Elwood 5566

Buk-il Boys’ High School. Mon. 17th Sept, 2007. (Korean Accounts 2)

Posted in Diary notes, Education, High school life, Korean Accounts 2 by 노강호 on September 17, 2007

Boys arriving at school: note the boys ‘on duty’ checking the uniforms of arriving students and also the boys saluting the school entrance.

I was up early in the morning and left the house at 7.15 to find my way to the school. Ted and Mr Chǒng had given me directions last night and they were fairly straight forward. From my apartment, which is in a row of one room apartments with its own separate glass door entrance, the school is up a hill. Ted had told me there was a short cut but that to save getting lost that in the morning I should take the long route. The first part of my walk took me past the small shop I had visited last night which I now noticed stood beside another dog soup restaurant. Then I passed a triangular shaped paddy field where Ted had told me to take a right turn. Then I simply had to walk straight up the hill passed a number of small shops and cross a main road to find the school entrance.

Across the paddy field towards my ‘house.’ The school can just be seen in the background

The hill up to Bukil (北一) isn’t that steep but in the heat and humidity I was soaking wet before I was even half way. There was a long string of boys behind me and I didn’t want to have to start conversations on the hill. I was so exhausted by the time I had walked only halfway up the hill that I turned off the road and caught my breath by the school’s baseball diamond. I had forgotten that Koreans, even youngsters, tend to plod up hills and don’t rush like westerners do but in my rush to get to school, and not knowing how long it would take me, I walked at a fair pace. I would have remained longer recuperating at the baseball diamond had I not seen another westerner in the distance and decided to carry on up the hill.

The boys’ gym, on the left, and adjacent girls’ high school

Further up the hill four boys stood ‘at ease’ across the road and as I passed them they stood to attention and bowed at me. A number of boys were doing press ups or burpees on the pavement. At the top of the hill, where the school entrance is situated, three teachers, all armed with sticks stood on duty. I noticed that as the boys passed this point they saluted the school.

The road up to the school, which at the time I didn’t pay much attention to, is lined with trees, cherry trees. At the bottom of the hill there are two enormous sets of iron gates, one for the boys’ school entrance and one for the girls’ school. Between the gates is a sort of guard room and to the side of this, on the boys side of the entrance is the most massive mirror. I have since noticed large mirrors in quite a few places in the school. Beside the road leading up to the school are two terraces, the first contains a number of tennis courts, the second contains the typical sandy parade cum sports which has a number of wisteria entwined arbours and drinking water fountains around its edge. Any British person, especially a teacher is tempted to call this area a play ground but one never sees youngsters playing in it and it is an arena employed more for physical training, assembling the entire school and used by the boys to play various sports. At the head of this arena and opposite the school façade, stands a large, covered podium. In between the back of this and the school façade is the most beautiful garden with pine trees cut and shaped in the traditional Korean manner. A large sculpture stands to the side of the entrance.

The boys’ dormitories

When I arrived at the front of the school Mr Kim was already waiting for me. I was absolutely exhausted and being soaked in sweat and wanting to compose myself before being introduced to anyone else, I asked to be shown the nearest restroom.

There is no time wasting with Korean employment procedures, no time for getting acquainted with systems or methods and neither are any individuals allocated to look after your needs. I don’t know whether or not this is because Koreans have tended to have very little experience of foreign travel or simply because they are ignorant or disinterested in your needs. I have always found that in Korea one has to discover aides and sympathetic helpers from among one’s colleagues. I think that after meeting Mr Kim on the entrance steps to the main building, and after exchanging a few pleasantries, I was taken straight to the humanities department where I was shown my desk and computer and then handed a class timetable. I was introduced to CM, my fellow English speaker. Next I was taken to the teachers meeting room for the typical Monday morning schools briefing. I met the school Principal and then had to give a five minute talk about myself. It was now 8.20 in the morning and I was due to start a class at 9.10am. Looking back on this I cannot belief that just after 10 hours of being in Korea and only after having been in a school for one hour forty minutes, I should then begin teaching.

the school’s facade was very attractive

 CM, whose name is Claude Montgomery Tidwell, is a rather distinguished looking American who is in his early sixties. Like so many older teachers in Korea, especially the ones who have taught in Universities, as CM has, he dresses in that stereotypical fashion reminiscent of Oxbridge; bow ties, tank tops, blazers and tweed jackets and silk ties are all part of his wardrobe. I recently meet a Professor from Ch’ǒnan Dangook University, who I automatically assumed was English; he was dressed entirely  in tweeds, had a silk bow tie, a carved walking stick, which wasn’t for show as he did have a lame leg. I quickly discovered he was from New England and I remember his name as it so suited his attire; it was Michael Huntingdon. Of course few of these ‘professors’ are professors in the British sense of the word. In the UK a professorship is not a teaching position but a position of prestige and status within a department. It is a title conferred on distinguished academics. I have not had experience around Korean English university teachers before but they do like to refer to themselves as ‘professor,’ using it as a prefix to their name. This is obviously a western affectation as Koreans use the title (교수) as a suffix in much the same manner as we use post-nominals. Further, the ‘title’ seems to be one that western teachers will use as a means of identity even after they have left university teaching in the same way it would be used in the UK. However, I would probably do the same if I was teaching in a university.

I had four classes on this day and they all went perfectly. Before each lesson, the class captain stands up and calls the class to attention. All the boys then sit up straight with their hands on their thighs. Next they are given an order to bow. It is possible to begin a class here the very second the bell is sounded which is amazing and so unlike degenerate schools back in the UK.

Sunrise from the school roof

My small apartment, in a complex called Roseville One Rooms, is about a ten minute walk from the school, and is situated in an area of Ch’ǒnan called Shin Bu Dong (신부동). My area consists of a number of ‘one room’ complexes and the nearest land mark is known as Tower Golf. Here there is a large golf range and also a sauna (목욕탕). There are also a number of dog soup restaurants in my vicinity. The daytime heat is very uncomfortable and initially I did not enjoy walking to and from school or even around the school as there are 6 floors and no lifts in the main building. In the first few weeks I didn’t really explore my immediate area though I quickly discovered where the nearest supermarket was – a Lotte Mart which is a short drive from my apartment. To be truthful, I was quite exhausted at the end of a day and didn’t relish going into town or walking around in the heat exploring.

©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Written September 2007

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.