Thor's Korea Diary

Travels With My Dentist

+ some photos of Kyongsangnam 

@20 October 2002 (retrospective to December 2001)


One of life's little paradoxes is that alcoholics and religious fanatics can always whistle up congenial company, while straight and sober types are apt to find themselves sitting alone on a park bench. For a foreigner in Korea, we can add breaking a leg to booze and piety as a free pass to local society. The greatest social misfortune that can befall a sober foreigner in Korea is to remain more or less healthy. This is the voice of experience speaking. Enter any hospital and you will shortly be propositioned by doctors and nurses eager to practice, not medicine but English, on the hapless patient. "Pssst..." , the inquiry soon comes," do you do private tutoring?"

A year ago, with a tendon ripped from running, I ventured into the physio' clinic of a district hospital. The entire staff of physiotherapists, all very attractive young ladies, lined up to inspect the damage. As it turned out, they couldn't do much with the leg gristle that I couldn't manage myself. But that was beside the point. After much giggling, whispering and discreet hand signaling they got to the heart of the matter. This was the first time that, um, a foreigner had ever been to visit, and they would be really pleased if I could have lunch with them... A very nice lunch it was too.

At about the same time a dentist took out a lease on my head. Dentists are a cunning species, much given to arranging return visits on pain of, well, pain. I naively thought I'd paid up the rent on that lot after a coven of dentists in a big Chinese city took the best part of two years to pick through my molars. Ha ha. One fine Korean morning I spat out a double Chinese dental crown and set up the Korean section of the profession for a scathing study of comparative dentistry. Heavens, those Chinese really were amateurs, weren't they, but not to worry. For a healthy fee and lots of time, all could be put right....

Dr Kim had more on his mind than teeth. Evidently a real, live foreigner was some kind of social catch, and he was hospitable enough to chauffeur me to various parts of Korea, including his parent's farm. These outings were always rather a puzzle. Dr Kim was not an naturally cheery fellow, and his interest in learning English seemed at best marginal. He was in truth a rather dour man, pale, beginning to put on weight, and apparently passionate only about his Christian religion. He had done some service on a missionary cruise boat to Sakhalin, and talked of bringing God and better teeth to the wayward Mongolians after making enough gold in benighted Busan.

For a while then, Dr Kim had me on a leash to drop into his hospital surgery late on Saturday mornings. This was a strategic time, mercifully unpopular with patients, so that after glancing around the empty surgery the good doctor could grunt, "well that's that... where would you like to go today?" One morning our scheme fell apart a little. Some patient had actually booked for a late hour. As we sat around in his private office, a neat plastic box caught my attention. It contained a full set if false teeth, those ghastly prosthetics whose sudden loss can transform a comely woman into an ancient hag. These things are becoming much less common as dentists learn to screw, chisel and glue fakes into real jaw bone, but they have always had a kind of morbid fascination for me. As a child I learned, yuk !, that both my parents could do this witch's transformation into ancient hags, and on one desperate occasion the children were commanded to dive again and again into the roaring surf of a Sydney beach after my father lost his falsies tumbling in a big wave. It's all a matter of suction, explained Dr Kim, just like a gluey bit of pastry will sometimes stick to the top of your mouth. Then taking the chompers out of their plastic box, he gazed at them fondly. "These", he said, "were my father's teeth". Something wriggled down my spine. Yes, it's Confucian reverence for parents and all that, but having dead dad's teeth sitting at his elbow all day somehow touched my yuk-button again. Just another squeamish Australian.

Anyway, this was definitely the morning for dental education. After suction principles, we go onto implants versus posts, and the tiny ligaments that bind teeth to bone. "And why is it," I wanted to know with more than a hint of vested interest, " that adults can't grow new teeth?". This got us deep into stem cell research. It seems that there are three kinds of stem cells, and they aren't always obliging. Ear and mouth structures come from the same stem cell base, but seem to respond to different protein concentrations in their development. Hmm, fooling me with big words again. I still thought it was suspicious that babies could grow shiny white teeth but I couldn't; ( ..., justified skepticism apparently, for it is now smoking hot news off the world press that pigs have just been used to grow human teeth... ).

In China the dentists used to ask me enviously about dental incomes in Australia. Nor was it unusual for Chinese doctors to be fixated on the state of a patient's wallet before turning to the state of his health. Procedures would sometimes stop in mid-scalpel stroke until you paid up the next installment. The obsession by medicos with filthy lucre seems to be universal. It's a characteristic of the species that I learned in Australia to review with the extreme caution that one approaches quotes by motor mechanics and lawyers. The Korean variety are still muttering sulkily after their right to flog drugs directly from their surgeries was hived off to chemists by a new law two years ago. They went on strike for weeks, and to hell with the patients.

Well poor Dr Kim sitting in his empty surgery was on a nice hospital salary, but the glory tales of friends rolling in private practice gold were getting to him. The weight I'd seen him visibly accumulate over several months was due, he said, to "stress". Not the stress of work, but the stress of worry about how to break into the big time. To set up your own practice in Busan you were looking at a cool outlay of around US$240, OOO. With that little down payment you were on your own. Really on your own, since it seems that most Korean dentists consider partnerships a handicap, even if you can trust the other guy. The common wisdom is that profits from a partnership only come to 150% of what can be screwed out of a sole practice; (huh? Surely there are large savings on capital outlays ? But no, Dr Kim says that is insignificant). Once your money-frenzied dentist decides to migrate from the quiet haven of a hospital into the sink-or-swim gamble of a private practice, the next big question is location, location, location.

He had toyed with the prestige neighbourhood of central Somyeon, but that had special problems. A certain gentleman of immaculate sartorial taste had come to call after hearing of his interest. A property agent, the gent said. They chatted for a while. Yes, there were excellent sites available in central Somyeon, and the agent's company had an exclusive on all of them. The lease prices though were, well, even more than what one would expect of a prestige site, plus some, and 50% of the annual lease down in cash. Maybe a percentage of the profits too.

Gradually Dr Kim became uncomfortable with this suave representative, and resistant to the hard sell. Well, two could play hardball, and the fellow put all his cards on the table. It was an ace of clubs. The matter was really quite simple. The Jopok (Mafia/Yakuza) basically controlled any property worth owning in central Somyeon, and you dealt on their terms, or you didn't deal at all. Hmm. Maybe it was healthier to think of a less fashionable area..... The Mob probably had a heavy hand in Nampodong too, the doctor thought, but his knowledge of other areas was uncertain. By rumour, there are a couple of major controlling Yakuza-type gangs, and quite a few smaller ones with local fiefdoms, paying a cut to the big boys. Warming to the underworld slant, he also complained that chequebook journalism is rampant. To his certain knowledge, a whole tribe of doctors regularly pay journalists to publish stories of their miraculous cures. Nor were the agents of the law untainted. Many judges, he conceded, were also bent. Welcome to the real world. His father had said it was better to starve than to cheat, but, Dr Kim brooded darkly, he was a farmer, and urban life was a far harder proposition.

In 2000 the film, Chingu ('Friends') was a real hit in South Korea. The story of three school friends a generation ago, it tracks their progress through the violent experience of the Korean education system in Busan, and their graduation into the Jopok underworld. For a while Busan's bluff dialect (usually an object of scorn in Seoul) became cool for the teenage dudes of videoland, and pseudo-gangster poses were all the rage. We had a season of retro 60s fashions. Did sadistic Korean schoolmasters still thrash their victims senseless, I wondered? Well, Dr Kim reflected, about 30% of teachers were like that when he went to school. Now high school students are more apt to complain, but some elementary school teachers can still get away with it.

The morning's patient was an old man, who came with his wife. He paced up and down the waiting cubicle for a several minutes, while she pretended to read some well-thumbed fashion magazines. Maybe he had reason to worry. As Dr Kim got to work, the lady kept jumping up and down, trying to peer over the partition. At last the old fellow staggered up with pads between his teeth. He looked terrible. Then another one came, a teenage girl who gave small yelps of female pain over the whine of the dental drill.

Dr Kim looked much more cheerful. Nothing like a little pain to pique your appetite. Expansively, he invited me to a Pokeo restaurant for lunch. This was certainly extravagant, but perhaps he was anticipating the generous fees from private patients to come. Pokeo are those horrid things known as puffer fish in English. The tasty bit is that their poison can kill you, if the poison sacs are not expertly removed. Pokeo chefs reputedly pass this sacred knowledge on from father to son, so I could only hope that daddy had stayed off the soju long enough not to get his entrails confused.

We took a shortcut from the hospital, down a grimy street and over a rail crossing. The whole area looked like an industrial wasteland, the old story of neglected public spaces in east Asian cultures. A five minute walk brought us to a nondescript building with grubby fish tanks in the window. Alone, I would not have even thought of entering the place. Then we stepped into an entirely different world of very tasteful, warm wood tones and varnished floors. Shedding our shoes at the door, we padded along a polished wooden corridor past sliding doors of frosted glass. Our final seating was, of course, on the floor amid low tables and a scattering of flat cushions.

The main entree was fried silkworm chrisalae. Dr Kim watched me narrowly. They looked and tasted like fried cockroaches, a kind of musty, bottom of the cupboard, squishy sensation. We were on a nostalgia trip. As a child, the doctor explained, his family cold only afford fish or meat three times a month, so the silkworms were often on the menu as a source of high protein. Now they are the Korean notion of a radical chic delicacy. A kettle of barley water, another old peasant favourite, arrived to wash it all down with. I foresee a coming fashion in boiled grass and flavoured river stones, as the citizens from a newly liberated North Korea open fusion restaurants to welcome their southern brethren

Now a fanfare of trumpets please. The main course arrived: six teaspoon sized lumps that looked like bits of grilled brain in a bed of leaks. These tiny portions were very white with a little curl of black on one side. This is how the puffer fish is done over by a Korean chef. It tasted, well, kind of like fish, but I'd prefer a freshly grilled rainbow trout any day. It seemed certain that we were to savour a very small meal, but I'm plumb ignorant. As the six lumps were chopsticked away, the ajossi arrived with six more freshly prepared, and so on. A stack of other side dishes -- soya bean shoots in chilli, kelp (seaweed), various chewy bits of marine life.

Dr Kim murmured reverently to the ajossi that he was entertaining a kyosunim (a professor), so a special seafood creation arrived courtesy of the house. There were a couple of oysters artistically layered open in their shells. two carefully arranged prawns, crosscut slices of a large squid (puneo), and various doubtful looking bits of maritime life, all raw, including some cungevoi, blood red and black in frilly circlets. As a kid in Sydney forty years ago, I used to use that stuff as bait for rock fishing. Since all this expense was being lavished on me, I had to snaffle the lot with a show of gusto. Just to make sure the gaps were filled in, we finished off with leek soup and a bowl of steamed rice.

Now it would have been silly to waste a beautiful afternoon. We found the motorway west, across the lowlands of the Naktong delta. Sometimes, the doctor said, he brought his children to "fish" in the estuary, but they didn't actually catch fish. Here the four lane road was broad, fast, and almost empty. The crowded alleys and huddled buildings of central Pusan were no more than a memory. Many factories sprawled across large tracts of land, and there were no residential properties for kilometers. We could see some tower blocks of flats on the far side of the delta. Nor was any kind of public transport system evident. Shaking his head, Dr Kim revealed that many of these factories had closed or were hard-hit by industrial downturn.

At last, reaching the low hills on the western side of the Naktong, we pulled up behind a breakwater in Yongwon-dong, a village of raw fish restaurants, and the usual man-made lack of charm. This was new territory for Dr Kim too. Lost, he retreated to the highway, then turned off to An Goi-dong. It was a good gamble. The little used road led to a peaceful inlet packed with the frames of oyster farmers in a silver sheen of water. A sleepy car ferry terminal to Koje Island huddled on the point, entirely deserted. My camera eye caught only one disturbance - huge pylon excavators at the head of the inlet for a motorway suspension bridge. Sigh. These weaving expressways are defining the whole Korean landscape. Seaward, the black silhouette of islands floated on a pale blue sky.

I struggled with bright little remarks, doing my best to make conversation, but as usual it was tough. Not for the first time I wondered what the good doctor got from my company. Language learning didn't appear to be really on his agenda, and as the day wore on he seemed to find it harder to understand me. That made a kind of sense. Flailing around in a second language is exhausting, mentally fatiguing. Even Korean colleagues who make a living from English seem affected by this fatigue, and my spongy brain goes numb in no time flat as I try to drag forth a few mangled Korean phrases.

Sometimes my childish questions struck a spark. Dr Kim's early years, as the son of a poor peasant farmer, had obviously marked him deeply. Queries about agriculture usually got a reply. He explained the growing cycle of rice in Korea, a staple food but one extracted with far more effort than in the lush paddy fields of tropical South East Asia. Here there was only one harvest a year. Work is done in cycles of fifteen days hard labour, then four day's rest. Lunar New Year is a four day break before the season's work begins. Thirty years ago, rice seeds were just broadcast by hand into the paddies. Now they are struck in green houses, and the shoots transplanted. This brings much higher yields, and the growing season has been extended back a month into the end of winter.

We continued to head west, though the doctor offered no explanation of where we were going or why. I had come to expect this, and concluded that he probably had only a sketchy idea himself. On fast roads in a small country it is amazing how far you can get. This time I had stowed a Korean atlas in my shoulder bag, and from time to time tried to get a fix from him on where we actually were. Even that was tricky, for the atlas had transliterated the familiar hangul script into Latin letters for foreigners, a migration which most Koreans seem quite unable to relate to. I calculated that we had poked briefly into Chollanam-do, then spun off the highway and up a valley of thinning settlements to the hamlet of Pyongchon. I asked Dr Kim to stop while I photographed some unusual stone cairns overlooking a waterway. He associated these objects with shamanism, but could offer no story.

Soon we came to the Hadong dam, not huge, but already looming with sinister shadows in the failing light. The land began to rise steeply as we wound up to the head of a valley, past a very recent Buddha in grey neat stone. It looked like a memorial. Finally, high in the hills in the hamlet of Mukkye, we found ourselves at the end of the road. Actually, we were in a large parking lot, together with one tour bus, an inn, and the outline of a Korean war battle zone on a tourist board. It had turned bitterly cold, and whatever other plans Dr Kim may have had for a hike in the hills were quietly aborted. We turned for home.

Later I understood that we had come to the threshold of Chirisan mountain, now a national park, but once the scene of some of the bitterest fighting in the Korean war. History had marked this remote region as a centre for peasant revolt against the Chosun dynasty, so the roots of local independence ran deep. It had become a redoubt for communist partisans, and from this particular bloody struggle there had been no real winners.

If motorways are dull ribbons of bitumen in the daytime, at night they are black, mind numbing elevator shafts for spaceships, streaming with deadly lights like a malevolent video game. Dr Kim was obviously reborn from Krypton though, for he seemed more at ease amid this whine of invisible missiles. What was God's role, he congenially wondered aloud, if people became cyborgs from a factory, as was surely bound to happen sooner or later. Hmm, I had misjudged the man. Here was more imagination than expected. Playfully, I challenged him a little on the nature of religion itself, but he was too nimble to bite. My skeptical logic, he smiled, was "an explanation from a superior mind". Ah, struck down by the cudgels of status again.

On safer ground, I asked about brown, brick-like lumps of foodstuff one sees everywhere in Korean markets. Such hapless questions, a laughing matter for any Korean child. It took Dr Kim a moment to register that something so mundane was unfamiliar, but once again it touched his rural origins. The blocks are a compound of soya beans, which are pressed and wrapped in rice stalks to dry them out. The rice stalks carry a fungus and when the compound is fermented in salt water for a year, enzymes in the fungus break down the soya bean, enabling its proteins to be digested far more successfully than the original state. This stuff is used to make "old fashioned" soya bean sauce, as opposed to the chemical extraction used for commercial soya bean sauce, and is considered much superior to the commercial variety. Making soya sauce, from the field to the table, had been an integral part of him mother's life.

He clearly liked this train of traditional thought, so I asked about pre-industrial clothing in Korea. Images of Korea before the switch to yangbok (western clothing) are striking for the uniform of white cotton cloth which seemed to be obligatory for men (strangely Indian if you subtract the black horsehair hats). The maintenance of that white cloth must have spelled domestic slavery for generations of women. Cotton, said Dr Kim, was brought to Korea over 1000 years ago, and except for some upper class yangban garments, traditional clothing was almost always made from it. Warmth was added by cotton padding in the winter. His parents grew enough cotton to clothe the family in his childhood, with mother spinning and weaving it.

The life of a Korean peasant was in fact almost entirely self-sufficient, and this was a spare thirty years ago. The respectable Dr Kim, now an emblem of modern Korean success, had been completely awestruck as a sixteen year old, when he first came to Busan on a school visit. The most astonishing thing of all, he recalled, was the bitumen road, which he had never seen before. That black ribbon was indeed a highway to the stars.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise. ** Actual names have been used in "The Bright Smile Love Club".

"Travels With My Dentist"... copyrighted to Thor May 2002; all rights reserved
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