Swimming Korean style

I began going to the local swimming pool a couple of weeks ago, around the time the humidity jumped from an agonizing 50% to a sadistic 80%.

I’d had my reservations about using the local pool because of its proximity to my school – going by my track record I knew it was incredibly likely that I’d have a supremely awkward encounter with one of my students poolside that would leave us both scarred for life. But in the end my need to exercise was too obvious to be ignored, and knowing swimming was the only form of exercise I would realistically maintain in this evil weather I finally bit the bullet.

There are a couple of things that distinguish a British swimming experience from a Korean one. The first is that the changing room is a no-clothes zone. Four months ago this might have deterred me but nowadays as a jimjilbang devotee I can’t get nude fast enough so this posed no problem.

The second distinction is that as a woman it is mandatory for you to don a ridiculous swimming cap – even if like me you have less hair to speak of than many men and find Hello Kitty deeply creepy.

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Koreans like to keep it cute poolside

The final and ultimate difference is what I’ve called ‘Korean time-out’. This is what happens – at 30 minutes past the hour a jingle is played over the speaker followed by a maddening chorus of whistle-blowing curtesy of the half dozen or so life-guards lining the pool.

This signals a mass-exodus from the water. Every person dutifully clambers out and takes a seat poolside to wait…wait for what? Until yesterday it was a mystery that I could only speculate about, because up until yesterday I’d been taking ‘time-out’ as my cue to leave. But yesterday I got to the pool late and so had only managed a couple of lengths before the jingle kicked in. So, mildly intrigued I clambered out of the pool with the rest and claimed my place on the closest plastic bench to wait.

For the next 5 minutes nothing at all happened other than time passed, I became dry and the old man next to me performed a number of painful-looking stretches – little did I know that he was limbering up.

Suddenly there was music blaring out of the speakers calling every Korean man, woman and child to their feet. For a split alarming second I thought it was the national anthem and I looked around desperately for the nearest exit. But in fact it was something even more mind-boggling.

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I recognized the music as traditional Korean trot music, which as any expat in Korea knows is a very special kind of auditory torture. This was interspersed with what I gathered quickly were exercise commands  because instantly and in perfect synchronization all of the Koreans began hopping around and stretching furiously in scenes not dissimilar to this

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It was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most surreal things I’ve seen with my own eyes. I think my mouth was actually ajar throughout the whole routine, which went on for about 3 minutes. The end was signaled by the jingle and without further ado the Koreans plopped back into the pool. As far as I can understand this happens every half hour.

Oh Korea.

The end is in sight

I’m now over halfway through administering the mid-term English speaking tests and as any of my fellow nets will attest its been the best of times, its been the worst of times.

Some pros

– Discovering that the quiet, nervy kid at the back of the class has a better grasp of the English language than the rest of them put together

– Discovering that the big-mouth clown has a soft side

– Hearing the most inspired answers to the most mundane questions

Some cons

– Being confined to a sauna-like space for weeks on end and finding out just how many weird and wonderful places have the capacity to produce sweat in horrifying quantities 

– Having to hear the sound of your own voice asking the same dozen questions on a loop

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Oh Speny I feel your pain, I do

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve built a pretty strong profile of the male Korean high-school student. They generally fall into one of two camps sports fanatic or computer geek, with a small handful of music lovers and an even smaller handful of film buffs and book worms thrown into the mix. 

Ultimate Fear – Not securing a beautiful, loyal girlfriend

Ultimate Motivator – Food, namely chicken

Most Coveted Commodity – Sleep

Dream Job – C.E.O, president, United Nations ambassador, doctor, Steve Jobs

Role-Model – Various soccer players, ‘my father’, Bruce Willis (really guys?)

Greatest Ambition – Goals and plans range from the modest – ‘get more sleep’ to the novel – ‘be the richest man on the planet and buy Gotham City’

Extra Notes – The MKHSS is generally not above trying to secure a good grade through flattery e.g. ‘how do you feel today?’ ‘the happiest because I am talking with you, my favourite teacher. And  you look so good today’ 

Overall – in spite of the sweat – having the opportunity to speak to the little angels outside of the regular howling mob has been an insightful, confusing, gratifying, frustrating and often plain hilarious experience, and I’m quite prepared to never utter ‘Tell me about a time when you felt excited’ ever again.

The sound of music

Friday afternoon at my school is club time. As I’m not in charge of any club I either tag along on one of the club outings e.g. the zoo (Animal Club?) or the cinema (Movie Club) or if there’s nothing that piques my interest I procrastinate in the teacher’s lounge. Today I’m doing the latter and am clearly being punished for my idleness by the Music Club.

I have no idea what part of the school this club is being held in but it doesn’t matter because the product is being played at ear-piercing volume in every room in the building. It is even being played outside. There is no escape.

First up is Alicia Keys – Some people want it all

This number is sung in the form of a duet. The incompatibility of the pairing is immediately and painfully obvious. One kid is trying for an Ed Sheeranesque soft yet intense sound while the other is imagining chomping heads off bats with Ozzy. Neither of these styles are in any way suited to this song. Neither or these boys can in any way sing.

Muse – Supermassive Blackhole

I feel as if someone is holding a knife against this kid’s back. His heart really is not in it. I pray for someone to put both he and I out of our misery. Sadly no one does. They seem to have got hold of some never-ending extended version. Incredibly it is even more painful than the first song.

Kelly Clarkson – Because of You

A for effort here. Once again the song choice is staggeringly ill-advised – no person with an ounce of common decency would attempt those high-notes outside of the sanctity of their shower but this kid goes for it with all he’s got. On the last high note I’m sure I can actually hear a blood vessel burst with the pressure. I’m sure his voice will never be the same again but the smattering of applause at the end no doubt makes up for it.

Westlife – You Raise Me Up

Interesting approach to the high-notes here – sounds as if he is straining for a stubborn poo. Again, very painful to hear. The teacher at the desk opposite me visibly winces when he reaches the bridge.

R Kelly – I Belive I can Fly

Here we have yet another individual who should never be encouraged to pursue singing, even as a hobby. Manages to sing the entire song without any identifiable emotion and an audibly blocked nose. He does, however, redeem himself at the very end by reproducing R Kelly’s- ‘flyaaayaayayyayayayayayayyaayayayayayayayayayaay, HOO!’

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Bang on

It has to be said, DVD-bangs (DVD방) – or DVD-rooms in English – have a certain reputation. Famously frequented by Korean adolescents hoping to get lucky or watch a dirty movie away from prying parental eyes, they’re seen as a somewhat seedy past-time by older generations. But for film lovers they’re so much more than a horny teenage hideout.

Born out of the lack of private space in Korea’s traditionally compact houses and apartments, DVD-bangs provide a different and interesting way to experience the medium of film, as well as a sanctuary for frustrated couples. So when my Korean friend suggested we go one evening I pushed my co-teacher’s look of mild horror to the back of my mind and accepted the invite.

DVD-bangs are conveniently located everywhere so we didn’t have to walk far from my apartment to find one. Outside it looks like any other building in Korea- drab with the ubiquitous gaudy signage that announce every business. Feeling like we should be wearing trench coats and fedoras, we perform a quick scout around to make sure none of my students are lurking nearby before ducking inside.

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This particular DVD-bang shares a building with a number of other businesses so we hop in the lift and ride it to the top floor. When the doors slide open we’re assaulted greeted by a wall of cheery pink wallpaper. At the end of this candy-coloured corridor is a miniaturized cinema lobby, complete with a snack bar and ushers. The entire back wall is lined with a very impressive selection of dvds – both Korean and western – that have been categorised by an individual with far too much free time on their hands. 

After browsing we eventually plump for a popular Korean hiest movie called The Thieves (think Oceans 11 if George Clooney was a Korean man with a fake moustache) and after loading up on drinks and snacks and paying our 10,000 won (just over £5) we follow the usher through a doorway into a dimly-lit corridor. The corridor is thickly carpeted so our steps are muffled and as we make our way I throw a few covert glances left and right, trying to get a glimpse into the numerous rooms leading off the corridor. 

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my sight is barred by the frosted glass on the doors. All I can see is flickering lights and soft voices in between the action on the screens. We arrive at our designated bang and the usher shows us inside. The space is suitably intimate. I’m horrible at guessing at the measurement of things so here’s a couple of generic DVD-bangs to give you an idea (I did try to take some snaps of my own but it didn’t feel like the right time to play the tourist somehow).

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Our particular bang is fitted out with a very large, round mock-velvet sofa and rose-petal-patterned wallpaper, which somehow isn’t as tacky as that description suggests. There are a pile of blankets in the corner – definitely for winter dvd-banging sessions – and a blessed aircon blowing a steady stream of cool air down over us. 

On the wall opposite the seating is an almighty projection screen – its as wide as the room – which, along with the surround-sound, mini snack bar and room service makes you feel as if you’re in some kind of private cinema-come-luxury-suite. 

We settle in and the movie starts automatically. There’s no option to pause, rewind or fast-forward so rather than being like watching a dvd at home you get a real cinematic experience. The privacy also allows you to audibly react to what you’re watching without fear of recrimination from other audience members.

Its the perfect setting for our particular movie choice, but I think the intimate space would equally lend itself to an intense arthouse film or any other genre. A couple of hours later its over and the usher arrives to turf us out. Honestly, I could have quite happily stayed and had a movie marathon.

As long as you can push the thoughts of lusty adolescents and disapproving co-teachers to the back of your mind then I highly recommend paying a visit.