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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Mountain Obsessions

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Health care by 노강호 on September 28, 2010

I keep saying fat has arrived in Korea but of course truly fat Koreans are still rare and nothing compared with the fatties of the USA or UK. Generally, Korean fatness is chubby rather than humongous but no doubt this will gradually change. In a recent OECD report, Korea was placed 30th  in terms of obesity in the world’s top 33 most economically developed countries.

Sunday, 5.51 am and the restaurant has customers

On Sunday morning I decided to walk up the mountain and watch the sunrise. I wasn’t quite early enough and actually reached the point where the mountain trail begins, as dawn was breaking, at about 6 am. But on leaving my house I was greeted by total darkness. Of course, it’s never quite quiet in Korea and near my house a 24 hour restaurant had customers who were either finishing off last night’s party or having an early breakfast. Even the small park by my house had a few visitors.

Sunday morning, 6.04 am and it's light

7.40 am Tuesday morning

The point at which Warayong mountain trail begins is directly opposite the municipal sports center and swimming pool with adjacent football pitches and tennis courts. As dawn broke there was already a football match underway and around the pitches I counted twenty two people briskly walking. As is usual in Korea, they were mostly middle-aged and older.

7.40 am Tuesday. Jogging and walking

6.53 am the the first peak (Dragon's Head, 용두)

Even early in the morning there are people on the trail. Koreans are quite obsessed with mountain walking and even the big climbs, up larger mountains, are perceived as a walk rather than gruesome exercise.  Most Koreans have the paraphernalia necessary for a trek in any season and in any weather: walking boots, breathable clothing, hats, water bottles, walking sticks and hankies or towels to mop up the sweat.  Once in the mountains, especially in the morning, it’s not unusual to hear people doing a Korean type of yodel and I have even heard someone practicing a trumpet.

After reaching the Dragon’s Head (용두), the crown of the Warayong Mountain, I walked a little further to where the refreshment stall is and there find twenty people, again mostly middle aged and over, working out on the exercise machines as well as a number of people waiting for the vendor to start serving.

This was taken on the Saturday

a mountain vendor

the long shadows of autumn

Children or young people are not as prolific on the mountain trails, they are usually too busy studying but in fairness, many will do one of the various martial arts or other sports. Walking up the mountain taxes me enormously and I frequently have to stop and catch my breath. However, I have yet to see a Korean pensioner as knackered by the mountain climb as I am. Indeed, for most Koreans, the Dragon’s Head is the point at which you begin stationary exercises, or climb the next peak, in either case,  it is a warm-up. For me however, it signifies the climax of my exercise routine and  once I have had a little sit down and a cup of coffee, it’s downhill all the way home.

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Fat is Here

A Bathhouse Ballad

In the ebente-tang, the aroma of the day is lavender (라벤더). I’m wallowing while I see some guy stood in the cold pool snot-up into his hand and casually just wash it off – into the pool water. Filthy twat! I occasionally take in a mouthful of that water, I guess most people do and, I open my eyes underwater! Pissing in the baths is one thing, at least you are unaware of people doing it, but if you’re going to snot up, be discrete! The snotting incident made me wonder if the water is filtered. It is certainly changed on a regular basis and probably filtered. Neither is it chlorinated but as most people shower before entering the baths this doesn’t bother me. I can remember seeing a few turds in British swimming pools but despite the chlorinated water, I wasn’t going to swim anywhere near them! Often I notice children, usually unaccompanied, get straight into a bath without showering. Last Thursday, which was the eve of Buddha’s birthday, and a public holiday, there were about 10 teenagers running around. Usually, adults get irritated by raucous behaviour but the atmosphere was jovial and I noticed several men lounging in surrounding pools watching them and smiling. There was a definite holiday spirit; they held the door shut to the ice room door trapping friends inside and threw bowls of freezing cold water  at each other. For almost an hour the bathhouse, the noisiest I have ever heard it, despite it not being very busy, resonated with their laughter.   Then a fat guy walked in and I started thinking…

At one time, when there were few other wayguks around, I used to be the fattest man in Song-So and one of my companions, a woman from Australia, was probably the fattest woman. Though she was excellent company, I hated walking around with her. A fat person, especially one who is 1.95 cm tall, attracts attention but two fat people together, well, the assumption is they are a couple and that all western wayguks are fat. Two fat wayguks together loose their identity in the conflation that reduces them to, ‘they’ and ‘fat.’  If you’re sweating, unable to buy clothes that fit, if you’re seen eating, if you don’t like walking up four floors to your place of work, well, it’s all because you’re fat! And eating an ice-cream in public! No wonder you’re fat! I happen to take size 14 (UK) shoes. You can’t buy them in Korea, apart from perhaps in Seoul. And the reason my feet are so big, despite being the leanest parts of my body?  I’m fat, of course!  When Koreans see a fatty or a fatty couple, this is how they probably think, and I assume this, as in the west, it is how we think. Even if I see a fat person eating an ice cream on a hot summer’s day, even if I am eating one myself,  my immediate thought is, ‘go on a diet, fat arse!’ Two fat people with backsides like hippopotami, holding hands on the beach front promenade, and wobbling like jelly…  ‘gross! The contradictory nature of my thought, doesn’t even sully the flavour of my ice-cream.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but when my fat female friend and I took a taxi, along with two petit Koreans, and her and I ended up sitting on the same side of the cab,  it was clear what caused the problem, and it wasn’t paranoia! The window on our side of the taxi looked directly onto the tarmac while the opposite window framed the full moon. After a hundred meters and a few grating sounds from some part of the vehicle now in contact with the road, the taxi driver evicted us.

In  2000, and probably until fairly recently, I was the fattest person I ever saw in a bathhouse. Even proportionately, no Korean ever came close to my dimensions. This isn’t because I have the girth of Jabba the Hutte, but because Koreans were, and to some extent still are,  smaller than westerners. My diary pages from that period provide several references to there being a distinct lack of fat people. In the school at which I taught there was one fat boy, I even remember his name, Jack; a photo of him hangs in my bedroom bathroom, back in the  UK. In my taekwondo school was another chubby. Neither boys were particularly fat and today, just ten years later, would be classified as fairly normal.

I need no helpers for this size portion!

In the last few months, I have noticed that on almost every visit to  a bathhouse there are one or two Koreans proportionately the same size and sometimes fatter than I. Very often, other fatties are kiddies. Burger bars, fried chicken, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin Donut and plenty of other western style fast food outlets have proliferated, and the price Korea is paying, especially their youth,  is the bulging waistline. Ten years ago I went into a Baskin Robbins in downtown Daegu. I was with a Korean friend and her daughter and when I arrived at their table with a tray containing  three, what I considered ‘normal’ size ice creams, they starred in amazement. One tub, they told me, would have been enough for all three of us but to me, they were the sort of size you would buy yourself back home. In the ten years interim, I now have two Baskin Robbins within a 7 minutes walk of my home and occasionally I will treat myself to an 11.000Won (£5.50), pot of ice cream. I think it holds about 5 scoops. I can easily eat this and could also finish off one of their  larger buckets. Even if I buy the smaller pot, smaller than a Macdonald milkshake cup,  staff will ask how many spoons I want. Shame prevents me from replying’ ‘one’ so, pondering in thought for a moment, as if counting the number of people back home waiting for me to deliver, I reply, ‘four.’

Along with the western fast food diet, fat has finally arrived in Korea

Korean proportions are always piddly and I’m not really into the act of sharing my food, especially ice cream. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a Korean meal, even at a buffet restaurant, and left feeling properly stuffed, stuffed western style where you can’t breathe properly and feel you’ve mutated into an enormous maggot. In the west, there are countless times I’ve gone for a meal and reached the point where Mr Creosote, in Monty Python’s, The Meaning of Life, cannot eat another chocolate wafer. But in the midst of a Korean public,  usually much skinnier than I, being a fatty fills me with guilt and curbs my glutenous instincts. The fatties I now see around me  at the bathhouse, and who attract more attention than I because, they are Korean and fat, which is novel, and not wayguk western and fat, which is common, certainly know what it feels to be ‘stuffed’ and all I am left pondering, as I wallow in my scented bath, feeling  more like a warthog than large bottomed hippopotamus,  is how do you pig out on Korean food? Fat has finally arrived and the blubberier it becomes, the slimmer I feel.

Link to Crazy Fat Korean Video

My Discovery of the Existence of Bathhouses – January 18th – 22nd, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Korean Accounts Part 1, rice wine (beer) by 노강호 on January 18, 2001

On the first day of the Chinese New Year (설날), Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선) took me to the cinema. We watched Proof of Life with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. I was expecting to have to sit  in really cramped seats but there was ample leg room. Afterwards we wandered around the city centre in the area known as Milano which is at the very heart of the city. This area is teeming western designer label stores and up-market malls. We ate ddokpogi (떡볶이) in a small back street cafe. Korean eating establishments usually focus on one food type and this was the speciality of this restaurant. A larger gas burner is placed on your table and the ingredients added. These included shredded Chinese lettuce, mushrooms, carrots, giant rice noodles the size of your finger, smaller noodles, whole eggs and squares of a sort of pancake made from powdered fish which is called odeng (어댕). Mandu (만두), which are small stuffed pancakes or dumplings are also added. Water and some condiments are added and then the burner lit. You then stir the meal until it is ready to eat when it is accompanied by none other than kimchi as well as a kimchi made with mooli known as moo-kimchi (무김치). Ddokpogi  is served by many of the street vendors that crowd the sidewalks of Korean cities. These are usually served in a pint paper cup with a large cocktail stick to eat the fat noodles. Restaurant ddokpogi  however, is much more tasty. Once the meal is finished a waitress then put some oil in the pan, adds rice, condiments and kim which is layered, salted seaweed. This is then boiled up with a copious serving of red pepper paste.

Hyo-sun’s mum and dad, Lunar New Year, 2001

Afterwards, Ryo Hyu-sun took me to his parent’s house. They live in a traditional style house in a part of Song So with which I was unfamiliar. All Ryo Hyu-sun’s relatives were there. The children wore their traditional hanboks (한복) which are baggy, very colourful and made from a sort of silk-like material. Ryo Hyu-sun’s mother must be in her late 60’s but sat on the floor cross-legged with an impeccably straight posture. She could sit in this position and touch her nose to the floor. Several other relatives arrived and took it in turns to prostrate themselves on the floor in front of his mother and father. Then a meal was served, of pig brain and pig’s trotters. I avoided the brains but the trotter meat was fine. We also drank soju  but one that had been suspended over the year in a bottle containing ginseng. Then we ate the traditional rice cake soup (칼국수). After eating we played yut which is a traditional festive game played sat around a mat with several sticks which are thrown. By this time I had been sat on the floor for four hours and my legs were sore but visiting a family on such an important day was well worth the experience.

I haven’t trained in the Song So (WTF) school for almost three weeks as the routine of Letter and Sound in Yon San Dong has sapped my energy.

The heat in the building, as in most buildings, is stifling and I have discovered many westerners have a problem with scabby noses, dry skin and cracked feet. The temperature at Letter and Sound just knocks the energy out of you. My kindy class is so unresponsive that I have stopped trying to teach them. I spend the first session in the morning just talking to them – they seem quite happy with that. As I mentioned earlier, my name in school is Bilbo Baggins. The kids find that quite amusing and often call me Bilbo songsaeng-nim which is the Korean for teacher or sir. During my first few weeks at Letter and Sound I discovered that when the kids knew my name they called it out whenever and wherever they saw me. Not only would I hear my name being called all day wrong, with a slightly incorrect inflection more like Neek, and in tiring choruses, but then I would hear in at the weekend or evening when I was shopping or out walking. Neek! Neek! I would hear called from passing busses or from some building window. Bilbo is much more impersonal.

I have been teaching Pak Ji-won English at his parent’s restaurant in Song So. I enjoy teaching him as I can also have discussions with him and that certainly makes a change from singing Annie Apple or Bounshey Ben songs. Sometimes our lessons go on for several hours and then I will talk to his father over a bowl of my favourite drink, dongdong-ju which is a strange, milky rice wine alcoholic drink, before going home.  Ji-won  is both incredibly camp and very good-looking. Being camp is no slur here and in fact most of the young men move and behave in a way that would bring their sexuality into question in the West. They drape themselves over one another, walk around leaning  on one another or holding hands and are basically very gentle (note- skinship). Ji-won shuffles around his father’s restaurant like a geisha girl, holding his forearms parallel to the floor and with his wrists bent. One day I asked him how he felt about having to go into the army as all men here do 24-27 months conscription. He told me he was excited as he was looking forward to the exercise as being a high school student entailed long inactive hours sat at a desk. He also said he was looking forward to firing guns and driving tanks but that he didn’t want to go to war or kill people. Korean lads often join the army with other friends and can be billeted together and perhaps this explains the rank of military police I saw one day in Daegu, many of whom were holding hands with each other. One day he told me how he loved my body. I found this amusing as I find it quite repulsive and he explained how he likes the fact I am broad, tall and strong. Then he asked me to go to the bath house (목육탕)  with him and of course, here bathing is performed naked. I would love to experience communal baths, and not for any seedy reason – it must be quite a strange feeling to bathe naked in public. It would be strange, if not embarrassing to meet pupils and colleagues starkers and to have to bow and chat to them so perhaps I’ll do this in another town, Andong (안동), perhaps? It’s bad enough being stared at when clothed (note – this is my first mention of bathhouses. I was in Korea almost three months before I learnt of their existence – remember – there was little or nothing on the internet on such subjects).

I often try to imagine the image Koreans must have of themselves and each other considering they look, or at least appear to look so much more identical  than do westerners. They must have an incredible sense of ‘racial’ individuality, of togetherness. While they tend to differ in height – and some Koreans are as tall as me (1.99cm), there are few fat Koreans and of course they all have dark hair, eyes and similar complexions. Many Koreans have no protrusion at the back of their heads like we do in the west and a Korean child’s head feels very strange.

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