By John Kay
Editor’s note: The author is a long-time 3WM contributor and friend who recently left Korea after years on the peninsula. His last piece for 3WM was “Cancer, Death and Samsung’s Semiconductor Factories.”
Korea is… not having to say you’re sorry, unless you’re poor, have small feet, or you do a wrong; a wrong no one should wrong. And then there’s the drugs; which ones doesn’t matter; this is a back water. This is, Nancy Reagan said; this is forever. This is where they have no class As, Bs or Cs. Drugs are drugs, unless you mean alcohol and cigarettes: now you’re talking; now that’s your recommended dose. Korea is speeding through red lights, and not seeing anything wrong with that. Thinking that the end justifies the means. Think of the next man; what would he do?, and then double it.
It’s getting the girls to join you and your mates at a singing room; the ones you have to pay for. Only don’t tell the wife. It’s pushing in front of people and a chronic inability to queue. It’s getting a hefty but definite slap on the wrist, for ending an all-day drinking session celebrating your mate’s wedding in a police station, and having no knowledge as to why; when at home a custodial sentence would seem much more likely. It’s making like you’re going to slap, punch or beat your girlfriend, spouse or best friend, generally in public at any time, under any circumstances as if that’s what love’s all about. It’s asking foreigners a predictable set of three questions; where are you from? How old are you? And are you married? As if the answers to all three would make everything clear, and then you could communicate freely like soul mates with these hairy, big hipped, big nosed creatures. It is female celebrities on game shows who have chosen to wear particularly revealing short skirts or shorts. Who when they sit down, which they will do for almost all of the program, proceed to cover their lower halves with multicoloured Hello Kitty blankets. If they don’t want the millions of viewers watching at home to see their thighs or knickers, why wear the skirt or short shorts in the first place?
Korea is apartments, whether you like them or loath them. Apartment building after apartment building after apartment building; block after block after block. From right in front of your nose all the way to the city limits or the horizon, which ever’s furthest. And they’re not for looking at, they’re for living; which brings me to this cheek by jowl closeness of everything and everyone. Whether it be the umbrella tip of the over eager old woman stood directly behind me, inching ever closer to my arsehole, as I boarded a bus in the rain. Or, the door of my old one room, which when fully opened banged against the door of the one room next door. The occupant of which couldn’t step out of his door without having to lean round it and push my door closed. A couple of centimetres each way and there’d have been no problem at all: Funny that the architect or builder failed to notice this minor oversight.
Korea is the multicoloured cupolas of kindergartens, the very ones that used to incite in me an all-encompassing wave of brilliant panic. Panic because I worked for an agency that sent me to a different kindergarten every morning; where I’d attempt to edutain, mob after mob of five-six-seven year olds. Monday to Friday, sometimes two hours at a time, for eight months; until the infamous but warm-hearted Madame Gwon decided to replace me and Morin with some software the Korean teachers could install.
Korea is the big, heavy set fireman who befriended me on Daecheon Beach as I was deciding whether to stay the night or head back to the bus station. Who insisted I join him, his friends, and their wives for beer, food and conversation. Big Man Chae, who was studying at night to be a lawyer and who put me up at his place, rather than see me waste good money at a motel, when his place didn’t even have a toilet, never mind a bathroom. All there was, was a crudely cut hole in the concrete floor. We slept Korean style on the floor and when he turned over in his sleep, and a hand fell on my hip, I thought the end had come. I thought I was Big Man Chae’s bedtime treat. A few minutes that felt like a year passed, then he rolled back on to his other side, and with my honour intact I fell asleep. In the morning he paid for breakfast, bathhouse and my bus ticket back to Daejeon: Long may he run.
Korea is the seafood restaurants of Jumunjin; the ajumma who instructed me in the fine art of extracting every last milligram of moist white meat from a crab; and its smooth pale beaches that stretch, so they say, all the way to the border with the North. And the squaddie with the rifle who stopped me finding this out for myself. Who insisted I walk no further in a northerly direction upon the sands north of Jumunjin. And who was I to argue with his serious face and even more serious gun?
Korea is The 나도물라 Bar just down from Hanbat Baseball Stadium in Daejeon. The owner would select records from the well stocked shelves that lined the walls of his tiny watering hole. Then he’d sit beside the small bar; listen to the music and drink. When my wife and I first plucked up the courage to enter (why do we need courage to enter a bar we’ve never been in before?) we sat down and ordered a beer and some burnt squid. Then booming out of the speakers came Deep Purple’s Highway Star. And I thought, oh come on geezer don’t be playing western music just because I’ve come in for a drink. Give me some of your indigenous sounds baby.
But the Deep Purple had nothing to do with me. I found out later, it happened to be the song that shook his adolescent self awake, that short circuited his world. Of course, after Highway Star he played a lovely old Korean Ballad from either the late fifties/early sixties; followed by a rocking early Cliff Richard and the Shadows track, then some Shin Jung Hyun, Jean Michel Jarre live in concert, then some more Korea psychedelia, this time from the seventies. Whenever we went back, that was the kind of eclectic mix of music he’d be playing. When my parents came for my wedding I took them to the 나도물라 bar, where they got down and dirty, dancing to some reggae. And I can count the times I’ve seen them dance on one hand. The name of the bar was itself a breath of fresh air, in that it was proudly, appropriately and playfully in Hangeul. No ill-fitting or grammatically inept English for this guy. The toilet was from another century entirely; just a squatter, old style, hole in the floor kind of toilet. The smell was something awful, and you had to flush it by filling up the paggaji (little bucket) from the tap by the floor. And once I took a group of co-workers there, and they were okay as long as the booze flowed. But those big boned girls freshly graduated from some nameless university in Ontario never forgave me for their experience of the toilet; the rank medieval stench, the flush (or lack of) and the lock itself, hanging by a thread. But I never went to the 나도물라 Bar for the shitter; I went for the music, the warmth, the lack of pretension, and the feeling; oh, and of course for the beer, and the fish cooked over a naked flame. All of that, and the fact that once when we arrived there was just a hand written sign taped to the door, saying that the proprietor had gone round the corner to eat dinner and to make ourselves at home until he came back.
Korea is kimchi; it’s a drinker’s paradise but no paradise because of the drunks. And they get everywhere like cockroaches or zombies in a B movie. It’s courtesy and rudeness; it’s not just me and you, you’ve got to think of the families. It’s Confucianist; it’s confusing, until you learn the alphabet, and the word for toilet. It’s big denomination bills; It’s where are the chairs; It’s the under floor heating; It’s the welcome; It’s the girls; It’s arguing with fellow ex-pats vehemently outside convenience stores sat on plastic seating in the slate grey pre-dawn. It’s the taxi drivers; the maniacs who insist on going through every red light they come to; the fools who ask which route I want to take: shouldn’t they know? The ones who play along with me, when I refuse to say where I’m from, and ask them to guess. To the guy who said “Pakistan?” I salute you. And, the one in Busan who sang lines from an opera in German as he drove me toward the Hanjin Shipyard to cover a strike.
Korea is the skinny, mentally disabled youth I spied in the main post office watching lesbian porn on a computer by the coffee machine who was lambasting a pair of elderly men for looking over his shoulder at the screen. It is Never-do in his moldy suit spouting on about the inadequacies of Koreans, their culture and society even though he’s Korean too; spittle marking the unhappy corners of his mouth. He, who when told I was British went off on one about Winston Churchill; and even started reciting a version of Churchill’s “We Will Fight Them on the Beaches” speech: which is of course how he got his name. Never-do; former merchant sailor; nudie beach lover; autodidact; insurance salesman; stalker of public parks; borderline madman, and anti-patriot.
Korea is odaeng and school kids who giggle when they see me on the bus. It’s other foreigners blanking me in the street, looking in every direction but mine. Korea is being the only member of my extended family to wear Hanbok at Chuseok or Lunar New Year’s Day. Korea is burning my father in law’s clothes on a hill overlooking the cemetery after he was buried, wrapped tightly in a thin cotton shroud. The dead never look like the living.
Korea is the the speaker high up the wall, that I forget is even there; that comes alive every once in a while so that the stumbling, muffled voice of a gruff septuagenarian can pass on some information about recycling days or the testing of the elevator.
Korea is being a guest when you enter a bar or restaurant, not a customer. It is those thrown away feral cats shrieking, scratching, fighting and fucking in the alleys of high summer. It is the comically be-clothed small dogs, which women (for it is invariably women) choose to carry around town, as if they were designer hand bags. It’s the old folk who gather by the side of the road down from the train station who look like their bus will never come; refugees from an earlier and earthier Korea, trying to keep their creased and tired heads above water in this one.
Korea is me, and it’s you. It was him with eyes like the slot in a coffee machine where you put the coins. Only now it’s her, the inarticulate dictator’s aged daughter. It’s still the group over the individual. It’s the land of younger friends and older friends. It’s the land of barn pot mad mothers, and monosyllabic and absent fathers. It’s hung-over and it’s never drunk a drop in its life. It’s Catholic; It’s Protestant; It’s Buddhist; It’s Muslim; It’s a pure blooded people in name only, but don’t say this to their face. Korea is wearing a wig because baldness is a fate worse than death. It’s nepotistic, fantastic, and democratic to boot. Well, that’s half of it. It’s divided like Cyprus and Ireland are; like Vietnam and Germany were. It’s strange, yet it’s as familiar to me as the freckles on the back of my hand.
It’s home but my time’s up, and I’m leaving.
John Peter Kay started writing in earnest back in 1996 at art school. He moved to South Korea in 2003 where he took as his inspiration the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and incidents of life in South Korea. He can be contacted at email@example.com