Thor's Korea Diary

Skin Deep

@14 August 2001

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About April life started to get desperate. Now I'm no beauty queen. The closest anyone ever came to making that mistake was a harassed doctor a few years ago. Looking up from a blur of patients, he snapped "strip down to your panties and bra. I'll be with you in a minute". Being definitely a bloke, the testosterone curdled a little. But looking in the mirror a few months ago, things were definitely getting past a joke.

The baggy eyes, the dry pasty skin. One day I accidentally glanced at some body parts below the mirror line. This was a mistake. Shocking. Even the skin on my legs was going slack and wrinkly. Damn it, fifty-five might sound antediluvian to the nymphets who no longer noticed me (OK, they'd never noticed me.. ), but I ate my greens and lived a virtuous life. This Korea place must be doing evil things. No wonder Koreans looked miserable. Rushed out and bought a humidifier. Ah, what a waste of money. What else can a fellow do? Well, I did send the following missive to the Dead Letter Office in the sky:

Dear god who isn't there,

No favours your otherness, just the straight dope.
Why can't we zap this mortality thing? I mean,
there are stacks of folk out there who forgot
to get a life.
You've only got to see them sitting on the train
with faces as blank as no-frills nose tissues.
Well, you know their heart of hearts.
That's your line of business, isn't it.
But only looking skin deep, seems to me
they'd be just as happy to be garden manure.

Now here's the deal. I know you have to sign off
on a quota of dead bodies every shift.
Isn't that how you get to recycle souls?
Sounds like a steady business,
but anyone with half a brain can see it's wide open
to a bit of fiddling.
If you could just knock an hour or two
from the lifetime lease
of a few million no-frills blanketies,
well there'd be a great reservoir of immortality-liqor
to pass out to the deserving.

I'm not complaining you otherness.
It's just that I have all these ideas
that are going to take a thousand years to pull off.
And to tell you the truth, life is a blast.
Like it's intoxicating.
But yesterday I, um, this is terrible, I noticed
these grey hairs on my chest,
and my skin's going kind of funny.
I mean, jesus, do something, willya ?

Yours in doubt, Thor

Well folks, you are not going to believe this. If I had half a brain, I'd keep it a secret. If you all get to pestering the Dead Letter Office in the sky, well the Keeper might get browned off. Anyway, I can't keep a secret. A character flaw that has caused endless trouble... THE LETTER WORKED. There, I've said it.

Um, some of it worked anyway. Don't know about the immortality bit yet. But the skin stuff, yep, it's on the way to fixing. Screwed up some courage and looked at my legs once morelast night. Hey, the skin is supple again. The slackness is almost gone, even a bit of lustre. Alright, they're not teenager's pegs, but for an aging crocodile, not bad. As for the mirror bit, well if you're like me you'll understand that clever technique of looking in a sort of unfocused way. It's miraculous how you can even shave and avoid seeing the discouraging evidence of time's ruin. But blinded by new legs, I took a deep breath and found a mirror to stare at. No doubt about it, for a seasoned inspector of Thor's face, there was change. This face has been an embarrassment for fifty years. Nothing matches, balances or otherwise advertises Hollywood excellence. But, yes, the eye bags were gone, the etched lines of defeat from a thousand battles were discreetly softened.

Time to get smug. The trouble with miracles is that rationality always tries to butt in. What could have done the trick among the potions and portents of the non-supernatural? Yeah. I've just come back from a month's sort-of-holiday in Australia. Yet there and here in Korea I eat pretty much the same stuff. A lot of steamed vegetables, a little meat, bananas, apples, some nuts, bread, rice, a weakness for wafer biscuits... Only one thing changed big-time.

I invested in a whole supermarket shelf of health supplements: ginko biloba, vitamin E, vitamin C, cod liver oil, fish oil, shark cartilage, magnesium ... Now almost every doctor alive says these magic bullets are futile, and every chemist makes a tidy income out of them. What we really need is a thing like a watch to strap on, which sends out little messages such as "gross out on Vitamin C for the next 24 hours" or "forget about that shark cartilage rubbish. The knee department says it's unusable.." Lacking any such bio-machine, one goes for the shotgun approach. In fact I bought a year's supply of the stuff in one hit, and spent a long time rehearsing stories to tell Korean customs if they busted me as a pill smuggler.

Why not buy health supplements in South Korea? Well, as with many things the health business is a racket. What any supermarket and endless health food shops flog in Australia, at least in open competition, Korean chemists seem to have cornered as a monopoly. Your mug foreigner comes into a Korean chemist shop, wiggles his ears and stands on his head, trying to explain what is needed, often without great success. If the worthy chemist at last gets an inkling, he shuffles away to some high shelf at the back of his shop and comes back with a small vial for which he wants an enormous price. If there is something cheaper hidden in the inner recesses, your mug foreigner never hears about it.

Take ginko biloba. This stimulates peripheral circulation, and has been used by Chinese druggists for 4000 years. It comes from the leaves of a very common tree, easy to grow and found not only throughout Asia, but now on other continents also. A couple of month's supply of capsules in an Australian supermarket comes to around A$12 (Won 7800). In Korea I've been given wildly varying quotes from Won 30,000 to Won 60,000 for a quarter of the potency of the Australian product. Even something as common as Vitamin E in Korea is more than double the Australian price. Why?

While we are being narky, what's with the skin business in Korea anyway? Here I'm heading into deep trouble with the locals, but something seems to be amiss in the Korean environment. Minerals in the soil? Something else? When I moved here from Central China (Wuhan), last year, the change among bodies in the street was, well, hard to pin down exactly, but nevertheless striking. People seem to age more quickly in Korea. Even many twenty-somethings have a rawness, a hardness about their complexions which was not evident in the Yangtze Valley where I'd been living.Korean girls cake their faces with white powder and heavy lipstick, giving a circus clown disguise which looks great from ten meters, and forbidding on close acquaintance.

Is it a subconscious cultural wail of despair at nature's tricks? Surely the problem is not genetic. My own disintegration and resurrection seems evidence of that. On the other hand, in both Central China and Australia, the variety, quantity and quality of fresh produce available is not only much better than in Korea, but also much cheaper (five to ten times cheaper in China). I dunno'. Maybe an enquiry to that Dead Letter Office in the sky can give us the inside dope.

Coda, May 2002 (one year on)

The mystery deepens with this skin stuff. Vitamins notwithstanding, within a few months back in Korea my skin began to age alarmingly again. Was it really "age" ? Maybe. Some of it was sure to be. My younger sisters have taken a bigger hit than me, and they are safely pickled in the Australian version of life. Still, Dylan Thomas speaks louder to me than fatalism -

Do not go gently into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light... 

The expensive potions and lotions packing the shelves of beauty shops seemed like a poor bet, given the evidence walking around on the streets. I have taken to the ancient South European habit of rubbing myself down from head to toe with olive oil every night, after a shower. Amongst its many qualities, olive oil contains some strong antioxidants. I'm not sure how much real difference it makes, but at least there is the illusion of suppleness.

A few weeks ago I seem to have stumbled upon something more like a real answer. In Korea I don't eat red meat at all, save for an occasional social visit with friends to a restaurant. Not only does red meat here cost a king's ransome, it is deadly poisonous to a chemical factory like my body -- great globules and bands of animal fat invade every skerrick of Korean meat. It is classic heart attack and stroke material. ... So given a rich variety of lightly steamed vegetables every day, I figured that protein being protein, tinned fish could fill the gap. Hmm. A bit silly in Busan where there are more kinds of fish than most other places on earth - fresh, frozen, dried, souped, pasted ... you name it. Still, the tinned fish was easy, a no-brainer. There came a day though when I couldn't look another can of tinned tuna in the face. So there was nothing else for it but to get into the slightly yucky business of preparing fresh fish. As it happens, about the cheapest fish in the market is something that looks suspiciously like a small tuna. But hey, it tastes great, not like that musty stuff out of a tin. The flesh is rather dark, slightly oily, with a full chewy taste.

But the most amazing thing is that now, my battered body somewhat rebuilt with the protein blocks of more or less fresh tuna (if that's what it is), is showing genuine signs of rejeuvenation again. The networks of fine wrinkles that had begun to invade the soft white skin of my inner arms and legs have receded, almost disappeared, regardless of olive oil... What's in the fish that gets lost in the canning factory? Taste, for one, but some other magic too, by the look of it...

Coda : February 2003 ( eighteen months on)

Well, the magic fish is actually a species of mackerel, and I eat it every day. The effect has certainly been remarkable, but may have had something to do with filling out a bit of padding. It's an oily fish, and I've put on some weight. Let's hope the catchcry of the times is right -- that fish oil is actually good for you ...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Skin Deep"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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