Friday, October 30, 2009

Shi gan

My wife planned to buy her best friend a relatively expensive watch for her upcoming wedding as a special gift, but somewhere along the way it was decided that while the budget might remain the same, it would be better if 'couples' watches were purchased. I had a feeling that someone got the casting vote in that decision amongst the electorate of two.

Koreans readily embrace the 'couples' concept - which can mean having the same style of watches, wearing exactly the same style of clothes, phones and anything else which occurs as a possibility. It is some disturbingly outward sign of their homogeneity in an already dangerously homogeneous society.

We dragged ourselves to the Beomildong district of Busan, known for its concentration of homogeneous jewellery stores - which are not so much singular outlets as collections of individually rented concessions which are little differentiated from one another. And while there are individual shops, one gets the impression that the contents are the same, as perhaps are the prices - which are high. Expensive rings, bracelets and watches may be one way in which the people can assert themselves as individuals, by applying an economic filter - except all this leads to is a generic display of wealth as tired and clichéd as the thousands of Prada bags - real or faked - which travel down Nampodong's main street every day.

An old man eats a humble meal in the gutter in front of a sign which reads "Rolex", or he may have been scavenging someone else's leftovers, and there's something very real about that.

We eat a less humble meal - three chicken kebabs and one Korean rice for the Korean who only likes Korean food. He is my equal and opposite. Maybe he's different - a few years ago kebabs exploded into the cultural groupthink here and it seemed as though the hoards wanted nothing more than to eat them at every opportunity before they moved on to the next trend leaving the remnants of the old behind. It was around this time Korean Brother wanted to open up a kebab shop.

The decorators are at our friends' recently purchased apartment, and they've finished, so together we go over to check the work. It's the first time my wife and I have seen the place, but it's in an apartment block that looks the same as a thousand others. A ground floor affair in one of the least fashionable parts of the otherwise highly fashionable Haeundae-gu, it has at least the virtues of being relatively large at three bedrooms, and relatively cheap at 85,000,000 won (£43,800/$72,335). The ubiquity extends to the electrical fittings and fixtures throughout the apartment which meet the usual Korean standards, and we comment on the apartment's spaciousness, several times. It was the casting vote which had created and decorated this place, but the casting vote is rarely the end of the democratic process.

We travelled onwards to the PNU (Pusan National University) district in the north, otherwise known as Jangjeon-dong, where further jewellery stores yielded similarly disappointing results. There was a timepiece our friend really liked, but it had a round face and her husband-to-be preferred a square one, so it wasn't going to happen. How does one square such a circle? I do not know but I fear that it will be; any tool can become a hammer.

"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!"

It was not cake we ate, but ice-cream before we parted from the happy couple. As we walked across a bridge into the station to catch a train home, I saw the graffiti artists at work below me and took comfort in the knowledge that the clock is ticking on an older Korea with its demands of conformity, and times are changing.

It seems we must find a watch which meets the prospective groom's requirements, and then the second one will automatically follow.

"A man with one watch always knows the time. A man with two watches is never sure." - French proverb

Monday, October 26, 2009


Thus far, my reintroduction to Korean society has been unexpectedly bumpy at best for various reasons, but there are some aspects of life in Korea which would have to go a long way downhill before they become negative parts of the equation. One of these is the Korean health system with its immediate treatment, availability of hospitals with their second and third opinions if you want them, all at a price which show up the National Health Service back home for what it is - a self-absorbed and expensive bureaucracy which two years ago Wikipedia alarmingly cited as the fourth biggest employer in the world. By comparison, the privately-based Korean system seems much more certain to actually treat illness effectively. However, there is a catch - which is the money.

The reality is that the Korean system works very well so long as you can afford to pay for it, but you're probably out of luck if you can't. This means you really need to have health insurance - at least for the more expensive treatments. Some may argue that's inferior to the British system, and perhaps it is in certain circumstances, but when I suffered the onset of mysterious back pain earlier this year that left me unable to walk for a month - the most the NHS could offer me was a three month waiting list for an MRI which I instead paid £650 (1,260,000 won/$1,064) to have done privately within a week - which is still something a Korean hospital might have been able to do within a day at a third of the cost in my experience.

Despite the relatively low-cost of procedures in Korean hospitals - and while I hope I will always have the resources to cover any ill health I experience - last week I decided to hedge my bets and arrange for an insurance quotation for myself. This involved bringing in a personal contact of Korean Mother, who works in this area. She visited us at home and while discussing the various options, bemoaned the fact that these days, "young people" tended to forego the 'social network' approach to obtaining a policy, but would instead shop around on the Internet or ask a lot of questions about the fine detail of the policy if they did come to see her. I got the distinct impression that in the good old days, the way this worked was for the personal contact to recommend a policy, which would then pretty much be blindly signed up for in the belief that if anything happened they would somehow magically be covered because their personal contact had arranged it, and they would never do anything that would disadvantage them. I became painfully aware I was asking a lot of questions through my translator.

The first thing I had to get my head around was the notion that while there seemed to be two types of insurance - "health" and "life", these are not the same concepts I am used to. The far cheaper "Health" insurance covers small diagnostic procedures and, oddly enough, a certain amount of legal protection should I ever be sued for causing damage to other people's property, or injury to third parties. I've read recently that Korea is quite a litigious society and while I was not aware of this allegation beforehand, I can well believe it from certain anecdotal evidence I am aware of within our social network, so this seems like a theoretically useful policy to have, especially as the whole package costs around £21 (40,500 won/$34) per month.

The much more expensive "Life" insurance covers larger diagnostic procedures as well as drug and operative treatments, although I was disappointed to discover the ceiling for cancer-related payments was only 20,000,000 won (£10,000/$17,000), which seemed very small. There was a lot more included though, so in principle the proposed policy had its attractions. I was aiming for a monthly cost of around £90 (174,000 won/$147) because this was the equivalent of what I would be paying in the UK, although it's very hard to compare like-with-like considering that Korean policies are so different. So I was taken aback to be quoted an annual cost approaching £1,500 - £1,750 (3,150,000 won/$2,661) if you include the "health" insurance on top of it. Friend or no friend, I was ready to show her the door, even when it was explained that I would only pay this amount for 20 years - after which I would be still covered for life with no additional premiums. This struck me as the health insurance equivalent of a Government-sponsored national pension pyramid scheme, where people paid relatively small premiums 20-30 years ago based on the seemingly ridiculous assumption that life expectancy and health costs would not rise considerably with future technological improvements. I couldn't see the insurance company keeping their system working if average life expectancy rose to 100 in the foreseeable future, which to my mind is entirely possible. I was dubious.

But the next big shock sealed the deal. It was too expensive to my mind, but I thought I could sign up and find a better deal in the next few months when I had the time to research the market properly, so I asked about penalty clauses for withdrawing from the scheme. This caused some nervousness on the part of the insurance agent - she explained that as we were a 'personal contact' she would be paying our first month's bill (probably from her bonus I thought), so it would 'look very bad' if we pulled out after only one or two months. If this happened, it seemed she would be sent for 're-education' within the company, something which had an unpleasantly North Korean feel to it. However, the real surprise was that if I withdrew, I'd get just under 69% of my premiums back - which stopped the scheme looking so expensive after all, although in some senses while they are dangling the carrot of a fixed 20-year payment plan, on the other hand it takes on aspects of a long-term - admittedly zero-interest - savings scheme. So I signed up, utterly unconvinced as I am that it is competitive or realistic. There is a lot happening right now, of which the health and life insurance is only a minor part, so there is an element of putting something in place and moving on.

The insurance agent went away and returned later in the day with the formal papers for signing, and there was a lot to be signed - so much in fact I wondered whether I was getting health insurance or promising my eternal soul to the company. I counted nine separate signatures, and because my wife is the named payer on the principle that only she can have read the considerable number of terms and conditions and understood them, she got to sign her name around fifteen times on the same documents. Unfortunately this also points out a rather sad reality about my future in Korea - it's one thing to understand social conversations, but it's going to take a long time before my understanding of the language is anywhere near good enough to understand legal contracts and the kind of small print which appears within them. There is a very, very, long way to go.

Later, the insurance company phoned me up to ensure that I'd signed up willingly to the policy because I'm a foreigner and I couldn't have understood what I was signing. But there was a problem - they couldn't speak English on the phone - so the laughable way this ended up working is with them asking a question in Korean to my wife, who passed over the phone to me with instructions on whether to say 'yes' or 'no' in Korean to the person on the other end of the line. Then I passed the phone back and we moved on to the next question. How this proves anything is anyone's guess. Corporate Korea hasn't quite worked out how to deal with foreigners as customers of their services, but I should be grateful that they even let me be a customer - it's not always guaranteed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Roman Candles

I left the apartment early this morning to find a cake for my wife's birthday before she woke up, and discovered that my favourite local bakery didn't open until 9am. I'm used to Koreans working very long hours, and since many British bakeries are open much earlier in the day, I'd assumed the same would be true here, but it isn't.

Avoiding the Paris Baguette chain as being too manufactured and clichéd, I located an alternative that was open, and for once was rather glad to have a staff member hover over me while I made a selection from a large array of choices. My new best friend ventured to tell me the ingredients which met with my approval, and after telling her "I'd like to buy this one", we proceeded to the checkout.

Which is where this thus-far smooth transaction went off the rails. As the cake was being packed, the assistant said something in Korean to me the only part of which I understood was "cho" (초) which means a 'second' (of time). It crossed my mind that I was being told that she would 'just be a second', which if you're British is the kind of thing a person packing something in a shop for you would be likely to say, but in retrospect probably deviates outside the norm of the Korean language on the principle that it is too casual. I apologised, said I didn't understand, and contrary to any impression I might have thus far created, didn't speak Korean. I'd considered explaining that it was my wife's birthday, but I wasn't sure it added anything to the situation. I paid and left.

Back at home, it quickly became clear that "cho" is also the Korean word for 'candles' as well as 'second' - and despite these having been included with every cake I'd ever witnessed being purchased before, my failure to grasp the other meaning of this word coupled with the assistant not trying to clarify her question had led to me, or rather my wife, not having any with her cake. I was kicking myself for not having thought to look up the word for candles before I'd left the apartment, but this is the problem with only having a smattering of usable Korean - once any conversation strays outside my 700-word vocabulary I'm very quickly lost.

Korean Mother announced that she had one we could use, and promptly returned with the kind Buddhist worshippers take to temples - which in other words was not so much a candle as a blunt object.

Next year, I'll remember the Korean word for 'candles' - and I'll probably visit a different store.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fast Food

Delivery bikes are a fact of life in Korea - and not just on the streets - apparently being the owner of such a vehicle entitles you to ride on the pavements/sidewalks at speed weaving your way in and out of pedestrians, which by some miracle, you usually manage to miss. Although not quite always, as I finally found out a couple of weeks ago when a wing mirror connected solidly with my arm.

But in all my time here I was never aware that McDonald's had got into the local delivery business, so perhaps this was a new development while I was away. The bike even has "McDelivery" written on its side, in case there was any doubt. Personally I don't quite picture myself perusing their menu to pick out a cheap burger and fries, but to be fair, it's no different from the kind of food local Korean outlets would happily bring to the door, usually at much lower prices, and quite possibly, profit margins. A couple of days after taking this shot, another McDelivery bike shot by me at around 20mph as I walked down the street, missing me by a finely calculated couple of inches and doing nothing for their corporate image with me. Branding your delivery vehicles here can be a double-edged sword.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Couch Trip

The centre of the city where I used to live had a lot of retail stores as you might expect, but beyond that lay an urban residential sprawl punctuated by pockets of small shops and the occasional supermarket. So when I reached Busan I was immediately taken aback to discover that it was not so much the residential areas which seemed endless - although apartment blocks are everywhere you look - but the commercial space, which is so ubiquitous it seems almost impossible to get away from it.

While confusing at first, it later irritated me. I'd studied Economics and it didn't make any sense; there had to be a finite amount of money flowing around the economy, so how could a society support a system where every other person seemed to be running a store? Napoleon had once famously described Britain as "a nation of shopkeepers", but that was never really true and in the modern world it seems a phrase which would much more aptly describe South Korea. But I've resigned myself to never really understanding how such a system is truly economically viable, unless it can be put down to a state of near perfect competition in which people live in some kind of state of commercial subsistence. Anecdotally it's certainly my impression that a lot of people are working very long hours in small stores for comparatively little money, and maybe that's the small entrepreneur's lot in life in this country.

So when I say there are a lot of shops selling furniture in my area of Busan, the statement needs to be put into the context of there being a lot of shops selling everything, everywhere, in a hopelessly, sometimes especially, overlapping way. Sometimes though, you can still be surprised. We're looking to buy a couch for our office at the moment, and the local shops can only take us so far because they are too small. Yes, you can pick items out of a catalogue, but then it's a leap of faith as to whether it's comfortable or not. So when Korean Mother said she'd take us to the large furniture store where she'd bought her couch, it must have lost something in the translation, because before I knew what was happening a taxi was taking us up a mountain which was while still very much within Busan, certainly off the beaten track. And what we reached was not so much a large furniture store, but what I think can only be described as "furniture mountain" (otherwise known as '구평 가구단지'). It very much reminded me of those near single-street American gold-rush towns - except here we had two or three streets laid out like a town, but with every store selling furniture - I estimated there to be between 30-40 outlets. It was rather disconcerting.

Our quest began at the Tom & Jerry furniture store, where the interior layout provided the next revelation - after seeing countless small cluttered and hopelessly jammed furniture shops in our local district, here was the first time I'd seen a place that looked like the spacious furniture superstores we had back home. The floors were flat and not dangerous in any way, there was no loose wiring trailing across it or hanging from the ceiling - for that matter the ceilings were even and there was nothing else to suggest a structural collapse as an imminent or eventual possibility.

Unfortunately this is what invariable happens in these types of stores. You go in, and pass by the two or three salespeople loitering by the entrance. The moment they are behind you, they tail you as though you were in some kind of 1960s spy movie, except their preferred following distance is about 1 foot - close enough to smell the Kimchi. This makes it somewhat difficult to take photos, which is a shame because today I saw two or three utterly hideous beds which one can only assume are being sold exclusively to love hotels or the seriously deranged, and a green couch that can only be explained as a remnant of a failed alien invasion.

I think the best advice in these situations is to buy one of the first three couches you sit on that you find acceptable, because while there might be 39 other stores to choose from, it turns out that everyone is selling slightly derivative works on the same designs. In fact, many of the couches were just the same design no matter what store we went into and it began to become a blur. You'd think that with so many rivals, competition on price would be fierce, but we were none too impressed with the prices we were quoted having shopped around on the Internet beforehand.

The other flaw in Korean Mother's plan was that it may have been easy enough getting up furniture mountain by taxi, but try getting a taxi back down late in the afternoon when people were shutting up. So we set off walking on a descent which looked set to occupy our next half-hour. But it wasn't long before a horn beeped behind us and a woman shouted a respectful "Mother!" to Korean Mother - it was one of the salespeople or owners from the third store we had visited. She kindly offered us a lift down thus ensuring that if we return, it will most likely be to do business at her establishment. However, having been overloaded with broadly similar options, and having found no options which seemed to meet our precise requirements or tastes, we had given up for the day and decided to return home to consider our next move.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Road Rage

We were in the Seomyeon district of Busan when the first incident happened. A car accelerated at great speed from a crossing and hurtled down the road briefly before suddenly slamming on the brakes in a move I felt sure would have left two thick black tracks of rubber on the tarmac beneath it. Stationary traffic lay ahead, but it was perhaps the presence of a police car in the next lane which had caused a sudden change of heart by the driver. The offending vehicle had come shuddering to a halt next to it, and I was full sure I was about to see its driver get pulled over in one of the more obvious infractions of the law enforcement officers' day, but instead both vehicles set off when the lights changed and went their own way. Perhaps the paperwork was more trouble than it was worth. It was nothing compared to the second incident.

After lunch we were walking back down the same road, and in almost the same spot that the first car had begun to catapult itself down the road, we were treated to the odd sight of a stationary taxi with its path blocked by a stationary white car facing in the other direction - which had apparently crossed over the centre of the road into its path.

I was not ready for what happened next. The white car suddenly moved forward and, even though I was about 100 meters away, there was no mistaking the shudder of the taxi as it was rammed at low speed. Now what had been a scene of mild passing interest to the considerable number of people nearby became an incident which had claimed their full attention. I believe I counted around four or five seconds of collective disbelief where everyone seemed to be frozen in their places, before bodies began to rapidly converge to form a crowd of captive onlookers.

By this time I had run down the road to snatch a couple of photos. The taxi driver seemed to be as perplexed as the pedestrians and it wasn't at all clear what was going on or what the cause of it might have been. But as suddenly as it had happened, the driver of the offending car got back into it from some undetermined point, reversed, and slowly headed off down the road, before turning right at the next intersection and disappearing. Whether this hadn't been part of the plan I don't know, but it was at this point the taxi driver, who had pulled his vehicle into the other side by now, set off running after the white car at some pace, leaving me standing by the now empty taxi zooming into the images in my camera to see if I had captured the licence plate of the vanished vehicle. It was an instinctive reaction on my part, rather than perhaps one which was thought through. I didn't know the cause but I had just watched one driver deliberately ram another car in the middle of one of the busiest streets in Seomyeon, in front of a hundred witnesses, and then drive off without apparently having a care in the world. But I was urged to move on - it wasn't my problem, and it probably wasn't something I should be volunteering to get involved with.

As we walked away - and I kid you not - an entirely separate incident was emerging a little further up the road, with the drivers and passengers of two cars which had apparently not collided, nevertheless spilling out onto the street to initiate a clearly heated argument about some perceived infraction. Actually it was mainly the accompanying ajummas doing the violent finger-pointing.

I was on a bus a couple of weeks ago, waiting at some traffic lights. They changed and we set off, but inevitably traffic was still crossing ahead of us - and it was bunched up such that the last car in the chain came to a halt still in our path. The moment it stopped the driver of our bus must have realised that he was going to have to stop accelerating and apply the brake. He hit the accelerator instead, in fact so aggressively that the entire vehicle lurched forward in a momentary wave of g-force. This is of course entirely normal for Korean buses, but this was particularly pronounced. Stood as I was in the centre near the windscreen, I had a clear view of the car we were about to hit, and I knew that the bus driver had deliberately engaged ramming speed and that he had passed the point of no return - it was too late for him to stop in time. The driver of the car managed to find some space and get out of our path - had he not a crash would have been inevitable. More shocking - it would have been planned.

A few days ago I was in a taxi and our driver similarly targeted another vehicle, ensuring a crash without evasive action on the part of his intended victim. It's entirely possible that this country's abysmally unsafe driving has actually evolved into street warfare with vehicles for weapons while I've been away.

I spent around four hours in a car yesterday being driven around Busan. In those four hours I'd estimate we had around twenty of the kind of near misses that would occur once a year in England and be on your mind for days afterwards. As usual there were no rear seat belts, or usable rear seat belts at least, so the chances of death in any kind of serious accident are quite high. I have little doubt that our driver would have been oblivious to almost every incident, and blasé about the ones which might have been vaguely registered. I told my wife to never, ever, let me drive in this country, but I really wished it was possible to never be a passenger again either.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Piece of Cake

I had only my second birthday in Korea recently, but while the first offered few surprises, and while I thought I understood the essentials of Korean cake design from the large number of small bakeries that exist here, I was not ready to discover that the large cherry-like objects sitting in the cream atop this example are in fact... tomatoes. I know, to the unseasoned observer the size should probably have given this away, but during my time in this country I have become accustomed to its suspiciously-oversized fruit, so it didn't immediately set the alarm bells ringing.

I'd marked the occasion earlier in the day with a return to my old haunt, Ijaemo (이재모 aka Lee Jaemo - it's a name) Pizza since I was already in the Nampodong district of Busan at a computer store buying a new power unit for my desktop PC. Sadly their ham-and-pineapple pizza with raisins - which had approached levels of near greatness - was no longer on the menu, so I had to settle for a much duller chicken pizza which the waitress assured us was "not hot". It's not that I necessarily mind hot food, but to my mind there are times and places for it, and all too often food is so hot here it kills the taste of dishes which have much more to offer - if they aren't wiped out in a nuclear fire of peppers or tobasco sauce. Unfortunately it seems so much the norm here that trusting the waitresses' assurances was my undoing - maybe it wasn't for her, but by the time I'd had one slice, my taste buds were already numbing. The loss of my favoured Ijaemo menu item means that I will have to renew my quest for Busan's best pizza again in the near future, although Mr. Pizza's (bizarre slogans - "pizza for women!" and "love for women!") ham and pineapple may come close. It actually seems to feature identifiable ham and actual sauce.

Mr. Pizza have also, in my absence, apparently developed the intriguing Shrimp Nude and even more inexplicable Beselo ("Bestseller & Best Lover") varieties, in addition to curry pizzas. It's ironic that coming from a city which has often vied for the title of "Curry Capital of Britain", and where the vast majority of independent pizza takeaways only use حلال (halal) meat as ingredients, I've never actually seen these two types of food merged except in Korea, and although the idea hadn't occurred to me before, now it's left me wondering why.

I've also discovered that a local bakery and café has hit upon the idea of combining the themes of pizza and dessert, to bring us pineapple and walnut pizza-slices. Those with an eye for fine detail will note the herb-effect on top of the central pineapples. Expect more research to follow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

F2: Forensic Factor

Shortly after I arrived in Korea, I went to the local Beautiful Korea, Wonderful Immigration - KISS office - which when it wants to be less friendly is known as a branch of the Ministry of Justice - in the hope of obtaining an F2 visa as the spouse of a Korean national. In the past, the process had appeared to be nothing more than a formality, but this time there were questions, and it even appeared we might have found ourselves in a Catch-22 situation with our marriage certificate. I was told I could go and collect my new visa on a certain date, if they didn't phone me first to notify me there would be a more detailed investigation. I left with a sinking feeling that I might get sucked into another bureaucratic farce the type of which I inexplicably seem to attract.

There was nothing to be done but put it out of my mind and get on with setting up my life here, and to be fair, I didn't believe the situation with the marriage certificates was likely to become unresolvable, though I couldn't help wondering whether in the worst case scenario, I might be back in the UK in December trying to sort it out.

So it was with some relief that I was able to get up yesterday morning, having received no call, and go down to Beautiful Korea, Wonderful Immigration and claim my newly issued F2 visa which enables me to stay here until next September, at which point we may dance our little dance again. It's a pity that the experience wasn't quite so untroubled this time, but it's nothing compared to the near-European Convention on Human Rights breaching antics of the British Government, and so very much cheaper.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Event Horizon

"Chuseok is one of Korea’s most largely celebrated holidays. It is a time when families and friends gather to share food and enjoy their time together, giving thanks to their ancestors for the year's bountiful harvests." - Korea Tourism Organization

But there was no bountiful harvest for me on Saturday - except of misfortune; Chuseok will now also be known as the day I caused the Great Internet Blackout in our apartment, after the setting up of our intranet-based trading webserver went horribly wrong and stopped our self-sabotaging router talking to the outside world. So while I spent the the holiday trying to get us back online, Korean Mother, Brother and Wife whiled away the hours playing our other British import - the Nintendo Wii. I wondered if I should care; it didn't feel like a holiday to me - I've spent much of the thirteen days since my return working to set up our new lives here and I don't particularly want to stop until everything is done.

The next day, we are in a taxi taking a Chuseok gift of several bunches of very large and heavy grapes to Korean Best Friend. "Is he American?" asked the driver. Our eyes meet through the rear-view mirror. "No - British" replies my wife. This is usually the point at which the tension in the air dissipates and we have a good-humoured conversation or I listen to criticisms aimed at my cousins from across the pond - instead this time there was something of a complaint heading in my direction. "I had three British people in the back of my taxi not so long ago, and they ate!" - "Burgers!" he added with some disgust. I'm guessing this isn't the done thing in Korea. "Do people eat in taxis in the UK?" Well, not as far as I know - but then maybe that's just because I don't know the kind of people who do.

I considered making an effort to apologise on my compatriots' behalves, but if I'm not on the their side, and I'm certainly not on the Koreans', where does this leave me? "Whose side are you on here?" I asked myself as I exited the taxi. "Mine". Or at least, I think I am.

So here's my plan: Best Friend's house, gift, leave, lunch at Gimbab Nara, home, watch the Japanese Grand Prix while continuing to work on setting up our computer network and attempting to fix the monitor which failed earlier in the week. I never watched Formula 1 in Korea despite it being on Korean ESPN, but started again when I was in the UK and I just haven't kicked the bad habit again yet. The plan advances as far as the Friend's house, where Friend's Mother is very happy to see us again. "You look well". So I try to reply in Korean "Listen, if I don't get some proper sleep soon in this noisy country of yours, I'm going to have a psychotic episode" but it comes out slightly differently as "It's the weather". "Ah well, yes, Korea has four seasons you know" - I attempt a swift riposte "Oh come on, we are not going through this bovine excrement again are we? We get four seasons in a day in my former homeland", which I mistranslate as "Ah yes, the FOUR seasons" - and nodding my head for effect. And then the food starts coming out. And I know what this means - there comes a moment when you cross the event horizon of a Korean social black hole, and you don't necessarily see it happen but after that your fate is sealed - there's no way out until you're put through the process and can possibly emerge as Hawking radiation.

So here's their plan. At 1pm 4th Daughter will arrive with her boyfriend - who hasn't yet been formally introduced to her parents. This is, therefore, a major occasion in Korean culture; parental approval can make or break a potential marriage, and it's clear from the anecdotal evidence I've already been witness to that this is no mere rubber stamping exercise, but a real opportunity to make superficial, prejudicial and ultimately condemning judgements on the potential match for any unfathomable reason whatsoever. At 2pm Korean Best Friend and 3rd Daughter's soon-to-be husband will arrive and while that match is a foregone conclusion it's still suit-and-tie affair for the groom-to-be. At 3pm 2nd Daughter will arrive with her new boyfriend, who will also be formally introduced for the first time. So if we don't get out by 1pm we're going to get sucked into this.

At 1pm 4th Daughter's new boyfriend arrives in his suit looking jumpy. "I'm so nervous, I'm sweating!" And he really was - if you could bottle agitation he could have cornered the market. The pictures of the potential father-in-law hanging on the wall, showing him so proudly in his uniform with acres of medal ribbons across his chest, would no doubt have done little to calm his fears. And I thought I had it bad marrying the police inspector's daughter. Maybe not so much. After he settles down at the table Best Friend's Mother complains that 4th Daughter hasn't said much about him beforehand. "Then ask me anything about myself" he says. The first question is "What do your parents do?"

At 2pm Best Friend's future husband turns up. "I actually got here 15 minutes ago - so I had to wait at the end of the street." he jokes - or does he? Best Friend's father is very particular about punctuality, which between that, and his background, may account for the afternoon's precision planning. I eat some rice cake but pass on the abalone which I'm not a fan of - despite some insistence from the groom-to-be; I've played this game before and my go-to-hell smile is well practised. Except last time I played I was here as a prolonged visitor, this time I'm here with the intention of staying, so the game has changed, and not to my advantage. I turn to my wife and ask if I should eat it just to shock him. She thinks not, but I know the day is coming when I'm going to have to dive into this kind of Korean cuisine with gusto rather than picking at a dish here and there. In fact, while I may always be afforded some latitude, I know I have to become more Korean, and the terrible thing is that sitting there on the floor at that table, wondering if my aching out-of-condition Korean sitting muscles will ever let me stand up again, I knew that I'd already crossed the event horizon when I got on that plane and came out here two weeks ago. It was always going to be this way, but this is when I really felt the full horror of it - surrounded by seafood with my dead legs, rusty language skills and a fading smile.

Best Friend's Mother is friendly and familiar and she's really making an effort, which only serves to emphasise that I am the problem here. Or maybe she's getting too familiar - "Hands in my space! And... now... you have your arm around me." Did I mention I was British and in my culture... oh never mind. There is much laughter as my body language is unconsciously signalling my intention to escape. We're sitting on a bench by the table at this point, and Korean Wife seizes the opportunity of a distracted moment to grab hold of the top of my jeans pockets and belt and use them to discreetly slide me away across the bench from the ajumma's immediate sphere of influence.

More food is on the table now - because it's coming in never-ending waves from the women in the kitchen - and this time Best Friend's Mother insists I try some decorated Korean sweet rice cakes before her. It's a trap, and not one I fall for - you should eat first - I tell her. She claps her hands in delight at this indicator of my growing assimilation.

Despite my protestations the Japanese Grand Prix had been put on the TV. I couldn't watch it without appearing rude and I couldn't not watch it without also appearing rude at the gesture. Shortly after 2nd Daughter's new boyfriend appeared at 3pm and he had been introduced and settled down at the table he asked those assembled "Why are you watching this when there's no Korean playing?" So there you go Bernie Ecclestone, you can hold your Korean Grand Prix next year, but until a Korean driver gets put in one of those cockpits, don't count on anyone here really giving a damn.

My wife confided in me that she was sorry she didn't come from a large family to have this kind of gathering, and as though Best Friend's Mother read her mind as she counted off her daughters and their partners, she went on to indicate my spouse as her 'honorary' 5th daughter and therefore myself as her 'honorary' 5th son-in-law, offering the justification that "even though he's a foreigner, he seems nice." Everyone laughs at the joke.

There were threats that a round of 'Go Stop' was going to break out, which as well as being the Korean driving style, is also a popular card game. This was finally our chance to escape; Korean Wife was tired and while she may have harboured wishes of being part of a bigger family, her stamina for it was about as strong as my Korean sitting muscles.

By the time I left two Korean men had past their event horizons; if approved their futures were now locked into the gravitational influence of another Korean family. And one English man had realised he was finally locked into the gravitational influence of an entire society.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Before I got married I was both surprised and confused to learn that my girlfriend and I would be having our wedding photographs taken about four weeks before of the actual date. Unlike Westerners there are evidently no superstitions involving any bad luck which comes from seeing the bride in her dress before wedding ceremony begins, and unfortunately Koreans also don't really have the tradition of not turning up to church on the day leaving your intended standing at the alter, or at least, the tradition of considering it a possibility. Hence, while a Westerner might see taking pre-emptive wedding shots as rather presumptuous, in Korea it is simply the way things are done.

I recall the day our wedding photographs were taken as being a somewhat arduous and confusing affair, with frequent changes of costumes, oversized boots, square metal belts, and photographs taken against a series of increasingly disturbing backdrops, including what resembled a girl's bedroom and a dungeon. Admittedly, we had gone for a cheap package but it wasn't specifically a foreigner stereotype one.

Now the boot's on the other foot, because my wife's best friend is getting married soon. Last Saturday it was her turn for the day-long photo-shoot, so she wanted us to come along to provide moral support and capture the more casual images of the big occasion. I'd gathered it was common to designate a close friend to be there in that function, but we hadn't bothered for ours, in part because we wanted a low-key affair and I felt our arrangements were spiralling out of control and threatening to turn into a circus - well, as far as I could tell behind the impenetrable language barrier.

We were out of our apartment at 11am to eat with Korean Best Friend and her future husband, with the shoot scheduled to begin at 3pm and finish at 9. But before the shoot could begin, clothing and backdrops had to be chosen from a wedding album featuring unfortunate English which - if our experience is anything to go by - will appear in the final album and can make showing them to family back home unintentionally amusing or awkward depending on exactly what appears in large lettering next to your treasured memories. In everyday life, you usually accept this kind of broken English as part of the backdrop, but believe me, it doesn't look pretty in a wedding album. Given that quite often the English is ripped straight out of pop songs, it's almost inexplicable how Ben E. King's "Just as long as you stand, stand by me" became "hust as ling" in the picture below. In Korea, even cut-and-paste doesn't cut it. And the less said about the palpitations and the fist the better. This is a country in which a great deal of money is spent on English education, but the results are rather sad to see sometimes.

In fact the wedding album from which maybe six or seven sets will be chosen from twenty reveals a great truth about Korean wedding shoots - at some level they are supposed to be individual, but really they are a mass-produced product. You look through an album of pages showing these pre-packaged outfits, stances and backdrops, so that later it can be you in exactly that shot, with that outfit, stance and backdrop, on the same page with the same badly translated English. If you pay more, you might be able to work in something of your own choosing, but mostly you'll be treading a very worn path made by thousands of couples who have gone before you.

Our friend had paid more so the shoot was a little different - enough so that while we may have been fortunate enough to not be the principle actors this time, I soon discovered we would be called upon to play a supporting role in one of the shots rather than sitting back in the audience, dressed in our t-shirts and jeans. If we ever get invited to such an affair again, we'll remember to dress up, just in case. On the other hand, the prospective groom clearly hadn't felt compelled to go the extra mile in the preparatory department either - closer inspection over lunch revealed the suggestion of an impending 5 o'clock shadow above his upper lip. He was asked about it - "I haven't shaved for weeks" he replied sheepishly, though it was impossible to tell whether his reticence to discuss the subject was provoked by the general absence of facial hair or by his failure to break with his tradition and find a razor before the shoot. The conversation drifted away but it didn't take me with it - I was too busy working out how much time each week I was losing to this guy standing in front of the bathroom mirror scrubbing the stubble from my face every morning - over an hour, as it turned out. I'll never be able to compete with the Koreans with this disadvantage.

Not that anyone is going to notice the groom's grooming - as our disturbingly exuberant photographer frequently exclaimed during his frantic shots - "Don't worry, it's all going to be Photoshopped!" And judging by the photographs of the two people who appeared in my own shoot two years ago, it will be too. Five years from now Koreans won't even bother turning up to their photo shoots, it will all just be faked. Five years after that, you'll have the option of appearing with your future children in the photographs, based on your combined genetic profiles.

In any case, grooms are merely extras and in many ways the event really revolves around the prospective brides - the dress changes, hair changes and cosmetic repairs can consume huge quantities of time relative to the actual shots themselves, while often the man involved will merely change jackets, depending on what sets have been chosen.

Two hours into the shoot, family members arrived with food, and everyone - including the photographer and resident stylist - ate communally. This seemed to speed the affair along because we actually managed to finish by 7pm. After a short delay a DVD with around 500 raw photographs was handed over - over which the prospective bride and groom subsequently agonised over at some length to select a handful to be 'Photoshopped!' and appear in their album. Along with the 170 photographs I culled from the 400 I took, this will ultimately give our couple several hundred images of the day - and that's before the wedding has even begun.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Confessions of a Mask

So where are all the Koreans who were supposedly panicking about Swine Flu? If anything, there seem to be even fewer people roaming the streets wearing masks than I recall there being in normal times. I fully expected everyone to be wearing them at the stations - because that's what we had been led to believe - but I only saw one person in total. There were heat cameras at Incheon Airport like the ones they had during the Bird Flu scare, but otherwise there were few visible signs that anything had changed. Korean Brother, whose odd schedule finally intersected with ours in the early hours of one morning, clearly was concerned enough to talk to us about it and ask about life in the UK under the pandemic, and some other friends have discussed the subject with us in somewhat hushed tones over meals which are often shared from central dishes.

I must admit, when I was back in the UK I began to feel a certain nervousness about coughing in public, feeling as though the moment I did a dozen sets of eyes would immediately fixate on me with suspicion - but when I came through Incheon Airport last week that nervousness had escalated into the outright fear that the mere clearing of my throat might trigger an audio alarm and my immediate burial beneath a pile of Korean biomedical experts in hazmat suits. That fear never receded too far from the surface once I'd entered into the country proper, and I felt if I walked around the streets with a mask on I'd be given a particularly wide berth. Maybe the Koreans feel the same way.

Which is not to say everything is exactly the same. When Korean Mother went shopping for a new TV two years ago I noted most stores would have drinks and snacks laid out for their customers, presumably in an attempt to weaken their resolve to haggle. Now my wife and I are out shopping for a TV, the food and drinks are still there, but often alongside a bottle of hand gel of some description, and when I was in the Nampodong area of Busan a few days ago, there was a woman in the street brandishing liquid soap, offering to clean the hands of people passing by. But in the five minutes I happened to be stood there, only one person took up the offer. So it looks as though life here goes on as normal, with a few additional features.