Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The colonialists are coming!

I'D KNOWN her fifteen minutes, when, as casual as a request to pass the salt, it came out at a work dinner, my first with the job:

"I don't like white guys dating Asian girls," she, a New Yorker of Korean descent, said, wrapping a fatty piece of pork belly in a lettuce leaf.


But aren't I white? I wondered silently, frantically grabbing a spoon to check my reflection. Yes, it was true: white as a bag of MDMA sold to an insecure teen outside the school gates. White as a pillaging colonialist. 

Then another horrifying realisation: my girlfriend. She was Korean ...making her ...yes, Asian! There was no mistake. I was one sick kid.

"They just go out with them for a status symbol," she rationalised.

"I am sure some go out with them because they like them," I protested feebly, like a child molester in denial.

She raised her eyebrows. No, of course. She was right. My "relationship" -- more accurately, manifestation of my illness -- was a product of white, racist, male, empire. How could I have been so blind.

A few minutes later I was asked by her did I come to Korea for a girlfriend (an expensive proposition I would have thought. But then colonialists do it for the fun of it, not the economics.) Then I was informed white people had it good everywhere. I stayed calm. Polite. Useless.

I left it, said nothing more. Ate my fatty pork and and gulped my soju.

But later I wondered how an exchange such as this might have gone down: 

Me (the white imperialist): "You know what I really don't like?"

Table of work colleagues, mostly not well-acquainted: "No, what? Traffic?"

Me: "No. Black guys dating white girls!"

Table: "..."

The initial silence might have resembled a pre-deceased Osama bin Laden walking in on his 20-whatever sons in makeup and pink tutus, bobbing and twirling to "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" (on headphones of course). Then maybe some "Hmmm..."s and "Ah, no..."s. Then, maybe I'd be called a racist to my face. Maybe later on I'd get a nice letter from my employer explaining how it had found someone else to do my job.

The nice thing about a comment such as the one our enlightened New Yorker -- who, in case you wonder, had been here two months and spoke no Korean -- made is that is has all sorts of important-sounding academic justification behind it. On the milder, though often plain silly, end of the scale, you have post-colonial studies; on the more despicable: Swedish professors saying white men attracted to Asian women are acting out paedophilic desires.

The real racism is in the nasty white men taking advantage of the oppressed colonial subjects, not those who object to normal, healthy relationships. And so on.

But not to worry. The weekend is approaching. Plans are to be made. I hear a ship is setting off soon for a long voyage. They are calling it the New World. Time to grab my feathered helmet, chest plate and sabre.

 Next stop New York City.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Here comes that sticky feeling...

IT HAS almost been a year. I arrived in Korea in July and the humidity then made you want to change your underwear every hour. It's only May, but she has returned already: that sultry, sticky heat that makes you sweat even as you sit still.

It is a reminder of how quickly things move: a year really is not a long time. It is hard to believe, but more than 10 months have gone by, enough time to lose that feeling of "travelling". I live here now. In some ways, Korea to me is now simply "the norm." Of course, there are many things that still puzzle me about this country and challenge my understanding of it. But that strange feeling of routine has resolutely taken hold: sleep, eat, work, repeat.

The heat reminds me of something else too: that goshiwon of last summer with its cockroaches and its squalor and its lack of air-conditioning. I have air-conditioning now. It hasn't been turned on yet. Not even once.

 But when it is, oh, will it be glorious.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wife as family and cheating that isn't cheating

I HAVE come to believe that Korean men tend -- generally, with exceptions, and the full acknowledgement that you, dear reader, are a perfect example of such an exception, and so can save your fingers for angry posts on other blogs -- to be quite conservative when it comes to their ideas of women and dating. Whether by nature or because they simply have to be, K-men, to this romance-less cynic's eyes, are relatively romantic. They give flowers often by Western standards. They wear clothes that match their girlfriend's. (Again I wonder how much coercion from the lovely ladies in their lives has to do with this.)

A greater number of men than would be found at home seem to stress the importance of a partner that would be a good mother to their children, and a welcome addition to their family. This idea of a wife as family can causes problems when it comes to the bedroom -- plainly, you don't have sex with your family, mother of your child or not. This is a big trend in Japan where upwards of 40 percent of married couples have reported having not had sex in the previous month. Hard stats on the situation here are hard to find, if they exist at all, but aspects of the culture and its reverence toward family, along with a huge and easily accessible prostitution industry, suggest that the situation here may not be all that dissimilar to Japan.

While out drinking soju with some Korean friends -- what better way is there to bond with Korean men? -- I had this view of your wife as family being confirmed to some degree. One of my sunbaes said that some men's tendency to see their wife as more of a sister than a sexual being leads them to seek sexual gratification elsewhere. Before that an American out with us and myself had been talking about the tacit acceptance of cheating here, and how some men don't consider it, well, cheating.

We put it to him: How can sleeping with someone who isn't your wife or girlfriend not be seen as cheating? My sunbae said cheating wasn't OK and that most Korean men felt the same way. But what about the room salons and escorts on business trips away, we asked? But that was different, he replied. There is no feeling or love involved, so it isn't the same as cheating. Indeed. But how well would that excuse hold up with a spouse or girlfriend?

Not as bad as you might think, according to 여자친구. She said that some women would put up with such an indiscretion once, were done to further their man's career (and I have heard plenty to suggest that bosses have been known to put serious pressure on male workers to accept paid-for sex). That is a level of patience and tolerance -- if those are even the correct words; others could be added -- that makes Marge Simpson look unreasonable for her placid reaction to her trials in marriage -- and a very lucky girl to boot.

And from the man's point of view? Well, what a way to get a bonus. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Roses are red...wait, I like sports.

KOREA has plenty of its own unique twists on romance. And so it is with Valentine's Day. The date is the same. Romance is still the theme. But, for reasons I have yet to determine, in Korea, Valentine's is all about the men.

 It's the girls who buy the chocolates for guys, not the other way around. A month on, it's payback time, with White Day for the ladies. Now, you might think that the chocolates the guys get here would be somewhat "manned-up" compared to the ribbon-wrapped, girlie offerings we are used to in the West. Perhaps chocolate-shaped tanks or pralines fashioned like nude women. Nope. What's on offer is just as chick-tastic as anywhere.

Outside every convenience store tables will offer baskets, teddy bears, fake roses and colourfully-adorned boxes and boxes (and boxes) of chocolates. Is there a (heterosexual) man who appreciates the kind of saccharine tokens of Hallmark's favourite holiday that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "My Little Pony"? Perhaps in Korea. Or perhaps they have no choice.

Yes. Men do like chocolate on occasion. This is acceptable. There are, for instance, blood sugar justifications for tolerating, at times, sweetness. Men, however, do not like flowers, teddies, angels or pink. Especially not pink. It is just not right. It's a weak colour. Neither red or white, but iffy. No character. Pink sort of says, "I thought about running the four-minute mile, but then decided instead to buy a kitten and bake muffins." 

There is an order to things, there are jobs to be done. And pink does not fit into this order for men. No one stormed Normandy wearing pink. Or bench pressed 200lbs. Or chopped down a tree. 

Of all nations, Korea should no better. There is a belligerent and unstable commie state on its doorstep. Do you think Kim Jong-il is going to be deterred from throwing his weight around by Hello Kitty or pink heart-shaped boxes? No. No he is not. He'll be encouraged if anything. There is a reason men here have compulsory military service. And bringing men into contact with pretty Valentine's wares goes against it.

No one ever punched anyone in the face wearing pink. Not like a man anyway.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

War and sacrifice

IT WAS over Seolall that I finally made it to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. The complex is huge and it would be easy to spend hours moving between the different rooms and exhibits. And well worth it would it be too.

There are few things more trite-sounding than the insistence that life was harder in times gone by, or that we've never had it so lucky as today. But what is trite is not necessarily untrue. And, truly, it is almost impossible when walking the streets of Seoul today, with its Starbucks branches and people on smart phones, to comprehend what the city was like just a few decades ago.

The occupation by the Japanese turned particularly nasty with the outbreak of WWII. The Korea War, which followed, was horrible by any measure. Some estimates put the civilian dead alone at 3 million. And yet, it is a war which barely registers in the European and, I'd suspect, but perhaps to a lesser extent due its heavy involvement, American consciousness. We've heard of WWII. We've seen the films and know the players. We've heard of Vietnam. We've heard the soundtrack and of Hendrix and protests and seen the photos of the effects of napalm. But the Korean War?  How many of us know much about that?

But it is only when you try comprehend -- and try is all you can do, because really understand one cannot -- the sheer difficultly of life in Korea until relatively recently, that you begin to appreciate the marvel that Korea is today. And you begin to understand, if only faintly, why the country is the way it is.

Almost every westerner who comes here is amused, aggravated and charmed in equal measure by just how tough the older generation is. At 7am on a Saturday morning they are hiking mountains, at 3pm they are pushing you, moving though you are, onto a subway carriage, at 10pm it could work, washing, cooking, and cleaning. They must be truly aghast at how soft the Korean young and western visitors are.

But they didn't have time or a choice to be any other way. Life was hard and that, one can imagine, was that. At the memorial, my girlfriend told me about how, during the Korean War, her grandmother had to avoid Chinese soldiers' attempts to have her drafted into prostitution. To make herself unattractive to the soldiers, she would cover her face in urine or feign retardation. This is a woman who is still alive and whose grandchildren are not only never hungry, but drink lattes for 5,000 won and buy cinema tickets on their phones. The speed at which life improved for the next two generations of Koreans is astonishing. Life was hard, much harder than today. And it's trite, but that hardly matters.What matters most of all is what is also so inspiring: things can and do improve. 

Dramatically, widely, unstoppably. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


AGAIN a holiday has sneaked up on me from somewhere in the Korean calendar I didn't know was significant. This time it's Seolall -- the Korean new year. It's the year of the rabbit. And I'm a rabbit. It means you are supposed to be lucky and smart. Apparently it is the best animal to be. I'm supposed to stay away from boars at all costs. I think.

 Three weekdays lie free before me. The last one is accounted for. The rest, not yet. Like Chuseok, Seolall is all about family. People in the cities clear out to the countryside and visit family and eat and remember the dead. Everyone I know seems to be gone. It is a holiday that doesn't affect the average westerner apart from the time off. And so I'm sitting and waiting. Waiting for what, I don't yet know.

Waiting to think, probably. Spring is here now. The ice is turning to slush. The new year has come again. Twice in just over four weeks. 

Time to make a whole new set of resolutions.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My friend Mr. Frank

"WHEN I was in the locker room with some American guys, I was so impressed," my Korean friend said above the noise of the bar.

"Their penises were so big."

 No, he wasn't that drunk. He just didn't do subtly or, seemingly, embarrassment. This was the same guy who had announced to me and a group westerner friends over dinner that his mother often fought with his dad over his drinking. His mother and father -- him with drink in hand of course -- were at the table at the time. No one batted an eyelid. Brutal frankness must have run in the family.

"My weakness is my small penis," he continued, without anger or sadness, but a smile. He laughed and slapped my back. Ho ho, indeed. Was I supposed to laugh? I supposed I was. I worried he would have his head in my lap, spilling tears and yelping like a kicked about puppy before the end of the night. But he looked all right. He could see the funny side of the biggest insecurity any man could have.

"I think western girls like big penis," he went on. He wanted to meet a white girl. He had already apparently. But his curiosity hadn't been sated.

"Well...." I said (just what do you say?) "I don't think girls care about that too much. I mean, I don't think it is that important." I was western too, you see, I knew all about these things. Or so he seemed to think.

"Really?" he said, his ears perked.

"Uh...yeah," I said, looking into my drink and telling myself we were the shallower sex. I wondered if I believed it.

And then we ordered more drinks and drank. And he told me some more of what was buzzing about in that brain of his. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Twin and transactions of the heart

"OH, you know my friend The Twin and her boyfriend are OK now?" the girlfriend drops into the conversation casually. The twins are two of her friends I have yet to meet. One of them has been dating the same guy for 8 years. Last time I heard, she had wanted to break up with him and had told him so. He had other ideas.

"Oh? I thought she wanted rid of him?" I say, "What happened?"

"Well. . ." she says pauses and furrows her brow. "I don't want to say. You will think this is like all Koreans."

 "Don't worry I won't. What happened?" I reassure her, intrigued. This was going to be interesting. This guy had definitely done something above and beyond a dinner date to win The Twin back.

"Well, he asked her for her bank account details. And then he gave her 2,000,000 won," she says, labouring over every word.

"2,000,000 won? What? Why?" What had he done to owe her the equivalent of 1,200 euros? Had he sold her wardrobe for drugs? I had to be missing details.

"Just to show he cares. He wanted to make a gesture."

"To. Show. He. Cares?" I say in disbelief. 7/11 must have been all out of flowers and chocolates that day. 

"Yes. I don't like," she says, well aware that I find this beyond belief.

"She got back with him? But she was done with him. I thought that was it? So he gave her a pile of money and now she's staying with him? You are telling me that is literally what happened?"

"Yes," she says, "so strange. I hope you don't think all Koreans like this."

I damn well hope not, I think to myself. Not if that is the cost of a relationship. . . With what is in my bank account, I couldn't afford much on the market of love. 

Probably not even a sloppy kiss on the mouth from a bearded man with chronic bad breath.