Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dead Man's Shoes

It's become a habit. Walk into a house, take off your shoes, walk into a Korean restaurant or any of a number of other more traditional settings, and off come the footwear. And yes, I've been in a photography studio where I had to put on my shoes to walk six feet from one area to another... about six times. How I laughed.

Koreans are so used to constantly putting on and taking off their shoes that their purchasing of said items tends to be at least in part based on how quickly they can be removed. But I'm rather attached to my trainers/boots
with their laces that my feet have to be persuaded to sink into and leave. So I'm always struggling in some foyer somewhere to get myself suitably attired and catch up to everyone else.

I had the task of cleaning and hoovering the floot of the apartment today while my wife was out, and I was suddenly gripped by the strong urge to put my shoes on a run around the apartment like a child for a couple of minutes before cleaning up, but I resisted. This may be a sign that subconsciously certain things about Korea are beginning to get to me, even though I actually think the footwear rules here are a pretty good idea.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


At the invite of Preacher Uncle, we went to Taejongdae during the week, which is a park by the sea, or Scenic Spot No. 17 as the Busan Municiple Authority more poetically call it. The English tourist blurb tells us that:

"Taejongdae is a representative park of Busan, with fantastic rocky cliffs, quiet resting places in thick forests of various evergreen and deciduous trees, and a variety of recreational facilities. It is famous for the fact that the Tsushima islands of Japan can be seen from here."

What they don't tell you is that you'll need a particularly clear day to see those Japanese islands, and that what Taejongdae is really famous for is its 'suicide cliffs', because this is where too many Koreans come to end their lives in a way worthy of a Korean Drama (evidently throwing yourself off one of the many available high-rise apartment buildings in the city is just too dull).

The park itself is beautiful - despite the season which left a good number of the trees bare - and we were fortunate enough to go at a quiet time when we didn't have to fight our way through crowds of locals with the same idea. The tourist buses, disturbingly brightly coloured and a throwback to naff British seaside resorts of the 1970s, were still running around the park, although why anyone would choose to take a very noisy bus rather than appreciating the quiet serenity of the park's grounds is beyond me. The twenty minute uphill walk to the far side of the park with its large cliffs wasn't too bad, but it made me realise just how determined many of the people committing suicide had to be to reach them in the first place. Or maybe they take the bus?

Along the
way there are Buddhist Temples off the path in the forest, chants emanating from loudspeakers which echo round the landscape. Much as I'd love to have visited them though, I've developed the impression that Preacher Uncle has something on an aversion to stepping into competitor territory so I let it pass. I think he's still secretly hoping to convert me from (lapsed) Catholicism to Christianity so I'll let him cling to his faith.

So at the far side, where the lighthouse is, we made our way down the cliffs on increasingly perilous sets of steps. It didn't go unnoticed by my Meniere's condition which started playing the 'which way is upright?' game with me. As we descended further the route lost any pretence of b
eing a proper path and just became a narrow level bit of cliff with a two-rope barrier to discourage you from falling off the edge. Preacher Uncle chose this point to helpfully notice how a bolt was missing from one of the metal poles in the rope barrier. "Abunai!" (dangerous) he added helpfully in Japanese - we were still continuing our strange Korean/English/Japanese method of communication established when we first met, that I've come to dub 'Konglese' as opposed to the 'Konglish' that is encountered here, if anything at all.

On the way down, completely unexpectedly, the path briefly became enclosed and within that space was a wall where visitors were encouraged to neatly graffiti their love messages. Perhaps this was to discourage them from writing their messages all over the other rocks on the cliff, but if it was it failed miserably. It seemed from various signs on the way down that fossilised remains and footprints had been discovered here, and judging by the many layers of spectacular sedimentary deposits visible in the cliff faces it's hardly surprising, but Koreans were more interested in love than history, here at least. Along the way, proving that Koreans can sell anything, anywhere, vendors hawked refreshments in increasingly precarious locations.

At the bottom Preacher Uncle posed dramatically on the edge of the final cliff, I guess that's faith for you, looking for all the world like he could stop an
y Japanese invasion single-handedly. But if there was a naval fleet massing by the Tsushima Islands we couldn't see one; it was too misty. We made our way back up past the lighthouse which is apparently quiet an attraction, but didn't look that much to me, although there was a visitor centre with a dinosaur in the window.

On the way out of the park I wanted to check out something nearby that looked like a war memorial of some kind. I think Preacher Uncle indulged me a little because he didn't seem that keen or he didn't understand why I was curious. It turned out to be a memorial to 'medical assistance units' from the U.N. who served in the Korean war. Italian, Indian, Danish and Swedish flags were on it as well as a couple of others I can't recall. I can't help feeling that unlike Taejongdae, I might have been the first visitor in some time.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

V for Vendetta

In our way back from watching V for Vendetta at a DVD Bang, we stopped by an independent confectionery (not Paris Baguette) near a large junction in Hadan to buy some pastries. We selected a couple of items which totalled 6,900 won (£3.76) and went to the counter where an ajumma - probably the owner - waited to serve us. But when she saw my wife's credit card, what she served was a lecture in front of the other queuing customers "You shouldn't pay with a credit card when buying such a small amount. If you do such a thing people will speak badly of you. I'll take it this time because you're with a foreigner." Hundreds of years of collective social conditioning left my wife nodding apologetically and presumably, the ajumma feeling vindicated.

As usual, I was oblivious to the entire incident, but when it was related to me outside I was very angry, and wished we'd have taken our card and walked out of the store, if not stayed there to give the woman a piece of our mind first. My wife was also angry, with the woman and with herself for not standing up to her. But that's culture for you. In the UK, people readily engage in debate with retail staff if they think they're not being treated correctly, or they think there's a problem, but in Korea you're supposed to respect your elders. One of the reasons our friend had been angry in Paris Baguette a couple of months back, was that the assistant was her junior and refused what seemed a perfectly reasonable request. The problem with this was that the junior-elder roles were reversed.

Ironically only a few days before we'd paid by card at
Tous les Jours for an amount that was less, there was no hint of complaint and we got loyalty points. It's not as though the place we went to this evening is cheap either, because it's actually quite expensive, exploiting the fact that it is the only confectionery in the area. It's fair enough if people want to set a minimum limit for credit card payments, but there are politer ways of requesting cash instead of telling a customer that people will speak badly of them if they try to pay with a card. You have to understand what a threatening curse this is in a very socially connected society like Korea's.

It probably also tells you something about being a foreigner here that the woman didn't want to outright refuse to accept the card and create a bigger scene than she already had, because she didn't want to look bad to an outsider, because she didn't want Koreans to look disunited, because she was afraid of how I'd react, or a combination of all three. I make efforts here to try and fit in as much as I can, because I don't want Koreans to think badly of British people by my example, but I'm afraid that when I learn Korean if this kind of thing happens to me the locals will be getting a lesson in English sarcasm and vitriol.

Vengeance of a sort will be ours - we will not be visiting that place again, and as the story echoes out over the social network, neither will our family and friends. Customer service is a very odd thing here sometimes.

Friday, February 23, 2007

So This is London

A few weeks ago we found out that there was going to be a 'London Carnival' exhibition at Busan's exhibition centre 'BEXCO' during January and February. I thought it would be fascinating to see how London and the UK in general was portrayed in Korea, so even though it was on the other side of Busan in Haeundae, we provisionally planned to go over to check it out for ourselves.

However, when we looked it up on the web, the event was presented as a British-themed amusement park - and not a very good one at that - rather than the mix of culture, food and trade show we expected. Maybe it was a lot better in reality than the marketing suggested, but it put us off going.

It seems that the Koreans also weren't convinced, because they didn't go either. The upshot of this is a commercial disaster that left the organisers unable to properly pay 200 people, who had been promised 2,000,000 won
(£1,060) for the month's work but actually only got 400,000 won (£218). Two hotels in Haeundae and the carriers who had transported amusement park equipment from the UK to Korea weren't paid either. Quite why it was necessary to transport equipment from the UK to Korea isn't clear when there are plenty of amusement parks here, but it fits in with the slightly bizarre nature of the entire event I suppose. For their part, the organisers are very apologetic about the failure and do intend to try and pay back everyone eventually, although unbelievably their method for doing this is going to be... by holding the event again next year.

Much as I'd like to see a more interesting cultural exhibition, if only so I can give my Korean family and friends a little more insight into what being British means, I guess I'll believe someone's giving the organisers a second chance when I see it. But who knows - maybe next year it might be sufficiently interesting that at least the British people bother to turn up.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

House of Sand and Fog

According to KBS TV News this evening, it looks like Busan will suffer from 'sand rain' from tomorrow. In recent years, the desertification of Western China and the expansion of the Gobi Desert towards Beijing, as well as the expansion and emergence of numerous other arid regions, has led to an increasing amount of particulate matter from this Asian dustbowl being sucked up to high altitude, before being deposited on China and surrounding regions. The Gobi Desert is the main culprit, leading to the sky taking on a yellow colouring from this 'yellow sand', as the Koreans sometimes call it.

The practical upshot of this has been the increasing regularity of so called 'yellow dust' in Korea, and associated 'sand rain' (or 'mud rain') where this then falls from the sky, usually aided by some precipitation in the clouds above. Problems have already been reported in Korea today with international flights being diverted and 53 domestic flights being cancelled. The Meteorological Agency is warning that people with respiratory ailments such as asthma will likely not be able to survive unprotected outside for longer than a few minutes. If that sounds severe, it's reported that these conditions kill up to 165 Koreans every year, so it's not to be taken lightly. As it happens, it also seems that the storm moving in on us now is a particularly severe one.

In an unfortunate twist, the particles pick up poisonous pollutants over China's industrialised regions, potentially causing further health issues beyond the respiratory problems the sand alone would cause. Since I've just got over a respiratory illness, it's highly likely that I'm going to be confined to the apartment for the duration of any sandstorm event.

Update: And the next day the weather was clear - even in Seoul - and KBS had to admit that their story the previous night was completely wrong.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Start the Revolution Without Me

There's a protest going on in the car park of our local Council office. In fact, judging by the semi-permanent nature of the protest-tent it's been going on for some time. As it is, I took this photo on the 20th December and it's still there now. The main banner reads:

"Dismantle the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs that oppresses the civil servants' union."

There's a heater inside, and it seems, some cooking facilities, but other than this it seems quite a civilised affair - or maybe they've long since passed the point of militancy and have since settled into boredom.

I didn't know that much about South Korea before I came here, but I was aware of the local flair for public protests which had made it as far as the British TV news, which on occasion showed the apparently regular student and employee riots. But the reality so far turns out to be far from the cliché; I've yet to encounter much in the way of angry Koreans let alone public protest beyond the Paris Baguette Incident and Korean Father being told '모르겠습니다'
("I don't understand") for the 'n'th time (well, he did want me to learn Korean).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Korean Mother asked whether I wanted to try some red ginseng in honey today, and before I could properly think through my answer a piece was shoved in my mouth. It was actually nice, although the taste defies easy description. Strange would be a word which came to mind, but for once 'chicken' would not. It tastes nicer than it looks!

It transpires that red ginseng is considered to be some kind of aphrodisiac in Korea, and studies have shown very positive results for impotence. I couldn't help wondering if Korean Mother might be hinting, in her own way, that she'd like a grandchild in this alleged Golden Pig year...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Neoneun dal naneun hae

새해 복 많이 받으세요! ('Wishing you good fortune in the new year' - with a 'big bow').

Yesterday was Lunar New Year, and the one day of the year you don't want to start with a headache. So, the first order of business today was a special New Year's Breakfast with Korean Mother at her apartment. My migraine (no, I hadn't been drinking the day before) was so bad that I had little appetite after the big bows (on hands and knees, head touching the floor) to Korean Mother (really helped the headache that) and gifts of money (it turned out we got some too), I struggled through the special rice soup, the same dish we'd had for the calendar new year seven weeks ago. It's a bit odd celebrating a new year twice in such a short space of time. Apparently it's at the point you eat the dish that you age one year in Korean years, so probably my Korean age only advanced by a quarter this year. For dessert, I spent time in the bathroom trying to throw up, although this is not considered a formal part of the tradition.

Despite this, the three of us kept to our plan to hike up one of the nearby mountains together with Psychic Aunt (who'd arrived requiring more big bows) to a temple where offerings could be made to Buddha and prayers made for good fortune in the new year. On the way we walked through one quiet street after another with their closed shops, even the six-lane global warming highway that I laughingly merely call the 'main road' through our district was almost deserted enough to cross without resorting to using the subway. Almost. A number of Koreans walked around in traditional costume on their way to see relatives.

In the end when we got to the temple I didn't make any requests for the FTSE to go down because just prior to the prayers I burnt one of my fingers on an incense stick so I took the hint. Inside the temple (no photos of course) were lots of offerings of fruit, some fish, and a couple of large bags of rice. There was a small shrine outside where some fruit and other food again had been left. Somewhere behind a glass window were a few rows of prayers stacked up, one of which was left by Korean Mother for myself and my wife about a year ago.

We climbed further up the mountain where there were three more shrines with more of the same offerings, but with opened (but otherwise untouched) bottles of soju added. A large fly was floating upside down at the top of one of them. What a way to go. I guess it will be reborn as something better in the next life. Piles of salt had been placed at the side of the path from time to time to prevent the entry of evil spirits to the shrines.

After lunch we went over to Psychic Aunt's place of business, which was down the narrowest street I've seen in Busan, apparently one which has many fortune tellers. Two piles of salt sat either side of the door, and inside was a shrine with a variety of offerings. We'd gone there to have our fortunes read, a process which involves channelling spirits, and which started out with the most beautiful session of Buddhist chanting I think I've ever heard, which I found myself really wishing I had as an MP3. I can only describe what followed as an emotional roller-coaster but as for much of what was said, I'm afraid that much like what the thinking is behind US foreign policy, it will have to remain a mystery.

As for me, just to be a little disconcerting, the first thing she told me was that I'd been having breathing problems, which only Korean Mother knew, but she hadn't told her and since I've been better for over two weeks couldn't have been guessed at otherwise today. Other than that, she made a couple of predictions I have mixed feelings about but I'm afraid the proofs of these will come in two to three years. People take these things very seriously and while I respect them I remain somewhat agnostic; I don't really like the idea that my fate lies beyond my control even though I've suspected for some time now that it is. It's that old free will versus fate question again.

When I got back to Korean Mother's apartment I tried to sleep off my headache on the couch for an hour, foregoing the chance to watch True Lies on one of the Korean movie channels. I was awoken due to the impending arrival of Shipman Uncle (guess what he used to do) and Preacher Uncle complete with wives and children in tow. Before long, ten people had burst through the door and there was an extended round of bowing from juniors to elders. Despite my apparent rapid ageing the children didn't have to bow to us though as it doesn't work like that. A lot of food followed, and more than enough religious discussion.

Preacher Uncle offered the fascinating insight that while he celebrated the Lunar New Year, as a Christian he did it in a religious way, although I was left wanting for what he thought the alternative was; perhaps surprisingly Korea has not commercially raped the festival in the same way Christmas has been by companies in the West. It did leave me wondering whether other Christians were similarly reticent about it, and whether this might explain why although most of the shops were shut, it wasn't quite all of them.

We'd left in the morning at 10am and didn't get home until 11pm. It was a long day. Today is also a public holiday, though not one this time with formal requirements, but unfortunately for us while the US is coincidentally closed for Presidents' Day, the UK is not, so we're already back at our desks working.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

Yesterday Korean Mother received a present from one of her friends for the Lunar New Year, which falls this weekend. As the associated Lunar Festival is dominated by a mix of family and food, a bulk order of Frozen Yellow Croaker Product of China was perfectly in order, and no doubt will end up in many of the dishes tomorrow. It may tell you something about Busan residents' attitude to seafood that she quite happily left the fish out by the sink while we went out, despite the obvious odour consequences for the entire apartment.

The local market was unexpectedly out in the streets today - it transpires that because of the New Year they're having it today and tomorrow. People need to buy a lot of food, and there were a lot of customers. The bank was also crowded - not just because it's shut on Monday for the holiday like most places - but also because there were a queue of people waiting to exchange their money for new banknotes which will then be given to children who come to New Year's breakfast. This is a tradition and it has to be new money to symbolise the new year. As children - though not the kind who are young enough to financially benefit from this arrangement - it's also expected that we give a gift (or money in the absence of a gift) to our Korean Parents.

Today my wife went over to help her mother prepare the food for tomorrow, but in a sign that I am rapidly settling into my role as a Korean husband, I stayed at home and did nothing. The food preparation took turned out to be a mammoth task that took from 10am until 8pm, with me popping over for an hour to be fed. In another sign that my assimilation is continuing, I happily ate fried prawns and potato over a box of now cooked fish with melted eyeballs, and it really didn't bother me.

Tomorrow we're supposed to be up early for a special breakfast, and a visit to the temple where everyone will be asking Buddha for good fortune in the new year, and I'll be asking if he can sort out a 100-point drop in the FTSE.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Middle Age Crazy

We popped into a small mandu store today to grab some lunch. When we came to pay, my wife didn't have any money left on her so she repeated 'o-chon won' to me (5,000 won) and I repeated the figure back to her to confirm. The old woman (she honestly looked around 80) who seemed to run the store then asked my wife "Does your ajeossi ('아저씨') speak Korean well?" Well, fortunately I really don't otherwise at the very least she'd have been likely to get a 'yes I do and I'm right here by the way'. But I'll ignore the fact that she'd completely ignored me instead of perhaps asking directly, because I'm much more perturbed that suddenly I seem to look middle aged; ajeossi means middle-age man in much the same way that ajumma ('아줌마') means middle-aged woman.

I'm assured though that I shouldn't take it personally. It seems that being referred to as my wife's middle-age man is a sign of respect, even if it results in me feeling prematurely aged. But, after all the computer, Internet and health problems of the last few weeks, not to mention the craziness of the wedding and honeymoon, maybe I really have
physically aged significantly. A trip to the mirror beckons.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mystic Pizza

After my earliest experiences with Korean pizza, I soon formed the view that I was unlikely to ever find any here that were like the ones I used to eat back home. I couldn't get over the lack of sauce and the over-abundance of invariably spicy toppings, and pine for a simple ham or chicken based pizza - and not the dark-grey gristle chicken (which I've dubbed 'mystery meat' due to its lack of resemblance to any chicken I know) that seems to make its way into some of the toppings locally.

Although I've grown used to regular orders of not-quite-Pizza
from one of the hundreds of local takeaways, I've just had a breakthrough. I've discovered one of my locals, actually a branch of Pizza L'ange (slogan - 'happiness and amazing') has this unlikely looking potato and sausage-based affair which is deceptively tasty. It's not quite what we'd have back home, where I'm not sure anyone's thought of putting potato on a pizza before, but it's on a par with it. Apparently these sausage-crust pizzas are quite popular here these days, even though it's the first time I've come across them. As for potatoes however, it seems like every other pizza here has various kinds of potato topping, if not - and even worse - sweet potato.

It's going to make a nice change from my regular diet of rice, mandu (만두), hoddug (호떡) hoppang (
호빵) and odd bread products from Tous les Jours. I may be fat when I return to the UK.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Vote for Me

Vans mounted with loudspeakers cruising around our area are a regular feature of the local area, especially every five days when it's market day (why they couldn't make it a weekly market is beyond me but I'm sure there's some logic to it). But in the last two weeks the number of these mobile PA systems seems to have increased enormously, which transpires to be due to a Busan-wide election which was held today.

This is not, however, an election for political office - but rather for the position of city eduction chief ('Superintendent of Educational Affairs'), which would not be a publicly elected position back in the UK, where governments and local councils prefer as little transparency as possible with activities they consider to be bureaucratic or non-political. So it came as a surprise to see what a big deal people seemed to be making out of the event. Aside from the election trucks, we've had leaflets delivered to the apartment on each candidate, whose posters and banners are plastered on the side of buildings locally - and presumably the rest of the city. Apparently, it's the first time this post has been an elected position though, so perhaps that's why there was particular enthusiasm.

The education chief sets budgets and an annual plan, decides on school openings and closures, sets rules for schools, and even has scope to add to the educational curriculum (excluding universities) within Busan, so to be fair the choice of candidate could have a significant impact on many people within the city.

Voting - even for this election - is considered so much of a civic duty by some that Korean Father even considered returning from Namhae where he's been for the last week looking after his parents, although he eventually elected not to.

The result's already in and the incumbent won - candidate number one on the left in the picture above. Probably hardly a surprise in the circumstances - and I know that candidates that are first on a ballot paper usually have an additional advantage. But it turns out that not so many people felt it was a civic duty after all - the turnout was 15.3%.

Personally I'm wondering what the elections for council or national elections are going to be like if this is how much fuss is made over the education post.

Oh - and the slogan on the van reads - "Your precious vote will change the educational future of Busan".

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mixed Signals

About eighteen months ago I joined the South Korean government in generally investing in the North, by buying shares in a small Irish oil explorer called Aminex that had just announced the signing of a deal with the North Korean government, under Swiss law, which would open up areas of the west and east sea for prospecting. At the time, it looked as though the North was toying with the notion of going down the Chinese road of economic development and possibly even opening up accordingly. The first step was the kind of energy development the North needed, not to mention the potential for dollar earnings that might come from any significant oil discovery. The idea wasn't fanciful - the Chinese were already operating fields to the west of the peninsula which were considered to be part of the same geological structures.

Of course, as things turned out, the US started to turn the screws on the North's overseas banking operations and North Korea decided to put its energies into building bombs instead. So having bought Aminex at 9 and watched it rise to 50, I spent the next nine months watching it drop back to 18 even though during the interim we all wrote off the North Korean dream and got excited about East Africa instead. From time to time as North's government blew hot and cold we'd check the various pronouncements from the official news agency's website - trying to read between the lines to work out whether we were ever going to see any progress on that part of our investment.

When I came to South Korea I discovered after a few weeks when I came to follow a link to a story on the site, that I couldn't access it. At first I didn't know whether this was by design or accident - I've written before about the inability of my ISP, LG Powercom, to connect to several websites I frequent such as financial site Citywire and shopping site Quidco, both of which are not noted for their views on Marxist ideology. A brief search revealed that I wasn't the only one with the problem, so it seemed that the inaccessibility was not an accident.

I found a couple of Korean proxy servers to route through so that I could access the daily round-up of broker recommendations for various UK stocks on Citywire, but of course, that didn't solve the News Agency problem. Over the weekend I really wanted to know what they were saying, so I finally got around to installing Tor, Privoxy and Vidalia to discover a very matter-of-fact report on the delegation leaving for China. There was no rhetoric or vitriol - and I thought it highly significant. As a deal appeared to edge closer yesterday, I altered my position on Aminex accordingly.

There's a lot that could be said about this whole business because the implications about life here are profound but of course, I really can't. But here's a fascinating footnote to this story. The North Korean News Agency website, which was still blocked as late as Sunday is now accessible through LG Powercom with no proxy servers to route around the firewall. So maybe this deal, which honestly I thought would probably only be good for a few months before another breakdown, really is the start of something new. Maybe, at least.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Klostret i Sendomir

The apartment intercom sounds yesterday evening. My wife picks up the handset, puts it down again and talks to the visitor through the door:

"Excuse me." says a woman's voice.
"Who's there?"
"Excuse me."
"Who's there?"
"Excuse me. I came out to visit you."
"For what matter?"
"I came out to visit you"
"For what matter?"
"I've been meditating at a place nearby. I want to give you advice".
"No thank you."
"Please let me in to give you advice".
"No thank you."
"Please hear me out."

She took the hint at the resulting silence and moved on to the next apartment. This is now the third such visitor we've had in the space of a week. In fact, there was an even earlier incident which in retrospect I'm beginning to think might have been similar type of visitation and not about spoons at all but it's impossible to know. But I'm no longer sure whether these are Buddhists, Christians, beggars, scammers, or just ordinary sociopaths. The first visitor in the last week said they had come from a temple, but the second - a woman - said she had just come from a '수도원' (sudowon) which literally translated means monastery - implying Christianity. Both the second visitor and yesterday's said that they were leading a
'수도원 생활' (sudowon senghwal) which translates as a 'monastic life'.

The fact that these people are using the same terminology seems to suggest that they are emanating from the same place, even if they can't quite decide what religion they are.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Play It Again, Sam

Due to an overestimation of my level of enthusiasm for a style of food Koreans call '쌈' (ssam), which I was introduced to at the Gyeongju 'pension', Korean Mother and wife took me to a meat ('삼겹살') restaurant for lunch, where the food was eaten in the 'ssam' style. Personally, I'd consider this a 'ssam restaurant' then, but that's not what they're called.

The first task when entering this traditional Korean type restaurant is of course, to remove one's shoes in the entrance. The second, and equally important task in this particular restaurant, is to avoid tripping over the gas pipes which run across the floor to the tables. No, they'd never get away with it in the UK.

Within a few moments of sitting down, a large array of side dishes, along with a plate of meat, were delivered to our table. The lid in the centre was lifted to reveal the barbecue pit and the gas was turned on from a control at the side. Korean Mother then very professionally proceeded to start cooking the meat. Apparently, it's normally the women who cook at these restaurants, rather than the men, unlike in
Haeundae on New Year's Eve when the men tackled the barbecue while the women were cooking other dishes in the kitchen. Suddenly, a new context is possibly placed on their struggle that night.

As the 'ssam' consumption progressed, I realised that while I might have enjoyed it in the freezing cold of a January evening after a long day of temple raids, it's not quite as appealing a couple of hours after eating Korean breakfast cereal. It wasn't that I didn't like it, but I kept thinking of mandu rather longingly. It's possible that my taste buds were somewhat stunned by my adventurous (i.e. blissfully ignorant) decision to start eating a leek dish ('파채') next to me which turned out to be so unexpectedly spicy I felt my nose starting to run. I didn't get very far with that.

Aside from not tripping over the gas pipes, another important lesson is not to wear anything too nice to this kind of restaurant if you plan on sitting anywhere near the actual barbecue, because those random pops and splashes from the barbecue pit are going to end up finding you. I also found that towards the end of the meal, my eyes were watering from the constant exposure to admittedly low-level of smoke rising from the cooking pit.

Total cost for three people - 16,000 won (about £8.77) - which seems really good value, especially since you can get free refills on each of the vegetable dishes.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Patriot Games

We have a lot of TV channels in the UK, but I think it has to be said that after the first twenty or so, it's niche, long-tail and lowest-common denominator entertainment all the way. So I admit, an entire channel of consisting of "The World's Scariest Police Chases" seems like overkill even if it's your thing. But despite the fact that a lot of people in the UK play video games, there's no games channel and I can't even recall ever seeing a specific gaming programme beyond an old TV show called Gamesmaster which was pulled off the air in 1998.

The Korean cable TV service we subscribe to for 5,000 won per month (about £2.72) in our apartment building is a fairly standard one which a lot of people have. Out of approximately 60 channels, three are video game channels, and a couple of the others feature hours of video gaming during the night. If you weren't convinced by the PC Bang experience already, this should tell you a lot about the prevalence of gaming as an activity and subculture here.

In fact though, merely labelling them as gaming channels doesn't really explain what they are. Their focus is online gaming, and the standard programme consists of tournaments between individuals and teams. Serious and haggard looking - and almost exclusively male - youths with slightly wild or vacant eyes hunch over their screens while commentators provide a running dialogue on the action. Meanwhile a crowded audience watches almost as intently. Girls scream when they show the players up close on the big screen. I never really thought of video games as a spectator sport, or gamers as high-school pin-ups, but here it is.

Oddly enough, three months of flicking through the various TV channels would lead you to the conclusion that there are in fact only three online games played in Korea. World of Warcraft, Starcraft and some first-person-shooter Doom-variant I've never really identified. I actually dubbed one of the channels 'World of Warcraft TV' in my mind because as far as I can tell that's all they ever show. In fact, I know from my own experience playing the hugely-popular Kartrider that there are others, but I've never seen any coverage of them. Very occasionally ordinary multiplayer games make an appearance, so I've seen coverage of a basketball game a few times and last night, bizarrely, a women's wrestling game on the MBC Game channel - with female gamers - rated 19 - adults only (note the logo in the top-right of the screen!)

I couldn't honestly say what the specific content of the Korean gaming channels is beyond coverage of the Korean World of Warcraft League and 'Star League' as I can't understand Korean, but Arirang - the English-language and ever-so-slightly foaming at the mouth Korea-to-foreigners channel (slogan - 'Korea for the World, the World for Korea'), started showing some of the tournaments late at night - especially between Korean teams and foreign ones. Having never played them, I just don't understand World of Warcraft or that genre of game, so I was no wiser despite the valiant attempts of the commentators to explain the battles as they unfolded, and it remains an unsatisfying spectator sport in my book - even in English. But the take home message from the game I watched was that the Korean team beat the Chinese team and there was much rejoicing which left me feeling slightly ill-at-ease.

I continue playing Kartrider because going round and round in circles as a cartoon-like figure is something I can relate to from my real life, and besides I only need another 1,000 points to lose my 'green-glove' status and progress on to the next colour (spot the sign of addiction here). Plus, now that I have Korean Windows I can actually talk with the other players in-between races - something I couldn't do with English Windows even though Korean input worked with normal desktop applications. Whether I will or not is another matter though, I can't type Korean fast enough and even if I could, I'm not sure how my nationality will go down, particularly when I'm winning...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Head of the Family

My wife has been called for a medical by the Korean Health Service. She wasn't expecting it so she phoned to ask why, and also why she'd had an appointment card but not me.

It seems that normally on registering with the Health Service the 'head of the household' is given a medical. Perhaps it harks back to a time when they wanted to make sure the main breadwinner would remain so, but in itself it seems rather anachronistic today. But there was more. They went on to explain that normally the head of the household would be the man, but because I was a foreigner my wife was classed by the government as the head. Therefore she's the one they want to make sure is healthy. My wife laughed at the absurdity of it and the Health Service worker on the other end of the phone laughed as well, somewhat embarrassed.

So, while I never really thought of myself as the head of the household, when we were living in the UK and certainly not while we have been living here, it did make me feel like a bit of a second class citizen in my own house. Of course, the whole principle of this kind of selective healthcare is wrong anyway and I'm rather surprised it goes on because whatever traditional attitudes may prevail one might expect the Korean government to be trying to set an example in the field of sex equality. Then again, maybe not...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Live Wires

We had to phone LG Powercom again yesterday after losing our connection completely twice for ten minutes and then struggling with a sporadic link for the best part of an hour. Surprisingly, the call centre had an entire history of our calls, and when an engineer came out, rather than just replace the cable modem in blind hope, he spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify the cause of the problem, admittedly without success. He eventually replaced the modem anyway.

During the course of our investigations, we went to the roof in search of any potential cabling problems - and the local hub box. The cabling on the roof was a mess - the pictures here doesn't do the full horror of it justice - and it turned out that the hub was on the telegraph pole which blew up in December anyway. The question is, if it were a wiring problem, how would you tell?

I doubt it will prove to be the end of our problems, and we'll have to get a slower MegaPass connection as a backup.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bomnaleun ganda

It's spring, officially, as of Sunday actually. So messages went up on the doors to some buildings and peoples' apartments welcoming in the season. Unfortunately they are written in Chinese characters so I've no hope of reading them. My wife translated them as "Now that spring has come, I hope all our plans and business will blossom". Or something like that! There's more to the message, but it's difficult to understand; Koreans do not read Chinese easily. It's something along the lines of "Your parents will live long and lots of fortune will come to your family generation by generation".

Mysteriously, it also got warm on the same day, after feeling very cold for the past two months. Maybe those Chinese messages actually work. And I don't just mean warmer, I mean actually warm. The weather widget on our computer desktops says 15 degrees and "haze". A few more degrees and it will be t-shirt weather again, which is a bit worrying; if it's this warm now - what's the summer going to be like?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Foreign Bodies

I have been ill, and while the doctor is convinced the problem is acute bronchitis, I haven't been coughing as much as I thought I would be under the circumstances. The doctor didn't seem particularly surprised by this but I must admit it did set my mind wondering as to whether there might be any other possible causes.

I suppose at the back of my mind I'm always worried that I'll find the stress of life here getting to me. Trading here hasn't been going well of late, my computer has been grinding to a halt along with our Internet connection on a regular basis, and I'm just not making the progress with learning the language that I hoped I would be by now. In fact, lately I don't feel I've been progressing this forward at all. So then I end up getting ill on top of it all, and because not being able to breathe properly is stressful in itself, you start to wonder whether it's really cause or effect.

So a story reaches me today of another foreigner here who was also recently struck down with breathing problems, which in his case required an unexpected trip to the Emergency Room. The diagnosis? Heart problems caused by stress - the stress of living here while not being able to speak the language and therefore properly function in society.

Now it strikes me as being a rather sweeping and judgemental diagnosis, and yet I have to admit I can also understand it in a way, which I suppose is the recognition within myself that after a while the various language and cultural barriers could really start getting to you. That said, so far I don't really feel they have so much - there are differences - some things which are better, some which are worse - but on the whole I think I've taken them in my stride. But of late I think I've become increasingly annoyed with myself and my slow progress, and perhaps it's this more than the external factors that wear you down as an individual in the end.

I believe the other foreigner has been here for a few years so perhaps I have some way to go before reaching that stage, if indeed the diagnosis was a fair one anyway, which I'm not sure about. As for my own diagnosis, I am fairly sure there was a definite viral cause, but the story didn't do anything to reduce that vague nagging doubt, and more importantly, it carries with it a potential warning of what the future might hold if I don't apply myself a harder...

Monday, February 05, 2007


The new computer turned up from Hacker and I started work on setting it up at 8am Saturday morning. Aside from a two-hour break this is how I spent my time until 7am Sunday morning... my first all-nighter since my University days.

In fact, it turned into a 21-hour marathon attempt to get Windows installed which ultimately failed. The cause may be faulty memory, a faulty CPU, a faulty hard disk, a faulty motherboard, or quite possibly, a combination of the above. I won't bore you with the details but trust me when I tell you those 21 hours were used in various diagnostic and installation attempts which tantalisingly sometimes almost got me up and running but would quickly push me back to a constantly looping rebooting Windows or a hard drive that refused to successfully format.

The blog I could write about what I've been through could run to pages, but this is a Korean blog and I make it a rule to keep it on topic. There is a link though, which is this. I bought a copy of Korean Windows XP - yes, it really is genuine Microsoft CD - but my belief that I could cope with running Windows in a language I basically don't understand was very much premised on the idea that I could get it up and running in the first place. When that didn't happen I was faced with a barrage of error messages which I couldn't understand, and my wife couldn't really translate into something I could understand. I'm a former software developer, but she isn't an IT person by background even though she's a bit of a geek herself truth be told, and somewhere between this there was a small, yet crucial gulf of understanding which rendered my fifteen years experience of building PCs useless. I suspect that had I been able to understand Korean error messages, it may have been a shorter day.

I don't want to have to go back to Hacker and buy an English copy of XP to get to the bottom of things, particularly when I think there's a hardware fault somewhere, so I'll persevere now, but I wanted to state for the record what an incredibly bad idea the Korean XP experience turned out to be.

Oh, and every so often a Korean gamer keels over and dies from exhaustion after playing World of Warcraft or similar online world for too many hours at a stretch, and after my recent illness (I found myself back at the doctors for a third time this week) I think I very nearly became one of those statistics at 08:30 this morning when my alarm woke me up. Suffice to say, I was really rather ill.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Mystery of the White Car

Our friend has spent some money upgrading her family's new car. Her birthday was coming up so my wife asked her for ideas on what to buy as a present. The friend suggested a remote central locking system that can also double-up as a car locator for those times when you can't remember where you've parked.

So I think to myself, come on, how big a problem is losing your car in a car park? Well, the answer hits me today when we're out with our friends with their car for the first time. They've got a white Hyundai Avante. And how many white Hyundai Avantes are there in a country which almost exclusively only buys Korean cars, most of which seem to come in a choice of only four colours? Answer - too many. Yes, losing your car is a big problem in a car park here, and you may very well find that car locator tool coming in handy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Shaolin Temple Strikes Back

We were in a cosmetics store this afternoon when an elderly Buddhist monk enters in full uniform, tapping his wooden percussion instrument of some descripton in an obvious ploy for attention.

It seems a donation is in order, and an assistant snatches a quick glance over at a superior to seek some unseen approval. What looks like 1,000 won (about 54 pence) is handed over and the chants a few times and before pottering off, still chanting for effect. This I can understand.

This I can not understand. Later in the evening back at the apartment, the intercom rings followed by a knock at the door. My wife picks up the handset and asks who it is.

The exact response comes: "Let me in. I've come from the temple with some virtuous words of advice."

He was sent on his way with the assurance that we didn't need them. It was a little odd even for Korea, usually people who are preaching are a little more polite than demanding to be let in, and that was his tone.

There are some very strange people here doing some very strange things.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Time Machine

I came to Korea with an 18-month old Dell Inspiron 9300 notebook which had some top-end specifications, but unfortunately it's CPU wasn't one of them. For three months I've struggled on with trading but recently its speed has grown slower as I've begun to run a few more things so it's cost me money. It was time to start trawling through Hacker and PCDaq to find a replacement.

Navigating Korean websites is no easy task when you can't speak the language, and it's an activity only made more frustrating by the inability to fully access some sites using the Firefox browser - there's really no choice but to switch to Internet Explorer for the duration. It's interesting that considering that 99% of computers here are apparently Windows-based PCs, it isn't common to find Windows bundled with new computers, whereas in the UK, it's almost impossible to find a new PC without it. It seems that Koreans find 'other ways' of putting Windows on their new machines.

While it was possible to buy a copy of English-Windows from Hacker (who got the eventual order) to go with the new computer, it was significantly more expensive than buying Korean-Windows so I'm taking the plunge and going native. This may prove to be a reckless move - I certainly won't understand the endless error messages Windows generates - but perhaps it will spur on my language studies out of necessity. While I've long since purchased a Korean keyboard to plug into my laptop, switching between English and Korean remains a somewhat fiddly affair, so that should be another bonus point in my language switch.

The usual flurry of text messages followed our ordering of the computer, and despatch is scheduled for tomorrow because we ordered it late afternoon.