Elwood 5566

A Gully of Urine and Discarded Cigarette Ends – Vacation Finished!

Posted in customs, Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on March 1, 2012

Vacation fashion – the shaggy perm

These past few weeks I’ve experienced the naughtiest behaviour many Korean kids, especially boys, get up to. I live in an area of one and two room accommodations close to a university and sandwiched between high rises on three sides. One-rooms are basically studio type accommodation for one person which range from spacious and comfortable to poky and claustrophobic. Two-rooms are the same but have two bedrooms. The bathroom is always an additional room even if a one-room and often, though not always, so is the kitchen. Usually there is an enclosed veranda bordering the ‘rooms’ and in which you can hang washing, store items and is often the best location for a washing machine.  The enclosed veranda provides an excellent insulation in the winter as it effectively produces an enormous form of double glazing. I’ve lived in most of the variations. The worst was in Cheonan and though it was clean and pleasant, it was on the ground floor and as usual, there were bars on the windows. Worse however, was that the kitchen was in the bedroom area and it was small, small enough so that I could sit on my bed and prepare meals. Indeed, I could do everything either sat at my bed or by taking one-step. A ‘one-step’ would have been a far better description for this type of accommodation.

A small table pulled out from the kitchen unit alongside the bed so that I could prepare food and eat from the comfort of my bed, ideal for invalids and the infirm. Then, by standing and taking one small step, I could wash dishes and cook. For several years I was always embarrassed to say I lived in a ‘one-room’ because it sounds so much like a dingy UK bedsit but I’ve learnt there is great variation in size and comfort. My first two-room, in 2000, for example, had no air-conditioning; ten years ago air-con wasn’t a standard part of a teacher’s accommodation contract and we weren’t even supplied with a fan. My current one room is quite large and probably four times the size of my ‘one-step’ room in Cheonan. I suppose the worst thing about such accommodation, and purely based on my experience, is the lack of any view. Ground floors feel like prison cells due to the barred windows and very often the only glimpse of life beyond is that of the adjacent building’s wall. And of course, the outer windows of one rooms are generally frosted so even if you have a view it’s obstructed by this and the mosquito screen.

the alleyways around my one-room

Around and between the tightly packed one-rooms/two rooms in the area in which I live, are a maze of small passage ways. These provide access to down pipes, gas pipes and air conditioning units rather than a means of walking from one place to another. For nimble and athletic school boys however, capable of climbing over the walls which separate them, they are perfect recesses to hide from the adult world. For most of the year these passages are void of life but during vacation month they are frequently visited by groups of lads up to the Korean equivalent of ‘no good.’

a myriad of hidden recesses

So, this afternoon, March 1st, a national holiday (삼일) marking the earliest public display of resistance to the Japanese occupation which took place on March 1st 1919, the last gaggle of school boys huddle on their haunches under my kitchen window to commit some of the naughtiest acts possible for Korean teenagers. The first of these is smoking which is always accompanied by dribbling spit onto the pavement. This act has a sort of fashion to it and spit is rarely spat out but dribbled with an accompanying intense interest and fascination practiced by the performer. Next comes the pissing, which two boys do against the wall of my building. This is naughty but it’s not an altogether uncommon site in public. The third offence is their noise, boisterous and lively, but too loud! After the cigarette session, they run around a little playing chase and wrestling, almost deliriously happy. One of them throws a stone, not at a window or another person, but simply on the floor. Then I am spotted! There are a few seconds when they freeze, rather like a pack of wolves, in this case toothless, and stare in my direction, sniffing the air, motionless and silent. Then, without any discussion, they are gone. I am still able to hear their chattering and laughing but from a passage I can’t see. Their final offence is in the litter left from the visit, cigarette ends and a discarded packet. However, Koreans litter with impunity and this is only deemed an offence by foreigners. For school boys, such behaviour is about  the closest Koreans come to being hoodlums or delinquents.

Today is the last day of the long winter and spring vacation, two holidays interrupted by a few days school, which preceded the start of the new academic year. Of course, nothing is ever quite as it seems in Korea and despite the fact students have a school vacation, most attend the private academies in the afternoon and evenings or school academic camps.  High school students have hardly any vacation and attend academies on the weekend.

The long holiday period, spanning about seven weeks, allows elementary and middle school students to truly let their hair down. In academies they are often tired from playing lengthy sessions of video games or watching TV until the early hours of the morning and dyed hair, painted nails, earrings and perms are all tolerated. After seven weeks the shorts back and sides of many lads have been groomed into more lengthy and fashionable styles and I’ve even noticed boys tossing their head to flick hair out of their eyes, in a manner reminiscent of Justin Bieber.  It’s all been tolerated, even encouraged, that is until today. I’m sparing a thought for the thousands of kids who will be washing out the dye, getting their haircut and scrubbing their nails clean as they prepare for school in the morning. My fitness center will be void of  the peer groups of teenage boys and girls whose chatter and laughter have accompanied my training sessions for the last two months.  Going back to school in the UK, after the summer vacation, was always depressing but the respite of a week’s half term holiday was at the most only ever about six weeks away.  With the obsessive and intense nature of Korean education and the next vacation laying far in the distance amidst the screaming memis’ song of summer, the end of the spring vacation, the beginning of a long, long  haul marked by a chain of exams and the relentless daily trudge from one academy to another, must be especially gloomy.

a gulley of urine, cigarette ends and a discarded cigarette packet mark the remains of the long vacation

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Patriotic Taekwon-do and Sam Il – (Bathhouse Ballads March 2011)

Korean Teenagers’ Wacky World of ‘Vacation’ Fashions – (Bathhouse Ballads July 2010)

Learning to Love the ‘One Room’

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative by 노강호 on November 19, 2010

Song-so, Daegu

 

For a long time, I hated referring to my Korean accommodation as a ‘one-room’ and other terms I used to substitute it were either misunderstood or didn’t seem quite right. Koreans use the word ‘apartment’  in relation to the high-rise accommodation in which most  live and it is rare to hear the word ‘house’ as so few of them exist. The houses you do find, often in the country or sandwiched between  taller, city buildings are usually traditional or luxury versions.  Apartments are associated with high-rises and though they can be pokey and small, especially in parts of Seoul where space is the most expensive, they are often extremely spacious. I clearly do not live in an ‘apartment.’ For awhile I used the term ‘studio-room’ or ‘studio-flat’  and though a few of my English-speaking Korean friends understood this, many others didn’t and personally, it didn’t seem appropriate. I have this notion that studio flats are grand, exclusive and the preferred accommodation of artists and opera singers.

 

My barred one-room, Daegu 2003

 

Finding a suitable term to describe my accommodation, without using ‘one-room’, was difficult. ‘One-room’ seems such a pathetic term to use especially when you are anything over forty and invokes the same resonance in Korea as,  ‘unmarried,’ ‘living-alone’ or being ‘childless,’ and in the UK, as the word bed sit. What a ghastly word! What shame it invokes! ‘Bedsits’ are the domains of the unemployed, of single people, those on low wages or youngsters just starting out in life. They are always gloomy, lit by yellowey lights and with stairs that creak, and then there’s the gas meter and dingy bedding of blankets, sheets, and quilt because the ‘bedsit’ is a relic term from the days before the popularity of continental quilts (duvets). But the ‘bedsit’ wasn’t just a manky dwelling; to many it represented a lifestyle as epitomised by Soft Cell’s, Bedsitter.

Sunday morning going slow
I’m talking to the radio
Clothes and records on the floor
The memories of the night before
Out in club land having fun
And now I’m hiding from the sun
Waiting for a visitor
Though no-one knows I’m here for sure

Dancing laughing
Drinking loving
And now I’m all alone
In bed sit land
My only home

The solution, is obvious! Don’t call your accommodation a ‘bedsit.’ Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it has to be grotty any more than it implies you have to lead a pointless hedonistic life.

‘One rooms’ come in all shapes and sizes and some are pretty shitty. Usually they are contained in buildings of two, three of four floors. I lived in a one room in Ch’eonan that was truly a one room. The toilet doesn’t seem to count and probably neither the kitchen but this example, clean and not altogether unpleasant, was simply one room. From the edge of my bed I could lean across to the sink and pull out a sliding table and from their I could prepare a meal, stand up and cook it without take more than half a pace, and then sit back down on the edge of my bed and eat it. Washing up simply involved standing up. My Ch’eonan ‘one-room’ was the ideal accommodation for an invalided person and if I so wished I could have pissed in the sink while stood in my bed. Indeed it was so small that if I’d piddled 360 degrees I could have hit ever wall. Prior to Ch’eonan I had a ‘one-room’ in Daegu and once again it was simply one room, bedroom and kitchen combined, with a separate toilet and shower. It lacked air-conditioning, something I now wouldn’t live without and though it wasn’t unpleasant, the fact I cooked a lot of mackerel at the time made it smell.

But there are perhaps worse types of accommodation. If you’re a waygukin a ‘two-room’ is perhaps worse as it involves sharing facilities with a co-worker. I spent a winter with a great chap from Ghana who happened to have the controls for the ondol heating in his room and he liked the temperature set at maximum. I slept on the floor at the time and the effectiveness of ondol heating is non the more obvious than when you can’t escape its intensity. Under a duvet, all heat is trapped and often there are no cool spots, such as you have with western style radiator heating, from which to escape  the onslaught. I’d sneak the temperature down when he was out, he’d come home, put on two sets of thermal clothing, rack the temperature back up and climb under his duvet. He’d lived in Korea twelve years and like most Koreans, he hated the cold and anything under 25 degrees was classified an atomic winter.

How you might rate as ‘0.50 room,’ that is a one-room shared by two people, would depend on the extent you feel compensated by the luxury of regular sex and I’ve known couples share the tiniest of one-rooms. I like my space and space means a double bed.  A shag is great but I’ve been too long as a sad-singly to want to sleep in the same bed as another human and besides, I snore!

 

past and present

 

Eventually, you come to realise that Koreans don’t actually see anything significantly negative in a ‘one-room.’ As far as such rooms go I feel I am probably luckier than most. My present abode accounts for the combined area of 2.5 of my previous one-rooms and my kitchen is separate from my bedroom/study.  It has also taught me the benefits of minimalism and heightened my awareness of the way we amass shit you don’t really need and of course,  the more space you have the more you feel compelled to fill it. Back in the UK I have a house packed with junk and a substantial set of books shelves which host books and music I have had for years and never accessed. In Korea, a digital orientated life and two terabyte external hard drives have allowed me to acquire and  store enough music and literature for the rest of my life and reduced the storage capacity a thousand fold.  Yes, the future is getting smaller and upgrading to the latest formats is much more enjoyable especially when it involves denying greedy multi-billionaires even more money.

The worst thing about ‘one-rooms’ is they rarely have any view other than the concrete walls of the next building. If you’re on the ground floor the advantage you might have in being able to see the world beyond is ruined by the bars that turn such rooms into a prison cell. In ‘one-room’ land a computer is a necessity because your monitor can provide an appropriate background scene to offset the lack of any real view but one adapts very quickly and if you can imagine you’re in a spaceship or ship, claustrophobia can be minimized.

Links

Soft Cell: Bedsitter (link to youtube)

 

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.