My Friend the Witch Doctor – Tongyeong, South Korea

My Friend the Witch Doctor
Tongyeong, South Korea

I was very sick, coughing like a dog with an old squirrel caught in its throat and sweating even though I was cold. And the worst part is that I was in Korea. Normally I would go to the store, buy some alcohol-laced cough syrup, down three shots, and in the morning I would awake hungover, but coughing less. Sadly, there were no alcohol-laced cough syrups in Korea.

I tried self-medicating with rum and an over-the-counter sleep aid. That knocked me out and gave me interesting dreams, but it left me still coughing in the morning.

Then a friend told me about a man who could cure me. He asked me if I had any experience with Oriental medicine and I told him about dum (really) therapy. This is where a nurse or “pyrotechnician” places burning bits of incense (or perhaps jet fuel) on several dozen points of your body leaving you with a cross-shaped connect-the-dots burn on your back and chest. As soon as one spot goes out, another fires up on cue. This is repeated 36 times. Getting a tattoo hurts less.

They wanted me to come back for four dum treatments, so I agreed, said, “See you tomorrow” with a smile and ran from the building.

Now I was considering going back to one of these practitioners, this time an herbalist. I promised myself, though, not to be dum this time. My friend explained how he’d suffered from diarrhea so severe he had slept with a towel on his bed, fearing an unfortunate nocturnal accident that would destroy his sheets. He told me several other things I wish he hadn’t, but most importantly told me that the herbs worked.

“And since it’s herbs he can do this without any government regulation.”
This was very reassuring.

He dropped me off at the shop and left me. It looked like a typical pharmacy anywhere, offering assorted goods for health and well-being: toothbrushes, bandages, aspirin, crutches, breast pumps, and, of course, roach spray.

Everyone stared at me silently until the herbalist stepped from the back room and asked in English what was wrong. I described my symptoms and brought up a few coughs for him. He winced at the sound and told me to come back in an hour.

“I must check condition of your blood.”

I had nowhere to go and no desire to risk the deadly motorcycle-laden sidewalks of South Korea so I sat and coughed patiently in his lobby. A little girl of about two walked over and opened her mouth revealing a hard candy. I showed her my butterscotch. She handed me her wrapper and silently walked away. An elderly woman with permed, crimson hair in a checkered jacket and flowered pants stared at me unblinkingly for about 10 minutes.

Children walking past the shop stopped at the door and yelled “hello” to me then covered their mouths and giggled. This is the only time Koreans cover their mouths. Coughing and sneezing are done with great force and pride, yet strangely there were no reported cases of SARS there. Koreans claim it’s the kimchi and garlic in their diet that prevented it. It definitely wasn’t the good manners.

Mr. Park, the herbalist, was a young 70. When he stepped up to the counter and called me to the back his eyes had a youthful eagerness that suggested he was ready to try a new remedy on a customer unlikely to sue him. He smiled, exposing tiny teeth, white and perfect.

He slid a book in front of me and had me write down my personal information. After staring at it for a minute he mispronounced my name.

“Please, take off your watch and remove all metal objects from your person and put on lab coat.”

I did so and stood at attention in front of him. He buttoned up the jacket and connected a strap tightly around my neck. He then held my hands for a moment and rubbed his fingers on my palms with his eyes closed. I half expected he would begin speaking in tongues or channeling a lost loved one. Instead he dropped my right hand and looked triumphantly at my left. (I’m left handed.)

The examination had begun.

Mr. Park pulled out a small plastic box of glass vials with screw-top lids variously containing wood shavings, seeds, what looked like rabbit pellets, and a liquid resembling urine in two others. There were also two metal tubes: one gold in color, the other silver.

“Please hold this silver tube in your hand.” He placed the tube in my left hand.
“Make a ring with these two fingers,” he said, indicating my right thumb and forefinger. OK.
“Now look at the silver colored object and resist me when I pull your fingers apart.”

I resisted, but he was able to separate my thumb and forefinger with ease. He repeated this with the same result. Next he placed the gold tube in my hand and repeated the process. This time he had more trouble pulling my fingers apart. I felt strong. He rechecked with both batons and the results were the same.

I held a vial of what looked like twigs. The twigs didn’t make me stronger. The vial of possibly rabbit droppings made me stronger. As for the vials of the urine-like liquid, only one made me stronger. I wondered how a vial of urine could make me stronger and decided it might be best to not think about it too much.

When I told him my blood type was “O-positive” he smiled like a kid who had just solved a very difficult riddle. (In Korea everyone knows their blood type and it’s often a topic of long conversations.) Mr. Park muttered to himself and wandered about his bottles of powders and pills. Finally, he placed a wax paper envelope over the end of a tray with six separate sections and pulled a bottle down, almost randomly, off a shelf near the ceiling. Only Chinese writing was visible on the lid. He scooped a healthy spoonful of powder into a sectioned envelope, sealed it, and shoved it into my hands.

“Take this with hot water two hours after meal, three times each day.”
“What is it?”
“It is herbal medicine,” he replied.
“Can you write the name down?”

“It has no name. You cannot buy it anywhere.” His smile was fading. He seemed a bit irritated and was not about to give up his secrets. I just wanted to have it written down somewhere so the cause of my death would be easier to figure out.
“Give me 6,000 Won and call me if anything happen.”

Perhaps I would morph into an elderly Korean woman with clashing clothes? It sounded very Kafkaesque.
Whatever the outcome, there are an estimated 6,000 different herbs in Oriental medicine, in use for thousands of years, so I wasn’t worried.

I took the powder home and mixed it with hot water after dinner that night. It was delicious! Just kidding. It tasted like all of the contents of a barn had been dried, mixed, and crushed into a powder.

By the time I went to sleep its effects had worn off and I was coughing even worse now. In the morning I repeated the process, but now my cough was moist, like a dog choking on something dead fished from a sewer. That’s an improvement, I thought. The mixture had a tendency to clump up and leave a pile on the bottom and in my haste to finish it, I usually ended up with a pile of this gunk on my tongue. But I swallowed it all and smiled at my girlfriend with bits of green and brown mud in my teeth.

The two days passed and no improvement was evident. So it was time to go back to Mr. Park’s World of Herbs and Pesticides.

He was surprised when I told him it didn’t work, but took it in stride and had me don the lab coat and stare at metal batons while he pulled my fingers.

This time, though, I had just walked three miles (briskly, I might add) to his shop, and my hands were swollen. He realized that it would be tougher to make a diagnosis today with my fingers so easily pried apart, so he called over one of his assistants in the pink uniform. He placed her next to me and had us hold hands. Then he placed the various objects in my hands and tried to pry her fingers apart. She was my conduit. This time it was silver that I responded to and not gold. Very strange. We tried all of the different objects with different results from the previous visit. He said I was getting sicker.

Mr. Park seemed vexed. He mixed a new concoction and gave me three packets. I asked him how much and he smiled and said, “Free. You are my new experiment.”

I was to take one immediately, one before bed, and one if I woke up coughing. I was pleased to find that this powder dissolved completely in water and tasted like green tea. I was displeased, however, to wake up coughing so violently I thought I was going to give myself an aneurism.

When I returned the following day I told him what had happened. He was again surprised and called me into the back. My girlfriend was interested in seeing the examinations I had described, so she came with me. I handed her my watch, mobile phone, and loose change and donned the lab coat.

Instead of pulling out the regular basket of vials, Mr. Park opened a large briefcase on his desk. Inside were more than 100 vials in their own pockets, each with a corresponding Chinese description on the inner lid of the briefcase. It was a sort of Oriental Whitman’s Sampler. He pulled out three and had me hold them and resist his pull on my fingers. The yellow powder allowed him to open my fingers with ease. A darker powder gave him more trouble. And the third, a grayish-brown powder, gave him the most trouble. He tried the first again and saw that he could still separate my fingers, and wasn’t just tired. Finally, he had me hold both of the vials that had given me strength.

He couldn’t open my fingers at all when I held both vials and I had to laugh out loud at this. My girlfriend was smiling at me the whole time, a bit skeptical, but when she saw me relaxing and this old man trying to pull my fingers apart with all of his strength and failing, her smile turned to surprise. I could feel his strength as before and heard him gasp once, and try again.

Again he flashed his white Chiclets at me and looked confident that he knew the answer. He set me up with six packets of several powders mixed together and asked for me to return on Monday. Again, it was free.

“You are difficult experiment,” Mr. Park said.
“Like a lab rat that already has cancer, huh?” I joked. Of course, I was the only one who found it funny, but he smiled his mischievous smile anyway.

This third medicine began to work immediately. I didn’t wake up holding onto the bed for fear of coughing myself out of it, and I didn’t spray phlegm all over my hands in mid-sentence. Mr. Park had found the magic bullet.

This powder, when mixed with a gallon of hot water, still didn’t dissolve. I assumed that since he didn’t really measure how much he put in each dose, it was o.k. to pour some down the drain.

I returned the next day and told him it was working.
“I even coughed up some yellow stuff this morning,” I said as proudly as a toddler who had taken his first unsupervised dump.

He smiled, made a note in his book, and went away for a few minutes. When he came back he handed me two more days’ worth of the same mixture and asked me for money.

That was it? I was hurt. He didn’t want me to wear the lab coat and stare at magic bottles while he pulled my fingers? He didn’t want to ignore my jokes and evade my questions? I liked the process more than I liked the cure. It was fascinating and mystical. It worked. I liked and respected Mr. Park. He was the oldest sort of medicine man. And, most importantly, I didn’t feel dum when he sent me away.


The author loves feedback, even more than herbal medicine. E-mail Tracey at traceystark at gmail dot com.

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