Thursday, 5 March 2009

Bong to rights

Right... the rest of South Korea, then. Hmmm. Let's do a list, eh?

1. It was quite the relief after China.

Despite the fact Koreans are apparently famous for their lack of smiling, a lot of them seemed to smile at ME. Maybe they thought my face was funny, or I reminded them of a popular TV clown, I don't know. Maybe it was just in comparison to the Chinese; whatever, it is nice when people are nice to you. It was also nice from a lazy Westerner perspective to return to a culture that embraces (or has come to embrace) bars and coffee shops; in China these things exist, but only to cater for/rip off foreigners, and you kind of feel rather boorish visiting them. This doesn't mean Korea's a particularly Westernised culture, or at least not on a psychological level (SEE POINT 10. YES, THERE ARE TEN POINTS. SOME ARE SHORTER THAN OTHERS, THOUGH), but it was nice to see the existence of that social element. They also have sandwiches. Kind of weird ones (they're invariably on the sweet side), but that's not really the point... they have sandwiches. Can the itinerant Englishman be confronted by sweeter sight? Yes. The MASSIVE BEERS (1.6l) that were on sale for about two quid in every convenience store going. They were 6% plus and essentially quite nice, though somewhat freakishly they never lost their fizz (not even the morning after).

2. I stayed at a place called The Bong House

No, this Seoul hostel's name had nothing to do with the chronic (does anyone still call it that?), and everything to do with it being run by the odd double act of Mr Bong and his assistant Kevin. Weirdly Mr Bong wouldn't tell us his first name and Kevin wouldn't tell us his last. Though nobody in their right mind takes drugs in Asia (here is a fun way you can apparently take revenge on somebody working in South Korea or Japan on a foreign visa: post them a bit of weed and they will be shoved in jail for 30 days and then deported from the country with no chance to protest their innocence), the fact the hostel tended to lure in people who thought the name was funny made for a good crowd and I had A Delightful Time here with sundry Americans and a Danish born, Norway-then-Spain-then-Manchester-raised girl with the amusingly terse name Gry.
Plans were often made to go out in the evenings, but they never really came to much, largely because after two MASSIVE BEERS apiece nobody could really see properly and we ended up sitting in and watching Jason Statham films. Lock Stock... aside I had never seen a Jason Statham film prior to coming to Korea. Now I have seen three. I'd be cool calling it quits, I think I get the impression now.

3. I got eaten by fish.

So we heard tell of a bar called Doctor Fish... some Americans at the hostel had been tipped off to it and returned with feverish excitement in their eyes, improbable tales of adventure on their lips, and before leaving they gravely passed on the handwritten Korean cab directions to me and Gry like some sort of solemn heirloom.
Um, so yeah, Doctor Fish is on the sixth floor of a random skyscraper, you pay just over a quid's entry fee, and you basically sit with your feet in one of two tepid aquariums, each of which contains a type of fish that gets its jollies from sucking the dead skin of your feet. The larger, Chinese model, inspires a sensation like being violently tickled, while the smaller, Turkish edition is rather like shoving your feet in a bubble pool. And you drink beer while it's going on, and for the first half an hour your entire conversation basically runs "We're doing WHAT?", but, y'know, human beings can more or less get used to anything, and after a while you simply get on with the business of being in a bar, your perspective on life adjusted to accept that being slightly eaten by fish is now what you do. This is probably how Hitler got away with what he did.

4. I was reunited with former housemate Mike 'Wallsy' Walls

So the reason I decided to come to Korea in the first place was that my ex-housemate from Vancouver was teaching there and, y'know, I was in the neighbourhood. Um. Ish. So I went to stay with him for a bit and it was good. For those of you who have met him: he is very well and has a very nice girlfriend called Emma and they're moving to Portugal together in September. They live on Jeju, a big island to the the south of the Korean peninsula that rather erroneously tries to bill itself as "the Hawaii of Korea". Erroneous because Hawaii is warm, I have been led to believe. But still, it was nice.

5. I did ex-pat things with ex-pats

Well, the teacher population of Jeju, I think English teachers only ever qualify as semi-ex-pat really, what they lack in prospects they gain in personality.
Er, yeah, so I participated in a three hour long football game. If you've ever met me and your name is not Mike Walls, you will never have seen such an occurrence, but it was quite fun, I was arguably better than a couple of the girls. Arguably.
I was even vaguely impressed by my own fitness, or at least until the next day, when every single muscle in the lower half of my body decided to aggressively boycott my brain's commands. I also went out drinking with Mike and Emma's ex-pat associates in various ex-pat associated bars, and what a lovely bunch they were. I guess it's the small island sense of community, but everybody was super-easy to talk to, I could impress strangers by essentially repeating the exact same story of how how I sat on a Russian train for a bit, and people seemed relatively tolerant of y'know, me when I'm drunk.
Like when I saw two girls who I thought were lesbians and said "so I bet you're, like, the only lesbians on the island". Unlike in 99% of equivalent situations I've been in in my life, it turns out they WERE lesbians, and were in fact happy to talk to me about the rigours of queer island living. Which I'm sure was fascinating, I can't remember, I was pissed.
Also good to note: the fact Korea is, like, the most internetted place on Earth has the fun side effect that when you request a song from a DJ, they just cheerily download it. I got I Wish I Was A Polar Bear by Ted + Francis played, which made me absurdly happy and unjustifiably impressed with myself. More justifiably impressed with myself.

6. Went to an erotic sculpture park

Yeah... the thing is, the Koreans aren't exactly what you'd call a hyper-sexed bunch, so the existence of Jeju Love Land, a pleasant outdoor park full of massive plastic sculptures of penises is something of an anomaly. Maybe they have it to maintain the balance, I dunno. Um, in any case, it was a bewildering experience; initially it inspired hilarity but after half an hour or so we were stumbling around dazedly, unable to really work out why anybody had thought quite this volume of oddly sexless smut was necessary. Photos will wend their way onto Facebook in due time, but perhaps the best way of summing up the effect is that for the next two hours I kept semi-hallucinating that more or less every object I saw in the shadows was in fact going a large plastic penis. AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY.

7. I went snowblind.
I was never exactly sure what this involved until the day I climbed Mount Hallasan- South Korea's tallest mountain - at the same time as a rather enterprising snowcloud. The fact EVERYTHING WAS WHITE was actually okay, but when I stepped into the non-white innards of the noodle hut at the top of the mountain, it was sort of like somebody had punched me in both eyes. Fortunately some middle aged Koreans were so concerned that I was doing something on my own (see Confucianism) that they gave me a half bottle of popular Korean saki-equivalent soju, which sorted me out reet.

8. There are quite a lot of Dunkin' Donuts here.
Like, a gazillion on every street. In fact you could probably invent a law of probability as to the likelihood of walking in any given direction in South Korea and wandering into a Dunkin' Donuts. And the law would state: unless you've walked into the DMZ or the sea, you will definitely, definitely, definitely walk into a Dunkin' Donuts. Weirdly Koreans don't especially seem to like donuts.

9. They have shamans.
Apparently. I dunno, I went up a hill and heard some eerie chanting and Lonely Planet said it was the shamans. They were probably casting sex magick and shit. Or whatever it is that shamans do. What DO shamans do?

10. I came to a greater understanding of Confucianism. Maybe.
AS YOU ALL KNOW, Korea is probably the most Confucian country on Earth, a title it sort of claimed by default after Mau mostly persecuted said philosophy out of China. It's big and complex and vastly different from the Western belief in the individual, and I'm only talking about it insofar as I witnessed it firsthand, but it sort of boils down to a desire to be be part of a group, as opposed to the Western veneratioon of individuality.
From the point of view of the Westerners I met, it's kind of the number one frustration with Korean life, as acceptance of somebody from a radically different background - ie a non-Korean - into a Korean friendship circle is pretty much unheard of. Basically there are three types of social group: a business group (which is where Westerners do get to socialise with Korean workmates), a uni-gendered set of friends, or a couple. I saw a lot of the last two and it's very weird - to some extent it happens everywhere, but people really do dress and style themselves in a VERY similar way, couples often identically so.
At the same time, they're often dressed amazingly (the women especially so) - people are extremely stylish, they just feel no desire to express (or pretend to express) themselves as individuals within that. It does often go to extremes, mind: this is the first country where I actually saw signs warning you not to wear high heels on a MOUNTAIN, practicality tending to get a little left by the wayside. The weirdest quirk of all this is that if you go anywhere touristy, at least one member of any group of Koreans will have a camera tripod on them so they can take self-timed group photos, as being left out of an image of the group would be intolerable.
Actually the real weirdest quirk is one I only heard about: Jeju is super-hot in the summer, but the official beach season only encompasses July and August. This has no legal meaning, but a profound psychological one, insofar as regardless of the weather, Koreans apparently will simply not go to the beach if it's the wrong time of year.
It is all rather odd, though I have to say I've got an admiration of sorts - how much of Western society is based on hypocritical or insincere assertions of individualism, when really so many people are just desperate to conform? And I'm pretty sure Korea's absurdly low crime rate must mostly be due to the fact people believe to the root of that conforming shouldn't be to do with joining a gang or whatever, but striving to maintain society's integrity. Sure it could be corrupted, and sure it's fairly apparent that the stifling of individualism isn't great for the arts, but whatever the case, enough weird shit has slipped through the net to give Korea a very definite personality, and one I rather liked, on casual meeting.

No comments: