Elwood 5566

All Camp in Korea

Posted in Comparative, customs, Gender by 노강호 on February 11, 2012

In your face

I’m always amused at the way some of my friends in the UK assume that because a country doesn’t ram gay issues down your throat and a significant number of the population constantly proclaim themselves out, that it must therefore be rabidly homophobic to the point of executing or imprisoning transgressors. When in Britain, it suddenly became possible, within certain settings, to pronounce your sexuality with pride, we did so with embarrassing drama. As a student teacher, I remember numerous people introducing themselves to working groups and seminars with their name and then, in the same breadth, declaring their sexuality. Usually, it was a simple one liner such as, ‘and I’m gay’ but in the early 90’s, with the growth of ‘queer politics,’ it was more usual to throw down the gauntlet and declare, ‘and I’m a queer.’  Then they’d glare around the room daring anyone to object. It was the spirit of the times but it now seems so ‘old hat’ and I cannot help but stifle a cringe at such honesty.

Back in the UK, being gay has become boring! There was a time when ‘coming out’ was an act with as much destructive capability as an atomic detonation and wielding that potential gave one an immense sense of power. I’ve known people drop to their haunches and seen jaws drop in disbelief. Coming out had the capacity to traumatize friends who often needed a period of acclimatization which in some cases meant not talking to you for several weeks. The whole process made you feel very special which at least went some way to compensating your lack of relationships and access to  physical intimacy. Now, ‘coming out’ rarely creates a stir and those that do have a problem with it are compelled to silence by the dictates of political correctness but in the current climate, where half the population of young people declare themselves bisexual, the prospects of intimacy and relationships are probably greatly enhanced. Today, the atomic bomb you detonate is more likely to fizzle into oblivion as the person being confided in calmly tells you, ‘why, I’ve known all along.’

Yes, it’s still evolving and nothing like London Pride. Susan Morgan describes it as a ‘parade of shame’ rather than pride, but it’s evolving.

However, even with advances in civil rights and changes in legislation, gays in the armed forces, gay marriage, LGBT rights etc, I still feel that while you are guaranteed to keep your job, you are more likely to get your face kicked in. While Korean gays do suffer physical abuse, I think their greatest problem come from employers and family. In the UK, there are still those with rabid homophobic views and who in the right environment will verbally abuse and gay bash. I have a fleeting suspicion that in the street, in my home town, there are a significant number of ‘homophobic sleepers,’ individuals forced to silence their opinions in the current political climate but a potential source of hate should things change. While I’ve met Koreans who are not particularly supportive of gay rights, they are never as outspoken, particularly hateful or  vehemently opposed to such rights as those I’ve met in ‘liberal’ Britain (but this is only my experience). While a number of outed celebrities have committed suicide, I also remember Harisu (이경업), Korea’s first transgender entertainer who in 2001 was a pin-up to many of my male students.

Violence in the UK

Part of this ‘ingrained’ hatred stems from the fact that in Britain (and in the West in general), there are more codes governing what it is to be male and which inform and consolidate practices concerning male emotion, male physicality, body language, interests and other facets of masculinity.  That women aren’t usually the object of gay bashing possibly stems from the fact that lesbianism is quite appealing to many heterosexual men and has not had the same history of legislation levied against it. However, though British women aren’t subject to such rigid gender codes as men, they are still required to behave within certain parameters. Meanwhile, in Korea, I perceive less difference between male and females gender roles.

Shameful – and most perpetrators will be men

I’ve never met a butch Korean male and neither have I met a Korean man who in any way made me feel threatened or intimidated. Does Korea even have any macho, aggressive type men, the type who will shove a glass in your face if you so much as look at their girlfriend or knock into them in a bar?  And when I have seen them fighting it has been quite hilarious. I saw a fight a few months ago and stopped to watch. There were three men, all in their fifties, all drunk and shouting while intermittently smacking each other with their umbrellas. The fight was wonderfully cute, like it was being performed by ducks or rabbits or some other animals incapable of actually causing real damage. And despite their anger they wielded their umbrellas in a manner that might be described as totally pussy. An umbrella can be a particularly nasty weapon especially if the spike is jammed into your eyeball or mouth, or the hooked handle swung upwards into your testicles or used to cause damage to the windpipe. I can think of an entire arsenal of umbrella techniques all the result of  earning a taekwon-do black belt in Europe, which took  a minimum of  four years study with the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) as opposed to the taekwondo taught in Korea (WTF), where black-belts and dan grades are handed out like candy, often in less than a year.

S Korean politicians pussying about

Yes, no butch men in Korea, thankfully! And neither are you likely to find examples of the rough and aggressive type of female that seems particularly common in the UK. Maybe they exist on the Mainland of Europe or the USA,  though I don’t remember their type in Germany, but we have women in the UK, and don’t think they are necessarily lesbian, who are more masculine than a significant number of British men and certainly more masculine than the majority of Koreans.  I suppose they are a product of our class society because they are always found in poor areas or on sprawling estates and are typified by their hardened faces, aggressive sneers, tattoos and propensity to physical and verbal violence.

In the UK, the number of social transgressions which would predispose you to being labelled ‘gay’ are far larger than in Korea. In the UK, no matter which way your sexuality swings, you’re a homo and less of a man if you play any musical instrument, like art or classical music and enjoy drama. One reason which can be attributed to why Britain is so dumbed-down is that the dominant ideology concerning male masculinity is largely one determined by the dregs of society. In Britain, all classical music, literature, ballet, art, poetry, drama, books and even the ability to read, or subjects or institutions related to learning and the intellect, are deemed arty-farty, poncy, nancy, boffin, elitist,  or gay – and you will note I use the lexicon of this dominant ideology, a lexicon that is immediately understood by any British person regardless of their status. The movie Billy Elliot is a prime example of the view held by some British people, but understood by all, that arty-farty is poofda!

From the Korean movie, ‘Between Friends'(친구사이). I once saw a complete squad of riot police holding hands in Daegu. as they marched in a double file to a demonstration

Yesterday, I attended a middle school graduation ceremony during which year books were handed out to the graduating students. I had to suppress a smile at the photos of the boys’ classes. In every photos of 6 classes of boys, there are not only boys draped over each other, sometimes sitting in each others laps but a significant number were in ‘girly’ poses and while not ‘girly’ to the point of being knock-kneed, pouting and with their bottoms sticking out, were still ‘girly’ enough within a British context, to question their masculinity and label them ‘gay.’  Don’t forget, in the UK you can be 100% heterosexual but still be homosexual.  And amidst the boys hugging and draping their arms over each other and the significant number of ‘girly’ poses with hand-like paws held on either side of their cheeks, are the boys cuddling little white fluffy dolls.  ‘Affectionately cuddling’ is perhaps a more precise description, sometimes against their chest and at others nestled against their faces and with their heads tilted to one side in a manner which if girls, would be slightly flirtatious, slightly titillating.  As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender. Most of the boys I teach play musical instruments, I’ve had boys who do ballroom dancing and those girls who have not the least interest in make-up or enjoy playing Sudden Attack, are not deemed less of a girl.

first year high school students with the hanja character for “innocence’ (순소한) emblazoned on the t-shirts

While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose. It’s all a matter of how much importance and significance you attribute to different parts of your identity. I might feel very different if I was younger but at 56 years of age my happiness as a ‘person’ is of more importance than one of sexual identity.

For those who think Korea tortures gays and imprisons them for their sins, I provide and interesting and rather cute, short gay movie, Boy Meets Boy (소년 소년을 만나다) which I recently discovered while researching information on the actor Kim Hye-Seong ( 김헤성).

I am no authority on LGBT issues within a Korean context and these are my views based on my limited experiences. For a ‘wart and all’ expose of the gay side of Seoul see Susan Morgan’s blog post, The Evolution of Homosexuality in South Korea. I believe there are several gay clubs in Daegu one of particularly long-standing.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.
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Chicken Tonight?

Posted in Comparative, Entertainment, Gender by 노강호 on January 23, 2012

I am still fascinated by the differences in culture between gyms in Korea and those back in the UK. British gyms are always male dominated, not necessarily in terms of numbers but by the hyper-masculine aura that many men exude and if there are two places which demand a more masculine manner, they are the gym and the changing room. Numerous inflictions conspire to induce this aura: strutting about like a peacock, chest out and arms slight bowed, minimal eye contact, and an intense, focused facial expression. And the small group of hard-core muscle-men are always visibly aggressive, snorting, huffing and puffing as they pump their muscles often encouraging each other, if they have ‘spotters,’ with raised voices not too dissimilar in tone and content  from the old-school drill-sergeants I remember from basic training. British culture oozes aggression but you are only ever likely to notice it if you have lived abroad for long periods of time.

exercising ajummas

Most days my Korean gym is dominated by glitzy ajummas. Ajummas are married women, between 30-60, who have usually had children.  There are numerous images of ajummas lingering among the expat community and they are the butt of many jokes and perhaps one of the most common stereotype of the ajumma are of middle class ajummas who have salaried husbands who have free time to frequent coffee shops, restaurants and gyms in little gaggles. The ones frequenting my gym often wear sequined bling-bling tops, silver or gold stockings and wear make-up that is impervious to sweat. Despite intense workouts to high energy gay-pop (aka, K-pop), few seem to either perspire or grimace. With the school vacations the second most noticeable group are graduating high school boys who train in small groups pumping weights of little more than a few kilograms after which they enthusiastically compare their stick insect biceps. Among the migratory crowd of students and the ajummas, are a small group of hard core trainers who can be found exercising on most days. They are never loud, they train without making an aggressive exhibition and will always smile or talk to you.

apparently, though I can’t be bothered to source it, South Korea has the world’s highest percentage of men with six packs

I don’t think I’ve ever met a macho, hyper-masculine male in a Korean gym! Indeed, some of the Muscle Marys I know, despite their bulging biceps six packs and inflated chests, are quite camp. Six months ago, on a Sunday evening, I was sat in a coffee shop which specializes in cup cakes. I’ve never eaten their ‘fancies but if they’re anything like Korean cakes in general, they will be a disappointment. However, lined up in the cafe window they look visually tempting but you shouldn’t be fooled by the whirls of syntho-cream and Hershey-type chocolateless chocolate. My grandmother was a baker so perhaps I was spoilt and additionally, in my youth, most mothers actually knew how to bake cakes. The Muscle Mary hadn’t even got his frame in the front door before he’d spotted me and beamed a big smile. A little later, as he was leaving, he stopped by my table, and opened his box of cup cakes, under my nose, in a manner reminiscent of a wine waiter. The collection consisted of six exceedingly camp cakes bedecked with ‘hundreds and thousands,’ little whirls and here and there ornamented with the Korean equivalent of smarties.  The he invited me to take one in a manner that was both cute and poncy.

this typifies the high school boys who train in my gym next to the ajummas

A few weeks ago I was working out next to a Muscle Mary I hadn’t seen before. He spent an hour pumping weights and squatting before going to the adjoining gym, which doubles as an indoor tennis court, putting on some gay-pop and then spending 30 minutes doing the campest of dance routines part of which included shuffle dancing – a dance trend which is currently popular in Korea.  Another Muscle Mary is Min-su, a twenty six year old student who in addition to being close to six foot six tall, has the body of a muscled Adonis. He works out most days either pumping weights, doing aerobics or practicing taekwondo or judo, (he has third degree black belts in both). Everything about Min-su is male but his soft, smooth face is that of a big school boy.

a rather amusing photo of boy scrutinizing a yakuza-type’s tattoos in the bathhouse

All the Korean Muscle Mary’s I know, and even some of the tattooed yakuza-types who frequent the bathhouses, are camp. The Yakuza guys usually have a dragon on their back, or perhaps a large tattoo on their thigh. One, whom I regularly see is covered by a busy, interweaving  design of dragons, tigers, manga and hanja script that is so dense he looks like he is wearing a blue, short sleeved kimono. The intriguing tattoo stops above his neck, below his biceps and below his knees. Last week I watched a couple of Yakuza’s in the ‘powder room’  drying their hair, pubic and otherwise, with hairdryers and thought to myself that in the west, and armed with a photo you could easily blackmail them. You can find all the Muscle Marys, and indeed most men and boys in the powered room preening themselves, patting their faces with  lotions and gels and now it’s the academic vacation, there are always a couple of teenagers sat naked on the sofa in front of the powder-room television, pawing, loitering and lingering over each other in a manner totally homo and yet homo-less. No matter how camp Korean men behave, no matter how ‘unmasculine’ (and I’m using that straight jacket of a western definition),  it is rarely interpreted as ‘gay’ or ‘unnatural’.  Within reason, and in Korea that leaves immense scope, campness has little or nothing to do with sexuality and indeed seems to be a natural expression of masculinity, especially among younger men and teenagers.

The actor and ‘pretty boy’ Kim Hye-seong. All of 20 but looking 14. He is currently undergoing compulsory military service.

and after four-weeks basic training and now aged 24, Kim Hye-seong looks even younger…

The Korean star Jo Kwon, has a massive following both at home and abroad and has to be, by western definitions, one of the world’s campest male celebrities let alone the campest in Korea where gay-pop and nanciness are fashionable. But ask Korean girls and even boys why they like him and they will often tell you it is because he is ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome.’ To call any British boy ‘pretty’ is a slur that isn’t to short of accusing them of being gay and most British teenage boys will refrain from making any positive comments about the appearance of other boys as to do so is not just unmanly, but verging on ‘homosexual.’ I know plenty of gay men who can make a value judgement on the attractiveness of women and no matter how much they might do this it fails to make them straighter, but unfortunately, for many British men, to even ponder on the appearance of another male in anything but a derogatory fashion is likely to turn them gay. Most Korean teenagers I know seem quite shocked that in the West we would perceive Jo Kwons behaviour as ‘gay’ or ‘homo.’

Korean pretty-boy supremo, Jo-kwon

Here follows a little biography I found on a fan-site, the source of which is acknowledged in the footnotes below:

‘Jo Kwon (Hangul: 조권, born August 28, 1989) is a South Korean singer and entertainer, leader of ballad boyband 2AM.

Jo Kwon is the longest-serving male trainee in JYP entertainment, having trained for 2567 days; exactly 7 years and 10 days since joining JYP.

He was chosen as the last members of Park Jin Young’s “99% Challenge Project” along with Sunye of Wonder girls.

In 2008, he appeared on MNET’s Hot Blood, a program that showed the intense physical training that 13 male trainees had to go through for the opportunity to debut in either 4-member ballad group 2AM or 7-member dance group 2PM under JYPe.

After getting through the eliminations, Jo Kwon was given the position of 2AM’s leader.

Jo Kwon regularly appears as a regular guest on variety shows such as “Star King” and “Sebakwi”.

He also the permanent member of Family Outing 2.

He is also known as “kkap kwon” because of his kkap dance.

He is the member of Wonder Boys,Boys Generation,Bracademy and Dirty Eyed Girls which are the group which contain idol boys who perform girlgroup’s songs.

He joined the cast of We Got Married on October 3, 2009, coupled up with Brown Eyed Girls member Ga-in.

On June 30,2010 he released his first digital single titled ” the day i confessed”.’

Jo Kwon not only dances like a girl, jiggling his hips, pouting his lips and bending over to extenuate his butt in a manner reminiscent of a lewd Lollita but does so with such accuracy that it exposes the extent to which male and female body movements are gendered at least from a western perspective where men are supposed to dance like men and women like women.

Jo Kwon (born 1989)

It’s always difficult trying to perceive such imagery as Koreans themselves might see it but there is clearly an element who see  nothing out of the ordinary with Jo Kwon’s masculinity and indeed, many Koreans, especially teenagers, find it alluring. The fan-site previously quoted, notes that Jo Kwon’s:

‘room is full with dolls from fans and cosmetics. Even his bedsheet is pink.’ (it was only recently in the UK that men have been able to wear anything pink without some derision)

‘People who call his house and talked to him always think that Kwon is a girl’ (that would be a mortifying insult to levy at a British boy)

‘Kwon’s voice is so high’ (another slur on masculinity)

‘During pre debut days,Kwon is famous for being the male version of actress Choi Ji Wo’ (and another)

However, there are plenty of comments about Jo Kwons muscles and six pack to suggest that  there is a subtle mix of girly and masculine traits required to attach the label ‘flower boy’ to a celebrity or individual – a status greatly admired in Korea and Japan. Recently, he appeared in the Korean edition of Men’s Health, shirtless!

A COLLECTION OF FLOWER-BOY PERFORMANCES

2

3

4. JO KWON WOWING THE TROOPS

Finally – There’s nothing like a piece of chicken…

Big Hit Chicken (BHC). Advertising the allure of ‘chicken’ with pretty boy power

PS. I have no issue with gay-pop (K-pop) or indeed with what my culture would deem ‘camp’ men and would much rather be surrounded by ‘camp’ Koreans than the butch and aggressive type men that dominate much of British and American society. Incidentally, one of Kim Hye-seong first roles was in the gay themed short  movie, ‘Boy Meets Boy’ (소년 소년을 만나다).

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

REFERENCES

Flower Boy Flesh (Bathhouse Ballads Sept 2010).

Jo Kown Profile (Tumblr)