On cancer, caregiving, and finding comfort in the familiar via Korean dramas

Two minutes on a chilly Bangalore morning in July 2016 that I still don’t remember (I blacked out) changed my life. I fell off the motorbike I was driving, smashed half my face, lost four of my front teeth, and fractured my nose. I went from living the life 16-year-old me had dreamed of (writing for a living, living in a Big City with friends) to gulping food through straws and was back in my bedroom in my parents’ house.

In the year that followed the accident, I quit my journalism job and moved back home to finish the treatment, had a surgery, and found myself with lots of free time in between umpteen dental visits.

I had exhausted my to-watch list and was looking for something new to watch on Netflix when my eyes fell on a pastel-hued thumbnail featuring a confused woman. The show was called “Hello, My Twenties” and was apparently about four young women in Seoul, South Korea, who share a house and how they learn to navigate work, love, and life. That sounded like it could have been my friends and me, so I clicked play. I’ve been watching Korean dramas ever since.

This was because, after watching them on and off in 2017, dramas had become a crucial coping I would come to rely on – maybe a tad excessively – in 2018. I spent most of the year as a primary caregiver for my father who was diagnosed with cancer.

The worst part of caring for someone with cancer is not the endless hours spent at the hospitals, waiting for tests, waiting for doctors, waiting for nurses, waiting for results, or watching your loved ones go through painful procedures over and over again. The worst part is the uncertainty.

Our regular experience with doctors and diseases is that they know exactly how long it will take to cure your ailments and what to do – antibiotics, twice a day, for five days; an allergy shot; a prescription of vitamin D to be taken once a day for a month.

With cancer, however, there are only ifs and maybes and questions no one has the answer to. Five years – time that you wouldn’t think was significant otherwise – is the most hopeful metric doctors can offer, if that. Cancer means a 60% chance is very good news, and there are no guaranteed results even if you follow everything by the book.

As I navigated this world, I turned to Korean dramas to give me the sense of stability that I couldn’t hope for from real life.

Most weekly dramas are 16 episodes long, and air twice a week. When I started watching a drama, I didn’t know what my father or my family would look like in the eight weeks it would take for the drama to finish airing. But I could depend on knowing that in the drama at least, the loose ends would be tied up, the bad guys would get their due, and there might even a happily-ever-montage for all the characters.

I think what I liked the most was that, if I chose to, I could skip episodes 11-14 where the Bad Stuff usually goes down – parental disapproval; the ghost possesses one of the leads; the serial killer is out to get the lead’s family’s lives – and get to the reasonably happy ending.

I was living my own episodes 11-14. But there was no skip button for real life. I desperately wished for a skip button for real life.

I was so wrapped up in the world of hospitals, blood tests, gastro-intestinal feeding tubes and learning the side-reactions of the 12 medicines my father had to take every day, and keeping up a façade of being strong, that I isolated myself from those around me, and shut down.

Instead, I found solace from the dialogues meant to soothe troubled characters I didn’t have much in common with. The very sentences I would have deemed corny or cringe inducing had they been in my mother tongue (just because you’re not crying doesn’t mean you’re not sad. Just like how smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy) allowed me to access an emotional space I was denying myself otherwise.

My father’s oncologist, a kind, portly and balding sixty-something man would try to take some time out to talk to me whenever I went to him to discuss my father’s prognosis. Once, he took a long look at me and said, “You’re withering. I don’t think you can go on like this for much longer, you need to make some changes.” I cut my hair the shortest it was after kindergarten. I didn’t think I was in a position to make any other changes.

I could only give my friends vague answers when they asked me how I spent my days. How could they understand the minutes of “real life” my mother and I snatched between waking up, calculating the calorie count of my father’s feed, preparing it, cleaning the feeding bag, flushing his tube with a syringe before the feed, monitoring the intake of the feed, flushing the tube with a syringe after the feed, cleaning the bag, and repeating this process every couple of hours before sleeping?

I continued. I watched dramas – on my phone while waiting for the chemo infusion to be completed, on the laptop in the last hour before sleep that was completely mine, on my phone again waiting for reports, for yet more doctors, and while shuttling between hospitals and home.

By this time, I had started learning Korean. Perhaps because I could pick up the elegant alphabet, Hangul, in less than a week, or perhaps because it sounded familiar due to the dozens of hours I’d spend listening to it every month, Korean was the only language that stuck, among the four languages I was trying to teach myself on the apps Memrise and Duolingo.

Journaling in Korean with the few words I knew allowed me to articulate, if it could be called that, and accept the situations I was in.

아버지는 죽을 수도 있고 내가 있는 일은 없다.

Soon, I fell violently ill. A severe fever and cold rendered me immobile for a few days and it was the first full break I had got from caregiving in months. I knew it was my body’s way of responding to the continued stress and burnout I had been experiencing.

I kept putting off starting therapy but I started going for walks with a special “K-pop for morning walks” playlist full of up-tempo tracks I had created. My Korean listening now extended to music as well. I started colouring too. I couldn’t afford another bout of illness – the first one proved to be very hard on my poor mother.

Caregiving had turned me – a TV junkie – off most shows I would have loved otherwise. I started watching Killing Eve. It featured a brilliant performance from Eve and Villanelle in their cat and mouse game. I couldn’t finish it. Eve wasn’t going to get killed and Villanelle certainly wasn’t to going to get caught. It would end in what I would have previously thought was a great cliff-hanger. I would have to wait a year or two until the next season. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that open ending. As for waiting for a year? A week looked very precious.

Caregiving also means you are always aware of exactly how much pain your charge is in from a scale of 1-10, and carry it around in small notebooks. “Is the pain a six now? That’s better. The medicine is working then. It was an eight, two hours ago.”

What I loved about the golden age of Television – that it captured the nuances of the mundane and the miserable, the cruel irony of life, how real it got, and despite everything how life went on anyway – were the very things that put me off it. I was seeing enough of those in the wards and waiting rooms where I spent most of my waking hours.

The sometimes cliché plots, recycled tropes, and embarrassingly earnest characters that make some people dismiss Korean dramas, were the very things that kept me going back to it.

In a good drama, you root for the character, you celebrate their successes, you have intense second hand embarrassment at their clumsiness. You despair at their hardships. Good dramas have heart, and they make you feel.

When I stopped to think about it, I realised the comfort I derived from dramas was similar to one I derived from reading genre fiction – due to their superb use of narrative, and showing us the uniqueness in the universal.

I found out through online drama communities that I was not the only one who took solace in them this way. I live in a city called Hyderabad, in southern India, but I could have easily been from Singapore, or Syria, or Egypt, Australia or America – all countries where some of the drama-fans I’ve spoken to were from.

All this is not to dismiss the problematic content in some dramas – the sexism and the casual glorification of family violence. Some friends ask me how I continue to watch dramas despite this. Maybe I’ll grow out of it someday, maybe I won’t, but I wonder if they would ever question someone who closely follows American pop culture because of the misogyny in shows like Two and a half Men. 

Now, I’ve come to my own episode 15 where things have settled down, but not fully resolved. I no longer have to track my father’s pain or weight-loss every day. We still have to go the hospital for a treatment every couple of months, but the cancer has almost disappeared, and we are cautiously optimistic.

For the first time in 14 months, I can, without great fear, look forward to something. I’m thinking about finishing the first season of Killing Eve this weekend. I’m not certain what episode 16 has in store for me but it sure includes a drama or two.