Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Blind in One Eye

At the start of this month, I began asking the LORD for direction for my life. September marks six months that I've been at my current hagwon and with that, the downward slope. That is, if February is my aim. However, instead of the answer to the question "Korea, Texas, or elsewhere abroad," the LORD seems to be showing me a direction of a different nature: my blind spot. Everyone has them, vast blemishes on our character that we can't see. We're like gargantuan eighteen-wheelers: We have to post signs on our backs warning others not to intrude into the place of which we are unaware, hoping they will pay enough attention to us to avoid them, instead of the other way around. As my dad confessed during my growing-up years, we're "blind in one eye and can't see out the other."

Like my mom used to insist about her own faults, my life posture has been, "It's not me--it's everybody else!" However, Romans says that the Father in heaven has committed all to disobedience so that He might be the Savior of all. I'm beginning to see how much that is true in my own life. I am learning how little I actually think about, meditate on, or pray to God; as well as how few commandments from the Scriptures I actually follow. I'm also discovering how little wrong I actually think I do and how little confession I actually practice. Not only that, but I am slowly starting to pinpoint the ill-advised habits I keep that need changing. In short, I'm coming to grips with my own humanity and my own foolishness--my own need for redemption.

A case in point comes from a week ago Wednesday. Last week was Chuseok in Korea, a national holiday scheduled for August 15 of the lunar calendar. On the Western calendar, the day comes at the end of September, usually falling in the middle of the week much like our Thanksgiving; this means, of course, for hagwon teachers nearly a week without classes. My thought about how to spend my time off from school was to hang out with my friends in Seoul and possibly spend some nights with them during the break. Sunday after church, I made plans with a friend, Becky, to spend that Tuesday night with her. Having adventured around Seoul for the day with another friend from church, I arrived at Becky's spacious apartment that evening around 8:30. We shared cookies together, helped Becky switch rooms, and played word games until it was time for my other friend to go.

After Elizabeth left, Becky and I got to talking and she had some poignant observations to share. She asked me if I was always late--and I sadly told her yes. I asked her how she knew and she said, "Well, you're at least a half an hour late to church usually and every time you come over it's been after eight. It was 10:30 once and I thought, 'Well, she was with someone. Maybe that's why.'" I told her about the time Daniel and I met in Seoul and how I had been thirty minutes late for the appointment. He had rebuked me then for quoting a different ETA than my actual arrival time, much like what Becky was quietly doing now. She said that Daniel was being a good friend and reminded me of Proverbs' wisdom. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend," it states, "but an enemy multiplies kisses." She then went on to share her own struggle with tardiness and her partial success with it. She simply encouraged me not to settle for lateness being the rule.

It appears I had forgotten her lesson by the morning--because I stayed asleep until 10:30, desiring to finish my exciting dream about narrowly escaping an explosion rather than wake to reality. My sleeping didn't keep Becky from doing what she had planned and I feel in some ways it all worked out. But my tardiness still unveiled how much I took advantage of her hospitality. There were other moments during the morning that pointed back to that same vice. She asked me what I had going on that day and, to be truthful, I had "planned" to spend it with her. But I hadn't told her that and we hadn't actually made plans to do anything. In fact, she had told me the night before that she had things to do the next day for school, which definitely guaranteed that I wouldn't be able to do what I had thought.

In effect, she had set limits on our time together; after breakfast she subtly set more. Without being rude, she gently suggested, "Do you need to take a shower? I think it's time for you to get up and get started on your day." If she hadn't pushed me like that, I might have continued to sit there and soak up her time and energy like a parasite. Slowly, it seemed, I was outstaying my welcome.

As I gathered my things for my shower, I guiltily recalled my curious sleepover habit: not to bring soap with me, under the assumption that there would "always" be some available to use at whatever friend's house I found myself. I asked myself what kind of loving person goes over to someone else's house expecting to use another's things without asking. How Christ-like is that? How servant-oriented is that? How lowly is that? It's lowbrow, not lowly.

"You've been using my soap, haven't you?" I imagined Becky saying the moment I stepped out, my freshly-washed aroma wafting to her nostrils. It would be a stink I could not cover up with any perfume. "Why didn't you just ask?"

Standing under the hot crash of water, I self-consciously reached for shower gel that wasn't mine and poured the smallest dab on my wet fingers. I was unwilling to simply forgo a wash, turn the water off early, and admit my disgrace. At that moment, I felt myself lathering on my own shame. I began to turn over in my mind the lessons in humility and sinfulness that I had so recently been learning from the LORD. Monday night, I recalled, was one such lesson. That night I had sat contentedly in my apartment listening to the K-LOVE morning show streaming from San Francisco, thinking about America and wishing to be home. The guest artist was 10th Avenue North, a band comparable to Jars of Clay or Casting Crowns. During one of the segments, a member of the band was introducing one of their newest songs, "Healing Begins." "It was actually written about a moment with my wife where she confessed things to me that she hadn't told anyone," he said. "And I got to thinking that this is why we have to confess to each other."

The subject of his song related to the posture of our lives. He talked about how believers [read: ME! in big, fat letters] plan to do great things for God and yet neglect the little things. How about you just live for God? he suggested. "Instead of doing things to be accepted," he offered, "why don't you just live in the knowledge that you [already] are…?" Instead of stealing soap or time from your sister in Christ, how about you live in the knowledge that the LORD will provide for you and not fear to use the things He's already provided?

I read a Scripture verse taped to the wall as I toweled myself dry. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, and of power, and of self-discipline," it read. How self-disciplined is it to neglect to come prepared? How self-disciplined is it to plan on being late? Only fools despise the wisdom and instruction from the LORD, Proverbs declares. I stood there a moment as I let the conviction seep into my skin like abrasive cleanser.

Becky didn't comment on my clean-smell as I returned to the living room. I stood in the doorway of her new room, watching her on Skype and feeling every bit as in the way as I now was. It was time, I knew. "I think I'm gonna head to Itaewon to fix my phone," I told her.

"You're leaving?" she asked. "I'm so glad you and Elizabeth could come and help me move my beds."

I smiled wryly to myself as I thought about her affirmation while gathering my things in the other room. Though some moments about my stay had been harder to bear than others, I was glad I came, too. It was the love of God, I knew, that would allow Becky to overlook the faults I can’t see and desire my company anyway. And it was the grace of God, I was sure, that allowed me to accept such welcoming hospitality in the face of such emulsifying conviction. His is a love that covers a multitude of sins.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Benefits of Language Barriers

Tonight as I was coming home, I remembered the vase I had bought for Jack Teacher's flowers. It had been sitting empty on my refrigerator for a week and I was in need of something pretty to fill it. Inspired by Jack's gesture, over the last month I have begun keeping a fresh supply of arrangements in the apartment. I usually don't spend very much on them, sam chon won (3,000 won, or $2.60) at most--just something simple, homey, and "everyday." They provide a much-needed reminder of the beauty and serenity of God's natural world amid the city's hectic schedules and stuffy concrete enclosures. Even Frankie enjoys it when I bring a fresh batch home, as he gets to inhale the scent of adventure and the longed-for outdoors once again.

As a consequence of my indulgence, I have also been sampling the different mom-and-pop florists around me. I've been to a shop about two blocks from my house, one at the nearby train station, and a few days ago I stumbled upon one off the main road that I have yet to visit. Most of the shops can be identified--for those of us whose skill at reading hangul leaves a bit to be desired--by the profusion of plant life which litters their entrances and the sidewalks in front of them. Stepping inside, one notes that they each offer much the same merchandise at much the same price: larger potted plants like orchids or bamboo for sah man or oh man won ($45); tiny, rubbery plants or cacti for oh chon won ($4.50); and cut flower arrangements of varying sizes and prices.

One such store lies just inside the Lotte Cinema intersection, the centerpiece of a bustling restaurant and entertainment district. As I passed by it tonight, I decided to have a look. Once inside, I walked the few steps towards the green buckets on the floor containing water and the stems of various types of flowers. I noted four different colors of rose--red, hot pink, yellow, and
a paler pink--as well as two or three other less-identifiable blossoms. A thick bunch of bright yellow petals, which looked like they could be miniature sunflowers, sat in a bucket at the back of the group.

The florist's workstation rested against the side wall of the store and stood mere inches from the fresh flower pots, ready for quick arrangements with its rolls of paper, green wire, and ribbon dangling within arms' reach. A woman stood in front of the table manning the shop. I pointed to the pale pink roses. "Igo mohyo?" I asked. How much?

She picked up an entire bunch and held it a little out of the water. "Man won." Ten thousand.

I considered them for a moment; I hadn't wanted to spend that much. I pointed to the yellow ones in the back. "Igo?" I asked.

"Pal chon." My eyes lit up. I pointed to the yellow and bright pink roses. Chon won each, she said. One thousand. I could buy the yellow ones, throw in a rose or two, and still be under five thousand won--sweet!

"Igo chuseyo," I commanded politely, indicating the yellow petals. Those please. She looked at me and asked if I wanted anything else. "Igo" --I pointed to the yellow rose-- "hago igo." And this, the bright pink one.

I was a bit mistaken about the price, however. As I considered the paler pink roses for inclusion in my arrangement, the florist looked at me. "Igo, man won," she said. All of this for ten thousand. And that's when I remembered--pal chon. That's right! Eight thousand! I was thinking eight hundred!

I considered what was in her hand, pointing to the yellow flowers. I thought about the poor vase waiting at home and how it could hold such a cacophony of vegetation. "Igo, chogum?" I asked timidly. Can I have a little? She shook her head; they were sold together, as one bunch. I shrugged. They were pretty. Perhaps my vase would be big enough. There went my household budget for the week, then.

The florist looked at me again and asked something in Korean. I thought she was asking if I wanted to take them home. "Ne," I affirmed as I held out my green man-won bill. Yes, I would love to. I watched as she snipped the stems, patted them dry, and twisted wire around them to make a tight bundle. I assumed she'd soon roll the flowers in a bit of plastic and I expected her to hand them over at any moment, but she kept right on working. Intrigued, I kept watching.

I saw her reach for one and then a second roll of textured material, one a gauzy netting and the other traditional-type paper wrapping. She bunched the white netting in an appealing maze of twists and hoops close toward the petals, securing it with wire; I thought that was pretty enough. She then took the ivory paper and wrapped it around the entire arrangement, forming a bouquet as it flared out over the buds. I noted her pulling meters of wide flowery-gold ribbon from its spool and looping it over and over to form a bunchy bow, which she secured at the base of the flare. As the finishing touch, she sprayed the roses with a dew-like liquid and dusted the petals with shiny, gold glitter.

I felt like a bride as she handed me the finished bouquet, in awe of her talent as an artist. I could have just come from a wedding, I thought, as I walked down the street toward my apartment. Had I understood what she was saying, I probably wouldn't have asked for such an elaborate floral display. It was, however, a pleasant surprise. I suppose there are, indeed, some benefits to the language barrier after all.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Disintegrating Hanji

*Saturday, September 11, 2010*

Thursday night, I spied a recent post my Chungju friend Krista had placed on Facebook--a link for Wonju's Hanji Festival, a celebration of Korea's paper products scheduled for the coming weekend, September 9-12. "Are you serious about going?" I commented to her post. "I would love to join you." Through a short volley of other comments, the next day we agreed to meet in Wonju sometime after 12 that Saturday.

Excited at yet another Korean adventure, yet realizing one must come prepared for such things, I calmed myself down enough that weekend to do some quick research on the logistics of meeting my friend. Google Maps told me to get to Wonju, which is located fifty kilometers southeast of Seoul, by first boarding a series of city buses, then the subway, then finally an Express Bus from the Central City Terminal--a journey which would have taken no less than 3 hours and 15 minutes, Google assured me. Perhaps my research was a bit deficient. I didn't want so many extra steps and was sure I could make it under an hour if I caught a bus at the Suwon Terminal instead. Hailing a quick cab at just after 10 that Saturday morning, I set off.

On the platform of the Suwon Bus Terminal, a much older Asian woman stood in line ahead of me awaiting our bus' arrival. I thought she was a Korean by her dress and mannerisms; it wasn't until her husband approached me, a white-haired American-looking man about her age named Harold, that I quickly realized I was mistaken. Loretta was Tiawanese, he explained, and had lived in the States for over forty years. He said she'd been expected to speak the language by the native Koreans that they had encountered during their stay. I watched her slanted almond eyes as she poured perfect English from her lips, silently marveling to myself. I, too, expected the same. Perhaps Korean ideals of statesmanship, nationalism, and racial priority have begun to rub off on me, after all.

They were here on holiday, Harold informed me, and wanted to know what was good to do in Wonju. They had been in Suwon for the last three or four days, but the continual rain here encouraged them to move on earlier than they had planned. Their eventual destination was somewhere east, as they hadn't explored that part of Korea yet. Wonju would be for them, then, a jumping off platform to points further toward the coastline. I told them about the Hanji Festival that I hoped to attend and Harold seemed like that might be a possibility for them to see as well while they were in town.

I took a window seat towards the back of the bus while the couple sat in front. Moments after I settled in, a young Korean male, ear-buds plugging his ears, took the aisle seat next to mine. As the bus maneuvered out of the parking lot, Harold found me in the back. "Can I talk to you?" he asked humbly, assuming the seat across the aisle. The Korean glanced quickly at me and then back at his lap. I wondered if talking over someone like that was as rude in Korea as it would have been stateside. At the first pause in the conversation, I asked if he wouldn't mind switching seats.

Harold asked about good hotels in the area as we arrived. As I had no real data to share, we soon parted ways. "I think I'm going to find a hotel on my own," he informed me. "Maybe we'll go to that Hanji Festival and see you there."

I headed to the PC bang to arm myself with some information about Krista's and my destination. While searching, I decided to find some hotels for Harold and his wife to check out if they were interested. Because I was unable to print, I meticulously wrote out the names of the hotels in Korean, translating into English as I went. I felt proud of myself and slightly impressed as I watched my hand form the foreign script. Sadly, however, I couldn't find my traveling companions when I went back to deliver the note, stuffing my efforts uselessly in my pocket.

When Krista arrived, I showed her the memo I had created on my phone at the PC bang: "Hanji Festival," it read. "Take bus 2-1 from terminal to sports complex. Musil-dong." I felt proud that I had prepared so well.

"Do you want to just take a taxi?" she asked.

At that moment, we both looked out the doors of the terminal to witness a literal torrent of rain lash out of the sky in translucent sheets. It appeared neither Harold nor his wife drove far enough to escape Suwon's monsoon. We stood just inside the door with a small knot of Koreans, anxious not to get wet while contemplating our next move. The taxi booth was several yards away from the door, the bus stop even further.

"You want to just brave the rain?" Krista asked as we cautiously opened our umbrellas. As a child, one my favorite activities was to play in the rain.

"Let's go!" I shouted gleefully to the sky. My body raced with exhilaration as we dashed wildly into the onslaught, my pants and boots growing wetter by the nano-second.

As we had stood in the comfort of the dry bus terminal just moments before, I had confided to Krista that my students thought my umbrella strange. I had brought it to Korea all the way from home, secretly proud of my present from the blood bank I had frequented as a donor. As there are no monsoons in Texas, I thought one black, oddly-shaped rain-shield was as good as the next. Since I had one already, why go to the trouble of collecting another? Krista didn't understand the reason for my students' comment until I propped it open. Noticing its four corners as we sprinted toward the taxi hut, she called, "Man, your umbrella is weird."

"It's hip to be square!" I called back as we entered the booth. I closed the protective covering in preparation for stepping "in" something--only to be continually rained on even under the shelter. We were both almost soaked through before we made it safely to a taxi and hopped inside the first one in line. "Mushil-dong ka chuseyo." Take us to the Mushil district, I told the driver, basking in the glow of my Korean skills. I was fully confident I'd be able to lead us to our destination with ease. Next stop, adventure!

Our driver headed straight toward the pleasant green hill in front of us and then turned left before we hit it, following the adjacent road. I thought it odd that he seemed to be going in the direction my bus had just come from--for all I knew, away from town. "Musil-dog odi?" he asked, then strung unfamiliar Korean sounds together like a collection of clinking beads. Apparently, he was asking where best to drop us off.

"Su-pah-tsu com-puh-lex," I offered feebly. "Su-pah-tsu sen-tuh?" I had just reached the limit of my new-found knowledge. As the wipers on the taxi's windshield continued to slosh off droplets, the driver went left, wenchok, towards the sports complex and what I assumed to be the direction of the festival. It would be a short ten-minute walk from there, my Internet directions had told me.

It was still raining as he dropped us off in front of a tall building's facade which faced a small empty field on the opposite side of the street, a place that looked oddly vacant. "Yogi?" he asked skeptically. Here? Well, it certainly didn't look like a sports center--but how were we to know? We weren't interested in sports anyhow. "Ne, ne," we affirmed. Yes. Opening our umbrellas we stepped into puddles of rainwater and whatever lay ahead.

The Family Mart clerk we accosted just after exiting the taxi tried to be helpful as he explained in limited English where to find the festival. "One, two," he said, indicating city blocks with his hands. "Left. Walk five minutes." We thanked him and set out in the rain.

At that moment, we both wished for monsoon-friendly footwear, but all I had were hiking boots. The tips of our shoes darkened as we walked, though we tried avoiding the puddles. A small, quick-moving stream flowed along the sidewalk as we entered the designated intersection, which followed the cross street and continued to the right. It lapped at the edge of the curb as vehicles drove closer to it, threatening to spill over, and we had to climb further up the embankment as we waited for the cross-walk signal to turn green just to avoid being further drenched.

We turned left just as the clerk had instructed, missing more puddles as we walked. It was still sprinkling some, but not raining near as hard as it had been earlier that day. We were beginning to really enjoy the invigorating stroll until I started to notice unaccountably-familiar buildings and landmarks. A Harley Davidson banner strung from what looked like a residential building glared at us from across the busy thoroughfare. Tall construction fences popped up along the wall to divert traffic to smaller side roads. A major intersection surfaced where the fences divided, propelling its vehicles deeper into the city. As I looked to the right of the intersection, the reason for the landscape's familiarity surfaced. There, a block away and clearly visible with its gargantuan concrete pillars, was our starting place: the Wonju Express Bus Terminal. We had just walked/ridden in one giant circle.

Had we made some sort of miscalculation in following the clerk's directions? He said turn left and walk five or six blocks, but this just couldn't be it. We decided to cross the street and try a couple more blocks just to see. If nothing surfaced, we'd go back to the terminal and start again. On the other side of the crosswalk, we passed an inviting, authentic-looking Italian restaurant. Turning around after another fruitless block, we stepped inside it for a late lunch of creamy pasta, warm soup, and crusty garlic bread.

"Now do you want to see if we can find the festival?" Krista asked, refreshed after black coffee and a filling meal. The rain had stopped outside and the atmosphere was starting to lighten. Setting out again sounded like an excellent idea, but this time we tried the bus. Hailing the first 2-1 we saw, we decided to ask. "Hanji fes-ti-bal kaseyo?" Does this bus take us to the Hanji Festival? When the man at the helm shook his head, the two of us consulted each other for a second or two before we climbed on and deposited our 900 won. We had thus been duly warned.

Krista and I saw much of Wonju-si on the 2-1 that day, from its picturesque blue mountains in the closely surrounding landscape, to its run-of-the-mill one-story houses lining its grey streets. We sat in the back, the only two foreigners present, and chatted away the minutes as we excitedly awaited our destination. I strained my ears to listen for some scrap of Korean announcing the sports complex. By the time my rear end started to feel numb, I was sure we had been on long enough to have missed our stop.

Moments later, the driver motioned to the two white girls to come to the front. "Hanji?" he asked as he kept driving. "Sam ship sah." Number thirty-four. The bus rolled to a stop at a small booth on the side of a business-less, forgotten road populated with sagging traditional houses and white brick courtyards, what looked like the boon-docks of Wonju. None of the surrounding scene looked like a festival was going on at all. The driver motioned for us to get off and pointed across the street to another bus stop in the opposite direction. Clearly, this was our exit.

We didn't have to wait long at the second stop; minutes after crossing the traffic-less street, with just enough time to snap three quick shots of the ignored cityscape, bus number two approached and stopped at our feet. The door swung open methodically and the driver leaned down toward us. "Hanji?" he smiled, motioning us to come aboard. Krista and I looked at each other suspiciously. Weren't we supposed to wait for the 34? And how did this driver even know that's where we were headed? But the driver was adamant--and the street wasn't getting any friendlier. The two of us took seats in the front and settled in for yet another ride.

Two or three stops into the ride, an older gentleman about my dad's age boarded the bus and claimed the seat in front of me. "Hel-lo," he said in an uneven, ill-expressed intonation. He sounded as if he had practiced the phrase from a textbook several thousand times, but had no real idea how it flowed fluidly in a conversation. I chatted amicably with him for a few minutes as we checked off the list of questions he was expected to ask. "Where are you from? How long you stay in Korea? What about Korea? Where you going?"

"My friend and I are going to the Hanji Festival," I replied politely.

"Hanji. I ask driver about it."

I wasn't sure if he was trying to say he would ask of if he had already done so. I hadn't the heart to tell him we were fairly sure we were in the right direction now and that he need not go to such trouble. Upon returning to his seat, he informed me that we would need to get off the bus in two more stops and take another bus downtown, towards the festival. When he offered to lead us there himself, I turned toward Krista.

"We have to get on another bus?" she asked in exasperation. "Let's just get off at the next stop and go back to the terminal. We can grab coffee or something and wait for the bus back to Chungju." Though a little disappointed, I agreed with her: three modes of aimless transportation was enough for one soggy day. It looked like I wouldn't be seeing my bus-mates, Harold and Loretta, after all.

As we sat in the terminal's Krispy Kreme, reading enlarged paragraphs of the donut chain's misspelled story on the wall, we reflected on the day. "It was a long way just to come for lunch," Krista half-smiled. "So much for Wonju."

I half-smiled with her. It seemed like a nice place, this sprawling city of 300,000, if a little hard to get around in. I bit into my blueberry Kruffin and thought: Maybe next time, we'll just have to skip the festival and go straight up those blue mountains. That would definitely be a trip to come back for.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tina Tuna

Monday morning, I feverishly finished my dishes before work, to have my apartment ready when I returned home that night. I was expecting an evening visitor--Tina, a girlfriend who worked at a hagwon in Dongtan near mine and whom I had met on Bus 27. Each time we saw each other on our ride to work, we would sit together and chat just like old friends. She was supposed to come over to enjoy homemade curry, meet Frankie, and help weed my wardrobe of its drab, droopy articles. "I won't be able to make the fashion show tomorrow," her email read that afternoon. "I went completely unconscious [...] at a park [this weekend] and fell face first onto the brick ground."

She had fallen like this before--randomly losing consciousness and diving headlong into whatever lay in front of her, be it stairs or, as in this case, concrete. Towards the beginning of July as we rode together one day, I noticed a square gauze-like bandage cushioning her chin and asked her about the new accessory. Over the weekend, she explained, she had blacked out and fallen up the stairs at a local park. Her two stitches from the injury came out in a week, replaced by a prominent red line along the right side of her jaw bone. The result of the latest fall, however, left her medical care much more extensive and tripled her recovery time.

"I'll be out for three weeks," she wrote. "I exposed my jaw bone and had to get two sets of stitches under my chin. I also fractured my [...] jaw [...] in two areas. It was fractured enough to the point where it created a large gap between my two bottom teeth. I have a wire keeping my jaw together right now. The second fracture shifted my bite and I can't chew or close my mouth properly. The combination of both fractures caused me to completely shatter eight of my molars on my right side... I'll be in the hospital for one week." She told me what facility she was in, the Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, and I determined that before she was released I would go see her. I looked up the bus number to catch from the station and after work Wednesday night, I set off.

"I [am un]able to eat," another of Tina's messages said. "I'm wired for the next week and a half[.]" By the sound of that description, I was picturing a metal, cage-like structure surrounding her oral cavity and clamping her mouth shut like a vice-grip. I knew she could still write but was uncertain about her ability to speak if she couldn't open her mouth. I half-imagined her laying in the hospital room like a patient with recently-diagnosed hearing loss: having continuous thoughts but without a way to express them. I took a pad of paper and two sharp pencils to the hospital for old-school communication, in the event she wouldn't be able to talk. It surprised me, then, to hear her voice when she wheeled her IV drip over to the seat where I waited for her. She looked like she was smiling curtly as we chatted. She could still speak, she assured me: "All you need are your lips and tongue." I tried it her way for several sentences and found it surprisingly easy to form intelligible words. What isn't so easy to control, however, is the urge to move one's bottom set of teeth.

Not only could she speak, but there were no visible signs of clamps. Instead, what sealed her teeth together were strong rubber bands attached to screws inside her mouth, what had taken the place of the metal wiring they had originally installed. The "wire keeping [her] jaw together" that she had mentioned was a petite thread of metal demurely fastened around her two bottom middle teeth like a surgical bread-tie. Other than these foreign objects in her mouth and another bandage covering her chin, she looked herself. "You look really good," I told her, then relayed my mental picture of old-school dental care. "I wouldn't have wanted anyone to see me that way," she laughed.

That conversation began a series of laughing matters for us that night. Only minutes after I first saw her, Tina was summoned to another hospital outing, having just returned from one such errand. This time it was to take an hour-long stress test which supposedly would induce her to faint. A nurse came, gurney in tow, to take her downstairs for the procedure. It took all three of us working together to untangle the tubes from her IVs and place her onto the rolling bed. As I walked beside and tried to help steer, the lone nurse commanded me to push and I found myself at the back of Tina's head while maneuvering her down the aisle. The entire ordeal was absurdly comical--me with my travel bag slung over my shoulder, pushing an otherwise able-bodied woman through corridors while the tiny Korean nurse guided the gurney with one arm and pulled a rolling defibrillator along with the other. Tina wondered aloud during her taxi-ride why such transport was necessary when she could have quite easily just walked.

The excursion to the testing room both looked and felt like we had just stepped from modernity into the post-war era of the 1950s. Tina's hospital room, the start of our trip, could have been a tiny hospital ward from a Korean War triage unit, crowded as it was with five other patients. Dimly lit hallways leading to our destination evoked a sense of the developing technology from the time period. Tina commented that even the nurses' uniforms reflected the standards of that era. As we wheeled into the examination room, the only reminders of the current century were the "push" buttons for the electric door and the large flat-screen color television mounted to the wall.

Other parts of Ajou (pronounced Ah-joo) University Hospital look quite impressive. It appears crisp and modern to visitors, with a broad entrance and artwork in the foyer. Ground-level walls and flooring are made of an impressive, shiny, granite-like material. There are several statuettes lining the hallway. A large painting resides on the wall just opposite the nurses' station. As you enter the wide glass doors from the front of the building, you notice to your right a display of what appears to be ancient farming equipment. The lobby looked more like the reception area for a museum than a hospital. It's a much cleaner facility than the public hospital I visited in Chungju last October.

Perhaps the thought that the hospital evoked a sense of being in the 1950's is partly due to the book I'm reading--The Motorcycle Diaries by a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It is a reach back into the post-World War era, written in 1952 and 53 in South America while on the road with a traveling companion. In the book, Guevara and company seek out hospital beds to sleep in for the night instead of trying to find hotels. Broke most of the journey, they were also medical students and felt that the staff would have compassion on fellow colleagues with such a bleak financial state.

The testing facility that we arrived at, little more than a back room of the hospital, evoked the feeling of such bygone days the most. On the ceiling along the left wall as we came in were screwed a series of protrusions that resembled fixture-less chandeliers: two-foot-long metal rods with hoops and curly-q's at the end of them, presumably for holding instruments. Just underneath that and mounted to the wall were black dial-like structures whose function seemed long-outdated. They were both so high I thought attending orderlies and nurses wouldn't have been able to reach them. Also affixed to the ceiling were crooked curtain rods with cream-colored curtains hanging from them, pulled back and bunched to one side. Upon contemplating the scene, the room appears to have been some sort of sickbay from the early days of the hospital.

The centerpiece of the room looked like a relic from mid-century: a large brown-vinyl examination table devoid of crinkly white sanitary paper, with a wood-like plank attached at a 90-degree angle on one side. Instead of legs or wheels, what supported the mammoth structure was a clamp-like mechanism used for lifting the surface upright. It resembled an operating table from that era, as big, bulky, and heavy as it was. It could almost have been a hand-me-down from a long-emptied asylum: Dangling from it in two places were thick black straps for securing patients to the horizontal surface.

I watched as the nurse strapped Tina first below her knees and then over her ribs just above her stomach. I half-expected him to retrieve a straight-jacket from around the corner for my friend to don. For the test, the hospital technicians set the table to its upright position, bringing Tina vertical and causing her feet to "stand" on the wooden plank. The straps kept her from tipping over and held her fast like an orderly's strong arms. With the limited knowledge about the test that floated around my brain, I thought they would repeatedly raise and lower the table while monitoring her body's reaction to the movement. But the table stayed upright for the duration of the forty-minute procedure.

To pass the time, Tina and I chit-chatted in English while the attending techs talked away in Korean. As is my habit with such perplexing medical problems, I wondered aloud what could be causing Tina's fainting "condition." Rummaging through what I knew of the human body and general nutrition, I offered a few suggestions as to why these black-out spells could be occurring. We talked about a possible upset in hormone chemistry, a low supply of hemoglobin, and a lack of nutritious food. "My diet isn't very good here," she admitted. "I eat a lot of rice and Spam. And tuna."

My eyes twinkled as I looked at her. "You could be Tina Tuna!"

Tina continued to feel nothing strange throughout the ordeal. She was so relaxed that I pulled out my Scrabble game--the "deluxe travel edition" my grandmother had given me when I was little that had tiny letter tiles and a raised plastic grid for holding them in place. As it was a little unorthodox to allow such a distraction, the technician asked, a bit annoyed, "What is this?" I explained it briefly and we kept playing, Tina filling her plastic tray with letters while I held out the bag and modestly looked away. Her first word, "timber," was all-too-appropriate for a woman who was strapped to a table and leaning strangely forward. Our scores stayed neck-and-neck and by the end of the game--consequently also the end of the procedure--I had only won by three points.

We finished the night with some rice porridge and a couple of rounds of Quiddler "on the roof"--or rather, in the lunch room--spelling words like "eve" and "ray" amid sips of rice porridge through a Capri-Sun-sized straw. After only two attempts to eat, Tina decided to give up on the night's dinner. Her straw did nothing to suck up the thick broth and was too tiny to successfully bring even one kernel to her mouth. The staff had advised her not to even try to open her mouth, so spooning anything into it was unthinkable. It was during the third hand of the game that Tina started feeling nervous and anxious. Her heart rate was pounding beats faster than mine and she was beginning to shake. "Maybe it's because I haven't eaten," she reasoned.

"Well, they did just give you medicine," I suggested gently.

She looked at me, then down at her quivering hands again. "Maybe I should go tell them."

I helped wheel her down the corridor to the busy nurses' station and tried to get their attention in Korean. "Shilehamnida," I offered meekly. Excuse me. Tina then took over with her own English description of the matter. Whether they could understand her words or not, they definitely knew something wasn't right. While observing a slight red rash that was along her collarbone and which extended to her sternum, the nurse commanded: "Go to bed!"

Moments later, she was shuffled to her room and I was left to clean up what was left of dinner. I was sad that I'd have to leave her like this, but knew if I stayed any longer I would have surely out-stayed my welcome. By that point, I wanted to be as least in the way and as little-noticed as possible. "Goodnight, Tina," I called softly as I backed away from the scene and toward the exit. As I left the hospital that night, I knew she would be well-taken care of and watched over for as long as she stayed.