I’ve spent 8 years looking at Korea through an understanding of British culture and now I’m living in the UK, my observations are shaded by my interaction with Korean society.
In the summer, just before I left Korea, my gumdo master suggested we take our students to a spa for an outing. A ‘spa’ in Korea is a water park. My first question was, ‘what do you wear in a spa?’ Of course, I knew the answer, a bathing costume; it just needed confirming. A little wave of nausea washed over me. I’ve become so used to nude bathing that the idea of wearing anything other than nothing is ‘pyontae’ – which in Korea means ‘perverted’ though a closer, not so stringent translation is probably ‘sick’ or ‘gross.’
Now, this revelation, a complete turnaround to how I originally envisaged a bathhouse experience, is strange partly because that despite being gay, I don’t find the bathhouse in the least an erotic encounter. This fact quite confuses some people whom obsess that a bathhouse has got to be an erotic experience for a gay man. Perhaps this obsession reveals more about them than it does me. Indeed, I’ve never really found the experience erotically engaging. Naturally, I’m aware of handsome or attractive bathers but that’s where it stops. Conversely, I find clothed bathing far more sexually intriguing because it leaves something to the imagination. Nudity is noble and levelling while bathing in a costume is simply sad and repressive. In the end, we didn’t take the kids to a spa and I was pleased because I would have felt more awkward, more body conscious strolling around in bathing shorts.
One of the most notable revelations on returning to the UK is that any mention of nude bathing and the fact you find it superior to clothed bathing, even in a segregated environment, instantly labels you a ‘nudist’ or ‘naturist’ both of which for many British people carry overtones of ‘kinkiness.’ In summer, I meet up with a friend who spent 4 years in Daegu. I think I may have introduced him to bathhouse culture and over the years we explored numerous bathhouses and jjimjilbang in and around Daegu. When he visited, we travelled part of the east coast and arrived at St Osyths Beach, near Clacton.
St Osyths Beach is one of those seaside towns that epitomise the ghastly side of British culture. Really, its nothing other than a sprawling caravan park with a row of glitzy amusement arcades, a few restaurants and a bar. The restaurants serve decently priced food in good proportions but the quality is lacking. You can buy a foot long sausage and chips for a couple of pounds but I don’t think the sausage contains any meat and if it does it’s mechanically rescued and engorged with some form of edible padding; bread perhaps.
Part of the beach is quite pleasant but if you walk only a hundreds towards the ‘nudist beach’ it rapidly deteriorates into a bomb zone. Clearly, some structures or an esplanade originally stood on this stretch which had subsequently been bombed flat or smashed by an enormous tsunami. The rubble has never been removed and large chunks of concrete lay embedded in the sand decorated by patches of paving and the odd rusty, iron girder. The beach was strewn with rubbish, beer cans, broken glass and the likes and ornamented by a great swampy expanse which smelt like an enormous drain and sat between the footpath and the beach.
We spent several hours in the nude beach trying to recapture the luxury of Korean bathhouse bathing. Having walked some twenty minutes from the caravan park area, the beach becomes sandy and clean with dunes stretching far along the isolated coastline. Bathing in the sea wasn’t that pleasant; the water is murky and the floor a constantly shifting bed of shingle that at times was sharp.
It was high summer, holiday season, but the beach wasn’t too busy and here and there sat or bathed real naturists. You could distinguish real naturists from those with other motives because they made eye contact and occasionally communicated with us, perhaps smiling or commenting on the hot weather. What marred the occasion were the number of perverts frequenting the beach – all men! They fell into two categories, those tolling the beach-line who simply paraded up and down and those hiding between the dunes eager to eye up whatever it was that attracted them.
One character, wore a complete body stocking which covered all but his hands, feet and head and he minced along the path between the beach and the dunes sporting a lttle hand-bag. Another, paraded up and down fully aroused and every twenty or so paces would keep himself ‘pumped’ with a vigorous fondling. Yet another, trolled the water’s edge wearing a mid-riff T-shirt from which was attached a piece of cord subsequently tied to his nether regions. This ‘reign’ was somewhat tight and as he walked his T-shirt pulled on the reign and his penis reared upwards as if a dinky sized My Little Pony was nestled in his crotch. Meanwhile, in the dunes, heads constantly popped up and peered about like pink periscopes before submerging.
Despite my years of Korean bathhouse bathing, in an all male environment, I felt uncomfortable with the kind of behaviour paraded on this beach. I doubt there were any punters under 25, apart maybe from a few women in pairs and you certainly wouldn’t want to bring children here. The whole experience was tainted by the parading perverts and hidden colony of leering meer cats.
In July 2015, I left Korea after 8 years (10 years total) and returned to Wivenhoe, in Essex, UK. Why? I’m still asking myself! Korean life was so relaxed and familiar but I missed my friends and family back home. I think I would have stayed in Korea permanently if it had been possible for foreigners to buy property or to live in the country without having to exit every 3 months and return with an updated visa.
Hardest of all, was saying goodbye to my gumdo Master, Kwon Yong-guk. I had trained with him everyday for almost four years. When I eventually stepped on to the Seoul-bound trained, in Daegu, we both had tears in our eyes. However, leaving Korea in 2015 was quite different from leaving in 2001; with the internet and the likes of Facebook and Skype, staying in contact is easy and I video chat with him most weeks. In 2001, the primary mode of contact was via e-mails or the likes of Messenger and a Christmas phone call, Seoul to UK, in 2000, cost me £80.
Before I left Korea, I already had an inkling of what I was going to miss, and I very much do. Most of all I miss Koreans. In particular, I miss young people. Korean towns and cities are filled with children and teenagers and street life is enlivened by their routines. Further, Korean culture is coloured by the broad range of amenities provided for them: PC rooms, Kids Cafes, jumping rooms, noraebang (singing rooms) and play areas in restaurants. Even amenities which in the UK would be predominantly for adults are equally frequented by children and young people. Where in the UK, do you see children or teenagers eating together, unsupervised, in anything but the likes of MacDonalds or KFC? And of course, in Korea, children haven’t yet been indoctrinated and corrupted by the idea that their bodies’ are a source of sexual attraction to lusting adults and especially lusted over by those who were formerly trusted, such as relatives, teachers, politicians and the clergy. Britain is now a very scary place for the child and indeed any adult whose interactions with a youngster are misinterpreted. Indeed, so central to the British psyche are concerns of child sexual abuse, to the point of obsession, that it suggests either a very unhealthy national preoccupation, or worse, one that is rooted in the human condition.
Then, I miss Korean men; ever since I experienced life in Germany, I’ve always found a great swath of the British male population to be horribly brute. Indeed, to be fair, male or female, the British character is typified by vulgarity, aggressiveness and violence. This character is predominantly a product of the working-class tradition of which it is currently politically correct to deny the existence or influence of and yet we see the class dichotomy paraded for entertainment in the likes of Downtown Abbey, East Enders and the intrigues of the royal family. Few Brits would deny the existence of a British upper class, but to correspondingly talk of a ‘working class’ has become as socially uncomfortable as flying the Union Jack over your house. I have met Koreans whom I dislike but I’ve yet to meet a Korean man who is brute or vulgar, let alone a brute or vulgar female. It is wonderfully liberating to walk busy streets surrounded by predominantly feminine men or youths rather than having to negotiate the complex variations of the British psyche where one man is a gentleman, the next, some slob with his hands stuffed down the front of his trackies and the next some male looking female who is foul-mouthed and muscled.
I miss being really clean, ‘clean’ in the same way you can be in Korea and I’m not claiming all Koreans have the same standards. Swimming pools, spas or sauna are not a daily part of British life. Unless you live within 20 mins of a bathing complex, most of us don’t enjoy water or cleansing as entertainment. On the contrary, bodily hygiene in Britain tends to be functional procedure especially as many British homes don’t have a bathroom suitable for cleaning your body in a truly comprehensive manner. And Korea is bursting with restaurants, coffee shops, street food and markets. In six months back in the UK, I’ve eaten out twice. It’s simply too expensive to eat out at a decent restaurant twice a day. Of course, I’m living in a large village rather than in a city but even if I go into town, population approx. 122.000, there isn’t a great deal to do and the quality of resources and culture is impoverished. One big problem with Britain is that so many of the things you would do on a daily basis in Korea, and without a second thought, are not just expensive luxuries in the UK, but by comparison, are second-rate. Trains are slow and dirty even when they are high-speed intercity trains but no British trains are truly ‘high speed’ because the ancient infrastructure limits speeds to 125 mph, maximum.
There are some pleasant aspects of being back in the UK though I don’t feel they compensate for living in both an impoverished culture and among so many with brute and vulgar sensibilities. I enjoy damp air, green fields, eccentricity (which in Korea is frowned upon), birds and houses with gardens… and that’s about it. I actually thought I’d be able to be more positive but on reflection that’s all I can muster.
I have no doubt my posts here will commence with ones of a comparative nature before they broaden out into other topics.