Elwood 5566

Ch’u-seok 2012

Posted in Buddhism, Diary notes, Travel by 노강호 on October 23, 2012

The end of September saw the celebration of one of the most important events in the lunar calendar, namely Ch’u-seok. This important celebration sees families gathering to worship their ancestral spirits and celebrate the harvest. The event is marked by a public holiday during which traditional games are played and foods such as song-pyeon (송편) and rice wine eaten.

made from glutinous rice and filled with various fillings, most especially sugar, sesame oil and sesame seeds

This Ch’u-seok, I travelled with my komdo teacher, Kwon Yong-guk and his family to a rural town near Ulsan. As well as paying respects to his relatives and ancestors, we planned to do some bamboo cutting (Bamboo Cutting in Ulsan).

Some last minute instruction

Kwon Yong-guk’s father in law, who used to be Chief of  the Fire-brigade in Ulsan, has two houses side by side in a small plot surrounded by farm land.  The setting was quite beautiful especially as it was autumn and the chillies and persimmon, such iconic sights in Korea, were ripe. We spent half an hour trying to net the super soft type of persimmon, known as hong-shi (홍시),  with a long pole and attached net.

Personally, one of the most beautiful Korean sites, a persimmon tree with big fat, juicy persimmon all as delicate as a balls of orange jelly

Preparing the barbecue

Some of the kids playing under a persimmon tree. The back garden was ringed with kimchi pots.

The cutest family dog

After cutting bamboo in the afternoon, we gathered in the courtyard of the house and cooked a barbecue. Kwon Yong-guk has a huge family with about 80 members from both sides. Many of them I was to meet the following day. Darkness fell and in the countryside, unlike Daegu, one is treated to real darkness and a good view of the stars. And when some clouds cleared and the full moon was visible, the children made wishes.

It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed three of the kids wearing sweat shirts on the back of which was printed, ‘Play like a Motherfucka.’

‘Play like a Motherfucka!!!!”

Sleeping wasn’t particularly comfortable as I was on the floor in a shared room and just as I started to get some sleep, at around 4am, Kwon Yong-guk’s alarm went off. Next, we were going fishing.

Kwon Yong-guk’s (right) passion is fishing

The lake was incredibly peaceful at 6.40 in the morning

But the scenery was great

Not being enamoured with sitting watching the floats for hours on end, I found a small patch of flat ground and did some training. Kwon Yong-guk caught two small fish. He never eats them and throws them back in the water. When he excitedly showed me his first catch I told him I needed to get my glasses but I don’t think he got the joke!

Where are my glasses?

After fishing we travelled back to the edge of Ulsan to have breakfast. Next, was a visit to one of Korea’s most beautiful temples, Tongdosa (통도사). This is Korea’s largest temple and is famous, among other things, for having no statue of the Buddha outside the temple and a temple candle which has burnt for 1300 years.

The entrance to the temple complex

One of the buildings

One of the buildings in the center of the complex

One of the Four Heavenly Kings, Virupaksa, guardian of the West.

Virupaksa suppressing demons

Leaving Tongdosa Temple. The pathway is lined with ‘100 Day Flower Trees.’

Next, we travelled to a mountain cemetery where Kwon Yong-guk’s in-laws were gathering. The cemetery spanned the sides of three mountains and was the largest I have ever seen.

just one part of the mountain cemetery

A photo from half way up the mountain

Kwon Yong-guk beside the grave of his grandfather-in-law

The view from the edge of the grave

The young kids in Hanbok. Kwon Yong-guk’s sons are far left.

preparing to pay respects

I felt quite special being asked to pay homage

After ancestral rites another barbecue was prepared

Tucking-in

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©Amongst Other Things –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
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On Vacation

Posted in Diary notes, Uncategorized by 노강호 on July 29, 2012

my new summer hanbok – amazingly cool

Yes, it’s vacation time and I’m off to the UK. I don’t intend writing any posts while away and when I return I’ll only being posting here on a monthly basis. After a number of years in Korea over a twelve-year period, I’ll only be repeating myself and currently I’m spending time at my site on Haidong Gumdo, at zen-sword.com

I currently need to write one more post to make the total number of posts over 3 years, 500. Have a great summer!

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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)

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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Typhoon Meari Echoes in Daegu

Posted in Daegu, Diary notes, Photo diary, seasons by 노강호 on June 28, 2011

Daegu got the back-end of Typhoon Meari, typical in the monsoon season (Chang-ma 장마), which caused havoc and took nine lives in Jeju and Pusan. Saturday morning saw torrential rain and gusts of wind which didn’t abate until Sunday evening. The photos and video, taken from the 14th floor of my friend’s apartment, provide a great view across the Song-so area of Daegu, towards the distant mountains. As for the typhoon, luckily,  by the time it was inland, it was really only a big storm. All photos link to Wikimapia.

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looking across Song-so with Hwa-won in the distance and Bi-sul-mountain (비슬산) in the background

gathering storm

in the direction of Song-so Rose Park

looking towards the edge of the university campus

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The Chang Ma Arrives in Daegu

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, seasons by 노강호 on June 22, 2011

watching the chang-ma under the cheong-cha

I always find it strange how Koreans know almost every adjective to describe the weather apart from what I consider one of the most important and certainly one of the most impressionable. And as I write, I can already recall as song I taught years ago entitled: ‘How’s the Weather? It’s Sunny…’ etc, etc. There are probably numerous versions of this but the one my inner ear is currently playing has a particularly memorable tune. Apart from not rhyming very well, ‘humid’ would have fitted but when it comes to learning the weather in Korea, this manifestation is usually ignored. And come to think of it, the weather that produces this condition is also absent from the average Korean lexicon.

Chang Ma in Daegu

I can tolerate the heat but once the Chang Ma (장마 – monsoon) arrives, as it has this afternoon in Daegu, and Korean weather becomes horribly humid and particularly uncomfortable. Arriving in Korea in August, ‘humidity’ (습기) was one of the first words I learnt and being British and noted for their obsession with the weather, it is one of my most frequently used words through the sticky, muggy months.

cherry blossom festival - Korean blossom is more predicable than its British counterpart

When it comes to the change of seasons in the UK, they have a mind of their own and winter, for example, might arrive in November one year and January the next. British seasons tend to be technical and the season it is supposed to be is not necessarily representative of the weather you are experiencing. Several years ago, I attended a Korean spring festival in a school I had previously taught in and it has been scheduled for the weekend when the cherry blossom was supposed to be at it’s most spectacular, on this occasion, April 13th. I arrived to find the blossom so prolific, when the breeze blew it fell from the trees like snow. That same year I had been in Britain in January and a cherry blossom and magnolia spasmed into bloom in the street in which I live. Days later, a frost viciously wreaked decimation.

for a Brit, warm rain is quite strange

Back to the Chang Ma; several people told me it would arrive on Wednesday, and that is exactly what happened and as I write, the rain is beating down outside. Though the Chang Ma has been hanging in the air for around a week, it now seems to be fully here and so,  from which ever date you take as its arrival in Daegu, they fit within an 8 day window of  2010 (June 17th) and 2009’s (June 15th)  Chang Ma. That’s a fairly consistent pattern!

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

The Rainy Season Arrives (June 2010) Bathhouse Ballads

Senior Citizens’ ‘Street Party’

Posted in Diary notes, Entertainment, Photo diary, video clips by 노강호 on May 24, 2011

dancing to traditional ‘trot’

Last Saturday, as I was returning home from an outing I heard the sound of gongs and drums and walking down to the small park near my ‘one room,’ where an old peoples facility house is located (이곡경로당), discovered the old folks in the area where having a street party. In the middle of the small park a television screen had been set up and a small group were in the throes of a trot-style (트로트) karaoke session. One the periphery another group were busy accompanying the singing with an assortments of gongs and drums usually associated with traditional music such as pungmul nori (풍물놀이 and samul nori (사물놀이). Meanwhile, others were dancing in the style typical senior citizens. And the soju and makgeolli were flowing freely…

belting one out

as I sat watching, a tray of snacks was brought to my seat

a passing boy joins in…

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Boxers

Posted in Diary notes, Martial Arts, taekwondo by 노강호 on April 25, 2011

Sunday evening and Migwang bathhouse was again packed to watch Samsung Lions (Daegu’s baseball team) from the comfort of either the ‘ebente-tang,’ (today infused with ginseng), the hot pool, or the large jacuzzi. It would have been possible to watch it from the cold pool but it was  full of noisy students. At one point I moved to the small ‘ebente-tang’ during a commercial, when it almost empty and as soon as the game restarted, it suddenly had 9 occupants.

The moment I arrived at the changing rooms I spotted the numerous foreigners. There were 9 of them and they were all very fit and athletic with washboard stomachs and compact physiques. I wasn’t sure whether they were middle eastern or Eurasian but assumed they were probably Islamic as they all wore briefs or even jjimjilbang clothing in the bathhouse complex. I’d heard about the reception people get wearing underwear in the bathhouse and though they attracted much attention, no one seemed to take objection. However, at one point I did see one of the grumpy old attendants trying to explain that they should take their pants off.

Ilkin Schabazov

When one sat next to me I learnt they were the Azerbaijan taekwondo team, here to train at Keimyung University in preparation for the World Championships in Gyeongju, between May 1st and 6th. This morning I googled ‘Azerbaijan taekwondo’ and two of the men I’d seen I was able to research. One was Ilkin Schabazov, two times world champion for his weight division. Another fighter I recognized but couldn’t identify.

unfortunately, I couldn't find his name

Only one spoke English. How do you like Korean food? I asked. He replied, Pizza, McDonald’s and fried chicken!

Arirang video on World Taekwondo Championships in Gyeongju, May 2011

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Baseball, Boners and Mid Term Exams

Posted in Bathhouse, Diary notes by 노강호 on April 23, 2011

a little like this but with ten raucous kids and a television

Even though I’ve been in the busiest bathhouses, this weekend really wasn’t enjoyable. For many students, the midterm exams are over but for others another week of cramming into the early hours of the morning can be expected. Migwang wasn’t the busiest I’ve known it but it was certainly the nosiest. Samsung Lions, the Daegu  home team were playing one of the first games of the season and a small crowd of men and boys sat in pool nearest the large television. Naturally, there was an air of excited anticipation frequently vented by loud cheers or despondent sighs and as usual, it was friendly and relaxed rather as one might expect with English cricket or tennis and nothing like the revolting displays of tribal machoism associated with British football.

but what I really needed was this…

My favourite pool is probably the cold pool (냉탕), even in winter and unless it’s the peak of summer, it’s usually the quietest; today however, it was packed, ‘packed’ meaning about 12 occupants. Unfortunately, they were mostly older students intent on messing about. With my elbows resting on the pool ledge, I was constantly splashed and on two occasions had to ask boys to move away. And for the first time ever, the choppiness of the water annoyed me as there was a wave that regularly lifted my knees off the pool floor. Then there was the noise! Yes, I tried to console myself that they had probably finished exams and were letting off steam but it I really wanted to relax.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen boners in the bathhouse but today three boys had them and what was funny was they didn’t even try to hide them. If I got one I’d have to hide myself in the water, preferably cold, until safe to come out but they weren’t the least embarrassed.

My relaxation was interrupted on numerous occasions first by a teenage boy who was sat with his father and wanted to talk.  I tried to chat to his dad but he wasn’t in the least interested. Then a boy of nine introduced himself to me and shook my hand. His name was Pete and his dialogue consisted of; ‘Hello, my name is Pete, Nice to meet you. How is your family?’ After this he started firing random words, ‘notebook,’  ‘desk,’ etc. Eventually, he got bored and disappeared but not before four other boys, all aged around 13, began asking where I was from and if I liked Manchester United. Then I had to arm wrestle each of them in turn during which they scrutinised the hair on my arms. One actually started tweaking some hairs on my back.  And of course, as this is happening all the occupants of the pools around me are staring though it is not in the least unfriendly. I was subsequently rescued by a friend whose wife owns a coffee shop.  Whilst we were talking I noticed another foreigner and we acknowledged each other. He sat the pool opposite me but left very quickly. Usually the bathhouse numbers dwindle after 6 pm but today it simply got busier and even by 9 pm it was still crowded.

 

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Outed by the Makgeolli

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, bathhouse Basics, Comparative, Diary notes, podcasts by 노강호 on April 14, 2011

podcast 79

I’ve had some interesting experiences coming out which isn’t too surprising given I was in the British Army at a time when anything but normal was illegal and stepping out the closet risqué. Despite twice being implicated and subsequently made the subject of inquiry by that branch of British military affairs that investigates crime, notably the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), I was never charged even though I naively admitted my inclinations. In retrospect, this was probably because in my military band of some 25 musicians, quite a few had ‘meddled’  and  the ‘brass’ were always afraid of exposing too much as investigations tended to encourage soldiers to seek a discharge. Then there was the risk of scandal! With a history of 300 years and all the tradition to boot, such noted members as Baden Powell and Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, a famous cavalry regiment didn’t want egg on its face.  My autobiography, All the Queen’s Men, narrating many of the anecdotes of an ‘out’ soldier at a time of repression, was published by GMP in 1999. I think it’s now out of print.

Koreans seem to forget the fact British regiments fought in the Korean War

After the army, I spent 10 years teaching and certainly, for the first five years, had to be careful about providing students or staff too many personal details. I was an out in two schools when most were trembling in the closet and in both schools attitudes were challenged and changed by my presence.  One principal lambasted me for outing myself, claiming I should never have mixed private with professional, meanwhile his wife’s photo is on his desk and that morning he had mentioned his family in assembly. He is still the school’s principal and I often wonder if his attitudes have genuinely changed.

In Korea, for obvious reasons, I am quiet about my past and though civil rights are on their way, along with more insidious western influences, I am defensive when Korean attitudes are criticised. Korea is homophobic in a Korean way but much of that homophobia was instilled by western influences as well as the Choson upper classes.  Korea, like Japan and China, tolerated and even romanticised same sex relationships’ and primary sources from the Silla and Koryo dynasties survive to attest this. In particular, the Hwa Rang provides the best examples of homosexuality in ancient Korea. Naturally, the subject is more complex and convoluted than I make it appear.  Christianity in particular swept the evidence from the history books and turned the subject into a taboo with as much success as is evident in British schools when ancient Greek history is taught senza anything sexual. Christianity’s arcane moral legacy is still influential.

 

the legacy of the Hwa-rang lives on

Coming out in the UK has become boring! It not only used to shock people, which was always amusing, but provided a useful means of measuring a potential friends attitudes and the extent of their conservatism. Today, all the former bigots have been suppressed and though they all claim to be okay with your sexuality, you know they often find it objectionable.  I spent a few years working for an LGBT organisation and regularly attended forums organised by the police which focused on ‘hate crime.’ Not wanting to be left in the cold, the forums were a bizarre mish-mash comprising the most conservative elements of society. The worst, as would be expected, were the religious groups; bastions of institutionalized and established bigotry, against a broad range of people, seeking to protect their bigotry by promoting the idea that any criticism of their practice constitutes a persecution. In particular, Muslims have been quick to advance their agenda by virtue of democratic process they would most likely deny others if they had political power.  Of course such obvious contradictions and machinations can never be voiced and instead have to be shaded behind that sickeningly friendly facade for fear of transgressing the dictates of political correctness. The Jews at such meetings didn’t like the Muslims, the Muslims didn’t like the Jews, and they all hated the gays.  I can only invite your speculation as to how they viewed those present who were transsexual or transgendered.  We are living in volatile times when a change in regime, and a change in ideology could so very quickly reverse attitudes. It will take many years before most people are fundamentally accepting and currently, the apparent acceptance is for many a veneer.

I’ve never felt Koreans have hatred towards ‘alternative lifestyles,’ they just don’t seem to understand them and as a practice is doesn’t fit their family obsessed social order.  I wouldn’t fear being gay bashed here anymore than I’d fear being mugged and I certainly don’t detect the same rabid hatred for gay people as I still witness back home. British school children in particular, are extremely homophobic. Nonetheless, I would imagine being different on the peninsula, totally sucks.

I’ve only ever outed myself to a couple of Korean friends and despite being Christian, they were fine about it. Many foreigners assume Koreans are homophobic and many will be, but ten years ago I randomly met two Korean at random, who became good friends and to whom I subsequently came out. I think it says much about Korean attitudes when one is now my boss and the other would happily employ me in his school.  My boss never initiates a discussion about the issue while  while the  other can do so happily and on occasion makes friendly jokes about the clandestine side of my personality. Nor do I suspect they have gossiped to others though I am not sure this is because of shame or out of loyalty – ironically  ‘faith’ (신) between friends is both one of the five Hwa Rang commandments and one of the five laws of Confucianism. The fear of losing the friendship of other Koreans prevented me broadening my circle of confidants.  Ji-won is one such friend. I hadn’t planned to come out to him but his professed hatred for gays, though he didn’t seem genuinely ‘ hateful,’ as he was narrating a story to me, prompted me to expose my true nature.

Ji-won

So, in a bar on a Saturday evening,  surrounded by a growing battery of empty makgeolli bottles, he is telling me about his travel in Australia. On a visit to Sydney, some guy had run up to him and declaring undying love, kissed him on the cheek and as quickly as appearing, disappeared. Knowing Ji-won’s luck he’d probably arrived in Sydney during the Mardi Gras and in that typical Korean innocence, one of the world’s great gay events would have been perceived as anything but gay.  I can understand his confusion; with all the same-sex, hand-holding, shoulder clasping and general skinship-fondling coupled with the fashions of skinny camp pretty boys, it is easy to see the similarity between every day experiences on the streets of Korea and a gay Mardi Gras. On my fist day in Korea I thought I was in gay heaven until I discovered they were all straight, from then it was all downhill.

Though I tried to pacify him and help him perceive the experience from a different perspective, because I certainly wasn’t planning to come out, he remained adamant.  Ji-won is almost on a rant, which demanding passion is unique for a Korean. ‘But he kissed me! I wanted to punch him!’ He threw what looked like a punch to add emphasis but it wasn’t very nasty. He is one of the gentlest men I know and his punch wouldn’t have knocked the wind out of a school girl.

‘Do you love me!’ he asked but quickly pre-empting my response added, do you want to sex me?’ Of course not, I told him but meanwhile I was thinking how I’d love to if it weren’t for the disappointing fact he’s straight and I’m 25 years his senior – actually, I’m the same age as his dad. Poor Ji-won claims he’s never met any gay men so I tell him that one of my friends whom he’d met ten years ago, and with whom we’d gone to a bathhouse, was gay. ‘Really!?’ he inquires. ‘And do you remember Nick who you met in 2004?’ And with whom we also went to a bathhouse. ‘He was too!’  For any westerner, the coin would have dropped but Ji-won’s Korean psyche prevents him reaching the conclusion my revelation is supposed to prompt.

The makgeollii, and we’d drunk five bottles between us, was taking effect but so was the nature of the conversation and I could feel myself trembling.  ‘What if I was?’ I asked. ‘Would you want to hit me?’  Ji-won tells me this is a stupid idea because he knows me so well and besides, it’s just not true. ‘After all,’ he continues. ‘You once told me you weren’t married because you preferred being single.’ I laughed heartily. ‘Yes, and you believed me! But what if I was? Would you hate me, too?’

Ji-won and I: the usual Saturday evening English lesson. 2001

I’ve known Ji-won for over 10 years and taught him every Saturday for a year during his final year of high school. Both he and his father, Jun-hee refer to me as their ‘dick friend’ (고추 친구) and I’ve often heard them on their mobiles telling friends they’re with their ‘English go-chu chin-gu.’ Back in 2000 Jun-hee ran a large restaurant and every Saturday evening my evening meal was on the house. His wife, Sun-hee made the most delicious mandu, great big fat ones stuffed with minced meat and there was always a vat of home brewed dong-dong-ju sitting in the fridge. Leaving Korea in 2001 was a nightmare and my last visit to their restaurant, like a funeral. Ji-won had bought a new suit  in which to say goodbye and we were all crying. He gave me a present of his high school name badge and it remains one of my most treasured possessions and Hyun-chun, his younger sister gave me a beautiful little picture frame.  Meanwhile, Jun-hee and Sun-hee gave me a large box of kimchi in which lies another story!

Saying goodbye in late summer of 2001

One the eve of my departure back to England, late summer 2001

I’d always regretted the fact they didn’t know the real me especially as I’d already come out to two other  Koreans. My friendship with Jun-hee and his family was always more important than my sexuality and the rewards my silence provided outweighed the potential risks of  revealing it. I always wanted to let Jun-hee and Ji-won into my little secret as much as I’ve wanted to tell them that the box of kimchi they’d given me ten years ago, had to be thrown in the bin at Daegu railway station; it was simply too big and cumbersome to carry back to England and it would never have passed as hand baggage. Putting it into a bin was as heart wrenching as saying goodbye to them.

Jun-hee, Sun-hee, Hyun-chon, Ji-won in 2001

Our session continues, this time with a bottle of schizandra berry makgeollii (oh-mi-ja – 오미자) which as a ‘well being’ makgeolli, can be guzzled without guilt. Ji-won is still insisting I couldn’t be gay and suddenly I hear myself announcing…‘I am.’ I had every intention of retracting my confession but when I try to I suddenly realise I’d left it too late and that to do so would just leave him with a niggling suspicion. Ji-won is stunned and for a few moments is silent. ‘You are?’ Then, after realizing the truth, thirty seconds of utterly bewildered head shaking; the typical Korean type of dumbfounded head-shaking accompanied by one hand rubbing the head. All he can mutter is, ‘Oh my God!’

More makgeolli and several hours later and we pick up a few cans of beer in the local GS 25. I’m concerned that after the buzz of alcohol has worn off he might not talk to me again but the fact he wants to come back to my one room is consoling. That he wants a few sausages for a snack would have added to the consolation in a British context but for Koreans the point at which a cock and a sausage mentally exist before they collide into fnarr-fnarr humour, is infinitely greater. Maybe it was the makkalli or the fact we’d discussed gay stuff all evening, but on this occasion they collide. ‘Do you want your sausages hot or cold?’ he asks. ‘Why, hot of course! Don’t you like your sausages hot?’ I hold one before his mouth like a microphone; it’s sheathed in plastic and a stick has been viciously rammed into its center so you don’t have to get your hands messy. With a laugh he adds, ”I like hot sausage for eating, but not sexing.’  Yea! Me too! A voice inside my head regretfully sighs.

The following week I give him a call and we meet up. Our friendship has not changed and if anything, is probably deeper. Sat in a coffee shop he apologised for not having any secrets he can tell me but claims to know lots of local gossip. And meanwhile, he intends testing out his father’s reactions so I can eventually come out to him. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait another ten years.

 

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