Elwood 5566

Bathhouse ‘Zen’ (Part 1)

I’m working through some ideas here and not only have another three parts to follow this post, but will make amendments here. If you want to add your views, more educated and sociological ones welcomed,  please do so however, I won’t bother publishing the usual offensive crap that this kind of post sometimes generates. (Hence the pumpkin logo)

Not suitable for pumpkin people

Not too long ago, I joined the social networking site, Skinbook, a site for nudists. I had never considered myself a nudist and of course, in Korea I’m not. But once you head back home on a vacation you realise that bathing, even in a same-sex environment, is a form of nudism.  So,while in Korea I regard myself completely normal and healthy but once I step off the plane in the UK , or even talk to some westerners here in Korea, I have to re-configure one of my pleasures and label it ‘partial nudism’ and of course, this then  includes the slurs and innuendos associated with any form of nudity. What is a completely normal pursuit in one country is almost perversified in another. It is ironic that my home country, like the USA,  has not just one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, but one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, children as young as 12 and 13 engage in sex and if they go to the doctor are granted anonymity and, child abuse in one form or another, is clearly a national pastime. Being judged by my own culture, and those who bring  its attitudes to Korea is rather like being judged by the town’s most prolific pox spreading, pimp.

the hanja character for ‘nothing,’ ‘not having,’ (없을-무)

For a waygukin to really enjoy Korean bathhouses one has to divest themselves of the  cultural baggage  that prohibits or hinders one from fully capitalizing on what the experience has to offer. Though our cultural baggage may be similar, as between that of a Canadian and Scotsman, there are naturally differences that shape and  inform the reception we have to going-naked in a same-sex, public environment.  Some cultures are more relaxed than others and within and across cultures there are differing attitudes towards nudity and proxemics;  some may be constrained by religious views, some may have very strong associations between nudity and sex, some may be more liberated due to upbringing.  So, the point at which we each stand in relation to nudity and the various forms it appears in, differ.  Despite the reference to ‘zen,’  (선), there is nothing deep or mystical in the Korean practice of public bathing any more than there is swimming in a public bathhouse in the UK and my use of the term is based on the loosest meaning and simply suggests the ability to enjoy the experience without being hindered by cultural baggage.

spheres of zen

For many, myself included, taking the first step into a bathhouse was a traumatic  experience and certainly one I’ll never forget it! For others, nudity in the company of others is no different to being nude in isolation; many people are quite used to showering in a same-sex environment and if you play rugby in the UK, bathing in a large bathtub with your team, all naked, is a long-standing ritual. However, showering or bathing naked is quite different from other experiences a bathhouse will eventually confront you with, experiences which will test your levels of comfort and possibly expose  the cultural baggage you still carry, but which you thought you’d ditched.

Let me give you a very recent example; I  use bathhouses on a regular basis and my first introduction to them was almost ten years ago. However, while bathing less than three hours ago, I had two interesting reflections. I still do not feel comfortable with a close friend scrubbing my back and after a little analysis decided it was because in my culture such intimacy is more likely to occur as a prelude to sex and also because I am over weight and self-conscious.  The second one occurred while we were in a sauna.  The room is fairly large and is occupied by only my friend and I,  yet when two new men enter the room, independent of each other, they sit on seats on either side of me. Meanwhile, my friend is laying on the floor,  taking a nap. I am sat facing the television but they sit each looking directly at one side of my face, and to compound matters, their heads are less than three feet  from mine and they sit with knees wide apart in a position that in western body language can convey a sexual meaning. Within the parameters of my culture, no only do their body positions establish a hostile or sexual tension between  us, but a corresponding tension between themselves, as they are sat facing each other. And remember, they could have sat in any of three corners but instead chose to sit directly next to me. Even after years of bathing, little alarm bells jangled! Of course, neither are making aggressive or sexual  suggestions  and  probably  sat down without any conscious deliberation at all.

sk

While you might feel very ‘at-home’ naked in the bathhouse shower, or sat on your own in a corner of a pool, if you frequent bathhouses on a regular basis, the day will eventually arrive when:

♦You’re just steeping into a pool when you notice the person at the far end is a co-worker.

♦You drop the soap and need to bed over

♦You’re sitting on a bucket seat when a Korean friend begins a conversation, their dick dangling in your face

♦You end up talking to a friend who is sat on a bucket seat, while you are standing, your dick in their face

♦You’re asked to either scrub someone’s back or they offer to scrub yours

♦You enter a pool only to discover a couple of your students are staring at you

♦Your school or work decide to organise a trip to the bathhouse

♦You somehow end up having a full body scrub-down

If any of these scenarios are liable to make you feel uncomfortable, then you have not yet reached the state of ‘zen’ required to ensure your enjoyment is the ultimate possible and in which your reception of the experience is similar to that of a Korean.  The cited examples, and there are others,  highlight the point at which east and west differ and yet it is for this reason many people decide to live in Korea. (Surely it wasn’t just for the money!)  The manner in which we approach this point of separation, or stay cocooned in our safety zone, is dependent the ability to suspend our own cultural mores and subsequently embrace those of Korean society. The fewer of these scenarios which trouble you, the closer you are in approximation to the manner in which a Korean perceives a bathhouse experience. If you can bend over in full view of bathers, poke your backside clean with soaped fingers, use the hair dryer on your pubic hair or do a series of exercises, naked and in front of an audience, you can award yourself a red-belt (the rank prior to a taekwon-do black belt)  in bathhouse familiarity. And not only will you be better able to understand the Korean psyche, but you may also have a deeper understanding of the nature of your own society. Personally, I still have a long way to go but I’m getting there!

A Korean’s behaviour in a bathhouse has nothing to do with zen and with no barriers to overcome such a ‘state’ isn’t necessary. They simply behave in a manner which conforms to their social mores. Being outside this point of references, ‘zen’ is the mental ‘state’, or  ‘attitude ‘we have to aspire to  if we want to truly enjoy the experience and step closer to understanding the Korean psyche. In a ‘state ‘of ‘zen,’ a state of statelessness, you will have abandoned all cultural shackles and have no problem with your bum hole pontificating the heavens should you drop the soap. And when you can rationalize bathhouse culture without suggesting it is perverse, homo-erotic or ‘gay,’ as many westerners do, you will truly be in a state of enlightenment.

There are two parts involved in learning to enjoy the Korean bathhouse experience. The first involves ditching or suspending your own cultural baggage and all the assumptions it makes and judgments it levies. The second lies in embracing Korean attitudes towards same-sex nudity and bathing. Suspending the outrage of your own values is not always easy considering the British, for example, have a very long history of demonizing anything sexual. We have been imbued to perceive genitals as solely sexual and invested with the powers to pervert those who gaze upon them or even talk about them.  Even the genitals of a baby are now perceived as sexual and that you cannot photograph or draw a naked baby, even your own, without the overwhelming realization that you are doing something terribly wrong, is alarming.  And because nudity exposes what is deemed sexual, it has the potential to pervert and hence needs close control.  As for ‘skinship,‘ a problematic enough concept for many westerners when clothed, when nude, it can only be rationalised as sexually motivated. Many young and liberal westerners  like to think they are ‘progressive’ in their attitudes to sex and the body, but many, the moment confronted with the opportunity to be naked, it is revealed that they are not only terrified by it, but conflate it with sex. For many men, the idea of being naked with other men is repugnant. Ditching such silly attitudes, even if temporarily, is wonderfully liberating and frees you from centuries of oppression.

Disengaging your cultural shackles:

Over-coming the fear of your own body – in modern capitalism the body is a battle ground used to manipulate our dreams, aspirations, inadequacies and fears in the attempt, planned and unplanned, to spur us onto the treadmill that sees us seeking remedy in an array of consumer products. Products articulated around diet and exercise are lucrative and a nation riddled with guilt at being overweight or unhealthy, even if you’re not, is a nation ready to chuck money away in pursuing the latest fad. It’s a Machiavellian philosophy of ‘give ’em dreams and sell them shit.’ All too often, the first barrier to getting naked in public is the fear of being seen by others, of being exposed and then judged by the criteria of market forces. Obesity and being overweight are obvious but even our attitude to dick size is influenced by market forces; my spam box is constantly bombarded with adverts claiming to enhance the male appendage. When did you ever see an advert offering to reduce penile proportions? Porn actors are often rumoured to have dicks of Herculean proportions and any actor or celebrity who is discovered to have a little wiener, an average wiener, can expect ridicule. Societies have not all valued a big dick and at the height of Classical Athens, being well hung, and worse, well hung and circumcised, was considered very un-sexy. Among the classical statues and red pottery of the period – not a big cock among them unless it’s owned by a grotesque satyr. If you can find a penis poking from the  loin of a Praxiteles, it probably fits the modern-day parameters of  ‘average’ and this is often a euphemism for ‘small.’

I have frequently heard or read comments by westerner visitors to bathhouses, berating the bodies of everyone who is not minus 20, slim and sexy. Such people are ‘shocked’ or ‘appalled’ by the ugliness of others and see only attractiveness in the same way it is seen by Hollywood. Such attitudes are rooted in the assumption that if nudity is to be tolerated, it should at least be practiced by those who are sexually attractive because, as we all know, sex among fatties and oldies is a turn-off. It there’s one thing you learn in a bathhouse, it’s that we are more alike than unlike, regardless of age, size and condition.  Overcoming a fear of exposing our bodies in a public forum is for many people a big step because of our own negative self images induced in us by our own culture. As a result, to overcome the fear is empowering.

Apollo Saurodithonos (Lizard-killer). Possibly a Praxiteles original

Separating the conflation of  sex and nudity – Western social mores conflate sex and nudity and this tradition, one with a long history, is always an obstacle faced by nudists in the west because public sentiment demonize or peversifies nudity on the grounds it is sexual. If you enjoy nudity it implies you do so for sexually motivated reasons and is likely to classify you with terms such as ‘kinky’ or ‘pervert.’  Male same-sex nudity bears the greatest brunt of this conflation especially when it suggests those involved are homosexual. And it is this conflation which informs the opinions of many a westerner opposed or fearful of bathhouse culture. If you start a conversation with many British men about Japanese bathhouses, which often do not segregate the sexes, the tone of the conversation becomes sexually orientated, many western men would love peep through a chink in a wall of a Japanese bathhouse and indeed, you can even download videos of such scenarios. It is therefore predictable that their assumptions about same-sex bathing is going to be articulated around sex and homosexuality. It is the intense conflation of sex and nudity in the western tradition that has given rise to the phenomena of gay bathhouses and in the minds of many people bathhouses are strongly associated with a homosexuality, hedonism and promiscuity. Unfortunately, in the west nudity is often invaded by those assuming it must be sexual and in pursuit of a quick thrill. My local hometown in the UK had to close male only, nude bathing sessions because the tone of the place slipped into seediness.

Overcoming the fear of nude children – On occasion when I have witnessed something interesting in a bathhouse involving non-adults and have dared to write about it, and especially if I have written about it without expressing anything but disgust and loathing, it has provided an opportunity for those with a pumpkin mentality to accuse me of perversion. Many people now recoil in horror at the thought of adults and non-adults sharing the same space especially when semi nudity or nudity is involved. In Britain, public changing rooms, those open planned types where everyone undressed in view of each other, have now disappeared. There are a number of individuals who will fear a bathhouse experience because Korean children use bathhouses and I have met and spoken with individuals who will not go to a bathhouse or jjimjilbang on trips organised by their schools.  I once had to console a western teacher who cried uncontrollably because Korean Kindergarten teachers took kids to the toilet alone and without a second person in tow to ‘Big Brother’ the procedure.  Once again, we are back to the conflation of sex and nudity and of the western obsession of seeking perversion wherever possible.  Shouldn’t we be highly suspicious of societies that are obsessed with categorising non-adult nudity, solely by the label ’sexual’ and which cannot  compel us only to do likewise.

I very often talk to Korean friends, male and female about cute kids I’ve seen in the bathhouse. Last week I was amused by a baby boy who could only just walk and who wore a pair of socks to prevent him slipping on the slippy floor. I can share this observation with Koreans without the need to add interjections to the effect I’m no pervert or that I’m not interested in baby boys. But to raise such issue to a western audience, especially as a man, and you invite the most vitriolic reprisals. I’m here reminded of the comments I saw posted on various sites in response to a Korean advert where baby boys appeared scrubbing each other’s backs in a bathhouse. Most did not see it as cute or amusing imagery but as sexual, perverse and exploitative. And neither were any genitals flashed for them to arrive at such twisted conclusions.

Redefining your proximity zone – Britain is often cited as one of the least tactile cultures. In Germany, for example, people shake hands on every meeting and not simply when meeting someone for the first time. The French of course, kiss each other on both cheeks. Many other cultures are much more tolerant in allowing males physical contact without the slur of them being ‘homosexual’ and in such societies body proxemics are much closer than they are in the UK or USA where between close friends, 1.5-4 feet define comfortable parameters.  Intimate relationships operate between 0-15 inches. Many Koreans friends are quite comfortable operating at a distance of much closer than 15 inches and indeed of operating within a zone that many British people could only tolerate in a sexual relationship. In addition physical contact, ‘skinship,’ occurs not just more often, but for longer periods of time and much closer to the ‘parts’ we have been taught to avoid. It is not in the least unusual to see Korean friends lay down and put their head in their friends lap and I have even seen this in a bathhouse.

Korean ‘skinship’

Fully acknowledging nudity – many westerners are quite happy nude bathing because they manage to blank out the bits they find difficult to deal with or find offensive or repugnant. As long as it’s not in your face, or better still, as long as it’s in the zone of peripheral vision and can be ignored rather than acknowledged, many people can live with same-sex nudity. If you ask most men about the things they see in a changing room, even in locker room showers, and they will aggressively tell you they don’t look and I believe most of them don’t. And if they do the images are purged from their minds. As I have mentioned before, for a man to see a cock in the UK constitutes such a traumatic experience, unless of course you do happen to be gay, that it can potentially convince a man he is homosexual. It is only when a cock holds the same value as someone’s toes, or their nose, that you are free of this puerile conditioning. Learning to accept what nudism involves, the exposure of those parts you’d rather not acknowledge, is very much about confronting a deep-seated homophobia that assumes the penis is at all times a sexual object, which in western culture usually encompasses any penis whether it be flaccid, erect or even the redundant penis of a baby, and therefore, to consciously acknowledge the penis of another male is to engage in homosexual behaviour. I would further suggest, the fear of acknowledgment is both a means of consolidating a heterosexual identity or facade and avoiding either temptation or the revelation that one’s sexuality may not be what it seems.

When one is able to acknowledge those ‘offensive’ areas dispassionately, in a manner unfettered by emotions and obsessions and which no longer sees them as sexual but as parts with functions such as the nose or ears, and with  corresponding qualities and attributes, interesting, quirky, large, etc, one has clearly transcended the myopic conditioning of culture. I would imagine experiencing nude bathing in a non segregated forum, as often practiced in Japan, and to do so with a similar ‘zen’ detachment would be highly enlightening. To achieve this does not mean that no one is appealing or beautiful or sexually attractive, but that this is no longer the primary manner in which you respond to the naked body. Learning to see nudity with ‘zen’ detachment, where the conflation between sex and nudity is separated, and the classification of others in terms of their sexual appeal, minimised, allows you not just to appreciate more fully other human beings, but to feel more human in the process.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

A Forgotten Division – Cyprus (키프로스)

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes by 노강호 on December 3, 2010

 

Monday 3rd of December, 1973.  Polemedia Camp, Berengaria, Limassol, Cyprus. Aged 17 in a country about to be divided

A little indulgence into my past as 37 years ago today I was on Guard Duty, aged 17, in Polemedia Camp, Berengaria, Cyprus. A country shortly destined to be divided and which as remained so ever since, Without doubt the most fantastic potential holiday island I have ever been too was Cyprus. I spent six months on this Mediterranean island in 1974 as part of the United Nations peace keeping force. Cyprus was amazing and I remember Christmas 1973 because in the same day we went skiing up Mount Troodos we drove 60 minutes to the coast where on the most beautiful of beaches, Lady’s Mile, nestled below the ancient temple of Apollo Hylattes (Apollo of the Woodlands), we went swimming. Lady’s Mile, out favourite beach, was always deserted as there was very little tourism. Today it is as crowded as any beach on the Costa del Sol.

The Island of Aphrodite, Cyprus

Overlooking Aphrodite’s Rock, 1973

New Year’s Day, 1974 between the Temple of Apollo Hyllattes and Lady’s Mile beach

Lady’s Mile after the tourist invasion

I left the Island in 1974, shortly after my 18th birthday and three months later, a coup d’etat  by Greek  nationalists Cypriots led to a Turkish invasion which resulted in the island being divided into Greek and Turkish halves. The northern half, approximately 36% of the island, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is only recognised, by Turkey.

Temple of Apollo Hylattes – in 1973 an abandoned, over-grown piles of rocks which had few visitors and which we stumbled across

Ist of January 1974. Temple of Apollo Hylattes. The one advantage of the tourist industry is that this important site is now tended

Mount Troodos

To most of the world, it would seem that only Korea is divided but so too is Cyprus and it is perhaps understandable why; Cyprus isn’t strategically important in terms of global domination as is testified by its absence of US military bases, so prolific around the globe. Lesson? Korea isn’t the only divided country in the world!

I served with the Regimental Band of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards from September 1973-February 1988. (Polemedia Camp, Berengaria, Limassol, c. October 1973-March 1974).

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence

Monday Market – Apples (사과)

Posted in Comparative, Daegu, Food and Drink, fruit, seasons by 노강호 on November 30, 2010

early autumn apples

When I first visited Daegu in 2010, the city’s link with apples, a local product, seemed very strong. Ten years later, and on the odd occasion I have mentioned Daegu in relation to apples, and some people look at me blankly. Regardless, apples in Daegu, and perhaps further afield, are delicious. I rarely  buy apples back home partly as the varieties are never constant  and the taste and texture never guaranteed. Like many fruit and vegetables in Britain, they are rarely home produced. There is a lot to be said for seasonal fair as the quality is far superior and at the moment, cabbages (배추), apples, Asian pears (배), persimmon (감) and oranges (귤) from Jeju-do) are all in season. I have become quite used to watching the passing season through what’s available in the street markets and am currently waiting to see an abundance of of ginkgo nuts (은행).

Crispy, sweet and delicious

Korean apples are big, crispy, sweet and juicy. I’ve never had an apple that is soft or sour and would imagine sweetness is guaranteed because of the hot summers. Most apples are best about Christmas time and there are five popular varieties all grown in Korea:

‘National Glory’ (국광) – deep red with green stripes

‘Golden Delicious,’ (골덴 딜리셔스) – clear yellow

‘Huji’ or ‘Pusa’ (후지 / 부사) –  light red

‘Indian’ (인도) – green

‘Red Jade’ (홍옥) – bright red which is best slightly earlier than Christmas.

Monday market

However, as I write, I read that in the UK, this years season of apples, though outstripped by imports, are especially delicious as they generally tend to be approximately once every seven years.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Customer Support Paradise

Posted in Comparative, services and facilities by 노강호 on November 27, 2010

Ah, an interesting day! My electronic dictionary was burnt out by a faulty USB on my old computer almost two years ago. So, on Thursday, I took it to the Nurian Service Center, which is actually at Tesco’s Home Plus in Yong-San-Dong, in Daegu. This Home Plus, one of Korea’s first, is enormous and opened during my second trip to the peninsula, around 2003. So, I hand them my white elephant of an electronic dictionary and head back home.

 

My Nurian T3

 

On Friday morning, I  discover my internet connection isn’t working which means not just no internet, but no telephone or television.  And then, to compound matters, my washing machine is leaking, not seriously but enough to wet my feet and cause a nuisance. I telephone my boss  from the school office at 9.30. By 10.15 , forty-five minutes earlier than arranged, I receive another call from my boss telling me the  internet repair man is waiting outside my one-room. Five minutes later, I find not one, but two internet engineers sitting outside my building in their van. One of the engineers is a woman and her uniform is not much dissimilar to that of an airline stewardess.  The first thing they do, without checking anything is to replace the modem. Twenty minutes later, a washing machine repair engineer arrives and a new hose is fitted in the back of the machine. The cost for this job is 40000 Won (£20).

 

my washing machine

 

Now several years ago, I had to get a new washer fitted to a tap but there were complications as there is with anything in that shitty country, the UK.  Firstly, you have to be to be fairly wealthy to afford to pay for any breakdowns you want repairing after 5 pm. The cost of a the new part, a washer and some other device which fits inside the tap, was 8000 Won (£4) but the final bill  380.000 Won (£190). The next day a local plumber told me if I could have waited, he’d have fitted a new tap for around 150.000 Won (£75). The second problem you always face in the UK, and not much dissimilar to our health care, is often having to wait weeks to get it repaired. I pay nothing for service maintenance in Korea but in my UK property I cover plumbing, the heating system, electrics, gas and my items such as refrigerators, washing machine and cooker, with maintenance and break down insurance. Despite the monthly fees, any breakdown can see me waiting up to two weeks for the required attention. Of course, if I want it repairing within a few days, I can pay an extortionate fee which for an item like a refrigerator, will almost make it more cost-effective to buy a new one. ‘Instant service’ in the UK doesn’t exist and unless you call out ’emergency’ (after 5pm) engineers, you generally have to wait and that will involve taking a morning or afternoon off work because they can never give you a specific time other than before or after 1 pm.

 

 

gas safety checks- part of the service

 

The washing machine engineer leaves after my paying him a paltry 40.000 Won (£20). By now the internet engineers have repaired the fault but using my computer to translate from Korean to English, tell me they want to disable my anti-virus and install a different one. The different one, when loaded, is in Korean but they spend a further thirty minutes trying to install the program in English and when it transpires this is not possible, proceed to write out instructions, and show me, how to use the program in Korean. Non of this is their responsibility!

It is now 11.30 – exactly two hours since I first phoned my boss and informed her of my problems. At 11.35 my phone rings; it’s Home Plus, my electronic dictionary has been repaired and is ready to be collected. It’s been in their possession for less than 24 hours. The fee, 10000 Won (£5), is exactly the same price  I used to pay  my local electrical store to investigate a problem and provide a quote and it had to be paid even if you decided not to go ahead with a repair. However, that was five years ago and I can assume it is now significantly more.

12.30, or thereabouts and the doorbell rings. It is the gas company who regularly visit, perhaps at three or six month intervals, to check the system. They carry a small detector and poke it around the room, then around the gas range and piping, and finally, all around the boiler. I pay for a regular check in the UK the last one of which I have just paid at a staggering £52 (110.ooo Won). In Korea it’s part of the service.

Finally, on the way to school, in the afternoon, I stop at the small computer shop near my one-room because I want them to scan some paper work and transfer it to a USB memory stick. The job takes around 5 minutes and when finished I take out my wallet to pay but I needn’t have bothered as the service is free!

 

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Interlude (7) A Friendlier version of ‘Mr’ ‘Mrs,’ etc. (샘)

Posted in Comparative, Education, Interlude (Theme), Korean language by 노강호 on November 24, 2010

Okay, here is the point. The term ‘sem’ (샘), is a contraction of ‘son-seng-nim’ (선생님 – teacher) using a letter from each syllable block. The contraction is slightly less formal than the full rendition.  Perhaps the closest translation of  ‘son-seng-nim,’ and its contraction, ‘sem,’ is ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’, etc.

 

Education has more than a token value

 

And here is my ‘twisted’ analysis, a micro-rant. Though translated as ‘teacher’ either word fails to slip directly  into English and  presently, in British culture ‘teacher’ is both not too short of being a ‘slur’ and is a bordering  on a euphemism for someone who though highly educated, professional  and constantly vetted by the world’s most rigorous system,  is regarded with great distrust.  The same situation applies to numerous other professions – doctors, nurses, etc. Even the Korean media is learning to pick up on the distrust in which countries like Britain and America hold their teachers and subsequently use it nefariously.

Rooted in Confucian ethics, ”teacher’ (선생님 – 샘) is a term of respect with teachers and education being held in high regard – though less so if you are western. Though not perfect, the Korean education system plays a far greater role in shaping Korean society than it does in many western countries.

As someone permanently struggling with Korean these are my notes on words and phrases I find useful and which are usually not in a dictionary.  Any amendments, recommendations or errors, please let me know.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Learning to Love the ‘One Room’

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative by 노강호 on November 19, 2010

Song-so, Daegu

 

For a long time, I hated referring to my Korean accommodation as a ‘one-room’ and other terms I used to substitute it were either misunderstood or didn’t seem quite right. Koreans use the word ‘apartment’  in relation to the high-rise accommodation in which most  live and it is rare to hear the word ‘house’ as so few of them exist. The houses you do find, often in the country or sandwiched between  taller, city buildings are usually traditional or luxury versions.  Apartments are associated with high-rises and though they can be pokey and small, especially in parts of Seoul where space is the most expensive, they are often extremely spacious. I clearly do not live in an ‘apartment.’ For awhile I used the term ‘studio-room’ or ‘studio-flat’  and though a few of my English-speaking Korean friends understood this, many others didn’t and personally, it didn’t seem appropriate. I have this notion that studio flats are grand, exclusive and the preferred accommodation of artists and opera singers.

 

My barred one-room, Daegu 2003

 

Finding a suitable term to describe my accommodation, without using ‘one-room’, was difficult. ‘One-room’ seems such a pathetic term to use especially when you are anything over forty and invokes the same resonance in Korea as,  ‘unmarried,’ ‘living-alone’ or being ‘childless,’ and in the UK, as the word bed sit. What a ghastly word! What shame it invokes! ‘Bedsits’ are the domains of the unemployed, of single people, those on low wages or youngsters just starting out in life. They are always gloomy, lit by yellowey lights and with stairs that creak, and then there’s the gas meter and dingy bedding of blankets, sheets, and quilt because the ‘bedsit’ is a relic term from the days before the popularity of continental quilts (duvets). But the ‘bedsit’ wasn’t just a manky dwelling; to many it represented a lifestyle as epitomised by Soft Cell’s, Bedsitter.

Sunday morning going slow
I’m talking to the radio
Clothes and records on the floor
The memories of the night before
Out in club land having fun
And now I’m hiding from the sun
Waiting for a visitor
Though no-one knows I’m here for sure

Dancing laughing
Drinking loving
And now I’m all alone
In bed sit land
My only home

The solution, is obvious! Don’t call your accommodation a ‘bedsit.’ Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it has to be grotty any more than it implies you have to lead a pointless hedonistic life.

‘One rooms’ come in all shapes and sizes and some are pretty shitty. Usually they are contained in buildings of two, three of four floors. I lived in a one room in Ch’eonan that was truly a one room. The toilet doesn’t seem to count and probably neither the kitchen but this example, clean and not altogether unpleasant, was simply one room. From the edge of my bed I could lean across to the sink and pull out a sliding table and from their I could prepare a meal, stand up and cook it without take more than half a pace, and then sit back down on the edge of my bed and eat it. Washing up simply involved standing up. My Ch’eonan ‘one-room’ was the ideal accommodation for an invalided person and if I so wished I could have pissed in the sink while stood in my bed. Indeed it was so small that if I’d piddled 360 degrees I could have hit ever wall. Prior to Ch’eonan I had a ‘one-room’ in Daegu and once again it was simply one room, bedroom and kitchen combined, with a separate toilet and shower. It lacked air-conditioning, something I now wouldn’t live without and though it wasn’t unpleasant, the fact I cooked a lot of mackerel at the time made it smell.

But there are perhaps worse types of accommodation. If you’re a waygukin a ‘two-room’ is perhaps worse as it involves sharing facilities with a co-worker. I spent a winter with a great chap from Ghana who happened to have the controls for the ondol heating in his room and he liked the temperature set at maximum. I slept on the floor at the time and the effectiveness of ondol heating is non the more obvious than when you can’t escape its intensity. Under a duvet, all heat is trapped and often there are no cool spots, such as you have with western style radiator heating, from which to escape  the onslaught. I’d sneak the temperature down when he was out, he’d come home, put on two sets of thermal clothing, rack the temperature back up and climb under his duvet. He’d lived in Korea twelve years and like most Koreans, he hated the cold and anything under 25 degrees was classified an atomic winter.

How you might rate as ‘0.50 room,’ that is a one-room shared by two people, would depend on the extent you feel compensated by the luxury of regular sex and I’ve known couples share the tiniest of one-rooms. I like my space and space means a double bed.  A shag is great but I’ve been too long as a sad-singly to want to sleep in the same bed as another human and besides, I snore!

 

past and present

 

Eventually, you come to realise that Koreans don’t actually see anything significantly negative in a ‘one-room.’ As far as such rooms go I feel I am probably luckier than most. My present abode accounts for the combined area of 2.5 of my previous one-rooms and my kitchen is separate from my bedroom/study.  It has also taught me the benefits of minimalism and heightened my awareness of the way we amass shit you don’t really need and of course,  the more space you have the more you feel compelled to fill it. Back in the UK I have a house packed with junk and a substantial set of books shelves which host books and music I have had for years and never accessed. In Korea, a digital orientated life and two terabyte external hard drives have allowed me to acquire and  store enough music and literature for the rest of my life and reduced the storage capacity a thousand fold.  Yes, the future is getting smaller and upgrading to the latest formats is much more enjoyable especially when it involves denying greedy multi-billionaires even more money.

The worst thing about ‘one-rooms’ is they rarely have any view other than the concrete walls of the next building. If you’re on the ground floor the advantage you might have in being able to see the world beyond is ruined by the bars that turn such rooms into a prison cell. In ‘one-room’ land a computer is a necessity because your monitor can provide an appropriate background scene to offset the lack of any real view but one adapts very quickly and if you can imagine you’re in a spaceship or ship, claustrophobia can be minimized.

Links

Soft Cell: Bedsitter (link to youtube)

 

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

D-Day and Korean Hooliganism

Posted in Comparative, Education by 노강호 on November 18, 2010

D-DAY!

 

Today is the day of the high school suneung examination (수능), which for third year students is not only the culmination of their schooling  that largely determines their futures, but for many is the unofficial arrival of adulthood. The exam results are released in December followed by graduation, in the New Year.

 

Boys cheering after finishing their exams

 

As I wrote previously (A Day of Reckoning), the effects of suneung reach deep into all levels of Korean society and provide an opportunity to both support students and celebrate with them. Suenung  is very much a social event and first and second year students, and supporters congregate outside  schools in the early hours of the exam morning where banners are waved, chants shouted, students cheered and encouraged. If ever Korean students are going to be rowdy or get drunk, which occasionally happens, it is likely to happen in the evening but as usual, it will be tame compared to western teenage rowdiness.

 

Too much excitement is quelled

 

If ever you see a group of British lads with their shirts-off, anywhere other than on a beach, you can expect rowdiness. British males, normally the Neanderthal type, pull their shirts of when England has won a football match or when they are drunk and it is all part of a display of revolting masculinity. If, on Thursday evening,  you should witness a crowd of lads stripped to the waist outside a school, it won’t have anything to do with masculinity or aggression.  However, lads with their shirts off is also viewed as coarse and improper by many Koreans. In a cute kind of way, taking off your shirt, perhaps tearing it up in the process, and then singing a round of songs with your classmates, is about as radical as Korean youngsters can get.  And if you stand and watch you won’t be intimidated, assaulted or abused.

 

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Minimal Intervention – Toilet Technology

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Blogging, Comparative by 노강호 on November 10, 2010

but what;s inside is a gamble

 

This month the Korean census is being compiled and on Sunday afternoon I was visited  by a friendly woman who took my details. Handing me the census form to complete, I sat at my desk by the front-door while she knelt on her knees so her shod feet hung over the small entrance where you leave your shoes. From that position she could just manage to offer me assistance without taking her shoes off and entering my one-room proper. With her at my feet looking up, I felt a little like a Buddha.

 

an unpleasant experience and even worse if there's no toilet paper

 

One of the questions on the census asked if my ‘one-room’ toilet is ‘sit-down’ or ‘squat’ and it would seem that the ‘sit-down’ toilet is more desirable or ‘classy’ than a ‘squat’ job and this might suggest that the proliferation of  such toilets is part of the ‘westernization’ of Korea. Not only are Koreans being encouraged to eat western shit in the form of  fast-food, but they are being encouraged to expel it whilst seated. I’ve had my fair share of squatting in countries like India and Morocco and having to do so in Korea always reminds me of unpleasant digital incursions necessitated by a lack of toilet paper. Of course, Korea has toilet paper, or at least it’s available but if you’re using a toilet away from home there is a probability that  both the toilet you are forced to use and you yourself, are tissue-less and hence a digital dredging will be required. Last time I encountered such a situation I was fortunate that both a hose lay in the  cubicle and a handkerchief  in my pocket (Emergency Dump)

 

Personally, the idea of squat toilets are rich in unpleasant associations but they do offer some advantage on the seated toilet bowl. Firstly, they conform to the Korean ideal of ‘well-being’ in that they ideally align the body to provide the greatest expulsion of waste and in the process help reduce or retard the development of hemorrhoids. Secondly, much less ‘skinship’ is required squatting and most notable are the fact you don’t have to sit on what is a public seat and neither do you have to reach for the  sheets from a communal toilet roll. Nothing is worse than having to sit on those stainless steel toilets in British public conveniences which look great if regularly cleaned, but when not are tarnished with stains of unspeakable origins.

 

I notice many K-bloggers don’t like squat toilets but for those who have traveled and have more than one frame of  reference, even the worst Korean public toilets aren’t that bad; they actually have partitions and doors, are usually made of porcelain, have running water, and there’s never a sea of shit six feet from your backside.  Regardless of where you are in the world, shitting anywhere but in your home is a gamble and the worst you can expect in Korea is a lack of toilet paper,  some bad smells and the need to squat. And unlike some of the more ‘developed’ countries in which I’ve traveled, you’re unlikely to encounter anything ‘seedy.’ I once wet for a piss in a toilet in Denver and what I witnessed can be left to the imagination.  Yes; Korean public toilets often lack toilet paper and they can be basic and require that you squat  but in the scale of things this isn’t that bad. But Korea is full of surprises and it is just possible to discover that the emergency toilet is not only impeccably clean but creatively designed. Last winter, on my way to Seoul, the bus pulled-in at what in the UK would be  ‘motorway services.’  The gents toilet was amazing with a large central, glass atrium which filled the toilet with natural light and under which a large garden flourished. There were even a number of showers. Many bloggers seem to think Koreans have a monopoly on dirty toilets and not  only could I cite truly unpleasant toilet experiences, but also that you don’t necessarily need to travel beyond Britain or the USA to find them.  I’ve taught in British schools where students would piss or shit on the floor because they thought it amusing and I have even seen examples where kids would jam a whole toilet roll in the ‘S’ bend and then cap it with a shit.  Every country has unclean toilets and  a lack of toilet paper does not make a toilet ‘dirty’ it just means you should have carried tissues with the same zeal in which you carry a bottled water in summer.

 

a luxury toilet

 

I  am tempted to refer to the toilet on which you sit as ‘comfortable.’ Of course, this is a  culturally orientated value judgment as Koreans do not find squatting, either on a toilet or waiting for a bus, uncomfortable. It isn’t that a Korean wouldn’t want to read a book or newspaper while squatting, but that to do so seated is preferable. The difference is much the same between that of a stool and an armchair;  a stool is great for milking a cow or weeding the garden but if you want to watch TV or read a novel, an armchair is much nicer.

 

control console

 

alternative control console

 

Basically, Korea has four classes of toilet which may be designated squat, seated, luxury-seated and deluxe-seated. The three classes can be further classified by four bands based on cleanliness: very bad, bad, okay, super nice. The UK, on the other hand, only has one class of toilet, ‘seated’ and though  UK toilets can be ‘super nice’ in terms of cleanliness, I have yet to witness a ‘luxury’ or ‘deluxe’ toilet though it’s been rumoured for a  long time that the Queen has one.

 

Hyundai's electronic bidet

 

Both Korea and Japan have taken the western style toilet and transformed it into a luxury item which has invested bathrooms and toilets with the same comfort one would expect in a bedroom or front room.  If the ubiquitous British toilet is suitable for reading and relaxation, the Korean luxury toilet provides the comfort in which to enjoy the marathon epics of Tolstoy and Wagner.  Many Koreans households now have toilets fitted with an additional tier which is plumbed and wired-in to create a crapper with the  same sophistication  as the Starship Enterprise. Among the state of the art additions are features such as a toilet lid which raises and closes at the touch of a button or even automatically as you enter or leave the toilet. Koreans love heat under them and so a heated toilet seat is ideal. Cleaning you arse properly never really caught on in the UK  and only on the rarest occasions have I ever seen a bidet in a British home. A  recent survey revealed 1 in 4 British commuters had fecal matter on their hands (Telegraph. UK) which would suggest either sinks by a toilet are a rarity or us Brits wash our hands in the toilet bowl before flushing it.  Meanwhile,  over 70% of  Japanese households have a bidet and Korea is rapidly catching up.

 

Korean toilet fixtures provide a high-tech control console from which to activated a bidet and by which the temperature, force, and location of the spray are controlled. Once douched, an anal-dryer kicks-in and blow-dries the entire area. So, far, only one digit has been required to complete a procedure that formally required at the very minimum, an entire hand. Equipped with musical accompaniment, the ability to automatically inject a variety of scents into the air as well as instantly sucking out  foul smells  from almost the exact point of their origin, deluxe models sanitize the entire process and take poo-ing where no one has gone before.

 

a luxury toilet (link to 'Sharon')

 

A luxury toilet in my last high school

 

There seems to be some discrepancy about whether toilet paper should be used before activating the bidet. Some sources suggest ‘wiping away’ excess matter, some suggest ‘patting’ it partially clean, which I guess means removing any ‘crumbs’,  while others opt for the immediate activation of the anal shower unit. I guess it all depends on the consistency of your crap and certainly, while you might be able to ‘pat’ a bum clean that has just expelled the remnants of a Korean diet,  a western diet will render a much stickier, chocolaty mess totally impervious to anything but a vigorous wiping.  The luxury of a hands-free crap, of cleaning your backside without any form of manual intervention is probably only possible on a diet high in fibre and as most waygukins who eat Korean food on a daily basis, will testify, this is achieved when what you expel looks much the same as when ingested. If the contents of your toilet bowl resemble last nights kimchi-stew, your bowels are blessed with  ‘well-being’ and a bidet will free your hands completely.

 

High School toilets, when kids clean them themselves they are less tempted to piss or shit on the floor

 

And often other luxurious bathroom innovations can be found. I worked in one academy where a kids toilet had been designed and not only were there a miniature urinal, sink and sit-down toilet, but the room itself was less than two meters high and the door by which you entered was miniature. The entire bathroom was like something from a doll’s house.

 

toilets for kids

 

great idea

 

For super clean hands, even after crapping 'hands-free' style, nothing purges loitering microbes like the ultra-violet hand dryer.

 

Korean toilets, the shape of things to come...

 

There is so much more to Korean toilets and ablutions than squat loos and lack of toilet paper and putting up with a little discomfort, which could just as well occur ‘back home’ seems to distract some many bloggers not just from what else is out there, but also the usefulness of their experience as a subject. So, next time you find yourself caught short and in a squat toilet with no tissue paper…

 

and then go write about it!

 

Related Articles

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Quality of Life

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Health care, services and facilities, video clips by 노강호 on November 7, 2010

고운 Skin Clinic, and to the right (hidden by tree) an animal hospital. Both less than 1 minutes walk from my one-room

One reason I find Korea a more enjoyable place to live is that they have not yet learnt to be as efficient money grabbers as some western countries. Yes, Korea is capitalist but it is certainly not as aggressively exploitative as the UK or indeed much of the western world.  Of course, bad things happen in Korea, like anywhere else, and without doubt political and corporate corruption exist here as much as  in Britain where a ‘forgiving’  population has effectively pardoned the  recent greedy excesses of politicians. The things I like in Korea are possibly destined to disappear in the greed which seems to epitomize aggressive capitalism but until then, here some of the benefits I enjoy.

'Best' ophthalmic clinic and 'Beauty' Dentist - 2 minutes walk from my one-room

a tinnitus clinic  less than 30 seconds from my one-room

specialist hospital some 4 minutes walk from my one-room

I love the idea of ‘service’ (서비스) that shops and restaurants offer to loyal customers. A few weeks ago I recorded and wrote about the ‘concessions’ I earned (see: Freebies)  in a seven-day period, and which amounted to 20.000 Won (£10). I had free onion rings, quite a number of free beers, garlic bread, small bottles of vitamin drink and was given 1000 Won (50 pence) discount for medicine, by my pharmacist. Being given a ‘service’ immediately puts you, the customer, in a ‘ special relationship’ with the business and though you can reject it and immediately ‘shop’ elsewhere, it is rewarding and re-energizes my belief that humans are not all money grabbers. There is much more a sense in Korea that a customer is important primarily because smaller businesses vastly outnumber the large ones where in terms of customer numbers, your individual allegiance is unimportant. In Home-Plus or Tesco’s UK, my own opinions and importance are marginal and quite often the response to my complaints summarized as: ‘your expectations and tastes are obviously higher than the average customer.’ With a multitude of small businesses in the form of shops, restaurants, markets and street vendors,  your importance as an individual customer in Korea, is of more significance. The practice of being able to negotiate a discount for large purchases is an added bonus.

I’m crap at wrapping gifts but in Korea this is a complimentary service and I’m sure the wrappers have had special training. In the UK gifts are usually only wrapped at Christmas and in the season of goodwill, the biggest hypocrisy of all given it’s the greediest period of the whole year, you can expect to be charged for the service. When I hand over £3-4 (6000-8000 Won)  for the wrapping of a gift which I have just paid £40 (80000 Won) I really feel ripped-off. You can shop your entire life at small businesses in the UK and in all but the rarest of  occasions can you  ever expect reward for your loyalty.

six assistants in one opticians store

On my last visit to the UK, almost a year ago, both my local supermarket, Tesco’s, which in Korea masquerades as ‘Home-Plus, and one of  the large,  do-it-your-self  stores, B and Q, were introducing automated checkouts. As I stood in a queue in B and Q, a number of assistants were on hand to help familiarise customers with the new machinery that would no doubt put some of them out of work. Shopping in either of these stores is unpleasant as the are both gargantuan warehouses where cameras outnumber staff 10-1 and seeking help requires several  laps of the premises only to find the teenage assistant has no idea where anything is.  The automated checkout  had been programmed to welcome customers and provide basic instructions and I was pleased to hear a number of people in the queue voice displeasure at yet another facet of  customer services being relegated to a brainless machine. Despite the fact the moaning will achieve nothing and  that by this time next year  the automated checkout will be fully accepted,  I too voiced my dissent. Of course, what separates me from other customers  is that not only are my ‘expectations higher than the average customer,’ but the lengths I am willing to go  in revolt verge on the lunatic. My Luddite tendencies would not think twice about squirting superglue  in the slot designed for a credit card and I can wage a solitary regime indefinitely. Gramsci once suggested that even shopping is a political activity and I can take mine to the extreme.

3 minutes walk from my one-room, directly opposite my academy - 'Joseph' neurosurgery

When I went shopping yesterday, in my local E-Mart, I counted 4 pairs of staff on duty at each point of entry onto a level of the supermarket. As customers entered a level they were greeted with synchronised bows and verbally welcomed. Apart from the checkout assistants in stores not yet fully automated in the UK, eight members of staff is probably about the number employed on the entire shop floor of a British supermarket. In Korea, customer support isn’t  a luxury but an expectation and there are always a couple of staff employed for every section of shelves and assistance is never more than a few meters away.  Parking your car, a subject a broached in Ear Piece Mania, can entail as many as 10 parking assistants all of whom are trained in the intricacies of the bizarre hand signals used within Korean car parks. In the UK and many other places, customer support and adequate staff to assist shoppers, are either relocated in somewhere like India or have been viciously culled in the drive to maximize profits.

The first of an army of car parking attendants encountered in parking your car in the supermarket car park

 Several years ago a faulty USB port on my computer damaged my camera and electronic dictionary but this was no worry. Most companies, especially ones such as Samsung, Iriver, and mobile phone manufacturers, have service centers in every major town. For eighteen months, one of the Daegu service centers for Samsung was next to my academy, until it moved a five-minute walk down the road. Regardless, there will be a number of other Samsung centers in the city. Iriver, the manufacturer of both my MP3 and my palm reader are twenty minutes down the metro-line and the service center for my Nurian electronic dictionary, is five minutes away by bus. So, whenever I have had some problem, customer support is on hand, easily accessed and the product repaired and back in my possession within days and possibly quicker. On two occasions, mobile phone problems were repaired while I waited. When I recently had my camera repaired in the new Samsung service center, it took three days and when I went to collect it, it was wheeled out from the an adjacent room on what I can only describe as a cake trolley. Much the same support is available for computer problems and a computer service shop is located less than two minutes from my one-room. Meanwhile, in order to keep frustrated customers at bay and continue operating a  second-rate service, a token service at best, UK service centers are located in the furthest corners of the country and require your  faulty  goods to be  ferried away by courier service. And to ensure they can operate a slow service that is cheap to run, all public interface is removed and the call center relocated to Bombay or Bangladesh.

directly behind my academy, 'Future' urology clinic above which is my doctor

Korean medical care is efficient and there are more doctors and medical facilities within a six-minute walking radius of my one room than there  are be in my entire home town. Indeed, 4 hospitals are within a five-minute walk, and in less time than it takes me to walk to work, three minutes, I can reach two ophthalmologists, 6 opticians, urology, cardiology, neurology and ENT clinics, and a women’s’  health center. In addition, there are probably 5 dentists, a number of skin clinics, and a dietitians and two veterinary clinics. Remember, Korea is much more up than out and one high-rise block can contain more facilities than an entire British street where commercial businesses traditionally  and almost exclusively, occupy the ground floor. A few weekends ago, the husband of one of my colleagues needed an MRI scan after though I’m told there are a limited number of such facilities in the city, he was able to get a scan on the day he needed one and at a cost of 111.000 Won (£56) after deducting the amount provided by insurance. My colleague actually moaned that this was too expensive. Visiting the doctor involves a wait of no more than an hour and I don’t need to make an appointment. Even without Korean medical insurance the cost of a visit is no more than 7000 Won (£3.50) while the cost with insurance, is an ‘extortionate’ £1.50. And the greatest advantage for anyone living in or near a Korean city or big town, is that most medical needs  do not interrupt your daily life. When I have needed anything other than minor medical assistance in the UK, I have usually had to travel a substantial distance and then sit in various queues for several hours. All clinics in Korea have tasteful waiting areas with televisions, complimentary tea and coffee etc, and very often a couple of computers with free internet access. Admittedly, I hear and have seen examples of doctors and nurses not following universal procedures, but back home despite our rigorous rituals hospitals  are still plagued with skin eating viruses and for every account of bad practice I experience or read about on the Korean peninsula, I can match them with corresponding ones from the UK. At least when I spot something unsavory  in the Korean system, I do so in comfortable surroundings, with a complimentary coffee while watching the television and all without sitting in long queues which have necessitated taking the day off work.

a sneaky shot of my local ophthalmic clinic

a wide variety of side dishes usually replenished at no cost

With eating is my main pleasure, the ample amounts side dishes that accompany a Korean  meal and which can usually be re-ordered at no extra cost, is enjoyable. The recent cabbage shortage (Ersatz Kimchi in a State of Emergency) saw prices rise to 10000 Won (£5) for a large cabbage and caused subsequent problems with kimchi production but rather than just hike the cost up, and  subsequently leave it high  even after production costs have fallen, as happened a few years ago with petrol prices  in the UK, most restaurants in my area decreased kimchi and salad amounts and to compensate increased the portions of meat. My local bo-sam restaurant (보쌈) doubled the slices of pork from 7 to 14 and has only recently reduced the number as the price  of vegetables, and most especially cabbage, has decreased. In restaurants, chilled water in summer, and warm water in winter are complimentary and a can of coke is usually the same price whether chilled or not. In recent years, especially in hot weather, it has become a trend in the UK to charge up to as much as 1000 Won (50p) extra for the privilege of a cold drink, especially in extremely hot weather.

A Samsung service center

In Britain, unless shoes are leather it is difficult getting them repaired and for items like trainers you don’t repair them at all. Over the years we have been encouraged to sling things out and replace them as soon as they are worn.  In Korea you can easily have the  worn collars of shirts reversed and repairing shoes with rubber soles, including trainers, is easy. I had my rubber shoes soled and heeled almost a year ago whereas in the UK I would have been compelled to throw them in the bin.

Need a pair of glasses? It would probably work out cheaper to fly to Korea and buy a few pairs than pay the excessive charges levied in the UK. There is no charge for the eye examination and the price of frames begin at about 15.000 Won (£7). I have three pairs of glasses and all have frames costing less than 20000 Won (£10). Koreans love colourful frames and the range available, extensive. Cleaning cloths and cases for glasses are all free and the cleaning clothes cute and decorated. A pair of varifocal glasses, with the glass graduated so they look like ordinary glasses, costs around 200.000 Won (£100) and outside one of the opticians within a minutes walk of my one-room stands a special electrical device which you can use to clean your glasses. It’s free to use! Since optical care was privatized in the UK, the British have been abused by high street companies ripping them of. You can easily pay in excess of £300 (600.000 Won) for a pair of varifocals but the monopoly held by such greedy companies is being seriously threatened with the emergence of online opticians.

There are many flaws in the Korean system and I probably turn a blind eye to many of them,  but with all the advantages I have outlined, plus a national tax of around 3.3%, (my monthly bills, including tax, all amount to a grand total less than that I would pay for  the lowest of my monthly utility bills in the UK), I do not feel I am being fleeced or financially raped. Unlike many western countries, quality of life doesn’t cost and arm and leg.

Further Links

The Great Spectacles Rip-Off

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Memory Lane

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on November 1, 2010

Kimpo Airport

I often mention how rapidly Korea is changing. I have only lived here four and a half years, spread across ten years, so in comparison to friends who have over twelve years experience, I’m somewhat of an infant. I would love to have been here fifteen or twenty years ago, when Korea was truly a country where other than American soldiers, few ventured. ‘Fat ‘has arrived in Korea, an observation I often point out in my posts on bathhouses, and EPIK has brought an army of teachers into schools to such an extent our uniqueness has been lost. And no doubt those who first came to Korea in the 90’s will have noticed even greater changes.

Kimpo in 2000

When I arrived in Korea in September 2000, Inch’on International Airport was still being built and looking back, it is quite incredible to think that the piddly sized Kimpo was the country’s major airport. Kimpo was basically one big room through which people arrived and departed and I’m sure it’s bigger today than it was ten years ago. Few restaurants had English menus and on every street corner were  ‘video shops’ renting the latest videos. The internet contained little information on Korea in terms of cooking, culture or history, zilch on hanja and very little on Korean. Few teachers had air-conditioning and for those in English academies, split schedules, a common practice, meant the 6 hours you’d been led to believe you’d end up teaching in Korea, were probably closer to 8 or 9. Maybe it is still the same in some language academies, but  class sizes  were big, sometimes twenty students packed in small classes and often with no air-conditioning. There were fewer academies and my school, the largest in the area, occupied three floors of a large building. There were few resources, wall sockets often didn’t work and only a couple of tape players if they did and if you complained you were simply told to read to the kids. Most of the westerners I remembered meeting at the time seemed to work  under similar conditions.  Back then, university posts really were the cream of jobs with significantly more pay than other types of teaching and before the recent changes in bureaucracy, transferring from one town to another or one school to another, was easy.

If you had a pair of shoes like this in 2000, you were 'sexy.'

Big shoes were the fashion on young lads. By ‘big’  I mean long and so long that I thought I easily find a pair of English size 13’s. Indeed, they were so long, a little like the old ‘winkle-pickers,’ that they turned up and gave them a medieval appearance. On younger boys, even very young ones, a long forelock on the side of the head was tinted gold meanwhile their teeth were black. While older children seemed to have good dental hygiene, milk teeth were seen as unimportant and many of my younger students had black baby teeth. Today, this is something I rarely see.

Coffee beans or ground beans were hard to buy and I remember a coffee filter machine in supermarkets attracted small audiences and if you wanted a bottle of wine, if you could afford it and could find it, they were stored in a glass cabinet and the choice very limited. It seemed everyone wanted English lessons and were willing to pay for the privilege and being stopped and asked if you would teach privately, was an almost daily occurrence. In my diary for Saturday 18th of November, 2000, I wrote:

Here (KFC in Song-So) I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return for lessons. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday.

The KFC near Han-song Plaza has closed and is now a stationary store in which the glass stairs are still embossed with Colonel Saunders’ face, but in the last two years I haven’t once been asked to teach privately by strangers in restaurants or on the street.  I used to teach a few privates on a Sunday and would earn around a 100 000 Won an hour for teaching a small class of 3 or 4 students.

at one time were were as novel as coffee-filter machines and wine

Your presence, especially with children, was often enough for people to stop, gasp and gawk at you in awe.  Only yesterday, a boy of 14 told me how he remembers seeing westerners when he was four years old and how he would be filled with excitement. Few schools had resident foreign English teachers and what foreigners existed were a novelty. Many of the children, and some adults, you met ten years ago had never spoken to a foreigner. Then there was the starring… I remember times when the constant starring stressed me to such an extent, I’d occasionally step into a recess or doorway for a break. Unlike today, when a solitary passenger stares lazily from a busy bus, a westerner on the street would turned every head. I imagine it was even more intense in the early 90’s and 80’s and probably not much different to an experience I once had on a station platform in Delhi, in 1984, when a crowd so large gathered to stare at my friend as he opened a map, that after a few minutes you couldn’t see him. In the Korea of today, you are noticed and not much else and it rarely causes excitement or stops people in their tracks.

A few weeks ago I was up Warayong Mountain in Song-So, Daegu; I’d stopped for a coffee at a small stall almost at the summit and was attempting a conversation with a woman sat on the next bench along.  I noticed a couple of small children coming down into the clearing where we sat and around which were various communal exercise machines. Suddenly, their faces broke into excitement and they started running and skipping towards my seat. For a moment, it was the kind of reaction I remember on my first visit when kids would run up and then stand and stare, or might bravely attempt to say hello or stroke the hairs on a bared arm. However, ten years later and the focus of their attention isn’t me but the dog sat beside the woman with whom I am talking.  The children skip up to it and lavish it with as much excitement and attention as they’d once have given a foreigner. It isn’t even a real dog but one of those ‘handbag pooches’ which look more  like a wisp of cotton-wool on straw legs. I could have understood if it had been a real dog, a labrador or sheep dog, but this pathetic specimen! I realised in that instant that this is what it has come to; a miniature poodle now commands more attention, is more interesting and exotic than a foreigner. I am not exaggerating when I add that despite my height and size, and sitting right next to them, they didn’t even notice me.

a puff of wind and it's dead

Amongst all these changes however, one convenient constant; unlike the rest of the world prices have changed little. I bought a hanja dictionary in 2000 at a cost of 15.000 Won and in exactly the same store, nine years later, the same book cost 15.500 Won. That’s an increase of 25 pence in UK sterling! Quite amazing!

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.