Visiting Gwangju / 광주 여행

Gloria and I met at college during our fourth year. Actually, we met through our mutual friend—the first time we met I was mad at this friend and bailed out on our coffee date, so my meeting with Gloria was short and (not so) sweet. I can only imagine what impression I gave off, quite cool when angry and not in my best “hi nice to meet you” mindset. It all worked out, though, or she changed her judgement of me after some time.

{As I write this post, “London” by Benjamin Clementine comes up on shuffle—appropriate, as Gloria and I both spent some considerable time in London whilst studying abroad.}

Although during our years (four in mine and five in her case) we did manage to share one Asian American Literature class, we did most of our real bonding at her apartment or, later, out and about as we continued to meet up during her fifth year of school, after I’d graduated but was hanging around Irvine for a teaching job at an academy on the Irvine/Tustin border. We shared a lot, more than I could have guessed I’d have in common with one of my close friends’ apartment mates—and our friendship was natural, blossoming out of some of our darkest moments—there was some safety between us, so secrets came out. I think our biggest, perhaps first serious conversation about, amongst other things, depression and anxiety, happened in the small food court of a Korean supermarket.

Even before then—Gloria has seen me in several (not quite flourishing) conditions, not least of which occurred after she chortlingly fed me six soju shots, and I withered into the onesies-clad blubber clutching a pillow spread eagle on the floor that she and her roommates preceded to photograph and send to, amongst other recipients, my father

Who sent it to me~ And while it’s too devastating to share here, here is another, taken at another time but in the same location, that sufficiently sums up what goes on when I drink soju (in any location, by the way, after as few as three shots…hence my lack of “going out” in Seoul):

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So Gloria and I grew closer as time passed after college. When I headed out here late last summer, it was after a few months of regularly meeting Gloria at coffee shops on Fridays or Sundays, sharing our personal writing, just chatting, or writing our joint blog about our big “scientific” excursion into app dating. Gloria’s absence as I made my way through Seoul and ran into trouble here and there or went through several firsts while here on my own and emotionally vulnerable after a particularly toxic summer at home… I felt it.

So when she told me sometime in March this year that she’d be coming to Korea, I was extremely excited, hopeful for the first time since the new year that the rest of my time here wouldn’t just be difficult. When she told me she’d be settling somewhere in Jeollanam-do, I cheered myself up by reminding myself that I sometimes drove three hours into LA if there was traffic and that really, it wasn’t that far away. Within reach, at least.

When she flew into Korea mid-April, she stayed with me in my Seoul apt. for a night before heading down to Gwangju for her EPIK orientation, and in that single night and day I felt like we fell back into old habits; it was surreal that she was here, after thinking about it for so long—we once jointly applied to something over here that didn’t work out back in December 2014—but it felt natural. I warned her about the difficulties I faced during my first few weeks here, which she immediately decommissioned by making a ton of friends at her EPIK orientation. We went to one of her favorite cafes from her study abroad stint at Yonsei that weekend, but the meeting was too brief. I kept telling her to let me know when she was settled down in Gwangju and that I’d come visit her.

Eventually, about a month after she’d stayed with me on her first night here, I bussed down to Gwangju to meet her.

I hate flying, but for some reason, bussing is sort of tranquil. The most pleasant memories I have of bus rides are those I’d take into the town centre of Norwich from my dorms at UEA while studying Shakespeare and Creative Writing abroad there three years ago, and the few rides from London Stansted through birch-filled, hog-housed countryside…   But the ones through Korea aren’t too bad, either.

I left from Central City Terminal in Seoul at 8.30PM on a Friday night, so it was dark outside. I watched with interest as we exited Seoul and passed through what appeared to be a quite industrial sector in Gyeonggi-do, and then as we passed through dark countryside and small towns, the view of darkness interrupted only by the eerie, somewhat unsettling red glow of church crosses and the vibrant, nearly half-moon hanging bulbous above the mountains and cities.

I burnt my mouth on tong-gamja at the rest stop—running through the rain back to the bus in the nick of time—at the half-way point. It was late. I didn’t get to Gwangju until nearly midnight (after passing the KIA factory, looking in without knowing what it was and thinking—no, could it possibly—? making cars? car factory? no…—before seeing the sign).

Taxi queues at post-subway/bus hours are never something I like to participate in, but somehow always get stuck in. This time, a lady behind me stood next to me instead of behind me and, I’m used to being stared at but, she was really looking and I thought… We’re not in Seoul anymore. Then she asked me what direction I was going in, and I thought a moment before realizing I didn’t know either—so I told her that, shrugging a bit, and turned away in line. After texting Gloria about it, I realized, she was probably just trying to help me, but I’d been nervous she’d suggest sharing a cab because of the long line and I’d seen people do this before on one occasion.

As I was fourth or fifth in line, I was joined in queue from behind by two late-twenties males who stood way too close to me (and that’s me talking after three-fourths of a year to acclimating to Asian personal space philosophy) and began to pester each other to say something in English and then, after all the fuss, only managed to come up with incredibly dull and random phrases (“I will change it now” / “Really? I didn’t know it” etc). I texted Gloria through it all, and she apologized on behalf of such a welcome to her city, but I was so delirious on (usual) lack of sleep and simple reaction to a too-long day that I could barely count it as my real “welcome.” That would come later, I told her.

The cab driver kept asking me which direction I wanted him to go to drop me off at the apartment complex I asked him to drop me at, and although I said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure,” not wanting to divulge that I wasn’t from here so he wouldn’t try anything sneaky, eventually he dropped me at the back of the correct complex and I waited a while for Gloria to find me. We said our hellos and headed back to her apartment, which is on the second floor of an elevatorless building in a small and kind of quaint neighborhood. I later stopped to photograph the vibrant blue roofs of the neighborhood buildings—Gloria side-eyeing me and asking “what are you doing” as if I had stopped to admire a piece of chewed gum on the ground—but there’s a style there that I like, which I can’t describe in any other way than to say that they’re what I think of when I think of “Korean style” neighborhoods, though where I get that impression from…I’m not sure.

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We spent the first day finding our way to a panini cafe, looking out at a small but verdant park, and then immediately turning the exact opposite direction and walking probably a mile the wrong way while looking for “downtown.” To be fair, that is not my fault. Since it was my first time there. Anyway eventually we turned back around but ended up walking down side streets to the downtown area where we shopped, stopped for a while at a Gong Cha, and then went back in a cab and rested before ordering in, my first ordering-in experience in the land of ordering in… I’d heard before, from Dad’s Seoul-born coworker via Dad, that Gwangju had good food, but I can confirm now from experience. Not that Seoul doesn’t have good food—in all the lands I’ve tried soondubu-jjigae, a spot near exit 8 of the Gangnam Underground Shopping Mall in Seocho-gu still carries my heart—but the doenjang-jjigae I ordered in, even the kimchi that came with it, was better than any I’ve had here, and later, at the bus terminal waiting to bus home, the udong was also better than farther north.

The next day we made our way to an area near the university where there was purported to be a, somewhat predictably, younger, uni-age population. We walked around for a while wondering where to eat, found a “casual dining food court,” where I ordered our food to the apparent discomfort of the boy who took our order who expected Gloria—who is so often mistaken as Korean and spoken to in rapid dialect before she’s able to relay that actually she’s not Korean—to order, and where we ate peacefully before trying unsuccessfully to find a cafe she’d seen in a blog. We think it’s not there anymore. In the end, she forced me to choose where to go, so I wandered us down side roads long enough to find a Cafe Pascucci’s, where we parked it for a few hours and I attempted, with small success, to break through the writers’ block that has had a stranglehold on me for six months now… mostly, I gazed out the third-floor window to the foot traffic below. Mostly couples, but not as many matching outfits as Seoul.

Gwangju is… a bit dirty. A bit spread out. The busses are hot and crowded. The main “downtown” is kind of nice, and so is the uni area. But I decided after all that I wouldn’t want to live there; I’d feel even more cut off and bored than I do in Seoul. Being somewhere is partly about who you’re with, but in the case that you’re alone, place really matters. Since I’ve been to London and I know what it’s like to feel like you could live somewhere forever, I feel like I’m just playing around in the meantime and so it seems it wouldn’t matter where I was, but in a way, Seoul has come to seem like home base for me, a safe place to return to after travels throughout the rest of the country. You wouldn’t think it’d be refreshing to come back from a friendly place to a place where people could push you halfway to the ground trying to get somewhere in a crowd and not even spare you a glance, but, well… I like this place.

Going to Gwangju was about seeing more the country in which I have found myself, yes, but it was also just about spending time with a good friend. So perhaps there are more Gwangju-y things to do in Gwangju than the things I did, but I like to think I enjoyed the city pretty well.

Throughout the time I spent with her over the weekend, I found that there were many times when Gloria appeared in frame behind me when I turned on selfie mode, so I began a mission to capture selfies with “Gloria behind me” and acquired what I consider to be a good few. Though she threatened to kill me and declared her hate for me more than once after I snapped some less-than-flattering shots, at one point in the cafe she said out of the blue—“I’m behind you.” I looked at her strangely and said, “okay,” like I was responding to one of my students’ passionate outbursts of random information, but then she repeated herself until I understood that I should take a photo. (After six months of acute insomnia… there’s bound to be some clogs up there, in the brain I mean).

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Kindergarten Student 101

One of my kindergarten students is the master of the half-compliment.

“Teacher is small [a little bit] cute.”

“Teacher…you are handsome.”

“Teacher is why is looks fat? No—Teacher’s t-shirt looks fat.”

“But why Teacher’s eyes is so pretty?”

“Teacher is a white like milk. I like the milk.”

(I say—I think I look better with short hair—after showing them my passport photo, taken four years ago, in which my hair was long, dyed blue at the ends, and in which I was wearing full makeup, something the kids have never seen on me before, I think)

No. Long hair is prettier than short hair.”

When I visit her place at the table to check up on her work or help her with something, she always grabs my hand. “Don’t go,” she says. “I’ll come back,” I say, and she pouts, but accedes. When the bell rings for break time, she throws her arms around my hips. “Don’t go,” she says. She struggles against me as I move towards the door. “I’ll come back,” I say. She watches me go from the doorway with a sad face, her entire 2.5 foot frame wilted with disappointment.

As if to make up for the time we’ve spent apart, whenever she can, she’ll wrap her arms around whatever part of me is nearest, or simply lean in towards whatever part is close to her, and kiss it. My stomach, back, arms, chest, legs—anywhere.

In class these days, while I’m sitting at my teacher’s chair at the front of the class passing out homework or listening to students recite their Daily Oral Expressions, she’ll come up to me and sling an arm around my shoulder, not even as tall as me while I’m sitting down. One day, her arm around my shoulder this way, she looks me in the eye and says, “Teacher is my friend.”

“Your friend?!” I say. Sometimes, abandoning their polite pretenses, the students will call out to me—“Lily!”—usually in a bid for my attention. “Lily?!” I’ll say, affecting disbelief. “Am I your friend?

So Elizabeth smiles up at me after the familiar question and simply nods her head. “My friend,” she says. “What can I say to Teacher now?”

I think a moment, and then say, “you can still call me Teacher.”

“And go to Teacher’s house?”

I laughed. “Maybe sometime.”

Later in the day, Elizabeth came up to me and put her hand on my arm. “Is it ‘sometime’ now?”

Then, maybe a week ago, she reminded me. “Teacher is my friend. Teacher comes to my house?”

“What would your grandma say…?” I said, and she just smiled.

Today, at break time, I stayed in the classroom to mark the last of their homework, and she came over to my desk to see what I was doing, inching closer and closer until she was leaning fully against my side.

“Yayyy,” she whispered, and then hoisted a small leg over my lap. “Now you can’t leave.”

It was the rare moment I had my mobile on me while I was in the classroom, having used it earlier to broadcast our open class song throughout the room, so I picked it up and turned it to selfie mode quickly. As I was doing this, another student, Ji-Ah, was coming in the door and noticed the impending activity, so she ran over to join us.

 

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Sometimes, receiving their affection, I think of how kids are just ready to love someone; I think of how if more people were like kids, ready to learn, curious, still open and unafraid, not yet having experienced the pain that closes us and hardens us and traps us in what we already know and went through—perhaps we’d have less reasons to be hurt at all. I encounter children like Elizabeth and remember the words I learned in my own childhood, but too young and innocent still to understand their value—blessed are the pure in heart—knowing now that it is so rare to be kind and to mean the best, and wondering—what would it be like, to be that way? Untouched by deep sadness, unscarred by memories, guilt, fear, hesitation…

I think of all the lies I told to get here—I’m energetic, I’m active, I’ve never been treated for mental illness, I’m generally healthy, and normal, and positive, etc—and then I remember the perhaps one and only thing I said that was not a lie, that was true—I like kids.

Despite her half-compliments, which imply some kind of pre-calculation (but in fact, I believe, are not a result of that), Elizabeth is to me a beacon of a pure heart—she’s uncomplicated—she tries hard, she’s honest (“Teacher, I didn’t do my homework because I forgot”), she wants to help her friends, and she says what she wants without reservation, without self-consciousness. I know a child wants and thinks and wonders as much as adults do, that a child’s simplicity isn’t…simple, that they’re as aware and nuanced as adults—but their experience, it can’t be argued, is simpler, and less. And I think kids are still hopeful and excited for their futures. I envy that.

I’m sure all adults have gone through more than they wish they had, have done things they regret, are scared by their own futures and their own pasts; I’m sure a lot of adults struggle with unhappiness and emotions they can’t control; I’m sure everyone’s been heartbroken and everyone’s been shy and everyone’s been uncomfortable and everyone’s struggled… but I’ve been feeling these things so acutely lately, just down on myself, regretful, and wistful. Watching the kids play, or watching them watch me as they learn in the classroom, unguarded and unburdened, I want to hide these things from them, and I want to learn from them instead—what should I do about my nightmares, how can I be happy and gentle, well-meaning and earnest like you?

surgery in Korea

It is difficult to know how to begin this post.

In fact I’ve begun it and erased it a few times now.

This is a subject I avoided for several months of my recent history and I suppose it’s maintained a resistance to my airing it. So, after a lot of effort and several revised drafts, here it is:

I recently had minor surgery to remove part of a toenail that had become ingrown. Details: I allowed it to be ingrown for several months, thinking I was avoiding the emotional trauma of visiting a doctor whom I barely understood and before whom I would have to stand ashamed and admit that I’d endured the occasionally severe pain of an infected digit for so long and then, on top of that, not even know how to say that…

So I was well and on my way to ignoring this forever… embarrassed by my own affliction, I guess, which might not be uncommon, I don’t know—but then my friend Kelsey and I planned a trip to Osaka and Kyoto for my summer vacation in July and August and my friend Gloria, freshly arrived in Gwangju, agreed to go with me to Seonyudo over Memorial Day weekend in June. Both trips which would involve extensive time on our feet (and on a bike, in the latter’s case), and I finally faced up to my reality: I couldn’t do that with my stupid, wounded toe. And I’d already booked tickets.

Timidly—and after several days of conveniently “forgetting” to—I asked my coteacher if she knew of a good podiatrist. When she asked me why, I told her something was wrong with my foot, and she suggested the “bone doctor.” Another coworker, in whom I had confided my horrible secret, piped up from her corner—“It’s not a bone problem…” When I subsequently  appeared to be incapable of explaining my own situation, this coworker continued: “It’s an infection on the toe.”

I covered my face in my hands and flopped back in my chair as if mimicking a dying fish would change the fact that now half the teachers in the teachers’ room were listening in on my well-guarded private problems.

My coteacher told me I should see a “skin doctor” and proceeded to look one up for me, finally locating one at Nowon Station and calling them to see if they could help me. She’d ask me questions while talking to them—where is it, exactly, is it bad? or not, and finally, how long has it been like that?—to which I had to ashamedly tell her it’d been something like five months and to which she promptly rolled her eyes at me before relaying this to the poor, poor soul on the other end of the line.

I managed to shuffle myself out of the teachers’ room after my coteacher told me to go in the next morning before work and I might have gone to sit by myself in one of the kiddy toilet stalls in the bathroom to be alone for a while, but I don’t actually really remember what I did, oxygen being in some little supply to my brain at the time.

I made my way to 이지함 피부과 (Ee-jee-ham Pee-boo-gwa) out of Nowon Station’s fourth exit the next morning.

I have become accustomed to being greeted by a certain facial expression accompanied by a sort of rigor-mortis-like stiffening of body when I walk in somewhere and someone realizes that they’re going to have to try to speak English. So when I walked into the “Skin Clinic” (which I quickly realized was more like a cosmetic-surgery / skin clinic) I was ready to be greeted nervously—judging by the average reaction to my entrances, I am probably a close relative of the Grim Reaper—but actually, I don’t recall any hyperbolic expressions. Only one receptionist / front desk girl approached me and asked me hesitantly if I spoke Korean.

“A little,” I told her, and then said in Korean that it was my first time so I wanted to register. She switched to English slightly falteringly to ask if I could read Hangeul, and even though I said I could, she still explained the form to me as I filled it out. She mistook me for a student—I don’t really resemble the average English teacher, I suppose, and my casual appearance has even sometimes elicited negative reactions from subway mothers—and wrote my address as “USA,” but I thought things were going quite well until she asked me what was wrong.

“There’s some problem with your skin?” she asked, gesturing to her face. I paused a moment and wondered what she must have thought of my complexion before shaking my head and figuring out how to say what I had to say in the least amount of words possible.

“My toe,” I said, “has an infection.”

She proceeded to ask me details that I was embarrassed to relay, and then finished up the interview by drawing a cartoonishly inflated toe on a tiny foot on my file and double-checking with me that it looked okay.

Then she tried to ask me what doctor I wanted to see, but she called them “teachers” —in Korean, you’d address or call a doctor the same word for “teacher” (선생님) so I was confused at first until I translated in my head and realized what she was asking. I told her in Korean that any doctor was fine and she told me I’d wait for thirty minutes.

I looked at the clock. That would put me late for work. So I texted my coteacher who offered to cover my first period, and sat to wait nervously.

In about the right amount of time the nurse called me—Lily님~—and I walked forward into 한희진’s office.

I met with a kind-faced, slightly graying woman with glasses and a very comfortable demeanor, and very natural and non-threatening-looking for someone who worked in a cosmetic surgery clinic. I greeted her in Korean, but she said “Good morning,” and asked me how I was doing, it was nice to meet me, and verified some details about my problem.

The dreaded moment arrived—when I’d take off my shoe and reveal the wound. While I was unlacing, I hesitated, wondering if she’d find it extremely odd if I suddenly bolted—but instead, I simply apologized and warned her it was not pretty.

“It’s okay. I’m a doctor,” she said, amused. But I knew that smile would not last long. Guiltily I peeled off my bandaid.

She gazed at it, inspected it, poked at it, asked me if this or that hurt (it did), asking me how long it’d been that way—looking at me an extra second when I told her and then composing herself professionally, but not before I could tell she was wondering if she heard me right or not—and then finally looked up at me with something like—sympathy? pity?—before observing pithily, “there is some….severe….swelling here.”

“Yes,” I said.

She told me we’d treat it in stages. Start with a week of antibiotics, pain meds, and ointment. She asked me to come back in a week and she would decide if I needed surgery or not. If I needed it, she’d have to remove part of the nail itself, but if surgery was unnecessary, she’d just remove the dead tissue from the area. At that point—I was so relieved she spoke perfect English and was kind and not grossed out by my grossness—I would have said OK if she’d said, let’s amputate!, so I happily accepted her advice and made my way out to the waiting room again. Before I was called up to pay, Doctor Han came out of her room to find me and told me that the antibiotics were quite strong (which she had already told me) so I needed to take yogurt with them. I just include this detail to show how she went out of her way to help me, which she would continue to do throughout my stint there.

So I took antibiotics for a week. After a few days I could tell the swelling had gone down, but not as much as I’d thought it would. After a week, I had a feeling that I’d need surgery. I went back to see Dr. Han again and she let me know, with kind of a sad look on her face, that I’d need surgery after all. She apologized—no, no, I said. I could have said thank u please take it all. She leaned down and felt my shoes, wondering if there was enough room in there…and I realized, she’d be doing the surgery that day.

Back in the waiting room, I began to get nervous. I was glad it would be over with and in healing mode from that point forward, but, well, I think nobody likes to wait for their own surgery.

But then, a receptionist called me up—I paid, and she gave me my prescription and I thought, oh, maybe they scheduled the surgery for some other time, so I walked out to the elevator and had just pressed the call button when I see Dr. Han running towards me, gesturing me inside.

“Today!” she said, seeming flustered. “We will do the surgery today.”

I apologized and returned to my seat. The receptionist apologized but I shook my head and smiled. Twilight zone-ish. So I went back to being nervous.

Doesn’t help, either, that the only other surgery I’ve undergone, I also had to be awake through, and it was extremely traumatic—wisdom teeth removal. They gave me a sedative which made my body hard to control but which did nothing to ease my mental or emotional discomfort, and being awake while people mine through your mouth for things that are attached to your bones isn’t exactly what I’d call a good time. I remember crying and mumbling nonsense at the dentists and then crying when Mom bought me a smoothie after the surgery and I couldn’t keep it in my mouth—it just kept dribbling out and everything was numb and swollen. I mean—extremely swollen. I already have round cheeks, so think bowling-ball-sized-cheeks swollen. 

And it wouldn’t go unswollen for two weeks. Some people I know recovered in a couple days from theirs…but me? No, two weeks of vegetable stock. I remember I cried (a theme with me) when I ate my first Pillsbury croissant (aka the softest solid food in the world) after two weeks of chewing only air and Vicodin dreams—and my memories of these dreams are interspersed with hazy flashes of the two-AM, thirty-minute infomercials my medicated, delirious self became extremely interested in during that dark time…

Anyway, I was nervous about the surgery. I still had to go to work in like an hour and I was by myself and I was about to get cut open and here we were dealing with something that I had tried to ignore for almost half a year, something I had tried hard not to acknowledge, something that embarrassed me and plagued me and was painful, something I’d tried to keep hidden being dragged up and addressed in a big way. Since the new year—actually, since before then, maybe the end of December—I’ve been what can be properly called an emotional wreck—I went through a painful breakup and resurgences of panic attacks, bouts of my usual, but super amplified depression and anxiety, sadness, restlessness, tiredness, sleeplessness—just things I’d been living with, like I’d been living with this infection. As I waited in the surgery room, and the nurses quietly prepared for the operation, I remembered what it felt like to stop denying myself, to stop ignoring myself, to stop denying and shaming my own needs, to stop ignoring my health, and what it felt like to do something good for me—things which people like me, who suffer emotional disorders, might find it hard to remember to do.

When Dr. Han entered the room, she asked me if I was nervous.

“A little,” I said.

My friend and Dad had been texting me their well-wishes. My phone vibrated on the table behind me.

I watched as Dr. Han prepared the area and disinfected it, but I turned away when she pulled out the syringe—the needle was uncomfortably large, as all local-anesthetic needles are, I suppose. I declined to watch as she administered the injection—I’m sensitive, but I also think my pain tolerance is reasonable—but this really hurt. I think I stopped breathing until everything was numb. Then Dr. Han looked up at me, surprised. I hadn’t made a sound.

“Oh… good patient,” she said, then the nurse said—but her face is a bit…—so Dr. Han told me I could lay down if I wanted.

“I will do that,” I announced, and then did it. They put a pillow under me and then handed me a stuffed panda bear wearing an American-flag patterned, knit sweater. I wrapped my arms around it as Dr. Han told me she was starting the operation.

Of course—if you’ve had surgery like this, you know. It’s numb, so it doesn’t hurt, per se, but you can feel it. It’s not…comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable. Two nurses were in the room now, and they all three were making comments in Korean, not knowing I could understand them, about how much it was bleeding—I was glad again I’d opted to lay down. Thinking too much for the moment, feeling too much for the moment, thinking this was a big metaphor for something when it was in fact one of the most physical of physical, actual things that can happen to a body—I was strangely emotional, but I managed to hold back tears. I’m pretty good at doing that, as a kindergarten teacher can’t let the leak drip just any time she wants.

But suddenly—it was almost silent in the room—Dr. Han started humming, just a simple, somehow sweet tune—and I lost control, tears falling out a couple at a time at first, but I had a good cry in private, the stuffed bear hiding my face from view. One of the nurses looked up to check on me—tears still rolling slowly down my face—I nodded, I’m not sure why, maybe to acknowledge what we both knew, that I was crying, an adult who maybe didn’t feel like one clutching a stuffed bear to her chest on the operating table. Her grip tightened on my leg slightly for a moment.

The surgery was over quickly. It lasted maybe ten minutes. Afterwards, when Dr. Han was going to put stitches in, the anesthetic had worn off a bit, so it was painful—I didn’t know if it should hurt or not (dumb…I know), so I didn’t say anything, but at one point I think I flinched hard enough for her to notice.

“It’s painful?” she asked, surprised.

“Yes,” I said. She put in more anesthetic, and continued. It hurt a couple times, but nothing like before. She told me afterwards that she’d changed her mind and instead of suture had opted for a “chemical” sealant. Then they wrapped me up and I shoved my club toe into my running shoes and then Dr. Han brought a box of chocolate into the room and shared it with the nurses and me. I wondered how they could eat that after what they just witnessed… but kept these thoughts to myself as I exited for real this time and made my way to work.

I had to return the next few days to have the post-op wound examined and dressed, but they told me it was healing well and eventually told me I could self-dress. Dr. Han had been coming in on her off-days because she “knew my file,” and wanted to make sure I was doing okay. Whenever I thanked her for taking such good care of me, she’d waive it off and say something like, “it’s my job,” but actually, it wasn’t. At one point, she told me that her husband is Korean-American—ah, I thought. Your English. I now know.—and on my last visit up, I went up to the clinic in the same elevator as Dr. Han, and caught a glimpse of her husband through the closing elevator doors as he waved goodbye to her. He had the same genuinely kind, peaceful expression and same gray hair—I realized with a start, that man drops his wife off at work. This woman came in on her days off to take care of me. What a special, unusual, enviable couple.

My nail is growing back. I’m putting on this stuff called “medifoam” to protect the bare skin where nail should be, and I’ll do that until it’s fully regrown. I can wear any pair of my extensive shoe collection these days and I’m much more mobile now, my whole five-foot-one frame zooming around at unnecessary speeds just because it can. Someone less riddled with social anxiety and generally better at taking care of themselves might not have waited as long as I did to address this problem, but I’m healing as well as that person would—which, for me, is a little bit incredible.

I’m finishing writing this up after one-AM on a workday, and I’ve got to—as it happens—go to the doctor tomorrow morning to try to get a bad cough sorted…  and certain chronic problems persist… insomnia, amongst others—but now I can wear my Y-3 boots again, kids aren’t stepping on my open wound anymore, I’m not limping around all the time, and I’ve met perhaps the nicest doctor in Korea. So things are on the up.