It always helps to speak the language. Except when it hurts.
A few years ago, I came down with a bit of jock itch, and it got to the point where I needed something to treat it. I didn’t know the Korean word for jock itch, so I looked it up, but the best that my old Essence dictionary could do was mujeom, which means “athlete’s foot”. Same thing, I thought, and headed to the pharmacy.
I walked in and the pharmacist greeted me in Korean, “Oseo osaeyo.” He was a man of about fifty, smiling meekly and leaning slightly forward in rapt attention. From his demeanor I sensed that his whole being was at that moment focused on comprehending whatever was about to come out of my mouth, and he seemed to be expecting trouble. Learning Korean has repaid the effort many times over, and though I’m not fluent, I speak it well enough to more than handle a simple transaction like this. As I stood at that counter, I felt a familiar flash of satisfaction from knowing that I was about to make both this guy’s life and mine a little bit easier.
“I have athlete’s foot,” I said in Korean. “Here,” I added, pointing to my crotch.
The pharmacist glanced down and then back at my eyes. He said nothing, cocked his head slightly and leaned a bit more forward.
“Here,” I said. I squatted and spread my knees a little to expose my inner thighs, and I swirled both index fingers in large circles over the affected areas. “Mujeom.”
He showed no sign of comprehension and just stood there squinting and blinking. I had assumed that athlete’s foot and jock itch were one and the same thing, just in different locations, but it seemed that part of me had harbored a germ of uncertainty – otherwise I suppose I would have just asked for athlete’s foot cream and left it there.
Now his confusion had nurtured that uncertainty into full-blown doubt. Maybe athlete’s foot and jock itch aren’t really the same thing, I thought. If they’re the same,” athlete’s foot” should have rung some kind of bell, right? There might be a specific medicine for jock itch. Maybe I should explain.
“ It’s very itchy,” I said, trying to be as descriptive as I could. I winced and pantomimed vigorously scratching my groin.
The pharmacist continued to stare at me, squinting so intensely that it was hard to say whether he was smiling any more. This isn’t working, I thought, and I began searching for another way to explain myself. From experience, I knew that Korean health professionals often command a large vocabulary of English medical terms, sometimes even to the exclusion of nearly every other feature of the English language. I’ve met nurses who struggled to ask me my name and age, but were able to confidently gather whether I was suffering from “watery diarrhea” or “painful urination.” Another time a young doctor was showing me a magnified slide of my blood on a large monitor. He expertly named everything we were looking at, but when he tried to sum up the big picture in layman’s terms he told me that I “have the blood of the average bad person.” To be fair, I sort of knew what he meant.
Even though jock itch isn’t a medical term, it couldn’t hurt to try. “In English, it’s called jock itch,” I said, pronouncing the word clearly. “Do you know jock itch?”
“How about fungus?” I asked, again saying the English word very clearly. When that didn’t register I even tried pronouncing it the way a Korean might mispronounce it: pun-gus-euh. He shook his head.
Damn it. It would have helped to look up fungus before coming, but I was sure that mujeom would do the trick. And fungus isn’t one of those words that one just happens to know. It’s not as if you often encounter it in daily conversations or in intermediate Korean textbooks:
Park: What’s the matter, Mr. Kim?
Kim: I am sick.
Park: That’s too bad! Did you catch a cold?
Kim: No. Frankly speaking, it is a fungus.
Park: You’d better go to the hospital and take a rest.
I racked my brain but the closest word to fungus I could come up with was beoseot, which means “mushroom”. I knew it was a long shot, but I pointed to my crotch again, and in my best Korean, said, “Here is a mushroom-like thing.”
The pharmacist’s eyes widened.
“Do you have mushroom-killing medicine? I want to kill the mushroom-like thing.”
The pharmacist closed his eyes and quickly waved both hands in front of his face as if he were not only saying no but trying to manually erase me from his world. Only after the words were out of my mouth did it occur to me that a penis resembles a mushroom, and that he may have interpreted those sentences in profoundly disturbing ways.
Whatever he made of it, it was clear that he wanted no part in any sort of mushroom killing, so I gave up and asked the question I should have asked him three long minutes ago:
“Do you have just athlete’s foot medicine?”
He spun to his right, and from the shelves there he plucked a small rectangular box, which he placed on the counter and slid toward me. I paid for it and thanked him, to his palpable relief, and as I was walking out with my hard-won prize I heard him say over my shoulder “Please come again” more out of habit than anything else.