Despite the fact that this article makes my visit to Seoul’s Chaum Center sound almost like a trip to Wonkaland, I did learn quite a few valuable things about myself during my stay: 1. I am claustrophobic but, if cheered on by several nurses at once, will power through a 30-minute MRI; 2. I only have 11 sets of ribs, as opposed to the usual 12. This occurs in about 10 percent of humans; and 3. I (still) pass out when having blood taken. more»
Generally, I hate the doctor. I pass out at the sight of a needle. I sweat through my clothes while sitting in waiting rooms. I get jumpy just thinking about that tissue paper that covers the examination table. *Shudder.* But after visiting Chaum Center, Seoul’s newest medical center, destination spa, and health club wrapped into one amazing 400,000-square foot facility, I’m ruined for life. A futuristic interior filled with modern art and sleek yet comfy furniture? A gourmet Mediterranean restaurant serving organic cuisine? Cute pink jammies in place of those awful papery backless gowns? Forget it, I will never set foot in a doctor’s office again unless it’s at Chaum Center. more»
It is snowing steadily as we walk in two orderly lines to the 38th parallel. I feel like a kindergartner with a safety partner when John pushes me into the opposite line so we can be next to each other. Having stopped at the top of a wide set of cement stairs overlooking the guardsâ€”you know, the guards in mirrored glasses and judo-ready poses who stare at the guards in furry hats and long grey coats who, in turn, stare back with their own unwavering glareâ€”we are given specific orders. “Do not point, wave, or make gestures of any kind toward North Korea,” Corporal Casiano, tells us. “Do not get too close to the guards and do not try to pass them. Their orders are to get physical with anyone who does.”
Duly noted. I’m not here to get my ass kicked.
In the distance, the faint outline of magnificent white-tipped mountains trace the edge of the horizon. I imagine they’d make great blue squares and black diamonds; then immediately wonder if such a thing will ever be possible in my lifetime. Ugly blue trailersâ€”equal numbers belonging to the North and South (we can’t have anyone feeling more powerful now, can we?)â€”line the exact positioning of the 38th parallel. Dated watch towers overhead look more like abandoned shanties than the surveillance headquarters of an evil empire. Little more is visible through the winter’s heavy fog and snowflakes. Nonetheless, the enemy to which I cannot refer is watchingâ€”invisible, ubiquitous, omnipotent. Can I feel them watching me? Or do I just think I can feel them watching me? Perhaps, like many Westerners, I am just so obsessed with this place that Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on earth” that even the slightest strangeness elicits a palpable and unrecognizable fear.
The most surprising thing about the de-militarized zone is the lack of any real action taking place. Despite the feeling of a certain intangible and unspoken threat hanging in the air, the actual physical stimulus remains at an incredible low. Anywhere else, empty trailers, empty train stations, and empty observation platforms would make for a mind-numbingly dull experience. And yet, whether due to expectation or reality, it is this disparate solitude that makes the tension along the border that much more poignant. Its emptiness simply reinforces that my every moveâ€”whether I’m toeing the ambiguously-drawn yellow line on the observation deck, which, after crossing, I can no longer take photos; or sheepishly edging near that guard poised in his foreboding ready-to-tear-your-shit-up stanceâ€”is under surveillance. Perhaps if I could look them back square in the eye, I’d have less discomfort in knowing that theyâ€”whoever and wherever they areâ€”are watching.
Oddly, this part of Korea, the part most Americans think of first when the country is mentioned, is not present in Seoul, which is just an hour-long bus ride away. John and I mentioned our trip to several Seoulites we met during our week in the city, and received widely variedâ€”though generally disapprovingâ€”responses: â€śthatâ€™s just a tourist area for foreignersâ€ť or “that’s not the real Korea” or (my favorite) “it’s not very nice there.” It made the concept of perspective ever-present in my mind during this trip, though no matter how hard I tried to think like a localâ€”reading their English-language newspaper everyday and trying to understand how calling another country “belligerent” a handful of times in a single article could be considered objectiveâ€”I just couldn’t fathom how this border with the only wholly closed country remaining on our planet could be regarded in such an incurious manner.
And speaking of perspective, more than a few times, John and I couldn’t help wondering: is there some mirror-image group of North Korean tourists on the other side of this tunnel learning about evil South Korea, and therefore, evil US? Corporal Casiano assured us this was not possible. But I couldn’t help thinking that, not only does such a bizarro-world scenario seem entirely possible, it still wouldn’t be the strangest thing happening at the DMZ. more»