Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bad Hair Day

So Christmas Day found us in the Nampodong district again, and we went to a pasta restaurant, but I can't say which one because as I understand it the law in Korea is very much tilted towards businesses rather than individuals, especially where foreigners are concerned, which means that if I mentioned their name in the context of relating what happened next, I might find myself getting sued... ironically.

The ambience inside Unnamed Pasta Restaurant was nice and even if the dishes were a little expensive the meal promised to be a pleasant one and a perfect end to Christmas Day. It was busy, but we didn't have to wait long for a table. My wife ordered pasta but I opted for pizza as most of the pasta dishes seemed to be very hot and I wasn't in the mood to test my stomach's levels of tolerance. Her dish arrived but there seemed little hope for mine after we overheard a waiter telling another customer offering excuses to another customer nearby who was complaining. Predictably then, my wife had finished her meal by the time mine arrived, and while she registered her unhappiness about the situation with the waiter, the best he could offer in his employer's defence was that it was Christmas and it was busy. As this was now the second complaint which had emerged from our corner of the restaurant, an us-versus-them spirit of camaraderie was showing its first dangerous signs of emerging - a voice drifted up from the next table as he left, 'What does Christmas have to do with not cooking the pizzas quickly enough?' But he was already well into beating a hasty retreat in the direction of the kitchen.

The pasta was hot and a little too overcooked, the garlic cheese pizza (with zero sauce) was better but they evidently couldn't help but bake chillies into it so it was also quite hot. But that wasn't the only surprise ingredient. Waiter, there's a hair in my pizza. And obviously it's not mine, because it's silky black, which my hair isn't, and in any case it appears to be baked into the pizza between the cheese and the base in the area that would normally be occupied by the sauce, if this weren't Korea.

We attracted the attention of a passing waitress but she didn't know what to make of it, and shortly afterwards our waiter arrived. He didn't look too sure either, but by now my wife was asking what they were going to do about it. We didn't want the pizza replaced - I'd eaten most of it and it wasn't really that nice even without the hair, and so what followed was one of those unfortunate three-way conversations that my wife has to put up with in Korea. Her negotiating with the waiter, and me telling her what the protocol would be back home for dealing with this situation - which I thought in this case largely involved refusing to pay for the pizza, paying the rest of the bill and walking out immediately - and that's only if the restaurant didn't do the right thing by offering to do the same first or more. Now I didn't know what Korean protocol was for such situations, but given all my experiences here, I rather thought it might sometimes involve the restaurant descending into something akin to a scene from a Jackie Chan movie.

The manager came over and in a voice so hushed and mumbled it resembled a Dick Cheney apology, he offered us free wine or a free pizza to go. My wife chose the latter - if I'd have spoken Korean I wouldn't have accepted anything more from them - I just wanted out. But in retrospect, I can't have been completely angry because even though I'd quickly worked out the Korean for "there's a black hair in my pizza and obviously it isn't mine" to share with our neighbours, I'd elected not to share our experience with them, even though they were clearly curious. So there was a another more audible apology from the manager as we paid, presumably because it was out of the earshot of the comrades we were leaving behind, and an assurance that this really never happens but that, you know 'it is Christmas'. Ah, perhaps it was meant as a gift then.

There's a second part to this Christmas story. The one where my wife, consumed with guilt over the question of whether she'd gone too far or not far enough, polled her mother and friends to gauge what the proper reaction should have been. And the result surprised me, because the answer demonstrated some sympathy with the restaurant. 'Well, these things happen' was a common response. In fact, our friend who's antagonism towards the retail industry have sunk to such lows that she's attempted to stage re-enactments of the Cold War in Paris Baguette, told us that it often happens in really cheap places and because this restaurant wasn't cheap at least the hair was probably clean... In other words, the conclusion was that we got a good result with our free pizza. Personally, I think I'm going to be a little wary of eating out for a while.

We did eventually eat our free sweetcorn pizza. A combination of a lack of food, an unwillingness to go out, and hunger got the better of any fears I had that the cook might have spat on it out of spite. I'm told that's almost unthinkable here, unlike where I come from. But it wasn't nice - once again there was absolutely no sauce at all and not even a hint that the thin dough and cheese had ever even seen anything resembling a tomato, so really, it's just slightly elaborate cheese-on-toast as far as I'm concerned.

Korean tags: 식사, 레스토랑, 피자, 머리, 성탄절

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas in the Clouds

One of the things I think I miss about Christmas Day back home is the peace and quiet the day usually affords, even if around 40% of my city's population is from South Asia and Islam is probably the most practised religions there these days. It's still a public holiday where not even public transport runs, so it's that one day of the year when the streets are quiet nobody's at the door or on the phone trying to sell you something.

Christmas Night in Korea had been a little unusual in that the occasional ajeossi singing and phlegm throwing echoing around the local streets was replaced by the kind of blood-curdling shouts and screams which the extras from The Last Samurai would have been proud of. I can only assume that some particularly heavy drinking had been going on. I awoke Christmas Day at 7.30am to the sound of the mini-mart below us opening up and street vendors hawking their produce via loudspeakers - immediately experiencing the sinking feeling you get from knowing that Christmas in Korea is really just another day. Well, more or less - it's a public holiday, but this doesn't extend to shops - where the day is a major shopping experience. In fact, it seems that even the stores owned by Christians usually open as soon as the proprietors return from their church services.

I didn't want this Christmas to go the way the one last year went, which wasn't terrible but just felt somehow empty, so I'd made some plans. Unfortunately, Meniere's had also made plans and I stayed in bed most of the morning and part of the afternoon, venturing out to have lunch at Korean Mother's nearby apartment, and lie on her couch for a change of scenery. Things had improved by the evening, and we headed off in the direction of the Christian Kosin University, which was having a Christmas Tree Festival on their campus. The subway was full of people, and when we reached the bus stop where we needed to continue our journey from, the buses were also crammed - imagine a vehicle which has already been reduced to standing room only - with no standing room - and another twenty people getting onto it regardless in apparent defiance of the laws of physics, and that's what you're up against. So we grabbed a taxi instead with an elderly couple who'd been at the stop, and who also weren't prepared to play the Korean Public Transport version of Twister.

I'm not sure we fared much better. The roads up to Kosin University - which appears to be on top of a mountain, meant our taxi experience was more like a roller-coaster. At the University, the lights are spread out over a large area and while some pieces were overtly religious some were not, and one advantage of its mountainous position were backdrops of Busan and ships docked far below in uncertain locations. Korean network MBC were filming something amongst the lights but we couldn't tell what.

In addition to the tree lights, four large screens featuring festive scenes which the public could see themselves in via a camera proved quite a hit, and there were a couple of multimedia displays powered by PCs linked to old CRT monitors placed among some rocks - complete with unprotected extension sockets heading off in some uncertain direction. It had better not rain I thought to myself.

As part of the Christmas Tree Festival, which appears to last from December 6th to January 13th, there are regular events in one of the halls of the campus which differ from day to day. An 'African Night' was scheduled for 7.30pm but we were told it was limited to a hundred people, so we turned up early and caught the end of a display of Korean dancing and drumming which I was sorry to have missed.

The African Night turned out to be staged by African students attending Kosin University - much to my relief; anyone who's been in Korea for any length of time knows how badly that could have gone otherwise. However, following an uncontroversial song for African Unity and a mime encompassing the notion of how Jesus can save you from drink and homelessness... we were treated to a Powerpoint presentation entitled 'African Heroes'. We were on safe territory for a while with some sports stars and Nelson Mandela, but when Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi appeared I turned to raise an eyebrow towards my wife and found she'd simultaneously turned to do the same towards me. I know we're all supposed to be friends now, but as far as my country is concerned it's a friendship with a lot of fairly recent history. Well, that's cultural perspectives for you I suppose. We couldn't make out all the names of the people who followed - the screen was partly obscured by a banner and my knowledge of African politics is far from encyclopaedic - but from what I know, or think I know from my Western culturally-imperialistic perspective, I imagine that some of them are not on Amnesty International's Christmas Card list.

We escaped to the Nampodong district on a cattle-truck cleverly disguised as a bus, which rolled around the narrow roads down the mountain in a scene which could easily have been from a disaster movie had people decided to accompany the constant banging and clattering noises with some screaming. I held on to the overhead handles as though my life depended on it, which it probably did; had the bus stopped suddenly it's entirely conceivable that twenty Koreans and one rather stunned looking Westerner would be picking themselves up from the tarmac twenty feet down the road. Or not. If you want to see a video of the route - there's one here on YouTube - feel the bumps! Korean roads, mountains and buses - three things which should never be mixed.

Nampodong was extremely busy - confirming my theory that in Korea December 25th, if nothing else, is an important date in the retail calendar - and we decided to go to get something to eat rather than try and fight our way through the crowds. But if we thought after the mountain experience we'd finished going downhill for the day, our choice of restaurant was to prove otherwise. We tried a local DVD Bang but there was a thirty minute waiting time, so we headed home for video-on-demand via our MegaTV box instead.

If I hadn't been forced to spend half of the day in bed, I imagine my Christmas Day would have been even more hectic. Last year, I was happy enough to have had a quieter day even if I wish I could have had something better than a mandu lunch. It may be a sign of my gradual Koreanisation that doing nothing make me nervous these days, and I feel I have to be out doing something whenever I'm up to it. I know a Korean couple back in the UK who don't ever plan to return to their country - and one of the reasons they cite is the pace of life here. In other words, being here can make you this type of person but it's not necessarily a good thing. Tune in next year for an even crazier day...

Korean tags: 성탄절, 크리스마스, 출연, 나무,

Monday, December 24, 2007

Fast Food

I've mentioned Lotteria ('롯데리아') in passing during my time in Korea. In fact, it was the scene of one of my worst experiences here and is part of the Lotte group which I've already experienced elsewhere in the form of the Lotte Giants baseball team and of course, more recently, Lotte World in Seoul. But it's really not fair to relegate this fast-food chain to a footnote because despite its Japanese origins it is ubiquitous here - to the point at which I think most locals believe it to be Korean.

While in some respects it's clearly modelled on a McDonald's-style restaurant right down to the similarly-coloured external signs, this is no mere copy. Lotteria has differentiated itself by creating products such as the shrimp-burger and more recently, introducing the chestnut and sweet potato 'lattes', although I'd already experienced the latter from a branded refreshment bar at a hospital, of all places. The sweet potato lattes are great so I'm really pleased I can get my fix from somewhere more convenient now, although the chestnut latte is even better so that may turn into my regular drink. You can have Lotteria's cheese fries and kimchi products otherwise it's basically the same type of food as you'd expect from their American rival, or at least, McDonald's Korea.

One area in which Lotteria has not been influence by McDonald's, at least, not recently, is in the area of décor. I'm not sure at what point they decided that the 1950s-retro look was a good idea, but their otherwise often slightly drab-looking restaurants might give the impression that perhaps they'd actually always looked like this, save for the fact that the first Korean branch opened in 1979, and the original Japanese only came into existence seven years earlier than that. But then again, perhaps the 1950s look was fashionable in Seoul back in those days. So there is lots of chrome and red plastic-covered seating, providing a rather harsh and garish ambience, which may be a good reason why the look generally stayed in the 1950s, and future decades depicted in science-fiction movies made in the 1950s.

But the 1950s look may be passing. At the Lotteria opposite Busan station there's no sign of chrome at all. Instead, think pastels. I assumed that this must be part of a gradual rebranding exercise which would leave all their restaurants with an updated design era stereotype - 1990s I'd say. Maybe it's intentional.

So it was with much excitement that our local Lotteria suddenly closed and the workmen moved in, and this being Korea I didn't have to wait more than a few days to see the result of the refit. And the result is... a clothing store. Lotteria is gone, and now my nearest is over a mile away opposite a McDonald's where, it seems, business must be better. I know a mile might not sound much, but it's a huge psychological distance in Korea as far as convenience food is concerned, where within 200 metres there are no less than four Kimbab (or Gimbab) Nara's and Kimbab Chungugs, serving the Korean equivalent of functional-fast-food - namely rice, sushi, noodles, and the like. So, there is no Western-style junk food outlet anywhere within our busy area any more, given that Lotteria was its only representative, and I guess that means more rice in my diet, and fewer shrimp burgers.

Korean tags: 식사

Pushing the Envelope

The Hearing for my wife's visa case was supposed to be held on the 19th, and in line with procedures we've been waiting for a document pack arriving from the Embassy detailing their decision, which in turn allows us to properly prepare our case. It never came, which I suppose given our previous experience with them is not completely surprising, as they've long since set the precedent for not sending us things which they are obliged to. It seems it wasn't the only thing we were let down with either.

So we had to ask a judge for an adjournment the day before. This was successful and now our Hearing will be in late January. It would have been better if we could have spent Christmas without this hanging over us, one way or another, but my lawyer needs to be able to present the best case possible, and that wasn't the position we were put in this week.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Music and Lyrics

Learning the Korean language is certainly complicated by its use of different levels of respect and the need to choose words based upon the status of the person you are speaking to. But the implications go further - society may make a language but language also makes a society. As long as you're linguistically accepting the need to show deference to a senior at some level you're probably accepting the hierarchical structure subconsciously - if not overtly.

Television series Battlestar Galactica has been on Korean television this year, probably in no small part because it features a Korean actress in a prominent role (most of the initial publicity here focussed on her). The first series was dubbed by Korean actors - which seems a lot more effort than the subtitles they later adopted for season two. But something was lost in the translation. The show won a Peabody-award in part for its questioning of the meaning of humanity and its topical portrayal of civil rights in times of war, and it's a fair bet given the covert motivations of the producers that they didn't envisage the Korean version turning into a pale and possibly misogynistic version of the original. Yet it did, with the often harsh tones of its empowered military women replaced by squeaky Korean actresses speaking in respectful forms of the language to their male counterparts. So, our first introduction to a reckless female fighter pilot running down a corridor shouting "make a hole" to an assembled group blocking her path becomes a much more pleading "please get out of the way". And so on. It didn't really get any better when they chose to subtitle it instead. The 'Korean version' of the series is a pale imitation of its original language counterpart.

All of which leads me to wonder just how widespread the context the Western media that is imported is changed. Does it matter? Should it matter? Is there a group of ajeossis somewhere deep within the Korean broadcasting networks deliberately superimposing their cultural views on what's imported through them, or is it merely the unconscious manifestation of society's hegemony which they don't even realise they're re-enforcing by their actions? And, if this is how American programs (sic) are presented, what exactly is the content of Korean ones? Perhaps fortunately though, my language abilities are a long way from discovering the answer to the last question.

The whole subject of movie and television translations is probably worthy of a more detailed discussion, because it goes far beyond this one example. I gather that a great many translations are done by students as part-time work, but a lot of them are just not good. It's not just about cultural stereotypes - much of the humour can be lost, as in the moment in Music and Lyrics when the lead character references a departed eccentric female acquaintance as having 'gone back to the mother ship'. The Korean subtitles read "she's gone back home". The original version makes a point, the Korean translation is pointless. Granted, humour can be difficult to translate - I'm well aware for example that much of the irony and sarcasm with which I necessarily write as an increasingly ex-British person may be lost on my American cousins, even though they consistently rank at the top of this blog's readership and we officially share the same language. Or nearly the same language at least, as I'm reminded by another piece of American software that I no longer apparently speak English but rather "British English", or as I prefer to call it "English English". But then, perhaps our differences are more myth than reality.

The fact is this problem in Korea goes beyond cultural issues and humour, sometimes the point of the whole story is lost, at best leaving a Korean audience collectively scratching their heads, and at worst bringing them to the conclusion that what they've watched is a bad piece of work. And that's not fair on the artists involved, no more than the reverse would be true - I don't expect to come to an instant understanding of Korean culture, and perhaps I'll never truly understand the humour, but I would like to think that any Korean film or programme I watch will be a true and accurate representation of the efforts of the writers behind it - not some diluted form stemming from the inadequacies of the translation efforts. There's an excerpt from Music and Lyrics which speaks to this point:

Alex Fletcher: It doesn't have to be perfect. Just spit it out. They're just lyrics.
Sophie Fisher: "Just lyrics"?
Alex Fletcher: Lyrics are important. They're just not as important as melody.
Sophie Fisher: I really don't think you get it. A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex. But then, as you get to know the person, that's the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It's the combination of the two that makes it magical.

We shouldn't have to live in a world where the music drowns out the lyrics, because too often what we're left with is just the noise that is modern society, and the bosses of movie and television companies believing writers to be an unimportant cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine. Writing is important, and I don't want what I consume as a foreigner in Korea to be lost in translation - it gives me a skewed view of life here. By the same token, I want Koreans to understand my culture as it exists, not how its presented by other Koreans with no such cultural background, struggling with their English.

Korean tags: 단어, 영어, 한국어, 영화,

Monday, December 17, 2007

Law of the Jungle

I must write a brief follow-up to my post detailing the treatment of children by their teachers in Korea. The subject came up with a Korean physical education teacher I know here and somewhat encouragingly, she told me that while there certainly was a lot of... shall we say - direct motivation of children employing bodily contact - this was not so common now as it used to be.

Perhaps discouragingly though, the reason is that teachers are no longer held in the great respect which they used to be in Korea - such that nowadays, if parents consider their children have been treated poorly at school, they are entirely likely to turn up at said school to employ a little physical motivation of their own against the teacher.

Having lived through Spring Fighting Season here, I can't say I'm entirely surprised by this latest revelation, but as much as I welcome a society that doesn't beat its children, the reasons why may not bode well for the future of this society. Korea, fighting!

Korean tags: 폭력, 학교, 선생, 아이

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Body Politic

"There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile." - Gladiator

It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention that there was an election going on in South Korea at the moment. But I'm afraid my approach to Korean politics is dictated by my experiences back in my own country, where aside from an A-Level in Government and Politics and spending my formative years analysing politicians' every word in the media, I eventually found myself elected to public office in the minor leagues of British political life serving as the full-time representative of 9,000 people. Even after I'd decided that living and breathing politics 60 hours a week while trying to avoid death threats wasn't what this Computer Science graduate wanted out of life, spurning opportunities for advancement and deciding not to run for another term, I couldn't help analysing everything that happened in my country as we march relentlessly towards our dystopian 'Children of Men' style future society, and reaching the the same conclusion as a large number of other reasonably intelligent British people - that I'd rather be living somewhere else.

Which is all to say, that my approach to my understanding of Korean society is conflicted; on the one hand my Korean language studies and increasingly long exile here demand that I know what's going on in the society beyond my direct experiences, but with the paradox being that I've long since come to the irresponsible conclusion that ignorance is bliss, and the longer I am oblivious to Korean society's wider problems the longer I will be happy. I can't avoid the realities in my face such as the poverty and homelessness, but switching off the local politicians is easy. So I make few apologies for my blissfully ignorant view of the election, and urge you to enjoy it while you can, because I suspect by the time the next set of elections roll around in a few years - if they're still having them then - I'll be able to give you chapter and verse on who's planning what and why, as well as the the degree of absurdity of their platform.

What we have, or rather had, then, are twelve candidates for President - or ten more choices than you usually get if you live in that bastion of democracy, the United States of America. And much like America, where precedent has previously dictated that all candidates must be white male millionaires, Korea's identi-kit candidates are all middle-age 'ajeossi' Korean men. Given that, in this homogeneous society, the only probable alternative is a middle-aged 'ajumma' Korean woman, you could argue that diversity has not been done such a disservice, but then with twelve candidates, the statistical improbability of not having a single woman running for the top job tells you its own story.

The English language TV network Arirang, which claims to give viewers a contemporary and accurate look at Korea - but which even the right-wing newspaper Joong-Ang Daily has accused of being a pro-Government propaganda mouthpiece aspiring to North-Korean levels of censorship, has covered the election in a predictably bland way. Or at least, you could call it bland - there's something about its whitewashed feel that gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach. But they did run a piece focussing on a couple of the minor candidates - in a field of twelve candidates there are bound to be some more esoteric policies. One candidate advocated large social security payments for Korea's increasingly greying society - winning him some support among that constituency - though the question of how this would be paid for was left hanging in the air - and the other's platform seemed to consist entirely of being proud to be Korean, and while I doubt this is a controversial plan here the small size of his accompanying campaign team along with shots of him cutting a lonely figure riding silently on the Seoul subway (where you're not allowed to campaign by the way), were excruciatingly embarrassing. And something cynical at the back of your mind tells you maybe that was the point. So while I've been willing Arirang to give me a deeper understanding of Korean politics in easily digestible sound-bites, I suppose it's never going to happen.

In any case, I gather the field of candidates has narrowed somewhat from the original twelve as back-room deals are done and alliances formed, but as I've been struggling to keep up with the news of late for various reasons, I'm not clear on what developments have occurred. Each candidate has a number from 1 to 12 and to an extent campaigning has been centred around these prominently displayed numbers - making it somehow feel even more like some kind of Formula 1 Grand Prix event. But even though this certainly makes it easier to follow when Candidate 9 drops out of the race, I still don't understand which number politician is still in the running, who's in the lead, and who's limping towards the pits.

Meanwhile, there are also elections going on for the 273 seats in Korea's National Assembly, so even far away from the capital here in Busan the days have regularly been interrupted by campaign Bongos being driven around imploring people to vote for particular national candidates. Which makes a change from the constant drone of 'yangpa, yangpa' which is otherwise impossible to escape from in my apartment block. I dream of the day when I'll be elected to the local council on the back of a policy banning the sale of onions. Intriguingly, according to the Kyodo News agency, 16% of Korea's National Assembly candidates have criminal records including "violations of the National Security Law, fraud, adultery, acts of violence and bribe taking." which perhaps just goes to show that stereotypes sometimes exist for a reason. That you end up reading such allegations from a Japanese news agency may or may not be coincidence. Whatever the realities of such convictions, I have to say that driving around with a bunch of half-naked girls shouting your praises on the back of a Bongo would not be an image I would want to be associated with as a middle-aged male political candidate for so very many good reasons. Disturbingly though, I've seen this with my own eyes here, where apparently, it's perfectly fine.

I actually ran in to one of the local candidates, a Number Six model no less, while loitering in my favourite area of Busan, Nampodong, a couple of weeks back, giving an impassioned speech to a crowd which was motivated enough to clap but didn't quite have the feel of the Nuremberg Rallies about it either. I did consider shouting out from my position lurking in the shadows of a building entrance (old habits die hard) '외국인은 집에 가라!' - 'foreigners go home!' - as a social experiment to gauge the reaction, but wisely thought better of it at a fairly late stage in the plan. Sadly though, in a way I do look forward to the day that I can understand these speeches sufficiently to stand near the front of the crowd listening intently to the grand visions of those who would seek to represent - or govern - others, while meanwhile idly speculating as the possibility of a foreigner getting elected to public office in Korea... oh no. Still, as I've yet to violate National Security Law, commit fraud, adultery, acts of violence or take bribes, perhaps I wouldn't stand much of a chance.

Yangpa, yangpa.

Korean keywords: 정치, 선거, 투표, 선거하다, 불신하다

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The winter temperatures are well and truly upon us now, not least of all in our apartment's bathroom which somehow manages to simulate jungle conditions in summer and be colder than Pyongyang in winter. This is the one time of the year that our singular window remains shut most of the time, which means that I'm spared listening to most of the noise outside.

There's one particular everyday sound of Korea that I'm not sorry to miss. For a long time I thought it originated from just one particular person at the school near us, but this summer I came to realise that there are multiple culprits randomly passing by beneath us. It's the noise of Korean ajeossis clearing the phlegm from their throats - invariably it seems to start as a long rumbling noise from deep within rises to a coarse crescendo of bubbling mucus which can finally be heard being ejected from the mouth in a scene that if seen, must surely be reminiscent of a particularly grim science fiction movie featuring alien parasites. If you're really lucky, you can even hear the squelching noise of this mass of biohazard finally hitting the floor.

The current record for a full respiratory and possibly digestive system ejection stands at 10 seconds from start to finish - the latter being defined as the audible point of eruption. It's sufficient time for my wife and I to often exchange pained expressions as we sit at our desks wishing we didn't have to listen.

Korean tags: 아저씨, 소음

Friday, December 14, 2007

Failure to Launch

'As I stood at the counter of my local library, I asked the librarian what the Government would think of me if they saw the records of which books I'd borrowed. "Anything they like" she replied.' - Anon.

It seems to me that I've had a lot of things I wanted to write about in the last few months, but what I've ended up with instead is a long list of subjects and a hopelessly backed up series of photos and videos which perhaps one day I'll get around to uploading. The fact is I go through phases with Meniere's and the last three months have not been good. Maybe all the stress of fighting my own Government through the courts is taking its toll, maybe it's just the way things were always going to be. Anyway, the upshot is that I've been out of the apartment three times in the last two weeks, and I spent almost all of last weekend in bed. While this at least means there's nothing new to write about, it's not conducive to my Korean language studies or anything else - not that there's been any formal study at all for four weeks due to all the other work I've been doing.

I was supposed to fly back to England yesterday, but after agonising over the decision for several days I finally listened to the people who were telling me it was reckless and admitted to myself that I'm not up to it. And while I really want to be at the Hearing on the 19th to watch my Government legally formalise its decision to exclude my wife and therefore myself from the UK for the rest of our lives, it's questionable whether my actual presence there would make any difference. The Government doesn't actually need me there to stab me in the back. It can do it from a distance and by proxy, which is, after all, exactly what Governments are good at.

There's still a chance that if the situation somehow changes I may yet jump (or stagger more likely) onto a plane at a moment's notice. Otherwise, if I am here for the next few weeks, at least I will be with my wife for Christmas and our first wedding anniversary, something which the Hearing's proximity to Christmas had promised to deny us.

Korean tags: 정부, 대사관, 망명자, 영국

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Full Metal Village

When I walk into an apartment block these days very little surprises me; I've become used to seeing various items of refuse, used plates from take-aways awaiting collection, bikes (both secured and unsecured), hiking gear and the like sitting outside people's doors. But piles of agricultural produce can still raise an eyebrow. Korea is of course, a very food-centred country, and it seems that some people in their apartment blocks are still processing food in quantities one would have thought more suited to a rural setting.

You'd think that with people here so keen on climbing mountains this desire to climb might extend to utilising the stairs in apartment blocks, but when taking to them in the interests of fitness, all I get from the residents are strange looks - or perhaps that's just always going to be my lot as a foreigner in Korea whenever I do something remotely out of the ordinary. Judging from the alternate uses of some stairwells, the locals are not expecting them to be used - and while the Chinese cabbages above were nicely stacked outside a door (probably for a winter's supply of kimchi/김치) - the garlic in the stairwell can prove more of an obstacle.

I guess this all goes to show that you can take the farmer out of Namhae but if you can't necessarily take Namhae out of the farmer. Somehow though, I don't picture the younger generations dumping cabbages outside their door in future - Korea is changing.

While Korean Mother isn't running some sort of farming operation from her apartment, she has been known to use the aircon unit outside her window as a convenient place to dry dates and other foodstuffs. Unfortunately though, whether out in the countryside or in the heart of the city some problems are just the same - today's fish from her airing spot - birds took it.

Korean tags: 음식, 아파트, 김치

Friday, December 07, 2007


The preparation for our Asylum and Immigration Tribunal hearing has required a certain amount of paperwork on our part which we have not really been equipped to handle - we have no photocopier, scanner or fax machine and every time we've needed to do something which required on of these pieces of equipment we've walked about a mile towards the nearby university area where there are a few 'copy shops' providing these types of services. It's been a significant inconvenience but one of the many problems of living in a one room apartment is that even if you have the money to buy things, and think the purchase worthwhile for the benefits which accrue from it, you then face the issue of where to put it. In our case, there's simply nowhere to put another piece of office equipment.

The final straw came though when we went back to the copy shop of stress last week to scan a document, and they told us that they were busy and we should go somewhere else. Literally, in those words. So much for Korean customer service. I can't say I was too sorry because watching a member of staff trying to get their network running for ten minutes to copy files across it was more than this ex-IT person could bear. Anyway, their abruptness meant that we made an immediate exit and wouldn't be going back there again, ever. Unfortunately, there was nowhere else to go. It's amazing that these copy shops can still apparently be the home to small old-fashioned printing presses which you can't possibly imagine are still used judging by their appearance, and yet something as simple as a £50/100,000 won scanner is not worth having.

So we did something we should have done a long time ago in retrospect - do some quick research and then buy printer/scanner from our local Hi-Mart, where we managed to negotiate 10% off the sticker price and get some free paper thrown in, which at least softened the blow of not buying it on-line where the prices were a little cheaper. If we'd ended up there because of a failure in Korean customer service, now we saw the flip-side to this. One of the employees not only insisted on carrying our somewhat bulky box all the way through the store and out into the car park, but when he discovered we lived close by he insisted on struggling onwards until we were in sight of our apartment building. Meanwhile, embarrassed by all this, I unsuccessfully pleaded with my wife to tell him it was OK and we could make it from here, but it was to no avail.

The employee told us that we should have asked for a little more off the price because we didn't have a car and would have to go home by taxi. This is very common when negotiating in Korean shops to purchase bulky items (possibly whether you have a car or not), but we figured it wasn't any trouble to carry it back ourselves - although this was before we discovered that Samsung's over-packaged box was about twice the size of the machine within it for some inexplicable reason.

So now we have printer/scanner - but still nowhere to put it in our 'one-room', so it sits by the side of our kitchen sink with a cover to protect it from splashes, and every time we need to use it we have to dig it out and connect it up. If we lose our case and are destined to be stuck in Korea for the foreseeable future, I hope one day we'll be able to move to an apartment where we have a little more space.

Korean tags: 가게, 사다

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sex, Love & Marriage

So, this comes as a bit of a revelation. We're tagging along with some ajummas and, probably forgetting our presence, one of them starts talking about how much she charges her husband for sex when she's not in the mood. Erm, sorry, what?

Demonstrating a complete lack of shock her companions chimed in with their rates - 300,000 won (about £161) seemed to be the going rate although 1,000,000 won (about £538) was not unheard of, under which circumstances a major shopping trip usually followed the next day.

The thinking among the assembled ajummas was that it was better that they acquiesced to their husbands' appetites and compromised by imposing a charge rather than have their husband paying someone else, which was all very well and good for the ajummas, but it didn't look like such a good deal for their partners, considering the alternatives were probably a bit cheaper and more entertaining. Had we just bumped into a Korean version of the women from Sex and the City? Apparently not, because discrete enquiries afterwards suggested that this is not an unfamiliar concept to some older Korean women, and for the most part it really is a business transaction rather than a way of spicing up their sex lives.

Perhaps this is a reflection on an previously emancipated female society, which in Korea's rapid transition to Asia's third biggest economy has suddenly found itself emboldened to make previously unthinkable demands in return for what was formerly seen as a wife's 'duty'. At the same time, the legacy of hundreds of years of tradition mean that divorce still carries a considerable social stigma among certain age-groups, although this is beginning to change. For example, I heard the story of a man who had a job where he was respected in his organisation, and who believed that if he divorced it would reflect so badly on him and affect his career that the option was just unthinkable. By the same token, many wives amongst the older generations didn't work once they had children, giving them limited financial independence. It conspires to create a large number of people who are stuck in marriages they feel they are compelled to maintain because of complex social and financial circumstances. Perhaps this goes at least a little way towards explaining why charging your husband or paying your wife for sex goes on amongst some couples here.

Korean tags: 아줌마, 성욕, 남편, 아내

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place

I haven't seen my wife's brother since January - in fact nobody has - he's been working away and I guess, working pretty hard. He actually trained as a cook a couple of years ago and had the notion of opening up a kebab take-away, although I'm told this particular fad has now been and gone in Korea. Maybe it's just as well, urban legend had it that there were so many discarded food sticks on the streets of Busan a few years ago that vendors used to collect and reuse them. OK - everyone knows that just can't be true, but then if people can believe in fan death... Pizza on the other hand, is a type of food which is very much still with us, and the news of his return had us collectively thinking about what type of of place he might open instead, with near-inevitable results.

I have a radical idea for this new establishment's menu. They should make some pizzas with sauce. Yes, once upon a time the Italians invented a food which along with its dough base heavily featured cheese and tomatoes, but you wouldn't know it in Korea, where the local pizza appears to be more of a cheese-on-toast derivative than anything connected with the red fruit (or vegetable depending on where you stand on that particular debate). "Show me the sauce!" I cry regularly in my best Jerry Maguire voice.

Strictly in the interest of scientific research, I have carefully dissected several local pizzas and I can tell you that while they often feature enough layers of cheese to keep an archaeologist happy for several years, what sauce I have seen appears so watery in nature I swear they must be squeezing it from a bottle, possibly the Tabasco one which invariably appears on your table to encourage acts of sacrilege. But given that Korean pizzas appear to have drawn heavily from nanoscience to produce a layer of pseudo-sauce one molecule thick where it exists at all, there simply isn't enough material to conduct a chemical analysis.

So what should we call this new pizza establishment? Yonggug ('영국' - UK) Pizza was a name that quickly fell by the wayside, partly because Ask, Enquired has the British nationalism market wrapped up here, but mostly because after the way my Government has treated me in the last year I'm not sure why I want to be promoting my country in any way, even if it is home to a take-away which makes the best pizzas I've ever tasted anywhere (only 200 meters away from my house - coincidence? You decide.) Pizza With Sauce seems like an obvious and suitably literal title but I'm sure if we put our mind to it we'll come up with something better. But perhaps it will turn out that Koreans like their cheese on toast variety of pizza rather than made with tomatoes.

It is really odd - it's not simply that Korean pizza places are skimping on the ingredients. I've seen some pretty extravagant creations here, pizzas with potatoes on top, sausages in the crust, on the crust, in crusts turned into mini-hotdogs, toppings of kimchi (of course), bulgogi beef, peaches, raisins and pizzas with so much Tabasco sauce you can almost drink it off the top. Not to mention the infamous 'combo pizza' with it's don't-ask-don't-tell meat. And of course, there's always plenty of cheese - which is actually a bit of a national crisis here now since China's voracious appetite for it is pushing commodity prices up and squeezing out the Korean pizza makers. Disaster.

Maybe I've been unlucky but so I've only found one place that seems to know how to use tomatoes - and that's Ijaemo (이재모) Pizza in the Nampodong district of Busan. And for that I can almost forgive Ijaemo their ham and pineapple pizza sans ham but with raisins which is therefore just the wrong side of achieving greatness.

If my Government make my exile official on December 19th and I have to live in Korea for the foreseeable future, I need to find an apartment as close to Ijaemo as possible, as it's probably too much to hope for that Korean Brother will eventually see my dream of pizza with sauce realised near where I am now.

And did I mention the lack of herbs? Let's not even go there.

Korean tags: 양식, 식사, 피자

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Sign

Korean tags: 한국, 문학, 번역, 영어

Friday, November 30, 2007

Greatest Hits on Ice

Picture the scene. We were standing by the balcony in Lotte World, looking out over the ice rink, Disney style music playing away in the background numbing us into thoughts of all things happy and innocent, and my attention fixes on a group of very young speed skaters and their coach. But there's something not right about the body language. When the coach moves towards them they back away fearfully, and no matter where he goes, they are very careful about not turning their back to him.

The answer quickly comes. He grabs an arm, pulls one of the young children around and swiftly connects the baton he's carrying with the unfortunate owner's bottom. Even standing some distance away and above all the other noise in Lotte World, the sound of baton hitting child reached us micro-seconds later. I watched this spectacle unfold for some time. Bottom hitting was a favourite but sometimes landing a blow to the helmet was an acceptable alternative. Trying to sit on the ice to avoid a beating does not work, you'll just be picked up and hit anyway. Sometimes the little skaters managed to avoid a blow by pushing out their hands in a desperate plea to stop - a gesture as apparently futile as a small rabbit asking a lion to give them a break - but it did occasionally work. I guess that's what separates us from the animals.

Coming from a country where corporal punishment is outlawed, watching these scenes of fear play out beneath us was an odd experience, often infuriating and perhaps even surreal given the way all the other people on the ice and near the rink seemed completely oblivious to what was happening. In fact there's nothing to say that parents weren't watching, although perhaps that's even more troubling. But I've formed the impression in my time here that beating children to get results is still something which is very much part of mainstream thinking in Korea. I guess that's something that separates us from the Koreans.

Will it make them better skaters? Will it make them better people - more disciplined, more respectful - or does it just perpetuate a social environment - especially among the male population in Korea - where casual violence against those weaker than yourself is acceptable?

Growing up in Korea is a competitive and tough business. In education and in sport. Maybe 13 years from now they'll be at the Olympics all the years of being hit with batons will seem worthwhile. Or maybe it won't.

Korean tags: 서울, 경기, 폭력

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wheel of Life

It's eight months since we rescued our hamsters from the snake. In retrospect it was odd that by the time I went to bed last Thursday night our male hamster wasn't furiously at work on his wheel, and I knew there was a problem when I got up the next morning to see that the food I'd dropped into the cage the night before had been left untouched. When I took the roof off his house there was no movement apart from his breathing, and even my stroking him for the first time failed to trigger a response. He died a few minutes later.

Korean tradition has it that when a family pet dies they take your troubles away with them from this life. In the last few months we've faced nothing but problems, so Korean Mother hopes this will herald in a period of better luck for us. I'm afraid we have no such tradition in my culture and to me it was just another bad thing to have to deal with.

We wondered afterwards about whether we would have taken him to a local vet had he lived a little longer, but the thinking is that Korean vets don't tend to take small animals like hamsters very seriously.

We buried him on one of the mountains overlooking the place where we live, which is a very Korean thing to do.

Korean tags: 죽음, 애완동물

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tennis, Anyone...?

I'm not much of a fan of tennis, and after watching Roger Federer play Pete Sampras at the Jamsil Arena in Seoul, I'm even less of one now. That's no reflection on the players themselves - but rather the circumstances in which it unfolded.

The tickets cost 120,000 won (about £63) each, but because we bought them with a Hyundai Card - the sponsors of the match - the price per ticket was a discounted 72,000 won (about £38). Ironically, we may have been able to buy them at an even lower price from ticket touts outside the stadium - the game was far from fully attended.

It was cold outside but fortunately the game was indoors where it was warm. Unfortunately it was too warm - in what seems an incredibly bad design heaters were blowing hot air from beneath our seats which made things quite uncomfortable until they were switched off about ten minutes before the end of the game, by which time I felt half cooked and completely dehydrated.

Next problem - and this is a big one for me - I like to take photos of some of the things I see in Korea. As oblivious as everyone else was to the fact that they'd been banned, I'd taken two before a member of the heavy security presence, dressed suspiciously like British policemen in their black flak jackets, came over to stop me. So it was that most of the pre-match entertainment consisted of watching security talk and argue with people while other members of the audience took sneak shots with their mobile phones while pretending to text friends. Meanwhile, up on the third-tier of the stadium, which hadn't been subject to a fascist takeover, people shot away through the match, even with flash photography, unimpeded. At least at Wimbledon, they just ask you not to use flashes.

Eventually it was announced that the match was being streamed to three countries live and this is perhaps one of the reasons why being in the audience came with a hidden DRM clause.

The last shot I took was of Wonder Girls, a Korean group consisting of teenage girls which provided the first part of the pre-match entertainment - or the second if you count the antics of Security as the first. The third part of the entertainment was provided by another group, Girls' Generation, who inexplicably are supposed to be around the same age as Wonder Girls but disturbingly managed to look several years younger in their whiter-than-white tennis outfits and short skirts. If that didn't leave you with a slightly queasy feeling, their coordination skills harked back to some of the more questionable performances I'd seen a year ago at a high school show.

Evidently people kept arriving during the game and were allowed in every time there was a break in the match. I noticed when I was at the baseball match I attended that Koreans tended to drift in and out during the course of the proceedings, but that lasted a few hours, this game lasted 61 minutes - and people were still coming in right at the end. After my brush with Security, one of the highlights was watching a foreign official photographer with a large badge labelled 'PRESS' getting prevented from taking shots from the crowd by one of the flak jacketed men in black. I wish I could have taken a shot of his complete disgust as he waved his press credentials around to little effect.

Federer beat Sampras in what I would have said was an unsurprising result, except for the fact that in two subsequent exhibition matches Federer won 7-6 7-6 and actually lost the third one, whatever you make of that. By this time, Security had finally stopped patrolling their assigned sections and retreated to protect the court from a largely agnostic crowd, which allowed us to take a few final photos and videos.

After the interviews, most of which the crowd didn't get to hear, Federer and Sampras were each dressed in a hanbok before hitting tennis balls into the crowd. It was a surprise, and as they were being dressed, they seemed to be so too. Welcome to Korea!

Because the game ended quickly we managed to change our return tickets to an earlier train - for a price - and were back in Busan before midnight. And for the first time I even got severe motion sickness on the train, which sort of brings the whole story of our Seoul trip full circle. The flight home in a couple of weeks is going to be really interesting.

Korean tags: 서울, 경기

Monday, November 26, 2007

Seouliyeo annyeong

For all the places to eat and sleep supposedly in Bangi-dong, finding somewhere to get a late snack once we'd got back near our motel proved a challenge. Back in July, the diners and restaurants in the central area of Seoul we'd stayed in seemed to close around 10pm, which seemed impossibly early compared to Busan. A couple we'd had our eye on this time were also closing up and it was only ten thirty. We ended up at a small place called 7gram - they were closing but my wife talked them into making us a sandwich and coffee if we agreed to be out of the door within twenty minutes. They served one of the best coffees I've ever had and I really hoped they would have a branch in Busan, but unfortunately they appear to be only in Seoul. They opened at 7am the next morning and we had every intention of getting there early to have breakfast, but when we eventually did arrive it was approaching twelve. The snow from the previous day had all but disappeared, though it was still cold and it wasn't long before under-dressed office workers emerged from their burrows to forage for food.

After brunch, we went to the COEX Convention Center in nearby Gangnam-gu, which in addition to featuring a lot of shops - including the first Apple dealer I've seen in Korea (don't get too excited though - they mainly sell iPods) - also houses a cinema called Megabox where we watched Beowulf in 3D. There were a lot of places to eat afterwards but we opted for a functional meal in a cafeteria style area which seems to be quite favoured in Korea. They have the advantage of both providing a shared area for customers of various food outlets placed around the sides, and somewhere to sleep for the staff.

Back in the days before the Government of a certain country turned it into a rogue nation, Korea was still allowed to forge links with Iran and in 1977 there was an 'exchanging of street names' one year after the Mayor of Tehran, Gholamreza Nikpey, visited Seoul. Thus Teheranro 'Tehran Street' was created. The area has since prospered, becoming the home to a number of Korea's biggest Internet companies including Daum and Naver, earning it the title 'Tehran Valley' in a nod to Silicon Valley in the US. But Mr. Nikpey was not so fortunate, he was executed in 1979.

Teheranro leads to a bridge over the Han River, at the other side of which lies the Jamsil Olympic Stadium, home to the 1988 Olympics, and Jamsil Arena, the venue for our tennis match - the last place we'd be visiting in Seoul before heading home.

Korean tags: 서울, 커피, 음식, 인터넷,