아저씨들의 수다 (or Korean guys say the darnedest things)

So for reasons that will soon become clear I am wrapping up a lot of my current English classes, which means that my classes have become even more loose than they usually are, which is pretty loose. For example, last night I had a, if not heated then perhaps we could say ‘tense’, class in which I warned several of my students against sending their young children abroad to study English, pointing out the risks, including their inability to reintegrate fully into Korean society; the fact that they may just become foreigners while abroad; the fact that in the future English will not be considered a source of competitive advantage but rather a basic requirement and thus other skills will likely do them more good; the adverse effects on Korean society, and most bitingly, the fact that their children will miss out on the school ties that are vital for a normal life in Korea. While some students agreed with me in part, my basic premise, that no matter how good the English, it is not worth it to break up your family for your children’s education, fell on deaf ears.

Anyway, that’s just one of the many classes that I’ve had recently in wrap-up mode. The one that concerns us today is the class before that. The class usually includes five men and one woman, but for some reason only three men attended. Recently several of my students have told me stories about drinking so much that they couldn’t get home or fell down and hurt themselves and one guy told me that he actually missed work because of excessive drinking, his condition so bad that his wife took him to the hospital and he spent hours getting a drip-feed. I posed the question to the men: What do you do if you don’t care to get so drunk that you fall and break your leg or pass out on the street? I got some good advice, for example, if you are in a noraebang (song room) and you want to avoid drinking you should sing or talk as much as possible. The latter should be no problem for me. It’s good to make it clear that you are not a good drinker. You should, they said, make a big show of getting very drunk and sort of ruining everyone’s good time, and then repeatedly emphasize the negative aftereffects in order to make your drunkenness less desirable for them in the future, but obviously that is a risky proposition because it might be just as bad as refusing to go in the first place. They advised me against trying to pretend to drink or toss my drink, because that would result in a ‘punishment’, most likely a lot more alcohol than you attempted to avoid. The rest of their tips were typical of the kind of ‘eat bread to soak up the alcohol’ kind of things you hear on college campuses in the US, for example one guy told me not to eat anything and rather drink copious amounts of water, while another guy recommended various drinking party hangover potions (피로제) that are supposed to allow you to party all night and feel fine the next day. From there, the topic drifted, as it naturally does in a room full of men in Korea, towards Korea’s ubiquitous sex industry. I explained to them that this seamless system of social conveyor belts leading from restaurant to bar to whorehouse doesn’t exist where I come from and thus this topic is of extreme prurient interest to most foreigners. I told them all of the little stories that I’ve heard over the years from foreigners, for example any barber shop with two barber poles also sold sex acts, the rigid hierarchy of sex industry establishments that I’ve heard foreigners breathlessly explain in the past (I specifically remember being told about ‘the seven kinds of venues for prostitution in Korea’).

Obviously there is a lot of doublethink going on in Korea. I mean, this stuff is everywhere: I defy you to find a single square kilometer in Seoul in which you cannot have sex for money. And yet it simply goes unspoken. If a single place started selling sex in most inhabited areas of the US I think there would be an outcry, but here these places are woven into residential areas. There are probably twelve Beer and Whiskey Joints (맥주양주점) around the house where I live, closer than the nearest bakery or supermarket, literally less than a minute away. There is no outcry. There seems to be nearly no reaction at all from those that you would expect to disapprove: children’s advocacy groups, women’s groups and religious groups seem to be fine with it

I asked my students what guys do when they do not care to take part in the sexy festivities and they claimed, in one man’s exact words, ‘such a thing has never happened’. At the same time they were very careful to lay out the important distinction between a prostitute, who has sex for money, and a ‘helper’ or doumi, who merely ‘helps’ men relax and have a good time and ‘just talk’. My one student Mr. Go, I could tell at this point, was a real connoisseur of this kind of thing because he enthusiastically explained the filthy kind of things you could talk about with them. My students were pretty unrepentant about the whole thing. It reminded me of my first boss in Korea, who recommended that we go out for a night of drinking and whoring by way of explaining that he and his brothers-in-law (his wife’s two sisters’ husbands) often do it together.

Anyway, there was a single exchange during this conversation that was so hilariously sick that I felt I had to write a post about it. I have very high moral goals for myself. As such, I am both disgusted and amused by the Korean male’s attitude about this kind of thing. For example, I posed the question ‘What do you talk about with a helper? It’s not like you have so much in common or that they’re so intelligent or well-informed that you could have any substantial conversation with them, and you couldn’t ask “Where are you from?” and ask about their background.’

‘Why not?’ one of my students interrupted.

‘Well, I mean she’s working as a helper in a bar, I’m sure she doesn’t want to be talking about her family. It would make her sad to think about her poor mother while she’s feeding you whiskey, right?’

They had clearly never thought about it before, because their response was ‘Meh.’ They seemed, in general, unwilling or unable to empathize with the helper.

But the coup de grace was when we were deep into our discussion of all the half-truths that I’ve been told second-hand about these things. ‘What’s the deal with the ajumma places? I heard there are special ajumma places, why would you go there?’

‘The price.’

‘Hmm. They don’t have any special ajumma skills or something?’

‘No, only special ajumma weight. But when you go there you mustn’t call them Ajumma. In that place they are agasshi (young woman).’

Mr. Go disagreed. ‘No, only some of them are like that. The good ones are very good at being ajumma. They can do a very good ajumma performance.’

And then Mr. Go invited me out. I suggested that we go out for gourmet ice cream instead.

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~ by Joe on April 19, 2008.

5 Responses to “아저씨들의 수다 (or Korean guys say the darnedest things)”

  1. Having a conversation like this with my coteachers would only be a tiny bet less uncomfortable than having this conversation with my uncles. Just curious, what are the ajumma places?

  2. To the best of my knowledge, the ajumma places are just like every other place except their staffed by ‘divorced women, women whose husbands lost their jobs, women working for their children’s hagwon fee or married women who just like the work’. My students seemed to prefer the women whose husbands had lost their jobs, although the women who did it for the love of the game seemed to come in a close second in their estimation.

  3. I hope it hasn’t gotten to the point where salarymen are openly perusing porn magazines in the subways. Yeah, being of Korean extraction, I can’t help the feeling tugging at my bones suggesting that the japanese next door has a little something to do with this massive hypocrisy. Every time a heart rending book about a tragic mother figure hits bookstores, they just burst with emotion about family piety, and yet these adjeosshis never think twice about the fact that that woman you screwed around is a mother or daughter of some unfortunate person.

  4. oh so what I’m getting from this post is that the image I foolishly had in my head of a romantic country filled with romantic and loyal men is simply an illusion.

    (image bubble – streets filled with shy sensitive Korean guys – popped) *sigh*

  5. what is meant by a jumma

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