Elwood 5566

Cleaning them Teeth

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Health care, podcasts by 노강호 on April 1, 2010
Three toothbrushes, photo taken in Sweden

Image via Wikipedia

For a long time, the obsessive way Koreans cleaned their teeth amused me. Several years ago I taught kids aged between 3-6 and after lunch they would line up, tooth brushes in hand, and proceed in a conga to the bathroom, to clean their teeth.  It is a common practice for Koreans to depart to the bathroom and administer themselves some oral hygiene after eating lunch. Of course historically, Britain is famous for its poor dental hygiene but with a predominance of privatised dentists, we can now boast services comparable to those in the USA and with fees to match. But most Brits, even those with good teeth, myself included, usually only brush them twice a day – once in the morning and once at night.  On the other hand, Koreans are quite fastidious about a thrice a day brushing and I have come to the conclusion this practice has more to do with nature of Korean food, than with keeping cavities at bay.

First, many Korean foods, kimchi being the most obvious, contain copious amounts of chili powder. This powder is nothing like the chili powder we buy in Europe. Korean chili powder, (고추 가루), isn’t really ‘powder’ at all and should be called ‘flaked chili’ or ‘coarse chili powder.’  With a tendency to adhere and an ability to resist being flushed with fluids,  chili speckled teeth have never been fashionable. Those flakes grip the surfaces of the smoothest enamel and easily embed themselves between the teeth.

Kim, (김), seasoned lava, though not as prehensile, certainly looks worse. Substantial, dark green patches on the teeth can be mistaken for  missing or severely rotted teeth or  an advanced fungal infection.

Sesame seeds have a predilection for embedding themselves in oral recess with such success that they are impervious to assault by pencil tips, pens, paper clip ends and any other object with the exception of a toothbrush or floss.

Perhaps the worst offenders, adept at seeking out any small gap between the teeth and attaching like limpets therein,  are seaweed and baby mooli tops ( 우거지). Unlike meat, which being protein based, decays rapidly in the mouth until it can eventually be sucked out, seaweed and mooli leaves offer more resistance.  Their thin slimy surfaces, braced with some fibrous support, have the propensity to remain wedged between teeth for hours. Their slimy texture and ability to mold to underlying contours makes them especially impervious to sucking and probing.

A noseful of someone’s garlic breath can be off-putting but I have learnt that the only time garlic is noticeable on someone’s breath, is in the interim between arriving at the airport, and eating kimchi. The best defence against garlic breath is to eat it yourself as this masks the smell emanating from other people. When Kimpo was Seoul’s only international airport and you walked into the tiny arrivals, nothing much more than a big lobby,  the stench of garlic almost knocked you over.  I have never noticed garlic hanging in the air at Inchon International but maybe this is because I eat kimchi even when back home.  Anyway, cleaning your teeth to remove the smell of garlic never seems to work, even when garlic is eaten in moderation. When it’s in everything and even eaten raw, brushing the teeth to dispel its odour is pointless.

A Korean diet has gradually raised my awareness of the location of various oral weak spots with more precision than disclosing tablets and when cleaning my teeth, I  now focus on the places which attract sesame seeds and are likely to ensnare slivers of seaweed and mooli leaf. If I eat  anything other than a sandwich for lunch, I usually clean my teeth.  All the prodding with tongue and sucking  of teeth is irksome and  a mouthful of ensnared seeds, chili and vegetation, especially when you’re British, isn’t a good advert.

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Bathhouses are Gay!

I frequently hear or see this comment and consider it the dumbest a westerner could make! Anyone who comes to Korea and doesn’t try a bathhouse is denying themselves an experience rich in its uniqueness and in its ability to afford you a very intimate glimpse of Korean culture. I have probably attended a bathhouse 3 times a week for a period of almost 4 years and in all that time I have only seen 3 western people in bathhouse, 2 adults and a boy. Neither have the numerous westerners I worked with over this period attended one with me. I am no bathhouse guru and there will be foreigners living in Korea far more experienced in this pursuit than I, but turning to my own culture, we certainly have a terrifying fear of nudity.

In UK schools, the practice of showering after sports was phased out around 15-20 years ago. Cutting the heating bill was a good way to save cash even if it meant that students, especially boys, spent the day putrefying in their own sweat. No one seemed to mind especially as showering was only ever enforced when one started puberty and felt uncomfortable being naked. And one common feature of many schools was that boys usually had to undress in front of each other while girls were often, but not always, afforded some privacy.  From my own experiences and conversations with other men, there is an agreement that male changing  rooms are often charged with a bizarre juxtaposition of the erotic and aggressive.  When I last taught in an English High School, around 2003, I had to take several classes of boys preparing for swimming lessons. Each boy was equipped with the most enormous towel  of sufficient proportions to cover a single bed.  I have several female friends who told me stories about convent life where, after sport or swimming, girls were required to shower in, and undress, under large smocks designed to hide their bodies. This was exactly the same except this wasn’t a catholic school! It wasn’t even Church of England. Most of the boys were around thirteen or fourteen and their bodies were still puny but hidden from the neck down, the material enveloped them twice and doubly guaranteed that not the slightest naked thigh, knee or even elbow should be inadvertently exposed. All the boys were skilled at holding secure the neck of their towelling  smock from within its confines, while the remaining free hand, buttocks, hips and knees, shimmied their underwear off and then pulled on their swimming shorts – and this in the reverse order when changing back into uniform. Some boys were unfortunate enough to have restrictive, ordinary size towels and if they slipped or were  insufficient to hide their bodies and they were exposed, not only were they mortified but so too was any boy who happened to glimpse what lay under that towel. Then a string of accusations were spat forth declaring the observed and any unfortunate observers,  ‘gay.’  In Britain, certainly among school boys, to either see another boy’s dick or for yours to be seen, implies homosexuality. This juvenile attitude is similar to the ones levied at Korean bathhouses and seems to be a western attitude rather than one confined to British men. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

if you think bathhouses are ‘gay’ you totally misunderstand Korean social practices

To be honest, in Britain, I too find nudity or even semi nudity uncomfortable. We seem adept at criticizing the bodies of others and many of us, myself included, have been imbued with various attitudes towards the body and nudity. Ironically, I feel more human as a naked,  fat foreigner,  in a Korean bathhouse, than I do wearing shorts in a British swimming pool.  In addition to our internalized assumptions about bodies, we conflate both nudity with sex and same-sex nudity with homosexuality. I am sure that something sexual must  occasionally occur in Korean bathhouses,  probably in specific bathhouses, but I have never witnessed anything of a sexual nature.

My first experience of bathhouse culture was in 2001, when I was visiting Masan with friends. I was asked which three things I’d like to do before leaving Korea. I replied: I wanted to try dog stew, silk worm and go to a bathhouse. My stomach almost hit the floor when my friend smiled and told me we’d probably visit a bathhouse that very afternoon. The whole experience terrified me but I swallowed my pride and went through with it and then, when back in Daegu, I made myself go to other establishments. I still feel a little uneasy entering a bathing complex probably as I have a negative image of my own body but I have never been made to feel uncomfortable. Koreans will all peak at you but once they’ve looked you up and down you blend in with the other clientele. As usual, if you should make eye contact with them while they are peaking, they will instantly look away.

On the streets of Korea the novelty of foreigners is rapidly declining and I find my presence attracts far less attention than it did 10 years ago. I find it boring that my presence on the street is almost non eventful though I would imagine in rural areas we are still  a novelty.  Most establishments, bars, restaurants, shops etc, have learned to accommodated foreigners. In many restaurants, menus  are available in Korean and English but ten years ago you were only likely to find this in fast food restaurants. I can even remember Pohang bus terminal’s arrival and departure board only being in Korean. If you want to experience the Korea relatively unchanged  by the presence of westerners then bathhouses are an ideal location. I am still fascinated by this cultural phenomenon as it has afforded me a far deeper insight into Korean life than probably any other experience. Bathhouses expose not just our bodies but the differences between the Korean and western psyche. Most obvious of course, is the attitude to nudity. I would imagine Korean’s have seen every permutation possible in the human body before they even reach their teens and the traumas our teenagers associate with puberty are minimized in Korea. Also exposed is the level of intimacy that Koreans share not just with their immediate family but with friends and strangers. That horrid male macho-ism that is magnified when western males are in changing rooms or semi naked, a mechanism used to assert masculinity as well as heterosexuality, is absent in a Korean context.  To get naked with your friends doesn’t require mitigating the homosexual implications by playing some aggressive sport beforehand. Koreans can sit close to each other, touch each other and even clean each other without any fears of being misunderstood. The most exposed behaviour though, and one that would shock many westerners, is the intimacy shared between fathers and their sons as well as older men and younger people in general. I doubt there are many westerners who would allow their 10-year-old to go to a bathhouse unaccompanied let alone allow them to have an intimate scrub down by  a bathhouse attendant who may very well be a stranger to that child. This situation was highlighted several years ago when a youth taekwondo team visiting from the UK was put in a very awkward position when their hosts took the British kids and instructors to  a bathhouse.  How do you explain to Koreans that in your culture, this activity would be illegal and that  children and adults naked together, even if immediate family, is treated with great suspicion and constitutes one enormous taboo.

Cooling off

The most interesting aspect of a bathhouse experience is that it not only exposes Korean culture to the foreign observer, but also exposes you  to the nature of your own culture and encourages you to reflect on many taken for granted assumptions and practices. Using bathhouses has given me a deeper insight into both Korean and British culture.  On my return to Korea after a holiday, my first task is to take myself into a bathhouse.  I have come to perceive communal bathing  and the intimacy  practiced around it as natural and certainly healthy, both physically and mentally and concurrently, I have come to realise the  unhealthy nature of western attitudes where natural human relationships have been moralised if not perversified. To deem bathhouses ‘gay’ is a moral statement in that it suggests ‘not natural,’ ‘wrong’ and ‘unhealthy.’ In the UK, we have already embarked on a brave new future where the most innocent of associations with a minor is suspect and where even the most checked, verified and scrutinized professionals have to be permanently policed.  In Britain, I do not think we are too distant from a future where any form of communication with a minor, outside that of the  family and school, will be classified as a potential crime and sufficient to call the police.

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

The Last Taboo

Recently,  I changed my routine so I often go to my favourite bathhouse (목욕탕) after I finish work, around 8.pm, rather than in the morning.  However, I prefer the morning as it is quieter and unless it’s a holiday or a weekend there are rarely any kids or university students. As I lay in the ‘special event bath,’ this week scented with lavender, another westerner entered. In four years of fairly daily bathing, this is only the second time I have seen a westerner in a bath house. He probably saw me but as usual, didn’t acknowledge my presence. Most westerners will walk straight passed you even on an early Sunday morning when the streets are empty. I’ve given up being friendly as a cold shoulder is the usual treatment if you are polite. There are exceptions, of course, but this has been my experience. I didn’t particularly want him talking to me anyway; I don’t mind being naked in front of Koreans but have never relished the idea of bumping into a westerner when nude as we tend to be critical and judgmental about nudity and the bodies of others as well as our own. In reality, the westerners who do use bathhouses, especially if alone, probably have healthier attitudes to bodies than those who avoid them. I don’t think he felt particularly comfortable in my presence as he left  after only a few minutes which was a shame as, my apprehension aside, it would have been a good opportunity to exchange experiences.

Usually, I have to wiggle my backside like a gigantic duck in order to disengage that little seat from my bum.

I don’t think he was a bathhouse novice, either. From the lavender bath in which I was relaxing, I could see him drying off  in the area immediately beyond the bathhouse exit. He had no problem bending over to dry his feet and calves and did so without maneuvering  his backside into a corner, thus censoring that most private place from public view. One of my remaining inhibitions, though not as acute as it was,  is exposing or touching this area in public. Perhaps I need to set myself the task of  prostrating myself 5 times a session and soaping my backside  in a position where my neighbours can see, as a therapy to neutralise this remaining inhibition. I would like to squat right down, Korean fashion, and give my entire undercarriage a thorough scrubbing, if it were not for the fact that I find deep squatting  both easy to topple over in and difficult to stand up from. I have enough problems standing after sitting on the  bucket sized seat  from which you wash yourself  as often it remains stuck to my arse as I stand. Then, if it clangs to the floor, it attracts unwanted attention. I have a similar, though quieter problem, if I sit on a towel as this too will remain in the grip of my buttocks, as I stand.  The term, ‘taking in washing’, which is used to describe the backside’s ability to grip things, usually underwear, comes to mind, but bathhouse furniture and towels  is taking it too far! Maybe it’s my arse, I don’t know and I’ve never paid much attention to what Koreans do after sitting on a towel. I have a niggling suspicion that the propensity for my buttocks to grip towels and  seats, even the large plastic type, similar to the ones we use in gardens in the UK in summer and which are often found in the steam rooms and saunas, have more to do with my dimensions than my ethnicity; I have a large arse to put it mildly.  Of course, I don’t know how other westerners conduct themselves in a bathhouse as I’ve never observed any but I would imagine that many would find it disconcerting to drop the soap  and have to pick it up.   This chap was quite at ease, as at ease as the Koreans around him, at prostrating himself right in front of the glass doors to the bathhouse and in full view of everyone lounging in the baths. Whoever he was, he left the bathhouse with my admiration.

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Definetly 'Ji Ji' (지지)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, podcasts by 노강호 on December 12, 2009

For the last few weeks I’ve been paying attention to the contents of my dustpan after I have swept my studio floor and run the ‘magic mop’ over it. The ‘magic mop’ has a disposable cloth attached to the head to which dust and most other debris firmly sticks. I noticed a long time ago that you can’t flick anything on a Korean floor without it reappearing some days later, stuck to the sole of your naked foot or clinging to your sock. Grains of rice, once hardened are especially annoying.

In Europe at least, and especially in Britain, carpets are often the preferred choice for floors and in some aspects they are wonderful because they absorb most small debris. ‘Sweep it under the carpet,’ an idiom I am often asked to explain, really isn’t necessary with small things as you can deposit them on the floor and at most all you need do is  rub you foot over it a few times to permanently erase whatever was underfoot.  All bodily bits, small scraps of food, cigarette ash etc, are banished forever in the pile of your pretty carpet.

Ten years ago I moved into a new house in England and after a year decided to rip up the carpets that had lain on the front room floor for well over a decade. Even after months and months of hoovering the floor and liberally sprinkling it with various scented and odour eating carpet powders, I was never able to feel comfortable sprawling out in front of the TV.  The carpet was old but it never actually looked dirty and the unpleasantness I felt probably arose from the fact that I occasionally detected odours emanating from it, odours which weren’t unpleasant but weren’t mine. You wouldn’t want to wear a stranger’s unwashed clothes so why would you want to lay on their ancient carpets, carpets ’worn’ by several families. Even after meticulous cleaning, I regularly wrestled lengthy black hairs embedded within the pile. They were of Greek extraction because Greek students had lived in the house, some three years before I moved in.

When the carpet was eventually dragged out of the house, departing in a dusty cloud, the wooden floor on which it had lain was covered in a thin coat of what looked like sand except it was finer and softer and most likely organic in origin. The carpet had acted like a filtration system so that only the finest particles escaped through to the floor boards.  Once hoovered you could see the small spaces between the boards were caked with dirt that had been compressed into them over many years. This had to be gouged out with a knife before I could sand the boards. Once the front room and dining room were rid of carpeting and the floors washed, scrubbed, scrapped, sanded and treated with linseed oil, the need to dust became a monthly rather than weekly routine.

The decision to banish the muck absorbing carpet, and to subsequently ban outdoor shoes from inside the house, was finally made after I noticed a small brown thing on the floor. I smoked marijuana at the time and on two occasions I had discovered dope on the floor though one discovery turned out to be either dog shit or a clinka that had fallen out of my nephew’s nappies. This mistake only transpired when I inhaled the joint I had rolled from it. Needless to say anything brown and lumpy and laying on the floor I assumed to be dope before anything else.  Though I suspected what it was, it needed confirming.  I sniffed it and instantly retched – cat shit, the worst carnivore shit of all!

Ten years ago, the streets around my house were liberally ornamented with piles of dog shit. I know because I used to stick small cocktail flags in them to draw attention to them; it was a form of social protest. When walking to work I would count the passing turds and often, in just half the street, I would count as many as thirty. I had some intimate relationships with the turds in my street: one had been laid in the furthest corner of my lawn, just under the privet bush. I couldn’t fail but notice it as it was large and shaped more like a small cow pat than one of those curled and tapering whippy whirl turds that Korean kids are so expert at drawing.  In 2000, when I first arrived in Korea, I wondered why so many ice creams were drawn on tables especially as the Baskin Robbins opposite my haggwon, scooped ice cream out of large tubs rather than deposited it whirled. Only the smallest dog could have manoeuvred its arse into the required position under the privet bush to deposit the poop, a Korean size handbag dog for example, but this specimen’s owner had to be big.

I watched that turd for an entire summer and well into winter, witnessing its transition from a wet mess to one with a crusty top, rather like a pie that then turned white after an infection by some strain of turd eating mould. Eventually, internally atrophied and dehydrated by a hot summer, it collapsed into itself. Gradually absorbed into the ground around it, it disappeared but by that time it was late winter.  Back on the pavements, I even began to recognize individual dog’s shite and could sometimes trace their various daily messings down the street. One example, a particularly big deposit was almost orange  in colour. I imagined the owner, walking their dog in the anonymity provided by the early morning darkness, allowing it to shit in one spot and the next day dragging it a little further down the road so as to share the messes equally around the neighbourhood. As dogs like to do their business in the same place, I would imagine that the moment the dog started to squat on its hunches the owner had to drag it further before letting it spill its backside onto the pavement. I estimated the owner probably took a month to circumnavigate the crescent before the dog had to poop in approximately the same place and if even house numbers were the victims one month and odd house numbers the next, the cycle could have been extended over two months. Despite the copious piles dotted about the street you never saw an owner allowing their dog to foul the pavement so, never trust dog owners who walk their dog in the dark.

Some owners were equally as considerate and seemed to think it was acceptable for their dog to shit on the road. For several days, as I ate breakfast, I was treated to the view of another enormous turd, strange how they all seem to have been enormous, as it was squelched all over the tarmac  by passing cars. Neighbours who made their dogs pooh on the road probably perceived themselves as good citizens while those who used the pavements were anti-social. Eventually I put a rather hostile placard on my front lawn and several neighbours then did the same; instantly, the appearance of new turds ceased and those remaining were old and in various stages of atrophy, dehydration and decay. I kept counting the turds walking to work however, as the number of deposits beyond the borders of my placard’s influence had significantly increased.

I’m digressing: My point is Europeans and especially the British prefer to wear outdoor shoes inside their house which is a custom I find horribly disgusting and more so if you have carpets which act as toilet paper to the soles of your poohey shoes. There was so much shit on the streets around my house, and there still is, that natural decay and rain swirled it everywhere so that even if the ground looked clean, you could guarantee  it was coated in canine faecal matter. Wearing shoes indoors, when so many dogs foul the pavements is a disgusting habit.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog turd on a Korean street and even if there were it would only be a little thing as most Korean dogs are handbag dogs and incapable of passing anything more than a few pellet sized faeces. And yet Koreans never wear shoes inside their houses and often don’t wear them in workplaces.

When you live in a room which is barren of carpets your awareness of your own bodily debris grows. When you have a carpet you assume that the bit of nail you blow onto the carpet, or the bogey you roll and flick onto that beautiful Axeminster, simply vanishes. I can flick a toe nail across the room and know that in a day or two it will reappear in my dustpan along with a grain or two of rice, a few hairs and other bits of fluffy stuff. Occasionally I’ll spit out a nail to deliberately see when and where it will re-emerge.

I’ve noticed there are rarely any hairs on the central part of the floor because these are blown to the edges of the room by the draft from open windows and passing bodies and for some reason, the biggest trap of body hair are the sliding door groves. Every few weeks I need to clean these out. Pubic hair has the most amazing ability to float into places like your fridge or kitchen work-surface and though you might find this abhorrent and are thankful that your carpet seizes them before they become visible, I’d rather  see the occasional curly devil on a plate or in the fridge than lurking in the pile of some horrid carpet, rotting slowly among years of bodily refuse, embedded and matted with all sort of unthinkable crap, dead skin cells, bogeys, shoe dirt, dog and cat muck, grit, rain water etc, etc. And then, thinking we are being hygienic, we sprinkle the carpet with floor powders that temporarily scent the air. What happens to them once they have embedded themselves in the carpet? I doubt such powders disappear.

I live alone and so my observations are based on my own bodily sheddings but how greater the pollution if you live with other people or a family and have pets. Carpets are such filthy things and what we do with them is not much different to that other dirty British habit, thankfully disappearing, of blowing gunge out your nose and into a hanky which you then keep warm and moist in your pocket, the perfect environment for viruses and bacteria, before putting your face back into it and snorting out another load.  Having a carpet on your floor is a little like sleeping in the same bedding without ever washing it.

Cleaning a carpetless room is a joy because it’s effortless and now Samsung have even marketed a robotic floor cleaner that cleans your floor when you are out. Everything is exposed in a Korean room as there are few true hiding places. And if you want to wash the floor or give it an occasional scrub or douse it in bleach, well that too, is easy. Carpets can’t be washed and I’m sure all carpet shampoo does is drive the dirt deeper and enliven their parched innards. There is probably a surge in a carpet’s bacterial and fungal population following a shampoo.

In Korea, many westerners don’t remove shoes indoors preferring to stick to their own customs and there are others, myself included, who will occasionally wear shoes on their floor if for someone reason they have to return briefly indoors because they’ve forgotten something. This is a habit I am trying to break but when you’re in a rush it is difficult. You very, very rarely see Koreans walk on their living space floor wearing shoes, not even for a few seconds. I have noticed that on the odd occasion I have breached Korean custom, I have subsequently felt the deposited dirt left by my shoes, when barefooted. You can’t see it but it’s there despite the fact you only walked on the floor for a few seconds.

Korean students, especially younger ones, will sometimes cringe and tell me how dirty I am if I suck my pen. Often they will shout ‘ji ji’ (dirty) which is the word used to small kids and in the same category as English words like ‘pooh pooh’, ‘wee-wee’ and ‘tinkle’. If sucking a pen is a little ‘ji ji’ then having a carpet or rug is infinitely dirtier, indeed it is positively filthy! Next time you flick some item onto your Korean floor, just remember, it’ll be back!

지지 – dirty – (but a word used to small children), haggwon – 학원 – a private school like a homework club or after school study center.



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© Nick Elwood 2010. Creative Commons Licence.