Friday, 22 May 2009

The Pied Piper of Anmin

After a rather lacklustre week on the teaching front I eagerly await a Friday evening locked away in my room. Friday afternoon is spent dreaming of pizza, red wine, good tunes and a film. Four forty arrives and I exit the school faster than the kids. I sit at the bus stop listening to Underworld, whilst reading the fantastic "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and basking in the late afternoon sunshine. I am perfectly content and happy to be a member of this fine planet. Even the reckless, stop start motion of the bus cannot erase the permanent grin from my face. I feel that nothing can penetrate my pleasure bubble or defuse me from my state of euphoria. How wrong I could be!

The bus approaches my stop and I lean forward to push the stop button. In the corner of my eye I catch the sight of somebody waving at me and I spin my body around 45 degrees for a closer inspection. I am confronted by my previously mentioned slipper wearing/ tae twondo kicking, teenage friend. I politely wave and ask how he is before walking off towards my house. It turns out that he is going in the same direction, so we walk together. He asks me where I live and I point my house out to him. He is not satisfied with this and asks if he can come and see. At this point I begin to sense that my plans may be disrupted but I do not decline his wishes.

An hour later and I am feeling more than a little worried that I may have to revise my plans. The teenager has made himself very much at home and is sprawled all over my bed drinking juice and dictating which music I should play. Eventually I think that he is going to leave, when out of the blue he asks me if I want to go hiking with him in 5 minutes time. Now one part of me is greatly distressed and thinking, like f**k I want to go hiking with you. However another part of me is thinking, it's a beautiful evening, the birds are singing and this may be an opportunity for me to get right into the Korean culture. I acquiesce and within minutes I am ascending Anmin Gogae (the beautiful mountain directly behind my house). By now my mindset is in a process of transition. I am thinking, this is lovely and I should do this more often in the evening. I have been afforded a perfect opportunity to learn first hand about Korean youth culture and Korean culture in general. In my usual manner I am firing questions at him like a malfunctioning machine gun and he is candidly providing me with answers. Once again I am happy and pleased with myself for adjusting my plans at such short notice.

One thing that first captures your attention in Korea is the fitness level of the majority of the population. Almost everybody exercises in one form or another. Hiking is the number one pass time, which I guess is not too surprising with 70 percent of the country being covered by mountains. However, cycling, speed walking, running and general exercising are also extremely popular. Outdoor gyms are prominent in every city, town and village and they are very well utilised. There are even gyms on the mountain sides and they are all free. So, my new friend and I are walking up the mountain at around 7 pm on a Friday evening and the mountain is literally heaving with people performing all of the pass times that I have just mentioned. It is not uncommon to be hiking up a mountain in Korea only to be overtaken by a very old person who is literally motoring at pace. The demographic is on the whole middle aged ladies all sporting massive peaked caps which is standard issue in Korea. I point out my observations to my friend and inform him that the majority of people in England are either getting drunk by this time on a Friday evening or rushing around trying to score drugs.

Fifty minutes later we reach the top of the mountain and are rewarded by the beautiful view. The mountain divides the 2 cities of Changwon and Jinhae with a tunnel going right through it to connect the 2 cities. Looking down from the mountain top, you can see the beautiful coast line of Jinhae on one side with islands jutting out from the sea as far as the eye can see. On the other side of the mountain you can see the more industrial city of Changwon which is consequently smog filled and much less attractive. At the top of the mountain are a number of eating establishments, which are in the form of permanently set up tents which sell anything from noodles, pancakes, toasties or even more elaborate dishes. My friend informs me that they are open till 11 at night and I feel excited at the prospect of riding up the mountain pass on my motorbike when I eventually get it and eating my dinner up there. My friend offers to buy me dinner but I tell him that I have the idea of eating pizza firmly etched on my mind and I am not willing to make concessions on this.

As we walk back down the mountain his mobile rings on many occasions and upon questioning him (i am not using his name because it is too difficult for me to remember), I find out that it is his parents and that they have invited me around to their house. By this point I have given up on my original plans and therefore agree. The prospect of experiencing Korean culture and hospitality excites me greatly.

Upon reaching Anmin dong (my village), I am ushered to a nearby bbq restaurant where I am informed his father is drinking. We enter the restaurant and not for the first time in Korea I am made to feel like a star. The occupants of the restaurant cannot do enough for me. I take off my shoes,as is custom and take my place on the heated floor, sat cross legged with a large group of drunken men and women. I have downed a few quick soju's (potato spirit) and am beginning to feel comfortable when I am ushered out of the building by my friend as soon as I was ushered in. I say my goodbyes and then walk across to my friends house to meet his mother. I am informed that my friends Father spends every night in the restaurant/bar before staggering home to bed. I am beginning to see that this is a common pattern in Korean society.

We are welcomed into the house by my friends mother who speaks absolutely no English and then a large pizza is ordered for me. The mother retires to the bedroom whilst my friend shows me his photographs and informs me of his plans to travel the world. Before long, his father returns home completely pie eyed and he attempts to converse with me in Korean. My friend acts as translator and it turns out that his dad who is a truck driver, is getting ready for work. Yeah, you heard right -he is completely pissed and is about to start his shift truck driving. He see's my dismay and through his translator I am told that i have introduced him to English customs now he is introducing me to Korean culture i.e. drink driving. He bids us farewell and staggers off to his truck.

I am starting to think that my evening is drawing to it's conclusion, when my friends phone rings and I am told that his friend wants to meet me. I am also asked if his friend can sleep at my house and if he can borrow 10 000 won (fiver). I find this rather cheeky but feel that I can't say too much because I have just been a recipient of his families hospitality. I agree and we head off to meet his friend, who turns out to be horribly drunk They sort of give themselves an invitation to my house and before I know it, half the youth population of Anmin dong are sat in my room on a proper booze and party session. I hear the phone keep ringing and then another knock at the door and in pops another 3 people; phone rings again, 2 more people at the door -the loop continues. These are kids that live with their parents until they are 30 yrs of age, with nowhere to go. They have found a weak link and the smoke signals have been sent out.

These are the rebels of Korean society and they have found me. Rebellious they may be but no matter how drunk they are, they are still instilled with a sense of Korean etiquette. I attempt to walk into my own apartment with my shoes on which provokes a nuclear reaction. I am told in no uncertain terms that this against their ethics. Later I try to pour a drink for myself and am met by an equal if not stronger reaction. It is deeply embedded into Korean society that you are not allowed to pour yourself a drink but instead somebody has to pour it for you. I keep forgetting and am almost lynched every time. I try to educate them on British music and pull out all the classics which are met by a sea of distaste. These kids, the rebels of Korean society, want to listen to K Pop and awful American gangster rap. What is K pop I hear you ask? Well the answer is - K pop is utter drivel. Take the worst British boy band and make them even more gay than they already are, with terribly camp dance routines and you have K pop. It is just one of the many inconsistencies of Korean society. They claim to be macho and fighters, yet almost every teenager has a poncey hairdo and carries a man bag. The boys walk down the street, holding hands or sit caressing each other, it's bizarre. Last night at my little impromptu party, there were 2 guys literally rubbing each other up, arms and legs entangled and playing with each others hair. At the same time they were talking about their love of cage fighting, telling me that there was no such thing as a homosexual in Korea and demanding to hear K pop. It just does not make sense.

I am beginning to think that they are never going to leave, when one of them decides that he has had enough and makes a quick dart. The others all jump up and with the choreography of a K pop band they totally clean up all the mess. What an arresting sight! A room full of very drunk Korean youth totally cleaning my house before they left. It's 2.30 am and I sit alone in my room, my Friday afternoon dreams shattered. I am trying to work out whether or not I have had a good time, when the phone rings. I pick it up thinking that it is somebody that has forgot something. It turns out to be the one of the former girlfriends of the guy that did my job before me. She is ringing from Taiwan but this does not seem to put her off from having an half hour conversation with me. It does not appear to bother her that I am not the person that she rang up to speak to.

Another interesting day in the life of Andy Mitton.

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