Elwood 5566

Outed by the Makgeolli

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, bathhouse Basics, Comparative, Diary notes, podcasts by 노강호 on April 14, 2011

podcast 79

I’ve had some interesting experiences coming out which isn’t too surprising given I was in the British Army at a time when anything but normal was illegal and stepping out the closet risqué. Despite twice being implicated and subsequently made the subject of inquiry by that branch of British military affairs that investigates crime, notably the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), I was never charged even though I naively admitted my inclinations. In retrospect, this was probably because in my military band of some 25 musicians, quite a few had ‘meddled’  and  the ‘brass’ were always afraid of exposing too much as investigations tended to encourage soldiers to seek a discharge. Then there was the risk of scandal! With a history of 300 years and all the tradition to boot, such noted members as Baden Powell and Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, a famous cavalry regiment didn’t want egg on its face.  My autobiography, All the Queen’s Men, narrating many of the anecdotes of an ‘out’ soldier at a time of repression, was published by GMP in 1999. I think it’s now out of print.

Koreans seem to forget the fact British regiments fought in the Korean War

After the army, I spent 10 years teaching and certainly, for the first five years, had to be careful about providing students or staff too many personal details. I was an out in two schools when most were trembling in the closet and in both schools attitudes were challenged and changed by my presence.  One principal lambasted me for outing myself, claiming I should never have mixed private with professional, meanwhile his wife’s photo is on his desk and that morning he had mentioned his family in assembly. He is still the school’s principal and I often wonder if his attitudes have genuinely changed.

In Korea, for obvious reasons, I am quiet about my past and though civil rights are on their way, along with more insidious western influences, I am defensive when Korean attitudes are criticised. Korea is homophobic in a Korean way but much of that homophobia was instilled by western influences as well as the Choson upper classes.  Korea, like Japan and China, tolerated and even romanticised same sex relationships’ and primary sources from the Silla and Koryo dynasties survive to attest this. In particular, the Hwa Rang provides the best examples of homosexuality in ancient Korea. Naturally, the subject is more complex and convoluted than I make it appear.  Christianity in particular swept the evidence from the history books and turned the subject into a taboo with as much success as is evident in British schools when ancient Greek history is taught senza anything sexual. Christianity’s arcane moral legacy is still influential.

 

the legacy of the Hwa-rang lives on

Coming out in the UK has become boring! It not only used to shock people, which was always amusing, but provided a useful means of measuring a potential friends attitudes and the extent of their conservatism. Today, all the former bigots have been suppressed and though they all claim to be okay with your sexuality, you know they often find it objectionable.  I spent a few years working for an LGBT organisation and regularly attended forums organised by the police which focused on ‘hate crime.’ Not wanting to be left in the cold, the forums were a bizarre mish-mash comprising the most conservative elements of society. The worst, as would be expected, were the religious groups; bastions of institutionalized and established bigotry, against a broad range of people, seeking to protect their bigotry by promoting the idea that any criticism of their practice constitutes a persecution. In particular, Muslims have been quick to advance their agenda by virtue of democratic process they would most likely deny others if they had political power.  Of course such obvious contradictions and machinations can never be voiced and instead have to be shaded behind that sickeningly friendly facade for fear of transgressing the dictates of political correctness. The Jews at such meetings didn’t like the Muslims, the Muslims didn’t like the Jews, and they all hated the gays.  I can only invite your speculation as to how they viewed those present who were transsexual or transgendered.  We are living in volatile times when a change in regime, and a change in ideology could so very quickly reverse attitudes. It will take many years before most people are fundamentally accepting and currently, the apparent acceptance is for many a veneer.

I’ve never felt Koreans have hatred towards ‘alternative lifestyles,’ they just don’t seem to understand them and as a practice is doesn’t fit their family obsessed social order.  I wouldn’t fear being gay bashed here anymore than I’d fear being mugged and I certainly don’t detect the same rabid hatred for gay people as I still witness back home. British school children in particular, are extremely homophobic. Nonetheless, I would imagine being different on the peninsula, totally sucks.

I’ve only ever outed myself to a couple of Korean friends and despite being Christian, they were fine about it. Many foreigners assume Koreans are homophobic and many will be, but ten years ago I randomly met two Korean at random, who became good friends and to whom I subsequently came out. I think it says much about Korean attitudes when one is now my boss and the other would happily employ me in his school.  My boss never initiates a discussion about the issue while  while the  other can do so happily and on occasion makes friendly jokes about the clandestine side of my personality. Nor do I suspect they have gossiped to others though I am not sure this is because of shame or out of loyalty – ironically  ‘faith’ (신) between friends is both one of the five Hwa Rang commandments and one of the five laws of Confucianism. The fear of losing the friendship of other Koreans prevented me broadening my circle of confidants.  Ji-won is one such friend. I hadn’t planned to come out to him but his professed hatred for gays, though he didn’t seem genuinely ‘ hateful,’ as he was narrating a story to me, prompted me to expose my true nature.

Ji-won

So, in a bar on a Saturday evening,  surrounded by a growing battery of empty makgeolli bottles, he is telling me about his travel in Australia. On a visit to Sydney, some guy had run up to him and declaring undying love, kissed him on the cheek and as quickly as appearing, disappeared. Knowing Ji-won’s luck he’d probably arrived in Sydney during the Mardi Gras and in that typical Korean innocence, one of the world’s great gay events would have been perceived as anything but gay.  I can understand his confusion; with all the same-sex, hand-holding, shoulder clasping and general skinship-fondling coupled with the fashions of skinny camp pretty boys, it is easy to see the similarity between every day experiences on the streets of Korea and a gay Mardi Gras. On my fist day in Korea I thought I was in gay heaven until I discovered they were all straight, from then it was all downhill.

Though I tried to pacify him and help him perceive the experience from a different perspective, because I certainly wasn’t planning to come out, he remained adamant.  Ji-won is almost on a rant, which demanding passion is unique for a Korean. ‘But he kissed me! I wanted to punch him!’ He threw what looked like a punch to add emphasis but it wasn’t very nasty. He is one of the gentlest men I know and his punch wouldn’t have knocked the wind out of a school girl.

‘Do you love me!’ he asked but quickly pre-empting my response added, do you want to sex me?’ Of course not, I told him but meanwhile I was thinking how I’d love to if it weren’t for the disappointing fact he’s straight and I’m 25 years his senior – actually, I’m the same age as his dad. Poor Ji-won claims he’s never met any gay men so I tell him that one of my friends whom he’d met ten years ago, and with whom we’d gone to a bathhouse, was gay. ‘Really!?’ he inquires. ‘And do you remember Nick who you met in 2004?’ And with whom we also went to a bathhouse. ‘He was too!’  For any westerner, the coin would have dropped but Ji-won’s Korean psyche prevents him reaching the conclusion my revelation is supposed to prompt.

The makgeollii, and we’d drunk five bottles between us, was taking effect but so was the nature of the conversation and I could feel myself trembling.  ‘What if I was?’ I asked. ‘Would you want to hit me?’  Ji-won tells me this is a stupid idea because he knows me so well and besides, it’s just not true. ‘After all,’ he continues. ‘You once told me you weren’t married because you preferred being single.’ I laughed heartily. ‘Yes, and you believed me! But what if I was? Would you hate me, too?’

Ji-won and I: the usual Saturday evening English lesson. 2001

I’ve known Ji-won for over 10 years and taught him every Saturday for a year during his final year of high school. Both he and his father, Jun-hee refer to me as their ‘dick friend’ (고추 친구) and I’ve often heard them on their mobiles telling friends they’re with their ‘English go-chu chin-gu.’ Back in 2000 Jun-hee ran a large restaurant and every Saturday evening my evening meal was on the house. His wife, Sun-hee made the most delicious mandu, great big fat ones stuffed with minced meat and there was always a vat of home brewed dong-dong-ju sitting in the fridge. Leaving Korea in 2001 was a nightmare and my last visit to their restaurant, like a funeral. Ji-won had bought a new suit  in which to say goodbye and we were all crying. He gave me a present of his high school name badge and it remains one of my most treasured possessions and Hyun-chun, his younger sister gave me a beautiful little picture frame.  Meanwhile, Jun-hee and Sun-hee gave me a large box of kimchi in which lies another story!

Saying goodbye in late summer of 2001

One the eve of my departure back to England, late summer 2001

I’d always regretted the fact they didn’t know the real me especially as I’d already come out to two other  Koreans. My friendship with Jun-hee and his family was always more important than my sexuality and the rewards my silence provided outweighed the potential risks of  revealing it. I always wanted to let Jun-hee and Ji-won into my little secret as much as I’ve wanted to tell them that the box of kimchi they’d given me ten years ago, had to be thrown in the bin at Daegu railway station; it was simply too big and cumbersome to carry back to England and it would never have passed as hand baggage. Putting it into a bin was as heart wrenching as saying goodbye to them.

Jun-hee, Sun-hee, Hyun-chon, Ji-won in 2001

Our session continues, this time with a bottle of schizandra berry makgeollii (oh-mi-ja – 오미자) which as a ‘well being’ makgeolli, can be guzzled without guilt. Ji-won is still insisting I couldn’t be gay and suddenly I hear myself announcing…‘I am.’ I had every intention of retracting my confession but when I try to I suddenly realise I’d left it too late and that to do so would just leave him with a niggling suspicion. Ji-won is stunned and for a few moments is silent. ‘You are?’ Then, after realizing the truth, thirty seconds of utterly bewildered head shaking; the typical Korean type of dumbfounded head-shaking accompanied by one hand rubbing the head. All he can mutter is, ‘Oh my God!’

More makgeolli and several hours later and we pick up a few cans of beer in the local GS 25. I’m concerned that after the buzz of alcohol has worn off he might not talk to me again but the fact he wants to come back to my one room is consoling. That he wants a few sausages for a snack would have added to the consolation in a British context but for Koreans the point at which a cock and a sausage mentally exist before they collide into fnarr-fnarr humour, is infinitely greater. Maybe it was the makkalli or the fact we’d discussed gay stuff all evening, but on this occasion they collide. ‘Do you want your sausages hot or cold?’ he asks. ‘Why, hot of course! Don’t you like your sausages hot?’ I hold one before his mouth like a microphone; it’s sheathed in plastic and a stick has been viciously rammed into its center so you don’t have to get your hands messy. With a laugh he adds, ”I like hot sausage for eating, but not sexing.’  Yea! Me too! A voice inside my head regretfully sighs.

The following week I give him a call and we meet up. Our friendship has not changed and if anything, is probably deeper. Sat in a coffee shop he apologised for not having any secrets he can tell me but claims to know lots of local gossip. And meanwhile, he intends testing out his father’s reactions so I can eventually come out to him. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait another ten years.

 

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

The Kaya Mountains and Kyeong-Ju. Friday April 6th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Bathhouse, Health care, Korean Accounts Part 1, seasons, Uncategorized by 노강호 on April 6, 2001

On Sunday Pak U-chun (박유천) and her husband, U-no (소유노), picked me up and drove me to their apartment. Here I spent several hours giving Ga-in  and her cousin, Min-ju (민주), an English lesson. As usual, U-chun had prepared a meal and this time we had bibimbap (비빔밥) which is boiled rice, vegetables and red pepper paste.   Afterwards, we drove out to the Dasa (다사) area of Daegu and met Min-ju’s parents in a cafe there.

Me, Ga-in, Min-ju and Yu-no in 2001

The cafe was a traditional building made of mud. Inside, even though the walls were mud, there was electric lighting and even sockets in the wall. The inside was large and there were candles everywhere which had been allowed to drip onto the woodwork to form interesting shapes. Outside was a small stage for live music. We drank beer accompanied by dried snacks, including squid, my favourite and pa’jon. Pa’jon, also known as Korean pancake, is strips of leek fried in a mung bean pancake which is eaten in strips dipped in soy sauce. My favourite drink at the moment is dong dong ju. This is a farmers’ drink and is usually homemade as it ferments in the bottle and cannot easily be marketed. The colour of this drink various from milky white to creamy yellow and I am told it is a drink you either love or hate. Often, ginseng has been added to it. A little while later, U-chun asked if I wanted to go to the sauna, apparently there was one right next to the café and part of their premises. We went outside to the small mud hut adjacent the cafe, and which is known as a hwan toa bang. Inside, a bamboo mats covered the floor on which two children lounged, their faces dripping in sweat. The room was filled with the smell of pine as pine needles and cones were strewn around the outer edge of the bamboo floor. The room itself was heated by a burner that used pine logs. At first the dry heat was intense but before long all of us were strewn out on the floor relaxing. We stayed in the hwan toa bang for some twenty minutes before returning to the cafe.  It was an interesting experience and I am told hwan toa bangs are even fired up during the hot summer months.

On Monday lunchtimes I have started going to another go to another mokyuktang, as the one I usually use is closed. In less than a month I have made over 15 trips to mokyuktangs. On this visit one of the attendants asked if I wanted a rub down and I bravely said yes. This was something I was intending to do but at a much later date – why wait. For the rub down you lie naked on a couch and have warm water poured all over you before being rubbed vigorously all over, and I mean all over, by an abrasive cloth. They rub your crotch and up your bum crack. As the attendant progresses from one side of your body to another, you have to adopt certain positions by putting you arm of legs in various positions. The attendant wore boxer shorts which were wet and on quite a few occasions I could feel his dick resting on my arm. The whole procedure is performed publicly and with a conversation in progress.

Life at Di Dim Dol  gets more and more boring everyday with exactly the same routine and the same books. I am beginning to wonder if I can really teach here for another five months. I am even considering if I should go back home early.

Thursday was a public holiday, this time for ‘Arbor Day” when it is believed anything planted will flourish. The teachers from Di Dim Dol were all wishing me a ‘happy holiday’ as if I were departing on a two week vacation. I told them it wasn’t a holiday but simply a day off and not even that as they would have to make up for lost time by working on the coming Saturday. Regardless, most of them see it as a holiday. Pak U-chun and her family picked me up from my apartment at ten in the morning and we drove out of the city towards Sang-ju (상주) and the Kaya mountains which lie further north in the province of Kyongsangbookdo (경상복도). Travelling in Korea is interesting as you travel along the highways which are situated in the and between the valleys which are surrounded by farms, rice paddies and enormous cloches. Small yellow melons not much larger than the size of a pear have just appeared on the markets and I recently read that the appearance of these melons is a traditional sign that spring is well under way.  Anyway, these melons are one of the main products of the province and were on sale from many small markets stalls on the twisting road that led from the highway to the mountains. Often small lorries, filled with the melons, were parked in lay-bys.

the start of the walk up to Heinsa Temple in the Kaya Mountains (2001)

beside the main temple in Heinsa (2001)

The scenery was absolutely beautiful as the lilacs were almost in full bloom. In Daegu they were already in full flower. Everywhere, cherry blossom (벚꽃) and yellow forsythia (개나리)  coloured the hillside. Spring blossom, in Korean, is known as pom namu (봄 나무).  Up in the mountainside you could see the various shades of green from emerging foliage speckled here and there by dashes of pink and yellow.  One flower, particularly common, was the national flower of South Korea, adopted after the liberation. This flower, Hibiscus Syriacus, known also as the Rose of Sharon and in Korean mugunghwa (무궁화). The atmosphere in the car was wonderful and Ga-in and Min-Ju were excited at the various sights. We climbed the mountain for quite a while, the little car straining when suddenly, out of the right hand side of the vehicle, the peaks of the mountain range appeared. It was a breath taking sight; the jagged peaks of bare rock were highlighted against a bright blue sky. Almost at the top of the range, there was an observation point where we stopped and took some photos. In the small car park were several farmers selling various fruits and vegetables. I took a photograph of some elderly women sat among their produce. One made a fuss of me and said she was too ugly to photograph, but she wasn’t, she was beautiful and she reminded me how lucky people are who still have mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to take a photograph of them sat naturally but instead they sat upright, hands on knees and all looked very serious.

roadside traders on the road up to Heinsa Temple – Kaya Mountains (2001)

a stupa in the large forecourt before the main temple (2001)

We were now in the heart of the Kayasan (가야 산) national park and in U-no’s little car we travelled down from the observation point into another valley before climbing back up into more mountains towards the Haeinsa (해인 사) temple. May 1st in the lunar calendar this year marks the celebration of Buddha’s birthday and so the roads in the park were edged with yellow, red and purple lanterns which at night are lit. The park was impeccably clean, not a piece of litter anywhere. We passed through a number of small villages where up in the surrounding hillside people could be seen tidying up their relatives tombs after the long winter. Arbour Day is one of the days when people walk up to their relatives tombs, tidy them and then present offerings which involve paying their respects by prostrating themselves on the ground, forehead to earth.

note the bees nest hanging from the side of the head

At many places on route to the temple, there were interesting sights. Small stupas, small pagoda constructions which house the spirit of Buddha dotted the landscape. We stopped at a larger sight where there was a small temple nestled up in the hillside. At the foot of the hill, just off the road and through some trees, stood an enormous statue of a Buddha flanked on either side by stupas. In front of the Buddha ran a burpling river which meandered down from the mountain. Stupas are common across the Buddhist world but Korean ones are very distinct with small bells hanging from the corners of each protrusuion. The stupa tapers into  a pointed spire. Like other Buddha statues I had seen in Korea, a large stone like ‘hat’ sat  on his head, from this one hung a large bees’ nest. From the nearby temple drifted the sound of a monk chanting and striking his small, spherical wooden percussion instrument made from hollowed out oak. It makes a hypnotic sound when continual tapped. Behind the Buddha was wall housing twenty or so class cases each containing a life-size Buddha in a different pose. In front of the statue stood a stone table where visitor placed offering of food for the monks, bags of rice or fruits and nuts. Those making offerings lit joss sticks and then prostrated themselves in front of the Buddha. There were several elderly women who had been busy prostrating themselves for the entire 20 minutes of our visit. U-chun told me a respectable number of prostrations is ten but if you want to be particularly devoted you perform 180. This is no mean feat as a complete prostration begins and ends from a standing position.

Min-ju and I (2001)

Eventually, after a further journey, we parked the car  in a large car park high in the mountains and joined the enormous conga of people progressing up to Haeinsa Temple. The walk talks about an hour. In places the climb was quite steep. One of the first sites we stopped at was a pond, called the  -Yong-ji. This lay just outside the entrance to the Haeinsa complex. According to the legend, seven sons wanted to become monks and left home to travel to Haeinsa. Later, longing for her sons, their mother travelled the long distance to visit them but as they had already taken their vows, they could not see her in person. Instead, they looked at each other’s reflection in the pond.

The temple complex was full of fascinating sights. The elaborate art work of the central temple, which housed a golden Buddha, consisted of intricate patterns of blue, green, orange and gold. Inside the main temple, monks prayed in front of the large golden Buddha, the air scented by both spring and incense. The Haeinsa Temple, was built in the Shilla (57bc-935ad) period though it was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in the 15th century. The temple houses the Triptaka Koreana which is the most extensive Buddhist text and is written on 82000 wooden engravings. The text is in the process of being translated. The wooden engravings are housed in outhouses surrounding the main temple.

Pak Yu-chun and her family (2001)

After spending several hours in the temple, we walked down the mountain and headed to a picnic area further into the Kayasan range. Koreans love to picnic and are well equipped with picnic mats, barbecues and baskets and when the finish, they meticulously tidy away all their mess. U-chun had cooked pulgogi and chap’che – a fried noodle dish with pork and beef through it. As usual the meal was accompanied with kimchee. After the meal we drove back to Daegu.

On Saturday, the Yon San Dong school had planned a staff trip to Kyong Ju (경주). Matt and I took a taxi down to the school to meet the mini bus. All the western teachers went except for Lisa who never seems to want to mix with anyone but who, in fairness, has been ill during the week. She continually moans anyway, so perhaps is it a good thing. There were four Korean staff coming with us, To-yung, Amy, Meg (who has a mouthful of wonky, impacted teeth and who looks like one of the Cenobite’s from Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser,’) and Qui-Aie. We all brought packed lunches and set off  in high spirits. I can’t remember if I have previously mentioned the significance of Kyong Ju, but it was at one time the capital of the Shilla (57bc-975ad) dynasty. Between approximately 40bc and 400ad the peninsula was divided into three kingdoms – the Shilla, Koguryo and Paekche. Around 400ad, the Shilla dynasty, situated in the east and militarily very powerful, overthrew the other kingdoms and united the peninsula. The Shilla dynasty ruled until approx 900ad. Needless to say the area is full of interesting sights and it is particularly famous for its spring blossoms.

Back – Qui-aie, me, Pauline, Angelin. Front – ?,? Angel, Matt, (2001)

Kyong Ju isn’t a large city but when we arrived it was teeming with people on bicycles hired from one of numerous shops. Matt shared a tandem with the Cenobite and the rest of us all hired standard bicycles and headed off to the nearby Shilla tombs. The most impressive tomb in the site we visited was the Heavenly Horse Tomb. Though several other tombs lay in the same location, only this tomb had been excavated and inside a coffin and 15 items, including a sword of 98cm long. The tombs are all large mounds and the Heavenly Horse Tomb had been hollowed out so we were able to walk around inside it. Nearby was the oldest observatory in Asia and this was a large circular building made of stone. From here we went to the Kyong-ju National Museum which lay next to the Anapj (Goose and Lake). In 1972 the lake was temporarily drained and over 41.000 artefacts were found which now appear in the museum. Outside the museum was a large bell known as the Emelie Bell. Apparently this bell was cast in the ninth century and its unusual tone is attributed to the fact that a baby was thrown into the smelting metal during its casting.

Tombs of Kings

We ate lunch in the gardens of the museum and then set of to visit a large lake outside the town. The cycle took ages and all along the route cherry blossom showered onto us like snow whenever a breeze blew. Pauline found the cycle strenuous and no matter how many times we asked where we were going, how long the cycle was likely to take, or how far it was, our host Koreans avoided our questions. After an hour or so cycling, Matt decided to stop and complain. We had all become split up and there were thousands of other cyclists travelling in both directions along our route. Despite our protestations, Qui-Aie wanted to push ahead and as soon as she saw Pauline struggling in the distance, she continued cycling with renewed vigour. I actually think it was part of her master plan to stop us getting together and moaning. After about another fifteen minutes, we reached this large lake which sat on top of a hill. All around the edge of the lake the cycle path could be traced by the line of cherry blossom. At the far end of the lake stood an enormous pagoda which I later discovered was a Hilton Hotel. On a large grass bank teeming with relaxing Koreans, we sat and had some refreshments bought from nearby stalls. We thought we would be able to sit and enjoy the beautiful scenery but under the leadership of ‘Hitler Tours,’ other plans were afoot.

the cycle up to the edge of the lake – under a canopy of blossom (2001)

All to soon Qui-aie and the other Koreans ushered us to continue cycling towards the Hotel. It was an awkward cycle as the path an narrowed and was packed with walkers and cyclists in an enormous conga that seemed to travel in both directions unbroken, around the lake. As is natural, Koreans didn’t get stressed with the incompetent cyclists who frequently blocked out passage or slowed our journey. I don’t think Koreans are very well organised in terms of driving on the roads, walking in packed supermarkets or cycling. Mopeds and motorbikes can be seen everyday using the pavements and I regularly see potential accidents about to occur. In busy supermarkets they will push and shove each other in order to squeeze through little gaps. They do exactly the same when driving yet rarely do they loose their tempers or get stressed. Matt and I have a time limit when we shop in a supermarket – usually about half an hour, after which we deteriorate into a frustrated state. On the path around the lake there seemed no consensus about which side of the pavement to cycle on and it seemed total chaos to us westerners. We cycled for another half an hour, making painfully slow progress and on the few occasions on which I stopped to take a photograph, I was made to feel I was wasting time. Next, I suggested we stop because we had lost Pauline. Twenty minutes later and she appeared  in the distance and immediately, Qui-aie jumped on her bike. Matt wouldn’t get on his and was looking very cross.

‘Are you alright?’ I asked. He didn’t look up.

‘If there’s one thing I fucking hate it’s being asked if I’m alright when I’m fucking not,’ he snarled. Qui-aie was still trying to prompt us to cycle and I said we were going to wait for Pauline so she could take a break.

However, it wasn’t long before Qui-aie was leading us towards the fast approaching hotel. Soon, the path turned away from the lake. Our Korean guides, ‘Hitler Tours,’ grouped up ahead and were busy talking. I joked that they were probably deciding whose job it was going to be to tell us that we still had another few hours cycle ahead of us. Suddenly, To-yung told us we were turning towards the town and that we would be back at the minibus in some 20 minutes.  We were momentarily relieved as this is Korea and Koreans and often lacking in organisation.

After more cycling, I noticed that the fairground wheel which had lain behind the hotel now lay behind us and that we were in fact travelling towards Kyong-ju but by the longest route; around the perimeter of the lake. We were some two hours cycle away from the point at which we had arrived at the lake’s shore. Here we were in this beautiful location with cafes and boat rides and wonderful sights and all we were doing was racing amongst a huge conga of cyclists and walkers. At one point there was an enormous hold up and bikes were knocking into each other all over the place – which no one minded except us westerners. When some silly Korean in front of us, braked for no reason and then blocked our way we cursed but the facial expression of the perpetrator was one of innocence and bewilderment. There was a long lay-by next to us, lines with market stalls, not one Korean in the enormous hold up, broke ranks to circumnavigate the jam. I moved into the empty road, calling for Angela to follow me and within minutes there was a long clear path in front of us. For some fifteen minutes we flew down the almost empty path and when we reached the main road at the bottom, we had to wait forty minutes before we all re-grouped. Angela spent our time leering at sexy Korean lads and we both agreed that westerners are mutant mongrels by comparison. Our hair is assorted colours and textures, we have pallid skin, yellow teeth and we are usually fatter than Koreans.

The rest of our party eventually appeared, free-wheeling down the hill towards us but they did not look very happy, apparently, they had waited for us assuming we must have got held up. By now a tense silence had developed between the Korean and foreign teachers. We arrived back in Kyong-ju city centre, tired and with sore backsides but of course, once we had handed our bicycles back, ‘Hitler Tours’ wouldn’t allow us time to get a coffee or an ice-cream. Instead, it was straight back and onto the bus! Back in Song-so the foreign teachers went for a drink in the Elvis Bar which isn’t far from Kemyoung University. Tomorrow, April 8th, is Pauline’s birthday.

On Wednesday I went to the doctor’s to get my gout pills and to have Bill, the hernia, checked out. Bill hasn’t been bothering me lately though he is still there and pops in and out with a sort of squidgy, jelly-like feeling. Doctor Lee always wants to have a chat and practice his quite competent English. I asked him to check Bill out as I was worried it might be a cancer of something. I have multiple cancers at the moment and develop new ones regularly. He looked at me quite strangely when I told him this and so I had to explain that whenever I get a headache, a pain or a blemish, I assume it’s a potential cancer. He got to work with the ultra-sound and then showed me, by way of the monitor, that a small lump of fat was moving between different layers of my stomach muscle. He assured me it wasn’t a hernia or anything serious. I love my trip to the doctors as he is the first doctor I have ever had that actually I actually refer to as ‘my doctor.’ He genuinely seems interested in me and always asks if there is anything else wrong with me or anything he can do. No matter how long I take at the doctors, no matter whether five minutes or fifty minutes, the cost is always 10.000W which is less than five pounds. Even if one assumes the cost of living to be four less than in the UK, that puts my doctor’s fee at around £20. When my mother went to a specialist over five years ago she was charged £60. My doctor is actually an internal medicine specialist! It’s strange that my health seems more protected and guaranteed here in Korea than it is is the smug world of the ‘developed west.’ Even the poodle parlours here offer a better service than does the British NHS! Teachers like Matt and Angela from New Zealand all prefer the Korean medical system. We all seem to have access to drugs and medicine seen as too expensive to provide freely in our home countries. After my monthly trip to my doctor I went and relaxed at the sauna. I have been going to the mokyuktang several times a week.

My Taekwondo has been progressing very well and now it is warmer I have suffer less injuries. Spring is almost over and already we have had temperatures in the 80’s. Korea has a spring and autumn of only three weeks or a month and has long winters and summers. The blossom has fallen from the trees and now the streets around Song So are being lined with pink and yellow lanterns in readiness for Buddha’s birthday (May 1st of this years lunar calendar). I often train for forty five minutes at lunchtime either stretching at home or in my club. My stretching programme has paid off and I am able to do exercises I haven’t done for fifteen years or so. I can sit in a hurdler’s straddle and almost put my head on my knee and I can sit on my knees and lean right back so my shoulders are on the floor. From this position I can do sit-ups. My axe kick, one of my favourite and formerly most devastating kicks, is almost as good as it was when I took my black belt.  I now have a purple belt and my blue belt exam I will take in a few weeks time. After blue, I will have brown, red, red and black belts to take before I can finally take my black belt exam. I would be quite content to go home with a brown belt but gaining a black belt is within my grasp. I realise how unfit I have become in the last four years – all due to sitting at a computer writing and riding a motorcycle. It has taken me a lot of effort to get fitter and a few months ago I was going to give up Taekwondo for good.

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