Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Stinky Russians, Doppelgangers, Dojang, and Bhut

Stinky Russians

Much earlier in the year, construction was started on two weol-lum (from the English "one-room," as in "one-room [studio] apartment") in my neighborhood, right down the street from where I live. The construction team included some white guys, which was new to me. They seemed to understand Korean just fine, and their grunted Korean responses to their co-workers seemed fluent enough. One dude in particular, a guy with stringy blond hair, seemed to be on site every day (the other foreigners either weren't always there or weren't always visible). For a long time I wondered if these white guys were Americans, but about two months ago I discovered they were Russian: they live in the neighborhood and frequent some of the same PC-bahng I do, where they surf Russian-language sites and, occasionally, porn.

These dudes are either naturally stinky or they come into the PC-bahng right after work, without having taken time to shower. Wherever they go, they leave an amazingly salty, gritty, armpitty funk, at least 11 on the Skankiness Scale. Even a Frenchman would notice something amiss.

I often shop at a little grocery store behind the block where I live (it's on the same street as the dog stew restaurant), and just yesterday, I smelled the blond Russian before I saw him near the produce section, where the vegetables were shriveling under the weight of the massive olfactory assault. Stinky Ruskie's got a Korean girlfriend (big surprise there); either she must be very understanding, or she must find his pheromones quite manly:

"Oh, Vladimir, let me comb your pit hair with my tongue!"

I know a few Russian phrases thanks to my freshman-year roomate in undergrad; he was a Russian major. I can say stupid stuff like (forgive the bad romanization, and take into account that I'm likely misremembering shit from 1987):

Zdrastvuytye! Shto novova, tovarish? (Hello! What's new, comrade?)

Nyet, nyet, ya dumayushto nyet. (No, no; I don't think so.)

Lenin slushayet musiku! (Lenin listens to music!)

I can say other nearly useless things like "privyet!" and "harasho!", which won't help me if I ever get captured and tortured by the Russian mafia. Would you be screaming "LENIN LISTENS TO MUSIC!" while some fat guy with vodka-breath is sawing off your thumbs? How about, "NO, NO-- I DON'T THINK SO!"? Yeah; me, neither.

So the Dolgoji Station area has Russians. And other foreigners as well; I've seen South Asians and Filipinos hanging around there, and the occasional lanky or fat American has stilted or waddled through.

The Doppelganger

It had to happen, and tonight it finally did. I think I saw my double this evening, and he looked better than I did because he was somewhat thinner, the bastard. It was quite strange; for a few seconds, I couldn't help staring. I think the guy was full Korean, too, which made it even stranger, since I'm only half-and-half.

This vision occurred over by the front entrance of the Chongno Tower in (you guessed it) the Chongno Street area. I was on my way to an ATM to grab some money and head into Insa-dong, the art district. Since I was using my Riggs National Bank card, I didn't have access to many ATMs, and Seoul ATMs in general are poorly maintained, so I encountered a lot of broken hardware this evening. The doppelganger sighting happened after almost an hour of ATM-searching. It must have been a good omen, because the very next ATM I approached, a "Nice" cash machine (that's the brand name), worked just fine and obediently puked out 100,000 won.

Dojang and Bhut

I was in Insa-dong to ask around about dojang (chops/stamps, usually with your name on it in Chinese or Korean). What I needed to find out is why many artists tend to put at least three different stamps on their work. As it turns out, the three stamps are called myeong, ho, and du-in. I'm still not clear on what du-in is about, but myeong is the name stamp, and ho is the artist's nom de plume. I tried looking up du-in in my online Eng-Kor/Kor-Eng dictionary, but no luck. Perhaps I misheard the term. I know for sure I didn't understand the term's explanation. I'll try a dictionary again this evening, when I'm home. At a guess, the "in" in du-in is the Chinese character for "seal," which looks a lot like the letters E and P stuck together.

Ever since I started practicing calligraphy, I've begun to pay more attention to the details. As a result, I've seen some works that feature a fourth stamp; I'll have to ask about that, too.

This evening, I was told that there's a dojang-making expert in Insa-dong over at a shop called Dol Sarang ("Stone Love"? --possible: the shop is filled with stone dojang). I went there, but didn't see anyone in the shop. So I stole one of the owner's business cards and perused the marvelous little dojang he had on display.

It's a tiny shop; you can cross the floorspace in a single stride, but I highly recommend it as a mini-museum experience. Whoever this guy is (the name card says Seon Seong Gu), he definitely knows dojang. I was told he'd be the one to give me a proper ho (the nom de plume)-- no snickering at "ho," asshole. He wasn't there this time, but I may go back tomorrow, talk price, talk hos, find out what the hell a du-in is all about, and maybe even solve the mystery of the fourth dojang.

The other mystery is why so many calligraphic works feature columns of very small calligraphy, usually on the left side, providing a sort of asymmetric accent to the main work. Are these comments ("I did this piece after some heavy-duty freebasing; it came out pretty well, considering")? The calligrapher's handwritten signature ("with love, Ralph Nader")? See, if I actually knew more hanja, I'd probably know the answer to that one, but my head remains largely hanja-empty.

They're selling calligraphy brushes for cheap right now in Insa-dong. I got me a big-ass calligraphy brush, called a bhut (all calligraphy brushes are bhut, no matter their size), for the Maximum Leader's art project, and it cost only 15,000 won (as opposed to a brush of the same size for 60,000 to 100,000 won). Maybe my brush will go bald more quickly. I wonder what the etiquette is if hairs are falling out while you're painting.

Ah, yes-- another project tomorrow: gotta re-register at the gym. Just thought I'd share.

Speaking of sharing...

Today's Scatological Moment

One of the worst things that can happen to you as a private teacher (i.e., while teaching English in somebody else's home) is to be struck by the urgent need to take a massive shit during the session. I tend to think that Americans crap bigger and stinkier than Koreans, though I know this is debatable when you factor in the stench-magnifying capabilities of a kimchi-heavy diet. I'm half-Korean but feel I crap more American, and today I had no choice but to excuse myself from my 8-year-old's sit-down table and leave an offering at his family's porcelain altar.

A lot of thoughts go through my head when I have to do this at someone else's house. The first thought is always about bathroom placement. In Min-sung's apartment in Apkujong, the main bathroom is located right next to the front door, and across the hallway from his big sister's bedroom. This was already bad news: I think Min-sung's big sis is cute, and I didn't want her to walk in the front door, smell unfamiliar off-white-boy-crap, then try to barricade herself in her bedroom, where her door would be about as useless as a Japanese rice paper shoji for blocking out the smell.

But I had to crap. My ass was getting ready to open its Death Sphincter and scream brownly. Princess Leia was shouting, "Not Alderaan, I beg you! We have no weapons! Anywhere but Alderaan, please, God!", but once you start that final firing sequence, Alderaan is moments away from fetid obliteration. I walked into the bathroom. If Min-sung's big sis was going to enter the apartment while my awesome bassoon was sounding, there'd be no helping the matter. This was beyond my control. They say it's "nature's call," but I say the urge to crap is more like nature's post-ball-kicking bellow. I clicked the bathroom door closed and locked the door.

I always courtesy flush. The courtesy flush, if I'm not mistaken, has two principal functions: (1) to partially mask the awful sound of the initial blast-off, and (2) to swallow that first large glop of crap, thereby preventing immediate odor buildup (useless if the log is preceded by a long fartatory preamble). As is my habit, I courtesy-flushed and simultaneously fired off a missile to make North Korea proud. It felt pretty damn big; I think I shat a tree. But the toilet gulped it greedily, and-- miracle of miracles-- it appeared I had no further rabbit raisins waiting to plunge lemming-like into the suicide swirl. So I wiped, stood up, and turned around, ready to flush again...

Then I realized the toilet hadn't finished refilling from the previous flush.


I hate when plumbing mishaps occur on my watch, especially when I'm at someone else's place. There's always the chance of that nightmare scenario we all dread: the one where the dung-filled toilet is about to overflow, and it doesn't look like it's about to stop, and any moment you're going to have to run out and ask your host if they can do something about the dungucopia the toilet is currently vomiting all over the floor. Luckily, my situation wasn't quite that bad: it was simply a slow-filling toilet.

A toilet's tank should refill within a minute, so long as nothing's wrong, and that's as true in Korea as it is in Switzerland or France or the US. Plumbing is plumbing. But Min-sung's toilet appeared to be taking its sweet time, and I was starting to get desperate-- I didn't want to give the impression I was taking an even more massive shit than I actually had, dammit.

Finally, I had enough. I opened the toilet tank. The toilet's muffled burbling became a roar; I had to chuckle as I thought about what Min-sung and the cleaning lady were thinking (they were the only two in the apartment, aside from me). I saw the problem immediately: the little swinging drain hatch had a balloon on it (????) and wasn't closing properly. I mashed my fingertips down on it; it closed and the tank finally began to fill properly. After about a minute: Shangri-la. I was able to flush down my remaining dung flecks and toilet paper, replace the tank's cover, and wash my hands. Mission accomplished. And I don't think I left much of a stink at all-- a rarity.

Here's hoping Min-sung's big sis didn't notice anything.

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