Saturday, July 26, 2008

Che Guevara

"Police arrested two communist activists, Kim Yong-Chan and Kim Jong Gon, on 11 July 2003 for possessing books about communism and for downloading from the Internet material including Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto." - Reporters Without Borders

So what are the chances of finding the thoughts of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in a subway station book vending machine between legendary investment guru Warren Buffett and Mother Teresa? If you thought "not high" then think again:

But don't take this to mean that Glasnost has broken out in South Korea, because when I left two months ago my Internet connection was still being censored.

So how does Che end up in a South Korean subway station? Perhaps it's an oversight, or perhaps the material does not fall under the definition of 'books about communism' which need to be banned by the democratic Korean government, or perhaps they just think it's a story with a happy ending. Alternatively, it may be a manifestation of geography.

Many Westerners have been surprised to learn of the existence of the Hitler bars that once appeared in this part of the world, but Nazism happened a long way from Korea and arguably it was really someone else's problem. Recently in my own country, there was a case of an elected public figure who was wrongly alleged to have participated in a Nazi-themed orgy. Before the judgement was handed down there was considerable public revulsion and a confidence vote was held within his organisation in which, it was suggested, European members voted against him and Asian and African members voted in favour. Certainly, anecdotally I'm aware that Korean people didn't necessarily see the matter as being of any great significance. However, when I hypothetically asked how they would react if a public figure in their country was accused of dressing up as a Japanese soldier and performing acts with 'comfort women' an entirely different attitude emerged.

I should add though, that if there is a historical and geographical gulf of understanding between myself as a Westerner and Korean people, it's not simply an inevitable division along racial lines; my family was selling a piano some years ago and the elderly gentlemen who eventually bought it for their club initially phoned and opened up their conversation with the question "It's not Japanese is it?" They'd been in Singapore during the war.

Personally, while Che Guevara didn't make the wall of my student flat back at University, unlike those of quite a few of the people I knew, I'd still like to think my book-vending machine discovery is a positive sign of progress in Korea.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ride the Wild Surf

On our last weekend in Busan, we met up with our friends for the last time and had a large and seemingly never-ending buffet meal at one of those equally large and seemingly never-ending restaurants which specialise in this type of experience. The obvious thing to do after adding a whole new layer of fat to oneself is to psychologically offset this with a trip to the beach - which will do little to reduce the effects of the culinary pummelling you've just put yourself through. So we made our way to Songjeong Beach - by car of course - where we could breathe in the fresh air and occasionally walk from our stationary location by the sand to one of the small huts on the other side of the coastal road where yet more food and hot drinks were available. It was cold, largely overcast and fairly windy, which at the time didn't seem very pleasant, but now that Busan is oppressively hot again I'm sure a lot of people are missing it.

I've been to Songjeong before at night, but I never recall seeing it in daylight, so I was surprised to discover it's something of a gathering place for Busan's surfing community. Aside from the surfboards on the beach, the Korean equivalent of a surf shack overlooked the bay, and from the wetsuits drying off outside, it seemed to have been a busy day.

Soon I started to pick out a few figures standing in the water trying to catch that perfect wave, even if it appeared that as far as Songjeong was concerned, that meant rather small and possibly hardly worth the effort. But maybe we just arrived at a bad time - it wasn't long before most of the surfers pulled their boards out of the water and headed for the road. This was the point I had to re-evaluate my impression of what I had to assumed to be the Busan surfing scene, because as they came towards us I realised they were '외국인' - waegugin/foreigners. It's a fact that in my seventeen months in Busan I actually only met one foreigner who I talked with for around fifteen minutes, so I claim no expertise into the 'waegugin' lifestyle here - and I have to admit this was not my stereotypical image of what the ex-pat community were getting up to in their spare time. My surprise would only become greater as I watched one of the waegugin a little later, proceed to hail a taxi - with his surfboard - and much to much to my incredulity manage to fit it inside said vehicle with an apparently equally unphased taxi driver. Getting around Busan by taxi as a foreigner isn't always easy. Doing it with a surfboard deserves some respect.

I kept scanning the sea in the hope of catching a shot of a surfer riding a decent wave, but the conditions were clearly not going to allow those remaining to ride a wave dramatically into the beach, so the photo on the right above is as good as it got. But I added the experience to my list of 'things you can do in Busan that you can't do in Seoul', which I started mentally keeping for reasons which might eventually be revealed.