Thursday, April 28, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 27: Baby Photo Shoots

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


Back in January I talked about the birth of my son in Korea, and how we named him. This week, I wanted to talk about another apparently important baby issue – baby photos.

Counting days

Part of the significance of these baby photos is to do with the way people count days here. Actually, I found that Koreans are obsessive counters of days, formally marking such occasions as 49 days after the death of a loved one, 15 days after Seollal with Jeongweol Daeboreum, and even more modern examples, such as burning a wedding bouquet after 100 days to ensure a trouble-free marriage. Some of it is really quite inconvenient too – I used to live in Hadan, where there was a ‘Five Days Market’ - which occurs every five days, so basically you never know when to go. It would be a lot easier if it happened every Wednesday, for example.

We don’t count days a lot in England. Of course, we’re generally really bad at maths, so that wouldn't help. I find it especially confusing here because it’s not just the normal calendar you have to contend with, but also the lunar calendar. I don’t know how Koreans manage it – but maybe there’s a smartphone app that helps you with it all these days.

Apparently there’s not much counting with marriage though – when I asked my wife about it she told me “once you get married you tend not to celebrate any more” - isn’t that the truth? But babies are a different matter.

50 days

We had a few shots taken with a photographer for our baby’s 50th day, although it felt quite informal. At the time I didn’t think much of it because I thought it was part of the baby package that we’d bought through the hospital for my wife’s birth.

100 days

So we counted the 100th day for our baby, when I gathered photos must be taken. But evidently there’s more to it than this, because my wife started browsing the Internet intently for baby things, and making a lot of phone calls. Packages began to arrive. By the time the day came we had a big banner across the wall with my son’s name on it plus the words “Happy 100th Day”. And surrounding it we had the world’s entire supply of purple balloons. Then there was a cake with candles for ‘100’, which was surrounded by dishes of fruit, and of course, I had to take the photos.

So I figure we're done here right? Wrong. These were not the official 100th day photographs. No, we still had to go to a studio – except on the 130th day, because apparently this is when the baby ‘looks better’. I’m told it’s not uncommon, but then it’s all a lie really isn’t it?

130 days

So for the 130th day 100th day photo shoot we hired a studio, which was basically a big room split into six different themes with various props. And I took along my DSLR to take the photos. You can hire a camera, but this probably isn’t a good idea because most DSLRs – especially the high end ones – can take a lot of getting used to. I know a lot of men don’t mind fiddling around with their equipment, but trust me, you don’t want to be doing this against the clock, in-between bouts of baby and partner screaming, depending on the quality of the results.

It was quite stressful, and I hadn’t worked with big studio flash-lights before. Plus I had to keep an eye on what was going to be in the background to each shot, because the props were sometimes a little odd. Fortunately I noticed the words “Adolph Hitler” on the spine of a book in the background of one photo before I took it. These are probably not the words you want floating around above your baby's head in the family album.

Of course, the advantage of the self-studio is that you can take all the shots you want, but the downside is that you probably can’t take all the shots that your partner demands. And it gives you freedom, but the freedom to mess things up. So the next day it was my partner’s face that was the picture – she said only five shots were worth saving out of the 554 I took. For what it’s worth I saved 94 of the photos, but clearly it’s debatable whether it’s worth the stress; there’s something to be said for going down the professional route, rather than apparently as it was in our case, the unprofessional route.

200 days

So I thought, well, thank God I don’t have to do that again. And then my wife said to me “We have to do another photo-shoot on the 200th day”. No. You know, I do like this country, but sometimes it feels like a nightmare I can’t escape from.

The 200th day photo-shoot was booked, and my wife wanted to do another self-shoot, but I caught a break, at least, I think I did. My wife entered our baby’s photo into a photo competition run by a large studio here, and we won a free photo-shoot with a photographer.

In fact, my wife’s been entering our son into a few competitions. I think it’s very Korean behaviour, but being British I have reservations about the whole thing, because it just seems quite presumptuous to think your baby looks nice, especially when I look at myself in the mirror and think that if he does it can’t be from my genes. But it seems to be a very serious business in Korea – there was a national competition on an Internet site here, and when the last ten were announced, hundreds of mothers were so disappointed by the exclusion of their baby that they were posting lots of angry messages on the site, with levels of rhetoric almost approaching that of North Korea. I half-expected them to threaten to destroy the site in a sea of fire.

So it was quite a relief – in a way – to just be a bystander at the photo-shoot we won. Except there’s still some stress, because our baby was full of smiles before the shoot, and as soon as it started, he wouldn’t smile, and he began to cry. He did get better - but it helps to understand Korean, because eventually I discovered the photographer was complaining that he was smiling too much. Apparently the ‘concept’ was ‘being moody’. I don’t know why there has to be a concept, but there was. It seems they wanted to highlight his big eyes – and if he smiled, his eyes weren’t as big. But anyway, the photos are better than mine.

365 days

But remember I mentioned that before the competition win, we’d originally booked the self-studio for his 200th day shoot? My wife re-arranged it... for his 1-year shoot.

[to be continued...]

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-04-27 @ ~19:30

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 26: Expats Who Run

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


This should have been my last week at Busan e-FM. They’d reached the end of their six-month season and this is when they shake things up and change around the schedule and even some of their staff, but they persuaded me to sign on for a second season, or as I think of it, 52 more hours on the subway.

I wasn’t keen on the idea initially simply because during my time on the air I’d been primarily talking about my experiences, and I felt like I’d covered most of the major topics such as social responsibilities, festivals, health, technology and so on. But - apparently – the new season afforded me the scope to sometimes talk about a wider range of issues that weren’t anchored so much in personal experience as personal opinion and current events. At least in principle. I’ve developed a sense that when you think you make agreements here the other end of the bargain is perhaps... a little more fluid than one might normally expect.

But as such, there was a change of tone this week, at least. This is the last of my mad month of daily 7.30pm posts, because I’ve now caught up to reality. Possibly.


This week I’m going to talk about Japanese radiation, Mount Baekdu, living long-term in a country like Korea, and escape plans.

Escape plans

I don’t have an escape plan. I don’t know if I should. But recently we had the Fukushima nuclear accident, and because of that there were fears for Tokyo. It really never looked like there was a risk of high fallout levels in Tokyo – but of course there’s always a chance things could change quickly, and then maybe it’s too late.

But what surprised me about Fukushima was how quickly foreigners got out of Japan. They showed little loyalty to their Japanese colleagues, friends and family. Loyalty is important in Japan, and I believe it’s also important in Korea, where you have family loyalties, loyalties to companies, so many loyalty cards and programmes, and of course, the importance of brands.

So I wonder, what happens when these foreigners go back to Japan? Are they accepted back so easily? We have a phrase in English - ‘fair-weather friends’, which basically refers to the way some people will happily be your friend in good times, but not when times are bad.

Nuclear issues

It’s not just a Japanese issue; Korea has nuclear power stations as well and just this week there have been a number of ‘issues’ with the Gori nuclear plant here in Busan [it seems not an isolated case]. There are other factors at work in Korea as well.

A year ago, after North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan I was reading foreigners on an Internet group here discussing what their escape plans were. Some were highly detailed descriptions, referencing American Embassy communications and plans. I don’t really get the same kind of communications from the British Embassy. Reading these comments, I realised what a serious issue it was for some people. But what does it mean about how much loyalty we have to our lives in Korea?

Then, after the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island, there was a newspaper article about expat evacuation plans. Perhaps these plans will never have to be put into operation, but the fact that Korean newspapers are highlighting how ready we are to leave doesn’t make us look good. Of course, I understand that it’s naturally a big issue in Seoul. But what’s interesting about that is how many expats there think that Busan will be safe – I don’t think that’s necessarily true. They have plans to come to Busan in the event of an attack, but over Seollal I read that it was taking eight hours to drive from Seoul to Busan [unfortunately I didn't remember this correctly, it was the other way - Busan to Seoul - but I'm sure the principle holds true]. I think if something suddenly happens it might take them eight hours just to get out of Seoul.

Mount Baekdu

Then there’s the potential eruption of Mount Baekdu. There should be more warning with this, but the damage could be greater. Eruptions are measured in terms of the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or VEI. So-called supervolcanoes such as Yellowstone in the U.S. and Toba 74,000 years ago that possibly killed an 60% of all humans at the time, have had a VEI of up to 8. Mount Baekdu is thought to be capable of an eruption of up to 7.4 on the VEI scale. To put this into context, the eruption in Iceland last year, which caused massive problems for flights in Europe, had a VEI of 5. The scale is logarithmic so one point in magnitude equals ten times the difference. In other words, Mount Baekdu’s forthcoming eruption could be over one-hundred times more powerful than Iceland, so the damage could be considerable.

There’s evidence that an eruption could occur in the near-future, geologically speaking. Since 2002, there has been a 10cm rise in the mountain’s height, there are reports of many dead trees on the Chinese side of the mountain, and the frequency or earthquakes has increased noteably. Satellites have detected a temperature rise in the mountain.

Some politicians here have tried to say that a Mount Baekdu eruption won’t be a problem for South Korea [although clearly there is concern], but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by history and logic. In its eruption just over 1,000 years ago, the volcano created enough ash to cover the entire Korean peninsula up to a height of 1.2 meters. Now to be fair, in the event of a similar eruption not all of that is likely to fall on Korea – although it depends on wind direction. But any eruption is also likely to cause a mini volcanic winter, rising food prices and the temporary  breakdown of infrastructure. And that’s not the only issue with this – China is building nuclear power stations only 100km away from the volcano.

Clan culture

So again in connection with Mount Baekdu, this question comes up – do you leave, and what happens afterwards?

Japan has a strong clan culture if I can call it that. There’s a high value placed on belonging to a social group, and taking part in activities such as drinking, karaoke, eating and so on. It’s the same in Korea. You’ll always be a foreigner, but you have to try and be an honorary member of the Korean clan.

It’s like that movie The Last Samurai – you know, the one with Tom Cruise. Actually, that was based on the life of Jules Brunet, who was French – and this is an example [yet another example] of the way Hollywood is Americanising history. In other words, as a cultural superpower America is re-writing history in its image. And this reminds us of an important lesson – history is written by the victors.

Now The Last Samurai is just a movie, but what kind of ending would it have been if as the Japanese clan leader – Katsumoto – is preparing for the final battle, Tom Cruise’s character says “well good luck, I’ll be up on that hill watching”? Of course, his character has to ride into battle with the clan leader – the major point of the film is loyalty.

Loyalty to Korea

So should I be loyal to Korea? Maybe. But I don’t know where you draw the line. Based on the science, I’m sure I wouldn’t have left Tokyo. And if something happened with North Korea or Mount Baekdu, again, maybe I wouldn’t want to leave. But I admit, it was an easier decision when I didn’t have a baby son. Now I do, but what about my Korean family and friends who have nowhere to go? And how do they treat you when you get back?

But... I used to read about people who’d been in Japan for twenty to thirty years, and they often said ‘it doesn’t matter how Japanese you become – you’ll never really be Japanese’ [or fully accepted by them], so maybe that’s a significant issue to consider, because although I haven’t been in Korea long enough, I suspect the same is true here. We’ll always be treated as outsiders – so maybe it’s OK that we make these plans. But from what I’ve read foreigners saying in Korea, and what we saw recently in Japan, it’s surprising just how quickly some people are ready to run.

[The day after I did this segment on Busan e-FM, the following story appeared in Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “Rebuilding Japan: Special scorn for ‘flyjin’ foreigners who fled country”].

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-04-20 @ ~19:30

Monday, April 25, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 25: Financial Trading in Korea

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


This week I’m going to talk about my job. I’m a financial trader, and I work for myself.


I read recently that seven out of ten Korean people regretted changing their jobs. Clearly there’s a lot of stress here connected with people’s working lives. It’s the same in England. In fact, there’s a word for it in English – we call it the “rat-race”, and it’s a race many people dream about dropping out of. There’s a book about trading by Alexander Elder, which begins with these words: “You can be free. You can live and work anywhere in the world. You can be independent from routine and not answer to anybody. This is the life of a successful trader.” It’s a good opening because it speaks to the dream of freedom and independence people have.

Job stress and the desire for a better life on fairer terms are big issues in modern society, and it’s part of the reason I quit my job working for a company. I think a lot of Korean people can understand the motivation. And as far as trading is concerned, it seems there’s quite a lot of it happening here.


I was both surprised and appalled to find out how much some Korean people were trading the financial markets. You know, I found out they call Korean traders ‘ants’, and I guess that sums all of us up. When I came to Korea in 2006 – before the Credit Crisis – everyone was talking about their investments, or their funds (‘pundue’), if they left the job to the bank. The percentage gains were enormous – I heard stories of people making 20-30% per year. This is scary... and unsustainable. They’re the kind of gains you usually see before a crash. But even before people lost so much money in the Credit Crisis – I saw TV stories here, and heard stories from my extended Korean social network, of people losing tens of thousands of dollars (or tens of millions of won) in the stock market.

Korean trading TV channels

You can tell it’s a serious business because of the dedicated Korean TV channels aimed at these ‘ants’. We don’t have those kind of TV channels in England. We have Bloomberg, which is a sorry excuse for a financial channel [In the hour running up to the London market opening, Bloomberg UK runs a heavy mix of adverts and sports/entertainment stories to the detriment of reporting on the morning’s corporate news releases]. The Korean channels feature lots of charts and chat-feeds like Twitter with viewer commentary. It’s intense stuff, it’s what trading is really about [sadly], and I think there might be three Korean channels just like this.

Financial trading in Korea

The market here – and the way people trade – seems to be different to England. There’s a lot of actual real stock buying, which means betting on upwards movements only, although there are also Equity-Linked Warrants (ELW) which are quite popular [if it’s anything like ‘covered warrants’ in Europe the deck is probably, by design, heavily stacked against the trader]. It’s easy to look clever in a bull-market with products like this.

I buy and sell financial contracts. In theory, it’s the difference between the price now and the price at some future point in time [but unlike most warrants, they don’t carry exponentially volatile expiry dates]. Think of it as the theoretical ownership of shares in a company, but you never actually own the stock. I might hold these financial contracts for weeks, minutes or even sometimes seconds. I also bet on downwards movements in the things I trade – which is called ‘short-selling’ or ‘shorting’. Overall, it’s not a term I’m fond of, but I suppose you could class me as a ‘daytrader’.

Trade what you know

I don’t trade any Korean companies. When I lived in England, I used to trade the UK and the US primarily, but I can’t really trade the US any more because of the time difference.

The problem with trading Korean companies is mostly the language barrier [although I suspect market liquidity isn’t as great either]. If I used a Korean securities company (or ‘broker’), even if I can overcome the Korean language interface – or they offer one in English – I can’t understand the news. I have to understand what’s happening with what I’m trading [another school of thought in the community differs on this point]. Anyway, as things stand, with my brokers and trading systems, I have no access to the Korean market. I’m not exactly sure why this is – I have access to many other global markets including Japan – but historically I think there have been lots of restrictive laws in Korea which make the whole business rather difficult.

The fn Hub

Of course, Korea has its ‘Financial Hub’ project – or ‘fn Hub’ as they [bizarrely] call it [or as I call it, ‘another fn hub’]. The fn Hub wants to create an environment where “domestic and foreign companies can compete freely (and thrive together)”.

One of the reasons London has been successful as a financial centre is that there is little regulation there. But here there are barriers – for example in foreign banks taking over domestic ones. The Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act 2009 broke down some of the regulatory barriers, but the government is still talking about whether to allow hedge funds to operate here – hedge funds [rightly or wrongly] are a fundamental part of the modern system in London and New York.

So some companies can’t operate here, even if they want to. Of the contracts I trade, which include stocks, commodities and currencies, none of my currency brokers will let me have an account in Korea, because of the Korean financial and banking rules. And I understand the difficulties, because my bank – [fn] HSBC – which is a global bank advertising a ‘global account’, doesn’t allow online UK to Korea money transfers. It all has to be done by phone. [I found this important fact out after they’d convinced me to open an account on the basis I could do my global banking over the Internet – which given I specified I wanted it for Korea, they should have known was impossible].

So with HSBC – and other banks I suppose – I can’t bring money into Korea electronically, or move it out. So, no electronic movement of money. I think I understand why this is – it’s probably a legacy of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which created a fear that money moving in and out quickly could lead to a rapid economic collapse. But restrictions are the enemy of capitalism. I’m not ethically justifying this kind of global capitalism – it’s responsible for lots of problems in the world like the Credit Crisis. But it’s the way things are. Modern global capitalism means the free movement of capital, money in other words.

Korea as an ‘Asian Financial Hub’

I think the government here is trying to head in the right direction, and working sincerely towards their goal of making South Korea an ‘Asian Financial Hub’. But clearly it’s slow progress, and I think people have to be realistic about this idea. Look at what you’ve got right now – Singapore and Hong Kong are financial centres of sorts because they use English [for business at least]. Japan is a major financial market because of its financial power and the financial infrastructure it built up as part of that. You get the impression with the ‘fn Hub’ that it’s being talked about as some kind of replacement for these other financial centres. But what’s Korea’s unique selling point?

I don’t see that Korea will ever be the kind of Asian Financial Hub they are dreaming of. First of all, politics is a problem I’m afraid. Can you persuade companies to come here when this country is regularly threatened by an aggressive neighbour? Then there’s the language barrier and the anti-foreign rhetoric which private hate groups and the government regularly engage in [the latest is that apparently Ulleung Island could be 'militarily threatened' by Japan, in addition to the 'foreigners are spreading AIDS' political issue which I've previously mentioned. It's not that Japan is necessarily any less xenophobic of course - but they already have a financial hub whereas the government in Korea is trying to attract foreigners in to build one up].

No more hubs

But the bigger issue might be the whole idea of financial hubs and international financial centres in the first place. These days markets are consolidating, becoming increasingly electronic-only and speed of execution is an issue [high-frequency trading]. In the past, financial traders had to be near where the action was, but increasingly you put your computers there (or actually at the geographical mid-point between two markets) and you sit somewhere else. If anything, one day, there might be no financial hubs of any kind.

Don’t try this at home

I wouldn’t recommend trading as a job. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy. Longer term investing can be sensible, although nobody knows what the future is going to bring.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-04-13 @ ~19:30

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 24: Korea and the English Language

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


Now this probably a very important subject in Korea – especially for Busan e-FM listeners – today’s subject is Korean and the English language.

The Korean English language school

I met my wife in England, where she did some postgraduate studies at the local college and university in my home town. Both were quite popular with overseas students, and perhaps that’s what led to the story of the Korean English language school.

In my job as Student Union President, I spent a lot of time liaising with the university’s management. One day they called me up and asked “Do you know anything about the plan to open an English language school for Koreans here?” Well I didn’t, but the story was this: apparently some Korean businessmen intended buy a building near the university and turn it into a school that would just teach English to people who would come over from Korea. Then the businessmen actually came to the city, met local council leaders, and finished up having their pictures taken, shaking the mayor’s hand, which then appeared in the local newspaper.

And that was the last I heard of it, until six months later, when suddenly the first Korean students arrived. There first question was naturally, where is the school? Exactly. Where, indeed, was it? I knew the building the Korean businessmen said they were intending to buy, and I’d looked at it every time I walked by – and there’d been no visible signs of any activity at all. I had contacts in the local council as well as with the university, and they hadn’t heard anything about it since the businessmen had gone home either. Didn’t the plans work out suddenly, or was it a con from the beginning? I don’t know, but it didn’t look good.

The students had spent all their money in some cases. Some returned to Korea, and some transferred to the local city college. But I specifically remember the story of one girl, who had no money and felt too ashamed to go back home. What I took from this was how important English must be in Korea, and what a big business it seemed. But it didn’t always seem a fair business.

Fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment

And then I came to Korea and saw it for myself. I was shocked by the number of hagwons. Yes, you know there are going to be a lot, but I wasn’t expecting there to be ten within a hundred meters of my apartment. I guess there are thousands in Busan alone. It’s mindblowing. But I can’t help feeling that despite all this it doesn’t really work.

At first – I admit – it was funny to see all the badly written English signs, and all the badly used English, such as the Korea Literature Translation Institude and the restaurant advertising Spaghetti with swimming crap. But soon it made me a little sad because of all the money you can see being poured into it, and it can have consequences.

For example, one wedding album we looked at started off “You will always have a special place in my hear”. Then, under a picture of the bride you’d have the words “with palpitation just like the fist time”, and it finished with what appeared to be a disastrous cut-and-paste failure from Ben E. King’s classic song ‘Stand By Me’, where the main line “Just as long as you stand by me” became “hust as ling as you stand by me”. Well, that’s not a wedding album I can send back to England really, because it creates a bad impression of Korea, and it kind of makes the whole wedding seem like a bit of a joke.

It’s not just companies that end up with odd English. The Ministry of Health and Welfare sent out a multi-language leaflet on the importance of having children vaccinated “in order to ensure our children grow up to be healthy human resources of the future.” Then again, this is Korea, maybe we are all just ‘human resources’ to the chaebol in the end. But my favourite is the Korean Internet & Security Agency. Recently I visited their English page trying to find out why a website I’d tried to visit was blocked. It explains “We need to prepare a counter-measure system against infringements related to fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment.” The page goes on to talk about the need to create “digital warmth” for minimising the ‘dysfunction’ of the Internet. What is ‘digital warmth’? [The whole page is worth reading because it essentially encapsulates so many of the failures that English translations have here - and translations into Korean from English can raise very serious issues too].

The english waves come in [sic]

I became more sympathetic as I struggled with the Korean language, but it’s still surprising though when you see these really big brands using bad English – why don’t they pay for proper translations?

Then I started to hear a few stories from foreigners doing the translations. They were rewording advertising material from a first draft in English done by a Korean, but after they’d corrected it, the company would often go back to the first one, because they said it sounded better.

[I can’t believe they let me mention this on air]. Take the Busan e-FM slogan for example. “The english waves come in” - it’s on the signs and advertising. This is a small issue, but it makes a big difference: there’s an apostrophe missing between the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ‘waves’. So instead of “The English Wave Has Come In”, instead it really states that the waves come in around the coast of England. 그래서, 영국의 파도가 옴니다, 그리고 나감니다. There’s no capital for the word ‘English’ either.

Working in a Korean business environment is hard [story pending]

So seeing all this makes me think that working in a Korean business environment could be very hard for a foreigner. My impression is that whatever foreigners might say, Korean businesses just plough on regardless. They don’t care.

Whose language is it anyway?

But then I had a revelation, at least about the English language. Maybe these Korean companies don’t even want good English... because they’re not pitching their messages at English speakers, they’re pitching it at people who ‘speak’ English in Korea. And who’s to say they can’t? Perhaps Korean English is a new language like American English [an earlier bastardisation of the original language – although modern British English is in itself arguably a bastardisation of ‘olde [sic] English’]. If people are happy with this new version of English - ‘Korean English’ - then maybe it’s OK.

And really, the way some ‘native’ English teachers write on websites here – what language is that? I call it “native English teacher English”. Maybe that’s a new version of the language – with bad grammar, awful spelling, and a general inability to communicate. My God, I wouldn’t want some of them anywhere near my child teaching English.

To quote the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” What he meant by that of course is that you can have two groups, essentially using the same language, but still not communicating well. So maybe this is the problem with English written in Korea – or Korean English, and we can’t necessarily expect it to ever change. And looking at it from a Korean language point of view, perhaps when I reach Korean fluency I’ll still have problems communicating, so the Koreans and I will still be divided by a common language too.

And that might be the world we live in today anyway – everyone’s talking but many people are not understanding what’s being said.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-04-06 @ ~19:30

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 23: Korean History

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today I’m going to talk about Korean history. Now you know what they say about Korea having 5,000 years of history [or more], so obviously I’m not going to discuss all of it – only bits.

Knowing history

I didn’t know a lot about the history of Korea before coming here. Of course, everyone knows about the Korean War... or maybe they don’t – a few months ago I read about a 2008 survey conducted by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, and in it of 1,016 Korean middle and high school students surveyed, 51% didn’t know the war started with an invasion by North Korea. In fact 14% blamed Japan for starting the war, 13% blamed the United States, 11% blamed the Soviet Union, and 2% said it began when South Korean invaded the North. I found this lack of knowledge of the historical facts of something which is so important here very surprising. There was another survey conducted last year by Gallup, and that produced broadly similar results.

Don’t get me wrong. British children are no more familiar with their history – perhaps they are even less so, but South Korea has a strong reputation for its educational system, so that’s why I found the results so unexpected.

Haeundae Beach Memorial Day

Last year I was on Haeundae Beach on Memorial Day. A group were running a photo display of the Korean War on the beach and they had the flags of the 68 countries which had assisted South Korea in the conflict. The lack of knowledge of these historical events was one of the issues the group mentioned in its display.

In fact, it was also interesting that the group had pictures of the alleged destruction of one of their previous displays by a ‘candlelight rally’ in Seoul, so it suggests that history here can be a highly controversial subject.

Because they were highlighting the international effort there were pictures of British soldiers and their contribution in the Korean War amongst the display, and I have to say that was heartening to see. The U.S. carried a lot of the effort in the war but often other contributions get ignored in this and other historical events because of the cultural imperialism of Hollywood and the frequent rewriting of history it conducts as part of that. [It's not just truth sacrificed in the name of entertainment either - some of it appears to have a particularly nasty agenda].


I haven’t visited the U.N. Cemetery in Busan. I’ve looked over it from a nearby hill but haven’t been inside – I’ve been putting it off because I think it will be an upsetting experience. There are 885 British soldiers buried there. I didn’t know about them when I came to Busan. I find these kinds of numbers overwhelming – and it’s just a very small percentage of the total number of foreign casualties, let alone the Korean ones.

The Haeundae Beach display, which highlighted the sacrifices of people from other countries, carried the title “Thanks Runs Forever”. But maybe it doesn’t, because today in Korea foreigners are under attack, even receiving death threats, just for voicing opinions that some people here don’t like. Even I’ve been attacked for relating things I’ve seen in Korea, which perhaps don’t portray this country in a positive way. I don’t know what it is with these people – maybe they don’t know their history, and maybe they don’t care. But when foreigners are attacked – when I’m attacked – I think of those 885 British soldiers buried here in Busan, who fought to defend this country. People like Private G.W. Harrison – to mention only one random name of those 885 - who died on the 27th March 1952 at the age of just 19.

Affinities foreign and local

As much as I feel an affinity for my countrymen who fought and died here to defend South Korea, I also feel an affinity – as a former student activist myself - towards the student activists who fought against the dictatorship here. I saw a display about the Busan-Masan Democratic Uprising while I was at PNU [Pusan National University]. They risked their lives – not against an external aggressor – but for a domestic idea – democracy and freedom of speech in the face of an extreme right-wing regime. It’s something I hope foreigners will one day have here too as we battle against today’s right-wing threats.


Aside from the Korean War, and the Democratic Uprising, the other particularly well known part of Korean history overseas, is the Japanese occupation. I know it’s very much part of the ongoing narrative in South Korea, but even so I was a little surprised to see a statue of Park Jae-Hyuk – who threw a bomb at the head of the police station here in 1921 – in the Children’s Park. Parents were standing their small children beneath the statue to take photos of them. I guess the ‘Japanese awareness issue’ starts at an early age in Korea. I’ve also been to Tapgol Park in Seoul – the birthplace of the March 1st Movement, which was a really interesting place.

Korea has a long and unfortunate history of invasions, and I understand that the national psyche, even today, is traumatised by that, which manifests itself sometimes as this sense of many aspects of life being about Korea versus the rest of the world. In other words, understanding Korean history is important in understanding Korea today.

Mongols, more Japanese, Korean Neo-Confucian Radicals

I went on honeymoon to Gyeongju, the old capital of the 신라 [Silla] Kingdom, because my wife knows I’m interested in history. But I thought it would be like Kyoto, and of course it wasn’t, because over the years most of it has been destroyed by the Mongols and Japanese during their historic invasions, and Korean Neo-Confucian radicals [who oddly enough, as far as I can tell, seem to often get relegated to a footnote in the cultural-destruction blame game].

So Gyeongju wasn’t what I expected, but then what is? I saw many temples in the region, such as Bulguksa, but I left feeling honestly confused about what is real and what is a rebuilt copy. History is being destroyed in Korea – and it continues today with Beomeosa and Namdaemun.

And Modern Koreans

But it’s not just about the destruction of history which disappointed me, it’s also about the way that history is disrespected, even if just from a tourism perspective. For example, the first historical place I ever went to in Korean was Beomeosa, and there was a beautiful building there which housed the temple’s drum, and it’s a great sight and a great first ‘traditional Korean’ photo to take... except there are vending machines next to the building and phone boxes. Gyeongju has a similar issue. There’s a Korean folk village down there – Wolseong Yangdong - and obviously, like Beomeosa, it’s marketed as a tourist destination. But amongst all this 15th and 16th century architecture you have a big modern church and satellite dishes on the side of the traditional Korean houses. [It’s a ‘living’ historical village but for the effort the authorities are making you’d think they might have sorted out a cable TV solution for the residents, and the Catholic church I used to attend in England didn’t have a tall spire or fall into the architectural trap of looking overtly religious, so this can be done too I think, if the will is there].

I seriously banged my head in the folk village – low beams. It demonstrates the importance of understanding history [people used to be smaller and Korean architecture is sometimes designed accordingly].

I want to learn more about Korean history. During my time here, I’ve tried to come to terms with what Korea is, but to really understand that, I feel I need to also know what it was, and how it became what it is today. It’s an important part of living here.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-30 @ ~19:30

Friday, April 22, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 22: Crime in Korea

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today I’m going to talk about crime in Korea, and as I’ve mentioned before crime is a big problem in England, so it’s often on my mind.

England versus Korea

Crime in England is much worse than in Korea according to statistics. The robbery rate for England is 188.7 per 100,000 people – that’s worse than the United States at 146.4, and Busan which is only 24.7.

Korean policing – apart from at protests – seems almost apologetic. I think my father-in-law, who is a retired police officer, feels that the job got a lot more difficult after South Korea became democratic... But there certainly seems to be a fear of violent crime here; when I first came here I was surprised to see all the bars on the windows at low levels, and the steel apartment doors - a steel door is a hallmark of a criminal property in England. Of course though, there is a lot of non-violent crime here like counterfeiting, piracy and corporate crime.

Normally as a foreigner you might expect to be at a higher risk of falling victim to a violent crime in another country, but despite that I actually feel safer here than in England. It’s relatively safe to walk the streets at night – at least as a foreign man, it’s perhaps not so much the case for foreign women, which is a different issue [and if the racial roles had been reversed in this care, I can't see the Korea Times limiting themselves to a brief 8-line piece about it].

In Korea, you can walk around with expensive gadgets like smartphones and cameras, or use your tablet computer on the subway, so you can really benefit from the personal technology revolution in a way that’s harder to do in England, which is great. When I first came here I was really nervous about taking photos with my $250 digital camera because back then you would have had to be careful doing that sort of thing in the streets of my city [now that a digital camera can cost $30 maybe not as much, but then some people in my city would rob you for less, for fun in fact]. I’ve got used to taking photos here now, but it’s a bit of a problem when I go back home, because it’s easy to slip into the Korean way of thinking and forget to watch your back.

Witnessing crimes

I haven’t really experienced any crime in Korea directly, but I have see quite a bit. For example, in one incident we witnessed sexual harassment taking place on the subway. A man had his hand under a woman’s leg – it was summer and she was wearing a short skirt. His hand was moving further beneath her and some touching was going on. It looked suspicious at the time but we couldn’t be sure that they weren’t together – the woman was fairly expressionless even though she must have known what was happening. My wife said that if the woman moved that would prove it, and sure enough she got up and moved to another seat further down.

This kind of thing doesn’t really happen in England – certainly not in the middle of the day in a busy train. But I’ve read that 21% of women have experienced sexual harassment on the subway in Korea – so unfortunately it appears that it isn’t uncommon. Personal crime is more serious of course, but still, I was surprised when the public phone box near us was smashed – it made me think Korea was becoming like England. [I forgot to mention the fights I've seen].

It was the drink what made me do it, officer

One thing that has surprised me here is the way alcohol is used as an excuse – and defence – by people who commit crimes, especially sex crimes. And it often works too, with more lenient sentencing.

Alcohol is blamed for a lot of crime in England, where ‘binge drinking’ in large groups is a huge problem, but it’s not a legitimate excuse in court. Here it does seem more accepted, and I find there’s a hypocrisy in that – you know, that the drugs you drink here are so socially acceptable whereas the drugs you smoke - apart from tobacco - are totally not. And yet, speaking to my Korean family, I gathered that historically there was quite a lot of smoking of ‘agricultural substances’ going on in the countryside in Korea – whereas now it’s usually foreigners, especially foreign English teachers, who are blamed for being drug users here.

Native English teachers are molesting students and spreading HIV/AIDS

So how about the portrayal of foreign crime in Korea? Sometimes there are high-profile cases here. In 2007, several newspapers carried reports that foreign teachers were molesting their students and (deliberately) spreading HIV and AIDS. The reports were ‘never substantiated’, which is a polite way of saying that these newspapers had no proof and they were deliberately printing racially inflammatory here-say and lies. But what came out of these fantasy ‘facts’ that were printed by these liars was the political move for all native English teachers to be subject to mandatory HIV/AIDS testing. But ethnic Koreans were apparently exempted - even if they were born and raised in America [because apparently a Korean is not a molestation/HIV/AIDS risk whatever their background - whereas non-Koreans obviously are. A Korean once told me that 'Koreans don't get AIDS' though, so there you go].

Similarly, newspapers run scare-tactic headlines saying that the number of crimes committed by foreigners is increasing, and you know they are trying to shock and scare people. The number of crimes committed by foreigners [but are they native English teachers?] is increasing, but so is the number of foreigners [the figures are complex and there the foreign crime pro-rata crime rate does appear to be increasing - but the media likes to run simple figures that make things look worse than they are]. But let’s put it into context – in 2007 – the last year comparative figures were published, the crime rate for foreigners was 1.4%... but it was 3.4% for Koreans. So portraying foreigners as a particularly criminally-inclined group is not fair in that context.

In fact, according to the National Police Agency, rapes were up 28% last year, theft was up 25%, and murder 9%. Last year 15.8% of women said they were beaten by their husbands. Perhaps this is what the media should be focusing on rather than demanding AIDS tests for foreigners and implying that we're responsible for some kind of crime-wave.

Korea is becoming more like England

With these increasing crime figures, I fear this country is becoming more like England – and crime is changing Korea. Places I’ve visited such as Namdaemun and the gate at Beomeosa here in Busan, have been destroyed since I arrived by criminal acts. When Namdaemun happened, there was an initial report that someone thought they’d seen a foreigner running away and I was terrified. That’s the reality of being a foreigner here – I live in fear of what we might be blamed for next, and how Korean people will treat us afterwards.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-23 @ ~19:30

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 21: The Korean Media

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today’s topic is the media in Korea – so I’m talking about TV, radio and the newspapers.


I never saw a lot of Korean TV before I came here. I’m afraid that there’s no Korean Wave in England. Of course, I’ve seen some here now. From what I’ve seen I suppose you’d say it was broadly similar to British TV, but there really seem to be three main types of Korean television programme – historical dramas, soap operas and light entertainment shows. Or maybe I have this impression because it’s what my mother-in-law always watches.

We subscribed to a big multi-channel package here, and it has a lot of American programmes. I had a service like this in England, but it’s a lot cheaper in Korea, which is just as well because really, I’m too busy to watch it. Anyway, it’s pretty difficult to work out what’s on when you have to translate the Korean schedules. In a way, the video-on-demand service seems more of a promising option, but with ours [Mega TV] the menu system is awful and the hardware is worse – it’s painfully slow, and has a badly designed remote control with poor infra-red sensitivity. Changing channels is an ordeal - you can press a number on the remote control and wait five seconds for it to it to appear on the screen, and it doesn’t always catch it so you end up on a different channel and then the whole process begins again. It can take up to a minute to change channels. You can watch a lot of programmes on TV about serial killers, but this might actually be the first TV service that can turn you into one.

When we were shopping for a new television, we also looked at TVs with a time-machine function – it’s like TiVo – essentially a system where the TV records programmes automatically. We had this in England and it was quite useful. But the staff member in the first store we went into said “Why do you need it? Just download what you want to watch from the Internet.” I appreciated his blunt assessment of the realities of watching TV in Korea, but if anything it was almost an argument for not buying a TV at all.

Television versus learning Korean

Maybe it would have been better not to buy a TV; it’s bad for learning Korean because it’s easy to end up watching American TV shows all the time. I think this is the paradox of learning Korean in today’s world. In principle, we have more technology such as computer programs, mobile applications and electronic dictionaries to assist us, but on the other hand it’s a more globalised, smaller world in which it’s much easier to stay in touch with people and the culture back home.

I imagine that twenty years ago there was a much greater sense of isolation – less television, no Internet [for the general public at least], no Facebook and no easy phone calls to friends and family back home. There weren’t the fancy toys to help in the learning process, but it was real immersion in the language and culture. Now, we can sit around in our Korean homes watching American shows and not have to learn Korean for our TV fixes.

Favourite Korean programmes

I don’t really have any favourite Korean TV programmes because my language ability isn’t good enough. But some programmes are useful, such as the game show with parents and children, guessing a word from clues. Things like that are easier to follow.

I’d heard about the e-leagues – video game leagues – here, but I’ve still been amazed to find an entire channel apparently dedicated to StarCraft. It’s even more amazing now they show StarCraft II in HD. I used to play Kartrider a lot and it was interesting to see the Kartrider competitions on TV too. We don’t have game channels in the UK.

Non-Favourite Korean programmes

What shocked me about Korean TV was the casual animal cruelty you can see. I turned on the TV once and was immediately confronted by a show showing cock-fighting – and it was an entertainment show, not some kind of documentary. In the US there are organisations such as PETA monitoring content, and you always see the disclaimer on programmes and movies ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this’. When I saw the cock-fighting I half-expected to see Borat commentating – it had that kind of atmosphere.

Then there was a show that featured fish fighting, with an excited sports-commentary style voice-over. I have to say, watching fish tearing each other apart can be pretty brutal. And on another game show contestants had to scoop as many live crabs up from one place in a bucket to deposit them in another. It was rough – legs were coming off and flying everywhere. It’s sad to see this kind of thing.

Sex and violence

Then there’s the ‘19-rated’ programmes – a mixture of sex, porn and violence – that are on all day [I'll do a post on this in the near future]. In principle I don’t mind the idea of there being sex on TV during the daytime – I’m no puritan – but now I have a child, I have to worry about what he might see when he’s old enough to watch TV.

It’s different in my country. Anything with explicit sex or violence – which has an 18-rating in the UK – has to be shown after 9pm, which is what’s called the ‘watershed’. Maybe it’s hypocrisy, because the sex doesn’t bother me, but I really don’t want to see a guy getting his finger chopped off at 11am when flicking through channels. For that matter – I don’t want to at 11pm either.

You know what really seems to be a hypocrisy though? The way knives and cigarettes are regularly blurred out on TV but the violence isn’t. I watched a war movie once and there was a lot of very graphic and bloody killing, but in a scene where the soldiers were smoking, the cigarettes were blurred out. So it’s OK showing you how to kill a person in great detail, but let’s not encourage anyone to smoke.


As far as radio is concerned I listen to a few shows on Busan e-FM, including Inside Out Busan. I’m contractually obliged to say that of course, but I really do. Segments like What’s Popin Busan [sic] are quite useful. Because I’m not a teacher here I don’t really feel part of a community, so it’s good to hear about local information, events and news.


I read the Korean newspapers for thirty minutes to an hour every day – but the English-language versions of course, which are very useful. I’m struggling to learn Korean, but it’s still important to understand what’s going on here with society, economics and politics, which newspaper is attacking foreigners this week, that sort of thing.

But the newspapers themselves are an interesting subject, because I think they regularly present things as facts with very little basis for doing so, and they have a habit of manipulating stories into what they want them to be. [It's not just the newspapers either]. And then there are the ridiculous stories like the 2012 alien attacks in the heavyweight newspapers. Of course, we know how racist some of the portrayals of foreigners are, but it goes much further than that, with urban myths such as ‘fan death’ regularly given credence as fact even though Korean scientists have said there’s really no basis for it. I call it the K-facts issue – facts that are only facts in the Korean media. Unfortunately it creates a dangerous society, because then the kind of people who blindly believe what the media is telling them tend to then react badly to foreigners [incitement to racial hated is a crime in my country] and they also react badly to anyone who disagrees with the 'facts' they've been told about other issues.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-16 @ ~19:30

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 20: Things That Have Shocked and Surprised Me

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


I thought we had a plan, but it seems it was only ever my plan, not Busan e-FM’s. In my version of the plan I was finishing at the end of Week 21, and the last two weeks would be my summaries of the good and bad of my life in Korea. And that’s how I ended up delivering the first of my final summaries for Week 20. In the alternate plan, I was contractually obligated to appear until Week 26. The contract was mythical, by perceived Korean social obligation to continue beyond my warranty period was not.

This could be perceived as a list of the things that I’ve been less than enthusiastic to find out about Korea. I thought it was a given that people in Korea would be less than enthusiastic to hear it – but perhaps times are changing, because I received positive feedback from Koreans on today’s subject.

Don’t look for anything too salacious below – I actually like Korea, I wouldn’t live here otherwise. You know, looking back, I can’t believe I left out bloodletting.


Over the last few months I’ve talked about my experiences in Korea, and now I’ve covered all the major subjects such as food, language, festivals and family. Today I want to do a summary of sorts – I’m going to talk about the top ten list of things that have shocked and surprised me, in reverse order, like a chart run down.

#10 – The British Embassy in Seoul

Number 10 is about something in Korea that really did shock me – it’s about how the British Embassy in Seoul treats its overseas citizens – and Koreans as well. I came here for six months, I got married to my Korean girlfriend, and then we planned to return to England. But my government refused her visa, so even though we eventually won a legal case against them, it changed my life and I ended up staying here and calling Korea home instead.

#9 – Getting called ‘ajeoshi’

Number 9 on my list is getting called “아저씨” [ajeossi/ajeoshi] – which is really about the very hierarchical nature of society here. So it’s not just about people reminding me that I’m old, it’s also about the way I’m supposed to constantly alter my language depending on who I’m speaking to.

#8 – The Korean weather

I met my wife in England, and even though there was a lot about my country she didn’t like [and nobody issued her with death threats because of it either], she always used to say “at least I don’t have to go through another Korean summer.” Now that I’m in Korea, I finally really understand that. Our apartment is very hot, but it’s not just about temperature. When I first came here the Yellow Dust and sand-rain were really bad. I’d seen it before on TV and in photos, but it’s nothing like experiencing it for real.

#7 – The smells

Temperatures might also partly contribute to number 7 on my list – which are the smells. This country smells different to England. Maybe it’s inevitable with millions of people all living too close to one another, but for some reason there seems to be a lot of – shall we politely call it, ‘feedback from the sewage system’. And then, although I’m getting more used to Korean food, one or two dishes just smell so strong that all I want to do is go into another room, close the door, and hide.

#6 – Religious people

Sometimes there’s no hiding place though... from religious people. They are knocking on my door – not so much now since we moved to an apartment with security on the main door – but in the small apartment block we used to live in, it must have been once every couple of days. “I’ve come from the temple – I’ve come from the church – it’s important”. And religion is so very important here, but it can be strange. For example, a monk was being treated near me in hospital once, and he suddenly looked at the nurse and said “you should stay away from water.” That would scare me for the rest of my life, and I’m not even Korean.

#5 – Driving

Something else that scares me here, is the driving. One week I came onto the show and just talked about safety – and a lot of that was the airborne taxis, the two-speed buses (very fast versus full brakes), and the way I wish motorbikes would stay on the road, not speed past me on the sidewalk [pavement – sometimes I have to try and speak American English here to be understood], which makes me a bit angry to be honest. But then the other thing about roads is the way I used to have trucks with loudspeakers driving by my first floor window at 5.30am. And even though I live higher up now, there’s no escaping from the roadworks at 2.30am in the morning.

#4 – Building quality

Speaking of construction, that leads me onto number 4 on my list – building quality. My building is continuing to fall apart. I suppose it’s almost seven years old now though. Perhaps that’s old in Korea, In England, the last house I lived in was considered relatively new because it was build in 1963. The three houses I lived in before were all about 120 years old. I suppose I expected that things would be better here, but I’ve seen some real poverty so it does put some of these apartment problems into perspective.

#3 – Poverty

The poverty here surprised me – and along with homelessness it’s such a big issue that I made it number 3 on my list. Don’t get me wrong, we have people begging in the streets in England too, despite our social security system, but when I saw all the homeless people bedding down for the night in the subway station next to 남대문 [Namdaemun – a famous ‘gate’ in Seoul] – so close to Seoul City Hall, it really hit me how much of a big issue it is here. I mean, the people who beg on the subway pass out these cards telling their stories – but you never really know how true they are. But when you see these people sleeping like that, well, it doesn’t get any more real than that.

#2 – The Chaebol System

It’s difficult to place anything above homelessness, but the last two items on my list are about freedom and fairness. Number 2 on my list is actually the 재벌 [chaebol/jaebol] system. Bear in mind, my list isn’t necessarily about what’s bad about Korea, it’s about what has shocked and surprised me. And the 재벌 system certainly has. In some ways, it feels as though the Korean people bravely won their democratic freedoms in 1988, but in some ways the economy is still a dictatorship, controlled by a few very powerful people.

You have to be careful about publicly criticising these corporations, because the law here seems to favour them, rather than ordinary consumers. And the media is largely part of that system, so there’s no help there. We have these issues with corporations and mainstream media in the West, but it just seems so much bigger here under the 재벌 system. When so much economic power ends up in one place, society tends to end up divided between the haves and the have-nots. There’s a lot of talk these days about making Korea a “fair society”, so it seems to be an issue Koreans themselves are very concerned about.

#1 – Free Speech

I used to enjoy working for a large American corporation, but after the 9/11 attacks things changed. My American colleagues became more patriotic and uncompromising, and it made them difficult to work with, because they only saw everything from one point of view – even business decisions – and they didn’t tolerate constructive criticism any more. I think people here should be proud of their successful fight for democracy, but democracy is not the end of history, it’s just the beginning. It has to be protected. And that means protecting free speech.

A number of foreigners have received threats – even death threats – for what they have said about Korea. So if I have to be careful about what I write on the Internet, I don’t have free speech here. But then, do Korean people either? To understand free speech, you have to understand both sides of an argument. I think it’s very easy in Korea to constantly hear only one point of view, and that makes some people very angry when they suddenly hear another.

So in my opinion, free speech in Korea isn’t as strong as I thought it would be, and that’s my number 1.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-09 @ ~19:30

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 19: The Gravitational Pull of Haeundae

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today’s topic is one relatively small but important part of Busan, Haeundae-gu, which is where Busan e-FM has recently moved to.

"The new multicultural heart of Busan"

I feel Busan e-FM’s move is an interesting issue in itself. Because – according to the station’s adverts – this is meant to be “the new multicultural heart of Busan”. As a foreigner here, I see this as a very important subject. You see, because of my job I can live anywhere I want to in Busan. Right now, I live in Saha-gu, but if there’s supposed to be a place here which is multicultural, it makes me wonder if it’s better to live there myself.

Saha is very different to Haeundae. There really aren’t that many Western foreigners living there at all. When I first came here in 2006 I walked around the area for three days, and never saw another Westerner at all. But as soon as I visited Haeundae, I saw several other Westerners within 30 minutes. So it definitely feels more multicultural here.

Versus life in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of Busan

In some ways it doesn’t matter to me if I’m not living in a multicultural area; there’s something to be said for living out in the far west of Busan, because I feel it’s more of a real Korean experience. With few other foreigners around it’s much more isolating, and it has also really meant that if I made friends, it had to be with Koreans.

I think as a foreigner here, when you live in a place where there are a lot of other foreigners, it’s easy to start meeting up with them and kind of disappear into your own community. That doesn’t help you learn Korean or integrate with Korean society though. Of course you do it because you feel isolated, but in the end I think it only helps continue that sense of being isolated as a foreigner. Having said that, there actually are reasons why living in a multicultural area can be attractive, so it can matter where I live as a foreigner.

The Haeundae advantages

But Haeundae has its advantages. Even though I have Korean friends, most of our conversations are translated, so it is tempting to live in an area where it’s easier to make English-speaking friends. And I think in multicultural areas a kind of ‘support network’ builds up. So, for example, you get more doctors and other professionals who speak English, the local authorities create more activities for foreigners, and – this is a real issue for me now – even the schools you want your child to go to are based in the area.

The schools issue is a really pressing one. My wife and I had a son last year, and this being Korea we’re already trying to plan out his education. I think school can be very difficult for a child... especially a child who is different. So I’m not sure about whether my son should go to a normal Korean school. Maybe it wouldn’t be a problem, and maybe it would – this is a huge worry for me. But Busan’s two foreign schools [Busan Foreign School and Busan International Foreign School - I know, shades of the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front in those names] both decided to base themselves here in Haeundae. Well, it’s really difficult to live in Saha and send my son to school in Haeundae, so if we want him to go to a foreign schools, we’ll probably have to move here.

I don’t expect a foreign school to open in Saha, and I understand why, but it’s disappointing that both foreign schools ended up being in the same district, especially when that district is right on the edge of the city rather than being more central. Along with other things such as all the festivals that happen here, it means that Haeundae has this kind of gravitational pull, and the more it develops in this direction, the more gravitational pull it develops – so to continue the astronomy metaphor, it feels like a bit of a black hole, sucking everything in.

In the end, Haeundae will probably only continue to grow as a multicultural area. Some people say this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. Even the British Prime Minister said recently that multiculturalism hasn’t worked in my country. In the city I’m from, arguably multiculturalism has been a disaster.

Multiculturalism – I have seen the future and lived it

Historically we had a lot of immigration in my home city. For example, even though I’m British, I have an Irish surname because my family were immigrants once too. But we integrated. In recent times though, there was more concern with respecting and celebrating people’s differences. That’s good... except there’s a risk that if you go too far, immigrants stop trying to integrate, because they can just live their own lives in their own community, and suddenly you have two separate communities trying to live in the same place. In my city, that eventually led to race riots [and some ethnic cleansing I found myself on the receiving end of].

What’s happening in Haeundae reminds me a little of my home city. It will never be as bad as my city, but sometimes I wish that it was OK to be a foreigner here and just live anywhere in Busan, without feeling that I ought to be living in a so-called multicultural area, or that worse, I really have to. But if what I need as a foreigner is all in one district – like the foreign schools – it makes integration harder. In fact it would be great if I didn’t feel I had to send my son to a foreign school, but once you create them and all the foreign children go there, it makes it harder not to choose that option yourself.

So my son will become part of that ‘separate community’ problem, and even I’ve been sucked into it despite my own reservations.

KNN moves to Haeundae

So as a foreigner it feels almost like I can’t escape from Haeundae – it’s almost inevitable that I’ll have to live over here eventually. But actually, the whole Haeundae issue is not just about foreigners – I was very surprised for example, that Busan’s biggest media company [KNN – Busan e-FM’s parent company] moved over here, because in England you normally expect local TV and newspaper companies to always be based in a city’s centre, where they can reach each part of the city more easily.

So I wonder if it means that Haeundae is becoming Busan’s new city centre – even though it’s actually on the edge of the city. It’s remarkable considering that twenty years ago this part of the city was really not that developed at all [in fact, I think it wasn’t really even regarded as part of the city]. People who bought property here back then must have made a lot of money. In fact, it’s becoming so expensive here perhaps soon I won’t be able to afford to buy a place in Haeundae anyway, then my son will have to commute further to school.

Moving – to the next Haeundae?

My wife and I are actually looking at properties all over Busan right now. I must admit, despite my reservations, I do like Haeundae as an area, and I’d love to have a view of the sea from my apartment. But I have mixed feelings about buying into an expensive area. I’d love to buy into the next Haeundae, because as a financial trader I suppose I’m always thinking about longer-term investment opportunities.

But where is the next Haeundae? I’m wondering whether it’s going to be Dadaepo. It has a beach and crucially, I understand the subway line is going to be extended there. It will never really be what Haeundae is, but you have to think what it might be like in twenty or thirty years. After all, if you could go back in time thirty years to Haeundae of the early 1980s and show people what it looked like now, they probably wouldn’t believe it. The change here has been huge, and it is a nice place, but it’s a pity that I feel in some ways I have to move here. Personally as a foreigner, I’d love Busan to be more integrated, rather than focused on one area.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-02 @ ~19:30

Monday, April 18, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 18: Shopping, Vitamins and Other Imports

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


I think I mentioned LG and Samsung before on the show. In fact, it’s kind of hard to get through talking about life here without mentioning Korea’s ubiquitous [yes] brands. But this was the week I was told not to mention them – not even the foreign ones - even though this week’s subject was shopping - 20 minutes before I went on air.

One of the K-satire sites seems to have re-branded LG aka ‘Lucky Goldstar’ as ‘Fortunate Quasar’, and I was sorely tempted to go through the entire show calling them that, but 20 minutes is not enough time to think up alternate names for all the other chaebol, so the whole thing felt rather forced in the end for me. Well that’s live radio for you – next time I hope to be better prepared.

It’s fair enough that Busan e-FM doesn’t want to mention brands, but I have no such restriction here, so here it is, Week 18 – Uncut.


So this week is about another very important aspect of life in Korea – shopping. I used to think we had quite a consumer-oriented culture in England, but it’s nothing compared to Korea.

The differences

There are a lot of differences between the UK and Korea when it comes to shopping. In the UK our shops are mainly in the city centres rather than everywhere you look, and we also have big ‘out of town’ retail centres – whereas here you don’t really have ‘out of town’ stores because there is no ‘out of town’ - everything is the town in a big city like Busan [seriously, it’s like Logan’s Run here]. And we have a lot of big brands in England, but here it often feels like a constant choice between LG and Samsung [or in the radio version – between a company beginning with ‘L’ and a company beginning with ‘S’ - see why it fell flat?]

I expected there to be a bigger variety of brands, and I actually thought there were at first, but then I found out that brands like Xcanvas, PAVV, Zippel and Hauzen belong to LG and Samsung. I suppose that’s the nature of the chaebol system, which of course we don’t have in England [unless you count the multi-branded tentacles of the government] – where almost all our products are made overseas anyway.

I found chaebol brands quite odd. For example, Daelim seem to make toilets and motorbikes. In England, the last car I owned was a Ford. But how would I have felt if my toilet was made by Ford as well? But I guess people here feel that the brand is more important than the object it’s attached to.

Purchases and consumer protection

In fact, the first thing I bought in Korea was a Korean keyboard for my laptop computer – it was made by a major Korean chaebol – but the quality was really poor. I admit, I realised later it was really cheap [I had no idea about the relative value of things here at first], but it made me think these companies will sometimes put their names on anything.

My experience with subsequent purchases has been mixed. My wife and I buy a lot of things from the Internet, but Internet shopping here is quite different. We have eBay in the UK, but most people choose to order from established online retailers like Amazon. Here, Gmarket and Auction – which are both owned by eBay – seem to be one of the main ways of buying online. So it feels riskier but from very small companies and individuals.

I also think we have much stricter consumer protection laws in the UK than the ones which exist in Korea. For example, we bought an aquarium online that was supposed to be 35cm deep, but it was shorter when we got it. The seller said it was because they had the wrong picture on their page, but they didn’t seem particularly sorry about it. Online prices are good though, so maybe you just have to take the risk.

Expensive item risk

But this means that it’s difficult to justify buying certain things online. When we bought a TV, the prices were much cheaper on the Internet, but we felt we couldn’t risk buying such an expensive item that way, so we bought it from Tesco Homeplus [declaration – I’m a shareholder] in the end. It’s the same with the DSLR I bought – I got it from Hi-Mart because it seemed too risky online. That’s different to the UK where you have big online companies that you can trust. And of course, it’s also difficult for me to shop online, because I don’t understand Korean.

Online and offline shopping

There are good things about shopping online. I love how deliveries are so fast compared to England, and you get these text messages telling you about when things have been dispatched – it’s really efficient. It’s just a pity I can’t browse through the Korean Internet to shop for things. That said, I’m not one of those foreigners who seems to think that Korean shopping sites should be available in English as well. I think if you want to shop in English, go home – this is Korea. If I can’t use Korean Internet sites, that’s my problem, not Korean people’s. I have to work on my Korean language skills.

So I find myself shopping offline a lot. Buying things from local shops here is also quite different from the experience in England – the opening hours are much longer here for one thing, and there’s an assumption that everything will be delivered, whereas in England you normally have to work that out yourself. Plus, if something needs installing, that will be done for you here as part of the service, even if it’s just a small aquarium from a local store.

The customer service is almost too good sometimes. For example, I bought a printer from a store, and because we lived around the corner and didn’t have a car, one of the staff insisted on carrying it to our apartment – which was a bit embarrassing [still, thanks Hi-Mart]. But on the other hand I find all the special cards which exist rather confusing - my wife has a special card holder just for all the extra points cards she carries.

The price is right

And prices are confusing, because I often can’t really work out what the prices in stores are supposed to be. This is partly because I have to convert them into my own currency to work them out, and partly because the ticket prices and the real prices are sometimes two entirely different things.

For example, when we were shopping for a TV, it became quite common for us to walk into a store, and immediately be offered 30% off the price of a TV we were looking at – and that’s before trying to haggle. In England, haggling isn’t as common, and you might get 5 or 10% off, but here we can haggle a price down 40% sometimes.

Ajumma rental servicet

Actually, my mother-in-law’s haggling skills are legendary – so we always take her with us when buying something expensive. She saves us a lot of money. Once we got a couch so cheap through haggling that when she told the store owner we’d come back later to buy bookcases, he actually said “Please don’t!” - and from the pained look on his face I think he really meant it too. [Shortly afterwards  he moved his business away from our district shortly afterwards and in my mind it was just to avoid her].

What else you can’t buy here - drugs

There are things you can’t buy in Korea that I wish I could. I used to take drugs [no, not that kind] to control my Meniere’s Disease in England, but when I came to Korea I discovered that they aren’t available here, and there isn’t any alternative. That’s a huge problem for me, and I was really worried when my pills ran out.

I started taking various vitamins and herbal supplements instead - because some people believe they help – but the cost can be very high here. You can get them a bit cheaper online, but I don’t really want to buy vitamins from individuals on auction websites. And some items just aren’t available, so I have to import them from the U.S.

Free trade and other myths

Importing things into Korea from overseas really isn’t easy. With vitamins for example, you can only import a maximum of six items – not more than two of one item within that six – and the customs limit is around $130, including the postage, which is usually $40. So in other words, the postage is around a third of the whole cost. And yet... often buying things this way is still cheaper than the prices in Korea, which makes me think that Korean prices are a rip-off. That’s really unfortunate because people have a right to their health, and somehow – because of the way the market is here – Korean people are potentially suffering.

So there’s no easy solution to my vitamin problem. In fact – my wife and I even looked at setting up our own company just to import vitamins for our own use, but the rules are horrendous. It’s a shame, because there’s a famous cosmetic product in England for example, that I think Koreans would love if they could get it here [it’s Boots’ – ‘No. 7’ brand]. Sometimes locally-made products are not always the best choices, and they shouldn’t be the only choices.

But I’m hopeful that the free trade agreements Korea’s signed recently with the U.S. and E.U. might change things.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-02-23 @ ~19:30