Tuesday, October 31, 2006
If anything, I expected the usual shrimp burger from Lotteria, but instead it turned out to be pizza from the Pizza Lange chain ("happiness and amazing" proclaims the English slogan on the web-site). Much like the PIzza Hut pizza we'd had on our arrival in South Korea, it was pizza, but not quite as we knew it back in Europe.
Unfortunately I was full from my recent breakfast and I'd already politely declined the breakfast Korean Mother had continued making for us despite our insistence before arriving that we didn't want to eat. There was no way to decline the pizza though, especially when Korean Father shared with us the fact that he'd waited 30 minutes for it to be made. As I politely but slowly made it towards the end of my first piece, Korean Father pointed insistently at a second, and when I'd finally finished that, he grabbed my hand and made me pick up a third - and thankfully by now - the final piece remaining as the whole family had also eaten some by this time. He explained that it is very important for Korean parents to ensure their children (and by extension myself) were well fed - 'watching your children eating well makes you full' - a Korean phrase. I can see that trying not to get fat here is going to be a battle of psychological wills, and saying no to your Korean father is potentially an extremely difficult diplomatic trick to pull off.
It seems there are a few waygugin (foreigners) who frequent our local Pizza Lange - an American, a Englishman, and a group of Australians - or possibly Canadians - we weren't too clear on that one. The proprietor had no opinion on the Americans, but thought the Englishman stingy because he complained about the pizza (perhaps in the hope of getting a discount which apparently never came). The greatest reservation seemed to be for the group who brought their own Kimchi to be placed on the pizza of their choice. While this might have been thought to be a nice touch in reaching out across the cultural divide, it loses points on the grounds that Koreans don't do this unless they want to be thought of as eccentric and overly economical (bringing your own ingredients to avoid buying a more expensive meal).
At 5,000 Won (£2.78), I don't know why anyone's worried about the price - a pizza the same size would cost me double that amount in the UK. Food is so cheap here!
Monday, October 30, 2006
The procedure back home under the UK National Health Service in these circumstances would have been to phone a local doctors' surgery for an appointment, which would then have been arranged sometime within the next seven days. If further tests were required from this point, a hospital outpatient visit would occur within a few weeks, possibly sooner if matters were deemed to be urgent and possibly much later if not.
Having decided medical consultation was required, we walked to one of the many specialist hospitals (pick one) about half-a-mile away. It was on the second floor of a typical small high-rise building on the main road, above a store. I was surprised by the small size and thought that they couldn't possibly have all the specialist equipment required here, but apparently they can - more or less. We had to wait for about fifteen minutes.
And that was it, within an hour of deciding he needed to see one, my girlfriend's brother had seen a specialist, got a preliminary diagnosis and advice on a course of drugs to take as an initial treatment. The cost? £1.50 for the appointment and 75p for the drugs from a next-door pharmacy. You do of course have to pay for annual medical insurance - but what price would you put on immediate treatment? Plus I pay over £6 every time I get any drugs through the NHS. The system here seems so vastly superior to what I'm used to I'm looking for a downside.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
After a 45 minute subway journey from one end of Busan to the other, I discovered if there was one thing worse than a Korean taxi ride, it was a Korean taxi ride up a twisty mountain road with big drops on each side. I was ready to throw up by the time I got out.
I have to say that the temple was not quite what I expected. There were thousands of people there as clearly it's a very popular tourist destination, but the modern world had invaded it too much. The otherwise beautifully decorated building housing the temple drum for example, had a couple of blue KT Telecom boxes installed right underneath it (you can see them in this picture). Temple lanterns surrounded by detailed small Buddhas statuettes (made in China) were lit by 60 watt light bulbs. Aircon units poked out of the side of one of the buildings and the monks hung around their Daewoo cars and darted around the temple complex in their trainers.
I have to say though, that the most inexplicable thing I noticed was that inside each of the temple buildings where it seemed the more pious Buddhists offered up their prayers, was a cheap and very modern looking clock on the wall. Isn't the concept of there being a clock on the wall of a Buddhist temple somehow completely contradictory? It all felt a little too false in the end and it tarnished my view of Buddhism a little. I suppose you could argue it's a working, functional temple, but it still doesn't excuse the phone boxes.
We picnicked nearby on the mountain and then discovered we were going to be hiking up it after all. I don't know when our arrangement changed.
Saw a few more Westerners today - after my first week of total isolation I'm getting used to it again. Korean Mother got excited when one passed us in close proximity while we were resting. "Migug" (America) she cried - or asked - depending on your perspective. Whatever his nationality (and having overheard him momentarily earlier we thought he might be English) he didn't let on. After all, aside from probably being quite sick of Koreans shouting things at him, if he were American he might not admit it, and if he was British, he's probably sick of people taking him for an American. Still, he must have seen that I was there and this just confirmed my growing feeling that a lot of the foreigners here seem to be a pretty miserable lot when out amongst Koreans. Anyway, sorry whoever you are - Korean Mother has been told not to harass Westerners again.
At the summit - or at least the top of the part of the mountain we had hiked up, there was no view because like the slopes it was too heavily wooded. So, no beauty shot of Busan miles below us. There was too much heat haze anyway to take great long-distance shots. A monk sat at the top painting peoples fortunes in cartoon form as the spirit moved him. I also discovered an excellent Korean sweet made out of pumpkin which I have to introduce people in the UK to.
We decided not to climb to the summit of Geumjeongsan in the end because Korean Family was getting tired. Strangely enough I was fine, but since my home city is quite hilly maybe I'm more used to it than I appreciated. Before today I thought I was going to have real fitness problems because basically I've spent most of the last two years sat on my ass.
Karma. On leaving the temple a South-Asian said something to me and with the Migug incident fresh in my mind I stopped to smile and say hello. I was quickly shown some pictures of what was allegedly a Nepali school which desperately needed funding for all the good work it was doing. It wasn't clear whether they wanted an immediate contribution or my name and address for something presumably more substantial later. I don't know if they were genuine or not - and I'm sorry if they are - but to his apparent surprise I told him with an apologetic smile that I couldn't help him - and my girlfriend and wished him good luck with the project - whatever that was.
We walked back into the city through the same mountainous country roads that the taxi driver had brought us up, and it was nice to feel like I was in a more rural area for once - almost everything I've experienced so far has been endless cityscape. Unfortunately there were also increasingly regular stops as Korean Father had me read Korean signs back to him. My newly learned ability to read Korean (though not understand it) is proving a source of great amusement to him. It's good practice for me I know, but I feel like a contestant on a quiz-show sometimes.
For about 13,000 Won (£7.25) three of us watched Inside Man in a six foot by nine room with a 60" screen parked in front of us and an amazingly comfortable couch on which to sit. In fact - the couch was so wide you could have called it a bed of sorts.
Now it turns out, perhaps predictably, that DVD Bangs can serve a dual purpose for the Korean couple seeking some hard-to-find privacy where they can make out. In fact, this principle is understood so clearly by many of the DVD Bangs that they go so far as to provide a variety of wet and dry tissues as well as a large bin for cleaning up any bodily fluids afterwards... and staff members dash into a room when it's vacated armed with serious-lookng cleaning products. Our DVD Bang didn't seem to obviously provide its own toilet roll, though their were a few tissues, so my girlfriend suggested that this might be one of the stricter ones.
I think we'll be going back to DVD Bangs in future, because it's a lot better than going to the cinema - but I think we need to choose our particular DVD Bangs with care.
Lunch was good value as I've come to expect here; a meal for two cost about £2.80. I ended up with a chicken dish designated as 'Western food', so I got a knife and fork. It's the first tie can land me I've picked up a knife and fork in two weeks and I was rather shocked to discover that I felt rather clumsy using them. I ended up eating some of it with chopsticks anyway.
I didn't leave with the impression that Tesco Home Plus was particularly cheap - nor did it seem particularly extensive as far as the supermarket food was concerned; there seemed to be more lines of clothing than food to buy. But some things are international; we can land a man on the moon but we are still unable to design a shopping trolley that doesn't develop at least one dodgy wheel within its first few months of life. It was just like being back home.
The bus, unlike our first, seemed old and it appeared to be designed, for no logical reason, with the kind of suspension which rolled the cabin around alarmingly. Our driver had clearly missed his calling, because his style of driving was the binary full brake/full accelerator combination which I've come to associate with almost all taxi drivers here. Added to this is the new realisation that Korean roads are even worse than British ones and the main eight-lane highway we travelled part of the way on undulated in somewhat improbable and alarming ways while traffic weaved in and out of the lanes in a way reminiscent of the start of a Formula One race.
By the time we reached our stop, my wrist muscles had received a full workout from clinging to the cords hanging from the ceiling while simultaneously trying to prevent myself from inadvertently sexually harassing any of the female passengers standing in close proximity, and I wouldn't be surprised if I had a couple of bruises on my back from confrontations with some of the internal steelwork.
In the UK, people usually say thank you to the driver when getting off the bus in an orderly fashion. When we stopped it was more like the bus was evacuated in a glad-to-be-alive sort of way, and I don't think the driver was thanked at all.
We came back from Tesco Home Plus by taxi, but frankly, it's hard to say which was the more frightening experience.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
On a clear day, Korean Father phones up Korean Mother from the summit and waves to her - and apparently he is visible from their apartment block home. (It is of course unthinkable that there shouldn't be a mobile connection even there).
Korean Father wants me to join him on one of his daily expeditions, but I've explained to him that I may need to take some time building up to a four-hour hike. Maybe about four years. OK - I didn't share that last bit with him. I was initially quite keen to join him in fact, but seeing him return recently in his mountain gear has made this inner-city guy realise how naively I was viewing the experience. To add a little spice any Meniere's attack on route is going to make getting back to civilisation a very interesting experience - although I think Korean Father has offered to piggy-back me down should trouble arise.
I can only imagine that should I be incapacitated on the mountain and returned thus, the story of the Westerner who couldn't walk up the Korean mountain will be the stuff of legend in this country for decades to come...
As the thundering sound of the door echoed away around the building, I became aware that she appeared to have a female friend with her today, and sure enough, there followed the sound of talking next door and generally banging around before the friend decided to leave with almost as much noise as her arrival. Sometime during the stopover period someone else in the building came home and I heard another big bang from another floor. I don't know what type of people live here but I'm beginning to feel like I've moved into a whorehouse, albeit an otherwise discrete one.
Now I was desperately trying to get back to sleep when neighbour's friend left, but I could have sworn they said 'bye' to each other when they parted. I know I have a habit of starting to hear everything in English when I get really tired but this woke me up, and I spent the next fifteen minutes raging at the idea that my constantly interrupted sleep was being caused by a fellow foreigner. I don't know why that should matter more than if it were a Korean - perhaps because I think a Korean is marginally entitled to be an insensitive arsehole in their own country, and maybe because if they're a foreigner - and assuming they speak English - I might be able to teach them some British swearwords when I convey my thoughts on their attempts to wake everyone else up at night.
Friday, October 27, 2006
I planned to follow the same brute-force learning approach I'd done with Japanese ten years earlier, so it was off to the shops to buy some cue-cards, but this proved more of a challenge than expected when it turned out no one uses them any more because of computers. We did eventually locate some in a store opposite a nearby primary school though, and I made their day by cleaning them out of the ten packs they had. It took me a few hours to memorise the 40 basic Hangul characters, and I've spent the last few days trying to read various signs and TV captions, though very slowly and evidently with questionable pronunciation.
Unfortunately between going out on necessary trips and trading I haven't had any more time to formally study again so at this rate it's going to be painfully slow progress. But now in the unlikely event that I need to find a 'noraebang' (노래방, singing room) in a hurry, I won't have a problem.
While the photo business cards are one thing, the 'extra mile' award has to go to the branch of Kookmin Bank where my girlfriend applied for a credit card. Having sent several text messages to advise her on the progress of the card, they finally phoned to say it was ready and they could bring it over this afternoon if it was convenient. You read that right - they could bring it over. And a guy from the bank did. Barclays is never, ever, going to do this.
There is a downside. A bank employee made a mistake in not imposing a small charge on my girlfriend's account for her credit card, the employee will have to pay it out of her wages, and there was nothing my girlfriend could do to redress the problem. Jobs here must be more stressful for this reason alone if this is a common practice here.
I can't help thinking that by British standards most shops and offices here are absurdly overstaffed, which probably affords them the luxury of personal service which we don't have in the UK. For example, in a local branch of Top-Mart which looked about 20m square I counted 18 staff that I could see at the checkouts and in the isles. That's easily over double the amount I would have counted in a Kwik-Save back home. One wonders whether the Korean market will eventually buckle under the economic pressure (and Western corporate disease) of endless efficiency drives, which coupled with a relaxing of concepts of lifetime employment could cause a real social shock here.
Not being able to communicate with anyone is already getting old now, and I don't wish to confine my entire spoken experience with Koreans to the same four sentences about Manchester United and Jesus Christ. I'm frustrated by the lack of time I've found so far to study the language.
Korean Mother has noticed my stomach - which I don't believe has stopped moving eastwards since I got off the plane - and I'm never going to solve this problem until people here stop trying to over-feed me. And Korean Father has now noticed that I only tend to shave every-other-day which apparently doesn't fit his view of how I should look. I am still debating whether to change my shaving habits to placate him or whether this is where I draw my line in the sand. He doesn't like my boots either which have been proclaimed as being "heavy" so I can see it's best to make a stand sooner rather than later or I may find myself on a slippery slope.
I'm back to working full-time, more-or-less, so it feels like - for various reasons - that this is where the hard work begins and my relatively carefree holiday ends. It's a pity but that's the hard reality, and despite the challenges I still love it here - I'll see whether that holds as more time elapses.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
I suppose this says something about Korean chaebols and the way companies like LG can make high-tech electronic products while also building and branding entire apartment blocks of slightly questionable quality. In that respect, Korea would be a Western marketer's dream as there appears no need to invent niche brands to ensure your product ranges are intellectually and emotionally ring-fenced. Personally, I'll never be able to look at a Daelim bike the same way again after making the connection.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Ironically, despite this obsession, the prevalence of high definition here, and Korea being the home market of the likes of LG and Samsung, most TV reception seems to be incredibly poor. I could understand it if these were terrestrial broadcasts - all the mountains and high rise buildings would explain it - but it even seems to be the case with cable. I don't think it's just because I'm used to PAL rather than the inferior NTSC, because a lot of it just seems to be an inability to tune in to a good signal.
I've noted that when I spend any length of time in a larger store the resident television manages to find its way onto an English channel with Korean subtitles, which is a bit eerie really. In an opticians I was in, they calmly flicked through the stations to find something that presumably I would find interesting. That's a nice gesture but I'd have been quite happy to stare out of the window rather than endure 20 minutes of forced Cosby Show watching. I was with Korean mother when this happened and she earned my envy by falling asleep. Thus Bill Cosby struck out in two languages on that one.
The content is also a bit of a shock. I was a bit surprised on my third day here to discover Korean father watching a crime drama at seven in the morning - how tame can that be I thought at the time. But from the violent content it quickly became clear there's no watershed here of any kind so it probably wasn't. Later that day I was just about to eat lunch while briefly paused on some historical drama, when I was taken aback by a spontaneous burst of violence which saw a man's speech cut short mid-flow by a sudden sword swipe through both cheeks and open mouth. It wasn't what you expect to see at one in the afternoon.
A couple of days ago I watched a tamer-looking channel where the presenters and audience amused themselves playing with a dog and a large parrot. There was much talking and laughter in the style of bland-family-oriented early Saturday evening British TV, but things took a more sinister turn when the parrot bit the dog after some encouragement from one of the presenters, which following a couple more bites encouraged the dog to retaliate. Screams of laughter from the audience echoed round my apartment as I hit the channel button to move to anything else, but I still have the mental picture of the animals rolling viciously around the floor in the brief instant it took me to hit the remote.
We get CNN on the local cable service our apartment, and a few other English language channels with Korean subtitles. Some show fairly recent Hollywood movies but since we seem to have to buy a paper to find out what's on so we won't bother. NHK is also available but unfortunately I need to learn Korean now, not Japanese.
Monday, October 23, 2006
While this briefly made an amusing departure from the wallet and chewing-gum salesmen, it rapidly lost its humour value as he continued to stand next to me while making sure everyone in the carriage heard his message in a way only religious fervour can do, and then to my irritation, started pointing at me as I obviously became some kind of unwilling collaborator in his attempts to convert people to what he in turn had been programmed with. After obviously deliberately ignoring him for a bit by talking to my girlfriend, we both then went for the always-popular Korean-sleeping-on-a-train approach, which I abandoned shortly afterwards when it occurred to me that I might look like I was praying. But it was all over as quickly as it began as our Christian propaganda machine dashed off the train suddenly, presumably because he was late for work at Herod's Temple.
A few stops later a woman sitting next to me, who'd entered the train after the first evangelical incident, suddenly engaged her neighbour - also a new entrant - in conversation when she saw him sneaking a peek at what she was reading, which was clearly evangelical material of some sort. Not only was he bored, but he was a lamb to the slaughter of the programming system. Where was he going? The hospital. What ails you? God can help you. Within five minutes she had the guy's name, address and two telephone numbers (just in case they had difficulty reaching him on the first). And don't believe the information was given willingly, because it clearly wasn't, but he was weak enough to feel it was rude not to give the details (even though he kept saying, "I'm not sure about telling you"), and like all of us, he needed a little hope in his life.
Once he'd handed over his details and thus ensured there was no escape from the professional conversion squad that would continue to harass him until he gave in to their way of thinking, he continued to relate his problems to the woman who was barely interested now that she had the down-payment on his soul she'd required. But her God rescued her when he dashed off the train having realised that he'd missed his stop. Still, now that he's found God perhaps he won't need his missed hospital appointment. How I wished I could have shouted after him "You see what this has brought you? Beware of false prophets!" but it would have been lost on him. Bet that's the last time he lets his boredom or nosiness get the better of him though!
Maybe it's just that wearing expensive suits and not caring about people once you've got what you wanted from them isn't what I believe in.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Not only have I seen a few stores with Union Flags displayed prominently for no apparent reason, but it's surprising how the flag crops up on a fairly regular basis on the clothing of the local population. Conversely, no-one seems to wear a US flag on their clothing or use it to promote their store, but this isn't surprising considering the love-hate relationship South Koreans seem to have with Americans. Maybe the British have something in common with the Koreans there. Perhaps as showing the Stars and Stripes here is something of a social faux pas, the Union Flag has become a convenient surrogate for creating cynical marketing illusions of Western 'quality' and values. Certainly, local television contains a number of pseudo-British clothing ads with names like Bean Pole International, which with its somewhat negative connotations of being too tall and too thin, doesn't strike you as the wisest of branding for any company with genuine UK connections. Then again, maybe Koreans aspire to be too tall and too thin. As I am not tall, and decreasingly thin, I can sympathise with this.
Anti-American feeling, both among Koreans and perhaps even non-American foreigners (who are certainly tired of always being assumed to be American) is such that "I am not an American" t-shirts have been quite the hot-seller in Seoul recently.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
It wasn't more than five minutes though before I'd seen my second. This time a young woman who also appeared impossibly tall. I'm 5ft 6" so blend in well with the local population as far as height is concerned - perhaps I'm just not used to seeing anyone significantly taller than me any more? Or maybe this is a sign of some more disturbing social conditioning taking effect - I'm turning Korean and now believe any Westerner looks tall. Maybe even I look tall to Koreans who walk past me muttering "Waygoogin" (Foreigner) - if so that would be really great.
The woman presented a new problem though, in that we were walking towards each other down a corridor, which while wide gave us no more than a few feet distance at the point of passing. When she first entered my field of vision - no more than 10 feet away, I discovered that I've been here long enough for my subconscious to alert me to something odd in my field of vision - this being a white face - so I had to do a double-take and probably rather obviously look at her again to confirm what I had seen before quickly looking away. This was probably very Korean of me! Anyway, I was clearly busted because according to my girlfriend she apparently smiled at me as we passed while I busily looked somewhere else.
This encounter raises a complex question though. What is the protocol of passing Westerners? Should we acknowledge each other, smile, nod or heads at one-another slightly in acknowledgement of our rarity, collective experience and suffering? Or do we play it cool and just try to pass by without recognition as we would without question at home? Certainly there's no point saying "hello", unless we want to be guilty of assuming each other to be English-speaking foreigners, which of course we should not.
Maybe if I was an English teacher I'd see other foreigners every day, so my experience of feeling like the only white face where I live is uncommon. I am, after all, living like a Korean rather than as most foreigners seem to live here.
I wonder if instead of "Hello" I said "Waygoogin ida!" (It's a foreigner!) it would be amusingly satirical or is that foreigner in-joke old here by now? Probably.
edit: it turns out I'm not the only one worrying about this - there's a thread on the KoreaBridge forum - it looks like eye-contact and a nod is the preferred protocol.
Friday, October 20, 2006
It's only a few weeks ago that a Gadget Show presenter raved about the 100Mb Internet connections here, but I was disappointed to find before we got here that our apartment building could only support 10Mb because it was old. That's the same speed I had in the UK. To be fair, my connection in the UK was one of the fastest around, whereas my connection here is pretty average - but that's my point - it probably does represent the average - so it's not quite the technological paradise we were led to believe by our own media.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
It was past 2am before I started to drift off to sleep but within five minutes the increasingly loud sound of heels echoed down our apartment building corridor. We haven't seen any of our neighbours yet but it seems our immediate one must be female. It's little wonder we haven't seen her though if she comes home at 02:15. After a few days here I instinctively knew what was coming next. Sure enough, the door was opened, then closed with an almighty crash that seemed to be designed to do its best to wake the whole building up. Five minutes later another neighbour returned home in the same fashion, and another a little later. Since the door to our apartment has no built-in slamming feature I can only assume that getting it to slam requires a particular effort. I'm beginning to think if slamming doors were an Olympic sport Korea could expect to walk away with some gold.
But that my story would end there. At 04:45 I was awoken by the sound of our immediate neighbour announcing her departure back out into the world with another almighty bang of her door. It seems she's getting even less sleep than me. Over the next thirty minutes, in my increasingly shell-shocked stupor I counted two or three other neighbours leave for work in the same way. This is going to get really old, really quickly.
As a Westerner I've read much about Asian culture and only yesterday in the bank one of the roving employees struck up my first English conversation with a stranger in which he haltingly asked me what I thought of Korean families compared to Western family relationships. I said that Korean families are much closer which of course I had to tell him is a good thing. There certainly is more social cohesion and apparent consideration for others in Asia as per the stereotype, so the whole slamming doors thing has served as something of a wake-up call as to the realities that may lie beneath the surface. Unfortunately, it is also serving as a more literal wake-up call as well, and I need some sleep.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
My name turned out to be too long to fit on their computer so they could only squeeze it in by omitting the space between my surname and forename. I thought it would look pretty strange on my card but I needn't have worried because I got a card with a number on it but no name. OK, I have a pin but it seems like a bit of a security risk.
I went across the road and we asked an electrical store if we could use the card to pay there and they said no - so I ended up buying with my UK Visa card anyway. I fear my banking experience with Korean banks is not destined to be a happy one here.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
In the bank today Korean mother went straight to the desk of a particular employee rather than collecting a ticket number from a queueing machine - although that implies there are queues when really we've never waited in the bank longer than three minutes - try that in Barclays most days. The reason she bypassed the machine was that she had a 'personal relationship' with the particular employee in question because he had opened her account for her once. My girlfriend opened an account and now she would see 'her' bank employee too. This is another thing which is never ever going to happen in Barclays. I also opened an account but I wasn't invited back... so I guess I still have to queue! Oh well.
We were at the bank because my Korean girlfriend needed to pay Hacker.co.kr for the computer kit we'd purchased. Shortly after she'd paid she got a text message and email with her order number, and half-an-hour later they phoned to ask whether she'd like her hard disk partitioned, even though we'd bought the computer without an operating system and had to buy OEM Windows separately. OK, maybe they should pre-install but I was impressed that they'd phone to ask about such minor details.
Since they asked, we wanted our system drive to be larger than our data drive but this threw out the Hacker employee. When he heard my girlfriend speaking English he explained to her that 'in Korea' data areas are larger than in Europe. I think that's an admission that Koreans download lots of things through peer-to-peer networks!
Another text message came two hours later to say the computer had been despatched. Amazing service.
Later when I went into a store to buy a shaver, the salesman bowed to us when we completed our purchase and then rushed to beat us to the door so he could bow to our faces as we left the shop.
Korea seems much more heavily staffed than equivalent UK shops and offices. Going back to the UK after this is going to be a bit of a shock.
Monday, October 16, 2006
It was a bit noisy late last night and when we went out this morning we discovered someone had been very sick in the stairwell of our apartment building. I have no idea what type of area I'm living in (ignorance is bliss), but I have to admit that alongside the somewhat 'earthy' nature of the local shops this isn't helping create too positive a picture. I don't mind it so far though.
We had to go to City Hall today for my girlfriend to renew her passport. This entailed a 30 minute subway journey into what must, I suppose, pass for the city centre even if everywhere seems to be a shopping district here. So far, it seems to me that this is a nation of shopkeepers - everyone seems to be selling something wherever there's a space to put down a few boxes of wares. This could be quite endearing but the darker side reared its head today in the subway, as a disabled person worked their way from carriage to carriage trying to sell chewing gum. There is of course not much in the way of social security here and certainly it's nothing like the UK in that respect. People have to make what they can, and the disabled especially are in a difficult position so do what they must to earn some small income. My girlfriend explained that while selling in the underground was illegal, people did it anyway, although most passengers ignored the three sellers which visited our carriage. Those that bought may well have done so as an act of charity or guilt.
The disabled guy worked from person to person but ignored me. The next seller - an old man without any obvious disabilities - came up to me. I tried to ignore him at first in the style of the other passengers but when this didn't work (and from what I saw he didn't always give up with a simple brush off) I broke ranks, looked at him apologetically and said "I'm sorry" in English with an apologetic shrug of my shoulders. I probably wouldn't have bought anything he was selling anyway, but even if I'd been minded to I shouldn't have done it. There are so few Westerners here I feel the need to be mindful of the fact that I am, whether I like it or not, an ambassador of sorts, and were I to encourage these subway salesmen I might be thought of as encouraging the 'problem'. But I was really sad to think that this is what he might have been reduced to retain some small amount of dignity in the face of poverty. Perhaps I have it all wrong but it was at this point I remembered why I paid my taxes in the UK.
A third seller appeared in the carriage but he merely announced his products to the audience and demonstrated them - insofar as it's possible to demonstrate a wallet - before leaving when there were clearly no takers.
This is Where the Gas Masks Are Stored
In the event of an emergency gas masks are available (in the yellow cabinet) on the station platform near the Pepsi machine. I wonder how long it will be before such cabinets appear in the London Underground?
A Japanese guy was on the subway today - the first time I'd seen a non-Korean since I arrived in Busan on Friday. Perhaps there have been others but this was the first obvious one - obvious because he insisted on talking Japanese very loudly in the carriage. Clearly he wasn't so concerned with any ambassadorial duties. There was also a South-Asian American later in a local bank.
The local branch of Kookmin Bank - or KB as they seem to prefer to be known - has four desks, one of which declares itself as being for Account Opening/Closing. Banks in the UK would be appalled; the concept of closing an account is not one they'd advertise I'm sure. A friendly security guard with a gun bowed to customers when they entered and left the bank.
Civil Defence Alert
The air-raid sirens went off early afternoon in an unscheduled exercise. Apparently there are scheduled exercises once a month but this wasn't one of them. People are supposed to stop their cars and stand still on the street. Most do, and I have to say it's a pretty surreal experience and not one I particularly enjoyed having grown up in the late stages of the cold war two miles away from the nearest nuclear target.
We hurried down the street in a way which suggested genuine concern, but it turned out that Korean mother merely wanted to dive into a nearby eating establishment and avoid standing around on the street for ten minutes. A wise choice as it turned out; I'd almost finished my lunch by the time the alert was over. On the far side of the road - or maybe I should say six-lane highway, a police car, ambulance and two fire engines pulled up to what was, presumably, their assigned emergency point. I don't know if this indicates there are likely to be more fires than casualties if whatever unspecified event transpires.
After the desks and chairs we'd bought yesterday were delivered in the afternoon, we shopped for computers for my girlfriend and I tried to resolve some portable computer problems - the conversion plugs I'd brought from the UK weren't working properly. Korean father brought another conversion plug to try and it seems more stable in the socket but it's probably doing something it shouldn't be in terms of volts and hertz so it continues to be a problem.
Shopping for computers is a thankless task here. It seems there are no computer stores locally - many Koreans access the Internet from their phones or from PC-bangs (rooms) so they don't need to buy machines or peripherals. Armed with little more than a recommendation I'd seen on one bulletin board we spent several hours roaming through some poorly designed websites trying to find a computer, webcam, router, keyboard, two monitors and a pair of speakers. This country needs an eBuyer or Amazon.
Busan Model in City Hall
While at City Hall I stumbled across this amazing model of the city which really gives you a sense of the local topography.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
As promised, our new TV, phone, kettle and microwave were delivered today. The delivery guy set up our TV which of course is taken as read here. I was warned that we only had local cable here in our apartment (it comes with the rooms and is a mandatory £2 a month on top of the rent), so I watched with increasing interest as the automatic tuner picked up one channel after another until it reached 60. I saw CNN in passing, some relatively new Western movies with Korean subtitles, and rather too many Korean dramas and what looked suspiciously like different versions of the local equivalent of Candid Camera on several channels.
We went out furniture shopping with Korean mother, and it was a sight to behold. I know there'd been some haggling in the electronics store yesterday but today she seemed in rare form as she negotiated two small desks below the price they were selling at second-hand in a nearby store, and in the second-hand store negotiating the taxi fare off the price of a small chest of drawers when she found out they couldn't deliver that day.
I Can See My House From Here
In response to request from back home to find where we were on Google Earth, we eventually found our building (I think) after a considerable amount of time looking; my girlfriend wasn't able to identify our district easily from the air... I have to say our area of Busan looks like a bit of a dump from space but it really isn't when you're on the ground - at least not to my eyes. To be fair, it's got chaotic and narrow streets which remind me of Hong Kong and maybe that's too much for some people, but it's a novel change from back home.
Sense of Direction
I'm beginning to get my bearings here now and could probably find my way back home within a one mile radius. My girlfriend's sense of direction has always been really poor on the other hand, and it amazes me that it never occured to me while in England that she might be as bad in Busan. We may get seriously lost soon...
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Korean father was keen to get the day started and turned up on the doorstep first thing in the morning armed with a combination of enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. He'd also brought our apartment keys, which no-one had remembered to give us the day before. In my haste I forgot my watch but remembered my camera - this is the view up the street from my apartment.
The NHS had decided that I didn't need a Malaria shot before I left, which I'm a little nervous about. Unfortunately then, it was always going to be war, and the first victory against the mosquito menace went to England today in the bathroom of the Korean parents' apartment where I was taking a shower. I cleaned the suspiciously red blood off the wall and decided I really hate these insects.
Back home, LG make TVs. OK, I know they build ships and generally have a hand in many things, but apartment blocks? Anyway, Korean parents' apartment is filled with nice wooden frames with LG logos stamped on each of them, lest you forget you're living the LG dream. Curiously, while LG do quite nice wood it seems they can't align electrical sockets straight to save their lives, and the silicon finishing in the bathroom would have stopped me buying a British apartment in a similar condition. The apartment is beautifully furnished and neatly ordered in a TV-set type way and between this and the brand craziness I feel like I could be living in Hollywood if everyone spoke English. I had Korean rice, tuna, cod and omlette - aside from the tuna a fairly typical breakfast here.
Modest Shoes, Cheap Watch
On arriving at the station yesterday Korean father almost immediately checked out my boots - a process which involved squeezing them with my feet still inside - before pronouncing them to be 'modest'. It's OK to call them cheap - at £45 I'm beginning to realise I'll probably be wearing some of the lowest-cost footwear in the whole of Busan. Today he checked out my watch, but I think this time we called a spade a spade - with a £13 Timex Expedition what more can you say? He showed me his Rolex. Yes, very nice. I think my lack of branding is viewed as a delightful eccentricity by my hosts and yes, being a foreigner affords me that luxury! I wonder how long it will be before it begins to be perceived as an embarrasment? Or maybe I can get away with living my generic 'Westerner' brand and not have to worry about the clothes?
Things I never knew about Korea. Today is an 'off-Saturday', so there's no school and office workers aren't doing a morning shift. Every second week is an off-Saturday so this morning is quiet, insofar as relatively busy passes for quiet here.
Shop 'Till You Drop
My girlfriend bought a second-hand mobile for 50,000 Won (about £28) from an SK Telecom shop around the corner, and she'll probably have the oldest phone in Busan. Then we bought a new TV, microwave, phone and kettle from an electrical store equally close to us - they'll deliver them tomorrow (on a Sunday!) - everyone delivers here. It cost around £134 - but I don't know what it will be when it finally appears adjusted (i.e. screwed) on my credit card bill. I'm not sure it was much cheaper than in the UK where we pay an extra 7.5% VAT. So far this place is a crazy mix of apartments and shops, unlike the UK where we tend to divide our shopping and residential districts. Jet-lag began to catch up with me and resting outside another store against a tree a couple of non-English speaking Korean bible-bashers attempted in vain to convert me to Christianity. Rescued by a Korean girlfriend who also suddenly couldn't speak Korean, we returned to the house - I barely made it back I was so tired, and slept for an hour oblivious to the Korean landlord banging around fixing the problems we'd found already.
In the evening we went to the local University district for some food, and ate at an excellent upstairs restaurant. I had spaghetti bolognese (or 'oven spaghetti' from the menu) which cost about £3.65. The entire meal for three people came to about £11 which might have been the cost of one dish back in the UK. It included drinks and they don't tip here - I'm in heaven! No more endless antagonising over how much money to leave on the table just because the waitress has hovered around during the entire meal to make you think you've had good service. And we sat on couches around our table - apparently this is quite common in Korean restaurants - and something we really need to look at introducing in the UK - so relaxing.
The City Never Sleeps
On our walk back from the restaurant - at 22:00 - we stopped by a shop selling plants, went into a shoe-store, and then a hardware store where we bought a low table for the apartment, an extension socket and a battery charger. Despite the increasingly late hour on this off-Saturday, most shops were open - although the opticians I passed weren't doing a lot of business. Who wants to get their eyes tested at 22:00 on a Saturday night?
I've spent a day walking around my local area in Busan, and it was never busier than this evening - thousands and thousands of people and traffic that would put the rush-hour back home to shame. And yet, I realised this evening, I haven't seen another Westerner since I arrived here yesterday which was not what I expected. I don't feel I'm being stared at though, which is good. Maybe it's because even as a Westerner, without any brands I'm invisible...
Taking photos isn't really my thing and I'm still coming to terms with using my new camera - haven't worked out how to turn the flash off yet for night-time shots. Still, more pictures here:
Friday, October 13, 2006
Final tidy of the house and packing of bags.
07:10-10:15 UK, 15:00-18:15 Korea
Travelled to the airport, where in an extraordinary bad start I banged my knee heavily into a trolley on the way in. We had breakfast before getting ourselves processed and boarding our first flight.
10:15-11:30 UK, 18:15-19:30 Korea
First flight of the day, and they couldn't immediately get one of the engines started. When we did get going there was quite a bit of turbulence which left me feeling a little unwell. Every single movement of the plane felt exaggerated to me and sitting at the back near the engines on our Fokker 100 didn't help my hearing at all.
11:30-17:35 UK, 19:30-00:35 Korea
We shopped at Schiphol exhausting every last possible store, but gifts for friends back in Korea were hard to find. There weren't that many places to eat and we ended up at McDonalds.
17:35-03:45 UK, 00:35-11:45 Korea, Friday 13th
The 747 flight was much smoother than the first one, but the damage was done and as soon as the plane started to climb I became really unwell. Within an hour I was throwing up in a sick bag - and a little on myself. The Dutch girl in the seat next to my girlfriend was an absolute star about it in the circumstances. Any plans of watching the onboard movies were out after this, although the TV screens weren't seat mounted so were difficult to see anyway, so I tried to sleep but only managed a couple of hours in the end. I woke up over the Gobi Desert as the sun rose and the plane was bathed in red light. Amazing. I was sufficiently better by the end of the trip to watch our descent towards South Korea and the extra circuit of Incheon International Airport we had to do.
03:45-05:15 UK, 11:45-13:15 Korea
First impression of Korea was the heat haze - not a good sign for the jouney ahead. The airport was modern, efficient and we were out on the street with our cases and clutching our bus tickets within fifteen minutes. Initially Korea seems to smell of cigarette smoke and diesel. We got our bus to Seoul train station which actually merely left us in the vicinity of it.
05:15-05:35 UK, 13:15-13:35 Korea
There followed a mad dash through the streets of Seoul looking for the station, struggling with our cases (while mine had wheels I'd quickly discovered it was not really up to the job of being pulled). We were followed for a little while by a man who thought he was a cat. Plenty of soldiers in uniform on leave around who failed to lift a finger to help my girlfriend carry her case up stairways - but quite a few kind civilians who did - what's wrong with this picture? Oh, and motorcyclists, sans helmets, weave their way through pedestrians on the pavements at 20mph. Insane.
05:35-07:30 UK, 13:35-15:30 Korea
Lunch and most importantly, a drink at KFC while we waited for the 15:30 Busan train. It seems the entire Korean army has the day off to go designer shopping - a surreal mix of camouflage and Gucci bags. Evidently a few American soldiers around - with their desert "I've been to the Gulf" boots on. Saw my first monks - they weren't out buying designer labels - but everyone else may well have been. Students carried £600 Prada bags - and they probably weren't fakes.
07:30-10:00 UK, 15:30-18:00 Korea
My girlfriend got her case stuck in one of the train's carriage doors, and after she finally extracated it the soldiers behind us said cried 'Bravo!' Yeah, in my country our soldiers are trained to help civilians not laugh at their problems but whatever. The scenery is fantastic - so lush - and I'm really glad we took the train, but I'm too tired to appreciate it and actually fall asleep for 30 minutes.
10:00-10:45 UK, 18:00-18:45 Korea
Now into our 28th hour since setting off and 30th since getting up, and we finally meet the parents at the station. Apparently I look haggard by this point and I'm limping from my knee injury yesterday which desperately needs a rest. Big hugs from my girlfriend's parents and her father takes both 17kg cases and in his eagerness to get to a taxi runs off into the crowd with them. It takes us ten minutes to find him. We're outside the station in a square where there's some kind of Chinese cultural event going on. The place is absolutely heaving. Wish I could have taken pictures of this. Girlfriend's mother holds my hand so there's no chance of running away. Apparently I look thinner and younger than they expected - how cool is that?
10:45-11:15 UK, 18:45-19:15 Korea
With hand still secured by girlfriend's mother, the taxi ride from hell, Blade Runner meets a scene from Scrooged I seem to recall. No-one yields for anyone, you play chicken with everyone else to see who gives in first, our taxi driver presses the brake or the accelerator but his foot is always on one, no-one wears seatbelts, and it makes Italy look like a pin-up for road safety. Apparently South Korea has one of the highest road mortality rates and now I see why. I openly laughed twice at the sheer absurdity of it. Sorry.
11:15-12:15 UK, 19:15-20:15 Korea
We reach our one-room apartment and Pizza is ordered in. I am formally introduced to the family and there is the official I'm-marrying-your-daughter-bow followed by the official naming of everyone as mother, father, son, and brother-in-law. Intimidating. The mad Pizza Hut motorcyclist arrives and we eat. Other food appears from nowhere and there's a full feast arranged in boxes on the apartment's floor; save for a bed we have no furniture. A grape appears in my mouth without warning - mother is feeding me.
12:15-16:15 UK, 20:15-00:15 Korea
The family leave because I look so tired, but I want to get myself on Korean time as quickly as possible so I stay up setting up my laptop and catching up on some market positions. Internet is 10 megabit down but UK sites are predictably slow. Discover we can't shower because there's no hot water and I go to bed 34 hours after I woke up - and it still takes half-an-hour to get to sleep because my body thinks it's late afternoon.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Predictably, the final few days of my time in
Despite all efforts, not everything was completed and while there were conscious compromises, a few things were forgotten. Later I would realise that I had forgotten to pay one of the companies that did some work for us in the final days, and more minor issues, such as taking a microphone for Skype calls were overlooked. Had we not been working to a deadline, I'm sure we could have spent - indeed should have spent - another week doing the work. But the beauty - or curse - of the situation was that our flight was an immovable object and by Thursday morning at seven, we had to be on our way.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Friday, October 06, 2006
When I was young, I read a book called The Stainless Steel Rat. Among it's many premises was the idea that in the future, increasingly complex technology and bureaucracy had largely robbed people of the ability to think independently. To put it more bluntly, people had become dumb - at least from the perspective of the main character.
I've come to realise in the intervening years, with a little horror, that the author was not merely trying to be amusing, but rather satirical, because the world really is like this. Today's case in point, is HSBC, who advertise themselves as the world's local bank.
I have a financial problem in need of a solution, and if you'll forgive my obvious naivety, I didn't think it a particularly difficult one to solve. I needed a bank account in Busan, so that I could function financially in the local currency, and I thought this best achieved by having an account with a Western bank which had branches in the
When I go into Barclays, and most other banks for that matter, there is an enquiries desk located somewhere reasonably visibly, yet discretely. In my local HSBC, it's the first thing that hits you as you walk in the door - so it's basically a reception desk defending the inner areas of the company. So I asked the receptionist, who's title though is probably something more like 'customer relationship engineer', whether I could open an account in the UK which I could use overseas - specifically Korea in this case.
If I opened a HSBC UK account they could 'introduce' me to HSBC Korea, increasing the chances that HSBC Korea would let me open an account there, but no, I couldn't open an account in the
The upshot of this is that I won't have a Korean bank account - HSBC have lost a customer - and I'm always going to hold a grudge against HSBC and will no doubt spend the next 20 years bad-mouthing them (this is just the beginning!)
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Novelists often get the accolades but I have great respect for journalists, who are expected to write great material to tight deadlines at inconvenient times. No luxury of writer's block for them. This impression was only further emphasised when a reporter for a Japanese newspaper related some stories while staying at my house last week (although I also now find the profession rather depressing).
Blogging is like journalism. My natural instinct is to wish to write interesting and insightful articles, but what I'm more likely to end up with is dry, factual material because my life is chaotic and I'm too busy or tired to think.
Much like my Japanese acquaintance, I wanted to write, not to be a photographer. But in a multi-media world photographs are a minimum requirement, so much as he reluctantly carries around his camera I realise so must I if I am to better capture the essence of Korea and compromise with the medium. I don't really mind so much, but I'm slightly annoyed with myself that I didn't think this through earlier, because it was always going to have to be this way.
So, in the middle of the chaos of preparing for my move, building work, visiting friends, illness and other tasks, I researched cameras, and bought a Canon IXUS 800 - cheapest online retail price £240 - for £178 from Canon's Outlet Store on eBay. Traders, eh? So now there will be pictures... eventually.