Elwood 5566

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

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

Vacation fashion – the shaggy perm

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

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

the alleyways around my one-room

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

a myriad of hidden recesses

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

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

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

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

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

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

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

Senior Green Belt Grading – March 10th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in customs, taekwondo by 노강호 on March 10, 2001

In Di Dim Dol last week I passed one of Young-seop’s (영섭) classes. The door was open and he was stood out in the corridor. Inside, the entire class of fifteen year olds were sat meditating. Young-seop told me that by seven in the evening many of his students were exhausted and meditating cleared their minds and prepared them to focus on the lesson. When the older students come into the school there are teenagers in every classroom, very often they sit with their heads on the desk taking a short sleep before their lessons begin. They have quite a funny way of doing this probably as the result of years of practice. They usually sit with their arms hanging loosely at their sides and their head on the table.

'filial piety' - an important Confucian value

The spring holiday has just finished and Ji-won tells me that for the next two years he will be in school from 7am until 9pm and I have noticed that there are now taekwon do classes for high school students who have to adopt these hours. While Korean kids seem brighter than their English counterparts, I don’t think they are proportionally better and I am critical of the Korean education system which put youngsters under so much pressure. Most Koreans lack creativity and their education seems to consist of a lot of rote learning. It seems that social control in Korea is exerted through education and employment. A lot of effort in the west is put into moaning about children who do sweat shop labour or are poorly paid  in third world countries and yet  Korean teenagers find themselves imprisoned in their schools.

During the spring vacation,  many boys are visible hobbling on the streets after being circumcised (포경 수술) . You see them hobbling along as if they have just spent several days in the saddle of a horse. I noticed one boy in KFC who was obviously  in a lot of discomfort and who kept having to stand up to adjust his underwear.

I bumped into Ji-won last week, he was walking down the road, arm in arm with his mum, Sun-hee. There seems to be much less evidence of a generation gap between teenagers and their parents than is apparent in the west. Several times he has told me he wants to do something his father has recommend, and the reason he gives for this is that his ‘father knows best.’ When it was raining last week, the seventh shower in almost 5 months, a boy accompanied me home under the protection of his umbrella. He had seen me go into a shop without a brolly and waited for me to reappear. He then walked me under his umbrella which as in the opposite direction to his apartment – how nice!

I had a sore shoulder last week and visited a Korean osteopath. They treated my shoulder with some form of electric shock treatment. I wasn’t very impressed but I was given the most amazing head massage. It was so relaxing and weird as it didn’t feel like I had hands on my head at all. It was quite indescribable and I think I will have to go back for another one.

I had my taekwon do grading this week and managed to jump several belts so I now have my senior green belt which is dark green. I was the first person to be called up as I was still the class junior. I had been told I was to perform the patterns, Taegeuk Il Jang (태극 一 장) and Taegeuk I Jang (태극 二 장) and so I had stopped practising the third pattern, Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三 장). Anyway, the moment I was on the mat, with thirty or so Korean students sat behind me, Mr Bae asked me to perform my two patterns and then asked if I could perform the third, Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三  장). Confused, and not understanding him, I said I couldn’t and so sat back down. I later discovered I’d been given my first green belt. The grading continued with the black belts, which is a large number of the class, going through patterns or performing with sticks or nunchaku. The following day I had someone write a letter for me explaining that I could perform Taegeuk Sam Jang (태극 三 장) and so that afternoon he asked me to perform it and immediately gave me my senior green belt.

I usually go to the taekwon do school early so I can warm-up and do some bag work. I have discovered there is a class where boys aged between 11 and 14 do dance routines to Korean pop music – affectionately known as k-pop. It is really amazing to watch as it is all choreographed and well rehearsed. I had a job telling my instructors that in the west such a class, despite the fact most of the boys were red or black belts would be seen as effeminate and ‘gay.’

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.