And now, on to my blog.
"Will anybody object to Mongolian models and Mongolian traditional clothes being shown in Seoul?"
This is the question put forward by the manager of the Khan (nottherealname) Modeling Agency. I am sitting in a small lounge at the KMA office with Tsai, Cho and Seung-Joo (nottheirrealnames). We have just caught a fashion show earlier and now my friends want to meet the KMA manager. The manager is an amiable, middle-aged woman who speaks only Mongolian. Her younger, very pregnant assistant is helping to translate for Tsai. No non-Koreans in the office can speak the language of the Han penninsula so Tsai is forced to speak in English. Nevertheless business is negotiated, hands are shaken, the promise of forthcoming contracts is voiced and everybody leaves satisfied.
Tsai, Cho and Seung-Joo are Korean fashion model agents who work for Penthouse Lingerie and various subsidiaries. They are putting together a fashion shoot in Terelj park - "very wild" says Tsai- and are hitting all the model agencies in town. I'm along for the ride. I don't really have much else to do.
Three days ago Seung-Joo called me on the phone. "Phoebe, come!" he said, "I am at Japanese restaurant with- with my Korean brother. Come! Meet them!"
"Um..." I said. It was very late... a little past ten in the evening. I currently wasn't doing much. I had been flipping through cable channels on TV while inking cartoons. The result was something like this:
National Geographic Channel: "Coming up later: Hitler and sharks! Come to the Bermuda Bay where amidst the roots of the mangroves the elusive yet deadly blue shark breeds. Growing up to nine feet in length, the blue shark kills, on average, fifty people a year... a toll equal to its far more well-known cousin the Great White. After that: the ruler of the Third Reich and the rise of Nazi Germany. How did the twentieth century's most notorious-"
BBC: "... further, more in-depth coverage of Afghan elections. This hotly contested race between Karzai and Abdullah is expected to be rife with Taliban-instigated violence, corruption and sand. John Wilfordshire in Kabul reports:...'There appears to be a lot of Taliban-instigated violence going on here. Also our news teams have noticed a great deal of corruption at the polls as we wander the sandy streets...'"
Korean Broadcast Service: "Soyung! Why are you not sleeping? Are you sick?" "My heart... my heart hurts..." "Ah Soyung! We must get you to a hospital immediately!" "No...." "Soyung... you could die!" "No... it is Minwoo. When I think of him, my heart hurts." "Ah, Soyung..."
National Geographic Channel: ".... surviving many assassination attempts by senior Nazi officials. And tonight, an exclusive look at the tiger shark. With a double-row of serrated, razer-sharp teeth on the top and bottom parts of its jaw, this small yet dangerous predator is-"
"Yeah, I'd love to come out," I said.
Fifteen minutes later I was escorted into the karaoke room of the Sansar Japanese restaurant. Seung-Joo was bouncing around, making sure that everybody's wine glasses were full, that the karaoke machines were continuing to play catchy tunes and that the girls hired for the evening had their flirtation on full throttle. Seung-Joo was working, and working hard. It was imperative that Tsai and Cho, who had flown all the way from Seoul to put together the Terelj fashion show, saw that their contact in UB had not been slacking off when it came to making connections.
It's fascinating to watch working people for whom being cheerful is the main part of their job descriptions. Of course everybody who works in the service industry is told to present a smile to the customer, but this smile is usually an embellishment and not a main supporting beam. For Seung-Joo, smiling, having a good time and thus catalyzing good times for his superiors were what he had to do this week... in between escorting them to different model agencies.
Fortunately Seung-Joo was good at his job. Tsai and Cho, their faces flushed from alcohol and their behavior as loosened up as their neckties, appeared to be having a very enjoyable time.The wineglasses remained full and there were many "Gambai!"'s. The karaoke machine displayed a satsifactory selection of only slightly stale pop songs. I sang "Whenever, Wherever" by Shakira. It made me nostalgic about college. The girls, all Mongolian, squealed and giggled with the high-pitched energy of women whose company charges a hefty price per hour. They weren't prostitutes but hostesses. They flirted with great cheerfulness, squealed when they were expected to squeal and wrapped themselves around the paying customers- including me. The hostesses were fluent in Mongolian and Japanese. Tsai, Cho and Seung-Joo spoke only Korean and English. Communication was a bit choppy, hence the reason Seung-Joo called me. "More beautiful women good," he said smoothly, "Also my Mongolian bad...."
"Yeah, he can't speak the language worth a damn," said Tsai, whose English was very good, "This sonofabitch has been in Mongolia for three years and he can't order a beer. Could you ask the girls to bring another bottle of wine?"
"Wine, no! Vodka!" said Seung-Joo, "Vodka and Coke. Ask the- the big titties one! Haha... vodka and coke."
"The kind you drink or the kind you snort?" I asked. The cocktail-lounge debauchery of the scene was amusing me. Seung-Joo looked quizzical and Tsai laughed.
"We'll start with the stuff you drink for now," he said.
All the hostesses' breasts looked about the same size so I just asked the woman closest to me for another bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka and a coke. She squealed in glee. "Ooo... Your Mongolian is so good!" she said and then switched to English, "You so beautiful, like barbie doll! Your skin so beautiful!" She put her hands on my face and traced my eyes and mouth with her fingers. "Oo.. so beautiful."
"Leave her alone, she's not paying," said Tsai. The hostess kissed him on the cheek and wiggled off . For hostesses, sexuality becomes fluid when cash is involved.
Two hours, three bottles, eight "Gambai"'s and many bowing and kisses later we all left the Japanese restaurant. Our cheerful hostesses waved goodbye and bowed, their smiles undimmed by the fact that it was now well past midnight. We all piled into the taxi cab. Seung-Joo took the front seat while Tsai, Cho and myself sat in the back. The cab was small and Tsai chivalrously offered to take Cho onto his lap so that I could have a seat to myself. They rode together like they had spent their lives crowding into twenty-year-old cabs in crumbling post-Soviet countries instead of taking clean, cell-phone accessable Korail subway trains to their slick Kangnam offices every morning. "I like Mongolia," Tsai said, his English only slightly chaffed by the fact that he was very drunk and had a lap full of Cho, "It reminds me of Korea when I was young."
"Really?" I didn't know exactly how old Tsai was.... but if Mongolia reminded him of the Korea of his childhood then he had to be at least in his late thirties.
"Yes, it's hard to describe. I think the lifestyle. Korea in the seventies was a little like this.... hahaha"
"Cut it out," Cho said in Korean.
"Hahaha," Tsai continued snickering, his arms wrapped around Cho's waist, "I'm touching his bellybutton. He likes it."
"I hate it, cut it out," said Cho in Korean.
"Drop me off at the apartment on the corner of Peace Avenue," I told the driver.
The next day Seung-Joo called me again. "Come! Model show! 5:30!"
"Aren't models your thing?" I asked, "Why do you need me there?"
Even over my used 2002 cell phone I could hear Seung-Joo flip towards his "smooth" tone. "More beautiful women good!" he said, "Also your mind! Your mind... uh- watch models. Watch models, tell us which woman beautiful- is beautiful. Woman's mind, your mind."
"Also, you have digital camera," said Seung-Joo. "We need take pictures of models."
One hour later Tsai, Cho, Seung-Joo and I were at the KMA fashion show. Tsai and Cho were watching while occasionally nodding their heads. Seung-Joo and I were quarreling over my digital camera.
"Stop taking pictures of men models!" Seung-Joo would whisper insistantly at me. "Women! Women only! Not men!"
"Okay, sorry... um... oh shoot, she just went into her turn..."
"Give me camera!"
"No! Wait... shoot. Okay, good! Wait, good! Okay, got her!"
"Too far! Too far!" Seung-Joo hissed. I was weirdly reminded of Gollum. "Your zoom bad! Give me camera!"
Ten thousand dumb LOTR jokes flooded my head. I merely remained silent and handed over my camera.
"Ah, nice! Nice!" Seung-Joo took pictures with great precision. "This one nice!" The model exited the catwalk and another re-emerged. "Hmm..." Seung-Joo took another picture. "No... This one no good."
"Huh?" I was confused. The model who was walking towards us had one of the most dynamically beautiful faces I had ever seen. Her cheekbones were like fan-edges, her jaw delicate to the point of non-existence and her eyes intelligent and cat-like. "She's gorgeous."
"Small titties." Seung-Joo took a picture of her anyway.
After the show Tsai and Cho made their ways towards the manager's office. The manager was a matronly woman who spoke only Mongolian. I offered to translate, but fortunately the managerial assistant spoke decent English. Tsai and the manager spoke and I watched the conversation from both sides. "We were very much impressed by your show," said Tsai, "And we are thinking about offering several of your models contracts...."
The talk continued. Tsai discussed his fashion show in great detail. "We want a 'fantasy' theme to the whole thing," Tsai said. The manager nodded her head as "fantasy" was translated. "The models... we want them to have a certain carriage. We need to videotape them before we decide on contracts. Specifically, we're looking for a body type that is quite tall and regal while..."
"Yes, yes! Big titties!" Seung-Joo said. He had temporarily bounced back into the manager's officer after schmoozing with the models in the outside hall.
"Shut up," Tsai said to him in Korean. Turning back to the managerial assistant (who was about seven months pregnant and consequently had breasts that would have satisfied the pickiest connoisseur) Tsai continued to speak in English about the fashion show being planned. "We're thinking, maybe, of combining Mongolian traditional fashion with Korean traditional clothes. The clothes we saw today at the fashion show... were they Mongolian traditional clothes or were they modernized a bit?"
I laughed internally at Tsai's question. Mongolian traditional clothes, dels, are incredibly pragmatic pieces of clothing. Hundreds of years ago the high lords of the steppe were just the herders with the largest amount of animals. Genghis Khaan had to deal with literal horse muck probably every day of his life. No way would the incredible satin gowns and embroidered French bodices of today's fashion show have fit into that environment.
"We.... modernized them a bit," said the managerial assistant. "They're all available for sale. We also make clothes to order."
"Good, good," said Tsai, "well, they're quite beautiful. We would love to see any and all new fashions you have designed. Maybe you could even make them a little.. sexier? If the Terelj fashion show comes off well we may even be interested in putting together a Mongol/ Korean fusion fashion show in Seoul."
"Of course, of course," the manager replied, "My models have already been in shows in Kyoto and Shanghai. The Japanese show had Mongolian styles combined with traditional kimonos. The 'obi' went especially well slung around the hips above a bodice with traditional Mongolian embroidery."
The managerial assistant translated this for Tsai, who nodded. The manager looked pensive for a few seconds and then asked: "Will anybody object to Mongolian models and Mongolian traditional clothes being shown in Seoul?"
I thought this question strange and needlessly self-deprecatory. Perhaps I had misheard... my Mongolian language skills were not up to snuff. When the managerial assistant translated, however, I heard that I had been correct. I expected Tsai to laugh in disbelief."Of course not! What an idea! Why on Earth would you be worried about that?"
Instead Tsai nodded quietly and sighed. "No,.... no, probably not..." he said. "I understand what you mean, but I don't think there will be any problems."
Later on, during the cab ride back, I asked Tsai why there would even be a possibility of Koreans objecting to Mongolian clothes being shown in Seoul.
"Ah, well... you know, there is still this tension between Korean and Mongolian culture," Tsai sighed, "Not bad really, but a little bit sensitive. Some Koreans don't like to see Mongolian traditional objects because the Mongolians invaded Korea. You know that, right?"
"Of course," I said, "But wasn't that eight hundred years ago? Surely no one can really object after such a long time..."
Tsai shrugged. I was dumbfounded. How long can someone hold a grudge? Many American women marry British men without their families nattering on about Revolutionary War atrocities that happened a mere three hundred years ago. Men from the Southern US have no problem ogling the Boston-born Eliza Dushku and there are very few straight Jewish men who would not jump at the chance to date Heidi Klum...
"You know," I said to Tsai, "People tend to forgive a great deal when beautiful women are involved. As a model recruiter for fashion shows I don't think you need to worry."
"Haha, yes..." Tsai said.
"I'm starving," said Cho in Korean. He had his own seat in this taxi. "Can we find a Korean restaurant near here?"