I Use a Mokbal Because My Leg is Sick: Developing a Disabled Identity in Korea

By Lee Klinger

I have developmental dysplasia of the left hip. The head of the femur is flat and the socket is too shallow. The joint is severely arthritic. For nearly five years, I have been teaching English in Korea. Over that time, I started using a cane and then switched to a forearm crutch (two for long distances). As I transitioned from cane to crutch(es), I had to learn how to explain my increasing disability in Korean. I also had to fight my own internalized ableism, sizeism, and self-doubt.

How do you say “hip dysplasia” in Korean?

At first, I just tell people that my leg hurts. I avoid using the Korean word for “hip” because it also means “butt.” I don’t want to go around telling people that my butt hurts. I ask my doctor how to say “I have hip dysplasia” in Korean: Gogwan jeol talgu isseoyo.

Mokbal: Do I Dare Buy Them?

The cane hurts my hand. Do I need a crutch instead? Would a crutch make walking easier and less painful? Would it get me fired for looking too disabled to work? (Probably not.) How do I decide? I don’t know who to ask.

The first time I go to the medical supply store to look at crutches it’s winter. I can’t fit my arm, covered in multiple layers of clothing, into the cuff of the crutch. The store clerk is tactful, but I leave in shame. I’m too fat for crutches. I feel like crying, but I’m also frustrated. There are fat people who use crutches. Where do they buy them? I don’t know who or where to ask, especially in a country where I am much fatter than the average person. (I don’t want underarm crutches because they can cause nerve damage when used long-term.)

Months later (in warmer weather), I work up the nerve to return; the crutch fits, and I buy it. The clerk helps me adjust it to my height. When I leave the shop with my new crutch, I feel sort of giggly and nervous, and also like I might cry. A few days later, I buy a second crutch, but decide to use only one most of the time.

I also buy pairs of gray, black, and neon green fingerless gloves to prevent hand chafing. When it gets very hot, I buy toshi: thin, stretchable fabric arm covers that extend from wrist to above the elbow. Koreans use them to prevent sunburn while hiking in the mountains. I use them to prevent the plastic cuff of the mokbal from sticking to or chafing the skin of my arm.

For days, I check myself out in mirrors and car windows to see what I look like with a crutch. Is it wrong that I kind of like how it looks and feels?

I think about giving it a name, like Sticky or Silver. (Do wheelchair users name their chairs?) From students and Korean co-teachers, I learn that a crutch is a mokbal, which literally means “wooden foot/leg.” I decide to call it a mokbal. Using a Korean word provides some psychological distance. (It’s like how swearing in a foreign language doesn’t really count.) Also, I bought it and learned to use it in Korea. When talking to English speakers, I call it a “stick.”

One Mokbal or Two?

Sometimes, I think I need to use two mokbal. Using only one feels weird and unbalanced. My left side feels open, unguarded. Even though I can walk with only one mokbal, I sort of want to use two, if only so that I feel even.

Two mokbal are good for long distance walking and I like the sense of symmetry, but probably too much for every day. I look too disabled. I don’t want to draw that much attention to my impairment while I’m at work, especially since neither of my schools has a working elevator.

As the hip joint continues to deteriorate, I will eventually need to use two mokbal all the time. It’s a judgment call I have to make for myself. The main criterion is pain. When the need for pain relief supersedes the awkwardness of schlepping two big aluminum sticks everywhere, then it will be time to switch to two mokbal all the time.

I like how mokbal look: geekily cool and robotic. They’re like extensions of my arms. They make pointing and waving more dramatic (and dangerous). They’re useful for hailing taxis. I like the feel of arm cuffs enclosing (protecting?) both my forearms. It feels a bit like armor, especially when combined with long sleeves and gloves.

Mokbal serve as shields and armor, but can also give friends an excuse to touch me (if I stumble). And sometimes I want to be touched, even if it’s only a hand on my arm to steady me or help me into a vehicle.

Internalized ableism

Sometimes, my hip doesn’t hurt at all. Sometimes, it hurts a lot. I worry when the symptoms fade (does that mean I was faking it?) and feel a bit relieved when they reappear (and then perverse for being relieved). The fluctuation bothers me. I’m scared of that borderland between “real” disability and “buck up, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

I worry that I’m acting (or letting myself be) more disabled than I really am (or need to be). I can able up or down depending on the situation. I don’t need to use a mokbal. I could just limp and live with pain. I could walk slowly and awkwardly, constantly grabbing walls and furniture. I’d still be visibly disabled. Using a mokbal simply happens to be more comfortable than not using one.

I use a mokbal to mark myself as disabled. I use it to reduce pain. I use it to explain my slowness and strange gait. I use it to preserve the joint. I use it because I like the feel of the cuff on my arm. I use it because it gives me something to lean on while standing. I use it so I can walk with more dignity and less waddling. I use it to show that I’m really disabled and not just fat.

I worry too much about what other people think. I constantly second-guess myself too. This is a lifelong habit, questioning whether or not I am telling the truth about my own body and experiences. I always think that other people–especially doctors–will accuse me of lying about being in pain and that this very anxiety is evidence that I am lying.

Tari-ga apayo”: being visibly disabled at work

Despite my master’s degree and previous teaching experience, I’m still amazed that I ever got hired to teach in Korea. It’s standard practice here to submit a photograph along with one’s resume when applying for a job. The ideal native English teacher is a slim, twenty-something, physically fit, blonde American. (One out of five ain’t bad.)

When I start working in Korea, I teach at an English-immersion preschool in a large city. At that time, I only occasionally use a cane and take lots of over the counter pain medicine. The next year, I move to a small city to teach in the public schools (for higher pay, with more holidays). At my first school, my Korean supervising co-teacher sees me using an umbrella as a walking stick. She tells me to use a cane if I need one. After that, I start bringing my cane to work.

I learn how to say “My leg hurts” (or “my leg is sick”) in Korean: Tari-ga apayo. I don’t know how to specify a chronic condition versus a temporary injury.

Next, I teach at two elementary schools. I ask S (another Korean co-teacher) where Korean kids with physical disabilities go to school. She says that they go to special schools.

When I come to work with the new mokbal, students ask why. I add a slide to my self-introduction PowerPoint: a photo of a mokbal and a simple explanation (“My leg hurts; I walk with a stick. That makes it feel better.”).  I let them try walking with it. When a student puts it on, the arm cuff slides all the way up to his or her shoulder.

I never know where to put my mokbal when I sit down to teach. Sometimes, it falls over suddenly with a BANG right in the middle of class. My students giggle.

Disabled in Public

As I change in the locker room after swimming, a school-aged girl stares at me. As I stop in the lobby to check blood pressure, she says goodbye to me in Korean while leaving. She has a short brace on one leg. This is the first time in over four years that I have ever seen a physically disabled Korean kid out in public.

Another time, I overhear a child in the locker room ask her mother why the waygookin (foreigner) is using a mokbal. The mom says something like tari-ga apayo.

I see “Intouchables” at CGV Cinema. I learn the Korean word for “disabled person” from a sign at the theater: jangae-in. Literally, this means a person with an obstruction, obstacle, or impediment. I’m becoming more assertive about asking for a handicap seat (jangae-in suk) at the movie theater. Holding up the mokbal usually does the job.

After a visit to the U.S., I post on Facebook a photo that a friend took of me standing next to a case of gigantic crystals at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Three people message me, asking why I’m on crutches. Oh shit, I think, I’ve outed myself as disabled. I hope this doesn’t get me fired. So I post a comment to the effect that I only use two sticks for long distances.


Summer 2012, Harvard Museum of Natural History

Too fat and too female

Are mokbal masculine or feminine? Korean does not require that speakers give gender to inanimate objects. I think of them in terms of armor, protection, balance, and support. I think they’re masculine or neuter. They make noise. They take up space. They’re hard. They bang into things. They’re strong. (The gloves are also very butch.) On the other hand, mokbal draw attention to my physical weakness. They signal to others that I might need help. Does wearing one or two mokbal change my gender presentation? Are there masculine, androgynous, and feminine ways to use mokbal? Are there Eastern and Western ways to use them?

I’m neither feminine nor attractive (by either mainstream American or Korean standards), but I can sometimes pull off “cute.” I put glow-in-the dark space stickers on my mokbal and use it to act out things like “play baseball” in classroom games of Charades. Part of me cringes at the deliberate cultivation of cuteness. It’s so girly.

“Cute” is a huge part of Korean culture. Cute transcends age and gender. If you want to get people’s attention here, show them a picture of a baby or a cartoon character. Being cute is a survival strategy in Korea, especially if you are a woman, a foreigner, and disabled. In a hierarchical (Confucian) society like this, showing anger and loudly demanding rights from your superiors doesn’t get you very far. If you’re cute and non-threatening, maybe they’ll help you because they think it’s nice to do so.

For me, size, gender and (dis)ability are all tangled together. I think that I can’t “let myself” lose too much mobility because I am too fat to be carried or even supported much. I don’t have any positive images of fat females with mobility impairments. Perhaps I need to create some.

Chi Lin Buddhist Nunnery, Hong Kong, January 3rd, 2013.

Chi Lin Buddhist Nunnery, Hong Kong, January 3rd, 2013

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Lee Klinger is a white, middle-aged American who teaches English in a small city in South Korea. Lee’s hobbies include: painting lotuses, photographing spiders, visiting museums, and looking for unusual socks.