Elwood 5566

A Cake of Soap and Korean Hierarchical Collectivism

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, customs, Education, Korean language, podcasts by 노강호 on July 25, 2011

podcast 87

A few weeks ago, I was showering in the bathhouse. The soap is always provided which is something which irks many westerners. Somehow, we seem to find pollution everywhere but on ourselves and are quick to condemn a number of Korean habits, including the ones concerning communal hard soap as opposed liquid soap.  I have cited, on numerous occasions, the research on the hygiene of British people where a culture of super-clean toilets seems to mitigate the need to actually wash your hands. When you take a dump in a nice clean toilet with white tiled walls, devices that automatically jettison a fragrance into the air to mask unpleasant smells, and mop up with two ply, scented toilet paper, it is easy to forget how dirty shit is. In 2008, a major British study revealed 25% of those tested had faecal matter on their hands and 33% of home work surfaces were contaminated by faecal matter and strains of E-coli (Daily Telegraph). It is no exaggeration to say that British people have so much shit on their hands they might as well have mucked themselves out manually especially when international research ranks Britain as the third most contaminated society after India and Malaysia and more contaminated than Arabic countries where one traditionally cleans their bum with a hand and water. So, among Brits at least, I always titter when they bang-on about how dirty it is to use communal soap because only 43% of British mothers see fit to wash their hands after changing their baby’s nappy. The chances are, a great number of people who condemn communal hard soap are the same people who ‘shit and go,’ without bothering to wash their hands.

So, there I am using one of a hundred bars of communal soap and I notice it is rather hairy; in fact it’s so hairy I can feel the coarseness on my skin. For a moment, and it is brief, I am repulsed but then I’m pacified by the thought, it’s only hair, Korean hair and in that moment, not only do I continue using it, but I start to reminisce.

My family shared soap in the bathroom as well as towels and I can even remember we shared bath water. Back in the 60’s you didn’t shower every day, but on a weekly basis. For many children of the 50’s and 60’s, Sunday was traditionally bath day and for me that meant stepping into second-hand, scummy-gray water and wanting to get out as quickly as possible; not because the water was gross, but because by the time I got to use the bath the hot water had expired.

Maybe it’s the memory of the bathing experience as a child which makes me wallow in the luxury of a Korean bathhouse. I am not surprised we bathed on a weekly basis and hated the process. In the days when central heating was an emerging luxury, and before double glacéing and hot-water-on-demand heating systems, bathing, especially in cold weather, was unpleasant. Then there were the damp towels, the dubious face cloth and sponges whose possible journeys and uses, as a child, I never contemplated. Eventually, when the final dregs of gray scud whirled and gurgled down the drain, the final bather had to prostrate themselves at the edge of the bath, Ajax in hand, and scour away the crusty tide mark.  Drying my face with the ‘family’ bath towel and detecting an odour, the origins of which I don’t wish to recall, was an experience a lot less traumatic than had the odour belonged to an outsider. I think most of us are more tolerant of ‘dirt’ and ‘pollutants’ when we are either related genetically or are familiar with the owner. In sexual relationships, most people will happily rub their faces in the gutters of the human body but the moment they have to wash their hands with a communal bar of soap and they are offended. I have known numerous dog owners who would happily let their dog lick their face and lips, or lick their ice cream, after it had sniffed and tasted the back-end of every other dog in the neighbourhood. Familiarity has powers of sanitation far superior to the most stringent bleaches and cleaning agents, and as for sexual passion, the atomic bomb of hygienics, in its radiance all filth and the veiny, mucous-lined channels from which it oozes, are deified.

I want to see that bar of soap as a Korean sees it, not because I want to be Korean but because in its comprehension lies something of the mystery of what it means to be Korean as a Korean and which as a cultural phenomena, eludes  all outsiders. How Koreans perceive a simple bar of communal soap, I am beginning to think, shares a proximity to communal plates and bowls, the communal bowl of odeng which has almost disappeared, the act of drinking a shot of soju from another person’s glass, sharing water in the bathhouse, dipping your toothbrush into a communal bowl of salt, and cascades down through various other social interactions far removed from ablutions and yet intrinsically connected through their relationship with the community. This is not to say Korea doesn’t have taboos and social mores, it does. You can cough in someone’s face and share food from the same plate, picking at it with your chopsticks, but suck the end of your pen and you’re ‘dirty.’

 The bar of soap reminds me how human reactions to ‘pollution’ are affected by familiarity and hence a mother will find the contents of her baby’s nappy much less disturbing than if it belonged to that of a stranger. I have quite often seen Korean men pick an Italy towel or razor out of a bathhouse bin and proceed to use it and indeed, some of my friends do this. It’s easy to condemn this as a disgusting act but we have all used each others’ Italy towels and razors and the only difference between using your friend’s towel and a discarded one, is that your friend has a relationship with you and you know for sure they haven’t got face fungi.

Korean society is far more homogeneous than that of the UK where our gene-pool has been thoroughly mongrelised. Many Brits, often comment on how ‘orientals’ all look alike but the fact is Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais etc, all have their own distinguishing features and it is only ignorance and lack of familiarity, which masks them.  I can tell apart a Korean from a Chinese or Japanese person, with far greater accuracy than I can a Russian, Frenchman, Englishman or German. And the process of mongrelization in Britain, started well before the Viking raids and French conquest of 1066. That Koreans are more homogeneous genetically, plus their isolationist past, the influences of Confucianism and recent history in which their national identity was suppressed, have conspired to produce a society with a strong sense of group identity.

There are many points at which you can observe Koreans expressing their identity through a shared framework and one of the most obvious is through the values surrounding education. Regardless of social position, every Korean parent has much the same academic expectations for and of their children. In Britain, educational values, and sometimes the lack of them, tend to divide society.  Other examples, if practiced in the UK would be deemed archaic, even invasive. I don’t think I have ever heard a British school child talk about their future aspirations in terms of ‘their country’ but Korean students often tell me they want to do something to ‘help’ or ‘better’ their nation.  The National anthem is not only heard more often that it would be in the UK but most people can sing the verses. The national flower, the mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon – 무궁화), is a well know image. National Service is often perceived by many, though indeed not all, as a duty towards ones country. Even kimchi and Korean martial arts are important facets of Korean identity. Perhaps, because the formation of modern Korea and its struggles with both foreign aggressors and internal political fracture, are relatively recent events, the important historical figures, the Korean founding fathers, are well know to all Koreans. If you should praise Korean society, many Koreans will be quick to thank you. Meanwhile, back in the UK, political correctness has tarnished the Union Jack and anything British with slurs of imperialism, racism, and oppression. Indeed, I think it not wrong to claim that in Britain, British culture is a dirty word and British culture the most inferior of all the cultures now inhabiting the British Isles.  Meanwhile, the influences which shaped European and British history have been discarded and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and anything else pertaining to ancient civilizations are deemed crusty, boring and thoroughly elitist.

In western society, we value individuality and see its development as worthwhile and important and whenever we cooperate or interact with others we very much do so as individuals working with in a group. And if a person were to exhibit characteristics which conflicted with the group, their subsequent labelling as ‘an individual’ could be very positive. We respect ‘individuality’ even if we don’t agree with its content. For westerners, it is possible to develop as a respected individual without any need of group associations and one can forge an identity in isolation. For Koreans however, it is the group which defines their roles and gives them their identity and they can be quite lost without the security of its parameters. I have on numerous occasions seen students ‘shut down’ or socially paralyzed because group dynamics weren’t quite right.  Identities articulated around work, the army, school and university, ferrying individuals through the various stages of life are integrally important, lifelong points of reference.

And at all times in Korean society, you notice the importance of hierarchy. You can chuck western kids together, mixing ages, abilities and gender randomly and they will basically work but Koreans are likely to suffer almost a trauma if the groups aren’t structured properly. Difference, for Koreans, is much more difficult to deal with. Age cohorts are incredibly important and Koreans constantly refer to their position either currently or in the past, not only through age cohort terms like ‘first grade’ or ‘sixth grade’ but by larger structural ones such as ‘high school student’ or ‘university student.’ That you can address a young person as ‘student’ is reflective of both the pivotal role of education and age banding. I have know a number of Korean high school students who, after spending a year abroad, returned to Korea to be put back a year into a class with students younger than them and they found the experience quite difficult.

The importance of age in Korean society can never be underestimated and it is for this reasons they always want to know how old you are. Without knowing your age, a Korean is not only unsure what language to use addressing you, but is unsure how to act towards you. Knowledge of your age allows them to place you in the appropriate group from which they know how to treat you. And don’t necessarily expect relationships determined by such factors to change over time or with familiarity, as they would in the west. I’ve taught English students who very quickly treated me in manner which in Korean would be seen as intimate; that is they use familiar terms of address and treat you as an equal. But Korean ‘friends’ I taught almost 12 years ago, when they were high school students, still address me as ‘teacher’ and some find it difficult not to. Another, who will use my first name, finds it difficult to smoke in my presence and may turn their head while drinking alcohol. And you will be sorely reminded if you make a blunder and assume students belong to the same age cohort when in fact they occupy adjacent ones.

The Korean Language expresses both collectivism and hierarchical stratification. Indeed, Korean is a language of built-in deferentially and when using it you are constantly aware of your position in relation to others. The terms to address people are rarely their names, but their function within the group.  Koreans rarely uses personal pronouns as these are seen as intimate and in the wrong context rude, and position, rank, family relationships or specific occupations commonly replace these. In terms of collectivism, Koreans refer to their parents, schools, universities and the largest structural unit of all, nation, by way of ‘our’ rather than ‘my.’ Whenever I refer to ‘my mother’ as ‘our mother’ I am a little unsure whether this is correct, or possibly bizarre, as I am not Korean and not part of the collective.

There is probably no better example of the differences between ‘collective’ and individualistic’ ideologies than in the conflict westerners often encounter when the ‘interest’ of the ‘individual’ clash with the ‘interest’ of work. In the west, we are used to a very clear division between work and ‘play’ and it is not appropriate to spring meetings on people at the last moment, ask them to change their plans for that evening, or expect them to ‘stand a friend up’  in order to work. If this is a necessity, financial recompense can be expected. When Koreans expect westerners to behave in the same manner as Koreans, they do not really understand the sacrosanct nature of free time and the importance of individuality as an expression of identity. Koreans however, will suppress all individual pursuits, interests or engagements,  if work requires some additional input. Koreans do not divide work and free time so absolutely and they will work way past their contracted time if the organisation requires this and not expect a financial reward for doing so – though I suspect they would expect their diligence to be acknowledged and perhaps foresee some in-lieu benefit at a future date. (Of course, it is equally as plausible to interpret this work ethic as exploitative and manipulative). And, in terms of obesity, the collective ideology is definitely more judgmental.  I sense, that whenever I am in the presence of a Korean who is proportionally fatter than I, I can relax because it seems a far greater social offence to be a fat Korean betraying the parameters of the Korean frame, than a fat foreigner.

In the West, the rights of the individual are so crucial that it is almost the case that the rights one person can easily trample on the rights of another. I am reminded of the time I witnessed an argument about someone playing loud music at an inconvenient time and where the perpetrator claimed playing loud music was, his ‘right.’  As with many facets of life in Korea and life back home, there is a clear polarization where both extremes each seem too extreme. As much as I love living in a society that is a collective hierarchy, and enjoying the benefits it brings, it is as a foreigner and outsider who is absolved from transgressions and given leniency.  I would certainly hate to be part of that collective and stripped of those component parts which I believe are integral to my individuality and identity.  I actually shudder to think how my Korean friends, and especially my boss, perceive my passions and would imagine that for all the importance I attribute them, they probably view them as trite and puerile and in some way detracting from my responsibilities.

And so my little sojourn returns to the bar of hairy soap where this epic began. I realise of course, that most of the other bars are hairless and that I suspect the hairs are mine. Westerners, we’re gross! I love the Korean physical homogeneity because my western body, my British body is riddled with the mutations of cross breeding, of mongrelism. And, I’ve inherited that horrid propensity for chest hair, and worse, back hair which is just too great a reminder of my primate past. I can tolerate the soap with Korean hair attached, but with those western straggles matting the surface of the soap, I’m both revolted and ashamed. Westerners, we’re just too different, not just physically but mentally. We cling to immobile markers of identity and individuality, our sexuality, our colour, our religious and political affiliations, mountain dew, pop groups, and a ton of other crap, with such passion that our differences and the importance of our affiliations hinder and obscure that which we do share. When we do identify with each other to the extent of it representing some tangible community, it tends to be through trivia such as the royal weddings, football, Big Brother or Pop Idol. For so many westerners, their name and their sexual, political, religious, ethical or sporting affiliations are fundamental components of any social introduction are often of more importance than work. For many Koreans, the most important topic is work and for most adults life comprises of little much else.

And so I come to the conclusion that if my Korean friends can use someone else’s Italy towel, they can just as easily tolerate the hairy soap and do so because they are familiar with the hair’s owner, who was in all probability, a Korean and possibly a distant relative with whom they have much in common.  Meanwhile, the westerner perceives that last person as anything but a relative or countryman and instead a dirty fucking stranger who probably has a hideous skin disease.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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I Would Have Played Hooky But…

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Daegu, Diary notes, seasons by 노강호 on February 16, 2011

Daegu under snow and suddenly I need a ‘sicky’

Podcast 70

I woke this morning (Monday) to find Daegu covered in snow; and heavy clouds, typical of the ones that exist much of the year in the UK, hugging the tops of nearby apartment buildings.  The clouds are gray and that they are pregnant with snow is forecast by the fact they are tinged yellow. There is a bitter wind that nips the extremities and all around large snow flakes, whipped by whirls of wind fall crazily. The flakes are so soft, delicate and light that they accumulate thickly on the branches of nearby pine trees.   I would love this kind of day in the UK, the perfect conditions for phoning in sick if you live within walking distance of work, or if you use public transport or car, then by exaggerating how bad travel conditions are. Neither would there be a need to use one of the trump-card, ‘sicky’ excuses, such as having diarrhoea or cancer; ‘excuses’ which are perfect for terminating any form of interrogation.  Of course, a cancer excuse demands further action as it  doesn’t just go away and colleagues would expect further developments, unless it’s posed as a ‘scare,’ in which case you can  script yourself ‘all clear.’  Neither is it likely to do you any favours if your ploy is foiled.

Most people would spare a chuckle for the colleague  feigning  a cold, flu or diarrhoea but a cancer feign is taking  too far and  is definitely likely to backfire,  if discovered. ‘Diarrhoea’ however, is a great excuse because at 7 am and half way through their egg, bacon and brown sauce, no boss is going to start quizzing the causes or manifestation of your condition.  If your boss is a bit of a twat, a few references to how runny your condition is or how you never quite made it out of bed on time, will quickly see them eager to terminate the call while simultaneously offering you the speediest recovery.   And next, with an authorized day pass, it would be a trip to the local corner shop, braving the conditions  en-route that prevent you from getting to work, for a few bars of chocolate, or whatever comfort food  takes your fancy. Then, once back home, it’s off to bed accompanied by a hot-water bottle and a couple of good movies.

It’s amazing how utterly relaxing and enjoyable a ‘mental health day’ is when taken in someone else’s time. You can never get the right feel if you take one at a weekend or during a holiday because guilt at your laziness gnaws your conscience and in any case, the weather is rarely suitable.  ‘Sickies’ in summer lack the potential to pamper and fail to provide that cosy snugness and if you have a house or garden there’s always something else you should be doing.  Climatic conditions which drive you indoors and force you to seek the warmth of your bed or duvet,  the sort of weather which typifies disaster movies, are prerequisite for a rewarding ‘sicky’ and they are even better accompanied by a suitable  climatic disaster movie involving nuclear winters  or avalanches.  And there’s absolutely no guilt because conditions are so shit you wouldn’t be doing anything in the garden anyway!  But the ultimate ‘sicky,’ one which unless you are cursed with the protestant work ethic, provides a taste of heaven,  is  one which is taken both at somebody else’s expense and during bad weather when the only thing you would be doing, is working.

 

a choppy yellow sea ( winter 2007)

In the UK, a flurry of snow is enough to cause trains and buses to cease  and you can guarantee that once public transport has shut shop, half the population will be phoning in with colds or flu or excuses about being ice-bound. The merest dusting of  anything more than frost and my niece and nephew are begging to be excused school and their front room looks directly onto their school facade.  You can’t blame them as in recent years the example of the rich and powerful are ones predominantly inspired by decadence and self-interest.

snowy sunrise (Do-bi-do, Winter 2007)

When I was a teacher in the UK, I probably averaged 10 ‘sick’ days a year, even if I was on a part-time contract.  Sometimes they were taken  because I had better things to do than work – things such as taking an exam or a driving test. More likely, they were because I was simply stressed and  found it difficult to amass the energy to teach a bunch of kids who usually had little interest in learning. I would have few allegiances to a school in the UK, certainly not as a chalk-front teacher in a run of the mill school (as most are even though they all claim the opposite), and consider teaching a form of prostitution.  Indeed, I’ve known teaching friends incite the scummiest pupil they knew until enraged, they attacked them. Strange, how even though the attacks were minor, sometimes involving pats rather than punches, and the teachers of strong constitution,  they had to take months off work suffering from a range of psychological problems – time off on full pay, of course. I even knew one teacher, a teacher of comparative religious studies, who managed to get long-term sick leave due to ‘stress’  during which she  secretly taught in another school. I admire people who hold down two jobs but that’s  genius and an excuse that possibly exceeds the moral boundaries demarcating ones  involving cancer.

bitterly cold (Do-bi-do, Winter 2007)

In Korea,  life isn’t that laid back and most people still make it to work or school through both bad weather and illness and often both! I’ve not had one day off for sickness in four years, not even for a genuine sickness! Even when I’ve had a problem, as I have had today with a buggered knee, I’ve gone to work and simply suffered. This is partly because I’m a personal friend of my boss but it’s also because the kids are decent and working conditions good.  I know this isn’t the case in all Korean schools, but it is in mine. But on a day like today, with Daegu buried in snow, the temperature freezing and the visage from my one-room like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow,  I feel a yearning, a pang for something British and for once it’s not roast beef, roast potatoes or  a pint of British bitter.   The adverse weather conditions have initiated a cultural call, a siren invoking  me to invent an appropriate excuse and play hooky and doing so is a cultural institution as British as fish and chips.  If I was British Rail the announcement on all stations throughout the next few days would be,  ‘services suspended until further notice!’  Suddenly, I realise the mild headache I felt all last night, that would otherwise have been the initial stages of a brain tumour,  are just my imagination. Reluctantly, I pull on my coat and gloves and head out into the Arctic winter, on my way to work!

‘Winter 2007 – perfect dossing weather

Footnote – You know how every two hundred photos you take you have one that’s actually decent?  Well. yesterday I had two which encapsulated the conditions which inspired the content of this post. And then, after ‘processing’ them they were somehow deleted. I was quite pissed off!  Hence the Winter 2007 photos.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Blue Belt Grading – May 1-16th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Education, Korean Accounts Part 1, Korean children, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on May 1, 2001

On Saturday, I met U-chun. During the period of the middle school exams she is working seven days a week and this situation will continue in all hagkwons until May 12th when the exams finish. She works from 2pm until midnight on six days a week and on Sundays works from 9am until 3pm. I am writing this diary On May 1st which is a public holiday for Buddha’s birthday but as you can expect, the hagkwon teachers are working today, as are many of their pupils. None of them will get a day’s holiday in lieu which is so typically Korean.

We wandered around E-Mart for a while so I could question her on what is what. It was my turn to buy lunch today and I chose a restaurant near MacDonalds, one I had passed many times before and one where you sat at tables and not on the floor. I never find sitting on the floor comfortable as I can’t get my long legs under the low tables. We ordered a seafood meal which was cooked at our table in large frying pans built into the table. The meal looked fairly Klingon but tasted very good. First the chef put water in the pan and then a massive stack of seafood consisting of crab, prawn, squid, squid roe, shellfish and octopus. This was topped with vegetables and red pepper paste. There was easily enough for four people and when the pan was half empty some noodles were added to it. The meal took us over an hour to eat and as U-chun had to go back to school, we left quite a bit. It was a pricey meal costing 24000W (£15) but we really enjoyed it.

The video player in our house, which is a pile of shit and has been playing up ever since I have been here, eventually died after I bashed it with my fist. A cassette was left in it and to get it out we had to dismantle it rather forcefully. However, Mr Joe replaced it without any questions; but of course, the replacement video isn’t new and is the size and weight of a computer hard drive. It must be at least ten years old. Matt is pleased as his sole entertainment is lying in bed, (even when it’s hot), with a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of coke, some Pringles and a couple of videos.

every day as my mini-bus passed an apartment, this little boy would bow

I went to Pak Ji-won’s this evening. He was really excited as he is off on his school picnic this week. He is spending four days at Mount Sorak in the north east of the peninsula, not too far from the 38th parallel. It is the third highest mountain in Korea. Although Ji-won’s is almost 18 (17 UK age), he was like a little boy looking forward to Christmas. I happened to bump into him and his class mates as they were shopping at E-Mart, on Sunday. They had two trolleys full of apples, oranges, Korean crisps and coke. I did my shopping and as I was leaving the supermarket I noticed them waiting outside the store entrance. Ji-won’s wasn’t with them and I sat opposite and observed them for a little. I tried hard to imagine what it must be like to be a Korean teenager going on your one big school trip. Korean and western cultures are so different that it is impossible for a westerner to become Korean. Ten years living in France, Germany or the USA would be enough to make you a native, provided you immersed yourself in that culture but too many differences exist between Korean and the west. Many of these differences are born out of childhood socialization. The boys were all excited in a way only Korean kids can be. Affectionately, they draped themselves over each other. I wondered how much this excitement was scripted knowing that once schooling is finished life becomes even more prescriptive, regimented and seconded to work. As much as I respect and admire and have fallen in love with the Korean psyche, I find their lives horribly myopic: the nightmare of schooling, which for Ji-won’s is some seventy hours of study a week, the brief reprise of university followed by army service for the boys, followed by the bondage of marriage. I really think that in Korea, education, like football in the west, has become one of the main forms of social control.

I am still going to the mokyuktang several times a week and still enjoy it. I have discovered the various types of pools and the properties they are supposed to have. Both mokyuktang I use have green tea baths which are believed to be good for the skin. There is usually also a herb bath as well as a bubbly Jacuzzi. I am now completely relaxed preening myself in the drying area where I put on hair gel, clean my ears with cotton buds and help myself to the various skin creams and skin bracers. All this is performed naked and in a roomful of other preening men. I even dry my balls with the hair dryer, something I have learnt from observation though I haven’t directed it up my arse which is something I have seen several men do. I am able to stay in the sauna much longer than when I first started – even when it is over 100 degrees. One mokyuktang provides a huge pot of salt in the steam room which you rub all over your body. In another steam room I often sit on the floor cross legged or do stretching exercises as the heat is conducive to stretching. Stretching exercise is regularly practised by young and old alike in the steam room.

I had only had my purple belt about twelve days when I was told I would be grading for my blue belt. In fact, I have only worn my purple belt three times and had washed it over the weekend to take the stiffness out of it. I was training during the week when there was a pre-grading class and everyone was asked to run through their patterns. Though I knew my pattern well, (대국), there were some errors that needed ironing out. Master Bae, the head instructor, took me through it and pointed out a few minor errors and told me I would be performing the pattern the following evening. He then told me I would be taking my black belt exam in August or perhaps a little earlier.

Now I have got to say that some of the kids in Di Dim Dol treat me strangely. I think some of them find it odd having a coloured belt training beside them who is old enough to be their father. If you do come across adults in the dojang are either instructors or black belts. In one of my classes in Di Dim Dol school there is a boy called Jake who was in a few of my first Taekwondo classes. I suppose he is about 13 and naturally, he is a black belt. In an English class it emerged I did Taekwondo at the Songham School and I could deduce from the conversation he was having that he peers were asking him what belt I wore. Well, he quite took the piss out of me and mimicked to them I was stiff and couldn’t kick well. It hurt me a little and I was annoyed as some of the kids were laughing. As he was leaving the class I pulled him to one side and thrust the Songham oath in his face. I made him repeat some of the lines which referred to mutual respect, team spirit and working together. He was embarrassed, put his head down and apologised. Then there is another boy called Jordan who I have taught several times and is another black belt. Even though we have trained in the same Taekwondo class he refuses to say hello to me. Whenever he sees me he looks at me as if I am mad. I ran through my patterns thirty times on the day of the grading and as I am one of the lowest belts in the class, I was called up fairly early in the grading. Well, I was really on form and I performed a really powerful pattern with a massive ‘kia’ at the conclusion which quite made the youngsters sat close to me jump. My ‘kia’ had been pretty Pathetic until fairly recently. Anyway, Master Bae said something after I had finished and the whole class applauded me. Afterwards, the little Fat kid who can’t do sit-ups came up, held his thumb up and said, ‘poomse choayo.’ (‘good pattern’). Then Jordan, the boy who had never spoken to make, came up to me and bowed. Ever since this, whenever he arrives or leaves my lessons at Di Dim Dol School, the waves and smiles at me.

I am now fitter than I have ever been since I took my black-belt in 1982. In some ways I am fitter. I cannot believe how terribly unfit I was when I arrived in Korea as a big fat blob. My experience here is quietly unfolding and it is an experience that I have people interested in Martial arts dream of. It was a pure fluke I came to Korea at all and I could have ended up in any number of countries. I don’t think it’s pretentious that and I give myself a lot of credit and respect for the way in which I walked into a Korean Taekwondo school looking like a lump of lard, surrounded by kiddies and teenagers and set about undertaking a training regime which humiliated me. My only response to this was to grin stupidly and try harder.

On Friday evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me to Woobang Tower Park. First we went to McDonald’s and had a burger and then we walked around the park for several hours. There were loads of young people skateboarding and roller blading. Just as you’d expect here, they were peaceful, un-offensive and friendly. We had a coffee at one of the park cafes and I saw a couple of men who were most certainly gay. It certainly made me realize how miss gay company as I haven’t met or spoken to a gay person since I’ve been here. One couple walked past me. One of the men, perhaps in his late twenties or thirties was dressed like John Travolta and wore a white suit. He had a hairdo and a very camp, practiced lip pout. He walked with an incredibly pouncy wiggle and I would have excused his effeminacy had he not been carrying this tiny little handbag dog. Handbag dogs are very fashionable here and even Dong-soo (박동수), my Taekwondo instructor, wants one. However, the fact that the dog had fluffy ears that were dyed pink aroused my suspicions.  Right now, I’d love to have some gay company, even those horribly superficial gays that I usually detest back home.

In Yong San Dong I had the morning of cleaning up piss, which I must say, is something rare here. First of all, Dong-seop wet himself. He performed his usual stint of pissing into his trousers at the urinal; then I got back to my classroom to discover little Song-joon looking flustered and gripping his dick. Then I notice he is sat in a puddle of piss so I have to take him to the toilet, wash him and get him to change his pants and trousers. He has the most amazingly tiny pecker but I shouldn’t mention this as it is lynching material in the west. But hey! This is Korea and the day’s not over. Next, I have to get a bucket and cloth and mop up the piss on and around his seat. I have to stress, piss problems are very rare in Korea kindergarten classes and only ever seem to be experienced by boys. Just as I finish this is Matt and Amy, (a Korean teacher), come into my class and ask me to look at a boys balls. He had just been kicked between the legs, was holding himself and crying.

‘ Why can’t you do it?’ I ask. Matt begs me to do it goading me with the fact I know something about balls and first aid. We pull the boys pants down and I make a private joke to Matt about the antics of Monsieur Jelle Fangre as I’m checking the lad still has two balls. One of them has disappeared so we bounce him up and down on his heels until it reappears. After that he is fine and within minutes he is running around. When I wrote these diary notes up, back in the UK and some years later, I was tempted to edit this experience simply as we have a total obsession with anything to do with the bodies of little kids. If an English toddler suffered the same experience nobody would help them for fear of accusations – even if there were a crowd of adults present. Personally, I do not think this an attitude reflects a caring society. On several occasions I know Becky, my niece, has been left to sit nursing a painful splinter as no member of staff are allowed to touch her. Kids are left suffering until a parent arrives.

On Saturday U-chun and I found a really nice Japanese restaurant which specializes in pork fillet served with pickles, sauce and udong noodles. The restaurant is new and typically Japanese with contrasting black and white colours and minimalist use of furniture. A group of boys came in and had a birthday party during which they sang the Korean version of ‘Happy Birthday’ which is sung to the same tune we use in the west.

In the evening I met Pak Ji-won who told me all about his picnic in Mount Sorak. Jun-hee had put two bottles of soju in his bag and this behaviour seems pretty standard as a right of passage. Ji-won was very animated as he told me how he and his friends got a little drunk and how he fell over a friend’s bed and almost got caught by his teachers. He told me one of his friend’s was sick on another friend as they slept in bed. He told me how Korean students will remember the High School picnic for the rest of their lives – ‘until the day they die,’ were his exact words, spoken in English. He said this without any severity or weight and  in a way only the young can talk about death. Jun-hee, his father, meets up with his old school friends every six months and there have been occasions when I have since met his childhood friends. This practice is standard among Korean males at least who refer to their closest childhood friends as ‘gochu chingoo’ (고추친구). ‘Gochu’ (고추) is the Korean word for a ‘chilli pepper’ but it is also a simile for a penis. I believe it is still a tradition in Korea, though not necessarily widely practiced nowadays, to hand a bunch of chillies on the front door of a house when a boy is born.  ‘Chingoo’ (친구) is the Korean for ‘friend’ or ‘circle’ and so the phrase can be translated as ‘penis friends.’  Jun-hee told me all his old friends know what each other’s dick is like. I am sort of detecting that nakedness in Korea is seen to promote a deeper level of friendship between two people naturally as a result of the sharing of intimate experiences. Jun-hee and Ji-won keep asking me to accompany them to the mokyuktang. I certainly sense I have a different level of friendship with U-no and Lee Seong-gyu, both with whom I have bathed with. Even men who I don’t know but recognise from the mokyuktang all say hello to me in the street; one man even squeezed my arm as he last saw me. Nudity is certainly a wonderful social leveler.

I had a long chat with Pak Dong-soo during his weekly English lesson, this time about his experiences in the army. It sounded ghastly! Six weeks of basic training in winter and all living in one tent next to a river in which they drank and bathed. A week of exercise, a week of intensive Taekwondo training, a week of making bobby-traps and a week of shooting fire arms. Every day included strenuous runs. Interestingly alcohol, in the Korean army, is illegal!

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