Elwood 5566

Ancient Korea – 2000 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pohang. Christmas Eve 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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EPIK Helped Kill the Korean Experience

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Education, podcasts, Westerners by 노강호 on April 29, 2011

Podcast 80

Here’s the problem! You’ve lived in Korea three months and you think you know all about it! Now that you’ve got used to being stared at, know the difference between makalli and soju, think you have an understanding of the Korean psyche and culture and have possibly been initiated by the annual waygukin pilgrimage to the Boring  Boroyeong (mud festival), Korea has suddenly become mundane, ordinary and predictable.

has Korea becoming boring?

I know the feeling. There are numerous things which can possibly terminate ones Korean experience or at least quickly lead to the honeymoon being over: these include, the internet, a mobile phone, English speaking westerners and ones ability to read and speak Korean.

If you want to preserve that feeling of amazement you experienced during your initial weeks in Korea you have to avoid taking any interest in learning to speak, read or write Korean and while you can use computers to play games and download music, you must shun search engines and any blog related to Korea. Avoiding foreigners, or at least limiting how many you know, is crucial but relatively easy as most are too busy pretending  they’ve been in Korea for the last twenty years and are adept at blanking you even if you’re sat under their very noses.

Yeah, but nothing like we used to be…(courtesy of Roketship.com

The famous Chicago School sociologist, Robert Park used to advise his students to ‘go out and get the seats of your pants dirty’ and not too long ago that was the only way you could learn anything about Korea. You wanted to learn about Korea, and then you had to go to Korea. You wanted to learn Korean, you had to go out and find someone to talk to; you wanted to learn how to make kimchi or do taekwondo, you had to go out and find Koreans willing to help you. Today, you can do it all from the comfort of your ‘one-room.’ The online oracle provides extensive resources on every facet of Korean culture so much so that you can learn more today about Korea from a computer in backwater Britain or a rural American retreat than you could gleam living here for a year before the invasion of the internet. And for every foreigner arriving on Korean soil a corresponding blog is birthed to swell the already bloated Klogosphere.

Learning Korean is the quickest way to sully your relationship with Korea. I’m not really happy living anywhere in the world where I don’t have to make an effort to learn what is going on around me because it is easier to get the information I upload.  Back in Britain, I live in a constant state of depression and on a daily basis am subject to a plethora of information that I really don’t want to process and which by its very nature is unhealthy. You don’t have to seek information out, it finds you and worse the bulk of it is rubbish.  If it’s broadcast in daylight hours or is front page ‘news’ it’s very often shit and I have no interest in the intrigues concerning the latest plastic protégés from Pop Idol, the dumb ass contestants selected for Big Brother, the Royal Spongers, Football or the plots of stupid soaps.

 

interesting…

It’s fantastic when I go back home as I have no idea who new celebrities are and besides, many will have disappeared by the end of the year. I lived in Germany between 1976-1986 and was telly-less and beside gaining black-belt in taekwon-do, when I came home to headlines announcing, ’Who Shot JR,’ had to ask who he was.  A great wadge of what constitutes ‘news’ is newsless shite which cascades into your brain like spam. If people treated that organ the complexity of which potentially separates us from lower primates as they do their computers, with upgrades, antivirus and spam devices, society would be much nicer. Do you lower your firewall, terminate you anti-virus facilities and start downloading everything on-line? Of course not! But that’s what many of us do with our brains and much of it can’t be avoided.

Living in a country where you do not speak the language fluently is one step away from living in a mountain temple. It’s shocking I had to be told there had been a tsunami in Japan and an earthquake in New Zealand and natural disasters don’t depress me like manmade ones; but on the other hand my brain hasn’t been polluted with rubbish about royal weddings or the obnoxious habits of celebrities.

And you can certainly give vent to your creative juices. For the last few years I’ve had to construct an understanding of the world beyond my little nirvana from fragmented ‘evidence.’ Like an historian of ancient history, I piece together a narrative constructed from isolated words I’ve understood or images I’ve seen. When I originally saw a clip of what I now know was the Japanese tsunami  (the TV was in a restaurant and there was no audio),  I thought it was a graphic from the 24 hour Starcraft channel. I could certainly go online and access information but choose not to as once you open yourself to external content it quickly overwhelms you. Ignorance really is enjoyable and I am infinitely calmer in my little bubble than I would be by allowing the worlds ‘dirty realities to rape my noggin.

EPIK killed the experience

Not only would fluency in Korean make it possible to be spammed and hacked, but it would take all the fun out of life’s little excursions. I remember the time when most restaurants lacked English translations and often had no pictures.  Ordering meals by pointing was fun; bus terminals with no English! That was a challenge. By all means, learn Korean to order a pizza or tell the taxi driver where to take you but much more than this will quickly curdle your Korean sojourn. Okay! I do speak a fair amount of Korean and put much effort into learning it but you either have to be very gifted at languages or have been here for a long time to actually be able to speak fluently. So, unable to understand anything but bits and bobs from the fast paced gabble of Korean TV and conversations overheard, living in Korea equips you with one enormous firewall. Not one mega byte of unwanted information enters my brain’s processing center uninvited or unprocessed.

Obviously then, the internet has to be shunned though it’s useful in emergencies and for smoothing out potential problems. However, using it to research where you should go, how to get there, what to expect and equipping you with opinions before you’ve even decided where to go is a little like substituting reading the back page of a book for actually reading the book itself.  And the problem with computer technology is that it permits you to lead almost identically the same life as you would have had back home. Yes, even now I am doing exactly the same as I would be doing back in the UK, basically sitting at a computer screen and most of the entertainment it provides in the form of music and film is identical. So vast are the tomes of information on Korea that very little remains mysterious, bizarre or strange. Information technology has helped demystify the Korean experience and severely shortens its potential to engage or entertain us.

Mobile phones are just as bad and owning one simply means that every waygukin you meet gets added to your address book and as they do your social life begins to develop which disproportionately involves fellow westerners. Most westerners, though there will be exceptions, only need a mobile so they can chat with their western mates and book trips to ESL tourist destinations.

As for the waygukin effect, blame it on EPIK! The sharp increase in the number of English speaking foreigners now living in Korea has helped destroy the intense interest Koreans once held in us. I knew more westerners in the area in which I live, ten years ago when they were a handful, than I do now, despite their comprising a small army. At one time, seeing a westerner was so rare you stopped and talked. Today, there are not only more westerners but more westerners married to Koreans or with a Korean boyfriend or girlfriend. There are even western children in some of my local Korean middle schools. And I know it’s mean, but whenever I meet an EPIK teacher I silently curse because it is predominantly their invasion which has turned us from objects of fascination and intrigue into ones boring, mundane and general. We were special until EPIK arrived and now one has been stationed in every school, coffee shop and burger bar; there isn’t s single student who has never met a foreigner.

 

The Costa del Sol? No! Korea. Boroyeong, waygooked to boredom

Knowing a couple of fellow countrymen, or women, is good for your mental health but getting pally with hordes of them is a bad idea. When ever foreigners hook up in droves you can guarantee the conversation will become anti-Korean and gravitate towards how crappy it is working in Korea, which for many it is but those of us with good bosses or plastic professorships don’t want reminding. Technology and the EPIK invasion now means Korea attracts ESL tourists seeking the Korean package experience. Many waygukin now come here not to experience Korea and its culture, but to basically do exactly the same sort of things that can be done on the Costa del Sol. With a pack of mates in your mobile address book, all waygukin, it won’t be too long before you’re either returning home or looking for another location to provide you that ‘unique’ experience.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.