Elwood 5566

Fulfilling a Promise to my Mother – The Lessons of ‘Filial Loyalty’ (孝 – 효도)

Posted in Comparative, customs, Five Second Hanja (Theme) by 노강호 on March 22, 2012

filial loyalty 효도 – 효

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.

‘village of the filial loyal children and wives’

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).

‘filial loyalty – duty – piety’

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.

ancestral graves on the mountainside

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.

the cemetery where my great, great, great-grandfather is buried

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.

an example of ‘filial loyalty’

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.

honouring a father on New Year’s Day (lunar)

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.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Further References

One Thousand Characters (천자문 – Bathhouse Ballads, July 2010)

To Kill Two Birds with One Stone – Five Second Hanja (Bathhouse Ballads, June 2011)

What Character is That? (Book review – Bathhouse Ballads, May 2010)

A Gully of Urine and Discarded Cigarette Ends – Vacation Finished!

Posted in customs, Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on March 1, 2012

Vacation fashion – the shaggy perm

These past few weeks I’ve experienced the naughtiest behaviour many Korean kids, especially boys, get up to. I live in an area of one and two room accommodations close to a university and sandwiched between high rises on three sides. One-rooms are basically studio type accommodation for one person which range from spacious and comfortable to poky and claustrophobic. Two-rooms are the same but have two bedrooms. The bathroom is always an additional room even if a one-room and often, though not always, so is the kitchen. Usually there is an enclosed veranda bordering the ‘rooms’ and in which you can hang washing, store items and is often the best location for a washing machine.  The enclosed veranda provides an excellent insulation in the winter as it effectively produces an enormous form of double glazing. I’ve lived in most of the variations. The worst was in Cheonan and though it was clean and pleasant, it was on the ground floor and as usual, there were bars on the windows. Worse however, was that the kitchen was in the bedroom area and it was small, small enough so that I could sit on my bed and prepare meals. Indeed, I could do everything either sat at my bed or by taking one-step. A ‘one-step’ would have been a far better description for this type of accommodation.

A small table pulled out from the kitchen unit alongside the bed so that I could prepare food and eat from the comfort of my bed, ideal for invalids and the infirm. Then, by standing and taking one small step, I could wash dishes and cook. For several years I was always embarrassed to say I lived in a ‘one-room’ because it sounds so much like a dingy UK bedsit but I’ve learnt there is great variation in size and comfort. My first two-room, in 2000, for example, had no air-conditioning; ten years ago air-con wasn’t a standard part of a teacher’s accommodation contract and we weren’t even supplied with a fan. My current one room is quite large and probably four times the size of my ‘one-step’ room in Cheonan. I suppose the worst thing about such accommodation, and purely based on my experience, is the lack of any view. Ground floors feel like prison cells due to the barred windows and very often the only glimpse of life beyond is that of the adjacent building’s wall. And of course, the outer windows of one rooms are generally frosted so even if you have a view it’s obstructed by this and the mosquito screen.

the alleyways around my one-room

Around and between the tightly packed one-rooms/two rooms in the area in which I live, are a maze of small passage ways. These provide access to down pipes, gas pipes and air conditioning units rather than a means of walking from one place to another. For nimble and athletic school boys however, capable of climbing over the walls which separate them, they are perfect recesses to hide from the adult world. For most of the year these passages are void of life but during vacation month they are frequently visited by groups of lads up to the Korean equivalent of ‘no good.’

a myriad of hidden recesses

So, this afternoon, March 1st, a national holiday (삼일) marking the earliest public display of resistance to the Japanese occupation which took place on March 1st 1919, the last gaggle of school boys huddle on their haunches under my kitchen window to commit some of the naughtiest acts possible for Korean teenagers. The first of these is smoking which is always accompanied by dribbling spit onto the pavement. This act has a sort of fashion to it and spit is rarely spat out but dribbled with an accompanying intense interest and fascination practiced by the performer. Next comes the pissing, which two boys do against the wall of my building. This is naughty but it’s not an altogether uncommon site in public. The third offence is their noise, boisterous and lively, but too loud! After the cigarette session, they run around a little playing chase and wrestling, almost deliriously happy. One of them throws a stone, not at a window or another person, but simply on the floor. Then I am spotted! There are a few seconds when they freeze, rather like a pack of wolves, in this case toothless, and stare in my direction, sniffing the air, motionless and silent. Then, without any discussion, they are gone. I am still able to hear their chattering and laughing but from a passage I can’t see. Their final offence is in the litter left from the visit, cigarette ends and a discarded packet. However, Koreans litter with impunity and this is only deemed an offence by foreigners. For school boys, such behaviour is about  the closest Koreans come to being hoodlums or delinquents.

Today is the last day of the long winter and spring vacation, two holidays interrupted by a few days school, which preceded the start of the new academic year. Of course, nothing is ever quite as it seems in Korea and despite the fact students have a school vacation, most attend the private academies in the afternoon and evenings or school academic camps.  High school students have hardly any vacation and attend academies on the weekend.

The long holiday period, spanning about seven weeks, allows elementary and middle school students to truly let their hair down. In academies they are often tired from playing lengthy sessions of video games or watching TV until the early hours of the morning and dyed hair, painted nails, earrings and perms are all tolerated. After seven weeks the shorts back and sides of many lads have been groomed into more lengthy and fashionable styles and I’ve even noticed boys tossing their head to flick hair out of their eyes, in a manner reminiscent of Justin Bieber.  It’s all been tolerated, even encouraged, that is until today. I’m sparing a thought for the thousands of kids who will be washing out the dye, getting their haircut and scrubbing their nails clean as they prepare for school in the morning. My fitness center will be void of  the peer groups of teenage boys and girls whose chatter and laughter have accompanied my training sessions for the last two months.  Going back to school in the UK, after the summer vacation, was always depressing but the respite of a week’s half term holiday was at the most only ever about six weeks away.  With the obsessive and intense nature of Korean education and the next vacation laying far in the distance amidst the screaming memis’ song of summer, the end of the spring vacation, the beginning of a long, long  haul marked by a chain of exams and the relentless daily trudge from one academy to another, must be especially gloomy.

a gulley of urine, cigarette ends and a discarded cigarette packet mark the remains of the long vacation

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Patriotic Taekwon-do and Sam Il – (Bathhouse Ballads March 2011)

Korean Teenagers’ Wacky World of ‘Vacation’ Fashions – (Bathhouse Ballads July 2010)

All Camp in Korea

Posted in Comparative, customs, Gender by 노강호 on February 11, 2012

In your face

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.’

Yes, it’s still evolving and nothing like London Pride. Susan Morgan describes it as a ‘parade of shame’ rather than pride, but it’s evolving.

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.

Violence in the UK

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.

Shameful – and most perpetrators will be men

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.

S Korean politicians pussying about

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!

From the Korean movie, ‘Between Friends'(친구사이). I once saw a complete squad of riot police holding hands in Daegu. as they marched in a double file to a demonstration

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.

first year high school students with the hanja character for “innocence’ (순소한) emblazoned on the t-shirts

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.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Lineage of the Voice – Pansori (판소리)

Posted in Art, customs, Entertainment by 노강호 on February 5, 2012

Having been a life long musician, both as a player and listener, I love Korean music. I don’t mean K-pop which though at times tuneful, is as much cultural chewing-gum as any western ‘fast-food’ pop music, but examples which are uniquely Korean such as pansori (판소리), pungmulnori (풍물노리) and even trot (트로트). I am not ashamed to admit owning the collected works of the Korean Daddy of trot, Nahuna which in a western context would be the equivalent of owning the works of Des O’Connor.

In the West, as well as in Korea with K-pop, tonality is usually diatonic, only a small number of chords are used and their sequence is always predictable, tunes seldom modulate and if they do it is most likely to the dominant, the time structure is nearly always 2 or 4 beats per bar and perhaps ocassionally, three. As for the lyrics, they best described as repetitive and vacuous.  However, I’m not a total snob, after all, I have Nahuna’s life works and I do listen to and enjoy ‘pop’ as much as I can enjoy eating a ‘Mcburger’ or chewing a stick of gum. If there is one quality that pop has, it’s the ability to represent, to surmise periods of time not in large spans like classical music, but in much smaller chunks such as the 6o’s or 80’s.  Pop can rekindle specific periods of your life, evoking emotions and memories with far greater intensity and emotional accuracy than grander music which is quite amazing given the paltry array of tools it utilizes. Naturally, there have been pop musicians with great insight and innovation, though they are often overlooked or marginalised.

The music of Captain Beefheart, (when he was with his Magic Band,’circa 1968) has examples of intricate rhythmic patterns and shifts in modality which would confuse less capable performers. And who remembers the 1976 ‘hit of the year,’  Music, by John Miles with the driving 4/4-3/4, (or is it 7/4?), time pattern. With most pop rigidly confined to the same old formula, such exotic innovation is rare. As a boy, Steeleye Span’s use of modes captivated me, an interest that hasn’t diminished as I now find myself mesmerized by medieval rock groups such as In Extremo and of course, Korean traditional music is modal.  And there are many other phenomenal popular song writers/performers who have shaped the sound of history, though our choices in this matter are personal: Abba, Queen, the Beatles, Meatloaf to name of few of my favourites.




My interest in traditional Korean music (국악) derives from my attraction to difference, and specifically to the different world of sound created by tonality, timbre, rhythm,  instrument as well as visual differences. l would like to include my interest in lyrics but unfortunately my Korean is not good enough to appreciate them without the aid of a translation. This situation is not much different faced with opera and as I write I am listening to Verdi’s, Rigoletto; having no idea what the plot is about the singers become instruments and I gleam a sense of an emotion without knowing the specifics. This is not an ideal situation but I don’t think too different to how we sometimes listen to a great deal of pop music where the lyrics aren’t really that important or are vacuous and aren’t really needed to convey a sense of meaning.

Korean pansori contains all the elements to engage my interest and whenever I hear performances I am compelled to stop and listen. What’s it about? I haven’t a clue and it’s even difficult to sense the emotional content! Nevertheless, it’s captivating and as alien to my ear and its cultural conditioning, as it could possibly get.

Pansori is basically a vocal line accompanied by a single drum and performances are epic in proportion, usually taking several hours or more, to perform. The texts are satires and love stories, known as madang (마당) which alternate between spoken dialogue and song.  Popular in the 18th century, only five of the original 12 now survive: Heungbuga, Shimcheongga, Chunhyangga, Jyeokbyeoga and Sugunga. The singer carries a fan which is used to emphasize emotions and when opened, to mark changes of scene.

I recently came across an excellent Korean documentary, with translation following the lives of two boy pansori singers as they trained for an important competition. The program unveils many of the mysteries of this strange form of Korean art and better, provides snippets of song with accompanying translation – this has subsequently deepened my interest in pansori. Like many things Korean, it has only been in the last few years that reliable information has appeared on the internet but I still have not been able to find examples of madang with English translations. The documentary is disturbing in places as one of the boys has a well-meaning, but drunken father who frequently beats the boy.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the series of 10 clips I originally linked to here have been removed from Youtube but different clips have been added and are provided below. These new clips provide a deeper insight into madang in translation than did the previous clips.

The DVD of the documentary is also available for purchase.

Lineage of the Voice

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Fascinating Physogs – A Tour of Some Korean Totem Poles

Posted in Art, customs, Photo diary by 노강호 on January 29, 2012

an assembly of jangseung

I am always fascinated by the designs of Korean totem poles, known as jangseung (장승) and have previously written about their character in relation to the nature of Korean wood (Village Sentinels Nov, 2010). I recently visited Dong Nae Traditional Folk Village in Cheollanamdo, near Suncheon Bay, where there is a large collection of old and new jangseung. Some were functional village guardians performing their traditional role of protecting the village while others were either decorative or provided directions.

Jangseung are incredibly emotional and part of their allure lies in the relationship between the form of the wood and the manner in which it has been carved. The carving below, actually the sign for the toilets, is a good example of this synthesis. The nature of the wood, twisted and buckled has been enhanced by the knotted and gnarled face that so clearly conveys ‘agony, discomfort and urgency.’  ‘Bursting for the bathroom’ is expressed both by the face and the ‘buckled’ wood and though you can’t see the knees, you know they’re probably ‘knock-kneed.’ So successful is this synthesis you can feel the discomfort. The symbiotic relationship between wood and carving is so entwined they seem inseparable and even if the face were to be carved away the remaining form would still convey ‘urgency’ and ‘discomfort.’ Of course, there are other emotional expressions to which this one piece of wood could be adapted.

'bursting'

This example, a newly erected jangseung,  bore an inscription in hanja. Most jangseung are either inscribed in hangeul or hanja. The first four characters of this inscription are probably from the Thousand Character Classic (千字文) and basically means ‘good son, good father’ (휴자휴부) but the full meaning is more complex and is related to the concept of ‘filial piety’ (효도-효 -孝), one of the most fundamental principles of Confucian philosophy and still of importance in modern Korea. Among many other things, ‘piety’ involves taking care of one’s parents, being respectful to them and not being disobedient. The fifth character is that of village, so the inscription loosely means, ‘village of pious sons and fathers.’

'village of filial piety'

'dreams come true'

another hanja inscription - 'the place where you can fulfil your desire'

a rather amusing uninscribed jangseung

Jangseung often appear in male and female pairs and are distinguished by their head apparel; the male hat is more elaborate. Quite often, the inscriptions refer to ‘generals,’ major generals’ or male and female generals. Korean folklore has a special place for the mischievous ‘ghost,’ known as the dokkaebi (독깨비) who haunt mountains and forests. This ‘ghost’ is quite dissimilar to the European ghost and is actually a transformation of an inanimate object rather than a dead person. Dokkaebi tease and punish bad people and reward good deeds by way of a strange club, or ‘wand’ which when struck  ‘summons’ things. They also wear a spiky hat known as a ‘gamtu’ which can render them invisible.  Below are the ‘Female Ghost General’ and the ‘Ghost Major General.’

A pair of 'ghost' guardians

an uninscribed jangseung with a large 'burr' for a nose

Weathered jangseung. Note the phallic incorporation of the flanking poles

a female general, (protector of the ground?)

A typical male design. This is the Major General protector, for Suncheon, the town closest to Dongnae Village.

Grandmother protectors

Leaving the village with a newly purchased teacher's stick (actually on my birthday)

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Village Sentinels – Totem Poles (Bathhouse Ballads November 2010)

The ‘Whale Hunt’ and Vacation Misery

Posted in customs, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on January 27, 2012

vacation misery!

Most of my lessons have at least one student whose character is strong enough to shade a class’s persona. Sometimes there are a few and usually, though not always, their characters are beneficial as they enliven lessons with their humour and marginal misbehaviour. Most of the characters, at least in classes with girls and boys, tend to be the boys but on their own or when boys are outnumbered, the characters of girls are just as entertaining. Among elementary and even high school students, girls and boys in the same class can cause a tension and rarely do they like to be partnered together. Elementary aged girls and boys seem to have much less problems working together. I’ve seen middle school and high school boys with strong and personalities, often the class comedian and prankster, totally silenced when outnumbered by girls. Indeed, nothing silences a boisterous boy more than a handful of girls, all except that is, when they’re involved in the ‘whale hunt.’

The ‘whale-hunt’ (포경) is the Korean euphemism for circumcision which many boys are subject  to on the verge of entering either middle school or high-school. The winter vacation is the most preferred season for the procedure as there is ample time to recuperate and infection less likely in the dry, as opposed humid weather of summer.

In the last ten days, a few of the boys in my classes have been muted by either having undergone the procedure, and they are often in class the next day, or muted by the impending prospect. I would imagine the Lunar New Year vacation has been totally ruined if their appointment with the ‘hunt’ falls in the next few days, as it does with several of my students.  Unlike other cultures, circumcision in Korea is not a celebrated rite of passage and apart from the obvious trepidation, seems no more socially significant than a trip to the dentist. Indeed, the procedure, currently costing between 80.000-100.000W (£40-50), is cheaper than most dental work and infinitely cheaper than in the USA where the medical profession has a history of  exploiting  the public (see link below).  Though I can understand the reasons parents and boys fall for the myths surrounding the need for this surgery, the normal rubbish about it improving hygiene or facilitating a bigger penis, I certainly can’t understand why you would ruin a boy’s vacation by booking an appointment a day or two after a major holiday and worse, sending them to school the next day!

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Searching for a Pathology to Fit the Procedure of Circumcision (Bathhouse Ballads, March 2011)

A Christmasless Christmas in Korea

Posted in customs, Diary notes by 노강호 on December 25, 2011

A thousand Santas and not one mince pie, yule log or Brussels sprout!

It’s cold and icy. Sometimes it even snows. From every cafe and on every street corner the sounds of Christmas meander on bitingly cold puffs of wind; Bing Crosby, Mario Lanza, Jim Reeves, Slade and most other Christmas carols or pop ‘hits’ are aired.  The only genre missing are those of English cathedral choirs such as King’s College, Cambridge whose traditions and crystalline tones have become such an integral part of the English Christmas landscape. Instead, between Lanza and Reeves are Korean renditions ruthlessly ruined by kiddies’ voices that are a quarter tone flat or hysterical on helium. To subject ‘In the Bleak Mid Winter’ to vocals laced with helium is sacrilegious but then when it comes to traditional carols I’m a purist and prefer not just King’s College but the descants of Sir David Willcocks.   Then there are the Christmas trees, twinkling lights and tinsel and occasionally you even see a Korean Father Christmas, even the fattest of whom look like they need a good meal! From a distance there is a sense of the approach of Christmas and sometimes a melody evokes a fleeting anticipation of the pleasures associated with that most celebrated part of the western calendar.

Merry Christmas!

But when such memories are stirred, they are quickly doused by the reminder that however Christmassy it might feel, it is in effect Christmassless! Christmas in Korea joins the numerous contradictions such as school vacations that aren’t vacations, the final exam that is never final but a prelude to the next batch of tests or the public holiday which falling on a weekend, as it does this year, isn’t a holiday at all. However much it might feel like Christmas, it isn’t! There is no over-indulgence, no sumptuous feasts and Boxing Day, which is unknown in Korea, is a normal working day.

It looks like Christmas, sounds like Christmas, but there's nothing Christmassy about it!

Koreans excel at the melodies, tinsel, silly reindeer antlers and gaudy fake Christmas trees barren of real baubles or chocolate figurines. But no matter how jolly one is hailed with a ‘merry Christmas’, the absence of a holiday, the absence of a genuine festive spirit, the absence of Christmas pudding, mince pies, mistletoe, holly, yule logs (especially chocolate ones),  simply conspire to depress me! Role on the lunar new year!

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Suneung 2011. D-0

Posted in Comparative, customs, Education by 노강호 on November 18, 2011

‘Suneung Jackpot’

Early morning, 7.30 am and I’m outside the local boys’ high school to watch the ‘suneung’ students arriving for the most important exam of their lives; an exam which for most students will have been their sole goal for the last three years, if not longer. As always, a few students arrive with just enough time to run into the school before the exam begins. You ask yourself how students can be late on the suneung morning, an event they have been counting down towards for the last year but of course no matter how significant the suneung is in the Korean psyche, the unplanned and unexpected problems of life get in the way; an alarm clock that suddenly ceases to work, the parent’s car that has a problem starting, the unexpected traffic jam.

The school stands on the brow of a hill, its front entrance, in the common tradition of poong-su (feng-shui, 풍수), faces east. Behind the schools lies the Warayong Mountain in which the infamous ‘frog boys’ disappeared in March 1991, their murdered bodies being discovered in 2002 (Five Boys Meet Death Where the Dragon Dwells). In the distance, at the foot of the hill, the wail of a police car cuts through the murmur of morning traffic. Unable to meander through the congested traffic, it mounts the pavement and drives up the footpath towards the school. The car, lights flashing, stops outside the school and to a round of applause by parents and congregated well-wishers, a boy jumps out and hastily runs towards the examination rooms.

a student being delivered by police car

As much as I try to avoid making comparisons with my own country, suneung always forces me to acknowledge the immense ideological abyss that separates Korea and the UK in terms of education.   Suneung is an event which has a profound impact on Korean society and is reflected not just in the annual countdown to its manifestation, but in public regulations, guidelines, a host of gifts and items to aid exam success and a range of ‘gimics’ popularly ‘believed’ to aid exam performance. And after the exams, post suneung students are enticed, rewarded, with a host of reductions and offers appearing in shops, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants. Most profound and quite different to my western experiences however, are the attitudes to education.  Try explaining to Korea kids that in your country it isn’t cool to be clever, that intelligent students are often bullied and the cult of anti-intellectualism rife, that a teachers dare not leave their coffee mug on a classroom table for fear of it being spat in, smeared with a pair of testicles or ladled with drawing pins or paper clips (Metro, Feb 2011).   And then try explaining that achievement is leveled so that those who do well or are exceptional go unrecognized while those who were bone idle and lazy hide. In recent years one teaching organisation suggested removing the word ‘failure’ from the teacher’s diagnostic lexicon and replacing it with ‘deferred success’ (BBC News July 20th,2005).  My university, Essex University, no longer awards graduates’ degrees in academic rank from 1st class honours to pass, and instead, degree ceremonies are ordered alphabetically. The graduation ceremony allows for no distinction between degrees earned by three or four year’s hard work and those the product of a permanent party. In the politically correct world of the UK, we are compelled to down play success and hide failure behind Mickey Mouse courses and useless qualifications both of which are given the veneer of parity with subjects that demand hard graft.

juniors students give the exam students support

However much British politicians and school mangers blab about the importance of education, it is mostly hogwash. Most school are more alike than different and innovation is curtailed rather than encouraged. The quality of the teaching staff in schools, where some excellent teachers do exist, is basically bog-standard because job specifications, in the pursuit of politically correct ‘fair-play,’ castrate all applicants who have qualifications or skills not asked for by the specifications. It is totally irrelevant that an applicant can miraculously turn failing students into ‘A’ grade students, or is qualified to teach any subject on the curriculum, if such a skills or abilities aren’t requested on the specifications. Though rules can be circumnavigated they cannot be seen to do so and in the politically correct environment ‘fair-play’ and notions of ‘equality’ are dictatorial. It is a contradiction that any institution can have the ‘best staff’ when those with skills, qualifications and experience beyond the remit of the post’s specifications, have been rejected.

more prostrations

I can’t name one Korean celebrity who I would say is a dimwit but there exists an army of British celebrities who not only aren’t particularly bright, but whose lack of ability is celebrated. A good number of our football players lack a decent education and some are so repugnant and base they are detrimental to the boys who idolise them.  And not only does British society tolerate celebrities who abuse themselves with alcohol and drugs, it financially rewards them!  After being exposed as a cocaine snorter in 2005, super-model Kate Moss’ earnings between 2005-2006, increased by 3 million dollars. (Forbes. cited in Wikipedia) And in dumbed-down Britain, we love to celebrate mediocrity and stupidity. Jane Goody was a prime example of the failings of British education; despite eleven years compulsory education she was probably one of the most ignorant and dumbest adult humans ever to appear on TV. But more alarmingly, despite her tartish behaviour, foul mouth and racist attitudes, an enormous fan base developed even prior to the time she was diagnosed with cervical cancer (Jane Goody, Wikipedia).  For many Brits, Goody was an idol and an example of how brute dumbness, lack of class and vulgarity can triumph. Forget education, manners or decency, just behave like a stupid slag and you too can become a millionaire. And I know it’s pitiful and sad, but once diagnosed with cancer and the mostly moronic public were even more willing to both idolise and defend her.

suneung gifts

I remember when the Spice Girls were being interviewed ten years ago and one of them joked about the dismal report she received from her music teacher. The teacher’s suggestion that she not consider music as a career, was pathetically dismissed with the response, “and look at me now!”  I doubt any of the Spice Girls could have distinguished a bass clef from a treble clef and other than miming and pouting the lips like a blow-up doll, doubt they had anything but mediocre talent which certainly wouldn’t have survived a facial attack with acid or a vigorous chaffing by a cheese grater.

Parents pray for exam success at the Gatbawi (갓바위) shrine in Daegu

I have probably had to teach in one capacity or another in around twenty different British schools and in all but a couple it was hard and degrading work.  Most British kids need to be force-fed learning and the high percentage of bad attitudes, behaviour and disruption have a detrimental effect on most classes. Most British teachers are highly defensive about such accusations despite having little or no experience teaching in anything but their own country and school managers are quick to defend their schools and berate the competition in just the same manner the boss of a Burger King will slag-off McDonald’s.

Yes, Korean education has its faults but I prefer being in a system where students know where they stand instead being fed a lot of guff that their nail care technology or business studies course is the equivalent to traditional academic subjects such as maths, history or science. In all but two schools in which I’ve taught there has been a pool of retards in every grade. Of course, most are retards because they behave like scum, abusing teachers and disrupting the learning of their fellow pupils. However, I don’t think I’ve really met a Korean retard and I certainly haven’t met a Korean student who can’t read or write or doesn’t know where their country is on a map. And I’d claim that a number of my students have better English writing skills than kids I’ve taught back in the UK.

anxious mothers outside a school gate

Britain has lost all sense of values and the dumbest, least talented and badly behaved are often able to earn huge sums of money. It was only a matter of time before the dregs of society and their middle class chums, the army of do-gooders who form the politically correct brigade, were able to crown a cretin like Jade Goody. Indeed, one tabloid compared Goody with Princess Diana who despite an elite education wasn’t particularly bright but at least she had class. Britain needs a good dose of Korean education to rescue it from its anti-intellectual disposition and in the process it needs to purge itself of its predilection for mediocrity. Moron celebrities, bad parents and dimwit football players need public ridicule and condemnation and bad behaviour, especially in terms of drugs and alcohol abuse, requires termination by censorship.

a suneung watch often given to third year high school students

The whole of society, and most especially those involved in education, have colluded to tell the dregs they are ‘in with a chance’ if only they will apply themselves, which with many of the phony courses and qualifications provided, simply means, ‘attend the course.’  A cabbage has potential but only within the limitations of being a cabbage. You can tell a cabbage it could be an award-winning poet but there’s not much chance of that happening because the poor cabbage doesn’t possess the awareness it’s a cabbage.  What many of the dregs require, other than a massive brain-over, or better, a total brain transplant, is to be told the truth.

‘Hey kid! You’re a fucking brassica, a fucking cabbage head, a total semi minus moron and you’re going nowhere!’  Then they should be forcibly administered a powerful chemical concoction by the Pest Control Corps to prevent the possibility of ever being able to breed.

and now the discount season begins for suneung students

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Related Posts

Suneung 2010 (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

D Day and Korean Hooliganism (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

Suneung – A Day of Reckoning (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

A Video Tour of Suneung (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

Suneung 2011. D-10 (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2011)

Kerbside Crap – Korean Style

Posted in Comparative, customs by 노강호 on October 4, 2011

and this is on a good day

Saturday evening and I was really feeling like I wanted some company. None of my friends were home and so I was forced to go out trawling the streets in the hope I might bump into an acquaintance that I knew well enough to have a coffee or dinner with. I would even have settled for a student but really wanted a makgeolli but drinking in their presence is taboo. Eventually, I was forced to sit outside a convenience store and make like some of the blog authors I read about who seem so acquainted with this ‘hobby’ and write so entertainingly about it (The Supplanter).

I’m not quite comfortable with this pastime and am forced to either sit at the GS25 near my one room, which is secluded but boring, or sit a little further where another GS25 is on a main crossroad and there is plenty to watch. I choose the latter. And the root of my discomfort? First, I’ve just bumped into the local vicar who has been accosting me at least once a week for three years. Despite the fact he always tries to encourage me to attend his church, I quite like him. He’s a music-major and likes Handel, one of my favourites and we seem to agree more than disagree about the political issues we’ve touched on. On this subject, he is the first Korean I met to describe their views as ‘socialist.’ He’s with his teenage son and in the process of going to cancel a contract for a Samsung Galaxy S which he’d only taken out a contract on that morning. It was a reward for his son’s doing well at school but when mum found he hadn’t ‘won the prize,’ that is achieved 100%, she insisted the contract be broken. The boy, who’s about 14, is looking noticeably glum. We’re standing directly outside the entrance to their church and Dad starts telling me about their new Saturday morning Bible class. All I have to do is look interested and mutter the occasional ‘maybe’ and he’ll give up. He offers an incentive, free breakfast, and immediately bacon, sausages, egg and toast spring to mind. Then, I remember a church ‘feast’ I once attended with a friend and the utter disappointment at finding it consisted of seaweed soup, five grain rice and some kimchi. Some sausages might have lured me but tofu beanpaste soup I can make at home. Sitting at the GS25 on the cross-road is bad as I’ve met him there only a few weeks ago, drinking makgeolli and I don’t want him thinking I’ve a problem.

Second, it’s been a hot day and the plastic street furniture is hot. Around a year ago, just after getting comfortable in one, a leg snapped off. It has been an old piece of ’furniture,’ its colour having faded and I guess over a long time they bake in the summer sun and become brittle. One moment I was enjoying myself, the next I was on my back, my arse still in the chair. Worse, I couldn’t get up and felt like an upturned tortoise. I flayed my limbs a few times, aware of the faces looking down at me. Instantly, I rolled over and got straight up, dusted myself down, moved the broken chair against the window and briskly walked off. I didn’t walk on that side of the street for the next six months.

My other discomfort stems from the fact I want to drink makgeolli and there is a sort of taboo with doing this in public and a few of my Korean friends will quite happily sit outside a convenience store with a beer, but not makgeolli. So, I eventually buy a few cans of beer and cautiously settle down in one of those horrid blue chairs, selecting as I do, one that looks new and robust.

Ideal for when you’re caught short

As I’m sitting watching life, a small boy steps out of the adjacent restaurant, his mum follows. Mums guides the boy to a tree with a patch of earth at its base upon which he proceeds to vomit. It’s only a small vomit, the boy is probably only 4 or 5 and he’s quite skinny but despite this mum takes a wadge of tissues out of  her handbag uses it to soak up what sick hasn’t already been absorbed into the thirsty ground. Next minute, another little boy comes out with his mum and he pees into a small bottle she has which she subsequently puts in her handbag. On this issue, I note that E-Mart now sells small piss bags exactly for this purpose. Apparently, urine or vomit is turned to a lump of gel once in the bag. Meanwhile, on every other street corner are small to large piles of trash. Trash on the road side, at designated points is the usual manner in which refuse is disposed of and it’s collected on a daily basis. I can still remember the song that refuse-carts used to play, a custom that stopped in Daegu well over 6 years ago. I never did get an accurate translation of the lyrics but was told it gave instructions for putting out rubbish and how plastic and glass needed to be separated. Few things about Korean culture annoy me but one that does that a significant number of the population dispense with the obligatory waste disposal bag and simply chuck their garbage, un-bagged, onto the designated area. Milk cartoons, egg shells, plastic bottles, bits of vegetable and food are all left to blow about. It’s hardly surprising how many Korean visitors to Japan comment on their clean streets. It seems quite strange that one should mop up a slither of sick destined to be absorbed by the soil, or to allow a toddler to piss in a bottle rather than in the gutter when littering is almost a universal custom. Only a few weeks ago, I watched an elderly man empty the rubbish from a cardboard box he wanted into the gutter before walking off with it.

unsightly and unhygienic!

In so many ways I prefer Korean life and culture to that back home but if there is one area where a massive improvement is needed it is in littering and bagging refuse appropriately. The correct bagging of refuse doesn’t just mean using designated disposal bags, but that it can also be publicly stored safe from the many cats and pigeons prior to collection.

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A Cake of Soap and Korean Hierarchical Collectivism

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, customs, Education, Korean language, podcasts by 노강호 on July 25, 2011

podcast 87

A few weeks ago, I was showering in the bathhouse. The soap is always provided which is something which irks many westerners. Somehow, we seem to find pollution everywhere but on ourselves and are quick to condemn a number of Korean habits, including the ones concerning communal hard soap as opposed liquid soap.  I have cited, on numerous occasions, the research on the hygiene of British people where a culture of super-clean toilets seems to mitigate the need to actually wash your hands. When you take a dump in a nice clean toilet with white tiled walls, devices that automatically jettison a fragrance into the air to mask unpleasant smells, and mop up with two ply, scented toilet paper, it is easy to forget how dirty shit is. In 2008, a major British study revealed 25% of those tested had faecal matter on their hands and 33% of home work surfaces were contaminated by faecal matter and strains of E-coli (Daily Telegraph). It is no exaggeration to say that British people have so much shit on their hands they might as well have mucked themselves out manually especially when international research ranks Britain as the third most contaminated society after India and Malaysia and more contaminated than Arabic countries where one traditionally cleans their bum with a hand and water. So, among Brits at least, I always titter when they bang-on about how dirty it is to use communal soap because only 43% of British mothers see fit to wash their hands after changing their baby’s nappy. The chances are, a great number of people who condemn communal hard soap are the same people who ‘shit and go,’ without bothering to wash their hands.

So, there I am using one of a hundred bars of communal soap and I notice it is rather hairy; in fact it’s so hairy I can feel the coarseness on my skin. For a moment, and it is brief, I am repulsed but then I’m pacified by the thought, it’s only hair, Korean hair and in that moment, not only do I continue using it, but I start to reminisce.

My family shared soap in the bathroom as well as towels and I can even remember we shared bath water. Back in the 60’s you didn’t shower every day, but on a weekly basis. For many children of the 50’s and 60’s, Sunday was traditionally bath day and for me that meant stepping into second-hand, scummy-gray water and wanting to get out as quickly as possible; not because the water was gross, but because by the time I got to use the bath the hot water had expired.

Maybe it’s the memory of the bathing experience as a child which makes me wallow in the luxury of a Korean bathhouse. I am not surprised we bathed on a weekly basis and hated the process. In the days when central heating was an emerging luxury, and before double glacéing and hot-water-on-demand heating systems, bathing, especially in cold weather, was unpleasant. Then there were the damp towels, the dubious face cloth and sponges whose possible journeys and uses, as a child, I never contemplated. Eventually, when the final dregs of gray scud whirled and gurgled down the drain, the final bather had to prostrate themselves at the edge of the bath, Ajax in hand, and scour away the crusty tide mark.  Drying my face with the ‘family’ bath towel and detecting an odour, the origins of which I don’t wish to recall, was an experience a lot less traumatic than had the odour belonged to an outsider. I think most of us are more tolerant of ‘dirt’ and ‘pollutants’ when we are either related genetically or are familiar with the owner. In sexual relationships, most people will happily rub their faces in the gutters of the human body but the moment they have to wash their hands with a communal bar of soap and they are offended. I have known numerous dog owners who would happily let their dog lick their face and lips, or lick their ice cream, after it had sniffed and tasted the back-end of every other dog in the neighbourhood. Familiarity has powers of sanitation far superior to the most stringent bleaches and cleaning agents, and as for sexual passion, the atomic bomb of hygienics, in its radiance all filth and the veiny, mucous-lined channels from which it oozes, are deified.

I want to see that bar of soap as a Korean sees it, not because I want to be Korean but because in its comprehension lies something of the mystery of what it means to be Korean as a Korean and which as a cultural phenomena, eludes  all outsiders. How Koreans perceive a simple bar of communal soap, I am beginning to think, shares a proximity to communal plates and bowls, the communal bowl of odeng which has almost disappeared, the act of drinking a shot of soju from another person’s glass, sharing water in the bathhouse, dipping your toothbrush into a communal bowl of salt, and cascades down through various other social interactions far removed from ablutions and yet intrinsically connected through their relationship with the community. This is not to say Korea doesn’t have taboos and social mores, it does. You can cough in someone’s face and share food from the same plate, picking at it with your chopsticks, but suck the end of your pen and you’re ‘dirty.’

 The bar of soap reminds me how human reactions to ‘pollution’ are affected by familiarity and hence a mother will find the contents of her baby’s nappy much less disturbing than if it belonged to that of a stranger. I have quite often seen Korean men pick an Italy towel or razor out of a bathhouse bin and proceed to use it and indeed, some of my friends do this. It’s easy to condemn this as a disgusting act but we have all used each others’ Italy towels and razors and the only difference between using your friend’s towel and a discarded one, is that your friend has a relationship with you and you know for sure they haven’t got face fungi.

Korean society is far more homogeneous than that of the UK where our gene-pool has been thoroughly mongrelised. Many Brits, often comment on how ‘orientals’ all look alike but the fact is Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais etc, all have their own distinguishing features and it is only ignorance and lack of familiarity, which masks them.  I can tell apart a Korean from a Chinese or Japanese person, with far greater accuracy than I can a Russian, Frenchman, Englishman or German. And the process of mongrelization in Britain, started well before the Viking raids and French conquest of 1066. That Koreans are more homogeneous genetically, plus their isolationist past, the influences of Confucianism and recent history in which their national identity was suppressed, have conspired to produce a society with a strong sense of group identity.

There are many points at which you can observe Koreans expressing their identity through a shared framework and one of the most obvious is through the values surrounding education. Regardless of social position, every Korean parent has much the same academic expectations for and of their children. In Britain, educational values, and sometimes the lack of them, tend to divide society.  Other examples, if practiced in the UK would be deemed archaic, even invasive. I don’t think I have ever heard a British school child talk about their future aspirations in terms of ‘their country’ but Korean students often tell me they want to do something to ‘help’ or ‘better’ their nation.  The National anthem is not only heard more often that it would be in the UK but most people can sing the verses. The national flower, the mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon – 무궁화), is a well know image. National Service is often perceived by many, though indeed not all, as a duty towards ones country. Even kimchi and Korean martial arts are important facets of Korean identity. Perhaps, because the formation of modern Korea and its struggles with both foreign aggressors and internal political fracture, are relatively recent events, the important historical figures, the Korean founding fathers, are well know to all Koreans. If you should praise Korean society, many Koreans will be quick to thank you. Meanwhile, back in the UK, political correctness has tarnished the Union Jack and anything British with slurs of imperialism, racism, and oppression. Indeed, I think it not wrong to claim that in Britain, British culture is a dirty word and British culture the most inferior of all the cultures now inhabiting the British Isles.  Meanwhile, the influences which shaped European and British history have been discarded and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and anything else pertaining to ancient civilizations are deemed crusty, boring and thoroughly elitist.

In western society, we value individuality and see its development as worthwhile and important and whenever we cooperate or interact with others we very much do so as individuals working with in a group. And if a person were to exhibit characteristics which conflicted with the group, their subsequent labelling as ‘an individual’ could be very positive. We respect ‘individuality’ even if we don’t agree with its content. For westerners, it is possible to develop as a respected individual without any need of group associations and one can forge an identity in isolation. For Koreans however, it is the group which defines their roles and gives them their identity and they can be quite lost without the security of its parameters. I have on numerous occasions seen students ‘shut down’ or socially paralyzed because group dynamics weren’t quite right.  Identities articulated around work, the army, school and university, ferrying individuals through the various stages of life are integrally important, lifelong points of reference.

And at all times in Korean society, you notice the importance of hierarchy. You can chuck western kids together, mixing ages, abilities and gender randomly and they will basically work but Koreans are likely to suffer almost a trauma if the groups aren’t structured properly. Difference, for Koreans, is much more difficult to deal with. Age cohorts are incredibly important and Koreans constantly refer to their position either currently or in the past, not only through age cohort terms like ‘first grade’ or ‘sixth grade’ but by larger structural ones such as ‘high school student’ or ‘university student.’ That you can address a young person as ‘student’ is reflective of both the pivotal role of education and age banding. I have know a number of Korean high school students who, after spending a year abroad, returned to Korea to be put back a year into a class with students younger than them and they found the experience quite difficult.

The importance of age in Korean society can never be underestimated and it is for this reasons they always want to know how old you are. Without knowing your age, a Korean is not only unsure what language to use addressing you, but is unsure how to act towards you. Knowledge of your age allows them to place you in the appropriate group from which they know how to treat you. And don’t necessarily expect relationships determined by such factors to change over time or with familiarity, as they would in the west. I’ve taught English students who very quickly treated me in manner which in Korean would be seen as intimate; that is they use familiar terms of address and treat you as an equal. But Korean ‘friends’ I taught almost 12 years ago, when they were high school students, still address me as ‘teacher’ and some find it difficult not to. Another, who will use my first name, finds it difficult to smoke in my presence and may turn their head while drinking alcohol. And you will be sorely reminded if you make a blunder and assume students belong to the same age cohort when in fact they occupy adjacent ones.

The Korean Language expresses both collectivism and hierarchical stratification. Indeed, Korean is a language of built-in deferentially and when using it you are constantly aware of your position in relation to others. The terms to address people are rarely their names, but their function within the group.  Koreans rarely uses personal pronouns as these are seen as intimate and in the wrong context rude, and position, rank, family relationships or specific occupations commonly replace these. In terms of collectivism, Koreans refer to their parents, schools, universities and the largest structural unit of all, nation, by way of ‘our’ rather than ‘my.’ Whenever I refer to ‘my mother’ as ‘our mother’ I am a little unsure whether this is correct, or possibly bizarre, as I am not Korean and not part of the collective.

There is probably no better example of the differences between ‘collective’ and individualistic’ ideologies than in the conflict westerners often encounter when the ‘interest’ of the ‘individual’ clash with the ‘interest’ of work. In the west, we are used to a very clear division between work and ‘play’ and it is not appropriate to spring meetings on people at the last moment, ask them to change their plans for that evening, or expect them to ‘stand a friend up’  in order to work. If this is a necessity, financial recompense can be expected. When Koreans expect westerners to behave in the same manner as Koreans, they do not really understand the sacrosanct nature of free time and the importance of individuality as an expression of identity. Koreans however, will suppress all individual pursuits, interests or engagements,  if work requires some additional input. Koreans do not divide work and free time so absolutely and they will work way past their contracted time if the organisation requires this and not expect a financial reward for doing so – though I suspect they would expect their diligence to be acknowledged and perhaps foresee some in-lieu benefit at a future date. (Of course, it is equally as plausible to interpret this work ethic as exploitative and manipulative). And, in terms of obesity, the collective ideology is definitely more judgmental.  I sense, that whenever I am in the presence of a Korean who is proportionally fatter than I, I can relax because it seems a far greater social offence to be a fat Korean betraying the parameters of the Korean frame, than a fat foreigner.

In the West, the rights of the individual are so crucial that it is almost the case that the rights one person can easily trample on the rights of another. I am reminded of the time I witnessed an argument about someone playing loud music at an inconvenient time and where the perpetrator claimed playing loud music was, his ‘right.’  As with many facets of life in Korea and life back home, there is a clear polarization where both extremes each seem too extreme. As much as I love living in a society that is a collective hierarchy, and enjoying the benefits it brings, it is as a foreigner and outsider who is absolved from transgressions and given leniency.  I would certainly hate to be part of that collective and stripped of those component parts which I believe are integral to my individuality and identity.  I actually shudder to think how my Korean friends, and especially my boss, perceive my passions and would imagine that for all the importance I attribute them, they probably view them as trite and puerile and in some way detracting from my responsibilities.

And so my little sojourn returns to the bar of hairy soap where this epic began. I realise of course, that most of the other bars are hairless and that I suspect the hairs are mine. Westerners, we’re gross! I love the Korean physical homogeneity because my western body, my British body is riddled with the mutations of cross breeding, of mongrelism. And, I’ve inherited that horrid propensity for chest hair, and worse, back hair which is just too great a reminder of my primate past. I can tolerate the soap with Korean hair attached, but with those western straggles matting the surface of the soap, I’m both revolted and ashamed. Westerners, we’re just too different, not just physically but mentally. We cling to immobile markers of identity and individuality, our sexuality, our colour, our religious and political affiliations, mountain dew, pop groups, and a ton of other crap, with such passion that our differences and the importance of our affiliations hinder and obscure that which we do share. When we do identify with each other to the extent of it representing some tangible community, it tends to be through trivia such as the royal weddings, football, Big Brother or Pop Idol. For so many westerners, their name and their sexual, political, religious, ethical or sporting affiliations are fundamental components of any social introduction are often of more importance than work. For many Koreans, the most important topic is work and for most adults life comprises of little much else.

And so I come to the conclusion that if my Korean friends can use someone else’s Italy towel, they can just as easily tolerate the hairy soap and do so because they are familiar with the hair’s owner, who was in all probability, a Korean and possibly a distant relative with whom they have much in common.  Meanwhile, the westerner perceives that last person as anything but a relative or countryman and instead a dirty fucking stranger who probably has a hideous skin disease.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.