Elwood 5566

The ‘Whale Hunt’ and Vacation Misery

Posted in customs, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on January 27, 2012

vacation misery!

Most of my lessons have at least one student whose character is strong enough to shade a class’s persona. Sometimes there are a few and usually, though not always, their characters are beneficial as they enliven lessons with their humour and marginal misbehaviour. Most of the characters, at least in classes with girls and boys, tend to be the boys but on their own or when boys are outnumbered, the characters of girls are just as entertaining. Among elementary and even high school students, girls and boys in the same class can cause a tension and rarely do they like to be partnered together. Elementary aged girls and boys seem to have much less problems working together. I’ve seen middle school and high school boys with strong and personalities, often the class comedian and prankster, totally silenced when outnumbered by girls. Indeed, nothing silences a boisterous boy more than a handful of girls, all except that is, when they’re involved in the ‘whale hunt.’

The ‘whale-hunt’ (포경) is the Korean euphemism for circumcision which many boys are subject  to on the verge of entering either middle school or high-school. The winter vacation is the most preferred season for the procedure as there is ample time to recuperate and infection less likely in the dry, as opposed humid weather of summer.

In the last ten days, a few of the boys in my classes have been muted by either having undergone the procedure, and they are often in class the next day, or muted by the impending prospect. I would imagine the Lunar New Year vacation has been totally ruined if their appointment with the ‘hunt’ falls in the next few days, as it does with several of my students.  Unlike other cultures, circumcision in Korea is not a celebrated rite of passage and apart from the obvious trepidation, seems no more socially significant than a trip to the dentist. Indeed, the procedure, currently costing between 80.000-100.000W (£40-50), is cheaper than most dental work and infinitely cheaper than in the USA where the medical profession has a history of  exploiting  the public (see link below).  Though I can understand the reasons parents and boys fall for the myths surrounding the need for this surgery, the normal rubbish about it improving hygiene or facilitating a bigger penis, I certainly can’t understand why you would ruin a boy’s vacation by booking an appointment a day or two after a major holiday and worse, sending them to school the next day!

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Searching for a Pathology to Fit the Procedure of Circumcision (Bathhouse Ballads, March 2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor – First Birthday Celebrations (돌잔치)

Posted in customs, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on June 10, 2011

the first birthday party – when baby is 2

Poverty and hardship have left deep impressions on the Korean cultural landscape many of which are still evident today. Korean food, often reflects former economic hardships which is one reason why black-noodles (자짱면) is still a favourite when students graduate. Though many families now go to elaborate buffet restaurants, black-noodles are still eaten to mark graduation as it was at one time considered a ‘luxury’ food. The obsessions Koreans have with food, which might be expected if you are starving, almost matches the British obsession with the weather, the result of living in an unpredictable climate. I am still not used to responding appropriately when a Korean asks me if ‘I’ve eaten’ and on so many occasions still reply with a list of what comprised my last meal or perceive it as the opening for an invite to dine together. Instead, they are really inquiring as to my general well being but so ingrained has this become that for some, even this is not implied and the comment reduced to a basic nicety void of any real meaning and synonymous to British observation about the weather.  Historically however, it developed at a time when many people were starving and was a question of much deeper significance. Dog stew (보신탕), silk worm (번데기), grasshopper (메뚜기) and a whole range of roots, woods and barks, many of which grow in the UK (shepherd’s purse 냉이, burdock 우엉, ㅡmugwort 쑥, etc, but which are no longer commonly used), reflect the former scarcity of food.

a lavish affair – Lee On-yu’s (이온유) 1st birthday. Hee-ho, On-yu’s older brother, who was the subject of an earlier post, is on the far right (Diary of a Little Boy)

Former high infant mortality rates can be attributed to the custom of a child being one year of age upon being born and with infancy and childhood being so precious, when circumcision was introduced to the peninsula, in the 1950’s, it was an ordeal sparred babies and infants and instead postponed to early adolescence. In 2006, Korea was cited by a UN report (link) of having the world’s lowest infant mortality rate of 3 (3 in 1000) compared to 45 in 1970.  A further development of the high infant mortality rate was the importance of a child’s first birthday celebration (돌잔치),  when in Korean reckoning they are two years old.

traditional first birthday attire - the dol-bok (돌복)

traditional first birthday attire – the dol-bok (돌복)

45 deaths per thousand within the first year doesn’t seem high until you consider that currently, 49 deaths per 1000 is the global average and that today’s most poverty stricken countries have infant mortality rates of around 50 per 1000.  The fear your baby may have been one of the unfortunate led to babies, pre and post natal mothers being secluded until deemed healthy. The threats to life weren’t just from disease but also from famine and the wide swings  in the Korean climate. Even today, circumcision is usually carried out in the winter rather than the summer vacation where the incredibly high humidity prolongs healing and increases the chances of infection.

Un-yu. The microphone he played with suggests he might be a future singer – he was certainly in good voice here

The first significant event to celebrate was a child’s 100th day celebration, the baek-il (백일). However, as might be expected, this was a fairly low-key affair and the baby wasn’t ‘publicly’ paraded. On the child’s first birthday, at two years of age, it was time for parents to present their baby to the world and hence the lavish dol-jan-ch’i (돌잔치) celebration.

In today’s affluent Korean society, this event usually takes place in a large, specifically designed function room to which families and friends are invited. Historically, and traditionally, the celebration varied depending on local custom. Today, the baby maybe be casually dressed or might be attired in the highly colourful dol-bok  (돌복) which differ according to gender. An elaborate buffet is provided which, along with the usual food one might expect, are foods of a more traditional and symbolic nature.

what will it be?

Now the child has survived the most threatening period of childhood, it is time to ponder what they might achieve in life and hence one of the most important parts of the celebration is when the baby is sat on a traditional duvet, propped by pillows and surrounded by objects which if played with or handled, predict the child’s future. The objects include:

pen, brush, book or calligraphy set – scholar

bow and arrow – warrior/soldier/strength (not as common as in the past)

rice cake – rich or possibly unintelligent

money -rich

thread – long life

ruler, scissors, needle – dexterous

However, numerous other gifts might appear, such as a microphone for a potential singer or a gold ball for a golf player. Nowadays, you seem to be able to add what you want.

The first birthday party has a long tradition and there are numerous variations to the celebrations which I have not done justice to in this short account. A good starting point for more in-depth information can be found at Wikipedia.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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

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

a sometimes used image on Korean urology websites

podcast 76

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

it needs to be…you don’t have to…

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

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

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

beauty is culturally informed

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

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

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

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

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

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

and yes, some facecreams really are manufactured from redundant foreskins

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

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

 

RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE

Summer Snippet (an inside view of Korean circumcision)

I Saw a Snood

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

A Summer Snippet – Circumcision (포경 수술)

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on August 16, 2010

Circumcision (포경 수술)

If there is one subject rarely talked about in Korea, it is the subject of circumcision. I was actually quite surprised when I discovered that Korea has the highest percentage of secular circumcision in the world, outstripping the USA. Over the age of 18, Korean circumcision rates exceed 90 percent.

By the time boys go to high school, the majority of them will have been circumcised and the most common time to perform this is between 13-16 years of age and usually during the winter vacation.  Some boys are circumcised earlier and a fair number may delay having it done. I occasionally notice university students who are uncircumcised but it is safe to assume that by the time they go to military service, they will have undergone the procedure.

Occasionally, I will know a boy is either about to have a circumcision or has just had one. Sometimes they will tell you and at other times the pained manner in which they walk makes it obvious. On a few occasions the subject has cropped up in lessons but it is never discussed in front of girls. It’s not unusual for a boy to be in classes the day after his operation though some will take a few days off.  Unlike the UK and USA, where non-neonatal circumcision involves a general anesthetic and an overnight stay in hospital, in Korea, it is performed under local anesthetic. Neither are operations performed in hospitals, but clinics which are as prolific as dentists or doctors. There is a circumcision clinic (Urology Clinic) opposite E-mart in Song-So and within minutes of having been circumcised, you can enjoy a Big Mac in their McDonald’s.

‘Ouch’

Aesthetically, Korean circumcisions are much neater than those performed in some other countries. Traditional circumcision in the Philippines, for example, known as pagtutuli, shouldn’t even be classed as circumcision and in the USA, an additional operation known as frenulectomy (frenuplasty – of which their are various spellings), which as many as 33% of circumcised males have had, removes the highly erogenous frenulum. Parents are not asked for consent to perform this ‘bonus’ procedure and indeed many men are unaware what was removed.  While the subject of circumcision is controversial, frenulectomy slips by unnoticed and most parents are ignorant as to what is involved. In addition, American circumcision has a history of being the most radical. In Korea, frenulectomy is not conflated with circumcision and the type of procedure doesn’t remove as much foreskin as possible.

I underwent a circumcision in August 2001 at the clinic opposite E-Mart, in Song-So. I had been debating the idea for several years and finally decided to take the plunge as I had never been happy with my status, probably because as a boy most of my friends were circumcised. I quite amazed myself at the time as I had visited my doctors and arranged everything for Thursday, 16th of August. The arrangement took less than a minute and there was no asking why I wanted it doing. My doctor simply made a phone call and booked me in. The operation would cost 100.000W (about £50), would take twenty minutes to perform and would be carried out in the same building as my doctor’s surgery.

A suitable totem pole near Kayasan

August 16th, 2001. I had to teach on the Thursday morning and though not as hot as a few weeks previously, it was terribly humid. In my classes, many of which had no air conditioning, my shirt was soaked with sweat. I had already perceived that I wouldn’t be in any fit mental state to teach and so had run-off some word puzzles for the kids. When my classes finished, I  frantically smoked a couples of fags on the back stairwell and paced up and down. I didn’t really want to leave school and there was an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but eventually everyone wished me luck and I took a taxi home.

I showered and then gave my friend David (이영순) a call. He arrived a few moments later as he had been waiting at the PC Bang, next door. I don’t think I had ever been so nervous, so much so my hands were trembling. Out on the street, we took a taxi and went straight to the clinic. I was early, so we went to the third floor of the building where I had a brief chat and cup of coffee with my doctor. Then, at 1.59 pm, he said, ‘Oh, Nick, it is time.’ And telling me not to worry, I walked down the stairs to the urology clinic. None of the doctors there spoke very good English so David sat in the clinic office with me and asked the surgeon the list of questions I had compiled:

“What happens if I get a hard-on during the operation?”  He laughed and said that wouldn’t happen. What sort of stitches would be used – dissolving or non-dissolving?” I was given a choice and told non-dissolving left less of a scar. “What happens if I get an erection over the next few days?” I was told to stick a cotton bud in my ear or stick my feet in icy water. “’When could I shower next?” Next week!

I was then taken into the operating room which was small and not unlike a dentist’s surgery.  In the center stood that ominous table. Dropping my trousers and boxers I lay down and wondered what the fuck I had let myself in for.

Everything everyone had told me worked out the opposite. David had told me to expect two injections (later it became four) well, I was given eight and they stung. I covered my eyes and ears for the whole operation as there was a radio playing shit Korean music and the three surgeons kept fucking singing along to it. David had told me that sometimes you hear the scissors snicking away and I did, even the radio or the surgeons’ singing didn’t drown it so I had to jam my thumbs in my ears. Then the overhead light was so bright I had to cover my eyes. Several people had said the operation would take around twenty minutes, in fact it took forty. Then, all apart from Pak Ji-won (박지원),  one of my older students, I had been told it wouldn’t hurt. It did! But not at first. Shortly after the snicking sounds finished, I smelt something cooking; I reckon they had either cauterized an artery or one of them was starting a barbecue. It was like my entire senses were being assaulted: the bright light, the noraebang Nahuna rendition and that strange, almost acidic  barbecue smell that lingered.  I had to stretch my fingers so I could pinch my nose shut, bung my ears and cover my eyes to blot everything out.

I think I lay like that for twenty minutes and eventually, felt a numb change in what was happening. I thought they were finishing but next followed a sort of slicing sensation which was very unpleasant because although it wasn’t painful, it felt actually felt like something was being sliced. David  had told me to expect eight stitches. The following  morning I counted 36.   At one point  during the procedure I told them it hurt but they ignored me and just carried on singing along to the radio.

Finally, the pain stopped and I could sense I was being mopped up. I took my clammy hands off my face and sighed. Then I was able to sit up and pull my trousers up. The surgeons, lined up, smiled and bowed. Out in the corridor David was sat reading. I did a little dance for him as I didn’t hurt at all, probably because my system was zinging with adrenalin. Then, we walked over to E-Matt and bought a McDonald’s which we walked home with. Was I hungry!

A common place to see boys hobbling. 미래 Urology Clinic opposite Song-So E-Mart.

The clinic has given me a list of after-care procedures which David had translated into English whilst I was being operated on. It listed things like not drinking for a week because of the antibiotics, not showering for a week, resting for a few days, etc, etc. At the bottom of the list was an amendment  in David’s handwriting, it read….

6. And you must endure not to have a wang! (Wank).

I didn’t hurt at all but throughout the evening, waited for the drugs to wear off and enter what someone had predicted would be, a ‘new world of pain.’ When my roommates arrived home we went out with them to a nearby restaurant. I wasn’t hobbling at all. Strangely, during the night I was worried more by the fact I didn’t hurt. And you wouldn’t believe how effective cotton buds in the ear are at killing an erection. One of the doctor’s had explained that poking a cotton bug in you ear-hole interrupts signals from your dick to brain and terminates any boner.

Friday 17th of August, 2001. In the morning, I was quite worried because it looked very ill. I wondered whether the bandage was too tight. I phoned David but couldn’t get hold of him so, at 8.45 am, I took a taxi to the clinic only to find it didn’t open until 9.30. So I waited in my doctor’s office on the third floor of the building. He sat me down, gave me a cup of coffee, talked to me and soon it was 9.30 am.

Back on the slab, I was checked-out but they didn’t think anything was wrong. Back in the reception area my doctor was waiting for me as he can speak fairly good English. There were three patients sitting behind me, two young women behind the receptionist’s desk, and four surgeons around me. Ten Koreans in all! Everyone was centered on our conversation – which of course, was about my dick!

As I leave, all the staff smile and bow deeply. My doctor invited me up to his surgery for breakfast and there I am introduced to his mother. We ate fruit and sat talking for about two hours and as I was leaving he invited me out to dinner. At the time, my doctor had just moved into the premises and had few patients, today I have to sit in the waiting room for an hour before I can see him.

Saturday August 18th, 2001. Very irritating because the stitches are made from something resembling nylon – like the material used for a toothbrush.

Although not sore, it is uncomfortable walking any distance so I have spent a considerable time lying down under the fan. Most Koreans get circumcised in winter and I would imagine the possibility of infection is higher in a humid climate so I lie under the fan as much as possible. I have been used to showering over 5 times a day and it is very uncomfortable not being able to do so. Showering is not just a hygienic necessity but a hobby and something I do to kill time.

Tuesday 21st of August 2001. Pak Jun-hee (박준희) has been bringing me lunch for the last couple of afternoons. His mandu and kimchi, made by his wife, Sun-hee, in their restaurant, are definitely the best in Song-So. Today, he asked if he could see ‘the results!’ Yes, I was rather shocked because in the UK no one would ask that. It was a strange situation because between us on the table, were the steaming mandu.  Koreans! I love them!

My ‘go-ch’u chin-gu’ of 10 years, Pak Jun-hi and his wife, Sun-hee

Thursday 23rd of August, 2001. My antibiotics and pain killers ran out today and I’ was sore, so much so I had to go and buy some. In the afternoon, I went out to the cinema with Ji-won (박지원, his father is Jun-he). His English has improved so much since I started teaching him back in November. He told me he would be really sad when I left and that he would never forget me. It was all rather poignant. We walked around the Milano area for a while and had pat-ping-soo in a Sweet Water cafe which is just  so tacky it’s unbelievable. It was decorated in pinks and had Barbie dolls and Miss Kitty paraphernalia all over the place. After, we had a burger in Lotteria and then took the bus home  which was painful as the bumpy journey was over the construction area of what is now Daegu Subway system.

Saturday 25th of August, 2001. Saturday and I’m still in pain so I headed back to the clinic with David. My God! What a hideous experience, so hideous I don’t think I can actually do it justice in writing. It’s like I’ve been to a place of pain that I never want to experience again. I went back onto the couch where they decided to remove the stitches and it felt I was being assaulted with a pair of pliers.  I cannot describe how excruciatingly painful it was and I wished they had been singing or cooking a barbecue, anything to take my mind off they pain. At one point, when I flinched, one of them told me off.  When I eventually walked out of the small surgery, and David saw me, me he thought I had soaked my head in water and my hands were shaking badly. However, it was much easier walking without those infernal barbed-wire bonds.

‘Go-ch’u chin-gu,’ David (이영선)

Thursday August 30th, 2001. Life is almost back to normal. On Thursday afternoon I did some of my jobs – paid some bills, went to see Mr Pak at the post office and then we spent the afternoon in the Han Song Plaza bathhouse. With school having just started, the place was empty.

RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE

I Saw a Snood

Finding a Pathology to Fit the Procedure

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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

I Saw a Snood

Alleged Korean mafia member

podcast 12

I was laying in the hot pool (열탕) this evening. I never hang around in there too long as this one is quite hot  and fifteen minutes is my maximum. As it was empty, I could wedge myself in my favourite corner and watch the television. Then this man with a large dragon tattooed on his thigh stepped into the pool. People often tell me that a tattoo is a sign of mafia membership but that might be prejudice. Last week I saw the first person I have ever seen in Korea with a tattoo on a part of the body not easily covered. It was a large cross which extended from the base of his neck right up until just under his ear. It wasn’t a good design and looked like he’d done it himself. A tattoo on the neck! That’s a bad sign and I heard myself mutter, ‘wanker,’ exactly as I do when I see those silly kids on hairdryer motorcycles zig-zaging from one side of the road to the other with an enormous speaker, masking-taped to the petrol tank and blaring at full volume over the whinnying strains of the engine. Yea, I know, those kids are probably harmless, but I had enough anti-social behaviour in the UK to last a life time.  A tattoo on the neck in Korea, will definitely impede life to the max!

The guy stands in front of me so his buttocks and are facing me, and for a few moments he stands watching the TV. I’ve seen plenty of guys with this sort of tattoo as well as the one cascading down the back and they’re never unfriendly or aggressive – not as you might expect a gang member to be. I’ve also noticed how many of them have the same stocky, slightly pot-bellied physiques. The water was starting to get uncomfortable but as I was going to change pools, the ‘ice room’ was calling me, Mafia Man turns about  and I get a glimpse of the first snood I’ve seen in several months.  Snoods are not common in bathhouses, but on non-western adults at least, they are  about as common as a foreskin.

Anyone who has ventured into a bathhouse will have noticed, especially if they come from Europe, that all Korean men are circumcised. Indeed Korea has the highest rate of non-religious circumcision in the world – thanks to the influence of the USA in the 1950’s. Meanwhile, N. Koreans remain intact. Finding data and statistics or indeed any information on the phenomenon of Korean circumcision is as difficult as finding information on frenulectomy / frenoplasty; the additional operation which the majority of American boys are subject to and which chops away even more of their dicks than their circumcision. When health ‘care’ secretly removes parts of the body and the victims don’t even know whats been removed, let alone their parents, it ceases to be ‘care.’

Korean circumcisions are usually performed shortly before the boy is about to go to middle school, the average age being around  13, though  for some it may be performed earlier and it is certainly not uncommon to see uncircumcised high school or even first year university students.  However, it is probably safe to assume 99.9% of males have been circumcised by the time they are conscripted into the forces. That this operation is not performed in infancy may be explained by the fact that until fairly recently, infant mortality rates were high  and circumcision placed an added risk  on a boy’s life. Unlike the USA, Korea has not exploited the clandestine removal of the frenulum.   Clinics for circumcising boys, most popular during the winter vacation, are as common as supermarkets and indeed, my local E-Mart has a clinic opposite so you can have your dick mutated and be sat in E-Mart McDonald’s in less time than a scale and polish. Operations taking about thirty minutes, are performed under local anesthetic and cost between 60.000 – 100.000 won (30-50 UK pounds).

And this is exactly what it looks like!

Back to the snood! When I first started going to bathhouses, I quite often saw a couple of guys with these very weird-looking things hanging from the underside of their dicks. At first, I thought they must have had botched circumcisions but I now know they were either Filipino or had been ‘circumcised,’ Filipino style, which is known as pagtutuli. The traditional Filipino version, which simply cleaves the foreskin in two, and then lets it hang off the underside like a chunk of fat,  hence the ‘snood,’ qualifies as a circumcision  about as much as rasping your face with the cheese grater qualifies as a face-lift. Meanwhile, if you want to know what happens to all those foreskins in the US – it’s a mega-buck industry with neonatal foreskins the most lucrative. Want to buy a batch? Apparently, they make very good anti-aging cream! Personally, I’ll stick with Nivea. http://ccr.coriell.org/Sections/BrowseCatalog/?SId=3

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Senior Green Belt Grading – March 10th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in customs, taekwondo by 노강호 on March 10, 2001

In Di Dim Dol last week I passed one of Young-seop’s (영섭) classes. The door was open and he was stood out in the corridor. Inside, the entire class of fifteen year olds were sat meditating. Young-seop told me that by seven in the evening many of his students were exhausted and meditating cleared their minds and prepared them to focus on the lesson. When the older students come into the school there are teenagers in every classroom, very often they sit with their heads on the desk taking a short sleep before their lessons begin. They have quite a funny way of doing this probably as the result of years of practice. They usually sit with their arms hanging loosely at their sides and their head on the table.

'filial piety' - an important Confucian value

The spring holiday has just finished and Ji-won tells me that for the next two years he will be in school from 7am until 9pm and I have noticed that there are now taekwon do classes for high school students who have to adopt these hours. While Korean kids seem brighter than their English counterparts, I don’t think they are proportionally better and I am critical of the Korean education system which put youngsters under so much pressure. Most Koreans lack creativity and their education seems to consist of a lot of rote learning. It seems that social control in Korea is exerted through education and employment. A lot of effort in the west is put into moaning about children who do sweat shop labour or are poorly paid  in third world countries and yet  Korean teenagers find themselves imprisoned in their schools.

During the spring vacation,  many boys are visible hobbling on the streets after being circumcised (포경 수술) . You see them hobbling along as if they have just spent several days in the saddle of a horse. I noticed one boy in KFC who was obviously  in a lot of discomfort and who kept having to stand up to adjust his underwear.

I bumped into Ji-won last week, he was walking down the road, arm in arm with his mum, Sun-hee. There seems to be much less evidence of a generation gap between teenagers and their parents than is apparent in the west. Several times he has told me he wants to do something his father has recommend, and the reason he gives for this is that his ‘father knows best.’ When it was raining last week, the seventh shower in almost 5 months, a boy accompanied me home under the protection of his umbrella. He had seen me go into a shop without a brolly and waited for me to reappear. He then walked me under his umbrella which as in the opposite direction to his apartment – how nice!

I had a sore shoulder last week and visited a Korean osteopath. They treated my shoulder with some form of electric shock treatment. I wasn’t very impressed but I was given the most amazing head massage. It was so relaxing and weird as it didn’t feel like I had hands on my head at all. It was quite indescribable and I think I will have to go back for another one.

I had my taekwon do grading this week and managed to jump several belts so I now have my senior green belt which is dark green. I was the first person to be called up as I was still the class junior. I had been told I was to perform the patterns, Taegeuk Il Jang (태극 一 장) and Taegeuk I Jang (태극 二 장) and so I had stopped practising the third pattern, Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三 장). Anyway, the moment I was on the mat, with thirty or so Korean students sat behind me, Mr Bae asked me to perform my two patterns and then asked if I could perform the third, Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三  장). Confused, and not understanding him, I said I couldn’t and so sat back down. I later discovered I’d been given my first green belt. The grading continued with the black belts, which is a large number of the class, going through patterns or performing with sticks or nunchaku. The following day I had someone write a letter for me explaining that I could perform Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三 장) and so that afternoon he asked me to perform it and immediately gave me my senior green belt.

I usually go to the taekwon do school early so I can warm-up and do some bag work. I have discovered there is a class where boys aged between 11 and 14 do dance routines to Korean pop music – affectionately known as k-pop. It is really amazing to watch as it is all choreographed and well rehearsed. I had a job telling my instructors that in the west such a class, despite the fact most of the boys were red or black belts would be seen as effeminate and ‘gay.’

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My Early Assumptions of Korean Culture – January 25th – Feb 10th, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on February 10, 2001

I have been re-arranging my files and haven’t kept my diary up to date though I have been keeping notes in a small note-book I carry with me.

I do most of my shopping at a place called Shin-woo. It’s part of a chain of relatively small supermarkets rather like the Co-Op might be in the UK. It’s the place to buy all the essentials and where there is nothing too fancy to lure you. My nearest big supermarket, which I think is six floors in total, is E Mart . I have only been here a few times, once with Pauline when we went to the car park at the top of the building and from there took photos of the surrounding valley. I don’t like shopping here as at weekends it is crowded and during the week you get stared at. Like most department stores and supermarkets here, there seem to be hundreds of staff and sometimes they outnumber the shoppers. Most just hang around and when you walk in you can expect to be stared at all around the store. Of course, the relieving thing about this is that if you stare back at them etiquette demands that they look away.

Cabbages outside Shin-woo, Song-so, December 2000

The E-Mart, which in Song So sits domineering a hill position, has plenty of luxuries and has an in-house bakery, a well stocked fishmongers that doesn’t stink and an almost western style butchers where the carcasses aren’t chopped up in front of you. You can buy sashimi and sushi, cream cakes and things like tempura prawns, sweet and sour pork and ready cooked chicken – none of which are particularly cheap.

As I said, I shop at Shin-woo which is situated just past MacDonald’s and has one entrance which is shared by the restaurant owned by Ji-won’s (벅지원). One thing I am looking forward to on my return to the UK is familiar smells. In Korea strange smells constantly remind you that you are in a foreign land, a totally foreign land. Shin-woo is full of them. Washing-up liquids of peach, furniture polishes of coffee and quince aromas, the smells of seaweeds and the ever-present smell of various kimchis. Then there are the contrasting smells of the fishmonger and butchers which are situated at the back of the store. I have regularly bought squid from the fishmonger and pork and chicken cutlets from the butchers. I don’t particularly like this end of the store as the fishmonger’s stinks and the butchers reeks of carcasses. At the butchers I often order a small portion of recognizable meat, but I have to look at any other point than into the display cabinet. There is always someone gouging lumps of flesh from an enormous rib cage suspended from a hook. Often, my visits seem to coincide with when the butcher’s staff are eating their meals which they do in bloodied overalls amidst the organic nightmare. Enormous leg bones sit in the display cabinet with marble-white ball joints and there is always skin from the arse of a cow, which contains the tail hideously adorned with a lump of fluff at the end of it. Trays of tripe swim in brine between purple livers and kidneys. The one fact you cannot escape stood at the butchers, is that you are buying bits of an animal. The selections of meat I do recognise look quite appealing but then I am reminded of their origins and that quite puts me off.

There is a lad who works in the butchers who is rather attractive and who always gives me a smile. A few weeks ago, when I was shopping just before closing time, I happened to walk past just as he’d dropped his overalls and was stood in a pair of boxer shorts. My eyes probably quite popped in their sockets and I’m sure he noticed my sudden interest but I doubt he interpreted my reaction as sexually motivated. Koreans seem to be mentally castrated and exhibit little sexual awareness or interest at all, Pauline said she could never take him to bed as he’d reek of cattle carcass, death and blood. What a gross thought!

I travel to the Yon San Dong kindergarten on a bus that picks me up at 9.30am. At this time of the day the streets are full of kindergarten buses picking children up from various points around the apartment blocks. By the time I get on my bus it is already half full of children and the Letterland alphabet cassette is blaring out. It drives me fucking mad mostly as there are only about four different songs and for example, Annie Apple shares the same song as Oscar orange. The worrying part of this is that I actually find myself singing along to them! The mornings are always sunny and it has probably only rained six times since I have been here – which is four months today. No seasonal depression syndrome here! The best part of the ride to the kindergarten is when Chi-woo gets on the bus. He’s the little boy who sits next to me and asks me what everything is. We have now progressed to parts of his shoes including the Velcro straps. You only have to tell him something once, or a couple of times at the most and the next day he will repeat it back to you. Unfortunately he is not in my class – I have to suffer the brain-dead Da-hae.

Several times I have found Chi-woo and Un-won, the little girl who sits in front of him and who is about six, sitting head to head. Intimately, Chi-woo touches her face and whispers the word ‘cheek.’ She then repeats it back to him, then touches his chin and whispers ‘chin’ which he then repeats. This will go on for several minutes. It is like something out of John Wyndam’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos and is quite freaky as they are so intense and almost secretive about doing it. This week Dong-seop managed to write the letter ‘b’ and I felt very pleased as this is his first letter ever. I would love to meet some of these kids in ten years time and I am well aware of the privileged nature of their education. Ga-in, U-chun’s daughter, who is four, already speaks a fair amount of English and is now learning Chinese. The depressing aspect of all this education is that it is primarily geared for the job market and in that sense I feel sorry for them. Their lives are mapped out and hideously myopic, schooling, homework, university, military service, marriage, work, marriage, babies, death.

It is very difficult to access information on any deviation in Korean culture and even on Korean culture itself, via the internet. I find myself trying to imagine what it is like for those kids, boys especially, as Korea is a male dominated society, that do not conform, that do not fit in. How do gay teenagers, for example, manage to survive here? What is life-like for the small percentage of lard- arses or those kids not inclined towards sports?

It is though there is a hidden side of Korea that is difficult to explore or investigate. A secret Korea that is almost impossible to penetrate especially if you are an outsider. For example, I believe all Korean boys are circumcised. I cannot back this belief up as there is nothing on the internet. They are circumcised between 10 and 14 and yet there seems to be no evidence of this at all in society. It does not seem to be marked by any form of celebration as in other cultures and it does not seem to be a rite of passage. Boys in classes make no reference to it and though English text is used in many adverts, shop facades, doctors and dentists, there is no reference to it at all. Like the bath houses, it is something uniquely Korean which happens only in Korean confines and the only information about it is in the Korean language where it remains inaccessible to the foreigner. Of course, a trip to the bathhouse would confirm this but this is something I have yet to summon the courage to do. Korean bathhouses are themselves Korean domains and I have met few westerners who know about them or have indeed visited them. Pauline and Angela are the only people I know who have been to them. Nana, who has been here four years, has never visited one. Pauline said the experience was initially quite terrifying.

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