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,

Sunday, November 25, 2007

First Snow

There is a large subway network in both Busan and Seoul, but this can provide more than mere stations and a method of getting from one place to another. The subterranean space and availability of large numbers of passing people means that sometimes a subway entrance is not merely a gateway to a platform and a train, but rather an extensive shopping area which can be so vast that it can link one station to another. And indeed, you might even find yourself, either by accident or design, walking from one station to the next without ever venturing out onto the surface.

So you can spend a lot of time underground in Korea, and this is part of the reason why by the time we had left Lotte World and browsed around underground, we had no idea what the weather was like out in the real world. And this is the surprising scene that awaited us:

Not only was this Seoul's first snow of the winter, it's actually the first I've seen since coming to Korea last year. It doesn't snow much in Busan where the temperatures are a little higher, and last year while one of the the local television stations got terribly excited about a few flakes in one of the city's northern districts, this is about fifteen miles away from where we live where there was nothing.

I come from a city where you could once almost guarantee that if something fell out of the sky during the winter months it would be white, but global warming means it tends to rain more than it snows these days. Still, I miss the snow and the feeling of winter, because it really does make it feel like there are four seasons, rather than the two of hot and cold which Busan seems to have been in the last year.

Korean tags: 겨울, 날씨, , , , 가게

Saturday, November 24, 2007


After leaving our motel we went to Lotte World, which is according to Wikipedia is currently the largest indoor theme park in the world. It's cheaper to enter after 5pm which is odd considering that when it's lit up it seems a much more interesting place than in the daytime.

The building consists of a large central area consisting of shops, rides and places to eat, covered by a glass roof, and while there is a folk museum and more to explore in its recesses, it's only a little bigger than a football field, so I'm not quite convinced about its claims to fame in the size department. But even if it may initially appear small, it probably took us an hour to explore the three floors within it.

The rides are, on the whole, what you might expect from a small fun fair - though the balloons circuiting the roof with their passengers was something I hadn't seen before. That must offer excellent views and produce great photos especially at night, but unfortunately as I'm going through another rough patch with Meniere's I was in no condition to do anything remotely adventurous.

In addition to the indoor attractions, Lotte World also has an adjoining outdoor area called Magic Island, which really is situated on a lake. It's connected to the indoor area by a monorail, although it is possible to walk there as we did. Perhaps fittingly, at the end of the bridge to the island is a white castle, though not the kind that sells burgers, and beyond that are the more challenging rides, from roller-coasters to tall towers which people are dropped from at great speed. It's may be a little cold in winter, but this does mean the hot food sellers have a captive audience and prices to match.

We were back inside by 8pm to see a live show, of what we weren't entirely clear. It transpired to be a Filipino group singing a few English Christmas songs, but things soon took off when they unexpectedly launched into a string of popular Korean pop songs. The audience was boosted by a large party of Chinese tourists who at one point, desperate to get a photograph with one of the singers, stopped her from returning to the stage when she had unwisely left its safety. It's said that Korean audiences don't know how to behave at certain events, but on this evidence China has them beaten. The presence of the tourists also undoubtedly means that by this time next year, the largest indoor theme park will be situated outside Shanghai, and called Zhotte World.

The middle of the indoor kingdom is open and overlooks an ice rink and more restaurants two floors below. Above this hangs a globe of the Earth which provides the focal point of the laser show which is held nightly at 9.30pm. Strictly speaking, it's more accurately a laser and fire show, which is my way of warning you not to stand too close to the torches situated around the balcony areas because the heat wave from them can be quite a shock to the system. The show is only 15 minutes long but not a bad way to round off the evening in Lotte World.

Korean tags:

Friday, November 23, 2007


My wife is a big fan of tennis and Roger Federer in particular, so when she discovered that he would be playing an exhibition match against Pete Sampras in Seoul just a few weeks after her birthday, it became the 'something special' we would do to celebrate it. In fact, it's always been her dream to see Federer play at Wimbledon, but now that my Government won't let her back into the country it looks like that's something that's never going to happen.

After the recent revelations about taxi drivers, I find myself now sitting in their cars wondering what type of people they really are. But our driver was nice and chatty, even if he drove in a style suggesting a missed calling as a fighter pilot. I wasn't looking forward to our trip as my condition hasn't been too good of late, and I was ill in the taxi which was not a good start, so I was glad to reach the comfort of our high-speed KTX train, which whisked us up to Seoul uneventfully in three hours. I slept for part of the journey, a first for me since I find it almost impossible to do so while travelling normally, but I was sufficiently awake to witness the gradual transition from the beautiful autumnal mountain forests of the south to the cold bare hillsides near Seoul where the winter was already consolidating its grip.

We hadn't booked anywhere in advance but my wife had identified a motel which had internet connections in the Songpa district of Seoul, which is where the tennis match was being held, and specifically the Bangi-dong area within Songpa-gu, since this is renowned for having lots of cheap motels and places to eat. It also happens to be thehome to Lotte World, which was planned as our scheduled entertainment for the evening. Unfortunately we couldn't find the motel, and despite a couple of calls to the owners which assured us it was by 'the octopus restaurant' it never became clear which octopus restaurant, none of which in any case seemed adjacent to any building offering accommodation. We hadn't booked in advance and it wasn't difficult to find another motel with an Internet connection and computers in the rooms.

We don't really have the word 'motel' in the UK, so it took me a while to realise that in Korea, presumably like the America it imitates, 'motel' is a code word for 'cheap hotel'. But there may be another difference - because it seems that a lot of motels very much cater towards discretion. Unlike our previous stay in a love hotel, unashamedly adorned with its cupid figures, the one we picked blended into the outside street rather better, but once inside there was no mistaking what you were entering. With their recessed entrances and semi-concealed car parking spaces, to their simple entrance hallway with a reception desk designed more like a Catholic confessional, leading to nothing more than an elevator door, these are places designed to minimise contact with other guests. After all, you wouldn't want the embarrassment of bumping into your husband or wife there.

After we'd checked the room for hidden cameras I slept off some residual effects of the morning's Meniere's symptoms, before heading out to find Lotte World. On the way out a woman down the dimly lit hallway was leaving a nearby room and quickly jumped back through the doorway the moment she saw us, but fortunately it never takes long for the elevator to arrive as you wait by the collection of porn videos situated on your left, hopefully none of which feature previous guests.

Korean tags: 택시, 기차, 가을, 모텔, 호텔

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Meet the Fockers

It's a fact of living in a Korean family that there are times when you get summoned unexpectedly and at short notice. Korean Father had spent a day with some relatives and they had worked their way back to the family apartment, and it wasn't long before our presence was requested and required. So it was that rather late on a Sunday evening we had to drag ourselves away from our slumped positions in front of the TV, tidy ourselves up and make our way through the dark streets to meet our elder relations.

I hadn't seen these relations since the final ceremony marking Korean Grandmother's death back in May, so there was much curiosity as to the progress of my Korean language skills, and it seems, an expectation that I would now be able to converse fluently with them. They were, of course, to be disappointed. My progress with the language has been slow, and this has only been compounded of late by the vast quantities of time I am spending dealing with the problem of my Government preventing me from returning to live in my country with my wife.

One of the relatives is quite well known in his area for running a successful farm - I think he's received awards. His wife spent a great deal of time obsessing over my hands, which apparently look like they've never done any serious work in their lives, a fact I can't deny when they were compared to her own; she obviously works hard on the land. Ironic then, that it should be her husband getting all the public accolade.

And then, 'the talk' started. If you've spent any time in Korea I swear you can almost feel the moment coming, and I'm not even sure you have to understand any Korean language to recognise the body language that he's a senior imparting his great experience and knowledge to a junior. It only makes things worse that one of the little known effects of consuming soju is to confer vast intellectual insights on the drinker.

So we sat there, nodding our heads in fake shame as our relative reflected on my poor understanding of the Korean language, and the many ways in which this should be rectified. It was a hard lesson but one can not deny his expertise on the subject, given his considerable skills in Korean, even if it is the only language he ever learned. While I was largely oblivious to the specifics, it had what I refer to as 'a high Migug saram (미국 사람 - American person) quotient'. Or to put it another way, when a Korean starts a lecture containing multiple references to Americans, it's a fair bet they aren't singing the praises of the American Dream. The translated conversation was something along the lines of, 'I know 미국 사람 are terrible at learning languages, I don't know what British people are like, but you have to learn Korean quickly or else...' and so on. And therein lies another great truth about my existence in Busan - there aren't many people from my country here so I am the only British person many of them have ever met - therefore meaning that everything I do is not only invites judgement on myself, but judgement on my entire country. It's ironic that I am mindful of my position as a British ambassador here at the same time my Government makes war on me. I only wish I could speak Korean sometimes to tell them what a nasty and vindictive little country I really come from. Sorry, contrary to popular belief, it's really not the Hugh Grant stereotype at all.

My wife decided to break ranks with protocol and answer back. We had been very busy. There had been other priorities. As defences go, not the strongest but it happens to be the truth. This was not good enough for our self-appointed judge and mid-way into making yet another point about foreigners in Korea my wife unexpectedly stood up and announced we were leaving. It was unprecedented - a considerable breach of protocol. And a minute later we were in the elevator.

It took my wife a while to calm down - and I didn't really get the full story out of her. I get these 'foreigner lectures' from time to time but I don't really know what to make of them. I am a guest here and the longer it takes me to learn Korean the more I'm inclined to agree that perhaps I'm not a very good one. On the other hand, it touches on a certain attitude in Korea which I don't believe would be placated even if I spoke the language like a native, so while this relative signals his antagonism towards foreigners but with it waves the terms of his acceptance, I don't really expect to ever really be accepted by people like this. Anyway, I do blame myself for my slow progress in the language. If I had known I was going to end up being here for fourteen months rather than the three to six originally intended, I might have approached the whole thing differently. Now that my Government seems determined to make me live the rest of my life here, the language problem, and the foreigner problem, are things that I have to face up to more seriously.

Korean tags: 영어, 한국어, 한국, 공부, 미국인, 외국인, 영국

Sunday, November 18, 2007


A couple of days after Korean Thanksgiving the remains of the frenzy of gift buying were in evidence, even at one of our local mini-marts. I suppose in a culture like this one, where eating is often so central to family functions, it's no surprise that readily-packaged food would be available to purchase. But while a box of tuna might seem somewhat mundane, it was the Spam that really caught my attention. Maybe there's a difference in perception between Korea and my country, where I'm afraid Spam is seen as something of a lowest-common denominator type of meat. Evidently, not here. But even so, I'm not sure I could ever bring myself to give the gift of Spam.

Korean tags: 추석, 휴가, 음식, 선물

Friday, November 16, 2007

Taxi Driver

One of my first experiences in Korea was the taxi ride from Busan Station to the apartment which would become our home for the next few months. I quickly learned that taxi rides in Korea were potentially dangerous experiences, because while aggressive driving is commonplace, taxi drivers represent the inevitable end result of what you would expect of professional drivers in this environment. But it took me a lot longer to learn that taxis can have a much darker side.

This is a country where people leave their bags at their tables in a restaurant to go to the toilet. I'm sure theft occurs but it can't be as endemic as in my country because if it was you'd keep your eyes, if not your hands, on your possessions at all times. Korean Mother has a habit of losing her phone, but she always gets it back, except when she loses it in a taxi. The phone is called, but no-one answers. A few days ago though, she was quite lucky to retrieve her phone from such a situation - but the driver, who turned out to live about a mile away, insisted on being paid before handing it over. The phone is cheap and it's possible that the value of the ransom was more than it was worth - but of course there are all the contact numbers and miscellaneous pieces of data on it that she wants to have, so she took the phone and angrily threw the money into the car. Not handing money over properly is the height of calculated rudeness here.

Then I discovered something quite disconcerting. It seems that a taxi can be hired in cash for the day by just about anyone, so it's a favoured way for criminals or other people outside the system to earn a living. This shouldn't infer that the vast majority of Korean taxi drivers have anything to hide - I'm sure they don't, although the Chosun Ilbo suggests there are 5,000 of these so-called 'contract cabs' in Seoul. The article also highlights the clear dangers this poses to women, mentioning the murder this year of two women by illegal taxi drivers.

Korean tags: 택시, 범죄, 여자

Thursday, November 15, 2007

This Is Not a Test

I couldn't help noticing that the Korean stock market seemed to have a missing hour this morning. Why didn't they open until 10am?

We had to go out to get some documents scanned today for our case. After several days of illness I was just about up to it. We entered a copy shop where the staff, apparently a family, went about their business in near silence. From the looks they were exchanging it felt as though we'd walked in mid-way through a huge argument - perhaps we had. Certainly the daughter was having huge problems getting her computer to work, adding to the sense that any moment there could be a huge explosion of violence. We stood there waiting for a long time. My wife suggested after we escaped that a lot of families could be on edge - because today is university entrance exam day, where Korean high school students take the all-important test which determines whether they get in to their institution of choice.

So, the Korean stock market, and in principle other businesses, actually start work an hour later than normal. This puts back the normal commuter rush by an hour, ensuring students can get to school unhindered. But it goes further:

"Police mobilized motorcycles to help transport some late exam takers, and the military halted flight operations and banned shooting drills near the test venues for fear of distracting the students taking an English language listening comprehension test."
Yonhap News Agency

But if you thought things were tough for the students, spare a thought for the test writers:

"Together with students and their parents who were freed from the test pressure, 315 test writers were also released from their 35-day confinement at a hotel, out of Seoul. They were completely cut off from any outside contact to prevent any possible leakage of the test questions."
Korea Times

I guess you could say they take education very seriously here.

Korean tags: 시험, 학교, 대학교

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Now Hear This

Unable to shake off this Korean 'flu I ventured out of the apartment for the first time in a few days to go see a doctor at the hospital. As usual it was just a few minutes from entering the door to sitting in the doctor's office, which was fortunate because I was able to control my terrible coughing for just long enough while we waited. Perhaps it's my paranoia but as much as you get stared at sometimes as a foreigner in Korea, I can't help thinking these stares are particularly probing when you enter a medical facility. Perhaps it's the fear you're carrying a particularly exotic and contagious disease.

Although my voice now seems so low that I sound like I might be possessed, the doctor nevertheless understood my greetings and potentially offered an insight into the Korean psyche by exclaiming 'Thank God he speaks Korean!'. Unfortunately I apparently didn't speak English though because by the time she'd asked me where I was from - in my own language - I'd already lost sufficient interest in the Korean conversation between the doctor and my wife to have drifted off to another place entirely. It's the second time in two weeks I've blanked a Korean talking to me in English, and I must admit, I seem to be developing a track record with this.

If I thought I was taking a lot of pills before, I'm really taking a lot now.

Korean tags: 건강, 영어, 한국어

Sunday, November 11, 2007


With the Korea Times this week potentially painting a picture of Korea as a nation of hypochondriacs, it is ironic that I should succumb on Thursday to a 'flu-like virus which everyone we know seems to have been suffering from in the last week. It's especially unfortunate given that the clock is ticking down on my time here and still have so much to do. So I've spent the best part of two days in bed, consuming enough pills to open a drug store in my stomach.

Back home, I wouldn't have taken the pills so readily, preferring to work through and let any illness run its natural course. The fact that I was not even surprised when my wife returned from the pharmacy with a course of not one, but four big tablets to take every few hours, tells me that I'm beginning to go a little native in my attitude to treating illness. There was a time when I was amazed at the Korean health experience, but with so many people I know here undergoing so many varieties of treatments, I've begun to wonder at what point you call it overkill, if you'll excuse the pun.

I expect this will be one of my last free weekends in Busan, and I regret being quarantined in my one-room apartment for it. But at least I still managed to drag myself out of bed to write a letter to some lawyers which needed doing, and armed with an excuse not to study I allowed myself another session with Ubuntu Linux, finally managing to get it working properly on my desktop after about nine months of trying on and off. The fact that it's taken me this long to do it, coupled with my failure to read the books I brought with me to Korea, probably speaks a lot to the experience I've had here - which has been pretty intense with little time for boredom - except perhaps, on sick days.

Korean tags: 건강

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Card Sharks

There's a sign on the wall of a bread shop near us (why is it always the bread stores we have problems with?) The minimum credit card payment is 5,000 won (about £2.64). So the woman behind the counter - obviously the owner - is really chatty and pleasant. My wife buys 7,500 won's worth of various items, gets to the counter, draws out her credit card, and the owner's face just changes immediately. She stares at the card coldly and takes it slowly - there is no more pleasant conversation.

On the way out the customer normally says '수고하세요', which is basically 'keep up the good work'. The store owner really has to reply, because it would be rude not to. There's nobody else in this small bread shop and the owner very obviously doesn't reply. It's not the first time this type of thing has happened, though this was the most noticeable because the change from chirpy to ice-cold the moment the card was produced was remarkable. I suppose the moral of the story is that whatever minimums card payments they advertise, some Korean store owners just prefer cash, and may not be happy about receiving anything else.

Korean tags: 가게, 사다,

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Switching Channels

I haven't watched a lot of television here. There are a handful of channels on our basic cable service which show some English-language movies, but even if you can find their websites, working out what's on every day is an effort in itself, given that Western film titles are transliterated into Korean. Even though I can read Korean, reading the words quickly enough to make some kind of sense in American-English - as opposed to the English-English way I read the language - as well as taking that extra leap that some titles require, is a bit of an acquired art. Sometimes, just to throw you off, they actually translate titles into the equivalent Korean words, leaving you trying to hopelessly figure out what English word they were trying to make, and a couple of times they've just made things up - I was half-way through watching some random movie one day when I noticed the title in the top corner read When Harry Met Sally 2, presumably because the plot had some similarities.

These are the Korean TV channels which show a fair number of English programmes - this being Korea they are very Internet Explorer centric so they might not work in other browsers:

Story On
On Style
Super Action
Cinema TV

A few days ago one of our Internet providers, Korea Telecom's Megapass, phoned us. They had a new video on demand (VOD) service called MegaTV and we could trial it free for three months, so we agreed to take the service. The engineer turned up yesterday, and half-an-hour of wiring and configuration later, we had a new set-top box on top of our small television.

After initially agreeing to try it, we regretted the decision as we believed from what they told us it would offer little more than a few repeats of Korean dramas. We had a VOD service back in the UK along with a PVR, and while the PVR was good - when it worked properly - the VOD had the kind of variety of content Chairman Mao would have approved of - when it worked (spot the pattern here). But KT undersold MegaTV - because in addition to the endless dramas it seems to have a couple of hundred movies as well as an assortment of other content from sports events like Major League Baseball to English language teaching programmes. And it works rather than crashes at every available opportunity, with just a slight pause for the video streaming to begin. From the on-screen displays, there's clearly scope for MegaTV to charge for content, but most things are free and the films which carry a cost are charged at 1,800 won (about 95 pence). After the trial, the charge for the set-top box rental is 8,000 won (about £4.24) per month if we sign up to a three-year contract, which is a bit of a catch because a lot can happen in three years, and we weren't planning to be here actually, although with the way things are with the British Embassy, perhaps I can't be so sure.

So it seems I now have about four weeks to learn as much Korean as possible, catch up on a huge backlog of things about Korea I wanted to write about, say my goodbyes while simultaneously watching as much free TV to take my mind off things as I can. I will now be working my way through the MegaTV website along with Naver trying to work out the titles.

Korean tags: 텔레비전, 티비

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Big Picture

It may not be coincidence that the arrival of a new Hi-Mart in the area coincided with Korean Mother's decision to replace her old TV with its washed out picture created by technologically uncertain means, which is why I took to hanging around at electrical stores recently taking pictures of dancing girls while there.

This being Korea, it's probably no surprise to find that if you're in the market for a new TV, you're probably buying a Samsung or an LG. But in the first of many oddities which is the Korean TV shopping experience, don't expect them to be branded as such. Samsung's TV brand is 'PAVV' and LG's is 'Xcanvas'. When I first got to Korea I wondered whether these might be cheap Chinese imports - and couldn't understand why the Koreans weren't buying local - I really should have known better even back then.

Another mistaken notion of Korea I had back in those days was that it would prove to be a land of milk and honey as far as technology was concerned. I've long since resigned myself to having, what is these days, a slower Internet connection than I had back in the UK, and now the TVs provide another disappointment. It's unscientific but comparing prices in Hi-Mart with prices from a similar type of store in the UK, called Comet, has tended to suggest that Korean prices are 10-20% higher than for equivalent models back home. This is even more surprising considering the UK's VAT sales tax is 17.5% compared with Korea's 10%, and UK TVs tend to have teletext and digital terrestrial tuners built in which Korean TVs don't. The TV in the picture above - a PAVV 52" LCD - has a price of 5,000,000 won, about £2,649, whereas a 52" Samsung is currently £2,300 from Comet. It may be the case that Korean retailers are more open to haggling than British ones, although the latter aren't necessarily adverse to it either, but as things stand you'd have to be talking them down by quite a margin just to get to British prices. It's really not what I would have expected at all. On the other hand, the iPod Touch is cheaper here, but then that's American. Why do Koreans have to pay more for Korean products?

In addition to Hi-Mart, we also browsed round LG and Samsung stores, where of course, they only sell their own products, and if anything, at even higher prices. I am told there is a school of thought here that the PAVVs or Xcanvas TVs in Hi-Mart are not perceived to be the same quality as the same models sold by Samsung and LG stores respectively, and I suspect there's a marketing department somewhere not so far away from here patting themselves on the back for getting that rumour started.

Salespeople back home do not have good reputations, but compared to some of the sales staff we met in our travels they are evidently experts in their field. Knowing little of the world of flat-panel TVs we'd done a little research beforehand and arrived in the Korean stores asking what seemed fairly basic questions about contrast ratios and scan types, to the blank looks and occasional alarm of staff who had, moments earlier, enthusiastically approached us. Eventually we usually found someone we could talk to, but in one store a resident 'technical guy' insisted that the black glossy LCD panels don't really suffer from reflections these days - while we were standing next to such a panel happily displaying its HD image along with a pretty good mirror image of the stores lights. I was amazed by his sheer audacity.

I've written before about ajummas andajeoshis, which are more than merely terms, they are almost definitions of a type of behaviour. Within the ajumma section of society there is something even more eye-opening - the phenomena of the rich ajumma - or at least, the reasonably well off one. Korea isn't quite Japan, but while the economy's rapid rise in the last few decades hasn't been to the benefit of all, there is retired class of people, especially women, who have a lot of leisure time and money to go along with it. So the stereotypical story goes something like this - ajumma walks into a TV store, parks herself in front of the screen which most takes her fancy, possibly haggles a little for old times' sake, and then buys it. She likes the picture and the design of the TV and hasn't the first idea about any of the specifications, which of course, suits the salesperson perfectly because that means they don't have to either.

So the staff of various stores found they had to talk details to us, and we were ploughed with drinks, strange green rice sweets and foot massagers while they consulted sales leaflets or disappeared off to find someone who knew the answers to our questions.

Eventually we failed to persuade Korean Mother to buy an Xcanvas with a PVR, as she instead opted for a similarly-priced PAVV without one, on the grounds that she didn't like the Xcanvas bezel design, though she did end up getting a free vacuum cleaner and digital camera - Samsung of course - with the deal. And in a final reflection that some things don't change in Korea, she found someone in the extended social network who worked in another Hi-Mart somewhere else in Busan to do a better deal that we'd found locally.

I'm sure it says something about Korea's service culture that it's not uncommon to see trucks with pictures of their drivers displayed on the back, somehow serving to put a human face on an otherwise faceless corporation. It says something else that it's taken as read that the people who deliver your new TV will install it even if that requires a wall mounting. If there are any problems, we should give him a call - and specifically him rather than the company generally, because now in some small way it's his responsibility and he's our TV support person.

As for the TV itself, there's still nothing on worth watching, but we did find a USB port on the side which now enables us to show Korean Mother our photos in an alarming amount of detail in the comfort of her own home. And Korean Mother's happy because now she watches her period dramas in high definition on KBS, although for me the ability to suddenly see the actors' dental work and contact lenses somewhat destroys the historical image for me.

Korean tags: 가게, 사다