Mogyuktang Observations Plus – Tuesday 3rd April, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)
Now I am getting quite relaxed using the mokyuktang, I am beginning to discover a different aspect to them. Regularly, I use the steam room and sauna, only for a short while, and after that I go and sit in the cold pool. The process of going from very warm to cold has the most amazing effect on the mind. I experience a strange taste in the back of my throat and start to feel a little dizzy after which my mind becomes calm and floaty. The whole sensation is rather like a little drug hit. In this state, which is very pleasant, I notice other men just sat around all in their own little worlds. If such an institution existed in the west it would probably be polluted with pop music. The mokyuktang is filled with music which when in the right state is wonderfully relaxing. It is the music of running, splashing and spraying water. If you sit at one end of the cold bath you can look down of the mirror-like surface of the pool and really enjoy the state of calm the experience induces. When you get out of the cold pool you have to be a little careful as your body is slightly wobbly and I have noticed, men usually get out of this pool and sit awhile on the edge of the pool before moving to another bath. I still can’t believe I’m naked in a place full of other naked people and have even started sitting on the floor of the steam room, cross legged.
It is interesting watching the interaction between children and their fathers; last week a young boy and girl sat playing beside their father. Young children bring toys to the pool and between being scrubbed and scrubbing their father’s back, they run around enjoying the water and playing. They were fairly interested in me and for quite a while they stared whenever they thought I wasn’t watching them.
One day there were two lads in the mokyuktang, probably in their early twenties and most likely from the local university. As is usual, one sits behind the other on the low plastic seats which look like upturned washing-up bowls, and then they take it in turn to scrub each others’ back. There was an old man in one corner of a pool and one of the lads went over to him and scrubbed his back for him. I was hoping he might volunteer to do mine but I was out of luck. A visit to the mokyuktang would give any artist a deeper insight into the human body and I find it amazing watching naked bodies from an aesthetic perspective. It is fascinating how they are designed and how the muscles interact and are articulated and how the human body is structured and proportioned.
At taekwon-do on Tuesday evening, I discovered the school oath is being replaced. I was rather annoyed as it was the first evening I had been able to recite it at the same speed as the Korean students. A new oath hung on the wall and is to be used from now on and so I will have to learn this. As my body has become fitter and more agile, I am able to exert myself more in classes. The sessions are grueling! I hadn’t realised how unfit I had become after three years of writing. Pak Dong-soo spent sometime during a lesson working out on the bag; he is beautiful to watch and can do flying kicks well over six foot high. He moves like a bird.
The English teaching I am doing is becoming increasingly boring. Last week, in one class I went berserk and smashed my stick on a table. This is the third stick I have broken in three months. I called for a senior teacher and he came along and shouted at them. The kids are not disruptive but more inattentive and chatty. Sometimes it is impossible to get their collective attention and sometimes I just despair – especially after a long day. It doesn’t help that I rant and shout as Koreans find such displays of emotive behaviour unpleasant and deem it to be a loss of self control – which of course it is.
Fridays are a drag as I teach in another kindergarten and have no time for lunch. There are days when I observe something that I realise gives me a greater understanding of the Korean psyche. In the kindergarten, when I pass out a handout, the kids all gather around me. There is rarely any pushing, they just stand passively in front of you with both hands extended and wait for you to place the handout directly into their hands. One day, I was watching two boys who came into the PC bang (room). They were eating an ice-cream which consists of a plastic ball, a little larger than a snooker ball, with a built in straw. Both of them just stood in the middle of the room, passively sucking. They sucked in a way so totally different from how children might suck or eat an ice-cream in the West, without the greed and voracious consumerism. If there is one thing I am learning about my culture, it is how vulgar, greedy and selfish it is. English kids are always on the want, they are always squabbling over possessions and in particular, over food. In six months of teaching in Korea, I haven’t once seen a fight or seen one child strike another. In my kindergarten class last week, which is held in a small school situated in an apartment complex, the Korean teacher left the room briefly. Suddenly fifteen or so little children converged on me eager to stroke the hair on my arms, which fascinates them. Some wanted to stroke my hair, a few wanted to pat my belly. Korean children can be quite beautiful in both features and mannerisms.
After a hideous class at Di Dim Dol, I went and sat at the table Nana and I share outside Joe’s office. Lisa was there for her afternoon class. I started moaning about my lesson and she immediately started complaining loudly.
“Korean children have no manners. They’re rude, ignorant, and need training.” I almost told her to shut-up.
“No! They’re not rude!” I replied. ‘They are usually well mannered, polite and very gentle. Yes’ they run around between classes and don’t recognise your personal space but that’s cultural.”
The other day she told me how she has this tone of voice she reserves for ‘foreigners!’ She then went on to say she had a ‘men-sahib’ attitude towards Koreans which confirmed my suspicions about her having a colonial attitude.
On Friday it snowed heavily for most of the morning and suddenly it has turned cold and wintry. In the evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me for a meal, we had pork barbecue and a few bowls of dong dong ju (동동주) after which we went for a walk in a nearby park. The cheery blossom and lilac are in full blossom despite the cold recess.