Monday, September 28, 2009

We the People

"You know what? I know we have a dangerous job to do here but... I'm taking this. I'm taking this couch" - Peter Griffin, Family Guy - Blue Harvest

About three weeks before the attack on my car which led to our sudden volte-face decision to return to Korea, we bought a Nintendo Wii. It's clear to me from people I know that Wii's are used for one of two things, either to provide an interactive gaming and exercise system, or gather dust in closets. It was soon clear that ours was going to fall into the former category.

This presented a problem because a UK Wii is a PAL output system and Korean TVs run on NTSC, which meant that even if we were prepared to ship it out to Korea, to my mind it wasn't going to work unless we could find a Korean TV that accepted PAL inputs. I may be a former software designer and one-time computer geek, but I'm no expert on audio-visual equipment and everything I read on the subject could basically be summarised as 'forget about linking a PAL Wii to an NTSC TV without a heck of a lot of messing around or some special connectors. My wife scoured the Korean Internet and couldn't find any TVs claiming to take PAL inputs - whereas in the UK NTSC capable TVs are quite common.

So as reluctant as I was to probably lose a hundred pounds in three weeks on a console that we would have to dump quickly, I saw little choice but to write it off as a transition cost and start again in Korea with a locally purchased Wii. Then my wife had her Peter Griffin moment - "You know what? I'm taking this. I'm taking this Wii to Korea". And because as traders neither of us like losing lots of money on a position we've just entered, I found myself seduced by the idea of going along with it.

It logically follows that if you're going to take a PAL Wii to NTSC country, maybe you have to have a PAL TV to use it with if all else fails, and that's how - along with a few other boxes of possessions we arranged to have shipped to Korea, we came to have a cheap 19-inch TV shipped along with them. But the Wii itself along with its accompanying software was not going to be shipped - instead my wife resolved to use about a significant part of her suitcase to bring them with us on the flight. I could only do what any husband would in this situation, which was to offer words of support such as "You're crazy", "Customs are bound to go through your cases", and "I'm really not sure this is going to work anyway". I think it's important to see a marriage as a real partnership.

Despite my disturbing lack of faith I made sure we brought all the connectors and two days after we arrived I'm finally crawling around the back of Korean Mother's 52-mile wide PAVV (i.e. upmarket Samsung) TV looking for a SCART connector, which is what we used to use to connect just about every piece of equipment in the living room to one another before HDMI came along. This exhibited a complete lack of research on my part, because despite having a couple of dozen different connectors in the back - including an Ethernet port of all things - a SCART socket was conspicuous by its absence. I checked the old TV we'd bought when we came to Korea the first time - it's so old it's actually a CRT rather than LCD, and that didn't have a SCART either, which is when it became obvious that Korea doesn't use SCARTs and probably never did. Well, the Wii cables running into the SCART convertor were a left and right audio, and a video cable, so I figured I'd just pull them out and see if I could stick them somewhere else directly - my trademark scientific approach to almost anything technical. There was some colour-coding but since half of the ports seemed to be red it wasn't as helpful as it might have been.

It didn't take long to figure out that the Mega TV set-top box was using the same type of cables to connect to the TV, and by replacing them with those from the Wii we might be in business. And then it just happened - the picture came on - the standard Nintendo warning that their consoles can be dangerous to use or some such thing - and what's more, it even had a splash of colour in the right place despite the cautionary Internet tales that in the unlikely event we had any success, the picture would probably end up being monochrome.

Later I got even more ambitious and succeeded in connecting the Wii to the Korean TV via a non-Nintendo Component Cable I'd bought in the UK, so now it can remain connected without the need to cut off the Mega TV box. And with that we were set up. Admittedly, we can't buy Korean Wii games because they will be NTSC format, so if we want to add any more software to it we'll have to try and find PAL titles from somewhere. But even if we don't, we feel like we really achieved something somewhat against the odds.

I'm not sure that 10.30pm on an uncomfortably humid evening is a good time to be reacquainting oneself with Wii Sports, but we were soon back into the swing of things, and the great thing about Korean Mother's apartment was that we actually had space to move around, unlike our home back in the UK.

Korean Mother came home to discover that we'd seized control of the strategically important lounge area, and her 52-mile wide TV with it, and rushed off to her room to watch the soap opera she'd come home for. But curiosity soon got the better of her, and she was back outside watching with fascination. In fact, she'd been out exercising at a local school, at 9pm, and was intrigued by the idea of exercising in her apartment using a console when we showed her EA Sports Active. After that, it wasn't long before she was playing Wii Sports Resort's table tennis, and unexpectedly discovering she was rather good at it.

But nothing prepared me for what was to follow. Korean Mother discovered Wii Boxing, and suffice to say while I have video of her playing this which I'm sure could be a YouTube sensation if there wasn't a going to be a very long statute of limitations applying to it, I will instead merely have to relate that nothing in life quite prepares you for the sight of an ajumma knocking the hell out of a Nintendo character while angrily suggesting with each punch to the character that his mother might have the characteristics of the son of a fornicating female dog who isn't familiar with the father. What's even more inexplicable, is that having played first and exhausted myself entirely having once again failed to beat my next level opponent, Korean Mother took over my character and beat it on her first attempt. It's clear from watching Korean TV - which run programmes that I always imagined being called When Ajummas Attack - that an angry ajumma is a dangerous animal - but seeing it up close is truly a sight to behold. I tell you this - if Wii Boxing ever catches on in the ajumma community, on the evidence I've seen the rest of us are really in trouble.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mosquito Night

I got my first mosquito bite on my third day back in Korea, and as bites go it turned out to be rather a painful one for some reason. I've never got on with these insects, and they regularly disturbed my sleep back in the one-room apartment I used to live in. While I have been known to chase 'mogis' around at 3am for as long as 30 minutes at a time, the 'one room' at least had the advantage of being universally decorated in a plain beige colour - which made spotting the offending insects relatively easy. By contrast the apartment we live in now has patterned ceilings and a lot of dark wood, making it much easier for them to blend in.

While it's certainly the case in my experience that most Koreans just put up with the nightly blood-sucking during the mosquito season, we had at least one friend with netting over her bed. It was quite a simple affair hanging from a screw in the ceiling, but it seemed to do the job. So I thought we had to find our own solution rather than being constantly attacked at night, so now we are here permanently it seemed high time to look for a solution to the mosquito problem. We found a website selling various netting and netted enclosures which promised in English to be "Practical use in your trivial round of daily life" - which certainly sounded as though they had my existence figured out.

Because I'd left my wife to do the research and the purchasing, I only saw some brief images of frame-based tent-like structures which I believed would take a little assembly. There was nothing to dispel that impression when the package arrived on Saturday, but I was taken aback when I happened to turn around for a few seconds as she unpacked it, and turned back to see the device had exploded into position on our bed. The whole process couldn't have taken much more than five seconds, though more work was involved in trying to fit it to the bed properly - a task we ultimately didn't quite succeed in accomplishing due to bed being slightly larger than a standard size. It fits well enough though - and certain enough to be effective. They call it a 'Speed Tent' on the cover and they aren't wrong.

Access to and from the bed is now made via a zip on one side of the tent, which takes a little getting used to, but once inside one can hopefully sleep without that sudden middle-of-the-night buzzing near the ear which signals a mosquito honing in on its target. It won't need to be on the bed all year round - just during mosquito season - but in my experience this can actually extend from May until as late as December, so the tent now seems like a vital piece of equipment. I can't say how effective it will prove under combat conditions, but it has already proven quite effective with Evil Korean Dog - who now bounces harmlessly off the side of the tent instead of jumping all over me when I am resting. What price a secure and peaceful night's sleep? Around 20,450 won (£11/$17), and for what it's worth, it came with a mosquito patch and repellent spray for good measure.

So it was with much anticipation that at 1am Sunday morning I looked forward to my first good night's sleep since I returned to Korea. I was of course awoken at 6.55am by the sound of hammering on the walls of a neighbouring apartment, the occupant of which was evidently intent on continuing the DIY job of the previous day which had involved some very loud drilling. I'd probably get quite angry about this kind of thing in the UK, but after being woken up regularly by a Korean salt-seller with a loudspeaker right outside my window at 5.30am for a while last time I was here, I figure that anything goes in a country that apparently never sleeps, and my expectations of neighbourly behaviour are very low. I know we have the legal right to peace and quiet at night in the UK, I know of no such laws in Korea, so perhaps I'm more prepared to accept it due to my ignorance. For now, we have at least solved the night-time mosquito problem - and that's progress - later we'll see about buying a net big enough to deal with our neighbour.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

My reintroduction into Korean society continues to be troubled. The institutionally racist British immigration system ran us through a Kafkaesque farce of such epic proportions I would have felt it only fair to credit Douglas Adams and Haruki Murakami as co-writers. And it beat us in the end.

But we'll always have Busan.

Except we won't. In a disturbing development we visited Beautiful Korea, Wonderful Immigration, who started asking us twenty questions about our marriage and specifically where our British marriage certificate was. We don't have one, we got married in Korea, and when we tried to obtain a British certificate - twice - we were told that the most they could do was keep our Korean certificate on file - but they wouldn't issue us with anything in return. Now we're back in Korea, and despite previously holding an F-2 visa which they handed out like it was a free coupon at the time, suddenly it's time for questions about our marriage and lack of evidence from the UK, save for the procedural wreckage of a legal case we shouldn't have had to have fought.

I didn't even have my old F-2 Alien Registration Card because it expired while I was in England, so Korean Immigration kept it when I came through Incheon Airport, which apparently is procedure but took me by surprise. Now the Immigration Officer in Busan was registering his surprise at why I'd allowed my visa to expire in the first place, because had I not I would be eligible for residency. But since a prerequisite of extending the visa seems to be actually being in Korea, I was confused about how I was supposed to have achieved this under the circumstances.

So my wife showed them the British stamp in her passport which declared her as my spouse, and I was on the verge of suggesting they phone the British Embassy where I'm sure there's a dartboard with my face on it, before the immigration officer seemed to lose interest and switched tack to look at our jobs and assets. This is always the point I hate being a daytrader because so many people lose so much money doing it that most other people reasonably assume we must be losing a lot of money too - and this never paints a positive picture with officialdom. Fortunately because we'd prepared for the Spanish Inquisition that is a British Spousal Visa Interview we had evidence of all our assets and the immigration officer was satisfied that we could support ourselves in Korea after the first couple of documents. Even so, after everything we'd been through with my own Government, the merest hint of a problem with the Korean Ministry of Justice was enough to send a chill down my spine.

Allegedly there's been a problem with Russian immigration of late - it seems their Government doesn't issue duplicate marriage certificates either if a wedding is in Korea, so there's a suggestion that there might have been a lot of scams. Whatever the cause, the fallout has fallen right down on our heads, and we may get an F-2 automatically or we may have to submit to further investigations. Actually, I'm not really worried about it and I know Beautiful Korea, Wonderful Immigration are just doing their jobs, but I'm extremely sensitive to reiterative bureaucratic loops and for a nasty moment there it felt like we were falling into one.

The experience has to be put into context as well. We phoned the Korean Embassy in London before returning because my previous F-2 visa had expired while in the UK, and rather than applying for any specific visa from there, the recommended course of action was simply to turn up in Korea, get a holiday visa, and then convert it to a spousal stay afterwards. In comparison with the British system, which would specifically forbid such a course of action as an attempt at deception, it seems so unbelievably lax one might even call it reasonable and humane. Yes, I know what the British excuse is - "we're just doing our jobs" - and that's just what the Nazis said as well.

Before we left, the immigration official informed us of the future path to permanent residency in Korea, while not-so-subtly emphasising that - of course - I would be expected to have a reasonable level of fluency in Korean in order to obtain that. That's fair enough in my book, but had I already had something approaching that fluency level by now, it wouldn't have been 'sugo haseyo' I'd have been parting with, but rather a "OK, but you're no fun anymore".

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc.

Liang shang jun zi

Last time I lived in Korea there was little purpose in buying anything substantive, so while I browsed around the electrical stores with interest, we were never destined to own one of those exciting consumer items, which made the act of looking somewhat academic. We can't say what the future will bring, but it's time to try and cast off our semi-nomadic lifestyle and start to create some kind of real home for ourselves, obtaining some of the trappings of a more permanent existence. To that end we have a list of items to buy, and one of our first priorities is to find mobile phones, a task which had been made more pressing by the news that my mother had fallen ill with food poisoning the day after we'd left the UK.

It is of course almost unthinkable to be without a mobile phone in Korea, where they are called 'haendeu-pons' ('핸드폰') or hand-phones - which always struck me as a subtle semantic distinction - you have a hand, therefore you have to have a hand-phone. Whereas back in the UK, you may well have a mobile phone, but you aren't necessarily that mobile, so maybe you don't need one. In Korea the message seems to be at some level - have hand, have phone.

So my hand has been phone-less for the duration of my life in Korea, but I've resolved to change this. I know what I want and while my needs are somewhat specific I had no doubts they could be met in a country where spurious communication is so ubiquitous it is often referred to as the Land of the Morning Call. So I set out to find the kind of keyboard-touting smartphone which I'd helped to pioneer back in the Symbian days through a series of spurious investments. I wasn't expecting to find the latest Nokia Communicator, but searches of Western web pages suggested the existence of devices like the LG VX10000, which aside from the curiosity of being named after a deadly nerve-agent, fitted an important theoretical availability criteria in Korea, in that LG is Korean.

How wrong I was. The first clues came from friends who asked why on Korean Earth I wanted a device with a keyboard. I thought my rationale was simple enough - I'd decided to write more (though not necessarily on this blog and not necessarily about Korea) and now that I've realised that Korea is my muse, when my muse speaks to me I feel the need to put those thoughts down as quickly as I can. The alternative is to go back to the life I had before, when it seemed that the perfect words to describe a situation often came immediately to mind, but by the time I had the time to make an account of what I had experienced, it was in the hack style I gravitate towards in times of haste, apathy and failing memory.

Well I carried a Psion Organiser around for years at university, and while technology might have moved on every new mobile device I've owned since then has represented a significant usability downgrade - and now I wanted my usability back. But I'm beginning to seriously doubt I'm going to get it. The LG nerve-agent phone was nowhere to be found in its homeland, and neither was anything else comparable. At a branch of SK Telecom yesterday morning, a bemused sales assistant insisted that keyboards were unnecessary since 'everyone' could type fast with predictive text on a numeric keypad, missing the obvious fact that as a non-Korean my fingers are not genetically evolved to move faster than a politician through a tax-payer's wallet. If they had human rights laws here I might have explained how I considered forcing me to use predictive text a breach of mine, and how I'm sure the Geneva Convention has specifically outlawed the use of Windows Mobile in communication devices. Further searches since have suggested the admittedly very limited availability of devices such as the new Samsung Omnia Pro and the older Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 in Korea, both of which I am now considering.

Meanwhile a friend has kindly loaned us a 10-month old and therefore 'outdated' Samsung 'Anycall' phone complete with Windows, and to be fair to it I can at least use Word Mobile to make notes using the on-screen keyboard - which works when the screen picks up the pen-presses, which is not always. It remains tediously slow though, and switching the interface from Korean to English inexplicable only translates about 30% of the Windows interface, and not the rest. Which means 'Word Mobile' is 'Word Mobile', but 'Tasks' stubbornly remains '작업', and most of the critical sub-menus aren't translated either. I'd normally persevere - my Samsung NC10 uses Korean Windows as did the desktop I had last time I was here - but I don't really want to be trying to figure out Korean menu options on my phone while I'm moving around trying to accomplish other things while not getting run over my pavement-mounted motorcycles.

While Korean phones have been surprisingly disappointing in many respects so far, there are at least some hints of greater technical accomplishments than their Western counterparts, I can watch TV on it while wandering the streets, or on the subway if I don't want to sleep. But really I just wanted a keyboard and an application to type my notes into that worked - I'll probably find something eventually, or give up in the face of an overwhelming flood of bemusement, and opt for the predictive text approach. Now I come to think of it, it's no wonder the Koreans are so good at Kartrider.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Living Colors

When we first came to Busan in 2006 my girlfriend and I lived in a 'one-room' apartment which I rather liked. The tenancy expired and for the last three months of our stay we moved in with Korean Mother and Evil Korean Dog. When we left, Korean Brother made it his home which somewhat complicated any temporary return to our status quo ante.

All other things being equal, we would have found our own apartment after a brief period staying with Korean Mother on our return. But my wife wanted to live near her mother if possible, not least because since Korean Father moved to Namhae, Korean Mother has spent most of her time on her own, while I inadvertently kept her daughter away from her for years at a time. The more I thought about it, the more I thought the best solution was for us to get a larger apartment and for Korean Mother to move in with us. Undoubtedly some Westerners would baulk at the notion of such living arrangements, but I'm long since reconciled to some of the realities of Korean family life, and I'm not so bothered by it.

At least I thought I wasn't. Maybe it's all about semantics in the end, but for various reasons the notion of our finding an apartment for Korean Mother to share with us instead became us moving back in with her and sharing her apartment. We were all still living together, but now we were living with her, rather than her living with us, which realistically meant she would have control of the strategically important lounge area of the apartment. That wasn't really part of my plan – I'd envisaged lazy evenings lounging around on our inevitably leather couch watching movies on our 50-inch LCD. Instead, we would be confined to the side rooms with her controlling the high ground.

It wasn't a deal-breaker but the added complication now was Korean Brother's increasingly permanent residence. As much as he seems nice enough – it was one person too many for my liking competing for space and the bathroom, so I thought it might be better to find our own place after all – just for my wife and I. Somewhere along the line it looked like another solution had been found, unknown to myself – which was to encourage Korean Brother to find his own place again, i.e. move out. I had to put a stop to that when I found out about it because – admittedly to my English way of thinking – that looked bad, and I was concerned he might hold it against me if he felt forced out. I can't pretend to understand Korean families so it's entirely possible he would have just seen it as his duty without any animosity – but I couldn't live with myself thinking I'd unconsciously ousted him by returning. Korean family politics are complicated and some of their subtleties continue to elude me.

I don't really know where this leaves us as far as our residential situation is concerned. I've lived in plenty of places in my life, but I never really made them my home by furnishing them from start to finish, and imbuing my own ideas of design and function within their walls. I imagined that was something I would finally do on returning to Korea, but it may not work out this way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Close Shave

"If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization." - Ludwig von Mises

Death has a name, and it is Tuesday Morning. My shoulder resembled the United Colors of Benetton from the heavy bag I'd carried on my journey, I either had a temperature or Korea did, and despite being conscious here for only a brief few hours, I'd already notched up two confirmed mosquito kills. I was particularly proud of my latter one, which despite being out of practice and defenceless, I'd managed to stun using nothing more than the Microsoft optical mouse I happened to be holding at the time. I felt like an IT ninja and would have done the whole Bruce Lee stance routine afterwards if my body hadn't been stiffer than a Republican politician. Later in the day though I'd watch incredulously as a Korean friend at a restaurant caught one with her hand while she ate, making me realise that I had a long way to go before I reached my first dan in insect control.

Exhausted and unused to the two speed approach to Korean driving – fast and dead stop – I'd fallen over in the bus from the airport twice the day before, dropping my hand luggage in the process and apparently, I discovered, smashing the corner of my Dell portable in the process. The desktop I'd left behind in Korea was apparently registering its abandonment by rebooting itself every few seconds so it looked like it was going to be a long IT day. If only every problem could be fixed by a swift flick of a Microsoft mouse.

I spent an hour of my first morning in Busan searching for the Korean-bought shaver I'd left behind when I returned to England. It was the best I'd ever used and had cost me about half the price of the ridiculously expensive British-bought Philips rotary that came with me, which I'd always hated with a passion. The British shaver had unsurprisingly failed to fit into a Korean power socket, which is what prompted me to buy another when I first arrived. For much the same reason, I hadn't taken it back to England with me because even though I loved it I knew it probably wouldn't work in a British socket. Now I had turned the cupboard we had left some possessions in upside down, while feeling awful, and I had drawn a blank. Where on Earth was it?

The answer transpired to probably be Namhae, because that's where it had travelled with Korean Father, not that Korean Father, who happened to be at the apartment in Busan when I returned, had cared to share this information with me. There is, I'm unsurprised to report, something of a cultural lesson in this, which is that Korean parents are sometimes rather fuzzy on where the dividing line is drawn between themselves and their children, and perhaps more specifically, things which might be stored in cupboards but which belong to their children. So my ex-marine Korean Father had seen the hill, and taken it, so to speak. Did I want it back? I'm not sure I did after he'd used it for a year. It was a small incident although I didn't appreciate the time I'd wasted turning parts of the apartment upside down unnecessarily. The bigger issue was that it did nothing to endear me to the idea of living with Korean Mother if I felt I had to be taking weekly inventories of my possessions, and given that I'd left the UK partly because of my property and privacy not being respected, it's an issue I'm sensitive to right now.


On the deserted platform of Busan station I held my arms aloft to claim my victory. I was home, having endured yet another 27-hour Meniere's-fuelled travel-odyssey, this time with a large and apparently useless side-order of Valium, and now I could finally rest after five intensive weeks of disposing of all my possession back in England. I should have been exhausted, but instead I was filled with an inexplicable energy.

Friends met us at the station, and before long we were in a car playing the Korean version of Grand Theft Auto – I counted three near misses in the first five minutes. You have to remember that this is just the way people drive here. One day someone will make a fortune in this country by inventing a device which enables the local drivers to keep their cars in the same lane for more than five seconds.

Evil Korean Dog, which I parted from 15 months earlier – giving him the finger as I left as I recall – held no animosity towards me and inexplicably was my best friend all evening. In his excitement Korean Father had ordered an unwanted pizza which gave us another task to get through before we could take the showers we felt we desperately needed. I ended up sharing my shower with a mosquito – reminding me of something else I hadn't missed. It was 7pm Korean time and I'd decided that I might as well try and tough things out by going to bed two hours later and maybe getting straight back onto local time after our 31-hour day. But my body had other ideas, waking me up at 2am Korean time and leaving me to spend the rest of the night writing.

My wife couldn't sleep either – we got hungry and raided the fridge for something to drink. “Would you like milk? It's Korean milk though.” The words hung in the air for a moment before my mind connected the facts from my memory. “Oh of course, Korean milk is foul isn't it.” It wasn't really a question. I was, of course though, destined to drink it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Hangover

When I first arrived in Korea three years ago everything was new, and my first few hours in the country were an overdose of sights and sounds which are still as potent to me today as they were when I first experienced them. But you can only do something new in your life once, so my return to Korea yesterday was never going to be the same as it was the first time.

I stepped out of the airport, and the smell of diesel mixed with cigarettes was just how I remembered it, but no longer in any way surprising. The heat mist that had once hung over Incheon had been replaced by the murkiness of rain clouds and pollution from China, but while the weather might have changed the place itself had not. So this time it was not with a potent sense of anticipation that I stood there amidst the chaos of the exit to Incheon Airport, but rather a sense of grim resolution. Is the future truly unwritten or are we condemned to live our lives in patterns, the words and the actors may differ but the play remains the same? If the latter is the case then here I was, Korea Act I Scene I, not the original but the re-imagined version.

In fact, my re-introduction to Korean society had begun earlier in the day on a plane out of Frankfurt. Struggling to get a case into an overhead locker a Korean man had demanded to know of my wife – in deliberately disrespectful plain form language - why she couldn't have waited until he'd passed to do that. English people might be ready to commit unspeakable acts of rudeness and violence at a moment's notice, but we hide it behind a thin veneer of politeness which to the untrained eye might appear to make us rather affable. I'd forgotten that Korean men in my experience often seem to hide behind no such pretence, especially towards Korean women.

I don't sleep on planes, even if Lufthansa were only going to offer a selection of 12 movies, and by the time we landed at Incheon I'd been awake for almost 24 hours and I had lost my sense of time. So as we walked from the coach stop to Seoul Station I saw a lot of homeless people who I assumed were bedding down for the night, before realising it was about 2pm in the afternoon, emphasising the reality that they were not only lacking proper shelter, but any sense of purpose as well. I'd been away for 16 months during which the global economy had collapsed. Every indication was that Korea had been less affected than some other countries, but on this evidence it didn't appear to have escaped unscathed. There was definitely a story here.

Seoul Station was just how it always was. Military personnel wandering around with Mickey Mouse shopping bags reminding us that one of the world's largest consumer-driven societies is still technically in a state of war with its starving neighbour to the North, and in a new addition large Dokdo posters – or Dokdo-Is-Korean-Territory to given them their full official title – adorned the walls of the station to remind us that there always has to be an enemy, even if we happen to be going through one of those bi-monthly periods of non-hostile relations with 'the other Koreans'.

As I boarded the KTX I was into my 25th hour without sleep, making the task of lifting two 20kg bags above me onto the overhead shelves all the harder. Predictably and despite the near empty carriage, an ajumma saw no reason to await the conclusion of my struggle and pushed past me shoving me unexpectedly forwards and almost pivoting the bag clean over my head to drop dangerously behind my back. With a strength I didn't know I had in me I just managed to bring it back the right way. "Don't mind me, just push by, it's perfectly OK!" I burst out angrily as I turned around to see the face of my nemisis, but all I saw was the back of another oblivious Korean who evidently thought it desperately urgent to get to their seat. Were the people here always like this and I just got used to it before? In fact, last time I was in this situation I recall a group of young heroes of the Korean Military who were laughing their bottoms off at my wife struggling to get her suitcase on the train so maybe it really was deja vu all over again. This really wasn't going the way I had expected.

When I first rode the KTX down from Seoul I was transfixed by the landscape as it whizzed by at almost 300kph. Now the train seemed slow and I barely looked out of the window until we reached the outskirts of Busan. As it happened my MP3 player shuffled itself to an instrumental track by composer Richard Gibbs called 'Reunion', and so it was this somewhat melancholy piece which provided the musical backdrop to the familiar images of unimaginatively functional square office blocks as we moved further into the city and the full weight of a growing realisation finally hit me – this is home now. Home – a small word with a big meaning – and one which carries a huge significance for me this day.

Friday, September 18, 2009


"Sickness shows us what we are." - Latin Proverb

We made our decision to return to Korea a month ago, but Korean Mother has not told her friends we are returning, because she is concerned that if they know she is fraternising with people who have just come back from overseas, they will not want to meet her for fear of contracting Swine Flu.

Yes, by all accounts fear of the H1N1 Virus has reached pandemic levels in Korean society. The panic is apparently so infectious that its even spread to one of the few foreign bloggers in Korea I still get time to read. It's one thing for Koreans to succumb, indeed I expected it as they tend to think in packs, but you know things are bad when it hits the more free-wheeling ex-pats too.

Still, I freely admit I might feel differently if I had been living in Korea recently. There have been a handful of deaths so if there is a outbreak of fear it does have tangible cause. And local fears have hardly been placated by the realisation that the Korean Government, despite considerable fears over the spread of Bird Flu in Asia during the last few years, completely failed to stockpile anti-viral drugs in preparation for a pandemic originating from this high-mortality disease. Meanwhile the British Government managed to amass 50 million doses of Tamiflu in preparation for a flu outbreak, proving that they actually can do things right once in awhile. The fact that the Flu outbreak which it is being used to fight was not the one they expected, takes a little away from their sense of prescience. By comparison, the Korean Government seems to have been asleep at the wheel.

It's possible that the Korean Government actually made another serious mistake, although this is a harder one to call. It appears as though they allowed public panic to break out, which - according to what I'm hearing purely anecdotally through personal contact - is leading to shortages of health and cleaning products in marts both small and large. I understand that people are reluctant to go to work. There is clearly a danger that the emptying of shelves could extend further into general food items should fears grow, either through panic buying or due to infrastructural breakdowns caused by staff shortages.

To put the Korean experience into perspective, where there have currently been 4 or 5 deaths, there have been 75 to date in the UK, 50 of those being in the last month. Not that you'd probably know this from the British media - it's not that the figures are necessarily being repressed outright, it's just that you'd have to look quite hard to find them - and what general coverage of the pandemic exists is not featuring very highly in any mainstream news programmes, or at least, not the ones that most of the public watch. Rightly or wrongly, one suspects the hand of Government is all over this in the background, quietly handling the public. And it's working - there is no panic, people go about their business normally, driving by temporary signs that might otherwise be directing them to their local 'Anti-Viral Collection Point', riding on buses with Orwellian quantities of advertising telling people to stay at home if they are sick, meeting people, eating in cafes, and generally socialising as though nothing had changed. The shelves in the supermarkets are stocked, and the country keeps running normally. Move along now, nothing to see here.

So it seems that soon I'll be moving from a country where the pandemic is actually relatively bad but you wouldn't know it unless you read the signs, to one where thus far the outbreak is relatively mild but you might well already feel as though you're living under siege from the panic people are displaying. And this does make me worried - what happens when Swine Flu in Korea is as bad as it is in the UK? The virus may be bad enough, but the effects of the panic could be far worse. It's certainly going to be a very interesting environment we are plunging back into when we return - and we have yet to see how Korean Mother's friends react when they do find out that we have returned to Korea, bringing our perceived foreign diseases with us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

This is England

"Every civilization rests on a set of promises. . . . If the promises are broken too often, the civilization dies, no matter how rich it may be, or how mechanically clever. Hope and faith depend on the promises; if hope and faith go, everything goes." - Herbert Sebastian Agar

For many years I wanted to try living overseas; I'd grown disillusioned with the social problems, politics and attitudes of my own country, and wondered whether another society might provide a better alternative, or at least a illusory haven where the local problems would be masked behind the barriers of language, culture and my own ignorance. So when I arrived in Korea, I took a break from my own country's problems, and I waited for the homesickness to set in, signifying the subconscious realisation that what I missed outweighed what I despised. But it didn't happen.

Work and other obligations drew me back to the UK, but I had to fight to re-enter the country with my wife, and after I returned, my experiences were far from happy - with more crime and anti-social behaviour than I ever remembered. So I began to wonder whether my future really lay in the UK or elsewhere.

But life settled into a routine and the initial shocks passed. We prepared the groundwork for my wife's required visa extension, even though it proved far harder than imagined; each piece of evidence we required of late seemed to become a project in itself. Finally we prevailed with a little time to spare before our application and interview. We would spend £665 for 'Further Leave to Remain' (FLR) and if we were successful the evidence gathering process would begin again as we prepared our 'Indefinite Leave to Remain' (ILR) application six months later, at a cost of £1,020. After that, since Korea doesn't support dual-citizenship, visa extension applications promised to become a regular and costly routine for the rest of our days in the UK if we ever spent regular intervals outside the country, and ILR can be revoked at any time on any pretext the Government of the day might care to invent. On a short-term basis you do what you have to do, but sometimes when you take a step back to look at the big picture, it can overwhelm you with frustration. I began to see the future as an endless series of Government bureaucratic harassments made worse by the increasing willingness of British people to support anti-immigration parties at the ballot box.

"Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that." - George Carlin

Then my neighbours vandalised my car - 'keying' (or scratching) it all the way down one side causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage. How it came to this, and why I know it was them, is a long story of mistaken identities, and irrational unilateral retaliations, made all the darker by my knowing that what I was seemingly being blamed for was nothing to do with me in the first place. But once people like this target you in campaigns of harassment because they jump to the wrong conclusion, or need someone to blame for their own problems, there's no rationalising it. They are just like the government really. Short of catching them in the act on camera though, what can you do? Some would say fight fire with fire, but if we can't be better than that then we British deserve the society we are rapidly getting. More to the point, in a city increasingly blighted by drug gangs and the gun-culture that goes along with it, one must be very careful of getting sucked into something much bigger than mere criminal damage.

When you feel yourself getting sucked into someone else's psychosis which you appear powerless to stop it's depressing, and for us it was the final straw in a series of unhappy experiences in England, part institutional and part individual in cause. And so I decided to return to Korea on Sunday.

I bear no illusions about what awaits me - Korea is no utopia where these kinds of things don't happen - but nobody in Korea ever threw fireworks at us, nobody in Korea ever vandalised our property or threatened us with violence. Britain has increasingly become a nation of uneducated and uncivilised people revelling in their loutish anti-social behaviour - I'm ashamed of it, disillusioned by it, and I've decided I've had enough of it. And while one can never predict the vagaries of individual misbehaviour, what is certain is at the institutional level is that we have never became so overwhelmed by the Korean immigration system that it felt like it was practically criminalising us. It's also never likely to bankrupt us given that last time I got a Korean visa extension it cost about £20 - with the UK regularly charging anywhere between 30-50 times that amount it feels more like a fine than a fee, and one which is much harder to ignore disappearing from your bank account every year or two.

'beyond a reasonable doubt' under criminal law, but all it took for my government to force me to live in exile with my wife two years ago was to rule against us 'on the balance of probabilities' - a much lesser burden of proof under civil law. Something is wrong in British society when criminals get to walk away from their law-abiding victims unpunished, but those same law-abiding citizens can be treated like criminals and find themselves financially and socially punished by their government for doing nothing more than exercising their freedom to choose a non-British spouse. So for what it's worth Britain will lose one native graduate who has long been a clear net financial contributor to society, and an immigrant spouse with two separate degrees who has also been a net contributor to the country. We became victims of harassment, individual and governmental, and we just couldn't take it any more. To me now, this is England as it has become.

It's unlikely that my life in Korea will be the same as it was before. It's one thing to see yourself as temporarily residing in a country, but quite another to feel consigned to be living there on an open-ended basis, so I really don't know how this is going to unfold. By necessity I've already given up my job, and am unlikely to return to it for the foreseeable future; my first priority back in Busan will be achieving a good level of Korean fluency as quickly as possible. I can't say that Korea will work out better for us in the longer term - life is always a gamble and circumstances change. But for now, a new Korean adventure begins.