Elwood 5566

Kumi – April 13-29th, 2001 (Korean Accounts Part 1)

Posted in Diary notes, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children by 노강호 on April 13, 2001

On Friday, just as I was leaving Di Dim Dol School, Young-seop stopped me and told me that starting next week, I was due to teach in another school and would have to travel one and a half hours to get there, this would mean leaving  Song So at 8.30am. At the time, I was just going downstairs to meet Lisa in KFC. Naturally, I went nuts! I’ve told Joe over and over that I like to be consulted and given advanced warning. However, Joe always uses Young-seop as his lacky. The problem has been caused because Lisa has a weeks holiday which she planned well in advance. She and Nana have been giving pronunciation and phonetics classes to Korean, English teachers at various schools and have been paid extra money for doing this. It turns out, Lisa had asked those organising the courses, how long the courses were likely to last and she was told they were a block, six-week stint, ending on April 13th. Well, for whatever reasons, the courses don’t seem likely to finish before April 20th and Lisa’s husband is coming out to visit and of course, he has flights booked. About a week ago, Mr Joe started moaning to me about Lisa and how awkward she was and that he was going to tell Young-seop to tell her she couldn’t have any time off. Meanwhile, Nana told me he clearly heard the course organisers say the course was due to end of April 13th. Of course, this confusion is typically Korean – Koreans have no concept of free time or of holidays.

Matt at Woo Bang Park, now E-World (2001)

Well, I moaned to Young-seop and gave him an earful as he provided each excuse. First of all, he said they had waited until now to tell me in the hope Lisa would cancel her husband’s flight. Like she is really going to lose a million Won (£500) after a fuck-up on Mr Joe’s part! Then he said they had hoped Lisa would change her mind and decide to work.

‘But her husband is coming out to visit, what do you expect him to do; stay a home all day?’

The Korean attitude towards your free time and your work is one of the main things that pisses me off about Korea. Firstly, you have no free time – at least Korean workers don’t. Any time you might not be working is clearly seen as a privilege that can be taken away whenever your boss needs you. All the hagkwons in Song So are at the moment teaching for seven days a week and are open until past 11.pm. Parents pay no extra money for the extra classes as it is expected for hagkwons to give extra tuition prior to exam periods. As there are so many hagkwons in tight competition they all conform to similar teaching schedules. Of course, teachers aren’t paid any extra money for working seven days a week. I have almost stopped using the phrase, ‘have a nice weekend,’ as the concept doesn’t really exist here. The phrase’ ‘thanks God it’s Friday,’ needs to be modified to, ‘thank God it’s the second Friday in the month’ (ie, 놀토 – ‘play Saturday)

In Korea, everything is seconded to work and any shifts in routine are expected to be accommodated wholeheartedly. I can remember when I first arrived in Daegu, when Tony picked me up from the airport; I asked him what Mr Joe was like and he replied that he didn’t like him as he was always issuing orders and expecting everyone to drop everything on his command. Now I understand what he meant. Even Nana has become accustomed to it and well, if a King can learn to take orders, what chance do I have. Later in the week, when I moaned to Nana about the situation, he told me to calm down, to accept it. He kept saying this was ‘an emergency’ and that ‘we all needed to help out.’ ‘An emergency,’ I told him, was simply a threat to Joe’s bank balance.

The other thing that annoys me about Koreans is that they adhere to the Confucian ideals which stress the importance of the family. Well, this ideal only seems to operate if you are Korean. I get quite infuriated at the way people like Joe and Young-seop do not for one moment consider that western teachers are around 5000 miles from home, have no family with them, are living in a strange culture and have few friends. When I first arrived in Daegu I was left alone in my flat for a whole weekend; no one came to take me out or show me where to go for provisions. Nobody had been delegated to look after the interests of foreign teachers. No one showed me where to bank my pay or how to use a bus. All any of us were told on our arrival was where and when we were to start work. Even though our contracts stipulate we receive health insurance none of us have it – few English teachers do. When I asked about this, Joe managed to make up a load of excuses one of which was that if we wanted health insurance we would have to pay about £200 for it to be backdated until the date we arrived. It is quite pathetic the lengths to which Joe will go to save a pittance.

I moaned and moaned at Young-seop about Joe decision to send me to teach in another town and asked him when Joe was likely to confirm it – if indeed, he intended to confirm it! Nana is going to Andong (안동) in the morning and Lisa is about to go on holiday and naturally, any planning I need to do will be expected to be done in my time; none of it was be built into my working day even to compensate for the inconvenience of short notice. However, I knew I would end up having to do it. Worse, I had this fleeting sense that it didn’t mater what the work involved, I’d be able to bullshit my way through it.

I went to meet Lisa down in the KFC restaurant and told her what had happened, stressing that none of it was her fault. She really is a stupid cow! She insists he classes call her, ‘Miss Lisa,’ and I suspect that she thinks that by replacing her surname with her first name, and prefixing it with, ‘Miss,’ she is ‘cool.’ She’s a stupid cow because she has the disgusting colonial streak in her. She never has a good word to say about Korea or Koreans and more than once her language has belayed the fact she is a racist!

‘What time does your bus pick you up after classes?’ I asked her.

‘Whenever they bloody want. Sometimes they are there waiting and toot the horn at me. At other times I have to wait forty minutes! I mean, me,’she almost screamed, eyes bulging. ‘Me! Having to wait forty minutes for a fucking Korean!’

Earlier this week I caught a boy writing on the blackboard in one of my classes. He was writing in Korean and though I couldn’t understand the meaning, I could read the letters. He had written, Di Dim Dol donun Kil lim dol (디딤덜 도는 길임덜) Di Dim Dol is the name of the school and has something to do with a stepping stone; ‘Donun’ means ‘or’ and this I could understand. When I asked the boy what it meant he put his pencil on the floor and demonstrated that it meant something to do with tripping or falling over. How appropriate.

On Saturday afternoon I went shopping to E-Mart with Matt. I bought some smoked salmon and was quite excited as I haven’t seen this in Korean shops before. The pack cost 9000W which is around £5 but there was probably 500 grams in the pack, if not more. I had planned to eat it  on my own as Matt doesn’t particularly like seafood but in the end I decided to take it to Ji-won’s as it would be an interesting experience to share it with them.

Ji-won’s family had never eaten smoked salmon and were eager to try it. Sun-hee, Ji-won’s  mother, brought out a pile of assorted leaves, some wassabi, chilli and garlic. Then the salmon was placed in the centre of the table and we all tucked into it with chopsticks. I wasn’t going to ruin the delicate taste of that lovely salmon with wassabi. The salmon was very lean and very smooth and creamy in taste.

Koreans are notoriously bad at advertising things in English. You’d think that when they write English on shop facades, posters or leaflets that they’d consult native English speakers but they don’t and consequently you see many funny examples. The blurb on the packet of salmon claimed it was from the ‘fresh, clear blue waters of the North Atlantic’ but somewhere else it said it was from the Pacific Ocean. Anyway, there was a little write-up on the packets which read:

Around June to September, in a something sun, 3-5 year old well-grown salmon that have brilliant gesture and swim through sea and river along the blue and dear coast of the Pacific Ocean have very good quality of flesh and taste so good and have got praised as food of low-calorie. More than one century salmon has got praise of epicures all over the world. Salmon taste from soft to strong with many nutrients and special pink colour flesh create fantastic mood and taste.

A few more examples of Konglish (Korean-English) I have recently seen include: ‘Hair Deciener Shop’ (a hair salon), then there is ‘Twin Twon Coffee Shop which I can only presume is meant to read ‘Twin Town.’ Even better is ‘Shitty Pizza,’ obviously meant to read ‘City Pizza.’ There is also a boy in one of my classes who wears a t-shirt on which there is a large ‘20’ under which is written, ‘Sporty, Young and Milky.’

I wasn’t looking forward to this week as I am having to travel to Kumi to give lessons to Korean, English teachers. I wrote a quick lesson plan at the kitchen table, shortly after getting up. There are a few things I am unsure about and I really need to consult Nana or Lisa but if there is one thing you learn very quickly here, it is the art of bullshit. Young-seop and Mr Chey picked me up from outside my house at 8.30 am and we headed off to Kumi. It was great to get out of Daegu, especially on a working day. With spring well underway, the countryside is changing from day-to-day. In the rice fields you can see the bright green shoots of this year’s crop emerging. I wasn’t in the least bit nervous at having to give a lecture on phonetics to a group of thirty teachers. I have learnt that simply being a native English speaker gives you an immense authority and besides, most Koreans are not very good at spoken English and this includes Korean English teachers. When I explained where I had come from in the UK, ‘near Oxford’ was the best description, there was a murmur of awe which surprised me a little. They would never have heard of Aylesbury or Colchester. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the session and I performed really well. After the lecture, if that’s what you could call it, Young-seop and Mr Chey took me for lunch in a rather posh restaurant; Young-seop said he was paying. We had bulgogi and there were plenty of side dishes including mong gae, or a sea squirt. This is a sea thing that looked rather like an orange-pinky, bloated heart. There were small nodular bits all over it which looked like tiny lips from which I suppose it squirted water. When cut open the flesh resembled that of a ripe mango. I tried it but didn’t really like it. The initial taste was that of detergent. Mr Chey clearly relished them as he sat sucking the flesh off the noddly skin, the juice running down his chin in a manner that would have been perfect for a Klingon. I arrived back in Song So with half an hour before I had to start teaching my regular classes at Di Dim Dol.

I managed to go training that evening but gave up on Tuesday as I was just too tired. On Tuesday, after the class, we drove to another restaurant and had bulgogi. When Young-seop went to the toilet, I told Mr Chey I was going to pay for the meal. Mr Chey told me Mr Joe was paying for our meals after the classes – so much for Young-seop making out he was paying! My new culinary experience today was hepari – jellyfish. It had a texture and taste of cold vermicelli noodles and was fairly inoffensive.

The internet cafe (PC 방) I have used ever since I arrived here has suddenly closed. I am a little annoyed at this as the woman who ran it used to keep pestering me for English lessons and there were many people I only ever saw in the cafe. I met her on the pedestrian crossing the day before Arbour Day and she told me the cafe would be shut for the day. Well, that was a month ago and later Matt and I noticed it had been completely gutted. Businesses seem to come and go in Korea and a business you can use one day can be gone the next. It would have been polite to tell us the PC room was permanently closing given the hours we spent in there. (I was to meet this woman in 2008, near my one room. I wouldn’t have recognised her but she recognised me. In the interim, she went to Canada for a few years and on return opened a hagkwon near MacDonalds – Wales English School – it is still there as of 2012.)

On Wednesday evening, after Taekwondo, I was going home when I met David (이영선) who is one of Nana’s adult students and who had several weeks ago led me home under his umbrella. He wanted to take me for a drink so we went to Mr Seven which is next to my house. David is very attractive, is 24 years old and a bloody Christian! Finding that out put a dampener on our meeting. However, like other Korean Christians, he doesn’t ram it down your throat. He seemed very interested in why I wasn’t married – more so than other Koreans and he phrased his questions quite differently to the way I am normally interrogated. At one point he asked me if I preferred men and later asked that if I could marry either a man or a woman, which gender I would choose. I came out to him making him the first Korean to know my sexuality and he wasn’t in the least perturbed. Indeed, he continued to ask me many more questions. He kept telling me ‘humans aren’t perfect.’

On Thursday the Letter and Sound School took the kids to Daegu Art and Culture Centre. Ot was a beautiful day and the centre is situated in the shadow of Mount Apsan. There were loads of middle school kids who gawped at me in awe and who muttered ‘waaaa’ which is the Korean equivalent of ‘wow’ as I walked past them. Many were fascinated by my size and several boys eagerly shook my hand or bowed deeply. At one point a crowd of children gathered around me with several lining up to shake my hand while others pointed and stroked the hairs on my arm. Other patted my stomach – Korean people, and especially children, are a lot more apt to be physical than are westerners. Such behaviour, I have become totally used to.

Taking our kids around the centre was a nightmare as there were a number of pottery exhibitions and on one occasion I watched in terror as a ceramic vase tottered precariously. On the whole and as would be expected, the kids behaved well.

At lunchtime we drove out to Woobang Tower park to have a picnic. We found a spot under a large tree as the temperature today was in the eighties and by far the hottest day we have had so far. Koreans love picnics and all have picnic knick-knacks. I was fascinated with their little picnic mats, all highly coloured and designed either for adults or children. Then there were the picnic hampers and little coloured boxes with chopsticks in them. Of course none of us westerners had prepared a picnic as no one had been bothered to tell us we were going to have one! However, Koreans always share their food so none of us went hungry.

‘My Little Man’ – Jeong-Hoon

Jeong-hoon (중훈), a little boy in my class has become very attached to me. He is a skinny little boy who is always hot as he simply cannot sit still and is always having to climb over things or is running around. Like a lot of the boys here he is already learning Taekwondo and is incredibly flexible. When he is standing you can lift out sideways (side kick position)  until his heel is facing the ceiling. I call Jeong-hoon, ‘my little man’ as he is always willing to do little jobs for me. In the mornings, if someone is missing, he will go and find them and he is always willing to go and fill the water jug or do other little jobs. He loves speaking English and knows all of the songs on the tapes we have. Anyway, at the picnic Jeong-hoon clears a space for me to sit next to him on his little mat. The very first thing he does when he opens his Mickey Mouse picnic hamper is to pass me some of his food. Most of the kids had kimbap which is pretty boring and which is a food you’d never pig-out on. Jeong-hoon’s hamper however, had KFC chicken nuggets in it! Lovely oily, western food! Mmm, as Homer Simpson would say. Typically, Jeong-hoon wasn’t into it – how conveniently Korean! He ate one, or rather he nibbled at it and the others he passed to me or the other kids sat nearby. No wonder he is so skinny!

I have spent a considerable amount of time watching Korean kids eat food and they approach it in quite a different manner to westerners. Boys in particular eat very different to western boys or men where their eating habits would be considered effeminate. Korean boys nibble food and they do not focus on it in the ravenous way we do. The Di Dim Dol school has started selling cakes during the break times as the middle school kids are currently in school for about 15 hours a day and have little to eat. I bought a small sort of Swiss roll a few days ago which a rapidly unwrapped and savagely devoured in the manner western men often eat.  The whole roll, which wasn’t very big, would have disappeared in about three mouthfuls and it was probably as I was sinking my teeth into the second mouthful, when my eyes were rolling like a shark’s when its jaw is locked around its prey, that I noticed this girl stood watching me in totally shock – her jaw had actually dropped. I don’t think she had ever seen anyone eating in such a frenzied manner. In fact, it was just another example of what filthy, dirty scum us westerners are. The next day I tried to eat my Swiss roll like a Korean – not looking at it, not rolling my eyes, and by taking little nibbles and eating them  in a passive manner as if drinking water when not in the least but thirsty.

All the Korean kids passed their food around at the picnic and when we had finished eating they all tidied up with little need of spurning from the adults.

Lee Chi-wu – an incredibly intelligent boy

Matt and I have been having fun with little Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) on the bus. Of late we have been playing games with him which are sure going to increase our chances of going to hell. We take it in turn to whisper some obscenity into his ear and he then gets three attempts at repeating it correctly. We’ll say something like ‘cunt’ or some other offensive obscenity and if Amy, the young Korean teacher who is actually dating Young-seop turns around, attracted by our hoots of laughter, we immediately start saying Chinese numbers to him and pretend our game is innocent. Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) is able to say words like ‘clitoris’ and even simple phrases like ‘anal intrusion’ with amazing precision. He has also mastered, ‘filthy, dirty, western scum’ which is the phrase we use to refer to ourselves. Even after a visit to the mokyuktang I feel dirty in comparison to Koreans. Matt and I both believe you cannot wash or scrub away the grime associated with being western. It is a grime that transcends our physical being and exists at levels genetic, cultural, psychological and historical. We make jokes to Lee Chi-Woo about Doctor Jelly Finger, jokes which in the west would earn us a lynching. Doctor Jelly Finger has metamorphosed into Monsieur Jelle Fangre which we pronounce with a French accent after which we briefly suck our index fingers. Matt is convinced we are going to hell! If you say “Monsieur Jelle Fangre” to Lee Chi-Woo he will innocently respond by sucking his index finger like a lollypop. Matt and I find this perversely amusing. We have also taught him to say “Jelle Fangre, Chwuseyo” – “Please give me a jelly finger!” The next cruel game we play, which Matt claims I instigated, but which I know was his sick invention, is to tell Lee Chi-Woo he cannot leave the bus when it arrives at the school. Matt told him this every morning for a week. Just as we arrived at the school he would turn to Lee Chi-Woo and with a sad expression on his face, and a sombre voice, say:

“Chi-Woo. Chi-Woo. You not come! Only we go. You stay here. You not go school today.” Lee Chi-Woo then starts to get upset and begins to clamber over the seats of the bus. The following week he stopped sitting with us and I think we have traumatized him so we have both stopped teasing him.  However, a week later and Matt started teasing him again and this time Lee Chi-Woo started crying. After this we modified the game so he knows when we are teasing. When Matt now tells him he can’t leave the bus, Lee Chi-Woo calls him a ‘bad man’ (나쁜 사람).

On Friday I had my final session at Kumi; it went really well and the class told me they had enjoyed the sessions immensely. I had to rush back to Song So in time for my kindergarten classes at one of the apartment schools. It only took us twenty minutes to reach Daegu and I spent most of it cowering in the back seat as we were travelling at 120-140kms per hour. Once the kindergarten class was over I was faced with a four-hour stint at and arrived back home at 8pm, quite wrecked.

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

More Mogyoktang Observations – March 26th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Today at the mokyoktang  a boy of about 11 or 12 came in which was quite unusual as usually children are at school. However, I noticed he had a rub down from one of the masseurs and this is done on a couch to one side of the central bathing area. The whole procedure was quite intimate with the boy lying naked and the masseur rubbing away at his body with an abrasive cloth. This procedure lasted about twenty minutes as during it I visited the steam room and several saunas.

I was interested just to see how intimate the rub was as in the future I might dare to have one. In addition, I was also interested to see if adults were treated any different from children. At one point the masseur jammed his knee on the boys inner thigh and sort of splayed him so he could rub his crotch. The idea of a stranger having this much access to  a child without their parent’s there would be deemed abhorrent in the west and it quite disheartens me that we are so fucked up about this in our society. When I was having my final shower, a cold one which I take to lower my body temperature so I am not sweating when I leave the mokyoktang, the boy was sat upright and the masseur was rubbing his neck and face. The masseur, was naked too!

After I have had my cold shower, I spend five minutes in the drying room. This is pamper city and a few of my gay friends would love this facility. The rooms are always long and with large mirrors on the walls which takes more getting used to than the other naked men around you. There are large fans on the table tops which you can direct on your wet body and also hair dryers. I have noticed many men using the hair dryers to dry their pubic hair and I have also started doing this. On the surrounding tables are a range of lotions, hair creams, body conditioners and after shave. I put several concoctions on my face and then use some hair cream. Combs are lying on the bench tops or you can take one from the comb sterilising machine.

I quite like watching Korean men preen as they do so in such a totally faggy way. Today there was an elderly man next to me who combed his hair in a really fruity way and then rubbed various lotions onto his face. Finally, he daintily patted his face and hair with a towel. There is always a huge stack of lovely clean, white towels and you can use as many of these as you wish. I am still surprised at the vigour with which Koreans preen themselves, they trim their nails, trim their nasal hair, poke at their ears with cotton buds and when they leave, pick up their newly polished shoes from the shoe cleaner at the premises’ entrance. I have noticed the hairs on my arms and legs disappearing from the amount of scrubbing they have been receiving. I have realised that Koreans preen and clean their bodies with as much vigour and enthusiasm as we in the west might apply to our cars or motorbikes.

I had wondered what it would be like to meet someone you work with, by accident, in a mokyoktang. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Last week I was having my first shower after my arriving at the closest mokyoktang to my apartment. As I was still a little shy I hung around in the shower until there weren’t too many people in my path before walking over to the large pool. There was only one other person in the pool as I could clearly see the top of their head. Well, just as I had stepped up onto the parapet, this person, at the far end of the pool, waved and shouted my name. It was Lee Seong-gyu (이성규) from Di Dim Dol hakgwon. It was actually quite an amusing experience to be caught totally naked and in full view by a friend. Anyway, Lee Seong-gyu and I have now met several times and bathed together. It is handy having a friend as they can rub and scrub your back for you.

Song-gyu and I, in 2001. I still bump into him in saunas ten years later! Incidentally, my trainers were New Balance, unheard of in Korea then but which 12 years later are the most popular training shoe on the market.

In the steam room of one mokyoktang there is always a large box of salt on the seats and salt is strewn all over the floor. I have noticed it is used for scrubbing your body rather like an aggressive ex-foliate.

I have just had lunch in a small restaurant I have been frequenting for the last week. For several months now I have been doing my own cooking and learning how to cook Korean food but to be honest, it’s  far cheaper eating out! I ate pokkum bap (복음 밥), a sort of fried rice with an egg on top. As I left the restaurant, one of the chefs, a woman in her thirties or forties, and who seems to have developed an interest in me, gave me a slice of fruit. I asked if it was an apple and when I bit into it I discovered it was some sort of parsnip. The street on which the restaurant is situated is very close to my home and is flanked on both sides by maple trees which are just starting to leaf. The air was warm even though it was 8pm and dark. Spring seems to have been jumped as the weather is suddenly as warm as it would be on an average summer’s day in Britain. On my way home, I walked past the local hapkido school where I could hear kids chanting out the rhythm to some exercise which was interrupted, intermittently, by loud slaps from the mat.

Chi-woo, I imagine he’s now almost in high-school

Korean children are beautiful! Everyday Chi-woo (이치우) sits on my lap on the journey to the school. He always gives me a kiss on the cheek and teaches me how to count in Chinese. Korean uses both Korean and Chinese counting systems. In fact, Korean numbers only go as far as 99. Some things are counted in Chinese, others in Korean. There is rarely competition between the children and they share sweets and treats. Even at four years of age they are impeccably ordered and will put their toys away at the end of playtime and then pick up any paper or mess on the floor. At lunchtime they all help with laying the tables and clearing away. None of the children smell of piddle or shitty pants and they are all toilet trained – at least as far as going for a crap. This week however, two boys in my class pissed themselves. Dong-seop (동섭) left my class for a ‘shee’ (씨) and came back leaving pissy footprints on the carpet. I should have gone to the toilet with him for he had pulled down his trousers and long johns and then pissed into them. The same thing happened with a new boy called Seong-jun (성준). The next day I made sure I went with them and when they stood with their pants down I stuck my knee into their backs so they pissed into the urinal.

Da-hae (다해), the brain-dead moron, has suddenly come out of her shell and every morning she runs up to me for a hug. She still dribbles. The other day I noticed pen marks on a wall and I jokingly motioned for her to salivate over them –  with her tongue. Amusingly, she went to do this. I had rarely heard Da-hae (다해) speak up until about a month ago and in fact she has a really deep, gruff voice rather like the monster-girl in the Exorcist.

Last week there was an open day for the parents and each class in turn had respective parents watching the lesson. My class went fantastically well. I just did the same sort of things I do every morning: counting, reciting the days of the week, singing songs and doing some alphabet and written work. I choose to do work the children could manage so as to show their parents’ they had learnt something. Afterwards, I talked to each parent in turn with Precious interpreting for me. Koreans like you to be intimate with their children and they could clearly see I had a good relationship with them. I think they left feeling impressed and afterwards, Precious told me my class had been the best. However, complaints had been made about Matt and Angela’s classes. Apparently, parents didn’t think they had much control and their biggest gripe was with their earrings, shoddy clothes and unkempt hair. Some mornings, Angela looks like a scarecrow with bits of fluff and paper in her hair and with it messy all over. Mr Joe asked me if he should take them down town and buy them some new clothes.

I went to my doctor last week, about Bill, my small umbilical hernia. He has a new surgery close to the E-Mart which he proudly introduced me to. He has a new endoscope, an ultra sound, an x-ray room and various other rooms. The waiting room was beautiful with ornamental plants, a large fish tank and a station to make tea and coffee. I was in his office over forty-five minutes and had an ultra-sound on my stomach which I watched on his monitor. He tells me I have a small muscular tear which should clear up of its own accord but so far it hasn’t done I’m sure if it was a hernia he would have noticed it as he clearly showed me thew tear on the screen and estimated its size. The consultation cost me W10.000, just under five pounds and I didn’t have to wait any more than five minutes to see him. He is the first doctor I have had that I can truly call, my doctor.

My weekends are very busy and there are always friends trying to take me out or visit me. In fact, I hardly have any spare time at weekends now. Last weekend I met Pak U-chun and her daughter, Ga-in.  We met downtown, in the area known as Ex-Milano, where we visited lots of shops and just walked around talking. Korean children are rarely any nuisance and are used to spending time with adults. We walked around the Buddhist area where there are shops which sell clothes for monks, calligraphy brushes and paper and then moved into the more fashionable part of town. As on previous visits, a demonstration was in progress and as usual it was ordered. There were perhaps two hundred demonstrators sat in rows in a large pedestrian intersection. Many westerners here, whether civilian, military or teachers are usually an embarrassment and dress like slobs and are usually loud and in your face. We ate the most wonderful meal in a restaurant that specialises in spicy chicken which is cooked on a barbecue at your table. After, we went for an ice-cream at a Baskin Robbins.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

My Early Assumptions of Korean Culture – January 25th – Feb 10th, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on February 10, 2001

I have been re-arranging my files and haven’t kept my diary up to date though I have been keeping notes in a small note-book I carry with me.

I do most of my shopping at a place called Shin-woo. It’s part of a chain of relatively small supermarkets rather like the Co-Op might be in the UK. It’s the place to buy all the essentials and where there is nothing too fancy to lure you. My nearest big supermarket, which I think is six floors in total, is E Mart . I have only been here a few times, once with Pauline when we went to the car park at the top of the building and from there took photos of the surrounding valley. I don’t like shopping here as at weekends it is crowded and during the week you get stared at. Like most department stores and supermarkets here, there seem to be hundreds of staff and sometimes they outnumber the shoppers. Most just hang around and when you walk in you can expect to be stared at all around the store. Of course, the relieving thing about this is that if you stare back at them etiquette demands that they look away.

Cabbages outside Shin-woo, Song-so, December 2000

The E-Mart, which in Song So sits domineering a hill position, has plenty of luxuries and has an in-house bakery, a well stocked fishmongers that doesn’t stink and an almost western style butchers where the carcasses aren’t chopped up in front of you. You can buy sashimi and sushi, cream cakes and things like tempura prawns, sweet and sour pork and ready cooked chicken – none of which are particularly cheap.

As I said, I shop at Shin-woo which is situated just past MacDonald’s and has one entrance which is shared by the restaurant owned by Ji-won’s (벅지원). One thing I am looking forward to on my return to the UK is familiar smells. In Korea strange smells constantly remind you that you are in a foreign land, a totally foreign land. Shin-woo is full of them. Washing-up liquids of peach, furniture polishes of coffee and quince aromas, the smells of seaweeds and the ever-present smell of various kimchis. Then there are the contrasting smells of the fishmonger and butchers which are situated at the back of the store. I have regularly bought squid from the fishmonger and pork and chicken cutlets from the butchers. I don’t particularly like this end of the store as the fishmonger’s stinks and the butchers reeks of carcasses. At the butchers I often order a small portion of recognizable meat, but I have to look at any other point than into the display cabinet. There is always someone gouging lumps of flesh from an enormous rib cage suspended from a hook. Often, my visits seem to coincide with when the butcher’s staff are eating their meals which they do in bloodied overalls amidst the organic nightmare. Enormous leg bones sit in the display cabinet with marble-white ball joints and there is always skin from the arse of a cow, which contains the tail hideously adorned with a lump of fluff at the end of it. Trays of tripe swim in brine between purple livers and kidneys. The one fact you cannot escape stood at the butchers, is that you are buying bits of an animal. The selections of meat I do recognise look quite appealing but then I am reminded of their origins and that quite puts me off.

There is a lad who works in the butchers who is rather attractive and who always gives me a smile. A few weeks ago, when I was shopping just before closing time, I happened to walk past just as he’d dropped his overalls and was stood in a pair of boxer shorts. My eyes probably quite popped in their sockets and I’m sure he noticed my sudden interest but I doubt he interpreted my reaction as sexually motivated. Koreans seem to be mentally castrated and exhibit little sexual awareness or interest at all, Pauline said she could never take him to bed as he’d reek of cattle carcass, death and blood. What a gross thought!

I travel to the Yon San Dong kindergarten on a bus that picks me up at 9.30am. At this time of the day the streets are full of kindergarten buses picking children up from various points around the apartment blocks. By the time I get on my bus it is already half full of children and the Letterland alphabet cassette is blaring out. It drives me fucking mad mostly as there are only about four different songs and for example, Annie Apple shares the same song as Oscar orange. The worrying part of this is that I actually find myself singing along to them! The mornings are always sunny and it has probably only rained six times since I have been here – which is four months today. No seasonal depression syndrome here! The best part of the ride to the kindergarten is when Chi-woo gets on the bus. He’s the little boy who sits next to me and asks me what everything is. We have now progressed to parts of his shoes including the Velcro straps. You only have to tell him something once, or a couple of times at the most and the next day he will repeat it back to you. Unfortunately he is not in my class – I have to suffer the brain-dead Da-hae.

Several times I have found Chi-woo and Un-won, the little girl who sits in front of him and who is about six, sitting head to head. Intimately, Chi-woo touches her face and whispers the word ‘cheek.’ She then repeats it back to him, then touches his chin and whispers ‘chin’ which he then repeats. This will go on for several minutes. It is like something out of John Wyndam’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos and is quite freaky as they are so intense and almost secretive about doing it. This week Dong-seop managed to write the letter ‘b’ and I felt very pleased as this is his first letter ever. I would love to meet some of these kids in ten years time and I am well aware of the privileged nature of their education. Ga-in, U-chun’s daughter, who is four, already speaks a fair amount of English and is now learning Chinese. The depressing aspect of all this education is that it is primarily geared for the job market and in that sense I feel sorry for them. Their lives are mapped out and hideously myopic, schooling, homework, university, military service, marriage, work, marriage, babies, death.

It is very difficult to access information on any deviation in Korean culture and even on Korean culture itself, via the internet. I find myself trying to imagine what it is like for those kids, boys especially, as Korea is a male dominated society, that do not conform, that do not fit in. How do gay teenagers, for example, manage to survive here? What is life-like for the small percentage of lard- arses or those kids not inclined towards sports?

It is though there is a hidden side of Korea that is difficult to explore or investigate. A secret Korea that is almost impossible to penetrate especially if you are an outsider. For example, I believe all Korean boys are circumcised. I cannot back this belief up as there is nothing on the internet. They are circumcised between 10 and 14 and yet there seems to be no evidence of this at all in society. It does not seem to be marked by any form of celebration as in other cultures and it does not seem to be a rite of passage. Boys in classes make no reference to it and though English text is used in many adverts, shop facades, doctors and dentists, there is no reference to it at all. Like the bath houses, it is something uniquely Korean which happens only in Korean confines and the only information about it is in the Korean language where it remains inaccessible to the foreigner. Of course, a trip to the bathhouse would confirm this but this is something I have yet to summon the courage to do. Korean bathhouses are themselves Korean domains and I have met few westerners who know about them or have indeed visited them. Pauline and Angela are the only people I know who have been to them. Nana, who has been here four years, has never visited one. Pauline said the experience was initially quite terrifying.

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Kindy Life – Jan 1st – 20th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in fish, Food and Drink, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children by 노강호 on January 2, 2001

Kindergarten classes finish at 2pm and we then have to start hagwon classes straight away. The kindergarten is soul-destroying as we follow that stupid Letterland syllabus and the resources are not suitable for kids whose first language is not English. Then of course, to make things more boring, most of the kids know the alphabet anyway but we are still compelled to teach it from the beginning.

Jo told me to make sure we took a whole month to do the letters ABC and within ten days of dragging lessons out the kids, all had finished their work books. Last Monday, I said to Precious, which is the adopted English name of the young woman who is both a teacher and receptionist at the school’s front desk, that I needed the next workbook but she said I had to keep the kids on the current one, the ‘Annie Fucking Apple’ workbook, for the next month! The activities are fine for kids who have weak spatial skills but the colouring in letter ‘A’s’ or ‘B’s’ is a totally useless activity. One boy copied a line of ‘A’s’ in eight seconds. I’m sure some kids could complete the entire workbook in half an hour.

The videos cannot be understood as the vocabulary is too complex or the English too confusing. One moment something is called a ‘puppy,’ next moment it is a ‘dog’ and the books are full of lengthy words which might be understood by a native English speaker but not by an ESL (English as a Second Language) student.

Deok-hyeon, terrified to enter my classes – many kids back in 2000 had never seen a real foreigner

There is another boy who is supposed to be in my class except he hasn’t yet attended, his name is Deok-hyun (덕현). I terrified him the first time he attended the school and every time I went near him he screamed. He was petrified of coming into my class and when we initially managed to get him in he sat trembling. Eventually he ran out of the class and has since spent almost two weeks sitting in the reception with Precious. Whenever I walked past he runs away and hides.

I have settled into the teaching life at Letter and Sound and have noticed how my girls are all brain-dead. I don’t know what Koreans do with many of the girls but it is quite criminal as a noticeable proportion of them are morons. For example, whenever I asked Da-hae (다해) a question she starts to slaver and dribble all over the table. Then she proceeds to eat the edge of her desk or the cuff or her coat or jumper. Precious has told me that one the bus in the mornings she forever has to tell Da-hae to stop licking the windows. In every class I have girls who fail to communicate with me or are petrified by my simple questions. When I ask them something easy to answer, and then given them a hint, they stare off at a tangent and refuse to speak to me. I have noticed how most of the girls who do this are the ones dressed in pink or with fluffy furry clothing and it reinforces my belief that there is a link between being clinically brain-dead and make-up, the colour pink and My Little Pony paraphernalia. Of course we destroy and undermine the potential of female personalities in the west but here it seems much more acute. In fact if I taught girls in the UK who acted in this manner I might assume they’d been abused in some way but then the Korean girls will have been mentally abused. It is quite sad how many girls second themselves to boys and men.

Matt, Angela and Pauline refer to my class as ‘The Cabbage Patch.’ After lunch, which we serve to the kids in their classrooms, I will help Precious clean up the room. It has now become common practice for us to make jokes about where Da-hae (다해) was sat as there will be a patch of drool and licky food smears. Out of my three boys one is normal while Deok-hyun (덕현) is constantly running out of my classes as he is terrified of me. Dong-seop has started competing with Deok-hyun for the attention of Precious and has also started to have crying fits at the start of each day.

So far I’ve managed to avoid taking kids for a piss – the boys at least. The girls I don’t mind as much as they are surprisingly independent at this task. Boys however, are quite different. However, this week Dong-seop wanted me to take him for a piss. Koreans kids use the word ‘shee’ (씨) which translates into something like ‘tinkle’ or ‘wee wee’ as whenever I use it in front of Korean adults it promotes laughter. Dong-seop started making the gesture for wanting a piss, which is to make stabbing motions towards to their crotch with the palms open.  It is quite a funny gesture and is always done with both hands. I was forced to take him as there were no other adults around. When we got to the urinal I was hoping he would do it himself but little Korean boys will usually just stand there as they are used to their parents doing everything for them. I had to pull down his trousers, and then his long johns however, before I could get them fully down he started pissing into them.

On the Chinese New Year we had three days off which happened to fall on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Of course, in Korea you wouldn’t expect to be given even the Monday or Friday off by your boss, let alone both days. Koreans don’t seem to complain or even be bothered about this themselves. On the Monday evening I meet Ryo Hyu-sun and a friend of his and together we went to the bar, Mr Seven, which is next to my apartment. They asked me what I wanted to eat and I said I didn’t mind. This wasn’t a sensible thing to do as next moment we were served a communal plate of chicken feet in spicy red pepper sauce. At first I thought they were prawns but when I lifted one out of the sauce it wobbled grotesquely from the end of my chopsticks. I ate a few just to be polite and all the time had to suppress an urge to chuck up. All the bones seem to have been removed from the feet but they still had bits of gristle in them or maybe that was the bones but regardless, there was a continual crunching in my mouth and throughout the duration I couldn’t help how much chicken shit each little foot had trodden in. Whenever Koreans drink alcohol there is food on the table and they consider it unhealthy to drink without constantly nibbling.

When it was about one in the morning, and after another of Ryo Hyu-sun’s friends had joined us, we went to one of the numerous soju tents known as pojangmacha (포장 마차) which are doted all over the place. These are simply red and white or blue and white stripped plastic tents which stand on disused land or parking lots. They are large with entrances and plastic windows and inside they are heated by kerosene heaters which remind me of living under canvas in the army.  The owner of this tent, a middle-aged man and his wife, had a small portion of the tent where they sleep and watch TV as these tents are open 24 hours a day. We must have spent an hour in Mr Seven discussing the merits of cod soup and cod roe (대구탕,알탕). Incidentally, Daegu, is also the Korean for cod.  Ryo Hyu-sun kept telling me how delicious these soups were and no sooner had we sat down in the soju tent, pojangmacha when a gas burner was brought to our table and a communal bowl of soup prepared. The soups were quite tasty but then we were huddled around the kerosene heater with an outside temperature of minus 10, pissed and hungry. Even a packet of dehydrated soup would have been something to talk about.  Koreans make several assumptions about their culture. The first is that their food is hot and spicy. Koreans are always saying to me, ‘Oh Nik, that meal is very hot!’ or “Nik! That is too spicy for you!’ Another assumption is that their food is delicious. I see their assumptions as a form of racism and whilst I don’t find them terribly insulting they are irritating. I am aware their assumptions are just that and are borne out of naivety rather than malice. Few Koreans have traveled abroad and the country is lacking in western restaurants. Of course MacDonald’s and ‘Kay Pi Shi’ (KFC) are here but there a few Indian, Thai or Mexican restaurants. Most Koreans think their food is too hot for westerners and are surprised if you eat rice noodle soup (떡보기) without complaining about how hot it is. They look at you in awe if you dare eat a raw chilli or glove of garlic at the meal table. As yet I haven’t eaten one Korean meal that is hot, I mean hot like vindaloo or hot like Mexican food. Generally Korean food is comfortably hot. I would love to see a Korean eating a Scot’s bonnet chilli or a habanero. Spicy hot in Korea is one that burns at both end! Then there is the assumption Korean food is spicy – well that’s not really true. Yes, it’s spicy hot-ish but it certainly isn’t spicy. I am sure other spices exist here but the only ones I have experienced are ginger, cinnamon, garlic. Combining a wide range of spices, as in Indian cuisine, is not the essence of Korean cooking and everything is served with copious amounts of either red pepper paste (고추장) or red pepper powder. Matt and I were talking about Korean food at school last week, as we were eating lunch and everything at the table contained some form of red pepper. The kimchi is loaded with it, it was copious in my meal and Matt’s soup and it was in all three of the various pickles at our table. You can rarely eat Korean food without eating some form of red pepper or chilli. Despite this Koreans will tell you their food is spicy. Well it’s hot but the only spice in it is chilli, that’s the only spice in anything.

As for kimchi, Koreans are obsessed with it. Kimchi is a national ‘dish’ and is a form of pickled cabbage a little similar in its properties to sauerkraut. It is made with Chinese leaf cabbage. The other main ingredient of kimchi is of course, red pepper powder along with garlic, ginger, various spring onions a form of fish sauce similar to Thai fish sauce and grated mooli which in Korea is called moo. Kimchi is served with almost everything and I can think of few meals with which it is not an accompaniment. In many meals it is a vital component along with rice or as the basis for soup. You can also buy kimchi flavoured noodles and crisps. If you mention kimchi to some children they get very animated and so far I have only met one child that doesn’t like it. I have been asking children their views on kimchi in my classes and on one occasion the kids became really excited when I said I liked it. Now I have to admit it but when I writing this diary in Korea, I hated the stuff. I would only eat small amounts of it and usually only as an accompaniment mixed with other things I thought it smelt disgusting, and a juxtaposition of something like a blend of flatulence aromas and something rotting. Now I love it and in fact I am pretty expert at making it. Many Koreans have been impressed by my skill at making this condiment. Neither have I really found Korean food delicious, at least not delicious in the same way as one might enjoy Chinese, Thai or Indian food but I do find it very satisfying.

It is amazing watching the kindergarten children eating their meals as their behaviour differs drastically to that of western kids. Korean children, even the very young ones, don’t start eating a meal until it is all served. There is no squabbling over who has a bigger portion and if one child asks for something extra the others don’t all follow suit. The children then all eat in silence apart from these rather unpleasant insect-like noises they make such as juicy clicking noises, smacking of lips and slurping. They eat so slowly and with intensity as if the flavours and consistency of every mouthful is being pondered. Finally, when finished, they take their tray to the reception, clean it and put it back in the rack. All this is done without being prompted.

Many of the kindy kids are three or four years old and yet I haven’t noticed pissy or foetid smells lingering on them. So far, I haven’t had to take any kids for a crap, and I don’t want to, but in the UK you would expect to take such children for a pooh every now and then.  Korean children are impeccably clean but their teeth are often bad and I have noticed the worse a child’s teeth are, the richer the parents seem to be.  The kids at the up market Letter and Sound seem to have significantly more rotten milk teeth than corresponding kids from Di Dim Dol. Despite this however, Korean adults all seem to have decent teeth.

(note – the pojangmacha (포장 마차) I visited stood where Lotte Cinema was subsequently built. At the time, this area was a huge vacant lot with several soju tens permanently stood on its edges. On my third trip to Korea, in 2005, the site was already under construction. Pojangmachas were common on vacant lots between buildings even in built-up areas; indeed, one lay not too far from MacDonald’s in Song-So. The vacant lots have rapidly disappeared and soju tens are becoming a rarer sight.

Bathhouse Ballads chronicles many aspects of my life in South Korea. Kimchi Gone Fusion focuses on ‘the way of the pickled cabbage’ while Mister Makgeolli is dedicated to Korean rice wine.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

My Birthday – December 27th – 31st 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in esl, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 27, 2000

Not being happy certainly curtails writing a diary, as well as other things in my life. However, after several confrontations with Jo, in which we all threatened to resign, things have cheered up a little. Jo has promised that I won’t be teaching in the Yon San Dong school much more than a month when I will go back to teaching in Song So. However, I don’t really trust him.

Chi-u, a young Einstein

The new school is hard work and we each have around 7.5 contact time a day with classes. The first four hours are purely kindergarten classes for kids of very rich parents. Their parents fork out around 800.000KW for the first month then pay subsequent monthly tuition fees of 450.000KW. These amounts work out at something like 500 and 250 UK pounds. I have never seen kids so well dressed and Koreans spend a lot of time and effort presenting their children. One of my favourite pupils is a three-year old boy called Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) who is in effect two years old. In Korea, a child is one the day they are born so you always have to minus one from their age to make them comparable with westerners. I am told this habit arose because when Korea was poor, many children died before their first birthday. Second birthdays here, especially for boys, are a very important affair. I have yet to see Chi-Woo (이치우) in the same little outfit twice. He can already speak a fair amount of English and every morning, when he sits next to me on the hagwon bus, he asks how I am and will then proceed to ask ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?’ His memory is quite amazing as next day he will have remembered all the previous morning’s words.

Jo’s School, ‘Letter and Sound,’ is a kindergarten in the morning and a hagwon in the afternoon when the middle schools  finish. We don’t have the equivalent of hagwons  in the UK; they are private schools which teach a range of subjects outside normal school hours and to which most children go in addition to state schooling. Normal schools are known as hakkyos (학교). There are hagwons on probably every street in a Korean town and many don’t close until 10 or 11 pm. Like the Taekwondo schools, piano academies, ballet schools and art schools, hagwons always have their own fleet of brightly coloured minibuses which ferry students between designated pick up points and their respective establishments. The ‘Letter and Sound’ bus picks me up every morning from near my apartment.

Jong Hoon – a great kid but a total nutter!

I think the kindy will do quite well financially as it is really about keeping the kids out of the parents way as much as it is about them learning. My class has only four five-year old kids; two boys, Dong-seop (동섭) and Jeong-hoon (중훈) and three girls. Jeong-hoon (중훈) is a total nutter who throws himself about without any concern for his safety. This week he arrived at school with a cut chin and bashed nose. He speaks the best English of the four kids and is very bright. Then there is Dong-seop (동섭) who has no spatial skills and cannot decide whether he is left or right-handed. I try to help him draw a letter but when I leave his side he just scrawls on the paper. I have nicknamed him ‘Picasso.’  My two girls are fucking brain-dead. It’s quite disgusting how there seems to be a universal trend in encouraging girls to be wriggly little pathetic things that must whimper and second themselves to the brashness of boys. This trend seems particularly more acute in Korea than in the west, though maybe I am being too critical. On of the girls is Da-hae (다해), slips off her chair onto the floor every time I speak to her and when she does utter a sound it is in a revolting girly manner. The other girl is Ji-soo (치수) and to get her to respond I have to call her name about twenty times and then poke her.

What does Annie Apple say?’ I chant, and then someone shouts out a long ‘A’ as in father. I say, ‘No, Annie says ‘A,’ as in cat.’ The kids are sick and fed up of Annie Apple and Bouncy Ben alphabet songs. The accompanying videos have characters with regional British accents and of course the kids find this confusing. Annie Apple talks like a Somerset cider slob and Clever Cat has a frightfully posh Oxford accent. Then there are the story books with phrases like ‘skiddly doo doo’ which is a nightmare trying to explain to small children. Even when there are cassettes with Korean interpretations on them the pronunciations are bad. Bouncy Ben, for example, is always pronounced ‘Bounshey Ben’ and this has become a bit of a joke between Pauline and I.

In class I call myself Bilbo Baggins and have written this, in Korean, on my wall.  I have decided I don’t want any of the kids knowing my real name. In the short space of a couple of weeks I have become adept at totally degrading myself in the singing of kiddy songs all accompanied with mad facial expressions or hand actions. Suddenly I am like a character out of Play School. I can even degrade myself in front of parents. I take kids out to piss, wipe their noses and comfort them when upset. None of this was in my contract and I definitely stipulated that I wanted to teach middle, or high school kids.

Nana moved out of the apartment this week and Matt, a new teacher from New Zealand has moved in with me. Matt seems a good laugh. On Thursday another teacher, Angela, arrived from New Zealand. She is a friend of Matt’s.

My Birthday, Dec 30th, 2000. Pak Jun-ee and Sun-hee (left) and Pauline (far right)

Taekwondo is off the cards until after the winter vacation finishes which is  in a week or so. I don’t finish my classes in time to go training and besides I’m too tired.

On a Wednesday evening I teach Pak Ji-won (박지원) English in the restaurant besides the Shin-woo supermarket in Song So. I spent my birthday here and the family have sort of adopted me. Ji-won is very attractive but he’s only 18 and like so many Korean boys, androgynous. I suspect if anyone touched the front of his pants he wouldn’t have a clue what they were doing. This is no criticism, I love the innocence that seems to typify so many Korean teenagers and which is so different to many of the promiscuous male and female whores I’ve taught in the West.

I taught Ji-won every Saturday for most of 2001. He is now one of my closest Korean friends.

On Friday I had to go to U-chun’s and teach her daughter and niece English. I really like her and if I had to leave Korea now I would be sad because she is such a fun person. She was supposed to be giving me Korean lessons in exchange for English lessons but this seems to have been forgotten but her company is payment enough.

On Saturday it snowed really heavily but the temperature has risen and it is no longer minus 15. The snow has set and Matt and I met up with U-chun at the local E Mart. This is the local supermarket. Then we got a taxi to the local Baskin Robbins which was amusing as I asked for three big pots of ice-cream and of course, Koreans are never so greedy and generally share a pot – and probably a smaller pot too! After that we walked down the main road, through busy and around the university campus. From a high spot on the campus we add a view straight down the wide main road that leads all the way back down to Song-So and beyond which must at least be a few miles. Though it was afternoon, a cold mist hung over the entire city.

I telephoned my sister on my birthday and the call, which lasted an hour, cost a staggering £80. (note – today I can call unlimited for next to nothing).

 

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