Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dog Gone

The decision to move out of my mother-in-law’s apartment set in motion a lot of unintended consequences. One of these was the surprising declaration by Korean Mother that because she intended to spend most of her days out of the apartment, or engaging in bouts of potentially uninvited babysitting at ours, she wouldn’t be in a position to keep the dog called Max we’d rescued three years ago and given to her to keep her company.

It was always clear we wouldn’t be taking him with us, because he doesn’t like to be poked and our son is very much at the poking stage, though I think he’s showing signs of graduating to tail-biting. The other problem was that if Max felt he’d been slighted in some way, he’d take revenge, and it got to the point where scolding him for something would almost inevitably lead to him urinating on one of the beds in the house, and if he needed to wait a couple of days to pick his moment, then he would. Max is a dog that plots against you.

So plans were hatched to send him down to Namhae to stay with my father-in-law and his father, who eventually vetoed the plan. It was probably a lucky escape for Max anyway. I met a dog on their farm once. It was tied up by a short rope walking around in a puddle of its own urine in the freezing cold, and it was pleased to see me in a way that was so friendly it suggested a certain form of madness and the impossible hope of rescue. The next time I went to Namhae, the dog was gone. I think something bad happened to him but I didn’t want to to ask. That was a ‘working dog’ I was told, so Max would be treated differently, but I had my doubts. Most Koreans are coming to terms with being the first generation of keepers of dogs as pets, and it shows.

Without the easy option of the Namhae plan we were back at the status quo ante, and between everything else that was going on at the time, Max’s situation was not the foremost one in my mind. But what I didn’t expect to happen was for my wife to suddenly tell me at 4.50pm on some random Sunday that his new owners were coming to collect him in ten minutes. Max has bitten me badly enough to draw blood three times, once very early on when we were establishing our levels in the pack and twice I think in the mistaken belief that he was protecting our baby. So there have been long periods when there has been no love lost between us, but I have played with him a lot, and there was a time when I considered him my only friend in Korea, so I suppose when it came down I was rather attached to him, for all his faults.

I’d scolded him at lunchtime because he’d been trying to bite a towel on the floor, and with the handover now happening fifteen floors below me outside our apartment building after vital time had been spent with my wife who was trying to calm me down, it promised to be the last interaction Max and I ever had. Maybe ending things that way shouldn’t have mattered, but it did.

I rushed down to try and say this sudden and unexpected goodbye. None of it was very pleasant as my wife and mother-in-law were both upset and I was angry about not being told of this development. I might not speak the language but at one point I broke etiquette and deliberately stared at my wife’s mother in order to convey my feelings towards her. To my mind Max was part of the family and she’d made the decision autonomously with people we didn’t know anything about, and she had also failed to inform anyone. I was even more angered when she eventually appeared to reluctantly accept the money the new owners had brought for her, because it turned it into a cheapened financial transaction. Later I found out that it's considered 'unlucky' - for both parties - not to pay for a dog in Korea, even if it's a token amount. Not knowing this, we'd never paid any money when we rescued Max, and there may well be those who believe that in failing to appease the Gods in this way, everything else that followed we brought upon ourselves.

As for not finding out until ten minutes before, it turned out my wife had known in the morning – which is still far too late – and in rushing out to meet a friend had forgotten to tell me. So her stock wasn’t exactly going up in this whole affair either.

It’s a sore point with me that – especially because of the language barrier – I tend to be the last to know anything in my life in Korea, both domestic and beyond, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s not good enough to just excuse it as a function of language difficulties. Rather, I’m coming to the conclusion that most Koreans I know are not great sharerers of important information, not because they aren’t good gossips, because they are, but because they aren’t always good at talking with foreigners, even if they can speak perfect English, like my wife.

Apparently Max’s new owners were ‘dog people’ of long standing, who had just lost their previous pet to old age. Needless to say though, this is not an ideal way to transfer ownership of a dog. But when the status updates came in, it was all positive. They’d taken him home, let him run around the garden of their house which he’d greatly enjoyed as I can imagine, and then they’d given him a bath and gone out and bought a new house and basket for him along with other items. The husband would take Max for walks by the river in the morning, and the wife stayed at home during the day, ensuring Max would have a happier life than we had been able to provide for him. I made my peace with it and wished him that better life.

The next day they brought him back. He’d growled at the husband and he’d refused to eat. And while the couple might have been dog people of many years' experience, they apparently didn’t know much about adjustment periods, or perhaps it finally dawned on them that when we said Max had a troubled early life and needed a good home with patient owners, this was really meant. So they had second thoughts, or no patience, and Max came back, but he still needed a new home and I was sure it would be worse than the one he had for a day.

Predictably I wasn’t told Max was returning either, so the first I knew of it was when I heard the familiar sound of his feet on the floor.

We moved out and Max disapproved of it. So he decided to step things up a gear, by urinating and defecating everywhere every time my mother-in-law went out. Despite this, I wish I found out what she was going to do before she handed him over to a government-registered kennel to be re-homed, because I believe they are inherently untrustworthy and there’s always the thought at the back of your mind that they will find ways of creating spaces in their kennels whatever it takes, even if officially their government registration supposedly guarantees that they will never put a dog to sleep.

Max was probably traumatised by being separated from his mother after six days, and he never recovered from it, becoming a victim of this country’s general attitude towards dogs, if not – I increasingly feel - its general attitude as a whole. So when he had his lucky breaks he didn’t make the most of them, but while I was sympathetic I also didn’t know what to do because he was unmanageable and untrustworthy. You can’t easily have an untrustworthy dog in your apartment when you have a baby.

Still, I hatched a plan to rescue Max if he hadn’t been re-housed within a few weeks, although I didn’t tell my wife and I didn’t know how the idea would be received. The plan involved taking Max back and bringing him to our apartment despite his problems – where I would take him out every morning to exercise and tire him to see if this altered his behaviour for the better. Then, if it didn’t, he might have to go back to the kennel. But it wasn’t to be. Officially, Max was re-housed after two weeks, and that might be really what happened, or he might be dead, but either way it’s over and I’ll never know the truth.

Goodbye Max

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 36: Love Hotels, Sex and Adultery (Banned)

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


It took 36 weeks, but I finally had a script refused for broadcast. When I started doing my weekly segment with Busan e-FM, it was with the agreement that I could be honest about my experiences in Korea, but the question is, does Korea want to be honest about itself?

Ostensibly, the problem was that Love Hotels and Adultery – the main thrust of my piece – were “not appropriate subjects” for the radio. TBS eFM – an equivalent English-language radio station in Seoul had covered these subjects before – but that’s Seoul and this is Busan, which is generally much more socially conservative.

Exploring where these newly discovered boundaries lay, and whether they were strictly sexual, I asked - mindful that the 2011 Dog Meat Festival in Gyeonggi Province had recently been cancelled amidst protests – if the subject I was allegedly considering for the next week – that of dog meat in Korea – would be acceptable. I was of course, just screwing with them. I felt I saw a slightly pained look cross the face of my assigned handler. It was not really an acceptable subject either.

And so it was we reached the climax of our conversation. It was probably best to avoid ‘controversial subjects’. That was the spot I’d touched. The two people I knew that regularly listened to my segment – who for all I know were actually the only two people who listened at all - were surprised. Hadn’t the radio station really been listening to what I’d been talking about before now?

I’ve always found the foreigners who only tell Koreans what they want to hear for the sake of a quiet life somewhat soda-masochistic, even if we’ve all done it from time to time. So I escaped my temporary bondage and continued tackling controversial subjects in the weeks that followed, going on to reference attitudes to homosexuality in Korea, monoculture and corporate enslavement, racism and the often enforced dystopian existence of foreigners, consumer nationalism, chaebol media lies and the absence of critical thought, [stay tuned!] but I did it in my usual style – hopefully relatively gently, diplomatically, and with humour.

I’d like to think that if done sufficiently eloquently, it is possible to speak truth to power in Korea, but whether that’s because people here are truly prepared to have a light shone on certain subjects, or simply because they weren’t listening or didn’t understand, is the loaded question.

I include the script below as an example of the realities of Korean life and culture you can’t talk about on the radio in Busan in 2011.

Introduction – Love Hotels, Sex and Adultery

Last week I talked about ‘bangs’ - such as the ‘DVD bang’ couples go to. This week I’m talking about a related subject, that of ‘love hotels’ or ‘love motels’. I don’t quite know how to translate this because we don’t use the word ‘motel’ in British English, but I’ve seen them called both hotels and motels here.

I think this highlights an issue with the cultural development of language. A motel is described as a ‘hotel for motorists’, and it makes sense this word would emerge from American English because of the long road journeys people have to make in the United States. They don’t have to do this in England because the country is geographically small – so you can normally get to where you want to go in a day. But I understand that many American motels are dropping the word now because it’s seen as being ‘seedy’.

We still have slightly seedy hotels in England – we just call them ‘bed & breakfasts’. But there are no love hotels in England that I'm aware of.

Love Hotels

So I was surprised when I saw the love hotels here, although not totally shocked – Japan is famous for its love hotels and most people outside Japan have probably heard of them. To a Westerner like myself, there seem to be a lot of general cultural similarities between Japan and Korea, so it’s not a complete shock to discover love hotels here, but as I’ve said before, I really didn’t know that much about Korea before coming here, and I certainly didn’t realise how popular they are.

I took them as a sign of social restriction in Korea, in the same way that ‘DVD bang’ represent the same issue. They are both somewhere to go because so many young people live at home. Maybe ‘DVD bang’ are where they go to fool around, and when it gets more serious they graduate to love hotels. I find it funny though how people going there want privacy, but the buildings are usually so very visible and obvious because of their architectural tendency to employ large fake Roman columns, cupid statues, small windows and plenty of neon lighting.

Staying in a Love Hotel

I’ve actually stayed in a love hotel. The first time I went to Seoul it was just for an overnight trip, and my wife and I wanted to save money, so she said “love hotels are cheap... and usually have Internet connections.” I thought ‘why not?’ Anyway, if the word ‘cheap’ didn’t sell it for me, the word ‘Internet’ certainly did.

So we quickly came across a love hotel in some Seoul backstreet near the Blue House, although I’ve learned that in Korea love hotels certainly don’t feel compelled to hide themselves away. That said, they do try to maintain a certain air of privacy, with curtains at the entrance to the drive-in areas to avoid cars and perhaps car licence-plates being seen, which always gave me the impression that a lot of older people might be using the hotels given that younger people generally own fewer cars – and probably don’t care about that kind of privacy as much. This quickly led me to believe that love hotels are frequently the venue for affairs in Korea. But if that didn’t convince me, when we reached the counter it also had a curtain over it, our money went underneath and a hand comes back with a key. No faces are visible and it’s all quite seedy actually, which made me feel vaguely guilty. I felt like trying to look underneath the curtain to say “we’re married”, but then I suppose everyone feeling guilty says that.

Last week I talked about going to DVD bangs with two Korean women, which in retrospect – given the area we were in – looked bad. And in some ways I felt the same way at the love hotel – if the staff had seen my face it wasn’t going to do anything positive for the reputation of foreigners. Then again, love hotels don’t always do much with foreigners for the reputation of the Koreans who run them – last year there wasn’t enough hotel space at the inaugural Korean Grand Prix, so a number of journalists ended up staying in love hotels – perhaps unsuspectingly. Anyway, the main point it that they were charged $310 per night – in other words they were ripped off – which means that evidently the love hotel owners realised they were foreigners early into the transaction – curtains or not.

While it might be cheap – unless you happen to be an unsuspecting foreigner – it’s not necessarily easy to get a good night’s rest there, because my wife was worried about hidden cameras. I don’t know if this is just an urban legend or whether it actually happens – actually I suspect it probably does happen sometimes. So it’s all about undressing in a part of the room where you think the camera won’t see you, then hiding under the covers and sleeping. I don’t want to be famous on the Korean Internet.

So I guess the love hotels are still too much of a risk for some. I was up on Hwangryeong Mountain late one night in Busan taking shots of the city after dark, and there were a few cars parked along the road, spaced apart. There seemed to be some kind of activity in a couple of the cars, and one of them had the stereotypical steamed up windows, and the car was moving around. Given the executive and old fashioned nature of the car concerned, I imagined there had to be an older couple inside.

Adultery is a Criminal Offence in Korea

Of course, adultery is illegal in Korea, so people have to be careful. I was really shocked when I found out about this law, but perhaps it goes some way to explain some of the behaviour I’ve encountered. When my wife and I were at another love hotel, another couple happened to come out of the room at the same time as us, and as soon as they saw us they dashed back inside.

I don’t know what to think about the adultery law. On the one hand, adultery is a bad thing, but on the other hand, in my opinion it seems like the kind of law the Taliban would have, and not something you find in a modern country.

I think the law creates a bad impression of South Korea. Maybe it’s not fair expecting Korea to be socially liberal, but this country is very keen to attract foreign investment and foreign companies, but I imagine business executives in foreign companies look at Korean society as a whole before they decide to come here and think “what kind of country is this?”

What I can’t figure out about this law is that legislators are mainly men, and men are usually willing adulterers – in fact male politicians around the world are known for their affairs – so why did these men create and pass this law? Do they like living dangerously or were they really worried about their lives? [I left this question hanging but I’m convinced that men passed this law to control women in the traditionally misogynistic Korean court system, although more recently judges may have been a little more balanced in their judgements].

It’s also worth making some comparisons between South Korea and other countries. China is not known for being socially liberal, but adultery isn’t a criminal offence there. But then adultery is a criminal offence in the U.S. state of New Hampshire – it isn’t enforced and there are people trying to get it removed from the statute books.

I think the whole issue raises some fundamental questions about freedom and democracy in South Korea. Should the majority be able to dictate to – and criminalise – a minority that don’t meet their moral standards? For that matter, what right does the government have to legislate people’s sex lives?

It’s a dangerous road to go down in my opinion. Some Islamic countries have ‘moral police’ who enforce compliance with Sharia Law – is that really what the police should be doing in Korea? Last year, I read about an incident in Malaysia where the ‘morality police’ were knocking on people’s doors in a hotel, and they ended up arresting 52 unmarried couples. I suppose if the Korean police really wanted to enforce the law here they could just visit love hotels, check people’s marital status, and make arrests. To be fair, they don’t, but the fact that the law exists means that one day they could, or just choose to do it selectively to target certain individuals or groups, which is why bad laws should never be on the statute books. Anyway, as far as Korea is concerned, I think the people should be spending their time arresting motorcyclists who ride on the pavements [sidewalks], rather than getting involved in policing people’s relationships.

Korean Porn Movies

While I don’t worry about getting arrested in a love hotel, I do worry about the perceived issue of hidden cameras and ending up on the Internet, but I haven’t avoided Korea’s love hotels despite this. When we went to a funeral in Namhae we found ourselves in the countryside and it was quite isolated. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a proper hotel for miles, but there was a love hotel just up the road from the the funeral hall. So given that Korean funerals tend to be multi-day events, and given that we didn’t want to sleep in the funeral hall with a heaving mass of older Koreans, we had little choice but to stay in a love hotel once again.

This one was even less subtle because even if the building's fake Roman columns and cupid statues didn’t give the game away to the uninitiated, it had a large collection of pornographic videos outside the elevator on our floor - most appeared to be Korean-made. It also had a great looking Jacuzzi placed centrally within the room, but sadly we daren’t use it because of the potential for hidden cameras.

Korean Culture

Staying in a love hotel is an interesting experience. When it comes down to it, staying in hotels in England is often all the same, but Korean love hotels have character. At the risk of giving Korean newspapers even more reasons to hate us, I think it’s something every foreigner should try at least once. They are part of what Korea is, and part of the cultural experience here.

Planned air date: 2011-06-29 @ ~19:30


Five weeks after the planned air date of this piece, South Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the provision in the Criminal Code imposing a maximum two-year prison sentence on adulterers, saying it was 'an infringement on the sphere of sexual life that society should maintain on its own' and that 'the state was excessively restricting a matter of personal decision.'