Elwood 5566

Daeboreum Festival – February 10th – 20th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in customs, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on February 20, 2001

There is a local store just around the corner from where I live and outside stands one of those recreational machines where you lift objects by means of an automated hand and deposit the ‘prize’ in a draw which you can then open. The hand is operated by ‘left, right, up, down’ and ‘grab’ buttons and the prize is usually some fluffy toy. Well, not here! Here the prize is a small lobster. How horrid, being subjected to a game before being put into a pot of boiling water!

some game machines near my 'one-room'

Last weekend I went to Pak U-chun’s house on a Sunday afternoon. They picked me up in their car and drove me the short distance to their house not far from Song So but in another valley which lays in the Dasa area (다사). Daegu seems to be one sprawling mass of small businesses with intermittent islands of towering apartment blocks which rise up at various points around the city. We had only been in U-chun’s house a few minutes when she asked if I would like to visit their church as they were having a festival. My bum hole quite puckered at the thought of having to enter a place of Christian worship and for a fleeting moment I thought that perhaps she was trying to convert me. However, I decided it was an opportunity to see a different part of Korean culture.

The drive took us about twenty minutes and we left the busy city, crossed the river and passed through the rice fields. The ground everywhere is parched and brown and rather bleak looking and I am looking forward to seeing Korea in the spring when everything is supposedly lush and green. I am particularly looking forward to seeing Korea during its brief monsoon period as the landscape must look very different to now.

There are many Christian churches in Daegu, both protestant and catholic. I actually saw some Korean, catholic nuns walking passed my apartment a few days ago. The churches are mostly small but cater for the immediate Christian population and are all marked by a small spire and a cross that at night lights up in neon red.  This was one of my first impressionable sights when I initially flew over the city on my arrival. Often, the spires aren’t part of a church building but a small scaffold type structure on the top of a building in which are located various businesses. Apparently, Korea is approximately 50% Christian and 50% Buddhist. U-chun’s church, still within the Dasa area, was actually a building on its own and resembled a western style church in its architectural design. Outside, teenage boys, dressed in suits, played football. Surprisingly, the festival wasn’t for a traditional Christian event but one based on the Korean lunar calendar (daeboreum) – the celebration of the first full moon since the start of the Chinese, new year. This year it was the 15th of February.

 I had been in Pak Jun-hee’s, Ji-won’s father’s, restaurant a few days earlier and they had given me food traditionally associated with this festival but at the time I hadn’t understood its significance. The entrance to the church had several ante rooms where older members of the congregation sat cross legged around a mat playing a stick game – the same one played at Ryo Hyu-sun’s house on New years Day. The main hall was very large with a small stage at one end on which was an organ, a grand piano, choir stalls a drum kit. In the basement was a large room where food was being served and so we sat and ate together. I was expecting a bit of a feed, especially since U-chun had described this as a ‘feast.’ The food, consisting of three grain rice, or was it five grain? I’m not sure, and spinach and mijok (미역), which is a seaweed soup, kimchi and moo kimchi was rather bland and uneventful.

Lunar New Year with Hyu-sun's mum and dad (Feb 2001)

The minister’s wife pressed me for some English conversation classes which I had to decline as I have almost no time to myself. The minister had spent several years at Durham University and spoke good English but he didn’t seem to understand what an atheist was! One thing that pisses me off about religions is that they generally consider a non-religious person as being in some way less moral. I often feel a sense of guilt when explaining to religious people like ministers or convicted Christians that I am an atheist. The fact is I probably have a more developed sense of morality than many Christians and it is reflected in my politics, personal life perspective and many of the things I do. The minister showed me around his church and in his vestry presented me with a bible and a large crucifix carved by one of his congregation. I quite cringed at this though his gesture was quite touching. It crossed my mind to perhaps come along to a service as I find the communality of congregations appealing and it is a sure way of making friends. I once considered doing this in Wivenhoe as it would probably have been a good way of getting some sex! Many religious people I consider mentally weak and sometimes the allure of a body and sexual gratification is as powerful as a crucifix and the redemption of Christ.  The religious are often people searching for reason, explanations and rationales and there will be some who are easily lured into deviant sexual activities – they just need something to believe in!

Lunar New Year 2001 (Ryu Hyo-sun's family)

Friday was a very busy day as I had to give Pak Dong-soo a lesson at the taekwondo school. On the way to the school I had arranged to meet up with this western guy called Gerry and then met up with U-chun as she wanted me to make a phone call to a friend of hers in the USA. I had to squeeze all this in to two hours. In the evening I went training and the session was grueling.  Earlier in the week we had a session of taegookkwon (태국권) which is a form of Korean tai-chi and we also had a weapons session using sticks and nunchaku.

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

My Early Assumptions of Korean Culture – January 25th – Feb 10th, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on February 10, 2001

I have been re-arranging my files and haven’t kept my diary up to date though I have been keeping notes in a small note-book I carry with me.

I do most of my shopping at a place called Shin-woo. It’s part of a chain of relatively small supermarkets rather like the Co-Op might be in the UK. It’s the place to buy all the essentials and where there is nothing too fancy to lure you. My nearest big supermarket, which I think is six floors in total, is E Mart . I have only been here a few times, once with Pauline when we went to the car park at the top of the building and from there took photos of the surrounding valley. I don’t like shopping here as at weekends it is crowded and during the week you get stared at. Like most department stores and supermarkets here, there seem to be hundreds of staff and sometimes they outnumber the shoppers. Most just hang around and when you walk in you can expect to be stared at all around the store. Of course, the relieving thing about this is that if you stare back at them etiquette demands that they look away.

Cabbages outside Shin-woo, Song-so, December 2000

The E-Mart, which in Song So sits domineering a hill position, has plenty of luxuries and has an in-house bakery, a well stocked fishmongers that doesn’t stink and an almost western style butchers where the carcasses aren’t chopped up in front of you. You can buy sashimi and sushi, cream cakes and things like tempura prawns, sweet and sour pork and ready cooked chicken – none of which are particularly cheap.

As I said, I shop at Shin-woo which is situated just past MacDonald’s and has one entrance which is shared by the restaurant owned by Ji-won’s (벅지원). One thing I am looking forward to on my return to the UK is familiar smells. In Korea strange smells constantly remind you that you are in a foreign land, a totally foreign land. Shin-woo is full of them. Washing-up liquids of peach, furniture polishes of coffee and quince aromas, the smells of seaweeds and the ever-present smell of various kimchis. Then there are the contrasting smells of the fishmonger and butchers which are situated at the back of the store. I have regularly bought squid from the fishmonger and pork and chicken cutlets from the butchers. I don’t particularly like this end of the store as the fishmonger’s stinks and the butchers reeks of carcasses. At the butchers I often order a small portion of recognizable meat, but I have to look at any other point than into the display cabinet. There is always someone gouging lumps of flesh from an enormous rib cage suspended from a hook. Often, my visits seem to coincide with when the butcher’s staff are eating their meals which they do in bloodied overalls amidst the organic nightmare. Enormous leg bones sit in the display cabinet with marble-white ball joints and there is always skin from the arse of a cow, which contains the tail hideously adorned with a lump of fluff at the end of it. Trays of tripe swim in brine between purple livers and kidneys. The one fact you cannot escape stood at the butchers, is that you are buying bits of an animal. The selections of meat I do recognise look quite appealing but then I am reminded of their origins and that quite puts me off.

There is a lad who works in the butchers who is rather attractive and who always gives me a smile. A few weeks ago, when I was shopping just before closing time, I happened to walk past just as he’d dropped his overalls and was stood in a pair of boxer shorts. My eyes probably quite popped in their sockets and I’m sure he noticed my sudden interest but I doubt he interpreted my reaction as sexually motivated. Koreans seem to be mentally castrated and exhibit little sexual awareness or interest at all, Pauline said she could never take him to bed as he’d reek of cattle carcass, death and blood. What a gross thought!

I travel to the Yon San Dong kindergarten on a bus that picks me up at 9.30am. At this time of the day the streets are full of kindergarten buses picking children up from various points around the apartment blocks. By the time I get on my bus it is already half full of children and the Letterland alphabet cassette is blaring out. It drives me fucking mad mostly as there are only about four different songs and for example, Annie Apple shares the same song as Oscar orange. The worrying part of this is that I actually find myself singing along to them! The mornings are always sunny and it has probably only rained six times since I have been here – which is four months today. No seasonal depression syndrome here! The best part of the ride to the kindergarten is when Chi-woo gets on the bus. He’s the little boy who sits next to me and asks me what everything is. We have now progressed to parts of his shoes including the Velcro straps. You only have to tell him something once, or a couple of times at the most and the next day he will repeat it back to you. Unfortunately he is not in my class – I have to suffer the brain-dead Da-hae.

Several times I have found Chi-woo and Un-won, the little girl who sits in front of him and who is about six, sitting head to head. Intimately, Chi-woo touches her face and whispers the word ‘cheek.’ She then repeats it back to him, then touches his chin and whispers ‘chin’ which he then repeats. This will go on for several minutes. It is like something out of John Wyndam’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos and is quite freaky as they are so intense and almost secretive about doing it. This week Dong-seop managed to write the letter ‘b’ and I felt very pleased as this is his first letter ever. I would love to meet some of these kids in ten years time and I am well aware of the privileged nature of their education. Ga-in, U-chun’s daughter, who is four, already speaks a fair amount of English and is now learning Chinese. The depressing aspect of all this education is that it is primarily geared for the job market and in that sense I feel sorry for them. Their lives are mapped out and hideously myopic, schooling, homework, university, military service, marriage, work, marriage, babies, death.

It is very difficult to access information on any deviation in Korean culture and even on Korean culture itself, via the internet. I find myself trying to imagine what it is like for those kids, boys especially, as Korea is a male dominated society, that do not conform, that do not fit in. How do gay teenagers, for example, manage to survive here? What is life-like for the small percentage of lard- arses or those kids not inclined towards sports?

It is though there is a hidden side of Korea that is difficult to explore or investigate. A secret Korea that is almost impossible to penetrate especially if you are an outsider. For example, I believe all Korean boys are circumcised. I cannot back this belief up as there is nothing on the internet. They are circumcised between 10 and 14 and yet there seems to be no evidence of this at all in society. It does not seem to be marked by any form of celebration as in other cultures and it does not seem to be a rite of passage. Boys in classes make no reference to it and though English text is used in many adverts, shop facades, doctors and dentists, there is no reference to it at all. Like the bath houses, it is something uniquely Korean which happens only in Korean confines and the only information about it is in the Korean language where it remains inaccessible to the foreigner. Of course, a trip to the bathhouse would confirm this but this is something I have yet to summon the courage to do. Korean bathhouses are themselves Korean domains and I have met few westerners who know about them or have indeed visited them. Pauline and Angela are the only people I know who have been to them. Nana, who has been here four years, has never visited one. Pauline said the experience was initially quite terrifying.

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

My Discovery of the Existence of Bathhouses – January 18th – 22nd, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Korean Accounts Part 1, rice wine (beer) by 노강호 on January 18, 2001

On the first day of the Chinese New Year (설날), Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선) took me to the cinema. We watched Proof of Life with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. I was expecting to have to sit  in really cramped seats but there was ample leg room. Afterwards we wandered around the city centre in the area known as Milano which is at the very heart of the city. This area is teeming western designer label stores and up-market malls. We ate ddokpogi (떡볶이) in a small back street cafe. Korean eating establishments usually focus on one food type and this was the speciality of this restaurant. A larger gas burner is placed on your table and the ingredients added. These included shredded Chinese lettuce, mushrooms, carrots, giant rice noodles the size of your finger, smaller noodles, whole eggs and squares of a sort of pancake made from powdered fish which is called odeng (어댕). Mandu (만두), which are small stuffed pancakes or dumplings are also added. Water and some condiments are added and then the burner lit. You then stir the meal until it is ready to eat when it is accompanied by none other than kimchi as well as a kimchi made with mooli known as moo-kimchi (무김치). Ddokpogi  is served by many of the street vendors that crowd the sidewalks of Korean cities. These are usually served in a pint paper cup with a large cocktail stick to eat the fat noodles. Restaurant ddokpogi  however, is much more tasty. Once the meal is finished a waitress then put some oil in the pan, adds rice, condiments and kim which is layered, salted seaweed. This is then boiled up with a copious serving of red pepper paste.

Hyo-sun’s mum and dad, Lunar New Year, 2001

Afterwards, Ryo Hyu-sun took me to his parent’s house. They live in a traditional style house in a part of Song So with which I was unfamiliar. All Ryo Hyu-sun’s relatives were there. The children wore their traditional hanboks (한복) which are baggy, very colourful and made from a sort of silk-like material. Ryo Hyu-sun’s mother must be in her late 60’s but sat on the floor cross-legged with an impeccably straight posture. She could sit in this position and touch her nose to the floor. Several other relatives arrived and took it in turns to prostrate themselves on the floor in front of his mother and father. Then a meal was served, of pig brain and pig’s trotters. I avoided the brains but the trotter meat was fine. We also drank soju  but one that had been suspended over the year in a bottle containing ginseng. Then we ate the traditional rice cake soup (칼국수). After eating we played yut which is a traditional festive game played sat around a mat with several sticks which are thrown. By this time I had been sat on the floor for four hours and my legs were sore but visiting a family on such an important day was well worth the experience.

I haven’t trained in the Song So (WTF) school for almost three weeks as the routine of Letter and Sound in Yon San Dong has sapped my energy.

The heat in the building, as in most buildings, is stifling and I have discovered many westerners have a problem with scabby noses, dry skin and cracked feet. The temperature at Letter and Sound just knocks the energy out of you. My kindy class is so unresponsive that I have stopped trying to teach them. I spend the first session in the morning just talking to them – they seem quite happy with that. As I mentioned earlier, my name in school is Bilbo Baggins. The kids find that quite amusing and often call me Bilbo songsaeng-nim which is the Korean for teacher or sir. During my first few weeks at Letter and Sound I discovered that when the kids knew my name they called it out whenever and wherever they saw me. Not only would I hear my name being called all day wrong, with a slightly incorrect inflection more like Neek, and in tiring choruses, but then I would hear in at the weekend or evening when I was shopping or out walking. Neek! Neek! I would hear called from passing busses or from some building window. Bilbo is much more impersonal.

I have been teaching Pak Ji-won English at his parent’s restaurant in Song So. I enjoy teaching him as I can also have discussions with him and that certainly makes a change from singing Annie Apple or Bounshey Ben songs. Sometimes our lessons go on for several hours and then I will talk to his father over a bowl of my favourite drink, dongdong-ju which is a strange, milky rice wine alcoholic drink, before going home.  Ji-won  is both incredibly camp and very good-looking. Being camp is no slur here and in fact most of the young men move and behave in a way that would bring their sexuality into question in the West. They drape themselves over one another, walk around leaning  on one another or holding hands and are basically very gentle (note- skinship). Ji-won shuffles around his father’s restaurant like a geisha girl, holding his forearms parallel to the floor and with his wrists bent. One day I asked him how he felt about having to go into the army as all men here do 24-27 months conscription. He told me he was excited as he was looking forward to the exercise as being a high school student entailed long inactive hours sat at a desk. He also said he was looking forward to firing guns and driving tanks but that he didn’t want to go to war or kill people. Korean lads often join the army with other friends and can be billeted together and perhaps this explains the rank of military police I saw one day in Daegu, many of whom were holding hands with each other. One day he told me how he loved my body. I found this amusing as I find it quite repulsive and he explained how he likes the fact I am broad, tall and strong. Then he asked me to go to the bath house (목육탕)  with him and of course, here bathing is performed naked. I would love to experience communal baths, and not for any seedy reason – it must be quite a strange feeling to bathe naked in public. It would be strange, if not embarrassing to meet pupils and colleagues starkers and to have to bow and chat to them so perhaps I’ll do this in another town, Andong (안동), perhaps? It’s bad enough being stared at when clothed (note – this is my first mention of bathhouses. I was in Korea almost three months before I learnt of their existence – remember – there was little or nothing on the internet on such subjects).

I often try to imagine the image Koreans must have of themselves and each other considering they look, or at least appear to look so much more identical  than do westerners. They must have an incredible sense of ‘racial’ individuality, of togetherness. While they tend to differ in height – and some Koreans are as tall as me (1.99cm), there are few fat Koreans and of course they all have dark hair, eyes and similar complexions. Many Koreans have no protrusion at the back of their heads like we do in the west and a Korean child’s head feels very strange.

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

Kindy Life – Jan 1st – 20th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in fish, Food and Drink, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children by 노강호 on January 2, 2001

Kindergarten classes finish at 2pm and we then have to start hagwon classes straight away. The kindergarten is soul-destroying as we follow that stupid Letterland syllabus and the resources are not suitable for kids whose first language is not English. Then of course, to make things more boring, most of the kids know the alphabet anyway but we are still compelled to teach it from the beginning.

Jo told me to make sure we took a whole month to do the letters ABC and within ten days of dragging lessons out the kids, all had finished their work books. Last Monday, I said to Precious, which is the adopted English name of the young woman who is both a teacher and receptionist at the school’s front desk, that I needed the next workbook but she said I had to keep the kids on the current one, the ‘Annie Fucking Apple’ workbook, for the next month! The activities are fine for kids who have weak spatial skills but the colouring in letter ‘A’s’ or ‘B’s’ is a totally useless activity. One boy copied a line of ‘A’s’ in eight seconds. I’m sure some kids could complete the entire workbook in half an hour.

The videos cannot be understood as the vocabulary is too complex or the English too confusing. One moment something is called a ‘puppy,’ next moment it is a ‘dog’ and the books are full of lengthy words which might be understood by a native English speaker but not by an ESL (English as a Second Language) student.

Deok-hyeon, terrified to enter my classes – many kids back in 2000 had never seen a real foreigner

There is another boy who is supposed to be in my class except he hasn’t yet attended, his name is Deok-hyun (덕현). I terrified him the first time he attended the school and every time I went near him he screamed. He was petrified of coming into my class and when we initially managed to get him in he sat trembling. Eventually he ran out of the class and has since spent almost two weeks sitting in the reception with Precious. Whenever I walked past he runs away and hides.

I have settled into the teaching life at Letter and Sound and have noticed how my girls are all brain-dead. I don’t know what Koreans do with many of the girls but it is quite criminal as a noticeable proportion of them are morons. For example, whenever I asked Da-hae (다해) a question she starts to slaver and dribble all over the table. Then she proceeds to eat the edge of her desk or the cuff or her coat or jumper. Precious has told me that one the bus in the mornings she forever has to tell Da-hae to stop licking the windows. In every class I have girls who fail to communicate with me or are petrified by my simple questions. When I ask them something easy to answer, and then given them a hint, they stare off at a tangent and refuse to speak to me. I have noticed how most of the girls who do this are the ones dressed in pink or with fluffy furry clothing and it reinforces my belief that there is a link between being clinically brain-dead and make-up, the colour pink and My Little Pony paraphernalia. Of course we destroy and undermine the potential of female personalities in the west but here it seems much more acute. In fact if I taught girls in the UK who acted in this manner I might assume they’d been abused in some way but then the Korean girls will have been mentally abused. It is quite sad how many girls second themselves to boys and men.

Matt, Angela and Pauline refer to my class as ‘The Cabbage Patch.’ After lunch, which we serve to the kids in their classrooms, I will help Precious clean up the room. It has now become common practice for us to make jokes about where Da-hae (다해) was sat as there will be a patch of drool and licky food smears. Out of my three boys one is normal while Deok-hyun (덕현) is constantly running out of my classes as he is terrified of me. Dong-seop has started competing with Deok-hyun for the attention of Precious and has also started to have crying fits at the start of each day.

So far I’ve managed to avoid taking kids for a piss – the boys at least. The girls I don’t mind as much as they are surprisingly independent at this task. Boys however, are quite different. However, this week Dong-seop wanted me to take him for a piss. Koreans kids use the word ‘shee’ (씨) which translates into something like ‘tinkle’ or ‘wee wee’ as whenever I use it in front of Korean adults it promotes laughter. Dong-seop started making the gesture for wanting a piss, which is to make stabbing motions towards to their crotch with the palms open.  It is quite a funny gesture and is always done with both hands. I was forced to take him as there were no other adults around. When we got to the urinal I was hoping he would do it himself but little Korean boys will usually just stand there as they are used to their parents doing everything for them. I had to pull down his trousers, and then his long johns however, before I could get them fully down he started pissing into them.

On the Chinese New Year we had three days off which happened to fall on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Of course, in Korea you wouldn’t expect to be given even the Monday or Friday off by your boss, let alone both days. Koreans don’t seem to complain or even be bothered about this themselves. On the Monday evening I meet Ryo Hyu-sun and a friend of his and together we went to the bar, Mr Seven, which is next to my apartment. They asked me what I wanted to eat and I said I didn’t mind. This wasn’t a sensible thing to do as next moment we were served a communal plate of chicken feet in spicy red pepper sauce. At first I thought they were prawns but when I lifted one out of the sauce it wobbled grotesquely from the end of my chopsticks. I ate a few just to be polite and all the time had to suppress an urge to chuck up. All the bones seem to have been removed from the feet but they still had bits of gristle in them or maybe that was the bones but regardless, there was a continual crunching in my mouth and throughout the duration I couldn’t help how much chicken shit each little foot had trodden in. Whenever Koreans drink alcohol there is food on the table and they consider it unhealthy to drink without constantly nibbling.

When it was about one in the morning, and after another of Ryo Hyu-sun’s friends had joined us, we went to one of the numerous soju tents known as pojangmacha (포장 마차) which are doted all over the place. These are simply red and white or blue and white stripped plastic tents which stand on disused land or parking lots. They are large with entrances and plastic windows and inside they are heated by kerosene heaters which remind me of living under canvas in the army.  The owner of this tent, a middle-aged man and his wife, had a small portion of the tent where they sleep and watch TV as these tents are open 24 hours a day. We must have spent an hour in Mr Seven discussing the merits of cod soup and cod roe (대구탕,알탕). Incidentally, Daegu, is also the Korean for cod.  Ryo Hyu-sun kept telling me how delicious these soups were and no sooner had we sat down in the soju tent, pojangmacha when a gas burner was brought to our table and a communal bowl of soup prepared. The soups were quite tasty but then we were huddled around the kerosene heater with an outside temperature of minus 10, pissed and hungry. Even a packet of dehydrated soup would have been something to talk about.  Koreans make several assumptions about their culture. The first is that their food is hot and spicy. Koreans are always saying to me, ‘Oh Nik, that meal is very hot!’ or “Nik! That is too spicy for you!’ Another assumption is that their food is delicious. I see their assumptions as a form of racism and whilst I don’t find them terribly insulting they are irritating. I am aware their assumptions are just that and are borne out of naivety rather than malice. Few Koreans have traveled abroad and the country is lacking in western restaurants. Of course MacDonald’s and ‘Kay Pi Shi’ (KFC) are here but there a few Indian, Thai or Mexican restaurants. Most Koreans think their food is too hot for westerners and are surprised if you eat rice noodle soup (떡보기) without complaining about how hot it is. They look at you in awe if you dare eat a raw chilli or glove of garlic at the meal table. As yet I haven’t eaten one Korean meal that is hot, I mean hot like vindaloo or hot like Mexican food. Generally Korean food is comfortably hot. I would love to see a Korean eating a Scot’s bonnet chilli or a habanero. Spicy hot in Korea is one that burns at both end! Then there is the assumption Korean food is spicy – well that’s not really true. Yes, it’s spicy hot-ish but it certainly isn’t spicy. I am sure other spices exist here but the only ones I have experienced are ginger, cinnamon, garlic. Combining a wide range of spices, as in Indian cuisine, is not the essence of Korean cooking and everything is served with copious amounts of either red pepper paste (고추장) or red pepper powder. Matt and I were talking about Korean food at school last week, as we were eating lunch and everything at the table contained some form of red pepper. The kimchi is loaded with it, it was copious in my meal and Matt’s soup and it was in all three of the various pickles at our table. You can rarely eat Korean food without eating some form of red pepper or chilli. Despite this Koreans will tell you their food is spicy. Well it’s hot but the only spice in it is chilli, that’s the only spice in anything.

As for kimchi, Koreans are obsessed with it. Kimchi is a national ‘dish’ and is a form of pickled cabbage a little similar in its properties to sauerkraut. It is made with Chinese leaf cabbage. The other main ingredient of kimchi is of course, red pepper powder along with garlic, ginger, various spring onions a form of fish sauce similar to Thai fish sauce and grated mooli which in Korea is called moo. Kimchi is served with almost everything and I can think of few meals with which it is not an accompaniment. In many meals it is a vital component along with rice or as the basis for soup. You can also buy kimchi flavoured noodles and crisps. If you mention kimchi to some children they get very animated and so far I have only met one child that doesn’t like it. I have been asking children their views on kimchi in my classes and on one occasion the kids became really excited when I said I liked it. Now I have to admit it but when I writing this diary in Korea, I hated the stuff. I would only eat small amounts of it and usually only as an accompaniment mixed with other things I thought it smelt disgusting, and a juxtaposition of something like a blend of flatulence aromas and something rotting. Now I love it and in fact I am pretty expert at making it. Many Koreans have been impressed by my skill at making this condiment. Neither have I really found Korean food delicious, at least not delicious in the same way as one might enjoy Chinese, Thai or Indian food but I do find it very satisfying.

It is amazing watching the kindergarten children eating their meals as their behaviour differs drastically to that of western kids. Korean children, even the very young ones, don’t start eating a meal until it is all served. There is no squabbling over who has a bigger portion and if one child asks for something extra the others don’t all follow suit. The children then all eat in silence apart from these rather unpleasant insect-like noises they make such as juicy clicking noises, smacking of lips and slurping. They eat so slowly and with intensity as if the flavours and consistency of every mouthful is being pondered. Finally, when finished, they take their tray to the reception, clean it and put it back in the rack. All this is done without being prompted.

Many of the kindy kids are three or four years old and yet I haven’t noticed pissy or foetid smells lingering on them. So far, I haven’t had to take any kids for a crap, and I don’t want to, but in the UK you would expect to take such children for a pooh every now and then.  Korean children are impeccably clean but their teeth are often bad and I have noticed the worse a child’s teeth are, the richer the parents seem to be.  The kids at the up market Letter and Sound seem to have significantly more rotten milk teeth than corresponding kids from Di Dim Dol. Despite this however, Korean adults all seem to have decent teeth.

(note – the pojangmacha (포장 마차) I visited stood where Lotte Cinema was subsequently built. At the time, this area was a huge vacant lot with several soju tens permanently stood on its edges. On my third trip to Korea, in 2005, the site was already under construction. Pojangmachas were common on vacant lots between buildings even in built-up areas; indeed, one lay not too far from MacDonald’s in Song-So. The vacant lots have rapidly disappeared and soju tens are becoming a rarer sight.

Bathhouse Ballads chronicles many aspects of my life in South Korea. Kimchi Gone Fusion focuses on ‘the way of the pickled cabbage’ while Mister Makgeolli is dedicated to Korean rice wine.

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My Birthday – December 27th – 31st 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in esl, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 27, 2000

Not being happy certainly curtails writing a diary, as well as other things in my life. However, after several confrontations with Jo, in which we all threatened to resign, things have cheered up a little. Jo has promised that I won’t be teaching in the Yon San Dong school much more than a month when I will go back to teaching in Song So. However, I don’t really trust him.

Chi-u, a young Einstein

The new school is hard work and we each have around 7.5 contact time a day with classes. The first four hours are purely kindergarten classes for kids of very rich parents. Their parents fork out around 800.000KW for the first month then pay subsequent monthly tuition fees of 450.000KW. These amounts work out at something like 500 and 250 UK pounds. I have never seen kids so well dressed and Koreans spend a lot of time and effort presenting their children. One of my favourite pupils is a three-year old boy called Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) who is in effect two years old. In Korea, a child is one the day they are born so you always have to minus one from their age to make them comparable with westerners. I am told this habit arose because when Korea was poor, many children died before their first birthday. Second birthdays here, especially for boys, are a very important affair. I have yet to see Chi-Woo (이치우) in the same little outfit twice. He can already speak a fair amount of English and every morning, when he sits next to me on the hagwon bus, he asks how I am and will then proceed to ask ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?’ His memory is quite amazing as next day he will have remembered all the previous morning’s words.

Jo’s School, ‘Letter and Sound,’ is a kindergarten in the morning and a hagwon in the afternoon when the middle schools  finish. We don’t have the equivalent of hagwons  in the UK; they are private schools which teach a range of subjects outside normal school hours and to which most children go in addition to state schooling. Normal schools are known as hakkyos (학교). There are hagwons on probably every street in a Korean town and many don’t close until 10 or 11 pm. Like the Taekwondo schools, piano academies, ballet schools and art schools, hagwons always have their own fleet of brightly coloured minibuses which ferry students between designated pick up points and their respective establishments. The ‘Letter and Sound’ bus picks me up every morning from near my apartment.

Jong Hoon – a great kid but a total nutter!

I think the kindy will do quite well financially as it is really about keeping the kids out of the parents way as much as it is about them learning. My class has only four five-year old kids; two boys, Dong-seop (동섭) and Jeong-hoon (중훈) and three girls. Jeong-hoon (중훈) is a total nutter who throws himself about without any concern for his safety. This week he arrived at school with a cut chin and bashed nose. He speaks the best English of the four kids and is very bright. Then there is Dong-seop (동섭) who has no spatial skills and cannot decide whether he is left or right-handed. I try to help him draw a letter but when I leave his side he just scrawls on the paper. I have nicknamed him ‘Picasso.’  My two girls are fucking brain-dead. It’s quite disgusting how there seems to be a universal trend in encouraging girls to be wriggly little pathetic things that must whimper and second themselves to the brashness of boys. This trend seems particularly more acute in Korea than in the west, though maybe I am being too critical. On of the girls is Da-hae (다해), slips off her chair onto the floor every time I speak to her and when she does utter a sound it is in a revolting girly manner. The other girl is Ji-soo (치수) and to get her to respond I have to call her name about twenty times and then poke her.

What does Annie Apple say?’ I chant, and then someone shouts out a long ‘A’ as in father. I say, ‘No, Annie says ‘A,’ as in cat.’ The kids are sick and fed up of Annie Apple and Bouncy Ben alphabet songs. The accompanying videos have characters with regional British accents and of course the kids find this confusing. Annie Apple talks like a Somerset cider slob and Clever Cat has a frightfully posh Oxford accent. Then there are the story books with phrases like ‘skiddly doo doo’ which is a nightmare trying to explain to small children. Even when there are cassettes with Korean interpretations on them the pronunciations are bad. Bouncy Ben, for example, is always pronounced ‘Bounshey Ben’ and this has become a bit of a joke between Pauline and I.

In class I call myself Bilbo Baggins and have written this, in Korean, on my wall.  I have decided I don’t want any of the kids knowing my real name. In the short space of a couple of weeks I have become adept at totally degrading myself in the singing of kiddy songs all accompanied with mad facial expressions or hand actions. Suddenly I am like a character out of Play School. I can even degrade myself in front of parents. I take kids out to piss, wipe their noses and comfort them when upset. None of this was in my contract and I definitely stipulated that I wanted to teach middle, or high school kids.

Nana moved out of the apartment this week and Matt, a new teacher from New Zealand has moved in with me. Matt seems a good laugh. On Thursday another teacher, Angela, arrived from New Zealand. She is a friend of Matt’s.

My Birthday, Dec 30th, 2000. Pak Jun-ee and Sun-hee (left) and Pauline (far right)

Taekwondo is off the cards until after the winter vacation finishes which is  in a week or so. I don’t finish my classes in time to go training and besides I’m too tired.

On a Wednesday evening I teach Pak Ji-won (박지원) English in the restaurant besides the Shin-woo supermarket in Song So. I spent my birthday here and the family have sort of adopted me. Ji-won is very attractive but he’s only 18 and like so many Korean boys, androgynous. I suspect if anyone touched the front of his pants he wouldn’t have a clue what they were doing. This is no criticism, I love the innocence that seems to typify so many Korean teenagers and which is so different to many of the promiscuous male and female whores I’ve taught in the West.

I taught Ji-won every Saturday for most of 2001. He is now one of my closest Korean friends.

On Friday I had to go to U-chun’s and teach her daughter and niece English. I really like her and if I had to leave Korea now I would be sad because she is such a fun person. She was supposed to be giving me Korean lessons in exchange for English lessons but this seems to have been forgotten but her company is payment enough.

On Saturday it snowed really heavily but the temperature has risen and it is no longer minus 15. The snow has set and Matt and I met up with U-chun at the local E Mart. This is the local supermarket. Then we got a taxi to the local Baskin Robbins which was amusing as I asked for three big pots of ice-cream and of course, Koreans are never so greedy and generally share a pot – and probably a smaller pot too! After that we walked down the main road, through busy and around the university campus. From a high spot on the campus we add a view straight down the wide main road that leads all the way back down to Song-So and beyond which must at least be a few miles. Though it was afternoon, a cold mist hung over the entire city.

I telephoned my sister on my birthday and the call, which lasted an hour, cost a staggering £80. (note – today I can call unlimited for next to nothing).

 

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Trip to Pohang – Monday 25th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Entertainment, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 25, 2000

A typical ‘beggar singer’

On Saturday, I was due meet Pauline in the morning and the go to U-chun’s in the afternoon where I am supposed to be giving her daughter and niece an English lesson. Pauline and I spent ages talking and then left my house to walk down the road together. It was a really bright afternoon and very dry has it hasn’t rained for several weeks. By the pedestrian crossing almost opposite MacDonald’s, some kind of a busker was performing to a small crowd. He had an amplifier mounted on a trolley and was singing and dancing on the side of the road. The music, which I assume, was traditional Korean folk music was captivating. Most strange however, was the man’s dancing. He danced with his body bent so far forward that his chest was parallel to the floor. His steps were long, rhythmically erratic and awkward and involved lots of pivoting and sudden changes of direction. He was dressed in shorts and a jacket which was pinned with hundreds of pieces of coloured cloth. The pedestrian light was red and so we stood and watched him and naturally, the moment he noticed me he danced towards me, took my hand and led me out into the front of the crowd where I had to try to copy his dance. I was quite embarrassed, in fact very embarrassed. Suddenly, U-chun appeared and rescued me. Walking on down the road to just past Di Dim Dol and Lotteria, we took the bus to another Daegu suburb known as Dasa (다사). (note – I’ve since discovered these are a type of ‘singing beggars’ known as 각설이 or 품바 – see link at end).

The bus journey was only short but we left the valley in which Song So is situated and headed west into another valley. I have since learnt that Korea is a land of mountains and where there is human habitation it exists in meandering valleys. Though part of Daegu, Dasa  felt like another city. After leaving the bus, it would so happen that U-chun’s flat is in a high-rise the furthest point from the bus stop and at the edge of the largest hill in Dasa.

Inside, the apartments are very large, spacious and well-built. Koreans tend to be more minimalist than Europeans in terms of clutter and furniture. The kitchen, dining room and front room were combined into one very large room and leading from this were bedrooms, a study and a European style bathroom. U-chun and her family sleep on beds and not the floor. In the kitchen was a voice activated telephone, something I had not seen before. I discovered that U-chun had resigned from Di Dim Dol earlier in the week so I will miss her friendly face. Unlike many of the other Koreans with whom I work, she is very keen to take advantage of my being a native English speaker, many Koreans shy away from me rather than practice their English.

Even though it’s Christmas week, Jo started his antics again. On the Monday, at 8 pm, and just as I was going home he asked me to accompany him to Letter and Sound, his school in Yon San Dong. He wanted me to give a presentation to prospective parents! Well, I became quite angry and began to tell him off. Then, I suggested we go into his office to ‘sort things out.’ I made it quite clear that I didn’t appreciate being told to do something with little or no time to reschedule my life. Earlier in the week my sister had told me how there is an alarming number of South Korean people who pay people to kill them as they are fed up with their working life. Jo apologised and said that he had been so busy he had forgotten about the presentation. I politely told him he was talking rubbish and he had been involved in organising an advertising campaign for the new school.

On the Wednesday he called Nana and I and asked for a meeting in his office in which he told us that we had a week’s holiday beginning next week. What a fat lot of use is that as there is no time to plan anything. If you want to book flights in Korea they are almost impossible to get at short notice during any school vacation period. Nana and I didn’t particularly want time off if we couldn’t do things with our free time so we both decided to come back to work on the Wednesday after Christmas.

Pohang – Bay of Yongil, Christmas Eve 2000

On Sunday, Christmas Eve, Pauline and I took the bus to Pohang (포항) which is a town on the east coast not too far from Andong. I wanted to see the Sea of Japan, otherwise known as the Sea of Korea or East Sea (동해). We arrived at the bus station and immediately boarded a bus. The journey took 2 hours and would have been a lot shorter if the bus hadn’t made a journey around all the suburbs of Pohang before arriving at the city centre. On the beach front an enormous market, all under tents, sold all sorts of electrical goods from massage machines to electric organs. At the end of one enormous marquee stood a small stage on which a weird folk band was playing. There were six of them all together two men and four women. The men, perhaps in their fifties were both heavily covered in lipstick, eye shadow and had white powdered faces. They wore clothes similar to those worn in Aladdin’s Lamp. The men banged drums of assorted sizes and danced in a very bizarre fashion (note – more ‘beggar singers’ – 각설이). One of the men started playing the giant scissors of which he had two pairs and all I can say is that they resembled cattle castration implements. Every now and then he would stand with he legs firmly apart, in a straddle stance, make a very perverted facial feature (he had no front teeth), and then start gyrating his hips in a very sexual manner. At his feet sat about thirty children. Stranger however, was the fact that as he gyrated his hips and made thrusting movements, something very large and heavy banged about in his baggy white trousers. I suspect he had some form of dildo, mounted on a spring, strapped to his groin. Whatever it was the children found it very funny.

The beach was set on the Bay of Yongil (영일 만) and the sand was clean and white. All along the beach promenade were seafood restaurants with enormous fish tanks beside or in front of them. In these swam all manner of sea creatures from small sharks, squid, octopus, eels, ray fish and sea cucumbers. You pick which one you wish to eat and then it is brought to your table in the restaurant – though depending on what meal you choose, the creature isn’t always dead. It was a bitterly cold day and a freezing wind blew in across the sea. We found a small noodle tent where I contemplated how I never expected to be sat on the edge of the East Sea eating noodles and drinking soju on Christmas Eve. As we were leaving Pohang on the bus, we noticed a couple of Koreans dressed as Santa. They were stood on a plinth on the sidewalk giving children free sweets as they passed. The only problem was that each Santa weighed about 10 stone and had a sylph like waist!

Outside KFC Song-So, Christmas Eve 2000. One of the first photos I took in Korea

When we arrived back at Daegu central bus terminal, we took at taxi to Song-So and had a chicken burger in KFC. When I walk to my school, I usually come out my front door, turn right and then walked down to the crossroad where I take a left turn. This road leads down to Kemyoung University though this is probably a twenty-minute walk. There is a definite divide of apartment blocks and parks between Song So and Kemyoung. From the crossroad on this road to my school, is no more than a few minutes’ walk but in that time one passes MacDonald’s, KFC and a Korean burger chain called Lotteria. Apparently, Lotteria is more popular than is MacDonald’s.  Since my first trip to Daegu there has since appeared a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlour with a second one being built at the new plaza complex near the crossroads to my apartment. A Pizza Hut restaurant is the very last commercial enterprise as you leave Song So on the road towards Kemyoung. Back to the KFC restaurant where Pauline and I are sat on New Year’s Eve; outside the restaurant stood a life-size plastic statue of Colonel Sanders, the staff have dressed him in a Santa outfit and even given him a cane which hung from one of his wrists. The cane, which wasn’t fixed on the statue but just hooked over a wrist, remained there for my whole stay in Korea; no one thought to steal it, remove it or throw it away.

Well, it’s now Christmas Day and I am sat in the internet cafe where life goes on a usual. The place is full of Korean boys playing internet games like Diablo 2 on the networked system. It is bitterly cold outside and the only thing that makes today special is that it snowed a little last night and there was a glaze of ice on the road outside my apartment.

(Notes – KFC was still in situ when I returned to Korea several years later and was still guarded by Colonel Sauders and his cane. When I returned around 2005, it had closed. However, the premises is now a stationary shop and the face of Col Sanders can still be seen embossed in the glass paneling going up the stairs. Lotte Burger closed around the same time and is now an optician. Baskin Robins and MacDonald’s are still here but MacDonalds moved further down the road in 2014).

 

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Further References

On ‘beggar singers: When Weird is Normal (Bathhouse Ballads, July 2011)

Orion Reminds Me – Friday 15th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 15, 2000

I went for a meal with U-chun this week. She speaks fairly good English. On both occasions we went to a North Korean restaurant which is beyond my taekwon do school and on the last block of buildings before the main road which leads down towards Kemyoung University. Both times we ate kalbitang, which is a beef ribs in a broth along with a side dish of ray fish in a sweet and sour sauce. I am going to give her daughter lessons next weekend.

On Friday, several of the boys in my classes had crying fits – it’s always the boys! A couple of boys had been misbehaving and I was getting stressed out. Next moment a boy called Tom, who is usually very well behaved, wouldn’t sit where I told him and I was beginning to lose my temper just as Mr Lee, the vice principal walked passed. I was so stressed I called him in and though he doesn’t speak very good English, I tried to explain the problem. Well, I expected him to just tell Tom off but instead he took him away. Half an hour later he brings him back. The boy is only ten and he was sobbing uncontrollably. He sat sobbing for the whole lesson. I tried saying sorry but I couldn’t really explain my regret to him. I think he was made to do some kind of exercises, like press-ups or standing with his arms extended until he broke down. I felt very guilty.

When the bell sounded, I went to my preparation desk behind reception and in front of Jo’s office and another boy is sat crying. I don’t teach this boy and he doesn’t have an English name but he is a character who is always grinning and gets on well with all the teachers. Every day he comes up to me, bows, and says hello in English. He was still crying twenty minutes later so I went to a vending machine and bought him some sweets. In what was supposed to have been a free period for planning, I was summoned to teach a class of Nanas. Jo has taken him to Letterland and as usual, nobody was informed. Mr Song, not realising he was on a trip with Jo, even drove to our house to see if he was at home.

On Saturday (16th Dec) morning Pauline called for me and asked if I wanted to go to the city center. I was just finishing my new stretching routine which I have adopted to try and repair my hamstring. We took a taxi to the town center where we discovered an army of riot police as there was some kind of demonstration in one of the squares. It was all very ordered with the protesters sat in straight lines on the ground. A troop of riot police passed us, wearing white tin helmets, grey uniforms and white gloves; they marched in two file rank columns – holding hands. We spent several hours in walking around an area known as Ex Milano which is fairly up market with some very luxurious apartment stores. In this area, which includes a chic street of women’s clothing, called Foxy Street, are shops selling brand names such as Nike, Puma, Ellersee, Rebok and so forth. Tired and knackered, we took a taxi back to Song-so and did some shopping at the E Mart, a large superstore near my house. Here I bought a humidifier, something I’ve never seen in the UK. There was a whole section of them puffing out refreshingly moist air. I have no idea how they work as when you turn them on the instantly begin puffing out clouds of cool moist vapours. Then I bought a Korean childrens book, ‘Snow White’ which translates as ‘Baeksil Gongju.’ I also bought a Korean-English dictionary (note – there was nothing online in 2000 and teachers didn’t have internet connections in their house) and discovered the word for clearing your nose. The word is ‘heng heng’ and it is a sound one hears constantly around backstreets where men snort their nose up into the gutter.

On Monday, the temperature suddenly dropped to minus 5 and it is now freezing cold. I sat in the internet cafe wearing two pairs of trousers and four shirts as I am desperately trying to keep the cold out of my muscles. As soon as Nana got back from Andong, where he goes every weekend, he turned the heating up to 80 degrees; the thermostat is in his bedroom. I don’t mind the heat but the heating system totally removes the slightest moisture from the air so I was glad I had bought the humidifier.

I didn’t go to taekwondo classes this week but I have been following a stretching plan and I think my leg is almost ready to work on but I am going to take it very easy. There are rumours going around Di Dim Dol that I am working in the Letterland School next week, when the winter holiday starts. I’ve also heard that Nana and I have a week off but of course Jo doesn’t tell us anything. On Thursday, Will, a young Sweedish student from Kemyoung University arrived to discuss his teaching hours. Of course, Jo wasn’t in the school when he arrived.  He kept him waiting for two hours before he arrived. On Saturday, he was supposed to take Pauline to the Alien Registration Office, down town but he never turned up for that either and ruined her Saturday morning. Also, in the week he telephoned the two Korean-English teachers, Gloria and Angela telling them to come and meet him over in Yon San Dong, but when they arrived there he had left the school early. I don’t know if it is typical of Korean bosses, or just Jo, but he really thinks he owns you and thinks nothing of inconveniencing you in your own time.

I had a couple of bad classes at Di Dim Dol this week., in fact in one of them I just walked out and told them ‘I wasn’t going to fucking well teach them.’ Twice I have arrived at a class to find it full of students I don’t know and who span the entire ability range. When I ask what has happened to my class I’m told my class list has changed and then told to, ‘just talk to them.’ This is the worst scenario for a teacher as you completely lose control of the lesson, more so when you don’t speak their language.

On Friday, U-chun and I met for lunch and ate bibimbap at a restaurant not far from the school. I had to sit on the floor which is getting easier. On Friday evening Ryo Hyu-sun called for me. He runs a reflexology practice next door to my flat. We drove into the centre of town and had a meal, the usual barbecued meat called bulgogi. I had to sit cross legged on the floor with my legs stretched out in front of me and straddling the barbecue that hangs down from the centre of the table. The problem is that my legs are just too long to go under the tables even though I can now sit for a limit period of time in the correct position. I felt really uncomfortable and and in need of a good fart. Hyo-sun and I spent most of our time with heads buried in respective dictionaries and both of us carry little note books for learning important words. In the west you’d probably assume him to be gay as he is very gentle and always impeccably dressed in a casual manner. At his practise, he usually wears the traditional informal hanbok which is a sort of loose fitting karate suite in a light brown colour with darker brown edges. He is always very feely-touchy and at one point massaged my big toe to make sure the gout was going away. Then he massaged my hamstring when my legs started to ache a little from the uncomfortable sitting position. However, things were spoilt when his girlfriend arrived just after we’d eaten. She ordered a coke a ignored me – perhaps she was shy. Thankfully, she fucked off after I’d paid the bill and I’m sort of hoping that she is more of an accessory than a real girlfriend – but that is wishful thinking.

After the meal my legs were so stiff I could hardly move them. I feel as though my legs are constantly repairing themselves only to be re-broken. We took Hyo-sun’s car, a new people carrier, to U-bang Park close to U-bang tower. This is right in the centre of Daegu. The top of U-bang tower has a restaurant in the form of a flying saucer similar to the tower in Seattle.

In the park we found a cafe, had a coffee and went for a walk. It was a beautiful evening and we didn’t really need coats as the temperature has been warm most of the week. This was the first time since I had arrived in South Korea that I was able to get a good view of the night sky. Orion was almost at the centre of the sky, I recognised it immediately. In Britain at this time of year this constellation sits on the edge of the sky and is very prominent, here it is much smaller, almost insignificant. On the edge of the park, and silhouetted against the sky was the Daegu Opera House. Next, we took the car to a place in the park where two large trees had been decorated with hundreds of tiny white lights. We took several photos and then drove on to the park’s lake, by now it was almost one in the morning. The lake was beautiful with large black hills rising up on the opposite bank and the silhouette of barren trees edged the panorama. High in the sky, almost above our heads shone a tiny half-moon whose reflection was mirrored in the dark water. We took photos of the lake from a small oriental, humped bridge which led to a small temple which was lit from the ground by lights. The stark light emphasized the typical colours that Korean temples are decorated in, a broad spectrum of colours ranging from light to dark blue, here and there splashes of red and yellow and set against a predominantly matt duck egg blue. The mountains, sky, lake and temple created in me a heightened sense of reality that suddenly reminded me that I was thousands of miles away from home, in Korea. During my stay in Korea there are times when I was memorably reminded that I am in a country and culture I had never expected to visit.

 

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Letterland Fiasco – 14th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in esl, Korean Accounts Part 1, taekwondo by 노강호 on December 14, 2000

On Monday morning I had to cancel my lesson with Dong-soo. It didn’t please me as I had cancelled several engagements this weekend and I would not have minded so much if Jo either mentioned money or asked or begged a little instead of simply presuming I am at his service. Jo always gets someone else to do the begging for him.

Nana and I arrived at the Yon San Dong School by luck as we weren’t sure exactly where it was and our taxi driver hadn’t heard of the school as it was new. We had to pay the taxi fare. I had made some lessons plans over the weekend and was feeling a little more positive about the whole affair. At Letterland we entered another meeting with Young-seop only this time there were no Korean-English teachers present. Young-seop then tells us we will only be required to be ‘on hand’ in three different classes, a class each, and to entertain kids as they arrive and answer any questions the parents have. So much for the work I had done over the weekend. It is clear there is a lack of organisation, planning and communication but I had read the Korean system can sometimes be like this. We each sorted out a teaching room and then took the taxi back to Song-So for the afternoon teaching schedule. Just as we were leaving Young-seop told us that we were to do two sets of presentations tomorrow: one at 11 am and the other at 2 pm.

In the evening I went to taekwondo but took the kicking really easy due to my pulled right hamstring. I felt very conspicuous kicking low and with no power and I can’t effectively explain to anyone why I am doing this though I think Mr Lee and Bae understood my hand communications which I regularly give them. I’ve become an expert at charades. When I got home I discovered Jo has left a message for us that we are to be at school for 9 am. Nana, Pauline and I had planned to gout out for an evening meal so that real scuppered any plans for a lie in the morning.

In the morning Nana and I once again had to pay a taxi to Yon San Dong. When we arrived we discovered a team of Letterland teachers, including Catherine and Christine, whom I had met when I arrived in Korea, were in the school. Christine, otherwise known as Miss Lam, looked bloody awful like maybe she was  on heroin. Her hair was shit and she looked very tired and to make matters worse she had a hideous purple eye shadow troweled around her eyes. However, they had brought a whole stack of books, videos and tapes for us to use. Jo must have known this was going to materialise but hadn’t thought to tell us. Jo wasn’t in the school and Miss Lam took control of events by having us all sit and watch a Letterland video. This was obviously our Letterland induction, one and a half hours before our first potential customers arrived. The video was incredibly boring and a real homemade job. I took the piss and said that if you watch it once you’re qualified to teach pupils and if you watch it twice you are promoted to a senior teacher. Miss Lam then passed us Letterland name tags which we all had to wear.

Apparently, Jo is charging parents 430.000W a month for lessons – that is over two hundred pounds. What a rip off! Pauline and I have been inventing our own Letterland characters such as Bouncy Balls, Clicking Clit, and Hairy Hole. Even Nana used the word ‘fuck’ several times today and I have never heard him swear. When parents began arriving Young-seop ordered us to ‘go and teach!

‘Teach what?’ I asked. ‘We only know a few characters.’ Anyway, I sat with a few very small children, made them say some words and then colour in some pictures.

At lunchtime all the staff, including lots of teachers from Di Dim Dol in Song-So, went for bibimbap at a local restaurant, all paid for by Jo. U-chun, a female teacher I had made friends with was there with her daughter, Ga-in whom she wants me to teach English. I really like U-chun and we are meeting for lunch on Wednesday. Back at Letterland more parents arrived after which we we took a taxi back to Song-So for the afternoon schedule.

In the evening, I went to taekwon do but when I got back home I discovered Jo had been on the phone again – pissed. He had apologised for not paying us as today was pay day. He then asked us to be ready for 9 am as he is going to send someone around to collect us and take us to another Letterland school on the other side of town, a school owned by a friend. Nana relayed all this to me because I didn’t want to talk to Jo. I told Nana I was going to the doctor in the morning to get some gout pills.

In the morning Mr Song arrived. Jo had telephoned him at midnight to ‘order’ him to pick us up. He was quite upset as it was his free time and of course there will be no extra money for his time or petrol. There is little he can do except obey him and this sort of attitude towards employees seems quite common in Korea (what I now call the ‘rice cooker syndrome). I went to the doctors instead and got my supply of pills.

My leg is getting better and I am starting to enjoy the training. Master Bae gave me a yellow belt to wear and towards the end of the training session I was asked if I wanted to spar. I should really have refused and rested my leg but I really wanted to. I was matched with their best student black-belt, a lad of about 20 who is very well built for a Korean and a powerful technician. With my leg still strained, and not wanting to put too much stress on it, the techniques at my disposal were few. He rushed in on me and one of my kicks caught him in the balls, which was embarrassing. He was playing with me but wary of the fact I had a good defence. I caught him in the stomach with a front kick which despite his body shield knocked the wind out of him. The problem is my brain knows exactly what to do but my body is not yet ready or able to do what the brain commands and with everyone watching and being under pressure, one goes into auto-pilot. My last kick, a turning kick, caught him on the chest and at that moment my supporting leg, the bad one, suddenly gave way. I don’t think I’ve torn the muscle but I certainly jarred it. I so wish it would bloody heal!

 

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

The Letterland Saga – 11th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in esl, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 11, 2000

I didn’t really feel like going to school this morning however, I had to get up early to give Dong-soo (박동수) a lesson and then go to my school, Di Dim Dol to meet Mr Jo. Mr Jo is taking Nana and I to his new Letterland School over in Yon San Dong. As usual, Mr Jo didn’t turn up and it wasn’t until we’d telephoned him that he did. He was still in bed when we phoned and he didn’t arrive at Di Dim Dol until after midday.

After he arrived he drove us out to the new school where we are also due to meet the new teacher from Australia. The Letterland School was totally brand new and things like white boards and books were arriving as we entered the building. We met Pauline, the new teacher and after a cup of coffee went to have a planning meeting to discuss what we are required to do when the school opens on Tuesday. This meeting was led by Young-seop (영섭) who is the senior Korean-English teacher, but he is only about 26. Nana and I were given seven books and were told that we were to teach in front of the prospective parents. Neither of us has ever taught the Letterland system and don’t know anything about this method of instruction. Pauline tried to make some suggestions and it quickly became clear that she thought it was only Nana and I involved in this activity.

‘But you’re teaching too,’ I told her. ‘The three of us have to do it!’

‘But I’ve never taught before,’ said Pauline, obviously under the impression we were going to be able to give her some guidance.

‘Well we’ve never taught Letterland either so we’re all in the same boat,’ I replied trying to console her. Pauline couldn’t believe what we were saying and looked very concerned. The meeting was tense especially as Young-seop (영섭) didn’t seem to know what was going on either and of course we couldn’t really make sense of what he was saying. Much of our failure to communicate was derived from the way Koreans respond to negative-type questions, basically any question with ‘not’ in the question (don’t, aren’t, couldn’t etc).

‘Are we teaching to three separate classes or one class?’ asked Pauline.

‘To three,’ replied Young-seop (영섭).

‘So were not teaching to one big class, then?’ asked Pauline trying to clarify what was to happen. It didn’t help that she was talking very fast.

‘Yes,’ said Young-seop (영섭). Pauline was becoming very agitated.

‘You are confusing me, Young. Let me get this right, we’re not teaching one big class?’

‘Yes, he replied.

‘Oh Jesus! One moment you are saying we are teaching one big class and the next three separate classes, what the freak are we doing?’ I didn’t understand the confusion at first and later discovered that Koreans agree with a negative question so when Pauline asked, ‘so we’re not teaching one big class,’ Young-seop’s reply meant, ‘yes, we’re not teaching one big class.’

At this point I decided to start moaning about how ridiculous it was that we were expected to give a presentation and teach in front of parents when we had no idea at all about the Letterland system. To make matters worse, we only had seven pupil workbooks from which to deduce the Letterland philosophy. The meeting dragged on until 2 pm when it was decided we should meet this evening at 8.30. Mr Jo drove us back to Song-so where we visited a noodle restaurant and I arrived back in Di Dim Dol only minutes before my first class was to start.

My head was still pounding from a hangover when we met at 8.30 and I wasn’t too pleased that I was having to do all this un-scheduled work without being consulted. It’s not the money I’m bothered about but the fact I came to Korea to experience Korean culture and Jo’s lack of organisation is impinging in that. The group had now swollen with the addition of several other Korean-English teachers including Gloria, Angela and Winnie. Mr Jo started the meeting of with a little speech and was desperately trying to give the impression he knew what was going on. I moaned a bit more to the Koreans and tried to explain to them the meaning of ‘being a mushroom, being kept in the dark and fed on shit’ but I don’t think anyone understood what I meant. I tried to move things along and so did Pauline but Nana kept criticizing our suggestions.  Young-seop (영섭) then told us that there were some teachers’ planning books at the Letterland school. This revelation made me really annoyed as they were the books we needed to consult, someone needed to be sent to get them. An hour later and they arrived but it was now 11 pm so we decided to meet on Monday at 9 am in the Letterland School.

On Saturday morning I took a taxi over to Pauline’s house to see if she wanted to do anything this evening. I remembered how lonely and lost I felt on my first weekend. Pauline lives not too far from Yon San Dong, on the edge of town and with a good view of the mountains. It was refreshing to get away from the high-rises of Song So (성서) and to see some new views. Pauline was busy cleaning her floor and she wasn’t very impressed with the condition of her flat – basically a porta-cabin sandwiched between some houses. She has no iron, TV, or video. In addition no one from the school had visited her to see if she was okay or needed anything. Mr Jo really has no idea how to treat people, especially westerners and it is quite clear South Koreans need a revolution to reorganise the slavish way people are expected to work.

In the evening Pauline and I met up and had bibimbap in my favourite restaurant. I came out to her and she seemed genuinely pleased I was gay. Most of her friends in Australia are gay and so we spent some time criticizing straight men. She has a really good sense of humour, wears no make-up and likes to eat as she is very fat. I expect we will get along fine. I told her I had had a book published and she asked if she could read it. It took me a while to find it as I had hidden it in case Nana came across it by mistake.

On Sunday, I went for a walk up the mountain behind my flat; the mountain is called the Warayong Mountain. This is the first weekend since I’ve been here that I didn’t feel all achey and tired. Today is December 3rd and I can remember doing a guard duty in Polemedia Camp, Cyprus, when I was with United Nations, on a December 3rd. Somewhere I have a photo of myself at the guard post. I think that would have been in 1973, the year I joined the army. I was surprised with the change of scenery up the mountain as when I was last here, some five weeks ago; the trees were still green though some where changing to red. Now all the leaves have fallen and you are able to see much more of the city below. I walked the same routes as on previous trips, basically straight up the mountain to the resting place at the top. At one point there was a really clear view of Wu Bang tower in the distance with a large Buddhist temple between both points. I took a photo of it but it never came out. At the top of the mountain is an open air gym equipped with benches, dumb bells, a clock suspended from a tree, a radio and speakers, some weights and hoops. No one steals them and nothing is vandalized as it would most certainly be in the UK.  Friends and families were exercising here and it was interesting to see fathers of forty plus doing this with as much vigour as their sons. Once you get to this point on the climb you realise that there are higher mountains behind it. There must be miles and miles of walks up here.  I walked back down the mountain and went to write my notes up at a nearby internet cafe, known as a PC bang.

 

 

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

Further References

A New Rice Cooker (Teacher) Arrives from Australia – Sunday December 10th (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Food and Drink, Korean Accounts Part 1, Martial Arts by 노강호 on December 10, 2000

At the taegeukkweon this week, (태극권 – is a Korean form of tai chi which is taught twice a week as part of  my  taekwondo classes), one of the boys was hit with a padded stick used to simulate a club attack. I don’t know what the boy had been doing but the instructor, Mr Park, struck him three times across the back of his legs. The boy, aged about 12, started crying and had his head bowed and Mr Park seemed to be telling him to stand in the ready position. The boy ignored him and so he was beaten. Eventually he complied and the class continued.

a rice cooker and a teacher share a lot in common in Korea

On Thursday, Mr Jo asked me if I would go to the railway station with him to meet a teacher arriving from New Zealand. He wanted me to go there at eight in the evening and as I wasn’t going training, I agreed. Nothing in Korea is simple, at least not in my school and after waiting at the school to be collected by Mr Jo, I discover she isn’t arriving until nine. Nine-thirty arrived and still there was no sign of Mr Jo and then Miss Pak, the school secretary, told me she was arriving at eleven. Next, Mr Jo arrives with a change of plans and sent another teacher to collect the new teacher  and decided to take Nana and I for dinner. We went to one of the many restaurants near the school, a sort of cross between a drinking house and a restaurant and there were western style tables to sit at. Before the drinks arrived at our table Mr Jo started telling us about some of his plans and I quickly sensed something else was afoot (note – Koreans initiate business meetings through food and drink). I had originally arranged to meet this Korean woman, a teacher in the school, for dinner, at 10.pm, her name is Pak U-chun (박유천 – 12 years later, she was to become my boss). As soon as I told Mr Jo I was supposed to be meeting her he telephoned her on his mobile and cancelled our meeting. He then decided we should meet at 10.am but I was supposed to be giving Dong-soo (박동수) an English lesson then. Nana suggested I phone him and cancel the meeting but I quickly retorted that I didn’t have his phone number. Nana’s next suggestion was that I should simply not turn up for Dong-soo (박동수). Jo got up and went to the toilet and I told Nana that I didn’t want to cancel my plans on the whims of Jo. When Mr Jo returned, we agreed to meet at 10.45 next morning.

If I was pissed off with Jo, I was even more pissed off when the meal arrived as it was totally Klingon and disgusting. What I thought was a purple bean curd (note – probably my early under standing of acorn curd, 도토리묵) and octopus turned out to be raw lived and stomach. Then there was this thick, white gloopy soup which resembled ejaculate. The liver and tripe I passed aside and the soup actually made me gag. However some recognizable meat and vegetables arrived for us to cook on the pot at our table and this was quite tasty (note – I’ve gradually become more accustomed to Korean food but there are still some foods I don’t enjoy and raw liver and stomach or good examples).

As we drank more soju (소주), Mr Jo’s plans began to unfold and it transpires that he wants Nana and I to go to his new Letterland school tomorrow to start planning the Letterland system. The trouble with the Korean way of business is that you have to be very careful about committing yourself through the influence of alcohol and do you even have a choice?

By the time we left the restaurant we’d drunk several bottles of soju (소주)  and beer and despite this Jo drove us to a noraebang (노래 방)  almost adjacent my flat. We spent several hours here singing and I must have ordered 7 or 8 rounds of beer. Next morning I had a bad hangover and had lost my voice.

(note- I’ve learnt that a number of Korean bosses treat you like a ‘rice cooker’ and once you have a problem or don’t function as they want and you’re simply replaced with another wayguk. Others bosses are quite the opposite!)

 

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

Further References

When the Cuckoo Dies (Bathhouse Ballads, June 2010)