"One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
About once every two months I'm approached to write for a magazine, do a radio show or appear on TV, just because of this blog. Why? I'm not really sure. It's probably a similar story for the other foreign bloggers in Korea. Sometimes it seems people here desperately want to know what we think about Korea – although the vox populi vox dei (semper insaniae proxima) is the sword that potentially hangs over us if what we have to say veers too far off-script.
So while apparently these media offers are always a great opportunity for me to reach a wider audience, usually nobody seems to stop to consider whether this is really a good idea. Except me, so in the past I've always politely declined, for this and other reasons. In any case, I consider myself to have a face for radio and a voice for writing. In other words, I don't want to see myself on TV and I don't want to hear myself speaking. What's more, to some previous disappointment in Korea, sadly I don't have one of those Hugh Grant-style English accents – I'm from Northern England, where the accent – like so many other things – is a lot rougher. Writing a blog is about my level.
The latest invitation came from Busan e-FM, an English-language radio station here in the city, and it coincided with a few things including a bout of serious boredom I get every few years – or maybe it's a creeping sense of despair. Something needs to change – some new perspective needs to be added, no matter how small. So I decided to go over to the KNN building in Yeonsan-dong to talk to them about being a guest on one of their shows. It wasn't the first invite I'd had from the station – had my schedule allowed I would have accepted a different invitation several weeks earlier, but it didn't. I guess this means I've been bored for months.
By this time it had transpired that I was being invited in as a regular guest – once a week – to talk about my experiences living in Busan. And it follows – and I made sure – that not all my experiences can be positive ones so there would be certain topics that were more about the difficulties I'd faced. But that said, I've come to realise something important about living here in Korea. There isn't that much I really hate about it. I'd been avoiding the Korean media in part because of all my pent up 'Ignoreland'-style anger, except when I really sat down to think about it, I was mostly angry about other things and my quality of life in Korea was better than that of my life in England. So I believed I could talk on the radio and be genuinely 'fair and balanced' (in the true sense of the phrase – not the Fox News version) without upsetting anyone. Well, probably anyway. If there's one thing I don't like about Korea, it's that vox populi issue. People don't always need an excuse – or logic in the case of Tablo – to believe counter-factual dogma or to get angry about something, as I well know.
Before I even went on the air for the first time on Wednesday in the 'Open Mike in Busan' segment of the 'Inside Out Busan' show, I had already pushed my boundaries. The truth is - there's no getting away from it - it's a long time since I lived in the minor media spotlight, delivering speeches to audiences of hundreds and doing regular media spots. Ménière's Disease has left me a shadow of my former self, so whereas once a ten-minute weekly radio slot would barely have registered on my radar, now it's my own personal Everest. I've written this blog over the years to challenge myself into leading the most normal life possible; the desire to write about some event or place pushes me to go out and have that experience - but if it has portrayed the impression of normality it has been a façade. Now I've come to believe I'm in remission - or at least - the best remission I'm going to have, and I'm pushing the envelope of a tantalising possibility - that I might be able to lead a more normal life again, one in which I can work to a deadline, and make commitments to people that I can keep.
I'd also gained another new perspective. It was my first experience of working with Korean people professionally, and it's certainly been an education well worthy of detailed analysis in this blog. But there's a good rule with writing blogs, the machinations of your professional life stay private. Or to put it another way, the first rule of what happens in Busan e-FM, is that you do not talk about what happens in Busan e-FM. The second rule is that you DO NOT talk about what happens in Busan e-FM, and the third rule is that if someone yells “stop!”, goes limp or taps out, then it's over. So I'll have to save it for my memoirs.
But suffice to say, language and culture barriers can be difficult enough to overcome in social life, but when those barriers extend to business life, where important things are being done to a schedule, they can take on a whole new edge. And they certainly have – in fact I'm reminded of an old project management adage:
"I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
As always, the real problem is me. In this case, my lack of understanding of Korean business culture and my lack of understanding the Korean language. So perhaps this out of character decision of mine to stick my head above the parapet has already served a purpose. I have widened my perspective, seen the world from a different point of view, and realised – I have to up my game. For three years in Korea I have sat at my desk through some of the most turbulent times in financial history, and it has sucked away huge amounts of my time at the expense of the development of my Korean life. The longer this continues the more problems I will have here, so it can't. Whether I can do anything about it is a more open question – I feel like my IQ is dropping by about two points every year – which doesn't sound like much but it's a problem if I didn't have much to spare to begin with, and it mounts up. Learning Japanese fourteen years ago was much easier than this, and I didn't even live there.
In some respects it's a measure of how insulated my life here has been that I never listened to Busan e-FM until recently. Which is a great pity. Much of the Western foreigner experience in Korea centres around Seoul, in fact most of Korea seems to centre around Seoul. Korea reminds me a lot of those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls – if you live in Namhae you want to move to Busan, if you live in Busan you want to move to Haeundae, if you live in Haeundae you want to move to Seoul, and if you live in Seoul you want to move to Gangnam. What do people in Gangnam aspire to? Making even more money and 'enhancing their prestige' would be my guess. Anyway, I doubt they're really as happy as they might have us believe.
So even though Busan is the second city, for me it hasn't always felt as though there was a strong ex-pat community here – most Western foreigners seem to be in Seoul. Or at least, I never heard much from the Busan ex-pat community aside from the few discussions on the Busan-friendly Koreabridge. But these days some of that insight – that connection – is perhaps only ever a radio dial away, on Busan e-FM.
In fact it's a measure of my isolation that I will add what might be an interesting insight. Since coming here in 2006 I've spoken to one foreigner face-to-face, on one occasion, for about twenty minutes – he came into Gimbab Nara where I was eating. That was in 2007, and it's the kind of life you can lead embedded in a Korean family in the unfashionable Western edge of the city of Busan. On Wednesday evening, at Busan e-FM, I massively increased the number of foreigners I've ever met here in Busan from one to three. One of them is Tim, the new host of Inside Out Busan, who was great and really put my nerves at ease. Well, as much as possible in the edgy, nervous world I inhabit these days.
My time on Busan e-FM will be short, but I expect to be listening to Inside Out Busan long afterwards. For anyone with an interest who is unlucky enough to be living outside Busan, the podcasts or “AOD” (Audio-On-Demand) downloads can be found here. I'm afraid it seems to be Windows only, or at least ironically, it doesn't work on my Ubuntu system. Well, that's life in Korea for you.