Photography by Ron Schafrick
Culture shock is rarely the best term to describe the deep discomfort that happens when fundamentally ingrained ideas collide. I mean, yeah, it was a shock when my gynecological exam in a Korean doctor’s office turned into spectator entertainment, but "shock" implies something quick: the sting of a hastily removed bandage, the startle of waking to an alarm. But when I realized that passerby were being summoned from the hall to observe and discuss my vagina, it was more than a quick jolt of surprise: it planted a seed of unease I would carry through the four years I spent living and teaching English in Korea.
How did my vagina become theater? It started with technology, actually: an electronic toilet, to be precise. My first job in Korea came with an apartment, which came with a multifunctioning, wizard toilet. Heated seat, adjustable bidet, blow dryer: this sucker had it all, and I embraced this lazy new technology immediately (why wipe clean when the machine can do it for you?), straight up until the moment I developed a urinary tract infection. (As it turns out, a misdirected bidet can be a real pain in the vaj).
I’d had a UTI before, and knew antibiotics would clear things up quickly, so I asked my boss to recommend a doctor. She did even better, offering to accompany me to the doctor’s and translate. I was three weeks into my stay, and I was still figuring out how to use the toilet -- I accepted her offer, gratefully.
Later, I would come to regret bringing my boss on such a personal mission, but how was I to know a simple request for antibiotics was going to start with a review of my sexual history and end with my vag on public display?
We arrived at the doctor’s office, and started completing forms, my boss writing the information. Name, address, age -- she flipped through the standard list, and I answered quickly, until she stumped me with, “Virgin or married?” Uhhh, what now?
“Neither,” I mumbled, wondering if my honesty was going to cost me my job.
“Married,” she declared, and fixed me with a knowing eye, “Don’t worry, most Korean girls do it before marriage, too.” Phew…but then, why put it like that?
We handed the forms to a nurse, who handed me back an open Pyrex measuring cup exactly like the one in my mom’s kitchen, and directed me to pee in it. I did, and she took it back, to test it or add it to her next recipe, or whatever.
Eventually it came time for the examination, and I was led to a small room filled with familiarly reassuring equipment –- as much as stirrups, specula and an examining table can ever be reassuring. There was, however one notable difference: raw bulbs of garlic tied to the end of the stirrups. A nurse entered, directed me to remove my underwear and lie down. Then she pulled a curtain across my waist.
Next a doctor entered, mumbled something to me in Korean and began a perfunctory pap. The normal discomfort of an internal exam was exacerbated by the fact that I could neither understand what the doctor was saying, nor see what he was doing. A Korean doctor friend would later tell me that the curtain was drawn for the doctor’s sake, to save him the shame of seeing a vagina and the face that belonged to it at the same time.
But it was never explained to me why a simple urinary tract infection got treated with kid gloves -– or, rather, latex ones. Needless to say, it was weird: Behind the curtain cold metal things went in my vagina and cold metal things came out. I closed my eyes and squeezed the garlic with my toes. Then, just as I believed the bizarre examination had concluded, the doctor stepped into the hallway and started calling out. Eventually a group of four or five people entered the room, where they stood around my widespread legs, talking in excited tones.
I squeezed the garlic harder, my imagination translating a series of worst-case scenarios. Maybe I hadn’t developed a UTI, but an STI, a mutant strain worthy of further study. Or maybe I’d been living with a freaky vagina my whole life, but my Canadian doctors and my lovers had been too polite to say it. Whatever the people around my legs were saying, they spoke as if I wasn’t there, eventually taking their conversation into the hall and leaving me alone to wonder.
I sat up, pulled on my underwear and was just about to leave when a nurse returned with a large needle.
“An – tee – bee – ah – tic,” she explained and mimed that I should lift my skirt so she could give me a shot in the bum.
And that’s when I broke. I stared at the needle and spat one of the few Korean words I could say with confidence: “An-nyo.” NO.
I met up with my boss and she translated my refusal to the exasperated nurse -– refuting the doctor’s orders is not the Korean way, but I’d had enough. There was no way I was lifting that skirt again. Eventually they gave me the pills, and the UTI cleared, but my sense of otherness never did.
I’ll never really know what it was about my vagina that got the doctors so interested that day, but a later experience in a Korean sauna helped me form a theory. It is mandatory to go naked in Korean saunas, and by the end of my four years in Korea, I had gotten used to the surreptitious glances my curvy figure and pale skin always invited. But not everyone took pains to hide their curiosity, and one day an elderly lady’s stares answered me: She stared at my ladybits, perplexed, then looked up to my full head of blonde hair, then nodded, as if to say, “Aha! That makes sense –- they match.”