Monday, March 16, 2009

Episode 12: In Which DFM Goes To The Dentist And Almost Gets In Trouble With The Korean Mafia

I am still recovering from my cold, so I stayed inside my room for most of the afternoon resting.  At around noon, air-raid sirens from the nearby American army base started blaring.  My first thought was "oh, come on, I haven't even had a shower yet!"  But I noticed that no one in the gosiwon seemed the least bit interested in the siren so I decided to stay put.  Besides, I didn't have anywhere else to go, or any way of getting there.  Off and on the sirens rang for most of the afternoon.

Today was also the big day of my dentist appointment and I was a bit anxious.  I found my way to the office and walked up the stairs to the fifth floor where my appointment was to take place.  I had actually taken the time to write down the Korean word for appointment and wanted to use it when I talked to the receptionist, but I had forgotten to bring it along.  No matter, she spoke a fair bit of English, so I was able to get by.  Luckily they also had English forms as the Korean form was indecipherable to me.

The waiting room was exquisite, and I felt like I should be wearing a suit.  It turned out though that I had miscounted the floors and was in the wrong office.  My real waiting room was still nice, but did not look like a picture from a catalogue like this one did.

My travel insurance company told me that my appointment would be covered, but the dentist office would not accept it.  As I was sitting in the waiting room I started running over possible scenarios for how much the visit would cost and what that would do to my budget for the rest of the trip.

The staff were very professional.  Everyone was wearing some sort of business suit and you I couldn't find a single assistant wearing a pair of pajamas with smiling teeth riding bicycles on them.  (Am I the only one who notices this about Canadian dentist/doctor's offices?)  The biggest difference though, was that there were absolutely no hidden costs.  In my past visits to a dentist, the dentist would say "we need to give you a colonoscopy" or whatever he thought was necessary, and then you'd be charged for it at the end or anything else he decided to throw in along the way.  You get the feeling that you're even being charged for the dental floss.  This dentist looked at my mouth, said that I needed a restoration job (I could have told him that, that's why I came in) and then wrote down what it would cost on a piece of paper and asked me if I wanted him to continue.  It made the whole experience much less painful, especially since it turned out that the procedure would only cost about $150.  He even threw in the X-rays for free.

I think it may have something to do with eye-contact being a sign of disrespect in Korea (or so I've read), but the assistant will cover your face with a piece of cloth while your mouth is being operated on and you are almost completely blind for the remainder of the visit.  On he plus side, now the dentist doesn't have to look at the crusty boogers in my nose.  Using my peripheral vision I was able to catch glimpses of the equipment being used and it all seemed very familiar to the tools used by my old dentist when I originally had the work done in 2002.  This time though there was a lot more grinding done afterwards.  What I think happened was that my Canadian dentist built up to what he thought was an identical tooth by adding a bit at a time (he would know as he had been working on them for about a decade), whereas this dentist slabbed on the goop (or whatever they use) and then tried to grind the excess off afterwards.

The results:  My old tooth was almost perfect.  It was exactly the same size and looked exactly the same.  The only con was that there was a small ridge where the replacement started and this would catch on my fingernail if I tried to pick food off of my tooth.  The current tooth does not have this catch as I think the dentist built up and over the existing tooth.  The result is an incredibly smooth feel, but also a slightly thicker tooth that will take some getting used to.  Also, this tooth is a very tiny bit longer than my other tooth, and this is noticeable when I run my tongue along the bottom of the teeth.  When I get some real health insurance with dental coverage I might have this cleaned up when I get back to Canada.

On my way back to the subway station I found this queer site.  It is a major intersection in down town Seoul that has fully functional, modern traffic lights.  Yet, two police officers (in the vests) are standing in the intersection waving cars through and blowing their whistles for no apparent reason.  Everyone is more than capable of following the lights, and no one is really obeying the officers anyways.  I saw one car try to sneak through the intersection as the light turned red and the cop was blowing his whistle madly telling the driver to stop.  The driver kept going and there wasn't a whole lot the cop could do.

I later ran across one of those individuals selling pirated DVDs on the street I talked about before.  I took some pictures of the operation, but this made him very upset.  He demanded I delete my pictures.  When he wasn't looking I took some more though.  Later I asked some Koreans if this was a legal business and they all laughed and told me it was illegal.  I asked how then they could operate so freely in public, especially since there were cops just down the road at the intersection.  I was informed that many of the dealers are protected by the Jopok (Korean mafia), and that I might not want to take too many more pictures of them if I valued my safety.  A visit from the Jopok might wind up in a person  being whisked off to one of Korea's many islands and being forced into slavery.  But I was told that this is only a worse case scenario, and that normally they just shoot you.  In light of this new information I will refrain from posting the picture until I am out of harm's way.

I had researched some climbing gyms near by since I knew I'd be in the area for my dentist appointment.  This is Hexa gym.  It was a small room with a lot of people in it.  Kim Tae-Yong (in the top left of the picture in the white shirt and black sleeves) acted as interpreter for me while I inquired about fees.  I learned that many of the climbers knew some English, were very friendly (as usuual), and that they were all willing to help me with my Korean.  So, basically nothing new.  

The young man at the top with the blue long-sleeved shirt with the yellow patches along the ribs was very nice and helped me a lot, but I forgot to ask his name before he left.  As with most climbing gyms in Seoul, this one had boulder problems that were about thirty moves in length.  My normal 5.12 bouldering was knocked down to around 5.10 because of my lack of endurance.  It was quite humbling.

After climbing, Kim Tae-Yong invited me out for a Korean dining experience.  He insisted I try what he called Korea's favourite meat: Samgyeopsal.  Essentially, it is pork that has been marinated in either wine or tea.  Ours was green tea samgyeopsal (sounds like "Sam-gyup-sal").  They bring the meat to you at your table and you cook it on your own pan over a gas stove.  Tae-Yong told me that I would need to learn to do this if I hoped to take a Korean girl out on a date.  

The meal involves taking some of the lettuce you see in the basket and then placing a thin paper-like vegetable substance on the leaf (it tastes much better than paper though).  You then add to this some onions, kimchi, bean sprout/corn mixture, rice, and of course the pork.  Naturally you add a spicy sauce to the mixture as well.  The lettuce leaves are about the size of your palm (maybe your whole hand if you have small hands) and when rolled up create quite a mouthful.  The finished concoction is calld "sam."  I took a bite, but was told that "it is not a hamburger" and that I must consume my sam in one large overflowing mouthful.  There was of course some rice wine involved, but I was assured that this was much less strong than soju.  It was a fruity wine and not entirely unpleasant, but no apple juice.  Toasts are performed by saying "gun-vey," and one of the most important rules of Korean dining apparently is to "always keep the wine coming."  Actually, Tae-Yong was very helpful in teaching me many of the finer points of Korean dining etiquette and I'm glad I met him.

The Koreans are generally a kind and helpful people, but the Koreans in climbing gyms are just more so.  In fact, climbers are some of the nicest Koreans I've met.  It will be hard to choose a gym to get a membership to next month because every experience so far has been great.

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