I’ve spent 8 years looking at Korea through an understanding of British culture and now I’m living in the UK, my observations are shaded by my interaction with Korean society.
In the summer, just before I left Korea, my gumdo master suggested we take our students to a spa for an outing. A ‘spa’ in Korea is a water park. My first question was, ‘what do you wear in a spa?’ Of course, I knew the answer, a bathing costume; it just needed confirming. A little wave of nausea washed over me. I’ve become so used to nude bathing that the idea of wearing anything other than nothing is ‘pyontae’ – which in Korea means ‘perverted’ though a closer, not so stringent translation is probably ‘sick’ or ‘gross.’
Now, this revelation, a complete turnaround to how I originally envisaged a bathhouse experience, is strange partly because that despite being gay, I don’t find the bathhouse in the least an erotic encounter. This fact quite confuses some people whom obsess that a bathhouse has got to be an erotic experience for a gay man. Perhaps this obsession reveals more about them than it does me. Indeed, I’ve never really found the experience erotically engaging. Naturally, I’m aware of handsome or attractive bathers but that’s where it stops. Conversely, I find clothed bathing far more sexually intriguing because it leaves something to the imagination. Nudity is noble and levelling while bathing in a costume is simply sad and repressive. In the end, we didn’t take the kids to a spa and I was pleased because I would have felt more awkward, more body conscious strolling around in bathing shorts.
One of the most notable revelations on returning to the UK is that any mention of nude bathing and the fact you find it superior to clothed bathing, even in a segregated environment, instantly labels you a ‘nudist’ or ‘naturist’ both of which for many British people carry overtones of ‘kinkiness.’ In summer, I meet up with a friend who spent 4 years in Daegu. I think I may have introduced him to bathhouse culture and over the years we explored numerous bathhouses and jjimjilbang in and around Daegu. When he visited, we travelled part of the east coast and arrived at St Osyths Beach, near Clacton.
St Osyths Beach is one of those seaside towns that epitomise the ghastly side of British culture. Really, its nothing other than a sprawling caravan park with a row of glitzy amusement arcades, a few restaurants and a bar. The restaurants serve decently priced food in good proportions but the quality is lacking. You can buy a foot long sausage and chips for a couple of pounds but I don’t think the sausage contains any meat and if it does it’s mechanically rescued and engorged with some form of edible padding; bread perhaps.
Part of the beach is quite pleasant but if you walk only a hundreds towards the ‘nudist beach’ it rapidly deteriorates into a bomb zone. Clearly, some structures or an esplanade originally stood on this stretch which had subsequently been bombed flat or smashed by an enormous tsunami. The rubble has never been removed and large chunks of concrete lay embedded in the sand decorated by patches of paving and the odd rusty, iron girder. The beach was strewn with rubbish, beer cans, broken glass and the likes and ornamented by a great swampy expanse which smelt like an enormous drain and sat between the footpath and the beach.
We spent several hours in the nude beach trying to recapture the luxury of Korean bathhouse bathing. Having walked some twenty minutes from the caravan park area, the beach becomes sandy and clean with dunes stretching far along the isolated coastline. Bathing in the sea wasn’t that pleasant; the water is murky and the floor a constantly shifting bed of shingle that at times was sharp.
It was high summer, holiday season, but the beach wasn’t too busy and here and there sat or bathed real naturists. You could distinguish real naturists from those with other motives because they made eye contact and occasionally communicated with us, perhaps smiling or commenting on the hot weather. What marred the occasion were the number of perverts frequenting the beach – all men! They fell into two categories, those tolling the beach-line who simply paraded up and down and those hiding between the dunes eager to eye up whatever it was that attracted them.
One character, wore a complete body stocking which covered all but his hands, feet and head and he minced along the path between the beach and the dunes sporting a lttle hand-bag. Another, paraded up and down fully aroused and every twenty or so paces would keep himself ‘pumped’ with a vigorous fondling. Yet another, trolled the water’s edge wearing a mid-riff T-shirt from which was attached a piece of cord subsequently tied to his nether regions. This ‘reign’ was somewhat tight and as he walked his T-shirt pulled on the reign and his penis reared upwards as if a dinky sized My Little Pony was nestled in his crotch. Meanwhile, in the dunes, heads constantly popped up and peered about like pink periscopes before submerging.
Despite my years of Korean bathhouse bathing, in an all male environment, I felt uncomfortable with the kind of behaviour paraded on this beach. I doubt there were any punters under 25, apart maybe from a few women in pairs and you certainly wouldn’t want to bring children here. The whole experience was tainted by the parading perverts and hidden colony of leering meer cats.
In July 2015, I left Korea after 8 years (10 years total) and returned to Wivenhoe, in Essex, UK. Why? I’m still asking myself! Korean life was so relaxed and familiar but I missed my friends and family back home. I think I would have stayed in Korea permanently if it had been possible for foreigners to buy property or to live in the country without having to exit every 3 months and return with an updated visa.
Hardest of all, was saying goodbye to my gumdo Master, Kwon Yong-guk. I had trained with him everyday for almost four years. When I eventually stepped on to the Seoul-bound trained, in Daegu, we both had tears in our eyes. However, leaving Korea in 2015 was quite different from leaving in 2001; with the internet and the likes of Facebook and Skype, staying in contact is easy and I video chat with him most weeks. In 2001, the primary mode of contact was via e-mails or the likes of Messenger and a Christmas phone call, Seoul to UK, in 2000, cost me £80.
Before I left Korea, I already had an inkling of what I was going to miss, and I very much do. Most of all I miss Koreans. In particular, I miss young people. Korean towns and cities are filled with children and teenagers and street life is enlivened by their routines. Further, Korean culture is coloured by the broad range of amenities provided for them: PC rooms, Kids Cafes, jumping rooms, noraebang (singing rooms) and play areas in restaurants. Even amenities which in the UK would be predominantly for adults are equally frequented by children and young people. Where in the UK, do you see children or teenagers eating together, unsupervised, in anything but the likes of MacDonalds or KFC? And of course, in Korea, children haven’t yet been indoctrinated and corrupted by the idea that their bodies’ are a source of sexual attraction to lusting adults and especially lusted over by those who were formerly trusted, such as relatives, teachers, politicians and the clergy. Britain is now a very scary place for the child and indeed any adult whose interactions with a youngster are misinterpreted. Indeed, so central to the British psyche are concerns of child sexual abuse, to the point of obsession, that it suggests either a very unhealthy national preoccupation, or worse, one that is rooted in the human condition.
Then, I miss Korean men; ever since I experienced life in Germany, I’ve always found a great swath of the British male population to be horribly brute. Indeed, to be fair, male or female, the British character is typified by vulgarity, aggressiveness and violence. This character is predominantly a product of the working-class tradition of which it is currently politically correct to deny the existence or influence of and yet we see the class dichotomy paraded for entertainment in the likes of Downtown Abbey, East Enders and the intrigues of the royal family. Few Brits would deny the existence of a British upper class, but to correspondingly talk of a ‘working class’ has become as socially uncomfortable as flying the Union Jack over your house. I have met Koreans whom I dislike but I’ve yet to meet a Korean man who is brute or vulgar, let alone a brute or vulgar female. It is wonderfully liberating to walk busy streets surrounded by predominantly feminine men or youths rather than having to negotiate the complex variations of the British psyche where one man is a gentleman, the next, some slob with his hands stuffed down the front of his trackies and the next some male looking female who is foul-mouthed and muscled.
I miss being really clean, ‘clean’ in the same way you can be in Korea and I’m not claiming all Koreans have the same standards. Swimming pools, spas or sauna are not a daily part of British life. Unless you live within 20 mins of a bathing complex, most of us don’t enjoy water or cleansing as entertainment. On the contrary, bodily hygiene in Britain tends to be functional procedure especially as many British homes don’t have a bathroom suitable for cleaning your body in a truly comprehensive manner. And Korea is bursting with restaurants, coffee shops, street food and markets. In six months back in the UK, I’ve eaten out twice. It’s simply too expensive to eat out at a decent restaurant twice a day. Of course, I’m living in a large village rather than in a city but even if I go into town, population approx. 122.000, there isn’t a great deal to do and the quality of resources and culture is impoverished. One big problem with Britain is that so many of the things you would do on a daily basis in Korea, and without a second thought, are not just expensive luxuries in the UK, but by comparison, are second-rate. Trains are slow and dirty even when they are high-speed intercity trains but no British trains are truly ‘high speed’ because the ancient infrastructure limits speeds to 125 mph, maximum.
There are some pleasant aspects of being back in the UK though I don’t feel they compensate for living in both an impoverished culture and among so many with brute and vulgar sensibilities. I enjoy damp air, green fields, eccentricity (which in Korea is frowned upon), birds and houses with gardens… and that’s about it. I actually thought I’d be able to be more positive but on reflection that’s all I can muster.
I have no doubt my posts here will commence with ones of a comparative nature before they broaden out into other topics.
I suppose, after almost ten years living in Korea that you begin to take things for-granted. With the arrival of summer and many teenagers wearing skin-tight, knee-length shorts, I’d forgotten just how skinny so many boys are. And to compound matters, I’ve just returned from the UK where every other teenager is a lard-arse. Statistically the average Korean, weighing around 124 pounds, is one of the lightest in comparative world statistics. The current average weight in the UK is 152 pounds. Despite this, Koreans are gaining weight quicker than most other nations and I’m not surprised because western style junk-food has invaded Korea at every level. It is fairly common knowledge that once a food store opens in a neighborhood, that over time the average weight of people in the immediate area increases. Well, in the last year the block on which I live, which previously had one MacDonald’s and one Dominoes Pizza, now has four more western style junk-food outlets. Yes, you read correctly! Four! In less than a four-minute walk I can pass two MacDonald’s, a KFC, Lotteria and a Dominoes Pizza. And unlike the UK, every one of them delivers to your door. The newest MacDonald’s, actually directly in front of my one-room, is open 24/7. And with the block itself and the blocks immediately around it housing around 10 private academies, you can imagine that everywhere I look I see Korean kids stuffing burgers in their faces.
The trend for western style food is just as voracious in supermarkets. My local E-mart, four minutes walk from my one room and also housing a MacDonald’s, now has cooler cabinets filled with microwaveable pre-made meals. Food I cooked 8 years ago, such as numerous fish stews where you bought a pack with all the fresh ingredients, squid, octopus, live shellfish, tofu, vegetables and a packet of spice paste, (and this is only one example) have disappeared and now the same cabinet contains a wide range of ready-made stews and soups in plastic packets. And there are totally new additions: curries with nan bread, racks of ribs, packs of Peking duck. Even one of Korea’s most cherished soups, and one of the easiest to make, samkaetang (ginseng chicken), has been conveniently packeted.
Meanwhile, in small convenience shops I can buy chocolate that wasn’t in Korea ten years ago. Some 8 years ago in the UK several chocolate manufactures were being criticized for producing the most enormous bars of chocolate. Bars which in my childhood were 3-4 inches long are now 5-6. Mar’s and ‘Snickers’ were examples of the sizing-up of confectionery. I don’t know what happened about the debate but I do know that not only do you only ever see the super-size bars in the UK, but Snickers is now available in most Korean ‘corner’ shops.
Then there’s the size of meals – now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a glutton, I love eating and I can eat lots but when I now return to the UK I’m staggered by portion sizes. I do once remember shocking some Koreans buy buying the entire family of five a pot of ice cream each in Baskin Robbins, something they considered outrageous. It wasn’t even a big pot but the smallest dinky one, probably containing one scoop. I’m used to eating between 5-7 scoops on my own and I don’t consider this particularly gluttonous. Koreans will share a five scoop pot between as many people able to sit around the table. In the UK, a normal size portion of cod and chips would feed a Korean family. The cod, always a foot long, hangs over the edges of the plate and the mountain of chips, piled on top cascade onto the table. Indeed, there are usually so many chips they tumble off the plate and if you add a roll, mushy peas and curry sauce, not only can you enter calorie-overload but need another plate. Actually, it would be easier to eat British size fish and chips from a bucket!
Over the years I’ve often written about the absence of fatties in bathhouses! Well, they have definitely arrived and I usually there are people proportionately fatter than me and often they are kids. While many kids, especially boys are super skinny, a growing number are pudgy, soft and in the bathhouses and naked usually look like pillows.
Meanwhile in the UK the weight-debate is almost exclusively perceived as a problem concerning individuals who are always deemed lazy, lacking will-power, emotionally weak while the solutions presented are mostly more of the same guff, new diets, exercise, changes in lifestyle, etc. Watching the fattening up of Korea it becomes very clear the process is deeply rooted at a social level and is about the food fads we buy into via advertising. Gary Linneker for example, a famous UK footballer, spent years advertising Walker’s crisps (potato chips) to youngsters and many high-profile celebrities, often sporting icons, advertise beer and soft drinks. And of course, both MacDonalds and Coca-cola advertise through major sporting events such as the Olympics. Then we have to consider the effective of Hollywood and the constant barrage countries like Korea face when American (western) cultural values are constantly pedaled It was only 10 years ago in the UK that the government sanctioned candy companies producing coupons on bars of chocolate that could be used by schools to buy sporting equipment. Oh, and then there was that insidious chemical refreshment Sunny D, that swept through the UK the coupons of which supplied school basketballs.
I often find the morons who perceive weight gain at a predominantly individual level, and who constantly harp on about personal choice and discipline, a little like those who blame the rise of breathing-problems on the fact individuals choose to breath rather than on the increase of pollutants in the atmosphere.
Of course, Korea has its own fast-food, known as minute-food (boon-shik) but much of this isn’t actually that unhealthy. I wouldn’t put bibimbap and kimpap in the same league as pizza and hamburger and much street food, minute food, is sold in small portions and are snacks rather than meals. In the Korean street where one is never far from a street vendor selling the likes of odeng, and bungoppang, the cost of food is much less than that of western-style fast food places. Despite this, the big fast-food franchises are never empty. Unfortunately, as Korea becomes increasingly westernized we have to acccept ever increasing waist-lines.
Any of my Korean students will fetch me a cup of coffee if asked and occasionally they will buy me one from one of the numerous coffee shops in my area. I’m reminded of the time, when as a new teacher in my first post, I had taken a coffee into my classroom and when I came to drain the dregs discovered a couple of drawing pins lurking therein. I only took cups into my classroom on a few occasions and quickly decided it was dangerous to drink from a cup left in the presence of students. I also learnt to check any seat before sitting as upturned drawing pins were also a common means of abusing staff. Even a jacket I once left on the back of my chair was removed, thrown on the floor with my opened wallet and bank cards discarded on top. I can narrate these events to Korean students and they will be mildly shocked but there are some ‘stories’ I wouldn’t dream of attempting to narrate as they are simply too shocking for naive Korean sensibilities: boys masturbating under desks, on one occasion a boy flashed his dick to a female colleague, or girls giving boys oral sex in view of the staff room.
Recently (now a year or two ago) however, an event occurred in a British school in which a boy stuffed his penis and testicles in a female teacher’s coffee mug, took a photo of his exploit and then posted the photo on his Facebook account. The teacher subsequently drank from the cup before discovering what had happened. Unfortunately the only major link I can find for the article is at the Sun, Britain’s crappiest, and most widely read daily newspaper. I originally read it on MSN News. Incidentally, another incident in the same week involved a girl putting laxative in teachers’ coffee. I had difficulty telling the cock and sac story to all but a few very close Korean friends and certainly couldn’t explain it to a class of Korean 16 year olds whom I can mortify by simply sucking my pen. They would not be able to comprehend why any student should behave in such a manner and would see only disgust and depravity in the act. However, I could easily tell it to British 13 year olds many whom would find it funny and a valid reprisal to make on a teacher. Indeed on the MSN comments associated with the news report, some individuals questioned why a teacher would have a cup in the classroom while some simply claimed a teacher deserved such treatment.
I wondered where those ESL teachers come from who claim Korean kids are as bad as British kids given there are so many blogs and books written by full-time British teachers who are appalled by the current standards. Indeed, it’s usually only school managers and those who’ve had to prostitute their personal integrity to gain promotion, those who live in self-denial in order to maintain their sanity and preserve at east a little self-respect, or the lucky few in truly decent schools, who will deny that something is seriously amiss. I could form a small club with the number disgruntled teachers I know and I’ve known a number of excellent teachers who’ve left the profession because it excessively frustrated them. The idea of returning to British shores to teach fills me with dread.
Britain is not the worst country in the world so why pick on it and not a really bad country? The point is I’m not incensed by the inadequacies of other countries! I don’t’ own their passports: I’m British and I’m forced to write that on official forms and documents. When it comes to learning we encourage students to accept criticism as a means of bettering their ability but many people erect a brick wall when it comes to the criticism of their nation. I’m not unpatriotic, conversely I am patriotic. (Indeed, at one time ‘patriotic’ encompassed the criticism of your country as it was borne out of good intention and the desire for your country to better itself). And of course, I have been socialised in the UK, I speak English, I have an ancestry in the British Isles. Everything about me is British and more specifically, English.
When I have lived abroad for long periods, especially in radically different cultures, I start yearning for England: English mist, damp mornings, English rain, green grass, decent tea, an English Christmas, Oh!… and the wonderful sounds of Elgar, even though I hate the nationalism it has come to represent. I miss those orchestral marches with their majestic dignity that is so vividly depicted by the characteristic combination of clarinets in their rich chalmeau register fortified by the cellos and in the background the pizzicato pulse of basses. There is no hurry, the pace is relaxed and only the British have quick marches which are so leisurely you can almost hear the snort of immense cavalry horses. And when the little timpani roll climaxes with the brush of cymbals, a thrilling, gentle ‘tushhhh,’ an orgasmic tremor, evoking a tiny tinkle of brass, breast plates, dangling swords and medals, how staggeringly imperial! The culmination of an epoch of world domination depicted not by Sousarian vigour; its thrashing cymbals, blasting trombones amidst the bling-bling sparkle of patent leather, staybright and plastic, but by sublime subtlety. And what of roast beef, bitter, lazy English villages and English eccentricity? When I’m away from England, Britain, for too long, there is a yearning, almost at the genetic level which reminds me of my roots and kindles what little allegiance I have. I too am British and this memory, this imaginative kindling is my England and ultimately the place, for better or worse, I feel at home. In this context one can argue it is very patriotic to voice a concern that it has a scummy façade, that it is not aspiring to be better either in terms of its physical being or in the nature of its citizens.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2013 Creative Commons Licence.
Koreans will tell you their economy is in recession but there are recessions and recessions. Prices don’t seem to have increased much over the years and my utilities bills are in some cases cheaper than they were five years ago. Meanwhile, my electricity bill in the UK has increased by almost 300% in the last five years and it’s the same with gas and water utilities. Indeed, the price of one bill in the UK, my Community Charge, currently almost £150pm (w300.000), would not just cover my all monthly Korean utility bills but, my health contribution, internet and cable TV, and my monthly subscription to the most exclusive gym and jimjjilbang in my area.
My monthly Korean gas and electric bills always contain a graph showing the price you have paid for each month over 13 months so at a glance you can not just see if you’re paying more this month than you were in the corresponding month last year, but can access seasonal variations. The same system in the UK would mortify me as we have been subject to massive hikes every year for the last five years – indeed in one year there were two large increases. Meanwhile, the restaurant in which I’ve eaten for the last four years has increased the price of pork kimchi stew by 500Won (25 pence).
When business folds, another quickly opens, more often than not, a mobile phone store or a coffee house. Coffee houses in Korea are often used as an indicator of disposable incomes. One of the most pertinent signs that the Korean economy isn’t in the same depressing mess it is back home, is that rate at which buildings are erected. It isn’t just the case that buildings are being built but that they are speedily completed. In Korea, you can expect a 12 story building to be completed within a year and in a five mile journey across the city a few weeks ago, I must have past at least 20 buildings being erected. In one area alone there were at least six that that weren’t there a year ago.
But there are other markers of a relatively healthy economy despite the world recession; many of my students have the latest mobile technology and in some cases expensive technology and on the streets at the weekends it’s easy to spot new jeans and trousers, especially on teenagers. New trainers are common and the current trend New Balance, not just in trainers but as logos on T-shirts and bags. Korean students have a ‘preppy,’ respectable appeal and there is a distinct lack of the ‘East European fashions’ which tend to dominate British streets such as leggings, cheap trackies and hoodies.
And then there are middle school students with cameras costing anything up to 1.000.000KRW(£500). Take a trip to any popular Korean destination and you’ll see an inordinate number of Koreans not just with expensive cameras, but with enormous telescopic lenses.
The quality of life in Korea is high and living on the peninsula reminds me of the years I spent in Germany, during the late 70’s and 80’s, in an economy equally as vibrant. More important is the atmosphere generated when there is a good quality of life. Economic depression casts a gloom over the societies it infects and no amount of social manipulation in the form of festivals, flag waving jamborees or ‘big events’ can shake off the feeling that society is sick. Yes, currently, Korea is probably one of the best places to be to ride out not just the current global recession, but the general greed that seems an endemic part of my own culture and in which most transactions leave you feeling ‘ripped-off.’
©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Friday evening, 8 pm, and I’m walking home from work. Adjacent to me are two school boys aged around 15. They’re eating either ddokpoki or fried chicken gizzards from a cups, each boy armed with a wooden skewer on which to spear whatever it is they are eating. Finished, they simply drop the cups and skewers on the pavement; there’s no guilt or scanning the street for potentially disapproving citizens because in Korea discarding your litter on the pavement is acceptable. A few moments later, one of the boys glances over his shoulder and notices I am a foreigner, our eyes connect and I mutter something to the effect of ‘bad students!.’ I love the way Korean kids respond to being addressed as a ‘student’ and the way that it takes precedent over any other labels such as ‘teenager’ or ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ I find ‘teenager’ such as vacuous label and one largely commercial in origin and the equivalent to being labelled a ‘consumer.’
I’m waiting for some form of verbal challenge and am about to add how Korean streets are dirty but the boy totally disarms me. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says in English as he waves with one of those camp Korean waves that emanate solely from the wrist. As one of the boys turns back to reclaim their rubbish, I turn a corner. With some cars between us, the boys are unsure where I’ve gone. I watch carefully because I’m expecting them to simply chuck the rubbish back on the pavement once they think I’ve disappeared – that’s been my experience of similar confrontations in the UK. However, dutifully, the boy finds a rubbish bag on the side of the pavement and discards it therein.
I continue walking until I’m back in their line of view upon which both boys wave at me, smile and reiterate their apologies. God! I lover Korea! It’s this kind of behaviour that makes it difficult for me to return home.
I’m sorry, but back in the UK a high percentage of scum, anti-social kids simply couldn’t be called to order by a caring citizen without hurling back some form of abuse, or even violence. Indeed, a great many parents, all scum, would berate the adult telling their vile brat what they shouldn’t do. Poor old Britain is broke and despite the street parties and revelry currently being dutifully performed in order to celebrate our archaic Teutonic monarchy, it’s a dirty, violent, backward and boring nation. If you mention how rotten Britain is to many Brits they get upset or go into denial. I can understand this stance because if you live in shit you don’t want your face rubbed in it. Thank God Britain is class riddled because at least there are some enclaves where decency pervades. It’s a known fact that hoodlum kids don’t loiter where Mozart is played. But you can’t mention this either as Brits don’t like reminding how divided and unequal their society is and PC-ism with all its guff about how we are all equal is the ruling mantra. Ahhh! I’m ranting. Oh, and in Korea, there’s not a tweeny slag in sight and certainly no shop selling the Devil’s Panties (ie, thongs), or pole Dancing kits to pre-pubescent girls. More examples of British degeneracy!
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
I should feel quite sorry for Justin Bieber, but given that he made more money last year than I’ll have made in a lifetime, I’m not too sympathetic. But I’m not ashamed to admit, that having been forced to watch his movie on a flight from Dubai to Seoul, I actually think he’s got some talent.
With all the ‘hate crime’ initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and the varied policies to tackle homophobia in schools and society at large, some consider homophobic taunting something of the past but unfortunately, it’s alive and kicking.
While millions of youngsters are bitten by Bieber fever, an equally as large a contingent consider him everything from effeminate to lesbian. What is most alarming is not just that the Bieber-hater vitriol is predominantly homophobic, but that it is masked and tolerated as jealously or simply a dislike for a particular kind of music. Somehow, it seems acceptable to slag-off Bieber’s masculinity, minimalise the size of his penis or even claim he doesn’t have one, and then call him ‘gay.’ Homophobes are expert at labeling someone ‘gay’ and then, when accused of being homophobic, hide behind the ‘ambiguity’ of the ‘gay’ slur claiming that it has nothing to do with sexuality and simply means ‘bad’ or ‘uncool.’ If Justin Bieber was a normal school kid being taunted there would be no mistaking the nature of the abuse to which he is subject and schools, colleges and workplaces would have an array of policies to deal with what is at the least bullying and at the extreme, a homophobic hate crime.
Currently, in the UK, if you are assaulted for no apparent reason, you can expect the police to respond to your phone-call within several weeks. However, if you claim the assault was ‘hate crime’ orientated, you can expect a visit within minutes. A young student who arrived at my house with friends suffering a broken rib and broken tooth waited two weeks for the police to visit and take details. The same week, they responded within fifteen minutes of my reporting being called a ‘fag’ by two workmen as I entered an LGBT office on business.
What is interesting about the vitriol of Bieber-haters is that they are most likely to slander K-Pop with exactly the same kind of language; Bieber and K-pop, more specifically boy band K-pop, are, lame, effeminate, ‘gay’ and poncy. Indeed, K-pop is often a greater target for homophobic ridicule because Westerners construe male to male ‘skinship’ as signifier of ‘homosexuality.’ For many of us dumb-ass Westerners, males have to be beating the fuck out of each other, pissed senseless or hyper aggressive in order to way-lay any accusation of being anything but 100% heterosexual. So great is the pressure on males to maintain a hyper-hetero appearance that it is both a major part of their identity and a full time pursuit. Conversely, there is no mistaking that if Bieber were a Korean, he’d most certainly fit the category ‘pretty boy’ or ‘flower boy’ – neither of which would be any kind slur on his masculinity.
Now, I have to admit, I too have made jokes about K-pop in classes. I quite often pretend to hear, ‘K-pop’ as ‘gay-pop’ and my students think it’s quite funny when I do so. However, my defense is that I absolutely prefer the Korean version of ‘masculinity’ to macho-western masculinity and infinitely prefer it to the hideous kind of rap typified by Beenie Man and Elephantman which is both homophobic and misogynistic. Some versions of rap, most notably ‘gansta,’ have to be among the most revolting forms of cultural expression and are a sad indictment not just on the culture spawning such hatred, but also on the hordes of people who laud such trash and help give it credibility.
When I do make a joke about K-pop, notably that is is ‘gay-pop,’ it is to open a dialogue about such cultural differences and to draw my students attention to the more repugnant and unpleasant aspects of Western society, the pox, violence, teenage pregnancy, anti-intellectualism and general moral and social degeneracy, and of course, the particular kind of unpleasant masculinity, all of which get lost in the allure of Hollywood, celebrity fetishism and the general uncritical obsession many Koreans have with the USA and Western culture in general.
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Because the characters for ‘filial loyalty’ comprise of only a few strokes, well, seven, it is among the first hundred or so you learn when studying hanja. However, your introduction to it is probably via the two, simpler, three stroke characters for ‘son’ /’child’ (子), or girl’/’woman’/’daughter (女). When combined, the two characters, comprising either ‘filial son’ (孝子) or ‘filial daughter’ (孝女), appear fairly early in the hanja learning process partly because they are simple characters, and also because ‘filial loyalty (piety, duty) are central Confucian values. It will be seen that in the character for ‘filial loyalty’ (孝 – 효도-효), the character for ‘child’ appears in the bottom right and in this case is the ‘radical’ by which characters are grouped in dictionaries. The character can be interpreted as the child carrying their father or mother on their back.
Hanja is the name for the Chinese characters still used in South Korea and they are regularly seen in everything from newspapers to restaurant menus. They are especially popular in inscriptions and the use of hanja plays a role not too dissimilar from that of Latin, in the West. ‘Do your best,’ ‘to kill two birds with one stone,’ ‘like father’ like son,’ and ‘distinct as black and white,’ are just a few examples of the many available. In particular, 4 character hanja, such as ‘one stone, two birds,’ often deriving from an ancient book, known as the ‘One Thousand Characters’ (천자문), are particularly common. Around 1800 characters appear in the school curriculum, 900 in middle school and 900 in high school. However, not all Koreans, even well-educated ones, have a good knowledge of them.
In a high school in which I taught for a year, I became well acquainted with the characters for ‘filial sons’ because it was engraved on a huge boulder just inside the school entrance. And, on my walk into town, it appeared on a set of murals painted on a wall. The character is also memorable because of its confusion with that for ‘old, venerable’ (老 – 늙은 -노).
Despite its frequent appearance, I really only had a vague understanding of the concept. Okay, I understand the idea of duty to your parents, in a loose, western way, being respectful, thoughtful, etc, but let’s face it, in the West we’ve become fairly adept at ignoring the needs of our parents, especially as they get older. ‘Caring’ for your parents, and respect towards older people, and this does not necessarily mean only those of advanced years, has a far greater significance in Korea and the Confucian informed East in general. The Confucian notion of ‘filial loyalty,’ among other things, includes taking care of one’s parents, bringing a good name to them, supporting them, not being rebellious, showing love and respect, courtesy, upholding fraternity between brothers etc, and performing sacrifices after their death. Though traditions are gradually changing, Koreans often live in extended families. I have one friend who lives in a large five-room apartment with his wife, three children, sister, sister’s husband and two children, and his mother and father. Recently, they moved house and prior to this were able to decide whether they wanted to continue living together; they chose to continue cohabitation. Another friend, who is in his late thirties, lives with his invalided father who to say the least is cantankerous and unfriendly. He continually berates his son for not being married despite the fact that he is probably the cause of this.
Additionally, Korean ‘filial loyalty’ goes beyond the grave and honoring one’s ancestors, back to at least five generations, is an integral part of the Korean yearly cycle. Recently, my sister traced our family tree back 5 generations and I visited a number of cemeteries in rural Britain. Standing on the edge of my great-great-great grandfather’s grave didn’t really move me and I’d felt more emotion next to the graves of those I felt I knew better, such as Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bruce Lee and Benjamin Britten, and with whom there was no genetic bond. It was as a dreary, drizzly, winter afternoon that somehow suited the visit; all the graves, even those of not much more than fifty years old, were flaking, unkempt and covered in lichen. I seemed more aware of the gulf of time that separated us than any awe that we were related. In the absence of any rituals of remembrance our ancestors and our family histories are forgotten once out of living memory and then have to be rescued and resuscitated by genealogical research. And it isn’t just distance that breaks the bonds between us; one of my relatives lives only a few miles from his great, great grandmother’s grave and not only does he not no where it is located in the cemetery, but has no interest in knowing so.
We British mark the graves of our loved ones with a stone plinth the engraving of which will just about remain legible and decent during living memory and during that period the grave may be tended and flowers or tokens dedicated to it. Then, when there is no living person to remember the grave’s owner, the weeds spring up and the lichen takes its hold. One rarely sees a name on a Korean grave yet on the mountain sides, on gentle slopes facing the east (to conform to the principles of Feng Shui, 風水地理 – 풍수지리), you will find countless ancestral graves but far from being abandoned, they are usually tended and cared for. The ancestors of most British people seem so deader than in Korea where ‘filial loyalty’ prescribes ‘remembrance’ of their having been and in doing so connects both individuals and families with history, location and community.
Recently, one of my friends explained to me how his father, suffering from terminal liver cancer, wanted to die. I was apologetic but he laughed and told me he wasn’t distraught or sad, indeed he was somewhat happy for his father. I didn’t quite understand and asked for clarification; how can you be a ‘little happy’ your dad is about to die? And so, he explained how he’d been waiting for his father to die for fifteen years, not because he wanted him to die or was angry at his father’s addiction to soju, but because his father was tired of life – especially life without alcohol. Indeed, his father had been ‘welcoming’ his own death for years. Content in the knowledge he’d been a good parent, husband, grandfather, as well as a good son; had brought three children into the world, made sure they’d been educated, guided them in their moral development, supported his family and honoured his ancestors, he had nothing else to live for. But what was also touching was the way my friend put the happiness of his father, before his own. Yes, his father had flaws, some might argue major ones, but he’d done all that was required of him in terms of ‘filial duty’ and if his father was ready to depart and eager for his own demise, then he shouldn’t let his own sadness over shadow his father’s potential happiness. I by no means think this a common way to view the death of a parent in Korea not do a I particularly agree with it but it is interesting because for some, ‘filial loyalty,’ filial duty’ is a clearly a moral yard stick by which to judge earthly performance.
My mother died over fifteen years ago. Like all our mothers, she was a wonderful person and a fantastic parent and I often said to her that after her death, which at the time never seemed a reality and was always years in the future, my sister and I would open a bottle of wine beside her grave, have a couple of drinks and reminisce as a way of celebrating the life we’d shared together. I even said I’d pour some drink onto her grave – she loved a glass of wine! How Korean! Yet this was before I’d even visited the country and before I knew anything about ‘filial loyalty.’ Somehow, it simply seems not just the logical thing to do but the most natural response to the death of a loved one. However, sitting graveside in a British cemetery, with a bottle of alcohol, could be construed as almost sacrilegious, it’s not the done thing and I’ve generally been dissuaded by convention. So, I’ve promised myself that on my next visit to the UK, I’m going to spend sometime with my mum and dad, not with a heavy heart and flowers that so quickly wilt and add even more poignancy to a grave, but with a bottle of homemade makgeolli and a smile.
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
- Traditional Chinese filial piety culture (中国の親孝行文化/中国孝道文化) (encocoen.wordpress.com)
I have a love hate relationship with Korean discrimination! Hating discrimination is obvious, but ‘loving’ it! Why? I hear you ask; because we’ve done such a good job fucking our own societies that the more opposition to the west, in any form, the better. I know, it’s puerile, Even though I’m a ‘wayguk,’ I can tolerate being an outsider if it is a barrier to the acceptance of some of the western values which are currently rotting places like the US and the UK.
Personally, I place quality of life above all else and as a foreigner in Korea, I have a far better quality of life than I would back home. Now, I don’t mean solely in economic terms, though even with significantly higher pay in the UK, I was never able to save half my earnings as I can in Korea, but in terms of things like access to health care, gyms, things to do after work, eating out, etc, etc. With many of the transactions I make in the UK, often ones accompanied with running and maintaining a house or traveling, there is an accompanying sense of having been suckered. The same sensation is evoked whenever I travel to countries where you have no idea of the relative values of things, perhaps because you are supposed to barter but in the process you know that the item you are buying is extortionately overpriced but there is nothing you can do about it because the next guy will rip you off just as badly – if not worse. I suppose the feeling is akin to being divested of your dignity, a bit like you might feel if your house were burgled and it’s especially intense when you know the other guy thinks you’re a total fool for paying whatever you did. Transactions of whatever kind are always more tolerable, even rewarding, if you feel the deal was mutually beneficial and fair but unfortunately, in the UK, you’re usually exploited and there’s nothing you can do about it!
My sister recently wanted her son to see a dermatologist and was faced with a six week wait. Can you imagine waiting six weeks to see a doctor in Korea? I caught ‘red eye’ last year and went straight from seeing my own doctor to an ophthalmologist in the space of half an hour and both practices were less than 3 minutes from my front door and probably one minutes walk from where I work. Then there was the cost; both visits totaled less than £5 (10.000W). Meanwhile, to secure quicker treatment for her son, my sister had to pay £170 (340.000W). I gather in the US this would be significantly higher.
Then there’s my gym. I pay £50 (100.000W) a month for access to bathhouse, gym and jjimjilbang. I know there are cheaper places but it is my favourite bathhouse and is impeccably clean. Back home, even exclusive gyms pale into mediocrity compared to those on offer in Korea while all others are basic, usually just a gym and claustrophobic changing room. And of course, you couldn’t have a bathhouse in the UK without it being usurped for sexual purposes because in the west nudity and sex are conflated. Then there are the restaurants, singing rooms, jjimjilbang, pc rooms, twenty-four hour services, coffee shops and taxis to take you wherever you want at prices a fraction of the cost they are in the west.
However, these aren’t the main reasons I find Korean culture preferable to that of my home country. Unfortunately, it’s the British aggression, violence and apathy of British students that exiles me to foreign shores. I have much experience with aggression and violence and due to my military background and training in taekwon-do, I worked in several different places as a bouncer while I was a student. One such place was in a MacDonalds in a fairly mediocre town. I doubt there is one MacDonalds on the entire Korean peninsula that requires a bouncer – except perhaps when they are in the vicinity of US military bases.
Now, to give you some idea of the kind culture I experience in the UK, in a fairly average British town, let me share a piece I wrote around 8 years ago. The extract is taken from my blog, Scumland UK.
Outside the local newsagent, which is only a few minutes’ walk from my front door, I am treated to the headlines of the newspapers, all utterly depressing. Of course, I know I shouldn’t read them but I can’t help it. I’m the inquisitive type of person, the type who if I think I’ve stepped in dog shit will poke it with my finger and then sniff. Newspaper headlines have the same magnetic allure and very often cause the same repugnant reaction. ‘Boy knifed in a school playground,’ reads the headline in the national press. This story has some local significance as only a few weeks earlier a teacher colleague told me about a 12-year-old girl who had been arrested on the school premises for producing a carving knife with which she intended to kill her ex-boyfriend. The police were called to the school and took her away in handcuffs. Come to think of it, that was only a few weeks after a local teacher was beaten senseless by a gang of nine boys after he tried to break up a fight. Another school has recently installed a metal detector at its points of entrance in order to detect those arriving for lessons carrying knives. Meanwhile, the local newspaper contains a massive headline about increased disorder and yobs terrorising the drivers of local bus companies.
I’ve been standing at the bus stop for over half an hour despite the fact that buses are supposed to service this stop every twenty minutes. As I am wondering whether yob behaviour on buses is the result of them arriving late, a girl of about 13 passes on a bicycle, all her stomach is exposed and as she passes I notice that her buttock crack is totally visible. Am I supposed to find that alluring? I’m not talking about just a centimetre or two of crack but almost half her backside. I wonder if her parents allow her to expose so much of her body in public and I conclude that her Daddy and his mates probably find it very erotic. However, I’m not too shocked as recently I saw a girl at the same bus, stop and of a similar age, wearing a black T-shirt on which was emblazoned, in lovely gold letters, ‘Fuck Me.’ I can’t remember if the words were mitigated by the addition of an exclamation mark, on a young girl it doesn’t really matter.
Once on the bus the assault continues; a young mother is sat with a baby in a pram. I can’t help but begin assessing her character and remind myself not to assume too much on the basis of stereotypes. While you don’t solely judge a book by its cover, you can certainly use it to make a formative assessment. I know for example, that if I pick up a book and Jane Goody or that Jordan person whose surname I don’t know, is on the front cover, I can assume its going to be superficial crap with smatterings of smut. The young mother has enormous hooped earrings and a cheap, blue tattoo has been branded onto her hand by a tattooist who was clearly pissed. The tattoo intrigues me as I cannot discern whether it is a rose or a red cabbage. The difference is important in my assessment of her; a representation of cabbage would constitute some kind of statement, be it artistic or intellectual and I would be tempted to ask her what the cabbage symbolized. A rose however, would simply constitute a brand and might easily be substituted by a number.
Now I’m on the bus my mood has improved and I tell myself not to be such a negative, nasty person and at just that moment, just as I am about to reconcile myself with society, she goes and spoils it all; her mobile phone rings, not a discreet ring but some cacophonous jangle that stuns everyone within earshot. Next she begins shouting into the phone in that horrid Estuary English twang which political correctness demands we respect. ‘What the fark do you wan now? I already told ya, I’m on the farkin bus! What d’ya fink I’m farkin doin? I’m dropin’ the baby at me mum’s and I’ll met ya in town. Like I farkin said already.” Her baby stairs at me, its big eyes full of wonder. I want to smile at it but its grotesque mother will probably get aggressive and assume I’m some pervert. Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born to such hideous parents and yet no rhetoric or public debate seems to exist which calls into question their parents’ ability to rear children. Having a mother like this freak is child abuse but questioning parenting is a social taboo.
It’s a hot afternoon, probably the hottest day of the year and as I get off the bus I’m thrust into the middle of a small crowd of teenage lads, all aged 16 upwards, stripped to the waist and drinking from cans of beer. You can see the aggression and sense it in an aura which engulfs them like a plague. Aggression snarls their baby faces; it pervades the gait of their walk, a sort of strut which involves little steps; like they have pokers or shards of peanut debris up their arses. Their tight arsed strut is accompanied by an exaggerated shoulder swagger and arms swing at a forty-five degree angle to their bodies. Their beer cans, their gait, their little gang, their aggressive faces warn all on-comers not just to step aside, but to ‘fuckin’ get out-of-the-way!’
Friday afternoon is never a good afternoon to travel into town as even in the late afternoon the assault to your sense and sensibilities can be particularly fierce. The experience is intensified if it’s a school holiday. In front of me a boy lurches from side to side, clearly drunk. As with most of the other trash I’ve encountered in the space of 45 minutes, traveling from my house in a small village, into the town center, he’s a teenager. For the benefit of some approaching girls he opens the front of his jeans, sticks his hand down the front of his black boxers and contorting his face in a lustful manner, asks: D’ya wanna suck me fuckin’ knob, gals?’ The girls giggle, clearly honoured by the attention of this slob. I try to ignore him but he steps into my path, flies still open, hand still in boxers. ‘Hey mate, give us a pound!’ It’s more of an order than a request. I’m tempted to ask if he is touting for business given that his hand is still rooting in his boxers and his jeans are fully open at the front, but somehow I don’t think he would comprehend my humour. I ignore him. ‘Fuckin wanker,’ he calls after me.
Eventually, I arrive at my destination but worse is yet to come; I have to escape from this hell hole on the ten o’clock bus and the High Street, like so many other British towns, is no place to be at that time of night on a Friday evening, or indeed any evening! I only have to walk about a third of a mile to my bus stop but it is like walking through a zoo where the animals have been freed from their cages. The streets are crawling with loud, brash, aggressive, drunken youngsters. A lad is vomiting in a doorway; he sees me looking and gargles inarticulately, something with the word ‘fucking’ in his sentence. In the recess to the opening of one of the town’s most prestigious department stores, a girl is squatting; her stupefied eyes struggle to focus on my passing blur. Supported by the store doors against which she has collapsed, piss streams out from between her legs onto the marble floor which only a year ago the Queen herself walked on. However, she manages to retain some dignity by not pulling down her jeans and underwear. In another alleyway’, one that formed part of the original grid system when the Romans occupied the town some 2000 years ago, I notice a young teenage girl laying face down on the floor, her hand clutches a cheap handbag. She is scantily dressed with the obligatory exposed stomach and cheap, tight t-shirt that hugs her pubescent contours. Her friend, or should I say ‘mate,’ shouts at some passing men: ‘Don’t just fuckin’ look! Help her!’ The girl on the floor lifts her head and with a strangulated moan gargles vomit onto the payment. Like a marionette with severed strings, her head collapses back towards the dirty pavement, her hair and gargantuan hooped earrings cascade over her alcoholic sick. The passing men ignore her and walk by. This is someone’s daughter lying comatose on a grotty pavement, someone’s child and I wonder what sort of upbringing, what kind of society has led her to have so little self-respect than she is now lying drunk and dangerously vulnerable. If I was her parent I would be very concerned but then if I was her parent she wouldn’t be in this situation.
Outside the main night club a line of teen punters, mostly male, are being searched by burly bouncers before being allowed entry. Again there is that aura of aggression, the same nasty, scowling faces that warn you violence is about to erupt at any moment. You know you can’t make eye contact with them as to do so would invite hostility. They shout vulgar comments at passing females, adopt macho postures and grunt at each other and every other word is ‘fuck,’ ‘fucking’ or ‘fucked.’
Most of my friends back home hate the tone of Scumland UK and I can understand why; when you have terminal cancer you don’t like to be reminded, if you’re living in shitty conditions or your house stinks, you’d prefer not to have the fact rubbed in your face. And of course, people have different perceptions. Many British people have been completely desensitized to the nature of the society around them while others have never lived abroad and only experienced other countries as holiday destinations. Others, often the middle classes with managerial jobs and houses in the leafy suburbs, especially ones who earn a living out of the degeneration and decay around them, simply deny there is a problem.
Meanwhile, back in Korea, I lead a life in which I have never faced a threat on the streets or been insulted or assaulted as a teacher – all of which I’ve experienced in the UK. Hence, I’m in favour of any barrier to the spawning of western values in Korea which might change this. I’m what you might call a ‘wayguk’ separatist and in a sense would be quite happy if Korea expelled all foreigners and closed its borders. Yes, Korea has a multitude of problems and things that need improving but where in the world are young people so mild-mannered, innocent, the streets so safe, and pregnancy, drug and pox not a scourge on the young; where in the world is it possible to do a multitude of things on an evening at a price that doesn’t rob you of your dignity or put you in danger of getting your face kicked in!
On the peninsula, you can speak fluent Korean and marry into clan-Korea but you’re never really Korean. You’re always on the edge. So many aspects of Korean culture conspire to highlight the fact you are a ‘wayguk.’ Even the language conspires to expose your barbarian genes. I forget the amount of times I’ve been talking to a Korean and wanted to mention, ‘my mother,’ ‘my sister ‘or ‘my university’ and stopped short because for Koreans such words are ‘prefixed’ with ‘our,’ indeed it would be improper to say ‘my mother.’ And in that instance in which I fumble for the correct pronoun, I am reminded of my foreignness. My mother is from a country thousands of miles away and clearly not part of clan-Korea, not part of the all-embracing ‘our’ sentiment and mentioning her or indeed a member of my family exposes my alien status.
Every time I go into a restaurant or shop with a Korean friend, and even if I do the talking, staff will confirm my ‘request’ with them, instantly marginalizing me. They don’t mean to be rude, they’re just being helpful but it’s the irritating assumption that any wayguk trying to speak Korean has probably got it wrong and maybe wanted hot chocolate rather than coffee! And how many times have you walked past people handing out leaflets on the street and they ignore you? Even this weekend I was walking into E-Mart and woman handing out leaflets simply let me walk past. Sometimes they turn their back or look away but she just looked and was probably thinking, ‘wayguk,’ he can’t read Korean, pointless wasting one on him.’ Imagine doing that in London! Apart from the fact that so many Londoners are clearly not… and there I run into a problem…clearly not what? Native? White? British? you wouldn’t dream of thinking, ‘foreigner, they can’t read English.’ In Britain, it’s sort of taboo to identify anyone as a ‘foreigner,’ unless they’re clearly on vacation, and that’s one reason, even though they have contributed greatly to British culture, that the UK is in a mess and British culture currently seen as offensive, imperialist and something to apologize about. The UK has promoted every other culture, religion and ethnicity but its own and British culture is currently a dirty word which can be slagged off with impunity.
There are times when Koreans can be quite callous in their treatment of dedicated, professional foreign workers. Last weekend, one of my friends left his high school after five years service. Of course, it was never really ‘his’ high school and certainly not ‘ours.’ Many, though not all, foreign workers in Korea, are treated much like a rice cooker. The rice cooker has no ownership, semantic or otherwise over the school. The rice cooker belongs to the school and is a tool of the school and when it breaks or has a problem – you chuck it out. In five years he’d taken 6 days six leave, four after suffering a heart attack. Of course, this was partly because they would have chucked him out should he have been absent longer. Even when a parent knocked him down in their car, while on a mobile phone and on school premises, he only took two days off. As an aside, he received no financial compensation for the accident and the school did all in its power to make sure the parent wasn’t made to fork any more than hospital and doctors bills. You can trust good old ‘club-Korea’ to kick-in when threatened or protecting their own and it operates much like an enormous ‘old boy’ network.
In the same school, a Korean teacher with one years service, moved schools and in his last week was taken out for dinner and given the usually wadge of money in an envelope. In reality, he was only moving into the adjacent girls’ high school but as a member of ‘club-Korea’ he deserved the highest accolade. Meanwhile, my friend departed for the airport without even a handshake or a word of thanks from the principal! And even the school’s foreign, non-esl teachers with Ivy League / Red Brick qualifications, high salaries (in the region of 4 million won per month) and with apartments rather than one-rooms to house their families, all of which are flown to Korea by the school, receive the same rice cooker treatment. Yes, not all schools are like this but don’t get too complacent because you are rarely part of the school or the business – you will not rise through the ranks of management though, as is the case in some franchise hakgwons, they might pay you a little extra and give you some authority over other waygukin, never other Koreans, so that you can at least feel part of the program. For most foreigners working in Korea, your status as a metic exiles you to loiter on the periphery.
Then there are the drug tests, medical tests and police checks – only for foreign E2 visa holders. But can you blame Koreans for this? We don’t trust fully trained and qualified teachers, doctors, nurses in our own countries and even after intense screening, they remain suspect, so why should we expect Korea to open the crèche doors for those whose only qualifications are BA’s or MA’s?
Such treatment is appalling but I find it bearable because it helps keep foreign values at bay or at least slows the process of their possible assimilation. I can imagine some of the policies ‘wet’ western teachers would employ could they gain influential positions within Korean schools – especially ones with no practical experience of the problems faced by teachers in their own county. In two separate nationwide polls, around fifty percent of British teachers and parents were in favour of reinstating corporal punishment. Let westerners into the policy implementation process and it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be banning corporal punishment, banning any form of physical contact between student and teacher, empowering kids with all sorts of rights, teaching kids that every adult is a potential pervert and then allowing them to interview prospective teachers. Then, when the rot had set in, compelling teachers to take courses in class control, behaviour and riot management and then dumbing down the curriculum to make it entertaining for the kids who have little or no interest in study. The one thing I dislike about many westerners, is the overriding assumption, even in the face of extensive research on the tide of apathy, pox, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy infecting their own countries, that their culture is somehow superior, that it knows best and is something to which Korea should aim. Indeed, many westerners assume that the westernization of Korea is both inevitable and desirable.
Don’t get me wrong however, because I’d hate to be Korean. Korean society is too restrictive, pre-determined, too work orientated and too homogenous. It’s a bizarre irony because the liberalism of the west that’s made me who I am and given me a strong sense of individual identity, is the same liberalism I don’t want to see polluting Korea. That’s a totally selfish stand point! I agree! As much as I love Korea, it’s as a foreigner who at one and same time is both an exotic source of fascination and an outsider. And you can’t have it both ways; you can’t be ‘Korean’ without being enslaved to work or study and all those western idiosyncrasies which Koreans love about our personalities, and which would be deemed flaws in Korean society, would have to be drastically subdued.
But the process goes both ways! As much as Koreans blatantly use us either as metics, as foreign workers with limited rights, or as a tool to learn English, there are times when your foreign physog is an advantage and gains you concessions and privileges. I can nearly always walk into my local E-Mart without being asked to put my bag in a locker at the entrance. The poor English skills of staff always encourage them to look the other way when I stroll past. And over a year a foreigner probably gets more ‘service’ from shops and restaurants than the average Korean. My doctor once examined my stomach as I was stood waiting to cross the road, another time he gave me a tour of his surgery and I once had breakfast with his mother – do Koreans get such privileged treatment? Try sitting on first class of KTX with an economy seat ticket and there’s a very good chance the stewards will allow you to remain in the seat without asking you to move or insisting you pay more. And of course, whenever you want to avoid some question, some request, whatever, you can simply play dumb and say you don’t understand!
Yep! Living in a country which is both fascinated with your exoticness and does its utmost to remind you of your foreignness, chucks you a mixed bag. Personally, I feel life is much better stuck somewhere in the middle of this muddle, perhaps even out on the edge, than being given equality and running the risk the same problems will emerge that I have managed to escape by leaving my home country.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
I’m always amused at the way some of my friends in the UK assume that because a country doesn’t ram gay issues down your throat and a significant number of the population constantly proclaim themselves out, that it must therefore be rabidly homophobic to the point of executing or imprisoning transgressors. When in Britain, it suddenly became possible, within certain settings, to pronounce your sexuality with pride, we did so with embarrassing drama. As a student teacher, I remember numerous people introducing themselves to working groups and seminars with their name and then, in the same breadth, declaring their sexuality. Usually, it was a simple one liner such as, ‘and I’m gay’ but in the early 90’s, with the growth of ‘queer politics,’ it was more usual to throw down the gauntlet and declare, ‘and I’m a queer.’ Then they’d glare around the room daring anyone to object. It was the spirit of the times but it now seems so ‘old hat’ and I cannot help but stifle a cringe at such honesty.
Back in the UK, being gay has become boring! There was a time when ‘coming out’ was an act with as much destructive capability as an atomic detonation and wielding that potential gave one an immense sense of power. I’ve known people drop to their haunches and seen jaws drop in disbelief. Coming out had the capacity to traumatize friends who often needed a period of acclimatization which in some cases meant not talking to you for several weeks. The whole process made you feel very special which at least went some way to compensating your lack of relationships and access to physical intimacy. Now, ‘coming out’ rarely creates a stir and those that do have a problem with it are compelled to silence by the dictates of political correctness but in the current climate, where half the population of young people declare themselves bisexual, the prospects of intimacy and relationships are probably greatly enhanced. Today, the atomic bomb you detonate is more likely to fizzle into oblivion as the person being confided in calmly tells you, ‘why, I’ve known all along.’
However, even with advances in civil rights and changes in legislation, gays in the armed forces, gay marriage, LGBT rights etc, I still feel that while you are guaranteed to keep your job, you are more likely to get your face kicked in. While Korean gays do suffer physical abuse, I think their greatest problem come from employers and family. In the UK, there are still those with rabid homophobic views and who in the right environment will verbally abuse and gay bash. I have a fleeting suspicion that in the street, in my home town, there are a significant number of ‘homophobic sleepers,’ individuals forced to silence their opinions in the current political climate but a potential source of hate should things change. While I’ve met Koreans who are not particularly supportive of gay rights, they are never as outspoken, particularly hateful or vehemently opposed to such rights as those I’ve met in ‘liberal’ Britain (but this is only my experience). While a number of outed celebrities have committed suicide, I also remember Harisu (이경업), Korea’s first transgender entertainer who in 2001 was a pin-up to many of my male students.
Part of this ‘ingrained’ hatred stems from the fact that in Britain (and in the West in general), there are more codes governing what it is to be male and which inform and consolidate practices concerning male emotion, male physicality, body language, interests and other facets of masculinity. That women aren’t usually the object of gay bashing possibly stems from the fact that lesbianism is quite appealing to many heterosexual men and has not had the same history of legislation levied against it. However, though British women aren’t subject to such rigid gender codes as men, they are still required to behave within certain parameters. Meanwhile, in Korea, I perceive less difference between male and females gender roles.
I’ve never met a butch Korean male and neither have I met a Korean man who in any way made me feel threatened or intimidated. Does Korea even have any macho, aggressive type men, the type who will shove a glass in your face if you so much as look at their girlfriend or knock into them in a bar? And when I have seen them fighting it has been quite hilarious. I saw a fight a few months ago and stopped to watch. There were three men, all in their fifties, all drunk and shouting while intermittently smacking each other with their umbrellas. The fight was wonderfully cute, like it was being performed by ducks or rabbits or some other animals incapable of actually causing real damage. And despite their anger they wielded their umbrellas in a manner that might be described as totally pussy. An umbrella can be a particularly nasty weapon especially if the spike is jammed into your eyeball or mouth, or the hooked handle swung upwards into your testicles or used to cause damage to the windpipe. I can think of an entire arsenal of umbrella techniques all the result of earning a taekwon-do black belt in Europe, which took a minimum of four years study with the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) as opposed to the taekwondo taught in Korea (WTF), where black-belts and dan grades are handed out like candy, often in less than a year.
Yes, no butch men in Korea, thankfully! And neither are you likely to find examples of the rough and aggressive type of female that seems particularly common in the UK. Maybe they exist on the Mainland of Europe or the USA, though I don’t remember their type in Germany, but we have women in the UK, and don’t think they are necessarily lesbian, who are more masculine than a significant number of British men and certainly more masculine than the majority of Koreans. I suppose they are a product of our class society because they are always found in poor areas or on sprawling estates and are typified by their hardened faces, aggressive sneers, tattoos and propensity to physical and verbal violence.
In the UK, the number of social transgressions which would predispose you to being labelled ‘gay’ are far larger than in Korea. In the UK, no matter which way your sexuality swings, you’re a homo and less of a man if you play any musical instrument, like art or classical music and enjoy drama. One reason which can be attributed to why Britain is so dumbed-down is that the dominant ideology concerning male masculinity is largely one determined by the dregs of society. In Britain, all classical music, literature, ballet, art, poetry, drama, books and even the ability to read, or subjects or institutions related to learning and the intellect, are deemed arty-farty, poncy, nancy, boffin, elitist, or gay – and you will note I use the lexicon of this dominant ideology, a lexicon that is immediately understood by any British person regardless of their status. The movie Billy Elliot is a prime example of the view held by some British people, but understood by all, that arty-farty is poofda!
Yesterday, I attended a middle school graduation ceremony during which year books were handed out to the graduating students. I had to suppress a smile at the photos of the boys’ classes. In every photos of 6 classes of boys, there are not only boys draped over each other, sometimes sitting in each others laps but a significant number were in ‘girly’ poses and while not ‘girly’ to the point of being knock-kneed, pouting and with their bottoms sticking out, were still ‘girly’ enough within a British context, to question their masculinity and label them ‘gay.’ Don’t forget, in the UK you can be 100% heterosexual but still be homosexual. And amidst the boys hugging and draping their arms over each other and the significant number of ‘girly’ poses with hand-like paws held on either side of their cheeks, are the boys cuddling little white fluffy dolls. ‘Affectionately cuddling’ is perhaps a more precise description, sometimes against their chest and at others nestled against their faces and with their heads tilted to one side in a manner which if girls, would be slightly flirtatious, slightly titillating. As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender. Most of the boys I teach play musical instruments, I’ve had boys who do ballroom dancing and those girls who have not the least interest in make-up or enjoy playing Sudden Attack, are not deemed less of a girl.
While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose. It’s all a matter of how much importance and significance you attribute to different parts of your identity. I might feel very different if I was younger but at 56 years of age my happiness as a ‘person’ is of more importance than one of sexual identity.
For those who think Korea tortures gays and imprisons them for their sins, I provide and interesting and rather cute, short gay movie, Boy Meets Boy (소년 소년을 만나다) which I recently discovered while researching information on the actor Kim Hye-Seong ( 김헤성).
I am no authority on LGBT issues within a Korean context and these are my views based on my limited experiences. For a ‘wart and all’ expose of the gay side of Seoul see Susan Morgan’s blog post, The Evolution of Homosexuality in South Korea. I believe there are several gay clubs in Daegu one of particularly long-standing.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
- Why is school such a hard place to be gay? (guardian.co.uk)