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


John from Daejeon said...

Don't get too bent out of shape over American English here in South Korea. There's quite the history between the two countries. Anyway, I do feel for my cousin in India. Her name is Lori, so is always turning around every time she hears the word, lorry, thinking that someone is talking to her. I got to see it happen first-hand when we met up in Malaysia.

Personally, I'm not a fan of how powerful the cabals are either, but my #1 would have to be how quickly foreigners in South Korea drop the "South," or the "Republic of," when talking about South Korea. It's almost like the country to the North with those nuclear weapons and all those soldiers doesn't exist at all. And it truly shocks the ex-pats that I bring into my apartment to see that I actually have a stockpile of at least one month's worth of food, water, and other supplies just in case North Korea does attack South Korea and a rope ladder to escape in case of a fire or other catastrophe. It amazes me that most have no plan (or maps) at all.

Mike said...

Oddly enough, my subject on tonight's show was "Expats Who Run". Stay tuned for more.

This question of Korea/South Korea is an interesting one, and I do it too - but it's not really the foreigners - it's a Korean thing.

Think about it - The Korea Times, Korea Telecom, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power - and here's the best - Tourism Korea (another example) running 'Visit Korea Year', even though the Presidential Council on National Branding (seriously) complains that people are confusing the South and the North - when basically they're the ones running 'Visit Korea'/Dynamic Korea/Korea Sparkling campaigns rather than 'Visit South Korea'/South Korea Sparkling, etc.

More examples - here are some recent headlines from the newspapers:

Korean cuisine at a crossroads (Korea Herald)
Korea considers deploying new frigates near Dokdo (Korea Times)
Korea readies for the LTE era (Korea JoongAng Daily)

You'll see from numerous newspapers and articles that unless there's a need to be explicit, South Korea is often just 'Korea'. It's not really foreigners driving this - we're just copying.

I think there are two central contributing reasons. (1) Korea is all about race - pure-bloodedness and 'minjok'. Koreans are still Koreans, even if they're in the north. Korea is still fundamentally Korea. Which leads into (2) - branding everything as South Korea tacitly accepts the division of the country which nobody really wants to philosophically accept.

Abby said...

Hey, Mike! I love reading your entries. You have very acute observation of Korea and the Koreans which I don't find it any offensive.

In regards #3, poverty, you can find homeless people like those in Namdaemun and all sorts of beggars in big cities. Maybe I'm just used to seeing so many subway beggars in NYC that it became a norm for me: dancers asking for donation after performances, people simply asking for left-over food(few of my friends carry their leftovers to give to these people), and hustlers. But I understand your point on these little kids passing out notes to collect money afterward or sell gums. You never know if the written statements are true...

One of the reasons why I say you give sharp observation is your placement of 'free speech' on top of the list. Koreans do side with the ones who had the most difficulties growing up yet made themselves successful. Sympathy triumphs reasoning here. I have always said, "this is why even if my native tongue is Korean, feel much more liberated speaking in English." We do have rights to free speech, but we tend to self censor ourselves due to social standards, the religious beliefs, and fear of getting attacked nationally.

Mike said...

Thanks Abby.

Actually one of the strangest things about the homeless issue is the number of people in South Korea who are said to be homeless - 1,500. That means that when I saw around 30 of them bedding down at Namdaemun I was - allegedly - looking at 2% of the entire homeless population of the country right in front of me.

Homeless people estimated at 1,500 nationwide: survey

The self-censorship issue is fascinating. There was an article in the Scientific American recently which essentially suggested that people have different personalities for each language they speak, although the notion of Linguistic Relativity has been around for a long time. So I think it's natural for there to be a difference between our 'English' and 'Korean' language persona. Korean culture encourages a lot more self-censorship and it's actually alarmed me to think that in learning the language I'm developing a personality as part of that I'm not sure I really like.

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