A Summer Snippet – Circumcision (포경 수술)
If there is one subject rarely talked about in Korea, it is the subject of circumcision. I was actually quite surprised when I discovered that Korea has the highest percentage of secular circumcision in the world, outstripping the USA. Over the age of 18, Korean circumcision rates exceed 90 percent.
By the time boys go to high school, the majority of them will have been circumcised and the most common time to perform this is between 13-16 years of age and usually during the winter vacation. Some boys are circumcised earlier and a fair number may delay having it done. I occasionally notice university students who are uncircumcised but it is safe to assume that by the time they go to military service, they will have undergone the procedure.
Occasionally, I will know a boy is either about to have a circumcision or has just had one. Sometimes they will tell you and at other times the pained manner in which they walk makes it obvious. On a few occasions the subject has cropped up in lessons but it is never discussed in front of girls. It’s not unusual for a boy to be in classes the day after his operation though some will take a few days off. Unlike the UK and USA, where non-neonatal circumcision involves a general anesthetic and an overnight stay in hospital, in Korea, it is performed under local anesthetic. Neither are operations performed in hospitals, but clinics which are as prolific as dentists or doctors. There is a circumcision clinic (Urology Clinic) opposite E-mart in Song-So and within minutes of having been circumcised, you can enjoy a Big Mac in their McDonald’s.
Aesthetically, Korean circumcisions are much neater than those performed in some other countries. Traditional circumcision in the Philippines, for example, known as pagtutuli, shouldn’t even be classed as circumcision and in the USA, an additional operation known as frenulectomy (frenuplasty – of which their are various spellings), which as many as 33% of circumcised males have had, removes the highly erogenous frenulum. Parents are not asked for consent to perform this ‘bonus’ procedure and indeed many men are unaware what was removed. While the subject of circumcision is controversial, frenulectomy slips by unnoticed and most parents are ignorant as to what is involved. In addition, American circumcision has a history of being the most radical. In Korea, frenulectomy is not conflated with circumcision and the type of procedure doesn’t remove as much foreskin as possible.
I underwent a circumcision in August 2001 at the clinic opposite E-Mart, in Song-So. I had been debating the idea for several years and finally decided to take the plunge as I had never been happy with my status, probably because as a boy most of my friends were circumcised. I quite amazed myself at the time as I had visited my doctors and arranged everything for Thursday, 16th of August. The arrangement took less than a minute and there was no asking why I wanted it doing. My doctor simply made a phone call and booked me in. The operation would cost 100.000W (about £50), would take twenty minutes to perform and would be carried out in the same building as my doctor’s surgery.
August 16th, 2001. I had to teach on the Thursday morning and though not as hot as a few weeks previously, it was terribly humid. In my classes, many of which had no air conditioning, my shirt was soaked with sweat. I had already perceived that I wouldn’t be in any fit mental state to teach and so had run-off some word puzzles for the kids. When my classes finished, I frantically smoked a couples of fags on the back stairwell and paced up and down. I didn’t really want to leave school and there was an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but eventually everyone wished me luck and I took a taxi home.
I showered and then gave my friend David (이영순) a call. He arrived a few moments later as he had been waiting at the PC Bang, next door. I don’t think I had ever been so nervous, so much so my hands were trembling. Out on the street, we took a taxi and went straight to the clinic. I was early, so we went to the third floor of the building where I had a brief chat and cup of coffee with my doctor. Then, at 1.59 pm, he said, ‘Oh, Nick, it is time.’ And telling me not to worry, I walked down the stairs to the urology clinic. None of the doctors there spoke very good English so David sat in the clinic office with me and asked the surgeon the list of questions I had compiled:
“What happens if I get a hard-on during the operation?” He laughed and said that wouldn’t happen. What sort of stitches would be used – dissolving or non-dissolving?” I was given a choice and told non-dissolving left less of a scar. “What happens if I get an erection over the next few days?” I was told to stick a cotton bud in my ear or stick my feet in icy water. “’When could I shower next?” Next week!
I was then taken into the operating room which was small and not unlike a dentist’s surgery. In the center stood that ominous table. Dropping my trousers and boxers I lay down and wondered what the fuck I had let myself in for.
Everything everyone had told me worked out the opposite. David had told me to expect two injections (later it became four) well, I was given eight and they stung. I covered my eyes and ears for the whole operation as there was a radio playing shit Korean music and the three surgeons kept fucking singing along to it. David had told me that sometimes you hear the scissors snicking away and I did, even the radio or the surgeons’ singing didn’t drown it so I had to jam my thumbs in my ears. Then the overhead light was so bright I had to cover my eyes. Several people had said the operation would take around twenty minutes, in fact it took forty. Then, all apart from Pak Ji-won (박지원), one of my older students, I had been told it wouldn’t hurt. It did! But not at first. Shortly after the snicking sounds finished, I smelt something cooking; I reckon they had either cauterized an artery or one of them was starting a barbecue. It was like my entire senses were being assaulted: the bright light, the noraebang Nahuna rendition and that strange, almost acidic barbecue smell that lingered. I had to stretch my fingers so I could pinch my nose shut, bung my ears and cover my eyes to blot everything out.
I think I lay like that for twenty minutes and eventually, felt a numb change in what was happening. I thought they were finishing but next followed a sort of slicing sensation which was very unpleasant because although it wasn’t painful, it felt actually felt like something was being sliced. David had told me to expect eight stitches. The following morning I counted 36. At one point during the procedure I told them it hurt but they ignored me and just carried on singing along to the radio.
Finally, the pain stopped and I could sense I was being mopped up. I took my clammy hands off my face and sighed. Then I was able to sit up and pull my trousers up. The surgeons, lined up, smiled and bowed. Out in the corridor David was sat reading. I did a little dance for him as I didn’t hurt at all, probably because my system was zinging with adrenalin. Then, we walked over to E-Matt and bought a McDonald’s which we walked home with. Was I hungry!
The clinic has given me a list of after-care procedures which David had translated into English whilst I was being operated on. It listed things like not drinking for a week because of the antibiotics, not showering for a week, resting for a few days, etc, etc. At the bottom of the list was an amendment in David’s handwriting, it read….
6. And you must endure not to have a wang! (Wank).
I didn’t hurt at all but throughout the evening, waited for the drugs to wear off and enter what someone had predicted would be, a ‘new world of pain.’ When my roommates arrived home we went out with them to a nearby restaurant. I wasn’t hobbling at all. Strangely, during the night I was worried more by the fact I didn’t hurt. And you wouldn’t believe how effective cotton buds in the ear are at killing an erection. One of the doctor’s had explained that poking a cotton bug in you ear-hole interrupts signals from your dick to brain and terminates any boner.
Friday 17th of August, 2001. In the morning, I was quite worried because it looked very ill. I wondered whether the bandage was too tight. I phoned David but couldn’t get hold of him so, at 8.45 am, I took a taxi to the clinic only to find it didn’t open until 9.30. So I waited in my doctor’s office on the third floor of the building. He sat me down, gave me a cup of coffee, talked to me and soon it was 9.30 am.
Back on the slab, I was checked-out but they didn’t think anything was wrong. Back in the reception area my doctor was waiting for me as he can speak fairly good English. There were three patients sitting behind me, two young women behind the receptionist’s desk, and four surgeons around me. Ten Koreans in all! Everyone was centered on our conversation – which of course, was about my dick!
As I leave, all the staff smile and bow deeply. My doctor invited me up to his surgery for breakfast and there I am introduced to his mother. We ate fruit and sat talking for about two hours and as I was leaving he invited me out to dinner. At the time, my doctor had just moved into the premises and had few patients, today I have to sit in the waiting room for an hour before I can see him.
Saturday August 18th, 2001. Very irritating because the stitches are made from something resembling nylon – like the material used for a toothbrush.
Although not sore, it is uncomfortable walking any distance so I have spent a considerable time lying down under the fan. Most Koreans get circumcised in winter and I would imagine the possibility of infection is higher in a humid climate so I lie under the fan as much as possible. I have been used to showering over 5 times a day and it is very uncomfortable not being able to do so. Showering is not just a hygienic necessity but a hobby and something I do to kill time.
Tuesday 21st of August 2001. Pak Jun-hee (박준희) has been bringing me lunch for the last couple of afternoons. His mandu and kimchi, made by his wife, Sun-hee, in their restaurant, are definitely the best in Song-So. Today, he asked if he could see ‘the results!’ Yes, I was rather shocked because in the UK no one would ask that. It was a strange situation because between us on the table, were the steaming mandu. Koreans! I love them!
Thursday 23rd of August, 2001. My antibiotics and pain killers ran out today and I’ was sore, so much so I had to go and buy some. In the afternoon, I went out to the cinema with Ji-won (박지원, his father is Jun-he). His English has improved so much since I started teaching him back in November. He told me he would be really sad when I left and that he would never forget me. It was all rather poignant. We walked around the Milano area for a while and had pat-ping-soo in a Sweet Water cafe which is just so tacky it’s unbelievable. It was decorated in pinks and had Barbie dolls and Miss Kitty paraphernalia all over the place. After, we had a burger in Lotteria and then took the bus home which was painful as the bumpy journey was over the construction area of what is now Daegu Subway system.
Saturday 25th of August, 2001. Saturday and I’m still in pain so I headed back to the clinic with David. My God! What a hideous experience, so hideous I don’t think I can actually do it justice in writing. It’s like I’ve been to a place of pain that I never want to experience again. I went back onto the couch where they decided to remove the stitches and it felt I was being assaulted with a pair of pliers. I cannot describe how excruciatingly painful it was and I wished they had been singing or cooking a barbecue, anything to take my mind off they pain. At one point, when I flinched, one of them told me off. When I eventually walked out of the small surgery, and David saw me, me he thought I had soaked my head in water and my hands were shaking badly. However, it was much easier walking without those infernal barbed-wire bonds.
Thursday August 30th, 2001. Life is almost back to normal. On Thursday afternoon I did some of my jobs – paid some bills, went to see Mr Pak at the post office and then we spent the afternoon in the Han Song Plaza bathhouse. With school having just started, the place was empty.
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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.