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Suneung Countdown (수능)

Posted in Education, Uncategorized by 노강호 on November 11, 2010

D-Day Minus 7

Parents praying for suneung success

Suneung

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Suneung Countdown (수능)

Posted in Uncategorized by 노강호 on November 4, 2010

D -Day Minus 14

 

praying for success

Suneung

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A Day of Reckoning – 'Suneung' (수능)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on October 28, 2010

D Day countdown

As I write, across Korea thousands of third year high school students, known as ‘go-sam’ (고삼), will be religiously counting down the days. Some began the count  at ‘D  Day  minus 365,’ others, more traditionally, began at  ‘D Day minus 100.’ Today, is ‘D Day minus 21.’ And within the space in which I have written this post, in exactly three weeks time, the futures of thousands of teenagers will have been significantly determined.

‘D Day’ itself will present about 600.000 of the nation’s ‘go-sam’ students,  with one of,  if not the most, important experiences of their lives and certainly their most important exam. The suneung (수능) or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) is the Korean, standardized test taken by all final year high school students and although some alternatives are now offered, and more are supposedly on the way, for most students it is the sole qualification required for entry into Korean universities.

Of all the standardized tests globally, the suneung is seen as one of the most rigorous. The path towards that moment of academic reckoning begins in elementary school and every step in the development of academic ability from infant study onwards, is a preparation for the suneung.

 

a late arrival is given a police 'escort'

Taken on the second or third Thursday in November, the suneung temporarily transforms the face of Korea and on the day there is a sense that  the entire nation is backing the candidates. The transformations are a reflection of  the pivotal role education plays in society and despite the  professed importance other nations give to ‘education,’ in most, only a national catastrophe or war would be sufficient to suspend capitalism or national defence. In Korea education stops everything, back in Scumland UK, it stops nothing and I can remember sitting the equivalent of the suneung exam to the accompaniment of persistent rifle fire from the nearby military base.

 

The Korean equivalent of Room 101

The exams last one day and are divided into a number of periods during which exams are taken in subjects such as: maths, social studies, English, sciences, vocational studies and  foreign languages. The exams are largely multi choice. To guarantee candidates arrive in school armed with equipment, entry permits, a ‘fighting spirit’ and ready to do their best, a range of national procedures and contingencies come into effect:

♦All other students begin school after 9.am.

♦To help ensure transport system work to maximum efficiency, many businesses begin work at 10am. This includes the Stock Exchange! Yes, there’s only one Stock Exchange, it’s in Seoul and probably nowhere near a school,  but it’s the thought that counts. For a few moments the success of students is of more importance than the economy.

♦During the periods when listening test are being conducted, planes cannot land at airports and those waiting to land have to circle above 10.000 feet. Even air-force movements are curtailed, within reason, to ensure silence at the appropriate times.

♦Korea Electric Power Corps places 4000 workers on standby in the event of power failures and each examination center, of which there are about a 1000, is sent a technician to monitor power supplies and await any emergency.

♦Police assist on the roads approaching schools and are also on hand to transport students who’ve encountered problems. Nerves thwart the plans of the best intentioned candidates.

♦Since 1993, there has been no evidence of  suneung questions being leaked. In the days immediately  prior to D-Day, specially selected professors are imprisoned in a hotel, denied any form of contact with the outside world, the hotel windows blacked out, and equipped with a library of resources, they  formulate the exam questions. No doubt the hotel is 5 star, but nonetheless, they are kept in  solitary confinement  until the exams are officially over.

♦Schools are also supplied detectors with which to scan students for devices, hand-phones etc, which could be used to cheat.

♦Female teachers in high schools on the day of Suneung are not allowed to wear high heeled shoes or perfume.

 

'suneung exams transport support' provided by the military

 

Police support

Beyond official and bureaucratic procedures adopted to ensure both fairness and a conducive examination atmosphere, a host of other  practices have developed aimed to improve the chances of success. Eating anything sticky on or before ‘D Day’ is believed to enhance ones luck. Sticky things cling to the wall and do not fall and so by chewing on toffee (엿), or sticky rice cake (찰떡),  it is hoped you grades will hold fast and not slip into the gutter. Conversely, eating anything slimy, such as seaweed soup (미역 국) might incur bad luck and see your chances for the university of your choice slipping away. At the same time, one must avoided uttering any word expressing failure, falling, dropping, sinking, sliding or slipping.  The reason obvious; if it’s muttered, it might happen. Parents and relatives will travel to mountain temples to say prayers and leave slips of paper on which are written the names of loved candidates, or they will attend special services in churches where small Bibles can be purchased in which you stick a photo of your son or daughter, all in the hope of currying divine favour. I doubt many believe success or failure is determined by the consistency of ones food,  use of language or  even prayer but anything which can be used to bolster the spirit is a valid psychological  weapon in  the quest for exam success and highlights the desperate measure to which the importance of exam success drives individuals.

 

Parents praying for the exam success of their children. I did the same thing here with a friend's family in 2001.

 

messages of good luck at the start of the final 100 day countdown

 

'go-sam' students being greeted by their juniors on exam day

plenty of rousing support

supporters

On D-Day, parents will crowd around school gates, some will pray and other will hold their Buddhist bracelets in reverent anticipation.  Candidates are often greeted by 1st and 2nd grade students as they arrive. Colourful banners wishing students good luck are waved and sometimes juniors will perform the full bow at the feet of those about to be tested. It is also common for juniors to rally the spirits of  their stressed seniors by singing rousing songs before the exams commence. My last high school had almost 2000 students and it raised the hackles to hear 1200 boys singing in unison from all the classrooms under the 3rd floor, where the suneung candidates waited for their exams to commence.

 

Boys singing after the completion of exams

 

a mother prays at the school gates

The exam

And when the exams finish, all the text books and notebooks used by the students throughout the year are unceremoniously tossed from the go-sam windows, often on the 3rd floor.  Of course, the pressure isn’t off as from 6pm onwards, newspapers can publish exam questions and the agonizing process of  self assessment begins until the results are finally released. And of course, as with every exam in Korea, only those with perfect scores are allowed to feel any satisfaction and even this is down played.

 

legitimate vandalism

relieving stress

 

Finally!

Undoubtedly, Korea has one of the best educated populations globally and though we might want to qualify the nature of that ‘education,’ we cannot dispute their success in terms of literacy and the sciences. Objective subjects and languages are much easier to assess. When it comes to the arts and subjective thinking, Korea has problems but however flawed or misguided we might perceive the Korean education system, it has facets worthy of admiration and parts perhaps worthy of emulation. Coming from Scumland UK, where dumbing-down is fashionable, bone-idleness excused, and the fruits of study and erudition watered down into a melee where belly dancing becomes an academic pursuit which has parity with mathematics or physics,  it is  refreshing to work in a culture where  education has too much significance rather than little at all.

 

results

To all 2010 go-sam (고삼) students about to face the suneung, ‘fighting’ (화팅!)

For a selection of video clips giving a general idea of the various suneung activities

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Ben (3) Korean Teenagers

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

Ben on a low

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

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

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

and on a high

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

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Laura – Korean Teenagers (2)

Posted in Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on June 29, 2010

It’s the exam season and the atmosphere in school and even on the street is down. I don’t particularly like this time of year as it disrupts classes and makes planning an impossibility. In classes some students are so tired that effective teaching isn’t possible and you really notice the mood of students, some ride it fairly well and others are up and down and unpredictable. And all the kids are tested, from the youngest right through to high school students.

I haven’t seen too much of Laura lately but unlike Ben, she is usually fairly consistent in her temperament and always has a smile. This week, after asking me to comment on her latest perfume (which is actually her mother’s), she coyly tells me she has a boyfriend, and…. that he has kissed her!  That it was only on her cheek doesn’t dampen her happiness. She takes out her mobile phone and proudly shows me the album she has created featuring him. In one photo, she excitedly explains he’d just had a shower and his hair, still wet, was sticking up. She is so excited at the captured image, which she describes as ‘cute,’ that she blushes and her eyes actually flutter.

Saturday was a ‘play Saturday’ (놀토) which of course, at this time of year, it’s not as any free time is used for studying. I met Laura on the street on Friday evening, as I was going home. She was going to a ‘reading room’  which are  ‘libraries’ solely for study and which, like the PC rooms, are constantly open. When I asked what time she would go home she told me 2 am. Most perverse of all is she’s smiling as she tells me. ‘And what will you do tomorrow?’ I ask. ‘Study,’ she replies laughing. Korean innocence!

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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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All or Nothing – on Mid Term Exams

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

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

The one and only!

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

Ben

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

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

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

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Return to Korea (Korean Accounts 2. 2002-2003)

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, Bathhouse, Diary notes, Korean Accounts 2 by 노강호 on September 29, 2002

I arrived back in Korea, in September 2002, after agreeing with Mr Joe that I would do a six month contract. After my former mistrust of Joe, it might surprise you I returned to work for him but I suppose my feelings towards him mellowed and in addition, I really wanted to return for an extended spell. In the year since I was last in Korea, much has changed. Now there are many more westerners than there were two years ago. The evidence of westernization is striking and there are even more Macdonald’s burger bars, Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours, Pizza Huts and Burger Kings. On the main road through Song So, that leads to Kemyoung University, in addition to the MacDonalds and KFC, there is now a Baskins Robbins parlour, a second one is presently being built, and a Pizza Hut. All these facilities are within a 10 minute walk of my front door. I am also sure that I am seeing more fat Korean kids than I did before.

I am living just around the corner from my old apartment and in fact I could have looked out my former bedroom window onto the side of the building I am now living in. This time I am in a one bedroom apartment which is next to a Chinese Medicine establishment and looking directly onto a barbecue restaurant and restaurant which is being built and as yet has not opened.

Pak Jun-hee and his family left the old restaurant where I spent every Saturday evening teaching Ji-won. I don’t think the restaurant, which was behind the Shin-woo (신우) supermarket on the main road leading directly down to the university, was bringing in custom.  They have moved to a restaurant just around the corner from where I live which is just a few doors down from the bakers and the Hapkido School. The restaurant is very small and sells pork (삼겹살) or beef barbecue. Even though the restaurant can be very busy, I think the returns are less than adequate and the family is struggling a little.

I have been up Warayong Mountain several times with Pak Jun-hee and though it is a struggle to get to the top it was well worth it. Warayoung is the mountain which lies directly behind Song So.  Last weekend was the Korean festival of Chu-sok and so we had Friday off. The weekend was a bit boring as all my Korean friends headed off to their family tombs. However on Sunday, after our mountain climb, Pak Jun-hee, took me to his house. It is in an apartment on the 10th floor of an apartment overlooking the street his restaurant is on. It was a special occasion as I have never been here before. The house was smallish but comfortable and as usual very open planned. There was a cabinet with a lot of liquor miniatures in them as Sun-hee collects these and then quite a few large jars, like parfait jars, with various fruits in them pickled in alcohol – these are Pak Jun-hee’s. Ji-won was really excited to see me and showed me his room – simply a bed on the floor, his work desk and books.  Apart from some teddy bears, his sister’s room was much the same – a complete lack of pop posters, fashionable clothes, music systems, computers and all the consumerist crap that western teenagers have to have. What was more interesting was that rather than their rooms being dens in which to hide themselves away and pretend to be individual – their rooms were completely open to the house. I don’t think privacy is such an important issue here. Sun-hee returned from town and cooked us some food and then I watched a Tarzan movie with Ji-won and his sister. This week Pak Jun-hee started a new job. In the mornings he goes to work on a construction site. He leaves home at 6am, returns home at 6pm (all for around 30 pounds a day), and then in the evening works in his restaurant which Sun-hee closes at around 4 am. They are saving money for Ji-won to go to university. What a life! And I moan at having to work anymore than 6 hours a day.

The exam period for middle school kids (13-15 years old) is here and it so noticeable; the streets are teeming with kids going to and from the Hakwons. They study in these until 11 or 12 pm and in Di Dim Dol, my school; they can buy cakes and noodles because they do not have time to eat a meal at home. I have had several private classes cancelled though I still get paid for the lesson. This week in the elementary schools (7-12 year olds) sports day and as always everything in Korea happens at the same time. The kids sit in classes with stamps on their arm telling you whether they came 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the various competitions – running, jumping, dancing etc.

At the moment my routine is really good; in the morning I study Korean, then I go for lunch, then to the mokyuktang (Han Song), and then work. I finish work at 8 pm, go straight to Pak Jun-hee’s to eat and at 10 pm I do some private lessons. My Korean and Hanja are really improving. I sat in the green tea bath at the mokyuktang on Friday talking, to an old man and managed to learn that he was 68, weighed 65 kilos, was 1 meter 60 tall, had three sons, one which lived in the USA, that he was a grandfather and had been the Los Angeles. We got talking as he said he recognised me from another mokyuktang bath house and the whole interaction excited me as he spoke no English at all.

Several times a week U-chun and I meet up and spend time chatting in a restaurant. We have been visiting this place which sells oysters – nothing but oysters and for around £10 pounds you can have a big meal for two – usually something like oyster tempura, smoked oysters and oyster soup served with a variety of salads, kimchees and ray fish in spicy sauce. (This restaurant was originally a North Korean restaurant that we visited on our first get together, back in 2000. I re-visited for oysters, several times in 2009 but it has since closed.)

Yesterday David and I went down to the part of Song-so near Kemiyoung University. I wanted to buy a CD as I have been listening to the same music for almost six weeks. Then we went to this excellent restaurant down near the university. It was supposed to be a Spanish style place but there was nothing Spanish about it at all. The place was really weird – just a sort of cocktail bar and restaurant with nothing but sofas and tables. A rather large room just filled with big comfy sofas. David (이영선) said Korean’s think this place is western and he was surprised at my expression when we entered because it isn’t western at all. We ate squid and octopus fried rice and Japanese style pork cutlet.

I do get a bit pissed off at the way Koreans laugh whenever I try to speak Korean. Even U-chun will sometimes have a little giggle. In a private class the other day, I mentioned my arm was sore and the two boys burst into a fit of giggling. One of the boys, Kim Young-jun (김영준) is a bit slow at telling the time and I told U-chun (유천) that he’s a bit slow. She teaches him maths privately. ‘Oh! He’s stupid.” she said. ‘I regularly have to hit him or make him stand in the corner of my front room with his arms above his head.’

Like I said, everything was going well but in Korean things can always change. On Monday, I discovered that the Tasmanian teachers in Di Dim Dol, Matt and Debbie, had done a bunk and left the country over the week-end. Well, now I have been told that tomorrow and until further notice, I must work the hours 10-12am, 1-2pm, 3-8pm! I wasn’t too pleased. When I got home I went to Pak Jun-hee’s and he could tell I was angry but he calmed me down. Later I decided to write a letter and outline my concerns. In the morning I didn’t go to work and handed the letter to Keith as he went to the kindergarten. I then met U-chun and we spent the morning at Baskin and Robbins. A bit of ice cream cheered me up. I had told the school I wouldn’t be going to work until 3pm and that I would work their hours for 2 weeks and then decide what I was going to do. When I went to school, Nell the kindy head, called me into her office to discuss things. The turnout was that I have a slightly longer break in the afternoon but to be honest the quality of my life is shit. Now I work 10-12am, 1-2, 3.50pm or 4.35-8pm. I don’t really have time to do anything substantial and there is no time to train as by the time I get home there is really only enough time to eat, socialise or study for an hour and then go to bed. The problem is Joe is running two schools with one set of teachers and things will get worse in October and November when Nana and Wendy leave.

There has been a lot of stuff on the TV here about five boys who disappeared 11 years ago. Anyway, the boys are known as the ‘frog boys’ (개구리 소년) because on the day they disappeared, they were going to collect frogs. They lived right behind where I live and went into the Warayoung Mountain where they disappeared. There have been loads of police around and several thousand soldiers were drafted in as the boys bodies have been discovered buried and with what might potentially be bullet holes in their skulls. For the last few weeks they have been gradually piecing together each boy’s skeleton. One boy’s coat was tidied at the cuffs. It’s on the TV every evening and has gripped the nation as it has been a mystery here what happened to them and of course the boys’ parents have been on TV. It has been very sad.

When I ask Koreans about this incident they approach it in quite a strange way. I think events like this are so rare that they don’t really have a rationale for them. When I ask Koreans what they think happened I get responses like, ‘they were murdered’, or even stranger, ‘perhaps they were murdered.’ Really!?’ To suggest the boys might have been sexually abused isn’t the first or even second conclusion Koreans come to. The police seem to have had a history of naivety in the investigation. A few weeks ago they suggested the boys had frozen on the mountain despite it being March when they disappeared and them being not too far from home. (The fact they were buried didn’t seem to make any difference.) The boys were found in an area that at one time was close to an army training camp and they now think that a boy may have been accidentally shot by a soldier and then the other boys shot to cover up the incident up.

I went for 4 sessions of acupuncture on my arm as I have had a slight pulled muscle in it for several months. In total the treatment cost me £30 pounds this being exactly 4 times cheaper than getting treatment in Wivenhoe plus several sessions lasted over 2 hours. Now I know why Korean doctors have empty offices as all the problems which clog up the western surgery, the back problems, pulled muscles, etc all go to traditional centres in search of relief. Let’s face it; western doctors are crap at dealing with such problems. Anyway, the treatment seems to have worked but what was most interesting was that I had had another strain in my back which has niggled me for nearly two years. I had treatment earlier in the year back in the UK and after two sessions with there was no improvement. I didn’t notice popping when they manipulated my spine. The Korean doctor, using exactly the same technique, popped my entire spine and the problem disappeared.

I haven’t seen too much of Ji-won as in less than four weeks he has his exams and the whole of Korea is counting down until the day they begin. These exams are known as the ‘goa sam su neung’  (고삼수능) and are the final year exams of high school students.  For very many young Koreans this will be one of the most important days of their lives. We went to the PC rooms (PC 방) last week and they had to ask me if I gave Ji-won permission to be there as it is illegal for under 19 years old’s to be in them after 10pm. I have also found out that in some schools, boys are not allowed to have hair more than 3cm long and it is not to be dyed. They are also not allowed to wear trousers any narrower than 7cm at the ankle. Ji-won told me one of his friends was beaten for having highlights in his hair when it was in fact grey streaks -yes – some Korean kids have natural grey streaks in their hair and there is a Korean term for this. One of my private students, Hyun-min (현민), arrived at my apartment barely able to walk. His hair had been more than three centimetres long and so he, and a few other boys, had to strip down to their boxers and run around the sports five times and then do fifty squats. Hyun-min (현민) is 18!

©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

Written Sept 2002

Blue Belt Grading – May 1-16th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on May 1, 2001

On Saturday, I met U-chun. During the period of the middle school exams she is working seven days a week and this situation will continue in all hagkwons until May 12th when the exams finish. She works from 2pm until midnight on six days a week and on Sundays works from 9am until 3pm. I am writing this diary On May 1st which is a public holiday for Buddha’s birthday but as you can expect, the hagkwon teachers are working today, as are many of their pupils. None of them will get a day’s holiday in lieu which is so typically Korean.

We wandered around E-Mart for a while so I could question her on what is what. It was my turn to buy lunch today and I chose a restaurant near MacDonalds, one I had passed many times before and one where you sat at tables and not on the floor. I never find sitting on the floor comfortable as I can’t get my long legs under the low tables. We ordered a seafood meal which was cooked at our table in large frying pans built into the table. The meal looked fairly Klingon but tasted very good. First the chef put water in the pan and then a massive stack of seafood consisting of crab, prawn, squid, squid roe, shellfish and octopus. This was topped with vegetables and red pepper paste. There was easily enough for four people and when the pan was half empty some noodles were added to it. The meal took us over an hour to eat and as U-chun had to go back to school, we left quite a bit. It was a pricey meal costing 24000W (£15) but we really enjoyed it.

The video player in our house, which is a pile of shit and has been playing up ever since I have been here, eventually died after I bashed it with my fist. A cassette was left in it and to get it out we had to dismantle it rather forcefully. However, Mr Joe replaced it without any questions; but of course, the replacement video isn’t new and is the size and weight of a computer hard drive. It must be at least ten years old. Matt is pleased as his sole entertainment is lying in bed, (even when it’s hot), with a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of coke, some Pringles and a couple of videos.

every day as my mini-bus passed an apartment, this little boy would bow

I went to Pak Ji-won’s this evening. He was really excited as he is off on his school picnic this week. He is spending four days at Mount Sorak in the north east of the peninsula, not too far from the 38th parallel. It is the third highest mountain in Korea. Although Ji-won’s is almost 18 (17 UK age), he was like a little boy looking forward to Christmas. I happened to bump into him and his class mates as they were shopping at E-Mart, on Sunday. They had two trolleys full of apples, oranges, Korean crisps and coke. I did my shopping and as I was leaving the supermarket I noticed them waiting outside the store entrance. Ji-won’s wasn’t with them and I sat opposite and observed them for a little. I tried hard to imagine what it must be like to be a Korean teenager going on your one big school trip. Korean and western cultures are so different that it is impossible for a westerner to become Korean. Ten years living in France, Germany or the USA would be enough to make you a native, provided you immersed yourself in that culture but too many differences exist between Korean and the west. Many of these differences are born out of childhood socialization. The boys were all excited in a way only Korean kids can be. Affectionately, they draped themselves over each other. I wondered how much this excitement was scripted knowing that once schooling is finished life becomes even more prescriptive, regimented and seconded to work. As much as I respect and admire and have fallen in love with the Korean psyche, I find their lives horribly myopic: the nightmare of schooling, which for Ji-won’s is some seventy hours of study a week, the brief reprise of university followed by army service for the boys, followed by the bondage of marriage. I really think that in Korea, education, like football in the west, has become one of the main forms of social control.

I am still going to the mokyuktang several times a week and still enjoy it. I have discovered the various types of pools and the properties they are supposed to have. Both mokyuktang I use have green tea baths which are believed to be good for the skin. There is usually also a herb bath as well as a bubbly Jacuzzi. I am now completely relaxed preening myself in the drying area where I put on hair gel, clean my ears with cotton buds and help myself to the various skin creams and skin bracers. All this is performed naked and in a roomful of other preening men. I even dry my balls with the hair dryer, something I have learnt from observation though I haven’t directed it up my arse which is something I have seen several men do. I am able to stay in the sauna much longer than when I first started – even when it is over 100 degrees. One mokyuktang provides a huge pot of salt in the steam room which you rub all over your body. In another steam room I often sit on the floor cross legged or do stretching exercises as the heat is conducive to stretching. Stretching exercise is regularly practised by young and old alike in the steam room.

I had only had my purple belt about twelve days when I was told I would be grading for my blue belt. In fact, I have only worn my purple belt three times and had washed it over the weekend to take the stiffness out of it. I was training during the week when there was a pre-grading class and everyone was asked to run through their patterns. Though I knew my pattern well, (대국), there were some errors that needed ironing out. Master Bae, the head instructor, took me through it and pointed out a few minor errors and told me I would be performing the pattern the following evening. He then told me I would be taking my black belt exam in August or perhaps a little earlier.

Now I have got to say that some of the kids in Di Dim Dol treat me strangely. I think some of them find it odd having a coloured belt training beside them who is old enough to be their father. If you do come across adults in the dojang are either instructors or black belts. In one of my classes in Di Dim Dol school there is a boy called Jake who was in a few of my first Taekwondo classes. I suppose he is about 13 and naturally, he is a black belt. In an English class it emerged I did Taekwondo at the Songham School and I could deduce from the conversation he was having that he peers were asking him what belt I wore. Well, he quite took the piss out of me and mimicked to them I was stiff and couldn’t kick well. It hurt me a little and I was annoyed as some of the kids were laughing. As he was leaving the class I pulled him to one side and thrust the Songham oath in his face. I made him repeat some of the lines which referred to mutual respect, team spirit and working together. He was embarrassed, put his head down and apologised. Then there is another boy called Jordan who I have taught several times and is another black belt. Even though we have trained in the same Taekwondo class he refuses to say hello to me. Whenever he sees me he looks at me as if I am mad. I ran through my patterns thirty times on the day of the grading and as I am one of the lowest belts in the class, I was called up fairly early in the grading. Well, I was really on form and I performed a really powerful pattern with a massive ‘kia’ at the conclusion which quite made the youngsters sat close to me jump. My ‘kia’ had been pretty Pathetic until fairly recently. Anyway, Master Bae said something after I had finished and the whole class applauded me. Afterwards, the little Fat kid who can’t do sit-ups came up, held his thumb up and said, ‘poomse choayo.’ (‘good pattern’). Then Jordan, the boy who had never spoken to make, came up to me and bowed. Ever since this, whenever he arrives or leaves my lessons at Di Dim Dol School, the waves and smiles at me.

I am now fitter than I have ever been since I took my black-belt in 1982. In some ways I am fitter. I cannot believe how terribly unfit I was when I arrived in Korea as a big fat blob. My experience here is quietly unfolding and it is an experience that I have people interested in Martial arts dream of. It was a pure fluke I came to Korea at all and I could have ended up in any number of countries. I don’t think it’s pretentious that and I give myself a lot of credit and respect for the way in which I walked into a Korean Taekwondo school looking like a lump of lard, surrounded by kiddies and teenagers and set about undertaking a training regime which humiliated me. My only response to this was to grin stupidly and try harder.

On Friday evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me to Woobang Tower Park. First we went to McDonald’s and had a burger and then we walked around the park for several hours. There were loads of young people skateboarding and roller blading. Just as you’d expect here, they were peaceful, un-offensive and friendly. We had a coffee at one of the park cafes and I saw a couple of men who were most certainly gay. It certainly made me realize how miss gay company as I haven’t met or spoken to a gay person since I’ve been here. One couple walked past me. One of the men, perhaps in his late twenties or thirties was dressed like John Travolta and wore a white suit. He had a hairdo and a very camp, practiced lip pout. He walked with an incredibly pouncy wiggle and I would have excused his effeminacy had he not been carrying this tiny little handbag dog. Handbag dogs are very fashionable here and even Dong-soo (박동수), my Taekwondo instructor, wants one. However, the fact that the dog had fluffy ears that were dyed pink aroused my suspicions.  Right now, I’d love to have some gay company, even those horribly superficial gays that I usually detest back home.

In Yong San Dong I had the morning of cleaning up piss, which I must say, is something rare here. First of all, Dong-seop wet himself. He performed his usual stint of pissing into his trousers at the urinal; then I got back to my classroom to discover little Song-joon looking flustered and gripping his dick. Then I notice he is sat in a puddle of piss so I have to take him to the toilet, wash him and get him to change his pants and trousers. He has the most amazingly tiny pecker but I shouldn’t mention this as it is lynching material in the west. But hey! This is Korea and the day’s not over. Next, I have to get a bucket and cloth and mop up the piss on and around his seat. I have to stress, piss problems are very rare in Korea kindergarten classes and only ever seem to be experienced by boys. Just as I finish this is Matt and Amy, (a Korean teacher), come into my class and ask me to look at a boys balls. He had just been kicked between the legs, was holding himself and crying.

‘ Why can’t you do it?’ I ask. Matt begs me to do it goading me with the fact I know something about balls and first aid. We pull the boys pants down and I make a private joke to Matt about the antics of Monsieur Jelle Fangre as I’m checking the lad still has two balls. One of them has disappeared so we bounce him up and down on his heels until it reappears. After that he is fine and within minutes he is running around. When I wrote these diary notes up, back in the UK and some years later, I was tempted to edit this experience simply as we have a total obsession with anything to do with the bodies of little kids. If an English toddler suffered the same experience nobody would help them for fear of accusations – even if there were a crowd of adults present. Personally, I do not think this an attitude reflects a caring society. On several occasions I know Becky, my niece, has been left to sit nursing a painful splinter as no member of staff are allowed to touch her. Kids are left suffering until a parent arrives.

On Saturday U-chun and I found a really nice Japanese restaurant which specializes in pork fillet served with pickles, sauce and udong noodles. The restaurant is new and typically Japanese with contrasting black and white colours and minimalist use of furniture. A group of boys came in and had a birthday party during which they sang the Korean version of ‘Happy Birthday’ which is sung to the same tune we use in the west.

In the evening I met Pak Ji-won who told me all about his picnic in Mount Sorak. Jun-hee had put two bottles of soju in his bag and this behaviour seems pretty standard as a right of passage. Ji-won was very animated as he told me how he and his friends got a little drunk and how he fell over a friend’s bed and almost got caught by his teachers. He told me one of his friend’s was sick on another friend as they slept in bed. He told me how Korean students will remember the High School picnic for the rest of their lives – ‘until the day they die,’ were his exact words, spoken in English. He said this without any severity or weight and  in a way only the young can talk about death. Jun-hee, his father, meets up with his old school friends every six months and there have been occasions when I have since met his childhood friends. This practice is standard among Korean males at least who refer to their closest childhood friends as ‘gochu chingoo’ (고추친구). ‘Gochu’ (고추) is the Korean word for a ‘chilli pepper’ but it is also a simile for a penis. I believe it is still a tradition in Korea, though not necessarily widely practiced nowadays, to hand a bunch of chillies on the front door of a house when a boy is born.  ‘Chingoo’ (친구) is the Korean for ‘friend’ or ‘circle’ and so the phrase can be translated as ‘penis friends.’  Jun-hee told me all his old friends know what each other’s dick is like. I am sort of detecting that nakedness in Korea is seen to promote a deeper level of friendship between two people naturally as a result of the sharing of intimate experiences. Jun-hee and Ji-won keep asking me to accompany them to the mokyuktang. I certainly sense I have a different level of friendship with U-no and Lee Seong-gyu, both with whom I have bathed with. Even men who I don’t know but recognise from the mokyuktang all say hello to me in the street; one man even squeezed my arm as he last saw me. Nudity is certainly a wonderful social leveler.

I had a long chat with Pak Dong-soo during his weekly English lesson, this time about his experiences in the army. It sounded ghastly! Six weeks of basic training in winter and all living in one tent next to a river in which they drank and bathed. A week of exercise, a week of intensive Taekwondo training, a week of making bobby-traps and a week of shooting fire arms. Every day included strenuous runs. Interestingly alcohol, in the Korean army, is illegal!

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©Amongst Other Things –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.