Elwood 5566

Somewhat Greener Grass

Posted in Comparative, Entertainment, services and facilities by 노강호 on July 18, 2012

The speed of construction in Korea; a year between clearing the lot to the opening of Starbuck’s on the ground floor

Koreans will tell you their economy is in recession but there are recessions and recessions. Prices don’t seem to have increased much over the years and my utilities bills are in some cases cheaper than they were five years ago. Meanwhile, my electricity bill in the UK has increased by almost 300% in the last five years and it’s the same with gas and water utilities. Indeed, the price of one bill in the UK, my Community Charge, currently almost £150pm (w300.000), would not just cover my all monthly Korean utility bills but, my health contribution, internet and cable TV, and my monthly subscription to the most exclusive gym and jimjjilbang in my area.

My monthly Korean gas and electric bills always contain a graph showing the price you have paid for each month over 13 months so at a glance you can not just see if you’re paying more this month than you were in the corresponding month last year, but can access seasonal variations. The same system in the UK would mortify me as we have been subject to massive hikes every year for the last five years – indeed in one year there were two large increases. Meanwhile, the restaurant in which I’ve eaten for the last four years has increased the price of pork kimchi stew by 500Won (25 pence).

Coffee houses – an indicator of disposable income

When business folds, another quickly opens, more often than not, a mobile phone store or a coffee house. Coffee houses in Korea are often used as an indicator of disposable incomes. One of the most pertinent signs that the Korean economy isn’t in the same depressing mess it is back home, is that rate at which buildings are erected. It isn’t just the case that buildings are being built but that they are speedily completed. In Korea, you can expect a 12 story building to be completed within a year and in a five mile journey across the city a few weeks ago, I must have past at least 20 buildings being erected. In one area alone there were at least six that that weren’t there a year ago.

a busy building program in Dasa, Daegu. Construction can be seen from early morning until it begins to get dark – six days a week!

But there are other markers of a relatively healthy economy despite the world recession; many of my students have the latest mobile technology and in some cases expensive technology and on the streets at the weekends it’s easy to spot new jeans and trousers, especially on teenagers. New trainers are common and the current trend New Balance, not just in trainers but as logos on T-shirts and bags. Korean students have a ‘preppy,’  respectable appeal and there is a distinct lack of the ‘East European fashions’ which tend to dominate British streets such as leggings, cheap trackies and hoodies.

new trainers on my students

And then there are middle school students with cameras costing anything up to 1.000.000KRW(£500). Take a trip to any popular Korean destination and you’ll see an inordinate number of Koreans not just with expensive cameras, but with enormous telescopic lenses.

The quality of life in Korea is high and living on the peninsula reminds me of the years I spent in Germany, during the late 70’s and 80’s, in an economy equally as vibrant. More important is the atmosphere generated when there is a good quality of life. Economic depression casts a gloom over the societies it infects and no amount of social manipulation in the form of festivals, flag waving jamborees or ‘big events’ can shake off the feeling that society is sick. Yes, currently, Korea is probably one of the best places to be to ride out not just the current global recession, but the general greed that seems an endemic part of my own culture and in which most transactions leave you feeling ‘ripped-off.’

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