Elwood 5566

Homophobic Juncture – Justin Bieber Meets K-Pop

Posted in Comparative, Gender, No Pumpkin Category, Westerners by 노강호 on May 18, 2012

I should feel quite sorry for Justin Bieber, but given that he made more money last year than I’ll have made in a lifetime, I’m not too sympathetic. But I’m not ashamed to admit, that having been forced to watch his movie on a flight from Dubai to Seoul, I actually think he’s got some talent.

Bieber’s name alone is enough to expose homophobia

With all the ‘hate crime’ initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and the varied policies to tackle homophobia in schools and society at large, some consider homophobic taunting something of the past but unfortunately, it’s alive and kicking.

While millions of youngsters are bitten by Bieber fever, an equally as large a contingent consider him everything from effeminate to lesbian. What is most alarming is not just that the Bieber-hater vitriol is predominantly homophobic, but that it is masked and tolerated as jealously or simply a dislike for a particular kind of music. Somehow, it seems acceptable to slag-off Bieber’s masculinity, minimalise the size of his penis or even claim he doesn’t have one, and then call him ‘gay.’ Homophobes are expert at labeling someone ‘gay’ and then, when accused of being homophobic, hide behind the ‘ambiguity’ of the ‘gay’ slur claiming that it has nothing to do with sexuality and simply means ‘bad’ or ‘uncool.’ If Justin Bieber was a normal school kid being taunted there would be no mistaking the nature of the abuse to which he is subject and schools, colleges and workplaces would have an array of policies to deal with what is at the least bullying and at the extreme, a homophobic hate crime.

Currently, in the UK, if you are assaulted for no apparent reason, you can expect the police to respond to your phone-call within several weeks. However, if you claim the assault was ‘hate crime’ orientated, you can expect a visit within minutes. A young student who arrived at my house with friends suffering a broken rib and broken tooth waited two weeks for the police to visit and take details. The same week, they responded within fifteen minutes of my reporting being called a ‘fag’ by two workmen as I entered an LGBT office on business.

What is interesting about the vitriol of Bieber-haters is that they are most likely to slander K-Pop with exactly the same kind of language; Bieber and K-pop, more specifically boy band K-pop, are, lame, effeminate, ‘gay’ and poncy. Indeed, K-pop is often a greater target for homophobic ridicule because Westerners construe male to male ‘skinship’ as signifier of ‘homosexuality.’ For many of us dumb-ass Westerners, males have to be beating the fuck out of each other, pissed senseless or hyper aggressive in order to way-lay any accusation of being anything but 100% heterosexual. So great is the pressure on males to maintain a hyper-hetero appearance that it is both a major part of their identity and a full time pursuit.  Conversely, there is no mistaking that if Bieber were a Korean, he’d most certainly fit the category ‘pretty boy’ or ‘flower boy’ – neither of which would be any kind slur on his masculinity.

 

skinship in Korea is frequently construed as ‘gay’ by Western audiences

Now, I have to admit, I too have made jokes about K-pop in classes. I quite often pretend to hear, ‘K-pop’ as ‘gay-pop’ and my students think it’s quite funny when I do so. However, my defense is that I absolutely prefer the Korean version of ‘masculinity’ to macho-western masculinity and infinitely prefer it to the hideous kind of rap typified by Beenie Man and Elephantman which is both homophobic and misogynistic. Some versions of rap, most notably ‘gansta,’  have to be among the most revolting forms of cultural expression and are a sad indictment not just on the culture spawning such hatred, but also on the hordes of people who laud such trash and help give it credibility.

When I do make a joke about K-pop, notably that is is ‘gay-pop,’ it is to open a dialogue about such cultural differences and to draw my students attention to the more repugnant and unpleasant aspects of Western society, the pox, violence, teenage pregnancy, anti-intellectualism and general moral and social degeneracy, and of course, the particular kind of unpleasant masculinity,  all of which get lost in the allure of Hollywood, celebrity fetishism and the general uncritical obsession many Koreans have with the USA and Western culture in general.

the West Koreans don’t see

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Further References

Bored by Cowell Pop? Try K-Pop (Guardian UK, 15th Dec, 2011)

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Bathhouse Intimacy – Fathers and Sons

Podcast 82

I never really enjoy writing about some of the intimate moments I observe in bathhouses or even in everyday life as many western readers have a real problem with both the authors of such texts, whom they perceive as a perverts, and with the nature of its content, which they categorise, as ‘gay’ and ‘sickening’.

When fathers and sons are mutually washing each other I don’t like to sit and stare but over the last six months and through discussions with Korean friends I have managed to piece together how this process, which might possibly be defined as a ‘ritual,’ functions. At times of the week, usually the weekend, many fathers and sons visit the bathhouse and while for some the cleaning process is the prime function of the visit, for others it is simply for relaxation. I regularly see fathers and sons who will spend as much time cleaning each other, as I might in the pools and it is not in the least unusual for some to spend well over an hour cleaning either cleaning themselves or, in the case of a father, their son.

The process begins with showering under the stand-up showers and entails much the same as a standard ablution – washing the body, shampooing, shaving and brushing teeth. We have now reached the point at which most westerners would consider themselves clean but which for the majority of Koreans is only the preamble to a meticulous ablution. After the stand up shower some visitors go straight to the sit down shower units while others will spend some time enjoying the various pools and saunas. For younger children, this often means playing while older boys are content to sit with their fathers. Most of my Korean friends will soak and sweat in the various facilities for anything up to several hours, at which point dead skin cells and callouses have absorbed water and are easily removed.

the bathhouse, where ‘skinship’ is taken to the extreme

Between friends, scrubbing each others’ backs is an accepted intimacy and it is not unusual to see peer groups, especially school boys, university students or even monks sat in a line each scrubbing the person in front. Several years ago an advert depicted young boys doing exactly this and attracted some  negative and hostile comments from foreigners living in Korea. Unless you opt for a scrub down by a bathhouse attendant, the scrubbing of backs is probably the most intimate extent to which friendships, even between the closest friends, goes and seems much the same as from son to father. However, from father to son, the level of intimacy is much greater and certainly, into middle adolescence, a boy is often totally passive in this procedure. Indeed, there isn’t much difference between how some fathers clean their sons, and how you might wash a car, care for a baby or invalided person.

The cleaning process reflects a close bond between fathers and sons

The procedure often takes place in silence and begins with the boy bending over and supporting themselves on the ledge that runs under the mirrors so that their father can vigorously scrub their back with an Italy towel progressing down their buttocks, backs of thighs and calves. For anyone who has visited a bathhouse and seen for themselves this type of ritualistic cleaning, the process isn’t brief or cursory. The Italy towel is used with only the smallest amount of soap, not enough to even produce a lather and in a rough enough manner to produce a visible line of dead skins cells. Once an area has been ex-foliated, it is showered after which the Italy towel is again used, this time with a generous amount of soap.

Next, the boy sits down facing his father and puts each leg, in turn, on his father’s thigh and the same process is repeated from the soles of the feet to the thighs. Then the boy sits with his back,  neck or shoulders supported over his father’s knee so that his chest and stomach can be scrubbed. It is not in the least unusual for boys or even their fathers, to hold their genitals to one side while scrubbing the groin. Finally, with head resting on their dad’s thigh, their face is scrubbed even to the extent of cleaning noses and ears. The meticulous process ends with a session under the stand up shower. Sometimes the procedure is organised slightly differently, for example if the boy is not very tall, he might stand for much of the ablution. What is most bizarre for the westerner is the proximity between the face and genitals or backside of another person. Even between friends, if someone is standing and someone sitting, as for example might sometimes be the case when one person is scrubbing another’s back, there is no concern about the distance between the face of one and the genitals of another.

the Italy towel in action

Often the process is performed by a bathhouse attendant and every bathhouse has an area with one or several couches on which you lay for this purpose. I rarely see young children receiving a scrub down but older boys, sometimes unaccompanied and at other times with their fathers, will subject themselves to this ritual. A scrub down from an attendant is every bit as intimate, and for the westerner, invasive, as the one between fathers and sons. Koreans are so used to the cleaning ritual, they subconsciously place their limbs in the required position or require only the briefest prompt, for westerners however, the process is awkward and the body, unaccustomed to the procedure, is antagonistic to the attendant’s manipulation. And yes! They do hold your ‘bits’ to one side as they’re scrubbing. However, the experience is invigorating as well as liberating.

Clearly, father-son, as well as mother-daughter bathhouse rituals are an integral expression of ‘skinship’ and undoubtedly provide the most extreme example of intimacy between individuals in a platonic setting. On several occasions I have witnessed a father bathing his severely mentally and physically disabled son and much that was sad and tragic in the procedure was nullified by the close bond they clearly shared. But it is also possible to see such parent-child intimacy as one aspect of a broader cycle and sons can often be seen tending their aged fathers in the exact reversal of the father-son ritual.

Koreans do not carry the same cultural baggage as regards the body as many westerners either in terms of prudery or propriety and appear much less  judgmental about the bodies’ of other people. I recently read a very interesting article by a Korean grandfather who was approached by  a little girl in a bathhouse who wanted lifting into a hot pool, because she was cold (link). In many other cultures, racked with obsessions which perversify any contact between minor and adult, such intimacy, and many other intimacies observed in a bathhouse setting, are taboo. It would also seem that what is observed between those of the same gender remains private. To discuss or gossip about the body of another person would be highly inappropriate and improper and certainly, between males and females, would constitute a cultural taboo. And one of the greatest Korean attributes, especially when you’re naked and vulnerable, is that they are excellent at complimenting those parts of your body you don’t like. I wouldn’t wish my body on anyone but even naked many Koreans are able to make you feel very good about yourself.

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A Peek Into a Seoul Bathhouse (Korea Times April 28th 2011)

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, Comparative, Uncategorized by 노강호 on May 24, 2011

Nam Sang-so

By Nam Sang-so

Dear Pablo, after you were free from diapers, I used to take you to a public bathhouse in Seoul. I do not think you would remember that.

Public bathhouses are abundant here. I enjoy visiting them. For a mere 4,000 won (less than $4), people can enjoy unlimited time in hot spas, saunas and hot or cold showers with free soap and “Italy towels.” Someone gave them the snappy honorific. They are made of sieve-like knitted nylon, woven pink or blue for the purpose of…read more – for touching account of a grandfather’s bathhouse experience.

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Teenage Pluckers’ and Cottagers

Posted in Korean children, No Pumpkin Category by 노강호 on April 10, 2011

a sign of stress?

It was a personal opinion and I’m not generalizing, but I was once told the worst affliction for a Korean teenage, one worse than acne, was grey hair. I rarely see Korean girls preening themselves or each other to the extent that occurs in British schools but the occasional group plucking usually among girls, but occasionally boys, is not uncommon. Whether grey hairs are a sign of stress I am unsure but Koreans believe them to be so.

As all waygukin know, Korean kids are fascinated with the bodies of westerners and especially with body hair. I have a girl in one class who will regularly play with my fingers and pinch out any bits of skin from around my nails. Another boy will check my eyebrows and pluck out any straggly hairs. I don’t know how long it takes other western teachers to become oblivious, if at all, to the increased levels of physical contact between teachers and pupils; I ceased judging it by British standards a long time ago.

Sometimes however, Korean inquisitiveness goes too far for western sensibilities. Not once have I used the boys toilets in my school as we have ones specifically for staff but when a repairman was resident last week and I was bursting, I slipped into the boys toilets and immediately two middle school boys who had been leaving, turned back. Despite positioning my back to them, which in mid flow is all I can do as I am too tall to hide between the sides of the urinal, one ventured to the side of me. Undeterred either by my embarrassment or suggestions to ‘fuck off,’ he simply starred.  Was this cheeky inquisitiveness, blatant cottaging or urophilia? I wasn’t angry and there was something comical about the incident. In all however, one of the minor embarrassments of life in Korea and for those waygukin unable to ditch their cultural prejudices, it is probably an incident that can only be understood in relation to perversion (hence the pumpkin logo above.) I shared the incident with my boss; she found it very amusing.

 

a greater degree of physical intimacy

And if ever your shoulders and back are tense simply ask a student for a massage. Korean kids, and indeed Koreans in general are as eager to pummel your shoulders and back as British kids are to arm wrestle though in my absence from the British education system, that too might now be taboo.

a group plucking during a break

FURTHER REFERENCES TO SKINSHIP WITHIN THIS BLOG

It’s All in the Touch (April 2010) Also in podact

Korean Teenager (Ben 2) And Other Stuff (June 2010)

When ‘Gay’ is ‘Gay’ (June 2010)

Who Really Worships the Wang (October 2010)

Laura (3) Korean Teenagers – Magical Moments (Oct 2010)

Bathhouse Zen (1) Dec 2010

Bathhouse Zen (2) (Dec 2010)

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Bathhouse 'Zen' (Part 2)

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Ballads by 노강호 on December 30, 2010

I’m working through some ideas here and not only have another part to follow this post, but will make amendments here. If you want to add your views, more educated and sociological ones welcomed,  please do so however, I won’t bother publishing the usual offensive crap that this kind of post sometimes generates. (Hence the pumpkin logo) Part one can be accessed here: Bathhouse Zen (Part 1)

 

 

Once you have recognised your own cultural inhibitions and prejudices that prevent you entering bathhouse complexes or get in the way of your fully enjoying the experience, it is time to look at how bathhouse culture can be seen in a broader context.

 

a cave pool

The bathhouse is an environment where social rank and hierarchy either cease operating or do so at a minimal level. In an environment divested of the clothes which we use to mask and manipulate our  personalities, communication  is both more direct and honest. Mutual nudity brings participants into  a closer relationship where friendships and ties are strengthened. The Korean phenomena of  ‘testicle friends’ (불알 친구) or ‘penis friends’ (고추 친구) clearly demonstrate that a relationship enters a deeper level through familiarity with the naked body. This is further consolidated through ‘skinship’  ‘rituals’ such as scrubbing each others backs or bodies. Skinship is an important bonding process  in all human interaction though it needn’t be restricted exclusively to mother-child or sexual relationships. In the Korean context ‘skinship’ has an important function in wide range of platonic relationships and even serve to form a bridge between relationships that are normally unequal. Unlike western culture, in which physical contact might be substantially altered in a naked or semi-naked state, in the bathhouse ‘skinship’ practices do not alter.

 

a cypress chipping bath

Additionally, bathhouse nudity also rekindles our relationship to nature and it is not unusual to see individuals sat in pools or quiet corners meditating or simply contemplating.  Most bathhouses reinforce the connection with nature and rock, wood, salt, soil, sea water, wood chippings, charcoal, bamboo, herbs, jade etc,  are all common features incorporated into bathhouse design.  The artificial worlds we inhabit in our regular lives, often fast paced and technologically dependent, all evaporate in the presence of a bathhouse’s  watery symphony of  splashing, pulsing, lapping, dripping and hissings. Water as water, ice, spray or steam, incorporated with  suitable  lighting and other elements rich in association with nature combine to create and ambience that can lure us into psychological states conducive to meditation or reflection.  A state of nudity fully exposes the body  to various transitions in temperature, textures, aroma and humidity.

 

various aromatic baths

Most bathhouses have something unique to offer and an awareness of the ambience of bathhouses at differing times of the day or week mean that it is possible to bathe in a manner that suits not just differing emotions but physical states.  Some establishments are better suited for taking a sleep, others for relaxing in various types of pool or experiencing various types of hydro-therapy and some more suited for those times of year when the weather is hot, humid or cold.  And if one finishes a session properly they should leave the bathhouse feeling both mentally and physically revitalised.

 

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Laura -Korean Teenagers (3) Magical Moments

Posted in Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on October 24, 2010

Korean school girls

Laura is perhaps one of the most pleasant girls in my school and I have now been teaching her for over 2 years. Her grades in her State school aren’t the best, which for Koreans is always 100%, but she excelled this year when she twice gained 100% in her English exams. As usual, she still comes to the academy wearing an assortment of scents and will thrust her wrist under my nose and ask my opinion. In the last few months however, she has learnt to use them with discretion and they no longer overpower the entire academy. Eye-liner is a recent addition but is only minimally applied and she doesn’t wear it in school;  it isn’t allowed. Contact lenses, it seems, are tolerated and I have noticed a number of girls have started wearing them. I’m told a pair cost around 10.000 Won (£5). Although I’ve seen two girls in supermarkets with blue contact lenses, which actually looked attractive, the colours most girls seem to wear are either dark brown or more usually, black.

The Hanja character for 'innocence.'

In class one week, Laura and her friends told me the procedure for attracting a boy’s attention and then going on a date with them. The first part of the process is to offer the boy small gifts such as chocolate or candies. One of the most significant moments, and one a few girls seem to cherish, is when a boy they are interested in makes substantial eye contact. Once an interest has been established, photos might be exchanged by way of their mobile-phones. The aim of preliminary overtures is to secure going out with the boy, either on a trip to town or more significantly, a trip to the cinema. Such events give their friendship the status of ‘going out’ and it is from this date that teenagers start  referring to their ‘sweetheart’ as a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ and counting the days until their relationship reaches its hundredth day, a date which is usually celebrated (백일 – ‘100th day,’ is also celebrated a 100 days after a baby’s birth).

 

'Boy hunting'

The most significant part of going to a cinema is that soft drinks and popcorn are shared and Laura and her friends are quite excited when they talk about the ‘skinship’ involved in putting their hands in the large container of popcorn at the same time  as their ‘boyfriend’ or  their heads knocking or touching when drinking from straws  in the same cup of drink.

 

...as long as there's room for two hands

Most of the girls in my academy, even ones older than Laura, who is 14 in western years, (Koreans are one year old the moment they are born), neither date boys nor express much interest in them. Indeed, despite its innocence and cuteness, many parents do not allow dating . Unlike the west, cinemas are not the venue for groping or fondling and such sexual intimacy does not seem to be anticipated or envisaged by anything other than university aged students. Boys the corresponding age of Laura profess much less interest in dating ‘rituals’ though some have crushes and I have only met a couple of boys who seemed interested in dating girls. Of course, this is only my limited observation.

Around the town young ‘sweethearts,’ probably Laura’s age and older are occasionally seen holding hands or having a meal together in a restaurant which is one of the ways in which a hundredth day celebration is marked.

Such ‘rituals’ seem trivial and naturally, they are played out in western culture, however, in Korea they are vastly more significant because more intimate physical affection between the sexes, even between adults, is frowned upon. No doubt this may be changing but other than holding hands, petting and kissing in public is a non-event. That Korean teenagers are not likely to engage in sex before adulthood, a phenomenon backed up by Korea possessing among the world’s lowest figures for teenage pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases, places more significance on events such as eye contact and non-sexual intimacy. The very most the average teenager can expect in terms of any intimacy before adulthood, is probably a kiss on the cheek. Korean teenagers, unlike their western counterparts are under no pressure to either be, or appear to be, sexually active. Further, it seems Korean teenagers are quite scathing of the character of teenagers, boys or girls, who do engage in sexually activity while still school children.

 

height is crucial, looks secondary

And what are the criteria for a suitable ‘boyfriend?’ As with older girls I have talked to, height is  crucial and ideally the boy needs to be 10 cm taller than the girl. I have been told this is  because the boy needs to be taller than the girl should she wear high heels. Boys need to be attractive, kind, considerate towards the girl, funny and smart. Not all the girls think alike and a few said they would consider a boy shorter than themselves or one academically weak.

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Ben – Korean Teenagers (2) and other stuff…

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on June 9, 2010

Japanese youth icons: 'Camp' is not a universal recognition

I’m always intrigued by the campness and expressions of skinship displayed by Korean men and boys. In a class today, Mark, one of my 16-year-old students was leaning across his desk to write his name on a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, two boys behind him start stroking his arse and putting their fingers in the waistband of his boxers, his shirt having ridden up to expose them. Mark doesn’t even twitch even as one of the lads put his hand right under his crotch. Earlier in the lesson, and this has happened on more than one occasion, I noticed Mark’s arm behaving in a very suspicious manner in the proximity of the boy’s lap sat next to him. Of course, any suspicions are solely in my own dirty western imagination as Korean teenagers always appear to be totally innocent  in terms of sexual behaviour.

I remember when I taught a class of 13-14 years olds in a British Boys’ school and was constantly noticing lads with erections. So prolific were these manifestations I nicknamed the class, ‘erection city.’ And boys wanking in class?  One of my colleagues, a female teacher, walked around the side of a boy’s desk only to see him, grinning in a manner that suggested he anticipated some erotic development, with his erection exposed and being toyed in his hand. There were even occasions when I  caught boys with their hands on the front of each others  trousers. There was an obsession with penises and sex throughout the school and even the head teacher, a seedy character, used to shower with Year 9 boys when the weather was hot, or interrogate them in lessons about issues such as masturbation and puberty. Penises were everywhere, drawn on desks, scrawled on walls, in books and constantly referred to.  Some went beyond scrawling  and  meticulous in detail, were clearly the result of  much study, observation and affection.

I used to teach religious education and the class text books we used had penises graffitied in appropriate places wherever possible. When they couldn’t be inserted naturally they were simply drawn sprouting from foreheads.  And distance was no barrier for these fantastical phalli;  even when bodies were at the extremes of opposing pages, immense penises connected them. I kept a copy of the most graffitied text-book as the creativity and imagination of the boys was staggering.  In parts I was reminded of Hieronymus Bosch’s, Garden of Earthly Delights, which in the boys’ hormone-fired imagination, was exactly the landscape they were trying to express.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights

One of the photos depicted a priest offering a kneeling woman Holy Communion. What idiot designs a school book with such a photo! If boys hadn’t already graffitied the page, I would have to have done it on their behalf. So, a great monster of a penis miraculously sprouted from the front of his cassock, meandered into a suitable position to be held in his hand, obliterating the communal wafer and finally, was plugged into the woman’s face. More in line with the Catholic Clergies clandestine predilection for young lads, a more topical candidate might have been a kneeling boy. Meanwhile, the flanking attendants and congregation were suitably adorned with penises sprouting from under cassocks and from their foreheads. And in the air, a small chorus of  body-less penises, hovering like wingless angels,  jettisoned copious ejaculate wherever faces were visible and gagged and subsequently force-fed any open mouth. Manna from heaven! Graffitied cocks are seldom seen in Korea and personally, I’ve only seen three.

'Obscene' Korean graffiti - a rarity

In the UK, Ben, one of my students and an adorable boy, would be bullied for being a little faggot. Earlier in the year he dropped 2 marks from his English paper, scoring 98%. In the west, and rightly so, that’s an achievement worth celebrating but in Korea, if it’s not 100% it’s basically a fail. Even in essay competitions students who don’t win first, second, or third, will tell you they failed. Despite being the cream of their school and competing at province level, anything other than gold, silver or bronze is a failure. Distraught and ashamed, Ben spent an entire evening sitting alone, crying. Apprehensive about facing his parents, my boss had to comfort him and then drive him home. On this occasion, his ‘kibun’ was so damaged he couldn’t talk to me for several days.

Ben

More recently, he’s been quite excited. His dad has promised to buy him a puppy if he does well in the end of semester exams. Ben is ecstatic and is bouncing around the school like an amphetamine doped gazelle. ‘A puppy, a puppy,’ his constant cry. I’m thinking: a fucking puppy!  The boy’s sixteen and he’s totally thrilled by the prospect. In the UK, his mind would be polluted with plans to simultaneously get pissed and loose his virginity.

Faggoty is fashionable!

My school, like my last high school is full of faggoty boys. One is a local champion in ballroom dancing. He’s 14  and always  turns up at school meticulously dressed. He often wears a pair of trainers with laces the colour of his top. He obviously has a stash of  coloured laces at home and I’ve noted his array include green, red, yellow and blue. Like many Korean students who don’t use a back pack, he uses a bag which is fairly common, and nothing short of a big handbag.  Usually, he’ll mince into school with an arm extended like a tea-pot and from the crux of his elbow dangles his bag appropriately emblazoned with the logo,  ‘Kamp.’ Last week he had a new pair of silver trainers and a matching black and silver baggy top with large lapels. I didn’t particularly like the top’s design as it reminded me of 80’s fashions and the clothes Wham used to parade in when singing  shit  like, Wake Me up Before you Go-Go. Besides ballroom dancing, he has a third degree taekwondo black-belt!

What...um.......yes!

Have you noticed the mincy little walk many Korean men have? The first time I saw a teenage boy mince, I was quite amused. I’ve since realised that mincing, basically walking with little steps while swinging the hips a little, is the product of wearing open back sandals. In my last high school boys had to wear sandals in school and there really is no better tool  adept at  emasculating males. If you want to feminise or at least androgynise men or teenage boys, simply force them to wear sandals, the type that have no back to them. You can’t run in them without taking small steps and as a result you shuffle along like a Geisha. Running up or down stairs is positively dangerous. In the same way you dispose a girl to femininity  by making her wear a skirt and subsequently deterring her from the rough and tumble of boys pursuits,  you emasculate boys with a pair of sandals. As a result, many Korean men mince  even when wearing shoes.

Jason is another student I have taught for almost two years. He’s a quiet boy aged about 15 and who talks in a whisper. A few weeks ago he was asked to write an essay on what he would do if he could do anything he wanted, for one evening. His response eventually concluded with spending the night in a luxury hotel, and ordering room service to deliver him steak and lobster. My western brain clicked into action: 15-year-old boy in a hotel? on his own? lots of money? – naughty, naughty!  Risky Business and all that stuff! But Jason avoided the alcohol, call girls and his luxury evening ended by watching TV, and having a double bed. ‘Double bed!’ I repeated suggestively. ‘Why do you want a double bed?’ I asked. His response was typically Korean; ‘to sleep in!’ ‘I laughed and was going to explain why, which of course is futile. Prostitutes, shagging, throwing parties when mummy and daddy are away, getting pissed – are all phenomena which exist at the furthest corner of Jacob’s universe. That’s where they belong until he is 19! The Garden of Earthly Delights, for a Korean student isn’t dependent  on sex, alcohol  or defying parents and all that is required to pave the way to paradise is no school and no homework! Meanwhile faggoty is fashionable, and mincy and kamp are cool and civilised.

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Bathhouse Basics 3: The Italy Towel

The Italy Towel. (이타리 타월)

Other than water, the Italy towel is probably the most universal item in a bathhouse and in some quarters, “Korea Design Heritage 2008,” has been ranked as number 5 among items over the last 50 years, which have defined Korea.  Apparently, Gil Pil-gon who ran a textile factory in Pusan, discovered the cloths’ ex-foliating properties in a piece of  fabric imported from Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Defining icons, food delivery boxes, Nong-Shin ramyon and the Italy Towel.

Though available in a range of colours, the predominant colour is ‘silver,’ which is actually the green one.  In addition, they all seem to be made by the same company, BC Choi and hence, the towels, manufactured in Korea, are 100% Korean! Like sandpaper, Italy Towels come in different gradients and these are denoted by the colour. ‘Pink is the least abrasive, followed by ‘silver’ (green) with the most abrasive and capable of removing the deepest ingrained grime, being yellow.

Other colours are manufactured, including red. The green one is actually described as 'silver.'

Italy towels are not to be confused with the larger version cloth which is also supplied in a bathhouse and which is usually red.

The larger, and milder, ex-foliating cloth

What typifies the Italy Towel is its size. My hand barely fits into it. The cloth is used to scrub the skin, usually in one direction, top to bottom and in straight lines and if used effectively a line of gray, dead skin is produced. The towel is fairly abrasive and needs to be used with caution on the face. Minimal soap is used in order to maximise the towel’s abrasive quality. Koreans will scrub their entire body with this cloth in a process which can last well over an hour.

If anyone accompanies you to the bathhouse, a friend or relative, it is natural for you to scrub each-other’s back. Usually you sit behind the person whose back you a rubbing,  though people sometimes stand. For men, that your ‘partners’ dick is dangling in you face is no  more of an issue than any other part of their body. Between men, one of the defining features of a ‘go-ch’u-ch’ingu’ (고추 친구),  literally translated as a  ‘penis friend,’ basically a close friend, is that penises are ‘acknowledged’ rather than  shunned with fear. It is this tacit, sometimes even verbalised  ‘acknowledgment’ which helps define a close, male relationship.  In the western male, heterosexual psyche, a penis is threatening and  ‘acknowledging’ your male friend has ‘one,’ seeing ‘it,’ talking about ‘it,’ and even being too close ‘it,’   have  the potential to terrify.  It is not at all uncommon to see a row of school boys or students all sat in a chain as they have their backs scrubbed while scrubbing the back of the person in front. Between family members the towel is used  much more intimately and again, it is  very common to see parents and children mutually scrubbing each other’s entire body. This is not restricted to small children.  Mutual cleaning and the intimacy involved are an expression of the concept of ‘skinship.’

How often one should use the Italy Towel is a personal preference. If used frequently, the process can rub-away body hair – though I wouldn’t recommend this as a method of waxing. Some Koreans use it every few days, others once a week. Perhaps the best guide is simply whether or not you have a layer of skin which needs removing. I use a pumice stone on my feet regularly and if no skin is being removed I stop the process – this is perhaps the best guide to using the Italy Towel.

I have noticed that you can scrub yourself meticulously and regularly with the larger, less abrasive towel, the one usually provided free in all bathhouses, and that this does not remove dead skin with the effect of the Italy Towel. I was very surprised when after a period of not using an Italy Towel, a friend scrubbed my back and arms and then made a joke about how dirty I was. It is surprising what that little towel removes.

Unlike the larger cloth and towels for drying, the Italy Towel has to be purchased, costing about 1000 Won. I usually keep one for months at a time and have even seen the odd person use ones discarded in the used towel bin.

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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.