When a Waegook Visits the Doctor in Korea

Ddeokbokki in Yeongwol
That’s a waegook if I ever saw one.

Six months ago, I was successfully vaccinated against Hepatitis A. At least partially.

“Come back in six months,” Dr. Won told me. “For second shot.”

Today, I returned. The waiting room was packed with old women and children. There were shoes strewn about the entryway, and nearly all of the slippers were in use. I managed to find a pair and approached the reception desk.

Operation: Ignore the Foreigner

“Hello,” I said, in Korean.

The receptionist stared at me.

She blinked, saying nothing.

“Uh,” I said, scrambling for my notebook. “Kan yeom? Hepatitis A, second time?” For some reason I make everything a question when I try to speak Korean.

“Oh,” she said, nodding her head and reverting to her original plan, which was to ignore me completely. Confused, I sat on a cushion directly in her line of sight. She wasn’t pulling the ‘invisible foreigner’ trick today, not on me.

Several minutes later, the receptionist called one of the nurses in the back. I heard the word ‘waegookin’ (foreigner) in urgent, hushed tones.

They both peeked over the desk, saw that I was looking, and immediately broke into nervous giggles. After some more awkward whispering, the nurse called me up.

She handed me a registration slip and almost fainted when I was able to read the words, “name,” “phone number,” and “address.”

My Korean skills are pretty basic, but this ain’t my first rodeo, lady.

Ginseng root
Ginseng root. Good for health, or so they tell me.

The Doctor Will See You Now

I sat in the examination chair, which was exactly like one you’d find in a dentist’s office.

The doctor looked at me expectantly.

“Hello,” I said.

He responded by raising his eyebrows.

Oh. I guess it was up to me to speak. “Um. Hepatitis A, second shot?”

“Ah. Yes.” Finally! Recognition. “When did you have the first shot?”

“December 29th.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “And where did you have the shot?”

“Here,” I said. “Yeogi.”

The doctor peered over his glasses, like I was making up stories. “Here?”

“Yes, here.” I know doctors are busy people, but surely this conversation would jog his memory. There are only about 20 foreigners in the whole town, and I’m fairly confident they don’t frequent his practice.

“Hmm,” he said. “You do need the Hepatitis A shot in Asia.”

Yes. Well. That’s why I was there.

Burial Mound in Korea
Korean burial mound on my running track. Obviously not enough ginseng root.

This Will Hurt

The nurse showed me to the vaccination room and sifted through piles of medicine in the refrigerator before selecting what I hope was the Hep A vaccine. She handed the needle to the doctor and hovered next to him.

“Little bit of pain, maybe,” the doctor said, pinching the skin around my left shoulder. I focused on the poster to my right.

It hurt, just like the first one.

But unlike during the first one, I started to feel faint. The edges of my vision blackened, and everything sounded like it was happening outside of a bubble. I broke into a cold sweat.

“Lie down,” I said, pitching forward. “I have to lie down.” The world went black for a split second, and when I came to, it felt like I was swimming.

The doctor was horrified.

“You feel nauseous?” he asked. “Can you see? Vision is black?”

“I can see. Nauseous. Dizzy,” I mumbled from my crumpled heap on the bed.

He and the nurse tried to conceal their panic. I was holding up everything – if I didn’t get out of the vaccination room, the next patient couldn’t come in. If the doctor was trying to fix me, he couldn’t see anyone else. Children screamed from the other side of the door.

“Please,” he said. “Lie down. I will be back in a few minutes.”

When he returned, I was sitting up, trying to quell the waves of dizziness that refused to go away. The doctor diagnosed me with an inner ear problem and politely tried to prescribe me medicine. I declined.

“Okay,” he said, visibly relieved. “If you have any problems in the future, please consult your doctor.”

i.e., please don’t come back and pass out in my office again.

Holistic medical supplies in Korea
Holistic medical supplies in Daegu. Does that say ‘semen’ on the white bag? On second thought, I’ll pass on the medicine.

A Hasty Retreat

I composed myself long enough to lurch over to the water machine in the waiting room.

As I slopped water down my front because of the stupid origami cups I had to use, I became aware that the receptionist was waiting for me to check out. It was another five minutes of water-spilling, hanging my head between my legs, and ajummas staring at me before I managed to get to the desk.

“Pail-ship won,” she said. What the – ? Eighty thousand won?? Again? I had been under the false impression that the 80,000 won was a one-off payment that covered both injections.

I was wrong.

My options were limited: dispute the bill while trying not to faint, or pay the bill and get the heck out of there.

I paid.

I think everyone was glad when I left.

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  1. Man, that sounds rough. I absolutely HATE it when I get ignored, and I get super annoyed when I hear people calling me waegookin. Sometimes Korea’s handling of foreigners is so embarrassing! Hopefully you can avoid the doctor for a while now!

    1. I will not be going back to the doctor, that’s for sure! We have to get the yellow fever vaccination, but plan to do that at the clinic in Incheon airport. It is so frustrating when people automatically assume that you won’t be able to communicate, so they either ignore you or freak out. Then, when it turns out you can use a little bit of Korean, they freak out even more or pretend to not understand you. I won’t miss this part of Korea!

    1. For real. It drives me nuts whenever I hear ‘wonomin’ and ‘waegookin,’ or, worse, ‘Laurenseonsangnim.’ I’m RIGHT.HERE. Suddenly, it’s like you’re a child incapable of communication. My Korean’s pretty terrible, but at least I’m willing to try, and I usually come prepared with key words!

  2. Oh Lauren hahaha! Ditto to what Audrey said! What really annoys me, as a Brit, is when they say “Migukin”. I’ve asked Korean friends and they’ve said, “well you’re white so you’re likely to be American.” I asked them how they would feel if I called them Chinese. Point taken.

    Anyhow, this was no doubt not funny AT ALL at the time, but it makes for a pretty good story now.

    And I, too, despise those stupid paper non-cups.

    1. And the thing is, there’s plenty of people from all of the English speaking countries here – assuming that we’re all American is so off base. Of course, I am American, so I feed right into the stereotype!
      I wasn’t too worried while at the doctor – I’ve got a minor history of fainting, so I knew what to do – but the chaos it caused was kind of funny! Without a doubt I have reinforced the dubious opinion the receptionist seemed to have about foreigners.

  3. Yikes. This story does not install confidence. Glad everything worked out in the end.

    The decision to just pay and get out was probably the wise (but painful) one.

    1. I had a very positive experience the first time I went there, so I think this time was just bad luck! And yes, making that unexpected payment was painful!

  4. UGH! I’ve seen a LOT of doctors in Korea, easily 15 different ones multiple times. I’m all for an efficient medical system, but when a doctor that I’ve waited an hour for literally takes 2 minutes to diagnose me, I get pissed off. I’ve had to ask a doctor to actually exam me after he made his diagnosis; which he then changed.

    1. That would drive me nuts, changing the diagnosis! Jared and I eventually stopped going to the doctor once we realized that they were all overeager to give you a shot in the butt and piles of pills for no apparent reason. Having health coverage is GREAT, but sometimes the language barrier took some of the shine off.

  5. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was
    extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for rookie blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  6. It is only by applying our learned behavior standards, (and political correct fashions in the western world!) that such stories seem to be weird, or that Koreans seem to behave not as we expect. Asian people in Western countries also make similar experiences with our behavior towards them. Usually there is rarely a bad intention on either side. Just misunderstandings or shyness – this is my experience from Japan and Korea.

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