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.

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