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Writer-s-Bloc

Hits from the Norae bong

This is the third instalment in a four or five part series by Riann Arkinstall on life in Korea. To read the first instalment go here: Moving to Korea, eh? To read the second instalment: "Teacher should hit me".

Korea - Why I stayed cont'd

By Riann Arkinstall

Merry Christmas! 

As I write this, it is the first time in 13 years that I have spent Christmas with my family. 

This is due to scheduling. Koreans only get Christmas Day off work, and the winter school vacation starts on the last few days of December. It was necessary to get special time off from teaching this year, as my son, who is almost four now, was very keen on the idea of Christmas - particularly Santa.

People ask me, “Don’t you miss your family?” 

Of course. However, technology brings us fairly close together, and I do get home to see family about twice a year.

The Korean living experience obviously has had its challenges, but one reason I chose to stay is the rich cultural and social life.

Social and cultural - Hits from the Norae bong

For the experienced expat, we become quite choosey. So choosey, in fact, that we may sometimes come across as cold or aloof, however I have been fortunate to find good friends in Korea, both expat and Korean. 

The experienced expat knows what and who they like. For example, I am constantly bombarded by the ‘foreigner cat-call’ when walking down the street or sitting at a pub. Any number of random kids or drunken fellows will make an attempt to grab my attention, “Hello. How are you? Where are you from? What’s your name?” 

This may sound harmless enough, but when it happens every single day, wherever you go, it very quickly gets tedious. My expat friends and I have the same response: We wave and nod, then move on.

For the initial stages of the Korean experience, friendships are more a matter of common experience and location (i.e. workmates) rather than common interest and mindset. 

To seek out those with similar interests and mindset, Korean individuals can be exponentially more difficult, as most (but not all) Koreans will befriend foreigners with much of the same intention as the kids mentioned above. They want a chance to improve their English.

For any new expat, the first three months here can be a bit of haze. Everything is just so new and exciting, and it can be overwhelming. However, once the honeymoon phase wears off, one generally starts to either love the differences or loathe them. 

The ones who loathe it can generally be found in the expat bars, essentially drinking away their time until their contracts are up. The ones who love it will be out there experiencing all there is to experience.

For me, three of the more notable cultural experiences have been ~

The Soju tent

The Norae bong (Singing Room)

The Jimjil bong (Sweat Room)

Often, these three experiences occur on the same dizzying night. 

The Soju tent

It is said that in Korean culture, if you really want to get to know someone, you need to get very drunk together. It is thought that the loss of inhibitions from drinking a few bottles of soju allows the truth to escape. Some believe that if one pukes from over-drinking, a certain trust is created.

A walk to work in the morning involves being careful not to step in any puke piles, especially if the walk is through the entertainment district.

Almost every meeting involves alcohol, so if you want to do business in Korea, you’d best get your drinking boots on, buddy. After a couple of bottles of 20% spirits have been consumed, you will likely be doing ‘love shots’ (see photo gallery).

The Norae Bong

The next stage of the evening is the Norae bong, more commonly known in Western culture as Karaoke. However, it doesn’t involve singing on stage in a pub in front of an audience, it’s in your own private room. More drinks, and, in some cases, some female ‘companionship’, and lots and lots of singing.

The Jimjil Bong

Once you have sufficiently destroyed your larynx, you can then pour yourself into the final stage of the night - the Jimjil Bong. The Jimjil Bong is a public bath and sauna to sweat out the toxins, and have a rest. 

For about six dollars, you enjoy a shower, a soak in a theme pool (i.e. jade stone, cedar wood, gold leaf, green tea, mugwort, etc.) and a sleep in the gender-separated sleeping rooms, wearing the provided shorts and t-shirt.

For me, the best service provided is the full-body exfoliation. This generally lasts about 30 minutes, and I’ve never felt cleaner. It became a weekly routine. 

The public bath, one of the nicest cultural differences of Korea, is the reason a number of my students have seen me naked. 

Seeing a father wash his son - and vice versa - struck me, sadly, as a wonderfully natural interaction between two people. When I say sadly, I mean that it is unfortunate that the interaction would even seem unusual to me. The practice is so natural, yet coming from the indoctrinated state of mind that any naked physical interaction between an adult and child might be interpreted as some type of abuse is incredibly unfortunate.

These are just three examples of the outstanding cultural differences I have noticed. 

To be continued. . . .

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