Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Mostly Harmless

When I was tentatively asked to move from working part-time to full-time at Busan International Foreign School back in February – a job I finally began last week – I understood that as part of this my son could be educated at the school during the duration of my contract, which my wife and I had decided would be a good idea since we had become concerned at his interactions with other children when he met them. Because of this, we didn't search for a place in a Korean nursery for him, but a couple of days after I signed the contract we found out he was 10 days too young to qualify for a place. The moral of the story perhaps, is to always check the small print yourself.

Our son was born in the Year of the Tiger, which is a Chinese zodiac thing people here still find important, and apparently it was a "White Tiger" year. So while the "White Tigers" might sound like a resistance group set up by foreigners* in the Haeundae district of Busan**, the term actually refers to the multitude of 'white tiger babies' born during that Chinese year, or 'lunar year' as the Koreans prefer to call it for some reason.

Tigers are important in Korea as they are seen as a symbol of strength (whereas being white is important in cosmetic adverts and hagwon teacher recruitment), so it is believed that white tiger babies will become wealthy and powerful as they are born with an extraordinary amount of potential, not like all those mediocre babies from lesser years you have to subconsciously write-off from birth. The upshot of this is that everybody who could had babies that year, and now two years later there are too many babies and not enough nursery places.

So by the time we realised we had to find a nursery place after all, the nearest place we could apparently find - after single-handedly boosting Korea Telecom's profits by 10% - was in somewhere called Pyongyang, and it seems there are no direct buses. My wife then resigned herself to another year of hanging around with our son in 'kids cafés', which are a form of disguised nursery which distracts you with food or drink you have to buy, while your child disappears and gets into trouble.

Then a miracle happened. My wife found a nursery which had 30 free places, which admittedly is slightly suspicious given the white tiger glut. It was beneath some kind of church. It was probably run by some kind of Christians. I was still working part-time so I decided to go the first day to make sure it wasn't actually a cult; I grew up a Catholic so I have a lot of experience in spotting them.

The nursery people were pleasant enough while not being suspiciously nice, there were some prayers on the wall and they said Grace before eating, but there were no models of crucified men hanging from the walls or fairy stories about a bad man with horns who knew what you were doing and probably made government policy. I concluded they were probably mostly harmless.

If the group did have a cult-like quality, it transpired to be in their attitude to the English language. After he'd been at the nursery for a couple of weeks, my wife was asked to "speak more Korean" to our son at home because the staff felt he was lagging behind other children.

From what I've read on the subject of bringing up children in a bilingual household, research suggests that it's entirely normal for children to initially lag behind in terms of language development because they have two vocabularies and sets of grammar rules to learn rather than one. It's logical enough.

I think everyone recognises that this situation is far from ideal, but it is the reality of your circumstances unless you want to take the radical step of only teaching your multicultural child one language and one culture. I have known of people who have done this – both in Korea and in England and I wouldn't advocate it in either country, but I would particularly question the approach here given that in the current cultural environment you are not really going to be accepted as a Korean if you have 'mixed blood' (or indeed, if you don't have any Korean blood and become a Korean citizen).

As I see it, the road ahead is potentially littered with this kind of attitude though, because in truth, the road behind us already has been. In the matter of the nurture or nature question, I have to say my attitude has been shaped by nurture. Bringing up a child in a multicultural family in Korea doesn't on the face of it have to be a constant battle, but somehow it regularly turns into one as people associate undesirable traits with 'bad blood' and try to force you and your child into being as completely Korean as possible, without seeing the irony in the fact that if you were they still wouldn't accept you for it. And this is the fundamental paradox of living here.

* I understand – not that I would know – that the local resistance actually goes by the name 'Busan Alien Residents Front' or BARF, and it is vaguely affiliated the the Seoul-based 'Resident Alien Liberation Front' or RALF – Korea's oldest foreign-based resistance movement which dates back to 1994.

** I use the "Haeundae district of Busan" here for simplicity – many here are increasingly of the belief that Busan is, in fact, a district of Haeundae.

Monday, August 13, 2012


When I started writing about my experiences here there were only two other foreigners writing blogs in Busan as far as I'm aware and so it enjoyed a level of mild popularity by virtue of absence of choice. This led to a few invitations to appear on Korean TV and radio shows, and I was also asked to write, but always for airline magazines - perhaps their editors had correctly surmised that I work best with a captive audience.

I always turned these offers down - even though I was invariably assured it would 'help promote my blog' - on the sound logic that I actually didn't want to promote my blog, and I have a face for radio and a voice for writing. Yes, perhaps with enough plastic surgery I too could look like one of those K-pop boy band members which women who are into the whole non-threatening-male-look would like, but it would represent the modern-day equivalent of The Six Million Dollar Man project, and cost about the same.

The other reason for turning down 'a great chance to be on TV/radio/write for people trapped on a plane' is that the offers invariably came in from bizarre addresses at Korea's equivalent of Hotmail such as 'ilikegoats', 'bananaman', 'pussy80' and 'bkmhbdmukkk' with subject lines such as 'This is Arirang TV' to make sure you know it's authentic. So you end up in a situation where Bananaman invites you to some part of the city to appear on a TV or radio programme. You could run a background check on Bananaman but it's time consuming.

It was once explained to me - and it's entirely logical - that since most people here share about seven surnames and most of them are in fact called Kim - it's almost impossible to get anything resembling a sensible email address from your employer because someone's already taken it. The problem is though, I don't think they're even trying. Take the Korea Times for example. It can't have more than a few hundred staff so it shouldn't be anywhere near as difficult to choose an email address, but someone still elects to be 'foolsdie' at their domain name, and that means sooner or later they end up writing a piece about a plane crash where pilot error is suspected and signing it 'foolsdie' at the bottom.

But mostly, Koreans seem to use their personal email addresses for work purposes - and this blurring of the lines extends to phones now, and chat systems such as Kakao Talk. This provides whole new opportunities for sexual innuendo because you can now not only expose your quirky textual inner thoughts but give the Freudians something much more graphic and substantial to sink their teeth into - such as the image below - the Kakao Talk avatar of a male bank employee who contacted my wife to tell her that her new credit card was ready:

Bank Employee's Avatar

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rogue Trader

When I worked as a financial trader, people used to ask me from time to time about the viability of trading in Korea, and I tried to offer some polite ad-hoc advice elsewhere but I never really brought it onto this blog. This is a pity because the most comprehensive piece I think I ever wrote on the subject was on a forum for foreigners in Korea I later was kicked out of for not posting frequently enough to. The moral of the story – aside from the obvious question of whether you should actually avoid other foreigners and their forums in Korea like the plague – is if you're going to write something useful, put it on your own site.

That said, I'm not promising to make this useful because the first and last thing I'm going to say about trading in Korea is don't, with one caveat – there's a distinction between longer-term investing over a period of years and shorter-term trading.

On a general matter, about half the people I've ever talked to about trading have an idea about the system they will employ to trade. They may even have read books. If you're one of these people and you think you have a system, well, you don't. Sorry to rain on your parade.

It's an oft-quoted statistic that 90% of traders lose money and I've actually read the original research paper - and the figures are as frightening as you might imagine. Worse in fact, because it doesn't follow that the remaining 10% are wildly profitable – some are just treading water. Of course, you can read plenty of books on how to be successful in the world of trading (the real answer is writing books about how to trade).

Anyway, for several years I consider myself to have been a successful trader insofar as I was very much within that 10% to the extent that I paid my bills and funded my lifestyle from trading profits but I wasn't good enough to breeze in and out of the market like one genuinely gifted trader I knew so it all came from very hard work – I put in minimum 57-hour weeks and this is not an exaggeration. You can certainly get yourself over to Birt's EA Review and set your imagination racing but if running forex bots were easy in the long run I think there'd be no need for a site like that in the first place, so if you find yourself beguiled by such things you should also recognise the paradox.

When I was doing my 'Open Mike' segment on Busan e-FM I discussed the issue of Financial Trading in Korea and if you have an interest in this subject you should link off and read the summary for this now.

What's relevant from that particular show is that obviously the first hurdle facing anyone interested in using a Korean broker/trading product provider is the language barrier. The second is that my impression of the Korean market is that it's like the Wild West with rampant ramping of stocks in a broadly long-only product-providing market. That's not to say that you can't make money from it, but you may as well visit a casino. This is just a subjective opinion – although I'm pretty sure I'm right – but what is not subjective is the issue of liquidity and namely the fact that the Korean market doesn't have nearly as much of it as London or New York. Yes, the newspapers here will sometimes claim otherwise and I admire their unceasing efforts at assisting Korea's attempts to continue performing public fallatio on itself, but you probably shouldn't watch or try this at home.

The next problem is that because Korea's laws are fairly hostile to international financial institutions (it only recently allowed hedge funds to operate in Korea) and because international financial providers have a hundred internal and regulatory rules of their own to comply with, it's actually quite hard in my experience to even find reputable forex providers prepared to accept foreign customers based in Korea. After a considerable effort which involved notarised forms of identification (try pulling off that trick with Korean notaries who can't understand English), I eventually opened up an account and discovered it wasn't possible to transfer money into it from Korea. The conclusion is it's better to open accounts while you're living somewhere else and then operate a don't-ask-don't-tell policy with them regarding your location.

But let's assume you have a broker and can trade from Korea. Your next hurdle is the time-zone. Actively trading U.S. stocks is out because New York is open when you are in bed. I suppose you could play fire-and-forget with some trades and set a few limit orders to buy and sell but it's a risky business and inefficient (for which you can read 'unprofessional'). European opening hours are more Asia-friendly up to a point, although London's 1.30am finishes in winter are still endurance-testing.

Of course, forex offers a 24-hour market five days a week but what they don't tell you is that the best liquidity is still during London-New York hours, and strange and mysterious things often happen during the Asian trading hours. If you're looking at a trading bot with form it may well not account for these shenanigans and if you're rolling your own your backtesting will probably represent an ideal you'll probably never attain (I could give you chapter-and-verse on trying to build accurate backtesting results using MetaTrader but the executive summary is forget it).

From what I can tell, shorting is not a tool generally available to Koreans so most people trade the kind of dubious "theme stocks" that are so Wild West they might even put London's AIM market – which actually has been described as a casino – to shame. Many Koreans have traded Equity Linked Warrants (ELWs) but the Financial Services Commission wants to ban short-term trading in them. It may be just as well though because warrants with maturity dates (assuming the ELWs do) generally benefit from a knowledge of the Black-Scholes model and where offered to small investors they are – in my opinion – usually 'designed' (cough) to transfer money from said small investors to the issuers of the warrants (cough cough order book manipulation cough cough). I really must see a doctor. It also seems the market in Korea is imploding because it was more directly manipulated.

And even if I could understand Korea perfectly and had the tools at my disposal to trade Korean stocks, the conclusion I've drawn from my extensive reading of Korean news and personal experience of dealing with people here professionally is Korean business and political life is permeated by a intriguing kind of 'moral pragmatism' which would discourage me from wanting to invest in them.

For what it's worth 'Financial Hub Korea' – which is inexplicably marketed under the obfuscated title 'Fn Hub Korea', is pressing on in its tireless mission "to promote Korea as an international finance market" (or perhaps that should be "an international fn market") so perhaps one day things will get better and I sincerely hope they do, but in my limited experience Korea is hostile to the international movement of capital, I'm convinced from my reading of the news that it's hostile to foreign companies (to be fair like America and Canada also are), and it's hostile to domestic financial speculation of all kinds including the evil 'property speculators' that had the temerity to buy property in Pyeongchang before it won its Winter Olympic bid. How very dare they. (And they still aren't very keen on foreigners owning property – a long personal story for another time).

Ironically due to the hypocrisy around which so much of political life in Korea revolves, property speculation is such an important national pastime here that I'm sure they would actually make it an Olympic event in time for Pyeongchang if they could. Korea might not win gold but they might at least be in with a chance - the earnings-to-price index of salaries to property is eye-watering compared to my own country, where it is considered high.

It's a shame about all this regulation and sniffyness because the idea of Korea being a 'Fn Hub' in this region of the world isn't perhaps quite as utterly absurd as it first seems – nobody really trusts the Chinese financial markets and Japan evidently can't run a stock exchange to save their lives.

So my personal conclusion is – and I did say I'd end on this – is don't trade Korean financial markets.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Under Siege: Dirty and Smelly and Fusion Babies

"I'm not just saying this because you’re related to me, but I used to think that all foreigners were dirty and smelly... but you're not." - a close relative who I am not permitted to name by title until the statute of limitations expires.

Does this mean I've pushed down the barriers of prejudice in Korea by just a little? Perhaps not, because this close relative went on to expand on that thought by adding "When I pass them in the street, I can smell their bad smell, they look unkempt and their clothes look years old. But you always look neat."

And apparently I don't smell that bad either. If only foreigners could smell as wonderful as Koreans.

Filed under 'accidental truths close Korean relatives tell you when they finally let their guard down after five years'.

The observant among my two remaining readers will have noticed that I don't often write this blog any more. This is a function of many things such as my work as a writer elsewhere, aching fingers, a bad keyboard, my hatred of the updated Blogger interface that often no longer lets me post comments on my own blog, and the increasing amount of time I spend with the underground railroad here in Busan.

It is also - as I have previously mentioned - in no small part connected with the extra work and frequent interruptions that come with having a 22-month-old child, who is, shall we say, high maintenance. For example, this morning the wireless landline phone handset in our apartment was nowhere to be found until I finally spotted it in our aquarium, which led to a couple of hours of disassembling, drying, cleaning and re-soldering (it was not disassembly-friendly). This is the tip of the iceberg.

All small children can be a challenge I'm sure, but one of our close relatives evidently arrived at the conclusion that my son represented significantly more of a challenge than any Korean child they had previously experienced, prompting them to pose the following philosophical question:

"Do you think his temperament is the way it is because he has mixed blood?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Under Siege: Come On! Come On!

I’m alone in the apartment and receive a call from an unknown number on my mobile. I don’t answer it because my son has only slept 30 minutes all morning, he’s just woken up, and I’m desperate to get him back to sleep again so I can do something productive in the little time this will afford me. To this end, I’m walking circles around our lounge with him in a sling on my back, which is the only way of getting him to sleep, at all, ever.

The same number phones again exactly one minute later. This time I answer it, because it's entirely possible that it might be important.

Allegedly it’s Kookmin Bank - KB - and I say allegedly because of the number of phishing frauds which are perpetrated on Koreans from both within Korean and beyond, by which I mean China. The woman launches into a long sentence about something or other but it doesn’t sound like a sales call because it doesn’t sound like she’s just ingested helium, and she doesn’t make the well-practised corporate giggle like the kind of 18 year-old girl normally given that kind of job. I know what you’re thinking - is there such a thing as a corporate giggle in Korea? Yes, there is.

She tells me my name - badly - but it’s vaguely recognisable as my name, and I say yes, hoping she might switch from the Korean she’s been using so far, to English. But she launches off into a long Korean sentence so I stop her. “Jam shi man yo”... please wait a moment. And I tell her, “I’m a foreigner, I don’t speak Korean, so I don’t understand what you are saying.” So she starts again, probably from the beginning, in Korean. I try again, in Korean, slowly “I. Don’t. Speak. Korean. Therefore. I. Don’t. Understand. What. You. Are. Saying.” This at least solicits some kind of “Oh, you don’t understand?” “No”. So she explains again. In Korean. Over my “I don’t understands”.

But then she changes strategy. She tells me the branch of KB she’s from, and it is a branch I’ve dealt with, which makes it feel like it’s not a phishing call, although nothing short of being in the bank talking to them is likely to convince me because I’m naturally suspicious. If I don’t trust myself why should I trust anyone else? Then she says “ID cardeu, passport”, but while she might be requesting details I’m never going to give her, there’s no context, so I simply tell her I don’t understand again, but she says “ID cardeu, passport” a couple more times with increasing urgency and frustration.

I am also long beyond frustration, and I change strategy. In Korean I tell her, “I don’t understand. Therefore my wife will phone your branch later.” I thought this would provide her with the resolution she so badly needed, but it didn’t. Off she launches again into another round of indecipherable Korean. So I tell her again “I don’t understand. Therefore my wife will phone your branch later.” This is exasperating.

Then the surprise. In evidently frustrated English and a rather aggressive tone universally recognised the world over as listen-you-stupid-foreigner, she suddenly says “Come on! Come on!” My mouth and fingers know me well enough not to wait for orders in such circumstances. It took my finger about a tenth of a second to hit the “End Call” button at and I simultaneously heard my mouth say “Frak you” or words to that effect. I support their actions.

Later it transpired that I had a million won in a savings account that had matured. In case that sounds impressive let me put it into context – at the rate the power in our apartment mysteriously bleeds away into the surrounding atmosphere it will soon be about the cost of one month’s electricity bill. The money was put into the savings account to act as a guarantee for my credit card with the bank (making actually not a credit card with the tiny limit I’m given) because I’m a foreign criminal who otherwise might run away with their precious frakking card and go crazy with it in China with a couple of $3 hookers or something. And that is the reason by the way (not the hookers – the fact that KB don’t really trust foreigners with their credit cards).

So the million had matured from the ultra-low interest guarantee account which had earned me as much as an entire hooker worth of interest in a year, and apparently the staff member who phoned me had noticed this - three months later - and decided that I very urgently and immediately needed to find a new home for it, and certainly after her phone call I had a pretty good idea where I wanted the bank to shove it.

When my wife came home I related the story and she immediately phoned the caller at the bank. At first she denied it, so my wife asked “Are you calling my husband a liar?”, after which she finally admitted it and apologised for losing her temper and the whole “Come on! Come on!” business. One small step for a foreigner, one giant leap for Korean banking - I still need to provide cash deposits to guarantee my credit card though.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Under Siege: Racial Abuse on a Bus

So I promised to tell you the racial abuse on the bus story. It happened two days after I’d been kicked out of a taxi when the driver saw I was a foreigner. It wasn't a good week for me in Korea.

I was sat right at the back of a bus with a Korean colleague heading back to civilisation from Gijang after work. My colleague’s English is good but buses are noisy and you have to talk above it for comprehension.

There’s a sort of unspoken rule on public transport in Korea although actually sometimes it’s spoken very loudly – which is that you shouldn’t speak very loudly on public transport. I like it, because it’s based on the fine principle of not bothering anyone else, and if Korea could see fit to similarly purge the stench of alcohol-sodden old men and women, men who want to sit on narrow subway seats with their legs wide apart and elderly professional jostlers from its public transport I’d be even happier, but of all the aforementioned things only public speaking is apparently deemed socially unacceptable enough to be publicly frowned on.

But wait a moment... this just coming in – no, apparently you can also talk very loudly on public transport if you’re over 50. Because once you turn 50 in Korea, statistically you turn into the kind of insufferable asshole who can literally push your way to the front of a subway queue, steal your taxi, and talk loudly on public transport while telling younger people to shut up. I’m told it’s something to do with Confucianism – apparently he was some old guy a long time ago who said it was OK for old people to behave like insufferable assholes, especially if they were men.

Every so often, you’ll see a story in the media here which will typically take the form of a young person – often a female I think for some reason – suddenly turning on an old person in the subway while a dozen passengers video the scene with their mobile phones. And we all act shocked and say “what is society coming to?”, but secretly I imagine that they probably deserved it. There, I said it. Legions of ‘ajeoshis’ and ‘ajummas’ - older men and women – in Korea are actually completely self-centred and insufferable, everyone secretly knows it, but times have changed, and those younger than them are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it any more. I imagine Korea has serious problems on the horizon – think ‘social breakdown in Japan’, but with very much more anger and compulsory military service.

So this particular insufferable ajeoshi gets on the bus and let me tell you, this does not even figure on my radar because it’s nothing more than a flock of birds – common background noise here. But the insufferable ajeoshi is either particularly insufferable today or also drunk, because he gets up from the seat mid-way down the bus where he’s been complaining loudly to himself and presumably anyone who will listen, and moves to the front of the bus while becoming more agitated and animated. He starts treating the driver as something akin to his co-conspirator or drinking buddy, and while he’s now appeared on my radar, it’s the next sentence from my colleague that shocks me.

“I think we should stop talking.” What? Why? “He doesn’t like foreigners.” So I sat there in with my clearly worried colleague in stunned silence. On the noisy bus. And all the Korean passengers had stopped talking too – oh except one, the insufferable ajeoshi that hates people talking on the bus, who spent the next five minutes shouting on the phone to someone about something else. And I do mean shouting.

With the insufferable ajeoshi now distracted, my colleague explained in hushed tones what he had said, namely that:

1. “He doesn’t like foreigners talking loudly on a bus.”
2. “He doesn’t want to hear foreign languages in Korea.”
3. “He doesn’t know what foreigners are doing in Korea."
4. “He doesn’t want foreigners in Korea.”
5. “Yankee go home!”

Nice. And that’s only what he told me. I can’t help thinking there was a lot more to it than that. So as the only foreigner on the bus, apparently he’d been shouting all this at me but of course, I’d been wonderfully oblivious to it all.

I know I should study Korean more, but sometimes I’m afraid of what will happen when I understand them and worse, what will happen when they can understand me. Douglas Adams said the discovery of the Babel fish "effectively removed all barriers to communication between different cultures and races" causing "more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." My not learning Korean very quickly might simply be a subconscious manifestation of my self-protection mechanism.

Ironically though, I’m open-minded about all this 'Yankee go home' business, because if they did maybe Koreans would stop posting job adverts for North-American-passport-holders-only on the principle that apparently a native English person teaching native English in Korea is no good. Not that I teach English, but in principle, the idea that I’m lower down the English-ability and employability scale than an American community college graduate speaking in a local accent that even other Americans can’t understand is kind of annoying. British people are already second-class citizens in Korea compared to ‘North American passport holders’, and yet when it comes down to it, we still get caught up in Korea’s random bouts of anti-Americanism.

When Korean Mother found out about what had happened, she was actually ready to head up to Gijang to mount an improbable search for the insufferable racist ajeoshi on the bus. But other people in Busan simply said “Well, that’s Gijang for you.” (#visitgijang)

Do you know what bothered me the most about the incident though? Foreign children from our school travel those buses.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Under Siege: Get Out of My Taxi!

I remember that it was cold and raining very heavily that morning. So heavily, that when the taxi finally pulled up outside the the last station before I headed out into the wilderness towards Gijang, its windows were steamed up and I couldn’t see the driver. The wait had been so long that I’d begun to wonder if I was ever going to get to work, and I really didn’t rate the chances of the woman who’d arrived behind me to start a queue at the designated taxi point.

I got into the taxi and started to give the driver my destination in Korean as I always did. But before I could finish the driver, a woman probably in her 50s – who’d turned around and appeared to be looking at me in an odd way - thrust her arm out and suddenly I was staring at an outstretched hand being waved in front of my nose, accompanied by something in Korean I didn’t catch, followed by “No! No!”. Huh? Now she was pointing at the still open car door and while I might not have understood the accompanying Korean, when it comes down to it “Get out!” is a fairly universal concept in any language.

I got out slowly as if I were in a dream. What was happening? And why? Had her daughter dated a foreigner? Should I say it wasn’t me?

So I shut the car door and stood there back by the side of the road, in the now thoroughly appropriate pouring rain. The taxi with the steamed up windows stayed where it was, only adding to my sense of surreality. The woman who’d arrived behind me to form a queue stared at me and we shared a telepathic moment. “What was that?” “Beats the hell out of me.”

So the woman opened the passenger side door and started talking to the taxi driver. If body language told a story it began with confusion and ended with confusion, and the middle involved the woman gesturing towards me and asking what the problem was.

After she’d closed the door, we both resumed our spots by the side of the road, but not before the woman had given me a pitying look. After about 30 seconds, the taxi driver decided to leave.

I felt the woman had gone into bat for me but I was now late for work and I was only a few weeks into my new job, so I told her where I was going in Korean and asked her if she wanted to share the next taxi. But she wasn’t going my way.

When the next taxi came, the woman made a point of talking to the driver in a disgusted tone as I was getting and it was pretty obvious she was making sure he wasn’t going to refuse to take me as she explained where I was going.

I wish I could have told her it was unnecessary. I’d never been told to get out of a taxi before in Korea and statistically it hardly seemed likely to happen again immediately following my first time, and in fact I’d go on to make sure of it because after that I stopped taking taxis in Jangsan and opted for the bus instead.

In the brief time I’d begun my Civilisation to Gijang commute, I’d had one good notably good taxi experience and faced the minor frustration of watching taxis fly by me without stopping in the countryside. Now I’d had a notably bad experience, I wondered if it only evened things up, or whether it pushed Korea into negative territory with me. I settled on the latter, because the world should have a positive bias anyway, not a neutral one. When someone treats you badly, it can more than offset those random acts of kindness. I guess that psychology for you.

Anyway, if I was in any doubt those doubts were removed two days later. I’ll tell you that story next time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Under Siege: Korean Man

My wife and I were waiting for an elevator when a little girl next to us, she must have been all of about six years old, said, ‘waegug-saram... anyoung’. ‘Anyoung’. ‘Anyoung waegug-saram’. Foreigner... hello. Hello. Hello foreigner. It was all smiles. Then she turned to my wife, and in a serious and surprisingly mature tone asked “Why did you marry a foreigner? Is it because you couldn’t get a Korean man?”

Friday, May 11, 2012

20 Minutes

When I first lived in Korea I barely really lived in it at all. I stayed in my apartment trading the international financial markets, and when I ventured out – largely at the weekend on chaperoned trips – I felt more like a visiting alien, although to be fair that was the official classification the Korean government gave me; I still have the Alien Registration Card to prove it.

Recognising that living in Korea conventionally meant actually trying to live in it, I took the opportunity to do some writing for the local English-language radio station and appear on their shows, and later I got a part-time programming job so I started spending a lot of my life really out there, on the move.

One day I was on the move back from the radio station when the subway train stopped in a station and stayed there. Announcements were made by the driver in Korean so I had no idea what was happening. Ten minutes passed, and during one announcement, I held my phone up to the speaker in the carriage for my wife to listen to the explanation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’d been a suicide at the next station ahead of us.

Right now, screen doors are being installed at most – if not eventually all – of Busan’s subway stations ‘for your comfort and convenience’, by which I’m pretty sure they actually mean “to stop you throwing yourself off the platform into the path of an oncoming train”, which I understand happens quite a lot.

I don’t know if these suicides are planned, because it’s occurred to me in recent years that climbing up to the top of a building requires effort, but throwing yourself out in front of a train can be one of those spur of the moment decisions that mark a final act of rebellion amid Korea’s claustrophobic social conformity, although evidently placing doors on the platform to enforce a further level of social conformity is going to solve this problem.

After twenty minutes most people had left the train, but I didn’t want to venture up to the surface and try and deal with a Korean taxi-driver, so I took my chances and waited with the five other people who remained, pondering the unanswerable question of who this person was, why they’d chosen to end their life by being hit by a subway train at 8.25pm on a Wednesday evening, and whether inconveniencing the many thousands of people who had found themselves stuck in the subway system was what they wanted from their final act in this world.

I also wondered how long it took to clear a badly mangled body from the subway tracks. I imagined it would be quite a long time. Apart from the mess, surely the police would want to ensure there was no foul play? Twenty minutes is all it takes as it turns out. Because all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The procedures for scraping humans off the subway tracks in Korea is well practised, and the local authorities are the Formula 1 pit crews of suicide clean-ups, which is a rather depressing realisation.

As someone who has struggled on and off with depression for a long time but is determined to see life through to its bitter end, I’m not sure I would be the best person to try and talk a suicidal Korean out of their intended course of action. But when I walked down the subway steps to the platform of one of the many trains I was catching one Thursday recently, I momentarily checked myself on discovering a youth around the age of 18 sat at the bottom sobbing uncontrollably. The new screen doors are not yet functional and his proximity three meters away from the fast end of the platform instantly concerned me.

Of course, because of the language barrier there was almost certainly nothing meaningful I could say to him, and even if I could, it might have only made him feel worse about himself that he’d embarrassed himself in front of a foreigner.

Part of me just wanted to tell him to stop using an umbrella in the rain, which is what all Koreans do but I generally don’t. This marks me out as quite possibly mentally ill in the eyes of most Koreans who fail to see their own collected psychoses which are simply called ‘society’ here, but to live life is to endure a lifetime of emotional pain far greater than the minor discomfort of getting a little wet. If you can’t feel the rain on your head and stare up in the sky and see the wonder in it falling towards you, reminding you that you are alive against the odds and for the briefest of moments in this Universe, then how can you cope with anything else? Umbrellas are a great evil foisted upon society, quite possibly as part of a secret plot by the psychiatric industry.

Becoming a father turned out to be a strange experience for me. I often look at my son wondering about his future and consider that as he is now, I once was, and as I am now, he may become. The circle of life goes on with many of the same scenes but different players. How will my story end? How will my son’s if he doesn’t live to see the Singularity? That mangled body on the tracks was someone’s baby once, and after all the joy and difficulties their parents must have experienced this is what it came down to.

That day, our twenty minutes came to an end, the blood of someone’s child was cleaned off the Busan subway tracks, and the rest of us inevitably resumed our journeys to our own eventual destinations.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Full Frontal

Around six months ago Korean Brother went to a nightclub and related the events that shocked him to my wife the next morning.

Apparently several years ago during happier economic times when you went to a nightclub there was a point in the proceedings known as ‘sexy time’, when people would be invited up onto the stage to dance in front of the audience, for prize money typically around 1,000,000 won. The winner would often be the person who was prepared to perform the most provocative dance, and apparently there were few rules imposed by the nightclubs because this invariable involved removing some items of clothing, and sometimes all. But these are nevertheless fairly normal venues – not strip clubs.

Korean brother is older now, and these days he has a job with long hours, so he doesn’t get out to the nightclubs much any more, but the Chuseok holiday had provided him with a rare opportunity to revisit this element of his past and relive some moments from his twenties. Things have changed though – in these tough economic times the prize money was now 300,000 won. Perhaps it was because of being older, and perhaps it was the limited money, but it seems he wasn’t ready for what happened next.

One girl – mid-twenties at the oldest – removed her dress and top during ‘sexy time’, leaving her dancing on the stage in black lingerie and high-heels. Evidently this escalation filtered the more modest out, leaving fewer contestants. And that’s when this girl went for broke, because off came her bra, followed immediately by her knickers. I gather that this may not have been unusual back in the days of 1,000,000 won prizes, but it’s more of a fading memory in the 300,000 won era.

There was however, a slight problem. Apparently, it is not easy to remove your knickers while dancing in high-heels at the same time without professional training, especially perhaps if you’ve had a drink or two, and this resulted in what I think we must call a somewhat frog-legged approach to the removal of the said item of clothing, leaving really nothing left to the imagination for audience standing directly beneath her. Not that they will need to imagine what they saw in any case; most of them were filming it on their mobile phones.

Apparently during ‘sexy time’ nightclub bouncers stand at the back of the stage with a blanket or duvet of some description ready to cover the belated modesty of the winning dancer who finally realises just how far she has gone while caught up in the moment, which leads me to think that the kind of outcome which results in a naked woman – or partially-naked women - dancing in front of the audience, is not entirely surprising to them. She did of course, win the prize.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Recently I’ve been travelling out from the edge of known space at Jangsan to Gijang, which means that on the return leg of the journey I have found myself trying to catch taxis in the countryside to return to civilisation. It quickly became apparent that this may not be the same as catching taxis in the city.

Situated as I have been, in the middle of hardly anywhere by a long stretch of six-lane pork-barrel project next to a bus stop, I can see the taxis approaching from some distance away, but there is clearly a problem. Out here the taxis have entered into what can best be described as Busan Taxi Hyperspace, and either the taxi pilots have no ability to see beyond hyperspace, or it is impossible for them to decelerate to pick me up without turning themselves into a thin layer of jelly on the inside of their windscreens [that’s a ‘windshield’ for North American Passport Holders].

It has crossed my mind that I am not helping in this process. A reserved English cultural upbringing generally does not predispose me to jumping up and down like an American Televangelist by the side of the rural highway to attract the attention of the taxi pilots in good time. But it has also occurred to me that it may go further than this – because there may be an unwillingness to stop for foreigners. I mean, is it worth the hassle of trying to talk to an alien for the sake of $5? For all the movies and television episodes produced, Star Trek never adequately answered this question.

The first time this happened, four definite taxis obviously passed me and I identified a further two blurs as probables. I was considering a new strategy of starting to run in the direction of Jangsan as soon as I saw an approaching craft in the hope that the reduced speed differential might actually tempt them to drop out of hyperspace briefly for me to jump in, but then one actually did stop for me, and I didn’t even have to recreate any of my greatest moments as a 100m sprinter for my school, which was fortunate because there weren’t any.

When we reached civilisation my unfamiliarity with Jangsan caused me to reach for my wallet early and withdraw a 10,000 won note. The driver, who by this time had finally been forced to come to a stop due to the tiresome ‘red-light convention’ which even Korean drivers sometimes adhere to, saw this in his rear-view mirror and started organising the 1,000 won notes he’d give me in change. And then he gave me the change. This was confusing on account of the fact that we weren’t at my requested destination of Jangsan subway station yet, I had no intention of getting out, and my survival Korean does not extend to phrases like, “the rest of the ride is free”. Maybe I’m not meeting the right kind of women.

So I revert to my well-worn Confused Foreigner Look. Seeing my confusion and sadness as finally outing myself as someone whose Korean ability was more of a carnival act of stock phrases designed to simulate actual cleverness, rather than being the real thing, he proceeded to press a button on his charging meter which moved it to zero, finishing with a fait-accompli gesture which marked him out as a person who even knew more French than me. I thanked him. In simulated Korean.

We got to the subway station and I parted ways with my oddly charitable taxi pilot and waved farewell to his small craft. But it was as I descended into the subspace of Jangsan Station that I had a moment of self-awareness. I was very short-haired, wearing a black suit and carrying a small black attaché case with my documents, but not my Bible. Yes, I might have looked like a missionary, and while my frustrations with being unable to catch a taxi out there in the Forbidden Zone had not quite caused me to adopt the missionary position in a final attempt to attract attention, I may have been projecting the image of a lonely Christian-in-need.

It then occurred that this might explain the philanthropy of the taxi pilot, and also the intriguing outside possibility that the reason the other pilots didn’t stop for me was because they were Buddhists.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


“If you do a live radio show in the morning, nothing worse can happen to you all day.”

Open Miked in Busan

I’ve been very busy recently. It’s the kind of busyness where you’re basically on the move and working from the moment you awake after five to six hours of sleep to the moment you go to bed, seven days a week, and I’ve pretty much been like this since November. It seems like a superhuman effort for a foreigner, but it’s just normal life for many Koreans. Is it a sign my attitude is becoming Korean? And if I don’t care, is the answer yes?

Before I became one with the near catatonic mental state that the Korean work experience brings about, I used to write this blog – this post may well be a figment of your imagination – and along the way I tried, and failed, to keep up with posts taken from my Busan e-FM radio segment, Open Mike in Busan. For the sake of posterity, my desire to maintain a record of my Korean experience, I intend to complete these posts, which in the end will number 51, because my time on the show came to a close, something I was extremely glad of because after 51 weeks of strip-mining this blog, I’d run out of material and laid waste to the environment.

Zen and the Art of Radio Presenting

The radio station then posted an advert for writers and presenters, and I decided to apply because even though all the station’s writers are Korean, I like writing and the worst they could say was no if I expressed an interest. A phone conversation ensued during I was asked if I’d like to try out as a presenter, and even though I regard myself as having a face for radio and a voice for writing, I ended up going along with it because I’d decided to let the cards choose my fate considering how letting my intellect and logic choose the course of my life had turned out. There was also a strong element of my saying I was interested in writing, and the person on the other end of the phone hearing I really wanted to present. Many of my conversations in Korea seem to follow this pattern.

So it was that I turned up one day at Busan e-FM thinking someone was going to interview me about both options, but instead found an unfamiliar script thrust into my hands with the words “you’re on in ten minutes.”

As far as I understand the process, writers write pieces for the radio station, which are then translated into English by Koreans, and in my experience the results are invariably less than perfect in the way that a large asteroid hitting the Earth would be less than ideal. So I spent a tense ten minutes correcting what I was about to read in the studio.

During the reading, half-way down the second page and so far word perfect, I saw the end in sight and thought “I’m going to make it”, which almost inevitably was the trigger to make a small mistake. The producer immediately cut me off and ended the test recording. I knew it was over – live radio is a harsh mistress. As the producer clicked away on the computer, I stared out of the window contemplating the fact that if I’d had more than five hours of sleep the night before – which my baby son’s screaming had prevented – I might have been better. But in those moments I enjoyed the Zen-like realisation that my son was going to wake up at night for the foreseeable future, I was always going to be this tired – and hosting a live radio show was not for me.

I won’t pretend not to have been a little disappointed though; I was curious about how things would have turned out given that I’m just far enough beyond giving a damn not to try and have fun with it, which I expect would have ultimately pitched me against the people who run things.

This Segmented Life – Busan and More and Less

Something unexpected came of the test recording though. It was played to the station’s producers who’d gathered to formerly reject me in favour of someone better, but one of them was looking for a new segment guest and so it was that I was offered the role of writing and guesting on the Morning Wave in Busan show segment, Busan and More, which every Monday morning discusses the events taking place in the city in the week ahead.

On the downside, there was little scope to indulge in the kind of subtle freelance subversion I’d engaged in for Open Mike in Busan, but on the other hand I thought researching all those events would be a good opportunity for my wife and I to kick-start our social and cultural life which had ended after the birth of our son (I was wrong).

And then I unexpectedly got the chance to host a show after all, when – and I’m going to be necessarily vague here – the new presenter of a show was absent on their first day, leaving a hanging question of whether they would appear for their second. It was a one-time deal because no-one else was available and they were desperate, so I spent two hours the next day working through the translated English script trying to understand what it meant – no easy task - and correcting it. This certainly gave me an additional perspective on just how much work being a presenter at the station required, and how ill-advised doing such a job would be considering the hidden commitment.

I worked through that script correcting it and practising the Korean names within it, knowing that the missing presenter may resurface and I may not appear anyway – and so it was. I’d sent the station my corrected script anyway and later listened somewhat perplexed - and yet somehow completely unsurprised – as the new presenter awkwardly read out the original English translation, not my corrected version.

International Media Talk and Historical Figures

After this, I was offered another segment on the Weekly Review programme, called International Media Talk, which I would do every other week and discuss news in the global media. Finally things came full circle when the formerly absent presenter left the station after three months, the original host returned, and I was offered another segment on his show – Inside Out Busan – called Historical Figures, which essentially tries to discuss facts about famous people from history you possibly never knew.

Even by my standards, I knew the new segment would likely push me to breaking point, but the presenter and I had become friends along the way and I’d always said I would do more for his show if called upon. I also saw that the new segment potentially promised to be something I could have fun with because the entire premise bordered on the subversive. Seeing society through the perspective of the absurd is the only thing that motivates me to get up in the morning these days. Later in writing it though I’d discover that producing something that matched my expectations in the limited time I had would be a difficult trick to pull off.

About twelve to fifteen hours goes into writing those 30 minutes of radio for Busan e-FM every week, which I’d be the first to accept is probably far in excess of what most other people in my position would sanely put in. This is not work I’d recommend to anyone; I’ve long since developed a love-hate relationship with it, although I suppose at this point that could be said of most of my Korean experiences in general.

Monday, January 16, 2012


4,000 Hours

A year ago someone told me that they’d read that it requires about 4,000 hours of studying to reach competency in the Korean language. I’d been struggling with finding the motivation to study in an increasingly busy life, and I seized upon this figure as a psychological tool which would give me a sense of there being an end point to my efforts to learn. To that end, I began posting a progress meter at the end of my posts to show my progress towards this fixed goal, fully knowing that any potential failure would be there for the world to see.

And I failed. With the year over, I’m just over 3% of the way towards that 4,000-hour target, which means that theoretically it will take me over 30 years to achieve competency in Korean at my current pace of studying.

Auribus teneo lupum

So what has gone wrong? I can give many reasons but when it comes down to it I believe that in this world you are either in control of your life, or your life is in control of you. Studying a language requires a commitment, mental focus, motivation and enough free time every day to make it happen, and these things are increasingly eluding me.

In retrospect what I believe I should have done when I quit trading for a living in August is taken a year off, and made studying Korean my primary goal with no compromises. Frankly, I’m getting too old to keep studying piecemeal here and there year after year, it doesn’t really work and it’s the road to becoming one of those foreigners who’s lived here ten years and who doesn’t speak the language and never will, but are living here with the delusion that they are still trying. It’s obvious though at this point that it’s the latter fate that awaits me. Perhaps I'm already there.

But with my wife not working after the birth of our first baby, taking a year off would have led to a substantial drain on our savings, even if we had stayed living at my mother-in-law’s place. Our living arrangements were becoming untenable for me though, so we bought our own place last year – in itself a project that took two months of our free time – and the upshot is that our costs have risen by 50% and now we have a mortgage bearing down on us. Despite all this I still could have afforded to take a year out to study, but watching my savings disappear is psychologically something it turns out I can’t easily accept.

So instead of studying Korean, I quickly found a part-time position working as a software engineer – my pre-trading career – and which officially takes 15 hours out of my week but is actually 22 hours with travelling. I was also offered more work at Busan e-FM and took that, I agreed to form a joint-venture business with a large Korean Internet company that approached me but ultimately didn’t manage to get their project off the ground, and I immersed myself in several side-projects which like a lot of things we ultimately do for our job prospects, were time-consuming and lacked any immediate return-on-investment.

My wife did an eight-week TESOL course around this time, which very much left me holding the baby – both figuratively and in reality – and combined with my 'dash-for-cash' efforts to put a liveable income together, this was how I didn’t study in September and October, following the two months I lost due to apartment hunting in July and August.

I began to realise that I used to complain about the long hours working as a trader was demanding, but while I certainly had to sit watching the screens, I did get a lot of other things done at the same time, which amongst other things included studying as well as writing my blog.

The final irony of my choices turned out to be that the financial chaos in August was a bad time to make life-changing decisions; by the year's end I'd still made 64.13% in my trading account, and while that didn't compare all that favourably with previous years, sticking with trading was still a better financial option than everything else I plunged myself into. But in my life I traded the uncertainty of trading for the certainty and greater respectability of salaried employment, and perhaps there's something to be said for stability.

The Maginot Line

Another wider question which has been on my mind in recent months is whether the greater goal should to be to learn Korean at all. In the last year I’ve met a lot of foreigners who have been in Korea for a long time. And one of them - who like the others is completely fluent right down to the body language - quietly told me that if he could live his time over again, he wasn’t sure he’d bother making the effort to learn the language. It’s a shocking revelation for an old Korea-hand, but one I increasingly understand as I reach the personal conclusion that more often than not Korea is a country that does not really reward you for your efforts as a foreigner. Of course, there are people who go native and find some contentment in their lives here - whether in reality or through wilful ignorance – but my own experiences are leaning me towards the idea that it might not be typical.

To wit, consider the case of an English-language radio station I’m aware of – I won’t say which one - that employs foreigners, or Koreans who speak English well enough to be hosts, and is officially run for the benefit of the foreign community in Korea (even though I’m sure the vast majority of the audience are Koreans learning English). There is no prospect of progression into production or management for fluent Korean speakers because that’s their Maginot Line through which the invaders must not cross. What’s more, those defensive fortifications do not just protect against physical incursions, but also the cultural – because one strongly gets the impression that foreign ideas are not really welcome in even this small corner of supposedly multicultural Korea.

Much like the Maginot Line though, I know these defences will eventually be swept away, but like a lot of things in Korea it’s a process which will take a lot of time, maybe even generations. But it’s 2012, and even in an organisation that is meant to be a beacon of multiculturalism I’m still left with the feeling that it's reflective of a multiculturalism that more often than not gravitates towards telling foreigners about your superior culture and trying to help them assimilate into Korea’s monoculture to become almost-Koreans. In fact I’ve long since lost track of the number of Koreans I’ve met who’ve told me they’d like to go abroad – not really to learn from other cultures but to tell everyone about bibimbap, Dokdo, Korea’s four seasons or some other repressed Korean secret they think the world should know and is going to be in awe of once it collectively realises, which it won't.

Now people of limited intellect who like to summarise entire articles in single words will say this is a rant, but I’m afraid it’s far more nuanced than that because personally I have mixed feelings about multiculturalism, and I think the Koreans are entitled to be Korean if they want to be. If part of being Korean means not really accepting foreigners for who they are and largely keeping us in our place so be it, but what it means is that learning Korean does not carry with it the rewards I might be hoping for, which is the prospect of a seat at the table one day, and maybe even a proper job.


I say this attitude doesn’t put me off, but deep down, it doesn’t motivate me either, and after working all day in an office or spending my time babysitting I need more positive rewards than I’m finding to learn the language.

Time is running out. Life is running out. I hope this year will be different while knowing in my heart that it won’t be. But without the hope for change, what is left?

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian term for "life out of balance".