Black Goat Tonic

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(Note: This post is extremely weird and dark.  Its focus is the underbelly of Asian alternative medicine.  A particularly ghastly recent news event is talked about in some detail, and some of the other content might not be for all readers.  Just a little warning: this isn’t funny and could be upsetting.)

My girlfriend handed me the McDonald’s bag and, as I took it, I was well aware that there was no Big Mac or any other delicious item from the Golden Arches sitting inside of it.  No, instead there was some strange juice concoction that she had gotten from a relatively remote area of South Korea, at my request.  It’s called “Black Goat Tonic” and is derived from what is occasionally called the KNG, or “Korean native goat.”  The KNG, or “black goat,” is something of a super animal; during the Korean War, much of Korea’s animal population died.  Oddly enough, the goat population continuously increased.  It was as though the goats were impervious to the perils of war, rising up as if they were planning to take control of the entire country and form a post-apocalyptic goat society.  Sadly, for the goats, things didn’t work out so well.  By the year 1997, 500,000 goats were being killed every year for their extract fluid.  It was that extract I held in the McDonald’s bag, which I would later ball up and stuff into the back of my refrigerator.  I had no idea how much the goat extract cost or what process was used to obtain it.  All I knew was that it was in my refrigerator, and I had requested it.

Strange medicine had been in the news a lot at the time.  In early May, Korean customs officials seized over 17,000 pills that contained the remains of dead babies, turned into powder.  The pills came from China, where there has apparently been a black market for “miracle cures” and “rejuvenation pills” dating back many, many years.  In the case of these particular pills, aborted or still born babies were sold to underground drug manufacturers who took the bodies, stored them, dried them in what is called a “medical drying microwave,” transformed them into powder, and combined that powder with various herbs to create the pills.  They were marketed as “stamina boosters.”  It is unclear who exactly was buying them, how they arranged to receive the pills, or how many pills had gotten through without being seized at customs.  According to the San Francisco Times, tests of the pills concluded that they were made up of 99.7% human remains, and scientists were even able to determine the genders of the babies used.

“What the hell is this world coming to?” I thought when I first read this story.  It was astonishing, like something out of a horror novel.

“I’ve heard older people say that things like that are good for the skin,” my girlfriend said, discussing the pill incident.  “That if you ingest something like that, or a placenta, it will make you look younger.”

Now, I have no doubt that my girlfriend has never and will never go near anything like that, but she had heard of it, and that was weird enough.  The alternative side to Asian medicines doesn’t stop there, either, as I’ve read, nor is it contained to Asia.  In 2011, three species of rhinoceros were driven to either extinction or near extinction by poachers in South Africa who killed the animals and ground up their horns to sell as miracle cures.  Similar problems have occurred with bears and sharks, whose body parts are also consumed in Chinese folk medicine.  I’d wondered before what the world was coming to, and as I read more, I began to realize that the scary truth was not that the world was progressing into something dark and dangerous, but that it wasn’t, for some, progressing at all.  The culprit here wasn’t some smooth talking salesperson; the real criminal was the past, tradition, years and years of beliefs that can’t be shaken.  Is there medical proof that swallowing a pill made from a baby or eating a shark fin has any real value?  Of course there isn’t.  But there is faith, and hence there is the existence of such thing as the pills, and the shark fins, and the goat juice tucked away in my fridge.

Black Goat Tonic is said to have many uses.  It can assist with mental fatigue, impotence, and can also thwart off age-driven problems like osteoporosis.  I was told that it could stimulate weight gain and muscle growth.  Drinking my first glass of it was a curious experience.  It comes in small pouches which contain enough liquid to fill about a third of a cup.  The tonic is a dark greenish black and has no real odor.  It tastes a bit like soy sauce with wasabi in it and can be slurped down in two or three large gulps.  In truth, it really isn’t that bad or offensive.

Africa Black Ant Sex Tonic

I didn’t know much about it other than the name for awhile.  I’ve since learned that it’s taken from the body of a young goat, about 4 months old, whose carcass is boiled for 22 hours.  The liquid is filtered to remove fats and then sold in 100 mL bags for $2 a pop.  Looking in the mirror at myself, it is yet to be determined if the tonic does in fact result in any discernible physical improvement.  While writing this, I wondered why I’d gotten the tonic in the first place.  Why was I, in essence, doing something I didn’t believe would work.  Desperation?  A lack of confidence in whey protein?  I suppose it was nothing more than curiosity, and the never-ending hope that my skepticism is wrong.

It’s a bizarre world we live in, isn’t it?  But who am I to judge it?  I have my opinions and beliefs, mostly from the Western world I was raised in.  To me, looking at the alternative medicine products available on a Chinese website is bewildering:  W+ Skin Cream Placenta Product, Bird’s Nest Skin Tonic Serum, Africa Black Ant Sex Tonic.  There’s a whole different reality out there.  It’s easy to call it sick or foolish, to think of it as the antithesis to modernity, scientifically ignorant to the degree of being dangerous.  At its core, though, it’s essentially very human.  It is, like all medicine, driven by the fear of dying.  Of aging, of loss, of ceasing to be oneself.  From a fundamental standpoint, there isn’t that much of a difference between a rhinoceros pill and, say, chemotherapy.  Or at least I would like to think that.  There’s a comfort in similarity, and thus I seek it out.  And so I try to tell myself that the world isn’t as strange as it sometimes seems, and that life itself isn’t a hard thing to sell, whether it’s in a hospital’s austere whiteness, or the shadows of a place where people buy horrifying miracle cures.

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(Acknowledgments: Most of the information here comes from two articles.  The first is “Thousands of Baby Pills…Discovered by Officials in South Korea” by Richard Shears and Rob Cooper for Dailymail.co.uk.  The other is “The Marketing of the Goat in Korea” by T.G. Min, K.O. Kong, and H.B. Song.)     

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2,500 Birds

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Myeong-Hee Bae is a pleasant old woman with white hair and red glasses.  On a Monday afternoon she brought me an iced coffee, American-style, and directed me to a chair sitting at a large table made of dark wood.  Children were using crayons to draw on small white squares of paper, which they would later tape to her wall.  For the past seven years, many children have come and put their drawings up on her wall.  And yet, despite what must be a great variety of children, with differences in everything from age to drawing ability, there is a perfect uniformity to the pictures they’ve hung.  In other words, every kid who has ever made a drawing for Myeong-Hee Bae has always drawn the exact same thing:

Owls.

This is because Myeong-Hee Bae is better known as the “crazy owl lady.”  She runs a small museum in Samcheong-dong called The Owl Art and Craft Museum.  The name is an apt description of the place.  Inside the Owl Museum, one can find…well…lots and lots of owls.  There are owl sculptures, owl figurines, plates with owls on them, owl ceramics, owl paintings, blankets with owls, owl clocks, telegraphs that show owls, owl fans, owl folding screens, owl masks, and pretty much everything else one could think of with the exception of a real live owl sitting there on a tree branch in the museum.  Myeong-Hee Bae and her husband even resemble owls a little bit themselves.  They have a stately quality about them; it’s the same personality trait an owl has that makes people want to draw a pair of glasses on its beak or a graduation cap on its head.

Don’t be mistaken, though.  The Owl Museum isn’t so much about craft or aesthetics, and it certainly isn’t about learning about owls.  The Owl Museum is about one thing, clear and simple:

Obsession.  More specifically, owl obsession.

Unlike some museums, the Owl Museum is a private residence, meaning it was Myeong-Hee Bae’s home until she and her husband decided to renovate it and turn it into a museum.  The collection has taken her over 30 years to assemble and consists of more than 2,500 pieces of owl memorabilia.  There are pieces from about 80 countries, from owl paintings made in Asia all the way to Hooters beer koozies from Winnipeg.  Essentially, this woman really liked owl stuff a lot and hoarded so much of it that she ended up having to turn her house into a museum.  It’s the sort of thing that makes the term ‘private collection’ seem contradictory – here’s a woman who took her home and opened it up, charging 5,000 won a person to come have a cup of coffee or tea with her and look at the things she’s assembled ever since she was a child.

Walking through the Owl Museum and seeing Myeong-Hee Bae sitting there at a table with the children coloring their owls, I started to think.  What makes a museum a museum?  Really, the experience wasn’t any different from being in her living room, only I was invited by a sign and not a phone call.  I thought about the goofy stuff I’ve collected over the years.  If my purchases were more thematically oriented, maybe my home could be a museum as well.  This was just, well, her junk…only her junk was so narrowly honed that it became impressive.  As I looked around, the thought struck me that, despite this massive collection, it seemed to say very little about the woman herself.

Here was thirty years of meticulous, painstaking collecting, and what did it say about Myeong-Hee Bae other than that she liked owls?  I didn’t know why she liked owls, or what exactly she liked about them.  For some reason, owls seemed to make her happy and content.  She brought them in, and they brought people to her.  Children.  She sat with her husband and watched them color.

There is no other owl museum on the planet earth other than Myeong-Hee Bae’s Owl Art and Craft Museum.  It’s eccentric and perplexing, as odd as owls must find humans.  At the end of the day I put an owl mask on and sat on a bench in the museum with my friend (who, of course, also had a mask on).  Myeong-Hee Bae smiled and took our picture.  Just as so many children have drawn pictures for her, she certainly has taken photographs of so many people.  How many, I wonder.  It must be thousands. 

All strangers, wandering over from Insa-dong, spending a few minutes of their ordinary lives with her and her owls.

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