Greetings to my reader on this fine Wednesday evening. The weather is disgusting, but I don’t care because I’m holed up in my soviet style tenement with the windows blacked out, the front door bolted shut and reminders of civilization plastered all over my walls and streaming through my home theater system. One wall features Martin Elliot’s famous “Tennis Girl” poster, positioned next to a few prints by Paolozzi, Worhol and Rauschenberg. On another wall hangs a black and white photo of a long haired Steve Jobs drinking a beer, next to which is another black and white shot of Audrey Hepburn smoking a cigarette. The walls of my office are adorned almost exclusively with photographs of Tahitian surf scenes, and 1950’s black and white Americana. It’s important to be surrounded by the things you love. It’s a kind of coping mechanism for dealing with the ugliness of a slippery, muddy, wet, Korean winter day where the typical ambient soundtrack features a stream of continuous horn-honking.
Today’s post features two sections, with vital questions and important observations. When the intellectual big swinging dicks of Korea’s expat community (you know who you are) all gather around a large oak meeting room table to sip venti non-fat chai tea lattes and discuss stimulating and relevant Korea-related issues, they’ll likely never touch upon the following two subjects of interest, mostly because these ideas and questions only really occur to individuals like myself, who spend every waking hour in deep thought about the issues that impact society the most. My people are currently lunching with the people over at the Korea Times (it’s actually run by one guy, from his parents’ basement) to introduce a weekly column entitled “Korean Curiosities by Jake the Expat”. The below is a sneak preview of the contents. Contracts are being hashed out, and lawyers are engaging in bilateral talks as we speak.
Death, Secrecy and Unclaimed Dildos
Of all the places in Korea, perhaps the most interesting are Korea’s world famous love motels. I say ‘world famous’ because there isn’t a single person who has visited Korea and not seen the abundance of seedy love motels. Now, before you get all offended, consider this: The adult Jindo dog is considered a national treasure in Korea, an animal unique to Korea, the sight of which brings a sense of pride to many Koreans. I’ve lived in Korea for almost a decade, and I’ve never actually seen a Jindo, have you? Raise your hand if you’ve seen a live Jindo dog during your stay in Korea. Pansori, Korea’s national opera is also considered an Intangible Cultural Property in Korea, something that must be preserved, something that every foreigner should see at least once during their sojourn in Korea. I love Pansori. I’ve been here almost a decade, and not once has someone offered to take me to a Pansori performance. Do you know how hard I had to look to locate a Pansori performance? How about you, have you been to a Pansori performance?
Love motels however, are everywhere and accessible to everyone, and might as well be Korea’s Intangible Cultural Property Number 120. The only sight more common are cookie cutter mass produced churches (Korean Intangible Cultural Property Number 121), which strangely enough and much like love motels, count sinners among their main clientele. Most tourists to Korea will only ever see one or two national treasures or cultural properties, however nearly every single visitor to Korea will without a doubt see countless examples of Korea’s world famous love motels, because you can’t not see them. You see, love motels are ubiquitous in Korea, and in no other place do the beginnings and endings of so many fundamental life stories occur.
Babies are conceived in love motels. Marriages can start and end in love motels. Families break apart because of what happens in love motels. Rape occurs more often than not, in love motels. Naive foreign travelers often mistake love motels for traditional accommodation, only to realize later that most guests check out after 2 hours. Money exchanges hands nightly in every town, city and countryside village love motel. Korean diplomats have been dismissed after giving away national secrets to female Chinese/North Korean spies in love motels. Rich men have been lead into traps and extorted out of millions of dollars in love motels. Korean prosecutors have been caught demanding sexual favors from criminal defendants in love motels. Love motels are exciting. Love motels have stories to tell, if only they could speak.
Countless interesting things happen on a nightly basis in Korea’s world famous love motels, but as an amateur ethnographer and anthropologist hobbyist, I’m mainly interested in two Korean love motel unsolved mysteries. To wit, (1) Is there a love motel “Lost and Found”, and (2) What happens when an ajeossi dies inside of a love motel?
(1) Ever wonder if Korea’s love motels have a “Lost and Found” desk or phone number? I mean, you have to believe that a significant number of items are left behind in a significant number of love motels on a fairly frequent basis. The sheer number of operating love motels serve to validate this idea. One can’t really go anywhere without seeing a love motel; they’re everywhere. I can stand at any intersection in a medium to large sized Korean city, throw a rock, and hit a love motel. And after the rock bounces off of one love motel, it will probably hit another. So what happens to all of the items left behind by Korea’s secretive love motel guests?
What is the standard operating procedure for say, finding a dildo and a pair of discarded handcuffs in a love motel room after the clientele have left? Surely, the dildo must be discarded, right? Or do they hold onto it for a set amount of time, like 30 days, before discarding it? Or, do they sell them on to sex shops, only to be re-packaged and re-sold? Surely nobody comes back to claim these objects, or do they?
How about the unfortunate patron who leaves their cell phone or wallet behind? What is the exact protocol for dealing with such a situation? Does the owner shamefully, head bowed, tail between legs, come back to collect it? Does the staff have some unwritten rule about dealing with such an event, or do they simply take the money and cards out, and then toss it in the trash, as is the standard protocol out on the streets? Love motels operate under the premise that whatever happens inside the love motel, didn’t actually happen, and whoever checks into the love motel, didn’t actually check in. There are no cameras (at least, you think there are no cameras), and no copies of any identifying documents are made upon check-in. In fact, Korea’s love motels are among the only accommodation in the world where guests provide absolutely no identification whatsoever.
Imagine for a moment the potential pitfalls and headaches of a mobile phone or wallet being left behind in a love motel. How does one locate the original owner without actually disclosing that the item itself was left behind in the shadiest of shady illicit meeting places? You can’t exactly call an ajeossi’s wife, parents or kids and tell them that he left his phone at the Bobos Love Motel in Yeongdeungpo, can you? I’m going to make the assumption that wallets are looted and tossed, and that cell phones are sold on to third party dealers, and that in the extremely rare instance that an ajeossi or mistress does make their way back to the motel to inquire, that all knowledge of any found item is summarily denied. But still, there must be some love motel operator of such impeccable honesty and high moral fiber, whom somewhere in Korea operates a love motel lost and found filled with items that tell interesting stories of love, loss and bad decisions.
(2) Which moves us on to question number two: What happens when an ajeossi dies inside of a love motel? What is the standard operating procedure for such an event? Let’s imagine a 50-something salaryman ajeossi has spent the night partying with his colleagues in a room salon, and that he makes the rational, cool-headed, adult decision to take one of the wenches back to a motel for a night of alcohol-fueled ajeossi love. Let’s further conjecture that our ajeossi friend has forgotten to take his heart medication, and mid-coitus he succumbs to a heart attack. What happens now? What is the protocol for dealing with such a situation, as obviously, with the sheer number of love motels and love motel patrons, and participants in the sex industry, it is a statistical certainty that such events do occur on a regular or semi-regular basis?
Does the girl stay or go? Does she contact the front desk, or does she just run? Obviously no IDs were checked or left at the front desk, so as far as anyone is concerned, the girl was never there. Do the girls have a special phone number that they dial in the event of such situations? Does someone come by with a black van, a body bag, a bucket full of cleaning supplies and a vacuum cleaner? I’m going to guess that the girl freaks out and leaves. She probably tells her pimp what happens, or maybe she doesn’t. And what happens when the love motel cleaning staff discover the dead ajeossi? How does one proceed from there? They’ll obviously have to contact the police at some point. Do they scour the room to remove all traces of the female, or is that the responsibility of the police? Do they clean the place up, or call the police straight away?
Or maybe they have their own secret phone number that they dial on such occasions, where someone will come by with a black van, a body bag, a bucket full of cleaning supplies and a vacuum cleaner. Assume the police are called, what happens next? Do the police then scour the room and remove all traces of the female? At what point do they notify the next of kin, and do they call them to the love motel to identify the body, or do they move the body first? If used condoms are found in the wastebasket, is this omitted from the police report? How much, if any effort is put into locating the girl who accompanied the dead ajeossi? What is standard operating procedure for the police when filling out the reports? Is there some kind of default story they paste into the reports? Something like “56 year old male, drank heavily with co-workers, too drunk to drive home, checked into love motel and died of natural causes alone. Case closed” What about the medical examiner? If the body shows up with a condom stuck to the dick, do they mention that in the report? To what extent do they attempt to protect the dignity and reputation of all parties involved? And, on a curiosity side note, if all the dildos left behind in Korea’s love motels were summarily gathered, would they fill an Olympic sized swimming pool? Some day I’m going to interview a worker at a high-traffic love motel in a crowded area, and get the answers to all of the above questions.
It’s Spatial Awareness Day
It’s a weekday night and I’m walking home from the subway station. I’m passing down a narrow sidewalk with just enough space for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder. If a third person joined this walking twosome, the third person would have to walk in the street. I’m headed down this sidewalk with confidence; shoulders up, back straight, homosapien style forward bi-pedal locomotion. Coming from the opposite direction are two middle-aged Korean women. I say “middle-aged” but I’m really just being nice here; they are both on the wrong side of 45. They are about 5 feet tall, as is typical for their generation, and are walking side by side, headed directly towards me. Manners and common sense dictate that they should break their shoulder-to-shoulder formation and file one behind the other to allow oncoming foot traffic to pass by. Of course, those of you who reside or have resided in Korea for two minutes or more all know how this story ends. Our middle aged female friends continue barreling down the sidewalk with no sign of breaking formation to allow passing foot traffic to slide by. I’m thinking ‘fuck you, fuck this and if you refuse to acknowledge that we live in the 21st century, I’m simply going to walk through you’.
The middle aged women are obviously thinking the same thing, minus the 21st century part, because they don’t actually know what century it is. I barrel ahead, as do the two hags. I’m looking straight ahead when I smack directly into the 5 foot tall ajumma, who is profoundly shocked at having bumped into someone at such speed. She drops her fake Louis Vuitton handbag onto the ground and stands there, mouth gaping open. She can’t believe that instead of stepping down into the muddy street, someone has simply pushed her out of the way and continued walking on past. Her fake Louis Vuitton handbag is now sitting in the mud. I continue walking, turn back, and make a little shrug gesture with my palms up in the air. Only in Korea.
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m riding my bicycle. If you have ever ridden a bicycle in Korea, you already know how this story pans out. I’m riding on a bicycle path, which is next to a foot path. The bicycle path being intended for bicycles, and the footpath being intended for feet (crazy white people thinking here). I’m cycling at a good clip, as one would do on a Sunday afternoon on the rare occasion that one braves leaving one’s apartment of course. It’s a given that in Korea, people are going to walk on the bike path, regardless of there being a footpath directly adjacent to the bike path. I’ve already accepted this, and I’ve attached a WWII era submarine Klaxon horn to the front of my bicycle, which I hand-crank every time I’m coming up onto a gaggle of Koreans (what is the scientific word for a group of Koreans?). The Klaxon horn causes most of them to jump out of the way as the crazy foreigner flies past them on the bike path (again, intended originally for bicycles).
So I’m riding down the bike path at critical mass. I’ve seen some foreigners who are actually foolish enough in their cycling endeavors to use foot clamps or straps, clamping their feet to the pedals to take advantage of the upward stroke of the pedal, allowing them to more efficiently use their energy. This of course is a royally idiotic practice in Korea, where strapping your feet to the pedals all but ensures serious injury to yourself the instant a person jumps out in front of your bicycle (and yes, people will jump out in front of your bicycle). I’m gliding and coasting down the cycle path, and the Koreans on bicycles in front of me and to my rear are also gliding down the path at a good speed. Bicycles on the bike path; something one would expect (again, crazy white people talking here). Out of the corner of my eye, I see a gaggle of Koreans, a family of three walking out directly in front of me onto the bike path in a v-formation.
None of the three family members bothers to glance at the bike path to see any of the countless cycles whizzing by at breakneck speeds. Who would expect to see an actual bicycle on a bicycle path? They either don’t care, or they are simply oblivious. The careless man has married his careless soulmate, and in time, they have produced a careless, brainless child. They have taken their own little tattered rag of fabric, and stitched it over reality. If I don’t see it, it must not exist, and if I’m not looking for it, then obviously I won’t see it. All of life’s little problems solved under one blanket of idiocy. I sound the horn when I’m about 10 meters away from them, and then I brace for the inevitable crash, something I’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, frightened by the horn, they jump across to the opposite side of the bike lane and directly in front of a caravan of die-hard Korean cyclists, who plow them down and all pile on top of each other (their feet are strapped in, so they can’t dismount in time to avoid a crash). What are these people thinking? Only in Korea.
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m going to Costco with the family, because I enjoy punishing myself and testing my own personal threshold for stress and discontent. We’re in a giant line of cars waiting to get into the Costco parking garage. If there were ever a situation that mirrored the scene of people lined up outside the gates of hell, begging to get in, this would be it. Every few minutes, we inch forward a few feet. As we sit there, a woman in the white SUV in front of us decides to put her car in reverse. She ain’t waiting any more. Or maybe she’s going to park somewhere else. The problem is that we are stuck in a one-lane driveway with concrete dividers on each side, and about 80 cars lined up behind us, bumper to bumper. We’re boxed in, so instinctively, I honk the horn, which should act as a type of universal warning (again crazy white people thinking). The woman continues to inch backwards. “She’s going to hit us”, I calmly and matter-of-factly tell the wife. “Get ready to do the Korean hospital/neckpain/sympathy rolling-around-on-the-ground performance” I explain. Again, I’m calm because this is the norm. This is the type of thing I actually expect to happen, so there isn’t a shred of panic coursing through my veins. I’m cool and collected. The white SUV continues inching back as I lay on the horn. Then, suddenly, contact! Did that actually just happen? The bitch hits the front of our car. Smash! The bitch then gets out, walks back towards us, and INSTINCTIVELY grabs her own neck. Seriously? What the fuck? “Why didn’t you move?” she asks in Korean. “Didn’t you hear the horn you stupid fucking cunt!” I scream out the window. Only in Korea.