Sunday, December 31, 2006


I was walking home recently, when in sight of our apartment, the buildings around it lit up momentarily, and a thunderous bang followed almost instantly. Had I been in the UK, I would have thought it was a bomb going off, instead my first thought was of a serious road accident. I suppose that tells you something about my social impressions of both countries.

You never really know whether such occurrences are normal in a country until you see the reaction of the local people. As we neared our building, the sight of the locals coming out of their shops and looking around in confusion and alarm suggested that this was not a regular event.

At the side of our apartment building is one of the many telegraph poles which seem to carry just about every wire imaginable - Koreans (along with the Japanese) apparently sharing a dislike for running cables underground as happens in the UK. I have to say that while there may be some method to the madness, the wiring often looks highly dangerous but logic tells you it can't be because otherwise there'd be a lot of accidents. Be this as it may, the telegraph pole nearest our apartment had exploded, depositing a five by ten inch lump of charred wiring unceremoniously in the street below it. A few people stood a respectful distance away staring at it and up at the place it had presumably come from in turn.

It's fortunate no-one was underneath it at the time.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Barbershop 2

Korean Father turned up this morning with his barber friend who he'd bumped into on his way back from mountain climbing. When I'd first arrived in Korea, my 'shaved head' (merely two and one on the clippers) caused some surprise - it seems that most twenty and thirty-something Korean men prefer the shaggy dog look. Only five weeks after my last cut, my hair was getting longer and Korean Father seemed to agree that it was time to get back to my roots - so to speak.

As often seems the way of things here, this meant that I was off to the barber's shop before I really knew what was happening, so shortly after I found myself descending into his hot, dark subterranean lair, where the first small room which greeted me was furnished with a bed and a television - presumably where the barber relaxed in-between customers.

The barber refused our attempts to pay him afterwards because of his personal relationship with Korean Father, so we shot round the corner to a shop and bought him some bottled honey and ginseng drinks as a gift, which he then couldn't refuse.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Passion of the Christ

There are no Christmas decorations in my local branch of Davich, but I was somewhat surprised that on peering up towards the ceiling area there was a crucifix clearly nailed to the wall facing the door. Whereas the UK doesn't have a separation of church and state, it does largely follow a separation of church and commerce, so it would be unthinkable to find a crucifix prominently displayed in a branch of Specsavers. I guess the Buddhists don't mind too much, although I certainly find it odd.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sense and Sensibility

Having come down with a slight respiratory illness, I've been consigned to the apartment for the last couple of days, and have settled into a routine of studying Korean, exercising and drinking Japanese apricot tea. With my partner out, I was also left to fend for myself when visitors called or the phone rang.

Many of the foreigners in Korea come here to teach English, so as someone who's instead very much embedded within a Korean family, I often wonder about their experiences compared with my own. In certain ways, I get to see more of real-life in Korean, as opposed to what might otherwise be a themed cycle of Hagwon classes and socialising with other foreign friends. On the other hand, I haven't had to fend for myself on a daily basis which means that I'm missing out on certain aspects of culture shock and the necessary crash course in the Korean language that would come with it.

Yesterday the phone rang and expecting it to be my partner I answered it in Korean. Apparently my normally tired and slightly irritated rendition of '
여보세요' passes me off as a local which only leads to more confusion when they launch into an explanation of why they called. Despite my hurried interruption in this case of '미안합니다. 한국말 못합니다.' - 'sorry, I don't speak Korean', it seems it didn't discourage the caller from turning up on the doorstep half-an-hour later, where the same sentences were repeated and a game of charades held after this failed to dissuade the visitor from going away. It seemed clear that he had come from the bank to drop off my partner's new credit card, but after debating the matter in his mind for a while, wouldn't leave it with me, but I finally persuaded him with some very bad Korean and help from my electronic dictionary, to come back at five.

More intriguing was another unexpected visitor armed with a document wallet but nothing else to give away his origin. He was treated to another round of Korean 'please go aways' but he wasn't dissuaded. In the surreal conversation which followed - during which I gave serious consideration to whether I could just close the door on him - we may have talked about the huge number of foreigners in Korea, whether I was married and had children, and had ever visited Spain. Or he could have been asking to borrow a spoon. Probably he was a Christian doing a round of conversions, but a spoon-less one or not I couldn't say.

So today, I decided not to answer the door.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Little Church Around the Corner

Beyond the Psychic Aunt we also have a Preacher Uncle, a Methodist minister building up a small congregation in Busan. We'd agreed to meet up with him a few days ago oblivious to the rather important facts that the day arranged was not only Sunday but also Christmas Eve. While Christmas is celebrated after a fashion here, and it is actually a public holiday, Korea lacks the sense of urgency followed by the total shut-down that is a British Christmas.

So we were picked up at a station and driven to Preacher Uncle's church which was located on the second floor of what might otherwise have passed for a small shop and office building. We were late arriving and I was a little embarrassed to find that this had caused a service to be held up - as soon as we got there Preacher Uncle dashed to the front of the assembled congregation (admittedly of only around fifteen people) and started the proceedings. We sat down and further disruptions followed as various people tried to find me a bible and hymn-book to follow. Due to a vast over-estimation of my Japanese language abilities Preacher Uncle - who'd spent time in Japan - stuck a Japanese hymn-book under my nose but I found the Chinese characters heavy going. In fact, I was surprised to find it quicker to follow the Hangul in the Korean book than the (mostly) Hiragana in the Japanese one.

It was a basic service but very participatory and informal. I declined to sing a carol in English but there were a couple of other karaoke-style performances. At the end of one the singer said a few words followed by "Jesus, fighting!" - a play on the "Korea, fighting!" slogan disturbingly prevalent here.

We ate afterwards and I talked a little with Preacher Uncle in Japanese, which thankfully turned out to be less rusty than my Japanese-reading abilities. Then we had a far-reaching talk about spirituality and the nature of religion - via transalation - but I didn't manage to bring him round to my way of thinking.

Unfortunately after considerable discussion on my part on the importance of living life based on a Christo-Buddhist philosophy of doing the right thing in all one's actions, as opposed to merely attending church, my debate with one of God's people came back to haunt me three hours later when I failed to do enough to help a hungry and probably homeless boy at Lotteria.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

All I Want For Christmas

Knowing that Christmas was a special day back home, Buddhist Korean Mother invited us out for Christmas Lunch, although it was never going to be turkey and stuffing. We went to a dim sum, or mandu restaurant on top of a shopping centre which we'd been to before. In itself it's purely functional and nothing to look at, but the food was good.

While technically a public holiday, all the stores were open and after lunch we shopped in the mall before taking a bus to a large Lotte Mart - sort of a Korean Sainsburys - where more shopping unfolded.

After a little time back at the apartment phoning home and emailing Christmas messages to friends, my partner and I went out a
gain, this time with a bored Korean Brother tagging along. In a desperate attempt to inject some sense of the festive into the day, I had been determined to spend part of Christmas in 'DecembeR' (or are they re-titling themselves as just 'December' now?), but although we got there in the end, the atmosphere felt as cold as the scenery. At some point, I gave up, acknowledging that a Christmas without presents, without Christmas dinner, without the shops being closed and without the winter weather from back home (it's 15 degrees here) just didn't feel like Christmas at all, and no amount of lonely Christmas trees and dancing Santa girls were going to change that.

Somehow Christmas Day in Korea was always going to seem like Christmas at Lotte Mart whether I went there or not, and it's a pity but that's the way it goes. But next year, if I'm in Korea, I'll try and do things differently, either for myself, or through finding something socially worthy to do on the day instead.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Christmas Eve 2006. We ate out at Lotteria - chicken, fries and milkshake - nothing fancy. I ate one piece of chicken - but got the other boxed to eat later. We talked for a long time about wealth and poverty in Korea and the extent to which the UK and Korea were meritocracies - or not - and the extent of opportunity in Korean society.

At the bins we started disposing of our cups and cartons, when a child - maybe about 14 - ran up to us. "Are you throwing that chicken away?" - "Yes" - "Can I have it then?" - "Yes" replied my stunned partner. Oblivious to the lightning exchange, I was shocked to see a hand dart towards the mostly eaten chicken breast before snatching it away from the jaws of the bin. I blurted out two rounds of "what the hell was that?" before a final "Oh my God" as I turned to see the child - now outside the door - scraping hungrily at the remains of my chicken with his mouth. I may have seen some poverty in Korea but what had just happened was a league above that and I was overwhelmed by a surreal sense of horror.

Aware that the boy had two companions my partner worried that they may present some danger to us and we hurried out of the door -
I admit I am also coloured by my experiences living in a British inner-city area where you always watched your back at night for attacks, dares and scams of various kinds which were never far away. Even so, I wanted to give them the other piece of chicken we'd boxed as we passed by him and my partner offered it to him - apparently to his surprise. She explained afterwards her worry that he might have felt offended by the offer but then he'd just taken my remains from the mouth of the bin so I doubted he would have had such scruples.

The whole incident lasted no more than fifteen seconds.

I don't know what their story was but while we did the right thing in a small sense I know we should have taken them back in to Lotteria, sat them down, and bought them a meal. I truly wish that was the Christmas Eve story I could tell but it isn't because I failed to rise above the shock and prejudices and as such failed in my responsibility to do the right thing. After recovering from the shock of what I saw my regret at my minimal action increased with every step.

Have we become so cynical that we fail to help those who seem to need help? What would other Koreans have done? Would I have reacted better if I'd been able to speak the language and been able to understand and communicate with the children? Did we really want to know their story or is our guilt ultimately destined to be less the less we know? Just how many homeless children might there be in this country - because it certainly seemed like they must be? Not for the first time of late, my head is full of questions which I have no answers for.

Ceremonies of Light and Dark

Steam rises up from the street vendors selling food in the cold night air outside the cinema at Nampo-dong. Christmas lights hang from trees but are often obscured by the pixelated chaos of a thousand Korean shops all vying for attention. As you try to navigate your way through the sea of humanity and occasional pavement-mounted motorcycle that is a evening's shopping in Busan, you know how a salmon feels trying to swim upstream. Shop owners beg for your attention, loudspeakers drown out those who have not escalated their technique, and for a moment you begin to believe that you will never know peace again, before you let the unreality of it all wash over you.

We join a long queue in Krispy Kreme but near the counter they give us some small doughnuts because we've waited a couple of
minutes so we walk off eating them. A heady mix of the aroma of food is punctuated by the occasional overwhelming stench of Busan's sewer system with its all-too-many open grates. Teenage girls wearing immodest Santa outfits try to sell you bread outside Paris Baguette while pleading for attention in squeaky voices via microphone. Where there is a space, there is someone selling something, no matter how humble their stall or their wares. Braving the cold, a heavily-padded 80-something woman sits by a makeshift table in the gutter with her hand frozen to the remote control of a small car which shoots from one end to the other. I can not tell you whether her disinterest or sadness is greater. Behind her, a shop sells £500 designer watches. Nearby, a man tries to sell baby rabbits which are so young that they still cannot walk and they lie on a hardboard table struggling to make sense of their new legs while shivering uncontrollably. There is no mother.

You continue to fight your way through the stream of designer labels which trickle around the small rocks of poverty whil
e hoping that you'll never learn to swim. A Buddhist temple sits wedged between the concrete boxes down a small side street. If you didn't look up you probably wouldn't even see it.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Sixth Sense

Korean Family has a Psychic Aunt. Technically speaking, she's a fortune teller, who makes her living travelling around the country dispensing advice about peoples' futures and occasionally cleansing evil spirits. Fortune telling is extremely important in Korea. Not long after I'd met my girlfriend one was consulted to determine whether our match was a good one, based on the exact date and time of our respective births. They also tend to determine the dates and times of important events such as weddings in order that they are held at times which will ensure the maximum amount of future happiness.

Now to some people this will be hopeless nonsense, but I've had sufficient experiences in my life to be very wary of people with sixth senses because while there are certainly a good many charlatans, I also believe some to be the genuine article. So it was with some trepidation that I met the Psychic Aunt yesterday evening, expecting her to immediately see the evil spirit within me and run out of the room shrieking or worse, try to exorcise me. To prevent her reading my mind, I'd initially determined to keep a strong mental picture of dead fish in my mind, but quickly realising that would just probably make a Busan resident hungry, I switched to an image of a pizza from a local place back home which - given my inability to find decent pizza here - I have increasingly strong emotions about.

I needn't have worried. Either my blocking techniques worked or Psychic Aunt failed to read my mind as we embarked on a long and pleasant conversion via translation on various subjects related to Korea and the UK, in-between bouts of laughter at one-another's jokes, and some dancing around the room on her part. Yes, she was in fact, even more eccentric than the other members of Korean Family, but thankfully harmless. I was really interested in seeing one of her spirit-cleansing rituals so we might go at some point - I'm looking forward to it as it's a side of Korea that foreigners rarely get to see.

What struck me as a rather sad commentary on my time here though that this was the first time I'd had a real conversation with a Korean person, albeit through my partner translating. I don't know if I can really explain how isolating it feels to only talk to the same person every day for over two months while so much else is being said around you, but it's a odd experience at best. Still, while it was pointed out that Korean Family knows all about me and this was the reason why we hadn't had any proper conversations, I couldn't help feeling something had gone horribly wrong somewhere.

For my own part, cultural considerations prevent my asking searching questions of Korean Parents that may well be considered to be too direct and therefore rude, but I feel like I've made an effort with my peers to no avail. I think in my own culture you can meet new people and have intellectual, philosophical and sometimes surprisingly personal conversations within a short period of time, but as a foreigner there's a natural barrier between myself and Koreans and they do not want to open up and expose any perceived weaknesses to someone from another country.

In the end, you can only try and meet people half-way and if they aren't there it's usually inadvisable to go after them to knock on their intellectual front-door. Perhaps as long as the language barrier exists people here will never talk to me in the way I believe they would have done by now had they been English speakers, perhaps they never will because there will always be a ethno-cultural divide even if I reach fluency, or perhaps I've just generally not met the right people yet. The Psychic Aunt has proven the first exception to the rule, so there is now some hope that I may find other people I can talk to eventually.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Soul Food

Rice and noodles (along with Kimchee) are a central part of the diet here, but after two months I'm pining for some food that tastes just like home, just once every now and again would be fine. But the fact is my quest for some nice food from home is eluding me. It's not to say there aren't many fine local dishes - there are - but sometimes you just want a break from the new and opt instead for the comfort and familiarity of the old.

Because dark off-the-bone meat seems to be what Koreans prefer - at least as far as chicken is concerned - it's meant finding the kind of chicken I like has been almost impossible thus far. All the chicken meat is dark, one 'chicken'-topped pizza so much so that I actually doubted it was chicken at all. It could be the first time in known history that a person could look at a piece of unidentified meat and pronounce that in fact, it didn't taste like chicken.

And it's caught me out. We ordered chicken nuggets from a local takeaway and I had visions of KFC-like white meat steaming out of a spicy batter, but what arrived was weapons-grade dark-grey meat with accompanying gristle and bone. I discovered this after biting into one, impacting some particularly tough gristle on a tooth and ending up with toothache for three days afterwards. I keep thinking I'll have to give up on the chicken thing.

Pizza, is as ever, not quite pizza. Koreans are not big on sauce, to the point that one pizza I had a few days ago was more like cheese on toast. But the toppings are not minimalistic despite the lack of sauce. Most pizza makers seem to like putting just about everything they can on top of a pizza, to the point that most of them seem to end up feeling like a 'combo' even if they carry different names. But there are some oddities - there are a lot of potato topped pizzas here. My favourite place remains the 'Mr. Pizza' chain where it is a little more like back home, even if the store subtitles itself "Pizza for Women" in a bizarre marketing strategy which makes me feel like I shouldn't actually be eating there.

Amused to find a can of Italian baked beans in a local Top-Mart, we bought it only to realise, in best Homer Simpson fashion, that we actually didn't have a tin-opener. So it may tell you something about my diet that we haven't needed one for the first two months here. When we eventually bought a cheap opener from a local store, they transpired to be too salty. Lots of things are salty here - Koreans like salt - but unfortunately my Meniere's Disease does not.

Korean food - even when it's Korean versions of Western food - remains a minefield. I really do like the shrimp-burgers from Lotteria and I'm eating more hoddug '호떡' and red-bean filled hoppang '호빵' than can be good for me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Life in the Food Chain

There now follows an important cultural lesson. I found myself at a Korean friends house during the late evening, we were hungry and so chicken was ordered from a local take-away. Various dismembered and fried parts of chicken arrived in a large box. We ate.

It was later pointed out to me that during the course of the meal I'd managed to eat both chicken legs, and herein lies a problem, because chicken legs are prized by Koreans whereas other parts of the chicken, especially the breast, are not seen as so desirable. In fact, this is so much the case that people will go as far as to throw chicken breast away because of what is perceived to be its dryness and lack of taste. Normally, in the tense hierarchical stand-off that is a Korean family's meal at the dinner table, the Korean father would be expected to eat the chicken legs while the rest of the family attended to the second tier of the animal. As a guest, I might have just gotten away with eating one chicken leg - but only if it had been offered - but to eat both in ignorance and without invite was a considerable faux pas. Much retrospective apologising was done but I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd blotted my copy book. The irony is, that in the UK it is the chicken breast which is more prized and definitely my preference, unlike legs which I find hard to strip to the bone.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Korea Blog Search

Trading is winding down as Christmas approaches so with a couple of hours free I got the idea to throw this together. It's a search engine for Korean Blogs in the English language. With over 200 such blogs currently in existence there's too much to read but the search engine allows me to trawl them all for information.

Homepage link

Google Custom Search

Add to Google

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Beyond Christmas

I wasn't expecting much of a celebration of Christmas before I came to Korea because I didn't really associate it in my mind as a Christian country, although in reality a significant percentage of the population identify themselves with it. But if nothing else, I should have realised that - like Japan - Christmas is a commercial opportunity even without its religious overtones. It's just not quite the Christmas you'd expect.

A Christmas show was on TV yesterday, but alongside the dancing Santa was someone dancing in a costume that appeared to resemble something a dog might leave behind it, and even more inexplicably, another person in a dancing skeleton costume. 'Merry Christmas' the presenters cried. I've also seen some rather odd santas - including the one above carrying a saxophone for no apparent reason.

Beyond the slightly odd Korean take on Chirstmas, the weather here isn't co-operating with the festive season. Being from the north of England I expect a decent amount of snowfall during winter, though in truth global warming has steadily reduced this during my lifetime. But in Busan, it hardly ever snows, robbing the scenery of any potential Christmas decoration. In fact, before coming here I was told to expect minimum temperatures of around three degrees Celsius but it's actually dipped below zero many times in the last three weeks. The TV blames El Niño. Annoyingly, it has snowed rather a lot in the rest of the country, and even to the south in the area near Namhae, but it's just cold here. So, all of the irritations of winter, none of the visual pleasures, and no pretty pictures of the local mountains covered in snow.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

After Office Hours

Our lifestyle means that we're burning through cash at a surprising rate, so before going out last weekend we were going to head to the ATM to get some more money, but we were warned it would cost us 600 won to make a withdrawal as the bank was closed. It seems withdrawals are only free during bank opening hours. 600 won (about 30p) isn't a lot of money, but after all the service you get from the banks here - like being text messaged every time your card is debited, it came as a surprise.

British banks might be envious of this idea, but on the other hand I imagine that if they implemented the text messaging for credit card use, it might cut down considerably on their fraud liabilities.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Sleeping Dictionary

A Monty Python sketch revolves around the existence of a Hungarian Phrasebook, where the words and phrases are anything but accurate, causing much embarrassment to those tourists unfortunate enough to find themselves using it.

Thirty years later, I have a Casio electronic dictionary which, on entering 'TV' (or 'tv' for that matter) into English-Korean defaults to the Korean for 'transvestite', and initially translates '사위' (son-in-law) as 'taboo/in abhorrence as an ill omen'. I was briefly so impressed with Korean Father when he kept pointing at me, making me type
'사위' into the dictionary so I understood. Much to my disappointment he hadn't seen the real me through the language barrier but was in fact, merely pointing out my role (and presumably future responsibilities) in the family. Oh well.

Since I presume the Japanese sense of humour doesn't stretch to creating a modern-day Hungarian Phrasebook, I can only assume they will have to claim the same defence the publisher in Python's sketch did - incompetence.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bang the Machine

Trading has been slow for the last couple of days, so when a friend phoned to invite us out for pizza we jumped at the chance, leaving our systems to work for us while we were out. After pizza at the unlikely named Big Bowls, it was off to a PC Bang (PC room) for a few rounds of Kartrider, as you do.

I've had some brief experiences of PC Bangs while in Korea - but they've been limited so far to hanging around the entrances while my girlfriend went in looking for people. So today was my first entry into the world which so many Koreans seem to inhabit.

It wasn't quite what I expected. While the closely packed machines accompanied by the whirr of fans and the smell of CPU-heated air mixed with body odour took me back to my university days, I was surprised to find that it appeared to be little more than a glorified arcade - since almost everyone was playing a game of some kind.
Until today, I'd laboured under the illusion that people in PC Bangs were surfing the Internet, checking their email, watching videos and doing all the kind of things that people generally do aside from gaming. But it all appeared to be gaming, and in fact, to be absolutely precise, of the hundred-or-so computers, everyone was playing one of five different games as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, my knowledge of games is sufficiently limited that the only one I could readily identify was Kartrider.

When we sat down - in the smoking section to start with (there was no room in non-smoking) - a woman brought us a drink that tasted suspiciously like flat Sprite, and about as unpleasant as that sounds. There have been quite a few stories in the past couple of years of Koreans playing games in PC Bangs so long without a break for food, drink or sleep they've actually died, so perhaps this was a small concession to that. Each computer also had a very small vending machine next to it, containing nuts or chocolate for 100 won a time. It wouldn't keep you going for long though - even if you had the change.

A fascinating aspect of the place the PC Bang has in Korean culture is that by some technical means that I am not aware of, Kartrider knows that you're playing in one and whatever points you would have scored at home are doubled. Not only that, special PC Bang-only cars are available which make the game easier to play. Which all serves to put PC Bang players of the game at a distinct advantage to those who choose to play elsewhere. I understand that we paid more for playing Kartrider than had we just accessed the Internet, so I imagine there's some kickback for the company as well as the PC Bang in doing this.

The downside of playing in the PC Bang was the noise - I found it impossible to hear my own computer above the racket of all the others - and when I finally left the PC Bang, I discovered I couldn't hear properly as I'd been slightly deafened. I think if I ever specifically went there to play a game in future, I'd take some small headphones.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sushi Sushi

We've been eating some days at a nearby cafe-style eatery called 'Gimbap Nara ' (딤밥나라) - 'gimbap' translating as 'Korean sushi' - though they serve a mean rice-stuffed omelette which makes for a good functional lunch at about £2.20 (4,000 won). They even deliver, and of course as is usual in Korea, at no extra charge.

From it's appearance and informal interior I'd taken Gimbap
Nara to be just another owner-run shop, but it turns out to be part of a huge chain. And it has a couple of rivals.

It may be a sign of my having been in Korea longer now, but I'm beginning to recognise the chains - perhaps moving closer the day when one bit of Korea feels just like another!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Family Jewels

We may have to revisit my blanket praise of Korean customer service. I was out with my partner and Korean Mother at a jewellery store yesterday looking at several items. The store was in a district alongside maybe fifty other such establishments, but what's more, it transpires that while one store may appear to be a singular unit, in fact it may be sublet to a number of separate businesses, which is not an uncommon practice here. This particular store-within-a-store was a husband and wife affair.

It was the first business we'd visited - and not being able to find it immediately the owner had volunteered to come out and find us - although as it turned out we were only just around the corner. So the initial service is good, a few items were subsequently tried on and prices pleasantly discussed, before the owner encouraged us to have a look around the district. As fate would have it, we instead bought a couple of rings and some jewellery at the second store we visited, preferring the styles they offered.

In the evening Korean Mother was called by the wife from the first jewellery store to find out our situation. She hadn't given the woman her phone number but of course she'd phoned them to get directions earlier in the day. So the jewellery store wife was told that unfortunately we had made our purchase elsewhere. This caused the wife to unexpectedly launch into a tirade of abuse over the phone, and when it ended, her husband took over. The wife took back the phone for the final flourish - she hoped we all would have unhappy lives from now on. In a land that places great stock in Karma, feeling that your harmony with the universe is somehow being cursed by someone else is a deep insult indeed. It seems safe to say Jewellery-Store Wife wasn't a Buddhist then.

It seems a lot to get worked up about, but maybe there was a fat profit margin in it for them - after all, unusually Korean Mother hadn't haggled. The reason why she hadn't haggled might also in turn provide another answer to the jewellers' anger - she'd been referred there by a friend who'd done business with them and therefore there was a connection. Connections are important in Korea. Perhaps then, the jewellers' thought the business was guaranteed.

But in a connected society like Korea, having a temper tantrum over losing a potential customer never seems wise. As I write, I feel the story is being related to an ever-widening circle of friends and it seems unlikely that that particular business will be seeing anyone connected to our network again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gas and Air

The gas bill for the month arrived. £6. The cost of our monthly gas bill back home? £45. Admittedly, we're in a one-room apartment here rather than a house, but during the summer in the house all we used the gas for was cooking and showers - and it was still about £25 per month. Our Korean friends and family thought our bill was quite high - although you can't change suppliers here so perhaps we just have to put that down to our showering for too long.

On the other hand, and this came as a bit of a shock to me, the mobile phone bill for the first month - in which we hadn't made many calls - was £20. The bill so far for the first three weeks of November - in which we'd made even fewer calls - was £7. I reckon the same calls would have cost us £3 back home. For a country obsessed by mobile communication, I'm surprised at the high cost of calls, and the apparent lack of competition in the market. Korean telecoms companies are seem to be milking Koreans for all they can.

Here's a very telling thing in my book. When asked for an itemised call breakdown SKT scratched their heads and said 'we can't provide those'. The best they could do was a summarised bill, which tells you little about how they're actually calculating things. How do you know if they are charging fairly and not making mistakes? It seems the answer is that you have to go to a main branch to find out such things.

Korea can seem a very innocent society compared with Europe and the US, where you can walk the streets safe at night and leave your bag at your table in a restaurant while you go to the toilet, but perhaps for the Koreans it has its hidden downside - Korean consumers are potentially easy prey for cynically profiteering corporates.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


In the UK, you can basically guarantee a Starbucks and Costa in every city these days, but often the product differentiation stops at the drinks which are put on your table. Perhaps it's indicative of the sheer number of places to eat and drink here and the competition which goes alongside this, that some establishments work hard to create a theme alongside their offerings. I was particularly impressed with the presentational aspects of the Aqua Cafe in October - today we found ourselves at 'DecembeR' - where it's always winter.

What makes 'DecembeR' all the more remarkable is that it's so easy to miss from the street. Like many stores in Korea the entrance belies the nature of what you're about to enter. In 'DecembeR's case, it's set back from the main street heading up the hill to Dong-A University, because in fact the cafe itself is set behind the street itself rather than on it, with one floor at street level and another below.

Despite the frosted-white décor, white furnishings and winter lights, the December theme fortunately doesn't extend to the temperature, which was pleasantly warm unlike that outside. But is it
a case of all style and no substance, because pleasant surroundings are no substitute for other disappointments? Happily no, the care taken in the ambience seems to extend to what is sold, and our small group had some very nice coffees, ice cream and fruit juice. The free toast with cheese dip which seems to be automatically provided was also a pleasant surprise. I haven't been in Korea long enough to judge whether, at 15,500 won (£8.62) for four people, it's expensive, but it's cheap enough by UK standards which is still the measure by which my spending is gauged here.

The way such places are hidden away and often only discovered by chance makes me wonder how many more of these stumbled upon.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bul nabi

While walking through the local market Thursday we came across a particular culinary offering we'd seen before - moths. This time though, given the cold temperatures, they were being cooked and served up hot to customers.

Now much as I would have liked to have taken a picture of this, there are times in Korea when you worry that the locals might be a little sensitive about certain things, so I wasn't sure if this was the kind of stall I could just walk up to take a photo of in a casual kind of way. But suddenly seeing the stall-holder distracted by a customer, I took the chance to sprint over quickly and take a quick snap. This of course is a mistake, because I'd forgotten the rather obvious fact that as a foreigner you naturally attract attention and sudden movements only serve to publicise your actions more.

The result was one woman nearby - at least with a smile on her face - saying "he must be taking a picture because we eat insects", but two men near the stall didn't look as amused. Next time I'll go for the direct approach of asking the stall-holder - I'll probably get a better shot of the steaming hot moths that way.

While there may be some sensitivity on the subject of eating insects, I don't really see the need for it; this happens in plenty of cultures and it doesn't bother me.

Public Access

After a little shopping in our local Newcore Outlet department store, we went down into the basement Kim's Club supermarket - part of Newcore unless I'm mistaken - to buy some food for a friend's housewarming tomorrow. We were surprised to be politely denied access by a staff member at the entrance - we couldn't take our Newcore bag with the clothes we'd bought in the floors above inside - instead it seemed we'd have to put them in a locker nearby. The refused entry was even more curious because we'd already been inside with our bag once.

Not being immediately able to locate a 100 won coin for a locker I was forced to stand outside the barrier to the supermarket area while my girlfriend shopped for a couple of items inside. Tempted as I was to adopt the kind of Taekwondo stance towards the staff member that South Korean guards adopt at the DMZ, I instead opted for a slumped against the wall type look about three feet away which I vainly hoped might register my disgust at not being allowed inside. We were really going to shoplift food in our small clothes bag? Do Koreans even think about such things?

At least we weren't the only ones to be surprised. During my wait two Koreans were turned away at the barrier and one woman looked completely perplexed at the occurrence. Anyway, there's not much incentive for us to want to shop there again.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kart Racer

When our Saturday-evening plans fell through at the last minute, I found myself with a new Korean experience - nothing to do. So it was suggested that I try out the Korean phenomena that is Kartrider, a free on-line Mario-Kart style game which is earning serious revenue for its creator Nexon.

Western games companies might wonder how a business model can be built on such a concept, but the answer as so often with Korean companies lies in Korean peoples' willingness to live out alternative lives on line, whether it be through Korean homepages such as Cyworld, or entire game-worlds. When so much time is spent in an environment, and indeed social networking of a sort done within them, the opportunity to use it to sell clothing, equipment and a variety of other add-ons present themselves. For Nexon alone, revenue is into the hundreds of millions of dollars and such is the seriousness with which Kartrider alone is played in here, for some players it can actually become a job.

A few hours after starting, I'd won a few races at the bottom level with my basic kart, and had the sore fingers to prove it. Beating my girlfriend's friend though, a high-ranking player with a year's experience, proved predictably elusive. Despite this, I wasn't immediately tempted to splash out real money buying a faster kart in order to compete more effectively. Perhaps I'll just work my way up the hard way.

Despite not being much of a video-games player, the quick games against real people proved strangely addictive and on a slow trading day yesterday evening I left my systems to trade automatically and went back into the Kartrider world to try and improve my score - but beating my Korean friends still proved impossible.

Given that my girlfriend's friends don't speak very much English, and myself even less Korean, we are therefore limited to communicating instead via a video game, although when you think about it, it is perhaps a very Korean way to build relationships.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wag the Dog

For a country where dog can still find its way onto a menu, a surprising number of younger people in Korea seem to have them as pets. And what pampered pets they are. I've never seen anyone actually walking their dog per se, but I've seen an awful lot of Korea women carrying them close to their expensive coats. Of course, they are always of the small 'cute' variety, and seem to function partly as fashion accessories. My girlfriend explained that another 'good' reason for carrying them was that it stopped their feet getting dirty, and of course, given the level of paranoia over housebound dirt this wouldn't do at all.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I noticed that Korean Parents' apartment has an ant problem the other day - even though it's on the 13th floor, but Korean Mother isn't really bothered, because they don't do any harm and it seems that in Korea having ants is seen as a sign of wealth, so bizarrely, I think she's almost proud that they've moved in.

They are however, brown ants. Apparently had they been white ones, this would have been a very bad thing. Not another subtle manifestation of Korean pride though as it turns out - it's simply that the white ants eat into the structure of the buildings they infest. White people merely eat into the structure of Korean society, which is perhaps a less tangible thing to complain about, although the Chosun Ilbo does try quite hard.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Crossing the Line

Despite the lack of discipline on the roads, it's curious that when it comes to crossing over them as a pedestrian, Koreans are suddenly ardent followers of the law. It doesn't even matter if there are no cars anywhere nearby, people will patiently wait until the red man turns to green. Perhaps it's because you can never quite discount a car tearing down the road at 120kph or suddenly appearing from some unexpected angle at speed, but I rather think it has more to do with the 'Team Korea' mentality which bonds the social group together.

Today I was standing at a crossing with no cars around, but Team Korea was determined to maintain their respective positions either side of the narrow single-lane road, when two boys with so-90s dyed-brown hair broke ranks and started walking across. This immediately led to several other people either side setting off, clearly not realising the lights were still at red. On realising this, there was hesitation, some people stopped and one woman even doubled back to the kerb. But it was too late and by now the collective group was committed to the act, so the unconventional became the conventional and everyone felt obliged to cross.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Up to His Neck

A few days ago I developed a pain in my shoulder. I've had it before and apart from briefly dabbling with an osteopath a couple of years ago, it's always got better with a couple of days rest. This time though, it persisted.

As I've written before, the UK approach to healthcare is different the one in Korea. I would have made an appointment with my doctor, and probably seen her within a week, but certainly not any sooner than three days from my call. This acts as a considerable disincentive to go to the doctors, as if you're an optimist you believe that by the time your appointment comes you're bound to be feeling better (actually, if you're a pessimist who believes the Universe exists solely to mess you around you'll probably believe this as well). But the promise of an instant diagnosis was too much to pass over, so off we went to the local orthopaedic hospital - no appointment required.

Specialised hospitals are often small - think a couple of small office block floors and you'd get the picture - and there are many of them - so after a five minute walk I was sat down in reception waiting for an X-ray. Five minutes later I'd had two X-rays on my neck - which was already thought to be the source of the problem, and five minutes after that I was seeing an orthopaedic professor who suspected a small spinal disc issue. A few minutes later I was with a neuro-pain specialist who also subscribed to the disc diagnosis, and offered a course of neck injections or physiotherapy to try and address the problem. I opted for the physio - and she laughed because apparently Westerners always do. Perhaps she doesn't realise how little faith we have in our health system - and how it always seems safer to have them do as little as possible? Anyway, by coincidence I used to write software for an orthopaedic company and there was nothing in that experience which made me any more enthusiastic about invasive procedures.

So another five minutes later I'm in the arms of a Korean physiotherapist having my spine heated, straightened, and finally artificially massaged with electrical pads which have left four nice round red patches on my back. But I did feel better. A course of drugs from the pharmacy later, I'm a grand total of 32,500 won worse off - £17.87 - and my Korean family is appalled at the high price I have to pay for this private treatment; if I was treated under the Korean insurance system it would have cost 13,200 won - £7.26. But I'm still stunned - in the UK the three different drugs they put me on would have meant a prescription charge of around £5.90 per drug - which means the UK cost of my drugs alone would have been as much as the entire costs for my X-rays, diagnosis and physiotherapy. Admittedly, the latter items would have been free in the UK, but it would have taken six weeks from start to finish. Total time today? About an hour.

The next day I went for my second physiotherapy session, which cost 12,000 won
(£6.60) for forty minutes, but I was so much better the physiotherapist told me it wasn't necessary to come back unless the problem re-occurred. Meantime, I have to work on my seating posture to gradually correct the disc issue and stop it developing further.

Not that you would wish to, but this is a great place to get sick!


I nearly always carry a small camera with me in Korea, but sometimes there are pictures you just can't take. So I have to ask you to imagine what I witnessed Monday.

It had been raining in the morning and it was still residually damp and overcast. It was market day and the narrow streets near my apartment were made narrower still by hundreds of market stalls crammed wherever they would go. I'm struggling to work through the crowd, wincing slightly at the heavy smell of dead fish in the air, when there's a commotion in front of me. A gap is opening up in the crowd - no easy thing when there's only a four-foot wide pedestrian route to start with.

A man with one arm and one leg is dragging himself slowly down the wet street through the dirt and organic remnants, trailing a solitary crutch behind him. For a moment I thought he'd fallen and looked to my girlfriend in case we needed to help him up, but I suppose I should have known better - he was begging. I've become used to beggars here playing up their afflictions, but this man had no need to - the sight that greeted me was as desperate as it was pathetic. It seems even the Koreans were taken aback - why was this man out like this? Who was behind him - making him do this? But there were no answers - as quickly as he had lain there momentarily in front of me he was gone, lost in the crowd as those behind us pushed us onwards. Sights and sounds of Korea, not easily forgotten.