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.
Inside Out Busan
Air date: 2011-03-09 @ ~19:30