By Jay McNair
My cubicle’s next-door neighbor was just about to light a piece of mugwort on fire on the supposed chi-blockage above my right elbow when the office higher-ups flooded back in to the office. My acupuncturist saw them coming first; worry flashed across his face like a summer storm, and we moved hurriedly to stow the contraband. We swept the bag of mugwort back behind the books, pocketed the lighter, and returned casually to our desks, as if we had barely noticed the return of Those With Power—as if we had nothing to hide.
It was funny—though at the time I deeply resented the return of authority—because the loss of our acupuncture lesson was trivial to our futures, even for my career-ensconced office-mate. We stood to lose very little, and anyway our bosses are friendly people. But go fifty miles north from our Seoul desks, into North Korea, and the threat posed by those with power is no longer a small matter. The cards are sometimes similarly trivial—the unauthorized sharing of knowledge, as we were doing, for instance—but the stakes there are imprisonment or death. Citizens of North Korea have everything to hide.
Here, however, we are free to share knowledge as we wish. It is our goal! So, for me, these articles will attempt to offer glimpses into a country and a situation that is, for most of us, very difficult to learn about.
But first I know you are burning to know what happened in the end with our acupuncture lesson, so I will not hold off any longer.
We managed to sneak our lesson in on the afternoon of the last day of my internship. And so finally I experienced ddeum, the mugwort-burning side of acupuncture. Moxibustion!
Like you, I had always thought that acupuncture mostly involved needles. Of course I am not so crude as to think them scary needles, like the pointy kind that deliver shots, which they may hopefully someday model on the serrations of mosquito stingers to make them completely painless—acupuncture needles are maybe more like steel wires, or knitting needles, or something similar anyway. But apparently it is not just needles; moxibustion is an integral part of many acupuncture practices, and a useful and interesting one in your correspondent’s opinion.
The practice of it is slightly painful, and leaves small blisters (as one would expect from letting any thing smolder on one’s skin, for however long) that will hopefully soon turn into scars that will hopefully not be permanent. You will be happy to know that the burning is on such a small area compared to, say, when you burn your arm while ironing your shirts (another pastime of this correspondent), that it is relatively painless. And at least you know when it is coming.
It is a unique feeling. If you clear your mind and relax into it, you can begin to imagine that something good must be happening, although it is difficult to say what that something is (my acupuncturist, however, notes that all forms of cancer and disease can be cured by it). It is something penetrating, something deep. The placement is very precise; my acupuncturist examined and prodded and bent and unbent my arm for over a minute trying to find just the right spot, and finally marked it carefully with the tip of a felt pen so he would not lose the spot. And then put just the smallest pinch of mugwort (which in texture is something like fluffy, light-yellow playdoh) on the blue dot, and then lit a carbon rod with his lighter, and then touched it to the mugwort so it started smoldering; and after a second or two the tiniest spot of intense heat penetrated deep into my arm.
And maybe, definitely, definitely maybe, my chi was flowing a little more smoothly after all.
The two main aims of moxibustion at that particular meridian are to relieve insomnia and indigestion; and while I had neither before my “treatment”, I must say that for the past few nights I have been sleeping particularly soundly (although this may also be due to the insomnia-reducing effects of endeavoring all day to finish reports and prepare for presentations), and my digestion has been quite top-notch.
My acupuncturist is also my chief source of relief from the drudgery of web-based research into foreign perspectives on North Korean refugees; he pops up frequently over our partition, leaning on the reference books on resettlement policy that line his side of the divider, and talks to me in achingly slow, hesitant and yet decent English, while I respond in the nuanced argot of a Korean robot programmed with only five tenses and about a hundred nouns and verbs. His merry eyes brighten every time we chance to understand each other, or misunderstand each other for that matter; and so every conversation, no matter the topic, is rich with shared silent laughter.
It takes us ten minutes to say anything. And yet, unlike Treebeard, we still say many things that are not really worth taking a very long time to say, and to listen to. For us, it is worth it just to talk in these difficult languages, to communicate something, and be smiled at in response.
Next time we will talk about refugees and North Korea. But sometimes it is nicer just to skip the talking and burn things.
*Picture taken from: http://blog.chinatraveldepot.com/2011/07/traditional-chinese-medicine/