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)

Giving Summer the Finger

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on September 3, 2010

Goodbye to all that!

The summer holidays finished last week and one of my students notes in his diary.’This week school finished and we had to change our hair and faces.’ Gone are the ‘poodle perms‘ the vibrantly painted finger nails, ear-rings, temporary tattoos, and dyed hair. Unlike many western countries where teachers battle with hair styles and make up, in Korea it’s all removed before the term starts. Of course, Koreans will tell you the same battle ensues in their schools but they are skirmishes in comparison.  I’ve taught one boy who was forced to run 10 times around the sandy ‘parade ground’ in only his boxers because his trousers legs were too narrow, and a beating because your hair is a centimeter too long isn’t uncommon.  And the ‘budgerigar club’ that exists in every British secondary school (ages 12-16), little cliques of girls who sit for hours on end brushing each others hair, moronically starring in mirrors and slapping on cheap make-up like little Jezebels, all during lessons, is in its infancy.

Painted nails

A little re-touch needed

The irony, of course, is that school never really finished and the vacation that was, was never really a vacation. One of my students spent the entire summer at a cram but claimed he loved it. Packing your son or daughter off for the entire summer isn’t what I’d do if I was a parent.  Another boy spent two weeks in a military boot camp,  ‘thanks, mum!” Another three students, siblings, spent the entire summer in an English school in the Philippines but their English is no better than when they left. So, with summer drawing to a close it’s back to the study routine, constant tests, the after school classes and reading rooms and don’t forget piano lessons and taekwon-do! As for the poor the third year, high school students (고삼), they have the biggest exam  (수능) of their lives looming. An exam which will not only determine their academic future but very possibly the background of their future partner as well as their occupation. DD (‘D’ Day), and that’s exactly how Koreans identify it, is 76 days away and every third year student will be counting. Their vacation was great! They didn’t have one!

 

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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.