Elwood 5566

Ben (3) Korean Teenagers

Posted in Education, Gender, Korean children, Uncategorized by 노강호 on August 23, 2010
Kim Jun-hyoek (김준혁)

Ben on a low

Ben has been up and down lately. At the end of last term he was on a massive high after passing a string of exams with 100%. One evening, on the day he received the marks for his final set of exams, he was  delirious with happiness and once again bouncing around the school declaring how he felt. In the UK I’d have assumed he was on drugs because British kids often down play any trait of intelligence as it can alienate them. And then, several days later, he finally got his reward for his efforts  in the form of two small puppies. For the next week he constantly assaulted my boss and I by thrusting his hand-phone in our faces to show us the latest series of puppy pictures. His accompanying leitmotiv was ‘my puppies, my puppies,’ made all the more endearing by a mild speech impediment which renders, ‘puppies,’ ‘puppish.’

Once the joys of owning a couple of puppies had subsided however, he became markedly strange in class and seemed to flit between happy and almost depressed. Neither was he very responsive when you tried to draw him out of his mood or ask its cause. The cause was obvious and one we’ve encountered on a number of occasions. Ben’s class consisted of 6 girls and two boys and the other boy, Kyle, had left Daegu for the summer vacation to attend an intensive study school: the equivalent of an academic boot-camp. Hence the root of Ben’s mood swings was the fact he was the only boy in the class.  Cherie and I tried to ride the problem for a little while but soon he was begging  for us to make changes so he wouldn’t be alone.

In a Korean setting class dynamics can change drastically if someone is older or younger than the other students, or, in the case, is the wrong gender. Kids lively and confident one moment can be  passive and introvert the next if a shift in personalities disadvantages them.  Because peer groups are not so important for British children, such problems do not arise. British kids can easily accommodate  friends  or fellow classmates, older or younger than themselves and a gender divide is not as noticeable as it is in the Korean class room.

and on a high

Ben, who is 16, was disturbed enough at being the only boy in the class that despite his recent academic success, we feared we might loose him when suddenly, a new boy arrived who was ideal to place alongside him.  Instantly, he returned to his old self and re-assumed his role as the class comedian but if ever the other boy is absent, he can quickly relapse into a sullen state.  I’ve spent so much time slagging off teenagers in my other blogs, I’m consoled by the realization I don’t dislike teenagers, just the ones who are rotten and rotten teenagers in Korea are rare. Ben is what Koreans might call a ‘flower-boy,’ or identify as ‘pretty,’ neither term being derogatory, though he might well be when older. If anything, his body is built like a chopstick and he looks closer to twelve than sixteen, a point the girls in the class often tease him on, but both my boss and I would love him for a son. Reading other K-blogs, I know many teachers share a similar regard for the nature and personality of Korean children and teenagers.

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Ben – Korean Teenagers (2) and other stuff…

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on June 9, 2010

Japanese youth icons: 'Camp' is not a universal recognition

I’m always intrigued by the campness and expressions of skinship displayed by Korean men and boys. In a class today, Mark, one of my 16-year-old students was leaning across his desk to write his name on a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, two boys behind him start stroking his arse and putting their fingers in the waistband of his boxers, his shirt having ridden up to expose them. Mark doesn’t even twitch even as one of the lads put his hand right under his crotch. Earlier in the lesson, and this has happened on more than one occasion, I noticed Mark’s arm behaving in a very suspicious manner in the proximity of the boy’s lap sat next to him. Of course, any suspicions are solely in my own dirty western imagination as Korean teenagers always appear to be totally innocent  in terms of sexual behaviour.

I remember when I taught a class of 13-14 years olds in a British Boys’ school and was constantly noticing lads with erections. So prolific were these manifestations I nicknamed the class, ‘erection city.’ And boys wanking in class?  One of my colleagues, a female teacher, walked around the side of a boy’s desk only to see him, grinning in a manner that suggested he anticipated some erotic development, with his erection exposed and being toyed in his hand. There were even occasions when I  caught boys with their hands on the front of each others  trousers. There was an obsession with penises and sex throughout the school and even the head teacher, a seedy character, used to shower with Year 9 boys when the weather was hot, or interrogate them in lessons about issues such as masturbation and puberty. Penises were everywhere, drawn on desks, scrawled on walls, in books and constantly referred to.  Some went beyond scrawling  and  meticulous in detail, were clearly the result of  much study, observation and affection.

I used to teach religious education and the class text books we used had penises graffitied in appropriate places wherever possible. When they couldn’t be inserted naturally they were simply drawn sprouting from foreheads.  And distance was no barrier for these fantastical phalli;  even when bodies were at the extremes of opposing pages, immense penises connected them. I kept a copy of the most graffitied text-book as the creativity and imagination of the boys was staggering.  In parts I was reminded of Hieronymus Bosch’s, Garden of Earthly Delights, which in the boys’ hormone-fired imagination, was exactly the landscape they were trying to express.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights

One of the photos depicted a priest offering a kneeling woman Holy Communion. What idiot designs a school book with such a photo! If boys hadn’t already graffitied the page, I would have to have done it on their behalf. So, a great monster of a penis miraculously sprouted from the front of his cassock, meandered into a suitable position to be held in his hand, obliterating the communal wafer and finally, was plugged into the woman’s face. More in line with the Catholic Clergies clandestine predilection for young lads, a more topical candidate might have been a kneeling boy. Meanwhile, the flanking attendants and congregation were suitably adorned with penises sprouting from under cassocks and from their foreheads. And in the air, a small chorus of  body-less penises, hovering like wingless angels,  jettisoned copious ejaculate wherever faces were visible and gagged and subsequently force-fed any open mouth. Manna from heaven! Graffitied cocks are seldom seen in Korea and personally, I’ve only seen three.

'Obscene' Korean graffiti - a rarity

In the UK, Ben, one of my students and an adorable boy, would be bullied for being a little faggot. Earlier in the year he dropped 2 marks from his English paper, scoring 98%. In the west, and rightly so, that’s an achievement worth celebrating but in Korea, if it’s not 100% it’s basically a fail. Even in essay competitions students who don’t win first, second, or third, will tell you they failed. Despite being the cream of their school and competing at province level, anything other than gold, silver or bronze is a failure. Distraught and ashamed, Ben spent an entire evening sitting alone, crying. Apprehensive about facing his parents, my boss had to comfort him and then drive him home. On this occasion, his ‘kibun’ was so damaged he couldn’t talk to me for several days.


More recently, he’s been quite excited. His dad has promised to buy him a puppy if he does well in the end of semester exams. Ben is ecstatic and is bouncing around the school like an amphetamine doped gazelle. ‘A puppy, a puppy,’ his constant cry. I’m thinking: a fucking puppy!  The boy’s sixteen and he’s totally thrilled by the prospect. In the UK, his mind would be polluted with plans to simultaneously get pissed and loose his virginity.

Faggoty is fashionable!

My school, like my last high school is full of faggoty boys. One is a local champion in ballroom dancing. He’s 14  and always  turns up at school meticulously dressed. He often wears a pair of trainers with laces the colour of his top. He obviously has a stash of  coloured laces at home and I’ve noted his array include green, red, yellow and blue. Like many Korean students who don’t use a back pack, he uses a bag which is fairly common, and nothing short of a big handbag.  Usually, he’ll mince into school with an arm extended like a tea-pot and from the crux of his elbow dangles his bag appropriately emblazoned with the logo,  ‘Kamp.’ Last week he had a new pair of silver trainers and a matching black and silver baggy top with large lapels. I didn’t particularly like the top’s design as it reminded me of 80’s fashions and the clothes Wham used to parade in when singing  shit  like, Wake Me up Before you Go-Go. Besides ballroom dancing, he has a third degree taekwondo black-belt!


Have you noticed the mincy little walk many Korean men have? The first time I saw a teenage boy mince, I was quite amused. I’ve since realised that mincing, basically walking with little steps while swinging the hips a little, is the product of wearing open back sandals. In my last high school boys had to wear sandals in school and there really is no better tool  adept at  emasculating males. If you want to feminise or at least androgynise men or teenage boys, simply force them to wear sandals, the type that have no back to them. You can’t run in them without taking small steps and as a result you shuffle along like a Geisha. Running up or down stairs is positively dangerous. In the same way you dispose a girl to femininity  by making her wear a skirt and subsequently deterring her from the rough and tumble of boys pursuits,  you emasculate boys with a pair of sandals. As a result, many Korean men mince  even when wearing shoes.

Jason is another student I have taught for almost two years. He’s a quiet boy aged about 15 and who talks in a whisper. A few weeks ago he was asked to write an essay on what he would do if he could do anything he wanted, for one evening. His response eventually concluded with spending the night in a luxury hotel, and ordering room service to deliver him steak and lobster. My western brain clicked into action: 15-year-old boy in a hotel? on his own? lots of money? – naughty, naughty!  Risky Business and all that stuff! But Jason avoided the alcohol, call girls and his luxury evening ended by watching TV, and having a double bed. ‘Double bed!’ I repeated suggestively. ‘Why do you want a double bed?’ I asked. His response was typically Korean; ‘to sleep in!’ ‘I laughed and was going to explain why, which of course is futile. Prostitutes, shagging, throwing parties when mummy and daddy are away, getting pissed – are all phenomena which exist at the furthest corner of Jacob’s universe. That’s where they belong until he is 19! The Garden of Earthly Delights, for a Korean student isn’t dependent  on sex, alcohol  or defying parents and all that is required to pave the way to paradise is no school and no homework! Meanwhile faggoty is fashionable, and mincy and kamp are cool and civilised.

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Ben. Korean Teenagers (1)

Posted in Diary notes, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on May 25, 2010

Ben is one of my students. He is 15 or 16 and in his final year of middle school. Tomorrow he is off  on his class trip, in this case to Sorak Mountain. He is in school early in the afternoon as his class has been let out and so he calls in for a few hours study, prior to buying  ‘snacks,’ at the nearby E-Mart. The snacks he tells me, will include ramyon (Korean pot noodle), choco-pie, (Korean chocolate cake-biscuit things), crisps (what American refer to as ‘chips’) and drink.

It’s the first time I’ve seen him in uniform; gray trousers and jacket with matching gray waistcoat, and a white shirt with the typical burbery-type pattern on the inside of the collar and inner cuffs. On his breast pocket a green flash carries his Korean name, stitched in gold. He’s a skinny boy who in class we often refer to as ‘chopstick boy.’ Today he is incredibly happy, his ‘kibun’ repaired after his post exam despair, last Friday. He’s not just a little happy, he’s ecstatic and he keeps telling me he wishes he was going now.

Next, he starts to tell me about how he fell over in football at school today and had to go to the school ‘hospital.’ He pulls up his shirt cuff to reveal a scratch the length of his forearm. It bled so much he tells me; ‘there was blood everywhere.’ He understands the difference between a cut and a scratch but insists it bled a lot. Then I considered how skinny he is and thought the loss of a little blood for him might be catastrophic and won’t to tease him but am cautious. Koreans do not like being teased as we in the west do and a bit of fun can very quickly upset someone and then you’ll have to wait for another day to clear the air. However, as a rule, Ben doesn’t mind a joke. That reminded me of last year when I jokingly asked a student, Mark, to close his eyes and then, from about a foot from his ear, I pulled the rip cord of a firecracker. Mark almost jumped out of his chair and didn’t find it at all amusing. He sat crying for almost half an hour and there was nothing I could do to console him. The firecracker had made one big bang, not like other ones I’d set off and Mark claimed a bit of powder had hit his ear. Well, if I’d been teaching in the UK I would probably have lost my job. Next day I gave him a box of choco-pies. In the nest lesson we discovered the firecracker had been made in China and that they are notorious for being loud and unpredictable.

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All or Nothing – on Mid Term Exams

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Education, podcasts by 노강호 on April 17, 2010

Being the time of mid-term exams, the school was quite strange today as some classes watched videos and generally relaxed, while for others, the pressure is still on. The majority of British kids don’t know what pressure is and would find student life in Korea very strange most especially as Korean kids identify with, and respond to, the term ‘student,’ (학생 – haksaeng).   Even this week, in the bathhouse, a boy was making too much noise and a man close by addressed him as ‘haksaeng!’ Trying to get an English kid’s attention by calling them ‘student,’ would be pretty redundant and a great many would simply tell you to ‘fuck off!’

The one and only!

I have great admiration for the Korean Education system, recently cited by Obama as a model the US should emulate, but one of its major downsides is the incredible pressure it puts on young people to perform. While it’s laudable that Korean students mostly want the best marks, it is somewhat sad that there is only one best mark, notably 100%.   Earlier this week I found some old photos of me taken almost 30 years ago and I was not only incredible fit, but very handsome;  in fact so handsome that I could actually fancy myself.  At the time however, and at every point of my life, I’ve been too fat, too unfit or too ugly and yet there I am in a fading photo with a waistline and looking very good. It’s bit of a knock when you realise that at one time you possessed something you’ve spent your life  looking for, and you never knew it! The same scenario is probably true for many people who struggle with their weight,  especially women, always feeling fat no matter how thin, and it’s similar for Korean educational achievement.


Asking kids yesterday, how they got on in their National English-speaking tests, even the ones who got 100% generally said, ‘okay,’ or ‘so,so;’ their modesty masking their intense happiness. And those who got scores of 99, 98, 97 etc, were equally as modest except the chances are they’ were bitterly disappointed.  There were several words that confused a number of my students, ‘sea animal’ and ‘sick animal’ was one, the other was ‘ hobby’ and habit.’ I could imagine a native  English speaker making an error but for those who answered incorrectly, this is no consolation and neither is the fact that many of their friends made the same mistake. A score in the 90’s is respectable and worth celebrating unless of course, you’re Korean.

So, as I left school yesterday, Ben who is 15, is sat on his own, forehead on the table,  and crying. I’ve never had a British boy of his age crying because they didn’t do well but here it is not uncommon.  And of course, you cannot console a Korean whose ‘kibun’ (기분) is in the gutter. As a western teacher there is something incredible about a student intensely upset  as it  reflects they care as much about their performance, as you do. When kids don’t care  or have slight regard, you can guarantee your job is  about child minding and behaviour control rather than teaching. However, it’s a travesty that the celebration of success is pivoted exclusively on 100%. Ben is a fantastic student: intelligent, witty, and in the Korean way, innocent, he’s a teacher’s dream, yet despite all his efforts and best intentions the loss of 2 marks effectively makes him a failure. Today was his first of a string of mid-term exams!

I have noticed that when students get their  exam results, school becomes a  refuge for those kids castigated and even physically punished by their parents. Last year, Ben lost one point in an exam and his father scolded him and I recall him being afraid to go home.  And so my boss will spend half her time plying them with tissues trying to console them and the other half explaining herself to agitated parents. Somewhere in the space between 90-99, maybe even 80-99, should be room for celebration and self-congratulation but as with weight-loss, in Korea it’s all or nothing and so a moment of self-appreciation, a pat on the back from a parent, is lost.

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It’s all in the Touch – Skinship. (스킨십)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, No Pumpkin Category by 노강호 on April 10, 2010

This week, I was invited to the apartment of a student’s father who, after a soju session, happened to find me alone, eating dinner in a small restaurant. I’d been both training and to the bathhouse and at 10.10pm, after an intense day, I didn’t really want to party.  Unlike many in a similar state of being a little tipsy, he refrained from coaxing me into drinking and so, feeling in control, I agreed to accompany him to his apartment. Needles to say, my dinner was paid for. Outside, on the street, he led me by the hand and throughout the hour or so we sat on the floor in his apartment, surrounded by his family, he kept giving me ‘high fives’ after which he’d hold my hand, interlocking his fingers around mine or squeezing my palm with both his hands and every so often, in a slightly inebriated fashion, he’d say ‘Nick, I love you,’ or ‘Nick, you are my friend.’

A communal pillow

I can imagine how intensely invasive such situations can be for many western men. From the age  18 to 27, I lived in West Germany and in my free time I trained with friends  in a taekwondo school. Although most of the students were German, a fair few were Turkish and whenever they shook your hand, which as is the custom in Germany, was upon every meeting, they’d shake it and continue to hold it. It seemed they held it for minutes and as each second passed, I could feel my body tensing. Worse however, was when they began caressing it between their hands until with temperature rising, you could feel your palm becoming horribly clammy.  Today, such innocent intimacy doesn’t bother me and I can as easily initiate it as be the recipient; but, if I think back to my first experiences of such behaviour, I can relive the horror. Without any doubt, it was invasive, almost like going in your zipper, but of course, you couldn’t pull your hand away, that would have been quite rude. And despite the fact my friends and I were only 18 or 19, that we’d never been to university and were soldiers, we had enough experience to know the discomfort stemmed from a simple clash of cultures. It just had to be endured. By the time I returned to England some years later, I wasn’t shocked when a Kenyan friend held my hand in Richmond, London, on a busy Saturday afternoon.


Within a Korean context, my new friend, Jae-seong'(재성), is behaving quiet naturally and his intimacy should not for one moment be construed as sexually motivated. In a male to male setting, Koreans are much quicker to initiate ‘skinship,’ than are British or North Americans and when initiated it is quickly upgraded to a level we would construe as ‘almost sexual,’  ‘certainly suggestive,’ and ‘definitely alarming.’ Men and boys sharing umbrellas, arms draped over each other shoulders, sometimes holding hands,  that’s the sort of stuff homos do! I googled ‘skinship’ prior to writing this entry and the fifth reference on the very first site, Urban Dictionary, began:  ‘disturbingly intimate skin-to-skin relationship between adolescent boys in Japan.’  This value judgment itself struck me as disturbing. However, more judgments were to follow:

(a new English teacher in Japan working in a junior high school) ”Man, I went into one of my classes today, and this one boy was sitting on the lap of another one right there and he had his one hand in his half-buttoned down shirt feeling up the other boys chest, and with the other hand he was playing with the other boys hair. Both of them seemed fine with it, and nobody else seemed to care at all. And I knew both of the kids have girlfriends because I talk to them after class. It was so weird…”

(a veteran English teacher) ”It’s called ‘skinship.’ I don’t know why, but they all love that shit over here.”

I am tempted to dismiss such comments as I know some people can be blind to travel, that travel doesn’t necessarily broaden the  mind.  I met a very pleasant fellow countryman a few weeks ago. We were roughly the same age, both ex army, having in fact served at the same time and in the same area, both professional school teachers and with a  lot  in common.  He had only been  in Korea a few weeks so I pass no judgment on him, but when I asked if he’d like to go to the movies, he rapidly declined assuming Koreans would think two men watching a film together,  gay! I have to ask myself whether I’m weird to find the intimacy of skinship endearing and should the hostility and masculine bravado I am accustomed with back home, be preferable? That girls can be intimate with each other without being labeled ‘lesbian’, while for boys the  only opportunity for physical contact is generally through a contact sport, in my opinion epitomizes the lives of insects, where every other  insect, even of ones own species, is a potential threat.

‘hierachical collectivism’

‘Skinship,’  is both a Japanese and Korean concept, derived originally from the relationship between mother and baby where physical contact is an important bonding process. The term is used to describe general intimate physical contact, as between parents and children, as well as more a more sexual expression involving petting, especially between teenagers. The Korean term, an example of Konglish, appears to differ in practice from Japanese ‘skinship’ as it is practiced between men, and especially teenage boys. It involves a range of common and not so common practices including:  draping arms over each other, sharing umbrellas, sitting in each other’s laps, massaging, stroking, toying with each other’s hair, holding hands, playing with fingers, resting head on another’s lap or thigh, playing with ears, etc, etc. It can also be used to describe bonding with someone through sports or games and which are often common practices among business men.

In the west, I have always found that even cursory physical contact between people, for example, touching of an arm or shoulder, signifies a deeper level of relationship. I can remember touching the arms of parents on parents evening in schools 10 years ago, parents whom I only met once, yet seemed to have an empathy with, which resulted in the fleeting touching of a hand or arm. And I have noted in the past, that a short cut to bonding is through physical touch but its initiation has to be mutual and stress free for it to be successful. Of course, physical contact and its  importance in bonding, form the basis of courses designed to promote workplace relationships – those courses where a partner has to fall backwards and you catch them or some such activity.

Normal behaviour

However, digressing momentarily, forced intimacy can occasionally have a negative effect. I recall, once going to a friend’s birthday party. She was English but practiced an Indian religion and along with twenty or so other friends, sat in a large and busy North London restaurant, and ‘forced’ to sit in designated seats next to people you didn’t know, we had to close our eyes, turn to the person next to us and then simultaneously, begin feeling the contours of each other’s face. The cringingly stressful procedure was  accompanied by new age whale music. Oh, my God! It was horrible! Not because of the intimacy but because you knew the rest of the restaurant were watching you in disbelief. Then we had to turn to the other partner and massage their shoulders. All I could think was, Karl Marx’s grave is just down the road and I’ve never seen it! There’s a time and  place for physical intimacy, for skinship but not in a busy restaurant on a Friday night  to the serenade of migrating humpbacks.

So, after a coffee, some strawberries, some holding of hands and intertwining of fingers, I actually feel closer to Kim Jae-seong than several hours earlier. Already, he’s inviting me to the beach at Pusan and even suggest a date. The chances are it will materialise. And then he progresses to  ask me if Id take his son to the UK  when I go on my next holiday. I agree and then to make light of it, as I know it’s probably the soju talking, I joke about how he’d fit in my bag.  And meanwhile  Ben, his son, is eagerly taking a photograph of me and muttering ‘ that his friends won’t believe his teacher has been to his house.’

I have probably taught more students back in the UK than in Korea but I have never sat in a parent’s house, I have never been invited into a parent’s house, I have never socialized with  a parent, I have never been invited on a trip with them, I have never had a student photograph me because they needed proof a teacher had been  in their house, I have never had a student hold my hand or do anymore than fleetingly touch me, and the same goes for a parent, and neither parent or student has really ever wanted to associate with me. And all in instance I feel both a yearning to be back home with my friends and family and a sense that this is home. Certainly, it is where I’m valued.

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