Thursday, June 30, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 32: Hell is Other Expats

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


A lot of this was rather tongue-in-cheek, but it does explain my reticence to engage with the expat community during my time in Korea, both in person and increasingly on the Internet.


Today I'm talking about what I've learned about the expat community here - at least the Western expats anyway - because the migrant workers and immigrant wives aren't really the same community so I can't talk about them from personal experience. Jean-Paul Sartre once famously wrote that "Hell is other people", so today my topic is "Hell is Other Expats".

Before 'The Station'

Before I started appearing on Busan eFM, I didn't have any interaction with the expat community at all. There aren't many foreigners living in the Saha-gu district of Busan anyway - and this was especially true in 2006 when I first got here. Evidently we were so rare that I asked myself what I would do if I met one. What is the social etiquette? Do we engage is some vague recognition of each other's presence?

It was three days of walking around my area before I saw another Westerner - but only at a distance - and it was two weeks before I really came face to face with one. We were walking towards each other in an otherwise empty hospital corridor and there really was no escape. "This is it" I thought, as we approached. And then she smiled, and I ignored her. It seems you can't escape your upbringing - and you don't smile at strangers where I'm from. It didn't help that, as I recall, she was quite attractive, and women like that shouldn't smile at people like me - it's just cruel. Also, when that happens in that context, I'm just going to think some handsome Korean doctor is walking two feet behind me and it's him the smile is aimed at. So obviously I'm going to play it cool and not risk looking like an idiot.

But there was no handsome Korean doctor. She probably recognised the fresh-off-the-boat look of panic on my face and felt pity for me. But I ignored her.

The etiquette

So in the end I decided to ignore other foreigners - it's just too weird to behave differently. I did wonder if Koreans have this problem? A person could be Japanese or Chinese. Can a Korean recognise a Korean overseas? [Well, they say they always can and to suggest otherwise is to invite the conversation to become quite... animated - it's an issue loaded with significance which makes it rather fascinating].

It's only 2011 now - five years after the hospital corridor incident - but things feel very different now; there are so many more foreigners - in fact so many, they're pairing off and dating.

So we're not just here to steal your women

I'm seeing more Western couples here now, which I never used to in Busan. I think foreigners here used to be so rare we were a bit like giant pandas. In fact I can't escape from that image in my mind - of a male and female Westerner locked up in a cage by the Koreans to see if they will breed together.

But whatever happens in real life with the expats, that's not what worries me, because these days a lot of life isn't real at all - it's on the Internet. And in cyberspace, all the expats are together in one big unhappy community.

One big unhappy community

In my first couple of years I read a lot of discussion forums here, mainly visited by native-English teachers. And let's just say that they created a certain impression of foreigners in Korea... namely the impression that they are slightly mad... or quite possibly completely unhinged in some cases. There was a lot of fuss a couple of years ago about foreigners being tested for AIDS when they arrived here, but it's quite possibly their mental health that ought to be checked on the way in. Or maybe they're fine when they get here, and it's Korea that turns you crazy.

I was asked once why foreigners come to Korea, and I said I think part of the reason is because they don't fit in back home, myself included. Otherwise, why are we here rather than doing something productive with our time? Korea often seems to be a place where foreigners flail around as their career prospects back home gradually seep away. You don't have to play the career game but if you don't it marks you out as different in an adventurous, eccentric and strange way. From everything I've read I'd describe many other expats here as rather dubious characters.


'Dubious' is a very important English word. It doesn't actually mean anything, but it scares people every time. I always thought these dubious expats were mainly teachers; most are straight out of university, so they're young and inexperienced and think the world owes them a living. Then they come here, they're given an audience in the form of a classroom full of students. They get a lot of attention, and I think that causes some to fall into a kind of 'rock star' mentality.

So I think it all goes to some people's heads. It's like when you read some saying on the Internet that they don't want to work for less than 25,000 won an hour. You don't need a qualification in Economics to understand it's just supply and demand - more foreign teachers here means less money. That's capitalism. There end up being a lot of arguments on the expat Internet and it can get really bad tempered. I mentioned that - before I came onto Busan eFM - I really made no attempt to mix with other foreigners, and part of the reason for that is reading all these people being rude to each other. We often complain about Korean netizens and how bad their behaviour can be when they get angry, but I'm not sure foreigners are really any different.

Angry non-Korean netizens

So how it typically goes with angry foreign '외국인' netizens is that someone posts something about Korea on a discussion forum, and then it only takes a few posts (or less) for someone to become rude and then the insults fly back and forth. It's often like watching a battle of wits between two unarmed opponents - you grab your popcorn and watch - but it's also a depressing reflection on humanity in the end.

But it's not just teachers, as there are other discussion forums these days for non-teachers in Korea and on one, for example, the moderators themselves are quite happy to engage in attacking other users and making sarcastic comments. So there's no incentive to post or participate in the community for me if that's the kind of environment they want to have. Perhaps civil discussion is becoming a lost art, both amongst foreigners and in Korea as well.

The 'Sunfull' campaign

Cyber-bullying has become a big issue in Korea in recent years, which has led to the launch of the so-called 'Sunfull' campaign of 'online etiquette' [which essentially encourages people to be nice to each other online]. Of course it's been prompted by the number of suicides which have occurred due to online bullying. The campaign has - apparently - attracted over one million messages, so it may have touched a nerve.

The emphasis of the Sunfull campaign is on posting positive messages [it's actually got the potential to be quite sinister in that respect if you think through where that's going], but I think it would be a good start just to have people not being rude to each other online. Nobody wants to live in a society where you can only write positive things [not true - obviously it's a very seductive idea to some politicians and political groups in Korea and other countries, and later Busan eFM belatedly banned me from discussing certain subjects on air - more on this to follow], civil disagreement is an important part of our freedom but the trouble is many people seem to lack the education and intelligence to form reasoned counter-arguments - it's easier to be rude.

I think one of the ironies of the Sunfull campaign though is that while politicians in Seoul are trying to encourage people to be civil to each other, at the same time media and politicians are launching some quite nasty attacks on Japan, sometimes there are fights in parliament, and it sets the tone doesn't it? I sympathise with Korea over the Dokdo issue but getting really angry about it is a big turnoff for foreigners and therefore actually counter-productive. If you look at people like Ghandi and the Dalai Lama, with reasoned non-aggressive arguments they drew many people overseas to their campaigns. Angry Koreans attacking foreigners just damages the image of Korea, and angry expats arguing with each other in discussion forums just damages the image of expats. I think expats need their own Sunfull campaign.

I wouldn't set one up though because I really don't care enough - my solution is just to stop reading and posting on these forums. And anyway - foreigners aren't like Koreans. Recently I read that Korea was the 'fifth tightest society in the world' - meaning it's very restricted socially and culturally [actually it's the fifth out of 33 countries surveyed although the Chosun Ilbo went with the more salacious headline]. So whereas you might be able to convince Koreans to do something if the social pressure is there, if you suggest the same to foreigners they're probably just going to do the complete opposite instead.

No escape from Expat Hell

So there probably is no escape from the online Expat Hell. But not everything's bad. Rather than go crazy with hate and spend all their time arguing with people on the Internet, some foreigners turn to humour, and it's the interesting subject of expat humour that I plan to talk about next week.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-01 @ ~19:30

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 31: The New Address System

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


The address system in Korea is changing. What does it mean?

Addresses in England... versus Korea

In England addresses are organized into house numbers, street names, areas – which are a bit like a ‘gu’ - city, county and then postcode, or zip code as it’s called in the U.S. Street names are random – more or less – and the house numbers are fairly logical, starting at 1-3-5 on one side of the road and 2-4-6 on the other. Letters are sorted by house number of postcode, so they are easy to find.

In Korea addresses have the city and the district which is what you’d expect, but then it gets rather strange. Buildings are given lot numbers in the order the property was built – a system introduced by the occupying Japanese in 1910. So of course, once you’re in an area finding the actual building – given that the numbers are randomly scattered around – is quite difficult.

Each road in the UK has a street name – usually given on a big sign at the start of a road, unless it’s been stolen. I used to drive around London quite a bit back in 1994, which was largely pre-satnav, so I had a book called an ‘A-Z’ with an index of street names in it – which you can quickly look up if you’re lost. So as long as you know what street you’re on, you should be fine. It was quite important back then because if you think the traffic in Busan is bad – try London.

White on Blue

Speaking of driving, I actually didn’t realise Korea had an address problem though until recently, because I don’t drive here, and I didn’t really think about it. Back in the UK, it used to be a habit to look for street name signs, but these days we just rely on our satnav screens. When I learned the address system was changing in Korea, I started thinking about those street signs and the fact that the Korean ones – such as they are – are really quite different. In the UK the street names are big white signs with huge black lettering, whereas here you get quite small white lettering on a blue background – it doesn’t help that they have to put both the Korean and English on the signs. I’d say the letters end up being about a quarter of the size in the UK – so they aren’t easy to read from the road. For that matter, I hardly notice them as a pedestrian.

Given that there seems to be this process going on now of creating new numbers and road names in some cases, I could help but wonder if there were going to end up being 10,000 Dokdo Streets. But however they did it, apparently Busan got the best score for their new system.

It’s all a bit low-tech

I don’t think the new system will help me get around better though, because I don’t recall ever looking for a building based on its number. That’s technology again – I just use Naver’s equivalent of Google Street View. For example, when I was looking for Busan eFM for the first time I ‘walked’ in the ‘street view’ until I found it. Even if you don’t hap the street view option, these days you have smartphone maps as well.

The subway system is my map

I feel like I spend most of my life in Busan down in the subway anyway – emerging at the required stop – and 90% of the time I’m almost there. I suppose the subway system works a kind of map as well – everything relates to where the nearest station is. So basically I’m using the subway as my address system – in fact I organise my life around it.

Sometimes I have to make compromises because I’m only using public transport. For example, there’s a big store I want to go to [Costco], but it’s not really near a subway station – so I just have to find an alternative. It would be different if I had a car. But then the subway is so convenient. The first time I travelled around London I was 14 – the city is very large of course – but I got no sense of its size because I’d go underground, take trains, and pop up where I needed to be. It’s the same with Busan – which is ten times bigger than my home city but it doesn’t necessarily feel bigger because of the subway system. There’s no subway where I’m from and it might take an hour to get from one side of the city to the other – about the same length of time it takes you to do the same thing with Busan’s subway. Imagine what a nightmare Busan would be without its subway system.


I read that the subway system in Seoul is losing money, but I think people have to see the bigger picture. In the UK everything is costed out very carefully, but I think it leads to a lot of short-termism, big projects are hardly ever done, and there’s no long-term vision. This is one of the reasons I like Korea – people still believe in big projects here.

What’s the cost-benefit of the Busan subway system? You will never truly know what the economic impact is, but you know it must be there. I suppose the new address system is an example of a big project – there’s lots of short-term inconvenience with long-term benefits we can’t be certain of.

My address is changing but I’m not moving

Certainly, the new address system has created some inconveniences for me. I have a Korean bank but I’m still heavily using two banks in the UK and I’ll have to tell them my Korean address is changing. This is much harder than it seems because they are useless [one of them has a branch in Busan but to change my address I have to notify my British branch in writing and the other already has the wrong Korean address but we’ve established that to change it I need to do so at my local branch in England... in person(!)].

The other problem is that the Korean immigration authorities are incredibly strict about the notifying of new addresses – if you don’t, it can count against moving you from a temporary visa (such as the F-2 I’m on) to permanent residence (F-5, which I’d like to have just so I don’t have to go through the performance that is the F-2 renewal). But then, if I’m staying in the same place, but my address is changing, do I have to notify them and when The problem is with this, in the experience of foreigners here, each immigration office tends to have their own rules and way of doing things [to put it diplomatically].

Last minute nerves

But maybe now I don’t have to worry about the address changes so much – because of course, the government have decided people aren’t ready for the new system, and have delayed it for two years.

I was surprised about this, because it’s been planned for long enough. People are never really ready for big changes, but you pick a date and get through it. For example, in the UK in 1971 we decimalised our currency. More recently, in 1999 many countries switched over to the euro currency, and that was a huge change.

But recently I read about a guy here that tried to order food with his new address and the takeaway said they didn’t understand it, which meant he’d only get his food if he gave the old one. So that’s the problem – people aren’t motivated to adopt a new system until they have to. There comes a point when you have to do it – but with attitudes like the one with the takeaway, I have a feeling that even after the change people will still use the old system unofficially for some time.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-25 @ ~19:30