Tharp On: Health Care


This past June the United States Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act—better known as Obamacare—in a 5-4 decision that had the whole country on edge. I watched from afar, gnawing at my fingernails here on the peninsula as I awaited the historic judgment. I fully expected the conservative majority to strike down the law; you can imagine my elation, along with countless others’, when the court shocked the world by actually affirming the statute.

Despite its numerous and deep flaws, near-universal health care has finally arrived in America. It’s about frickin’ time.

I consider this very good news—not just for the health of our citizens and society as a whole—but because now, just maybe, Canadians will finally shut the hell up. Always with the health care. After all, it is the most potent weapon in their arsenal. As an American, you don’t even have to be arguing with your Canadian friend for them to smugly bring it up.

American: Hey man, you wanna go grab a beer?
Canadian: Sounds great. But first I’m gonna stop off at the hospital.
American: What? Are you sick?
Canadian: Nah, I feel pretty good… but I want to get checked out anyway. Maybe get a prescription for some Xanax. I’ll catch up with you later, eh?

Like millions of other Americans, I was uninsured for much of my adult life. This sucked. Visiting the doctor was pretty much always off the menu. Short of a catastrophic injury, I was resigned to endure whatever malady I contracted in grim silence. And then I came to Korea, where I was insured from the moment I stepped off the airplane. But even then I was hesitant to use it: after all, isn’t health insurance just for emergencies? Not according to my students at the time. When observing me sniffle or cough during that first year, one would always ask:

Teacher, you catch a cold?

Uh, yeah.

Did you go to the hospital?

I’d just stare back, stupefied, and think: Really? The hospital? I have a cold, not pancreatic cancer.

I fought them for a while, but then started to take their advice. I’ve since been to the hospital more times in the last seven years than in the previous 34 combined. I go all the time. It’s become my favorite hobby. Sore throat? Hospital. Headache? Hospital. Argument with fiancé? Hospital.

I love the hospitals in Korea so much that I now look forward to getting sick. And the best part? The IV. Korean nurses stick an IV in your arm at the slightest hint of a cold. How awesome is that? I just lie back on that rolling bed, click on my MP3 player and watch the golden-hued goodness drip into my veins. Ahhhh… Health in a magic bag. And this doesn’t just happen when I’m sick: these days, if I’m really hung over, I go to the hospital, stagger in the door and say, I have a cold… (Cough, cough.)

Bam! IV time!

Korean medicine isn’t always such joy, however. Sometimes the cultural divide transforms into chasm that, no matter how much effort is expelled, can never be breached. This happened to me a few years back. I went through a very minor surgical procedure to remove a benign growth from my back. The doctor told me not to drink for three weeks afterwards, which only lasted about three days, if truth be told. As a result of my inattentive attempt at convalescence, the wound took a very long time to heal. This frustrated the poor doctor, who, after about two weeks, looked at gash on my back while shaking his head and sucking air through his teeth, ajeosshi-style.

He then faced me, locked eyes and, in halting English, said:

As you know, the white man heals much more slowly than the yellow man, because the white man has the weaker tissue.

Weaker tissue? What kind of racist stuff is that? Where did he study—the Josef Mengele School of Medicine?

There he was, in a white frock, glasses and tie—the very portrait of clinical competence—spouting off half-baked theories straight out of the eugenics playbook. I had to pinch my own arm and remind myself where I was. I stormed out of his office, shaking my fist and cursing the state of Korean health care.

And then I went to pay the bill. It was 3,000 won.

When I saw him the next day I was all handshakes and smiles. Weaker tissue? Who knows? Maybe he was right.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Illustration by Sarah Elminshawi. You can see more of Sarah’s work here:



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