Archive for June, 2012

Return to Korea

by on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Lotus Lanterns across the Chongyechon

Some people set a goal for themselves to visit one new place each year. I like that idea. After all, travel is about discovery. There has been a lot of that in my life, but there’s also been a lot of going back to places where I’ve lived before—in the U.S., Europe or Asia—to reconnect with the place and to discover the changes in us both. When I returned to Korea briefly a few weeks ago, the main purpose was to meet with friends and friends of friends. I also experienced my old home from the perspective of a tourist.

I had first arrived in Korea a week before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. On that trip and succeeding ones, I stepped off the smoke-filled Northwest Airlines flight into what was then called Kimpo International Airport (now Gimpo, with the same Korean spelling) and an atmosphere that reeked just as strongly of bitter, stale tobacco smoke. Carry-on luggage had to be screened again, taking photographs from the plane or in the airport was forbidden and a lot of military troops were hanging around, all reminders that North and South Korea were still officially in a state of war.

On this trip I strolled into Incheon International Airport, the proud winner of the Skytrax “#1 World’s Best Airport” award, a palatial expanse of space and marble tile which seems to have grown larger and offer more amenities each time I fly in. It was 6:15 in the morning, and I couldn’t check into the hotel until 2:00—so, too long to hang out in a coffee shop but not long enough to warrant a day rate at another hotel. I went down to the airport basement to the Spa on Air. The entrance fee included shower, soak in a hot Jacuzzi pool or hot still pool (42o C) or cold pool (21o C), public sleeping room (straw mats on the floor) and a comfortable, near-empty lounge. The shorts and tee-shirt I was given were about Western size 14-16, sparing this customer the embarrassment she might have had in the old days with Asian sizes too small to come over her hips. Just in case I was truly exhausted, I’d booked a private sleeping room (with a very hard bed). I emerged from the spa relaxed and refreshed. The next task was to find an airport bank and cash in the five kilos of Korean coins the movers had brought down to the Philippines. This was easier than cashing in coins in the States, and there was no charge.

My relationship with Korea had always been complicated. I’d taken a job at a for-profit language school with the expectation that after one year I’d move on to Japan. Instead, I’d accepted what proved to be my dream job at Dongguk University, the Buddhist university in Seoul. I got along well with the working conditions: half of the teaching load I’d had at the language school, almost five months’ vacation, respectful and intelligent students, very supportive colleagues and free reign to do what I wanted in my classes. Even with a lot of overtime teaching, it was a good fit. But adjusting to the patriarchal, often xenophobic culture came very slowly. The image I had was of building an arch one brick at a time—with all the details of how people live, what their beliefs and attitudes are, what forces work for and against them—and gradually settling into both acceptance and understanding.

I’d been through the process, but it didn’t save me from brief reentry shock. When a clerk at the spa was rude to me, I heard myself thinking, “In the Philippines she wouldn’t have been rude to me.” Directly after that, five people in a row were friendly and helpful. So then, duly chastised for thinking in stereotypes—which I hate and have often spoken out against—I found I had now arrived and was ready for Seoul.

Previously, after arriving at either of the airports, I’d taken the Korean Air Lines limousine bus to a hotel and then a taxi to my apartment. This time for a third of the price I took the commuter train from the airport. It was clean, fast, and empty enough so everyone who wanted could sit down. Another advantage was the fact that the train connected with the subway lines. (An express train travels the same route, costs a lot more and arrives ten minutes earlier.) In Seoul Station I then had to figure out how to buy a subway ticket with the new machines and return the train ticket for the deposit.

I got on the wrong subway line—it happens even for old-timers. Maybe I was distracted by what I saw many times in the next few days, that the shiny glass and steel you now see almost everywhere in Seoul is often only on the outside. You walk out of the new railroad station building and descend the grimy tile steps into the concrete subway station of twenty-five years ago, still virtually unchanged.

The view from our room, with Seoul Tower in the distance

The Sutton Hotel

My friend Cindy and I had booked a room at the Sutton Hotel, built about a year ago along the Chongyechon, a stream which for many years had been covered over. I remembered the controversy around 2002, when the mayor of Seoul and President Lee Myong-park proposed reconstructing the stream as part of their Seoul beautification plan. This was Korea, so of course there were protests. The development meant disrupting a formerly unique area of markets and workshops in order to make way for a boring modernity. Many of the little shops selling hardware were replaced with trees, but also more concrete, glass and steel.

Women's lunch at the Thai restaurant

Cindy arrived the next day from Japan. Over the next two days I saw many other old friends, and it seemed so little time had passed. Maybe that’s why the changes were such a surprise. When we talked about getting some women together for lunch, I discovered that my favorite restaurant, Marakesh Night, had moved from its Itaewon address to parts unknown. A favorite traditional Korean place near in Karlwol-dong was also gone. The Thai Orchid was now under new management, but the former owners had opened a new restaurant with basically the same menu, just down the main street of Itaewon above the new premises of the bookstore called What the Book? We ate a great meal there and browsed for books later.

After lunch we went to another new place, the Dragon Hills Spa near the Yongsan Subway Station. We learned that the mogyok-tang, the old-style public bath where in the old days I’d gone for a hasty soak and a cheap exfoliation, had been replaced by the luxury jimjil-bang, a spa which included soaking pools, exfoliation, massage, lounges, video game parlors, snack bars, computer rooms, sleeping rooms—entertainment for the whole family. [See “In the Bathhouse,”]

The Dragon Hills Spa

Getting rid of all the dead skin is particularly nice for people who live in hot climates, either because you don’t sweat as much or because the sweat isn’t as irritating on your skin. I think exfoliation lasts about a month, but many Korean proponents get it done weekly. We got package deals. After a soak in the Jacuzzi, Cindy and I were taken to another room where we sat on stools above little stoves burning some sort of herb. We each got what amounted to a one-woman sweat tent, a large skirt made of a heavy, waterproof material and gathered at one end. It went over the stove, stool and your entire body. You could pull the thing over your head and breathe in the herbs, or pop your head and one arm out and drink the hot tea you’d also been provided. We sat there for some time and talked.

We were told there was a customer back-up and everyone would have to wait a bit. We were in no hurry. Then, holding our little hand towels in front of us, an ineffectual pose if there ever was one, we traipsed past the pools to the scrubbing tables—now nicely padded, unlike the oilcloth-covered wooden tables of twenty years ago. Each of us got a middle-aged woman, dressed like in the old days in black underwear, who had us lie down and then scrubbed our bodies with an abrasive cloth which removed all the dead skin. Then came oil or lotion, hot towels, a massage done with the cupped hand, and a face mask of grated cucumber. It was the same sequence as years ago, but woman who did me turned me gently instead of flipping my oily body around with such force I was afraid of falling off.

I think I’ve also mellowed in the intervening years. I’ve lived in Asia long enough to be used to taking orders. I did listen carefully when an African-American woman appeared to ask about her scrub, hoping that it wasn’t a matter of someone refusing to work on her, as might have happened in the past. But the problem was only that the heavy volume of customers had increased the wait time. At this place and at the airport spa, I no longer felt like “Exhibit A,” whereas years ago I only once escaped staring in the bathhouse. That was after a Buddhist meditation retreat when everyone in the bathhouse was so curious about our white-skinned, shaven-headed nun—who didn’t seem to notice—that I didn’t get a second glance.

Dinner afterwards was at the upscale Bulgogi Brothers just off the Chongyechon and within walking distance of the hotel. We had a great set meal, more than we could eat: various kinds of kimchi and side dishes like mashed pumpkin, a bean and tofu soup, a green salad with cooked meat, grilled beef ribs, sweet potato soup, and a sweet, cold dessert.

Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin

King Sejong statue with the Gwanghwamun behind

The Gwanghwamun Gate

The next day was Buddha’s Birthday. Cindy went sight-seeing with another friend, and I met up with Soon-young, my friend and colleague from Dongguk University. We strolled along the Chongyechong, pausing to take pictures of lotus lanterns strung over the water, Buddhist figures in the stream, and demonstrations against inadequate government compensation for houses and businesses.

Changing the guard at Kwanghwamun

On the majestic avenue Sejong-ro, there was the old statue of the sixteenth-century Admiral Lee Sun-shin, famous for his defeat of the Japanese. Following that, several lanes of traffic lanes had been removed and replaced with a pedestrian promenade and a new statue honoring King Sejong, the fifteenth-century Chosung Dynasty monarch best known for instituting a number of technological advancements and hangul, the phonetic Korean alphabet, which made reading immeasurably easier than with Chinese characters. Further on, we found tents displaying old handicrafts and recent models or replicas of them.

Sejong Avenue ends at Gwanghwamun, one of the ancient gates to the city, and Gyeongbok Palace behind it. When I first arrived in Seoul, between the gate and the palace was the neo-classical-style Colonial Administration Building, which the Japanese had erected during the Annexation and which later served as the Capital Building and then the National Museum. Many Koreans hated it, claiming that with their usual sensitivity the Japanese had cut off the flow of earth’s energy from the mountain into the city, obstructed the view of the palace and demolished all but ten of the 400 palace buildings. The National Museum Building was torn down in 1995, allowing a beautiful view of the gate, the palace, and the mountain peak beyond. Soon-young and I happened to arrive in time for the changing of the guard. [Video link:]

Soonyoung outside the restaurant

After a stroll down the main street of Insadong, the art shop center, we had a traditional Korean meal and visited Chogye Temple. But there was a very long line to get in, and we’d both been inside the temple many times before, so it was off to Dongguk University for more pictures and a quick chat with the head of the Linguistics Department, who even on a major holiday was laboring away in his office. We got the taxi driver to stop for two minutes outside my old apartment. For dinner we joined Cindy in a Tibetan restaurant, also on Chongyechon.

Myongjin-kwan. my classroom building at Dongguk

The temple at Dongguk University

The next day there was hotel check-out, lunch in a restaurant near the hotel, a taxi ride to the H&R Block office in Itaewon which has been doing my taxes since 1988—some things do not change. After parking my bag in Starbucks, I looked for a favorite jewelry store where in the past I’d found distinctive pieces with large semi-precious stones, but it had been replaced by one with more conventional items. I did find Foreign Foods, which is particularly good for Indian and Mid-Eastern ingredients, still in its place on the street leading up to the mosque. It’s a friendly place. I bought my fenugreek and remembered how much I’d felt that foreigners living in Korea should support each other.

Syll serves the soup

Outside my old house

Something happened on the trip that I haven’t yet found words for. I felt very much loved by old friends like Soon-young, who’s been part of my life since we met in 1989, and new ones like Cindy, who’d become a close friend over Skype and the telephone. With some people there was plenty of time for long talks.

I have a strong sense of place. At one point I said, “I love this city,” and Cindy said, “I can tell.” There’s something both comforting and exciting about being where you have a long history and watching it evolve right before your eyes, particularly if it also remains intimately familiar. It’s like seeing an old friend after years and resuming your conversation almost mid-sentence, even though you also appreciate her new make-over. “Permanence in change” may sound trite or sentimental, and yet I think that’s what it is.

Korea and the Reluctant Expat Male

by on Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Richard is an American writer from that faction of the men’s liberation movement which is informed by feminism and is critical of the restraints a patriarchal society imposes on men. In 1988-89 he was teaching in Seoul at an English language school which catered primarily to adult students, including a large number of businessmen. The school encouraged socializing between teachers and students after class. Their comments are typical.

Richard’s story

Recently I went out with some students for a drink, and one of the men said, “Maybe this question is too personal, but when you need a woman, where do you go?”


“What do you mean? There are places you can go.”

“Yes, I know.” I rolled off a list of places in Seoul. He was impressed.

I said, “In the States the attitude about paying for sex is very different than here. But even if I didn’t have a problem with it because of my culture, I would have an ethical problem with it because I believe the social situation in which these places exist is wrong.” I gave him the whole line.

“But it’s the women’s job. In Korea you need places like that because women aren’t allowed to have sex before they are married, and men need it.”

It was not the time or the place to launch into a discussion of female sexuality. A female student and some older men students were sitting at the table. I said, “That may be true. I understand that this is a job. But if the job is so necessary, why do they have to kidnap women to do it, why do they have to force women to do it, why are the women so poorly paid, why are they social outcasts? If the job is so necessary, sex workers should be given social standing like teachers or doctors. My opinion might be different if the situation were different and there were similar places for women. If I went there I would contribute to a bad situation.”

He kept saying, “But in Korea you can. Korea is a paradise for men.”

“Yes, I know, but I’m not interested in that kind of paradise.”

He was very surprised. Apparently his American business customers were only interested in going to room salons or room cafes or Miari [a street filled with brothels] to play with Korean women.

“How do you endure?”

“Well, it’s not really all that difficult, although it’s frustrating and lonely sometimes.”

“Because I will pay for you if you want to go to such a place.”

“Well, thank you very much, but I’m really not interested.”

I go out to clubs with him occasionally, and he tries to get me to slow dance with a Korean woman. Slow dancing is considered so intimate that afterwards there’s always the question of what happens next. So I say, “I don’t want to dance like that with anybody I don’t know.”

“But you’re an American. You can dance with anyone you want.” Of course this attitude is part of the problem.

I have a student who’s a lot brighter and a lot more “liberated” than she lets on in class. She also knows a lot more about people than the other Korean women I’ve met. I said to her, “I’m really curious about what women think of shows in adult discos and places like that.”

“Well, of course I don’t like them, but…” and she gave me the same argument, that they were necessary in Korea. Then she said, “But some sociologists think the difference in men’s and women’s sexual needs is only social, that it’s not inherent.”

I told her that’s what’s been established in the States over the last twenty to thirty years, after the most recent period of the women’s movement started. Then I mentioned that a Korean woman gets some of the little power she has from the current situation. “You want to sleep with me, you have to marry me and provide me with a home.” She immediately changed the subject.

I’ve had several encounters with Korean sexual mores since I’ve been here. There have been other, stranger episodes. During my second or third week in Seoul I was walking down one of the main streets. It was a late afternoon, on a Saturday, and the street was crowded. A woman was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and as I walked by, she said something to me in English. I was so surprised I turned around and said, “What?”

“I love you, I love you.” She took her first two fingers and moved them in and out of her mouth, miming a blow job. I just assumed she was a hooker. I have since found out that she might not have been someone who hooks all the time. She might only have been very hungry. I turned around and walked away, but she caught up with me.

“Are you alone? Where are you going?”

I was looking for the Kyobo Bookstore, but I said, “I’m just walking.”

She took my arm, put it around her shoulder, put her arm around my waist, and said, “We will walk together.”

I got loose and moved away. “No, we won’t. Please go away.”

“Nooo. Plu-ease go a-way-ay.” She was taunting me, nudging me toward the shops with her hips. “Plu-ease go a-way-y. Boom-boom. All night fuckee. All night fuckee.” This went on for the entire twenty minutes she followed me. Then she started quoting popular songs, like “Everybody needs somebody sometime.”

Eventually I turned around and headed back, just walking, trying to get rid of her. She suggested that we go to Pagoda Park. Then she said, “Are you a soldier?” When I said no, her entire manner changed immediately. I found out later that many people assume a single Western man walking alone is a soldier on the make.

“What are you doing in Korea?”

“I’m a teacher.”

Then she started offering to help me find my way around Korea. She suggested we go to a coffee shop and talk. I said no. I was afraid to get on the subway for fear she would follow me. Finally, as we were walking through a crowded of people, she gently touched the small of my back for a second—as if to communicate something—and then left me alone.

I went to a place called something like Seoul Deck Disco with a couple of my students. The floor is so packed there’s hardly any room to dance. This was right around the [1988] Olympics. Because I was the only Westerner in the place, I was an immediate sensation. They had live music, and the singer said in Korean, “Let’s give a nice round of applause to the big Westerner on the dance floor.” All of a sudden all of these people were standing around me in a circle applauding, which was kind of nice. When the music started again all the people in the circle started to dance with me. People do everything except slow dancing in groups, they move from group to group, there’s no dancing with partners only.

A woman said, “Hello, my name is Gisu Kim, and I’m very pleased to meet you.” We talked despite the crowd and the disco music blasting, and we danced. Just before the slow music came on, I got ready to leave the dance floor.

Slow dancing is called “brucing,” from English “blues” or “blues dancing.” The music is songs like “Love Me Tender.” To “bruce” is quite a sought-after privilege. When the music comes on, the men will try to find a partner, and the women will run for cover because they would look like “loose women” if they acted like they wanted to dance.

Apparently one of my students talked to one of Gisu’s friends, and the student took me by the arm, Gisu’s friend took her by the arm, and we were slow dancing. So I danced with Gisu, which meant getting quite a few stares by the other couples on the floor, and the singer said in Korean, “Why doesn’t the big Westerner kiss his Korean girlfriend?” I didn’t know this. It was explained to me later.

Gisu looked up at me and asked, “Do you speak Korean?” When I said no, she grumbled a little. She pressed herself up against me. I thought this was a little strange from what I had heard about Korean women, but later I found out that it wasn’t unusual given that I’m an American. Then she asked me for my phone number.

I was concerned that she might be looking for an American husband, a ticket to the States, so instead of my home number I gave her the one at the school. She called, we went out, and I really enjoyed it. As she bought me dinner—yes, there was a real role reversal here—she said, “My father said we should enjoy ourselves.” “Enjoy” is often a Korean euphemism for sex. I knew that, but I acted as if I couldn’t understand her accent. It was pretty clear that she wanted to sleep with me.

“Are you married?”

“No, but I have a girlfriend in America.”

“Do you love your girlfriend?”


“Are you going to marry your girlfriend?”



“When I go home.”

“Do your parents know you sleep with your girlfriend?”


She wanted to come to my apartment, but I wasn’t in the mood for that, so we went dancing again. Toward the end of the evening, she wrapped her arms around me and nuzzled up against my chest while we danced.

I saw her again, and then again. I didn’t know at the time that if a Korean woman comes to a man’s apartment it means she intends to sleep with him, but nothing happened. Then I saw her at Chusok, the traditional Korean holiday.

She met me at the YMCA. She was wearing a hanbok, the traditional costume. I was wearing jeans. Boy, did we get stared at coming back on the subway. She came to my apartment, and I made lunch for us. She was amazed that I could make tuna fish sandwiches, that I did my own laundry, that I swept my own floor, and that I enjoyed living alone.

Then she initiated—what did you call it in high school, petting? It was very nice. I made the mistake in acting reflexively, as if she were a Westerner and saying, “Look, what are we doing? How far are we going to take this?” I learned later that in this country you never talk about this. If you do, she has to admit that she wants sex, and she loses face. But we did talk, and I found out that she was only twenty-one and a virgin. She said she didn’t want sex because I have a girlfriend and because she didn’t want to lose her virginity. Apparently, what I should have done, as I found out later, was to agree completely. That way, if we should happen to be swept up in the passion of the moment at some later date, we could say we couldn’t help it and her face would be saved.

Gisu was extremely curious about sex, but she couldn’t behave like this with a Korean man because odds are very good that she would be called a slut. On the other hand, she couldn’t be Western with me. We had to play all these face-saving games. The next time she saw me, she said, “Do you love me?”

“Well, I like you very much, but I don’t love you.”

I have since discovered that she wanted to hear I loved her to justify whatever physical relationship we had. In the 1950s in the U.S., the games were used to cover up the guilt, but here people feel ashamed if they don’t play them. There’s not so much guilt in the act itself, but the games are an act that must be played out. The pieces finally started falling together in my head.

Then she said she wanted to love me like her father, which I think was just a way of getting me to say I loved her so she could justify having sex with me.

One time when we were fooling around, she indicated that I should take my clothes off. She had watched a sex video at the university so she could find out how to give head. I have since learned that, because things have gone so far it’s going to be hard as hell for me to get out of this relationship. If I tell her I still want to see her, but I want to stop the physical relationship, no matter what I say she’ll hear that in my eyes she’s not even good enough for just sex. If I don’t really feel about her the way she was assuming I did, then she’s done this stuff like any whore would have, and she loses face.

I was told that to break up with her I have to find some suitably tearful reason why we can’t be together anymore, something with all the appropriate melodrama. That will make her happy, even though she may know perfectly well why I’m telling her “fate has intervened to keep us apart.” I can’t see myself doing that. The other thing I could so is to say that my girlfriend found out about us, that she’s very jealous. “I’m sorry, but I can’t risk it.” One of the problems with that story is that she wants to meet Irene when she comes to Korea, and I’ve been advised that I shouldn’t let that happen. Irene wouldn’t mind. We have an open relationship. But Korean women are well known for their jealous scenes.

What’s become really clear to me is that all those ideas about equality and feminism which work perfectly well in the States do not work here. That stuff can tell me there’s something seriously wrong with Korean gender roles and sexual morality, but it doesn’t prepare me to live here as a responsible male. If I wanted to spend several years here, I would have to find some way of living that’s consistent with Confucianism. I have no choice but to be patriarchal here.

I went to Miari in order to experience being in a really patriarchal position. For my thinking and writing I wanted a concrete example to fall back on. There’s no way I could visit a whorehouse in the States and be able to say the same things about it. Here I’m not a full participant in the culture, so I can maintain a certain detachment. Going to a whorehouse doesn’t carry the same stigma here. The people I can go with are different.

Miari is a huge brothel district. It’s the ultimate of prostitution as a tourist industry. There are many different houses. Each house has a different name, and in front of each house there are women sitting wearing a different style of hanbok. You can go there for sex, or you can go there to have women wait on you, put on a show and make you feel like a real man. That’s what my Korean friend and I did. He’d been there before, and he was provided with a woman he had met there previously. The three of us went into a room with a low table with beer and fruit and a space heater. There may have been mats to sit on. I was told that a girl would be sent for me, and I could accept or reject her. I didn’t find her particularly attractive, but I wasn’t about to say, “No, I think she’s ugly. Send her back.” I was interested in the game, but I wasn’t going to play it that much.

I had to sing a song, then the woman with my friend sang a song, and then my friend said to the women in Korean, “Get undressed.” They did, and they sat next to us and waited on us and teased and flirted and fondled. Every so often the woman sitting next to me would pucker her lips at me, and I would oblige and kiss her. The woman with my friend was eighteen years old. She spoke some English and obviously had a fair amount of experience in saying the right things to make you feel like the center of attention. The woman I was with was younger, spoke no English and was obviously scared. I think it was her first time with a foreign customer. She was fascinated by the hair on my chest and arms. I was later told that the reason she fondled me was probably that I wasn’t touching her. That hadn’t occurred to me.

The show girl came out and did all sorts of feats with her vaginal muscles to show how strong and well-controlled they were. Put an egg inside her, took it out, broke it, put it in my beer and gave it to me “for stamina.” She put the handle of a bottle opener in her vagina and opened a bottle of beer with it. She took a long stick, lit it from a burning torch, and lit my friend’s cigarette with it. She inserted a brush and wrote my name with it on a piece of paper. I was really bored.

That was Miari. I have no curiosity left. My enjoyment of the situation was only from superficial learned responses. I did not enjoy it in any significant level of my being. There’s a lot of stuff churning in my head which I can’t even begin to articulate yet.

I think frequently getting a power fix in a place like Miari can do a lot of harm. One of the things I’ve learned here is how complex an emotion loneliness is. Also, on a very shallow level it was sort of nice to be pawed by that hooker who accosted me. But had I participated it might have relieved the loneliness of Irene’s not being here for a half hour or so, but not any longer than that.


MBC’s The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners.(Things haven’t changed much.)

And a response to the video called “The actual reality of interracial relationships.”|home|online