Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Sap Takes a Wrap

The palm trees have been wrapped up for the winter. This seems to involve placing protective bamboo matting all around the trunk of the trees, and apparently sometimes plastic sheeting too. Given that every other tree down the main road through Hadan seems to be a palm, it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to have them the other nine months of the year.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Cable Guy

Like most Korean apartments, we have an intercom outside out door which connects to a handset on the other side, so somewhat bizarrely you can talk to someone if they come to the door, even though in actuality, you can have a perfectly audible conversation through the door itself with no need for any gadgetry.

Today, when the intercom was pressed the guy on the other side proceeded to talk so loudly and urgently that my girlfriend dispensed with the handset and talked through the door, as clearly the unidentified caller intended to anyway. He'd come about the cable service. Why? Because there was a problem. What problem? Well, if we'd just open the door he'd explain - but he wouldn't explain if it wasn't face to face, which was a little odd I suppose.

So it was I found myself, at my girlfriend's behest, brandishing the somewhat unlikely weapon of an umbrella in case this proved to be a problem - though what kind of problem I couldn't begin to imagine. In the UK there are no intercoms and I used to just open my door to anyone, no matter how bizarre or unsavoury they turned out to be, and a fair few were at that. Of course, being from the UK I had already mentally mapped where all the really sharp objects in the apartment were should we ever actually have to defend ourselves.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave the UK was that I got sick of the increasing social chaos and crime. I have few illusions about living in another country, but I've voted with my feet on the principle that ignorance is bliss. It's interesting that my girlfriend, despite her years in the UK, may still have had some of that ignorance, whereas once back in Korea she won't open the door to anyone without satisfying herself of their legitimacy first through the intercom.

So she eventually opened the door to the cable guy after some commotion, pleading and veiled annoyance on his part. He'd come to collect the connection fee for the cable - 55,000 Won. We were a bit surprised by this as the cable had already been connected when we moved in, though allegedly this was because the previous occupants had disappeared owing three months on the bill and they hadn't been cut off yet. Pointing out that there had actually been no connecting to do, the demand was lowered to 22,000 Won. At which point the a member of the building landlord's family turned up and more slightly tense discussion was had, by the end of which we handed over 11,000 Won.

Despite his attempts to make Korea seem a more dangerous place, the very fact that the cable guy was turning up on doorsteps to collect cash suggested that the country was still safer than the UK where such a thing would invite violence, robbery or both.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Rage of Paris

I was out with my girlfriend and her friend yesterday evening when we found our way in a branch of Paris Baguette on our way to a DVD Bang, to stock up on snacks for the movie. Having selected three items, the friend took them to the counter but while paying the shop assistant's face suddenly developed the kind of look people only usually have when their mother has been insulted. She froze to the spot and I didn't need to speak Korean to know that she was refusing to do something and offended into the bargain. Two other shop assistants - who might have been even younger than the 18-or-so the first one looked, hovered on either side of her in a vague show of moral support.

It turned out our friend had asked the assistant to cut the items she'd bought into smaller pieces before she put them into a bag, something which apparently was no problem in every other branch of Paris Baguette she'd ever been in but inexplicably seemed to amount to a crime of heresy in this one. More words were exchanged and with great reluctance - and no attempt to hide the disgust on her face - the girl cut up the two smaller items with a pair of scissors from behind the counter which our friend had pointed out to her in a 'why-can't-you-use-those' kind of way. But the third item - a plain piece of sponge cake was the final straw and the girl just stood there motionless. Our friend grabbed the scissors and cut it herself, demonstrating to the still motionless girl how such things were done while admonishing her for her unhelpfulness.

In my time in Korea I've never met anyone in a retail environment that was anything less than bend-over-backwards helpful and accommodating, and I'd thought this so ingrained in the culture that it stopped occurring to me that the experience here could be anything less. The incident in Paris Baguette proves otherwise, though it wasn't so much the refusal to cut the items as the unhidden disdain on the shop assistant's face to an elder that really caught me off-guard. I don't know whether it's just this one girl, or whether it may be an indication that Korea is catching the Japanese 'shinjinrui' disease which saw the social cohesion that had kept the country ordered for generations start to break down.

Friday, November 24, 2006

While You Were Sleeping

Cold, we left the school event at ten-past eight and went up to the Pusan National University area to get something to eat, ending up at a branch of 'Mr. Pizza', where - without my girlfriend who'd gone to the toilet - I blagged fluency in the Korean language for the first time by paying for the meal with a '여기 있습니다' (here you are while handing over the money), '감사합니다' (thank you when receiving the change), and the stock-phrase on leaving a store '수고하세요'. Thank God they didn't ask me how my meal was. The downside of being embedded in a Korean family is that everyone does the talking for you so opportunities to fly by the seat of your pants in Korean are few and far between.

My girlfriend's friend joined us at twenty to ten and we shopped for an hour before snacking at an 'as seen on TV' (apparently) food vendor near the station. They did seem to be doing good business though.

So it was 23:15 by the time we set off on our forty minute subway journey back home. Bad enough for us, but a very long day indeed for our friend who'd taught all day before taking part in the event she'd organised - and tomorrow was the school's 'sports day' which meant more long hours. How does she do it? She sleeps between four-and-a-half and five hours
every night. I wondered - given what else I've observed here - whether that was so unusual for a Korean.

Of course, our friend sleeps on the subway - as most Koreans seem to - and that may go some way to make up an additional hour or so every day - but it doesn't seem very good quality rest time to me. And despite Koreans' uncanny ability to usually wake up in time for their station, there are the inevitable times this doesn't work, and you spend more time backtracking the other way to the stop you missed. In fact, just that morning our friend had awoken a stop beyond where she was going, but that pales into insignificance against the time my girlfriend, returning late one night from
university, not only slept right the way to the end of the line, but was only finally awoken by the sound of the cleaners cleaning the carriage in the subway depot some time later.

Meanwhile, since coming to Korea and finding the pace of my lifestyle vastly accelerated, I've found myself involuntarily sleeping eight hours a night rather than the six I used to back home, because all the activity is making me tired. I'm going to need to work on reducing that if I'm to keep up with the Koreans.

The School of Rock

We'd been invited to a high-school event on Tuesday this week. It seems that schools in Korea have a kind of open-evening once a year, where students provide demonstrations of their field of interest or expertise to other students and visitors. Although partly a recruiting tool for prospective entrants, it is meant to provide a chance to relax and even have some fun.

So it was we found ourselves in a dark playground in front of a typically anonymous-looking Korean school building, watching a succession of high-school kids take to a stage in order to profess their desire to be singers or dancers before launching enthusiastically into their acts to the supporting screams of a few-hundred peers.

There were a depressing number of 'Korean' rap numbers which despite my occasional rap indulgences just washed over me in their genericness, so the stand outs were a girl singing soul in English who possibly had the most amazing voice I've heard since Norah Jones, and a boy who implausibly sang what seemed to me like the kind number which Sinatra would have done - had he been Korean. They could both easily have been professionals though - and if I'd have been a music agent I'd have been signing up the girl for a record contract afterwards. Maybe this is what comes of the Koreans' fondness for locking themselves in singing rooms on an evening for hours at a time.

It has to be said, one male power-ballad singer really didn't work out, and as he left the stage the professionally employed presenter said that it was possibly the worst act he'd ever seen. Near the back of the stage as I was, I expected to see the boy skulk away devastated but he appeared remarkably nonplussed by the critique. And presenter aside, that was a remarkable thing about the event. The crowd were supportive, no-one wanted anyone to fail, and when things got rough there would be attempts to join in with the words to drown out the imperfections booming out from the PA system.

The teachers also performed a few acts - although I'm told this is more unusual. One would have thought that even if the students didn't invite public ridicule on themselves, the teachers might by breaking down the barrier between them, but it was all remarkably good humoured. Personally, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to turn up to school the next day after doing some of the things they did but I guess it's just not the same here, where teachers generally command much more respect than their British counterparts.

While the stage-show was very professionally produced, we were a little surprised at the lack of other activities. This was a vocational high-school specialising in the hospitality industry, so their were a couple of stalls where students had cooked dishes and mixed cocktails, but otherwise that was it by the time we got there - it seems we'd missed more of the food and drink stalls though. Even so, apparently many other school events are much more extensive than this.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Spectacle Maker

A pair of glasses in the UK will typically cost in the region of £130 from a high-street chain like Specsavers - and possibly much more. I'd been promised cheap prices in Korea, so while I had no urgent need to change, I mentioned to my girlfriend this afternoon that I might look for something during the week.

Half-an-hour later we're at a branch of Davich, and fifteen minutes after that we've bought a pair of rimless frames that cost 30,000 won (£16.89), and 40,000 won (£22.53) for the lenses. Total cost - £40. In the UK, I think the cost would have been about £150, and they'd have charged you for 'extras' such as 'anti-reflective coating'. The Korean lenses include anti-reflective coating, U/V ray protection, and 'electromagnetic wave' protection as standard. OK, that last one sounds completely ridiculous I know, but that's what they said.

And they'd be ready in an hour. They're sorry it couldn't be sooner but rimless frames take a little longer. Well, it would have been at least a week in the UK, maybe two.

Unfortunately, we couldn't pick them up today though, as we had to get home for the start of London trading.

Barbershop Blues

Needing a haircut, we descended some stairs into a basement barbershop we'd stumbled upon while walking down some side-streets some distance from our apartment. The enthusiastic barber was not put off by the prospect of cutting non-Korean hair - in fact - I could be shaved as well if I liked. I kindly refused the offer and being told 'but a woman does it' did nothing to increase my enthusiasm - I'm not partial to sharp blades being held to my throat, whether the protagonist is male or female thank you very much.

Now, sat in the barber's chair, I saw a shape flash by in the murky background - my girlfriend told me afterwards it was a woman in her early twenties who does the shaving - and apparently as it turns out, the massages if they are requested - in a back room. She wore in a red dress which was more revealing than you might have thought necessary... fascinating.

It was a good haircut, but I think we'll try somewhere else next time.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Raging Bull

On MBC ESPN this evening I was less surprised than I should have been to find them covering a bull fight. Not the Spanish kind, but rather one between two Korean bulls, locking horns while the studio-based presenters commented in an American NFL-style. So does this pass for a sport here? I can't help wondering if the American Humane Association know or care what ESPN cover overseas. There was no gore in the end, but whether that was by design or accident I can't say.

After the bull-fighting, but presumably not because of it, came an even unlikelier contender for sports coverage - beefburger eating - from Tennessee, interspersed with the same excitable commentators and clips of the participants weight-training while talking about the importance of keeping in condition as an athlete. So that's Korean ESPN for you.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Coded Language

Aside from not finding much time to study, my Korean language education has hit another, more unexpected snag. When I was learning Japanese I made great progress writing out (eventually 1,400) cue-cards with Japanese words in hiragana and katana as appropriate. While this didn't help me much with learning to read - most Japanese words are written in Chinese characters - it did wonders for my spoken Japanese and listening comprehension. But the modern Korean transliteration standard, while providing a basis for the pronunciation of words, doesn't always accurately represent the actual pronunciation, where syllables (arranged in blocks of characters) can change in sound depending on the immediately proceeding or succeeding syllable. This can mean 'ㅆ' forming a long 's' sound or a 't', or 'ㄹ' being a 'l' or an 'n'.

This presents a real problem in working through cue-cards, because it would be easy to start memorising incorrect pronunciations in a way that was very hard with Japanese. Since I didn't want to have to ask my girlfriend sit with me through every hour of study, reading each card as I drill through words and phrases, I looked for a solution.

Spurred on by the discovery yesterday evening of a 'Korean Audio Word of the Day' Google widget from Declan Software (which incidentally insists 순 translates as 'lip' which my girlfriend said was just plain wrong), I looked into whether Microsoft's text-to-speech would support Korean. Although I thought it was a vain hope to begin with, there did in fact turn out to be a Korean voice, but I couldn't get it to work with either XP, Office or Agents, which led me into third party and web-based tools, where I found this useful NeoSpeech demo page.

NeoSpeech led in turn to the discovery of TextAloud, where NeoSpeech and other compatible voices are sold. While a TextAloud demo succeeded in getting the Microsoft Korean voice to work, the quality was predictably robotic - though my girlfriend thought at first it was reading with a North Korean accent - make of this what you will... Having satisfied myself that a combination of TextAloud and the NeoSpeech Korean 'Yumi' voice was the best, I bought them. Purchasing was fairly painless but the voice file was a 550Mb download which took a while.

Later I went back to look at the Declan Software site again, and purchased their Korean Flashcards product. Initial impressions are that this is going to be really useful, as it provides audio alongside the flashcards and this should really accelerate my learning and pronunciation. However, there is a slight caveat. My girlfriend just shook her head on hearing some of the words and phrases saying there were either just wrong or used odd language that no-one would actually use. So I've started working through the 3,600 words and phrases deleting the ones she disagrees with and editing the English descriptions of others where she feels Declan's doesn't match her translation. It's great that the software allows this kind of functionality (I believe you can even add your own words and audio clips into the system), but it's a shame that I currently find myself deleting about 10% of what was in there. Anyway, as a former Windows developer it's not often I come across software that seems well-designed and really knows exactly what you want to do with it so well-done Declan, even if we're going to have to agree to disagree about some of your content.

This afternoon a Casio EW-K2500 electronic dictionary I'd ordered arrived, opening up a third-front in my attack on the Korean language. Although it's a little bigger than I expected (I really should have taken more care in measuring the dimensions), I'm intending to carry it around with me so I can try and translate things as I go. At the very least, it should give me something to do in restaurants while everyone else talks!

Sunday, November 19, 2006


My girlfriend came down with sickness yesterday, so her mother recommended that she eat a particular type of soup which we didn't have. So armed with little more than a few stock phrases of Korean and a cue-card with the name of the soup on it, I went down to the mini-mart at the bottom of our building and asked the shopkeeper to help me in Korean, before handing over the name of the soup. In the end he pointed out three different kinds and I bought them all just to be on the safe side.

I realised that while I might have the advantage of being totally immersed in Korean society in a way some ex-pats are not, it does mean that I'm not having to learn Korean through the necessity which comes from having no-one by your side to help you out. After a promising start, my language ability has clearly stalled and the mini-mart situation really emphasised that.

Korean Mother came round later to drain some blood off from her daughter's fingers. I've come across this before with some other Asian cultures so it looks like Korea is no different. The blood came out thick and dark - a sign of illness apparently - but she felt a lot better afterwards.

I've come to the conclusion that it's very hard to be ill in Korea; it's impossible to sleep when everyone in this phone-obsessed society seems to be phoning you up to ask how you are...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Grandparents

Last week Korean Grandmother had - apparently - fallen ill and there was talk that this was 'her time'. It had been three weeks since my girlfriend and I had arrived in Korea, and their disappointment that we had not yet visited was made known during the subsequent flurry of communications between Busan and the island of Namhae (tagline - 'the Leading Namhae that is a good place to live'), where they lived. So, a family trip was arranged, and held to even when Grandmother turned out to be fine later the same day when Korean Father travelled there directly.

So it was on Sunday I spent what seemed like most of my day on various Korean buses to get to Namhae, travelling through some spectacular countryside and possibly over Korea's oldest suspension bridge. The taxi driver that took us on the final leg of our journey told us that this rural area used to have 137,914 people thirty years ago, but now there are 54,392. Everyone's moved to the cities, especially Busan, and such is the desire of the local government to stem this depopulation they offer 300,000 won per month for couples who move there, and free university tuition. It wouldn't have been enough to convince me having been there five minutes; the area was certainly beautiful, and amazingly quiet, but the lack of shops and the distances between places of use were a real shock after the convenience of Busan.

Despite being modernised four times in its seventy year history, Korean Grandparents' house was small and cold. I ate lunch wondering whether growing up under Japanese occupation and then
through two major wars made the cold and the flies bearable, but it was too much for me - I guess I'm from a city and I don't have the same concept of hardship older generations have.

Having made our obligatory appearance, had lunch, and went for a brief walk in the nearby countryside. Perhaps I have a romanticised view of small Japanese villages which I expected to find the Korean equivalents of - but the reality was typically haphazard collections of oddly-coloured boxes of no fixed architecture, which made the Korean countryside appear to be a paradox of stunning scenery punctuated by randomly dropped shanty-towns. A real shock - click on the image for the picture in all its horror.

After our walk we set off back to the city. Our taxi driver had warned us that traffic back would be bad today because so many people had come to the area the day before, and sure enough he was right - the return journey was a nightmare, taking three and a half hours versus the two we had spent outbound.

But the real story of our return is not the when, but the how. Before setting off our bus driver asked if anyone on board suffered from motion sickness (never a good sign), and on failing to illicit a positive response announced that we would take 'a short cut' back. This transpired to mean vaguely following the highway towards Busan but weaving around (and under) it rather than actually driving on it. At one point our bus squeezed through a tunnel under the highway little bigger than the bus iteslf, drove for 50 meters before a similar return tunnel took us back to the original side, and another tunnel saw us swap sides again. At some points the roads we took felt like little more than dirt tracks but I had to stop looking eventually.

A mystery was thrown up in Namhae from a road sign. Not the one that read 'Agricultural Traning Center', because official looking but incorrectly spelt signs are common here, but rather the one that read 'German Village'. On pointing this out our driver told us that there were in fact, quite a few Germans living there (on 'benefits' allegedly - is there such a thing in Korean though?), and hence the name. So there you have it - a small German enclave at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula - further investigation reveals a surprising story of returning Korean emigrates and their German spouses living in their German-style houses in this quiet corner of Korea. On the way out of Namhae another sign pointed to 'American Village' - where perhaps the next chapter of this bizarre story will be played out.

Of its own people Namhae says,
"There children’s success have been their greatest pleasures, while their backs have gotten bent due to the hard work farming on the small steep mountain slops" (sic). I took home the message that while I may be able to live in comfort in the city, not to forget that perhaps this is in fact, the real Korea - and one which mourns the loss of its children to the cities - while dreaming up schemes to bring people back.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nos amis de la banque

My girlfriend got a call this morning from her branch of Kookmin Bank. They wanted to thank her for using their credit card very often, and for their part they would try to 'keep up the good work'. Had she had any problems with the service or was there anything else they could do to improve her experience? No. Had the head office in Seoul phoned her? No - why? Because sometimes they phone customers to make sure their branch staff are keeping everyone happy. Well, if they did call, please tell them how happy you are.

Korean mother also got a call the other day. She never uses her card, and the staff in the branch felt hurt and disappointed. Please could she use it? She felt so sorry for them that later, for the first time, she did.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Umi no hanabi

I gave up an evening's trading Friday in favour of attending the Busan Fireworks Festival - South Korea's biggest - and something the city authorities seem determined to turn into an international tourist event.

While Busan may be Korea's second city, there's a feeling that it's got some way to go as far as the development of cultural events are concerned, as the Fireworks Festival seems to be one of the relatively few events of note in the annual city calendar. This of course meant that the desire of local people to attend was particularly high, making the two subway trains we took more like cattle trucks. Clearly the subway authorities had become concerned enough by th
e number of people to announce that changing trains in Seomyeon would not be possible. It didn't put my Korean companions off - nor the other locals who dashed from the first train to the second in a worrying race.

The initial impression of chaos was not to last though. A huge number of police at Gwangalli Beach ensured good crowd control and everyone who arrived early enough was able to take a seat on the beach with relative ease - though we had to wait two hours for the fireworks to begin.

Gwangan Bridge - which arcs across the bay in an improbable fashion to apparently link points A and B on the mainland in the longest way possible (it's currently Korea's longest bridge) - was lit up spectacularly, although most of the fireworks were launched from the shore rather than the bridge itself. We'd been promised a multi-media fireworks display, though predictably this translated into meaning fireworks accompanied by loud music. It sort of worked though. If we go next year, I think we'll take cushions for the beach though; two-and-a-half hours sat on sand and pebbles with nothing more than a thin ground-mat for protection is not to be recommended.

Despite the heavy police numbers the post-festival experience was worrying. We were staying with friends at a beach-side apartment in the very fashionable Haeundae Beach area, but when we left Gwangalli Beach to walk towards Haeundae we found ourselves pushing against a flood of humanity surging in the opposite direction. The small group of us intent on going the other way eventually succeeded, but there's a serious accident there waiting to happen one year. Now I know how salmon feel.

I read that 600,000 people watched the festival last year, and the city authorities expected over one million this year, but our Korean companions told us that this year actually seemed quieter, in which case I can only imagine the horrors of the previous event. It certainly felt like we fought our way through tens of thousands of people walking towards Haeundae Beach, and the crowd didn't really tail off until we were almost at our destination - a one hour walk.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Keimusho no naka

When I got here I was fairly busy for the first several days, and I put this down to our need to buy furniture, see people and generally settle in. What little free time I had after this was consumed with blogging and learning Korean, and I've only managed about seven hours of the latter so far. Only nine of the nineteen trading days have ended up being full days - the rest succumbing to various trips or family vists.

We've been so busy in the last week that there's been no free time at all and I've found myself not really keeping up to this blog for the first time, which is a shame because there's been a lot to say and it tends to get lost when I only write about them several days later. Such is life.

Having been away since Friday at a fireworks festival and then a trip to Namhae, I've finally returned home - hopefully to a slightly less hectic week ahead. What I'm learning though, is that life in Korea, surrounded by Koreans, is lived at a frantic pace - and there may never be much let up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Tabasco Road

When you're doing 100kph in a taxi, you miss a stationary car by inches and you think it's a long way, you've probably been in Korea too long. From my experiences so far I'm beginning to settle into expecting one near miss every three minutes and I've learned to deal with it by simply suspending my sense of disbelief.

Even though I'm not as comfortable as the Koreans, I've also progressed to allowing cars to brush past me in the street at 10mph now without it making me jump, and I hope to advance this to 20mph in the coming weeks. I do worry though that when I return to the UK I need to avoid taking this habit with me because British drivers operate on the notion that any pedestrian in their proximity will ultimately - and sensibly - jump out of the way, and will plot their action accordingly. My experiences in Busan may lead to my surprising them - and not in a good way.

Despite the utter chaos that is the Korean road system - no observance of speed limits, lane discipline, cars driving through pedestrian crossings when the lights are red, a frequent absence of pavements, and motorcycles weaving around on what pavements exist - I've yet to witness an accident which seems statistically implausible. But every other car has scratches around its bumpers - and shops sell a line of hardened rubber bumper protectors which some people put on their cars. I guess that tells the truth of what's really going on.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Streets of Ghost Town

When I first got here the evenings were warm, the daytimes warmer, and a mass of people thronged the streets day and night. Located where a main road intersects two side streets, the voices of passers-by were regular background noise in our apartment into the early hours.

A few days ago it got a little cooler. A few Koreans started wearing coats and I switched from short to long-sleeved tops; it's still 18 degrees Celsius here. But it is several degrees cooler at night, and the people are gone. I don't just mean there are fewer - I mean they almost completely gone. I'd say the footfall beneath our apartment window is down 95%. I'm writing this at 21:00 on Friday night and the only sounds I can here are a few cars passing by and their horns being sounded which from my experience of Korean roads I'm guessing never goes out of fashion here whatever the weather.

This does not seem to be offering any respite to the shop-owners and their fourteen hour days though; as far as I can tell all the small side-street shops are still open.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Walking through the nearby streets the other day I was rather surprised to see a man in a small car park wielding a sword around his head in slow, deliberate yet somewhat menacing movements. Nobody even gave him a second glance - in the UK armed police would have been surrounding him within five minutes.

The sword could have been a fake one but it's glinting in the sun and the effort he seemed to be making suggested otherwise. Maybe they don't have such a big problem with knife crime here. Martial arts with weapons in the street? It's just another day in Korea!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Transporter

Learning English is quite popular in Korea, not least because some proficiency in the language is required to enter university, irrespective of the course of study. Hagwons can be seen on every major road, and TV channels carry teaching programmes, even if their apparent attempts to teach the broadest American accent I've ever heard comes across as unintentionally satirical.

Perhaps predictably, things don't always work out as expected. I watched yesterday as a someone bravely attempted teaching English by working through part of a Garfield animation programme picking out key phrases of importance to their Korean viewers. I thought the language was very advanced if not a little eccentric, but the crowning glory came as Garfield asked an alien in a bar to help his friend who was tied up on a railway track (for unclear reasons), and the alien replied, "No problem. A simple molecular dissolve should suffice". The cartoon stopped, the presenter seriously repeated some unintelligible Korean punctuated by "A simple molecular dissolve should suffice" before some more unintelligible Korean followed. A caption appeared at the bottom of the screen proclaiming in English "KEY PHRASE: A simple molecular dissolve should suffice".

So, should any Koreans ever happen to be in need of something beaming from one place to another in the style of Star Trek, and spot someone who might have such a teleportation device, they can rest assured that when that person tells them "No problem. A simple molecular dissolve should suffice", they will know that their problem is solved.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Two weeks after arriving in Korea I had my first Korea-related dream. In the dream I'd actually arrived here - not as a trader, but along with a group of English teachers about to embark on a prolonged stay. In the dream it didn't take long for many of the other teachers to start making serious progress learning Korean while I struggled, leaving me feeling left behind and frustrated. I began to hate them for it. Our door-banging next-door neighbour saved me from further frustration by waking me up in her trademarked way, but the meaning of the dream is fairly transparent so Freudians need not email.

Since I'm embedded in Korean society rather than teaching at a Hagwon I don't have any contact with other foreigners here, so I can't say whether the dream presents an accurate picture of what my life would be like if I were surrounded by other ex-pats. But, as each day passes here and I read more and more postings from foreigners on local blogs and discussion boards, I've begun to appreciate that the ex-pat community here is far from the mutually friendly group I thought it would be. Clearly, there is at least some tacit acceptance of the dislike we seem to develop for one-another here, which initially is not what I expected at all.

I think part of the problem is indeed the competitive aspect of being a foreigner here. We've come here for a good time and a bit of life experience and there's always that suspicion that someone else within the community is having a better time than we are, learning Korean faster, or whatever it is that motivates us. Then there's the difficult prototocol of passing one-another in the street. Some believe a smile or a nod should be the way to go, but as I've passed more Westerners in the street here I think I could be forgiven for thinking that our home nations had been wiped out in some freak catastophy from the miserable and cold looks on their faces. I passed a guy yesterday standing in the middle of the pavement with a Gangs of New York stance and look on his face while a sea of Koreans washed around him, and when we made eye contact he shot me a dirty look. What was all that about? Maybe I just bring out the worst in people though.

Now I'm sure that there are friends to be found in the Hagwon community for those within it, and of course blogs here are littered with tales of late night drinking and all the other excesses that I put behind me ten years ago when I left University. And while I wouldn't mind a decent session comparing notes with other ex-pats I don't really feel the need to go out and find some to do it. But looking at the foreign community from the outside - maybe even from a Korean perspective - is not a very positive experience, and I can't decide whether that's a fair reflection of what is presented or not.

Korean director Wonsuk Chin is currently working on a film called Expats about the foreign community here, but don't expect any revelations; the plot sounds so bad that it's the kind of thing The Producers could have come up with (or maybe that's Hollywood for you). Unfortunately I fear it will only confirm the worst fears of Korea Times reading locals who think we're all whack-head criminals anyway.