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”. Close enough, 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. Though I’m not fluent in Korean, I speak it plenty well enough to handle a simple transaction like this, and as I stood at that counter, I felt the familiar twinge of satisfaction from knowing that I was about to make both this guy’s life and mine a little 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 stood there squinting, and showed no sign of comprehension. 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 was fanning my 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? Maybe there’s a specific medicine for jock itch. I should explain.
“Actually, it isn’t athlete’s foot,” I said, “but it’s similar to athlete’s foot.” I paused to let that sink in.
“It’s very itchy,” I said, trying to be as descriptive as I could. I pantomimed vigorously scratching my groin, wincing and repeating “Jjincha ganjireopda!” (It’s so itchy!)
The charade wasn’t working. The pharmacist continued to stare at me, squinting so intensely that it was hard to say if he was still smiling, 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, for example, 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 knew exactly 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 like you often encounter it in daily conversations or in the practice dialogues in Korean textbooks, in which a concerned Mr. Park asks his sullen colleague, “What’s the matter, Mr. Kim?”
Kim: I am sick.
Park: Oh, really? Did you catch a cold?
Kim: No. Frankly speaking, it is a fungus.
Park: That’s too bad! You’d better go 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 Hail Mary, but I once again pointed to my crotch, and in my best Korean, said, “Here is a mushroom-like thing.”
The pharmacist’s eyes widened.
“Mushroom-killing medicine – do you have it? This mushroom-like thing, I want to kill it.”
So absorbed was I in constructing those novel sentences –and proud, I admit, in discovering that I could – that only after I spoke them did it occur to me that mushrooms are pretty phallic, and that he was probably interpreting my words in horrible ways, as he thrust both arms toward me and waved his hands frantically, as if he were not only saying no, but trying to manually erase me from his field of vision.
However he took that, it was clear that he would be taking no part in any 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 plucked a small box, and slid it across the counter. I paid and thanked him, and as I walked out with my hard-won relief, I heard him say over my shoulder “Please come again,” more out of habit than anything else.