Elwood 5566

Interlude (5) and Suneung Countdown – 수능대박

Posted in Education, Interlude (Theme), Korean language, Uncategorized by 노강호 on November 15, 2010

D-Day Minus 3


Suneung Dae Pak (수능대박)

 

Dae-Pak (대박), means ‘awesome,’ ‘excellent,’ ‘jackpot,’ and so suneung dae-pak (수능대박) can be translated as ‘suneung jackpot,’ or, ‘have an awesome suneung.’ Of course, you still need the ‘fighting’ spirit. (화이팅!)

 

As someone permanently struggling with Korean these are my notes on words and phrases I find useful and which are usually not in a dictionary.  Any amendments, recommendations or errors, please let me know.

 

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Interlude (4) Su-neung 수능

Posted in Education, Interlude (Theme), Korean language by 노강호 on November 13, 2010

Su-neung

 

This word strikes trepidation into the heart of every Korean student, but most especially those who are third year high school students. The Su-neung exams take place every November, this year on Thursday 18th, and are the culmination of years and years of hard study – well for most students that is.

 

As someone permanently struggling with Korean these are my notes on words and phrases I find useful and which are usually not in a dictionary.  Any amendments, recommendations or errors then please let me know.

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A Day of Reckoning – 'Suneung' (수능)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on October 28, 2010

D Day countdown

As I write, across Korea thousands of third year high school students, known as ‘go-sam’ (고삼), will be religiously counting down the days. Some began the count  at ‘D  Day  minus 365,’ others, more traditionally, began at  ‘D Day minus 100.’ Today, is ‘D Day minus 21.’ And within the space in which I have written this post, in exactly three weeks time, the futures of thousands of teenagers will have been significantly determined.

‘D Day’ itself will present about 600.000 of the nation’s ‘go-sam’ students,  with one of,  if not the most, important experiences of their lives and certainly their most important exam. The suneung (수능) or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) is the Korean, standardized test taken by all final year high school students and although some alternatives are now offered, and more are supposedly on the way, for most students it is the sole qualification required for entry into Korean universities.

Of all the standardized tests globally, the suneung is seen as one of the most rigorous. The path towards that moment of academic reckoning begins in elementary school and every step in the development of academic ability from infant study onwards, is a preparation for the suneung.

 

a late arrival is given a police 'escort'

Taken on the second or third Thursday in November, the suneung temporarily transforms the face of Korea and on the day there is a sense that  the entire nation is backing the candidates. The transformations are a reflection of  the pivotal role education plays in society and despite the  professed importance other nations give to ‘education,’ in most, only a national catastrophe or war would be sufficient to suspend capitalism or national defence. In Korea education stops everything, back in Scumland UK, it stops nothing and I can remember sitting the equivalent of the suneung exam to the accompaniment of persistent rifle fire from the nearby military base.

 

The Korean equivalent of Room 101

The exams last one day and are divided into a number of periods during which exams are taken in subjects such as: maths, social studies, English, sciences, vocational studies and  foreign languages. The exams are largely multi choice. To guarantee candidates arrive in school armed with equipment, entry permits, a ‘fighting spirit’ and ready to do their best, a range of national procedures and contingencies come into effect:

♦All other students begin school after 9.am.

♦To help ensure transport system work to maximum efficiency, many businesses begin work at 10am. This includes the Stock Exchange! Yes, there’s only one Stock Exchange, it’s in Seoul and probably nowhere near a school,  but it’s the thought that counts. For a few moments the success of students is of more importance than the economy.

♦During the periods when listening test are being conducted, planes cannot land at airports and those waiting to land have to circle above 10.000 feet. Even air-force movements are curtailed, within reason, to ensure silence at the appropriate times.

♦Korea Electric Power Corps places 4000 workers on standby in the event of power failures and each examination center, of which there are about a 1000, is sent a technician to monitor power supplies and await any emergency.

♦Police assist on the roads approaching schools and are also on hand to transport students who’ve encountered problems. Nerves thwart the plans of the best intentioned candidates.

♦Since 1993, there has been no evidence of  suneung questions being leaked. In the days immediately  prior to D-Day, specially selected professors are imprisoned in a hotel, denied any form of contact with the outside world, the hotel windows blacked out, and equipped with a library of resources, they  formulate the exam questions. No doubt the hotel is 5 star, but nonetheless, they are kept in  solitary confinement  until the exams are officially over.

♦Schools are also supplied detectors with which to scan students for devices, hand-phones etc, which could be used to cheat.

♦Female teachers in high schools on the day of Suneung are not allowed to wear high heeled shoes or perfume.

 

'suneung exams transport support' provided by the military

 

Police support

Beyond official and bureaucratic procedures adopted to ensure both fairness and a conducive examination atmosphere, a host of other  practices have developed aimed to improve the chances of success. Eating anything sticky on or before ‘D Day’ is believed to enhance ones luck. Sticky things cling to the wall and do not fall and so by chewing on toffee (엿), or sticky rice cake (찰떡),  it is hoped you grades will hold fast and not slip into the gutter. Conversely, eating anything slimy, such as seaweed soup (미역 국) might incur bad luck and see your chances for the university of your choice slipping away. At the same time, one must avoided uttering any word expressing failure, falling, dropping, sinking, sliding or slipping.  The reason obvious; if it’s muttered, it might happen. Parents and relatives will travel to mountain temples to say prayers and leave slips of paper on which are written the names of loved candidates, or they will attend special services in churches where small Bibles can be purchased in which you stick a photo of your son or daughter, all in the hope of currying divine favour. I doubt many believe success or failure is determined by the consistency of ones food,  use of language or  even prayer but anything which can be used to bolster the spirit is a valid psychological  weapon in  the quest for exam success and highlights the desperate measure to which the importance of exam success drives individuals.

 

Parents praying for the exam success of their children. I did the same thing here with a friend's family in 2001.

 

messages of good luck at the start of the final 100 day countdown

 

'go-sam' students being greeted by their juniors on exam day

plenty of rousing support

supporters

On D-Day, parents will crowd around school gates, some will pray and other will hold their Buddhist bracelets in reverent anticipation.  Candidates are often greeted by 1st and 2nd grade students as they arrive. Colourful banners wishing students good luck are waved and sometimes juniors will perform the full bow at the feet of those about to be tested. It is also common for juniors to rally the spirits of  their stressed seniors by singing rousing songs before the exams commence. My last high school had almost 2000 students and it raised the hackles to hear 1200 boys singing in unison from all the classrooms under the 3rd floor, where the suneung candidates waited for their exams to commence.

 

Boys singing after the completion of exams

 

a mother prays at the school gates

The exam

And when the exams finish, all the text books and notebooks used by the students throughout the year are unceremoniously tossed from the go-sam windows, often on the 3rd floor.  Of course, the pressure isn’t off as from 6pm onwards, newspapers can publish exam questions and the agonizing process of  self assessment begins until the results are finally released. And of course, as with every exam in Korea, only those with perfect scores are allowed to feel any satisfaction and even this is down played.

 

legitimate vandalism

relieving stress

 

Finally!

Undoubtedly, Korea has one of the best educated populations globally and though we might want to qualify the nature of that ‘education,’ we cannot dispute their success in terms of literacy and the sciences. Objective subjects and languages are much easier to assess. When it comes to the arts and subjective thinking, Korea has problems but however flawed or misguided we might perceive the Korean education system, it has facets worthy of admiration and parts perhaps worthy of emulation. Coming from Scumland UK, where dumbing-down is fashionable, bone-idleness excused, and the fruits of study and erudition watered down into a melee where belly dancing becomes an academic pursuit which has parity with mathematics or physics,  it is  refreshing to work in a culture where  education has too much significance rather than little at all.

 

results

To all 2010 go-sam (고삼) students about to face the suneung, ‘fighting’ (화팅!)

For a selection of video clips giving a general idea of the various suneung activities

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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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Interlude (2) – 놀토 – ‘Play Saturday’

Posted in Interlude (Theme), Korean language by 노강호 on October 14, 2010

놀토 (nol-t’o)

Because Korean uses syllable blocks to build words, ‘syllable acronyms’ are a common means of putting words together to express ‘something.’  School children and students, for example, often use syllable acronyms’ to express ‘things’ to do with school. 놀토 fits this category and depending on your viewpoint, is either a colloquialism or slang. Usually such syllable acronyms are spoken rather than written.

놀토 simply puts together the stem of the verb  ‘play’ (다) and ‘Saturday’ (요일) and identifies the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month when Korean State schools are closed and students enjoy what is in effect, a long weekend.

Note – in March 2012, nol-to was abolished for Elementary and Middle School students. Now every Saturday is free. However, schools have increased the hours of the working week or in some cases shortened holidays.

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It Can Pay to be a Pygmy

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Entertainment, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on October 7, 2010

Not suitable for Pumpkin people

My Korean girl students love camp boys, other wise known as ‘flower boys.’ Camp is totally in and the poncier and more androgynous a boy or man is, the better – provided of course, he’s straight. If you dressed a frond of ooo-wong (우엉 – burdock) in fashionable clothes, gave it a nice haircut and sent it flouncing down the street all limp and bendy, girls would swoon.

‘Boys over Flowers;’  highly successful!

Jay Park (박재범) – Handsome or Pretty? Or even pretty handsome!

Boys over Flowers (꽃보다 남자) was a highly successful drama which ran in early 2009, was aired in numerous other Asian countries and has subsequently been identified with the migration of Korean culture to other countries, a phenomena known as the ‘Korean Wave’ (할류). The first ‘wave’ (2005-2009), often associated with Winter Sonata,’ consisted exclusively of drama which gradually gained a fan base outside Korea, predominantly in Asia. With the export package now including  pop music, theater and musicals, a second wave (dating from 2010), can be identified. As an example, the singer Jay Park created more traffic via Twitter, on March 8th, 2010, than did that day’s Oscar nominations. Coined by some as ‘Hallyu 2.0,’ the ‘2nd ‘wave’ has encompassed Egypt, Turkey, Romania,  India and even Uzbekistan. Interest in Korean has increased and a country as small as  Nepal now has 30.000 people a year  signing up for  Korean language proficiency tests.

Burdock, wu-weong (우엉) Limper than a lettuce!

The incredibly popular, ‘Boys over Flowers,’ which has among other things, helped lower the fan-base age associated with the ‘Korean Wave,’ consists  of 29 episodes following the intrigues of a group of  high school boys. The four central characters, often refereed to as ‘F4,’ have been attributed with consolidating the interest in ‘flower boys’ and encouraging men to take more pride in their appearance. As a result, significantly more Korean men now use cosmetics and the current trend for teenage boy fashion is what Americans might call ‘preppy.’

Boys over Flowers‘ (꽃보다 남자) was inspired by the Japanese bi-weekly manga comic, Hana Yori Dango, by Yokio Kamio and ran from 1992-2003.   The magazine was targeted at Japanese high school girls. I find the title, ‘Boys over Flowers,‘ a little clumsy and  feel ‘Boy’s before Flowers,’ a frequently used alternative, much clearer. The title is a pun on  the Japanese saying, ‘dumplings before flowers’, which refers to the habit of being more interested in eating snacks than viewing the cherry blossom during the famous Hanami festivals.  It is the snacks and  festival foods that  are the most alluring; the blossom simply provides an excuse to indulge.  And if you’re not eating the snacks, you’re probably watching the passing boys, especially if they are as beautiful as the blossom.

A Japanese hanami party. Beautiful blossom, beautiful boys, delicious food. What’s your priority?

‘Flower boys,’ basically meaning ‘pretty boys,’ is not in the least offensive and Korean youngsters, even boys, are able to differentiate between those who are ‘handsome’ and those who are ‘pretty.’ Neither identifying someone as ‘pretty’ or indeed being labeled ‘pretty,’ implies  any accusations of homosexuality or effeminacy.

A boy nominated by his class as a ‘pretty boy.’

‘Pretty boys’ have delicate features, soft skin, and are usually a  little gaunt and certainly very androgynous. In terms of western, and certainly British standards, they’d babyishly be deemed ‘gay’ and might even get the shit kicked out of them.  Korean ‘flower boys’ can also get a rough  ride, not because they’re gay, but because  of their pin-up status and ability to capture the hearts of girls and women.   One significant mystery-comedy movie, ‘Flower Boys,‘ often called by the crappy title, Attack of the Pin Up Boys’ (2007), centers on the theme of ‘flower boy bashing.’ There’s no pleasing thuggy straight men who will just as quickly bash you for being gay as they will for being heterosexual and a babe magnet.  Of course,  Attack of the Pin Up Boys is only a story and doesn’t reflect real life. From what I’m led to believe however, the biggest problem ‘flower boys’ face, is in convincing girlfriends they are not ‘playboys’ (바람둥이) because they are often too pretty for their own good.

Leetuk, one of the Super Junior celebrities. A possible candidate for a ‘pretty boy’ nomination.

Unlike many British girls, Korean girls tend to like a boy who is well-mannered, slim and  averagely muscled (which given we are talking predominantly about boys, means skinny), has broad shoulders, is fashionable and  intelligent. Neither do they have to have a six pack or look manly. Indeed, a few of my female students positively dislike both aggressive boys and muscles. But the most important quality of all, one which  constantly supersede all others, is that a boy has to be taller than his girlfriend. Girls can be quite cruel about this requirement and while talking to a class of girls about the celebrity Tae-Yang (태양), I overheard  one call him a ‘loser.’ The reason? He is under 180 cm tall. Basically, if you’re a boy and short your fucked!

Taeyang Big Bang member. ‘Handsome’ or ”pretty?’

Though they wouldn’t understand the word even if explained to them, the definition most reflecting the sort of boys Korean girls like, is camp! In the very words of one of my students,  ‘we’ like boys who ‘look like girls.’ And though ‘handsome’ boys, that is boys who look like men, are attractive and certainly seem to be preferable in terms of a solid relationship,  many girls will swoon in discussions about ‘pretty boys’ even if they prefer the ‘handsome’ type.

Back in Scumland UK, when it comes to boys, many girls have no taste at all often because their priority is a quick rummage in their panties or a passionate-less poking behind the bike sheds and hence prefer boys who are one step up from brute primates and who are valued for being aggressive, butch, sporty, loud mouthed and promiscuous. If British girls demand any prettiness, it is that their lads be, ‘pretty unintelligent.’ Yes, I’m being horribly unfair but in the UK, currently riddled with anti-intellectualism,  teenage pregnancy and sexual diseases, for many, any spark of brain is a turn off.   The reason why the Korean predilection with ‘flower boys’ is so refreshing is that it is a kick in the mouth to the belief that the alpha male is universally appealing. I would go as far as to suggest that in Korea, even the boys and men who look like men pail into effeminacy when compared to the shaven heads and brute physogs of the men that dominant and epitomize so much of British culture. Meanwhile, if you’re a Korean girl with the stature of a pygmy or dwarf, life’s gonna be one big ride!

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Ben (3) Korean Teenagers

Posted in Education, Gender, Korean children, Uncategorized by 노강호 on August 23, 2010
Kim Jun-hyoek (김준혁)

Ben on a low

Ben has been up and down lately. At the end of last term he was on a massive high after passing a string of exams with 100%. One evening, on the day he received the marks for his final set of exams, he was  delirious with happiness and once again bouncing around the school declaring how he felt. In the UK I’d have assumed he was on drugs because British kids often down play any trait of intelligence as it can alienate them. And then, several days later, he finally got his reward for his efforts  in the form of two small puppies. For the next week he constantly assaulted my boss and I by thrusting his hand-phone in our faces to show us the latest series of puppy pictures. His accompanying leitmotiv was ‘my puppies, my puppies,’ made all the more endearing by a mild speech impediment which renders, ‘puppies,’ ‘puppish.’

Once the joys of owning a couple of puppies had subsided however, he became markedly strange in class and seemed to flit between happy and almost depressed. Neither was he very responsive when you tried to draw him out of his mood or ask its cause. The cause was obvious and one we’ve encountered on a number of occasions. Ben’s class consisted of 6 girls and two boys and the other boy, Kyle, had left Daegu for the summer vacation to attend an intensive study school: the equivalent of an academic boot-camp. Hence the root of Ben’s mood swings was the fact he was the only boy in the class.  Cherie and I tried to ride the problem for a little while but soon he was begging  for us to make changes so he wouldn’t be alone.

In a Korean setting class dynamics can change drastically if someone is older or younger than the other students, or, in the case, is the wrong gender. Kids lively and confident one moment can be  passive and introvert the next if a shift in personalities disadvantages them.  Because peer groups are not so important for British children, such problems do not arise. British kids can easily accommodate  friends  or fellow classmates, older or younger than themselves and a gender divide is not as noticeable as it is in the Korean class room.

and on a high

Ben, who is 16, was disturbed enough at being the only boy in the class that despite his recent academic success, we feared we might loose him when suddenly, a new boy arrived who was ideal to place alongside him.  Instantly, he returned to his old self and re-assumed his role as the class comedian but if ever the other boy is absent, he can quickly relapse into a sullen state.  I’ve spent so much time slagging off teenagers in my other blogs, I’m consoled by the realization I don’t dislike teenagers, just the ones who are rotten and rotten teenagers in Korea are rare. Ben is what Koreans might call a ‘flower-boy,’ or identify as ‘pretty,’ neither term being derogatory, though he might well be when older. If anything, his body is built like a chopstick and he looks closer to twelve than sixteen, a point the girls in the class often tease him on, but both my boss and I would love him for a son. Reading other K-blogs, I know many teachers share a similar regard for the nature and personality of Korean children and teenagers.

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A Summer Snippet – Circumcision (포경 수술)

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on August 16, 2010

Circumcision (포경 수술)

If there is one subject rarely talked about in Korea, it is the subject of circumcision. I was actually quite surprised when I discovered that Korea has the highest percentage of secular circumcision in the world, outstripping the USA. Over the age of 18, Korean circumcision rates exceed 90 percent.

By the time boys go to high school, the majority of them will have been circumcised and the most common time to perform this is between 13-16 years of age and usually during the winter vacation.  Some boys are circumcised earlier and a fair number may delay having it done. I occasionally notice university students who are uncircumcised but it is safe to assume that by the time they go to military service, they will have undergone the procedure.

Occasionally, I will know a boy is either about to have a circumcision or has just had one. Sometimes they will tell you and at other times the pained manner in which they walk makes it obvious. On a few occasions the subject has cropped up in lessons but it is never discussed in front of girls. It’s not unusual for a boy to be in classes the day after his operation though some will take a few days off.  Unlike the UK and USA, where non-neonatal circumcision involves a general anesthetic and an overnight stay in hospital, in Korea, it is performed under local anesthetic. Neither are operations performed in hospitals, but clinics which are as prolific as dentists or doctors. There is a circumcision clinic (Urology Clinic) opposite E-mart in Song-So and within minutes of having been circumcised, you can enjoy a Big Mac in their McDonald’s.

‘Ouch’

Aesthetically, Korean circumcisions are much neater than those performed in some other countries. Traditional circumcision in the Philippines, for example, known as pagtutuli, shouldn’t even be classed as circumcision and in the USA, an additional operation known as frenulectomy (frenuplasty – of which their are various spellings), which as many as 33% of circumcised males have had, removes the highly erogenous frenulum. Parents are not asked for consent to perform this ‘bonus’ procedure and indeed many men are unaware what was removed.  While the subject of circumcision is controversial, frenulectomy slips by unnoticed and most parents are ignorant as to what is involved. In addition, American circumcision has a history of being the most radical. In Korea, frenulectomy is not conflated with circumcision and the type of procedure doesn’t remove as much foreskin as possible.

I underwent a circumcision in August 2001 at the clinic opposite E-Mart, in Song-So. I had been debating the idea for several years and finally decided to take the plunge as I had never been happy with my status, probably because as a boy most of my friends were circumcised. I quite amazed myself at the time as I had visited my doctors and arranged everything for Thursday, 16th of August. The arrangement took less than a minute and there was no asking why I wanted it doing. My doctor simply made a phone call and booked me in. The operation would cost 100.000W (about £50), would take twenty minutes to perform and would be carried out in the same building as my doctor’s surgery.

A suitable totem pole near Kayasan

August 16th, 2001. I had to teach on the Thursday morning and though not as hot as a few weeks previously, it was terribly humid. In my classes, many of which had no air conditioning, my shirt was soaked with sweat. I had already perceived that I wouldn’t be in any fit mental state to teach and so had run-off some word puzzles for the kids. When my classes finished, I  frantically smoked a couples of fags on the back stairwell and paced up and down. I didn’t really want to leave school and there was an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but eventually everyone wished me luck and I took a taxi home.

I showered and then gave my friend David (이영순) a call. He arrived a few moments later as he had been waiting at the PC Bang, next door. I don’t think I had ever been so nervous, so much so my hands were trembling. Out on the street, we took a taxi and went straight to the clinic. I was early, so we went to the third floor of the building where I had a brief chat and cup of coffee with my doctor. Then, at 1.59 pm, he said, ‘Oh, Nick, it is time.’ And telling me not to worry, I walked down the stairs to the urology clinic. None of the doctors there spoke very good English so David sat in the clinic office with me and asked the surgeon the list of questions I had compiled:

“What happens if I get a hard-on during the operation?”  He laughed and said that wouldn’t happen. What sort of stitches would be used – dissolving or non-dissolving?” I was given a choice and told non-dissolving left less of a scar. “What happens if I get an erection over the next few days?” I was told to stick a cotton bud in my ear or stick my feet in icy water. “’When could I shower next?” Next week!

I was then taken into the operating room which was small and not unlike a dentist’s surgery.  In the center stood that ominous table. Dropping my trousers and boxers I lay down and wondered what the fuck I had let myself in for.

Everything everyone had told me worked out the opposite. David had told me to expect two injections (later it became four) well, I was given eight and they stung. I covered my eyes and ears for the whole operation as there was a radio playing shit Korean music and the three surgeons kept fucking singing along to it. David had told me that sometimes you hear the scissors snicking away and I did, even the radio or the surgeons’ singing didn’t drown it so I had to jam my thumbs in my ears. Then the overhead light was so bright I had to cover my eyes. Several people had said the operation would take around twenty minutes, in fact it took forty. Then, all apart from Pak Ji-won (박지원),  one of my older students, I had been told it wouldn’t hurt. It did! But not at first. Shortly after the snicking sounds finished, I smelt something cooking; I reckon they had either cauterized an artery or one of them was starting a barbecue. It was like my entire senses were being assaulted: the bright light, the noraebang Nahuna rendition and that strange, almost acidic  barbecue smell that lingered.  I had to stretch my fingers so I could pinch my nose shut, bung my ears and cover my eyes to blot everything out.

I think I lay like that for twenty minutes and eventually, felt a numb change in what was happening. I thought they were finishing but next followed a sort of slicing sensation which was very unpleasant because although it wasn’t painful, it felt actually felt like something was being sliced. David  had told me to expect eight stitches. The following  morning I counted 36.   At one point  during the procedure I told them it hurt but they ignored me and just carried on singing along to the radio.

Finally, the pain stopped and I could sense I was being mopped up. I took my clammy hands off my face and sighed. Then I was able to sit up and pull my trousers up. The surgeons, lined up, smiled and bowed. Out in the corridor David was sat reading. I did a little dance for him as I didn’t hurt at all, probably because my system was zinging with adrenalin. Then, we walked over to E-Matt and bought a McDonald’s which we walked home with. Was I hungry!

A common place to see boys hobbling. 미래 Urology Clinic opposite Song-So E-Mart.

The clinic has given me a list of after-care procedures which David had translated into English whilst I was being operated on. It listed things like not drinking for a week because of the antibiotics, not showering for a week, resting for a few days, etc, etc. At the bottom of the list was an amendment  in David’s handwriting, it read….

6. And you must endure not to have a wang! (Wank).

I didn’t hurt at all but throughout the evening, waited for the drugs to wear off and enter what someone had predicted would be, a ‘new world of pain.’ When my roommates arrived home we went out with them to a nearby restaurant. I wasn’t hobbling at all. Strangely, during the night I was worried more by the fact I didn’t hurt. And you wouldn’t believe how effective cotton buds in the ear are at killing an erection. One of the doctor’s had explained that poking a cotton bug in you ear-hole interrupts signals from your dick to brain and terminates any boner.

Friday 17th of August, 2001. In the morning, I was quite worried because it looked very ill. I wondered whether the bandage was too tight. I phoned David but couldn’t get hold of him so, at 8.45 am, I took a taxi to the clinic only to find it didn’t open until 9.30. So I waited in my doctor’s office on the third floor of the building. He sat me down, gave me a cup of coffee, talked to me and soon it was 9.30 am.

Back on the slab, I was checked-out but they didn’t think anything was wrong. Back in the reception area my doctor was waiting for me as he can speak fairly good English. There were three patients sitting behind me, two young women behind the receptionist’s desk, and four surgeons around me. Ten Koreans in all! Everyone was centered on our conversation – which of course, was about my dick!

As I leave, all the staff smile and bow deeply. My doctor invited me up to his surgery for breakfast and there I am introduced to his mother. We ate fruit and sat talking for about two hours and as I was leaving he invited me out to dinner. At the time, my doctor had just moved into the premises and had few patients, today I have to sit in the waiting room for an hour before I can see him.

Saturday August 18th, 2001. Very irritating because the stitches are made from something resembling nylon – like the material used for a toothbrush.

Although not sore, it is uncomfortable walking any distance so I have spent a considerable time lying down under the fan. Most Koreans get circumcised in winter and I would imagine the possibility of infection is higher in a humid climate so I lie under the fan as much as possible. I have been used to showering over 5 times a day and it is very uncomfortable not being able to do so. Showering is not just a hygienic necessity but a hobby and something I do to kill time.

Tuesday 21st of August 2001. Pak Jun-hee (박준희) has been bringing me lunch for the last couple of afternoons. His mandu and kimchi, made by his wife, Sun-hee, in their restaurant, are definitely the best in Song-So. Today, he asked if he could see ‘the results!’ Yes, I was rather shocked because in the UK no one would ask that. It was a strange situation because between us on the table, were the steaming mandu.  Koreans! I love them!

My ‘go-ch’u chin-gu’ of 10 years, Pak Jun-hi and his wife, Sun-hee

Thursday 23rd of August, 2001. My antibiotics and pain killers ran out today and I’ was sore, so much so I had to go and buy some. In the afternoon, I went out to the cinema with Ji-won (박지원, his father is Jun-he). His English has improved so much since I started teaching him back in November. He told me he would be really sad when I left and that he would never forget me. It was all rather poignant. We walked around the Milano area for a while and had pat-ping-soo in a Sweet Water cafe which is just  so tacky it’s unbelievable. It was decorated in pinks and had Barbie dolls and Miss Kitty paraphernalia all over the place. After, we had a burger in Lotteria and then took the bus home  which was painful as the bumpy journey was over the construction area of what is now Daegu Subway system.

Saturday 25th of August, 2001. Saturday and I’m still in pain so I headed back to the clinic with David. My God! What a hideous experience, so hideous I don’t think I can actually do it justice in writing. It’s like I’ve been to a place of pain that I never want to experience again. I went back onto the couch where they decided to remove the stitches and it felt I was being assaulted with a pair of pliers.  I cannot describe how excruciatingly painful it was and I wished they had been singing or cooking a barbecue, anything to take my mind off they pain. At one point, when I flinched, one of them told me off.  When I eventually walked out of the small surgery, and David saw me, me he thought I had soaked my head in water and my hands were shaking badly. However, it was much easier walking without those infernal barbed-wire bonds.

‘Go-ch’u chin-gu,’ David (이영선)

Thursday August 30th, 2001. Life is almost back to normal. On Thursday afternoon I did some of my jobs – paid some bills, went to see Mr Pak at the post office and then we spent the afternoon in the Han Song Plaza bathhouse. With school having just started, the place was empty.

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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Korean Teenagers' Wacky World of 'Vacation' Fashions

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on July 20, 2010

Just when you thought you knew the kids in your classes they turn up with hair dyed red, or sporting the poodle perm. It’s especially worse with the girls as an adult hair style forces you to acknowledge the fact they are young women and not the kids that they’ve appeared as all year. Yes, the summer ‘vacations’ have arrived and through the blurry haze of humidity and the incessant chirping of the memi,  a weird wackiness prevails.

Vacation hair fashion

The perms, if that’s what you call them, as I’m not au fait with the methods of metamorphosis used by women, are heavily discounted over the school ‘vacations’ and cost as little as 20.000 W (£10).  This year, common trends seem to involve tinting the hair with a touch of burgundy, a summer fashion common with boys as well as girls and of course, the perm, which has been popular for several years. While boys may grow their hair longer, or at least as long as you can grow it in around 40 days ‘vacation,’ girls often paint their nails in quite adventurous and beautiful ways. Along with the various hair styles is a concurrent rise is temporary tattoos. Most of these tend to depict fantasy book characters though unicorns seem to be particularly fashionable on younger girls. Blurred and blotchy tattoos declaring filial devotion to ‘Mum and Dad,’  or the British Bulldog, are as non-existent in Korea as tattoos in Chinese characters declaring the wearer to be ‘female’ (女), this being a frequently observed ‘fashion’ in the UK.  And to accompany ‘grown-up hair styles a little leniency is given to earrings, rings and other forms of jewelery bar anything which pierces or punctures the face or drives studs through noses or tongues. The great thing about Korean kiddy vacation fashions is that they are temporary and as such have to wash-off, wash-out, come-off, cut-off or un-clip, which is the destiny they all face once the new term is looming. For kids it provides a period of self-expression and/or momentary madness which helps wash away the stresses and strains of the past academic year.

Vacation fashion - the shaggy perm

A little re-touch needed

I find the perms particularly unattractive. Korean hair, especially on youngsters, is wonderfully beautiful, full of lustre , body and that typically black-blue, black. The perm bakes and frizzles the life out of hair and the ensuing curls and kinks  undermine rather than enhance the original appeal. Of course, I’m missing the point! ‘Vacation’ fashions are a symbol of freedom which I understand is  precious especially as  kids don’t  really have a vacation. Only in Korea can you have a ‘vacation’ that isn’t really a vacation but not to worry, you can perm your hair and mutate into a spaniel look-a-like for your ‘vacation’ classes and summer school!  Unfortunately, if your destined for a ‘vacation’ boot-camp you’re buggered! Personally, in the muggy sweat of summer the only comfortable hairdo is a number 4 buzz with a pair of hair clippers.

Love those locks!

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Laura – Korean Teenagers (2)

Posted in Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on June 29, 2010

It’s the exam season and the atmosphere in school and even on the street is down. I don’t particularly like this time of year as it disrupts classes and makes planning an impossibility. In classes some students are so tired that effective teaching isn’t possible and you really notice the mood of students, some ride it fairly well and others are up and down and unpredictable. And all the kids are tested, from the youngest right through to high school students.

I haven’t seen too much of Laura lately but unlike Ben, she is usually fairly consistent in her temperament and always has a smile. This week, after asking me to comment on her latest perfume (which is actually her mother’s), she coyly tells me she has a boyfriend, and…. that he has kissed her!  That it was only on her cheek doesn’t dampen her happiness. She takes out her mobile phone and proudly shows me the album she has created featuring him. In one photo, she excitedly explains he’d just had a shower and his hair, still wet, was sticking up. She is so excited at the captured image, which she describes as ‘cute,’ that she blushes and her eyes actually flutter.

Saturday was a ‘play Saturday’ (놀토) which of course, at this time of year, it’s not as any free time is used for studying. I met Laura on the street on Friday evening, as I was going home. She was going to a ‘reading room’  which are  ‘libraries’ solely for study and which, like the PC rooms, are constantly open. When I asked what time she would go home she told me 2 am. Most perverse of all is she’s smiling as she tells me. ‘And what will you do tomorrow?’ I ask. ‘Study,’ she replies laughing. Korean innocence!

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