Elwood 5566

Memory Lane

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on November 1, 2010

Kimpo Airport

I often mention how rapidly Korea is changing. I have only lived here four and a half years, spread across ten years, so in comparison to friends who have over twelve years experience, I’m somewhat of an infant. I would love to have been here fifteen or twenty years ago, when Korea was truly a country where other than American soldiers, few ventured. ‘Fat ‘has arrived in Korea, an observation I often point out in my posts on bathhouses, and EPIK has brought an army of teachers into schools to such an extent our uniqueness has been lost. And no doubt those who first came to Korea in the 90’s will have noticed even greater changes.

Kimpo in 2000

When I arrived in Korea in September 2000, Inch’on International Airport was still being built and looking back, it is quite incredible to think that the piddly sized Kimpo was the country’s major airport. Kimpo was basically one big room through which people arrived and departed and I’m sure it’s bigger today than it was ten years ago. Few restaurants had English menus and on every street corner were  ‘video shops’ renting the latest videos. The internet contained little information on Korea in terms of cooking, culture or history, zilch on hanja and very little on Korean. Few teachers had air-conditioning and for those in English academies, split schedules, a common practice, meant the 6 hours you’d been led to believe you’d end up teaching in Korea, were probably closer to 8 or 9. Maybe it is still the same in some language academies, but  class sizes  were big, sometimes twenty students packed in small classes and often with no air-conditioning. There were fewer academies and my school, the largest in the area, occupied three floors of a large building. There were few resources, wall sockets often didn’t work and only a couple of tape players if they did and if you complained you were simply told to read to the kids. Most of the westerners I remembered meeting at the time seemed to work  under similar conditions.  Back then, university posts really were the cream of jobs with significantly more pay than other types of teaching and before the recent changes in bureaucracy, transferring from one town to another or one school to another, was easy.

If you had a pair of shoes like this in 2000, you were 'sexy.'

Big shoes were the fashion on young lads. By ‘big’  I mean long and so long that I thought I easily find a pair of English size 13’s. Indeed, they were so long, a little like the old ‘winkle-pickers,’ that they turned up and gave them a medieval appearance. On younger boys, even very young ones, a long forelock on the side of the head was tinted gold meanwhile their teeth were black. While older children seemed to have good dental hygiene, milk teeth were seen as unimportant and many of my younger students had black baby teeth. Today, this is something I rarely see.

Coffee beans or ground beans were hard to buy and I remember a coffee filter machine in supermarkets attracted small audiences and if you wanted a bottle of wine, if you could afford it and could find it, they were stored in a glass cabinet and the choice very limited. It seemed everyone wanted English lessons and were willing to pay for the privilege and being stopped and asked if you would teach privately, was an almost daily occurrence. In my diary for Saturday 18th of November, 2000, I wrote:

Here (KFC in Song-So) I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return for lessons. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday.

The KFC near Han-song Plaza has closed and is now a stationary store in which the glass stairs are still embossed with Colonel Saunders’ face, but in the last two years I haven’t once been asked to teach privately by strangers in restaurants or on the street.  I used to teach a few privates on a Sunday and would earn around a 100 000 Won an hour for teaching a small class of 3 or 4 students.

at one time were were as novel as coffee-filter machines and wine

Your presence, especially with children, was often enough for people to stop, gasp and gawk at you in awe.  Only yesterday, a boy of 14 told me how he remembers seeing westerners when he was four years old and how he would be filled with excitement. Few schools had resident foreign English teachers and what foreigners existed were a novelty. Many of the children, and some adults, you met ten years ago had never spoken to a foreigner. Then there was the starring… I remember times when the constant starring stressed me to such an extent, I’d occasionally step into a recess or doorway for a break. Unlike today, when a solitary passenger stares lazily from a busy bus, a westerner on the street would turned every head. I imagine it was even more intense in the early 90’s and 80’s and probably not much different to an experience I once had on a station platform in Delhi, in 1984, when a crowd so large gathered to stare at my friend as he opened a map, that after a few minutes you couldn’t see him. In the Korea of today, you are noticed and not much else and it rarely causes excitement or stops people in their tracks.

A few weeks ago I was up Warayong Mountain in Song-So, Daegu; I’d stopped for a coffee at a small stall almost at the summit and was attempting a conversation with a woman sat on the next bench along.  I noticed a couple of small children coming down into the clearing where we sat and around which were various communal exercise machines. Suddenly, their faces broke into excitement and they started running and skipping towards my seat. For a moment, it was the kind of reaction I remember on my first visit when kids would run up and then stand and stare, or might bravely attempt to say hello or stroke the hairs on a bared arm. However, ten years later and the focus of their attention isn’t me but the dog sat beside the woman with whom I am talking.  The children skip up to it and lavish it with as much excitement and attention as they’d once have given a foreigner. It isn’t even a real dog but one of those ‘handbag pooches’ which look more  like a wisp of cotton-wool on straw legs. I could have understood if it had been a real dog, a labrador or sheep dog, but this pathetic specimen! I realised in that instant that this is what it has come to; a miniature poodle now commands more attention, is more interesting and exotic than a foreigner. I am not exaggerating when I add that despite my height and size, and sitting right next to them, they didn’t even notice me.

a puff of wind and it's dead

Amongst all these changes however, one convenient constant; unlike the rest of the world prices have changed little. I bought a hanja dictionary in 2000 at a cost of 15.000 Won and in exactly the same store, nine years later, the same book cost 15.500 Won. That’s an increase of 25 pence in UK sterling! Quite amazing!

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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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Korea Arrives – Friday 16th October 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1, South Korea by 노강호 on October 15, 2000

The summer of 2000 – shortly before leaving for Korea

This is an edited version of my Korean Accounts of 2000-2001. The original diary, as diaries usually are, was quite intimate and personal and I have removed such material. I don’t like too much exposure! There are few photos and my writing is in a different style and tone but it highlights a Korea though only a decade away, considerably different to the Korea of 2012. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of any diary or blog pre 2005 (or thereabouts) was the fact you were internetless and there was nothing on Korea on the internet anyway – it took me years to find a recipe for Kimchi and makgeolli and the multitude of blogs relating to Korea which give you information on every aspect of Korean life, were still waiting to be born. In the sense, My Korean Accounts often exposes my naivety and ignorance as it was so difficult, if not impossible, to corroborate and research information. Coming to terms with Korea  in 2000 was a physical rather than cyber experience. How do you come to terms with Korean culture without the internet and the multitude of tools it provides us. Today, every blogger loves to insert Korean script into their texts but in 2000 a UK computer couldn’t even write in Hangeul without a special program and there were no translation utilities or online language programs. As for Hanja? Nothing! That’s pretty much still the case but it’s improving. Most westerners I knew, even ones who’d been here a long time, couldn’t even read Korean. How quickly the world has changed!

Korean Accounts Part 1. 2000-2001

So much has happened since I last wrote my diary. I applied for a job in South Korea and within days I’d been sent a contract. I saw the advert in the Times Educational and responded to it but I had no reply from the recruiters. Several weeks later I was tidying my bedroom and was about to throw out the advert clipping when I decided to phone them. Suddenly it was full steam ahead. I was running up to London and booking appointments at solicitors to get my certificates notarised and to make a will. Now, ten days later and I’m sitting here in my room after having spent all my savings getting the house ready for my departure, which is on Wednesday. My room is empty and a woman called Donna is moving into it. I’ve done over a hundred jobs around the house and over seventy-five jobs to do with bureaucracy.

Suddenly, I’m about to leave. There are new people in my life that I’ve yet to meet, Yangjin, the recruiter, Kim and Liam from Korea, Mr Young Won Lee, my new boss and Mr Kim the travel agent. I have become familiar with the Korean alphabet from a teach-yourself book I bought, and have a whole new wardrobe of clothes. However, tonight I am sad because I don’t know if I really want to leave the security of Wivenhoe but this is an opportunity I can’t turn down. I feel compelled to go. Looking back over my diary, it seems that my desire to travel was somehow linked to other problems but maybe that’s just coincidence as I would have jumped at the chance in any state of mind.

So much has happened in less than two weeks: Luis’s mum has been and gone, Lea is house-sitting and summer has suddenly been blown away and a cold, wet autumn has set in. I’m going to miss my sister and the cosy evenings with Lea and the generosity of Luis. As for my closest friends, there is a strong bond between us and though we don’t always share a lot together we are intensely comfortable and familiar with each other.

I don’t want to leave but I’m on the verge of an adventure that will provide a unique experience and I’m going to take as much from it as I can.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.
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