Itching for Understanding

After eight hours of teaching, I returned to my studio apartment and made a quick dinner of canned tuna, kimchi, and rice. When I sat down at my desk chair, I noticed a small stinging sensation within my lower half which I envisioned as small stones clicking against walls of a cave as if they were knocked around by a scurrying animal. I had felt this before and knew what I had to do.

My 10 a.m. alarm was more startling than it should’ve been. I sleepily dressed and headed to the pink building I passed everyday on the way to my teaching job that I was pretty sure was a gynecology office. It was March 10th, 2015, and Seoul was finally starting to get warm. I crossed the street too soon and ended up standing in the middle the road while cars streamed past me, alarmingly close to my body. A song called Sex on the Regular swam into my ears through my headphones and poked at my conscience. I sighed.

I entered the building and approached the front desk, where I noticed a framed photo of the man who I assumed was the doctor. The portrait showed him smiling and holding up his pinky as if to demonstrate the number one but choosing an unconventional finger. In my opinion, this was an attempt to convey the notion that he had a gentle touch. It was scary.

It was scary because he was a man whom I had never met who was about to be putting not that particular finger but a finger nonetheless inside of my body, and attempting to convince me of the comfort and safety of his medical practice with a carelessly printed 4×6 photo in which he’s definitely wearing BB cream.

Two young, soft-featured Korean women in lilac-colored scrubs and pink cardigans greeted me. One looked happy; the other did not.

We all politely recited “Annyeonghaseyo (Hello).”

I forced a smile and surprised myself when I started to feel shy. I unlocked my phone and pulled up a note, written in English and Korean, with potential diagnoses to consider. I handed the device to the friendlier woman who took it with both hands and a bow of her head. Both of them peered at the small screen.

The nice one looked up, nodded, handed back my phone, and said, “Okay.”

The doctor was also wearing lilac scrubs but forwent the pink cardigan. He sat behind a desk in a nicely furnished, naturally lit room. He said hello and I reciprocated as I sat down in the armchair opposite him. The rocks clicked around again when my bottom hit the brown leather.

“Do you like leggings?” he said in a thick accent.

I looked down at my leggings and then at the nurse who was giggling and covering her mouth.

“Yes,” I said apprehensively.

The doctor looked at me in a way that I was positive meant, “Leggings are a breeding ground for vaginal bacteria, you child.”

The nurse lead me into a room the size of a queen mattress adjacent to the doctor’s office and handed me a long, thin skirt to wear in place of my sinful leggings. As I hacked my way through a jungle of discomfort, the nurse peeped into my room every ten seconds to check on my status. I fumbled to get the skirt on as fast as possible.

Finally, she succeeded in her timing and had me sit in the examination chair. After pulling the skirt completely up (which felt ridiculous since I had finally just gotten it on) I was instructed to slide down the chair as far as I could while the nurse alternated her gaze between my eyes and my undercarriage.

The doctor then joined us. Before I could even look up, the nurse swung a small pink curtain on an L-shaped rod to the side of the chair between the doctor and me, preventing us from making eye contact.

Without warning, a wet finger slid up and down the diameter of my labia and then suddenly a cold metal apparatus followed, plundering through the arch of my flower door. It didn’t hurt, but I grimaced. It was more painful in my mind than in my body.

Then, what I assumed to be a long cotton swab entered through the metal tool and continued up as far as it could go. I felt it poke my cervix. As I winced in pain (this time actual, physical pain) I heard the nurse make a small, indistinguishable sound. I opened my eyes and the nurse pointed above my head. 

Cheogi! (There!)” she exclaimed.

I twisted my neck up and saw a small television screen with my cervix in the limelight. I yelled. The nurse and doctor laughed. 

I watched in horror at what looked like a toothbrush enter the frame and start moving upwards. At that point, I was sweating, beads forming at my hairline. The doctor moved it closer and closer until the bristles collided with the delicate tissue.

“Cancer site! Cancer site!” he shouted in English.

My sweat beads became basketballs and I started to panic. “I…eesseoyo!? (have!?)” I shouted back.

He chuckled. “No.”

My peripheral vision was blurred with fear and the doctor started laughing again. Now I was angry. I realized that he was just showing me where the cancer would be.

In my rage I forgot about the curious toothbrush. However, it quickly reentered my mind when it began repeatedly scraping my cervix until blood seeped out, past the borders of the screen. Helpless, I watched my own mutilation happen above my head.

“Take it easy,” he said as he so generously placed his palms on both my kneecaps. I was no longer sweating; now I was crying. This time it hurt, and again, not just physically, though it did also hurt physically.

The brush and camera were swiftly pulled out and a wet finger (felt like a thumb) returned to rub up and down my vagina again, this time for much longer than seemed necessary. I hoped there was a reason for him to be doing this and that it wasn’t just because he could.

There is definitely a medical reason, I lied to myself.*

All of a sudden, the procedure was over. The doctor got up and the nurse swung the curtain back against the wall. I forced another smile—one of umpteen during my time in South Korea—and the nurse handed me a scented panty liner.

“Pinishee,” she said. Finished.

The nurse left the room and I got dressed. She continued her trend of unnecessarily peeking in and out of the room. A lot of things that happened in that office seemed unnecessary.

As I left the room, I noticed several cotton balls strewn about, covered in my blood. For some reason this was surprising.

The nurse escorted me back into the doctor’s office twelve inches from where I was or wasn’t assaulted. On the desk was what looked like a butt-sized blowup pool that I predicted was to act as a ridiculous application apparatus for the bottle of gel that stood next to it.

I was right.

The visit ended with the doctor showing me how to use the items. The bottle contained vaginal cleansing jelly and the small kiddie pool. He explained how to blow it up.

He kept referring to the entire process as “douching,” which was confusing because what he was illustrating was not douching. What he was suggesting I do at home was soaking my sad vagina in a miniature blowup pool because he is an arcane maniac. He explained that three times a day I must “rub the genitalias with the jellies” and sit in a warm bath for three minutes. I finally allowed myself to laugh at the sick joke that was being played on me for the past hour and nodded my head in agreement.

The next day I begrudgingly returned for shorter visit, one that confirmed my belief that I didn’t have an STD but a minor and common infection called bacterial vaginosis which is easily treated with antibiotics and a medicinal cream.

However, he wasn’t the kind of guy to give his victims a straightforward answer. Instead of just telling me my diagnosis and letting me leave like literally any other doctor would have, he pulled out a laminated piece of paper with nine various diseases listed, each accompanied by a graphic picture, and performed the last scene of his tragedy.

With a serious face, he pointed to each illustration and hauntingly read the name of the disease and described the toll it takes on its host. He followed this action with a dramatic pause, and concluded with a fit of uncalled-for laughter when he told me I didn’t have it. 

“Syphilis…you don’t have! Ha ha ha.”

He repeated this fun bit nine times, once for each picture. I wondered if, if we were in the US, he would be prosecuted for this under the eight amendment.

When his recital was over, we shook hands and bowed to one another, and I returned to the front desk to retrieve my prescription. After taking a final look at his pinky fingered portrait, I left the office. I stopped at the pharmacy, picked up my antibiotics, and smiled, this time for real, because I knew that I would never have to go to that gynecologist ever again.

*Friends and family who have proofread this essay each brought up the part about the unnecessarily rubbing wet finger. After reading via email, my friend wrote back, “Clarify whether or not there was actually a reason for him rubbing your clitoris. The reader may be confused about whether or not you were molested.”

My step-mom told me, “So, what, this doctor abused you?”

I said, “I don’t know, it’s just what happened.”

She asked me why I didn’t tell anyone, and again I told her I didn’t know. She made an ambiguous sound and walked into the other room. After much reflection, though, I realized why.

When you are [a woman in 2015] living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the native tongue and working a job where you’re treated like furniture, to accuse a male doctor of molesting you with a grin on his face is absurd. Even if I was in my home country there would have been huge risks involved. And what would be the outcome? Malpractice? Incarceration? A fine?

It likely would be none of the above. It would have been nothing.

This may seem pessimistic, but take this anecdote into account. The same friend who replied to my email was living abroad in Korea at the same time. One day when she was home sick from work, someone broke into her apartment and sexually assaulted her. He ran off and, after the police finally “caught” him, they texted her a photo of him in the precinct saying, “Is this him?” He was featured smiling. The photo was actually quite flattering. My friend’s trauma was treated as a joke. Her attacker was never charged.

However, let’s say I was going to report what happened to me at the gyno. Was what he did considered molestation or sexual abuse? How am I supposed to know that what I still consider traumatic wasn’t routine? I’m not a gynecological professional. There was a nurse in the room, too––wouldn’t she have stopped him if he were doing anything wrong? Though, would she have? What repercussions would that decision have for her? Would she lose her job if she spoke up? If she was kept on the staff, would she be left out of company dinners? Was she willing to risk it?

These are all questions that women—and men—ask themselves in these situations. From an outsider’s perspective, the right answer is always to report it; to fight the wrongdoing and welcome Justice with open arms, a cheese platter, and a bottle of rosé. Realistically, however, that isn’t always the smartest move.

The year I lived in South Korea I was in a bad place: physically, mentally, emotionally, and any other kind of –ly you can think of. I will admit that I could have read the situation incorrectly, and I sincerely hope I did. There is definitely a part of me that regrets keeping the incident to myself until so many months later, but overall, it was the safest choice. Not that I had many.