Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Korea 2

Since Alas has been away for a while, here is a link to Part 1 for those who’d like to read it.

I’d been in Korea for two weeks when I decided it was time to venture on my own into Seoul’s urban landscape. One of my colleagues had taken me the previous weekend to Chong-no for some noodles, a visit to Pagoda Park, where the Korean Independence Movement got its start in 1919, and then a browse in the Kyobo Bookstore, which was then and is still Korea’s largest book-selling establishment. Since I already knew how to get there by subway, I decided that would be a good place to start exploring. So there I was, walking down the crowded main street, trying hard to enjoy the Saturday afternoon sun while keeping my eyes locked straight ahead so I could ignore the stares my Western face attracted, and I almost tripped over the man in front of me when, right in front of the Pagoda Park entrance, a woman called out “Hello! Hello!” to me in English. She looked about my age, twenty-six or so, but the creases that appeared around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth when she smiled as I stopped to acknowledge her made her seem much older. Her long black hair was disheveled, and I could see her hands were callused. Wearing a thin purple dress that hugged the curves of her body and leather sandals with no socks, she was definitely out of place among the men in business suits and the women better-dressed than she was, but I was so relieved to have found someone who spoke English that, to me, it was everyone else who looked as if they didn’t belong.

“Hi!” I said. “Were you talking to me?”

“I love you,” she answered. “I love you.” She took the first two fingers of her right hand and pushed them slowly in and out of her mouth. I turned and walked quickly away.

Running to keep up with me, the woman appeared at my side. “Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m just walking.”

“Just walking?”

“Yes.”

Upon hearing this, she wrapped her arm around my waist, laid my arm confidently along the contour of her hip, looked up at me with a smile I can only describe as angelic, and said, “You, me, fuck-fuck, all night, real cheap!”

I smiled back–what else could I do?–took her arm from my waist, said, “No, thank you,” and set off more quickly in the same direction.

“No t’ankyoo!” Her voice was high-pitched and mockingly flirtatious as caught up with me, put her arm back where she thought it belonged, and offered again to fuck me all night, any way I wanted, for “real cheap.” When I again said no, she started nudging me with her hip towards the side of a nearby office building, mimicking me all the while, “No-o! Please go awa-ay!” I pushed back just hard enough to make her let go of me and turned down the first side street I came to, almost falling over an old man sitting on the pavement, his stock of nail clippers and other assorted knickknacks spread out neatly on the pavement in front of him. She was still behind me, however, so I turned left and made two quick rights, desperately hoping I was walking in a circle that would lead me back to the main street. I don’t know how many different streets I took trying to lose her, but each time I looked over my shoulder, she was behind me, half running, half walking, and still promising me the night of my dreams.

Finally, I’d had enough. I stopped as if to catch my breath and she jumped at the opportunity. She wound her arm yet one more time around my waist and started to recite fractured versions of the titles of pop songs that were old twenty some odd years ago when this all took place. “Everybody need somebody. Are you lonely this night? I fall in love with you, mend your broken heart! Help you make it through the night!” With each new line, she tried to embrace me with her other arm, which I kept pushing away, until I grabber her wrist and pulled her into a small alley between the two nearest buildings. At first, her face lit up with triumph and anticipation, but then, as she felt the tightness of my grip–enough so she would know I was serious, but not enough to hurt her–her eyes and mouth began to widen with fear. Towering over her, I pushed the words out through clenched teeth, “Go away! Just leave me alone!” Then I started back in the direction from which we’d come.

“Are you a soldier?” The voice behind me was self-effacingly polite. I stopped walking. “No, I’m a teacher,” I said, and it was as if my answer triggered a switch in her brain, for her behavior changed instantly. Without looking at me, she asked if I wanted to stop in a coffee shop for something to eat. She offered to show me around Seoul, to help me learn Korean. She said something about where she lived, or maybe she was asking about where I lived, I wasn’t sure. All I could think was that she was not someone I should trust, so I started walking again, ignoring the new found politeness with which she continued to follow me, until she slowed down, touched me on the lower back in a gentle, almost wistful farewell, and headed off in the opposite direction.

Miraculously, I was able to find the Chong-no subway station within a few minutes. All through the ride back to my apartment, however, that last, sexless touch haunted me, making me wonder what I’d been running from. I’d been assuming, of course, that the woman was a prostitute–certainly she was willing to prostitute herself–but it was also possible that she’d been hungry and poor and desperate, that she’d seen in me an opportunity to put a decent meal in her stomach and did, was willing to do, what she thought was necessary to make that happen. I wasn’t second-guessing my decision not to go with her–I did not know Korean at all yet, and I certainly did not know the culture well enough to know what I would have been letting myself in for had I stopped to spend time with her, sexually or otherwise–but I was wondering what I’d been scared of, because the truth is that I’d run the way I did, in part anyway, because I was scared.

Not for my physical safety, though I recognize there were any number of ways she (and accomplices, if she’d had them) could have been planning to ambush or intimidate me into giving her my money. Rather, I was frightened by the explicit and public and inescapably naked way in which she’d propositioned me. I didn’t want people to know I was the kind of person whom prostitutes approached like that, but what I learned on Chong-no, what I felt viscerally for the first time in my life, is that–whatever else may be true about who I am–my body marks me as precisely that kind of person. More to the point, my body is not something I can run away from. I ran, in other words, not only because I didn’t want what the woman on Chong-no was trying to sell, but also because I didn’t want to face having to reject her, because the fact that I could reject her meant the privilege of having her was already mine.

Still, it would do justice neither to my experience nor to what the reality of that woman’s life probably was, to stop here. For while it was, and most probably still is, true that to be a man in Korea is to have access to the vast “playground” of the Korean sex industry, the indigenous version of the playground exists almost entirely behind the doors of the establishments where Korean sex-workers earn their living and is governed by rules of decorum that render the spectacle of a woman chasing a potential customer down a crowded avenue in the middle of a weekend afternoon all but unthinkable. In contrast, according to figures compiled by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, during the time I was in Seoul, 18,000 South Korean women were registered as “club women” for United States military bases. Spend just a few minutes in an area where these women work–when I was there, Itaewon, where the 8th Army was stationed, would have been the best example–and you’ll see that the way they do business has more in common with the stereotypical 42nd Street streetwalker than the typical woman who works in a Korean-oriented sex establishment. What I ran from when I ran from the woman on Chong-no, in other words, was only the privilege of being a man, but also what it meant to her that I was mi-gook saram, an American, and the way she propositioned and chased me needs therefore to be seen as reflecting her expectations of me and my culture at least as much as it might reflect the values of hers.

The tradition of the kisaeng, or courtesan, within which the Korean sex trade is most properly understood, at least in historical terms, has its roots in a way of life very different from the one that gave rise to the streetwalker. The traditional yangban, or Korean gentleman, governed his polygamous household according to Confucian rules of decorum that determined everything from the way he spoke and ate his meals to when, how often, and even how, he had sex. The kisaeng house provided men with a refuge from this and the other pressures and responsibilities of being the man of the house. Trained not only as hostesses, but also in literature and the arts–Korea’s most famous woman poet, for example, Hwang Jin-hi, was a kisaeng how lived in the fifteenth or sixteenth century–the kisaeng offered a stress-free evening of female companionship and camaraderie that would have been impossible within the strictly hierarchical relationship a man had to maintain between himself and his wives. Without explicitly excluding sexual favors from their services, in other words, the kisaeng were not engaged primarily in selling their bodies, a difference from western prostitutes that it is important to keep in mind.

Much in Korean society, of course, has changed since the time of Hwang Jin-hi, and the very quick thumbnail sketch of the kisaeng I have just given you necessarily simplifies the history and the nature of what is in fact a complex Korean social institution.1 Nonetheless, the cultural framework within which the Korean sex trade exists–or at least existed when I was there–still resembles that of the original kisaeng houses. Contemporary Korean men go to room salons, stand bars, song-in discos–they may be called by different names now, but I imagine they still exist–and all the other places where women are available at least as much to be entertained as to have sex. To socialize with Korean men–this, too, I imagine has not changed much since I was there–is eventually to find oneself in such a place. A story or three about that experience coming in parts 3 and 4.

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

  1. Songs of the Kisaeng, a book of translations of kisaeng poetry, offers a more fully fleshed-out but still accessible introduction to the kisaeng, along with some insight into what the life of a kisaeng was like, at least as they depicted it in their art. []
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One Response to Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Korea 2

  1. 1
    libractivist says:

    This statement really resonated with me: “I ran, in other words, … because I didn’t want to face having to reject her, because the fact that I could reject her meant the privilege of having her was already mine.” [emphasis mine]
    It’s such a perfect summing up of privilege, in a lot of ways. Although few situations equal the power dynamic in this particular case, for me it was a glaring reminder that those of us with privilege cannot reject the position that our bodies (among other things) give us in society. Although we may choose to work toward dismantling the institutions that privilege us, the fact remains that we have a choice, and exercising that choice is an excercise of privilege.

    Sorry if I’m totally derailing. I just felt that statement was so powerful that I had to comment. Thanks for posting (and hurray for the blog being back up!)