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July 2021

Soc Sci Med. 1987 ; 25(4): 367-76.

Cold wombs in balmy Honolulu: ethnogynecology among Korean immigrants.

Kendall L.

Department of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY 10024.

Koreans attribute a wide variety of complaints to naeng, literally 'chill'. For women, a cold imbalance of the womb brings on a heavy vaginal discharge (also called naeng), can lead to sterility, and may precipitate other kinds of discomfort. Working in Korea, Dorothea Sich and her colleagues have described the folk etiology of naeng and some subtle transformations of the concept in cosmopolitan medical settings. I am less interested in describing the concept of naeng than in appreciating the complex interlayering of information and experience that shapes a Korean woman's sense of illness or well-being when she describes an intimate condition as naeng, and that may be lost in translation when she presents her condition to an American clinician. My informants were socialized as Korean women, they were veterans of a plural medical system in Korea, they were novices at seeking health care in Honolulu, and they were individuals, carrying the baggage of their own lives. These various dimensions emerge through interview data and, especially, through three detailed case studies. It is argued that a cookbook definition of cold wombs as folk illness would not explain the particular anxieties that naeng sufferers bring to a clinic; the vocabulary they use is vested with nuances that are personal as well as Korean, humoral as well as cosmopolitan.

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