Elwood 5566

Homophobic Juncture – Justin Bieber Meets K-Pop

Posted in Comparative, Gender, No Pumpkin Category, Westerners by 노강호 on May 18, 2012

I should feel quite sorry for Justin Bieber, but given that he made more money last year than I’ll have made in a lifetime, I’m not too sympathetic. But I’m not ashamed to admit, that having been forced to watch his movie on a flight from Dubai to Seoul, I actually think he’s got some talent.

Bieber’s name alone is enough to expose homophobia

With all the ‘hate crime’ initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and the varied policies to tackle homophobia in schools and society at large, some consider homophobic taunting something of the past but unfortunately, it’s alive and kicking.

While millions of youngsters are bitten by Bieber fever, an equally as large a contingent consider him everything from effeminate to lesbian. What is most alarming is not just that the Bieber-hater vitriol is predominantly homophobic, but that it is masked and tolerated as jealously or simply a dislike for a particular kind of music. Somehow, it seems acceptable to slag-off Bieber’s masculinity, minimalise the size of his penis or even claim he doesn’t have one, and then call him ‘gay.’ Homophobes are expert at labeling someone ‘gay’ and then, when accused of being homophobic, hide behind the ‘ambiguity’ of the ‘gay’ slur claiming that it has nothing to do with sexuality and simply means ‘bad’ or ‘uncool.’ If Justin Bieber was a normal school kid being taunted there would be no mistaking the nature of the abuse to which he is subject and schools, colleges and workplaces would have an array of policies to deal with what is at the least bullying and at the extreme, a homophobic hate crime.

Currently, in the UK, if you are assaulted for no apparent reason, you can expect the police to respond to your phone-call within several weeks. However, if you claim the assault was ‘hate crime’ orientated, you can expect a visit within minutes. A young student who arrived at my house with friends suffering a broken rib and broken tooth waited two weeks for the police to visit and take details. The same week, they responded within fifteen minutes of my reporting being called a ‘fag’ by two workmen as I entered an LGBT office on business.

What is interesting about the vitriol of Bieber-haters is that they are most likely to slander K-Pop with exactly the same kind of language; Bieber and K-pop, more specifically boy band K-pop, are, lame, effeminate, ‘gay’ and poncy. Indeed, K-pop is often a greater target for homophobic ridicule because Westerners construe male to male ‘skinship’ as signifier of ‘homosexuality.’ For many of us dumb-ass Westerners, males have to be beating the fuck out of each other, pissed senseless or hyper aggressive in order to way-lay any accusation of being anything but 100% heterosexual. So great is the pressure on males to maintain a hyper-hetero appearance that it is both a major part of their identity and a full time pursuit.  Conversely, there is no mistaking that if Bieber were a Korean, he’d most certainly fit the category ‘pretty boy’ or ‘flower boy’ – neither of which would be any kind slur on his masculinity.

 

skinship in Korea is frequently construed as ‘gay’ by Western audiences

Now, I have to admit, I too have made jokes about K-pop in classes. I quite often pretend to hear, ‘K-pop’ as ‘gay-pop’ and my students think it’s quite funny when I do so. However, my defense is that I absolutely prefer the Korean version of ‘masculinity’ to macho-western masculinity and infinitely prefer it to the hideous kind of rap typified by Beenie Man and Elephantman which is both homophobic and misogynistic. Some versions of rap, most notably ‘gansta,’  have to be among the most revolting forms of cultural expression and are a sad indictment not just on the culture spawning such hatred, but also on the hordes of people who laud such trash and help give it credibility.

When I do make a joke about K-pop, notably that is is ‘gay-pop,’ it is to open a dialogue about such cultural differences and to draw my students attention to the more repugnant and unpleasant aspects of Western society, the pox, violence, teenage pregnancy, anti-intellectualism and general moral and social degeneracy, and of course, the particular kind of unpleasant masculinity,  all of which get lost in the allure of Hollywood, celebrity fetishism and the general uncritical obsession many Koreans have with the USA and Western culture in general.

the West Koreans don’t see

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

Further References

Bored by Cowell Pop? Try K-Pop (Guardian UK, 15th Dec, 2011)

Club Korea

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, Comparative, Westerners by 노강호 on February 28, 2012

I have a love hate relationship with Korean discrimination! Hating discrimination is obvious, but ‘loving’ it! Why? I hear you ask; because we’ve done such a good job fucking our own societies that the more opposition to the west, in any form, the better. I know, it’s puerile, Even though I’m a ‘wayguk,’ I can tolerate being an outsider if it is a barrier to the acceptance of some of the western values which are currently rotting places like the US and the UK.

Personally, I place quality of life above all else and as a foreigner in Korea, I have a far better quality of life than I would back home. Now, I don’t mean solely in economic terms, though even with significantly higher pay in the UK, I was never able to save half my earnings as I can in Korea, but in terms of things like access to health care, gyms, things to do after work, eating out, etc, etc. With many of the transactions I make in the UK, often ones accompanied with running and maintaining a house or traveling, there is an accompanying sense of having been suckered. The same sensation is evoked whenever I travel to countries where you have no idea of the relative values of things, perhaps because you are supposed to barter but in the process you know that the item you are buying is extortionately overpriced but there is nothing you can do about it because the next guy will rip you off just as badly – if not worse. I suppose  the feeling is akin to being divested of your dignity, a bit like you might feel if your house were burgled and it’s especially intense when you know the other guy thinks you’re a total fool for paying whatever you did. Transactions of whatever kind are always more tolerable, even rewarding, if you feel the deal was mutually beneficial and fair but unfortunately, in the UK, you’re usually exploited and there’s nothing you can do about it!

My sister recently wanted her son to see a dermatologist and was faced with a six week wait. Can you imagine waiting six weeks to see a doctor in Korea? I caught ‘red eye’ last year and went straight from seeing my own doctor to an ophthalmologist in the space of half an hour and both practices were less than 3 minutes from my front door and probably one minutes walk from where I work. Then there was the cost; both visits totaled less than £5 (10.000W). Meanwhile, to secure quicker treatment for her son, my sister had to pay £170 (340.000W). I gather in the US this would be significantly higher.

Then there’s my gym. I pay £50 (100.000W) a month for access to bathhouse, gym and jjimjilbang. I know there are cheaper places but it is my favourite bathhouse and is impeccably clean. Back home, even exclusive gyms pale into mediocrity compared to those on offer in Korea while all others are basic, usually just a gym and claustrophobic changing room. And of course, you couldn’t have a bathhouse in the UK without it being usurped for sexual purposes because in the west nudity and sex are conflated. Then there are the restaurants, singing rooms, jjimjilbang, pc rooms, twenty-four hour services, coffee shops and taxis to take you wherever you want at prices a fraction of the cost they are in the west.

However, these aren’t the main reasons I find Korean culture preferable to that of my home country. Unfortunately, it’s the British aggression, violence and apathy of British students that exiles me to foreign shores. I have much experience with aggression and violence and due to my military background and training in taekwon-do, I worked in several different places as a bouncer while I was a student. One such place was in a MacDonalds in a fairly mediocre town. I doubt there is one MacDonalds on the entire Korean peninsula that requires a bouncer – except perhaps when they are in the vicinity of US military bases.

Now, to give you some idea of the kind culture I experience in the UK, in a fairly average British town, let me share a piece I wrote around 8 years ago. The extract is taken from my blog, Scumland UK.

Outside the local newsagent, which is only a few minutes’ walk from my front door, I am treated to the headlines of the newspapers, all utterly depressing. Of course, I know I shouldn’t read them but I can’t help it. I’m the inquisitive type of person, the type who if I think I’ve stepped in dog shit will poke it with my finger and then sniff. Newspaper headlines have the same magnetic allure and very often cause the same repugnant reaction. ‘Boy knifed in a school playground,’ reads the headline in the national press. This story has some local significance as only a few weeks earlier a teacher colleague told me about a 12-year-old girl who had been arrested on the school premises for producing a carving knife with which she intended to kill her ex-boyfriend. The police were called to the school and took her away in handcuffs. Come to think of it, that was only a few weeks after a local teacher was beaten senseless by a gang of nine boys after he tried to break up a fight. Another school has recently installed a metal detector at its points of entrance in order to detect those arriving for lessons carrying knives. Meanwhile, the local newspaper contains a massive headline about increased disorder and yobs terrorising the drivers of local bus companies.

I’ve been standing at the bus stop for over half an hour despite the fact that buses are supposed to service this stop every twenty minutes. As I am wondering whether yob behaviour on buses is the result of them arriving late, a girl of about 13 passes on a bicycle, all her stomach is exposed and as she passes I notice that her buttock crack is totally visible. Am I supposed to find that alluring? I’m not talking about just a centimetre or two of crack but almost half her backside. I wonder if her parents allow her to expose so much of her body in public and I conclude that her Daddy and his mates probably find it very erotic. However, I’m not too shocked as recently I saw a girl at the same bus, stop and of a similar age, wearing a black T-shirt on which was emblazoned, in lovely gold letters, ‘Fuck Me.’ I can’t remember if the words were mitigated by the addition of an exclamation mark, on a young girl it doesn’t really matter.

Once on the bus the assault continues; a young mother is sat with a baby in a pram. I can’t help but begin assessing her character and remind myself not to assume too much on the basis of stereotypes. While you don’t solely judge a book by its cover, you can certainly use it to make a formative assessment. I know for example, that if I pick up a book and Jane Goody or that Jordan person whose surname I don’t know, is on the front cover, I can assume its going to be superficial crap with smatterings of smut.  The young mother has enormous hooped earrings and a cheap, blue tattoo has been branded onto her hand by a tattooist who was clearly pissed. The tattoo intrigues me as I cannot discern whether it is a rose or a red cabbage. The difference is important in my assessment of her; a representation of cabbage would constitute some kind of statement, be it artistic or intellectual and I would be tempted to ask her what the cabbage symbolized. A rose however, would simply constitute a brand and might easily be substituted by a number.

Now I’m on the bus my mood has improved and I tell myself not to be such a negative, nasty person and at just that moment, just as I am about to reconcile myself with society, she goes and spoils it all; her mobile phone rings, not a discreet ring but some cacophonous jangle that stuns everyone within earshot. Next she begins shouting into the phone in that horrid Estuary English twang which political correctness demands we respect. ‘What the fark do you wan now? I already told ya, I’m on the farkin bus! What d’ya fink I’m farkin doin? I’m dropin’ the baby at me mum’s and I’ll met ya in town. Like I farkin said already.” Her baby stairs at me, its big eyes full of wonder. I want to smile at it but its grotesque mother will probably get aggressive and assume I’m some pervert. Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born to such hideous parents and yet no rhetoric or public debate seems to exist which calls into question their parents’ ability to rear children. Having a mother like this freak is child abuse but questioning parenting is a social taboo.

It’s a hot afternoon, probably the hottest day of the year and as I get off the bus I’m thrust into the middle of a small crowd of teenage lads, all aged 16 upwards, stripped to the waist and drinking from cans of beer. You can see the aggression and sense it in an aura which engulfs them like a plague. Aggression snarls their baby faces; it pervades the gait of their walk, a sort of strut which involves little steps; like they have pokers or shards of peanut debris up their arses. Their tight arsed strut is accompanied by an exaggerated shoulder swagger and arms swing at a forty-five degree angle to their bodies. Their beer cans, their gait, their little gang, their aggressive faces warn all on-comers not just to step aside, but to ‘fuckin’ get out-of-the-way!’

Friday afternoon is never a good afternoon to travel into town as even in the late afternoon the assault to your sense and sensibilities can be particularly fierce. The experience is intensified if it’s a school holiday. In front of me a boy lurches from side to side, clearly drunk. As with most of the other trash I’ve encountered in the space of 45 minutes, traveling from my house in a small village, into the town center, he’s a teenager. For the benefit of some approaching girls he opens the front of his jeans, sticks his hand down the front of his black boxers and contorting his face in a lustful manner, asks: D’ya wanna suck me fuckin’ knob, gals?’ The girls giggle, clearly honoured by the attention of this slob. I try to ignore him but he steps into my path, flies still open, hand still in boxers. ‘Hey mate, give us a pound!’ It’s more of an order than a request. I’m tempted to ask if he is touting for business given that his hand is still rooting in his boxers and his jeans are fully open at the front, but somehow I don’t think he would comprehend my humour. I ignore him. ‘Fuckin wanker,’ he calls after me.

Eventually, I arrive at my destination but worse is yet to come; I have to escape from this hell hole on the ten o’clock bus and the High Street, like so many other British towns, is no place to be at that time of night on a Friday evening, or indeed any evening! I only have to walk about a third of a mile to my bus stop but it is like walking through a zoo where the animals have been freed from their cages. The streets are crawling with loud, brash, aggressive, drunken youngsters. A lad is vomiting in a doorway; he sees me looking and gargles inarticulately, something with the word ‘fucking’ in his sentence. In the recess to the opening of one of the town’s most prestigious department stores, a girl is squatting; her stupefied eyes struggle to focus on my passing blur. Supported by the store doors against which she has collapsed, piss streams out from between her legs onto the marble floor which only a year ago the Queen herself walked on. However, she manages to retain some dignity by not pulling down her jeans and underwear. In another alleyway’, one that formed part of the original grid system when the Romans occupied the town some 2000 years ago, I notice a young teenage girl laying face down on the floor, her hand clutches a cheap handbag. She is scantily dressed with the obligatory exposed stomach and cheap, tight t-shirt that hugs her pubescent contours. Her friend, or should I say ‘mate,’ shouts at some passing men: ‘Don’t just fuckin’ look! Help her!’ The girl on the floor lifts her head and with a strangulated moan gargles vomit onto the payment. Like a marionette with severed strings, her head collapses back towards the dirty pavement, her hair and gargantuan hooped earrings cascade over her alcoholic sick. The passing men ignore her and walk by. This is someone’s daughter lying comatose on a grotty pavement, someone’s child and I wonder what sort of upbringing, what kind of society has led her to have so little self-respect than she is now lying drunk and dangerously vulnerable. If I was her parent I would be very concerned but then if I was her parent she wouldn’t be in this situation.

Outside the main night club a line of teen punters, mostly male, are being searched by burly bouncers before being allowed entry. Again there is that aura of aggression, the same nasty, scowling faces that warn you violence is about to erupt at any moment. You know you can’t make eye contact with them as to do so would invite hostility. They shout vulgar comments at passing females, adopt macho postures and grunt at each other and every other word is ‘fuck,’ ‘fucking’ or ‘fucked.’

Most of my friends back home hate the tone of Scumland UK and I can understand why; when you have terminal cancer you don’t like to be reminded, if you’re living in shitty conditions or your house stinks, you’d prefer not to have the fact rubbed in your face. And of course, people have different perceptions. Many British people have been completely desensitized to the nature of the society around them while others have never lived abroad and only experienced other countries as holiday destinations. Others, often the middle classes with managerial jobs and houses in the leafy suburbs, especially ones who earn a living out of the degeneration and decay around them, simply deny there is a problem.

Meanwhile, back in Korea, I lead a life in which I have never faced a threat on the streets or been insulted or assaulted as a teacher – all of which I’ve experienced in the UK. Hence, I’m in favour of any barrier to the spawning of western values in Korea which might change this. I’m what you might call a ‘wayguk’ separatist and in a sense would be quite happy if Korea expelled all foreigners and closed its borders. Yes, Korea has a multitude of problems and things that need improving but where in the world are young people so mild-mannered, innocent, the streets so safe, and pregnancy, drug and pox not a scourge on the young; where in the world is it possible to do a multitude of things on an evening at a price that doesn’t rob you of your dignity or put you in danger of getting your face kicked in!

On the peninsula,  you can speak fluent Korean and marry into clan-Korea but you’re never really Korean. You’re always on the edge. So many aspects of Korean culture conspire to highlight the fact you are a ‘wayguk.’ Even the language conspires to expose your barbarian genes. I forget the amount of times I’ve been talking to a Korean and wanted to mention, ‘my mother,’ ‘my sister ‘or ‘my university’ and stopped short because for Koreans such words are ‘prefixed’ with ‘our,’ indeed it would be improper to say ‘my mother.’ And in that instance in which I fumble for the correct pronoun, I am reminded of my foreignness. My mother is from a country thousands of miles away and clearly not part of clan-Korea, not part of the all-embracing ‘our’ sentiment and mentioning her or indeed a member of my family exposes my alien status.

Every time I go into a restaurant or shop with a Korean friend, and even if I do the talking, staff will confirm my ‘request’ with them, instantly marginalizing me.  They don’t mean to be rude, they’re just being helpful but it’s the irritating assumption that any wayguk trying to speak Korean has probably got it wrong and maybe wanted hot chocolate rather than coffee!   And how many times have you walked past people handing out leaflets on the street and they ignore you? Even this weekend I was walking into E-Mart and woman handing out leaflets simply let me walk past. Sometimes they turn their back or look away but she just looked and was probably thinking, ‘wayguk,’ he can’t read Korean, pointless wasting one on him.’ Imagine doing that in London! Apart from the fact that so many Londoners are clearly not… and there I run into a problem…clearly not what? Native? White? British? you wouldn’t dream of thinking,  ‘foreigner, they can’t read English.’ In Britain, it’s sort of taboo to identify anyone as a ‘foreigner,’ unless they’re clearly on vacation, and that’s one reason, even though they have contributed greatly to British culture, that the UK is in a mess and British culture currently seen as offensive, imperialist and something to apologize about. The UK has promoted every other culture, religion and ethnicity but its own and British culture is currently a dirty word which can be slagged off with impunity.

There are times when Koreans can be quite callous in their treatment of dedicated, professional foreign workers. Last weekend, one of my friends left his high school after five years service. Of course, it was never really ‘his’ high school and certainly not ‘ours.’ Many, though not all, foreign workers in Korea, are treated much like a rice cooker. The rice cooker has no ownership, semantic or otherwise over the school. The rice cooker belongs to the school and is a tool of the school and when it breaks or has a problem – you chuck it out. In five years he’d taken 6 days six leave, four after suffering a heart attack. Of course, this was partly because they would have chucked him out should he have been absent longer. Even when a parent knocked him down in their car, while on a mobile phone and on school premises, he only took two days off. As an aside, he received no financial compensation for the accident and the school did all in its power to make sure the parent wasn’t made to fork any more than hospital and doctors bills. You can trust good old ‘club-Korea’ to kick-in when threatened or protecting their own and it operates much like an enormous ‘old boy’ network.

In the same school, a Korean teacher with one years service, moved schools and in his last week was taken out for dinner and given the usually wadge of money in an envelope. In reality, he was only moving into the adjacent girls’ high school but as a member of ‘club-Korea’  he deserved the highest accolade. Meanwhile, my friend departed for the airport without even a handshake or a word of thanks from the principal! And even the school’s foreign, non-esl teachers with Ivy League / Red Brick qualifications, high salaries (in the region of 4 million won per month) and with apartments rather than one-rooms to house their families, all of which are flown to Korea by the school, receive the same rice cooker treatment. Yes, not all schools are like this but don’t get too complacent because you are rarely part of the school or the business – you will not rise through the ranks of management though, as is the case in some franchise hakgwons, they might pay you a little extra and give you some authority over other waygukin, never other Koreans, so that you can at least feel part of the program.  For most foreigners working in Korea, your status as a metic exiles you to loiter on the periphery.

Then there are the drug tests, medical tests and police checks – only for foreign E2 visa holders. But can you blame Koreans for this?  We don’t trust fully trained and qualified teachers, doctors, nurses in our own countries and even after intense screening, they remain suspect, so why should we expect Korea to open the crèche doors for those whose only qualifications are BA’s or MA’s?

Such treatment is appalling but I find it bearable because it helps keep foreign values at bay or at least slows the process of their possible assimilation. I can imagine some of the policies ‘wet’ western teachers would employ could they gain influential positions within Korean schools – especially ones with no practical experience of the problems faced by teachers in their own county. In two separate nationwide polls, around fifty percent of British teachers and parents were in favour of reinstating corporal punishment. Let westerners into the policy implementation process and it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be banning corporal punishment, banning any form of physical contact between student and teacher, empowering kids with all sorts of rights, teaching kids that every adult is a potential pervert and then allowing them to interview prospective teachers. Then, when the rot had set in, compelling teachers to take courses in class control, behaviour and riot management and then dumbing down the curriculum to make it entertaining for the kids who have little or no interest in study. The one thing I dislike about many westerners, is the overriding assumption, even in the face of extensive research on the tide of apathy, pox, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy infecting their own countries, that their culture is somehow superior, that it knows best and is something to which Korea should aim. Indeed, many westerners assume that the westernization of Korea is both inevitable and desirable.

Don’t get me wrong however, because I’d hate to be Korean. Korean society is too restrictive, pre-determined, too work orientated and too homogenous. It’s a bizarre irony because the liberalism of the west that’s made me who I am and given me a strong sense of individual identity, is the same liberalism I don’t want to see polluting Korea. That’s a totally selfish stand point! I agree! As much as I love Korea, it’s as a foreigner who at one and same time is both an exotic source of fascination and an outsider.  And you can’t have it both ways; you can’t be ‘Korean’ without being enslaved to work or study and all those western idiosyncrasies which Koreans love about our personalities, and which would be deemed flaws in Korean society, would have to be drastically subdued.

But the process goes both ways! As much as Koreans blatantly use us either as metics, as foreign workers with limited rights, or as a tool to learn English, there are times when your foreign physog is an advantage and gains you concessions and privileges. I can nearly always walk into my local E-Mart without being asked to put my bag in a locker at the entrance. The poor English skills of staff always encourage them to look the other way when I stroll past. And over a year a foreigner probably gets more ‘service’ from shops and restaurants than the average Korean. My doctor once examined my stomach as I was stood waiting to cross the road, another time he gave me a tour of his surgery and I once had breakfast with his mother – do Koreans get such privileged treatment? Try sitting on first class of KTX with an economy seat ticket and there’s a very good chance the stewards will allow you to remain in the seat without asking you to move or insisting you pay more. And of course, whenever you want to avoid some question, some request, whatever, you can simply play dumb and say you don’t understand!

Yep! Living in a country which is both fascinated with your exoticness and does its utmost to remind you of your foreignness, chucks you a mixed bag. Personally, I feel life is much better stuck somewhere in the middle of this muddle, perhaps even out on the edge, than being given equality and running the risk the same problems will emerge that I have managed to escape by leaving my home country.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Further Information

Scumland UK

Ancient Korea – 2000 AD

Posted in Daegu, Westerners by 노강호 on September 11, 2011

My relationship with Korea began 11 years ago this September when I arrived for my first one year English teaching contract. I subsequently returned in 2003, 2005 and have remained here since 2007. In the UK a stretch of ten years doesn’t seem that noticeable. I recently returned to the town where I spent my childhood and even after ten years absence the changes weren’t that remarkable. In Korea however, changes are so rapid and widespread that the point at which the past becomes another country can be measured in a couple of years, not generations.

The Korea of 2000 was indeed another country and my memories, like old photos found in an antic, are faded and yellow. Apart from one year, when I lived in Ch’eon-an, I have lived in the same block on and off over 11 years. I spent my first year teaching in what was the largest and most successful haggwon in Song-so, Daegu and must have taught several hundred students and yet I’ve only met one former student  since the end of 2001.  Not only have buildings and businesses changed and disappeared, but so too have the people. In the entire area with which I am intimately acquainted there are only a handful of business that were trading in 2000 and high rise commercial blocks now stand in plots that were once deserted and home to nomadic soju tents.

in the foreground are the three one rooms I have occupied between 2000 and today

When I arrived in 2000, I flew into Kimpo International Airport. It was old, small and dingy and you could walk from one end of the main building to the other in less than two minutes. At the time, Korean Air flew from Britain’s Stansted Airport which outside London surmised Korea’s global insignificance. Today, Air Korea operates out of both Gatwick and Heathrow and a host of other airlines run daily services to the peninsula most of which fly into the amazing, and massive, Inch’eon International.  In 2000, with the KTX, high speed rail network still several years from completion, there were two flights an hour from Kimpo to Daegu or you could opt for the lengthier rail or bus journeys.

Kimpo International Airport around 1994 (courtesy of, Rants in your Pants)

Being stared at was an intense and continuous experience, especially outside Seoul or away from US military bases. EPIK had yet to provide most schools with foreign English teachers and many students had never met a foreigner. I remember one boy, Duk-hyeon, who was so terrified of me that he would sit out my lessons in the main office. Whenever Korean teachers tried to integrate him into my class he would start shaking and then breakdown in a flood of tears. Despite months of friendly smiles, funny faces or kind acts, he could not be pacified. On the streets, fellow foreigners were few and unlike today, where many shroud themselves with a sense of being the only foreigner in Korea and subsequently blank you, most were only too eager to talk. In my area of Song-so there were a handful of foreigners and we all knew each other. Life in Korea was so alien, so different and was so much further from home than it is today, that most westerners had a need to talk to each other. Today, fellow foreigners seem to regard each other as a threat and blatantly shun each other perhaps because other foreigners are a reminder how un-unique and tame your experience really is.

Inch’eon International – voted 5 consecutive times the world’s leading airport

The navigation of daily life, and especially traveling, was both challenging and exciting because so little was written in English. I remember a trip to Pohang in December 2000, where the bus terminal only provided information in Korean and hanja and the tickets for trains and buses weren’t bilingual. Ordering food was just as challenging and other than large western style fast food restaurants which provided accompanying photos or English translations,  everything was in Korean. Ordering food was usually a culinary mystery tour.

Pohang. Christmas Eve 2000

Fermenting foods, such as kimchi and makkeoli required a small hole in the packet or bottle to release the build-up of gas. On my first trip back to the UK, I put a small packet of kimchi that had been served with the in-flight meal, into my top pocket. When I woke an hour later, to a strong and unpleasant smell, I discovered it had leaked down the front of  my shirt. Today, the fermentation process is curtailed and packaging subsequently sealed.

‘Video Bangs’ were prolific and probably as common today as are mobile telephone stores. In the absence of digital photography, there were numerous photo stores which very often had a large photograph of a naked baby boy in their window. On this topic, there was also  a shop in downtown Daegu which amongst other things, had plaster casts of little lads dicks. I vaguely remember seeing one or two houses with chillies hanging from the front door, which was the traditional way to advertise the birth of a boy and imagine the prestige of having a son could be immortalized by making a cast of his dick, spraying it gold or silver, and mounting it in a small frame.  How widespread this custom was I don’t know but I know several students and Korean men who have a photograph of themselves as a toddler, on the wall of their living room or hallway in which they are naked.

On the streets, at pedestrian crossings, the red man ruled with absolute sovereignty and on deserted roads pedestrians patiently waited until the green man, who was often turquoise, appeared. Today, I am often the only person left standing and even elderly citizens will jay walk. And teenagers holding hands with the opposite sex and being affectionate was an absolute social taboo.

In the classroom, western obscenities and terms such as ‘gay,’ ‘homo’ or ‘fuck’ were either unheard off or simply never uttered. I have yet to hear the four letter ‘c’ word but like fat Koreans and other social problems, its arrival is inevitable And ten or eleven years ago,  Harisu (하리수), Korea’s first trans-gendered celebrity, was a popular enough to have ‘pin-up statue among teenage boys.

between 2000 and 2003, Harisu was popular with many teenage boys

In the days before Tesco’s Home Plus, even the largest supermarkets lacked anything but a few solitary bottles of wine and western beer. The only cheese one could buy was plastic play cheese or the likes of ’Einstein’ cheese slices which were believed to increase the cognitive abilities of children. Decent butter was unobtainable and coffee beans were not just expensive but difficult to buy. Around 2001, the Song-so, E-Mart, had a working coffee ‘peculator’ on display which used to attract a small crowd of intrigued customers.

English teaching contracts did not include air-conditioning as part of the package and split shifts were a regular teaching condition.  However, I used to make up to a weeks haggwon salary in a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon teaching small groups of students in my free time. Everyone wanted to learn English and as the haggwon industry hadn’t exploded, there were plenty of students and parents looking for English teachers. I’ve been offered jobs in KFC, MacDonalds, in the bathhouse and on street corners but in the last four years I’ve not once been offered a paid teaching  job by a stranger.

But the greatest difference between the sepia tinted Korea of 2000 and today, was the absence on the internet, certainly in English, of anything pertaining to Korean culture or life. Google Earth, Youtube, Wikipedia, WordPress and Blogger etc, were either in their infancy or hadn’t been released. There were no online language resources and indeed to write in Hangeul on a computer in the UK, even until around 2004, demanded the purchase of Microsoft Proofing Tools. Until fairly recently, if you wanted any information on Korean food, making kimchi, the Korean language, Hanja, taekwondo, etc, you had to buy books and even then there were topics that weren’t translated into English. The Korea of 2000, even 2005, had to be physically explored but today there is little about Korea that is secret or shrouded. A million blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and a myriad of sites provide the most comprehensive coverage of Korean life.  The internet has very much tamed and demystified Korea making it accessible and user friendly. Today, you can explore every facet of Korean culture without even leaving your home country.

from the days when you needed a package to write in Korean and Hanja

How I wish I’d arrived in the 1990’s or 1980’s. Our Korean experiences, serialized in the posts of our blogs and video-casts are increasingly trivial, familiar and often mundane but to have experienced the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ before it met EPIK, before it was so rudely exposed by the internet, before it was ‘made simple’ and subsequently accessible to an army of people who would have otherwise stayed away… now that’s the stuff of travel books, autobiographies and the content for real adventures.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Looking Waeg With Mobile

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Westerners by 노강호 on June 27, 2011

who needs one?

Podcast 85

If there’s one technological item which has the potential to do the foreigner a disservice in Korea, it’s the mobile telephone. I’ll admit I’m a technological moron and am quite proud I’ve never bothered to learn to drive a car, and have no interest in doing so, most especially in Korea, and I have neither used an ATM machine in the West or posses or want to posses a mobile phone.

Recently, I’ve been observing how Koreans use mobiles. Everyone has one, at least one, even the youngest students. Everywhere you look they are being held like little pets and are constantly accessed. As I observe, I’m wondering, what they hell are they looking at? What is everybody doing that I’m not? At crossings, when people have to stand still for a minute, there is a sudden splurge of activity and out they pop. Mobiles are total mediocrity; they take mediocre photos, make mediocre videos, have mediocre sound production and anything which entails interfacing with that piddly little screen is definitely mediocre. Even one of their saving graces, a dictionary, is mediocre as it designed for Koreans learning English and not vice-versa. Apart from the  telephone facility, most of the functions built into a mobile are second-rate.

mobile mania starts at a young age

 I detest they way most Korean streets are infested with mobile mania stores in much the same way beautiful English villages have been invaded with estate agents. Every time a business shuts down, usually something useful and interesting, like a bakery, café, or restaurant, someplace where I might possibly go a few times a week or simply peer in the window, it is replaced by a mobile store which I am personally never likely to enter. Even if I owned one, I doubt I’d need to access it more than a couple of times a year. But that’s not all, I’m also irritated by the way they clutter up the streets, not just with young lads tempting customers into the store but with even more shit music blaring out and with the various forms of bait stashed against the store fronts which is used to lure and entice customers. It seems that on every corner of Song-so, in the area around the Lotte Cinema Complex, not just one store has opened but several. On one corner there are three and walking past them is like running a gauntlet; first, the hideous cacophony caused by the clash of three competing hip-hop ditties and then the onslaught of lads passing out leaflets or pointing at bait. I’m lucky, they usually ignore me because I’m male and foreign but if you are a lithe little female college student, I suspect being accosted is a regular encounter.

one company but two seperate shops

and just around the corner...

and next to the one just around the corner...

and next to that one...

and on the next corner, you can get your ' free' toilet rolls

Most of the mobile stores in my immediate area, and there must be fifteen of them, lure custom with offers which in one store are bicycles. Further down the road, another offers large packs of toilet paper which are stacked on the sidewalk. I can understand the bicycle appeal especially as some of the bikes are actually quite attractive, though probably made in China, but do punters really get lured into signing a mobile contract because they get twenty rolls of toilet-paper? I shouldn’t be condescending or judgmental because of course, Koreans use shit paper as napkins, kitchen roll, tissue and whatever. A bumper pack  lasts me a year and in Korea it’s a very versatile commodity.

...and a free bicycle

The most fascinating group who use mobile technology, however, are the waegs. I’m often bemused by westerners in Korea as they wander around with what is predominantly a piece of techno-trinketery. Most waegs can’t string together a few words in Korean, myself included, and even then it probably hasn’t been understood. This isn’t a criticism as there are a number of reason which make the learning of Korean a slow and labourious process but though we like to think we can ‘speak’ Korean, and often suggest we have an ability to ‘get by’, the reality is very much that once we have said ‘hello,’ or ‘more kimchi, please,’ that which follows is baffling and might as well be Venusian. Clearly, waeg possession of a mobile isn’t intended for communicating in Korean which leads me to conclude that its function is as a fancy address book where you compile, through numerous social media or the Boring Boroyeong (Mud Festival), the greatest waeg festival on the peninsula,  a network of waeg chums. Even in my area of Daegu there aren’t many foreigners and of those many do not want to communicate, are here for the job rather than through an interest in Korean culture, or are simply weird.  This is probably how I appear to many waegs as my views on life and cynical disposition towards western society, make compatibility elusive. Even back home I find it difficult ‘connecting’ and my circle of friends is small. However, every so often I met a waeg with whom there is a mutual connection and a friendship will develop. The number of foreigners I am likely to form a relationship with, and I should add, I’m not one of those waegs who passes-by and pretends not to notice you, is small and doesn’t warrant buying an address book let alone an expensive mobile. I came to Korea to experience its culture and escape the depression of Scumland UK and too many waeg chums not only takes me away from the Korean experience, but takes me too close to an expat community and many of  the things I dislike about the West.

marketing through mediocrity

Naturally, I’m being cynical and modern mobiles have a range of  facilities which are very useful but which we learn to need. But I can’t help but see that the more advanced the tools of communication become, the less we actually communicate. I did once use a mobile for a short period but after having to respond to frequent inane questions from friends, I chucked it out. I can remember my one and only week with a mobile phone;  7.30 in the morning on the bus to work, and a colleague is texting me: ‘wot u d-ing?’ It’s busy, I’m having to stand and I’m surrounded by teenage schools kids who are actually texting each other.  What a waste of freaking technology! Texting a message which is beamed up to a satellite and instantly beamed back to Earth and all that separates the correspondents is me!  Suddenly, I’m a member of the moron club! I try keying a response to my dumb-ass colleague but my fingers are too fat for the keys so I keep hitting two at a time and it doesn’t help that the bus is jiggling about. I don’t even get to send a reply before another message appears on the screen; ‘is any 1 sxy sat near u?’ This is a deep and meaningful communique! I can’t be bothered replying and chuck the phone in my bag and simply ignore it. A few moments later, a mobile starts ringing. It emanates from nearby but I don’t know from where. The horrid jangle is lost in the noise of the bus and busy morning traffic. The ring continues and people are beginning to mutter. “Answer the bloody thing!”  Someone suggests, loudly. Then I realise the ringing is coming from my bag! It’s my phone! I ignore it but it persists and so I am forced to leave the bus two stops early and avoid looking back over my shoulder as I alight. I can feel eyes burning into my back as the annoying ring diminuendos with my departure.

dingly-danglies

Texting, the art of communicating without really communicating, has to be one of the dumbest forms of human interchange to have evolved and has probably done more to retard those attributes that separate us from other primates, notably the manipulation of symbols, than develop them. I’m convinced that for many, texting is both a means of keeping people at bay rather than risking any real, meaningful dialogue, and giving the impression you have something to say when actually, you don’t. With a mobile phone hooked up to your various social network sites, you can very quickly have a few hundred ‘friends’ and be spared actually having to get to know them. By pumping out a continual splurge of text we not only give the impression we are important and have something to say but in the meantime, we keep others at a distance. And, of course, mobiles have a use in enhancing your image by providing a  range of accessories, similar to those for toys such as Barbie Doll or My Little Pony, by which you can personalize your mobile, not just with fab jangles and cute stickers but by an infinite range of little dingly danglies.

jazz it up with a dingly-dangly

For the week I trialled a mobile phone, I was pestered by the texting assault by the aforementioned colleague and suggested he phone me to talk rather than insist on using that silly digital semaphore. The problem however, was when he did phone he had nothing to say and what communication we had was filled with embarrassing black-holes. Digit-speak was far less painful than attempts to actually talk to each other.  I suspect a great swathe of text communication has been rendered by individuals ‘letting their fingers do the talking’ and certainly many of the examples I’ve seen and experienced are the product of something brainless. Perhaps their really is some closer relationship between the mobile and toilet tissue.

kids displaying their danglies

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Pray it’s a Foreigner Serving Your High Tea

chocolate fingers – as British as high tea

(Originally published March 15th 2011) Here’s something to ponder. You’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someone’s butt. They might be clothed, they might not. The only choice you have in the matter is what nationality they will be.

Podcast 75

When I used to train and teach taekwondo in the UK, sweaty sessions often produced brown watery stains on the butts of students’ white suits. I used to refer to it as ‘bum lick’ and basically, after rubbing shit around your arse  smearing it clean, residue remains which when mingled with sweat produces shitty water which then stains your pants. Despite the hideously hot summers in Korea, I have never seen ‘bum lick’ on kids taekwondo pants probably because their diet is substantially different. The moment you convert to loading up on pizza, big mac, bread and pastries plus a churn load of milk, cheese, butter and cream and it takes five minutes and half a roll of toilet paper to smear yourself clean.

Now, I’m not into backsides but if I were forced to stick my nose up someone’s crack, but could choose the nationality of the backside, it would most definitely be Korean. I base my choice on two reasons, firstly: a Korean diet leaves less mess and secondly, Koreans are simply more fastidious about personal hygiene.

guess where they’ve been?

With a culinary repository heavily based on soupy type recipes, Korean food never hangs about in the gut too long and when it is expelled it is ejected with such force that suction drags out any loitering debris.  Typical British food however, loiters in the intestines and has to be squeezed out of the body like toothpaste.  It passes through the body at such a slow pace that the entire intestinal track contains one enormous fecal sausage, a gigantic colonic conga which congests the entire gut like an enormous traffic jam as it slowly worms its way downward. Kimchi jjim, or a bowl of bean curd soup however, is ingested and processed at such speed that by the time it is blown out not only is the consistency unchanged but so too is its temperature.  With such force is it ejected from the body that it cleans your backside as it departs.   And I have to say, cleaning-up up after a Korean meal is not much different to dabbing your mouth after a drink of water whereas a British diet can only be compared with trying to smear-up a muddy hole.

despite what you might hear, most Koreans do shower before getting in a pool

And you know most Koreans wash their backsides thoroughly because  you can watch them doing it in a bathhouse. Many people in the UK still use bathtubs as a primary source of personal hygiene but how can you wash your arse in a little swaddling tub that binds your knees together and prevents easy access. Worse, the same water than cleans your body, that contains dead skin cells, hair, and other scud, the same water that rinsed out your backside and crotch, is then wallowed in. Yew! What a filthy habit and one almost as revolting as fitted carpets or cotton handkerchiefs. British showers aren’t much better being taken standing in restrictive bathtubs or in shower cubicles that provide as much freedom of movement as would a coffin.  Have you ever seen a westerner clean their backside?  And how do western kids learn how to clean themselves in that area? Are they just left to learn for themselves or do they simply let their underwear soak it up? I assume most westerners clean out their arses but I’ve never seen them doing it.

Nothing annoys me more than those who condemn Korean bathhouses, especially if they’ve only been a few times, and consider them places of moral and physical corruption or seething with rampant contagious infections; or those who like to bash Koreans because they use chopsticks in communal bowls of food or because they once had to use a crappy toilet.  Yes, of course somethings in Korea seem ‘dirtier than they do back home but traveling shouldn’t just spotlight the inadequacies in your host country but should also expose ones you hadn’t considered back home. Last year I came across a commentary by a westerner who complained:

And my 02. worth. Korean bathhouses? Dirty. Think about this for a minute.
The hot and cold pools. The water is NOT filtered. You have people who scrub their body and DON’T rinse off and still jump into the pools. I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have also. Leave the sauna, sweat pouring off you and hop into the cold pool! I have never seen a sauna in Korea that filters the water. It gets changed once or twice a day. Japan? Yes the water is filtered and cleaned. Not Korea. I know a few people who caught the crabs in these saunas. The blankets in the sleeping rooms are not washed daily. The towels that the saunas give you to dry off usually are not washed in hot water. I’m not bad mouthing Korea saunas, I have been to a few but most are dirty. Even the fancy looking saunas that are expensive to enter do not filter the hot/cold pool water. People are peeing in them also. I’d think twice. The saunas are good things but many are lacking customers who use good hygiene. If you are lucky enough, you might have been using one when it was being cleaned. I was and never did return.

Actually, I don’t totally disagree! People, me included, go from the various saunas into one of the pools, bodies sweating, and occasionally I see kids get straight in a pool without showering and some bathhouses are cleaner than others. I’m sure some people must pee in the water and I’ve certainly seen people pee in the showers. Is the water filtered? Well, I know water is sucked in through vents and in other places blown out. Is this filtration? I’m no more aware of filtration systems than I would be in British swimming pools where people often swim without showering, and if they do it’s only in a cursory manner, and in which they do urinate. I’ve even seen a turd floating in a British swimming pool but most of us aren’t too bothered about pool hygiene because chlorine sanitizes not just the watery environment but mentally as it leads us to believe the environment is biologically sanitized.  British pools might be bug free, but are they clean? Would you wallow in a cesspit if it were purged with a bottle of chlorine?

with a chlorinated pool one can wash their muck off in the water

Without doubt some infections are passed in bathhouses, ‘red eye’ (conjunctivitis) being one and possibly a nasty infection of the testicles but even a mild infection of the bollocks is nasty as it results in them needing to be groped by your GP.  Personally, such risks I consider small and I’m happy to gamble infection for the pleasures bathhouses provide.  In years of using bathhouses I only ever had one infection and it’s debatable where it would have been contracted. I can identify a number of practices I consider unsavoury in Korea, some examples being how individuals might dump garbage at collection points which isn’t bagged, or dipping odeng (오댕 -fish cake snacks) into communal soy sauce bowls, a habit which I think might actually have almost phased out.  Then there is the habit many kids have of coughing in your face without covering their mouth with a hand.

beware the communal soy sauce dip – great for herpes

Some restaurants, especially small ones, have dubious cooking areas but once again I’ve seen just as bad in the UK where kitchens are usually hidden from public view.  Several years ago I attended a course which was hosted in a prestigious yacht club. When the caterer didn’t turn up, we took it upon ourselves to use the kitchen to make tea and coffee and what we found was alarming; filthy fridges containing curdled milk and atrophied onions, meat placed above vegetables and shelves tacky with sugary residue on which cups were stored upside down. I made a complaint to the local authorities which resulted in the restaurant being fined several thousand pounds. The head chef, who was subsequently sacked, had previously owned a swanky sea food restaurant in the same village.  Though lots of westerners will bemoan the state of many public toilets, I’ve seen far worse examples in the UK. I taught in one school where kids would deliberately urinate on the toilet floor, and even, on occasion, defecate beside the toilet rather than in it. There’s good and bad in all cultures but I will admit to being more lenient in terms of standards when I am eating something that costs next to nothing than I am when confronted with bad practices in an expensive, pretentious eatery. When eating out is expensive and an exception rather than the rule, as it is in the UK, I don’t expect Faecal Fingers or dirty anything.

an ultra-violet sanitizer in my last Korean high school

Generally, I do not think standards differ too much between Britain and Korea except in terms of personal hygiene, which unfortunately is one of the most important criteria. It’s great having no rubbish lying in your streets or chlorine in public bathing water but it makes little odds if the community around you are filthy fuckers. Several years ago, research by a British University revealed that between 6 and 53% of city commuters had faecal matter on their hands. (BBC News 2008) Apparently, the further north you go in Britain, the higher the rates of contamination.  This is especially alarming when you consider British people will usually fully unwrap a burger before eating it and are much more likely to put things like fingers and pens in their mouths. I’m the first to admit I unwrap my burger fully in order to consume it and find comfort in fingering the bun but Koreans always eat it from the wrapper even after washing their hands.

my students find this a dirty habit

A person’s hands are the prime tools of first contact, they touch people, open doors, activate buttons and knobs, finger and prepare food and much more; they are the tools which, with an opposing thumb, not only define us as primates, but facilitate and make possible our interaction with the physical world.  You can have all the brains in the world but without thumbs – you’re screwed! At the other end of the scale, your bum-hole does very little and generally spends a large proportion of the day sitting on its arse. If a person fails to sanitize their hands after a dump , if they can’t even be bothered to keep clean such an important tools, what horrendous microscopic offenses are lurking in that dark and humid crevice. And then there are the peanuts in bars which in the UK are usually contaminated with multiple traces of urine.   My Koreans students often call me ‘dirty’ if I stir my coffee with a pen or put a pen end in my mouth and they are unaware that so many Brits have faecal fingers.  Now I know why a number of British confections focus on ‘fingers.’ I have rarely met a dirty Korean student and the pissy urine smell that I’ve noted in numerous infant schools in Britain certainly never existed in the Korean kindergartens in which I taught.

I suspect much of the animosity towards bathhouses is simply the result of nudity; some westerners clearly perceive bathhouses physically ‘dirty’ because they consider nudity morally dirty. As one commentator wrote: I’ve also been here since 2001 and have never gone to a bathhouse. I’m not into sausage fests. I work out every day and shower at home. The room of soapy Koreans just doesn’t appeal to me. For some westerners, all it takes for a clean environment is a piece of cloth over a cock and buttock and suddenly the environment is clean; splash a bit of chlorine around and we will happily swim in each other’s neutralized dirt. In 2008, when I first read how widespread faecal matter was on the hands a large chunk of its population, I made a resolution to be extra vigilant in terms of personal hygiene and not only do I wash my hands after using the toilet, but I sanitize them with a spray or anti-bacterial hand cream. I have not once broken this resolution!

 

there are times when nudity is undoubtedly preferable (Borat)

It’s pointless getting defensive about our lack of hygiene, for years the British have been the butt of jokes about bad teeth. I once meet an Australian who told me he’d been taught Brits changed their trousers once every few weeks and I’ve seen the skid marks in changing rooms and smelt the effects of using underwear as blotting paper, in British schools. If you’re British at least, observing how fastidious Koreans are about personal hygiene should prompt you to realise your own cultural failings. What’s important is that you learn from such observations and of course, the process goes both ways. Koreans are also fastidious about dental hygiene and I recently read that brushing teeth three times a day over decades can lead to receding gums. A number of sources now suggest only cleaning teeth with a brush, twice a day.  As I said, there are good and bad practices in all cultures.

to contract -E-coli!

Okay, so now you’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someones butt. It’s time to choose. What nationality are you going to pick?

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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.

In the Days When Google was Gobble-dee-gook

You naively expected this

Podcast 72

I often mention that ten only a few years ago there was little information available on most aspects of Korean culture. Looking back just a few years the changes that have taken place are truly incredible. For those of us who are older, it is easy to forget that access to a whole range of information, all at your fingertips, is a luxury that at one time did not exist and that ‘one time’ was only a couple of years ago; for those who are younger, it is worth pondering the Korean experience before the incredible growth in access to, and compilation of, information – a process still in development.

and found this

When I decided to come to Korea in 2000, it certainly wasn’t for a job and the only factor influencing my decision to step on the plane was to discover a country which at the time ranked with exotic and mysterious destinations such as Mongolia and Tibet.  Just ten years ago anyone coming to Korea, perhaps more so from Europe than the USA, which has had both a closer relationship with Korea and attracted a substantial number of Korean immigrants, did so blind. Other than the information supplied by your recruiter and the odd book in libraries, access to information or first hand accounts was scant. Those who decide to come to Korea today are able to furnish themselves from the abundance of information available in a range of formats and I suspect many are now lured here not because of  the mysterious, but in search of employment. I in no way mean to demean or underplay the reasons people currently come to Korea and it certainly provides a culture shock. But I envy  those who arrived here in the early 1990’s or 1980’s at a time when Korea was not the place it was in 2000.

when your PC looked like this (Macintosh PC circa 1999)

I kept a diary from my first day and reading through its pages it is clear how the internet has become a fundamental resource in both deliberating whether to undertake the experience and in influencing and developing your understanding of Korea. It may even influence the experiences you engage in while on the peninsula. Change has been so rapid, and the resources we now access  have become so integral, it is easy not just to take fore-granted its impact,  but to even doubt that it was really that difficult to access information in the first place.

and your mobile phone, if you had one, looked like this (2000)

Writing in hangul was a major obstacle and you simply couldn’t go into your PC, make a few tweaks and then be able to write in Korean or hanja and besides, in 2000, few teachers had air-conditioning let alone a personal computer with an internet connection. Before laptops and net-books, most of the waygukin you met were in PC bangs where you spent a substantial part of your week. And If you bought a PC  you were privileged but still required Microsoft Proofing Tools to enable you to write in Korean or hanja and which cost c£70 a package.

Korean dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were small and difficult to buy. On the eve of my first trip, I went to London’s largest bookshop, Foyles, and discovered the entire range of books on the Korean language amounted to two introductory books, a useless dictionary and the small copy of the NTC Compact Korean English Dictionary. I bought all four depleting them of their entire Korean language collection. The dictionaries used transliterated Korean rather than hangul script. Meanwhile, books devoted to Japanese occupied an entire book case.

and this was what you needed to write Hangul (and it was expensive)

I’ve known a number of westerners who arrived in Korea in the late 80’s  and whose Korean, many years later, is still rudimentary. It’s easy to criticise such apparent laziness until you remember there was no internet to support your learning or provide lessons, few decent language courses or dictionaries and unless you were in Seoul or one of the big cities, few language classes. After a few years enduring such conditions it becomes a case of, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ As for hanja, I’ve met westerners proficient in Korean who didn’t even know what hanja was. While access to information on the internet existed, certainly around 2000, there was very little compiled on Korea or Korean culture and the ability to write in hanja characters was difficult, costly and dependent on Korean based language packages. Today, though limited for the non Korean speaker, information on hanja is available and if you aren’t interested in trying to learning it, you can very easily research what it comprises.

a time when you really did have to 'teach yourself'

Once again, in the UK, other than on the Korean war, there were few books on Korean history and finding information on topics such as the Hwa-Rang-Do or one of the Korean dynasties, was difficult. And when you did find such books, usually in academic libraries rather than public ones, they were specialist and somewhat boring for the reader who wanted general information. It has only been in very recent years, by which I mean the last 6 or 7  that such information has appeared and I can remember trawling Google in 2002 or 2003 and finding very little other than specialist academic references to major, Korean historical periods. Exactly the same conditions applied to Korean culture, prominent figures, cooking or geography.  Back in the UK I have a small collection of books on Korean culture, history, cooking, hanja and language etc, but all of them were printed and bought in Korea, and ferried back to the UK. So, on returning to Britain in 2002 and 2004, I felt I had to take a part of Korea home with me because there was no way to access ‘Korea’ in the UK. In 1997, when TOPIK, the Korean language proficiency test was introduced for non-Korean speakers, it attracted 2274 people; in 2009, 180.000 people took the exam and test centers now exist globally.

TOPIK exam hall

Korean related information on the internet was in its infancy; Google, for example, became a registered domain name in 1997  and certainly before 2000 most lay-people researched information from software such as Encarta. In 2000, I was originally going to teach in Illsan, I can remember using the internet to find information on this location and found very little. I have just this moment keyed ‘Illsan’ into Google search and in 14 seconds have access to 1.800.000 written resources and 1200 images. Learning Korean and hanja meant you compiled your own dictionary because the words or characters your learnt weren’t in dictionaries and there were no translation tools such as Babblefish or Google to provide support. Even with hangul, I still keep my own dictionary because western ones, even on the internet, don’t explain words uniquely Korean. As for idioms? Try searching Korea idioms on the internet or the availability of electronic dictionaries which are designed for the English native speaker learning Korean. All resources still being developed.

Resources in their infancy 10 years ago, blogging, vlogging, podcast, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter etc, have since become a fundamental means of sharing experiences and providing first hand information not just about all aspects of Korean culture, but on more specific topics such as life for the foreigner and whether you are vegetarian, teacher or gay, information is readily available. Blogging now provides an immense wealth of information but it is worth remembering that the term ‘blog’ was only coined by Peter Merholz, in 1999. Major blogging software which has helped give rise to the blogging phenomena are recent developments: Blogger emerged in 1999 and WordPress in only in 2003.

Song So, Daegu, November 2000

Even today, unless you live in London, obtaining Korean foodstuff is still almost an impossibility and online order of Korean foodstuffs is undeveloped. None of this is very surprising given there were very few Korean living in the UK until recently. Between 1998-1992, at a university with one of the most diverse students populations in the UK, there was a total absence of Koreans and Russians. Indeed, I was to meet Mongolian students before I met any from Korea. And, I can recall the very first five Korean I met; the first, a taekwondo instructor in London, in 1979, the second, a taekwondo instructor in Paderborn, Germany, in 1986, the third, a student in a school near New Maldon,  London, in 1998, and finally, two Koreans in a hotel in the Philippines, in 1998. I had a fleeting ‘meeting’ with Rhee Ki-ha (now  9th Degree Black Belt, taekwon-do), in 1988 but as a grading taekwon-do student, I was forbidden to talk to him.

Daegu 2001. When westerners were still a little unique

Korean Culture – the Korean Wave, Korean football players playing for British football teams, LG, Nong Shim, I-River etc, all arrived on British shores in the years following my first visit and indeed, this Christmas, I was treated to the first Korean cookery program I have see on British television. However, I suspect its genuineness as the recipes included beetroot and English pear (you can easily buy Asian pear in the UK). And neither chopsticks or kimchi featured!

and before the advent of the Korean wave

Up until a few years ago, if you arrived in Korea from Britain, you probably knew nothing about Korean society and possibly expected ‘second world’ conditions. Much of what you learnt about Korea occurred through accidentally stumbling across something and you certainly couldn’t learn from a computer screen. Indeed, access to a computer was probably detrimental to your Korean experience, removing you from, rather than immersing you in, Korean culture. Today, a computer can certainly enhance your experience and if you need to know how to: use your Korean washing machine, plan a trip, find a doctor during a holiday or translate a sentence from Korean into Blackfoot, it’s at your fingertips. Day to day life in Korea has been ‘made simple’ by the tomes of information we can now access  and only last week I used the internet to help me adjust my ondol heating control. With hundreds of accounts on topics such as soju, the Boryeonng Mud Festival  and kimchi, done to death, a blogger is forced to use a range of media formats (vlogging, photographs, podcasts, even cartoons), and  driven to be more creative and original in their perspective  especially if posting on what are now common, if not mundane subjects.

Link to TOPIK Guide.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Korea 'Made Simple'

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Westerners by 노강호 on December 20, 2010

(This post refers to Chris Backe’s blog and uses the term ”made simple’ which bears a similarity to the title of Chris’ recent book on learning Korean, Korean Made Easy). My references to ‘Korea made simple’ have nothing to do with his excellent  book )

 

waygookin - foreigner

I had a drink this weekend in a bar around the corner from where I live. Everything was going well until the place was invaded by fifteen foreigners who were all drunk and noisy. As they entered, only one acknowledged the presence of either myself, or the two westerners I was with. When we decided to leave, just a few minutes later, the same woman that had said hello, apologised for not having been friendlier, meanwhile, the rest of the crowd she was with, continued to blank us.

 

 

Scene from a Typicaly British high street

It seems that expat-sub-culture slang, recently highlighted by Chris Backe (Chris in Korea), describes our experience as that of, ‘being waygooked.’ Chris lists a number Korean words adopted by westerners to use as slang and  all comprise the first and only words many westerners learn during their short stay in Korea. I am pleased to report I wasn’t aware of any other meanings than those of the original Korean.

A sub-culture lingo lurks in any foreign place with a substantial numbers of foreigners but without doubt, the increased numbers of foreigners now living in Korea, coupled with the internet and the high number of ESL teachers  help to consolidate and disseminate its lexicon. Whilst some of the examples Chris cites are harmless and amusing, a ‘chunner’ for a thousand Won, ‘manner’ for 10.000 Won, for example, others are not just unpleasant, but suggest many come to Korea with cultural attitudes cast in stone and from which they judge everything Korean – generally in a negative light.

 

 

a 'manner' - 10000 Won

To use expat, sub-culture slang self reflectively, Korea has been well and truly ‘waygooked’ though it might be more appropriate to stick to English and simply use the word ‘invaded!’ As each one of us arrives on the peninsula the reception for subsequent ‘visitors’ is made less unique and more mundane. Anyone who was here just ten years ago, will testify how much Korea has  changed. To allow westerners to interface with Korean culture, and in order to look progressive, Korea has been ‘made simple.’  Gone are the days when you were compelled to either try to learn Korean or enjoy taking a gamble as everything from menus to bus arrival and departure boards, are now bilingual.  About the only item still to be ‘made simple’  is the train ticket. Western food is now available everywhere and it is now possible to eat in different restaurants everyday without being required to sit on the floor or use chopsticks. And a wealth of information relative to Korea grows at a rapid rate. Language packages, blogs, cultural information, official websites, cooking websites, all proliferate. The Daegu, Kyobo book store’s section on the Korea Language for foreigners now occupies ten times the space it did ten years ago and one of the most elusive aspects of Korean culture, notably hanja, now has a number of books designed specifically for English speakers. Learning about Korea has never been easier but in the process, acquiring that information has never been more boring and unchallenging. The diary I kept on a daily basis during my first visit to Korea, before the days of blogging, vlogging and podcasts was was written with a view to publication back in the UK and the audience were clearly western. Today, a high percentage of the audience who access this blog live on the peninsula and are themselves bloggers.

 

 

Boryeong, thogoughly 'waygooked'

Not too long ago, Korea needed to be discovered, it was elusive and mysterious and attracted a kind of foreigner with some spirit of adventure. I’m not saying that such individuals no longer come here, they do, but if you’re looking to ‘discover’ and ‘uncover’ things unique, as well as discover something about your own character, Korea is rapidly becoming a very safe option and  ‘waygookinized’ almost, but not quite, to the same extent Thailand was ‘DeCaprionized.’ Soon the entire peninsula will posses as much potential to offer a unique experience as the Boring Boryeong Mud Festival. Not only can you research a wealth of information before you even buy passage, but you can communicate in various formats with those already here and discover just how safe it all is. And when you arrive you can pal-up, online and in reality, with a community predominantly doing the same thing you are – probably teaching. If I was setting out to Korea anew, it would be to somewhere like backwater Kangwondo or Ulundo and certainly not to any of the major cities which have now been saturated.

Yes, I am making a mountain out of a mole hill! I shouldn’t take it too seriously! But if anything is likely to make me leave Korea it is when it reaches a point where the experience of being here is not that different to being back-home. I came to Korea to experience its uniqueness and the more waygookins that come here, and I too am part of the problem, the more we connect and form a sub-culture, the more we  adapt Korean to express our own predjudices (especially when so few of us can actually speak Korean), and assert a cultural superiority, the more unease I feel.

‘Ganging up’ with other foreigners to invade places, to ‘waygook’ them, is last thing I want to participant in and I certainly don’t want to be  its victim. Many foreigners share such feelings and come to Korea to escape aspects of their own culture and to immerse themselves in a  new one; ‘waygooking’ an environment is counterproductive to such objectives.   And while I can chuckle at terms such as ‘chunner’ and ‘manner,’ and may  well use them, other terms verge on either the culturally elite, or are racist. Korean ‘ajjumas’ can dress ‘loudly’ and those dollies that participate in high energy aerobic classes, decked out in glitzy leggings and multi-coloured, sequined apparel, are a constant source of interest rather than mockery.  Back in the UK the dress code for a great number of younger women can be summarized as ‘vulgar and skimpy.’ For many Brits, fashion, which of course we think the ultimate, is on much the same level as that of  some former soviet bloc nations. And yes, ‘ajjumas’ push and shove but this is a cultural difference and the way to diffuse your annoyance is to embrace it and simply shove back.

Yes, ajjumas can be somewhat exotic in the mish-mash of colours, but how much nicer and civilised that of a man-like female, covered in tattoos and with a mouth like a sewer. Where I live in the UK some of the females are  very unpleasant. And Koreans can push  and shove but I’ve never had one treat me with the anything like the level of aggression I would face on many a street in the UK.  Meanwhile, here are some Korean words which can be adapted to describe some foreigners or indeed broader idiosyncrasies of western, or more specifically, British culture.

Sir-e-ki  sa-ram – ‘dirty people’ who don’t wash properly especially as a report last year highlighted how as many as 40% of Brits don’t wash their hands after having a shit. ‘That businessman looks like a sir-e-ki saram‘ (he looks dirty or unclean).

Tre-shi ot – ‘trash clothes’ / ‘trash bag’ – the term used to describe the clothes worn by British people. ”The whole family wear tre-shi ot’ (the whole family dress like shit). This could aptly describe those teachers in Korea who go to work in cargo shorts and flip-flops.

Ch’ang n’yeo hak – ‘Prostitute girls’ – to describe the promiscuous manner in which many teenagers dress. (That crotchless thong makes your nine year old daughter look like a ch’ang n’yeo hak. (Basically, you little kid looks like a slapper!)

 

ch'ang n'yeo hak (prostitute student)

ch'ang n'yeo hak (prostitute student)

 

Bok pal-ip – ‘mouth explosion’ – to describe notoriously bad British teeth. ‘Look at the bok pal ip on him. (Look at his shit teeth)

 

 

 

too gross to enlarge

Ddong mul pa-i-peu – ‘sewer pipe’ – a term used to describe both the physical and mental degeneracy of many British people – basically clean on the outside and filthy within. ‘Their kids are as wholesome as a ddong mul pa-i-peu.’ (The underwear might be clean but their contents house numerous infectious diseases).

ch’a-pi – chav – ‘most of the nation are ch’a-pi’ (most of the nation are chav).

 

di-pi-di – ‘dirty, violent , depressing” – DVD.

But I don’t mean to be offensive…

 

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

 

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Bathhouse ‘Zen’ (Part 1)

I’m working through some ideas here and not only have another three parts to follow this post, but will make amendments here. If you want to add your views, more educated and sociological ones welcomed,  please do so however, I won’t bother publishing the usual offensive crap that this kind of post sometimes generates. (Hence the pumpkin logo)

Not suitable for pumpkin people

Not too long ago, I joined the social networking site, Skinbook, a site for nudists. I had never considered myself a nudist and of course, in Korea I’m not. But once you head back home on a vacation you realise that bathing, even in a same-sex environment, is a form of nudism.  So,while in Korea I regard myself completely normal and healthy but once I step off the plane in the UK , or even talk to some westerners here in Korea, I have to re-configure one of my pleasures and label it ‘partial nudism’ and of course, this then  includes the slurs and innuendos associated with any form of nudity. What is a completely normal pursuit in one country is almost perversified in another. It is ironic that my home country, like the USA,  has not just one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, but one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, children as young as 12 and 13 engage in sex and if they go to the doctor are granted anonymity and, child abuse in one form or another, is clearly a national pastime. Being judged by my own culture, and those who bring  its attitudes to Korea is rather like being judged by the town’s most prolific pox spreading, pimp.

the hanja character for ‘nothing,’ ‘not having,’ (없을-무)

For a waygukin to really enjoy Korean bathhouses one has to divest themselves of the  cultural baggage  that prohibits or hinders one from fully capitalizing on what the experience has to offer. Though our cultural baggage may be similar, as between that of a Canadian and Scotsman, there are naturally differences that shape and  inform the reception we have to going-naked in a same-sex, public environment.  Some cultures are more relaxed than others and within and across cultures there are differing attitudes towards nudity and proxemics;  some may be constrained by religious views, some may have very strong associations between nudity and sex, some may be more liberated due to upbringing.  So, the point at which we each stand in relation to nudity and the various forms it appears in, differ.  Despite the reference to ‘zen,’  (선), there is nothing deep or mystical in the Korean practice of public bathing any more than there is swimming in a public bathhouse in the UK and my use of the term is based on the loosest meaning and simply suggests the ability to enjoy the experience without being hindered by cultural baggage.

spheres of zen

For many, myself included, taking the first step into a bathhouse was a traumatic  experience and certainly one I’ll never forget it! For others, nudity in the company of others is no different to being nude in isolation; many people are quite used to showering in a same-sex environment and if you play rugby in the UK, bathing in a large bathtub with your team, all naked, is a long-standing ritual. However, showering or bathing naked is quite different from other experiences a bathhouse will eventually confront you with, experiences which will test your levels of comfort and possibly expose  the cultural baggage you still carry, but which you thought you’d ditched.

Let me give you a very recent example; I  use bathhouses on a regular basis and my first introduction to them was almost ten years ago. However, while bathing less than three hours ago, I had two interesting reflections. I still do not feel comfortable with a close friend scrubbing my back and after a little analysis decided it was because in my culture such intimacy is more likely to occur as a prelude to sex and also because I am over weight and self-conscious.  The second one occurred while we were in a sauna.  The room is fairly large and is occupied by only my friend and I,  yet when two new men enter the room, independent of each other, they sit on seats on either side of me. Meanwhile, my friend is laying on the floor,  taking a nap. I am sat facing the television but they sit each looking directly at one side of my face, and to compound matters, their heads are less than three feet  from mine and they sit with knees wide apart in a position that in western body language can convey a sexual meaning. Within the parameters of my culture, no only do their body positions establish a hostile or sexual tension between  us, but a corresponding tension between themselves, as they are sat facing each other. And remember, they could have sat in any of three corners but instead chose to sit directly next to me. Even after years of bathing, little alarm bells jangled! Of course, neither are making aggressive or sexual  suggestions  and  probably  sat down without any conscious deliberation at all.

sk

While you might feel very ‘at-home’ naked in the bathhouse shower, or sat on your own in a corner of a pool, if you frequent bathhouses on a regular basis, the day will eventually arrive when:

♦You’re just steeping into a pool when you notice the person at the far end is a co-worker.

♦You drop the soap and need to bed over

♦You’re sitting on a bucket seat when a Korean friend begins a conversation, their dick dangling in your face

♦You end up talking to a friend who is sat on a bucket seat, while you are standing, your dick in their face

♦You’re asked to either scrub someone’s back or they offer to scrub yours

♦You enter a pool only to discover a couple of your students are staring at you

♦Your school or work decide to organise a trip to the bathhouse

♦You somehow end up having a full body scrub-down

If any of these scenarios are liable to make you feel uncomfortable, then you have not yet reached the state of ‘zen’ required to ensure your enjoyment is the ultimate possible and in which your reception of the experience is similar to that of a Korean.  The cited examples, and there are others,  highlight the point at which east and west differ and yet it is for this reason many people decide to live in Korea. (Surely it wasn’t just for the money!)  The manner in which we approach this point of separation, or stay cocooned in our safety zone, is dependent the ability to suspend our own cultural mores and subsequently embrace those of Korean society. The fewer of these scenarios which trouble you, the closer you are in approximation to the manner in which a Korean perceives a bathhouse experience. If you can bend over in full view of bathers, poke your backside clean with soaped fingers, use the hair dryer on your pubic hair or do a series of exercises, naked and in front of an audience, you can award yourself a red-belt (the rank prior to a taekwon-do black belt)  in bathhouse familiarity. And not only will you be better able to understand the Korean psyche, but you may also have a deeper understanding of the nature of your own society. Personally, I still have a long way to go but I’m getting there!

A Korean’s behaviour in a bathhouse has nothing to do with zen and with no barriers to overcome such a ‘state’ isn’t necessary. They simply behave in a manner which conforms to their social mores. Being outside this point of references, ‘zen’ is the mental ‘state’, or  ‘attitude ‘we have to aspire to  if we want to truly enjoy the experience and step closer to understanding the Korean psyche. In a ‘state ‘of ‘zen,’ a state of statelessness, you will have abandoned all cultural shackles and have no problem with your bum hole pontificating the heavens should you drop the soap. And when you can rationalize bathhouse culture without suggesting it is perverse, homo-erotic or ‘gay,’ as many westerners do, you will truly be in a state of enlightenment.

There are two parts involved in learning to enjoy the Korean bathhouse experience. The first involves ditching or suspending your own cultural baggage and all the assumptions it makes and judgments it levies. The second lies in embracing Korean attitudes towards same-sex nudity and bathing. Suspending the outrage of your own values is not always easy considering the British, for example, have a very long history of demonizing anything sexual. We have been imbued to perceive genitals as solely sexual and invested with the powers to pervert those who gaze upon them or even talk about them.  Even the genitals of a baby are now perceived as sexual and that you cannot photograph or draw a naked baby, even your own, without the overwhelming realization that you are doing something terribly wrong, is alarming.  And because nudity exposes what is deemed sexual, it has the potential to pervert and hence needs close control.  As for ‘skinship,‘ a problematic enough concept for many westerners when clothed, when nude, it can only be rationalised as sexually motivated. Many young and liberal westerners  like to think they are ‘progressive’ in their attitudes to sex and the body, but many, the moment confronted with the opportunity to be naked, it is revealed that they are not only terrified by it, but conflate it with sex. For many men, the idea of being naked with other men is repugnant. Ditching such silly attitudes, even if temporarily, is wonderfully liberating and frees you from centuries of oppression.

Disengaging your cultural shackles:

Over-coming the fear of your own body – in modern capitalism the body is a battle ground used to manipulate our dreams, aspirations, inadequacies and fears in the attempt, planned and unplanned, to spur us onto the treadmill that sees us seeking remedy in an array of consumer products. Products articulated around diet and exercise are lucrative and a nation riddled with guilt at being overweight or unhealthy, even if you’re not, is a nation ready to chuck money away in pursuing the latest fad. It’s a Machiavellian philosophy of ‘give ’em dreams and sell them shit.’ All too often, the first barrier to getting naked in public is the fear of being seen by others, of being exposed and then judged by the criteria of market forces. Obesity and being overweight are obvious but even our attitude to dick size is influenced by market forces; my spam box is constantly bombarded with adverts claiming to enhance the male appendage. When did you ever see an advert offering to reduce penile proportions? Porn actors are often rumoured to have dicks of Herculean proportions and any actor or celebrity who is discovered to have a little wiener, an average wiener, can expect ridicule. Societies have not all valued a big dick and at the height of Classical Athens, being well hung, and worse, well hung and circumcised, was considered very un-sexy. Among the classical statues and red pottery of the period – not a big cock among them unless it’s owned by a grotesque satyr. If you can find a penis poking from the  loin of a Praxiteles, it probably fits the modern-day parameters of  ‘average’ and this is often a euphemism for ‘small.’

I have frequently heard or read comments by westerner visitors to bathhouses, berating the bodies of everyone who is not minus 20, slim and sexy. Such people are ‘shocked’ or ‘appalled’ by the ugliness of others and see only attractiveness in the same way it is seen by Hollywood. Such attitudes are rooted in the assumption that if nudity is to be tolerated, it should at least be practiced by those who are sexually attractive because, as we all know, sex among fatties and oldies is a turn-off. It there’s one thing you learn in a bathhouse, it’s that we are more alike than unlike, regardless of age, size and condition.  Overcoming a fear of exposing our bodies in a public forum is for many people a big step because of our own negative self images induced in us by our own culture. As a result, to overcome the fear is empowering.

Apollo Saurodithonos (Lizard-killer). Possibly a Praxiteles original

Separating the conflation of  sex and nudity – Western social mores conflate sex and nudity and this tradition, one with a long history, is always an obstacle faced by nudists in the west because public sentiment demonize or peversifies nudity on the grounds it is sexual. If you enjoy nudity it implies you do so for sexually motivated reasons and is likely to classify you with terms such as ‘kinky’ or ‘pervert.’  Male same-sex nudity bears the greatest brunt of this conflation especially when it suggests those involved are homosexual. And it is this conflation which informs the opinions of many a westerner opposed or fearful of bathhouse culture. If you start a conversation with many British men about Japanese bathhouses, which often do not segregate the sexes, the tone of the conversation becomes sexually orientated, many western men would love peep through a chink in a wall of a Japanese bathhouse and indeed, you can even download videos of such scenarios. It is therefore predictable that their assumptions about same-sex bathing is going to be articulated around sex and homosexuality. It is the intense conflation of sex and nudity in the western tradition that has given rise to the phenomena of gay bathhouses and in the minds of many people bathhouses are strongly associated with a homosexuality, hedonism and promiscuity. Unfortunately, in the west nudity is often invaded by those assuming it must be sexual and in pursuit of a quick thrill. My local hometown in the UK had to close male only, nude bathing sessions because the tone of the place slipped into seediness.

Overcoming the fear of nude children – On occasion when I have witnessed something interesting in a bathhouse involving non-adults and have dared to write about it, and especially if I have written about it without expressing anything but disgust and loathing, it has provided an opportunity for those with a pumpkin mentality to accuse me of perversion. Many people now recoil in horror at the thought of adults and non-adults sharing the same space especially when semi nudity or nudity is involved. In Britain, public changing rooms, those open planned types where everyone undressed in view of each other, have now disappeared. There are a number of individuals who will fear a bathhouse experience because Korean children use bathhouses and I have met and spoken with individuals who will not go to a bathhouse or jjimjilbang on trips organised by their schools.  I once had to console a western teacher who cried uncontrollably because Korean Kindergarten teachers took kids to the toilet alone and without a second person in tow to ‘Big Brother’ the procedure.  Once again, we are back to the conflation of sex and nudity and of the western obsession of seeking perversion wherever possible.  Shouldn’t we be highly suspicious of societies that are obsessed with categorising non-adult nudity, solely by the label ’sexual’ and which cannot  compel us only to do likewise.

I very often talk to Korean friends, male and female about cute kids I’ve seen in the bathhouse. Last week I was amused by a baby boy who could only just walk and who wore a pair of socks to prevent him slipping on the slippy floor. I can share this observation with Koreans without the need to add interjections to the effect I’m no pervert or that I’m not interested in baby boys. But to raise such issue to a western audience, especially as a man, and you invite the most vitriolic reprisals. I’m here reminded of the comments I saw posted on various sites in response to a Korean advert where baby boys appeared scrubbing each other’s backs in a bathhouse. Most did not see it as cute or amusing imagery but as sexual, perverse and exploitative. And neither were any genitals flashed for them to arrive at such twisted conclusions.

Redefining your proximity zone – Britain is often cited as one of the least tactile cultures. In Germany, for example, people shake hands on every meeting and not simply when meeting someone for the first time. The French of course, kiss each other on both cheeks. Many other cultures are much more tolerant in allowing males physical contact without the slur of them being ‘homosexual’ and in such societies body proxemics are much closer than they are in the UK or USA where between close friends, 1.5-4 feet define comfortable parameters.  Intimate relationships operate between 0-15 inches. Many Koreans friends are quite comfortable operating at a distance of much closer than 15 inches and indeed of operating within a zone that many British people could only tolerate in a sexual relationship. In addition physical contact, ‘skinship,’ occurs not just more often, but for longer periods of time and much closer to the ‘parts’ we have been taught to avoid. It is not in the least unusual to see Korean friends lay down and put their head in their friends lap and I have even seen this in a bathhouse.

Korean ‘skinship’

Fully acknowledging nudity – many westerners are quite happy nude bathing because they manage to blank out the bits they find difficult to deal with or find offensive or repugnant. As long as it’s not in your face, or better still, as long as it’s in the zone of peripheral vision and can be ignored rather than acknowledged, many people can live with same-sex nudity. If you ask most men about the things they see in a changing room, even in locker room showers, and they will aggressively tell you they don’t look and I believe most of them don’t. And if they do the images are purged from their minds. As I have mentioned before, for a man to see a cock in the UK constitutes such a traumatic experience, unless of course you do happen to be gay, that it can potentially convince a man he is homosexual. It is only when a cock holds the same value as someone’s toes, or their nose, that you are free of this puerile conditioning. Learning to accept what nudism involves, the exposure of those parts you’d rather not acknowledge, is very much about confronting a deep-seated homophobia that assumes the penis is at all times a sexual object, which in western culture usually encompasses any penis whether it be flaccid, erect or even the redundant penis of a baby, and therefore, to consciously acknowledge the penis of another male is to engage in homosexual behaviour. I would further suggest, the fear of acknowledgment is both a means of consolidating a heterosexual identity or facade and avoiding either temptation or the revelation that one’s sexuality may not be what it seems.

When one is able to acknowledge those ‘offensive’ areas dispassionately, in a manner unfettered by emotions and obsessions and which no longer sees them as sexual but as parts with functions such as the nose or ears, and with  corresponding qualities and attributes, interesting, quirky, large, etc, one has clearly transcended the myopic conditioning of culture. I would imagine experiencing nude bathing in a non segregated forum, as often practiced in Japan, and to do so with a similar ‘zen’ detachment would be highly enlightening. To achieve this does not mean that no one is appealing or beautiful or sexually attractive, but that this is no longer the primary manner in which you respond to the naked body. Learning to see nudity with ‘zen’ detachment, where the conflation between sex and nudity is separated, and the classification of others in terms of their sexual appeal, minimised, allows you not just to appreciate more fully other human beings, but to feel more human in the process.

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Memory Lane

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on November 1, 2010

Kimpo Airport

I often mention how rapidly Korea is changing. I have only lived here four and a half years, spread across ten years, so in comparison to friends who have over twelve years experience, I’m somewhat of an infant. I would love to have been here fifteen or twenty years ago, when Korea was truly a country where other than American soldiers, few ventured. ‘Fat ‘has arrived in Korea, an observation I often point out in my posts on bathhouses, and EPIK has brought an army of teachers into schools to such an extent our uniqueness has been lost. And no doubt those who first came to Korea in the 90’s will have noticed even greater changes.

Kimpo in 2000

When I arrived in Korea in September 2000, Inch’on International Airport was still being built and looking back, it is quite incredible to think that the piddly sized Kimpo was the country’s major airport. Kimpo was basically one big room through which people arrived and departed and I’m sure it’s bigger today than it was ten years ago. Few restaurants had English menus and on every street corner were  ‘video shops’ renting the latest videos. The internet contained little information on Korea in terms of cooking, culture or history, zilch on hanja and very little on Korean. Few teachers had air-conditioning and for those in English academies, split schedules, a common practice, meant the 6 hours you’d been led to believe you’d end up teaching in Korea, were probably closer to 8 or 9. Maybe it is still the same in some language academies, but  class sizes  were big, sometimes twenty students packed in small classes and often with no air-conditioning. There were fewer academies and my school, the largest in the area, occupied three floors of a large building. There were few resources, wall sockets often didn’t work and only a couple of tape players if they did and if you complained you were simply told to read to the kids. Most of the westerners I remembered meeting at the time seemed to work  under similar conditions.  Back then, university posts really were the cream of jobs with significantly more pay than other types of teaching and before the recent changes in bureaucracy, transferring from one town to another or one school to another, was easy.

If you had a pair of shoes like this in 2000, you were 'sexy.'

Big shoes were the fashion on young lads. By ‘big’  I mean long and so long that I thought I easily find a pair of English size 13’s. Indeed, they were so long, a little like the old ‘winkle-pickers,’ that they turned up and gave them a medieval appearance. On younger boys, even very young ones, a long forelock on the side of the head was tinted gold meanwhile their teeth were black. While older children seemed to have good dental hygiene, milk teeth were seen as unimportant and many of my younger students had black baby teeth. Today, this is something I rarely see.

Coffee beans or ground beans were hard to buy and I remember a coffee filter machine in supermarkets attracted small audiences and if you wanted a bottle of wine, if you could afford it and could find it, they were stored in a glass cabinet and the choice very limited. It seemed everyone wanted English lessons and were willing to pay for the privilege and being stopped and asked if you would teach privately, was an almost daily occurrence. In my diary for Saturday 18th of November, 2000, I wrote:

Here (KFC in Song-So) I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return for lessons. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday.

The KFC near Han-song Plaza has closed and is now a stationary store in which the glass stairs are still embossed with Colonel Saunders’ face, but in the last two years I haven’t once been asked to teach privately by strangers in restaurants or on the street.  I used to teach a few privates on a Sunday and would earn around a 100 000 Won an hour for teaching a small class of 3 or 4 students.

at one time were were as novel as coffee-filter machines and wine

Your presence, especially with children, was often enough for people to stop, gasp and gawk at you in awe.  Only yesterday, a boy of 14 told me how he remembers seeing westerners when he was four years old and how he would be filled with excitement. Few schools had resident foreign English teachers and what foreigners existed were a novelty. Many of the children, and some adults, you met ten years ago had never spoken to a foreigner. Then there was the starring… I remember times when the constant starring stressed me to such an extent, I’d occasionally step into a recess or doorway for a break. Unlike today, when a solitary passenger stares lazily from a busy bus, a westerner on the street would turned every head. I imagine it was even more intense in the early 90’s and 80’s and probably not much different to an experience I once had on a station platform in Delhi, in 1984, when a crowd so large gathered to stare at my friend as he opened a map, that after a few minutes you couldn’t see him. In the Korea of today, you are noticed and not much else and it rarely causes excitement or stops people in their tracks.

A few weeks ago I was up Warayong Mountain in Song-So, Daegu; I’d stopped for a coffee at a small stall almost at the summit and was attempting a conversation with a woman sat on the next bench along.  I noticed a couple of small children coming down into the clearing where we sat and around which were various communal exercise machines. Suddenly, their faces broke into excitement and they started running and skipping towards my seat. For a moment, it was the kind of reaction I remember on my first visit when kids would run up and then stand and stare, or might bravely attempt to say hello or stroke the hairs on a bared arm. However, ten years later and the focus of their attention isn’t me but the dog sat beside the woman with whom I am talking.  The children skip up to it and lavish it with as much excitement and attention as they’d once have given a foreigner. It isn’t even a real dog but one of those ‘handbag pooches’ which look more  like a wisp of cotton-wool on straw legs. I could have understood if it had been a real dog, a labrador or sheep dog, but this pathetic specimen! I realised in that instant that this is what it has come to; a miniature poodle now commands more attention, is more interesting and exotic than a foreigner. I am not exaggerating when I add that despite my height and size, and sitting right next to them, they didn’t even notice me.

a puff of wind and it's dead

Amongst all these changes however, one convenient constant; unlike the rest of the world prices have changed little. I bought a hanja dictionary in 2000 at a cost of 15.000 Won and in exactly the same store, nine years later, the same book cost 15.500 Won. That’s an increase of 25 pence in UK sterling! Quite amazing!

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.