she might be like. But then, I realize the depth of the problem with that, sigh and start breaking it down into specific realities. This one is going to be tricky to balance too. But I’m sick of playing short stop. It shouldn’t be my job, but no one else is doing it.