Coughing One Up
As I lay wallowing in the ‘ebente-tang,’ the ‘special event’ pool (이벤트 탕), today scented with jasmine (자스민) I was thinking, I’ve never heard anyone burp in Korea. In British schools burps are often heard and as a schoolboy, I can remember belching competitions as I was often the winner. In the army we were always burping. And while I have never heard a Korean burp, I am very acquainted with the sights and sounds accompanied with hoiching your lungs up, snorting your nose clear and even haenging the contents of your nose into the nearest gutter or down a wall. While such habits might not be rated high in terms of manners, in the bathhouse at least, they are clearly not taboo. When you have a cold or flu, nothing is worse than having to discreetly snort to keep your nose and throat clear and it has taken me a while to be able to utilise this habit without being too embarrassed. If I do snort, it is not as a habit as I am conscious of its performance and my snorts are still apologetic and reserved.
Koreans are far more guttural than we westerners, sighing loudly and mopping their forehead after finishing off a spicy meal and getting in to extremes of water in the bathhouse always elicits a large sigh, often accompanied with long and ecstatic, ‘shiwonhada!’ And the soju? That elicits sounds like ‘wa.’ Snorting, hoiching and ‘haenging’ are all fairly common sounds, at least for men. One occasionally sees older men bent over a sidewalk or on the grass, pressing one thumb against a nostril while ‘haenging’ the other one clear. Though I can recall very few occasions hearing a woman snort, I’ve never heard or seen one hoich or haeng though I’m told females hoich and haeng in a bathhouse, especially older women. I rarely hear my neighbours television or music but every morning, around 6.30am, I’ll hear a man’s strangulated and at times alarming hoichs.
After a spell in the steam room and quick dip in the cold pool, I sit down on one of those bucket seats next to an elderly man I haven’t seen for a while. I attempt to make conversation, telling him I’ve had a string of colds and asking how his health is but he can’t understand me. Of late, I have noted a marked improvement in my Korean but his inability to understand me isn’t doing my confidence any good. When I have to resort to spelling words on the palm of my hand, I conclude he must be hard of hearing! Unable to communicate, we both drift off into the relaxing mental blankness that accompanies scrubbing and cleaning your body and which can at times, especially with the world obliterated by the soothing sounds of water, be almost zen-like in its emptiness.
He’s scrubbing his foot, positioned on the ledge next to me, as I feel a need to snort. Though I have neither snorted in public or spat one out, along with haenging your nose into the palm of your hand, many seem to do it. The congestion irritates me so I snort and without any forethought, decide to spit it into the gutter. Now, as I was in the process of forming my lips and amassing the clot subsequent to its expulsion, it occurred to me that I’ve heard people snorting, and seen them spitting but wasn’t quite sure if what they were spitting was actually the contents of a snort. I mean, when someone snorts you don’t stand and watch and then inspect what’s been expelled. Right on the edge of expulsion, I realised I had assumed what comprised the spit was what had been snorted whereas it might simply be spit. Too late, I blew out large oyster. Instead of hitting the gutter to be carried off in a river of soapy suds, it landed on the black marble ledge next to the older man’s soap. I quickly doused it with the shower only to aqua plane it towards his toes which he was busy scrubbing. Luckily, I was able to divert it with another blast of water which sent it slinking over the edge of the ledge where it hung like a pendulum before slipping into the gutter. I’m not sure if he noticed but if his sight was as keen as his ears, I doubt he even knew who was sat next to him. I have decided to pay more attention to the expelling of such matter in the future. And then there’s the subject of pissing into the gutter as you’re showering…
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.