That Time I Got Acupuncture in Korea

We had three months left in our contract in Korea when I checked out. An end in sight to our two year stint gave me acute senioritis, hating everything distinct to the culture but also all the things that really weren’t. Kimchi and sidewalks both had to go. My body got into the spirit of ire, and one morning I woke up, walked to our bathroom which didn’t even have a shower curtain for God’s sake, and my back gave out. Fuuuuuuuuh.

As B and I walked the four blocks to work that morning, I crumpled in tears every 15 steps or so. I hated that country for not believing in the concept of a sick day except for when you were literally on your death bed. B had had one day of work where he threw up three times, and he still wasn’t given leave, so I knew my inability to stand up straight without crying wouldn’t get me off.

I freaked out my boss Ashley, though, when I hobbled into our office and started spewing breathy, sloppy tears all over her desk and begging her to just help me. Help. Unless you buckle and give me a reprieve, no kindergartener will learn anything from me today except how ugly foreigners look when they cry. Out of sheer mortification of my showiness, she made me an appointment at the acupuncture clinic two floors down in the highrise our school was located in.

“When will it be?”

“Now. Let’s go.”



We rode the elevator down together and entered the office, which smelled of ginseng, Bengay, and waygooken fear. Ashley accompanied me into the practitioner’s office to act as a translator during the consultation. It was decided that my back had given out because I was far too fat to carry my girth without inflicting damage to my frame. This was highly interesting to me because my back problems had started when I was 10 years younger and 30 pounds lighter.

They could have said I was in pain because I was whoring myself out on the weekends to Japanese businessmen and I would not have cared. I just wanted to get my holistic therapy on.

I was brought into a small curtained-off booth in the back of the clinic where I was instructed to lie down on my stomach. A web of heated suction cups were fastened to my back as I lay in agony. Soon enough, the humming sound of their massage made me doze off with images of my seven-year-olds two floors above doing phonics with their Korean teacher. Then came the needles. Prick prick prick. I waited for them to kick in because I’m a good foreigner who respects all traditions that will help me go a day without barfing in front of small children.

Before I knew it, the session was over. Ashley had gone, but the receptionist at the front knew enough English and I knew enough Korea to understand that I would be coming back during my unpaid lunch hour everyday for the next week. I went diligently back to work still in blistering pain but at least not crying.

Weeks later, we met up with friends to go singing at the noraebang, the Korean version of karaoke. I was mostly healed but still incredibly sore from accommodating my fat back. B’s cousin Chad who was also an English teacher commented on my rendition of “Sloop John B.”

“When you sang ‘I wanna go home’, it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s because it’s true.”



  1. I had acupuncture for my migraines. Didn’t help. It was an interesting experience. It helped to relieve the stress i was carrying around in my shoulder, however. But it did nothing for the migraines. Bummer.

    1. It eventually helped me, but I had to go back so many times to feel the affect that I don’t know if I just healed naturally and found a better way to deal with my stress or if it actually helped me. I like to believe that it did!

  2. Well, I didn’t want to go to Korea before, but I definitely don’t want to go now. How rude.

    1. You know I absolutely loved it there, but yeah, near the end I was so sick of it I could barely contain my glee at the prospect of leaving.

  3. You actually look great in that photo.

    1. Thanks. If I was “fat” then, I can’t imagine what they’d call me now.

      1. Fat? You were – and still are, for that matter – a hottie!

  4. Guess you just needed to get Korea “off your back”!

    1. It was a bit of a monkey at that point ;D

  5. Back pain can be so debilitating. Acupuncture is a fascinating therapy. It has positive studies to support its use, and I imagine back pain would be the perfect ailment for it.

    1. The pain I felt in my back those days made labor feel like a papercut. It was for sure the most horrible pain I’ve ever endured, and acupuncture definitely helped it to a degree. Simply lying on the table and having the therapy performed was dreamlike.

  6. It’s really interesting that you were able to go teach in Korea =] That actually was one of my dreams but my husband didn’t want to go and I can’t just bring my children with me =/ But then again…I actually like Kimchi, Korean Dramas, the language, the culture, etc. I’m sorry about your back pain, and of course they said it was your weight, but that’s because they’re so skinny and us Americans are “obese” in their eyes. Have you looked at those asian shopping sites? Their XL is like the size of a medium shirt here hahaha.

    1. It was an amazing overall experience living there, and maybe you can talk your family into going someday! Kimchi is sooooo yum, I was just at the point in my stint there at the time that I hated it and just wanted to go home. Shopping for clothes there was always a comedy of errors for me. I eventually found a Gap, which is where I usually shop anyway, but they rarely actually had my size in stock because there was so little demand for it!

  7. Oof. Korea is fantastic…until its not. Did we ever discuss why I left? Also, Koreans just looove calling people fat, don’t they?

    1. Yes they do! And I remember reading your story about leaving Korea when you were still writing at NAM. Didn’t your friend basically get fired for almost dying? I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t surprise me.

  8. Ugh, I feel your pain! There is nothing worse than back trouble. This reminds me ever so slightly of the time I broke my glasses in half on my third day in Russia. No. Bueno. Nothing like getting acquainted with another country’s healthcare firsthand!

    1. I know! Korea’s healthcare system is fantastic in pretty much every regard, though. I don’t think I ever had to wait more than 10 minutes for an appointment. And it was insanely affordable. And birth control is over the counter. And and and.

  9. Wow, you’re suffering debilitating back pain and on top of that, a personal insult. Did a pigeon dive bomb you the second you walked out the door? I threw out my back about 2-3 years ago. It was excruciating. Eventually, it healed, but until then, life sucked out loud. I hope that you’re completely better now.

    1. Thanks! I have pretty intense backaches from time to time, but nothing compares to that one specific incident. It was for sure worse than being in labor.

  10. In the time i worked at amsterdam airport I learned exactly which countries I’d never want to visit. I had a lot of Korean customers when i worked the Swatch-stand and they were always super rude: invading my store with 15 and then start yelling which watches they want and then be disappointed when i can’t understand a word they’re saying because of the noise and broken English.

    I’m very sorry you had to go through this.

    1. Korea is wonderful as a whole and I miss it like crazy, but I think physical pain combined with homesickness makes me see the worst in everything (and everyone). Plus, we were planning our big trip to France and Iceland at the time and I think I was really concerned that I would be debilitated during our trip there.

      The good thing about the whole ordeal is that it prepared me for childbirth, which was not nearly as bad or as painful!

      1. Well, they were never nice to me so I’m never going there! Neh-neh-neh-neh-neeeh! :P

        Traveling is frustrating when something goes wrong, but it’s really cool that you traveled so much! I’ve never been outside of Europe, well, Turkey, but that doesn’t count :P

        Really? Throwing your back out is worse than child-birth. I’m going to use that against my wife next time whenever she tells me not to complain about any pain I have!

        Thanks! :P

  11. I have two teaching friends in Korea right now – will they be crying too? That sounds awful…just awful… I was so homesick in Raleigh, NC USA – I can’t even imagine being in a foreign country and being in pain and homesick. WAAAAHHHH

    1. I hope they’re not crying! I cried very, very little of the time I was there. It was a magical place for me.

      1. That’s good – it sounds awesome yet scary all at the same time. You’re braver than I.

  12. Funny that I read your post today, after a trip to the chiropractor this morning for my back. While I was there, I dutifully mentioned (as per instructions from my new hematologist) a pre-cancerous condition I’ve been diagnosed with since I last saw the chiropractor. His answer? Acupuncture, another service he’s recently begun offering. Your post has made me both wary of trying it and homesick for my mom who would have said, “You don’t need needles stuck in your back. You need a heating pad and a cup of homemade hot chocolate and you’ll be fine!”

    1. Despite my dubious experience with acupuncture, I would really urge you to try it! It may not have worked perfectly for me, but I have quite a few friends who have had fantastic results with it. But I totally agree with you on one thing: chocolate fixes EVERYTHING ;D

  13. I enjoyed your story, and the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Korea. I’m sorry you suffered, but I’m really glad you wrote about it!

    1. Thanks! Korea is an awesome place. This was one bad experience floating among an ocean of incredible ones.

  14. :( I’m sorry you had a bad experience…I wanted to go on a teacher exchange programme too but I wasn’t accepted. Maybe it’s a good thing.

    1. If you ever get the chance to go, I would highly recommend it. It is an incredible experience!

  15. what an adventure for you and your back. but when it’s time to come home, you know it.

    1. Absolutely. I had a plane ticket to France with my name very literally on it. I was ready for some vacay.

  16. A perfect last line! I love your stories.

    1. Thanks for saying that! I wasn’t sure about that last line. I felt like it might be a little heavy-handed. Thanks for the encouragement!

  17. I hate back pain, especially in the lower back, which I had through my 20s. Then it was gone.

    1. This all happened when I was in my 20s and I haven’t had that much pain since. Hopefully the aching left along with my penchant for eating cereal for dinner.

  18. Oh, man that sounds awful. Not the acupuncture, which is something I’m always curious about, but the pain and lack of shower curtain…

    1. OMG, the shower curtain was for sure the worst part of the whole ordeal. For reals. ;D

  19. Too fat?! That has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. I’m glad you survived the experience and were able to share it!

    1. Ha! Me too. I’m hoping something got lost in translation. “Ample” is more the word I’d use ;D

  20. You told this story very well. It sounds like you had an incredible travel/teaching abroad experience. Acupuncture is awesome!

    1. Yes it is! I would love to get it again.

  21. Ugh. In every way. What an adventure and what a trooper you are. Well told!

  22. I’d like to just ditto a bunch of others comments. Mostly, “you so pretty,” what do Koreans know? Besides kimchi?

    1. They DO know their kimchi. And I’m very glad for it. That stuff is amazing.

      1. Oh, I do not like kimchi… do not like it at all. But we have a Korean restaurant in town and I do love lots of other things… but no kimchi for me. ;-)

        1. I totally just read that like “I do not like kimchi, Sam. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.” ;)

          1. OMG, that is so funny… that’s EXACTLY how I felt it when I said it. I almost added that, in fact. We are now officially psychically linked… when it comes to rhymes at least. :-)

  23. I hate that kind of back pain; no matter how you try to contort yourself your body is stabbing itself. I have no insight into Korea or Korean medicine, but I’ve always wondered about acupuncture for the multiple times I’ve injured myself.

    P.S. The sentence at the top of the comments box confirms that you must be a teacher :)

    1. You should really try it if you have recurring back pain! It works after multiple sessions, and I always felt a lot better. Plus, the relaxation you feel when they are actually performing the therapy (hot rocks, cool compresses) feels beyond amazing.

  24. Loved this post. I can feel the longing to be home and the last line just nailed it.

    I miss acupuncture. I was going weekly for nearly a year and I felt great. I stopped going, I feel terrible again. And how weird do the cups feel the first time? Crazy right?

    1. I KNOW! Did they ever leave marks on your back? One time, it looked like I had been attacked by an amorous octopus. SEXY.

      1. Oh yes, my back looked terrible. But it was so helpful!

  25. I can understand liking a place, but starting to hate it when you want to go home. Especially after someone calls you fat.
    Not cool, Korea, not cool.

    1. That is exactly how I felt. I freaking LOVED Korea, but near the end I started hating it in spite of itself. I’m so logical.

  26. WOW .. just wow. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to get sick/hurt in another country. And NOW I know NOT to do it.

    1. It was for sure not a lot of fun. I was really grateful, though, that my husband was there with me because even though I didn’t get to take off work to heal, he gave me lots of TLC during our off hours. (That sounds totally pervey but you know.)

      1. Yeah, but pervey in a good way :)

  27. I hear good things about acupuncture…I hear bad things about how I would be called a fat person in Korea, haha. I had a friend who taught English there and the kids told her she was fat pretty much all the time!

  28. nataliedeyoung · · Reply

    Love the tact involved. I think I’d cry if someone told me that I was too fat for my height, even if it was true…which clearly it wasn’t, in your case.

  29. I have some serious kidney problems. ie I only have one now…but the first time it acted up I went to accupuncture and it helped immensly…a few years later I went back for the same problem and couldnt get off the table I was in so much pain after the first treatment. I still dont know what happened . Looking at that photo of you I would hate to think what the norm is (you look great).

  30. Beautiful writing girl!

  31. God, Emily, that photo is unbelievable! You were such a fatty….. O, wait, I’m pretty fat too then… Um, so is everyone I know… Well, I guess I’m waiting for a back problem to kick in any day now….

  32. modmomelleroy · · Reply

    I’ve always wanted to try acupuncture. My Father in Law swears by it.

  33. I had acupuncture on my back too but here! I can’t imagine living in Korea for that long. I really liked the way this story was simply told.

Now you can hold the magic talking stick.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: