NECESSARY PRETEXT: I am a nervous laugher. I laugh uncontrollably in bad situations. I’ve laughed at funerals, giggled at being dumped, chuckled at the doctor’s and chortled at the dentist’s. So it should come as no surprise that, after my first half-marathon resulted in a strikingly painful bout of runner’s knee, my first visit to a Korean acupuncture clinic was a seemingly delightful experience, as I was laughing all the way through.
It was not delightful. It was weird and I’m still not sure if I liked it. Read these following notes with the background noise of a white Jewish boy’s awkward laughter throughout.
- I arrive at the Donghwa Clinic (동화 한의원), a little second-floor spot a block away from Busanjin Station in Busan, at 5 o’clock in the evening with a Korean friend and coworker, who came to get sharp things inserted into her right ankle for some reason. A woman leads us to two adjacent, pseudo-wood hard beds and instructs us to lie down. I roll up my pant legs.
- A bespectacled man in black pants and a pale blue shirt, who moves with the casual ease of a doctor in charge, quickly—unceremoniously, really—sticks five needles into each of my knees. I flinch at the first two (don’t they say this isn’t supposed to hurt?), but man up after that.
- The woman suctions onto my knees a half-dozen miniature candle-like things, which she proceeds to light with a barbecue lighter I’m quite sure she bought at Homeplus for 10 bucks. These pseudo-candles burn down until they reward my knee with a first-degree burn, and I have to make a yelping noise to signal to her that they’re ready to be removed by her four-inch-long tweezers. She laughs at me a bit, then peels them off, showing the small black circles they’ve left on my skin.
- She pulls a red-hot heating lamp over the needles and leaves the room, pulling the shower curtain around my bed for privacy. My head sits on a small floral pillow beside an open rain-soaked window, outside of which I can hear the usual screams of angry old women. Less peaceful than it ought to be, but the clinic can’t be blamed.
- Ten minutes pass—maybe 15?—and a pink beeper goes off beside me. The woman returns, swiftly removes the needles, and turns to the clunky, grey, multi-tubed machine that I’m convinced is a prop from 1970s-era James Bond villain’s lair. My friend lifts her head and says, perkily, “Electro-shock!”
- Electro-shock therapy is surprisingly nicer than it sounds. The woman sticks four tubes coated with old yellow foam at the ends on my knees. They shoot small bouts of electricity into my aching joints, sort of like a massage. It feels roughly like there’s a small magnet under my skin, and its partner magnet is dragging it around in circular motions. Not altogether unpleasant after the first minute.
- Following another 10 or 15 minutes of that is the heated wet towel that they lay on my knees for a long time. The first day I fell asleep; I returned the following day, without my friend, and was treated to the companionship of a violently snoring middle-aged Korean man lying on his stomach, who fell asleep within seconds of the needles entering his back.
- The conclusion, the clinic’s pièce de résistance, is a waterbed jacuzzi massage. This is indeed as awesome as it sounds. It’s basically a seven-foot-long tub filled with water; above the water is a thick rubber sheet that one lies on top of while super-strong jacuzzi jets massage your back, slowly working their way up and down the spine, up the neck, down to the ankles. It’s beautiful and it all ends too fast. The whole hour-long process costs a remarkable 7,000 won ($7) the first visit, and 5,000 for subsequent visits; this wonder-bed straight-up justifies the entire cost.
- I awake the next morning feeling strangely good, and my knees are noticeably much improved. That said, I returned to my house straight after the clinic and watched a movie with my knees elevated, clutching an ice pack between them, so that might’ve helped a bit too. I am far too poorly read to ascribe a judgment to acupuncture’s true effectiveness as a whole—Koreans swear by it, while most online sources say the jury’s still out, which I’m inclined to agree with—but it’s probably worth a try. At least you get a cheap massage.