Friday, December 16, 2011

Some brief observations on African music.

"Makes you want to dance, isn't it?"
Prologue:  I feel sorry for those travellers who are not affected by the music surrounding them on their travels. Either it means they aren’t very attentive or as travelers—just plain indifferent. I’ve met many travellers who have been affected by the physical geography of a place and its peoples but not by the music. Maybe you want that bubble of indifference to separate you from the other or maybe you are intolerant. If it’s the latter then you have missed out on a rather integral part of the culture you are supposed to be encountering—you are more to be pitied than blamed. If your reason for travelling is to “experience the other” then why not do so? I fear that the globalization of travelling is making us too similar in some ways and the specific cultural identifiers that once separated us into unique ethnicities are being eroded at an alarming rate in our modern world.

For me, music was the curiosity that killed the cat, the more I entered the world of African music the more I wanted to know about it—it is intoxicating and it is all part of the “African experience”. Okay I’ll get off my soapbox now and leave the preaching for another day.

One of these cultural identifiers that separate us into distinctive entities is music. Music is an expression of the African soul and part of its cultural identity—it embodies what being an African is and, more importantly, provides a cultural, if not linguistic link to an individuals ‘homeland’. In that respect, a Luo in Kenya without his or her music would be akin to a death sentence. The same could easily hold true for any African whether they are Congolese, Zulu, Sudanese, Wassalou, Yoruba, Ethiopian, or Nubian and so on. The music not only separates cultures by their individual language but also their customs and traditional musical instruments of which there is a plethora of regional differences. For instance, the thumb piano or mbira is an essential instrument in much of Zimbabwe’s chimurenga and jit music. The guitar style of the Congolese Lingala rhythm as played by maestro Diblo Dibala is particular to the DRC (Zaire) but that style has influenced many groups from Kass Kass to as far away as Samba Mapangula & his band Virungu in Kenya.

At no time, do I pretend to be the expert on African music but I have grown to appreciate some of the finer intricacies of African sounds and their polyrhythms. Because of my love of African music, I have collected a number of cassettes, albums and CDs over the years. I have mentioned just a few of them in this article. This is by no means and in-depth study just a taste. Should you wish to pursue this subject further I would be more than happy to provide any additional information? I must thank Brian Rose for his help over the years in tracking down some of these CDs when he was “the old disc jockey” at CKUA.  In order to fully appreciate this article I implore you to check out some of the tracks I mentioned in this story on You Tube. In writing this up, I have been listening to my various playlists on You Tube and between typing and clapping to the music; I just hope I have done the music and writing justice. If only I could dance and type at the same...

There were many sojourns to Africa during the 1980s for me and each trip was unique and each one had a different set of theme songs that accompanied my travels. Because my peregrinations usually began and terminated in Kenya, the capital city of Nairobi was where music started to percolate and saturate my soul. In 1982, I was a big fan of ‘roots reggae’ music of Jamaica and reggae had a pronounced impact on Kenya, especially while being played at high volumes in the mini-vans or matatus that piled their trade up and down the eastern Kenyan littoral. In particular, the small Islamic town of Lamu, referred to as “the Katmandu of Africa” in the Lonely Planet guide was in the throes of becoming a hippy backpacker’s haven and a Rastafarian backwater of East Africa. Many of the local ‘dhow boys’, as they were called, had taken the Rastafarian cult of Jamaica to heart along with its inherent reggae music and being cool just smoking the local dope called dagga. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear the skanky riddims and the nasty dread beats of Robert Nesta Marley or Burning Spear booming through some dilapidated speakers at Bush Garden’s shake shop. After all this was a ‘local hangout’ for the groovy people and you could slurp on tasty tropical fruit milkshakes whilst enjoying a gentle breeze that kept the mosquitoes at bay. Hippy Europeans and scantily clad Israeli gals were also checking out the groovy “dhow boys” and vice versa for a little brown sugar.

The 80s were heady and hedonistic times and this was when AIDS was starting to rear its ugly head on the African continent. To show their solidarity for their Caribbean brothers, many of the ‘dhow boys’ had coifed their hair in the dread-lock fashion associated with the Rastafarian movement of distant Jamaica. Outside of the east coast of Kenya, you would be hard-pressed to find any other African contemplating having dreadlocks as most Africans are quite conservative and I know for a fact, that regardless of gender and age, the wearing of dreads is not tolerated in schools or in businesses. The ‘dhow boys’ of Lamu and their newfound persona would not be complete without some of the lads adopting ‘Rasta’ and other groovy names, i.e. Livingstone Rasta, Rasta Banana, Captain Majik et al. In 1984, the reggae sounds of West Africa’s Rasta Alpha Blondy had made inroads into Kenya and most clubs, taxis, matatus and tourist hangouts in Lamu were playing his music. (Check out his 1985 album “Apartheid is Nazism” on You Tube.)

Moreover, I can chronicle each trip I’ve taken through Africa by the type of music that influenced me at that time I was travelling through the continent. It’s a musical benchmark if nothing else. And to play the music back in Canada, or many years later, evokes many memories and it is like reliving parts of the journey all over again. The years, 1982 -1983 saw the emergence of one of the better South African groups that quickly gained notoriety world wide in the captivating rhythms of Johnny Clegg and Jaluka in their fourth album— The “Scatterlings of Africa”. For me, apart from the earlier “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” hit, the music of Clegg and Jaluka was the first time that most North Americans had any real exposure to the infectious South African music. The track, “I’m sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro” soon became a radio and club favourite. (Check out “Scatterlings of Africa” and “Sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro” on You Tube.)  

In 1983, I read a music review article in Mother Jones which plugged for Malcolm McLaren’s new offering called “Duck Rock”. I had no idea who he was or what type of music he produced but the review mentioned that McLaren was sampling various music sources from South Africa. Check out the track to the right called "Double Dutch" which has the real "township jive" sound, tricky guitar and the Mahotella Queens singing backup and the Mahlathini groaning away. Initially, McLaren didn’t credit his South African sources that were unknown to the rest of the music world at the time. He famously borrowed the style of music from the Boyoyo Boys of Zimbabwe called jit and McLaren also sampled the mbqanqa music style of legendary South African groaner Mahlathini and his backup group the Mahotella Queens. I was particularly impressed by McLaren’s track “Soweto” with its intricate, yet haunting South African style of guitar picking. There is also the fiddle playing which is typical of a lot of  Township Jive music. (Check out McLaren’s tracks “Soweto” and “Buffalo Girls” on You Tube). As a result, this was a starting point for me to find out more about the music of southern African and the following year I went back to Africa to investigate this further.

Whether you are in Equatorial Africa or as far south as Botswana, one can always hear the Congolese hip-shaking rhythms and type of music called Lingala. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear familiar tunes of Zaire’s Franco or Tabu Ley & TPOK Orchestra playing Lingala music in Hallian’s Night Club or Florida 2000 club in Nairobi, or down on the coast at the Castle Hotel in Mombasa. Speaking of sweet sounds of Franco reminds me that I first heard his big hit song “Oh, Mario” in a smoky, crowded bar in Gaborone, Botswana in 1986. On this trip, I carried my beast of a cassette recorder, the Sony Walkman Pro, because it made decent bootleg recordings. I smuggled it into the bar with my travelling friend Klaus in the hopes of securing some live music—there wasn’t any but a gyrating disco. At any rate, whilst Klaus was chatting up his ‘girlfriends’ I was busy trying to make a recording. I just caught the tale end of a Lingala song which Klaus assured me was “one of the most famous songs on the continent”. As soon as it had started, everyone who had been sitting got up at once to dance; even two old spinsters who were sitting by themselves took to the floor—“Makes you want to dance, isn’t it?” 
I hadn’t a clue what song it was but liked it and everyone seemed to be moving their hips to it especially the ‘bump and grind’ of the Botswana gals from the Kalahari typing school. I had forgotten this song and had stored it in my mental library of ‘unknown African songs’. That was until 2000 when I was in a cheesy music store in Nairobi just around the corner from the Thorn Tree Café at the New Stanley Hotel. As I walked in, the Lingala sounds hit me and I knew this was the elusive hit I had been searching for since 1986 and I bought the cheap knock off cassette with the hit “Oh Mario” on it. Klaus had been right all those years before in that smoky Gabarone bar and I subsequently read that “Oh Mario” is one of the top five all time hits of African music ever—according to a BBC poll of African music. 

The year 1985 was a sort of coming out party for South African music, with the Shanachie label producing the best collection of contemporary South African artists in their 1985 album called “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto”. This album featured among other artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens. This album pre-dated Paul Simon’s “Graceland ” by a year and some claim that the South African music weighed heavily on his own album.[1]

Another album that flew under the music world’s radar was a brilliant mélange of African sounds by the former drummer of the UK rock group—The Police. Stewart Copeland produced both a video and album of his musical travels in East Africa and collaboration with Congolese singer Ray Lema in “The Rhythmatist”. Nevertheless, Copeland’s seminal album featured the mixing of traditional sounds of Masaai, Giriama, Samburu, Kamba tribes of Kenya and the Aka Pygmies of the Congo with his own percussive works and accompanying ambient Africa sounds. I have just viewed “The Rhythmatist” video for the first time and it is a brilliant piece of cultural anthropology. 
Mark Holmes had told me about the video version of the album back in 1987 but I never believed him.  Copeland crafted a masterpiece “under the brutal African sky “ that the great ambient maestro Brian Eno would have envied. (Check out the four part video or separate tracks from the album called “Oh Bolilla” and “Liberte” on You Tube but make sure you get the cuts that have the black album cover with Stewart Copeland on them as their sound is better). BTW, part of the track for “Oh Bolilla” was filmed on the island of Lamu!

The following year, 1986 was also the time when Paul Simon’s collaborative album “Graceland” came out with a thunderous success worldwide. “Graceland” was #1 on the UK music charts and received Album of the Year Grammy award. On my African sojourns, I often stayed with an old kibbutznik friend, Mark Burns who was studying at Oxford Polytechnic at the time. Mark was a trumpet player and had a keen ear and was a budding aficionado of African jazz music, in particular Fela Kuti.[2] We both guffawed at an article in a recent London Time-Out magazine that proclaimed how Paul Simon had ‘discovered African music’ in his “Graceland” album. What annoyed me more than anything was the fact that the cover of the album was a copy of a parchment manuscript from an Ethiopian Coptic biblical text—it had nothing to do with the South African flavour of the music he had hijacked?

Ah well, it was also a time when the rest of the world was just beginning to discover what Southern Africans had known for a long time—their music was infectious and moving. The Zulu male choir called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been around for ages, but they really only came to prominence because of their exposure from Simon’s “Graceland” tour and their famous song—“Homeless”. Their style of music is a cappella or in their mother tongue Zulu called isicathamiya. What’s even more remarkable about Ladysmith Black Mambazo and many of the Zulu choirs is the fact that many of them have had no formal voice training. (Check out the “Graceland” concert from Zimbabwe on You Tube)  

On a bus trip in 1986 from Johannesburg to Swaziland, I became acquainted with some of the new music emanating out of South Africa in the likes of Ray Phiri and his band Stimela plus the Zulu Holy Spirits Choir. (Check out Ray Phiri and Stimela’s “Whispers in the Deep” track on You Tube). 

It seemed that the South African bus only played these two cassettes so there was no way of avoiding it and I quite enjoyed the driver playing them endlessly on my Non-European bus trip from Joburg to Swaziland. At that time, most people didn’t know who Ray Phiri was but he was also the lead guitarist on Simon’s “Graceland” album and played on the subsequent world tour. (You can see Phiri playing guitar and doing back-up vocals to Simon on the ‘Graceland tour’ on You Tube).

During the same trip in 1986, once I left South Africa and ventured north of the Limpopo River, I became acquainted with the music of the “Lion of Zimbabwe” the former resistance singer Thomas Mapfumo’s and his band The Blacks Unlimited. I particularly liked the “Mr. Music” cassette but have enjoyed all his other albums especially the controversial one in 1988 called “Corruption”. In the track “Congress”, Mapfumo introduced horns along with trademark plucky guitar style. (Check out “Congress” or “Nyoka Musango” on You Tube)

I was smitten forever by the hypnotic, yet plucky sounds of the electrified thumb piano or mbira. The mbira was the traditional instrument played in Zimbabwe and basically it is a set of six or seven hammered steel tongs that were jammed under a fret board over top of a soundboard. When plucked, the tongs resonated through an opening in the sound board and was aided by a row of fixed discarded bottle caps which gave it its rattle and rhythm. Mapfumo incorporated the mbira in his music in its original form mounted inside a gourd and amplified. His guitarist, at the time, Jonah Sithole could also emulate the sound on his electric guitar. (Check out the tracks “Moyo Wangu” or “Marehwarewa” on You Tube to hear this style.)

 The style of music that Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited played was called Chimurenga—“We call this chimurenga music. The word means struggle and in my songs I speak against oppression and try to give voice to the people who cannot speak for themselves.” The ‘struggle’ he was referring to was the ‘resistance battle’ or Rhodesian Bush War against the white–led minority government of Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith. Smitty and the Rhodesians didn’t allow Mapfumo to sing in his native Shona language, so he went underground and through his music, implored young African men to join in the ‘struggle for independence’. In 1979, Mapfumo was eventually caught and imprisoned without charges by Smith’s regime for his revolutionary songs. His incarceration was overturned and he was released after spending just three months in Smith’s jails. I had the pleasure to see Mapfumo and the Black’s Unlimited live in 1986 at the legendary, if not dangerous Queen’s Hotel in Harare and lived to tell the tale but that is another story which is in my "Africa Quartet" series. (Listen to the track “Congress” on You Tube to get a feel for his music from my favourite album—“Mr. Music” where he incorporated horns and tricky guitar playing into his sound).
Soon after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mapfumo became disillusioned with Comrade Mugabe’s cronyism and bankrupting of the former vibrant Zimbabwe economy. Mapfumo started to write songs about the growing corruption within Zimbabwe. During a later trip through Zimbabwe in 1989, Mapfumo and his Blacks Unlimited gained notoriety and the ire of Mugabe with their hit album—“Corruption”. (For some strange reason, the lead track “Corruption” is not available on You Tube and I wish someone would put it on).  Consequently, Mapfumo fell out of favour with fellow Shona big-man Prime Minister Mugabe and in the late 1990s; Mapfumo left Zimbabwe and went into exile in Oregon (of all places) for his own safety. [3]

During our 1989 trip through Kenya, my travelling companion Janine and I became enchanted with the Lingala beats of Congo’s favourite threesome—Kass Kass. The Kenyan taxi and matatu drivers were playing the Kass Tout cassette non-stop so I wanted to buy a copy. 
Naturally, the cassette was not available in Kenya and I would have to wait until I got back to London and found a copy at Stern’s Music Store.  I still have the cassette and quite often play it from time to time. Bon chance trying to find a CD of this cassette—believe me I’ve looked on line. (You can find some of Kass Kass tracks on You Tube and one of my favourites is “Mounga Nga).

Later on this trip and further south in Zimbabwe, we had the pleasure of attending an outdoor pungwe outside of Harare. The pungwe was a carry over from the ‘days of resistance’ and was actually a banned political meeting for the ZANLA/ZAPU freedom fighters. In independent Zimbabwe, a pungwe was an all-day music affair starting in the afternoon and running into the wee hours of the following day. From time to time throughout the day, various musicians from The Blacks Unlimited came on stage to play a few tunes then retire with Mapfumo coming on in dribs and drabs to sing the occasional song. Naturally there was a lot of chibuku or sorghum drink imbibed between mouthfuls of spicy tough corn cobs and plates of steaming mealie—all staples in Zimbabwe. Later on in the evening, after the crowds had swollen, Mapfumo and band brought the house down with the cover tune of the then famous song “Corruption”. I managed to record the event after getting approval from Mapfumo’s nervous European manager despite his earlier protestations.

During travels through Zimbabwe, there are many artists who were quite good but I will give special mention for two: Robson Banda and his New Black Eagles, and Paul Matavire of the Jairos Jiri Band. In 1986, I made a recording off the Zim 4 radio station of various hits and in particular the driving rhythms of the jit genre of music. The local announcer described lead singer Paul Matavire as “the blind but very talented”. Later on, I found out that Matavire had been the lead singer in the Jairos Jiri Band from Bulawayo. (Check out Paul Matavire’s track on You Tube called “Chando Chinouraya”). 

If you are serious about Zimbabwe music and want a collection of various artists then I would recommend any of the following:  “Viva Zimbabwe” (1983), “Take cover” (1985), “Goodbye Sandra” (1987) “Zimbabwe Frontline” (1989) and “Spirit of the Eagle” (1990).  In 1988, Robson Banda and his group gained notoriety with the very popular song “Soweto” which was played everywhere in Zimbabwe.  Janine and I managed to see Banda and his band live at the infamous Queen’s Hotel in Harare. I was able to buy the cassette in Harare and unfortunately gave it to Mr. Steven’s to play at his rest house at Cape Maclear in Malawi. He enjoyed it so much that he played it non-stop and I didn’t have the heart to take it back and besides, I thought I would always get a copy later on. Oddly enough, I would have to wait 22 years to hear this track “Soweto” when I found it on You Tube last year. (Check out “Soweto” on You Tube).

Epilogue: Unfortunately, trying to buy African music in Africa was another story as most music shops only sold cheap, pirated copies or had none at all (as was often the case). I usually waited until I was back in Canada or on many occasion, I went to Stern’s African music store in London. On our return trip to Canada in March 1989, Janine and I visited Stern’s store to buy the “Kass Kass” album and cassette, Mapfumo’s “Corruption” album and a Mozambican album, plus book tickets to see Zaire’s legendary Franco. As fate would have it, the concert was unexpectedly cancelled at the last minute because of his ill-health—he died sometime later from complications from AIDs. A great pity and another one of Africa’s best musicians lost to the ravages of AIDS. Many of the other African artists who I have come to enjoy over the years have also passed away notably legendary African jazz player Fela Kuti, Robson Banda and most of his band, Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba and the atomic bomb of Zaire—Pepe Kalle. Franco’s heir apparent and compatriot Pepe Kalle assumed the mantle of Congolese music that was passed onto to him but he died young too! (His “Pon Moun Paka Bouge” is a classic Congolese rhumba tune with Diblo Dibala on guitar so check it out on You Tube). 
For some reason, Pepe Kalle had a penchant for using midgets in his music videos with brought howls from my Kenyan wife and family but he is loved all over East Africa. In 2003, I was looking at the discography of Mapfumo’s Black Unlimited Band and many of his original musicians I saw at the Queen’s Hotel in 1986 and 1988 were no longer with us. From Banda’s group, there is only the guitarist left as the others all passed away in the 1990s, most likely succumbed to AIDs but can’t be certain. Even in Kenya, when someone dies from it, the obituary only reads either: “gone to the glory of god” or “succumbed to an illness”. 

Miriam Makeba aka “Mama Africa” died a few years back whilst on a tour from a heart problem but she had lived to an old age, still a singin' grandma and I was lucky to have seen her and Hugh Masekela live in concert twice in one year in Canada. In the 1987 "Graceland" concert in Harare ( which I was supposed to have gone to), Ray Phiri sings back up and is wearing the hat whilst playing lead guitar. There's some controversy about Paul Simon not giving Phiri credit on some of the songs and no financial benefit as a result.
There are many musicians I didn’t mention but I haven’t forgotten them—maybe another blog. I didn’t add Oliver Mutukudsi of Zimbabwe because I was never a big fan of his and never owned his music except in some of the collections I previously mentioned. For me, Thomas Mapfumo was always the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. At any rate, it’s nearly thirty years since I bought some of the tapes, I still play them from time to time, but the majority of them are ‘out of print’ and unfortunately, they have not been re-mastered into the digital format. Nevertheless, they still sound as vibrant and crucial as if hearing them for the first time again and their spirit lives on—at least with me and I hope with you.

[1] In 1988, Earthworks produced the next in series “Thunder Before Dawn--Indestructible Beat of Soweto Volume Two” which really took off in the rest of the music world and won critical acclaim. A nice complement to that is the “Homeland 1 & 2”series by Rounder Records but not sure if they are available on You Tube.
[2] In fact, it was Mark who turned me onto the hypnotic jazz sounds of Nigeria’s number one son—Fela Kuti in his 1981 album—“The Black President”.
[3] The group still makes the North American tour circuit and I got to see him again after a 12 year
   hiatus at the Africa Festival in 2000.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A letter from Kuwait, 2006.

A letter from Kuwait (December 2006)
I was awoken at around 6:00am by what I thought was the usual mosque call, but thought it was either too early or too late. I tried to drift off as I thought it was just the usual Friday rantings about Amrikiyah (America) or Falistiniyah (Palestine) which went on at some length. Actually it went on until I got up around 7:20am and I just assumed that maybe it was in celebration of the beginning of the Eid. I turned on the BEEB (BBC) and saw the headlines that Saddam had been executed shortly before 6 am (Baghdad time) which is the same time as here in Kuwait. So, I got to feeling that perhaps the excitement in the air was that the mullahs may have been passing judgment on the much-heralded execution of the little Satan to the north of here in former “Republic of Fear” or as it is now known—“Occupied Iraq”.

Yesterday, my wife (in Kenya) had asked if the execution of the old executioner (Saddam) would cause any problem in the Gulf area, especially Kuwait and Iraq. I texted her back and said— “Could there be any more chaos in Iraq?

Having said that, I am sure the US, UK and Canadian embassies have sent out holiday missives with the caveat that we must be vigilant against suspicious activities; avoid large public areas, be mindful of tinted window on vans (like all of them here) avoid loud and aggressive people for they are a vexation to our spirit …etc. On that point—could there be anymore security here in Kuwait? Since first coming to the Crowne Plaza gym three years ago, there have been ongoing installations put in place to safeguard the hotel users and gym users. I guess I should mention that some US and  a handful of Japanese troops use the Crowne Plaza for R&R from time spent in Iraq. Originally there were a few jersey or concrete barriers in place in case of a car bomb attack, and then over recent months, they have erected these huge concrete barriers that must be 25 ft high and could stop a 747 jumbo jet in its tracks. These wall barriers ring the perimeter of the hotel and you must squeeze between then to get into the main hotel entrance. To go to any of the other big hotels, i.e. Hilton, SAS or Shiik Flamingo involves stopping at a barrier and having someone check under your car with a mirror, plus under the hood or in the boot for possible explosives.
Moreover, going to the gym has taken on new meaning at Crowne Plaza Hotel, one must drive by the security folks who wave you on, then to enter into the gym from the side entrance, you have to pass through an x-ray machine plus have your bags put through the machine. Then you must use finger print identification to gain access. If you come through the main hotel entrance, then you sometimes have to go through two x-ray machines.

With regards to Iraq, a number of friends have written to ask me about what would happen in Kuwait if Saddam was executed or just how are things here generally, given the proximity to Iraq. Actually, the border with Iraq is only a mere150 kms from here. Hence, the speedy invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi armed forces in 1990. As a remembrance to some of the atrocities committed during those days, the usual custom here during the Eid is to go to the graves of the departed and pray for their memory. Here in Kuwait this is special as many Kuwaitis went to pray for those who were martyred in the Iraq invasion. The Kuwaitis were mad that the new Iraq government executed Saddam on a day when they should be thinking of their own loved ones and not Saddam.

Well, for starters, there is no love lost here for either Saddam or Iraq. If anything, Kuwait is, for a lack of a better word, a bastion of America and things western. Most people would be shocked if they came here: there are no camels, except those locked away on someone’s farm. There no black tents in the desert, unless you mean the ones that Kuwaiti families go to on weekends during the winter months here pretending that they are nomadic once again whilst a generator purrs away in the background as they watch CNN and Al-Jezeera live on their satellite TV. They don’t even have a traditional wood fire, but an electric warmer—it’s quite decadent.

The one thing that is dangerous here is driving. According to one paper, Kuwait has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Some 550+ people died last year on the roads here and they weren’t from car bombs. The problem isn’t the roads but the drivers. The roads here are probably in better shape than most roads in North America. They are definitely better than the potholed tarmac that my wife has to drive on daily in Nairobi, Kenya. The majority of Kuwaiti driving deaths were in the age group of 17-25 years and probably the majority of deaths were guys, young guys. For the most part Kuwaitis are quite polite and are respectful, and there is no real individuality per se perhaps because of Islam and it’s dogma of equality amongst people. However, get these same shebab (boys) out of the polite classroom or shisha joints/Starbucks and get them into a car and they become Mad Max. It’s as if they have dual personalities. Moreover, their cars are martyrs to their cause. My good friend Brian Rose said it best when he mentioned that in the United Arab Emirates or UAE, it wasn’t “right of way” that counts, but, rather “right of weight”—the same applies here in Kuwait.  As a result, if you own a Hummer or Pajero, then you are given some latitude for passing or pressing other cars. For the record, there are no road rules that I can see and no one to enforce them. It is not unusual to be in the driving lane (for slow moving cars) and to be flashed from behind by a speeding demon so that you get out of his/her way. That being the case, the shoulder is not a desired driving lane is it? Passing lanes are passé as every lane is considered as a passing lane. Having said that, many ex-pats either refuse to drive here or are scared shitless to—can you blame them! Road rage is common and without it you couldn’t survive I guess. What irks or confounds me is the fact that even though someone is driving a brand new Jaguar, Cayenne or Mercedes, they still drive it like they were driving some old bomb or gerryrigged pickup truck.

Many of the newer cars look like they have been to Iraq and keeping your car looking nice is not a pre-requisite here. People drive as though their cars are bumper cars. As regards to traffic violations and traffic fines, this depends on where you are from and if you are from one of the status families in Kuwait or you have some relative working in that department. If you have ‘wasta’ or influence, then you probably won’t be fined at all. As a westerner, I have no ‘wasta’.

Kuwaiti society: a real polyglot
For the most part, GUST is not only a meeting place for guys and gals but you can also make a fashion statement here. It has been said that GUST is actually one of the few places where male and female can meet without fear of reprisals from family members. There are no ‘mercy killings’ here like they have in Jordan or Pakistan. If anything, GUST may be a place where potential marriage partners can be checked out. The idea of dating someone from the opposite is quite foreign here or ‘haram’ or forbidden for many of the traditional families. But, one wonders why the girls and guys have so many phones. When one of my girls answers her phone in class, I usually embarrass them by asking “Which boyfriend are you talking to now?” They quickly turn off the phone. Quite often the clip clopping of high heels and entrance (albeit late) into classes can be more for effect and to show off latest fashions—these girls have money and style!

You can sometimes tell the student’s ancestry, or at least I can now, from their surnames or family names, i.e. Al-Omani means from Oman. The Iranians students who are mostly Shia are easy to tell because of their big families here, i.e. Al-Behbehani (a village in Iran), Al-Isfahani (from the city of Isfahan), Al-Kandari (means ‘water carrier’), Al-Sadegh (means ‘goldsmith’) and my old travel agent and photo company Al-Ashkanani (which sounds close to Ashkenazi). I was just reading “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs” (about Iran) and the author mentioned a ‘reformist’ Ayatollah Taheri, a close associate of the martyred Ayatollah Montazeri. I bring this up because one of my older married ‘girls’, Huda Taheri, has the same surname. I mentioned this to her in class about the late ayatollah Taheri, she nodded and said that her ancestors were from Iran—she was Shia. I know that there are many Shia in the student population and teaching staff because most of them would come by my shared office door to look at pics I had put up on our door. One was of a mural from Shiraz (Iran) depicting Ayatollah Khomeini and the basijis (martyrs) from the Iran/Iraq war. Most students came to see pics of me chewing qat with my old Yemeni staff from my days working at Nexen in the Hadramawt. Our office door has become something of a curiosity as many Profs, deans, students, cleaning staff, the president and other staff have come to see what I have up today. Of course, there are pictures of Jessica baby and old shots of me in the Bedouin market in Beer Sheva which raises some eyebrows more because I look like one of the Taliban with my full beard! My latest is a wanted poster of the three stooges from the Sudan: Sadiq and his cronies.

There is every form of Christianity represented here in Kuwait: Egyptian & Ethiopian Coptics, Syrian Orthodox & Catholics, Marthomite/Carmelite Indians, Pakistani Anglicans, Indian Roman Catholics from Kerala and Goa and Lebanese Maronites & Catholics who all worship at many locales and have a special Christian area with many churches in Kuwait city. You wouldn’t know an Egyptian Copt unless you fell over one. Many of them run the small bucalis or corner stores here where I live. They usually reveal themselves by discreetly pulling back their shirt cuff to reveal a cross tattooed on the underside of their wrist. There used to be a Jewish community here, but they are long gone or keep to themselves, even though there is some secret Jewish cemetery near Kuwait City that we haven’t found yet.
On the whole, Kuwait is the land of petro dollars, highrises, paved highways, really expensive cars, luxury goods, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, Second Cup, TGIF, Applebees, Virgin Megastore, IKEA, covered and uncovered women, a traditional and modern society, arranged marriages and marriages for love—Kuwait is the polyglot of the Arab world, its culture and its religions. I have students whose family ancestors can be traced to the Levant: Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian or Turkish. Some are from the Near East: Iraq, Afghani and Iran. Many familial lines originate from the subcontinent: Indian, Baloochi, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. Then you have some girls who have an exotic blend of English, Russian, Brazilian, Spanish, and Moroccan parents. Even other striking guys and gals have African roots: Somali, Zanzibari, Swahili, Omani, or Sudanese and many from mixed marriages. Naturally, many Kuwaitis come originally from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Having said that, the idea that all Kuwaitis are Semitic-looking is not true here—you can throw that notion out the window (preferably whilst driving).

Bedoon or Bedu
There is every colour of the rainbow here at GUST; some of my girls look African, talk Arabic or Kuwaiti and dress either American or in traditional garb depending on their family. Other girls look Spanish, some look like the beautiful Lebanese singers, many are Egyptian, those of Iranian descent are very Aryan-looking, some have blond hair, have whiter skin than me with green eyes, some look Indian or Pakistani with Arab names and some are Bedoon. The Bedoon are an interesting facet of Kuwaiti life. In simple terms, bedoon actually means ‘stateless’ or ‘without state or citizenship’ and this should not be confused with the more common term, bedouin or bedu which really means ‘nomad’. In layman’s terms, the bedoon are the remains of a once nomadic Bedu people who travelled all over the Arabian Peninsula, but some of these folks have settled down in the urban areas. However, many of the ‘bedoons’ have no passport or citizenship, either here or any other country in this region (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan or Kuwait). Many of the Bedoon have settled down, but many are still without citizenship. A reliable Kuwaiti friend told me that many of the families that have settled down in Kuwait may have some branch of the family that is still bedoon.

Kuwait is made up of many tribes who belong to a much larger tribal confederation. Typical family names are Al-Enezi, Al-Mutairi, Al-Azmi or Al-Ajmi and Al-Shammari. The Shammari were once nomadic but are still part of the larger Arab confederacy of the Al-Shammar tribe whose territory once included the desert regions of Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Last year, I had two Al-Shammari sisters in my class and their cousin. The cousin I called Beyonce, because she was drop dead gorgeous and dressed like her, but the two sisters were quite different. The older one was covered, but in colourful and trendy modern hijab, whilst the younger sister came in the latest hip hugging fashion. Normally if a girl goes from uncovered to covered this usually means that she has got married and this covering is at the husband’s request. This was another interesting topic for discussion as I asked a number of uncovered girls what would happen if they got married and their husband wanted them to be covered. A couple of more brazen girls said that—“He can go to hell!” The simple fact is that these girls would not want a ‘traditional husband’ anyways and would marry someone who was more liberal. He could still dress up in traditional thobe or dishdasha, but she may be dressed ‘modern’. In the case of the two Shammari sisters, the older covered one just decided that that was what she wanted to wear. Point in case, it could be ‘peer pressure’ as a number of uncovered girls did cover up this past semester. The girls want to be called girls or ‘banati’ (my girls) or ladies, but not women. The reality is that I have mixed classes of uncovered to fully covered girls, teenagers to mid-20s and some who are married. Some are shy (mostly the covered ones) and others are quite vocal and brazen, and touch on being hussies at times, especially when they want extra marks!

Most of the girls who are covered are from traditional Bedu families and there are varying degrees of coveredness: just the black hijab or head covering with jeans and pumps underneath, and some fully covered in the black chador with only the eyes peeking out. Some Iranian girls are covered and some are not. Some look like they should be on Fashion TV. One of my girls came dressed in a different wardrobe every day—she had panache! One day when she didn’t come in I asked—
Where’s Aisha today?
She hasn’t been here all day.” Said one girl
Oh, did she run out of clothes?” I asked cheekily.
No sir, she is a clothes designer.”
Hence the explanation for her flamboyant flair and the many new clothes, belts and shoes she wore to class everyday.

We are in the midst of Final Exams, jammed between Christmas (one day off) and the Eid (9 days off). Because it is that time of the year, there will be many long faces (and hopefully no long knives) and usual lineups at my desk asking in convincing tones no less about grades.
From one of my girls—“Sir, my father will kill me if I fail!” or another nugget—
Professor, if I don’t pass, my father will kick me out of school.”
Sir, please I need a C- or I will lose my scholarship.”
Which begs the question—“How can you get a scholarship with a C- average?
One of my cuter girls is a dead ringer for a young Kyra Sedgwick, but I call her Miss Fahaheel. Her family name is Al Dabbous. She came to my office to complain about the C+ grade I had given her.
She made a motion where she flicked her thumb from her front teeth—
Sir, you are bakheel.”
What’s that mean?
You are cheap!
Why, because I gave you a C+ average?
Yes” and then she clicked her tongue off her teeth in disgust.
I’m not cheap.” I said in protest.
I think she was thinking of the English expression of “mean”.
Or there is the usual routine where a brother or near relative will come to act as an interpreter and ask about the low grades.
My favourite response is one I borrowed from American economics professor Dan.
Student pleading—“Sir, why did you give me an ‘F’.”
Because they wouldn’t let me give you a ‘G’.

No love lost between brothers.
In some quarters, there is an underlying lack of sympathy for the Palestinians here as well. Occasionally we have student rallies or awareness days for the plight of Palestine. This is mostly because of the Arab ideal of charity or support, but more because there is a large percentage of Palestinians in both the student body and teaching staff. Many of the Palestinians and other nationalities have been here for ages and Kuwait has given some of them Kuwaiti citizenship. Since 1948 and there after, many Palestinians have come here for work and many don’t have citizenship and for the most part are stateless or have refugee status. Many of these poorer Palestinian folk were jealous of their rich, Kuwait brothers who had become wealthy though the rising price of oil. At any rate, one of my better male Kuwaiti students last year came up to me in class and made sure that no one heard him—“I will not support those bastards!” This caught me by surprise, but then Ali told me his story—“They killed my father.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait, most Kuwaitis fled to the US, UK or UAE but many thought they could stay behind and hide—until the Americans came! During the Iraq invasion, those Palestinians who remained behind in Kuwait, allied themselves with the Iraqi secret police who had come to Kuwait prior and during Saddam’s invasion in the hopes of helping Iraq re-capture its ‘lost province’. In a number of circumstances, albeit bad, some of the Palestinians ‘ratted or finked’ on their Kuwait neighbours to the incoming Iraq army. Some of these Palestinians and others, would then loot the homes of the richer Kuwaitis who were dragged away, tortured and killed by the invading Iraqi forces.[1] Many of the Kuwaitis who fled during the invasion, didn’t have time to collect their valuables and many left everything behind. You can imagine that Kuwait is not that big and we are talking about a huge invading force basically on your doorstep within minutes. The Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Jaber still issued radio calls from the desert to all Kuwaitis to— “make the aggressors taste the chalice of death.”
Moreover,—“We shall fight them everywhere until we clean their treachery from our land.”
The Emir’s younger brother, Prince Fahd did stay behind to fight the Iraqis at Dasman Palace. Unfortunately, Prince Fahd died under a hail of bullets and is a revered Kuwaiti martyr who I have a huge respect for in the face of such an adversary.

Later on, after the US drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait it had been reported that many poorer Egyptians (probably watchmen), and Palestinians were seen driving around in expensive Mercedes. At any rate, many Palestinians and Yemenis were subsequently kicked out of Kuwait for their support of Saddam. Most of the Kuwaitis who were captured by Iraqi forces were taken to the ‘killing fields’ of southern Iraqi deserts just north of here—Salman Nugra. Ali’s father was one of the Kuwaitis who was taken away to be killed. That is why there is no love loss over the death of Saddam in Kuwait and thus explains Ali’s bitterness towards the Palestinians. To date, there are still over 500 Kuwait martyrs missing and their remains have been coming back in dribs and drabs as families have tried to identify missed ones from small DNA samples and clothing. Quite often, students go missing in class and then they tell me a few days later that the remains of their family member had come back so they had a funeral. I don’t think Ali has had that form of closure yet.

[1] I remember listening to CBC radio news in the remote bunkhouse in Field, BC when Iraq entered
     Kuwait, thinking that this would be the end of my career as a Near Eastern archaeologist and that
     many university Phd candidates had just lost their research on Iraqi sites.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Korea: A Land of Contradictions

Being a creature that is often called “contradictory” and “illogical” (thanks to John Jacobs and brother H), I find, with some satisfaction that, at times, I am much like Korea—a land of contradictions. To predict what might happen over here may prove to be a mistake. For the most part, Korean men like to keep their women in tow (or kowtow) and prefer to have a subservient younger wife as mate for life. In one class, I made the mistake of asking my junior students to fill out their family tree and put down the occupation of their parents. This was predictable as most of the kid’s mothers were housewives. I guess this explains why we offer and adult course that is only for housewives. Women are offered the same education as men folk but many toss it out the window when they get married or are forced to by their husbands—how unfulfilling? No wonder some of these housewives tell our female teachers that they secretly wish to have an ‘affair’—I guess life at home is boring. Well, that was Mike Green's story and he's sticking to it. Most of our Korean teachers (all women) have broken with this tradition and full marks to them—hopefully this will rub off on the next generation. At any rate, men appear as brutes (esp. when they swing garbage bags or ice axes), yet they are lambs when it comes to soppy movies or songs, especially the noribon or karaoke. It is the men who are misty-eyed and sing the heart-rending Korean love songs of unrequited love (sober or otherwise) with such passion that you would hardly recognize him as “Attila the Hun’ the next day in the office. One thing that pissed me off was that the head of our hogwon, Mr. Kim had kept the return portion of my ticket from Canada. I told free-spirit Andrea about this and she went to my defense and told Mr. Kim in no uncertain terms that he had no legal right to keep my ticket that I had paid for. Another time, Mr. Head had given me the keys to Mr. Kim’s office and we found a stack of letters meant for Jan, Billy and Miche. Billy had already left and Jan was pissed off as her family had sent pictures to her and Mr. Kim withheld them from her.

Korean dos and don’ts
And Korean men do not do either shopping, pick out food or handle the cash for goods. This all became clear when I went shopping with my flat mate Jan. Entering the giant department store is quite a spectacle in that you are greeted at the door by four beautiful, tall Korean women who look like models or airline hostesses in their matching pink and turquoise tunics and skirts. So you can imagine I caused quite a kerfuffle when I haggled with a shop clerk (always women) over the price of a bottle of olive oil—something a man would never do. And to add salt to my wound, the clerk promptly gave my change to my flat mate Jan, which left me quite miffed. Korean men don’t cook either so the clerk must have thought I was an odd duck. Marriages are arranged and women are supposed to be virgins when they marry—I think most of the men are too! Another couple of observations:
·      Women who are single wear the most make-up: whereas married women won’t wear as much make-up as they are already spoken for.
·      Don’t whistle in private or public (and don’t whistle at anyone’s privates!)
·      Don’t jaywalk or attempt to jaywalk (huge fines!)
·      Don’t wet fingers before distributing school papers.
·      Don’t lick stamps at the post office.
·      Don’t kiss your loved ones in public.
·      Women can’t smoke in public.
·      Don’t wear a mini-skirt in public (esp. women—unless they work in the coffee bar).
·      Tattoos are taboo.
·      Do not give a ‘beepie’ to a femme who is just a friend.
      Being 1997, many of the North America female teachers had tattoos in various
      Place but mostly on ankles. For Koreans, tattoos were taboo. The only Koreans
      who had tattoos were the Korea mafia or yakuza. Andrea broke this rule when she
      wore a top that had a plunging neckline to her all-girl class that revealed her
      dragon tattoo on the nape of her neck. Mr. Kim had to fire Andrea over this

       Greg-eh did not heed this last advice and had a falling out with his cute Korean
       girlfriend Sunny. Greg-eh had given US teacher Miche a beeper or ‘beepie’ as the
       Koreans call them for her birthday thinking he was doing Miche a favour as this
       was before the advent of cell phones. However, what Greg-eh didn’t realize was
       that in Korea, only boyfriends give ‘beepies’ to their girlfriends as a way of
       keeping tabs on their whereabouts. I heard Sunny yell “Gul boojie maaaah!” to
       Greg-eh, which I think, translates into “Don’t fuck with me.”

I broke another rule by not attending my Saturday afternoon class at the hogwon with the teenage kids. Mr. Head (teacher) Ron Limoges had invited me to accompany him on a trip to the East Sea along with the Korean owner of one of the Americana fast food chains. I didn’t think it was a big deal so I got one of the other teachers to cover for me. The trip was quite good as we visited a couple of historic Buddhist temple sites in the mountains and got to stay at a fancy time share resort by the beach. There was a groovy spa that we went to and that was the only time I saw men with full body tattoos and Ron told me they were yakuza. Our return trip took forever and we got stuck in a traffic jam and it took us eight hours for a normal two-hour trip. Mr. Kim didn’t take to kindly to this bold act and printed out a notice for an upcoming “Meeting with Natives”. I told Mr. Head that I was going to go as a First Nations native. Of course, Mr. Kim, in his rage, got carried away with his English and the agenda was quite hilarious. Part of the printout talked about:
- “Students are not things to be experimented with.”
- “Maybe you cannot believe it but I cannot believe it either.”
- “You are a stranger and a friend from a foreign land.”
We tried to keep a straight face in the meeting but barely could contain ourselves.
Also, Baldness is not condoned so the students howl when I show them a picture of my “follically-challenged” younger brother compared to me with my huge full head of hair and beard. Initially when I applied to for a job teaching ESL in Korea, my hair became somewhat of an issue. I applied to the hogwon where Brian Rose was teaching and I had to send my passport page to the manager by fax. The fax copy wasn’t very clear and as a result, my picture didn’t look very good either. I heard later from Brian that the manager asked Brian—
Is it man or beast?
This became something of a standard joke between Rosie and me. My hair also became an issue when I was applying to EEC through Mr. Head (Teacher) Ron Limoges. Ron called me long distance from Korea to ask me questions about ESL and then he lowered the boom—
The manager is concerned about your age.” Said Ron.
Oh what’s the problem? Am I too old?” I answered thinking that maybe 44 yrs. was too old.
No, the problem is—you are the same age as Mr. Kim.”
He’s afraid you will be bald.” Said Ron.
I was laughing on the phone to this suggestion and I was thinking back to what Brian’s boss had said about me. Ron’s comments had come just before I sent a fax of my passport photo to him.
I still have a full head of hair.” I said laughing at the same time and then sent my passport picture. Ron laughed about that after when I arrived in Anyang. The real joke was that Manager Kim was the one who was bald and he feared that all men who were in their forties would also be bald.
My work schedule means that I work from 7:30am until 8:30pm. As a result, I don’t like cooking a big meal when I get home from work so I usually order kimbap (sushi) on my way home at a nearby takeout restaurant in Paktal Dong Street. However, at 8:45pm they are usually out of kimbap and motion to me that it is finished. The last few nights I have just about made it to my apartment when the kimbap shop owner comes up behind me on a motorbike beeping his horn and motions that they have found some kimbap for me—they bring it in a plastic bag and that’s what I call service. Korean food is spicy and hot—mostly meat, chicken or pork. You can also buy kebabs and friend chicken in the market. They also have a lot of seafood and tofu dishes. I often walked by seafood places where they have a mini-aquarium outside with sea urchins and sea cucumbers floating in seawater. Most of the restaurants are sit down affairs on the floor—shoes off thank you. You sit around a low table in lotus position like in yoga—I occasionally put my foot around my neck to heighten the entertainment and break the tension. There is a propane tiger torch in the middle of the table underneath a gigantic cast iron skillet into which the ladies heap endless amounts of chicken, ddok noodles, greens, cabbage and some onion. The ladies do all the cooking and we only talk as they wing food all over the show. Side dishes consists of fiery concoctions of fermented cabbage in chili pepper sauce which gives you monkey bum the next day and a breath that would melt a student’s heart—so to say.
Numerous cups of rancid yak butter tea or something evilly similar are brought to end a meal. The Koreans are a bunch of pisstanks and like their alcohol, as do the English teachers. The Koreans are known for their love of whiskey and have been called “the Irish of the Orient”. Korea’s national drink soju has a bouquet like an aborigine’s armpit and is strictly used for arm to arm combat; at the last Anyang wine festival they were hauling them out of the sewers every 15 minutes. Soju is actually quite potent and it is not unusual for Korean men to toss their cookies in the wee hours of the morning—sometimes drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning.

Scene and passing
I share a two-room apartment with Montana Jan and we have a smallish kitchen, which you couldn’t swing a cat in. Billy McIntosh shared the flat before and he was a bit of a bootlegger. We had a small bar fridge which we kept our groceries and what not in. We also had a larger regular fridge where we kept our soju and huge bottles of beer. Jan was the resident cook and she made a mean shrimp creole, shrimp jumbo and everything else that Bubba Gump made. As a result, we usually had most of our EEC staff over for dinner parties on Fridays or Saturdays. Because I had a roll-up futon, we would have the dinner in my room. I had rummaged a low square Korean table that folded up into nothing to serve the food on. Everyone would bring beer or soju so there was always a full fridge of quarts of OB Lager and soju that was left behind.
Our neighbourhood video store has some rather curious video selections including Russian and Iranian films that I have only seen at film festivals. There is no rhyme nor reason to their location in the store which prompted me to suggest to Jan—
Maybe I should offer to arrange the “foreign films” into some order.”
Jan raised her eyebrows at me—
THEY ARE ALL FOREIGN FILMS!” she retorted. Point taken.
Another curious thing—there are neither fourth floors here on an elevator run nor does anyone want to be the fourth person or to have the number 4 printed on their T-shirt or sweater as this is apparently a sign of bad luck.
More curious things—when sending mail, it is considered bad upbringing to lick the stamps when sending letters. To alleviate this predicament, the kind folks at Korean Post provide you with glue sticks even though the stamps have glue on them. I was sending letters and some Koreans gasped when they saw me licking the stamps but at the time I didn’t know I was offending anyone.
We had another night of noisy revelry on the weekend—Jan and I wondered what all the excitement was about as we could barely hear the dialogue of Pulp Fiction over the clatter outside. Our apartment affords us a bird’s eye view of the market and occasionally a glimpse of the drunken behaviour of some of the locals. At any rate, we pulled back the window to snoop and saw a Korean man weaving down the road with a gigantic Hefty trash bag who proceeded to clobber another drunkard who had an ice axe in his hand (sounds like a reggae song—“Walking down de road wit en ice axe in his hand, woy, woy”). It was after all, just another night of soju drinking entre amis—so to speak! It seems that every Sunday, Korean men don their gay apparel: which consists of heavy mountaineering hiking boots, woolen knickers, a dumb Tyrol hat, an ice axe (God knows why—the ice age left here some 10,000 years ago when they all buggered off over the Bering Strait to North America). Plus they wear these ridiculous, bright fluorescent red and yellow socks, so that they won’t get lost—fat chance of that. After finishing their descent of the nearby hillock, the men congregate in the local soju houses and drink themselves into oblivion and then take to clobbering each other with garbage bags—How quaint?—remind me not to oblige them!
We have taken to dipster diving in the local recycling bins for anything that might spruce up our place. I found some treasures the other day and Prof. William Rathje (the famed garbologist) would have been proud of my finds, esp. when I was wearing my University of Arizona t-shirt (his alma mater). I found this dusty rice cooker and some other pots for planting flowers on our roof.
The other night, Greg-eh, Sunny and Jan and I decided to go out for some grub and grog—groggy being the keyword here. I thought we were going to have a good feed or seafood or tofu—silly me! We ended up having this seafood platter brought with the critters still alive and kicking. I almost lost my own platter when I bit into a crustacean. To top off this epicurean delight, we quaffed down a mystery brew that was brought in something that resembled a ceramic toilet bowl. Lord knows I didn’t want to be talking to the big white telephone just yet. The beverage was mokoli but reminded me of chebuku, that Zimbabwean drink you have to strain through your teeth. The concoction proved deadly and upon rising too quickly one was prone to keel over—not yours truly—I just drank more, only to pay later for my oversight! After three bowls of this, we decided enough was enough and there was still no sign of my tofu soup—that explains why I got slightly tipsy. We stumbled out into the night and somehow I managed to weave my way home without getting hit by a garbage bag.
School is fun.
The majority of my classes are school kids who spend all day in school then come to our hogwon (private school) from 3-8:30pm for English classes, plus they come on Saturday afternoons. On evening, I complained to my flat mate Jan about the number of students shuffling down our street at Paktal Dong at 10:30 at night.
I guess they’ve been out drinking.” I said with a smirk as they were carrying their heavy backpacks.
No, they are just coming home from their private tutors.” Remarked Jan.
At this time of night.” I added.
Yes, they do private classes from 8pm to 10pm.”
I remember teaching at a girl’s Middle School and having a 7:30am class on Monday mornings. I thought the teenage girls would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but most of them had their heads down on their desks—trying to sleep. I was curious—
Did you girls party all weekend?
No teacher.”
What do you usually do on your weekends?” I asked.
We have private English classes on Saturday.” One answered.
Okay—what about Sunday?
One girl woke up from my questioning—“I slept.” She said meekly.
You slept all of Sunday?” I was flabbergasted.
Yes teacher.” Chimed in others and they nodded their heads in agreement.
I felt sorry for them as I think they have way too much schooling and not enough time for fooling around.
Nevertheless, some of blighters are extremely smart and most of them are excellent artists. They are perfectionists and remind me of my nephew Conor—they have their coloured pencils arranged in a certain order and heaven forbid if you give them an old box of crayons to use. Boys will not sit next to girls and vice versa—roles are clearly defined even at this young age. Bingo is a big hit as are games involving playing cards. Part of our job involves giving the kids English names otherwise you would only have Parks, Kims, Lees or In Kyung or names you couldn’t pronounce. So, there are a lot of kids with names like: Emily, Jim, Andy, Bill, Constance, Roman, Fletch, Silver (?) where’s Trigger and there’s even a Paul and Claire. I am referred to in the most reverent of terms—“Teacher” or he who must be obeyed, especially when he has a beard and towers over everyone. Truth be told, I can barely fit into the small student’s desk. Most of the children have never seen a man with full facial hair and I am often called Santa Claus and they all want to touch my beard. Quite often, the children come up to ask me a question under the ruse that they can just touch my hairy arms. I think the biggest tragedy in Korea would be if there were no mirrors as both men and women spend inordinate amounts of time in front of mirrors preening themselves. In actual fact, there is no need of this as the Korean women don’t need any makeup and most ‘western’ women would kill for the Korean gals pouty lips! Both Miche, Jan receive unwanted attention because they are buxom babes and Andrea because she is tall, blonde vixen. All the Korean doctors and men want to have classes with them. Jan came back one night from her “doctors” class a little worse for wear and out of breath. I guess it was her last class and they had been drinking. Her trousers had smudges of dirt on them, her top was ripped, her hair was tousled and she had bits of green bushes in her hair.
What the hell happened to you?” I asked wondering what she had been doing.
I jumped out of a car as it was driving.”
What for?” I enquired.
I thought the doctor was making an advance on me so I jumped out.” She answered trying to catch her breath.
What about this?” I said removing bits of green bush from her hair.
Oh, I fell into a bush when I jumped.
I could just imagine the scene.
What do you expect you sex bomb!” I added jokingly.
We had a good laugh about that and I think that was her last evening class.

We had to give out student evaluations last week and I started out on the wrong foot. I erred in writing up their evaluations in red ink, as apparently this is a no-no. I found out that red ink signals that you are unfriendly or it can be misconstrued as such—tsk, tsk! I had to redo everything I had marked in red with blue ink—much to my chagrin. Luckily, the all-knowing Mrs. Park showed me my errors and caught me before the parents would have seen it. My desk mate Justin and I have bets on for who is going to hang themselves first—I think he has the edge! He has taken upon himself to learn Korean (Hangul) as he is quite dedicated at it. So much so that he is learning the alphabet and is learning how to write all the teacher’s names in Korean. He wrote out my name and one of the Korean teacher’s names in the Hangul characters. At first, I thought this was quite good and I was going to wear my name tag to my classes. I asked one of the Korean teachers what they thought of Justin’s translation into Hangul characters. Teacher Che (Chey—her name should really be pronounced as Chew-ay –like “whi chew-ay you going Billy?”) looked at my name and then turned it upside down—a rather auspicious beginning. I knew something was wrong when a native speaker is turning your name around to see which way is up. Hmm, I thought, maybe this was not such a good translation. The last thing I wanted to wear into class is something that translates into “I am a stupid jackass” or “big turd”. I thought I would seek out an expert opinion so I called upon the services of the all-knowing Mrs. Park. This was no better. She took my nameplate and turned the card so that she was reading it in reverse—yikes! I was beginning to wonder what the heck Justin had written—so far he had managed to stump two native speakers. This called for action. I decided that I would write up an evaluation on Justin’s grasp of Hangul with the help of the beautiful Miss Che. I managed to cajole an evaluation out of one of our secretaries despite her protests—she thought Justin would not appreciate my ‘dark humour’—HA!! I got Che to write up an evaluation in Hangul and I added my English comments and then hid it under the glass on Justin’s desk. When he saw it (finally) he couldn’t believe his eyes as I had given him 2’s and 3’s on his report, knowing full well that we were never to give the students anything under 3 or 4. He laughed and showed it to everyone and said he would frame it and take it with him—good sport—dreadful Hangul. Justin is a bit of an odd sort as he is the oddest Jewish Yank from the Bronx that I have even met. He has spent the last few years in Australia so he now has a peculiar Aussie/Bronx accent with Aussie sayings—the worst of both worlds—Aussie chauvinism and American savvy.