Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Korea 4

I was leaning against the entrance to the Shinchon subway station watching people turn the corner into the Semaeul Shijang, the outdoor market where I bought rice each week and where my friend Mr. Kim had bargained one of the vendors down from the price she was going to charge me for a blanket because I was migook saram, an American, to what she would normally charge a Korean. I’d just finished lunch, a bowl of kimchi chigae, and I had no place to be, so I just stood there, enjoying the sun, smiling at the people who could not help but stare at my very conspicuous western presence and laughing with the children who, when they passed by, also couldn’t help themselves. “Migook saram! Migook saram!” they would yell out and point, as if I were some rare animal they’d sighted, or as if a character from one of their favorite storybooks had come to life. One group of kids, about four or five of them–maybe they were siblings–stopped right in front of me, but when they called out to their mother, who was a couple of steps ahead of them, and also to everyone else who was passing by, and to as far beyond our immediate vicinity as their voices would reach, that I was an American, I gave in to a mischievousness I’d been contemplating for some time and, instead of nodding and smiling, looked from side to side, gave them an excited, quizzical look and asked, “Odio?” Where? If only I’d had my camera with me. The look of surprise that froze their faces when they heard me speak Korean is something I wish I’d been able to capture.

A few minutes after they left, laughing and waving and calling out anyigeseyo, goodbye, an old woman wearing traditional Korean clothing passed by. She had a cigarette in her mouth, glasses on her nose and her hair was pulled back into a tight bun. She walked with her hands clasped behind her; and her back was bent, as if she were carrying something heavy; and, as if she were lost in deep contemplation, she took slow, deliberate steps, clearly not in a rush and clearly assuming that people would make way for her. She got about four of those steps past where I was standing and stopped. She lifted her head and I could see that she was muttering something to herself. Then she turned around, her mouth still moving, and walked straight towards where I was standing. She stopped in front of me, looked me up and down, muttering what I thought at first was gibberish, since it sounded like neither Korean nor English, but after fifteen seconds or so, I began to make out words like “tall,” “handsome,” “strong” and then “American.”

She moved a little closer and put her hand on my bare forearm, a gesture to which I had become accustomed from riding the subway. Koreans often have less body hair than white people and so the hair on my arms and on my chest, which was visible if I was wearing an open-necked shirt, was a constant source of fascination. Wherever I went on the train, older Korean women–who, because they live in a culture where age is venerated, can do pretty much what they want–would sit next to me and stroke the hair on my arms, smiling and chatting amiably with me as they did so. This woman, however, when she was finished with my forearm ran her hand up to my bicep and gave a quick squeeze; then she laid her other hand flat against my stomach and moved it down quickly to cup and pat my crotch through my jeans, smiling and nodding her head as if she were evaluating me and was pleased at what she was finding.

This all happened so quickly that I had no time to react, and since she was standing directly in front me, there was no way for me to get away from her without pushing her, and she was so small and so fragile looking, and I did not want to make a scene, so I continued to stand there; and then she was looking up at me, still smiling, and her eyes were bright, without pretense, though they held also an impish mischievousness, and she asked me in a slightly accented English, “Are you American?” Surprised that I was able to understand her, I hesitated for half a second before answering, and she put her hand on my arm and asked again, “Are you an American?”

“Yes,” I said, and she tightened her grip on my arm just a little bit. “Why you here alone? Come with me. Room-cafe around the corner; I will pay for you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a very thick wad of bills.

“No, thank you,” I said. ”I am waiting for a friend.”

“But it’s no good you out here alone,” she insisted, giving another gentle tug on my arm. “Really, I will pay,” and she again showed me the money in her hand.

Room-cafes were just what they sounded like: cafes with private rooms where men went to be “entertained” in ways not so different from the way Mr. Park and I had been entertained in Miari. I knew which room-cafe the old woman was talking about since I’d walked past it many times on my way in and out of the market, though I’d never gone in. It was called Sing-Sing. Once, when I was coming home very late at night, after the cafe had closed, the women who worked there were sitting outside, smoking and chatting–some of them were eating kim bop–when one of them, a tall woman in a tight neon green dress, with nail polish and eyeliner to match, called out to me, “Hey! You like what you see?” Her companions laughed. I smiled and kept walking.

The old woman held up her wad of money one more time. ”No,” I answered again. “Maybe next time”–the polite thing to say–“I really need to be here to meet my friend.”

She let go of my arm, but she didn’t walk away. “Are you a soldier?” She sounded just like the woman who’d chased me on Chong-no.

“No, I’m a teacher.”

“A teacher!” The woman’s face lit up as she put her money back in her pocket. “Teach me some English while you wait your friend?” She took my hand and started to walk towards the market. The change in her manner and her tone–she was polite and deferential, in stark contrast to the almost demanding tone she took in her insistence that I let her take me to the room-cafe–also reminded me of the woman who’d chased me on Chong-no, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I let her lead me where she wanted to go. She stopped to point at the different fruits on a stand that we passed–apples, grapes, pears, oranges–and asked me the words for them in English; then we stood in front of a cart on which the merchant had very carefully arranged alarm clocks, blowdryers, hair curlers, electric shavers and other small home appliances. After that, it was a clothing stall, where she asked me the words for pants, shirt, belt and underwear. Finally, she picked up a package of women’s socks. “Will you buy these for me?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, taking them from her. I hadn’t forgotten about the money in her pocket, but I’d started to like her, and I wanted to do something nice for her. I also felt suddenly a little bit like one of those young men in the fairy tales who meets and is tested by the old hag, who is really a witch or sorceress in disguise, who, depending on the story, either rewards the young man’s kindness or punishes his cruelty. So I paid the 1,200 or so won that the socks cost and handed them over to the woman. She turned the package over and over as if she no longer recognized what it was, and I realized that she had expected me to say no. “Do you smoke?” she asked.


“Good! Do you drink?”

“Sometimes, but not very much.”

“Good! Come sit here with me.” She pointed to an empty space on the steps in front of a closed store. ” You know, I lived in America. Once. In California. During the war. Soldiers call me mamasan.” She didn’t say which war, but I guessed it was the Korean war, and I knew from the little bit of hanging out I’d done in Itaewon, the part of Seoul where the American army was stationed, that if the soldiers had called her mamasan, it meant she’d been a madame.

We talked a little while longer. She asked me about my life back in the United States, about where I lived and worked in Seoul, about the kinds of Korean foods I liked. She told me she had a daughter with whom she lived and she asked if I would like to have dinner with them that night. By now, I was completely disarmed, and I thought it would be a very interesting experience, and so I said yes. She stood up immediately and started leading me away from the market. I had a brief moment of anxiety when I realized I had no idea where she was taking me, but I set that aside and walked quietly beside her for about five minutes or so, until she looked at me out of the corner of her eye and smiled slyly. “Maybe next time, you and I enjoy in bed together,” she said.

I walked in silence for a few more steps as I tried to decide whether or not she was joking with me and how to respond if she was; but then I realized it didn’t matter. I no longer felt safe going with her to a part of Seoul with which I was unfamiliar and so I decided to “remember” a call I was expecting that night from my mother in America. I needed to be home to get the call, I explained, because my mother and I had some important business to discuss. The old woman looked disappointed. She took out the socks I’d bought for her, removed the cardboard backing from the package and wrote down her phone number. “When you want, you call me. We have dinner. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said. We told each other goodbye and I started walking back in the direction from which we’d come. I turned once to look at her again, but the street had become suddenly crowded and I couldn’t see her. I looked at the piece of cardboard. She’d written “dinner” and then a phone number, and then “Love, Mamasan.”

I didn’t want to go back to my apartment right away, so I walked instead to the Lotte World department store. I knew some of the people who’d worked on the indoor amusement park and roller coaster that everyone was talking about, and I’d been meaning to check it out for some time. Since I hate roller coasters, though, I did not ride it. Instead I wandered around the store a bit, until I found on one of the top floors a large fountain around which people were sitting. I bought myself a strawberry ice cream and took a seat at the water’s edge, eating slowly and thinking about the old woman whose phone number I had in my pocket.

I was staring off into space, not looking at anything or anyone in particular, but a woman sitting with her daughter on her lap on the other side of the fountain must have thought I was looking at them because she nodded her head and smiled. I nodded and smiled back, just to be polite, and the woman’s daughter left her lap almost immediately and started walking towards me. When she reached the spot where I was sitting, she climbed without a word into my lap and sat there gazing silently at my face for about ten or fifteen seconds. Then, still without speaking, she reached behind me for the water in the fountain, trusting the arm I raised to keep her from falling. When she sat back down, she opened one of my hands, palm up, and held her fingertips above it, letting the drops she’d gathered drip onto my skin. When the last drops had fallen, she climbed down to return to her mother, never once glancing back in my direction. The mother stood up, took her daughter’s hand, smiled at me, nodding one more time, and then led the girl into the elevator, which carried them down into the rest of their day.

My day took me next to dinner in the restaurant where I first practiced reading hangul, the Korean alphabet, by ordering each time I ate there a different item from the menu that was posted on the wall. Two of my colleagues, Tom and Gavin, were already eating when I walked in. They invited me to join them, which I did, and we decided that we’d meet later that night at the Gilbert Standbar, which was also in the Semaeul Shijang, a few doors down from the room-cafe the old woman had offered to take me to. I arrived at the Gilbert about fifteen minutes late, but my friends were not there, and so I sat by myself at Ms. Park’s station–she insisted on Ms. and not Miss–ordered a beer and some fruit and settled in to wait. My friends never showed up, but that night at the Gilbert turned out to be, in some ways, a fitting ending to a day in which an old woman grabbed my crotch in public and a little girl who was a complete stranger sat in my lap and dripped water on my palm.

A standbar is what we would call today, here in the US, a karaoke bar, though since this was in the late 1980s, before digital technology made karaoke jukeboxes possible, the music to which patrons paid to sing along was live, provided sometimes by an entire band and sometimes by a single keyboard or piano player. As far as I know, the term standbar–I don’t think it’s much in use anymore; a google search turned up practically nothing–comes from the fact that there are bar stations, or “stands,” arranged around the room at which sit the hostesses whose job it is to entertain the customers, who are almost always men. This entertainment includes pouring drinks, serving food, going up on stage to sing when their customers do and dancing blues, slow dancing. The women are also often available for sex–though, as it was explained to me by my Korean friend, if the suggestion for sex comes from the woman, you don’t have to pay for it.

The one or two standbars to which my Korean friends had taken me reminded me of a cross between the more extreme excesses of the disco era and the stereotypically sleazy Asian “girly bars” that are so familiar from the early James Bond movies. The Gilbert, however, was more of a neighborhood place. There were no disco balls or flashing lights; the hostesses dressed very casually–jeans and a button down shirt, for example–as opposed to the tighter, glitzier often more revealing outfits the hostesses wore in other standbars; and there was, in general, a much more laid back atmosphere. In fact, my colleagues and I learned after we’d been going there for a while that it was the place where the men and women who worked at other sex trade establishments came to relax.

This difference, of course, was one of degree not kind. The same things that went on at other standbars went on at the Gilbert, only more quietly and discretely; and, most importantly to me and my friends, no one made a spectacle out of us because we were westerners. The hostesses were not constantly asking us for (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) “private English lessons;” the other patrons were not constantly coming up to us to buy us drinks or practice their English. We were able, in general, just to hang out, drink a few beers and sing a few songs, just like regular customers.

Ms. Park was the hostess at whose station we always sat, and, over time, she and I became friendly. My Korean was better than that of my colleagues, and so I could make very simple conversation, about the weather, for example, or food; about our jobs–she was very funny when describing the men who’d sat at her station whom she didn’t like– and a little bit about my life in the US. She told me very little about herself, though we did talk about books; she liked to read and she was fascinated by the fact that I was a poet. She introduced me once to a man who did not come to the Gilbert regularly, but whom she seemed to know pretty well, telling me he too was a poet. He gave me a copy of one of his books, though I lost it a long time ago, and I cannot now remember his name.

Over time, I began to realize that whenever Ms. Park danced blues with me–just because I would have been perfectly happy not to dance with her did not exempt her from doing her job–she stayed in my arms a few beats longer than the end of the song, which is what happened on this night, but then, she stayed there even longer, gazing at me and grinning a satisfaction she offered to share when she asked if she could come to my apartment after work. I wanted her in that moment as well, and so I said yes. I gave her my address and phone number and we went back to her station. Waiting for us, however, was a thin, balding man in a crumpled gray business suit and thick-framed nerdy glasses. As soon as Ms. Park sat down, he commanded her to fill my glass, not from the bottle of inexpensive beer that I’d ordered, but from the bottle of Chivas that he had in his hand. This kind of behavior was out of character for the Gilbert, as was the fact that he did not ask Ms. Park drink with us, and I was immediately uncomfortable. I looked at Ms. Park, but her face was frozen in her best customer-service smile, betraying nothing of what she might be feeling.

The thin man toasted me as if she weren’t there, waited till my class was empty and then pointed at Ms. Park with a finger that was unusually thick, given how skinny the man was. “Do you like her?” he asked, not deigning even to glance in her direction. Because I knew where the conversation was headed, I did not answer him and told Ms. Park that I wanted more kolbengi. She got up and went into the kitchen, and I tried as hard as I could, while she was gone, to let the thin man know I was not interested in talking to him by focusing my attention on the very drunk, immaculately groomed silver-haired man trying to sing John Denver’s “Country Road” without falling over onto the hostess who was standing under his shoulder to prop him up.

The man with the Chivas bottle did not take the hint, however, and he fell silent as well, sitting with closed eyes until Ms. Park returned with my food. Once she was sitting down again, he leaned over and said quietly in my ear, “Isn’t she pretty? Don’t you like her?” When I still didn’t answer and kept my eyes focused on the silver-haired man, who was now stumbling back to his seat, my uninvited and unwelcome companion put his hand on my arm and said more loudly, “She has beautiful labia.”

Still I said nothing; still I would not look at him.

“Don’t you understand?” He was not quite shouting as he pulled from his pocket a wad of bills almost as thick as the one the old woman had pulled out of her pocket earlier in the day. “Korea is a paradise for men! Here!” He waved the money in my face. “You can have her if you want.”

I realized at this point that I had to say something, but I also understood that whatever I said had to be calculated not to escalate the situation, and so instead of saying what I wanted to say–some version of “Stop talking about her like that and get the fuck away from me!”–I said instead something that would get him to leave me alone, while allowing him to save face, “Maybe next time. Tonight, I am very tired and I just want to drink by myself.”

My words had the desired result. He looked at me, looked for the first time at Ms. Park, gave a snort of disgust and walked back towards his table just as his friends were coming over to pull him away.

For the rest of that night, Ms. Park refused to meet my gaze, but each time I went to the Gilbert after that, and in all the time before I left Seoul, she continued to dance with me the same as always; even as I watched her belly swell gently and then flatten out again over the course of three or so months, she danced with me a little closer and a little longer than the other men; and sometimes I saw flashes of the smile she gave me when she asked if she could come to my apartment, but she never brought that possibility up again, and neither did I. And we talked just as we always had, though she was more revealing about herself than she had been before, telling me often about the man who’d promised to marry her. All he needed, she said, was enough money to buy a place for them to live, and she said he’d told her that he didn’t care if his mother disowned him. She was the woman he wanted.

I have no idea if this man really existed, though I hope he did, and I hope he kept his promise and that Ms. Park was able to stop working at the Gilbert and be, simply, happily, his wife. I hope she has children and that they have brought her great pleasure. I hope all this, but I know the odds are against it being true, that she is more likely to have had a very difficult life; and so right now, as I remember Ms. Park, what I choose to remember is how deeply she smiled when she asked if we could be together, not because of anything having to do with the sex that didn’t happen, but because I could see in that smile that the thought of being with me made her happy and it’s more painful than I want to feel right now to remember her any other way.

Edited 11/16 to account for editorial suggestions in Mandolin’s and Katie’s comments.

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

This entry posted in Korea, Men and masculinity. Bookmark the permalink. 

27 Responses to Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Korea 4

  1. 1
    Robert says:

    Wow. Just wow. Really thought-provoking.

  2. 2
    Brandon Berg says:

    Koreans have much less body hair than westerners and so the hair on my arms and on my chest, which was visible if I was wearing an open-necked shirt, was a constant source of fascination.

    This reminds me of an incident during my vacation in Taiwan a few years ago. Like yours, my chest hair is visible when I wear a button-down shirt and don’t button that very top button that’s only used when wearing a tie. I was hanging out with a local girl (who, despite having two Chinese parents, looked exactly like a white girl who had dyed her hair black) in my hotel room while we had some time to kill while waiting for a mutual friend, talking in a mixture of Mandarin, English, and ad hoc sign language, neither of us knowing the other’s language very well. Suddenly she pointed at me and yelled, “Monkey!”


    “Monkey! Monkey!”

    Eventually I realized that she was talking about my chest hair, at which point she demanded to see the rest and started unbuttoning my shirt. That’s about as far as it went, as I was more interested in the aforementioned friend.

    Incidentally, the term mamasan is also used in Taiwan, though I think it has a different meaning. I don’t remember what, though.

  3. Brandon,

    If I remember correctly, in Korea, the word they used for hairy men–or maybe for hairiness in general–was bear.


    Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Blushes)

  4. 4
    Ben Lehman says:

    Hey, so this bugs me.

    Why is it that, in your Korea, all the women are sluts and whores, and all the men are johns?


  5. Ben,

    If you’d like to ask your question more respectfully, I might be willing to respond, since, if I give you the benefit of the doubt, I am willing to concede you might have a point to make; but given that your question is so disrespectfully phrased, I don’t know if giving you the benefit of the doubt is a display of generosity you don’t deserve. In your court.

  6. 6
    Ben Lehman says:

    What can I say? The tone argument is never a good one, and here it’s particularly odd, because that’s the most respectful way I can ask the question. I’m not making any assertions about you, or your experiences, just about what you’ve written, from what you’ve written. Whatever your experiences were in Korea, what you’ve conveyed in your writing solely consists of you, the virtuous white man, barely escaping from the wiles of bewitching oriental whores. This is textbook anti-Asian racism. (Not saying you are a racist, saying what you’re writing is racist. Because it is.)

    I was only in Korea for a week, but my experience consisted of board games in the park with old war vets who shook my hand, hugged me, and shared their popcorn; of flirting unsuccessfully with my businesswoman friend who had asked me to visit to hook up with me but found a boyfriend in the mean-time; of the war museum and seeing the flag of apartheid south africa flying; of watching starcraft on TV; of accidentally ending up on TV while botching a tea ceremony; meeting a student in independence park and comparing declarations of independence. All of these offered change, insight, perspective on myself and my masculinity. None of these had to do with prostitution.

    I lived in China for three years (China has a huge number of prostitutes). I cannot count the things which happened, which deeply changed me, which gave me insight into myself and my manhood, that evolved me. Again, none of these were really directly involving prostitutes.

    Here was my basic interaction with prostitutes in China.
    Prostitute: “Hey hey! Want a good time?!”
    Ben: “No, sorry.”
    Prostitute: “Wow, your Chinese is really good!”
    All: Laugh.
    Ben: “Bye bye!”

    I want you to go past the stereotypes, to open up and show us what’s really going on. Right now all you’re doing is reifying some racist and sexist tropes and casting yourself as the self-doubting hero.

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    Richard is writing about a particular set of his experiences. I don’t doubt that he could write an amazing set of journal articles about talking with war veterans, discussing poetry, learning about new food.

    You’re basically saying to the guy who’s telling us about his GI experiences in wartime Germany and how they were critical in his coming to a conception of manhood, “how come everybody in your stories is either a Nazi or a GI?” Because he’s talking mostly about that war, dude.

    Richard is writing about a different war. I find his honesty challenging and refreshing, and not self-serving in any way. Your complaint that he is “reifying tropes” (i.e., providing anecdotal data that happens to fit within established cultural themes) is basically saying “your life experiences don’t reinforce the stories that I, Ben, wish to see told.”

    Well, too bad. Tell your own story.

  8. 8
    Alexis says:

    I tend to agree with Ben here.

    It is possible that Richard’s experience of Korea, and Korean women, is limited to the simplistic picture he presents here: Korean women are prostitutes. It is also possible that he is selecting these experiences, or taking more complex experiences and presenting them in this simplistic way. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is explicitly an anti-racist (and feminist) blog, and it is running a series of posts on Korea where every Korean woman is a whore. Richard is entitled to his experiences, and to interpret these experiences however he sees fit. But when the sum of these experiences adds up to a constant hammering of a trope that is steeped in racism and sexism, and one that continues to cause trouble for people today, this seems like an inappropriate place to present this particular set of experiences.

  9. 9
    Robert says:

    Or maybe you guys are just ignoring all the parts that don’t fit in with what you want to observe.

    Or do you think that Richard is saying that all the little Korean schoolchildren and their mother – you know, the ones from the first paragraph of this piece – were whores? Or maybe just sluts. I guess the little boys in the group, if there were any, would be the johns.

  10. 10
    Simple Truth says:

    In Richard’s defense, his excerpts are from a book (hopefully?) called Fragments of Evolving Manhood, and it deals a lot with the constructs of male sexuality. It’s not painting a picture just of Korea, but of Richard’s sexuality being shaped by his experiences. At least, that’s what I’m getting…and it’s not making me think every woman in Korea is a whore. It makes me think that many people don’t know how to deal with Richard any other way since he is a foreigner and apparently there is a great deal of sex tourism in Korea.

    The funny thing is I don’t see Richard as the hero – the “virtuous white man”. He isn’t embellishing his stories – he’s admitted some things he’s very ashamed of as well. Richard is one of the most thoughtful and caring writers (IMHO) here at Alas. Perhaps reading more of his posts would paint a different picture for you as well.

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    Heya, everyone.

    We’re in serious spoon-deficit here on Alas staff, and unfortunately, it’s for personal and emotional reasons. Ampersand may discuss what’s going on with him at some point; it’s not my place to bring it in. I continue to have problems relating to my chronic illness.

    For this reason, we request some forbearance.

    With Richard’s permission, I’ll put up an open thread for this line of conversation, not to suggest that it’s less legitimate than other discussion on this topic (and it’s certainly fine to criticize/contemplate Richard’s subject matter; I did at length in the last thread), but just to make sure there’s a place for everyone to be heard. I’m trying to learn from how other flamewars have erupted in the feminist blogosphere recently and do what I wish had been done then, which was to open a space specifically for concern.

    Now, I am inclined to both/and at this, which is not to say mine is the final word in the matter.

    1) Richard is discussing a particular set of his experiences, as Robert points out. This particular set of his experiences relates to his privilege, and openly discussing privilege has ugly dimensions. Showing this ugliness, along with analysis, is in my opinion, one of the more interesting tasks memoir can undertake. I take this part of the essay series as being more pecifically not jut “Korea” but “differences in Korean and American attitudes toward masculinity and sexuality that created a cognitive dissonance in my head and forced me to re-examine some parts of American culture which I had normalized.” For that reason, its focus on particular kinds of experiences seems appropriate.

    Also, I do not think RJN is depicting his self-character here as a virtuous foreigner, so much as ambiguous, unsettled, and confused. Self-depictions and readings thereof are often complicated, though, so YMMV. However, I do think it’s uncharitable to describe the women in RJN’s pieces as “sluts”–really? The trafficked sixteen year old? The bored show-woman with the egg? Sluts? This implies that the text intends to show them as sex objects only when that’s clearly not the case–there are lines devoted to depicting their agency and their subjectivity which do not fit into a sexualized narrative. The women are under a sexualized gaze, yes, but this gaze is criticized, and the women are considered as people, and it is not fair to dismiss them as sluts, IMO.

    I respectfully suggest to RJN that he reconsider the use of “fuck-me-dresses” in this piece.

    2) However many reasons there are for RJN’s essays to investigate these particular phenomena in these particular ways, it remains a fact that portrayal of East Asian women is often sexualized and concentrates on submissiveness or prostitution or victimization at the hands of a stereotypical dominant, exploitative (and yet feminized) East Asian male.

    The problem is not any individual discussion of East Asian gender relations that concentrates on prostitution, but that the conversations about East Asian gender relations end up *disproportionately* dominated by this, among a few other topics.

    See also: disproportionate discussion of FGS when equally or more pressing issues like poverty and education receive too little time, disproportionate discussion of burqahs when affected activists tell us that they’re not as a big a deal as less exotically titillating forms of oppression which get discussed lest, disproportionate discussion of false rape accusations when the actual percentage of times this appears to happen is way less than the percentage of time it takes up in conversation.

    I think RJN’s series is interesting and probative–and necessarily uncomfortable–but of course its existence in a context wherein it adds to the shouting din of skewed portrayals of East Asia is problematic.

    As a writer, I am of the opinion that one must sometimes write into one problematic issue in order to address another. I am also of the opinion that one should therefore accept that the work will always be compromised, and the criticism is legitimate.

    Similarly, I am of the opinion that most things both hurt and help the world. The kyriarchy makes this almost inevitable, in fact.

    I think every writer has to find his or her own balance for this. Personally, I hope I hurt as few people as possible, and that’s what I try to do, but even as I make that a goal, I am aware that most choices remain ethically compromised to some degree. (Also, sheer ignorance bites me in the ass sometimes.)

    I am willing, personally, to read RJN’s essays and to support him writing them, as a way of investigating gender politics and his own privilege. But I also think it’s appropriate for people to have a space to discuss the ways in which they contribute to erasure, racism, and sexism.

    To that end, again, I suggest that we open a new thread for it. RJN is the owner of this one, though, and I’ll defer to him.

  12. ETA: I wrote this comment before seeing Mandolin’s above it; I will read hers more carefully when I get the chance. Right now, I am off to cook dinner.


    Thanks for asking your question more fully. My original objection was not to a tone of voice that I attributed to you, but to the fact that I don’t think anything in what I have written depicts the Korean sex workers about whom I wrote as “sluts and whores” (your words), nor–regarding your second comment–do I think I have depicted myself as “barely escaping from the wiles of bewitching oriental whores.”

    That being said, I do hear Alexis’ point about the cumulative effect of these posts, especially–and especially given the nature of blogs–in the absence of a more sustained and developed framing. So I thank both of you for pointing that out to me. These “fragments” are just that, fragments of something that I wrote a long time ago, that I am cannibalizing, if you will, and it’s easy to get lost in that process and forget about audience. This is not an excuse; it is an explanation. You’ve pointed out, both of you, something important that I had missed and that I need to take into account as I work on this material about my experience in Korea further.

    I also want to say this, while the year I spent in Korea obviously included many more experiences than the ones I have written about here–I played paduk, visited the kimchi museum Seoul (I wonder if it’s still there), watched some of the Olympic Games (I was there in 1988), traveled to Naksan-sa, and to Pusan and Cheju-do, went hiking in the mountains with my students and friends, learned to eat lots of different kinds of foods I’d never tasted (Korean cuisine is still my favorite), translated poems by Hwang Jin-hi and more–the experiences that taught me the most about “the meaning of sex in my life” (which is how these Korea fragments are framed in Part 1) were those that dealt with women, some who were sex workers and some who were not, and sex.

    Again, thanks for making me aware that I need to provide more framing for these pieces.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    Mandolin – spoon deficit?

  14. 14
    Mandolin says:

    It’s been altered a bit from its original context, which related to disability specifically–I now hear it used to refer to turmoil in one’s life that is not related to disability–but it’s a metaphor for how much energy you have to spread across different tasks.

    Say that someone with an intermittent anxiety disorder gets ten spoons on a normal day. Ordinarily, going to the grocery store takes one spoon, and–I dunno–finishing a freelance assignment takes one spoon. Preparing dinner with cooking time takes two spoons, and microwaving something takes one.

    When their anxiety disorder is active, though, maybe they only get five spoons a day. Or when it’s at its worst, maybe they only get three. Also, perhaps their anxiety makes specific simple tasks way more complicated, so that going to the grocery store takes six spoons instead of one.

    Then they get to start making choices. They can finish three freelance assignments, but then they can’t cook, let alone go to the grocery store. And if they don’t go to the grocery store long enough, then they start eating poorly, or not eating at all, which means their daily allotment of spoons gets even smaller.

    This metaphor is useful for explaining why someone can do very complicated tasks, but not very simple ones, which isn’t always intuitive to people without disabilities. (e.g. someone with depression can write a novel but end up in the hospital with a vitamin deficiency from not eating enough calories per day.) It’s also useful for explaining why people can do something one day and not the next, and how that doesn’t mean they’re faking, which again isn’t always intuitive to people without disabilities. (e.g. if someone has fibromyalgia and can walk one day, needs crutches another, and needs a wheelchair the third.)

    Here’s what I think is the original theory, or close to it.

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    Wow. That’s quite an answer, and must have taken you at least a half-spoon. Thanks.

    I am going to have to integrate that into my own disability situation, which is nothing major but which does require some prioritization on occasion. What a great metaphor.

  16. Mandolin:

    I respectfully suggest to RJN that he reconsider the use of “fuck-me-dresses” in this piece.

    Good catch. Thanks. I will edit a little later tonight.

    To that end, again, I suggest that we open a new thread for it. RJN is the owner of this one, though, and I’ll defer to him.

    I have no objection opening up a new thread. Mandolin, do you want to do it, since you seem to have a pretty strong sense of how it might be framed?

  17. 17
    Lis says:

    It strikes me also that there is a reason so many women in these pieces present themselves as prostitutes, and it’s not because they’re “sluts”. I highly doubt the women who approached him on the street were like that with every man. The recurring question repeated in these fragments is, “Are you a soldier?” American soldiers have greatly contributed to an aspect of Korean culture that says white men have very specific expectations of Korean women, and they’re good for a quick buck. There is so much in there about whiteness, and military force, and the sexual commodification of women, that makes RJN’s experience as a white man in Korea so fraught, and it’s worth looking at, since as this piece shows, it does cloud his ability to have legitimate relationships with Korean women. I’m not saying this piece isn’t problematic, but I thought I saw the issue being dealt with in the text already.

  18. 18
    Lila says:

    Koreans have much less body hair than westerners

    That gave me a bit of a brain glitch when I read it. I guess westerner doesn’t mean what I thought it did?

  19. 19
    Alexis says:

    I didn’t see any open thread yet, so I’m putting this here. I’m happy to have it moved when there is one.


    Yeah, I think it’s a framing issue, and while you do clearly label these pieces as “fragments,” it still gives a general impression.

    I also got some of the impression that Ben did, of your narrative, and I wonder if maybe the dissonance here is because you lack the same context? Inside the non-military expat culture of Chinese cities (Shanghai is particularly bad for this), there’s a lot of issues around Asian women. Many of the white men teaching or working other jobs are very open about their reason for teaching English in Shanghai: Asian women are submissive and easy. A lot of the socializing in bars, in breakrooms, in teachers’ lounges, involves the white men complaining about Chinese girlfriends, and how all Asian women are shallow, histrionic, unfaithful, slutty. They talk about the prostitutes, and how hard it is to brush them off. “How I narrowly escaped being trapped by a prostitute” is a common story, and one I’ve heard almost every white man in China tell, usually with a bit of pride and self-satisfaction. Aren’t we great? We escaped the scam. Almost none of these men spoke Mandarin. Some of them didn’t even know to say “bu yao!” “I don’t want!” Most of them had lived in Shanghai for years.

    White women also tell this story. Many of the white women I knew became bitter and angry that none of the white men in Shanghai were interested in dating them, and they also complained about how Asian women are so slutty that they make it impossible for smart, educated, virtuous white women to compete. Dating Asian men is, of course, out of the question. My friend L once launched into a tirade, 30 minutes after we met, about how Chinese women are so slutty that they would even sleep with her white lesbian coworker, just out of curiosity and a desire to get in on the whiteness. Out of context, this seems appalling, but L was just falling back on a standard social icebreaker between white women who had been in Shanghai. Like two Seattlites meeting in New Jersey and reminiscing about the awful dark in the winter.

    It isn’t just inside Asia, either. I overheard the same “I hate my Asian girlfriend” conversations almost daily in the graduate study lounge of my MA program, whenever all the ex-JETs (English teachers in Japan) would congregate. As a undergraduate, all the male-led study abroad sessions for China or Japan always turned into, “Now, here’s how you deal with all those women throwing themselves at you,” even when the session attendees were majority female. We sat there, our questions ignored. On the first day of Japanese class, Uchida-sensei asked us why we were studying Japanese. She looked at the men in class and added, “Besides wanting a Japanese girlfriend.” Later that year, someone wore his “Looking for a Japanese girlfriend” shirt to class. Most of us didn’t have the kanji to read the shirt yet, though we knew the character for “woman” and could guess the meaning. Uchida-sensei just sighed. While staffing at Dragon*Con, I spent three hours one Saturday morning working with a former Marine who kept coming back to his argument that sex workers in Asia were never exploited, and were usually respected by all. His proof was a series of anecdotes about the prostitutes he slept with in the Philippines, in Korea, in Japan, and how happy they seemed. His three phrases of Japanese were hyper-feminine. A few months earlier I had heard two friends of mine, a couple who had studied Japanese in Kyoto, talk about their neighbors, Filipina women who had been taken to Japan against their will and who now worked as prostitutes, their passports and earnings taken from them. I told the marine we’d have to agree to disagree on the issue.

    I don’t know what the stories are in the military. Most of the American soldiers I know are women, or men I met through their wives. My dad’s soldier stories are very different; when women appear, they are potential Viet Cong. We listened to an NPR story once about young adults in Vietnam, trying to find their American fathers. I turned to him and asked, half-joking, “Do I have a Vietnamese half-brother or sister out there?” He laughed and shook his head. “I never had a chance. I was busy with other things.”

    So when I see your posts, Richard, the story they fit into is the one that expats and students tell. I hear them saying that Korean women are whores because they sound like many other stories where the teller intends to make all Asian women look like whores. It sounds like you probably haven’t been exposed to as many of these stories, so you might not pick up on that. We all have different contexts, and my hope is that now you can understand a little more the one that I’m reading your posts in.

    Anyway, I wasn’t trying to start a fight, or call in the moderators to deal. But I hate hearing echoes of the old expat stories repeated, especially somewhere like this, and I wanted you to understand that. I thought, based on my two or so years of reading Alas, that you would be. And it seems like you are indeed open, and willing to think and talk about these issues, which I appreciate.

  20. 20
    Katie says:

    Perhaps “Koreans often have less body hair than White people” makes more sense. I’m both western and Korean.

  21. Katie (and, I’m guessing this was Lila’s point too):

    Good catch and good suggestion. Thanks!

  22. Alexis:

    It sounds like you probably haven’t been exposed to as many of these stories, so you might not pick up on that.

    It’s not that I haven’t heard the stories or known people who hold the views you describe, but I can honestly say that, at least among the people who were my colleagues when I was in Korea, there was little to none of the kind of talk you describe, which is not a reason to account for the stereotypes, etc. in what I write, but it does suggest that my experience in Korea was very different from yours and perhaps also Ben’s, at least in this regard.

    Ah, I am looking at the clock. There is more I wanted to say in response to you, but I need to go teach. If I can, I will come back later. Also, I am not sure that this discussion needs to be moved to an open thread; it seems to me not inappropriate here.

  23. 23
    Mandolin says:

    OK, so I’m going to not make another thread, is that okay?

  24. Alexis:

    So when I see your posts, Richard, the story they fit into is the one that expats and students tell. I hear them saying that Korean women are whores because they sound like many other stories where the teller intends to make all Asian women look like whores.

    I am wondering if you read Parts 1 and 2 of the Korea fragments, where it seems to me there is some quite explicit framing that distinguishes the stories I am trying to tell from the narrative you are talking about. I am asking not to be defensive or to step back from my agreeing with the point you made about the cumulative effect of the posts–indeed, thinking about your comments in this thread has reminded me of things I’d forgotten about that I need to add to these stories that will, in part, address that issue–but because I’m really interested to hear, from your point of view, where that framing breaks down, if you think it does.

    An0ther thing that occurs to me after reading your last comment a second time: It’s interesting to me that the narrative you report is one constructed by white men (and women), while the experiences of the Korean sex trade that I am talking about in these posts were mostly mediated through my relationships with Korean men, including the way the thin Korean man in the Gilbert “mediated” my relationship with Ms. Park. Does this mean that, as Ben Lehman suggested, I think all Korean men are johns? Of course not, but I was astonished over and over again at how consistently the Korean men I met, both amongst my students and the people I met outside of work, were eager both to sexualize my presence in Korea through use of the sex industry there and to talk with me about my sexual experiences with Korean women as if having sex with a Korean woman could be differentiated from the experience of having sex with a white women in the way that one might differentiate the experience of tasting two different kinds of wine, or smoking two different kinds of cigars.

    I realize, of course, that even that aspect of my experience of Korea needs to be seen in light of the fact that I was there as a white American man. Indeed, one of the things that your comments have prodded me to remember is that Mr. Park told me that his experience was that American men who came to Korea–he was in a business that did a lot of business with American companies–all wanted to go to room salons, room cafes, standbars, etc. Of course, the fact that I told him I was not interested in having him pay for me to have sex or that I would be perfectly happy going some place other than those kinds of establishments did not stop him from surprising me with a trip to Miari, but I had completely forgotten about this, and it’s something I need to add to my telling of this story.

    Even the discussion you had with the former Marine was one I had pretty much exclusively with Korean men–which I talked a little bit about in Part 1 of the Korea fragments–and the only white guy I had that discussion with was one who had been living in Korea for so long and was so acculturated and, in some ways, assimilated that his perspective in the discussion was far more Korean than the one most probably held by the Marine with whom you were talking.

  25. 26
    Elusis says:

    Read this story today linked from Racialicious and it made me think of this series. I don’t pretend to understand the cultural context well enough to make any kind of proclamation about it, but it was thought-provoking:

  26. Thanks, Elusis. That’s really interesting.