Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 35: 방 잡아! (Get a Room!)

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


PC bangs, DVD bangs, norae bangs, jjimjilbangs, manwhabangs, sojubangs... According to Arirang TV bang culture is ‘unique to Korea’, so today I’m talking about Korea’s 밯 (‘function-specific rooms’).

밯 in England

We don’t really have 밯 in England. Karaoke became famous there in the 1980s, and so it was very popular in pubs, but they weren’t really ‘rooms’, so you couldn’t called them ‘bangs’. We do have cybercafes though, which are a bit like PC ‘bang’.

PC 방 on Planet Arirang

According to Arirang TV Korea’s PC ‘bang’ represent “an advanced cultural space that is benchmarked by businesses around the world”. [Drugs are strictly illegal in Korea but if you eat enough kimchi perhaps it has the same effect].

My impressions of Korea’s PC ‘bang’ is that they are usually windowless, hot, and occupied by mostly males, which combines to produce a signature smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. Is this what Korea defines as an ‘advanced cultural space’?

They remind me of university, except they are better than that because they have snacks such as noodles with hot water so you can eat and keep playing [and get DVT]. Certainly PC bang are everywhere here - ubiquitous you might say [I really need to stop the intentional irony of using Korea’s most ubiquitous word] - but cybercafes were never hugely successful in England, where they are much more expensive.

PC ‘bang’ are all about gaming in Korea really, but in England, the cybercafes serve coffee and food. People there might go in and just pay for Internet access, but if they do it’s typically to check their email or Facebook updates, not to play games. Once I wanted to print out a document here in Korea, and it took a long time to find a PC ‘bang’ to do it in - and while we did, even then it wasn't part of the normal service, which only convinced me further that what they are used for here is gaming - not any kind of office work.

I rarely go to PC ‘bang’ these days [which are sadly dying now], because we have computers at home [and my social circle have moved on from their Kartrider obsession]. When I did, I was very aware of security issues so I couldn’t do anything sensitive there, but I can understand why people once did check their emails and social networks there, because when I got here having a PC at home wasn’t common.

Timothy Leary - the 1960s counter-culture icon [and as an advocate of the use of psychedelic drugs, perhaps in some ways the spiritual father of Arirang TV] popularised the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, and when I look at Korea’s PC ‘bang’ I think of those words, because they seem like the kind of place Koreans go to escape from the realities of Korean society.


I’d been in Korea two weeks when I went to a DVD 방 [or ‘DBD’ bang once it’s got over the Korean language’s lack of a ‘V’ sound] in a local university area with my girlfrend and her best friend. We watched ‘Inside Man’ for 13,000 won and I thought it was a really good idea - much more relaxing than going to a movie theatre.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how the DVD ‘bang’ were heavily used for dates [or shall we say, ‘used for heavy dates’ - even casual sex] - especially given the nature of that area. It didn’t occur to me at first [though I should have guessed from the clientele], but when we got into the room it had an amazingly comfortable couch, like a bed... If I was in any doubt at this point, then I noticed the room also provided a variety of wet and dry tissues, and when we left, a staff member went in armed with toilet roll and some serious looking cleaning products.

With most young people in Korea living at home, where can they go to make out with their dates? So retrospectively I see that the strange look got from the staff as I disappeared into the room with two women probably didn’t do the reputation of foreigners any good at all. But it didn’t stop me frequently going back; it became one of my favourite things to do in my first year here.

Norae 방

According to Arirang “Korea’s noraebang [노래방] culture is unique in that everyone in the room comes together to share a single space for singing.” Of course, I’ve already mentioned that karaoke became famous around the world [i.e. not unique, not yours]. I think I understand the reasons why - there is a lot of social conformity in Japan and Korea, so ‘bangs’ are a place where you can let your hair down - and in a noraebang especially.

I haven’t really let my hair down in a noraebang, and not just because I have very little hair to let down. I don’t like singing. In fact, I’m a bad singer. And that’s a problem in Korea, where everyone has so much experience in noraebang they are all practically professional singers [or at least they think they are, if ‘Korea’s Got Talent’ is any guide].

I went to a noraebang once after eating. I didn’t want to, but there was a lot of pressure to conform, and then once in the room, a lot of pressure to perform. But I resisted. They had few English songs anyway - and certainly nothing easy - but the real problem for me is this: Koreans think they’re letting their hair down and escaping social conformity, but they are actually just replacing one kind of conformity for another.

Arirang says that “in a noraebang, borders of nationality melt away as everyone sings their heart out!” I guess I like keeping my borders.

Other 방

I have no experience of manwhabang [만화방 where you can read comics or 'manwha' - at least until the machine uprising], sojubang [where you can drink soju], or the ‘kiss bang’ I’ve been reading about [where you pay for someone you don’t know to kiss you in a room, and maybe go a bit further]. My wife’s father has invited me to a jjimjilbang [찜질방 - bathhouse/sauna] a few times, but apart from the language barrier I think I’d find the experience culturally and psychologically traumatic; I don’t really want to see my father-in-law naked.

So although I’ve found Korea’s ‘bang’ fun, sometimes they are also difficult. Noraebang and jjimilbang are not for me. Do all Koreans like all ‘bang’? I don’t know, but ‘bangs’ made me realise that if that’s what I have to buy into to be a Korean, then I’m never going to be.

Maybe someone here should combine a jjimjilbang with a noraebang, then I could do both at once rather than suffer twice.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-22 @ ~19:30