My Early Assumptions of Korean Culture – January 25th – Feb 10th, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)
I have been re-arranging my files and haven’t kept my diary up to date though I have been keeping notes in a small note-book I carry with me.
I do most of my shopping at a place called Shin-woo. It’s part of a chain of relatively small supermarkets rather like the Co-Op might be in the UK. It’s the place to buy all the essentials and where there is nothing too fancy to lure you. My nearest big supermarket, which I think is six floors in total, is E Mart . I have only been here a few times, once with Pauline when we went to the car park at the top of the building and from there took photos of the surrounding valley. I don’t like shopping here as at weekends it is crowded and during the week you get stared at. Like most department stores and supermarkets here, there seem to be hundreds of staff and sometimes they outnumber the shoppers. Most just hang around and when you walk in you can expect to be stared at all around the store. Of course, the relieving thing about this is that if you stare back at them etiquette demands that they look away.
The E-Mart, which in Song So sits domineering a hill position, has plenty of luxuries and has an in-house bakery, a well stocked fishmongers that doesn’t stink and an almost western style butchers where the carcasses aren’t chopped up in front of you. You can buy sashimi and sushi, cream cakes and things like tempura prawns, sweet and sour pork and ready cooked chicken – none of which are particularly cheap.
As I said, I shop at Shin-woo which is situated just past MacDonald’s and has one entrance which is shared by the restaurant owned by Ji-won’s (벅지원). One thing I am looking forward to on my return to the UK is familiar smells. In Korea strange smells constantly remind you that you are in a foreign land, a totally foreign land. Shin-woo is full of them. Washing-up liquids of peach, furniture polishes of coffee and quince aromas, the smells of seaweeds and the ever-present smell of various kimchis. Then there are the contrasting smells of the fishmonger and butchers which are situated at the back of the store. I have regularly bought squid from the fishmonger and pork and chicken cutlets from the butchers. I don’t particularly like this end of the store as the fishmonger’s stinks and the butchers reeks of carcasses. At the butchers I often order a small portion of recognizable meat, but I have to look at any other point than into the display cabinet. There is always someone gouging lumps of flesh from an enormous rib cage suspended from a hook. Often, my visits seem to coincide with when the butcher’s staff are eating their meals which they do in bloodied overalls amidst the organic nightmare. Enormous leg bones sit in the display cabinet with marble-white ball joints and there is always skin from the arse of a cow, which contains the tail hideously adorned with a lump of fluff at the end of it. Trays of tripe swim in brine between purple livers and kidneys. The one fact you cannot escape stood at the butchers, is that you are buying bits of an animal. The selections of meat I do recognise look quite appealing but then I am reminded of their origins and that quite puts me off.
There is a lad who works in the butchers who is rather attractive and who always gives me a smile. A few weeks ago, when I was shopping just before closing time, I happened to walk past just as he’d dropped his overalls and was stood in a pair of boxer shorts. My eyes probably quite popped in their sockets and I’m sure he noticed my sudden interest but I doubt he interpreted my reaction as sexually motivated. Koreans seem to be mentally castrated and exhibit little sexual awareness or interest at all, Pauline said she could never take him to bed as he’d reek of cattle carcass, death and blood. What a gross thought!
I travel to the Yon San Dong kindergarten on a bus that picks me up at 9.30am. At this time of the day the streets are full of kindergarten buses picking children up from various points around the apartment blocks. By the time I get on my bus it is already half full of children and the Letterland alphabet cassette is blaring out. It drives me fucking mad mostly as there are only about four different songs and for example, Annie Apple shares the same song as Oscar orange. The worrying part of this is that I actually find myself singing along to them! The mornings are always sunny and it has probably only rained six times since I have been here – which is four months today. No seasonal depression syndrome here! The best part of the ride to the kindergarten is when Chi-woo gets on the bus. He’s the little boy who sits next to me and asks me what everything is. We have now progressed to parts of his shoes including the Velcro straps. You only have to tell him something once, or a couple of times at the most and the next day he will repeat it back to you. Unfortunately he is not in my class – I have to suffer the brain-dead Da-hae.
Several times I have found Chi-woo and Un-won, the little girl who sits in front of him and who is about six, sitting head to head. Intimately, Chi-woo touches her face and whispers the word ‘cheek.’ She then repeats it back to him, then touches his chin and whispers ‘chin’ which he then repeats. This will go on for several minutes. It is like something out of John Wyndam’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos and is quite freaky as they are so intense and almost secretive about doing it. This week Dong-seop managed to write the letter ‘b’ and I felt very pleased as this is his first letter ever. I would love to meet some of these kids in ten years time and I am well aware of the privileged nature of their education. Ga-in, U-chun’s daughter, who is four, already speaks a fair amount of English and is now learning Chinese. The depressing aspect of all this education is that it is primarily geared for the job market and in that sense I feel sorry for them. Their lives are mapped out and hideously myopic, schooling, homework, university, military service, marriage, work, marriage, babies, death.
It is very difficult to access information on any deviation in Korean culture and even on Korean culture itself, via the internet. I find myself trying to imagine what it is like for those kids, boys especially, as Korea is a male dominated society, that do not conform, that do not fit in. How do gay teenagers, for example, manage to survive here? What is life-like for the small percentage of lard- arses or those kids not inclined towards sports?
It is though there is a hidden side of Korea that is difficult to explore or investigate. A secret Korea that is almost impossible to penetrate especially if you are an outsider. For example, I believe all Korean boys are circumcised. I cannot back this belief up as there is nothing on the internet. They are circumcised between 10 and 14 and yet there seems to be no evidence of this at all in society. It does not seem to be marked by any form of celebration as in other cultures and it does not seem to be a rite of passage. Boys in classes make no reference to it and though English text is used in many adverts, shop facades, doctors and dentists, there is no reference to it at all. Like the bath houses, it is something uniquely Korean which happens only in Korean confines and the only information about it is in the Korean language where it remains inaccessible to the foreigner. Of course, a trip to the bathhouse would confirm this but this is something I have yet to summon the courage to do. Korean bathhouses are themselves Korean domains and I have met few westerners who know about them or have indeed visited them. Pauline and Angela are the only people I know who have been to them. Nana, who has been here four years, has never visited one. Pauline said the experience was initially quite terrifying.