Elwood 5566

Fit fathers, fat sons

Posted in Bathhouse, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on September 16, 2011

the fit, fat and flabby

I arrived in back in Korea after my UK holiday a few days before work is due to begin and spent several sessions lazing in bathhouses. On Sunday, I spent almost two hours in a cool, massage pool drifting in and out of sleep and watching the weekend cleaning rituals between fathers and sons and friends. At one point, there were three fathers busy scrubbing their teenage sons but what was most interesting was that while the fathers were slim and fit looking, especially as I reckon they were aged in their 40’s or 50’s,  their sons were all pudgy and fat. Neither was it puppy fat but quite copious amounts of well established lard which far exceeds the requirements of puberty. One father and his son came and sat in my pool and the lad, despite being a foot shorter than I, was equally as broad.

flabby tummies at my old high school

The UK debate about obesity still stirs the emotions and a convenient theory is that fat parents produce fat kids. No doubt there is a correlation but my observation is a reminder that kids can turn fat independent of their parents and that the roots of obesity are complex and compound and not to be explained by one grand ‘theory.’

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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Ancient Korea – 2000 AD

Posted in Daegu, Westerners by 노강호 on September 11, 2011

My relationship with Korea began 11 years ago this September when I arrived for my first one year English teaching contract. I subsequently returned in 2003, 2005 and have remained here since 2007. In the UK a stretch of ten years doesn’t seem that noticeable. I recently returned to the town where I spent my childhood and even after ten years absence the changes weren’t that remarkable. In Korea however, changes are so rapid and widespread that the point at which the past becomes another country can be measured in a couple of years, not generations.

The Korea of 2000 was indeed another country and my memories, like old photos found in an antic, are faded and yellow. Apart from one year, when I lived in Ch’eon-an, I have lived in the same block on and off over 11 years. I spent my first year teaching in what was the largest and most successful haggwon in Song-so, Daegu and must have taught several hundred students and yet I’ve only met one former student  since the end of 2001.  Not only have buildings and businesses changed and disappeared, but so too have the people. In the entire area with which I am intimately acquainted there are only a handful of business that were trading in 2000 and high rise commercial blocks now stand in plots that were once deserted and home to nomadic soju tents.

in the foreground are the three one rooms I have occupied between 2000 and today

When I arrived in 2000, I flew into Kimpo International Airport. It was old, small and dingy and you could walk from one end of the main building to the other in less than two minutes. At the time, Korean Air flew from Britain’s Stansted Airport which outside London surmised Korea’s global insignificance. Today, Air Korea operates out of both Gatwick and Heathrow and a host of other airlines run daily services to the peninsula most of which fly into the amazing, and massive, Inch’eon International.  In 2000, with the KTX, high speed rail network still several years from completion, there were two flights an hour from Kimpo to Daegu or you could opt for the lengthier rail or bus journeys.

Kimpo International Airport around 1994 (courtesy of, Rants in your Pants)

Being stared at was an intense and continuous experience, especially outside Seoul or away from US military bases. EPIK had yet to provide most schools with foreign English teachers and many students had never met a foreigner. I remember one boy, Duk-hyeon, who was so terrified of me that he would sit out my lessons in the main office. Whenever Korean teachers tried to integrate him into my class he would start shaking and then breakdown in a flood of tears. Despite months of friendly smiles, funny faces or kind acts, he could not be pacified. On the streets, fellow foreigners were few and unlike today, where many shroud themselves with a sense of being the only foreigner in Korea and subsequently blank you, most were only too eager to talk. In my area of Song-so there were a handful of foreigners and we all knew each other. Life in Korea was so alien, so different and was so much further from home than it is today, that most westerners had a need to talk to each other. Today, fellow foreigners seem to regard each other as a threat and blatantly shun each other perhaps because other foreigners are a reminder how un-unique and tame your experience really is.

Inch’eon International – voted 5 consecutive times the world’s leading airport

The navigation of daily life, and especially traveling, was both challenging and exciting because so little was written in English. I remember a trip to Pohang in December 2000, where the bus terminal only provided information in Korean and hanja and the tickets for trains and buses weren’t bilingual. Ordering food was just as challenging and other than large western style fast food restaurants which provided accompanying photos or English translations,  everything was in Korean. Ordering food was usually a culinary mystery tour.

Pohang. Christmas Eve 2000

Fermenting foods, such as kimchi and makkeoli required a small hole in the packet or bottle to release the build-up of gas. On my first trip back to the UK, I put a small packet of kimchi that had been served with the in-flight meal, into my top pocket. When I woke an hour later, to a strong and unpleasant smell, I discovered it had leaked down the front of  my shirt. Today, the fermentation process is curtailed and packaging subsequently sealed.

‘Video Bangs’ were prolific and probably as common today as are mobile telephone stores. In the absence of digital photography, there were numerous photo stores which very often had a large photograph of a naked baby boy in their window. On this topic, there was also  a shop in downtown Daegu which amongst other things, had plaster casts of little lads dicks. I vaguely remember seeing one or two houses with chillies hanging from the front door, which was the traditional way to advertise the birth of a boy and imagine the prestige of having a son could be immortalized by making a cast of his dick, spraying it gold or silver, and mounting it in a small frame.  How widespread this custom was I don’t know but I know several students and Korean men who have a photograph of themselves as a toddler, on the wall of their living room or hallway in which they are naked.

On the streets, at pedestrian crossings, the red man ruled with absolute sovereignty and on deserted roads pedestrians patiently waited until the green man, who was often turquoise, appeared. Today, I am often the only person left standing and even elderly citizens will jay walk. And teenagers holding hands with the opposite sex and being affectionate was an absolute social taboo.

In the classroom, western obscenities and terms such as ‘gay,’ ‘homo’ or ‘fuck’ were either unheard off or simply never uttered. I have yet to hear the four letter ‘c’ word but like fat Koreans and other social problems, its arrival is inevitable And ten or eleven years ago,  Harisu (하리수), Korea’s first trans-gendered celebrity, was a popular enough to have ‘pin-up statue among teenage boys.

between 2000 and 2003, Harisu was popular with many teenage boys

In the days before Tesco’s Home Plus, even the largest supermarkets lacked anything but a few solitary bottles of wine and western beer. The only cheese one could buy was plastic play cheese or the likes of ’Einstein’ cheese slices which were believed to increase the cognitive abilities of children. Decent butter was unobtainable and coffee beans were not just expensive but difficult to buy. Around 2001, the Song-so, E-Mart, had a working coffee ‘peculator’ on display which used to attract a small crowd of intrigued customers.

English teaching contracts did not include air-conditioning as part of the package and split shifts were a regular teaching condition.  However, I used to make up to a weeks haggwon salary in a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon teaching small groups of students in my free time. Everyone wanted to learn English and as the haggwon industry hadn’t exploded, there were plenty of students and parents looking for English teachers. I’ve been offered jobs in KFC, MacDonalds, in the bathhouse and on street corners but in the last four years I’ve not once been offered a paid teaching  job by a stranger.

But the greatest difference between the sepia tinted Korea of 2000 and today, was the absence on the internet, certainly in English, of anything pertaining to Korean culture or life. Google Earth, Youtube, Wikipedia, WordPress and Blogger etc, were either in their infancy or hadn’t been released. There were no online language resources and indeed to write in Hangeul on a computer in the UK, even until around 2004, demanded the purchase of Microsoft Proofing Tools. Until fairly recently, if you wanted any information on Korean food, making kimchi, the Korean language, Hanja, taekwondo, etc, you had to buy books and even then there were topics that weren’t translated into English. The Korea of 2000, even 2005, had to be physically explored but today there is little about Korea that is secret or shrouded. A million blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and a myriad of sites provide the most comprehensive coverage of Korean life.  The internet has very much tamed and demystified Korea making it accessible and user friendly. Today, you can explore every facet of Korean culture without even leaving your home country.

from the days when you needed a package to write in Korean and Hanja

How I wish I’d arrived in the 1990’s or 1980’s. Our Korean experiences, serialized in the posts of our blogs and video-casts are increasingly trivial, familiar and often mundane but to have experienced the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ before it met EPIK, before it was so rudely exposed by the internet, before it was ‘made simple’ and subsequently accessible to an army of people who would have otherwise stayed away… now that’s the stuff of travel books, autobiographies and the content for real adventures.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Here Today Gone Tomorrow

Posted in Daegu, Diary notes by 노강호 on July 22, 2010

It was there last week because I walked right past it and decided I should eat lunch there sometime. I particularly like bo-ssam (보쌈) and last time I ate in this restaurant one of the side dishes was grilled mackerel pike. (공치)However, the restaurant has disappeared and is now a bar. Korean is a state of transition and businesses come and go with rapidity.

Three days previously this was a 'coffee and bun' shop. It is directly opposite Mr Big and Davici and opened a week before they did

I’m in a part of town I rarely visit; it’s over the crossroad near my one room, the dividing line between my world and what as well might be another city. Suddenly, I recognise where I am having walked onto a street from a direction in which I’d never previously come. For a moment I’m transported back 10 years. First, I recognise a shop that used to be the fast food restaurant Popeyes. It mutated into a stationery store within months of my arrival and is now a boutique. And just there was the shop where I bought a second-hand piano. Now it’s a travel agent. This reminds me of the shop where I bought my flight back to the UK after my first visit and I turn my head to locate it – it too has gone. And next to the piano shop was a small covered market where on a hot a muggy afternoon I remember drinking two glasses of freshly squeezed kiwi juice. The entire market has gone.

Davici Opticians took 10 days to transform

In the area around my ‘one-room,’ only a few businesses  and even people remain from ten years ago. The big corporate businesses,  still stand but the small businesses have changed hands sometimes on numerous occasions. I’ve taught hundred of kids in this area. I can remember many of their names and still recall some faces. Their English names are easy to remember as there was a trend back then for kids to give themselves quite bizarre names – Silver, Gold, Cow, Knife, Cat, etc. However, I have only passed two ex-students who recognised me.

Mr Big and Davici both opened in the same week. Mr Big was formerly a clothing store that took less than 10 days to mutate

In less than 65 paces from my front door I can see ‘Mr Big,’ ‘ Davici’ the opticians and the beauticians, ‘Beautyplex.’ The three business are directly opposite each other and less than 10 days all three replaced former businesses and reappeared in new guises. That was earlier this year and since then another 2 business have either  relocated or appeared in the same block.

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© Nick Elwood 2010.This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Song-So in Transition

Posted in Daegu, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on June 19, 2010

E-bente-tang (이벤트탕)

In the Ebente Tang (이벤트 탕) today the additional essence was pine (솔입). It was slightly busier than usual for a lunch-time and I got talking to the westerner who isn’t afraid to bend over. It’s actually the first time I have sat with a westerner, naked in a bathhouse, since I visited Korea a few years ago with a friend. I passed another westerner on the way in;  I was taking my shoes off as he was putting his own. He didn’t want to talk, I could tell, and he was a dirty looking backpacker type with grungy looking clothes and a month’s stubble. I almost  let him escape then said, ‘hello,’ after which he had to exchange some conversation with me. I’ve not really seen him around before but of course, he’s lived here for a few years, which means probably 13 months.

I’ve had a few drinks. This evening, as I left work, I felt like a stroll down to where my old school  used to be which involves crossing a large cross-road near the Lotte Cinema. I  hardly ever go Keimyung University side unless I want some Baskin Robbins ice cream.  The cross-road forms a barrier, an asteroid belt between my realm, a few blocks, and what is basically another universe. I usually experience a sense of adventure as  I cross it and begin journeying where I haven’t been before.  Of course, I probably have been in this location before but the transformation of the buildings and businesses occupying it generally make me feel passing them is a first encounter.   I’d started the journey from my bank and half way towards my old school, as it starts to rain, I realise my umbrella is in the bank foyer. It’s pointless turning back and beside, this is Korea and the chances are very high it will be there when I return.

Song-So in 2000 from the top of E-Marte. This area still had patches of farmland all since developed

2010. Same location

The businesses towards my old school, a hideous factory in which I worked for 18 months, have changed. KFC has gone – the first pace I ate on my own in Korea, so too has Lotteria burger bar where I’d hang out in the most humid part of summer because contracts back then didn’t include air conditioning, and where a bedding shop used to be I’m treated to a reminder of life back home  in the form of a Tesco’s Home Plus. Not content to have invaded every corner of England, they are now starting to terminate all small businesses in Korea. My old school is no longer Di Dim Dol but some other school, still run by a money grabbing businessman boss. On the huge poster on the third floor,  some round-eyed western kiddy stares out at Korea, pen in hand, looking studious. Of course, the truth is most western kids couldn’t give a fuck about English and the native language skills of both Britain and the USA fall behind that of Korea, which for all its faults, has one of the most successful education systems in the world. My old Taekwondo Academy has gone and so too has the Pizzaland underneath it.

This entire stretch of road used to be the most affluent part of Song-So but since a mega cinema complex, known as Mega Town, was built some 6 years ago, opposite where I currently live, the money has moved into the next block. It was an obvious transition; near the Cinema is the E-Marte supermarket and surrounding it are buffet restaurants, pizza restaurants, coffee shops and a Dunkin Donut. Further down the road towards the university, the area in which my old school used to be the atmosphere is  now slightly shabby and deserted. When I cross the large crossroads and venture into the unknown I often feel guilty of being lazy but nowadays I just remind myself I rarely come here as there isn’t really much to see.

Sea squirt (멍개)

I end up eating dinner in an Oyster restaurant where I know the owner. It’s one of the hardiest local businesses. The first thing he says to me is that I have put on weight when indeed I have lost it. Not a good start to the evening especially as my favourite food here was oyster tempura. Ten years ago this restaurant was a North Korean restaurant  and was where I regularly used to meet my friend Cherie, currently my boss after she quit Di Dim Dol Factory School. The owner is really pleased to see me and wanting an excuse to drink, plies me with plenty of ‘service’ in the form of beer, makkalli, sea squirt, and sliced jellyfish.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what its like to eat a boil, Sea Squirt (멍개) is a close approximation. I’ve eaten them before and never found them delicious. Sliced jellyfish (햅아리) however, I like especially if in a sauce. The specialty in this establishment is oyster. My home town in the UK, Colchester, has existing oyster pens built when the Romans occupied Britain. Indeed the oyster trade dates back 2000 years. You wouldn’t really know this as oysters are probably no more visible in Colchester than in any other town especially as they cost about a pound a shot – approximately 2000 Won each. My basket of delicious Oyster cost 20000 Won (£10) and there are probably 30 oysters – enough to make me feel a bit sick. And this is where I have to laugh because they cost the same price back in 2002!

I left the Oyster restaurant feeling a little sick and pissed and on the walk home passed a restaurant in which sat a group of around 6 waygukins. I stopped for a moment and spied on them. They were all young and shabby, the men unshaven and clearly back-packer types with a touch of goth about them as they were all mostly dressed in black and drab colours. One dumb-ass  had a tea cosy on his head and sat next to him was the guy I met going into the bathhouse today. No wonder he didn’t want to talk as he obviously has a gaggle of mates to chat with.

I ended up back at the bank where my little sojourn had begun and there, where I had left it, was my umbrella.

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This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.