Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Brief Foreigner's Guide to Sexual Health in Korea

By now, dear readers, many of you are familiar with the fact that I am an English teacher in South Korea. However, this is only my day job. By night I am a sexual health vigilante, unafraid of open discussion and fascinated by gender issues and culture.

With that said, anyone who is uncomfortable now should skip this post because I'm about to go into detail about... you know... sex stuff.

For many foreigners, sexual health is something that can be overlooked because
1) it's uncomfortable to talk to your co-teachers about it.
2) there is little information in English about health, let alone sexual health, in Korea.
3) some people don't understand why they should care.
But that doesn't take away from the importance of knowing how, where and who you should talk to if you or someone you know needs to get a tune-up, check-up, or just be prepared.

From my research on the matter, combined with information I've gleaned from the foreigner community and a little first-hand experience, you can put your mind at ease to any of the following questions which may be troubling you or your friends currently.

"How do I get birth control in Korea?"
This is probably one of the most frequently-asked questions among foreigner women when it comes to sexual health. Upon arriving in Korea, my first assumption was that the pill would be difficult to obtain, considering the seemingly conservative stance the Korean culture has on the social issues surrounding sex. However, birth control is, by far, easier to get in Korea than in the States, and at a way lower cost. Mercilon (pronounced mer-shea-loan) is available at any pharmacy (look for the sign 약국 or ask for the nearest yak-gook) for about 7,000 won (about $6.70 USD).

UPDATE: 피임약 (pee-im-yak) is the Korean word for 'contraceptive', which may prove to be super handy if you're looking to purchase the pill (thanks for the extra info, fellow Ulsanites!).

For you visual learners out there (or if you'd rather not say a word and just point to pictures), here's a picture of what you're looking for:

From what I've heard, the side effects are normal in comparison to other hormonal oral contraceptives, but it's not guaranteed to work out that way for everyone.

Inter-uterine devices (IUDs) are also fairly common in Korea, so if you're looking to get one, your local gynecologist should be able to perform the procedure.

"How do I get an STI test in Korea?"
The same way you get an STI (sexually transmitted infection) test in the States. Find a local clinic and go in. If you're looking for STI testing at a subsidized rate (like you would find at a Planned Parenthood in the US), good luck. A full STI screening could cost anywhere from 120,000 to 180,000 won-- completely worth the cost for those who can afford it, but Korea is definitely not handing out tests for free.
For women living in Ulsan, Lee & An in Sam-San Dong (located on 4th floor above the KFC) is an excellent and clean gynecology office that comes highly recommended from the foreigner community (wonderful English; no appointment necessary). You can visit their website here.

"What are Korean condoms like?"
After sitting down with a girlfriend and physically comparing the two kinds (giggle fits and all), the main difference between Korean condoms and non-Korean condoms is circumference (with Korean condoms being the smaller).

"Where can I find non-Korean condoms?"
If you find the Korean-brand condoms to be a disincentive for safe sex, never fear. You can find brand name condoms you’re likely familiar with in department stores such as Home Plus. Although the selection may not be the best, it could be an alternative to using something that doesn’t work for you (and if it’s not the right size, it’s not providing protection).

I haven't found dental dams in Korea yet, nor have I seen latex-free condoms (though I haven't looked too hard). If you're reading this and know where to find 'em, please leave a comment below.

How about 'Plan B' (the 'Morning After' pill)?
Through research among forums it seems that emergency contraception (brand-named "NorLevo") is available at pharmacies but you need to have a prescription. Through the foreigner network I've learned that, fortunately, acquiring a prescription is not too difficult (simply requesting one at a doctor's visit will do the trick), but timing can be an issue, as 'Plan B' is most effective if taken as soon as possible, up to 5 days from the time of intercourse (as time goes by it loses its effectiveness so thte sooner the better). Although emergency contraception is just that-- for emergencies only and not a regular birth control method-- it's always smart to have one package on hand, just in case. And in Korea, Plan B has been reported by the foreigner network to cost anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 won-- far cheaper than in the States. So next time you're at the doctor's, make sure to ask for a prescription. You could be seriously thanking yourself later.

"Are abortions legal in Korea?"
In a word: no.

However, according to the Korean Law Blog, there are exceptions [emphasis mine]:
Chapter XXVII of the Criminal Code prohibits procuring and administering abortions. However, in 1973, the Maternal and Child Health and the Mother and Fatherless Child Health Acts established exemptions from this prohibition.
Even though the Korean legal system may punish those that procure and perform an abortion, prosecutors rarely prosecute those that perform or procure abortions because of the exceptions, the fact that doctors can fit their case into the exemptions, and the fact that the attitude of Koreans towards abortion has drastically changed since the imposition of the law.

Today, a woman that is pregnant in Korea that wishes to abort the fetus usually visits her local OB/GYN and the doctor usually performs the abortion or the doctor refers the patient to a clinic that will perform the abortion.
"Who do I call if I've been sexually assaulted?"
The crime rate in Korea is perceived to be extremely low by foreigners. Normal concerns—such as theft or street scams—are rare. However, it is unfortunate to note that out of the crimes in Korea, some of the most common are sex crimes.

If you find yourself in this situation, find a safe place and a phone and call the Women's Emergency Call number: 1366. Speak calmly and slowly as possible, and ask for English.

UPDATE: More information on sexual assault, sent from a fellow foreigner in Ulsan:
Emergency Contact Numbers
  • 112 Police (call this first, possibly no English service)
  • International Emergency Rescue 02-790-7561 (for English service)
  • This is the place to go if the police don't understand or anything: Ulsan Women’s Crisis Center 052-244-3117 or 052-246-3117 (Located next to Dong-gang Hospital in Taehwa-dong or 울산 OneStop 지원센터).If the police aren't involved yet, this place will contact them (if you choose) and take you to the hospital for a check-up (which is conveniently located right next door.
  • And for your blog audience all over Korea, here is a list of all the Crisis Centers in Korea.
Wishing you safety and health!

Questions welcome at
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Photojournalist Shot of the Day

This one is dedicated to a weekend in Busan, and all the people who aren't teaching in Korea but chasing their dreams through travel and sharing their talents.

Taken at Metal City in Seomyeon.

This is also dedicated to my continuing practice of only buying camera equipment if it is absolutely necessary or an incredible deal. For example, the Opteka fisheye lens used for this picture was a great little steal from Amazon for around $60. "Nice" equipment is-- well, nice-- but when you learn to use what you've got to the best of its ability, you can get some decent photos out of almost anything.

Traveler's/ photographer's tip: Don't depend on other countries to have a better deal on big ticket items just because their currency is weaker. In Korea, electronics tend to be on the more expensive side compared to the States, which surprised a lot of foreigners and caused some grief. If you're planning a big trip, make sure to do some research in advance! You might be heading for a country with some great deals, or you may realize that spending the money before you take off would be the wiser investment.

Until next time, happy days.
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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A little acceptance goes a long way.

This week has been very productive for the blog because I'm able to sit for hours at my desk.

Why, you ask? More deskwarming?

Perhaps you could call it that, but in truth my teachers are all incredibly busy with the end-of-the-school-year paperwork that they don't really have time for anything else. In all the hustle of the morning, something rather interesting happened:
Co-teacher [to me]: Laura, the Vice Principal just called the office. He wants to see you now.

Me: Should I go with a co-teacher?

Co-teacher: No, I asked him that but he said you can just go alone.

At this point I was on the border between dumbfounded and terrified because the Vice Principal speaks no more than 3 English phrases to me.
Now, before I continue, for those of you who aren't familiar with the Korean public school heirarchy, let me draw another quick analogy. If school were a game of chess, the Principal would be the King, but Vice Principal plays their role of Queen very well.

Oh, and all the teachers are pawns.

The point I'm trying to get across is this: in terms of power, the Principal definitely has the final say, but the Vice Principal does most of the footwork, and is basically in control of the teachers' daily working lives. So I was fairly intimidated that he wanted to see me without the protection of my co-teachers.

Walking to the main office, I repeated the word for 'Vice Principal' (교감선생님, or gyo-gam-seong-saeng-nim) about 1240985 times. When I got there, I found him in the middle of a meeting with a young woman so I waited skittishly outside the door (it was apparent to me at this point that I'm culturally becoming more Korean than I originally thought). When he told me to come in, I realized what was going on.

I sat down with this young woman who is applying for an open English teaching position at my school. The Vice Principal thought it would be a good idea to have me talk to her to test her English. It felt very strange to be the one asking interview questions (and especially to give the feedback to the Vice Principal in front of the interviewee!), but when all was said and done I left the office beaming.

Even if it was second nature to use my English, at least someone I normally bribe with cookies and immense bowing thought I would be just the girl for the job, and trusted my judgement for something other than making coffee.
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Monday, February 7, 2011

How to trick your students into thinking you're fluent in Korean.

For those of you who take me seriously always (big mistake), I'm not sure I actually condone tricking your students into thinking you're fluent in Korean. It's good for your students to see someone they look up to learning a language; it's inspiring to them. And whether you realize it or not, learning a language while you're teaching a different language really helps your lesson planning. How better to know how to teach a skill than by simultaneously being a student for a paralleling skill?

However, one of the key advantages for being a foreigner learning Korean is that the little bits you do use in the classroom not only gain control, but awe your students into literally jaw-dropping wonderment.

I'll stop rambling and cut to the chase.

1. Sit down please. 앉으세요. (an-ju-seyo).

This is the more polite version, but if you really want to get to the point and/or some little stinker is causing you grief, 앉아 (an-ja) will do.

2. Speak louder please. 크게말해세요. (ku-gey mal hey-seyo).

Just 'louder' (크게 or ku-gey) will also do... the other great thing about using Korean with students is that you can be fairly informal because you are their superiors. If classroom Korean is all you desire to learn, these phrases are sure to be some of the easiest.

3. Correct! 맞아요! (ma-ja-yo!) or shortened for students can also be: 마자! (ma-ja!).

4. It's also good to have a working sense of numbers up to 35, as student numbers are often used to call on random kids (very effective if a class is virtually silent, or if you want to instill a healthy dose of fear into their little hearts). There are 2 number systems in the Korean language, but the one you will need to know for student numbers (ordinal numbers) can be found here, at Talk to Me in Korean (Level 1, Lesson 15).

5. While you're at it, here's some basic classroom vocabulary:

Student- 학생 (hak-seng)
Teacher 선생님 (seon-seng-nim)
Chalk- 분필(boon-pil)
Paper- You may be using 2 different words for paper in the classroom. 종이 (jong-ee) is literally 'paper.' However, (jang) 장 is the counter used to talk about paper in the context of, "A piece (장) of paper (종이)".*
Period- 마침표 (mah-chim-pyo)

Lastly, please don't be afraid to use this one:

6. I only speak a little Korean. 한글말조금해요. (hangul-mal-jo-gum-hey-oh). Because it's important to know how to express this sentiment when your students get excited that you have the magical power of 'Korean Speak' and they start barrelling you with questions in Korean.

*UPDATE: I would like to thank Marie Frenette for adding (and improving) some useful information to this post. You can find some other useful classroom Korean phrases in the comments section below.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Photojournalist Shot of the Day

 I'm not a professional photojournalist, but since I have my own blog I can pretend to be occasionally.

Taken near Jinha Black Pebble Beach in Ulsan.

Here's a shot of Korea: what's that they say about a picture and 1,000 words?

PS: Anyone get the pun about 'shots' and Soju? Oh man. I should start writing this stuff down.
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