In July 2015, I left Korea after 8 years (10 years total) and returned to Wivenhoe, in Essex, UK. Why? I’m still asking myself! Korean life was so relaxed and familiar but I missed my friends and family back home. I think I would have stayed in Korea permanently if it had been possible for foreigners to buy property or to live in the country without having to exit every 3 months and return with an updated visa.
Hardest of all, was saying goodbye to my gumdo Master, Kwon Yong-guk. I had trained with him everyday for almost four years. When I eventually stepped on to the Seoul-bound trained, in Daegu, we both had tears in our eyes. However, leaving Korea in 2015 was quite different from leaving in 2001; with the internet and the likes of Facebook and Skype, staying in contact is easy and I video chat with him most weeks. In 2001, the primary mode of contact was via e-mails or the likes of Messenger and a Christmas phone call, Seoul to UK, in 2000, cost me £80.
Before I left Korea, I already had an inkling of what I was going to miss, and I very much do. Most of all I miss Koreans. In particular, I miss young people. Korean towns and cities are filled with children and teenagers and street life is enlivened by their routines. Further, Korean culture is coloured by the broad range of amenities provided for them: PC rooms, Kids Cafes, jumping rooms, noraebang (singing rooms) and play areas in restaurants. Even amenities which in the UK would be predominantly for adults are equally frequented by children and young people. Where in the UK, do you see children or teenagers eating together, unsupervised, in anything but the likes of MacDonalds or KFC? And of course, in Korea, children haven’t yet been indoctrinated and corrupted by the idea that their bodies’ are a source of sexual attraction to lusting adults and especially lusted over by those who were formerly trusted, such as relatives, teachers, politicians and the clergy. Britain is now a very scary place for the child and indeed any adult whose interactions with a youngster are misinterpreted. Indeed, so central to the British psyche are concerns of child sexual abuse, to the point of obsession, that it suggests either a very unhealthy national preoccupation, or worse, one that is rooted in the human condition.
Then, I miss Korean men; ever since I experienced life in Germany, I’ve always found a great swath of the British male population to be horribly brute. Indeed, to be fair, male or female, the British character is typified by vulgarity, aggressiveness and violence. This character is predominantly a product of the working-class tradition of which it is currently politically correct to deny the existence or influence of and yet we see the class dichotomy paraded for entertainment in the likes of Downtown Abbey, East Enders and the intrigues of the royal family. Few Brits would deny the existence of a British upper class, but to correspondingly talk of a ‘working class’ has become as socially uncomfortable as flying the Union Jack over your house. I have met Koreans whom I dislike but I’ve yet to meet a Korean man who is brute or vulgar, let alone a brute or vulgar female. It is wonderfully liberating to walk busy streets surrounded by predominantly feminine men or youths rather than having to negotiate the complex variations of the British psyche where one man is a gentleman, the next, some slob with his hands stuffed down the front of his trackies and the next some male looking female who is foul-mouthed and muscled.
I miss being really clean, ‘clean’ in the same way you can be in Korea and I’m not claiming all Koreans have the same standards. Swimming pools, spas or sauna are not a daily part of British life. Unless you live within 20 mins of a bathing complex, most of us don’t enjoy water or cleansing as entertainment. On the contrary, bodily hygiene in Britain tends to be functional procedure especially as many British homes don’t have a bathroom suitable for cleaning your body in a truly comprehensive manner. And Korea is bursting with restaurants, coffee shops, street food and markets. In six months back in the UK, I’ve eaten out twice. It’s simply too expensive to eat out at a decent restaurant twice a day. Of course, I’m living in a large village rather than in a city but even if I go into town, population approx. 122.000, there isn’t a great deal to do and the quality of resources and culture is impoverished. One big problem with Britain is that so many of the things you would do on a daily basis in Korea, and without a second thought, are not just expensive luxuries in the UK, but by comparison, are second-rate. Trains are slow and dirty even when they are high-speed intercity trains but no British trains are truly ‘high speed’ because the ancient infrastructure limits speeds to 125 mph, maximum.
There are some pleasant aspects of being back in the UK though I don’t feel they compensate for living in both an impoverished culture and among so many with brute and vulgar sensibilities. I enjoy damp air, green fields, eccentricity (which in Korea is frowned upon), birds and houses with gardens… and that’s about it. I actually thought I’d be able to be more positive but on reflection that’s all I can muster.
I have no doubt my posts here will commence with ones of a comparative nature before they broaden out into other topics.
The end of September saw the celebration of one of the most important events in the lunar calendar, namely Ch’u-seok. This important celebration sees families gathering to worship their ancestral spirits and celebrate the harvest. The event is marked by a public holiday during which traditional games are played and foods such as song-pyeon (송편) and rice wine eaten.
This Ch’u-seok, I travelled with my komdo teacher, Kwon Yong-guk and his family to a rural town near Ulsan. As well as paying respects to his relatives and ancestors, we planned to do some bamboo cutting (Bamboo Cutting in Ulsan).
Kwon Yong-guk’s father in law, who used to be Chief of the Fire-brigade in Ulsan, has two houses side by side in a small plot surrounded by farm land. The setting was quite beautiful especially as it was autumn and the chillies and persimmon, such iconic sights in Korea, were ripe. We spent half an hour trying to net the super soft type of persimmon, known as hong-shi (홍시), with a long pole and attached net.
After cutting bamboo in the afternoon, we gathered in the courtyard of the house and cooked a barbecue. Kwon Yong-guk has a huge family with about 80 members from both sides. Many of them I was to meet the following day. Darkness fell and in the countryside, unlike Daegu, one is treated to real darkness and a good view of the stars. And when some clouds cleared and the full moon was visible, the children made wishes.
It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed three of the kids wearing sweat shirts on the back of which was printed, ‘Play like a Motherfucka.’
Sleeping wasn’t particularly comfortable as I was on the floor in a shared room and just as I started to get some sleep, at around 4am, Kwon Yong-guk’s alarm went off. Next, we were going fishing.
Not being enamoured with sitting watching the floats for hours on end, I found a small patch of flat ground and did some training. Kwon Yong-guk caught two small fish. He never eats them and throws them back in the water. When he excitedly showed me his first catch I told him I needed to get my glasses but I don’t think he got the joke!
After fishing we travelled back to the edge of Ulsan to have breakfast. Next, was a visit to one of Korea’s most beautiful temples, Tongdosa (통도사). This is Korea’s largest temple and is famous, among other things, for having no statue of the Buddha outside the temple and a temple candle which has burnt for 1300 years.
Next, we travelled to a mountain cemetery where Kwon Yong-guk’s in-laws were gathering. The cemetery spanned the sides of three mountains and was the largest I have ever seen.
©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
On September 22nd, I travelled to Andong with my komdo teacher’s family, some students and ‘LC.’ I last visited Andong in 2000 and it was a brief visit of only a few hours during which there was no time for sightseeing.
First, we visited the longest wooden bridge in Korea which spans the Nakdong River just outside Andong. Incidentally, the Nakdong meanders northwards to pass through Daegu. We walked across the bridge and visited a park where traditional games can be played, (these are always popular on holidays) and then visited a nearby cultural museum. We then ate Andong chicken stew in the city. In the afternoon we headed to Hahoe Village.
Every Korean town and province is famous for something. In Ch’eonan it was the walnut cookies while in Daegu it is the apples, textiles and mak ch’ang. Andong is famous for its spicy chicken stew, mackerel, soju and of course, the mask dance. Back in 2000, I remember several Koreans proudly reminding me that Queen Elizabeth 2nd had watched a mask dance in Andong on her birthday in 1999. Indeed, a small building at the entrance to Hahoe Village houses various artifacts and photos from her visit and in the garden nearby, grows a pine tree she planted. At one time, one of the underpasses in Daegu was painted with a large mural commemorating her visit but I think it has since been painted over.
Masks have a long tradition in Korea and were used both by soldiers in war, in burial rituals and in shamanistic ceremonies. There are several types of mask dance, better described as mask dramas but the Hahoe version is probably the most famous. Typically, there are a number of characters including a monk, a scholar, a simpleton and some nobles (yangban). The Hahoe drama is an exorcist play dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The dance is performed regularly but the actual International Mask Festival is only once a year. I had no idea what the play was actually about but it was amusing and after a short while the masks begin to become quiet realistic.
Close to the dance site is the traditional folk village of Hahoe where you can find a museum dedicated both to Korean masks and masks from around the world. The village is a working one with a small population who are engaged in traditional crafts which you can often watch. As in other folk villages, there are numerous guest houses, known as minbak, which give a taste of a former lifestyle.
Close to the entrance of the village is a ‘graveyard’ of abandoned totems (장승 – jang-seung). I love Korean totems and wrote about them in: Fascinating Physogs. Jan 2012.