A Study In Faces

7 Mar

Older Korean men fascinate me.  They are simultaneously my greatest opponents and greatest friends here.  They give you nasty, hostile looks and curse at the loud, impure foreigners.  They will also approach you, assume that you want to be friends, talk to you in English without any fear, and invite you to drink and eat or hike with them (or sometimes they just invite themselves to join you).  They almost all have fascinating faces.  If that’s what you want to see, there is no better place than Seoul Racecourse Park.

Horse racing in the United States is a bit different from Korea.  Not that there is a lack of intensity in either place.  But in America there’s almost always alcohol involved.  It becomes a drinking show as well as entertainment, with some serious bettors on the side.  The races here permit no such frivolity.  The Kentucky Derby might be decadent and depraved, but, in Korea, it’s strictly business.

There is no alcohol allowed, no relaxation or revelry seen.  Instead, crowds of old men stand or squat with racing forms, pouring over them like Byzantine scribes over intricate illuminated texts, making cryptic squiggles on the paper with a black felt tip marker.  There is no laughing or idle conversation. Everyone is completely focused on their form or the electronic screens that display changes in the odds.  They push and shove to get to the betting window before time runs out.  

Race time comes and all the old men pour out onto the balcony to watch the horses spend about a minute sprinting around the track.  They all light cigarettes, perhaps due to the lack of booze.  They need to steady their nerves.  Cigarette ash flurries around your head and covers your coat like a blizzard.  As the horses come around into the home stretch, the roar of voices raises.  The din is never triumphant or excited, just full of sheer agitation and not a little bit of anger.  No cheering as the horses cross the finish line, just disgusted hocks of spit from the throat and a dejected return inside to prepare for the ordeal of the next race.

These guys are not rich but they are dealing in considerable sums of money.  Drew witnessed a man put 80,000 won down on a bet.  Where do they get the money?  Are the wife and kiddies having to knuckle under and eat a little more kimchi and rice instead of more substantial food because daddy blew the rest of the month’s budget on an unlucky Quintella-Place?  But some guys hit it big.  I watched one man collect 1,100,000 won from what appeared to be a single ticket.  That’s almost exactly $1000.  What he must have put on the line to get that payoff must have been considerable.

The day finishes with no grand finale.  The old men, having blown their money, crumple up their vouchers, toss them to the ground, and leave without a word, as grim and serious in their departure as in their calculated betting.  The track is not entertainment or enjoyment, just straightforward gambling, reducing chance to a mechanical process, despite its caprices.  But they’ll be back.

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One Response to “A Study In Faces”

  1. Nicole Payne 23 March 2010 at 5:14 am #

    Hello!
    I have been reading your blog for past couple of days because my uncle recommended I do so as I am considering teaching English in South Korea. I have enjoyed the stuff I have read so far and was wandering if you were going to stay or leave since your year is almost up?

    Would love to chat more with you!

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