Archive for November, 2010

A Mainer Goes to South Korea

by on Monday, November 29th, 2010

Moving to Korea to teach English can be difficult. In fact, Connie’s experience with less-than-honest recruiters and insolvent private language schools is fairly typical. What is much less typical is her decision not to give up and go home. To me her experience illustrates how much personality determines a person’s ability to get along abroad. Here are her words for a 2008 interview, illustrated with her own photos.

Connie’s story

Motorcycle delivery people

Motorcycle delivery people

In July of 2001, my son Jim called from San Francisco and said, “I’m going back to Korea to teach. You want to come with me? You’ll love it.”

I had become a passionate Asiaophile by reading on the floor of my grandfather’s attic with the sun pouring in onto the unpainted wood. He had a collection of National Geographics which went all the way back to the 1880s. I was entranced by the stories of people going down the Yangzste River in steamboats and Victorian ladies visiting royal courts in Thailand. I saw Europe as an extension of my own culture but Asia as alien and fascinating. It was so different, and there was so much to learn.

On my sixteenth birthday, my father took me to a Korean-Chinese restaurant and taught me how to use chopsticks because “you never know where you’re going to end up.” So decades later when I asked what he thought about my going to Korea, he said, “Well, you won’t starve.”

A temple garden near my house

I contacted recruiters to put my name in for various jobs, and they promised that they would find me a place in Seoul where I could teach high school students. I waited and waited.

The last five years in Maine had been really hard. My husband died, I had no income and was struggling to keep afloat in a business that was going down like the Titanic. I was just miserable. I couldn’t find work, and I was taking one temporary job after another. In early September my father died. Then 9/11 happened, leaving us all traumatized. On October 4 my furnace was declared dead. This was Maine, where it’s impossible to live without heat. Three days after the furnace died, I got a call from a recruiter in Korea asking if I could come within two weeks. So I gave up the course I was taking in computer repair and gave away my animals—a lama, a herd dog, and I don’t know how many cats. My brother lent me enough money for a round-trip plane ticket, which I had to have to get into the country. At the consulate I got a visa stamp on my passport. I got to Korea before the deadline.

A street corner

The recruiter who met me at the airport told me he was taking me to Seoul, but instead he took me to Ilsan, about two or three kilometers from northeastern Seoul. I didn’t even know where I was. I had a nice studio apartment on the seventh floor with a view of the hills of North Korea in the distance. In 2001 the mountain nearest me had propaganda signs posted on it. At night when the billboards lit up, the light was so bright that whole mountain glowed like it had a little halo around it. It was kind of pretty. There was a river with a road beside it—maybe the Imjin River, but I’m not sure—and an extremely high barbed-wire fence with coils of barbed wire on the top.

The next day I discovered the school wasn’t a high school, but a pre-primary daycare center. Some of the children were not entirely toilet trained. I had a little boy in my class who was supposed to be four years old, but he was very, very tiny.  I was told he was born premature. If he said “shil,” apparently meaning hwajangshil [toilet], you had to pick him up and run like hell.

A school where I taught

In the meantime, my son Jim was still in San Francisco trying to sell off the possessions he and his wife had accumulated. It took him three months to get to Korea, so he didn’t get here until after my school went bankrupt. Both of us spent the winter running around looking for work, so our paths only crossed maybe five times in three months, but I remember we saw The Lord of the Rings together.

The daycare center was an attempt to help poor, working mothers, who would drop their kids off on their way to work. Because of their working hours, we were open from 9:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, sometimes later. It was a hard job, ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week. I was paid two million won a month for the first two months, which was about $1,500 at the time. The third month, the place was going bankrupt. They gave me a choice: a ticket to go back to America or whatever they could pay me, which would probably be half my salary.

A rock garden nearby

I did have a ticket back, but I still didn’t have any heat in Maine. That was the deciding factor. I had survived the ice storm of 1998 huddled down in that house. I knew how hard it was to heat a house with wood, and I didn’t have enough wood to get through the winter. It would have been totally impossible. So I said I’d take the half pay and the apartment they rented for me, and I’d hunt for a job.

I left there in January 20, 2002, and I found a job where I taught for three months before I was out of work again and had to re-register in a different district with different regulations. I had to write back to my college to get more transcripts and all that stuff. My boss was a great guy, but his wife was the bookkeeper, and she figured out very quickly that they couldn’t afford a native speaker. In fact, she said they were making more money with the math tutoring part of the school, so they should get rid of the English language part of it.

So there I was. No job again. I stayed in an apartment in that belonged to my son’s employer, who was nervous about leaving the place empty because it was on the edge of the red light district. After that I moved to a yŏgwan, an inn, with a pleasant enough space. I was there during the 2002 World Cup, and I was right on the main street where all the parading was going on in the middle of the night. Every time Korea won a game, there would be a parade. I had made friends in the neighborhood by this time, so for the last Korean game one of them pasted a Korean flag on my cheek, and I had on my red bandanna and red tee-shirt. I was out there at two o’clock in the morning, marching along and singing, “We are the champions.” Very exciting. A lot of fun. Also, by this time I’d been in Korea almost nine months. I felt really at home.

I find people here very easy to live with. I think it’s because they’re basically small town people who know they have to get along with people, even if they don’t like them. I approached the Koreans around me in the same way I would the people in my hometown. Now I know Mainers in general are similar to Koreans because we have a lot of the same values: a work ethic, a desire for our children to have a better life, often a social life that revolves around the church. I grew up on a farm, and most Koreans have some connection with farms—growing up on one or visiting their grandparents’ farm when they were children.

People are friendly. I’ll be walking down the street, and they’ll nod and say hello to me. Sometimes we’ll stop and have a little conversation that is half words and half charades. The other day when it was threatening to rain, I was coming down the mountain. A lady who was walking up said hello to me in Korean and rubbed her knee, indicating her arthritis, and pointed at the sky. I said hello and agreed that it was going to rain. We communicated mostly through hand signals, but it was a very satisfying conversation.

To give you an idea of how the farmers from both countries can interact, in 1979 some Korean farmers came to Vassalburo, Maine because land was cheap then. They rented some land and everybody in town noticed that the Koreans grew the most wonderful cabbages. But at the end of the year the contractor reneged on his promise to buy them. We had gotten screwed six years previously by big city a contractor who had promised us good money for daikon, the large white Japanese radish. The Koreans’ cabbages rotted in the fields, but some of the people stayed, settled in, kept on working and got jobs locally while they continued to farm. We admired them, so that when Mr. Kim got around to building a house, the people in the neighborhood helped him and showed him about insulating for Maine winters. It was really interesting to see how the villagers watched the newcomers before welcoming them. They liked what they saw, so they helped out when they had a chance, which is classic Maine behavior.

Shortly after I came here, I began meeting people who looked familiar. I met a woman who looked so much like someone I knew in Maine. Mainers often don’t admit it, but we’ve got a lot of Native American blood, and of course there’s a strong racial connection between Koreans and Native Americans.

For example, my friend William Turner, who’s half Native American, was lost in North Korea during the Korean War. When he found an abandoned farm house, he ditched his uniform for some farmer’s clothes and carried his gun on his back in a wooden A-frame pack. He crept south, going into abandoned farmhouses and unearthing the kimchi that was hidden there and eating it. From a distance he could pass for Korean. The hardest part was making it through to the American lines. Eventually he got to a place where he could see some sentries, and he called to them in a low voice. They were going to shoot him, but he told them that the Yankees had won the World Series that year or some other dumb-fool baseball fact that identified him as an American.

In Korea I met a man who could have been William Turner’s son—same spiky hair sticking out, same sort of aquiline nose, high cheek bones and a good sense of humor. Not quite as quiet as William was. I kept meeting people who looked like Mainers I knew in their appearance and mannerisms. And there were language similarities between Korean and Algonquin, even between the l-and-r sound of Korean and the same sound in Mainer French. The first winter I was here I imagined myself living in the French-speaking quarter of Lewiston, and I felt comfortable. I said to myself that I was only a day’s flight from home, so it was pointless to get homesick. I was so interested in learning about the culture that I just never thought about it.

The differences I saw just seemed to highlight the similarities. The mountains don’t look exactly the same because they haven’t been scrubbed down by a glacier, but the trees and the forested nature of the country is very similar, with conifers and deciduous trees—pines and oaks and maples. The smell of the dead leaves on the ground in the fall is very much the same.

I was amused the first time I saw a roll of toilet paper on the dining room table of a house, completely bare and unadorned, without even a doily covering it. Toilet paper is used as napkins. My grandmother was always making lacy, fluffy things to cover the toilet paper in the bathroom.

My family has a strong oral tradition, and we remember the Civil War—literally. It was passed down to us. My Grandmother Neal’s father was at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. My maternal great-grandfathers and one of my paternal great-grandfathers were in the Union Army. So I have a sense of what Koreans experienced in their civil war, which is what they call it. If the Confederates had stopped fighting under a cease fire, but not a peace treaty, the South and the North would be two very different places. South Korea was like the South in the United States, mainly agricultural, and the North in both places was mainly industrial. The difference was that in Korea the industrial base was destroyed during the war, whereas in the U.S. the South never made it far enough north to bust up the factories in places like the Boston suburbs. If that had happened, it would have been a different kind of war. Also, the Canadians didn’t come down like the Chinese did in Korea, and the Spanish didn’t come to America the way the Americans did to Korea.

I’ve been here for close to eight years, and I’m comfortable. I have enough money to get by and a tiny apartment with a little squat of a bathroom and a large shower room where I keep my washing machine and my refrigerator. I have a little galley kitchen and a normal, maybe ten by twelve bedroom.  The first time I flew back to Korea after trip to Maine, I felt really good as we started flying over the peninsula. The last time, I felt the same thrill you feel in your heart when you come back to your home country. Maybe it’s because the last five years there were so hard, but Maine just doesn’t do that for me anymore.

Sitting above the Green Elephant, Part 2

by on Friday, November 19th, 2010

Photo introducing the first chapter of Bridges

This is an account of my experience teaching English as a Foreign Language at Dongguk University, the Buddhist university in Seoul, and producing textbooks for my classes. (Part 1 was published on October 9. It’s available in the archives.)

At the beginning of each term, I had the students bring in photos to class and glue them to 4 x 6-inch index cards containing their names, ID numbers and contact information. When class started with the student desk-chairs arranged in a semi-circle.  I sat at the same level in front of them. In Korea in 1989, this was radically new. Most of the professors stood on a podium behind a lectern and the students sat in rows below. I felt the new seating arrangement made for a greater sense of equality. It gave the students more access to me and gave me immediate access to any kid who was not paying attention. For small group discussions—Korean students would not speak “in public” before the whole class—the chairs were rearranged into groups of four while I made the rounds, listening, taking notes, answering questions and making comments or corrections. (Not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side. ) Everybody talked, everybody worked.

Korean parents famously believe the family’s passage up the socio-economic ladder is through the education of their children, and they push. There’s also widespread unemployment and underemployment among Korean university graduates, so young people have to compete. As children, the kids cram for years. Middle school students function on four or five hours of sleep because they’re studying all the time. High school students often leave school at midnight after studying all day and all evening—or at least being at school, goofing off with their friends and pretending to study. For years their lives are dreary, anxiety-ridden and deprived of the basic human requirements of relaxation, joy and carefree fun. When they do pass the exams and come into the university, years of pent-up energy is released. Some continue to study hard, some take part-time jobs, but many take a semi-vacation from their studies for three and a half years until it’s time to start cramming for the exams to get into a company. Almost all the males take a leave from school for mandatory military service.

Early in my stint at Dongguk, so around 1989, my friend Frank said, “Never ask students what they want to do in class.  They’ll run all over you.”  I just looked at him. We’d both started teaching in the mid-60s, when English teachers thought it was cool to stroll into class, write a few words on the board and sit on the desk to watch the students respond.

As a teacher of German I’d never developed much of a free-wheeling manner. There’s not much point in strolling into a beginning grammar class and saying, “Well, do you want to talk about nouns today or verbs?” At the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh—the only place I ever taught which was really well-organized—a supervisor once balled me out for spending fifteen minutes on an activity I’d never done before instead of twelve. After that, I taught my classes at Pitt with a stopwatch. At Dongguk I did sometimes ask the kids what they wanted to do in class, but there was never any question about who was in control.

Somewhere I read that there are two types of teachers, the ones who teach from a textbook, and the ones who teach from a filing cabinet. I was definitely the filing cabinet type. At Pitt we’d had a huge supply of materials to use as supplements to the textbooks. Now that I was on my own and teaching upper-intermediate and advanced conversation classes, I didn’t have to use a textbook someone else put together. In China, I’d learned that the available books were not suitable, either because they were intended for use in a very different culture or because the writers’ English wasn’t very good. I wrote/adapted/stole my own material, always giving proper credit, of course. In 1990 the textbook situation in Korea wasn’t much better, and the students were very different from Americans. They might panic if you skipped around in the textbook or omitted a set of questions. So before every term I’d take my typed, single-spaced reading selections with pictures and discussion questions added, and I’d go down the hill to the copy shop and have them run off and bound into books for the students to buy. That way we could start with page one and plod our way down to the end of page sixty or eighty, covering every selection and every question, and still do a course designed for the students.

The first project was an introduction to American culture which I called American Pioneers, a collection of articles and stories on ethnic diversity, women, labor and political and social reform. My students often felt they understood the United States because they watched us on television or in the movies, but something was certainly lost.

For example, someone might say, “Well, driving might be bad in Korea, but it’s not as bad as it is over there.”

“What do you mean?”

Then you find out the kid is talking about chase scenes in cop shows. He’s not distinguishing between real life and television. Your attempt to explain the difference is met with skepticism.

Photo for the chapter on getting along

So when that was the level of comprehension, you can imagine the difficulty in explaining life in a multi-racial, multi-cultural country to students living in what anthropologists call “ethnic nationalism.” I did my M.A. paper for Pitt on language as a component in the Korean ethnic boundary, so I knew Koreans saw themselves in terms of a shared heritage, a common language, and a common ethnic ancestry. “Outsiders” included not only white-skinned people like myself, but ethnic Koreans who grew up in Los Angeles and didn’t speak Korean at a native-speaker level. In addition you had internal division between regions—which was not seen as prejudice similar to racism—and sexism and multiple generation gaps. It became clear immediately that as the one outsider in the room I could not be an advocate for anything. I needed to provide the materials and put the kids into groups so they could battle out the issues among themselves.

I saw that racism was a problem for them, sexism was a problem, regionalism was a problem, ageism was a problem. Then came the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with the Korean press covering the issue entirely from the side of Korean-American shopkeepers. I immediately brought in articles showing another perspective.

“Why?” you ask.

Well, it wasn’t just that I’d always been a crusader. What else were we going to talk about? I saw my job as increasing students’ fluency in English by giving them more vocabulary, conversation practice and understanding of the people they might eventually communicate with in English. If they were going to find and keep jobs which required interaction with foreigners, they needed some idea of where those foreigners were coming from and why. There was not going to be much communication from kids who said, “I think white people are the cruelest tribe in the world.  And the Americans are the worst.” Soon I started getting feedback like, “I used to despise black people, but now I don’t feel that way.” Eventually it became, “This class has made me more of an international person.”

American Pioneers was my English majors’ conversation text for five years or so until I got the idea of constructing dialogues from interviews I’d done with Westerners living in Korea, the same stuff that appears on this website. I’d originally collected it for a book on Asia through Western eyes, but I was unable to find a publisher. My students were fascinated with what outsiders were saying about them when they weren’t in the room. (This may be a cultural universal. I’ve just gotten embroiled in a Facebook discussion on how U.S. citizens are seen abroad.) The reaction to the new book was more positive than the reaction to American Pioneers, as if the attempt to lower cultural barriers was in itself creating an atmosphere of intimacy and honesty in the classroom.

Photo for the chapter on personal questions

So I put my conversations together as reading selections, and my co-author Mary French provided invaluable, extended feedback on making the collection into a real textbook with proper definition of key concepts, signposts, reading tasks, discussion questions, crossword puzzles, pictures, quizzes and exams—everything that made it into a real textbook. She was a textbook-type English teacher, not a filing-cabinet type, with a real gift for those details of pedagogy which had never interested me very much. Bridges: Intercultural Conversation grew into a two-semester, content-based course which got revised twice a year for six or seven of the ten years I used it. I had everything, including quizzes and exams, on the computer before a semester started so that I could spend all my classroom energy with the students. It was very successful.

Photo for a chapter on the workplace

We couldn’t find a publisher. At that time the Korean publishing establishment was interested only in hiring native speakers as low-paid proofreaders or writers for the publishers’ projects. Many, many English teachers were churning out their own classroom materials, usually because their language school or department wanted something with their own brand on it, regardless of the quality. Some of the texts may gave looked like early drafts of American Pioneers. It was impossible to show people who were interested in protecting their own turf that Bridges was different. International publishers weren’t interested in advanced-level textbooks that were country-specific, not when the market was in lower-level books that could be used anywhere—something I compared with aiming for the imaginary C student and missing everyone above or below. Eventually I decided that Bridges had served me well at Dongguk for over ten years. Mary and I talked about it, and we let it go.

Students doing a survey for compositon class

I was familiar with some of the publication problems from a previous project, a collaboration with a friend from Dongguk, Prof. Cho Eui-yon. In 1991when I started teaching composition at Dongguk, there was nothing in the way of a composition textbook for Korean students available in the bookstores. I would sail into class with ideas typical of Freshman Composition classes in the United States—extended definitions, comparison-contrast, place descriptions, narratives, that sort of thing. The students did ten compositions a semester. They would write, I would provide detailed suggestions, they would rewrite, and I would correct grammar and word usage. Some of the finished compositions would go in the next semester’s book as examples of how to do the composition. Of course this made the writers very proud. I also pulled errors from the students’ very own papers to correct as a group, which they found considerably more interesting than predictable, mind-numbing grammar book exercises they could do in their sleep without ever having to actually use the grammar.

My friend Frank looked at the heavily-marked compositions and said, “You know, Korean students aren’t used to getting that kind of feedback on their work. One student told me that during the four years she majored in English she didn’t get a single paper returned in any of her classes. What you’re doing for the students, for them that’s really special, like inviting them all into your own living room.”

On the sentence level, the main cause of student errors I found was not sentence grammar (like subject-verb agreement), but word choice. Typically a student would want a translation of a Korean word, look up a Korean “equivalent” in a dual-lingual dictionary and select an item at random, resulting in such gems as, “The teacher rectified the students’ papers” instead of “The teacher corrected the students’ papers.” They didn’t know about selecting the right word for the context. They couldn’t distinguish between near-synonyms like answer, reply, respond and react, while a native speaker will select the right word automatically. There was also the intrusion of Korean English, causing students to construct sentences like “I prepared you some flowers”–of course, I did an imitation of chopping up flowers and frying them with onions–when they meant “I brought you some flowers.”

I had a semantics-based, vocabulary project I’d done for linguistics at Pitt, a series of different types of exercises which at least made students aware of the problems. We did the exercises in class using mono-lingual student dictionaries like The Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and The Cambridge International Dictionary of English, which provided lots of sample sentences so students had a better sense of the context.

I got together with Prof. Cho Eui-yon, my colleague and a linguist with a semantics specialty. We pored over the manuscript drafts and revised them. The results were a composition book, Find the Right Form and a workbook, Finding the Right Word. There was also a teacher’s manual with suggestions and quizzes. Prof. Cho found a Korean publisher and did all the negotiations. We got all three volumes out, and the composition book got a second edition. The problem was that despite the teacher’s manual, Korean teachers didn’t take to the textbook, and it wasn’t marketed to native speakers. In many schools, textbook selection was done higher up the hierarchy. But I think the publisher broke even. I was proud to hear that the textbook and workbook were used in Queens, New York, in a program for Korean students. But, hey—in publishing this is pretty typical. Good, even.

For a few years I used both the composition book and the workbook every semester until I realized that I was bored with them. Then I started writing two companion books to Bridges, a composition book and an upper-intermediate conversation book which used the same key concepts (stereotypes, nonverbal behavior, racism, sexism, workplace issues, collectivism and individualism) but with a lot of video, like scenes from Norma Rae and all of The Dead Poets Society. I had no illusions about publishing either of those texts.

I don’t regret the tens of thousands of hours I spent at the computer working on textbooks. I can’t imagine reacting to my environment or my experience without collecting it or writing about it. Certainly it’s far easier than writing non-autobiographical fiction, which is literally far beyond my experience—except on some psychological or mythic level. All of the texts were tailored to suit the teaching situation as I perceived it, so they made my job a great deal easier.

The Eye Thing

by on Thursday, November 4th, 2010

When I went to the States this summer, I took along three pairs of reading glasses and a pair of distance glasses. One pair of reading glasses apparently fell through a hole in my coat pocket in an airport. Another one went missing shortly after I got back to Quezon City. My only remaining pair had a scratched lens. All this turned out to be very fortunate, because it forced me to get at least one replacement. So in mid-September I went to an optician in the shopping center on the University of the Philippines campus. During the examination, she became troubled and announced I needed to see a doctor. I could order my glasses later.

In 2008, over a period of about six months, strange things had happened to me: 1) two cases of rash probably caused by detergent left in laundry—none after I insisted that Fe use my automatic washing machine instead of doing the laundry by hand; 2) skin so dry it formed welts when scratched; 3) bad hair from the chlorine and God knows what else in the pool, such that my hair was doing a constant Alfred Einstein imitation; 4) a rash of undetermined origin, which happens in the tropics; 5) a sudden infection in my right earlobe, causing a skin blemish to swell up to the size of a pigeon egg; 6) intestinal flu; 7) two cases, two or three weeks apart, of the right eyelid turning red and swelling my eye shut, probably caused by mites in my down pillows; 8 ) a bug flying in right eye when I was using the rowing machine and getting stuck under lower lid, causing the eyelid to get red and swollen; 9) a head injury when I slipped in the women’s room at the swimming pool and hit the wall with my head, which bled profusely and required stitches; 10) a very badly skinned knee and leg caused by tripping at night over a protuberance in the sidewalk, leaving a hole in my tan; 11) a bit of hot sauce from local restaurant striking lower lip and causing it to swell up to half the size of a pigeon egg; 12) an injured shoulder from carrying very heavy bags with groceries which was so sore it caused my whole body to stiffen up, requiring multiple massage sessions. Just nuisances. In general I tend to be heroically optimistic with regard to my health. My high blood pressure was also discovered by accident when I was demonstrating to Fe how to take hers.

I walked over to the University Health Service to see the eye doctor who had treated the swollen eyelid and the bug in the eye. We chuckled over this experience before she looked at my eyes and discovered a big brown spot in the middle of my right eye. I’d noticed blurriness when focusing my new camera–the only time I used only the right eye–but thought it was some sort of weird grid in the viewfinder. The doctor said there had been no sign of a problem when she’d examined my eyes earlier. She wrote out a referral to a specialist.

Back in Pittsburgh I have a close friend of over twenty-seven years. The only time I’ve seen her cry was when she was diagnosed with the dry type of macular degeneration—although that was years ago, when less was known about it—and she was very upset about the prospect of going legally blind and being unable to read. However, she’d gotten excellent results from taking a vitamin and mineral supplement called Ocudyne. The degeneration had stopped and even reversed itself.

The eye clinic I was sent to was in one of those probably adequate hospitals with a charmingly third-world atmosphere. Dim lighting, lots of patients waiting, very caring professionals. Twenty-five years ago, our university hospital in China had a similar atmosphere. The one time I got a bad cold, I happily took the opportunity to check out traditional Chinese medicine. But this was my eyes, and this was serious. The specialist in the crowded examination room ordered some blood tests to determine whether I could have an angiogram, which would show whether I had the genetically transmitted dry type or the age-related wet type.

I had the blood tests done in a modern clinic on the top floor of a shopping mall, a place I’d been to before for various routine tests. Fortunately, the nurse-receptionist at the hospital had forgotten to remind me to fast six or eight hours before the blood tests. I say fortunately, because angiograms were only done at that eye clinic once a week, and the additional eight hours I had to wait made me miss the test at that hospital. Since I wanted to get on this—everything I’d read on the Internet indicated that time was a factor—as soon as I got the blood test results I hurried over to a swank hospital of the sort that’s popular with medical tourists. The eye clinic there did the tests immediately and determined that I had the wet type, which is characterized by the development of abnormal blood vessels in the retina.

Possible causes include genetic factors (one of my grandmothers was blind when she was in her nineties, but I don’t know why), high blood pressure (yes, but controlled by medication), smoking (not since 1985), race (white, yes), sex (female, yes), and living in the tropics (wow, UV rays, I guess). My housekeeper blamed all the hours I spend at the computer. Later I learned that tests show wet-type macular degeneration may be prevented by eating egg yolk as a regular part of the diet. And I had been a good girl and not eaten eggs because of the cholesterol, which they now say hasn’t been proved.

As soon as I got the results I asked to be referred to a retinal specialist at the hospital. The eye clinic immediately sent me to see a nice woman who, curiously, had no patients in her waiting room. She looked at my eyes again and recommended a minimum of three Lucentis injections in each eye, one month apart, after I got a clean bill of health from my internist—so, more tests and a physical exam. I might need more injections later, maybe twelve altogether. Alternately, she said photodynamic therapy could be done on both eyes simultaneously for at least three treatments, but the results are not as good as the injections, which were not cheap. $2,000 a pop just for the medication. That was a bit of a shock, because medical costs are low here. I was used to paying ten dollars for a blood test, twenty or forty for a sonogram. These injections could be more than $25,000.

“I don’t know whether my health insurance will cover it,” I said.

She said, “A was talking to some patients recently who said that in America the Lucentis injections are free.”

What followed was a lot of activity on the Internet. I wrote to my health insurance provider who said the injections were standard treatment for this condition and sent a form for the specialist to fill out. I also discovered that in fact Medicare did pay for Lucentis and in Britain, the National Health Service was good for fourteen injections. My friend Bob—known as Uncle Bobby when he’s being particularly caring and protective, which he often is—offered to put me up for two years if necessary so I could get the treatment done in Boston. I telephoned my friend in Pittsburgh and the insurance administrator in Hong Kong.

The forms were emailed from Hong Kong on a Tuesday. I rushed them over to the specialist and waited outside a dark, empty office. When her receptionist arrived, she said the doctor wouldn’t be in until Friday. When I went back on Friday for the signed forms, I asked what I should do in case of emergency. My friend in Pittsburgh said her doctor had told her to check her vision every day with the Amsler Grid and notify him immediately if she saw any change. At any time of day or night he would meet her in his office.

“Oh, I’m always here,” the specialist said. “Every day, Monday to Saturday, two to six.”

Well, okay, I thought. Maybe this week was an exception.

By Tuesday afternoon I had the results of the blood tests, clearance from my internist and approval from the insurance company. I sent a text to the specialist saying I’d like to proceed immediately. That night I got a text from her receptionist: the doctor was out of the country for two weeks for a seminar.

Right, I thought. I may be gullible, but I’m not that stupid. I went back to the swank eye clinic for another referral.

They sent me to see someone who had a reassuring number of patients waiting. This doctor examined my eyes again, gave me a detailed account of the procedure and the prospects—not as glowing as those given by the Lucentis manufacturer—and mentioned what could possibly go wrong, like bleeding or a detached retina, which would require surgery and hospitalization. Also, macular degeneration was like cancer in that after a period of remission it could come back. She suggested that I have the injections at the other institution where she practiced, which also had up-to-date facilities, but was somewhat cheaper.

The prospect of having an injection into your eyeball is more than a little daunting, although I’d heard from my friend in Pittsburgh and read on the Internet that it’s not as bad as it sounds. In my experience it’s the buildup that gets you. You arrive at the clinic an hour early with a companion because you can’t make it home by yourself. You get eye drops at regular intervals, and your eyes get tested. One machine tests eye pressure with a puff of air and light that zaps your eyeball. You sit and look at a light box with letters as if you were getting glasses, with a lot of  “is this lens better or is this lens better?” when you can’t see anything with your right eye but blurry light (very scary). You look through a screen at a green asterisk while red horizontal lines move down in front of you, scanning your eyeball. You’re told, “Don’t blink, avoid to close your eye.” Your head is moved around against the chin and forehead rests. Maybe someone holds your eyelid open.

The staff is friendly, helpful and professional. Even the doctor calls you ma’am instead of talking down to you. You try to ease the tension with wry little jokes. Eventually you are led into the surgical unit, where you are dressed in a heavy hospital gown and get shower caps taped to your head and put around your shoes. You are the only patient in the pre-surgery waiting room. There is a wide-screen television tuned to the National Geographic channel. You ask them to turn it off.

(I will never understand why someone needing to prepare herself for an ordeal would want to be distracted by television commercials.)

You sit in the dimly lit room, nervous, but actually feeling sorry for yourself, and try to relax. Some of your meditation practice comes to your aid. You know it’s time to accept the fact that you are your age and not fifty years or twenty years younger. Somehow until now, part of yourself was still convinced that aging was something that happened to other people. Do not go gentle into that good night, etc.

You are led into the surgery and seated in a chair, which is lowered so you are horizontal. The surgery team approaches, and your doctor tells you in a wonderfully reassuring, grandmotherly voice that she will explain each step of the procedure to you. The prongs of an oxygen tube are inserted into your nostrils, and you are told to breathe only through your nose. A blood pressure cuff goes around one arm so they can monitor your blood pressure throughout. Your face is wrapped. A gel is put into the eye which is not going to be operated on so that you can’t open it.  You get more drops, including the anesthetic. A very bright operating lamp looms over you. You grab the arms of the chair and hold on tight and force yourself to look into the two blobs of light above you. The reassuring, grandmotherly voice urges you to relax—right!—and not to move. You don’t relax, but you don’t move either. By God, you don’t move. You feel a little prick. The voice tells you it’s over. You see hazy red, which you’re told is only the light. You’re unwrapped and led back into the pre-surgery room, where you get drops every five minutes.

Then something very strange begins to happen. When you were sitting there before, trying to focus on your breathing, trying to call on whatever resources were available to you, you were only partially successful. But now that the ordeal is over, peace begins to descend. You have thirty minutes to sit with your eyes closed and to meditate. You think of the people you’ve known who’ve referred to living with AIDS as a spiritual experience and to dying as the last great adventure. Now you think maybe you understand a little.

At least that was my experience.

After the injection the doctor examined my eyes, and said the injection had gone well. I thanked her for her wonderful bedside manner. She thanked me for not moving. The same young man who had given me drops put a patch on my eye. I had to go home and stay there for twenty-four hours to avoid anything like dust getting into it.

The second injection was on the right eye, which is a lot worse, but the doctor thinks the degeneration is slowing down. Afterward I told her I could tell the needle went further in.

“I faltered a little,” she said.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “You’d never get an American doctor to admit to that.”

No, no, she said. There was no damage—no harm done.

I hastened to explain that I was admiring her honesty. In the States, where liability insurance had a stranglehold on health care, the story was totally different.

I was thinking of the time, decades before, when I’d had a spinal tap. The pain was unbearable, and then I passed out. Or as I told the doctor later, I’d learned more about color theory in thirty seconds than I would have in two years of art classes. He called it an epileptic seizure, had the sides of my hospital bed raised, limited my movement in the hospital, allowed me to smoke only under supervision and generally scared the shit out of me. I was babbling about this to the one liberated nurse in the hospital, and she said, “That wasn’t a seizure. He got the needle in wrong.”

Thank God for honest health care professionals.

So, where do we go from here? After the first injection, the doctor recommended two more in the left eye (the good one) to prevent continued degeneration, maybe no more in the right eye, where the more extensive damage seems to have stopped. For what seemed like years, I got drops in both eyes four times a day. “Oras ng patak!” Fe said. Time for eye drops. I ate a boiled egg every day. I wore my shades when I went out.

At my last examination on November 3, the doctor said the leakage of fluid from the retinal layers in the left eye seems to be stopping. The center of the right eye is now mostly scar tissue. Little chance of any improvement there, but probably also not much more degeneration. I have her permission to swim in the pool, and I’ll wear goggles for UV protection. That is, when the rain stops and the air heats up again. I try to muster up the courage to measure myself on the Amsler Grid, which means looking at the chart I have taped to a bookcase. The test you can do online seems to require practice and skill.

Most importantly, because this thing is also a matter of mind and spirit, I know that yet again I’m being shown that I’ll get what I need.

P.S. A friend in the United States informs me she’s seen public service announcements that people need to start getting their eyes checked for age-related macular degeneration after the age of 55.  The friend from Pittsburgh was younger than that when hers started.