Elwood 5566

Ben (3) Korean Teenagers

Posted in Education, Gender, Korean children, Uncategorized by 노강호 on August 23, 2010
Kim Jun-hyoek (김준혁)

Ben on a low

Ben has been up and down lately. At the end of last term he was on a massive high after passing a string of exams with 100%. One evening, on the day he received the marks for his final set of exams, he was  delirious with happiness and once again bouncing around the school declaring how he felt. In the UK I’d have assumed he was on drugs because British kids often down play any trait of intelligence as it can alienate them. And then, several days later, he finally got his reward for his efforts  in the form of two small puppies. For the next week he constantly assaulted my boss and I by thrusting his hand-phone in our faces to show us the latest series of puppy pictures. His accompanying leitmotiv was ‘my puppies, my puppies,’ made all the more endearing by a mild speech impediment which renders, ‘puppies,’ ‘puppish.’

Once the joys of owning a couple of puppies had subsided however, he became markedly strange in class and seemed to flit between happy and almost depressed. Neither was he very responsive when you tried to draw him out of his mood or ask its cause. The cause was obvious and one we’ve encountered on a number of occasions. Ben’s class consisted of 6 girls and two boys and the other boy, Kyle, had left Daegu for the summer vacation to attend an intensive study school: the equivalent of an academic boot-camp. Hence the root of Ben’s mood swings was the fact he was the only boy in the class.  Cherie and I tried to ride the problem for a little while but soon he was begging  for us to make changes so he wouldn’t be alone.

In a Korean setting class dynamics can change drastically if someone is older or younger than the other students, or, in the case, is the wrong gender. Kids lively and confident one moment can be  passive and introvert the next if a shift in personalities disadvantages them.  Because peer groups are not so important for British children, such problems do not arise. British kids can easily accommodate  friends  or fellow classmates, older or younger than themselves and a gender divide is not as noticeable as it is in the Korean class room.

and on a high

Ben, who is 16, was disturbed enough at being the only boy in the class that despite his recent academic success, we feared we might loose him when suddenly, a new boy arrived who was ideal to place alongside him.  Instantly, he returned to his old self and re-assumed his role as the class comedian but if ever the other boy is absent, he can quickly relapse into a sullen state.  I’ve spent so much time slagging off teenagers in my other blogs, I’m consoled by the realization I don’t dislike teenagers, just the ones who are rotten and rotten teenagers in Korea are rare. Ben is what Koreans might call a ‘flower-boy,’ or identify as ‘pretty,’ neither term being derogatory, though he might well be when older. If anything, his body is built like a chopstick and he looks closer to twelve than sixteen, a point the girls in the class often tease him on, but both my boss and I would love him for a son. Reading other K-blogs, I know many teachers share a similar regard for the nature and personality of Korean children and teenagers.

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A Summer Snippet – Circumcision (포경 수술)

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on August 16, 2010

Circumcision (포경 수술)

If there is one subject rarely talked about in Korea, it is the subject of circumcision. I was actually quite surprised when I discovered that Korea has the highest percentage of secular circumcision in the world, outstripping the USA. Over the age of 18, Korean circumcision rates exceed 90 percent.

By the time boys go to high school, the majority of them will have been circumcised and the most common time to perform this is between 13-16 years of age and usually during the winter vacation.  Some boys are circumcised earlier and a fair number may delay having it done. I occasionally notice university students who are uncircumcised but it is safe to assume that by the time they go to military service, they will have undergone the procedure.

Occasionally, I will know a boy is either about to have a circumcision or has just had one. Sometimes they will tell you and at other times the pained manner in which they walk makes it obvious. On a few occasions the subject has cropped up in lessons but it is never discussed in front of girls. It’s not unusual for a boy to be in classes the day after his operation though some will take a few days off.  Unlike the UK and USA, where non-neonatal circumcision involves a general anesthetic and an overnight stay in hospital, in Korea, it is performed under local anesthetic. Neither are operations performed in hospitals, but clinics which are as prolific as dentists or doctors. There is a circumcision clinic (Urology Clinic) opposite E-mart in Song-So and within minutes of having been circumcised, you can enjoy a Big Mac in their McDonald’s.

‘Ouch’

Aesthetically, Korean circumcisions are much neater than those performed in some other countries. Traditional circumcision in the Philippines, for example, known as pagtutuli, shouldn’t even be classed as circumcision and in the USA, an additional operation known as frenulectomy (frenuplasty – of which their are various spellings), which as many as 33% of circumcised males have had, removes the highly erogenous frenulum. Parents are not asked for consent to perform this ‘bonus’ procedure and indeed many men are unaware what was removed.  While the subject of circumcision is controversial, frenulectomy slips by unnoticed and most parents are ignorant as to what is involved. In addition, American circumcision has a history of being the most radical. In Korea, frenulectomy is not conflated with circumcision and the type of procedure doesn’t remove as much foreskin as possible.

I underwent a circumcision in August 2001 at the clinic opposite E-Mart, in Song-So. I had been debating the idea for several years and finally decided to take the plunge as I had never been happy with my status, probably because as a boy most of my friends were circumcised. I quite amazed myself at the time as I had visited my doctors and arranged everything for Thursday, 16th of August. The arrangement took less than a minute and there was no asking why I wanted it doing. My doctor simply made a phone call and booked me in. The operation would cost 100.000W (about £50), would take twenty minutes to perform and would be carried out in the same building as my doctor’s surgery.

A suitable totem pole near Kayasan

August 16th, 2001. I had to teach on the Thursday morning and though not as hot as a few weeks previously, it was terribly humid. In my classes, many of which had no air conditioning, my shirt was soaked with sweat. I had already perceived that I wouldn’t be in any fit mental state to teach and so had run-off some word puzzles for the kids. When my classes finished, I  frantically smoked a couples of fags on the back stairwell and paced up and down. I didn’t really want to leave school and there was an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but eventually everyone wished me luck and I took a taxi home.

I showered and then gave my friend David (이영순) a call. He arrived a few moments later as he had been waiting at the PC Bang, next door. I don’t think I had ever been so nervous, so much so my hands were trembling. Out on the street, we took a taxi and went straight to the clinic. I was early, so we went to the third floor of the building where I had a brief chat and cup of coffee with my doctor. Then, at 1.59 pm, he said, ‘Oh, Nick, it is time.’ And telling me not to worry, I walked down the stairs to the urology clinic. None of the doctors there spoke very good English so David sat in the clinic office with me and asked the surgeon the list of questions I had compiled:

“What happens if I get a hard-on during the operation?”  He laughed and said that wouldn’t happen. What sort of stitches would be used – dissolving or non-dissolving?” I was given a choice and told non-dissolving left less of a scar. “What happens if I get an erection over the next few days?” I was told to stick a cotton bud in my ear or stick my feet in icy water. “’When could I shower next?” Next week!

I was then taken into the operating room which was small and not unlike a dentist’s surgery.  In the center stood that ominous table. Dropping my trousers and boxers I lay down and wondered what the fuck I had let myself in for.

Everything everyone had told me worked out the opposite. David had told me to expect two injections (later it became four) well, I was given eight and they stung. I covered my eyes and ears for the whole operation as there was a radio playing shit Korean music and the three surgeons kept fucking singing along to it. David had told me that sometimes you hear the scissors snicking away and I did, even the radio or the surgeons’ singing didn’t drown it so I had to jam my thumbs in my ears. Then the overhead light was so bright I had to cover my eyes. Several people had said the operation would take around twenty minutes, in fact it took forty. Then, all apart from Pak Ji-won (박지원),  one of my older students, I had been told it wouldn’t hurt. It did! But not at first. Shortly after the snicking sounds finished, I smelt something cooking; I reckon they had either cauterized an artery or one of them was starting a barbecue. It was like my entire senses were being assaulted: the bright light, the noraebang Nahuna rendition and that strange, almost acidic  barbecue smell that lingered.  I had to stretch my fingers so I could pinch my nose shut, bung my ears and cover my eyes to blot everything out.

I think I lay like that for twenty minutes and eventually, felt a numb change in what was happening. I thought they were finishing but next followed a sort of slicing sensation which was very unpleasant because although it wasn’t painful, it felt actually felt like something was being sliced. David  had told me to expect eight stitches. The following  morning I counted 36.   At one point  during the procedure I told them it hurt but they ignored me and just carried on singing along to the radio.

Finally, the pain stopped and I could sense I was being mopped up. I took my clammy hands off my face and sighed. Then I was able to sit up and pull my trousers up. The surgeons, lined up, smiled and bowed. Out in the corridor David was sat reading. I did a little dance for him as I didn’t hurt at all, probably because my system was zinging with adrenalin. Then, we walked over to E-Matt and bought a McDonald’s which we walked home with. Was I hungry!

A common place to see boys hobbling. 미래 Urology Clinic opposite Song-So E-Mart.

The clinic has given me a list of after-care procedures which David had translated into English whilst I was being operated on. It listed things like not drinking for a week because of the antibiotics, not showering for a week, resting for a few days, etc, etc. At the bottom of the list was an amendment  in David’s handwriting, it read….

6. And you must endure not to have a wang! (Wank).

I didn’t hurt at all but throughout the evening, waited for the drugs to wear off and enter what someone had predicted would be, a ‘new world of pain.’ When my roommates arrived home we went out with them to a nearby restaurant. I wasn’t hobbling at all. Strangely, during the night I was worried more by the fact I didn’t hurt. And you wouldn’t believe how effective cotton buds in the ear are at killing an erection. One of the doctor’s had explained that poking a cotton bug in you ear-hole interrupts signals from your dick to brain and terminates any boner.

Friday 17th of August, 2001. In the morning, I was quite worried because it looked very ill. I wondered whether the bandage was too tight. I phoned David but couldn’t get hold of him so, at 8.45 am, I took a taxi to the clinic only to find it didn’t open until 9.30. So I waited in my doctor’s office on the third floor of the building. He sat me down, gave me a cup of coffee, talked to me and soon it was 9.30 am.

Back on the slab, I was checked-out but they didn’t think anything was wrong. Back in the reception area my doctor was waiting for me as he can speak fairly good English. There were three patients sitting behind me, two young women behind the receptionist’s desk, and four surgeons around me. Ten Koreans in all! Everyone was centered on our conversation – which of course, was about my dick!

As I leave, all the staff smile and bow deeply. My doctor invited me up to his surgery for breakfast and there I am introduced to his mother. We ate fruit and sat talking for about two hours and as I was leaving he invited me out to dinner. At the time, my doctor had just moved into the premises and had few patients, today I have to sit in the waiting room for an hour before I can see him.

Saturday August 18th, 2001. Very irritating because the stitches are made from something resembling nylon – like the material used for a toothbrush.

Although not sore, it is uncomfortable walking any distance so I have spent a considerable time lying down under the fan. Most Koreans get circumcised in winter and I would imagine the possibility of infection is higher in a humid climate so I lie under the fan as much as possible. I have been used to showering over 5 times a day and it is very uncomfortable not being able to do so. Showering is not just a hygienic necessity but a hobby and something I do to kill time.

Tuesday 21st of August 2001. Pak Jun-hee (박준희) has been bringing me lunch for the last couple of afternoons. His mandu and kimchi, made by his wife, Sun-hee, in their restaurant, are definitely the best in Song-So. Today, he asked if he could see ‘the results!’ Yes, I was rather shocked because in the UK no one would ask that. It was a strange situation because between us on the table, were the steaming mandu.  Koreans! I love them!

My ‘go-ch’u chin-gu’ of 10 years, Pak Jun-hi and his wife, Sun-hee

Thursday 23rd of August, 2001. My antibiotics and pain killers ran out today and I’ was sore, so much so I had to go and buy some. In the afternoon, I went out to the cinema with Ji-won (박지원, his father is Jun-he). His English has improved so much since I started teaching him back in November. He told me he would be really sad when I left and that he would never forget me. It was all rather poignant. We walked around the Milano area for a while and had pat-ping-soo in a Sweet Water cafe which is just  so tacky it’s unbelievable. It was decorated in pinks and had Barbie dolls and Miss Kitty paraphernalia all over the place. After, we had a burger in Lotteria and then took the bus home  which was painful as the bumpy journey was over the construction area of what is now Daegu Subway system.

Saturday 25th of August, 2001. Saturday and I’m still in pain so I headed back to the clinic with David. My God! What a hideous experience, so hideous I don’t think I can actually do it justice in writing. It’s like I’ve been to a place of pain that I never want to experience again. I went back onto the couch where they decided to remove the stitches and it felt I was being assaulted with a pair of pliers.  I cannot describe how excruciatingly painful it was and I wished they had been singing or cooking a barbecue, anything to take my mind off they pain. At one point, when I flinched, one of them told me off.  When I eventually walked out of the small surgery, and David saw me, me he thought I had soaked my head in water and my hands were shaking badly. However, it was much easier walking without those infernal barbed-wire bonds.

‘Go-ch’u chin-gu,’ David (이영선)

Thursday August 30th, 2001. Life is almost back to normal. On Thursday afternoon I did some of my jobs – paid some bills, went to see Mr Pak at the post office and then we spent the afternoon in the Han Song Plaza bathhouse. With school having just started, the place was empty.

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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Migwang Bathhouse on a Sunday Morning

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, Gender, seasons by 노강호 on August 1, 2010

Bathhouse view over city

I’ve been in Cambodia for a few days and today was the first opportunity in over a week to wallow in the e-bente-tang (이벤트탕). I was visiting Migwang jjimjilbang in Song-So, Daegu. Though a Sunday morning at 8.45am, it was the quietest I have known it and quieter than the odd occasions when I have been in the bathhouse at 3 or 4 am.

Today it’s 35 degrees and even at 8.15 the memi were screaming from passing trees. At this time of year, with the screaming in chorus, you can hear them in a taxi with the windows closed. As is usual in hot weather, I head straight for the cold pool once I have had a shower and shave, but today I noticed something very special. I often joke to my friends about the e-bente-pool and tell them how I lay waiting for them to start spinning or jiggling up and down, but they never do. The very term ‘e-bente’ is a bit of an anti-climax and in the English use of the word merely adding a smell to the water doesn’t really constitute an ‘event.’ An ‘event’ implies something out of the ordinary or special. The very first time the complex management added an aroma to the water constituted an event which subsequently became a normal feature and a bit of a ‘non-event.’ Today however, I noticed the water has been coloured deep pink to complement the ‘herb’ aroma. So, by-passing the cold pool, I head straight for some pink pampering. Hardly much of an ‘event,’ but after waiting for over a year for something to happen, anything is better than nothing.

As I’m wallowing, I suddenly become aware of other subtitle changes. The ceiling has been cleaned and new pattern section as been placed above the central baths. In the cold pool, I discover a ledge has been built against the far wall and is big enough to sit on. One this, at intermittent spaces of about a meter, big enough to park my fat arse, are various devices which look like various kinds of fountain; I can’t tell as I don’t think it has been finished yet. Above these are multi-coloured light fittings. It looks like the lights and fitting may comprise a new water feature. Migwang is obviously doing well  financially as every holiday new items miraculously appear. Several months ago the gigantic tropical islands photos surrounding the cold pool were replaced with new ones, the tiles in the high-powered shower replaced with ones of sunflowers, and a long strip of jagged paving stone, to walk on and stimulate the soles of the feet,  a torture Koreans’ seem to enjoy, was installed.

Bathhouse overlooking city

By 11 am, the bathhouse is busier and I’m treated to a display of some guy doing a complete taekwondo workout. Another guy, cooling in the cold pool, directly behind the guy exercising, is treated to a peek up his back passage when, on several occasions, he  stretches   downwards to put his head between his knees and place the palms of his hands flat on the floor. In the e-bente-tang a teenage boy and his dad are caressing each other. The dad is sitting between his sons outstretched legs while his son pummels his shoulders and massages his back. They wrestles in the water  for a while, wrapping their legs around each other and at one point, the boy bites his father’s toe. When they watch the TV together, I notice how close they sit to each , almost like lovers, their heads are almost touching; I notice them later on when they are walking between the pools either hand in hand or with their arms around each other. I wish I could have had such intimacy with my father; I don’t think I ever massaged his shoulders  or scrubbed his back and sitting that close to each other, as adults, even when clothed, would have been uncomfortable.   If you see anything sexual in such a reflection you’re clearly a dirty waygukin with a perverted mind!

Ohhhhh! Summer’s heavenly haven

There is another teenage boy with his dad, probably about 14 and he has got the most enormous dick: if you watch the faces of other men as the boy passes them, you can see them peek at it. When they’re sitting in the e-bente-tang, the boy makes several visits to the ice-room where collecting a handful of ice, he takes it back into the pool and commences to massage it over his father’s head. In typical Korean fashion, his father makes loud noises to express his pleasure at the sensation.

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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

When 'Gay' is 'Gay!'

Posted in Comparative, Gender, Korean children, Westerners by 노강호 on June 21, 2010

 

Not suitable for Pumpkin people

How do you know if another boy is gay? I asked some 15  year old boys.

1. A gay boy stands close to other boys

2 A gay boy strokes other boys

3. Gay boys likes to hold your hand

4. Gay boys kiss other boys

5. Gays hug people

As for gay girls, I’m told: you can’t really tell if a girl is gay because all girls hold hands with their friends.

So! It would appear most Korean boys and many men are gay!

 

'No Regret' (2008) Korean gay movie

The  use of the term ‘gay’ in Korea is fairly new to me and I certainly don’t recall it being as prevalent in the past as it is now. However, the term is only ever used within the context of ‘homosexual’ and doesn’t carry the broader western  connotation, ‘bad,’ ‘crap,’ ‘shit’. etc, which can be applied to anything.  In Korea, you won’t find any ‘gay’ books, or ‘gay’ movies and unlike my last UK school, where even chairs had  ‘gay’ graffitied on them, there are no ‘gay’ objects. Though they might react differently if they someone were gay, their use of the word  lacks all nastiness. I imagine that the idea of someone really being gay, is so alien that the the term can be used without emotion.  That someone could be ‘gay’  is as likely as someone being  a ‘martian.’ In the west, when kids use the word as an accusation its purpose is very often  to  assert an appearance of heterosexuality, the rationale being if you want to appear heterosexual, simply behave in a homophobic manner.  When ‘gay’ is used as a derogatory term in the west, it’s never simply spoken and is often heavily invested in emotion  even to the point of being spat out with hatred.  The Korean use of the term ‘gay,’ by comparison, is the most naive and innocent I have ever heard. Indeed, Koreans use the  term ‘gay’ in the gayest of ways. Of course, for Koreans in the closet, derogatory comments are as insulting as they are in the west and that they seem to be voiced in the absence of malice probably symptomatic of the success with which society has oppressed/suppressed same sex relationships.

 

Skinship by Hee Chul and Sung min

Most of my classes are co-ed but a few weeks ago, as we were trying to group abilities more closely, we were left with one class which is solely boys.  I’ve read a few posts by teachers who get annoyed at displays of skinship during lessons and have to admit, since the girls left, the amount of petting and pawing has increased. The class consists of 5 boys , divided into 2 groups (3;2) and which are very tight peer groups, that is to say boys who attend the same school, same classes and in many cases will have been friends for a long time. Both groups are inseparable and are by their own definition ‘dick friends.’ (고추 친구). In Korean culture, between men or boys, one cannot count a friend close until you have seen each other naked, eg at a bathhouse, at which point you become ‘goch’u ch’ingu,’ (고추 친구). The last thing most western lads want to see is their mates dick and any interest expressed in this direction would be a deemed ‘gay.’

 

Korea, camp minus gay

The main protagonist of the skinship is Mark, a boy of about 15 (English reckoning). While the other boys sit in the same seats, all the front row, Mark seems to change seats each lesson and will paw and fiddle a different lad correspondingly. Stroking hair, massaging shoulders, holding hands are all common but on two occasions he has also kissed other boys on the cheek, albeit as a joke. His friends tell me he claims to be ‘in love’ with a different boy each day and accuse him, in the nicest and gayest way possible, that he’s ‘gay’ – on two occasions this has been the point he has kissed the current object of his interest.

As for the list supplied by the boys:

1. A gay boy stands close to other boys – in the school office this afternoon one boy was laying on top of another one (aged 12)

2 A gay boy strokes other boys – in every class boys fiddle with each other

3. Gay boys likes to hold your hand – that means all my best friends are gay. And yesterday in the bathhouse I actually saw two boys, most likely brothers aged around 12 and 7 respectively, the older boy of which was sat on the side of the pool holding his brothers dick as he talked to him and when the younger boy went to run off the older boy pulled him back with a tug.

4. Gay boys kiss other boys – I don’t see this often but I have had Korean male friends (certainly straight) kiss me.

5. Gays hug people –again, my male friends have hugged me.

Perhaps a more pertinent question might be how do you tell if a Korean man or boy is ‘straight?’ Any insights into Korean homosexuality warmly welcomed!

K-pop - Kamp-pop. And are the lads eying each other up?

 

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Ben – Korean Teenagers (2) and other stuff…

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on June 9, 2010

Japanese youth icons: 'Camp' is not a universal recognition

I’m always intrigued by the campness and expressions of skinship displayed by Korean men and boys. In a class today, Mark, one of my 16-year-old students was leaning across his desk to write his name on a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, two boys behind him start stroking his arse and putting their fingers in the waistband of his boxers, his shirt having ridden up to expose them. Mark doesn’t even twitch even as one of the lads put his hand right under his crotch. Earlier in the lesson, and this has happened on more than one occasion, I noticed Mark’s arm behaving in a very suspicious manner in the proximity of the boy’s lap sat next to him. Of course, any suspicions are solely in my own dirty western imagination as Korean teenagers always appear to be totally innocent  in terms of sexual behaviour.

I remember when I taught a class of 13-14 years olds in a British Boys’ school and was constantly noticing lads with erections. So prolific were these manifestations I nicknamed the class, ‘erection city.’ And boys wanking in class?  One of my colleagues, a female teacher, walked around the side of a boy’s desk only to see him, grinning in a manner that suggested he anticipated some erotic development, with his erection exposed and being toyed in his hand. There were even occasions when I  caught boys with their hands on the front of each others  trousers. There was an obsession with penises and sex throughout the school and even the head teacher, a seedy character, used to shower with Year 9 boys when the weather was hot, or interrogate them in lessons about issues such as masturbation and puberty. Penises were everywhere, drawn on desks, scrawled on walls, in books and constantly referred to.  Some went beyond scrawling  and  meticulous in detail, were clearly the result of  much study, observation and affection.

I used to teach religious education and the class text books we used had penises graffitied in appropriate places wherever possible. When they couldn’t be inserted naturally they were simply drawn sprouting from foreheads.  And distance was no barrier for these fantastical phalli;  even when bodies were at the extremes of opposing pages, immense penises connected them. I kept a copy of the most graffitied text-book as the creativity and imagination of the boys was staggering.  In parts I was reminded of Hieronymus Bosch’s, Garden of Earthly Delights, which in the boys’ hormone-fired imagination, was exactly the landscape they were trying to express.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights

One of the photos depicted a priest offering a kneeling woman Holy Communion. What idiot designs a school book with such a photo! If boys hadn’t already graffitied the page, I would have to have done it on their behalf. So, a great monster of a penis miraculously sprouted from the front of his cassock, meandered into a suitable position to be held in his hand, obliterating the communal wafer and finally, was plugged into the woman’s face. More in line with the Catholic Clergies clandestine predilection for young lads, a more topical candidate might have been a kneeling boy. Meanwhile, the flanking attendants and congregation were suitably adorned with penises sprouting from under cassocks and from their foreheads. And in the air, a small chorus of  body-less penises, hovering like wingless angels,  jettisoned copious ejaculate wherever faces were visible and gagged and subsequently force-fed any open mouth. Manna from heaven! Graffitied cocks are seldom seen in Korea and personally, I’ve only seen three.

'Obscene' Korean graffiti - a rarity

In the UK, Ben, one of my students and an adorable boy, would be bullied for being a little faggot. Earlier in the year he dropped 2 marks from his English paper, scoring 98%. In the west, and rightly so, that’s an achievement worth celebrating but in Korea, if it’s not 100% it’s basically a fail. Even in essay competitions students who don’t win first, second, or third, will tell you they failed. Despite being the cream of their school and competing at province level, anything other than gold, silver or bronze is a failure. Distraught and ashamed, Ben spent an entire evening sitting alone, crying. Apprehensive about facing his parents, my boss had to comfort him and then drive him home. On this occasion, his ‘kibun’ was so damaged he couldn’t talk to me for several days.

Ben

More recently, he’s been quite excited. His dad has promised to buy him a puppy if he does well in the end of semester exams. Ben is ecstatic and is bouncing around the school like an amphetamine doped gazelle. ‘A puppy, a puppy,’ his constant cry. I’m thinking: a fucking puppy!  The boy’s sixteen and he’s totally thrilled by the prospect. In the UK, his mind would be polluted with plans to simultaneously get pissed and loose his virginity.

Faggoty is fashionable!

My school, like my last high school is full of faggoty boys. One is a local champion in ballroom dancing. He’s 14  and always  turns up at school meticulously dressed. He often wears a pair of trainers with laces the colour of his top. He obviously has a stash of  coloured laces at home and I’ve noted his array include green, red, yellow and blue. Like many Korean students who don’t use a back pack, he uses a bag which is fairly common, and nothing short of a big handbag.  Usually, he’ll mince into school with an arm extended like a tea-pot and from the crux of his elbow dangles his bag appropriately emblazoned with the logo,  ‘Kamp.’ Last week he had a new pair of silver trainers and a matching black and silver baggy top with large lapels. I didn’t particularly like the top’s design as it reminded me of 80’s fashions and the clothes Wham used to parade in when singing  shit  like, Wake Me up Before you Go-Go. Besides ballroom dancing, he has a third degree taekwondo black-belt!

What...um.......yes!

Have you noticed the mincy little walk many Korean men have? The first time I saw a teenage boy mince, I was quite amused. I’ve since realised that mincing, basically walking with little steps while swinging the hips a little, is the product of wearing open back sandals. In my last high school boys had to wear sandals in school and there really is no better tool  adept at  emasculating males. If you want to feminise or at least androgynise men or teenage boys, simply force them to wear sandals, the type that have no back to them. You can’t run in them without taking small steps and as a result you shuffle along like a Geisha. Running up or down stairs is positively dangerous. In the same way you dispose a girl to femininity  by making her wear a skirt and subsequently deterring her from the rough and tumble of boys pursuits,  you emasculate boys with a pair of sandals. As a result, many Korean men mince  even when wearing shoes.

Jason is another student I have taught for almost two years. He’s a quiet boy aged about 15 and who talks in a whisper. A few weeks ago he was asked to write an essay on what he would do if he could do anything he wanted, for one evening. His response eventually concluded with spending the night in a luxury hotel, and ordering room service to deliver him steak and lobster. My western brain clicked into action: 15-year-old boy in a hotel? on his own? lots of money? – naughty, naughty!  Risky Business and all that stuff! But Jason avoided the alcohol, call girls and his luxury evening ended by watching TV, and having a double bed. ‘Double bed!’ I repeated suggestively. ‘Why do you want a double bed?’ I asked. His response was typically Korean; ‘to sleep in!’ ‘I laughed and was going to explain why, which of course is futile. Prostitutes, shagging, throwing parties when mummy and daddy are away, getting pissed – are all phenomena which exist at the furthest corner of Jacob’s universe. That’s where they belong until he is 19! The Garden of Earthly Delights, for a Korean student isn’t dependent  on sex, alcohol  or defying parents and all that is required to pave the way to paradise is no school and no homework! Meanwhile faggoty is fashionable, and mincy and kamp are cool and civilised.

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This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Basics 3: The Italy Towel

The Italy Towel. (이타리 타월)

Other than water, the Italy towel is probably the most universal item in a bathhouse and in some quarters, “Korea Design Heritage 2008,” has been ranked as number 5 among items over the last 50 years, which have defined Korea.  Apparently, Gil Pil-gon who ran a textile factory in Pusan, discovered the cloths’ ex-foliating properties in a piece of  fabric imported from Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Defining icons, food delivery boxes, Nong-Shin ramyon and the Italy Towel.

Though available in a range of colours, the predominant colour is ‘silver,’ which is actually the green one.  In addition, they all seem to be made by the same company, BC Choi and hence, the towels, manufactured in Korea, are 100% Korean! Like sandpaper, Italy Towels come in different gradients and these are denoted by the colour. ‘Pink is the least abrasive, followed by ‘silver’ (green) with the most abrasive and capable of removing the deepest ingrained grime, being yellow.

Other colours are manufactured, including red. The green one is actually described as 'silver.'

Italy towels are not to be confused with the larger version cloth which is also supplied in a bathhouse and which is usually red.

The larger, and milder, ex-foliating cloth

What typifies the Italy Towel is its size. My hand barely fits into it. The cloth is used to scrub the skin, usually in one direction, top to bottom and in straight lines and if used effectively a line of gray, dead skin is produced. The towel is fairly abrasive and needs to be used with caution on the face. Minimal soap is used in order to maximise the towel’s abrasive quality. Koreans will scrub their entire body with this cloth in a process which can last well over an hour.

If anyone accompanies you to the bathhouse, a friend or relative, it is natural for you to scrub each-other’s back. Usually you sit behind the person whose back you a rubbing,  though people sometimes stand. For men, that your ‘partners’ dick is dangling in you face is no  more of an issue than any other part of their body. Between men, one of the defining features of a ‘go-ch’u-ch’ingu’ (고추 친구),  literally translated as a  ‘penis friend,’ basically a close friend, is that penises are ‘acknowledged’ rather than  shunned with fear. It is this tacit, sometimes even verbalised  ‘acknowledgment’ which helps define a close, male relationship.  In the western male, heterosexual psyche, a penis is threatening and  ‘acknowledging’ your male friend has ‘one,’ seeing ‘it,’ talking about ‘it,’ and even being too close ‘it,’   have  the potential to terrify.  It is not at all uncommon to see a row of school boys or students all sat in a chain as they have their backs scrubbed while scrubbing the back of the person in front. Between family members the towel is used  much more intimately and again, it is  very common to see parents and children mutually scrubbing each other’s entire body. This is not restricted to small children.  Mutual cleaning and the intimacy involved are an expression of the concept of ‘skinship.’

How often one should use the Italy Towel is a personal preference. If used frequently, the process can rub-away body hair – though I wouldn’t recommend this as a method of waxing. Some Koreans use it every few days, others once a week. Perhaps the best guide is simply whether or not you have a layer of skin which needs removing. I use a pumice stone on my feet regularly and if no skin is being removed I stop the process – this is perhaps the best guide to using the Italy Towel.

I have noticed that you can scrub yourself meticulously and regularly with the larger, less abrasive towel, the one usually provided free in all bathhouses, and that this does not remove dead skin with the effect of the Italy Towel. I was very surprised when after a period of not using an Italy Towel, a friend scrubbed my back and arms and then made a joke about how dirty I was. It is surprising what that little towel removes.

Unlike the larger cloth and towels for drying, the Italy Towel has to be purchased, costing about 1000 Won. I usually keep one for months at a time and have even seen the odd person use ones discarded in the used towel bin.

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Laura (1) Korean Teenagers

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Gender, Korean children, Korean Clothes by 노강호 on May 27, 2010

Not suitable for pumpkin people

If there’s one thing I love about Korean teenage girls, it’s that you rarely meet one who is a slag.  No doubt slags exist in Korea and no doubt there are examples of Korean 15-year-old girls who trowel on make-up, wear Satan’s panties and are promiscuous, but I haven’t met any. In the UK, unless you teach in a top girls school, and I was fortunate enough to have taught stints in two of the top schools, notably Colchester Royal Grammar School (a boys school) and Colchester Girls’ High School, a large percentage of the girls are strumpets.  Many of them were good students and decent kids but they still dressed and behaved in a way I didn’t think appropriate: obsessed with their bodies, with looking sexy, obsessed with sex, with behaving in a sexual manner and in flaunting their undeveloped bodies all of which comprised to denude them of personality.  From childhood recollections to my more recent experiences as a teacher, being a slapper, in the UK at least, drastically improves a girls popularity among both other girls, and naturally, among the boys. My sister is convinced that had she been in those elite ranks, she’d have had a more interesting life. Amusing though this comment is, I’m glad she wasn’t.

 

High school students in the 2nd grade. ( aged around 16-17) Absolutely no make-up at all was permitted in this particular school.

Laura, one of my Korean students, is 15 and totally adorable and like many Korean teenagers, a country with the lowest rate of teen pregnancy in the world, she is, in the cute Korean way, ‘innocent.’ Laura definitely has an interest in boys and one of our regular conversation topics centers on which boy band she is currently into and which boys she finds attractive. Recently, she has started using perfume which I would imagine she applies  after leaving her school and before she comes to the haggwon in which I teach. The ‘safest’ place for her to do this is probably on the elevator up to the third floor, where the school is located. Her perfume predilection started about 2  months ago and in the initial stages of pioneering application, I think she doused herself in it.  The smell was ‘in your face’ and strong enough to remain in class and around the school, long after she had left.

To compliment the perfume, she has also started wearing the faintest traces of make-up, basically lipstick and some mascara. The make up isn’t applied in the manner many English strumpet’s apply it, which is by slapping it on in the manner a plasterer might plaster a wall. I’ve seen plenty of young teenage girls with such thick mascara it looks more like cladding and usually little pebbles of it will be stuck to their eyelashes or  face and will occasionally flake off like little pieces of a crusty, albino scab. The art of teenage make-up,  like their interest in sex, is uniquely British, which is to say, is an overstatement and hence pots of mascara and eyeliner and all the other accouterments of teen tartery are used with as much subtlety as that of a circus clown. For the most part, Korean teenage girls, certainly under the age of 18, are discouraged and often forbidden from make-up and so when a little is used, forced into subtlety of application,  it often enhances their features. You probably wouldn’t notice Laura’s make-up  if it weren’t for the fact that when applied, she’s incredibly sheepish and self-conscious. As for her lipstick, it is so faint I imagine it’s simply lip balm with the slightest trace of added colour.

 

One particularly common style of British teen make-up

Discerning how much make up Korean girls do wear, is difficult as girls, like children everywhere, will ‘push the limits’ and hence I hear stories of girls wearing ‘short’ skirts to school or who wear make up but in Korea a ‘lot’ of make-up is actually very little and a ‘short’ skirt doesn’t mean you can see their knickers.

In British schools, I often saw tell-tale signs that girls were wearing a pair of Satan’s panties and it wasn’t unusual to see that flimsy bit of ‘string’ riding above a girl’s waistband. This is a sight  I’ve never seen in Korea and Korean adults are often mortified to know that western girls, often not yet teenagers, are permitted to wear, or even want to wear, such sexualised clothing.  Indeed, in Korea, I’ve never caught glimpse of a girls knickers.  While it is solely an opinion based on my observations, and which doesn’t include routing through the children’s underwear section in my local E-Marte, I would imagine that Laura’s  knickers, like those of her friends, are void of the translucent panels, little bows and lacy frill edges  that are used to sexualise the bodies of little kids. Her knickers probably reach to her navel and  are styled like the baggy blue things, British girls were compelled to wear for PE in the 60’s and 70’s.

I mention knickers, panties and thongs, not for any perverse reason but to highlight the divergence of social values between Korean and western societies.  How children ‘choose’ to adorn their bodies, the extent to which this adornment is encouraged or tolerated, how it is subsequently received by societies both at home and abroad, expresses and exposes important attitudes and values. In Britain at least, there is a difference between ‘knickers’ and ‘panties;’ ‘knickers’ are functional  whereas the purpose of ‘panties’  is two-fold, to induce arousal in the observer and a sense of sexiness in the wearer. Satin’s panties take this to a totally different level. In Britain, many girls, will tart up their twat with ‘sexy’ panties or a thong while still children and often before using make up.  In Korea, while a little experimentation with make-up might occur whilst still at school, the transition from knickers to panties, from innocence to awareness, probably occurs at about the same time a girl becomes an adult.

Over the duration of a week or so, Laura’s perfume gradually mellowed until it was actually quite pleasant and on a few occasions, when it hung faintly in the air, I was reminded of my mother who always wore floral type perfume. It has become a regular habit of hers to hold her wrist under my nose and ask for my opinion on her latest scent. I then discovered, from her brother, that the  various perfumes  she  parades,  are her mother’s and are sneaked on when no one is at  home.

A Little 'Outing'

Posted in Comparative, Gender by 노강호 on April 9, 2010

Not suitable for Pumpkin people

I don’t want to turn this blog into a critique and rant about that shitty country from which I come, namely the UK. I have already expended considerable resources writing the backbone of two books focusing on my experiences of both British education and British culture. When faced with new experiences, especially ones culturally orientated, it is difficult, if not impossible,  not to relate them to the culture with which you are most familiar.  I’m not particularly bothered about accusations of being a ‘kimcheerleader,’ I have lived long enough and had enough experiences to have confidence in my opinions though I’m may not always be right. I am unashamedly a Koreaphile and reaching this acknowledgment has grown out of my relationship with Korea. Unlike a patriotic stance, which is conferred simply by being born in a country, my allegiance may change and won’t remain static and nonjudgmental. There is nothing particularly wrong with patriotism until it suggests that those who are not  are inferior, mistaken, or traitorous.  I prefer to give my loyalty to that I find most rewarding, especially in terms of quality of life. Why else would I elect to work thousands of miles from home for a salary inferior to that I could earn in Britain as a high school teacher.  Despite all the flaws with Korean society, and there are many, I have much greater respect and admiration for this small country than I do for washed out Britain. We might have a monarchy and an intriguing past, but Britain is a dirty, insular country whose once proud, if not questionable history and culture, is currently being swept aside in a politically correct invasion that condemns anything British while humbling before everything alien. The country for which I served fourteen years in the military forces, is now ruled by the values of the lowest strata of society and if you take any pride in something British or English you are a racist. Celebrate Christmas and you are suspect but come Hanukkah or Diwali and you can  light your candles with pride and everyone has to be reverent. Every cultural import into Britain has been canonised while the native culture is systematically demonized.

Recently, I was reading a post on Chris Backe’s AKA, Chris in Korea, in which readers were asked to respond to a photograph. ‘Are you racist?’ Chris asks. The post was interesting and sparked some lively commentary but what amused  me most was that before I had even read the article, I had judged the photo, ‘typically British!’   Indeed, by British standards, and talking as an ex-squaddie,  the photo was somewhat tame; nice pair of shoes, looks like his pants (not jeans), are pressed and a clean white shirt! The chances, are if I met this guy when sober, assuming of course, he is pissed, he’d probably be a decent chap. Hang around Daegu even at past midnight and kids from school,  in uniform, are still to be seen going home from the hagwons, study rooms and even high schools.  In my home town, Crappy Colchester, many adults avoid the town and that’s early evening! Pissed up people in the gutter, predominantly the same age as Korean high school students, puking and fighting on the streets,  are now a common site in most British towns and a point of  social and political concern. The ‘pissed up’  includes, pissing in public, fighting , vandalism and general anti-social behaviour all of which are menacing. Most unpleasant is a tension which pervades town centers and many other places, throughout most of the day, though specifically at night and which is the result of uniquely British form of  aggression.

 

Is Korea making you racist? (from AKA Chris in Korea)

My point? There is an ugly side to Britain, especially in terms of gender where men, especially working class men, and despite all attempts to render a facade of equality, Britain is still class divided, have to appear  masculine, ie: aggressive, sexually rampant, staunchly heterosexual and prolific boozers. And now, many women behave in the same Brutish way. It is difficult not to compare my Korean experiences with those internalized through my socialization in, and experience of,  British culture. No doubt there are plenty of horrid Korean men but I have experienced far more nasty Brits as a bouncer in a McDonald’s, in a town of 155.000 people, than on the streets of Daegu with a population somewhere around 3 million. Even on holiday in a quaint little German ‘dorf,’ my spaghetti ice cream was interrupted by the lurching appearance of a distant Brit ‘lad’  and two accompanying trollopes, arms wrapped about their breasts, flimsily dressed and tottering on high heels. Even before they were close enough to aurally confirm our suspicions,  their gait and their body language unequivocally  announced, Brits were in town!

I regularly find Korean men endearing and compared to many British men, they are both camp and effeminate. I do not intend this as a slur but as a compliment as I wish British men could temper their particular obnoxious form of masculinity. Personally, I find something uniquely British in photographs of individuals such as Wayne Rooney, and Vinny Jones who, even when not snarling an expletive, look like they just staggered out of prehistory. One reason I can’t abide watching movies starring Vinny Jones is his nastiness is too accurate, too realistic a facet more likely to do with his character than his acting ability. Yes, there are countless exceptions and Beckham  is much nicer but the problem football is having with homophobia, and the fact there are so few, if any, famous ‘out’ football players is a reflection of the games dominating masculine attitudes. Of course, I realise  Korea is far from accepting of homosexuality,  but at least Korean men aren’t so obsessively homophobic as  to aspire to a model of masculinity the purpose of which, as in the west, is to both to deflect any  suggestions of homosexuality in the ‘owner’ and to suggest it by contrast, in others. This might not be the intention but it is certainly how it operates.  In general, Koreans might have a dislike for homosexuality but that’s where it ends and their dislike isn’t  turned into an obsession which subsequently becomes a mandate and ubiquitous template for male behaviour.

definitely Brit

 

A common expression of Brit masculinity

When you work in a British high school it is highly apparent that British boys are under enormous pressure to appear both masculine and anti-intellectual. I have taught many British boys who are vile humans and who you could tell were vile before you even attempted  teaching them.  Yet, I have still to meet a Korean teenager who I can predict is going to be a violent criminal. And when it comes to girls, Brits seem  experts at producing promiscuous trollopes obsessed only with make up, tarty fashions and sex. Our rates of  teen alcohol consumption, sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy, all some of the highest in Europe, are testament to my vitriolic comments. Snarled at, threatened, abused, assaulted or jeered at , I have no experience of in Korea, but ask British teachers about their experiences, especially non-managers in non-selective schools, and it quickly becomes apparent such behaviour is general rather than exceptional.

And that's just the women!

Having thus painted a fairly lengthy account of the Britain with which I am acquainted,  I naturally find Korean ‘masculinity’  intensely refreshing and in many respects something to both celebrate and take hope in.

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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Ten Tips for Taking the Plunge

So you want to go to the bathhouse but have reservations.? Read on…

Once you’re naked and the same as everyone else, the apprehensions that originally plagued you gradually, though not completely, begin to lift.  I wore my military dog tags and a watch on my first occasion and, for the next few months, continued to do so on subsequent visits. These became invested with a new sense of worth as for some ridiculous reason, I didn’t feel totally naked wearing them.  As psychological props, there came a stage several months or maybe even weeks later, when they were no longer necessary and I clearly remember deciding to leave them in the changing room and finally go completely naked. Initially, I missed them because I used to fiddle with them or glance at my watch obsessively, when I  felt uncomfortable.

You might want to avoid that white bucket seat on your first visit!

Ironically, my first visit to a bathhouse was on Independence Day, March 1st 2001 (삼일). I traveled with my best friend, my boss, whom I now work for, to visit her family in Changwon (창원). The bathhouse visit had been unplanned and presented to me as a choice, the other being to stay at home and play games with the women. I decided, for the sake of my image, to accompany the 5 men,  all related and one of whom my friend’s husband. They were all sympathetic to my novice status and were especially thoughtful and empathetic. Despite my trepidations and the fact I had been wanting to have this experience, my diary comments, were positive and my only apparent fears were bending down to pick up the soap, a little unease at being the only adult who wasn’t circumcised and  sitting in that ‘undignified’ position on the little plastic stool. One of my friends even scrubbed my back which though strange was endearing and made me feel both part of our group and  bathhouse community. What surprised me most however, was the depth of intimacy between fathers and their sons, an intimacy which went far beyond scrubbing backs.  It seemed there were no taboos.

No gigantic towels to hide under

Under the shower next to me, a boy of  13 or 14, lay on the floor while his father vigorously scrubbed him. This included holding aside the boy’s genitals while he scrubbed his groin and, when the boy rolled over onto his stomach, he scrubbed his buttocks. When this was finished, they traded places and the  procedure was reversed. I have since seen this performed countless times, in many other bathhouses and in all possible variations. Though no longer surprised, I’m always aware of the cultural differences that  in the West deems this intimacy, not just sexual, but a perversion. Yet  in Korea, I find such ‘rituals’ bonding, even cute.  When leaving the bathhouse, one of my friends proudly informed me, I was now  ‘a new man.’ I don’t know whether he meant physically or mentally and while there was no doubt I felt impeccably clean, most notable was a sense that I had overcome a  deep-seated fear.

One trip to a bathhouse however, wasn’t enough to defeat my inhibitions or to satisfy my curiosity about this cultural phenomenon. A few weeks later, another friend took me sightseeing in the mountains which culminated in a visit to some form of bathhouse. Of course, I had no idea of this at the time and assumed that we were visiting a mountain foot clinic, as my friend, Hyo-son, was a foot doctor. I imagined I was going to have a foot massage and then perhaps a meal at the small restaurant  situated on one side of the building. After being introduced to the establishment’s hosts and a teenager, I was ushered to a changing room and then, via  a series of  isolated English words and hand gestures, instructed to undress.  So, I began stripping off, assuming my friend, Hyo-son, was going to join me. Instead, the three of them stood chatting and ignored me until I was naked. Then, like a lamb being led to the slaughter,  Hyo-son coaxed me by the hand into a shower room. More hand signals follow and I take a shower while they stand in the doorway and continue their conversation. Meanwhile, confused, I begin muttering to myself, a habit  which manifests when I am in intense, embarrassing situations. Next, I am led through a small bathhouse in which there are perhaps 5  men. In the far corner of the room is what I now know to be a mud sauna (황토방 ).   Looking like a gigantic wasps nest, this is basically  a small room built out of yellow mud which when dried, houses a dry sauna.  I was instructed to enter the sauna through a flap on the floor – a flap similar to the ones used to allow the passage of a cat into  and out of its house, and not much bigger. Any remaining pride was dispelled as I got onto all fours and proceeded, pig-like into the sauna.  Beyond humiliation, I lay on the sauna matting laughing aloud in total disbelief at events. Sometime later, the teenager was sent to summon me and I re-emerged, on all fours. I was directed for another shower and then, in the bathhouse section, and with my little entourage all present, I was instructed to lay in an enormous stone bath which was already being filled with what looked like dark green slime.  The bath was hot, but every time I tried to dangle my arms over the sides of the bath, or move myself  out of the water, the boy pushed me back. Then Hyo-son began massaging my body with an enormous tea bag which smeared a herbal smelling paste over me .  I was thankful when the water rose to a sufficient depth to cover me completely. Even to this day, I don’t know whether this was a mud or herb bath  or perhaps even both but several showers were required to remove the slimy residue from my body. After a period of relaxation in the small bathhouse, I was finally able to dress and join the group in the restaurant.

And permanently accompanied by a symphony of water

I can empathize with anyone facing apprehensions about taking the plunge into this strange world. Ironically, even after such experiences, I remain apprehensive about swimming pools and changing rooms in the UK where there is always a sense that either something sexual or aggressive is about to happen. What shades and informs such experiences is the culture from which it stems. Back home, the body is dominated by a sort of fascism, predominantly external but also internally generated, which classifies and critiques bodies according various categories. Sometimes I hear myself commenting on individuals and not necessarily in a negative manner but negative ones I don’t like  partially as one target of criticism is my own body. The most obvious category for western men of course, is dick size. On this subject, I don’t truly know what significance Koreans place on penal proportions,  but I would imagine that bathhouse culture renders any pretty unimportant. There may be some variations in dimensions but you quickly learn they’re all basically the same and it’s all pointless and unfair anyway as the winners are  invariably 13-year-old skinny boys whose accompanying bodies  are still 10 and in which any triumph, if there is any, is temporary. When the clothes are off and we are reduced to our  basic components,  everything is demystified.

As an ex-gay man, I have to add that bathhouses are fairly unsexy. I’m not saying nothing  ever appeals  to me, on the contrary, I am very aware of attractive looking males, but what is most bizarre is that even from my first visit to a bathhouse, the experience was non sexual. Ironically,  this is one of the most fascinating aspects of  my bathhouse experiences, as my  sense of liberation stems not just from shedding my clothes, but from shedding that most dominant and basic urge. Necessary as that urge is to the proliferation of humanity, in individual terms it is probably the most wasteful, driving us like lemmings in the selfish pursuit of satiating our own chemical impulses, consuming our time, diverting our attention and draining our energies in the process. I’m talking as a single man, in my fifties, of course, were I  in a romantic situatiom, I wouldn’t be so dismissive; but I don’t think I miss the mark accusing this urge of being the most greedy in its wants and least rewarding once they have been acquired. And Oh! Isn’t it a merry-go-round; once satiated it’s only a matter of time before it rears its head again and we’re compelled onto that journey to nowhere.  What an utter waste of human energy! Well, don’t ask me how, but in the Korean bathhouse those urges are extinguished. Rent apart is that conflation of nudity and sex, for me at least, so that I can enjoy nudity and the equality and liberation it brings without the sexual urge kicking in and can do so while appreciating the occasional beauty that passes my way.  Cocks are really only interesting when hidden and once they are flopping about all around you, other things become of more interest – the trickling of water on old man’s skin, the contours of someones hip, the interplay of someone’s muscles,  someone with a belly fatter than mine, a father bathing their baby, the sounds of water – it can be anything.

Cute!

Friends often ask me why there are no such establishments back home or what might  happen if  one were opened. I could write a substantial amount in response but basically, I wouldn’t enjoy bathing in a western context and certainly not in a British one.  A gay bathhouse would terrify me but then I was never very good at being gay!!  Besides, I’d hate being eyed up by someone like me and I quite pity all my victims back in the days when I was lecherous!  My home  town has a spa facility but the need to wear bathing costumes immediately seems restrictive and puerile. Several years ago, when it ran single sex naked sessions,  it attracted so many gay men seeking sex, it subsequently reintroduced costumes. Recently, I’ve considered nudism in the UK as I am tempted to believe attitudes among nudists might be healthier. This consideration has grown out of an awareness that while in Korea, attending a bathhouse imposes no social judgment, in Britain it would label me either ‘gay’ or  as some kind of  ‘swinging nudey.’ Unfortunately, while we conflate sex with nudity, bathhouses, spas, and places of semi nudity will  continue to encourage  all mannerisms of sexual  activity, passive and active.

Ready to take that plunge? No doubt, many will have no worries entering a bathhouse but if the experience is likely to stress you, here are some tips.

1. Keep a watch on. It’s really useful as a diversionary play thing should you feel uncomfortable.

2. Choose a quiet time for you first encounter. Early morning, eg. 5 am, though anytime before 7am on the weekend is good. Alternatively, if the establishment closes, a good time to attend is on a weekend a couple of hours before closing time.

3. Avoid public holidays,  unless you’re prepared for a full house and avoid both  ‘play Saturdays’ (놀토) when there are no schools, and school and university vacation periods.

4. Sometimes, fitness centers have adjacent bathhouses and jjimjilbang. If this is the case, you can use the sports facilities a few times in order to familiarise yourself with everything, before using the bathhouse.

5. On your first encounter you’ll probably head straight for the bathhouse complex blotting out everything on the way. Try to remember to pick up a towel and a wash cloth, usually located around the complex entrance. These can be used the same way as your watch, when you get stressed or ultimately, to bury your face in.

6. Remember, if you head straight for the showers which are situated at floor level, you will have to sit on a bucket sized seat. All bathhouses have regular, standing showers which provide a good vantage point to familiarise yourself with the bathhouse layout and practices and don’t necessitate sitting in an undignified position.

7. Soap, towels, toothpaste are all provided. If you drop the soap and find this embarrassing, park your arse in a corner before bending down, or  with your knees together, bend with the  knees and not from your waist. Alternatively, rapidly kick the soap into the drain and ignore it.

8. If you remember to take a towel in with you, you can use this to dry off, prior to leaving. On your first visit you will probably want to escape quickly and this will be prolonged if you are dripping wet. If there is an ice room, five minutes sat in this, especially in summer, will quickly dry  you but this procedure has a detrimental effect on males.

9. Male and worried about willy size? Instantly add an extra centimeter by trimming surrounding hair. I once read that every forty pounds lost, assuming you are that fat to begin with, increases the appearance of  the size, by one inch. One the other hand, if you’re as fat as I am, an extra few stone would supply enough lagging to provide an overhang sufficient enough to hide it completely.

10. Of course, there is nothing to prevent you wearing a swimming costume and I have known people do this. They were women so I never actually witnessed reactions. I’d imagine you would attract far more attention wearing something than going naked and besides, no matter how good-looking you are, you’d look a total twat.

Good luck. If you too have suggestions, please add them here. Thanks

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouses are Gay!

I frequently hear or see this comment and consider it the dumbest a westerner could make! Anyone who comes to Korea and doesn’t try a bathhouse is denying themselves an experience rich in its uniqueness and in its ability to afford you a very intimate glimpse of Korean culture. I have probably attended a bathhouse 3 times a week for a period of almost 4 years and in all that time I have only seen 3 western people in bathhouse, 2 adults and a boy. Neither have the numerous westerners I worked with over this period attended one with me. I am no bathhouse guru and there will be foreigners living in Korea far more experienced in this pursuit than I, but turning to my own culture, we certainly have a terrifying fear of nudity.

In UK schools, the practice of showering after sports was phased out around 15-20 years ago. Cutting the heating bill was a good way to save cash even if it meant that students, especially boys, spent the day putrefying in their own sweat. No one seemed to mind especially as showering was only ever enforced when one started puberty and felt uncomfortable being naked. And one common feature of many schools was that boys usually had to undress in front of each other while girls were often, but not always, afforded some privacy.  From my own experiences and conversations with other men, there is an agreement that male changing  rooms are often charged with a bizarre juxtaposition of the erotic and aggressive.  When I last taught in an English High School, around 2003, I had to take several classes of boys preparing for swimming lessons. Each boy was equipped with the most enormous towel  of sufficient proportions to cover a single bed.  I have several female friends who told me stories about convent life where, after sport or swimming, girls were required to shower in, and undress, under large smocks designed to hide their bodies. This was exactly the same except this wasn’t a catholic school! It wasn’t even Church of England. Most of the boys were around thirteen or fourteen and their bodies were still puny but hidden from the neck down, the material enveloped them twice and doubly guaranteed that not the slightest naked thigh, knee or even elbow should be inadvertently exposed. All the boys were skilled at holding secure the neck of their towelling  smock from within its confines, while the remaining free hand, buttocks, hips and knees, shimmied their underwear off and then pulled on their swimming shorts – and this in the reverse order when changing back into uniform. Some boys were unfortunate enough to have restrictive, ordinary size towels and if they slipped or were  insufficient to hide their bodies and they were exposed, not only were they mortified but so too was any boy who happened to glimpse what lay under that towel. Then a string of accusations were spat forth declaring the observed and any unfortunate observers,  ‘gay.’  In Britain, certainly among school boys, to either see another boy’s dick or for yours to be seen, implies homosexuality. This juvenile attitude is similar to the ones levied at Korean bathhouses and seems to be a western attitude rather than one confined to British men. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

if you think bathhouses are ‘gay’ you totally misunderstand Korean social practices

To be honest, in Britain, I too find nudity or even semi nudity uncomfortable. We seem adept at criticizing the bodies of others and many of us, myself included, have been imbued with various attitudes towards the body and nudity. Ironically, I feel more human as a naked,  fat foreigner,  in a Korean bathhouse, than I do wearing shorts in a British swimming pool.  In addition to our internalized assumptions about bodies, we conflate both nudity with sex and same-sex nudity with homosexuality. I am sure that something sexual must  occasionally occur in Korean bathhouses,  probably in specific bathhouses, but I have never witnessed anything of a sexual nature.

My first experience of bathhouse culture was in 2001, when I was visiting Masan with friends. I was asked which three things I’d like to do before leaving Korea. I replied: I wanted to try dog stew, silk worm and go to a bathhouse. My stomach almost hit the floor when my friend smiled and told me we’d probably visit a bathhouse that very afternoon. The whole experience terrified me but I swallowed my pride and went through with it and then, when back in Daegu, I made myself go to other establishments. I still feel a little uneasy entering a bathing complex probably as I have a negative image of my own body but I have never been made to feel uncomfortable. Koreans will all peak at you but once they’ve looked you up and down you blend in with the other clientele. As usual, if you should make eye contact with them while they are peaking, they will instantly look away.

On the streets of Korea the novelty of foreigners is rapidly declining and I find my presence attracts far less attention than it did 10 years ago. I find it boring that my presence on the street is almost non eventful though I would imagine in rural areas we are still  a novelty.  Most establishments, bars, restaurants, shops etc, have learned to accommodated foreigners. In many restaurants, menus  are available in Korean and English but ten years ago you were only likely to find this in fast food restaurants. I can even remember Pohang bus terminal’s arrival and departure board only being in Korean. If you want to experience the Korea relatively unchanged  by the presence of westerners then bathhouses are an ideal location. I am still fascinated by this cultural phenomenon as it has afforded me a far deeper insight into Korean life than probably any other experience. Bathhouses expose not just our bodies but the differences between the Korean and western psyche. Most obvious of course, is the attitude to nudity. I would imagine Korean’s have seen every permutation possible in the human body before they even reach their teens and the traumas our teenagers associate with puberty are minimized in Korea. Also exposed is the level of intimacy that Koreans share not just with their immediate family but with friends and strangers. That horrid male macho-ism that is magnified when western males are in changing rooms or semi naked, a mechanism used to assert masculinity as well as heterosexuality, is absent in a Korean context.  To get naked with your friends doesn’t require mitigating the homosexual implications by playing some aggressive sport beforehand. Koreans can sit close to each other, touch each other and even clean each other without any fears of being misunderstood. The most exposed behaviour though, and one that would shock many westerners, is the intimacy shared between fathers and their sons as well as older men and younger people in general. I doubt there are many westerners who would allow their 10-year-old to go to a bathhouse unaccompanied let alone allow them to have an intimate scrub down by  a bathhouse attendant who may very well be a stranger to that child. This situation was highlighted several years ago when a youth taekwondo team visiting from the UK was put in a very awkward position when their hosts took the British kids and instructors to  a bathhouse.  How do you explain to Koreans that in your culture, this activity would be illegal and that  children and adults naked together, even if immediate family, is treated with great suspicion and constitutes one enormous taboo.

Cooling off

The most interesting aspect of a bathhouse experience is that it not only exposes Korean culture to the foreign observer, but also exposes you  to the nature of your own culture and encourages you to reflect on many taken for granted assumptions and practices. Using bathhouses has given me a deeper insight into both Korean and British culture.  On my return to Korea after a holiday, my first task is to take myself into a bathhouse.  I have come to perceive communal bathing  and the intimacy  practiced around it as natural and certainly healthy, both physically and mentally and concurrently, I have come to realise the  unhealthy nature of western attitudes where natural human relationships have been moralised if not perversified. To deem bathhouses ‘gay’ is a moral statement in that it suggests ‘not natural,’ ‘wrong’ and ‘unhealthy.’ In the UK, we have already embarked on a brave new future where the most innocent of associations with a minor is suspect and where even the most checked, verified and scrutinized professionals have to be permanently policed.  In Britain, I do not think we are too distant from a future where any form of communication with a minor, outside that of the  family and school, will be classified as a potential crime and sufficient to call the police.

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