Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Korea 1

This post is an edited excerpt from an essay called “Relishing My Solitude” that I published in The American Voice in 1997.

With a half-finished bottle of soju sitting on the floor between us, and another two waiting to be opened, we settled in, my friend Mr. Lee and I, for an evening of drinking in my very small seven-and-a-half pyong apartment in the part of Seoul known as Chamshil. I lived in the the Ju-gong Apartment Complex, where the English Training Center (ETC), the hagwon, or private language school, that had hired me to each for the year housed all its faculty. We were not far from the Olympic Stadium, where the opening ceremonies for the 1988 Summer Olympics had been held. In fact, some of my colleagues and I had watched the ceremonies from the roof of my building. Mr. Lee had been a student in one of my classes, and when it was over, he asked if he could be my friend. When I said yes, he suggested this night of drinking as a way to cement that friendship. “Men in Korea don’t share their feelings easily,” he explained, “and so when two men want to be friends, sometimes, they will get very drunk so they can reveal their true minds to each other without shame.” He paused to make sure I understood. “The next day,” he went on, “they are friends.”

After a couple of shots, Mr. Lee’s face started to turn red and he began telling me about the women his parents were always arranging for him to meet, hoping he would want to marry one of them. His parents’ taste, however, was very different from his own. Each of the women, he said, was more old-fashioned than the last one, and none of them were any fun to be with. Then he looked at me and smiled. “Maybe this is too personal,” he asked, “but I am curious. Where do you go when you need a woman?”

Mr. Lee was not the first man to ask me that question. Indeed, it didn’t seem to matter how many times I heard it; I always felt a small shock of disbelief at the matter-of-factness in the voice of the man asking me. Mr. Lee was no different. That I must be going somewhere, you could hear in his tone, was as self-evident to him as the fact that I needed to eat breakfast in the morning and dinner at night.

“Nowhere,” I answered him. “I don’t go anywhere.”

“Nowhere? But there are places for men to go, where it is the job of the women to give men pleasure. I’ll pay for you tonight if you want.”

I could see in Mr. Lee’s eyes that he was serious, that his offer was a gesture not only of friendship, but of sincere concern for the agony he assumed an unnecessarily enforced celibacy–I’d been in Korea almost six months by this time–was causing me. Since we were becoming friends and he was a guest in my house, I did not want to have the debate with him that I’d had with other Korean men who’d offered to pay for me to have sex, some of whom had been so insulted by what I’d said that they chose not to talk to me again.

I have, in principle, nothing against the idea that sex, whatever else it might be, can also be a service one chooses to pay for, though I have never felt the desire to do so myself. Even if I did have that desire, however, I would have serious reservations about patronizing an industry as painfully, violently and often fatally exploitative of its workers as I understood the Korean sex industry to be; and so I asked them why, if Korean sex workers were so necessary for Korean men–because that was always where the men took the argument: men had “needs” and society therefore “needed” women who could fulfill those “needs”–were those women not only so universally reviled such that no “decent” man would ever consider marrying one, but also so often kidnapped into the industry or literally bought into it when families who were so poor felt they had no choice but to sell their daughters. I remember one man in particular who took my question not only as a personal insult–how could I doubt that he would take me to anything other than the most reputable of places–but also as an insult against Korea itself. These women had jobs they wanted to do. No one needed to force them; they enjoyed it. All I had to do was let him show me.

Since I did not want to risk turning my conversation with Mr. Lee in a similar direction, I answered from a different angle. “There are other ways,” I said, “of fulfilling that need.”

Mr. Lee sat back and sucked air gently through his teeth. Then, grinning, he asked me, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes, but she’s in New York.”

“No, I mean in Korea. Do you have a Korean girlfriend?” He might as well have been talking about Cuban cigars or French as opposed to Italian wine.

I shook my head.

“Do you want one? I can introduce you.”

“I told you, I already have a girlfriend.”

Mr. Lee looked at me for a long moment. “But how will you endure?” The tenderness and concern in his voice as he asked this was heartbreakingly sincere. It was as near as any man has ever come to asking me the meaning of sex in my life; but before I could answer, a knowing smile spread across his face. “Korea,” he said, “is a paradise for men. Just wait. You’ll see.”

What Mr. Lee did not know was how much I already had seen, and how much I would continue to see, or how living in what he called paradise would teach me more about myself as a man and the significance in my life of sex and love and women than any explanation of how I intended “to endure” could begin to communicate.

Cross posted on The Poetry in the Politics and the Politics in the Poetry.

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