Monday, March 29, 2010

The Kite Runner

The 40th Busan International Kite Festival was held this weekend, so yesterday we went along to watch and fly kites of our own around the periphery of the event, which apparently is the done thing. This involved actually buying a kite first, but given that kite flying is a reasonably popular activity in Busan, it isn't that difficult to find shops selling them in appropriate locations.

The Festival was being held at Dadaepo Beach. During my first 18-month stay in Korea, and even though some of it was a bit of a blur, I'm fairly sure I only visited Dadaepo Beach once, and that was only in passing as a break between driving from one place to another. In the last three months, I've been back there for the Last Sunset Festival, the Jeongweol Daeboreum Festival and now the International Kite Festival. Suddenly, Dadaepo Beach seems to be a hive of festival activity.

Like many things I experience in Korea, I had no few preconceived ideas as to what to expect, but having never seen one-hundred foot long kites before, I was in for a surprise when they swung into view over Dadaepo Bay. It looked exciting. There were festival tents and a large banner promised 'Folk Games Big Party'. But in truth, not a lot seemed to be actually happening - or not in an organised way at least. Dadaepo Beach was full of people flying their kites in a private capacity. Most were small but there were obviously a few more hard-core individuals controlling larger - and noisier - aerial displays. It seems I also hadn't realised that by fitting a kite with an audible device, the swooping and diving can be accompanied by a rather alarming noise.

But while flying a kite may offer some interactivity, watching people keep their kites in the air wasn't much of a spectator sport, so I wandered down the beach where I thought I'd spotted Korean Batman, who actually turned out to be a kitesurfer getting ready to take to the water.

In fact, some kitesurfers were already in the water. It was unclear whether they had any connection with the Festival or merely happened to be doing what they always did on a Sunday afternoon. I rather suspected the latter. Dadaepo Beach seems to be one of those 'anything goes' type of places.

Back at the tents a few people were playing traditional Korean games, one of which involved throwing an arrow into a cylindrical tube. But generally, while there were a lot of tents, not much was happening in most of them. A few had kites on display, while many of the others were either empty or had been commandeered by people to sit down in.

I understand that Saturday saw the elimination rounds of a kite competition and that Sunday would therefore see the finals. This might have explained the apparent lack of official activity. I can't say what stage of the final it was that eventually did begin, but two men took to different podiums on the beach and readied their kites. If the judge venting his anger at both competitors was anything to go by, this was a very serious business. Apparently this was to be a 'kite fight'. It wasn't at all clear what this involved but as I watched both kites in the air positioning themselves it seemed to have all the excitement of a slow game of chess. The friends we'd come with wanted to go and eat what would be a very late lunch so we left at this point. I didn't feel I was missing much, which is a pity because afterwards I learned that Kite Fighting is a proper sport in Korea and it certainly sounds like it gets more interesting than anything I saw. As we walked to our car, one of the men could be seen running to pick up his severed kite.

Generally, the 40th Busan International Kite Festival was interesting, but oddly anarchic.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A River Runs Through It

A few years ago $900 million was spent creating a 6km recreational space along a stream in central Seoul. I've visited this urban renewal project 'Cheonggyecheon' ('청계천') and it is quite beautiful, although as its Wikipedia page suggests, it has not been universally welcomed.

It's possible that since then Korea has developed an obsession with rivers, streams and even canals, though perhaps it had one even before 'Cheonggyecheon' was completed. There's even a development proposed for our neighbourhood which involves creating an artificial stream with bridges running the length of the district. Everyone, it seems, wants a little bit of 'Cheonggyecheon'.

The Suyeong River ('Suyeongcheon'/수영천') in the Banyeodong area of Busan is not quite so picturesque, but this hasn't stopped part of the area around it being designated as a 'park'. A 'park' elicits certain imagery for an English person. The Victorians, stifled by industrial pollution and in a last gasp of the grandeur of empire, built quite a lot of them, generally squarish in shape, generally complete with ornamental ponds and statues of lions evoking notions of far off conquests and British dominance. These days, except on the sunniest of days, they're primarily the domain of drug-users and knife-wielding youths, and as such, have retained their national metaphor. In Korea, a park is a much more fluid term, seemingly covering almost any public area within a city that hasn't succumbed to urban sprawl. Which usually means they are to be found somewhere it would be too difficult or undesirable to build.

So to call the Banyeodong river development a park by British standards would be a stretch - it is essentially a couple of paths either side of a river nestled between two busy roads, featuring a small recreational area, some public exercise equipment, a vegetable patch, a decaying factory, and a couple of potentially dangerous river crossings.

But you have to take what you can get here I think. I used to enjoy running when I was younger and have often thought about taking it up as part of my efforts to keep fit, but it isn't really safe to go out running alone early in the morning where I'm from, and in Korea, it's a question of finding a place. Like most of Korea, Busan is quite mountainous so the flat areas between the peaks tend to be heavily built up. Running along the main roads never looks healthy because of the heavy traffic fumes, frequency of junctions, people, and motorcyclists treating the pavements/sidewalks as a road. Away from the major roads, there aren't even any pavements so you take your chances with the traffic weaving in and out of the streets. It's not conducive to picking up a sustained pace. So if I sound underwhelmed about the park in Banyeodong, you have to understand it is a small oasis of possibility in an unforgiving urban landscape, and I wish we had something like it near our apartment. Perhaps one day the local government will build a stream for us, as promised.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fresh Air

After our pottery class in Haeundae on Sunday, we went to Songjeong Beach. It wasn't far, which surprised me. I realise in retrospect that every time we've been there before it was by car, and since separate trips to Haeundae and Songjeong have never connected, I'd never made the geographical connection between the two. This tells me I'm still orientating myself when it comes to getting around Busan.

I found some clean air on the beach, and it was more than welcome. As one might expect, the atmospheric quality of a large city like Busan is never going to be high, but the day before Korea had been hit by the worst recorded Yellow Dust storm since records began in 2003. I'd noticed it late on Saturday afternoon, when an apparently descending fog took on a brownish hue, in-between the mountains where we live. There were warnings not to go out without a mask on the next day for fear of breathing in the potentially damaging cocktail of heavy metals and other pollutants, but by the time we awoke, it seemed to have passed.

When I think about my life in Korea, weighing up the pros and cons, the increasingly severe Yellow Dust and its potentially life-shortening properties are a significant negative, although it does have one small benefit. Koreans often ask me what I like the most about their country, but sometimes the braver souls ask what I don't like. The truth is that the extreme sensitivity here to any kind of national criticism is a fact of life that I find incredibly tiresome, and it's also why answering that question unprepared is a minefield. The Yellow Dust is as perfect an answer as one is likely to be gifted with, because it's immediately something Koreans can identify as being a problem in this country while not in any way being their fault.

So a beach with an accompanying sea breeze offers the rare pleasure of non-life-shortening deep breaths in Busan, especially during Yellow Dust season. Unfortunately, it was rather cold, though this hadn't put off a number of people who were also to be found strolling along the sands, and the even braver souls in the water with their surfboards trying to find the perfect wave. As I discovered before, Songjeong is very much a beach for surfers.

We hung around for a while breathing, watching the surfers, and at one point, being buzzed by a large flock of seagulls which were inexplicably trying to claim my section of beach as their own. I stood my ground.

Monday, March 22, 2010


After my wife became pregnant, she joined the Busan Momsholic. Momsholic Baby is a national club in Korea which was set up for both pregnant women and mothers. They provide an online community as well as a number of off-line opportunities to meet and participate in activities. Recently some of the expectant members, along with their partners, signed up on a first-come-first-served basis to a one-off pottery class and my wife and I went along at a cost of 10,000 won per couple.

The class was being held at the Nature Ceramic Studio in the Haeundae district of Busan, which is high up on a hill with some rather attractive views of the sea, near a large restaurant curiously entitled Tom's Dinner (sic). The Studio regularly hosts classes in various rooms, but perhaps because it was a Sunday we were able to work in the main gallery which forms the store front.

A photographer was in attendance and while he snapped away he told us that the previous group had been very serious and we should try and have fun. That proved to be easier said than done; with most of us operating beyond our comfort zone even with the guidance provided by the teacher, it seemed to be an activity requiring all our concentration. So I think he'll be telling the same story to the next group.

The plan for today's class was to create oil burners. My wife and I decided to fashion a house of sorts, with the roof serving as the oil reservoir. Gradually, this evolved - more by accident than design - into two houses, one with a vaguely Mediterranean feel I suppose. The other, by virtue of it being much smaller and more haphazard in construction and finished design, looked suspiciously like the kind of Korean house you can still sometimes find deep in the countryside. This wasn't lost on the other people present - 'ah, that looks just like a Korean house' they said 'you've developed a fusion design!' Fusion is anything here that mixes Korean with anything non-Korean - from fusion food to our 'fusion' baby. I wasn't really comfortable with the outcome - the 'Korean-style' house looked so ramshackle and inferior to the one below it that it ran the risk of not being so much a fusion as an editorial comment. Anyway, we won't give up our day jobs.

In the end, I don't think any of the couples had much of a chance to socialise, so if that was the intention it probably wasn't successful. But since it is perceived that the process of artistic creation is 'good for the baby', it presumably served its purpose.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

Last week a highly respected Korean Buddhist monk, the Venerable Beopjeong, died. It was all over the news.

He'd written a book in 1976 entitled 'Non-Possession', which espoused a philosophy of possessing nothing, and it sparked a non-materialist movement of sorts. Other books on the theme followed. Indeed, the Venerable Beopjeong saw the philosophy as transcending death and to that end asked not to be buried in a coffin, since this would mean he had something. So his body was covered in a simple cloth for his burial.

It was believed that after his death his still popular books on possessing nothing would no longer be printed at the monk's request, which was later confirmed; he didn't want to leave anything remaining in this world when he moved beyond it.

Then we learned that some of the otherwise devout Buddhists we know are scrambling to buy copies of 'Non-Possession' because 'it will go up in value'... It's even hit the news - the recommended price of 'Non-Possession' is normally 8,000 won (£4.69/$7.05), but the average second-hand selling price on a popular auction site is now 50,000 won (£29/$44), with 77,000 won (£45/$68) being the highest price anybody has paid, although one seller is holding out for 154,800 won (£91/$137). So much then, for the lesson - perhaps he left behind even less than he thought.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cut: Site Change

I've changed the design of this site for the first time since I began writing it in 2006. I've always been more concerned with the content than the layout, but I want to do some new things now which the old design wouldn't support, and I'd run into some problems with my old template which were messing up the fonts on some of the posts.

So sorry about that, I hate it when website and software designers change things and tell you it's for the better because it hardly ever is, but I take comfort in the fact that there are so few people reading this blog anyway it should pass by largely unnoticed :-)

Due to the wonders of web standards and lack thereof, the site now looks slightly better in Firefox, Chrome and Opera as opposed to Internet Explorer, and I've tested it under Windows and Ubuntu but not Mac OS (apologies Mac fans). If there are any obvious problems - let me know.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Winter's Child

It snowed this week in our part of Busan. It was the first time snow had settled on the ground since I've lived here. South Korea hasn't had an easy winter, but this city's location and our location within it - in the south-west by the sea - mean that it usually rains, if anything. The snow still falls on top of the nearby mountains though, which I have an excellent view of from my office window. Annoyingly, it often doesn't stop it from being bitingly cold, but it's nothing compared to Seoul. Our dog was captivated by what he saw out of the window, and outside our building a group of children, whose school was apparently closed by the weather, bravely tried to scrape together enough of the white stuff to build a snowman. I imagine this was their first and last chance of the season, and it was clearly hard work.

I had to go to the maternity hospital with my wife the day of the snowfall, because she had an ultrasound scan scheduled. There was no more than two centimetres of snow beneath our feet, but somehow the main road had become treacherous. When a taxi driver saw us, he apparently knowingly applied the brakes about ten feet away in order to slide to a stop beside us. It was clear that most of the road was ice - there had been no attempt to grit it.

As we skidded our way terrifyingly towards the hospital, it was clear that few drivers were prepared to compromise their driving style to accommodate the dangerous conditions, so regularly changing lane and cutting up people who couldn't necessarily brake effectively was commonplace. The saving grace was that the roads were so jammed with traffic, so nobody was able to go very fast, meaning the hundreds of accidents which doubtless occurred should have been minor.

Our doctor had not made it to the hospital - he was stuck in traffic - but we were able to see another, who at the end of a long conversation I barely understood asked if I had been bored. I'd tried to look attentive while fighting the constant tendency I have in Korea to zone out, but my lack of comprehension had somehow been detected or correctly assumed. It's unfortunate that my Korean ability has not progressed sufficiently, because this is a time when I want to understand every word and subtle nuance of the ongoing diagnoses, but instead all I can do is read the body language for any sudden negative revelation. It's incredibly frustrating.

The hospital gave us a DVD after the ultrasound. We hadn't had one after previous scans but this was a big one which incorporated a '4D' imaging technique which is supposed to be more comprehensive. The DVD contains a software application - Windows only of course - from which it's possible to view the ten minute ultrasound video, still photos and a general yoga video for pregnant women alongside some hospital advertising. We'll take the DVD back with us as the pregnancy progresses and they will continue adding to it until the baby is born. It's all part of the package but it's still a very nice touch. A friend of ours who's also pregnant has chosen a much bigger general hospital - as opposed to a specialised maternity hospital - where they don't do this, which seems a pity. Having the video has enabled us to share it with family back home to make the pregnancy more real to them than it would otherwise be, given the geographical difference.

Everything is fine and we continue along the road of the Korean pregnancy experience.