Elwood 5566

A Cake of Soap and Korean Hierarchical Collectivism

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

podcast 87

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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Who’s Pissing in the Pool?

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, podcasts by 노강호 on June 4, 2011

pissing in the pool

Podcast 83

Here are three Korean habits which I find displeasing: spitting, littering and pissing in public. Now, before getting on a cultural high horse, all three habits can be observed in Britain and certainly, in my hometown on most evenings of the week, you can observe both public spitting and urinating. I have even seen a teenage girl squat against a shop door and urinate without even pulling her jeans or knickers down. A month earlier the Queen herself had walked through the very same doorway (William and Griffith’s in Colchester). Not only can you see the displays of public urination, spitting, as well as vomiting, but in the daytime every recess oozes the reek of urine. And then there is a habit among British teenage boys and low-class men which you will not see in Korea, and which was taboo when I was a boy, of one or both hands down the front of ‘trousers’ toying with genitalia.  I’m sure this habit has evolved along with the spreading popularity of ‘trackie’-type trousers where an elasticated waistband provides ease of access. I once watched a young man in a supermarket constantly first contacting his tackle intermittently touching fruit and vegetables and worse, other people!

there is even a Facebook for this practice

It has taken me a while to ascertain how common urinating is in the bathhouse. I’m afraid I don’t go for those waygukin (foreigners) who claim Koreans golden shower all over bathhouses, piss in the pools and constantly gawk at their nudity. Such accusations are normally levied as a means of excusing yourself the bathing experience because you fear an unclothed environment. Of course Koreans stare! They stare everywhere you go but if you have any cultural awareness you will know that all you need do is look around busily, instead of lowering your gaze which you naturally do when embarrassed, and make eye contact. Koreans will instantly look away because starring is considered rude and eye contact exposes this. Better still, make eye contact and smile. Nothing dispels the tension caused by starring quicker than a smile and instantly, a stressful encounter is made friendly. As for accusations about pissing in the showers, from my experience, they are exaggerated.   Firstly, it is not easy to determine if someone is pissing at the same time they are showering. Indeed, from my own ‘experimentation’ it seems that if you stand in a certain position you can actually manipulate the flow of water so it appears you are urinating. How you determine someone is urinating while in a pool eludes me. With considerable bathhouse hours clocked-up over a long period of time in many different bathhouses, I have only witnessed a few people who were definitely urinating in the shower.

One such occasions occurred a few days ago when a teenage boy entered the complex with his friends. I immediately noticed him as he spat onto the pile of used towels by the entrance. Teenage boys often spit as they enter the bathing complex and I perceive this a territorial act an animal might make when it urinates on ‘its patch.’ Then, as he stood in the shower, he arched his back and pissed as high as he could up the shower wall. In the meantime, he is busy talking with his friends. I am also reminded that not too long ago, I watched two boys larking in the showers during which boy golden showered on his friend’s leg. Considering it is deemed dirty to blow your nose in a handkerchief and rude to even blow it in public, I would have thought pissing on your friend’s leg totally taboo. However, they found the act highly entertaining.

as long as I don't see it

I have no problem with snorting or spitting in the bathhouse provided it is expelled in a gully and not on the areas walked over. For most cases this is what happens, often with a spray or douse of water to speed the emission on its way. However, last week a man bathing next to me, noisily coughed up a projectile and spat it onto the floor. He did this several times and without the usual habit of throwing water over it to wash it away. This was particularly revolting especially as I was about to eat breakfast.

Yes, Koreans have some grotty habits but so do most cultures and teenage boys aren’t the best candidates on which to judge a nation’s hygiene. Personally, pissing in the bathhouse, by which I mean pissing on the floor or tiles doesn’t bother me if it’s done discretely; in other words don’t let me see you doing it or if you do at least make the act ambiguous. Blatant disregard of protocol is more an act of disrespect than of pollution.  I’m sure people sometimes piddle in the pool but I am not that bothered unless I see them doing it when I would be angered, not by urine contaminating my bathing water, but by the perpetrator’s gall at pissing in front of me and hence challenging my adult authority.

As for the third offence I began this post with, namely, littering,’ there is no doubt Koreans excel at this anti social habit. Korean refuse collection leaves much to be desired both in terms of public provision and personal standards. It is one thing to put out garbage in the legally required bin-bag, and quite another to simply empty the contents against a lamppost, as many seem to do.  In terms of littering the street, teenage boys are the worst offenders and seem to assume that rubbish can be dropped anywhere and cleaned up by someone else – which it generally is. This isn’t much different to the misguided attitude many British school kids have, that you can drop little on the floor because cleaners are paid to pick it up. Now that dog muck has been largely banished from British streets, and ten years ago it was tolerated, it is only fair to say British streets are far cleaner than their Korean counterparts and littering is clearly anti-social and illegal.

(2002) in around eight years it has become anti-social to let your dog foul the pavement

So, how prevalent is pissing while in the pool?

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Intimacy – Fathers and Sons

Podcast 82

I never really enjoy writing about some of the intimate moments I observe in bathhouses or even in everyday life as many western readers have a real problem with both the authors of such texts, whom they perceive as a perverts, and with the nature of its content, which they categorise, as ‘gay’ and ‘sickening’.

When fathers and sons are mutually washing each other I don’t like to sit and stare but over the last six months and through discussions with Korean friends I have managed to piece together how this process, which might possibly be defined as a ‘ritual,’ functions. At times of the week, usually the weekend, many fathers and sons visit the bathhouse and while for some the cleaning process is the prime function of the visit, for others it is simply for relaxation. I regularly see fathers and sons who will spend as much time cleaning each other, as I might in the pools and it is not in the least unusual for some to spend well over an hour cleaning either cleaning themselves or, in the case of a father, their son.

The process begins with showering under the stand-up showers and entails much the same as a standard ablution – washing the body, shampooing, shaving and brushing teeth. We have now reached the point at which most westerners would consider themselves clean but which for the majority of Koreans is only the preamble to a meticulous ablution. After the stand up shower some visitors go straight to the sit down shower units while others will spend some time enjoying the various pools and saunas. For younger children, this often means playing while older boys are content to sit with their fathers. Most of my Korean friends will soak and sweat in the various facilities for anything up to several hours, at which point dead skin cells and callouses have absorbed water and are easily removed.

the bathhouse, where ‘skinship’ is taken to the extreme

Between friends, scrubbing each others’ backs is an accepted intimacy and it is not unusual to see peer groups, especially school boys, university students or even monks sat in a line each scrubbing the person in front. Several years ago an advert depicted young boys doing exactly this and attracted some  negative and hostile comments from foreigners living in Korea. Unless you opt for a scrub down by a bathhouse attendant, the scrubbing of backs is probably the most intimate extent to which friendships, even between the closest friends, goes and seems much the same as from son to father. However, from father to son, the level of intimacy is much greater and certainly, into middle adolescence, a boy is often totally passive in this procedure. Indeed, there isn’t much difference between how some fathers clean their sons, and how you might wash a car, care for a baby or invalided person.

The cleaning process reflects a close bond between fathers and sons

The procedure often takes place in silence and begins with the boy bending over and supporting themselves on the ledge that runs under the mirrors so that their father can vigorously scrub their back with an Italy towel progressing down their buttocks, backs of thighs and calves. For anyone who has visited a bathhouse and seen for themselves this type of ritualistic cleaning, the process isn’t brief or cursory. The Italy towel is used with only the smallest amount of soap, not enough to even produce a lather and in a rough enough manner to produce a visible line of dead skins cells. Once an area has been ex-foliated, it is showered after which the Italy towel is again used, this time with a generous amount of soap.

Next, the boy sits down facing his father and puts each leg, in turn, on his father’s thigh and the same process is repeated from the soles of the feet to the thighs. Then the boy sits with his back,  neck or shoulders supported over his father’s knee so that his chest and stomach can be scrubbed. It is not in the least unusual for boys or even their fathers, to hold their genitals to one side while scrubbing the groin. Finally, with head resting on their dad’s thigh, their face is scrubbed even to the extent of cleaning noses and ears. The meticulous process ends with a session under the stand up shower. Sometimes the procedure is organised slightly differently, for example if the boy is not very tall, he might stand for much of the ablution. What is most bizarre for the westerner is the proximity between the face and genitals or backside of another person. Even between friends, if someone is standing and someone sitting, as for example might sometimes be the case when one person is scrubbing another’s back, there is no concern about the distance between the face of one and the genitals of another.

the Italy towel in action

Often the process is performed by a bathhouse attendant and every bathhouse has an area with one or several couches on which you lay for this purpose. I rarely see young children receiving a scrub down but older boys, sometimes unaccompanied and at other times with their fathers, will subject themselves to this ritual. A scrub down from an attendant is every bit as intimate, and for the westerner, invasive, as the one between fathers and sons. Koreans are so used to the cleaning ritual, they subconsciously place their limbs in the required position or require only the briefest prompt, for westerners however, the process is awkward and the body, unaccustomed to the procedure, is antagonistic to the attendant’s manipulation. And yes! They do hold your ‘bits’ to one side as they’re scrubbing. However, the experience is invigorating as well as liberating.

Clearly, father-son, as well as mother-daughter bathhouse rituals are an integral expression of ‘skinship’ and undoubtedly provide the most extreme example of intimacy between individuals in a platonic setting. On several occasions I have witnessed a father bathing his severely mentally and physically disabled son and much that was sad and tragic in the procedure was nullified by the close bond they clearly shared. But it is also possible to see such parent-child intimacy as one aspect of a broader cycle and sons can often be seen tending their aged fathers in the exact reversal of the father-son ritual.

Koreans do not carry the same cultural baggage as regards the body as many westerners either in terms of prudery or propriety and appear much less  judgmental about the bodies’ of other people. I recently read a very interesting article by a Korean grandfather who was approached by  a little girl in a bathhouse who wanted lifting into a hot pool, because she was cold (link). In many other cultures, racked with obsessions which perversify any contact between minor and adult, such intimacy, and many other intimacies observed in a bathhouse setting, are taboo. It would also seem that what is observed between those of the same gender remains private. To discuss or gossip about the body of another person would be highly inappropriate and improper and certainly, between males and females, would constitute a cultural taboo. And one of the greatest Korean attributes, especially when you’re naked and vulnerable, is that they are excellent at complimenting those parts of your body you don’t like. I wouldn’t wish my body on anyone but even naked many Koreans are able to make you feel very good about yourself.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

The ‘Ballads’ via Podcast

Posted in podcasts, Uncategorized by 노강호 on May 23, 2011

Podcasts and Video Podcast (cartoon courtesy of zencast.com)

I have now re-recorded podcasts 2-15 and 70-75 using a Snowball, Blue microphone which means the quality is slightly better than with the previous microphone. The Podcasts are taken from the lengthier, Bathhouse Ballad series.  I have another 55 in this series to produce which will take some time.

access current Podcasts here

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Seduced by a Guatamalan Beauty

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Food and Drink, podcasts by 노강호 on May 10, 2011

Podcast 81

Finding a decent coffee in Korea is not difficult, but finding one where coffee’s sophistication isn’t assaulted by tasteless music, is. Most of the large coffee franchises and restaurants pump out shite music which has a broad appeal but I don’t particularly want to drink a coffee or eat lunch to the same music I’ve also been forced to listen to in the gym or by those teenagers zig-zagging down the road on their noisy hairdryer-powered mopeds.  I suppose it could be worse; it could be muzak!

Coffee and Bun - calm, intimate and cosy... plus a buttery bun

I used to love a good cup of English tea, preferably Earl Grey though Lady Grey is also a favourite. Tea is one of the most refreshing beverages but I’ve learnt that there is something amiss with tea in Korea as there is something amiss with soju in the UK or Pimm’s No. 1 consumed indoors, in winter. My local Home Plus was selling boxes of Twinning’s Earl Grey last year at the amazing price of 2500 Won (£1.25) for 50 bags. However, whether it was the water or the milk, I could never brew a cup that was decent, let alone one the experience of which was sublime. And now I’ve become a coffee head!

 If you follow the correct procedure you can guarantee a decent coffee with every brew but  the perfect cup of tea is elusive and the method not as quick to reveal the full potential as is coffee. No matter how many cups of coffee I make, or which procedure I follow, every cup is simply okay and certainly coffee’s reliability to produce a good brew is its failing because in the randomness and unpredictability of tea, lies its greatest strength. And no matter how many different types of coffee I sample, they all seem to taste the same which I suppose is a reflection of my ignorance. Teas however, are much more distinct and their flavours and subtleties don’t require learning to be appreciated – and least not if your British.

Almost one hundred and fifty pounds of pot

The perfect ‘cuppa’, worthy of a lengthy, ‘shi-won-hada’ (시원하다) which in this sense approximates, ‘oh, heavenly,’ is dependent upon something beyond the brewing method and even the closest adherence to brewing principles fails to guarantee its attainment. With tea, you accept that while most cups will be good, perfection is elusive. Yesterday, I decided to have an Earl Grey in Mr Big; it was a disappointment, the tea was served in a glass mug and I had to ask for milk. Earl Grey with milk never looks appealing in a glass cup as it is so pale and insipid and though it had a perfumed bouquet, as you would expect, and seemed to contain fresh tea leaves, though  they could just as easily have come from a tea bag,  there was something missing.  So, until I’m back on British shores I guess I’ll have to be content with coffee.

My favourite coffee shop is the ‘Coffee and Bun’ near Migwang and almost directly next to the new football stadium sized coffee shop, (Korea’s most popular), ‘Coffee Bene.’  ‘Coffee and Bun’ is run by a young man who is totally obsessed with coffee and who has almost taken me under his wing as an acolyte. I can no longer venture here without being shown the latest coffee brewing paraphernalia or being asked to compare some beans. I don’t particularly mind, the café has an intimate atmosphere and usually the music is gentle and in the background and certainly has more sophistication than the pop-pap which is universally pumped out. If you thought coffee tasting was simple, let me assure you it is every bit as complex as wine tasting and among connoisseurs is known as ‘coffee cupping.’

coffee paraphernalia

Unlike tea tasting, which is a fairly cheap hobby, coffee cupping can be expensive. Over several sessions Chong-min has paraded his entire range of coffee brewing utensils. Two pots in which boiled water is allowed to cool before pouring, one stainless steel, the other copper, cost 140.000 Won  (£70) and 180.000 Won (£90), respectively. As the water needs to be poured at 195-205 degrees Celsius, a suitable thermometer is needed. Next, he has a collection of 5 coffee drippers in differing designs one of which is made with a fabric, while another, at 50.000 Won (£25) is copper. You would think coffee drippers a fairly standard item but in several of the books from the growing coffee library in a corner of his café, I can research their various designs and their pros and cons. Even the cheapest dripper (5000 Won) is cataloged in his books.    Another glass utensil combines a coffee pot and dripper and the paper filters, almost the size of A4 paper which Chong-min folds with the dexterity of an origami  master, are bought from the USA and cost around 200 Won each.  In my ignorance, I’ve always used a food processor or blender to grind my coffee and now I learn this is vastly inferior to the conical burr grinder which guarantees consistency of grain. ‘Blade grinders’ simply smash the beans about producing an inconsistent ground of both powder and more sandy grains.

and more...

When the water reaches the magical temperature of around 92 degrees Fahrenheit, I am required to drip the water over the grounds in a spiraling motion after which we wait for several minutes. Naturally, we have scrutinised the beans, feeling them, smelling their aroma, assessing their oiliness, observing their colour and the grounds we have sniffed and sifted between fingers. We eagerly wait to sample the brew but as usual, the taste is not much different to the coffee I produce in my cheap coffee press using fairly regular beans smashed up in a blender.

and the buns are delicious

I was beginning to perceive a good cup of coffee, more like an okay cup of coffee and in much the same light as I perceive a glass of Coca Cola, ie, as simply a fizzy drink with no greater potential to satisfy than any other fizzy drink, but the mediocrity of which is inflated beyond the realms of reason. I was beginning to think I’d been hoodwinked into searching for something that did not exist and learning a language, a jargon, that made something out of nothing. That was, until Chong-min presented me a cup of Guatemala (COE – cup of excellence). It wasn’t even brewed by means of his epicurean paraphernalia all of which I was beginning to suspect were the implements of an international coffee conspiracy. Even if I had not been aware of the superiority of this particular coffee, it would have made an impression. It’s announcement lay somewhere between an oral orgasm and a sledge hammer.  I have no idea what was fantastic about it any more than I can really tell you what constitutes that elusive cup of sublime tea. To have deconstructed its superiority with descriptors like, ‘rancid/rotten’ and ‘rubber-like’ would have destroyed the moment. Like tea, once perfection is presented, it’s potential lasts only a few minutes. The ‘moment’ becomes even more appreciated when Chong-min tells me the beans cost  40.000 Won (£20) for 100 grammes. That’s a staggering 8 times the price of the most expensive supermarket coffee where 100 grammes costs around 5000 Won (£2.50). To the ignorant at least, and in the eyes of coffee cupping connoisseurs, I’m ignorant, no descriptor bolsters the taste of coffee more than ‘cost’ and I’m glad I was hit by the oral orgasm before I learned its price because price often has the capacity to turn shit into gold. Monk fish, in Korea for example,  is prolific and cheap but in Britain, where at one time it was a poor man’s substitute for scampi, a massive hitch in price has reinvented it as an exotic, expensive delicacy patronized by the numerous celebrity chefs who entertain the nation while they sit down to TV dinners and food largely the product of factory systems. Monk fish is now the gentry of  the sea, infinitively superior to that former bulwark,  the salmon and vastly more sophisticated than the old scampi it used to mimic.  Nothing inflates taste more, or subjects it to more scrutiny, or provides for it a jargon which only erudition can elicit, than cost.

I am pleased I appreciated the Guatemala (COE) before being made aware of its price and had considered giving up the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, which in effect really entails the acceptance of my ignorance. Now I can dispense with trying to learn perfection and in this case treat myself to the experience when I feel the need. Sadly, at 40.000 for a 100 grammes, my average weekly consumption, I’ll drastically have to reduce the number of cups I drink.

Coffee and Bun - a minutes walk from Song-So E-Mart.

Find Coffee and Bun on Wikimapia

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

EPIK Helped Kill the Korean Experience

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Education, podcasts, Westerners by 노강호 on April 29, 2011

Podcast 80

Here’s the problem! You’ve lived in Korea three months and you think you know all about it! Now that you’ve got used to being stared at, know the difference between makalli and soju, think you have an understanding of the Korean psyche and culture and have possibly been initiated by the annual waygukin pilgrimage to the Boring  Boroyeong (mud festival), Korea has suddenly become mundane, ordinary and predictable.

has Korea becoming boring?

I know the feeling. There are numerous things which can possibly terminate ones Korean experience or at least quickly lead to the honeymoon being over: these include, the internet, a mobile phone, English speaking westerners and ones ability to read and speak Korean.

If you want to preserve that feeling of amazement you experienced during your initial weeks in Korea you have to avoid taking any interest in learning to speak, read or write Korean and while you can use computers to play games and download music, you must shun search engines and any blog related to Korea. Avoiding foreigners, or at least limiting how many you know, is crucial but relatively easy as most are too busy pretending  they’ve been in Korea for the last twenty years and are adept at blanking you even if you’re sat under their very noses.

Yeah, but nothing like we used to be…(courtesy of Roketship.com

The famous Chicago School sociologist, Robert Park used to advise his students to ‘go out and get the seats of your pants dirty’ and not too long ago that was the only way you could learn anything about Korea. You wanted to learn about Korea, and then you had to go to Korea. You wanted to learn Korean, you had to go out and find someone to talk to; you wanted to learn how to make kimchi or do taekwondo, you had to go out and find Koreans willing to help you. Today, you can do it all from the comfort of your ‘one-room.’ The online oracle provides extensive resources on every facet of Korean culture so much so that you can learn more today about Korea from a computer in backwater Britain or a rural American retreat than you could gleam living here for a year before the invasion of the internet. And for every foreigner arriving on Korean soil a corresponding blog is birthed to swell the already bloated Klogosphere.

Learning Korean is the quickest way to sully your relationship with Korea. I’m not really happy living anywhere in the world where I don’t have to make an effort to learn what is going on around me because it is easier to get the information I upload.  Back in Britain, I live in a constant state of depression and on a daily basis am subject to a plethora of information that I really don’t want to process and which by its very nature is unhealthy. You don’t have to seek information out, it finds you and worse the bulk of it is rubbish.  If it’s broadcast in daylight hours or is front page ‘news’ it’s very often shit and I have no interest in the intrigues concerning the latest plastic protégés from Pop Idol, the dumb ass contestants selected for Big Brother, the Royal Spongers, Football or the plots of stupid soaps.

 

interesting…

It’s fantastic when I go back home as I have no idea who new celebrities are and besides, many will have disappeared by the end of the year. I lived in Germany between 1976-1986 and was telly-less and beside gaining black-belt in taekwon-do, when I came home to headlines announcing, ’Who Shot JR,’ had to ask who he was.  A great wadge of what constitutes ‘news’ is newsless shite which cascades into your brain like spam. If people treated that organ the complexity of which potentially separates us from lower primates as they do their computers, with upgrades, antivirus and spam devices, society would be much nicer. Do you lower your firewall, terminate you anti-virus facilities and start downloading everything on-line? Of course not! But that’s what many of us do with our brains and much of it can’t be avoided.

Living in a country where you do not speak the language fluently is one step away from living in a mountain temple. It’s shocking I had to be told there had been a tsunami in Japan and an earthquake in New Zealand and natural disasters don’t depress me like manmade ones; but on the other hand my brain hasn’t been polluted with rubbish about royal weddings or the obnoxious habits of celebrities.

And you can certainly give vent to your creative juices. For the last few years I’ve had to construct an understanding of the world beyond my little nirvana from fragmented ‘evidence.’ Like an historian of ancient history, I piece together a narrative constructed from isolated words I’ve understood or images I’ve seen. When I originally saw a clip of what I now know was the Japanese tsunami  (the TV was in a restaurant and there was no audio),  I thought it was a graphic from the 24 hour Starcraft channel. I could certainly go online and access information but choose not to as once you open yourself to external content it quickly overwhelms you. Ignorance really is enjoyable and I am infinitely calmer in my little bubble than I would be by allowing the worlds ‘dirty realities to rape my noggin.

EPIK killed the experience

Not only would fluency in Korean make it possible to be spammed and hacked, but it would take all the fun out of life’s little excursions. I remember the time when most restaurants lacked English translations and often had no pictures.  Ordering meals by pointing was fun; bus terminals with no English! That was a challenge. By all means, learn Korean to order a pizza or tell the taxi driver where to take you but much more than this will quickly curdle your Korean sojourn. Okay! I do speak a fair amount of Korean and put much effort into learning it but you either have to be very gifted at languages or have been here for a long time to actually be able to speak fluently. So, unable to understand anything but bits and bobs from the fast paced gabble of Korean TV and conversations overheard, living in Korea equips you with one enormous firewall. Not one mega byte of unwanted information enters my brain’s processing center uninvited or unprocessed.

Obviously then, the internet has to be shunned though it’s useful in emergencies and for smoothing out potential problems. However, using it to research where you should go, how to get there, what to expect and equipping you with opinions before you’ve even decided where to go is a little like substituting reading the back page of a book for actually reading the book itself.  And the problem with computer technology is that it permits you to lead almost identically the same life as you would have had back home. Yes, even now I am doing exactly the same as I would be doing back in the UK, basically sitting at a computer screen and most of the entertainment it provides in the form of music and film is identical. So vast are the tomes of information on Korea that very little remains mysterious, bizarre or strange. Information technology has helped demystify the Korean experience and severely shortens its potential to engage or entertain us.

Mobile phones are just as bad and owning one simply means that every waygukin you meet gets added to your address book and as they do your social life begins to develop which disproportionately involves fellow westerners. Most westerners, though there will be exceptions, only need a mobile so they can chat with their western mates and book trips to ESL tourist destinations.

As for the waygukin effect, blame it on EPIK! The sharp increase in the number of English speaking foreigners now living in Korea has helped destroy the intense interest Koreans once held in us. I knew more westerners in the area in which I live, ten years ago when they were a handful, than I do now, despite their comprising a small army. At one time, seeing a westerner was so rare you stopped and talked. Today, there are not only more westerners but more westerners married to Koreans or with a Korean boyfriend or girlfriend. There are even western children in some of my local Korean middle schools. And I know it’s mean, but whenever I meet an EPIK teacher I silently curse because it is predominantly their invasion which has turned us from objects of fascination and intrigue into ones boring, mundane and general. We were special until EPIK arrived and now one has been stationed in every school, coffee shop and burger bar; there isn’t s single student who has never met a foreigner.

 

The Costa del Sol? No! Korea. Boroyeong, waygooked to boredom

Knowing a couple of fellow countrymen, or women, is good for your mental health but getting pally with hordes of them is a bad idea. When ever foreigners hook up in droves you can guarantee the conversation will become anti-Korean and gravitate towards how crappy it is working in Korea, which for many it is but those of us with good bosses or plastic professorships don’t want reminding. Technology and the EPIK invasion now means Korea attracts ESL tourists seeking the Korean package experience. Many waygukin now come here not to experience Korea and its culture, but to basically do exactly the same sort of things that can be done on the Costa del Sol. With a pack of mates in your mobile address book, all waygukin, it won’t be too long before you’re either returning home or looking for another location to provide you that ‘unique’ experience.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Outed by the Makgeolli

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

podcast 79

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

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

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

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

 

the legacy of the Hwa-rang lives on

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

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

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

Ji-won

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying goodbye in late summer of 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Castrated Cake and Bollockless Beer

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Food and Drink, podcasts by 노강호 on April 1, 2011

podcast 78

Recently, a blogger whose posts I regularly read (The Supplanter), has been condemning Korean cake and ridiculing its ersatz quality (Happy Spam Day). The Supplanter has made similar accusations against Korean beer (cASS and sHITE) but he is not a member of the substantial army of westerners that live here, some of them for decades, who continually berate Korean society. And I have to agree with him; Korean beer is shite and their cake, as scrumptious as it looks, is not much better.

Real beer! Beer with bollocks! From one of the many British micro-breweries.

I’m not much of a beer drink and if anything prefer what we Brits refer to as ‘real ale’ and I was also spoilt by ten years living in Germany where there is a vast range of decent pils-type lager. Korean lager never quite satisfies and drinking it tends to make me yearn for the real thing. Not only is it weak, watery and blatantly bland, but in every sip is the constant reminder of a chemical process and a factory production line.

Ss-Hite

Korean cake, at least in appearance, is certainly comparable with the fabulous creations of German torte and such delights as Schwarzwälder Kirchetorte, Sachertorte and kaβekuchen. In terms of taste however, you can expect a tragic disappointment.

German torten

Several weeks ago, I had a coffee in one of the numerous Sleepless in Seattle cafés to be found around Song-So, in Daegu. Having learnt not to coax disappointment, I rarely buy anything other than a coffee bun but when I noticed Camembert cheesecake on the menu, I couldn’t resist. Quite a strange concoction, Camembert, chocolate and cream, I thought, especially if you’ve experienced the almost putrefied, overripe Camembert which exudes the slightly pungent pong of ammonia. And Camembert in Korea is also strange as decent cheese is one of the hardest products to buy. I had heard that certain cheeses could not be imported because there were restrictions on foods with certain bacteriological properties.  Then there is the theory that Koreans, like the Chinese, haven’t developed a taste for cheese  or many other milk products as the climate and pastures for rearing cattle don’t exist as they do, for example, in Europe. Korean cheeses are usually always mild, stretchy and in terms of cheese, totally synthetic.

the Vienese Sacher torte

Well, the Camembert was quite delicious and there certainly was a tinge of Camembert flavour; present but not pronounced and as distant almost as Europe itself. The combination worked but the cheesecake was really just mildly cheesy syntho-cream.  And then, last week, when I had some spare cash in my pocket, I noticed a complete Camembert cheesecake sitting in a Paris Baguette bakery. It was certainly very vocal and for a good ten minutes I stood outside the shop deliberating whether or not to buy it and apart from the calories with which I knew it would be loaded, I don’t usually spend 16.000 Won (£8) on a cake. Well, it was Friday and my boss had given me a bonus, so I bought it!

Camembert cheese

However, my reasoning wasn’t purely gluttonous as I’d hoped to salvage the reputation of Korean cake after reading the Supplanter’s condemnation. I was going to pen a response basically agreeing with his observations but  forwarding the Camembert cheesecake as an exception and as soon as I got home took a few photos to help secure my intended argument.

Looks fantastic!

Korean bakeries are certainly adept at creating visual feasts and cakes covered in cream, chocolate and fruit, in a fascinating and artistically inspired range of designs, mesmerize and tempt the viewer. Unfortunately, visual creativity far outweighs culinary inspiration and innovation. My beautiful cheesecake, which looked like an entire mould encrusted round of Camembert, was nothing other than a boring sponge with a lick of creamy substance providing the filling and a thin painting of Camembert forming the facade, and a facade was exactly what it was! As far as sponge cake went it was delicious but cheesecake – it was not!

exposed as a sponge centered fraud

a real Camembert cheesecake – not sponge, not aerated cream, but Camembert!

I have now come to the conclusion there is more value and taste in a humble coffee bun than the entire gamut of glamorous gateaux where a thin wall of creamless-cream, coffeeless-coffee and chocolateless-chocolate hide a either a basic sponge cake or simply more aerated syntho-cream.

The simple coffee bun, nothing more, nothing less

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

I Don’t Mind Fat People – I Have a Fat Neighbour!

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Health care, podcasts by 노강호 on March 29, 2011

Currently, Korea has one of the lowest levels of obesity in the world, but things are rapidly changing

podcast 77

I’m a fat arse and not particularly ashamed of it but then it’s much easier being fat if you’re male. This week I’ve had a difficult time being large as I’ve injured my knee and with the snow and ice have had to take taxis to work. I only work three or four minutes from where I live but I’ve noticed a pattern with what is probably a case of tendinitis in that if I rest it gets better, if I walk it aggravates it and hence I am trying to rest as much as possible. The problem is compounded because constant hobbling has already put strain on other muscles and joints and they too have joined the rebellion.

But the hard time I am currently suffering doesn’t just concern the extra pressure that weight puts on the joints but the extra pressure that you incur socially as a result of being fat. I haven’t bothered to go to the hospital as I immediately know their first response will be to tell me to loose weight. Frankly, an obvious response but one that is usually made and which is both a euphemism for attributing you with the blame and also a means of gloating over your predicament because you’ve taken too much pleasure in food. I see much of the attack made on fat people, especially in Britain where the debate is front page news, as a form of schadenfreude and largely media induced.   Even two pharmacists have very kindly told me I should eat less.

Many people simply have no grasp of the problems involved in being overweight and are apt to make the most asinine comments. Fat people know they should loose weight, they know they should eat less, and they probably know more about healthy eating than many professionals and probably more than you. It should be clear to any sensible person that the trends in weight gain witnessed in numerous countries with diverse cultures between them goes deeper than individual lack of will power or not knowing that a stick of carrot is healthier than a pack of lard, and is rooted in an array of social factors.

Most kids would prefer this to a quarter pounder and fries!

There is a concern with obesity in Korea, but fatness is still very much in its infancy. However, the number of fast-food establishments grows and the number of convenience foods available in supermarkets rapidly expands. McDonald’s plan to have 500 restaurants situated in Korea by 2015 (Korea JoongAng Daily March 2010). Worse, they intend increasing the number of schools participating in their ‘after school program’ which includes lessons on healthy eating. At this stage, I want to tear my hair out because parents actually send their kids to these programs, schools and politicians actually help facilitate their dissemination and teachers actually deliver their content. Any parent who allows a corporation like McDonald’s to take a hand in the ‘education’ of their kids needs arresting for child abuse and subsequently requires sterilization.  As for the politicians, schools management and teachers… shame on you!  In Britain, parents who are overweight or have overweight kids are slammed and ridiculed by the media and a moronic public who fiddle with themselves over the ‘successes’ of celebrities who have lost weight by undergoing expensive gastric surgery but ignore how McDonalds, (and others companies such as BP, Sunny Delight, Flora, etc) get a foot in schools with after school clubs, painting and story competitions, promotional goods or school equipment etc, etc. Yes, it might be innocuous, but as innocuous as booking a paedophile for a kid’s party. I know McDonalds encourage healthy eating but that’s the ploy to get the kids in the restaurant.  Have you ever taken a hungry kid in McDonald’s and then satisfied them with a couple of slices of bagged apple? The ‘apple’ gimmick works all round: it’s the passport for McDonald’s to get a foot in the door of schools, for parents, politicians and those loco parentis it absolves them of guilt and shame and for kids it’s a ticket into a McDonald’s store where they will quickly demand burgers, fries and milkshakes with the apple dipper bag either discarded on the tray with the wrappers or taken away as a snack.

McDonald’s – where foods are transformed into toy-like things in the attempt to secure future consumer loyalty

This week, my boss and a friend were excitedly talking about some shopping they had bought in E-Mart which included a new range of microwave meals such as bokkumbap and black noodles. The line in microwaveable fast food has been almost nonexistent and I was immediately reminded of supermarkets back in the UK where a substantial portion of the store is devoted to gargantuan freezers providing an enormous range of microwaveable food.   Unlike convenience stores in Korea, UK versions such as Tesco One Stops provide a large range of unhealthy foods: frozen burgers, burgers ready to microwave, frozen curries, rolls and sandwiches, various pies, pasties, pizzas, microwave French fries and sausage rolls. I haven’t even mentioned the fast food available in cans! I can only snack in my local GS25, there are only ever one or two sandwiches, a few kimbaps and the remainder mostly crisps and drinks and you certainly couldn’t furnish enough to make a meal. There are no mega pound bars of chocolate and biscuits come in piddly little packets and/or are individually wrapped – which sort of kills the fun! However, I could eat very unhealthily on a daily basis on the junk from my local Tesco One Stop. In terms of supermarkets, the same differences exists except greatly magnified. In a western supermarket there are plenty of unhealthy options to lure me and they are usually instant or at the very most require bunging in a pan or microwave. In Korea, there are plenty of goodies available but only if you assemble them with a recipe – which if you do is healthier because to produce the item requires physical activity. And in Korea I don’t even have a can opener!

Imperial Tesco – the One Stop

Living in Korea makes you more aware of the unhealthy nature of western eating habits and trends which the obesity debate in the UK generally overlooks. There is a stupid assumption that the nature of how we shop, what is available, and the impact of advertising haven’t changed in the last hundred years and that all that has happened is that people, the weak willed or working class,  are ‘eating too much and exercising less.’ I very much suspect that not only has the production and consumption of food radically changed, but what foods contain, what fillers and padding now adulterate them, are recent exploitations.

the ultimate in ersatz, Hershy’s chocolateless chocolate

I  love chocolate, but rarely buy it in Korea firstly because it is often that shite American type Hershey’s chocolate which  in comparison to Belgian or Swiss chocolate, is totally chocolate-less and ersatz and secondly; it looks like chocolate, smells like chocolate, but there’s hardly any chocolate in it at all (and I know there are exceptions). Secondly, the bars are too small and thin. Crunchy for example is wafer thin. Other brands come in small packets or involve unwrapping each piece. In the UK, where chocolate is one up from Hershey’s but still pretty crappy,we now have bars of chocolate that are so big you could knock  someone out with one, bludgeon them to death and the little bars of chocolate I remember from my childhood, Mars Bar, Kit-Kat, Twix, Marathon, etc, are now enormous bars that you eat single-handed. The  accusations manufacturers were promoting obesity by producing such enormous bars has been rectified by dividing the bar into two segments,  each the same size as the original single bar, and wrapping it in one wrapper. Divided or not it still amounts to twice the amount of chocolate!  And burgers have increased in size. I remember when a Whopper or Big Mac was the ultimate burgers. The Big Mac was so big it had to be sold in a box. Now it’s in a wrapper and though it still looks big it’s not the dead weight of a double quarter-pounder let alone a triple quarter-pounder. A double quarter-pounder is almost one-third more calories than a Big Mac. I also remember when the Whopper, now known as the Original Whopper (710 calories), was the largest Burger King had to offer and was provided in a box with a fold down side so you could slide it into your mouth. The Original Whopper, a massive burger in the 1980’s, is now small compared to the almost 1000 calorie-laden Double Whopper Sandwich.

I have to admit, this is clever

If I was to be able to see the size of meals my family ate when I was a boy, I’d probably be shocked. I’m sure I eat as much meat in one UK meal now as my entire family ate  in one meal when I was young. Of course, what one eats is an individual choice but if I buy a bar a chocolate that has two segments, I find it hard not to eat them both. However, if there were only one segment in the packet, I’d have been content. If you put a pound of meat on my plate I’m probably going to eat it or at least I will eat more than I would have if you’d only given me 4 ounces.  I know it’s my individual choice that makes me consume but I don’t need help to do so. I have eventually come to the conclusion that I am overweight largely because I’ve been a single person in a family orientated consumer society. The packet of biscuits for a family of four are the biscuits I buy for one and it’s the same with most food that is packaged. However, it’s much easier food shopping for one in Korea as biscuits, chocolates and even tins of tuna are available in smaller portions. (Ironically, with toilet paper, washing-up liquid and washing powder, it’s the opposite). Meanwhile, the enormous Snicker bars, containing two segments, have arrived on Korean shores as has it’s cousin, the Snickers ice cream bar.

Welcome to Korea!

So, when I ask my pharmacist for some pain killers for a sore knee, she very kindly tells me I should lose weight.  She almost whispers it with an accompanying smile. I want to call her a ‘fucking nosey bitch!’ but I like her and her lack of tact is cultural.  However, the audacity catches me unaware and momentarily transfixed, I stare at her gormlessly. There is a sudden mellowing of my mental processes; lose weight? Why hadn’t I thought of that before?  Such snippets of professional wisdom, the result of years of intense study, woke me to my senses.  I never realised that people within normal weight parameters never suffer injured knees! Have you ever seen a skinny person limping or a grey-haired skinny requiring a walking stick? No!  Knee problems only ever affect fatties and clearly injuries such as ‘athlete’s knee’ and ‘tennis elbow’ are sarcastic terms for anything but a sporty person’s ailments.

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Finding a Pathology to Fit the Procedure – Circumcision (포경)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Education, Gender, Health care, podcasts, seasons by 노강호 on March 24, 2011

a sometimes used image on Korean urology websites

podcast 76

Mention ‘whaling’ (포경) to Korean men and most will cross their legs in pain while boys about to go to middle school (at about 13) , and perhaps some about to go to high school (16), will turn white with fear. ‘Whaling’ is a touchy subject and it is during the lengthy winter vacation that the cull reaches its peak. In Korean, ‘po-kyeong’ is a homonym attributed to the hunting of whales and of the widespread practice of circumcision, (포경 수슬), and in this case, as I will explain later, it is a misnomer. Finding information about or attitudes towards this subject are difficult and very little is available in English. That Korea has the world’s highest rate of secular circumcision is rarely acknowledged and the practice is generally associated with the USA.

it needs to be…you don’t have to…

However, attitudes are changing. I recently spoke to two men (one 27 the other 32), who explained that while they didn’t blame their parents for undergoing circumcision, they are nonetheless angry it had been performed. Both felt the procedure resulted in a reduction in sensation and given boys are well into puberty by the time they have the operation, their claims are perhaps more valid than those from American audiences where it is usually performed neo-natal and where men are not really qualified to make qualitative comparisons. One friend clearly remembers his circumcision and the fear invoked in anticipation even though it is done under local anaesthetic.  I have discovered Korean boys tend to be more squeamish about injections than girls and this is hardly surprising given that you are either anticipating multiple injections in your dick or in a cold sweat recalling the memory. Both men are adamant that it will be their sons who choose whether or not to be circumcised.

once you’re out of elementary school you need a circumcision

The circumcision debate is a great subject for exposing how dumb people really are. There is nothing intrinsically superior about a circumcised dick and the aesthetics attributed to penal status are largely derived from whatever is the most accepted social custom.  Circumcision looks ‘weird’ to many Europeans as much as a foreskin looks ‘weird’ to many Americans. Meanwhile, a Filipino boy might be proud of his new circumcision (pagtutuli), which isn’t really a circumcision at all, while both Americans and Europeans are likely to consider it reminiscent of an accident incurred with a meat grinder. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder but the beholder is significantly influenced by their social and cultural milieu. In the USA where radical circumcision, including the unnecessary and extraneous removal of the frenulum, have several decades’ dominance, cultural values have transformed wonky stitches and chewed up scar tissue into aesthetically pleasing damage which in the least is seen as an enhancement and at the extreme deemed natural.  If a society can eradicate the botched and overzealous circumcisions many American males have been subject to, making them ‘disappear’ with far greater success than any cosmetic surgery or skin cream,  just imagine how it could transform attitudes to acne, obesity and aging.

beauty is culturally informed

Then there is the ridiculous argument that circumcision protects one from HIV and STI’s. Well, maybe there is some medical evidence to support this but I suspect it is spurious or simply invalid. When rates of  circumcision in the USA were almost at a peak, in the 1980’s,  HIV was able to infect a significantly large number of people. Surely the answer lies in safer sexual practices rather than in an amputation which leaves the recipient under the assumption that a circumcision is as good as a condom in terms of safer sex.

Circumcision has a long history of being a cure for something and when not the foreskin has been identified as a cause of immorality and perversion. The ‘benefits’ of circumcision, apart from the obvious, which ironically is currently one of the most contested, namely that it reduces sensitivity, include: reducing a tendency to masturbation (Athol Johnson, Lancet, London,  April 7, 1860),  cures polio and reduces masturbation, (Dr. Lewis Sayre, USA, 1870),  reduces masturbation (J.H. Kellogg,  USA, 1877. Not only did he advocate circumcision, but that it be performed without anesthetic, a trend that continued in the USA  until recently.),  reduces lethal diarrhea (AAP, USA, 1880’s advocating routine neo-natal circumcision), cited as cure for bed-wetting, syphilis and tuberculosis (Dr P.C Remodino, 1893), will reduce syphilis by 49% (Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, London, Lancet. 29th December,1900), will prevent cancer, masturbation and syphilis (A. Wolbarst, USA 1914), will prevent HIV in Africa (Halperpin and Bailey, Lancet, London 1999). Not only has there been a crusade against the foreskin for several hundred years, but its possession has been associated with physical and moral degeneracy. Remodino accused it of being a ‘moral outlaw.’ From the 19th century onwards, and repeatedly, a tight foreskin (phimosis) has been attributed with promoting masturbation (an immorality) and circumcision presented as its cure.  Even as late as 1935, circumcision was being advocated to curb the sins of self abuse.

Nature intends that the adult male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. Thus the adolescent has his attention drawn to his penis much less often. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised. [Cockshut RW. Circumcision (letter). Br Med J. 1935; 19 October: 764.]

And perhaps the greatest exposé of how dumb nations can be is when parents fall for the shite spouted a ‘medical’ profession which benefits financially from the procedure. In the USA, the procedure produces approx $400 million dollars profit a year in addition, foreskins are sold to biotechnology and cosmetic companies.

Despite the obviously irrational cruelty of circumcision, the profit incentive in American medical practice is unlikely to allow science or human rights principles to interrupt the highly lucrative American circumcision industry. It is now time for European medical associations loudly to condemn the North American medical community for participating in and profiting from what is by any standard a senseless and barbaric sexual mutilation of innocent children. [Paul M. Fleiss. Circumcision. Lancet 1995;345:927.]

At a time when neo-natal circumcision has declined drastically in Australia, the USA and Canada, it should be wholly anticipated that in any  country where medical procedures are paid for by the patient or parent, that claims will now be made that mass circumcision will reduce transmission rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections.  The USA is one of the most poxed up countries in the world, and the most poxed up in the developed world and  incredibly high rates of circumcision have done nothing to curb this. Whatever your particular view on the topic, the decision to be circumcised or not should ultimately rest with the consenting individual especially when medical claims are spurious and made in the interests of profit.

and yes, some facecreams really are manufactured from redundant foreskins

Korean circumcision, influenced by the USA’s involvement on the peninsula during the Korean War, is widespread and by the age of conscription most men are circumcised.  However, Korean medical ‘care’ has made a significant leap affixing a pathology to the procedure and the most commonly used term for circumcision, ‘po-kyong’ (포경) isn’t really an operation but the condition a circumcision will cure.  When Korean boys and young men head off for session with the scissors,  it is because  they have been led to believe foreskins are inherently tight and in need of amputation.  Indeed, po-kyong (포경 수슬) is simply phimosis and if you have a foreskin it is naturally phimotic and requires removing – once you’ve paid the fee!  The word for circumcision proper is ‘hal-lye’ (할례) but its usage to describe the procedure is much less common.

So, a few weeks ago I overhear that, ‘Tom is going for his circumcision,’ except what is really said is, ‘Tom is going for his tight ‘foreskin operation.’  And I think, like the majority of boys, he probably hasn’t got a tight foreskin at all. However, the debate about medical ethics vs. profiteering and the pros and cons of the procedure has a long way to go especially in a society where conformity is a perquisite.  With a pathology already affixed to the procedure, and a few more claims waiting in the wings, whaling is a lucrative business and for the foreseeable future the victims are not just parents and boys, but social integrity.

 

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Summer Snippet (an inside view of Korean circumcision)

I Saw a Snood

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