Elwood 5566

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.

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Trip to Pohang – Monday 25th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Entertainment, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 25, 2000

A typical ‘beggar singer’

On Saturday, I was due meet Pauline in the morning and the go to U-chun’s in the afternoon where I am supposed to be giving her daughter and niece an English lesson. Pauline and I spent ages talking and then left my house to walk down the road together. It was a really bright afternoon and very dry has it hasn’t rained for several weeks. By the pedestrian crossing almost opposite MacDonald’s, some kind of a busker was performing to a small crowd. He had an amplifier mounted on a trolley and was singing and dancing on the side of the road. The music, which I assume, was traditional Korean folk music was captivating. Most strange however, was the man’s dancing. He danced with his body bent so far forward that his chest was parallel to the floor. His steps were long, rhythmically erratic and awkward and involved lots of pivoting and sudden changes of direction. He was dressed in shorts and a jacket which was pinned with hundreds of pieces of coloured cloth. The pedestrian light was red and so we stood and watched him and naturally, the moment he noticed me he danced towards me, took my hand and led me out into the front of the crowd where I had to try to copy his dance. I was quite embarrassed, in fact very embarrassed. Suddenly, U-chun appeared and rescued me. Walking on down the road to just past Di Dim Dol and Lotteria, we took the bus to another Daegu suburb known as Dasa (다사). (note – I’ve since discovered these are a type of ‘singing beggars’ known as 각설이 or 품바 – see link at end).

The bus journey was only short but we left the valley in which Song So is situated and headed west into another valley. I have since learnt that Korea is a land of mountains and where there is human habitation it exists in meandering valleys. Though part of Daegu, Dasa  felt like another city. After leaving the bus, it would so happen that U-chun’s flat is in a high-rise the furthest point from the bus stop and at the edge of the largest hill in Dasa.

Inside, the apartments are very large, spacious and well-built. Koreans tend to be more minimalist than Europeans in terms of clutter and furniture. The kitchen, dining room and front room were combined into one very large room and leading from this were bedrooms, a study and a European style bathroom. U-chun and her family sleep on beds and not the floor. In the kitchen was a voice activated telephone, something I had not seen before. I discovered that U-chun had resigned from Di Dim Dol earlier in the week so I will miss her friendly face. Unlike many of the other Koreans with whom I work, she is very keen to take advantage of my being a native English speaker, many Koreans shy away from me rather than practice their English.

Even though it’s Christmas week, Jo started his antics again. On the Monday, at 8 pm, and just as I was going home he asked me to accompany him to Letter and Sound, his school in Yon San Dong. He wanted me to give a presentation to prospective parents! Well, I became quite angry and began to tell him off. Then, I suggested we go into his office to ‘sort things out.’ I made it quite clear that I didn’t appreciate being told to do something with little or no time to reschedule my life. Earlier in the week my sister had told me how there is an alarming number of South Korean people who pay people to kill them as they are fed up with their working life. Jo apologised and said that he had been so busy he had forgotten about the presentation. I politely told him he was talking rubbish and he had been involved in organising an advertising campaign for the new school.

On the Wednesday he called Nana and I and asked for a meeting in his office in which he told us that we had a week’s holiday beginning next week. What a fat lot of use is that as there is no time to plan anything. If you want to book flights in Korea they are almost impossible to get at short notice during any school vacation period. Nana and I didn’t particularly want time off if we couldn’t do things with our free time so we both decided to come back to work on the Wednesday after Christmas.

Pohang – Bay of Yongil, Christmas Eve 2000

On Sunday, Christmas Eve, Pauline and I took the bus to Pohang (포항) which is a town on the east coast not too far from Andong. I wanted to see the Sea of Japan, otherwise known as the Sea of Korea or East Sea (동해). We arrived at the bus station and immediately boarded a bus. The journey took 2 hours and would have been a lot shorter if the bus hadn’t made a journey around all the suburbs of Pohang before arriving at the city centre. On the beach front an enormous market, all under tents, sold all sorts of electrical goods from massage machines to electric organs. At the end of one enormous marquee stood a small stage on which a weird folk band was playing. There were six of them all together two men and four women. The men, perhaps in their fifties were both heavily covered in lipstick, eye shadow and had white powdered faces. They wore clothes similar to those worn in Aladdin’s Lamp. The men banged drums of assorted sizes and danced in a very bizarre fashion (note – more ‘beggar singers’ – 각설이). One of the men started playing the giant scissors of which he had two pairs and all I can say is that they resembled cattle castration implements. Every now and then he would stand with he legs firmly apart, in a straddle stance, make a very perverted facial feature (he had no front teeth), and then start gyrating his hips in a very sexual manner. At his feet sat about thirty children. Stranger however, was the fact that as he gyrated his hips and made thrusting movements, something very large and heavy banged about in his baggy white trousers. I suspect he had some form of dildo, mounted on a spring, strapped to his groin. Whatever it was the children found it very funny.

The beach was set on the Bay of Yongil (영일 만) and the sand was clean and white. All along the beach promenade were seafood restaurants with enormous fish tanks beside or in front of them. In these swam all manner of sea creatures from small sharks, squid, octopus, eels, ray fish and sea cucumbers. You pick which one you wish to eat and then it is brought to your table in the restaurant – though depending on what meal you choose, the creature isn’t always dead. It was a bitterly cold day and a freezing wind blew in across the sea. We found a small noodle tent where I contemplated how I never expected to be sat on the edge of the East Sea eating noodles and drinking soju on Christmas Eve. As we were leaving Pohang on the bus, we noticed a couple of Koreans dressed as Santa. They were stood on a plinth on the sidewalk giving children free sweets as they passed. The only problem was that each Santa weighed about 10 stone and had a sylph like waist!

Outside KFC Song-So, Christmas Eve 2000. One of the first photos I took in Korea

When we arrived back at Daegu central bus terminal, we took at taxi to Song-So and had a chicken burger in KFC. When I walk to my school, I usually come out my front door, turn right and then walked down to the crossroad where I take a left turn. This road leads down to Kemyoung University though this is probably a twenty-minute walk. There is a definite divide of apartment blocks and parks between Song So and Kemyoung. From the crossroad on this road to my school, is no more than a few minutes’ walk but in that time one passes MacDonald’s, KFC and a Korean burger chain called Lotteria. Apparently, Lotteria is more popular than is MacDonald’s.  Since my first trip to Daegu there has since appeared a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlour with a second one being built at the new plaza complex near the crossroads to my apartment. A Pizza Hut restaurant is the very last commercial enterprise as you leave Song So on the road towards Kemyoung. Back to the KFC restaurant where Pauline and I are sat on New Year’s Eve; outside the restaurant stood a life-size plastic statue of Colonel Sanders, the staff have dressed him in a Santa outfit and even given him a cane which hung from one of his wrists. The cane, which wasn’t fixed on the statue but just hooked over a wrist, remained there for my whole stay in Korea; no one thought to steal it, remove it or throw it away.

Well, it’s now Christmas Day and I am sat in the internet cafe where life goes on a usual. The place is full of Korean boys playing internet games like Diablo 2 on the networked system. It is bitterly cold outside and the only thing that makes today special is that it snowed a little last night and there was a glaze of ice on the road outside my apartment.

(Notes – KFC was still in situ when I returned to Korea several years later and was still guarded by Colonel Sauders and his cane. When I returned around 2005, it had closed. However, the premises is now a stationary shop and the face of Col Sanders can still be seen embossed in the glass paneling going up the stairs. Lotte Burger closed around the same time and is now an optician. Baskin Robins and MacDonald’s are still here but MacDonalds moved further down the road in 2014).

 

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

Further References

On ‘beggar singers: When Weird is Normal (Bathhouse Ballads, July 2011)