Thor's Korea Diary

Of Tampons and Honey

@14 March 2001

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Getting old, perhaps, has something to do with having seen it all before. When the world no longer holds surprises, you may as well pack your toothbrush and catch the next stagecoach to supernatural regions. So the exasperation and humiliation of finding that you can no longer even ask for a postage stamp has an upside for a stranger in a strange land. Like a newly minted paraplegic after a bad traffic accident, you have to learn everything from the ground up again. That's me in Korea or China. And it has to be worth as least another forty years of life.

My daily survival is full of small, unexpected discoveries. Today, for example, I invested two hundred won in a machine that seemed to be dispensing tissues. On a previous learning curve, I had discovered that this is the way to obtain tissues in Korea. Most supermarkets don't stock them. You have to find yourself a public toilet, and in that place will also be one of these ubiquitous vending machines, probably alongside another that half fills tiny cups with brown liquid claiming to be coffee.

Anyway, I stuffed the packet of tissues into my coat pocket and headed off to a class. In a half time break, after scoffing the semi cup of brown liquid my students often present out of respect, I fished for the pack and tore it open with proper insouciance. Um, well... what does a man do when he finds himself holding a tampon** in a mixed class of giggly kids barely out of their teens?

Tampons are definitely not designed for blowing you nose on. To be honest, I have never studied the design of a tampon before. [** In my innocence, at the time, and even when I first wrote this story, I thought I had scored a "tampon". Worldlier folk have since pointed out that I was actually holding something called a "sanitary napkin". Tampons are evidently more in the line of absorbent cigarette shaped things. It just shows, ladies, the impenetrable ignorance of the male of the species... ]. They are a quite impressive example of functional engineering actually, and looking at the thing carefully, many possible uses came to mind : an emergency sterile bandage for any part of the body, a blindfold for long plane flights (tied on with a bit of elastic), an abrasion pad on elbows and knees for roller blading, knuckle pads for fisticuff fights, universal blotting paper for leaky pens, a coffee cup mat on desks to avoid ring marks, padding in envelopes and parcels for mailing fragile objects, an insulated palm pad for picking up hot saucepans, a mouthcover to keep off frostbite during mid-winter long distance jogs... Hmm, maybe I'd better stock up on these things, just in case ...

Another big surprise of the day was The Honey Incident. Like many kinds of food in Korea, the price of honey is outrageous. It is not unusual to see a jar of honey for W20,000 up, though others of lower repute may be had for W10000 or so. If honey were made by Caribbean sugar cane workers there wouldn't bee a problem, but it is made by Korean bees who, undoubtedly, stand to attention for the national anthem too. There seem to be a couple of factors in play here.

Firstly, Koreans are susceptible to the same kind of fashion/mystique exploitation as Chinese. In both countries, for an item to acquire some reputation for magical potence or even healthiness is to multiply its price many times.

Many Chinese, regardless of education, are persuaded by the primitive anthropomorphic association of power with the body parts of tigers, bears, rhinos etc. Their superstitions are a major threat to some of the world's most endangered species. Koreans on the other hand seem to be in pursuit of immortality elixirs in a big way, perhaps because life has been so nasty, brutish and short in the immediate past. Ironically, it is obvious to my eye that Korean bodies age much more quickly than those in central or south China; (whether this is climate, or diet, or genetics I don't know, but the visual evidence is striking).

In the immortality stakes, Chinese turtles and tortoises have a hard time because nature unfortunately set their metabolic clocks for a lengthy life, which feature Chinese diners are certain they can steal. In general though, it is pretty obvious that the most macho denizens of the animal kingdom come to dust long before your average well-fed human specimen. Plant life is therefore held to be a better candidate for the manufacture of long-life medicines. Well, successful sages joining the Immortals were reputed to dine nicely on thin air, ingested in its purest form on mountaintops, but that is a bit demanding for your average wage slave nowadays..

Chemist shops and traditional medicine shops in both China and Korea are richly stocked with enough herbal potions to ensure that no man or woman on the planet need ever die. To buy this stuff however requires either marrying the herbalist's daughter or inheriting the laundered cash of a major drug ring. OK, OK, I'm not immune to seeking ways to at least prolong a life of quality either. In Australia I used to scoff tablets of gingko biloba for its known qualities of improving peripheral blood circulation, (and it was nice to read in one of those gee-whiz press agency releases that Swinburne University researchers in Australia had found that gingko biloba, alone of all known herbs, was able to raise intelligence quotients by up to ten points. Now I need all the IQ I can get ... ).

That was a relatively cheap indulgence, until I got to Korea, where gingko trees are a common form of flora. My enquiries led to that enlargement of the pupils brought on by an offer of quick bucks. Chemists would shuffle off to the back of their shops and come back triumphant with a high tech plastic vial containing the precious tablets, in concentrations roughly six times weaker than the Australian. For this magic I have been quoted W75,000 a pack. Hmm. That would shorten my life ....

Although (like Japanese), many a Korean lives out of vending machines between pit stops at Kentucky Fried or MacDonalds, there is a hefty market premium to be had too for things that demonstrably come from nature. That is the long-life angle in play again. For example the ginger I bought in Chinese markets was always washed and dried ready for use. Korean shops will present ginger root in plastic wrap, still coated in weighty clods of earth, at ten times the Chinese price; (as ginger goes, it is pretty low grade stuff too). Even that most hyped of all Korean roots, ginseng, often comes in plastic wrap with bits of dirt attached. Mushrooms also wear the "made in Korea" label proudly, with added benefits amongst the more exotic cousins of psychotropic qualities, and hiding under rocks in mountain valleys : as with ginseng, you can have a mountain holiday treasure hunt.

The "made in Korea" label is the other element (along with mystique) in high local food prices. In fact it is the major element in high local prices generally. Korean industry is very young : more or less a product of the post-Korean War era, and its rapid growth leaned heavily on extreme protectionism, butressed politically with very aggressive national sentiments. There are some good arguments for industrial protection in certain limited environments. One of the best arguments is its role in generating local employment. However over a medium to long term it extracts a heavy penalty. The penalty can best be summed up as restricted choices and low quality at high prices.

When the equation is wrapped in case-hardened nationalism, then you can expect real trouble. Nationalism (a.k.a. tribalism, racism etc.) is guaranteed to bring out the very worst in any human situation. In a commercial environment it is a license for cynical exploitation. Koreans are screwed relentlessly by their own national commercial enterprises. As in Japan, this unholy alliance of nationalistic forces has carried over into agriculture with similar results. For example Korean rice, a staple, is of poor quality (in my view) at a ridiculous price. Which brings us wending back to the pot of honey.

Bansong Dong has one place that almost rates as half a real supermarket. You can't actually count on finding what you want, but you can find enough to get by. That's important in a prosaic way, because this Dong (ward) does not even have a real market. In a long, narrow, very crowded laneway winding up the hill there are various market stalls in a line on each side of the path. Their selection is extremely limited, and I can't see any real discount on their prices from that offered by the demi-supermarket. Sometimes though, just for the colour, I go that way. Their narrow entrances hiding between the stalls on the hill, there are also about three supermarket wannabes.

It was in one of these that I found the honey. I was mystified, On a shelf sat half a dozen jars looking to my unpracticed eye rather much of a muchness. I could not comprehend the 200% range in prices. In particular, a largish jar at W5000 seemed too good to be true for Korea. Well, I don't look gift horses in the mouth. I snaffled the prize and headed for the cash register.

A commotion at my back made me pause. An instant committee of a gaping youth, an old man tanned and mummified with nicotine, and a heavy middle aged woman with the arms of a weight lifter were all clamouring for my attention. This was a real surprise because, exotic as I am in these parts, the locals rarely meet my eye. I pass amongst them as a ghost. Nevertheless, on this occasion they had coalesced to save me from some terrible faux pas. I stood there smiling dumbly as they remonstrated and demonstrated. Finally, realizing that it was a hopeless case, the mummified old man shrugged and shooed me towards the cash register. The large lady was still waving her arms.

Clearly I had become the owner of some mysterious concoction. Was this the honey of low-class bees, or worse, the honey of foreign bees? From time to time the press carried awful stories of dastardly foreign imports, like Chinese crabs with bits of toxic metal planted under their shells to boost the weight. What poison was I heir to here? I clunked the honey pot down on a desk in front of my students, which caused a whispering conference. The poor things know so little English though that they could only say "sugar, sugar...". Yeah, well, honey is largely sugar, but maybe there was a clue to be had. Was this stuff spiked with a cheaper kind of sugar?

There had to be something else though. An experimental finger licking definitely tasted a bit strange, almost medicinal. One of the departmental secretaries finally decoded the mystery. It was 30% honey (ah well, that was a start), it was 59.5% "sugar" (probably molasses..), it was 0.5% caramel, and last, but strangest, it was 10% of a "special" mushroom. Hmm, what can you say? The first slice of corn bread with honeyed mushroom has not given me an out-of-body experience yet. Maybe it will save me from diabetes instead...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Of Tampons and Honey"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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