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Blue Belt Grading – May 1-16th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on May 1, 2001

On Saturday, I met U-chun. During the period of the middle school exams she is working seven days a week and this situation will continue in all hagkwons until May 12th when the exams finish. She works from 2pm until midnight on six days a week and on Sundays works from 9am until 3pm. I am writing this diary On May 1st which is a public holiday for Buddha’s birthday but as you can expect, the hagkwon teachers are working today, as are many of their pupils. None of them will get a day’s holiday in lieu which is so typically Korean.

We wandered around E-Mart for a while so I could question her on what is what. It was my turn to buy lunch today and I chose a restaurant near MacDonalds, one I had passed many times before and one where you sat at tables and not on the floor. I never find sitting on the floor comfortable as I can’t get my long legs under the low tables. We ordered a seafood meal which was cooked at our table in large frying pans built into the table. The meal looked fairly Klingon but tasted very good. First the chef put water in the pan and then a massive stack of seafood consisting of crab, prawn, squid, squid roe, shellfish and octopus. This was topped with vegetables and red pepper paste. There was easily enough for four people and when the pan was half empty some noodles were added to it. The meal took us over an hour to eat and as U-chun had to go back to school, we left quite a bit. It was a pricey meal costing 24000W (£15) but we really enjoyed it.

The video player in our house, which is a pile of shit and has been playing up ever since I have been here, eventually died after I bashed it with my fist. A cassette was left in it and to get it out we had to dismantle it rather forcefully. However, Mr Joe replaced it without any questions; but of course, the replacement video isn’t new and is the size and weight of a computer hard drive. It must be at least ten years old. Matt is pleased as his sole entertainment is lying in bed, (even when it’s hot), with a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of coke, some Pringles and a couple of videos.

every day as my mini-bus passed an apartment, this little boy would bow

I went to Pak Ji-won’s this evening. He was really excited as he is off on his school picnic this week. He is spending four days at Mount Sorak in the north east of the peninsula, not too far from the 38th parallel. It is the third highest mountain in Korea. Although Ji-won’s is almost 18 (17 UK age), he was like a little boy looking forward to Christmas. I happened to bump into him and his class mates as they were shopping at E-Mart, on Sunday. They had two trolleys full of apples, oranges, Korean crisps and coke. I did my shopping and as I was leaving the supermarket I noticed them waiting outside the store entrance. Ji-won’s wasn’t with them and I sat opposite and observed them for a little. I tried hard to imagine what it must be like to be a Korean teenager going on your one big school trip. Korean and western cultures are so different that it is impossible for a westerner to become Korean. Ten years living in France, Germany or the USA would be enough to make you a native, provided you immersed yourself in that culture but too many differences exist between Korean and the west. Many of these differences are born out of childhood socialization. The boys were all excited in a way only Korean kids can be. Affectionately, they draped themselves over each other. I wondered how much this excitement was scripted knowing that once schooling is finished life becomes even more prescriptive, regimented and seconded to work. As much as I respect and admire and have fallen in love with the Korean psyche, I find their lives horribly myopic: the nightmare of schooling, which for Ji-won’s is some seventy hours of study a week, the brief reprise of university followed by army service for the boys, followed by the bondage of marriage. I really think that in Korea, education, like football in the west, has become one of the main forms of social control.

I am still going to the mokyuktang several times a week and still enjoy it. I have discovered the various types of pools and the properties they are supposed to have. Both mokyuktang I use have green tea baths which are believed to be good for the skin. There is usually also a herb bath as well as a bubbly Jacuzzi. I am now completely relaxed preening myself in the drying area where I put on hair gel, clean my ears with cotton buds and help myself to the various skin creams and skin bracers. All this is performed naked and in a roomful of other preening men. I even dry my balls with the hair dryer, something I have learnt from observation though I haven’t directed it up my arse which is something I have seen several men do. I am able to stay in the sauna much longer than when I first started – even when it is over 100 degrees. One mokyuktang provides a huge pot of salt in the steam room which you rub all over your body. In another steam room I often sit on the floor cross legged or do stretching exercises as the heat is conducive to stretching. Stretching exercise is regularly practised by young and old alike in the steam room.

I had only had my purple belt about twelve days when I was told I would be grading for my blue belt. In fact, I have only worn my purple belt three times and had washed it over the weekend to take the stiffness out of it. I was training during the week when there was a pre-grading class and everyone was asked to run through their patterns. Though I knew my pattern well, (대국), there were some errors that needed ironing out. Master Bae, the head instructor, took me through it and pointed out a few minor errors and told me I would be performing the pattern the following evening. He then told me I would be taking my black belt exam in August or perhaps a little earlier.

Now I have got to say that some of the kids in Di Dim Dol treat me strangely. I think some of them find it odd having a coloured belt training beside them who is old enough to be their father. If you do come across adults in the dojang are either instructors or black belts. In one of my classes in Di Dim Dol school there is a boy called Jake who was in a few of my first Taekwondo classes. I suppose he is about 13 and naturally, he is a black belt. In an English class it emerged I did Taekwondo at the Songham School and I could deduce from the conversation he was having that he peers were asking him what belt I wore. Well, he quite took the piss out of me and mimicked to them I was stiff and couldn’t kick well. It hurt me a little and I was annoyed as some of the kids were laughing. As he was leaving the class I pulled him to one side and thrust the Songham oath in his face. I made him repeat some of the lines which referred to mutual respect, team spirit and working together. He was embarrassed, put his head down and apologised. Then there is another boy called Jordan who I have taught several times and is another black belt. Even though we have trained in the same Taekwondo class he refuses to say hello to me. Whenever he sees me he looks at me as if I am mad. I ran through my patterns thirty times on the day of the grading and as I am one of the lowest belts in the class, I was called up fairly early in the grading. Well, I was really on form and I performed a really powerful pattern with a massive ‘kia’ at the conclusion which quite made the youngsters sat close to me jump. My ‘kia’ had been pretty Pathetic until fairly recently. Anyway, Master Bae said something after I had finished and the whole class applauded me. Afterwards, the little Fat kid who can’t do sit-ups came up, held his thumb up and said, ‘poomse choayo.’ (‘good pattern’). Then Jordan, the boy who had never spoken to make, came up to me and bowed. Ever since this, whenever he arrives or leaves my lessons at Di Dim Dol School, the waves and smiles at me.

I am now fitter than I have ever been since I took my black-belt in 1982. In some ways I am fitter. I cannot believe how terribly unfit I was when I arrived in Korea as a big fat blob. My experience here is quietly unfolding and it is an experience that I have people interested in Martial arts dream of. It was a pure fluke I came to Korea at all and I could have ended up in any number of countries. I don’t think it’s pretentious that and I give myself a lot of credit and respect for the way in which I walked into a Korean Taekwondo school looking like a lump of lard, surrounded by kiddies and teenagers and set about undertaking a training regime which humiliated me. My only response to this was to grin stupidly and try harder.

On Friday evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me to Woobang Tower Park. First we went to McDonald’s and had a burger and then we walked around the park for several hours. There were loads of young people skateboarding and roller blading. Just as you’d expect here, they were peaceful, un-offensive and friendly. We had a coffee at one of the park cafes and I saw a couple of men who were most certainly gay. It certainly made me realize how miss gay company as I haven’t met or spoken to a gay person since I’ve been here. One couple walked past me. One of the men, perhaps in his late twenties or thirties was dressed like John Travolta and wore a white suit. He had a hairdo and a very camp, practiced lip pout. He walked with an incredibly pouncy wiggle and I would have excused his effeminacy had he not been carrying this tiny little handbag dog. Handbag dogs are very fashionable here and even Dong-soo (박동수), my Taekwondo instructor, wants one. However, the fact that the dog had fluffy ears that were dyed pink aroused my suspicions.  Right now, I’d love to have some gay company, even those horribly superficial gays that I usually detest back home.

In Yong San Dong I had the morning of cleaning up piss, which I must say, is something rare here. First of all, Dong-seop wet himself. He performed his usual stint of pissing into his trousers at the urinal; then I got back to my classroom to discover little Song-joon looking flustered and gripping his dick. Then I notice he is sat in a puddle of piss so I have to take him to the toilet, wash him and get him to change his pants and trousers. He has the most amazingly tiny pecker but I shouldn’t mention this as it is lynching material in the west. But hey! This is Korea and the day’s not over. Next, I have to get a bucket and cloth and mop up the piss on and around his seat. I have to stress, piss problems are very rare in Korea kindergarten classes and only ever seem to be experienced by boys. Just as I finish this is Matt and Amy, (a Korean teacher), come into my class and ask me to look at a boys balls. He had just been kicked between the legs, was holding himself and crying.

‘ Why can’t you do it?’ I ask. Matt begs me to do it goading me with the fact I know something about balls and first aid. We pull the boys pants down and I make a private joke to Matt about the antics of Monsieur Jelle Fangre as I’m checking the lad still has two balls. One of them has disappeared so we bounce him up and down on his heels until it reappears. After that he is fine and within minutes he is running around. When I wrote these diary notes up, back in the UK and some years later, I was tempted to edit this experience simply as we have a total obsession with anything to do with the bodies of little kids. If an English toddler suffered the same experience nobody would help them for fear of accusations – even if there were a crowd of adults present. Personally, I do not think this an attitude reflects a caring society. On several occasions I know Becky, my niece, has been left to sit nursing a painful splinter as no member of staff are allowed to touch her. Kids are left suffering until a parent arrives.

On Saturday U-chun and I found a really nice Japanese restaurant which specializes in pork fillet served with pickles, sauce and udong noodles. The restaurant is new and typically Japanese with contrasting black and white colours and minimalist use of furniture. A group of boys came in and had a birthday party during which they sang the Korean version of ‘Happy Birthday’ which is sung to the same tune we use in the west.

In the evening I met Pak Ji-won who told me all about his picnic in Mount Sorak. Jun-hee had put two bottles of soju in his bag and this behaviour seems pretty standard as a right of passage. Ji-won was very animated as he told me how he and his friends got a little drunk and how he fell over a friend’s bed and almost got caught by his teachers. He told me one of his friend’s was sick on another friend as they slept in bed. He told me how Korean students will remember the High School picnic for the rest of their lives – ‘until the day they die,’ were his exact words, spoken in English. He said this without any severity or weight and  in a way only the young can talk about death. Jun-hee, his father, meets up with his old school friends every six months and there have been occasions when I have since met his childhood friends. This practice is standard among Korean males at least who refer to their closest childhood friends as ‘gochu chingoo’ (고추친구). ‘Gochu’ (고추) is the Korean word for a ‘chilli pepper’ but it is also a simile for a penis. I believe it is still a tradition in Korea, though not necessarily widely practiced nowadays, to hand a bunch of chillies on the front door of a house when a boy is born.  ‘Chingoo’ (친구) is the Korean for ‘friend’ or ‘circle’ and so the phrase can be translated as ‘penis friends.’  Jun-hee told me all his old friends know what each other’s dick is like. I am sort of detecting that nakedness in Korea is seen to promote a deeper level of friendship between two people naturally as a result of the sharing of intimate experiences. Jun-hee and Ji-won keep asking me to accompany them to the mokyuktang. I certainly sense I have a different level of friendship with U-no and Lee Seong-gyu, both with whom I have bathed with. Even men who I don’t know but recognise from the mokyuktang all say hello to me in the street; one man even squeezed my arm as he last saw me. Nudity is certainly a wonderful social leveler.

I had a long chat with Pak Dong-soo during his weekly English lesson, this time about his experiences in the army. It sounded ghastly! Six weeks of basic training in winter and all living in one tent next to a river in which they drank and bathed. A week of exercise, a week of intensive Taekwondo training, a week of making bobby-traps and a week of shooting fire arms. Every day included strenuous runs. Interestingly alcohol, in the Korean army, is illegal!

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

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Kumi – April 13-29th, 2001 (Korean Accounts Part 1)

Posted in Diary notes, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children by 노강호 on April 13, 2001

On Friday, just as I was leaving Di Dim Dol School, Young-seop stopped me and told me that starting next week, I was due to teach in another school and would have to travel one and a half hours to get there, this would mean leaving  Song So at 8.30am. At the time, I was just going downstairs to meet Lisa in KFC. Naturally, I went nuts! I’ve told Joe over and over that I like to be consulted and given advanced warning. However, Joe always uses Young-seop as his lacky. The problem has been caused because Lisa has a weeks holiday which she planned well in advance. She and Nana have been giving pronunciation and phonetics classes to Korean, English teachers at various schools and have been paid extra money for doing this. It turns out, Lisa had asked those organising the courses, how long the courses were likely to last and she was told they were a block, six-week stint, ending on April 13th. Well, for whatever reasons, the courses don’t seem likely to finish before April 20th and Lisa’s husband is coming out to visit and of course, he has flights booked. About a week ago, Mr Joe started moaning to me about Lisa and how awkward she was and that he was going to tell Young-seop to tell her she couldn’t have any time off. Meanwhile, Nana told me he clearly heard the course organisers say the course was due to end of April 13th. Of course, this confusion is typically Korean – Koreans have no concept of free time or of holidays.

Matt at Woo Bang Park, now E-World (2001)

Well, I moaned to Young-seop and gave him an earful as he provided each excuse. First of all, he said they had waited until now to tell me in the hope Lisa would cancel her husband’s flight. Like she is really going to lose a million Won (£500) after a fuck-up on Mr Joe’s part! Then he said they had hoped Lisa would change her mind and decide to work.

‘But her husband is coming out to visit, what do you expect him to do; stay a home all day?’

The Korean attitude towards your free time and your work is one of the main things that pisses me off about Korea. Firstly, you have no free time – at least Korean workers don’t. Any time you might not be working is clearly seen as a privilege that can be taken away whenever your boss needs you. All the hagkwons in Song So are at the moment teaching for seven days a week and are open until past 11.pm. Parents pay no extra money for the extra classes as it is expected for hagkwons to give extra tuition prior to exam periods. As there are so many hagkwons in tight competition they all conform to similar teaching schedules. Of course, teachers aren’t paid any extra money for working seven days a week. I have almost stopped using the phrase, ‘have a nice weekend,’ as the concept doesn’t really exist here. The phrase’ ‘thanks God it’s Friday,’ needs to be modified to, ‘thank God it’s the second Friday in the month’ (ie, 놀토 – ‘play Saturday)

In Korea, everything is seconded to work and any shifts in routine are expected to be accommodated wholeheartedly. I can remember when I first arrived in Daegu, when Tony picked me up from the airport; I asked him what Mr Joe was like and he replied that he didn’t like him as he was always issuing orders and expecting everyone to drop everything on his command. Now I understand what he meant. Even Nana has become accustomed to it and well, if a King can learn to take orders, what chance do I have. Later in the week, when I moaned to Nana about the situation, he told me to calm down, to accept it. He kept saying this was ‘an emergency’ and that ‘we all needed to help out.’ ‘An emergency,’ I told him, was simply a threat to Joe’s bank balance.

The other thing that annoys me about Koreans is that they adhere to the Confucian ideals which stress the importance of the family. Well, this ideal only seems to operate if you are Korean. I get quite infuriated at the way people like Joe and Young-seop do not for one moment consider that western teachers are around 5000 miles from home, have no family with them, are living in a strange culture and have few friends. When I first arrived in Daegu I was left alone in my flat for a whole weekend; no one came to take me out or show me where to go for provisions. Nobody had been delegated to look after the interests of foreign teachers. No one showed me where to bank my pay or how to use a bus. All any of us were told on our arrival was where and when we were to start work. Even though our contracts stipulate we receive health insurance none of us have it – few English teachers do. When I asked about this, Joe managed to make up a load of excuses one of which was that if we wanted health insurance we would have to pay about £200 for it to be backdated until the date we arrived. It is quite pathetic the lengths to which Joe will go to save a pittance.

I moaned and moaned at Young-seop about Joe decision to send me to teach in another town and asked him when Joe was likely to confirm it – if indeed, he intended to confirm it! Nana is going to Andong (안동) in the morning and Lisa is about to go on holiday and naturally, any planning I need to do will be expected to be done in my time; none of it was be built into my working day even to compensate for the inconvenience of short notice. However, I knew I would end up having to do it. Worse, I had this fleeting sense that it didn’t mater what the work involved, I’d be able to bullshit my way through it.

I went to meet Lisa down in the KFC restaurant and told her what had happened, stressing that none of it was her fault. She really is a stupid cow! She insists he classes call her, ‘Miss Lisa,’ and I suspect that she thinks that by replacing her surname with her first name, and prefixing it with, ‘Miss,’ she is ‘cool.’ She’s a stupid cow because she has the disgusting colonial streak in her. She never has a good word to say about Korea or Koreans and more than once her language has belayed the fact she is a racist!

‘What time does your bus pick you up after classes?’ I asked her.

‘Whenever they bloody want. Sometimes they are there waiting and toot the horn at me. At other times I have to wait forty minutes! I mean, me,’she almost screamed, eyes bulging. ‘Me! Having to wait forty minutes for a fucking Korean!’

Earlier this week I caught a boy writing on the blackboard in one of my classes. He was writing in Korean and though I couldn’t understand the meaning, I could read the letters. He had written, Di Dim Dol donun Kil lim dol (디딤덜 도는 길임덜) Di Dim Dol is the name of the school and has something to do with a stepping stone; ‘Donun’ means ‘or’ and this I could understand. When I asked the boy what it meant he put his pencil on the floor and demonstrated that it meant something to do with tripping or falling over. How appropriate.

On Saturday afternoon I went shopping to E-Mart with Matt. I bought some smoked salmon and was quite excited as I haven’t seen this in Korean shops before. The pack cost 9000W which is around £5 but there was probably 500 grams in the pack, if not more. I had planned to eat it  on my own as Matt doesn’t particularly like seafood but in the end I decided to take it to Ji-won’s as it would be an interesting experience to share it with them.

Ji-won’s family had never eaten smoked salmon and were eager to try it. Sun-hee, Ji-won’s  mother, brought out a pile of assorted leaves, some wassabi, chilli and garlic. Then the salmon was placed in the centre of the table and we all tucked into it with chopsticks. I wasn’t going to ruin the delicate taste of that lovely salmon with wassabi. The salmon was very lean and very smooth and creamy in taste.

Koreans are notoriously bad at advertising things in English. You’d think that when they write English on shop facades, posters or leaflets that they’d consult native English speakers but they don’t and consequently you see many funny examples. The blurb on the packet of salmon claimed it was from the ‘fresh, clear blue waters of the North Atlantic’ but somewhere else it said it was from the Pacific Ocean. Anyway, there was a little write-up on the packets which read:

Around June to September, in a something sun, 3-5 year old well-grown salmon that have brilliant gesture and swim through sea and river along the blue and dear coast of the Pacific Ocean have very good quality of flesh and taste so good and have got praised as food of low-calorie. More than one century salmon has got praise of epicures all over the world. Salmon taste from soft to strong with many nutrients and special pink colour flesh create fantastic mood and taste.

A few more examples of Konglish (Korean-English) I have recently seen include: ‘Hair Deciener Shop’ (a hair salon), then there is ‘Twin Twon Coffee Shop which I can only presume is meant to read ‘Twin Town.’ Even better is ‘Shitty Pizza,’ obviously meant to read ‘City Pizza.’ There is also a boy in one of my classes who wears a t-shirt on which there is a large ‘20’ under which is written, ‘Sporty, Young and Milky.’

I wasn’t looking forward to this week as I am having to travel to Kumi to give lessons to Korean, English teachers. I wrote a quick lesson plan at the kitchen table, shortly after getting up. There are a few things I am unsure about and I really need to consult Nana or Lisa but if there is one thing you learn very quickly here, it is the art of bullshit. Young-seop and Mr Chey picked me up from outside my house at 8.30 am and we headed off to Kumi. It was great to get out of Daegu, especially on a working day. With spring well underway, the countryside is changing from day-to-day. In the rice fields you can see the bright green shoots of this year’s crop emerging. I wasn’t in the least bit nervous at having to give a lecture on phonetics to a group of thirty teachers. I have learnt that simply being a native English speaker gives you an immense authority and besides, most Koreans are not very good at spoken English and this includes Korean English teachers. When I explained where I had come from in the UK, ‘near Oxford’ was the best description, there was a murmur of awe which surprised me a little. They would never have heard of Aylesbury or Colchester. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the session and I performed really well. After the lecture, if that’s what you could call it, Young-seop and Mr Chey took me for lunch in a rather posh restaurant; Young-seop said he was paying. We had bulgogi and there were plenty of side dishes including mong gae, or a sea squirt. This is a sea thing that looked rather like an orange-pinky, bloated heart. There were small nodular bits all over it which looked like tiny lips from which I suppose it squirted water. When cut open the flesh resembled that of a ripe mango. I tried it but didn’t really like it. The initial taste was that of detergent. Mr Chey clearly relished them as he sat sucking the flesh off the noddly skin, the juice running down his chin in a manner that would have been perfect for a Klingon. I arrived back in Song So with half an hour before I had to start teaching my regular classes at Di Dim Dol.

I managed to go training that evening but gave up on Tuesday as I was just too tired. On Tuesday, after the class, we drove to another restaurant and had bulgogi. When Young-seop went to the toilet, I told Mr Chey I was going to pay for the meal. Mr Chey told me Mr Joe was paying for our meals after the classes – so much for Young-seop making out he was paying! My new culinary experience today was hepari – jellyfish. It had a texture and taste of cold vermicelli noodles and was fairly inoffensive.

The internet cafe (PC 방) I have used ever since I arrived here has suddenly closed. I am a little annoyed at this as the woman who ran it used to keep pestering me for English lessons and there were many people I only ever saw in the cafe. I met her on the pedestrian crossing the day before Arbour Day and she told me the cafe would be shut for the day. Well, that was a month ago and later Matt and I noticed it had been completely gutted. Businesses seem to come and go in Korea and a business you can use one day can be gone the next. It would have been polite to tell us the PC room was permanently closing given the hours we spent in there. (I was to meet this woman in 2008, near my one room. I wouldn’t have recognised her but she recognised me. In the interim, she went to Canada for a few years and on return opened a hagkwon near MacDonalds – Wales English School – it is still there as of 2012.)

On Wednesday evening, after Taekwondo, I was going home when I met David (이영선) who is one of Nana’s adult students and who had several weeks ago led me home under his umbrella. He wanted to take me for a drink so we went to Mr Seven which is next to my house. David is very attractive, is 24 years old and a bloody Christian! Finding that out put a dampener on our meeting. However, like other Korean Christians, he doesn’t ram it down your throat. He seemed very interested in why I wasn’t married – more so than other Koreans and he phrased his questions quite differently to the way I am normally interrogated. At one point he asked me if I preferred men and later asked that if I could marry either a man or a woman, which gender I would choose. I came out to him making him the first Korean to know my sexuality and he wasn’t in the least perturbed. Indeed, he continued to ask me many more questions. He kept telling me ‘humans aren’t perfect.’

On Thursday the Letter and Sound School took the kids to Daegu Art and Culture Centre. Ot was a beautiful day and the centre is situated in the shadow of Mount Apsan. There were loads of middle school kids who gawped at me in awe and who muttered ‘waaaa’ which is the Korean equivalent of ‘wow’ as I walked past them. Many were fascinated by my size and several boys eagerly shook my hand or bowed deeply. At one point a crowd of children gathered around me with several lining up to shake my hand while others pointed and stroked the hairs on my arm. Other patted my stomach – Korean people, and especially children, are a lot more apt to be physical than are westerners. Such behaviour, I have become totally used to.

Taking our kids around the centre was a nightmare as there were a number of pottery exhibitions and on one occasion I watched in terror as a ceramic vase tottered precariously. On the whole and as would be expected, the kids behaved well.

At lunchtime we drove out to Woobang Tower park to have a picnic. We found a spot under a large tree as the temperature today was in the eighties and by far the hottest day we have had so far. Koreans love picnics and all have picnic knick-knacks. I was fascinated with their little picnic mats, all highly coloured and designed either for adults or children. Then there were the picnic hampers and little coloured boxes with chopsticks in them. Of course none of us westerners had prepared a picnic as no one had been bothered to tell us we were going to have one! However, Koreans always share their food so none of us went hungry.

‘My Little Man’ – Jeong-Hoon

Jeong-hoon (중훈), a little boy in my class has become very attached to me. He is a skinny little boy who is always hot as he simply cannot sit still and is always having to climb over things or is running around. Like a lot of the boys here he is already learning Taekwondo and is incredibly flexible. When he is standing you can lift out sideways (side kick position)  until his heel is facing the ceiling. I call Jeong-hoon, ‘my little man’ as he is always willing to do little jobs for me. In the mornings, if someone is missing, he will go and find them and he is always willing to go and fill the water jug or do other little jobs. He loves speaking English and knows all of the songs on the tapes we have. Anyway, at the picnic Jeong-hoon clears a space for me to sit next to him on his little mat. The very first thing he does when he opens his Mickey Mouse picnic hamper is to pass me some of his food. Most of the kids had kimbap which is pretty boring and which is a food you’d never pig-out on. Jeong-hoon’s hamper however, had KFC chicken nuggets in it! Lovely oily, western food! Mmm, as Homer Simpson would say. Typically, Jeong-hoon wasn’t into it – how conveniently Korean! He ate one, or rather he nibbled at it and the others he passed to me or the other kids sat nearby. No wonder he is so skinny!

I have spent a considerable amount of time watching Korean kids eat food and they approach it in quite a different manner to westerners. Boys in particular eat very different to western boys or men where their eating habits would be considered effeminate. Korean boys nibble food and they do not focus on it in the ravenous way we do. The Di Dim Dol school has started selling cakes during the break times as the middle school kids are currently in school for about 15 hours a day and have little to eat. I bought a small sort of Swiss roll a few days ago which a rapidly unwrapped and savagely devoured in the manner western men often eat.  The whole roll, which wasn’t very big, would have disappeared in about three mouthfuls and it was probably as I was sinking my teeth into the second mouthful, when my eyes were rolling like a shark’s when its jaw is locked around its prey, that I noticed this girl stood watching me in totally shock – her jaw had actually dropped. I don’t think she had ever seen anyone eating in such a frenzied manner. In fact, it was just another example of what filthy, dirty scum us westerners are. The next day I tried to eat my Swiss roll like a Korean – not looking at it, not rolling my eyes, and by taking little nibbles and eating them  in a passive manner as if drinking water when not in the least but thirsty.

All the Korean kids passed their food around at the picnic and when we had finished eating they all tidied up with little need of spurning from the adults.

Lee Chi-wu – an incredibly intelligent boy

Matt and I have been having fun with little Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) on the bus. Of late we have been playing games with him which are sure going to increase our chances of going to hell. We take it in turn to whisper some obscenity into his ear and he then gets three attempts at repeating it correctly. We’ll say something like ‘cunt’ or some other offensive obscenity and if Amy, the young Korean teacher who is actually dating Young-seop turns around, attracted by our hoots of laughter, we immediately start saying Chinese numbers to him and pretend our game is innocent. Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) is able to say words like ‘clitoris’ and even simple phrases like ‘anal intrusion’ with amazing precision. He has also mastered, ‘filthy, dirty, western scum’ which is the phrase we use to refer to ourselves. Even after a visit to the mokyuktang I feel dirty in comparison to Koreans. Matt and I both believe you cannot wash or scrub away the grime associated with being western. It is a grime that transcends our physical being and exists at levels genetic, cultural, psychological and historical. We make jokes to Lee Chi-Woo about Doctor Jelly Finger, jokes which in the west would earn us a lynching. Doctor Jelly Finger has metamorphosed into Monsieur Jelle Fangre which we pronounce with a French accent after which we briefly suck our index fingers. Matt is convinced we are going to hell! If you say “Monsieur Jelle Fangre” to Lee Chi-Woo he will innocently respond by sucking his index finger like a lollypop. Matt and I find this perversely amusing. We have also taught him to say “Jelle Fangre, Chwuseyo” – “Please give me a jelly finger!” The next cruel game we play, which Matt claims I instigated, but which I know was his sick invention, is to tell Lee Chi-Woo he cannot leave the bus when it arrives at the school. Matt told him this every morning for a week. Just as we arrived at the school he would turn to Lee Chi-Woo and with a sad expression on his face, and a sombre voice, say:

“Chi-Woo. Chi-Woo. You not come! Only we go. You stay here. You not go school today.” Lee Chi-Woo then starts to get upset and begins to clamber over the seats of the bus. The following week he stopped sitting with us and I think we have traumatized him so we have both stopped teasing him.  However, a week later and Matt started teasing him again and this time Lee Chi-Woo started crying. After this we modified the game so he knows when we are teasing. When Matt now tells him he can’t leave the bus, Lee Chi-Woo calls him a ‘bad man’ (나쁜 사람).

On Friday I had my final session at Kumi; it went really well and the class told me they had enjoyed the sessions immensely. I had to rush back to Song So in time for my kindergarten classes at one of the apartment schools. It only took us twenty minutes to reach Daegu and I spent most of it cowering in the back seat as we were travelling at 120-140kms per hour. Once the kindergarten class was over I was faced with a four-hour stint at and arrived back home at 8pm, quite wrecked.

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

The Kaya Mountains and Kyeong-Ju. Friday April 6th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Health care, Korean Accounts Part 1, seasons, Uncategorized by 노강호 on April 6, 2001

On Sunday Pak U-chun (박유천) and her husband, U-no (소유노), picked me up and drove me to their apartment. Here I spent several hours giving Ga-in  and her cousin, Min-ju (민주), an English lesson. As usual, U-chun had prepared a meal and this time we had bibimbap (비빔밥) which is boiled rice, vegetables and red pepper paste.   Afterwards, we drove out to the Dasa (다사) area of Daegu and met Min-ju’s parents in a cafe there.

Me, Ga-in, Min-ju and Yu-no in 2001

The cafe was a traditional building made of mud. Inside, even though the walls were mud, there was electric lighting and even sockets in the wall. The inside was large and there were candles everywhere which had been allowed to drip onto the woodwork to form interesting shapes. Outside was a small stage for live music. We drank beer accompanied by dried snacks, including squid, my favourite and pa’jon. Pa’jon, also known as Korean pancake, is strips of leek fried in a mung bean pancake which is eaten in strips dipped in soy sauce. My favourite drink at the moment is dong dong ju. This is a farmers’ drink and is usually homemade as it ferments in the bottle and cannot easily be marketed. The colour of this drink various from milky white to creamy yellow and I am told it is a drink you either love or hate. Often, ginseng has been added to it. A little while later, U-chun asked if I wanted to go to the sauna, apparently there was one right next to the café and part of their premises. We went outside to the small mud hut adjacent the cafe, and which is known as a hwan toa bang. Inside, a bamboo mats covered the floor on which two children lounged, their faces dripping in sweat. The room was filled with the smell of pine as pine needles and cones were strewn around the outer edge of the bamboo floor. The room itself was heated by a burner that used pine logs. At first the dry heat was intense but before long all of us were strewn out on the floor relaxing. We stayed in the hwan toa bang for some twenty minutes before returning to the cafe.  It was an interesting experience and I am told hwan toa bangs are even fired up during the hot summer months.

On Monday lunchtimes I have started going to another go to another mokyuktang, as the one I usually use is closed. In less than a month I have made over 15 trips to mokyuktangs. On this visit one of the attendants asked if I wanted a rub down and I bravely said yes. This was something I was intending to do but at a much later date – why wait. For the rub down you lie naked on a couch and have warm water poured all over you before being rubbed vigorously all over, and I mean all over, by an abrasive cloth. They rub your crotch and up your bum crack. As the attendant progresses from one side of your body to another, you have to adopt certain positions by putting you arm of legs in various positions. The attendant wore boxer shorts which were wet and on quite a few occasions I could feel his dick resting on my arm. The whole procedure is performed publicly and with a conversation in progress.

Life at Di Dim Dol  gets more and more boring everyday with exactly the same routine and the same books. I am beginning to wonder if I can really teach here for another five months. I am even considering if I should go back home early.

Thursday was a public holiday, this time for ‘Arbor Day” when it is believed anything planted will flourish. The teachers from Di Dim Dol were all wishing me a ‘happy holiday’ as if I were departing on a two week vacation. I told them it wasn’t a holiday but simply a day off and not even that as they would have to make up for lost time by working on the coming Saturday. Regardless, most of them see it as a holiday. Pak U-chun and her family picked me up from my apartment at ten in the morning and we drove out of the city towards Sang-ju (상주) and the Kaya mountains which lie further north in the province of Kyongsangbookdo (경상복도). Travelling in Korea is interesting as you travel along the highways which are situated in the and between the valleys which are surrounded by farms, rice paddies and enormous cloches. Small yellow melons not much larger than the size of a pear have just appeared on the markets and I recently read that the appearance of these melons is a traditional sign that spring is well under way.  Anyway, these melons are one of the main products of the province and were on sale from many small markets stalls on the twisting road that led from the highway to the mountains. Often small lorries, filled with the melons, were parked in lay-bys.

the start of the walk up to Heinsa Temple in the Kaya Mountains (2001)

beside the main temple in Heinsa (2001)

The scenery was absolutely beautiful as the lilacs were almost in full bloom. In Daegu they were already in full flower. Everywhere, cherry blossom (벚꽃) and yellow forsythia (개나리)  coloured the hillside. Spring blossom, in Korean, is known as pom namu (봄 나무).  Up in the mountainside you could see the various shades of green from emerging foliage speckled here and there by dashes of pink and yellow.  One flower, particularly common, was the national flower of South Korea, adopted after the liberation. This flower, Hibiscus Syriacus, known also as the Rose of Sharon and in Korean mugunghwa (무궁화). The atmosphere in the car was wonderful and Ga-in and Min-Ju were excited at the various sights. We climbed the mountain for quite a while, the little car straining when suddenly, out of the right hand side of the vehicle, the peaks of the mountain range appeared. It was a breath taking sight; the jagged peaks of bare rock were highlighted against a bright blue sky. Almost at the top of the range, there was an observation point where we stopped and took some photos. In the small car park were several farmers selling various fruits and vegetables. I took a photograph of some elderly women sat among their produce. One made a fuss of me and said she was too ugly to photograph, but she wasn’t, she was beautiful and she reminded me how lucky people are who still have mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to take a photograph of them sat naturally but instead they sat upright, hands on knees and all looked very serious.

roadside traders on the road up to Heinsa Temple – Kaya Mountains (2001)

a stupa in the large forecourt before the main temple (2001)

We were now in the heart of the Kayasan (가야 산) national park and in U-no’s little car we travelled down from the observation point into another valley before climbing back up into more mountains towards the Haeinsa (해인 사) temple. May 1st in the lunar calendar this year marks the celebration of Buddha’s birthday and so the roads in the park were edged with yellow, red and purple lanterns which at night are lit. The park was impeccably clean, not a piece of litter anywhere. We passed through a number of small villages where up in the surrounding hillside people could be seen tidying up their relatives tombs after the long winter. Arbour Day is one of the days when people walk up to their relatives tombs, tidy them and then present offerings which involve paying their respects by prostrating themselves on the ground, forehead to earth.

note the bees nest hanging from the side of the head

At many places on route to the temple, there were interesting sights. Small stupas, small pagoda constructions which house the spirit of Buddha dotted the landscape. We stopped at a larger sight where there was a small temple nestled up in the hillside. At the foot of the hill, just off the road and through some trees, stood an enormous statue of a Buddha flanked on either side by stupas. In front of the Buddha ran a burpling river which meandered down from the mountain. Stupas are common across the Buddhist world but Korean ones are very distinct with small bells hanging from the corners of each protrusuion. The stupa tapers into  a pointed spire. Like other Buddha statues I had seen in Korea, a large stone like ‘hat’ sat  on his head, from this one hung a large bees’ nest. From the nearby temple drifted the sound of a monk chanting and striking his small, spherical wooden percussion instrument made from hollowed out oak. It makes a hypnotic sound when continual tapped. Behind the Buddha was wall housing twenty or so class cases each containing a life-size Buddha in a different pose. In front of the statue stood a stone table where visitor placed offering of food for the monks, bags of rice or fruits and nuts. Those making offerings lit joss sticks and then prostrated themselves in front of the Buddha. There were several elderly women who had been busy prostrating themselves for the entire 20 minutes of our visit. U-chun told me a respectable number of prostrations is ten but if you want to be particularly devoted you perform 180. This is no mean feat as a complete prostration begins and ends from a standing position.

Min-ju and I (2001)

Eventually, after a further journey, we parked the car  in a large car park high in the mountains and joined the enormous conga of people progressing up to Haeinsa Temple. The walk talks about an hour. In places the climb was quite steep. One of the first sites we stopped at was a pond, called the  -Yong-ji. This lay just outside the entrance to the Haeinsa complex. According to the legend, seven sons wanted to become monks and left home to travel to Haeinsa. Later, longing for her sons, their mother travelled the long distance to visit them but as they had already taken their vows, they could not see her in person. Instead, they looked at each other’s reflection in the pond.

The temple complex was full of fascinating sights. The elaborate art work of the central temple, which housed a golden Buddha, consisted of intricate patterns of blue, green, orange and gold. Inside the main temple, monks prayed in front of the large golden Buddha, the air scented by both spring and incense. The Haeinsa Temple, was built in the Shilla (57bc-935ad) period though it was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in the 15th century. The temple houses the Triptaka Koreana which is the most extensive Buddhist text and is written on 82000 wooden engravings. The text is in the process of being translated. The wooden engravings are housed in outhouses surrounding the main temple.

Pak Yu-chun and her family (2001)

After spending several hours in the temple, we walked down the mountain and headed to a picnic area further into the Kayasan range. Koreans love to picnic and are well equipped with picnic mats, barbecues and baskets and when the finish, they meticulously tidy away all their mess. U-chun had cooked pulgogi and chap’che – a fried noodle dish with pork and beef through it. As usual the meal was accompanied with kimchee. After the meal we drove back to Daegu.

On Saturday, the Yon San Dong school had planned a staff trip to Kyong Ju (경주). Matt and I took a taxi down to the school to meet the mini bus. All the western teachers went except for Lisa who never seems to want to mix with anyone but who, in fairness, has been ill during the week. She continually moans anyway, so perhaps is it a good thing. There were four Korean staff coming with us, To-yung, Amy, Meg (who has a mouthful of wonky, impacted teeth and who looks like one of the Cenobite’s from Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser,’) and Qui-Aie. We all brought packed lunches and set off  in high spirits. I can’t remember if I have previously mentioned the significance of Kyong Ju, but it was at one time the capital of the Shilla (57bc-975ad) dynasty. Between approximately 40bc and 400ad the peninsula was divided into three kingdoms – the Shilla, Koguryo and Paekche. Around 400ad, the Shilla dynasty, situated in the east and militarily very powerful, overthrew the other kingdoms and united the peninsula. The Shilla dynasty ruled until approx 900ad. Needless to say the area is full of interesting sights and it is particularly famous for its spring blossoms.

Back – Qui-aie, me, Pauline, Angelin. Front – ?,? Angel, Matt, (2001)

Kyong Ju isn’t a large city but when we arrived it was teeming with people on bicycles hired from one of numerous shops. Matt shared a tandem with the Cenobite and the rest of us all hired standard bicycles and headed off to the nearby Shilla tombs. The most impressive tomb in the site we visited was the Heavenly Horse Tomb. Though several other tombs lay in the same location, only this tomb had been excavated and inside a coffin and 15 items, including a sword of 98cm long. The tombs are all large mounds and the Heavenly Horse Tomb had been hollowed out so we were able to walk around inside it. Nearby was the oldest observatory in Asia and this was a large circular building made of stone. From here we went to the Kyong-ju National Museum which lay next to the Anapj (Goose and Lake). In 1972 the lake was temporarily drained and over 41.000 artefacts were found which now appear in the museum. Outside the museum was a large bell known as the Emelie Bell. Apparently this bell was cast in the ninth century and its unusual tone is attributed to the fact that a baby was thrown into the smelting metal during its casting.

Tombs of Kings

We ate lunch in the gardens of the museum and then set of to visit a large lake outside the town. The cycle took ages and all along the route cherry blossom showered onto us like snow whenever a breeze blew. Pauline found the cycle strenuous and no matter how many times we asked where we were going, how long the cycle was likely to take, or how far it was, our host Koreans avoided our questions. After an hour or so cycling, Matt decided to stop and complain. We had all become split up and there were thousands of other cyclists travelling in both directions along our route. Despite our protestations, Qui-Aie wanted to push ahead and as soon as she saw Pauline struggling in the distance, she continued cycling with renewed vigour. I actually think it was part of her master plan to stop us getting together and moaning. After about another fifteen minutes, we reached this large lake which sat on top of a hill. All around the edge of the lake the cycle path could be traced by the line of cherry blossom. At the far end of the lake stood an enormous pagoda which I later discovered was a Hilton Hotel. On a large grass bank teeming with relaxing Koreans, we sat and had some refreshments bought from nearby stalls. We thought we would be able to sit and enjoy the beautiful scenery but under the leadership of ‘Hitler Tours,’ other plans were afoot.

the cycle up to the edge of the lake – under a canopy of blossom (2001)

All to soon Qui-aie and the other Koreans ushered us to continue cycling towards the Hotel. It was an awkward cycle as the path an narrowed and was packed with walkers and cyclists in an enormous conga that seemed to travel in both directions unbroken, around the lake. As is natural, Koreans didn’t get stressed with the incompetent cyclists who frequently blocked out passage or slowed our journey. I don’t think Koreans are very well organised in terms of driving on the roads, walking in packed supermarkets or cycling. Mopeds and motorbikes can be seen everyday using the pavements and I regularly see potential accidents about to occur. In busy supermarkets they will push and shove each other in order to squeeze through little gaps. They do exactly the same when driving yet rarely do they loose their tempers or get stressed. Matt and I have a time limit when we shop in a supermarket – usually about half an hour, after which we deteriorate into a frustrated state. On the path around the lake there seemed no consensus about which side of the pavement to cycle on and it seemed total chaos to us westerners. We cycled for another half an hour, making painfully slow progress and on the few occasions on which I stopped to take a photograph, I was made to feel I was wasting time. Next, I suggested we stop because we had lost Pauline. Twenty minutes later and she appeared  in the distance and immediately, Qui-aie jumped on her bike. Matt wouldn’t get on his and was looking very cross.

‘Are you alright?’ I asked. He didn’t look up.

‘If there’s one thing I fucking hate it’s being asked if I’m alright when I’m fucking not,’ he snarled. Qui-aie was still trying to prompt us to cycle and I said we were going to wait for Pauline so she could take a break.

However, it wasn’t long before Qui-aie was leading us towards the fast approaching hotel. Soon, the path turned away from the lake. Our Korean guides, ‘Hitler Tours,’ grouped up ahead and were busy talking. I joked that they were probably deciding whose job it was going to be to tell us that we still had another few hours cycle ahead of us. Suddenly, To-yung told us we were turning towards the town and that we would be back at the minibus in some 20 minutes.  We were momentarily relieved as this is Korea and Koreans and often lacking in organisation.

After more cycling, I noticed that the fairground wheel which had lain behind the hotel now lay behind us and that we were in fact travelling towards Kyong-ju but by the longest route; around the perimeter of the lake. We were some two hours cycle away from the point at which we had arrived at the lake’s shore. Here we were in this beautiful location with cafes and boat rides and wonderful sights and all we were doing was racing amongst a huge conga of cyclists and walkers. At one point there was an enormous hold up and bikes were knocking into each other all over the place – which no one minded except us westerners. When some silly Korean in front of us, braked for no reason and then blocked our way we cursed but the facial expression of the perpetrator was one of innocence and bewilderment. There was a long lay-by next to us, lines with market stalls, not one Korean in the enormous hold up, broke ranks to circumnavigate the jam. I moved into the empty road, calling for Angela to follow me and within minutes there was a long clear path in front of us. For some fifteen minutes we flew down the almost empty path and when we reached the main road at the bottom, we had to wait forty minutes before we all re-grouped. Angela spent our time leering at sexy Korean lads and we both agreed that westerners are mutant mongrels by comparison. Our hair is assorted colours and textures, we have pallid skin, yellow teeth and we are usually fatter than Koreans.

The rest of our party eventually appeared, free-wheeling down the hill towards us but they did not look very happy, apparently, they had waited for us assuming we must have got held up. By now a tense silence had developed between the Korean and foreign teachers. We arrived back in Kyong-ju city centre, tired and with sore backsides but of course, once we had handed our bicycles back, ‘Hitler Tours’ wouldn’t allow us time to get a coffee or an ice-cream. Instead, it was straight back and onto the bus! Back in Song-so the foreign teachers went for a drink in the Elvis Bar which isn’t far from Kemyoung University. Tomorrow, April 8th, is Pauline’s birthday.

On Wednesday I went to the doctor’s to get my gout pills and to have Bill, the hernia, checked out. Bill hasn’t been bothering me lately though he is still there and pops in and out with a sort of squidgy, jelly-like feeling. Doctor Lee always wants to have a chat and practice his quite competent English. I asked him to check Bill out as I was worried it might be a cancer of something. I have multiple cancers at the moment and develop new ones regularly. He looked at me quite strangely when I told him this and so I had to explain that whenever I get a headache, a pain or a blemish, I assume it’s a potential cancer. He got to work with the ultra-sound and then showed me, by way of the monitor, that a small lump of fat was moving between different layers of my stomach muscle. He assured me it wasn’t a hernia or anything serious. I love my trip to the doctors as he is the first doctor I have ever had that actually I actually refer to as ‘my doctor.’ He genuinely seems interested in me and always asks if there is anything else wrong with me or anything he can do. No matter how long I take at the doctors, no matter whether five minutes or fifty minutes, the cost is always 10.000W which is less than five pounds. Even if one assumes the cost of living to be four less than in the UK, that puts my doctor’s fee at around £20. When my mother went to a specialist over five years ago she was charged £60. My doctor is actually an internal medicine specialist! It’s strange that my health seems more protected and guaranteed here in Korea than it is is the smug world of the ‘developed west.’ Even the poodle parlours here offer a better service than does the British NHS! Teachers like Matt and Angela from New Zealand all prefer the Korean medical system. We all seem to have access to drugs and medicine seen as too expensive to provide freely in our home countries. After my monthly trip to my doctor I went and relaxed at the sauna. I have been going to the mokyuktang several times a week.

My Taekwondo has been progressing very well and now it is warmer I have suffer less injuries. Spring is almost over and already we have had temperatures in the 80’s. Korea has a spring and autumn of only three weeks or a month and has long winters and summers. The blossom has fallen from the trees and now the streets around Song So are being lined with pink and yellow lanterns in readiness for Buddha’s birthday (May 1st of this years lunar calendar). I often train for forty five minutes at lunchtime either stretching at home or in my club. My stretching programme has paid off and I am able to do exercises I haven’t done for fifteen years or so. I can sit in a hurdler’s straddle and almost put my head on my knee and I can sit on my knees and lean right back so my shoulders are on the floor. From this position I can do sit-ups. My axe kick, one of my favourite and formerly most devastating kicks, is almost as good as it was when I took my black belt.  I now have a purple belt and my blue belt exam I will take in a few weeks time. After blue, I will have brown, red, red and black belts to take before I can finally take my black belt exam. I would be quite content to go home with a brown belt but gaining a black belt is within my grasp. I realise how unfit I have become in the last four years – all due to sitting at a computer writing and riding a motorcycle. It has taken me a lot of effort to get fitter and a few months ago I was going to give up Taekwondo for good.

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

Mogyuktang Observations Plus – Tuesday 3rd April, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Now I am getting quite relaxed using the mokyuktang, I am beginning to discover a different aspect to them. Regularly, I use the steam room and sauna, only for a short while, and after that I go and sit in the cold pool. The process of going from very warm to cold has the most amazing effect on the mind. I experience a strange taste in the back of my throat and start to feel a little dizzy after which my mind becomes calm and floaty. The whole sensation is rather like a little drug hit. In this state, which is very pleasant, I notice other men just sat around all in their own little worlds. If such an institution existed in the west it would probably be polluted with pop music. The mokyuktang is filled with music which when in the right state is wonderfully relaxing. It is the music of running, splashing and spraying water. If you sit at one end of the cold bath you can look down of the mirror-like surface of the pool and really enjoy the state of calm the experience induces. When you get out of the cold pool you have to be a little careful as your body is slightly wobbly and I have noticed, men usually get out of this pool and sit awhile on the edge of the pool before moving to another bath.  I still can’t believe I’m naked in a place full of other naked people and have even started sitting on the floor of the steam room, cross legged.

Han Song Bathhouse, Song-So. The third Bathhouse I visited. It became my regular bathhouse in 2001.

It is interesting watching the interaction between children and their fathers; last week a young boy and girl sat playing beside their father. Young children bring toys to the pool and between being scrubbed and scrubbing their father’s back, they run around enjoying the water and playing. They were fairly interested in me and for quite a while they stared whenever they thought I wasn’t watching them.

One day there were two lads in the mokyuktang, probably in their early twenties and most likely from the local university. As is usual, one sits behind the other on the low plastic seats which look like upturned washing-up bowls, and then they take it in turn to scrub each others’ back. There was an old man in one corner of a pool and one of the lads went over to him and scrubbed his back for him. I was hoping he might volunteer to do mine but I was out of luck. A visit to the mokyuktang would give any artist a deeper insight into the human body and I find it amazing watching naked bodies from an aesthetic perspective. It is fascinating how they are designed and how the muscles interact and are articulated and how the human body is structured and proportioned.

At taekwon-do on Tuesday evening, I discovered the school oath is being replaced. I was rather annoyed as it was the first evening I had been able to recite it at the same speed as the Korean students. A new oath hung on the wall and is to be used from now on and so I will have to learn this. As my body has become fitter and more agile, I am able to exert myself more in classes. The sessions are grueling! I hadn’t realised how unfit I had become after three years of writing. Pak Dong-soo spent sometime during a lesson working out on the bag; he is beautiful to watch and can do flying kicks well over six foot high. He moves like a bird.

The English teaching I am doing is becoming increasingly boring. Last week, in one class I went berserk and smashed my stick on a table. This is the third stick I have broken in three months. I called for a senior teacher and he came along and shouted at them. The kids are not disruptive but more inattentive and chatty. Sometimes it is impossible to get their collective attention and sometimes I just despair – especially after a long day. It doesn’t help that I rant and shout as Koreans find such displays of emotive behaviour unpleasant and deem it to be a loss of self control – which of course it is.

Fridays are a drag as I teach in another kindergarten and have no time for lunch. There are days when I observe something that I realise gives me a greater understanding of the Korean psyche. In the kindergarten, when I pass out a handout, the kids all gather around me. There is rarely any pushing, they just stand passively in front of you with both hands extended and wait for you to place the handout directly into their hands. One day, I was watching two boys who came into the PC bang (room). They were eating an ice-cream which consists of a plastic ball, a little larger than a snooker ball, with a built in straw. Both of them just stood in the middle of the room, passively sucking. They sucked in a way so totally different from how children might suck or eat an ice-cream in the West, without the greed and voracious consumerism. If there is one thing I am learning about my culture, it is how vulgar, greedy and selfish it is. English kids are always on the want, they are always squabbling over possessions and in particular, over food. In six months of teaching in Korea, I haven’t once seen a fight or seen one child strike another. In my kindergarten class last week, which is held in a small school situated in an apartment complex, the Korean teacher left the room briefly. Suddenly fifteen or so little children converged on me eager to stroke the hair on my arms, which fascinates them. Some wanted to stroke my hair, a few wanted to pat my belly. Korean children can be quite beautiful in both features and mannerisms.

After a hideous class at Di Dim Dol, I went and sat at the table Nana and I share outside Joe’s office. Lisa was there for her afternoon class. I started moaning about my lesson and she immediately started complaining loudly.

“Korean children have no manners. They’re rude, ignorant, and need training.” I almost told her to shut-up.

“No! They’re not rude!” I replied. ‘They are usually well mannered, polite and very gentle. Yes’ they run around between classes and don’t recognise your personal space but that’s cultural.”

The other day she told me how she has this tone of voice she reserves for ‘foreigners!’ She then went on to say she had a ‘men-sahib’ attitude towards Koreans which confirmed my suspicions about her having a colonial attitude.

On Friday it snowed heavily for most of the morning and suddenly it has turned cold and wintry. In the evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me for a meal, we had pork barbecue and a few bowls of dong dong ju (동동주) after which we went for a walk in a nearby park. The cheery blossom and lilac are in full blossom despite the cold recess.

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©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

More Mogyoktang Observations – March 26th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Today at the mokyoktang  a boy of about 11 or 12 came in which was quite unusual as usually children are at school. However, I noticed he had a rub down from one of the masseurs and this is done on a couch to one side of the central bathing area. The whole procedure was quite intimate with the boy lying naked and the masseur rubbing away at his body with an abrasive cloth. This procedure lasted about twenty minutes as during it I visited the steam room and several saunas.

I was interested just to see how intimate the rub was as in the future I might dare to have one. In addition, I was also interested to see if adults were treated any different from children. At one point the masseur jammed his knee on the boys inner thigh and sort of splayed him so he could rub his crotch. The idea of a stranger having this much access to  a child without their parent’s there would be deemed abhorrent in the west and it quite disheartens me that we are so fucked up about this in our society. When I was having my final shower, a cold one which I take to lower my body temperature so I am not sweating when I leave the mokyoktang, the boy was sat upright and the masseur was rubbing his neck and face. The masseur, was naked too!

After I have had my cold shower, I spend five minutes in the drying room. This is pamper city and a few of my gay friends would love this facility. The rooms are always long and with large mirrors on the walls which takes more getting used to than the other naked men around you. There are large fans on the table tops which you can direct on your wet body and also hair dryers. I have noticed many men using the hair dryers to dry their pubic hair and I have also started doing this. On the surrounding tables are a range of lotions, hair creams, body conditioners and after shave. I put several concoctions on my face and then use some hair cream. Combs are lying on the bench tops or you can take one from the comb sterilising machine.

I quite like watching Korean men preen as they do so in such a totally faggy way. Today there was an elderly man next to me who combed his hair in a really fruity way and then rubbed various lotions onto his face. Finally, he daintily patted his face and hair with a towel. There is always a huge stack of lovely clean, white towels and you can use as many of these as you wish. I am still surprised at the vigour with which Koreans preen themselves, they trim their nails, trim their nasal hair, poke at their ears with cotton buds and when they leave, pick up their newly polished shoes from the shoe cleaner at the premises’ entrance. I have noticed the hairs on my arms and legs disappearing from the amount of scrubbing they have been receiving. I have realised that Koreans preen and clean their bodies with as much vigour and enthusiasm as we in the west might apply to our cars or motorbikes.

I had wondered what it would be like to meet someone you work with, by accident, in a mokyoktang. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Last week I was having my first shower after my arriving at the closest mokyoktang to my apartment. As I was still a little shy I hung around in the shower until there weren’t too many people in my path before walking over to the large pool. There was only one other person in the pool as I could clearly see the top of their head. Well, just as I had stepped up onto the parapet, this person, at the far end of the pool, waved and shouted my name. It was Lee Seong-gyu (이성규) from Di Dim Dol hakgwon. It was actually quite an amusing experience to be caught totally naked and in full view by a friend. Anyway, Lee Seong-gyu and I have now met several times and bathed together. It is handy having a friend as they can rub and scrub your back for you.

Song-gyu and I, in 2001. I still bump into him in saunas ten years later! Incidentally, my trainers were New Balance, unheard of in Korea then but which 12 years later are the most popular training shoe on the market.

In the steam room of one mokyoktang there is always a large box of salt on the seats and salt is strewn all over the floor. I have noticed it is used for scrubbing your body rather like an aggressive ex-foliate.

I have just had lunch in a small restaurant I have been frequenting for the last week. For several months now I have been doing my own cooking and learning how to cook Korean food but to be honest, it’s  far cheaper eating out! I ate pokkum bap (복음 밥), a sort of fried rice with an egg on top. As I left the restaurant, one of the chefs, a woman in her thirties or forties, and who seems to have developed an interest in me, gave me a slice of fruit. I asked if it was an apple and when I bit into it I discovered it was some sort of parsnip. The street on which the restaurant is situated is very close to my home and is flanked on both sides by maple trees which are just starting to leaf. The air was warm even though it was 8pm and dark. Spring seems to have been jumped as the weather is suddenly as warm as it would be on an average summer’s day in Britain. On my way home, I walked past the local hapkido school where I could hear kids chanting out the rhythm to some exercise which was interrupted, intermittently, by loud slaps from the mat.

Chi-woo, I imagine he’s now almost in high-school

Korean children are beautiful! Everyday Chi-woo (이치우) sits on my lap on the journey to the school. He always gives me a kiss on the cheek and teaches me how to count in Chinese. Korean uses both Korean and Chinese counting systems. In fact, Korean numbers only go as far as 99. Some things are counted in Chinese, others in Korean. There is rarely competition between the children and they share sweets and treats. Even at four years of age they are impeccably ordered and will put their toys away at the end of playtime and then pick up any paper or mess on the floor. At lunchtime they all help with laying the tables and clearing away. None of the children smell of piddle or shitty pants and they are all toilet trained – at least as far as going for a crap. This week however, two boys in my class pissed themselves. Dong-seop (동섭) left my class for a ‘shee’ (씨) and came back leaving pissy footprints on the carpet. I should have gone to the toilet with him for he had pulled down his trousers and long johns and then pissed into them. The same thing happened with a new boy called Seong-jun (성준). The next day I made sure I went with them and when they stood with their pants down I stuck my knee into their backs so they pissed into the urinal.

Da-hae (다해), the brain-dead moron, has suddenly come out of her shell and every morning she runs up to me for a hug. She still dribbles. The other day I noticed pen marks on a wall and I jokingly motioned for her to salivate over them –  with her tongue. Amusingly, she went to do this. I had rarely heard Da-hae (다해) speak up until about a month ago and in fact she has a really deep, gruff voice rather like the monster-girl in the Exorcist.

Last week there was an open day for the parents and each class in turn had respective parents watching the lesson. My class went fantastically well. I just did the same sort of things I do every morning: counting, reciting the days of the week, singing songs and doing some alphabet and written work. I choose to do work the children could manage so as to show their parents’ they had learnt something. Afterwards, I talked to each parent in turn with Precious interpreting for me. Koreans like you to be intimate with their children and they could clearly see I had a good relationship with them. I think they left feeling impressed and afterwards, Precious told me my class had been the best. However, complaints had been made about Matt and Angela’s classes. Apparently, parents didn’t think they had much control and their biggest gripe was with their earrings, shoddy clothes and unkempt hair. Some mornings, Angela looks like a scarecrow with bits of fluff and paper in her hair and with it messy all over. Mr Joe asked me if he should take them down town and buy them some new clothes.

I went to my doctor last week, about Bill, my small umbilical hernia. He has a new surgery close to the E-Mart which he proudly introduced me to. He has a new endoscope, an ultra sound, an x-ray room and various other rooms. The waiting room was beautiful with ornamental plants, a large fish tank and a station to make tea and coffee. I was in his office over forty-five minutes and had an ultra-sound on my stomach which I watched on his monitor. He tells me I have a small muscular tear which should clear up of its own accord but so far it hasn’t done I’m sure if it was a hernia he would have noticed it as he clearly showed me thew tear on the screen and estimated its size. The consultation cost me W10.000, just under five pounds and I didn’t have to wait any more than five minutes to see him. He is the first doctor I have had that I can truly call, my doctor.

My weekends are very busy and there are always friends trying to take me out or visit me. In fact, I hardly have any spare time at weekends now. Last weekend I met Pak U-chun and her daughter, Ga-in.  We met downtown, in the area known as Ex-Milano, where we visited lots of shops and just walked around talking. Korean children are rarely any nuisance and are used to spending time with adults. We walked around the Buddhist area where there are shops which sell clothes for monks, calligraphy brushes and paper and then moved into the more fashionable part of town. As on previous visits, a demonstration was in progress and as usual it was ordered. There were perhaps two hundred demonstrators sat in rows in a large pedestrian intersection. Many westerners here, whether civilian, military or teachers are usually an embarrassment and dress like slobs and are usually loud and in your face. We ate the most wonderful meal in a restaurant that specialises in spicy chicken which is cooked on a barbecue at your table. After, we went for an ice-cream at a Baskin Robbins.

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Lisa’s Moaning. March 27th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1, Teaching by 노강호 on March 26, 2001

On Tuesday, Mr Joe took the foreign teachers, and the Korean teachers from the Yon San Dong school, out for a meal. Of course, Mr Joe never told me we were going out and as usual I heard it ‘through the grape-vine.’ I have told Joe many times to let me know when he plans to do things as I have such a busy schedule. The meal had been planned for Friday, but then I heard he had changed it as he was going to Seoul on Saturday and was no doubt going the be having a heavy soju session. He had a little go at joking with us by telling us that the Korean president, Kim Dae-young, wanted his advice on things and that was why he was going to Seoul. As I was already supposed to be meeting Pak U-chun on Friday evening, I told the other teachers I wouldn’t be going but Mr Joe is very cunning. On Tuesday afternoon he turned up at his office, which is situated right behind my desk in the reception area where Nana and I keep our books and relax in the five minutes between each class. He quite often comes in and then can be seen sitting in his office, feet up on his sofa, reading a newspaper or watching his television or even sleeping. I can always tell when he is sleeping as his feet dangle of the end of the sofa which can be seen even if his door is slightly ajar. Well, it was the start of the last lesson and I was planning to make a rapid escape so as to avoid him. As I passed his door I could see he was still sleeping but then, just as the lesson bell sounded, he appeared behind my back.

“Nick, what time do you finish?” he asked.

“9.30, about,” I replied with a ready-made reply.

“What! You teach that late?”

“No! That’s when I finish taekwon-do!”

“What time does that start then?” he asked.

“At eight.”

“Well, we are going for a meal at 6.50.”

He had caught me out as there was time to go for a meal and then go training. I suppose I could have made a further excuse, but I didn’t. At around 6.30 the crowd from Yon San Dong, arrived and walked down to a nearby restaurant that serves pork barbecue. The pork is sliced thinly rather like bacon and you barbecue at a grill on your table. As usual there were plenty of small side dishes. The meal was really tasty and a little later Lisa arrived looking very grumpy. Mr Joe had cancelled her class and sent someone to walk her to the restaurant. She wasn’t pleased as she had prepared a lesson and to make matters worse Joe had her ‘escorted’ to the restaurant. There really is no pleasing her and she is forever moaning. To think her lesson was cancelled and she was being paid to eat a free meal. Later, Mr Joe asked if she wanted to come to the noraebang for a sing-song and she curtly shouted down the length of the table;

“No! No! No! Definitely not, Mr Joe! I have to be ready for work tomorrow morning and I have to prepare!” She is such a snappy old bag.  I encouraged her to come down for a bit but when we got into the singing room she sat on her own and refused to sing anything.

Mr Joe is excellent at singing and performed all his favourites which are usually anything by the Bee Gees, Tom Jones or the Beatles. Lisa has been blagging on about how she is a writer for a local paper in New Zealand, where she lives. She keeps telling me that her local paper wants her to write an article on life in Korea. She certainly doesn’t open her self up to new experiences and is very colonial in her attitudes. For her, nothing is right in Korea, it’s either too dirty, poorly organised or it’s uncivilised. I wouldn’t mind so much  if I heard her saying something positive about the place to counterbalance her criticism, but she doesn’t.

On Saturday I spent the afternoon in and around Song So with Pak U-chun and her daughter, Ga-in. She bought me lunch in a small Chinese restaurant that is right opposite Macdonalds and which I must have passed a hundred times but never noticed. It is a small delivery restaurant with only a few tables in it. I have counted twelve restaurants between my house and Di Dim Dol (디딤덜), a walk that takes only five minutes. All of them, with the exception of Macdonalds and KFC (K P shee), are delivery restaurants and always have a couple of mopeds outside them (Incidentally, Macs started offering a delivery service around 2008). The roads and pavements are crawling with mopeds that rush food to work places and apartments. The riders, mostly teenage boys, don’t wear protective clothing or crash helmets and carry a large metal box, containing the meals, in one hand. I often wonder how many of these lads get killed or injured each year.

Yu-chun ordered seafood fried rice and it was delicious. It wasn’t particularly Chinese but the absence of red pepper paste, plus king prawns, bamboo and water chestnuts, made a welcome change. However, few meals in Korea are complete without kimchi or moo (mooli).

Suddenly the blossom is out! I’ve been waiting for it to flower all week and all at once it has. All the trees now have a green fuzziness and I expect they will be fully green in a few weeks. The grass, parched and brown throughout the winter and since I arrived in Korea, is slowly coming back to life. When you walk past the flower shops, there is the most beautiful smell of hyacinths, azaleas and spring flowers. I miss my garden and plants back home!

Before Yu-chun left, we sat in a park just down the road from my school and in the space between Song So and Kemyoung University. Dusk was falling and on the football pitch boys kicked about a ball, their legs obscured by the dust kicked up by their feet. We sat under one of the typical oriental arbours that you see dotted around every park and on top of small hills throughout the city. They don’t serve much purpose in the winter and spring but I am aware that their importance will grow with the rising temperature. Then they will be a respite from the glaring heat which I regard with trepidation.

After I left Yu-chun  and Ga-in, I went straight to Pak Jun-hee’s restaurant as it was time for my weekly lesson with his son, Pak Ji-won. During the lesson he asked me if there were taekwon-do, kumdo, or hapkido schools in the UK? I  explained that the main form of popular sport in the UK was football and that martial art clubs were normally once a week in a grotty church hall. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“But football is just a game.”

“How are taekwon-do, hapkido and gumdo different? Aren’t they games too?” I asked.

“No! No! They are not games. Games are for fun and enjoyment. If you don’t have martial arts schools how do you train your mind to concentrate? How do you develop your discipline?”

“We don’t!” I replied.

On Sunday I relaxed, watched a video and did my stretching programme and then went to have a chat with a woman who runs a nearby pc (PC 방) room. She is going to Canada and wants a few English lessons or at least the chance to talk with an English speaker. I’m getting rather tired of talking English all the time with people who don’t speak it as a first language. Everyone here wants lessons. I reckon I could stand in the street and ask the first person I see if they’d like some lessons and the chances are probably 99%  that they would be interested. In 8 years of teaching in the UK, I have not once been asked by a pupil for me to give them extra lessons.

I left my apartment as usual this morning, at about 8.30am, to go to a nearby pc bang (PC 방).   As I was coming down the stairs I realised I needed to blow my nose  but I was already halfway down the stairs. I couldn’t be bothered going back to the house so when I got out onto the street I just ‘henged’ it up onto the pavement. “Heng’ is the Korean word for this practice. After, I  stood laughing because quite an unpleasant mass lay on the sidewalk and my nose felt wonderfully clear. No having to blow your gubbings into a hanky, no having to smear it around your nose and lips and no having to put it in your packet to be carried around all day. When I think of it hankies are such filthy, revolting things.

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Cultural Clashes – March 25th – 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in customs, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on March 25, 2001

I am still giving Ji-won a lesson on a Saturday evening. His father, Pak Jun Hee  is the same age as I and so we have a very good relationship. A new teacher, Lisa, had arrived from the UK and we decided to take her out to their restaurant and during the course of the evening Ji-won asked her age, Koreans always want to know your age. Lisa, who is possibly nearing retirement, was visibly offended and tried to explain that this was a rude question. Of course, asking ones age is a necessity for Koreans as they need to ascertain where to place you within a hierarchical structure and to address you both in terms of behaviour and language. In order for Koreans to form relationships with westerners, especially ones who fall outside their own peer group, they have to invent relationships in order to ratify a friendship. So for Ji-won, I am his teacher, for Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선), I am his older brother and I have to refer to him as ‘dong seng’ (동생) and correspondingly, he has to refer to me as ‘hyong je’ (형재). When I thank Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선) I have to use informal style language whereas towards me he uses formal language which is used from a junior to  a senior. When I thank him I will say ‘komapda’ while he will thank me by saying ‘khamsa hamnida’ (감사합니다). Needless to say such linguistic etiquette makes learning the language all the more difficult.

Ji-won  is a keen student who at the moment is going to school from 7am until 9pm. He will stick to this regime for the next two years. Last week there were classes at Di Dim Dol hakwon which started at 11.15 in the evening. It amazes me how we moan about child exploitation in the west and yet Korean children lead such hideously pressured lives. A fifteen year old boy jumped out of a tower block here last week, and died all because his maths teacher had been disappointed with his ‘average’ maths score.

At the restaurant Ji-won and I sat talking for several hours and then his father came over with some soju and sashimi. Pak Jun Hee  often brings sashimi and I think he considers this a treat for me – which it is. However, while I enjoy sushi (초밥), which is small slices of fish on a small ball of vinegared rice, Korean sashimi I am not so keen on. This is a full platter of various cuts of raw fish and the skill of a sashimi chef is dependant on how long he can keep the fish alive as he is slicing off its flesh. As with Korean barbecues, this fish is eaten with a variety leaves, garlic cloves, the Korean equivalent of wasabi (고추 냉이) and red pepper paste (고추장). One places a small selection of fish in a leaf and adds the other ingredients, wraps it and then eats it. Among Korean friends it is quite acceptable to place food, by way of hand, into you someone else’s mouth.  Pak Jun Hee made a massive ball, of sashimi, and mostly fish, which I could only just fit in my mouth and I very nearly puked. I can take a little raw fish but not half a pound of a cold, raw seafood cocktail. Lim Sun-hee, who is Pak Jun Hee’s wife could see I was a little distressed but I pretended it was the heat of the wasabi and everyone laughed. Koreans find it very amusing when you find their food too spicy. The ball was so big I couldn’t just swallow it so I was forced to chew that cold flesh into swallow-able portions. Pak Jun Hee’s has invited me to go to Pusan with him on August 23rd, which is his family’s ancestors’ day. Then he will go to his family tomb on the mountain and pay respects to his dead relatives. It is a very private affair and I am quite privileged.

I have taken a short break from taekwon do as I have had constant problems with my left hamstring. I think I need to strengthen it as stretching weakens the muscle and maybe it needs a little building up. I have started some special exercises which I do in the lunchtimes before I go to the mokyoktang.

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Life with Billy – My New Umbilical Hernia, March 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on March 13, 2001

As I write up these notes some five years after I wrote them (2006), I have to add that this entry is in reflection very significant. This is the point at which my martial arts experiences will never be surpassed and I very much doubt whether I will ever kick a bag again or perform a technique with a ‘kiai’ that rivets my body in tension. When I look at the date of this entry, 12th of March, 2001, I calculate that I have had exactly 24 years 1 week and 3 days of relative health in which to pursue taekwon do. I started my training at the Song Do Kwan on March 3rd, 1977. I had incredibly powerful stomach muscles and at one time could do 500 sit-ups in one go, do sit-ups with a hundred pound weight behind my neck, have broom handles smashed over my stomach and swing a heavy sand bag against it. Though I never had a washboard stomach, I realise now, especially when I look at photos of myself effortlessly swinging a leg above my head, how incredibly fit I was. However, like so many athletes I never thought I was fit enough. It is only now as I look back that I realise I was fit, very fit and yet I never allowed myself to acknowledge that., I find it sad that I am only able to experience the extent of my successes from the position of the disability that now stops me pursuing the path of the martial artist. How I miss it, how I love and loved it! How ironic I should suffer this demise in Korea, the birth place of taekwon do.

24 years, 1 week and 3 days after my very first taekwon do lesson, by Master Georg Soupidis, of the Song Do Kwan Academy, Osnabrűck, and I lifted a child up at Yon San Dong (영산동) Letter and Sound. I recall a small tearing sensation close to my bellybutton, like something separating and afterwards felt a small lump to the side of my navel. A frigging umbilical hernia!  I have since had two more and when I last visited the consultant, Stephen Barker, a former doctor for the British taekwon do team, he told me I’d have to stop doing sit ups and kicking a bag. His words made nauseous and I remember walking out of his office onto a busy London street feeling incredibly numb. But I have jumped the gun, going back to Daegu (대구) I didn’t yet realise my days of serious taekwon-do training were over.

The lump was only small and it goes away when I lie down. It has this routine and pops out around lunch time. I was quite concerned at first but after spending several hours on the internet I have know become a little more knowledgeable about  hernias. I am going to the doctor on Monday and will have surgery to repair it which apparently is best to do now than later. Training doesn’t seem to aggravate it. It isn’t painful and I believe the operation only takes an hour and is performed as an outpatient.

Mr Jo still hasn’t organised our health insurance despite Nana and I having asked him many times. Jo said he would take me to a doctor he knows but I am going to my doctor as I trust and like him.

At first, I thought about returning to the UK but would probably have to  hang around there for ages waiting for things to happen. I am much more tempted to have it repaired here. Private health care is much cheaper here than in the UK and so far I have been quite impressed with what I have seen. I certainly don’t think it’s any worse that health care in the UK.

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My Inauguration into Korean Bathhouse Culture – March 1st 2001. (Korean Accounts Part 1. 2000-2001)

On Korean Independence Day, (Sam-il, March 1st), I went to U-chun’s sister’s house with her daughter, Ga-in and her husband, U-no. They live in Changwon (창원) which sits between Masan in the west, and Pusan in the east.  They arrived at my apartment in two cars as her sister, her husband and their daughter, Min-ju, are all traveling to Changwon where another one of their sisters lives. It was great to get out of Daegu and to travel in a direction I had not been before. U-chun has five sisters and the one we are visiting has a husband who is an officer in the army and hence they live in married quarters. The quarters were outside the city and everywhere, as it is Independence Day, hung the national flag, the daeguk gi (대국 기).

Ga-in (Olivia), in 2001 (Sam-il)

U-chun’s sister’s family  live on the top floor of the apartment block so there was a great view of the surrounding countryside.

On the journey to Changwon, U-chun asked me what three things I wanted to do before I left Korea. I said I wanted to eat pondeggi which is steamed silk worm cocoons, eat dog soup (보신탕) and go to a bathhouse (목욕탕 ). Now I have no great desire to eat cocoons or dog, but I do think I should fleetingly sample them before I leave. As for the bathhouse, which in Korean is called a mokyoktang, all that is stopping me is a fear of nudity and an insecurity at my own physique. Nana outright refuses to visit one and this is now his fifth year in Korea. Most westerners I meet here have not been to them and many don’t even know they exist. I am drawn to them simply as I am afraid of them and see them to be Korean enclaves.

Anyway, U-chun laughed and said that they were planning to visit a bathhouse  this afternoon. There was a strange plummeting sensation in my stomach, like I was suddenly falling at a very fast rate. At first I thought she was joking and then I tried to tell her that I was planning to visit one in the final week or so of my year I Korea. She didn’t seem to understand!

At U-chun’s sister’s house we drank cold green tea and then walked to a nearby restaurant. There were perhaps fifteen of us all together and of course, I was the centre of attention. We were served fish, a very ugly fish which I suspect was monk fish (악귀) as its mouth was massive. Several fish were placed on our tables, all smothered in noodles and drenched in red pepper paste. I didn’t really enjoy it. As always, there were a variety of side dishes one of which was a selection of very chewy meat. I asked U-chun what it was and her and her husband grinned. ‘it’s ddong chip.’ She replied. Now, my knowledge of the Korean language isn’t extensive but I do understand the word ‘ddong’ (똥) as this word I found written all over desks in my classrooms in my first week in Korea. The word was usually written under a drawing of a turd that curled upwards into a little point rather like Mr Whippy ice-cream. ‘Chip’ (집) is simply Korean for house.  So I was eating chicken’s arse! Korean food is very often Klingon in nature and I didn’t eat anymore from that bowl.

After the meal we walked to a nearby traditional potter’s work house. The outside of the building was a regular concrete structure but the interior had be decorated to resemble and old, traditional lodging and work place.  There were wooden rafters on the ceiling with a papery material stretched over them. Wooden posts had been sunk into the floor and the walls were paneled in wood. Everywhere was covered in Chinese characters and in one room they were even on the walls and ceiling. The potter sat at a wheel making various objects which were later to be fired and put on display. We ordered some dongdong-ju (동동주) which we drank from traditional gourd bowls. I would love a recipe of this drink as we have nothing like it in the west. It is a creamy rice wine which hasn’t been strained and which seems to be the tipple of peasants and farmer folk. As we were walking back to the apartment block, reeking of smoke from the wooden fires in the potter’s shop, U-chun told me the next stop was the bathhouse. Suddenly, the sinking feeling returned.

Sam-il 2001, in a traditional restaurant and potter’s shop on the day of my first visit to a Korean bathhouse

In U-chun’s sister’s apartment, I was offered the choice of staying with the women to play games, or going to the mokyoktang with U-no and two other male relatives. I couldn’t stay with the women without losing face, though they wouldn’t have minded, and so I decided to swallow my pride in the mokyoktang. I was really nervous but I wasn’t going to back out of the experience. At the mokyoktang in Changwon, on my inaugural visit, I immediately saw a few men who were proportionally fatter than I was and any insecurities about the genital department quickly evaporated when I realised that there were very little differences between people. I was quite honoured when two strangers volunteered to scrub my back for me but it was a weird experience. It was wonderfully liberating to be naked with other men and boys and not feel in anyway assessed or eyed up. Nudity in the west is always accompanied with sexual overtones or notions of masculinity which detract from the experience’s potential pleasures. Next to me a boy of about fourteen rubbed his father’s back and then the father rubbed his. I had a slight shock when the boy lay down and his father began rubbing his son’s chest and then moving his dick and balls to one side, scrubbed his groin. The boy then did the same to his father.

My only qualm on my first visit to the mokyoktang, besides squatting on one of those little seats,  was bending over to pick up the soap. I felt this a far to undignified act to perform. U-no spent almost an hour scrubbing himself  and I did notice that when the boy beside me was having his back scrubbed, a small line of dead, grey skin was being stripped off. Koreans actually have a word for this skin, ‘dae (때) which translates as ‘dirt.’ The abrasive cloths they use, which come is several gradients are almost like sandpaper. When we left the mokyoktang, U-no said to me, Nick! You are a new man now!’ I think he meant it in the sense I was clean but I interpreted it more mentally as the experience was a landmark in my visit to Korea and in my personal development. It was an experience that quite liberated me but has remained an experience I can only enjoy in Korea.

I have since been in three different mokyoktang premises and they are all fairly similar in what they have to offer. The changing rooms are large and opened planned and there is usually a television around which people sit naked or dressed either drying off or recuperating after the session as it can quite tire you. When you go from the changing room area to the bathing area you have no security at all as you are totally naked.  Everything is supplied for you and so you have to walk past the relaxation area without even the safety of a face cloth or towel. I actually felt so naked that even my watch and dog tags gave me some minuscule sense of security.

Once in the bathing area there are plenty of high powered showers which you can adjust from freezing cold to scorching hot. Next there are rows of showers where you sit down on a small plastic stool which is not much bigger than a washing-up bowl. In front of you, as you sit, is an enormous mirror and it is here that you do most of your scrubbing clean. One my first visit I avoided these showers as the seat is so low to the floor that even if you have a relatively small belly, it is highlighted. Soap, toothpaste, razor blades, salt – for scrubbing your teeth, towels, abrasive body cloths are all provided. In the bathing area are usually a number of pools which would include a hot pool, a cold pool, a warm pool and often a Jacuzzi. Around these are a number of rooms such as a steam room and various saunas. In some mokyoktang houses are shower cubicles which blast your body from a hundred different vents with ice cold water.

I have fallen in love with the Korean mokyoktang and not for any seedy reason. In fact, since I started this diary entry I have made six trips to different establishments around Song So (성서). First of all, no one ogles at you. Koreans, by their nature will have a little inquisitive stare but will look away very quickly as starring is considered rude. I surmise that Koreans will have seen thousands of bodies by the time they become adults and everything I have to offer, other than Caucasian looks, will have been seen many times before.  The mokyoktang, experience has given me a deeper insight into the Korean psyche. Koreans are impeccably clean and have a very healthy attitude towards nudity and physicality albeit within gendered confines. Many of the insecurities that exist in the west I should imagine are unknown here. I doubt few teenage boys or men grow up worrying about the size of their penis. I can remember the hatred I had as a teenager when it came to school showers and there were many of us that used to try and dodge them. For some perverse reason showers only ever seemed to be enforced around the age of puberty. Korean mokyoktangs are full of men and boys of all ages who visit with their friends or alone and obviously have no worries about nudity. When I last taught PE in an English school, probably around 2003, boys undressed underneath enormous towels and even one boy saw another naked both observer and seen were deemed ‘gay’. How pathetic!

In the week following my visit, one of the foreign teachers from the Yon San Dong school suffered an emotional trauma over an experience she had in her classroom. One of the bosses of the school, a guy we call ‘Scary Hat Man, as he always wears the ridiculous looking stetson, was playing with Mr Jo’s youngest son. She saw him playfully pinch the boy between the legs. The event traumatised her and she was sat crying inconsolably. She ranted on about leaving Korea and that she couldn’t work in a school wear a boss was a child abuser. Recently, the relationship between the foreign teachers in the school has been a little strained and Matt and I tried telling her that you couldn’t judge on western attitudes. I have read that Korean adults will often feel a young child between the legs to determine if it is a girl or a boy and that this is quite acceptable. Further, several infant boys have pinched me between the legs and run away laughing, this has happened more than once. Another common behaviour is for children to clasp their hands together with their index fingers protruding, and then to poke you up the backside. This is always accompanied with the Konglish (mixed English and Korean) exclamation, ‘Ddong Injection!’ (‘shit injection!’)  This is always a group activity, or perhaps I should say attack, and is always accompanied with laughter. When I told her about the father who moved his son’s dick and balls to one side to scrub his groin, she promptly shook her head and said ‘I don’t want to hear this!’ Her attitude is annoying as I feel that when she is in my class I have to censor the way I act though I have no interest in feeling a kiddies crotch. I am just concerned she may interpret my sitting a child on my knee or touching a child as ‘sexual.’

Another thing I have started doing here, in order to live the Korean experience, is making slurping noises when I eat and making those throaty noises when my nose or chest is blocked. Loudly clearing your nose in the mokyoktang gutter is quite acceptable and actually enjoyable. It provides a wonderful sense of personal freedom though I am sure such habits will cease when I return to the UK.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

A Peaceful City, Feb 28th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Comparative, Korean Accounts Part 1, taekwondo by 노강호 on February 28, 2001

Once a week at the taekwondo school we practice tae kuk kkwon (태국권). During one class Pak Dong-soo performed a set which took several minutes to perform. It was really quite beautiful as he moved slowly from one position to another without and wobbling and with absolute grace. The next day we did a weapons training session. Increasingly, I am beginning to see martial arts training in Korea as the training ground for boys prior to their national service. The lessons on fairly relaxed and there is a lot of banter between students and instructors which of course, I don’t understand. There are a number of girls who train in the school and they don’t take any crap from the boys. Sometimes I seem to detect more aggression between the girls and boys than between the boys themselves.

two fourth dan boys in my local taekwondo school (2012)

One aspect I really like about being in Korea, and something other foreign teachers also mention, is being able to go out in Korea without being on your guard. Although I have lived in Wivenhoe for two years, I have only ever been into Colchester in the evening on two occasions. The atmosphere on the High Street, in the evening is threatening and aggressive, crowds of marauding youths, with slaggy, cheap girls who regardless of weather wear flimsy clothes. Then there are the aggressive men and youths who strut around swearing, usually drunk and looking primarily for sex and if that can’t be found the frustration will be vented by a punch-up.  You daren’t make eye contact with these men or lads as to do so is to challenge their pathetic sexuality. God! So many straight men are disgusting and even many of my straight friends are quick to disassociate themselves from them. We British like to believe we are an educated society but by and large this is a myth. The masses are just as stupid and ignorant as they have been in the past and it is for political reasons they have been kept this way. I am not claiming Koreans are superior, most of the world is full of stupid people but it is wonderful to walk the streets of a busy city without fear of being assaulted or abused by football yobs, drunken louts, lads looking for trouble. Despite the fact I live above two bars, neither of which close until well after midnight, I haven’t witnessed a brawl or argument or even heard drunken revelry.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
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