Elwood 5566

All Camp in Korea

Posted in Comparative, customs, Gender by 노강호 on February 11, 2012

In your face

I’m always amused at the way some of my friends in the UK assume that because a country doesn’t ram gay issues down your throat and a significant number of the population constantly proclaim themselves out, that it must therefore be rabidly homophobic to the point of executing or imprisoning transgressors. When in Britain, it suddenly became possible, within certain settings, to pronounce your sexuality with pride, we did so with embarrassing drama. As a student teacher, I remember numerous people introducing themselves to working groups and seminars with their name and then, in the same breadth, declaring their sexuality. Usually, it was a simple one liner such as, ‘and I’m gay’ but in the early 90’s, with the growth of ‘queer politics,’ it was more usual to throw down the gauntlet and declare, ‘and I’m a queer.’  Then they’d glare around the room daring anyone to object. It was the spirit of the times but it now seems so ‘old hat’ and I cannot help but stifle a cringe at such honesty.

Back in the UK, being gay has become boring! There was a time when ‘coming out’ was an act with as much destructive capability as an atomic detonation and wielding that potential gave one an immense sense of power. I’ve known people drop to their haunches and seen jaws drop in disbelief. Coming out had the capacity to traumatize friends who often needed a period of acclimatization which in some cases meant not talking to you for several weeks. The whole process made you feel very special which at least went some way to compensating your lack of relationships and access to  physical intimacy. Now, ‘coming out’ rarely creates a stir and those that do have a problem with it are compelled to silence by the dictates of political correctness but in the current climate, where half the population of young people declare themselves bisexual, the prospects of intimacy and relationships are probably greatly enhanced. Today, the atomic bomb you detonate is more likely to fizzle into oblivion as the person being confided in calmly tells you, ‘why, I’ve known all along.’

Yes, it’s still evolving and nothing like London Pride. Susan Morgan describes it as a ‘parade of shame’ rather than pride, but it’s evolving.

However, even with advances in civil rights and changes in legislation, gays in the armed forces, gay marriage, LGBT rights etc, I still feel that while you are guaranteed to keep your job, you are more likely to get your face kicked in. While Korean gays do suffer physical abuse, I think their greatest problem come from employers and family. In the UK, there are still those with rabid homophobic views and who in the right environment will verbally abuse and gay bash. I have a fleeting suspicion that in the street, in my home town, there are a significant number of ‘homophobic sleepers,’ individuals forced to silence their opinions in the current political climate but a potential source of hate should things change. While I’ve met Koreans who are not particularly supportive of gay rights, they are never as outspoken, particularly hateful or  vehemently opposed to such rights as those I’ve met in ‘liberal’ Britain (but this is only my experience). While a number of outed celebrities have committed suicide, I also remember Harisu (이경업), Korea’s first transgender entertainer who in 2001 was a pin-up to many of my male students.

Violence in the UK

Part of this ‘ingrained’ hatred stems from the fact that in Britain (and in the West in general), there are more codes governing what it is to be male and which inform and consolidate practices concerning male emotion, male physicality, body language, interests and other facets of masculinity.  That women aren’t usually the object of gay bashing possibly stems from the fact that lesbianism is quite appealing to many heterosexual men and has not had the same history of legislation levied against it. However, though British women aren’t subject to such rigid gender codes as men, they are still required to behave within certain parameters. Meanwhile, in Korea, I perceive less difference between male and females gender roles.

Shameful – and most perpetrators will be men

I’ve never met a butch Korean male and neither have I met a Korean man who in any way made me feel threatened or intimidated. Does Korea even have any macho, aggressive type men, the type who will shove a glass in your face if you so much as look at their girlfriend or knock into them in a bar?  And when I have seen them fighting it has been quite hilarious. I saw a fight a few months ago and stopped to watch. There were three men, all in their fifties, all drunk and shouting while intermittently smacking each other with their umbrellas. The fight was wonderfully cute, like it was being performed by ducks or rabbits or some other animals incapable of actually causing real damage. And despite their anger they wielded their umbrellas in a manner that might be described as totally pussy. An umbrella can be a particularly nasty weapon especially if the spike is jammed into your eyeball or mouth, or the hooked handle swung upwards into your testicles or used to cause damage to the windpipe. I can think of an entire arsenal of umbrella techniques all the result of  earning a taekwon-do black belt in Europe, which took  a minimum of  four years study with the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) as opposed to the taekwondo taught in Korea (WTF), where black-belts and dan grades are handed out like candy, often in less than a year.

S Korean politicians pussying about

Yes, no butch men in Korea, thankfully! And neither are you likely to find examples of the rough and aggressive type of female that seems particularly common in the UK. Maybe they exist on the Mainland of Europe or the USA,  though I don’t remember their type in Germany, but we have women in the UK, and don’t think they are necessarily lesbian, who are more masculine than a significant number of British men and certainly more masculine than the majority of Koreans.  I suppose they are a product of our class society because they are always found in poor areas or on sprawling estates and are typified by their hardened faces, aggressive sneers, tattoos and propensity to physical and verbal violence.

In the UK, the number of social transgressions which would predispose you to being labelled ‘gay’ are far larger than in Korea. In the UK, no matter which way your sexuality swings, you’re a homo and less of a man if you play any musical instrument, like art or classical music and enjoy drama. One reason which can be attributed to why Britain is so dumbed-down is that the dominant ideology concerning male masculinity is largely one determined by the dregs of society. In Britain, all classical music, literature, ballet, art, poetry, drama, books and even the ability to read, or subjects or institutions related to learning and the intellect, are deemed arty-farty, poncy, nancy, boffin, elitist,  or gay – and you will note I use the lexicon of this dominant ideology, a lexicon that is immediately understood by any British person regardless of their status. The movie Billy Elliot is a prime example of the view held by some British people, but understood by all, that arty-farty is poofda!

From the Korean movie, ‘Between Friends'(친구사이). I once saw a complete squad of riot police holding hands in Daegu. as they marched in a double file to a demonstration

Yesterday, I attended a middle school graduation ceremony during which year books were handed out to the graduating students. I had to suppress a smile at the photos of the boys’ classes. In every photos of 6 classes of boys, there are not only boys draped over each other, sometimes sitting in each others laps but a significant number were in ‘girly’ poses and while not ‘girly’ to the point of being knock-kneed, pouting and with their bottoms sticking out, were still ‘girly’ enough within a British context, to question their masculinity and label them ‘gay.’  Don’t forget, in the UK you can be 100% heterosexual but still be homosexual.  And amidst the boys hugging and draping their arms over each other and the significant number of ‘girly’ poses with hand-like paws held on either side of their cheeks, are the boys cuddling little white fluffy dolls.  ‘Affectionately cuddling’ is perhaps a more precise description, sometimes against their chest and at others nestled against their faces and with their heads tilted to one side in a manner which if girls, would be slightly flirtatious, slightly titillating.  As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender. Most of the boys I teach play musical instruments, I’ve had boys who do ballroom dancing and those girls who have not the least interest in make-up or enjoy playing Sudden Attack, are not deemed less of a girl.

first year high school students with the hanja character for “innocence’ (순소한) emblazoned on the t-shirts

While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose. It’s all a matter of how much importance and significance you attribute to different parts of your identity. I might feel very different if I was younger but at 56 years of age my happiness as a ‘person’ is of more importance than one of sexual identity.

For those who think Korea tortures gays and imprisons them for their sins, I provide and interesting and rather cute, short gay movie, Boy Meets Boy (소년 소년을 만나다) which I recently discovered while researching information on the actor Kim Hye-Seong ( 김헤성).

I am no authority on LGBT issues within a Korean context and these are my views based on my limited experiences. For a ‘wart and all’ expose of the gay side of Seoul see Susan Morgan’s blog post, The Evolution of Homosexuality in South Korea. I believe there are several gay clubs in Daegu one of particularly long-standing.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.
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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.

Ben

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!

What...um.......yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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