Surfing the 38th Parallel, Photo Essay Series: Strange Tales

In part five of this photo essay series on surfing in South Korea, Shannon Aston explains a bit about the people and customs of this insular community. 

Strange Tales from A South Korean Beach

South Korea. Get a room of ex-pats together on the topic and each will tell some amazing, strange and wonderful stories of life on the divided peninsula, all told with a good measures of humour, shock and amazement. Korean life from your first day til your last is an exercise in the unusual, the kind and the baffling. A largely proud and inward looking nation that possesses an ancient distrust of foreigners, Korea is like no other country I have ever been. Governed by strict social laws of filial piety and Confucian morality, Korea is a nation hurtling towards the future, yet tightly bound to the past. No faux-morality here; in Korea their code is strictly obeyed and there are absolutely no deviations permitted in speech, behaviour or viewpoint. Because of this collision of old and new, an outsider will observe all manner of strange and wonderful things that locals barely notice.

In Korea, you are always seen as a foreigner, or the Korean term of ‘waygook-in:’ a novelty or a misunderstood sideshow to regular Korean life, so situations do arise. For example, when an intoxicated middle-aged man stinking of cigarettes inappropriately joins you at dinner and tries to practice his English on you, you must awkwardly chat and drink with him because he is older than you. School-age girls giggle at you foolishly in groups—marveling at your strange eyes or skin colour, making you feel both embarrassed and confused. Even the much-maligned Ajeossi (older gentleman) stare, so incensed by your physical presence and the sound of your English. In Korea, you are always seen, and whoever does the seeing looks at you with their own curiosity or prejudice. Koreans do want to put on a good show to outsiders, hiding their xenophobia the best they can, so a mixture of misguided ideas, stereotypical viewpoints, and suspicion colour many interactions in the country. A strange agriculture law prevails as the past gets caught up in the future, but it does grant the outsider a viewpoint to a wonderful and diverse display of humanity.

The beach was no different. On the coast, all the unusual aspects of Korean life were there to see: Enchanting scenes of the past and the future, old men working the fields, fishermen drinking and smoking heavily while they fixed nets, young Korean surfers bobbing in the lineup sporting only the latest brands of surf and camp lifestyle like badges of honour. Seoul surfer girls indulge in a popular Korean pastime and are seen sleeping off hangovers in their wetsuits on the beach. Restaurant owners proudly present their signature dishes and gush that a white man could like spicy food or even ask for more of their own homemade Kimchi; in this moment you have made a friend for life. Kind-hearted Ajeossis pose playfully for the camera, even though strapped heavily in a neck brace. As the Soju and fried chicken comes, so do the rowdy times where Koreans finally allow themselves to let their strict moral guard down and drink and smoke heavily. Today’s episode is some of my observations of the kooky après-surf from around 38th beach.

For the full Surfing the 38th Parallel photo essay series, see:

Part 1: Winter 

Part 2: Soldiers and the Sand

Part 3: Seoul Surfers

Part 4: Waves

Part 5: Strange Tales

Part 6: Saying Goodbye