Sunday, December 31, 2006


I was walking home recently, when in sight of our apartment, the buildings around it lit up momentarily, and a thunderous bang followed almost instantly. Had I been in the UK, I would have thought it was a bomb going off, instead my first thought was of a serious road accident. I suppose that tells you something about my social impressions of both countries.

You never really know whether such occurrences are normal in a country until you see the reaction of the local people. As we neared our building, the sight of the locals coming out of their shops and looking around in confusion and alarm suggested that this was not a regular event.

At the side of our apartment building is one of the many telegraph poles which seem to carry just about every wire imaginable - Koreans (along with the Japanese) apparently sharing a dislike for running cables underground as happens in the UK. I have to say that while there may be some method to the madness, the wiring often looks highly dangerous but logic tells you it can't be because otherwise there'd be a lot of accidents. Be this as it may, the telegraph pole nearest our apartment had exploded, depositing a five by ten inch lump of charred wiring unceremoniously in the street below it. A few people stood a respectful distance away staring at it and up at the place it had presumably come from in turn.

It's fortunate no-one was underneath it at the time.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Barbershop 2

Korean Father turned up this morning with his barber friend who he'd bumped into on his way back from mountain climbing. When I'd first arrived in Korea, my 'shaved head' (merely two and one on the clippers) caused some surprise - it seems that most twenty and thirty-something Korean men prefer the shaggy dog look. Only five weeks after my last cut, my hair was getting longer and Korean Father seemed to agree that it was time to get back to my roots - so to speak.

As often seems the way of things here, this meant that I was off to the barber's shop before I really knew what was happening, so shortly after I found myself descending into his hot, dark subterranean lair, where the first small room which greeted me was furnished with a bed and a television - presumably where the barber relaxed in-between customers.

The barber refused our attempts to pay him afterwards because of his personal relationship with Korean Father, so we shot round the corner to a shop and bought him some bottled honey and ginseng drinks as a gift, which he then couldn't refuse.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Passion of the Christ

There are no Christmas decorations in my local branch of Davich, but I was somewhat surprised that on peering up towards the ceiling area there was a crucifix clearly nailed to the wall facing the door. Whereas the UK doesn't have a separation of church and state, it does largely follow a separation of church and commerce, so it would be unthinkable to find a crucifix prominently displayed in a branch of Specsavers. I guess the Buddhists don't mind too much, although I certainly find it odd.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sense and Sensibility

Having come down with a slight respiratory illness, I've been consigned to the apartment for the last couple of days, and have settled into a routine of studying Korean, exercising and drinking Japanese apricot tea. With my partner out, I was also left to fend for myself when visitors called or the phone rang.

Many of the foreigners in Korea come here to teach English, so as someone who's instead very much embedded within a Korean family, I often wonder about their experiences compared with my own. In certain ways, I get to see more of real-life in Korean, as opposed to what might otherwise be a themed cycle of Hagwon classes and socialising with other foreign friends. On the other hand, I haven't had to fend for myself on a daily basis which means that I'm missing out on certain aspects of culture shock and the necessary crash course in the Korean language that would come with it.

Yesterday the phone rang and expecting it to be my partner I answered it in Korean. Apparently my normally tired and slightly irritated rendition of '
여보세요' passes me off as a local which only leads to more confusion when they launch into an explanation of why they called. Despite my hurried interruption in this case of '미안합니다. 한국말 못합니다.' - 'sorry, I don't speak Korean', it seems it didn't discourage the caller from turning up on the doorstep half-an-hour later, where the same sentences were repeated and a game of charades held after this failed to dissuade the visitor from going away. It seemed clear that he had come from the bank to drop off my partner's new credit card, but after debating the matter in his mind for a while, wouldn't leave it with me, but I finally persuaded him with some very bad Korean and help from my electronic dictionary, to come back at five.

More intriguing was another unexpected visitor armed with a document wallet but nothing else to give away his origin. He was treated to another round of Korean 'please go aways' but he wasn't dissuaded. In the surreal conversation which followed - during which I gave serious consideration to whether I could just close the door on him - we may have talked about the huge number of foreigners in Korea, whether I was married and had children, and had ever visited Spain. Or he could have been asking to borrow a spoon. Probably he was a Christian doing a round of conversions, but a spoon-less one or not I couldn't say.

So today, I decided not to answer the door.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Little Church Around the Corner

Beyond the Psychic Aunt we also have a Preacher Uncle, a Methodist minister building up a small congregation in Busan. We'd agreed to meet up with him a few days ago oblivious to the rather important facts that the day arranged was not only Sunday but also Christmas Eve. While Christmas is celebrated after a fashion here, and it is actually a public holiday, Korea lacks the sense of urgency followed by the total shut-down that is a British Christmas.

So we were picked up at a station and driven to Preacher Uncle's church which was located on the second floor of what might otherwise have passed for a small shop and office building. We were late arriving and I was a little embarrassed to find that this had caused a service to be held up - as soon as we got there Preacher Uncle dashed to the front of the assembled congregation (admittedly of only around fifteen people) and started the proceedings. We sat down and further disruptions followed as various people tried to find me a bible and hymn-book to follow. Due to a vast over-estimation of my Japanese language abilities Preacher Uncle - who'd spent time in Japan - stuck a Japanese hymn-book under my nose but I found the Chinese characters heavy going. In fact, I was surprised to find it quicker to follow the Hangul in the Korean book than the (mostly) Hiragana in the Japanese one.

It was a basic service but very participatory and informal. I declined to sing a carol in English but there were a couple of other karaoke-style performances. At the end of one the singer said a few words followed by "Jesus, fighting!" - a play on the "Korea, fighting!" slogan disturbingly prevalent here.

We ate afterwards and I talked a little with Preacher Uncle in Japanese, which thankfully turned out to be less rusty than my Japanese-reading abilities. Then we had a far-reaching talk about spirituality and the nature of religion - via transalation - but I didn't manage to bring him round to my way of thinking.

Unfortunately after considerable discussion on my part on the importance of living life based on a Christo-Buddhist philosophy of doing the right thing in all one's actions, as opposed to merely attending church, my debate with one of God's people came back to haunt me three hours later when I failed to do enough to help a hungry and probably homeless boy at Lotteria.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

All I Want For Christmas

Knowing that Christmas was a special day back home, Buddhist Korean Mother invited us out for Christmas Lunch, although it was never going to be turkey and stuffing. We went to a dim sum, or mandu restaurant on top of a shopping centre which we'd been to before. In itself it's purely functional and nothing to look at, but the food was good.

While technically a public holiday, all the stores were open and after lunch we shopped in the mall before taking a bus to a large Lotte Mart - sort of a Korean Sainsburys - where more shopping unfolded.

After a little time back at the apartment phoning home and emailing Christmas messages to friends, my partner and I went out a
gain, this time with a bored Korean Brother tagging along. In a desperate attempt to inject some sense of the festive into the day, I had been determined to spend part of Christmas in 'DecembeR' (or are they re-titling themselves as just 'December' now?), but although we got there in the end, the atmosphere felt as cold as the scenery. At some point, I gave up, acknowledging that a Christmas without presents, without Christmas dinner, without the shops being closed and without the winter weather from back home (it's 15 degrees here) just didn't feel like Christmas at all, and no amount of lonely Christmas trees and dancing Santa girls were going to change that.

Somehow Christmas Day in Korea was always going to seem like Christmas at Lotte Mart whether I went there or not, and it's a pity but that's the way it goes. But next year, if I'm in Korea, I'll try and do things differently, either for myself, or through finding something socially worthy to do on the day instead.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Christmas Eve 2006. We ate out at Lotteria - chicken, fries and milkshake - nothing fancy. I ate one piece of chicken - but got the other boxed to eat later. We talked for a long time about wealth and poverty in Korea and the extent to which the UK and Korea were meritocracies - or not - and the extent of opportunity in Korean society.

At the bins we started disposing of our cups and cartons, when a child - maybe about 14 - ran up to us. "Are you throwing that chicken away?" - "Yes" - "Can I have it then?" - "Yes" replied my stunned partner. Oblivious to the lightning exchange, I was shocked to see a hand dart towards the mostly eaten chicken breast before snatching it away from the jaws of the bin. I blurted out two rounds of "what the hell was that?" before a final "Oh my God" as I turned to see the child - now outside the door - scraping hungrily at the remains of my chicken with his mouth. I may have seen some poverty in Korea but what had just happened was a league above that and I was overwhelmed by a surreal sense of horror.

Aware that the boy had two companions my partner worried that they may present some danger to us and we hurried out of the door -
I admit I am also coloured by my experiences living in a British inner-city area where you always watched your back at night for attacks, dares and scams of various kinds which were never far away. Even so, I wanted to give them the other piece of chicken we'd boxed as we passed by him and my partner offered it to him - apparently to his surprise. She explained afterwards her worry that he might have felt offended by the offer but then he'd just taken my remains from the mouth of the bin so I doubted he would have had such scruples.

The whole incident lasted no more than fifteen seconds.

I don't know what their story was but while we did the right thing in a small sense I know we should have taken them back in to Lotteria, sat them down, and bought them a meal. I truly wish that was the Christmas Eve story I could tell but it isn't because I failed to rise above the shock and prejudices and as such failed in my responsibility to do the right thing. After recovering from the shock of what I saw my regret at my minimal action increased with every step.

Have we become so cynical that we fail to help those who seem to need help? What would other Koreans have done? Would I have reacted better if I'd been able to speak the language and been able to understand and communicate with the children? Did we really want to know their story or is our guilt ultimately destined to be less the less we know? Just how many homeless children might there be in this country - because it certainly seemed like they must be? Not for the first time of late, my head is full of questions which I have no answers for.

Ceremonies of Light and Dark

Steam rises up from the street vendors selling food in the cold night air outside the cinema at Nampo-dong. Christmas lights hang from trees but are often obscured by the pixelated chaos of a thousand Korean shops all vying for attention. As you try to navigate your way through the sea of humanity and occasional pavement-mounted motorcycle that is a evening's shopping in Busan, you know how a salmon feels trying to swim upstream. Shop owners beg for your attention, loudspeakers drown out those who have not escalated their technique, and for a moment you begin to believe that you will never know peace again, before you let the unreality of it all wash over you.

We join a long queue in Krispy Kreme but near the counter they give us some small doughnuts because we've waited a couple of
minutes so we walk off eating them. A heady mix of the aroma of food is punctuated by the occasional overwhelming stench of Busan's sewer system with its all-too-many open grates. Teenage girls wearing immodest Santa outfits try to sell you bread outside Paris Baguette while pleading for attention in squeaky voices via microphone. Where there is a space, there is someone selling something, no matter how humble their stall or their wares. Braving the cold, a heavily-padded 80-something woman sits by a makeshift table in the gutter with her hand frozen to the remote control of a small car which shoots from one end to the other. I can not tell you whether her disinterest or sadness is greater. Behind her, a shop sells £500 designer watches. Nearby, a man tries to sell baby rabbits which are so young that they still cannot walk and they lie on a hardboard table struggling to make sense of their new legs while shivering uncontrollably. There is no mother.

You continue to fight your way through the stream of designer labels which trickle around the small rocks of poverty whil
e hoping that you'll never learn to swim. A Buddhist temple sits wedged between the concrete boxes down a small side street. If you didn't look up you probably wouldn't even see it.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Sixth Sense

Korean Family has a Psychic Aunt. Technically speaking, she's a fortune teller, who makes her living travelling around the country dispensing advice about peoples' futures and occasionally cleansing evil spirits. Fortune telling is extremely important in Korea. Not long after I'd met my girlfriend one was consulted to determine whether our match was a good one, based on the exact date and time of our respective births. They also tend to determine the dates and times of important events such as weddings in order that they are held at times which will ensure the maximum amount of future happiness.

Now to some people this will be hopeless nonsense, but I've had sufficient experiences in my life to be very wary of people with sixth senses because while there are certainly a good many charlatans, I also believe some to be the genuine article. So it was with some trepidation that I met the Psychic Aunt yesterday evening, expecting her to immediately see the evil spirit within me and run out of the room shrieking or worse, try to exorcise me. To prevent her reading my mind, I'd initially determined to keep a strong mental picture of dead fish in my mind, but quickly realising that would just probably make a Busan resident hungry, I switched to an image of a pizza from a local place back home which - given my inability to find decent pizza here - I have increasingly strong emotions about.

I needn't have worried. Either my blocking techniques worked or Psychic Aunt failed to read my mind as we embarked on a long and pleasant conversion via translation on various subjects related to Korea and the UK, in-between bouts of laughter at one-another's jokes, and some dancing around the room on her part. Yes, she was in fact, even more eccentric than the other members of Korean Family, but thankfully harmless. I was really interested in seeing one of her spirit-cleansing rituals so we might go at some point - I'm looking forward to it as it's a side of Korea that foreigners rarely get to see.

What struck me as a rather sad commentary on my time here though that this was the first time I'd had a real conversation with a Korean person, albeit through my partner translating. I don't know if I can really explain how isolating it feels to only talk to the same person every day for over two months while so much else is being said around you, but it's a odd experience at best. Still, while it was pointed out that Korean Family knows all about me and this was the reason why we hadn't had any proper conversations, I couldn't help feeling something had gone horribly wrong somewhere.

For my own part, cultural considerations prevent my asking searching questions of Korean Parents that may well be considered to be too direct and therefore rude, but I feel like I've made an effort with my peers to no avail. I think in my own culture you can meet new people and have intellectual, philosophical and sometimes surprisingly personal conversations within a short period of time, but as a foreigner there's a natural barrier between myself and Koreans and they do not want to open up and expose any perceived weaknesses to someone from another country.

In the end, you can only try and meet people half-way and if they aren't there it's usually inadvisable to go after them to knock on their intellectual front-door. Perhaps as long as the language barrier exists people here will never talk to me in the way I believe they would have done by now had they been English speakers, perhaps they never will because there will always be a ethno-cultural divide even if I reach fluency, or perhaps I've just generally not met the right people yet. The Psychic Aunt has proven the first exception to the rule, so there is now some hope that I may find other people I can talk to eventually.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Soul Food

Rice and noodles (along with Kimchee) are a central part of the diet here, but after two months I'm pining for some food that tastes just like home, just once every now and again would be fine. But the fact is my quest for some nice food from home is eluding me. It's not to say there aren't many fine local dishes - there are - but sometimes you just want a break from the new and opt instead for the comfort and familiarity of the old.

Because dark off-the-bone meat seems to be what Koreans prefer - at least as far as chicken is concerned - it's meant finding the kind of chicken I like has been almost impossible thus far. All the chicken meat is dark, one 'chicken'-topped pizza so much so that I actually doubted it was chicken at all. It could be the first time in known history that a person could look at a piece of unidentified meat and pronounce that in fact, it didn't taste like chicken.

And it's caught me out. We ordered chicken nuggets from a local takeaway and I had visions of KFC-like white meat steaming out of a spicy batter, but what arrived was weapons-grade dark-grey meat with accompanying gristle and bone. I discovered this after biting into one, impacting some particularly tough gristle on a tooth and ending up with toothache for three days afterwards. I keep thinking I'll have to give up on the chicken thing.

Pizza, is as ever, not quite pizza. Koreans are not big on sauce, to the point that one pizza I had a few days ago was more like cheese on toast. But the toppings are not minimalistic despite the lack of sauce. Most pizza makers seem to like putting just about everything they can on top of a pizza, to the point that most of them seem to end up feeling like a 'combo' even if they carry different names. But there are some oddities - there are a lot of potato topped pizzas here. My favourite place remains the 'Mr. Pizza' chain where it is a little more like back home, even if the store subtitles itself "Pizza for Women" in a bizarre marketing strategy which makes me feel like I shouldn't actually be eating there.

Amused to find a can of Italian baked beans in a local Top-Mart, we bought it only to realise, in best Homer Simpson fashion, that we actually didn't have a tin-opener. So it may tell you something about my diet that we haven't needed one for the first two months here. When we eventually bought a cheap opener from a local store, they transpired to be too salty. Lots of things are salty here - Koreans like salt - but unfortunately my Meniere's Disease does not.

Korean food - even when it's Korean versions of Western food - remains a minefield. I really do like the shrimp-burgers from Lotteria and I'm eating more hoddug '호떡' and red-bean filled hoppang '호빵' than can be good for me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Life in the Food Chain

There now follows an important cultural lesson. I found myself at a Korean friends house during the late evening, we were hungry and so chicken was ordered from a local take-away. Various dismembered and fried parts of chicken arrived in a large box. We ate.

It was later pointed out to me that during the course of the meal I'd managed to eat both chicken legs, and herein lies a problem, because chicken legs are prized by Koreans whereas other parts of the chicken, especially the breast, are not seen as so desirable. In fact, this is so much the case that people will go as far as to throw chicken breast away because of what is perceived to be its dryness and lack of taste. Normally, in the tense hierarchical stand-off that is a Korean family's meal at the dinner table, the Korean father would be expected to eat the chicken legs while the rest of the family attended to the second tier of the animal. As a guest, I might have just gotten away with eating one chicken leg - but only if it had been offered - but to eat both in ignorance and without invite was a considerable faux pas. Much retrospective apologising was done but I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd blotted my copy book. The irony is, that in the UK it is the chicken breast which is more prized and definitely my preference, unlike legs which I find hard to strip to the bone.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Korea Blog Search

Trading is winding down as Christmas approaches so with a couple of hours free I got the idea to throw this together. It's a search engine for Korean Blogs in the English language. With over 200 such blogs currently in existence there's too much to read but the search engine allows me to trawl them all for information.

Homepage link

Google Custom Search

Add to Google

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Beyond Christmas

I wasn't expecting much of a celebration of Christmas before I came to Korea because I didn't really associate it in my mind as a Christian country, although in reality a significant percentage of the population identify themselves with it. But if nothing else, I should have realised that - like Japan - Christmas is a commercial opportunity even without its religious overtones. It's just not quite the Christmas you'd expect.

A Christmas show was on TV yesterday, but alongside the dancing Santa was someone dancing in a costume that appeared to resemble something a dog might leave behind it, and even more inexplicably, another person in a dancing skeleton costume. 'Merry Christmas' the presenters cried. I've also seen some rather odd santas - including the one above carrying a saxophone for no apparent reason.

Beyond the slightly odd Korean take on Chirstmas, the weather here isn't co-operating with the festive season. Being from the north of England I expect a decent amount of snowfall during winter, though in truth global warming has steadily reduced this during my lifetime. But in Busan, it hardly ever snows, robbing the scenery of any potential Christmas decoration. In fact, before coming here I was told to expect minimum temperatures of around three degrees Celsius but it's actually dipped below zero many times in the last three weeks. The TV blames El Niño. Annoyingly, it has snowed rather a lot in the rest of the country, and even to the south in the area near Namhae, but it's just cold here. So, all of the irritations of winter, none of the visual pleasures, and no pretty pictures of the local mountains covered in snow.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

After Office Hours

Our lifestyle means that we're burning through cash at a surprising rate, so before going out last weekend we were going to head to the ATM to get some more money, but we were warned it would cost us 600 won to make a withdrawal as the bank was closed. It seems withdrawals are only free during bank opening hours. 600 won (about 30p) isn't a lot of money, but after all the service you get from the banks here - like being text messaged every time your card is debited, it came as a surprise.

British banks might be envious of this idea, but on the other hand I imagine that if they implemented the text messaging for credit card use, it might cut down considerably on their fraud liabilities.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Sleeping Dictionary

A Monty Python sketch revolves around the existence of a Hungarian Phrasebook, where the words and phrases are anything but accurate, causing much embarrassment to those tourists unfortunate enough to find themselves using it.

Thirty years later, I have a Casio electronic dictionary which, on entering 'TV' (or 'tv' for that matter) into English-Korean defaults to the Korean for 'transvestite', and initially translates '사위' (son-in-law) as 'taboo/in abhorrence as an ill omen'. I was briefly so impressed with Korean Father when he kept pointing at me, making me type
'사위' into the dictionary so I understood. Much to my disappointment he hadn't seen the real me through the language barrier but was in fact, merely pointing out my role (and presumably future responsibilities) in the family. Oh well.

Since I presume the Japanese sense of humour doesn't stretch to creating a modern-day Hungarian Phrasebook, I can only assume they will have to claim the same defence the publisher in Python's sketch did - incompetence.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bang the Machine

Trading has been slow for the last couple of days, so when a friend phoned to invite us out for pizza we jumped at the chance, leaving our systems to work for us while we were out. After pizza at the unlikely named Big Bowls, it was off to a PC Bang (PC room) for a few rounds of Kartrider, as you do.

I've had some brief experiences of PC Bangs while in Korea - but they've been limited so far to hanging around the entrances while my girlfriend went in looking for people. So today was my first entry into the world which so many Koreans seem to inhabit.

It wasn't quite what I expected. While the closely packed machines accompanied by the whirr of fans and the smell of CPU-heated air mixed with body odour took me back to my university days, I was surprised to find that it appeared to be little more than a glorified arcade - since almost everyone was playing a game of some kind.
Until today, I'd laboured under the illusion that people in PC Bangs were surfing the Internet, checking their email, watching videos and doing all the kind of things that people generally do aside from gaming. But it all appeared to be gaming, and in fact, to be absolutely precise, of the hundred-or-so computers, everyone was playing one of five different games as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, my knowledge of games is sufficiently limited that the only one I could readily identify was Kartrider.

When we sat down - in the smoking section to start with (there was no room in non-smoking) - a woman brought us a drink that tasted suspiciously like flat Sprite, and about as unpleasant as that sounds. There have been quite a few stories in the past couple of years of Koreans playing games in PC Bangs so long without a break for food, drink or sleep they've actually died, so perhaps this was a small concession to that. Each computer also had a very small vending machine next to it, containing nuts or chocolate for 100 won a time. It wouldn't keep you going for long though - even if you had the change.

A fascinating aspect of the place the PC Bang has in Korean culture is that by some technical means that I am not aware of, Kartrider knows that you're playing in one and whatever points you would have scored at home are doubled. Not only that, special PC Bang-only cars are available which make the game easier to play. Which all serves to put PC Bang players of the game at a distinct advantage to those who choose to play elsewhere. I understand that we paid more for playing Kartrider than had we just accessed the Internet, so I imagine there's some kickback for the company as well as the PC Bang in doing this.

The downside of playing in the PC Bang was the noise - I found it impossible to hear my own computer above the racket of all the others - and when I finally left the PC Bang, I discovered I couldn't hear properly as I'd been slightly deafened. I think if I ever specifically went there to play a game in future, I'd take some small headphones.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sushi Sushi

We've been eating some days at a nearby cafe-style eatery called 'Gimbap Nara ' (딤밥나라) - 'gimbap' translating as 'Korean sushi' - though they serve a mean rice-stuffed omelette which makes for a good functional lunch at about £2.20 (4,000 won). They even deliver, and of course as is usual in Korea, at no extra charge.

From it's appearance and informal interior I'd taken Gimbap
Nara to be just another owner-run shop, but it turns out to be part of a huge chain. And it has a couple of rivals.

It may be a sign of my having been in Korea longer now, but I'm beginning to recognise the chains - perhaps moving closer the day when one bit of Korea feels just like another!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Family Jewels

We may have to revisit my blanket praise of Korean customer service. I was out with my partner and Korean Mother at a jewellery store yesterday looking at several items. The store was in a district alongside maybe fifty other such establishments, but what's more, it transpires that while one store may appear to be a singular unit, in fact it may be sublet to a number of separate businesses, which is not an uncommon practice here. This particular store-within-a-store was a husband and wife affair.

It was the first business we'd visited - and not being able to find it immediately the owner had volunteered to come out and find us - although as it turned out we were only just around the corner. So the initial service is good, a few items were subsequently tried on and prices pleasantly discussed, before the owner encouraged us to have a look around the district. As fate would have it, we instead bought a couple of rings and some jewellery at the second store we visited, preferring the styles they offered.

In the evening Korean Mother was called by the wife from the first jewellery store to find out our situation. She hadn't given the woman her phone number but of course she'd phoned them to get directions earlier in the day. So the jewellery store wife was told that unfortunately we had made our purchase elsewhere. This caused the wife to unexpectedly launch into a tirade of abuse over the phone, and when it ended, her husband took over. The wife took back the phone for the final flourish - she hoped we all would have unhappy lives from now on. In a land that places great stock in Karma, feeling that your harmony with the universe is somehow being cursed by someone else is a deep insult indeed. It seems safe to say Jewellery-Store Wife wasn't a Buddhist then.

It seems a lot to get worked up about, but maybe there was a fat profit margin in it for them - after all, unusually Korean Mother hadn't haggled. The reason why she hadn't haggled might also in turn provide another answer to the jewellers' anger - she'd been referred there by a friend who'd done business with them and therefore there was a connection. Connections are important in Korea. Perhaps then, the jewellers' thought the business was guaranteed.

But in a connected society like Korea, having a temper tantrum over losing a potential customer never seems wise. As I write, I feel the story is being related to an ever-widening circle of friends and it seems unlikely that that particular business will be seeing anyone connected to our network again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gas and Air

The gas bill for the month arrived. £6. The cost of our monthly gas bill back home? £45. Admittedly, we're in a one-room apartment here rather than a house, but during the summer in the house all we used the gas for was cooking and showers - and it was still about £25 per month. Our Korean friends and family thought our bill was quite high - although you can't change suppliers here so perhaps we just have to put that down to our showering for too long.

On the other hand, and this came as a bit of a shock to me, the mobile phone bill for the first month - in which we hadn't made many calls - was £20. The bill so far for the first three weeks of November - in which we'd made even fewer calls - was £7. I reckon the same calls would have cost us £3 back home. For a country obsessed by mobile communication, I'm surprised at the high cost of calls, and the apparent lack of competition in the market. Korean telecoms companies are seem to be milking Koreans for all they can.

Here's a very telling thing in my book. When asked for an itemised call breakdown SKT scratched their heads and said 'we can't provide those'. The best they could do was a summarised bill, which tells you little about how they're actually calculating things. How do you know if they are charging fairly and not making mistakes? It seems the answer is that you have to go to a main branch to find out such things.

Korea can seem a very innocent society compared with Europe and the US, where you can walk the streets safe at night and leave your bag at your table in a restaurant while you go to the toilet, but perhaps for the Koreans it has its hidden downside - Korean consumers are potentially easy prey for cynically profiteering corporates.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


In the UK, you can basically guarantee a Starbucks and Costa in every city these days, but often the product differentiation stops at the drinks which are put on your table. Perhaps it's indicative of the sheer number of places to eat and drink here and the competition which goes alongside this, that some establishments work hard to create a theme alongside their offerings. I was particularly impressed with the presentational aspects of the Aqua Cafe in October - today we found ourselves at 'DecembeR' - where it's always winter.

What makes 'DecembeR' all the more remarkable is that it's so easy to miss from the street. Like many stores in Korea the entrance belies the nature of what you're about to enter. In 'DecembeR's case, it's set back from the main street heading up the hill to Dong-A University, because in fact the cafe itself is set behind the street itself rather than on it, with one floor at street level and another below.

Despite the frosted-white décor, white furnishings and winter lights, the December theme fortunately doesn't extend to the temperature, which was pleasantly warm unlike that outside. But is it
a case of all style and no substance, because pleasant surroundings are no substitute for other disappointments? Happily no, the care taken in the ambience seems to extend to what is sold, and our small group had some very nice coffees, ice cream and fruit juice. The free toast with cheese dip which seems to be automatically provided was also a pleasant surprise. I haven't been in Korea long enough to judge whether, at 15,500 won (£8.62) for four people, it's expensive, but it's cheap enough by UK standards which is still the measure by which my spending is gauged here.

The way such places are hidden away and often only discovered by chance makes me wonder how many more of these stumbled upon.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bul nabi

While walking through the local market Thursday we came across a particular culinary offering we'd seen before - moths. This time though, given the cold temperatures, they were being cooked and served up hot to customers.

Now much as I would have liked to have taken a picture of this, there are times in Korea when you worry that the locals might be a little sensitive about certain things, so I wasn't sure if this was the kind of stall I could just walk up to take a photo of in a casual kind of way. But suddenly seeing the stall-holder distracted by a customer, I took the chance to sprint over quickly and take a quick snap. This of course is a mistake, because I'd forgotten the rather obvious fact that as a foreigner you naturally attract attention and sudden movements only serve to publicise your actions more.

The result was one woman nearby - at least with a smile on her face - saying "he must be taking a picture because we eat insects", but two men near the stall didn't look as amused. Next time I'll go for the direct approach of asking the stall-holder - I'll probably get a better shot of the steaming hot moths that way.

While there may be some sensitivity on the subject of eating insects, I don't really see the need for it; this happens in plenty of cultures and it doesn't bother me.

Public Access

After a little shopping in our local Newcore Outlet department store, we went down into the basement Kim's Club supermarket - part of Newcore unless I'm mistaken - to buy some food for a friend's housewarming tomorrow. We were surprised to be politely denied access by a staff member at the entrance - we couldn't take our Newcore bag with the clothes we'd bought in the floors above inside - instead it seemed we'd have to put them in a locker nearby. The refused entry was even more curious because we'd already been inside with our bag once.

Not being immediately able to locate a 100 won coin for a locker I was forced to stand outside the barrier to the supermarket area while my girlfriend shopped for a couple of items inside. Tempted as I was to adopt the kind of Taekwondo stance towards the staff member that South Korean guards adopt at the DMZ, I instead opted for a slumped against the wall type look about three feet away which I vainly hoped might register my disgust at not being allowed inside. We were really going to shoplift food in our small clothes bag? Do Koreans even think about such things?

At least we weren't the only ones to be surprised. During my wait two Koreans were turned away at the barrier and one woman looked completely perplexed at the occurrence. Anyway, there's not much incentive for us to want to shop there again.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kart Racer

When our Saturday-evening plans fell through at the last minute, I found myself with a new Korean experience - nothing to do. So it was suggested that I try out the Korean phenomena that is Kartrider, a free on-line Mario-Kart style game which is earning serious revenue for its creator Nexon.

Western games companies might wonder how a business model can be built on such a concept, but the answer as so often with Korean companies lies in Korean peoples' willingness to live out alternative lives on line, whether it be through Korean homepages such as Cyworld, or entire game-worlds. When so much time is spent in an environment, and indeed social networking of a sort done within them, the opportunity to use it to sell clothing, equipment and a variety of other add-ons present themselves. For Nexon alone, revenue is into the hundreds of millions of dollars and such is the seriousness with which Kartrider alone is played in here, for some players it can actually become a job.

A few hours after starting, I'd won a few races at the bottom level with my basic kart, and had the sore fingers to prove it. Beating my girlfriend's friend though, a high-ranking player with a year's experience, proved predictably elusive. Despite this, I wasn't immediately tempted to splash out real money buying a faster kart in order to compete more effectively. Perhaps I'll just work my way up the hard way.

Despite not being much of a video-games player, the quick games against real people proved strangely addictive and on a slow trading day yesterday evening I left my systems to trade automatically and went back into the Kartrider world to try and improve my score - but beating my Korean friends still proved impossible.

Given that my girlfriend's friends don't speak very much English, and myself even less Korean, we are therefore limited to communicating instead via a video game, although when you think about it, it is perhaps a very Korean way to build relationships.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wag the Dog

For a country where dog can still find its way onto a menu, a surprising number of younger people in Korea seem to have them as pets. And what pampered pets they are. I've never seen anyone actually walking their dog per se, but I've seen an awful lot of Korea women carrying them close to their expensive coats. Of course, they are always of the small 'cute' variety, and seem to function partly as fashion accessories. My girlfriend explained that another 'good' reason for carrying them was that it stopped their feet getting dirty, and of course, given the level of paranoia over housebound dirt this wouldn't do at all.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I noticed that Korean Parents' apartment has an ant problem the other day - even though it's on the 13th floor, but Korean Mother isn't really bothered, because they don't do any harm and it seems that in Korea having ants is seen as a sign of wealth, so bizarrely, I think she's almost proud that they've moved in.

They are however, brown ants. Apparently had they been white ones, this would have been a very bad thing. Not another subtle manifestation of Korean pride though as it turns out - it's simply that the white ants eat into the structure of the buildings they infest. White people merely eat into the structure of Korean society, which is perhaps a less tangible thing to complain about, although the Chosun Ilbo does try quite hard.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Crossing the Line

Despite the lack of discipline on the roads, it's curious that when it comes to crossing over them as a pedestrian, Koreans are suddenly ardent followers of the law. It doesn't even matter if there are no cars anywhere nearby, people will patiently wait until the red man turns to green. Perhaps it's because you can never quite discount a car tearing down the road at 120kph or suddenly appearing from some unexpected angle at speed, but I rather think it has more to do with the 'Team Korea' mentality which bonds the social group together.

Today I was standing at a crossing with no cars around, but Team Korea was determined to maintain their respective positions either side of the narrow single-lane road, when two boys with so-90s dyed-brown hair broke ranks and started walking across. This immediately led to several other people either side setting off, clearly not realising the lights were still at red. On realising this, there was hesitation, some people stopped and one woman even doubled back to the kerb. But it was too late and by now the collective group was committed to the act, so the unconventional became the conventional and everyone felt obliged to cross.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Up to His Neck

A few days ago I developed a pain in my shoulder. I've had it before and apart from briefly dabbling with an osteopath a couple of years ago, it's always got better with a couple of days rest. This time though, it persisted.

As I've written before, the UK approach to healthcare is different the one in Korea. I would have made an appointment with my doctor, and probably seen her within a week, but certainly not any sooner than three days from my call. This acts as a considerable disincentive to go to the doctors, as if you're an optimist you believe that by the time your appointment comes you're bound to be feeling better (actually, if you're a pessimist who believes the Universe exists solely to mess you around you'll probably believe this as well). But the promise of an instant diagnosis was too much to pass over, so off we went to the local orthopaedic hospital - no appointment required.

Specialised hospitals are often small - think a couple of small office block floors and you'd get the picture - and there are many of them - so after a five minute walk I was sat down in reception waiting for an X-ray. Five minutes later I'd had two X-rays on my neck - which was already thought to be the source of the problem, and five minutes after that I was seeing an orthopaedic professor who suspected a small spinal disc issue. A few minutes later I was with a neuro-pain specialist who also subscribed to the disc diagnosis, and offered a course of neck injections or physiotherapy to try and address the problem. I opted for the physio - and she laughed because apparently Westerners always do. Perhaps she doesn't realise how little faith we have in our health system - and how it always seems safer to have them do as little as possible? Anyway, by coincidence I used to write software for an orthopaedic company and there was nothing in that experience which made me any more enthusiastic about invasive procedures.

So another five minutes later I'm in the arms of a Korean physiotherapist having my spine heated, straightened, and finally artificially massaged with electrical pads which have left four nice round red patches on my back. But I did feel better. A course of drugs from the pharmacy later, I'm a grand total of 32,500 won worse off - £17.87 - and my Korean family is appalled at the high price I have to pay for this private treatment; if I was treated under the Korean insurance system it would have cost 13,200 won - £7.26. But I'm still stunned - in the UK the three different drugs they put me on would have meant a prescription charge of around £5.90 per drug - which means the UK cost of my drugs alone would have been as much as the entire costs for my X-rays, diagnosis and physiotherapy. Admittedly, the latter items would have been free in the UK, but it would have taken six weeks from start to finish. Total time today? About an hour.

The next day I went for my second physiotherapy session, which cost 12,000 won
(£6.60) for forty minutes, but I was so much better the physiotherapist told me it wasn't necessary to come back unless the problem re-occurred. Meantime, I have to work on my seating posture to gradually correct the disc issue and stop it developing further.

Not that you would wish to, but this is a great place to get sick!


I nearly always carry a small camera with me in Korea, but sometimes there are pictures you just can't take. So I have to ask you to imagine what I witnessed Monday.

It had been raining in the morning and it was still residually damp and overcast. It was market day and the narrow streets near my apartment were made narrower still by hundreds of market stalls crammed wherever they would go. I'm struggling to work through the crowd, wincing slightly at the heavy smell of dead fish in the air, when there's a commotion in front of me. A gap is opening up in the crowd - no easy thing when there's only a four-foot wide pedestrian route to start with.

A man with one arm and one leg is dragging himself slowly down the wet street through the dirt and organic remnants, trailing a solitary crutch behind him. For a moment I thought he'd fallen and looked to my girlfriend in case we needed to help him up, but I suppose I should have known better - he was begging. I've become used to beggars here playing up their afflictions, but this man had no need to - the sight that greeted me was as desperate as it was pathetic. It seems even the Koreans were taken aback - why was this man out like this? Who was behind him - making him do this? But there were no answers - as quickly as he had lain there momentarily in front of me he was gone, lost in the crowd as those behind us pushed us onwards. Sights and sounds of Korea, not easily forgotten.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Sap Takes a Wrap

The palm trees have been wrapped up for the winter. This seems to involve placing protective bamboo matting all around the trunk of the trees, and apparently sometimes plastic sheeting too. Given that every other tree down the main road through Hadan seems to be a palm, it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to have them the other nine months of the year.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Cable Guy

Like most Korean apartments, we have an intercom outside out door which connects to a handset on the other side, so somewhat bizarrely you can talk to someone if they come to the door, even though in actuality, you can have a perfectly audible conversation through the door itself with no need for any gadgetry.

Today, when the intercom was pressed the guy on the other side proceeded to talk so loudly and urgently that my girlfriend dispensed with the handset and talked through the door, as clearly the unidentified caller intended to anyway. He'd come about the cable service. Why? Because there was a problem. What problem? Well, if we'd just open the door he'd explain - but he wouldn't explain if it wasn't face to face, which was a little odd I suppose.

So it was I found myself, at my girlfriend's behest, brandishing the somewhat unlikely weapon of an umbrella in case this proved to be a problem - though what kind of problem I couldn't begin to imagine. In the UK there are no intercoms and I used to just open my door to anyone, no matter how bizarre or unsavoury they turned out to be, and a fair few were at that. Of course, being from the UK I had already mentally mapped where all the really sharp objects in the apartment were should we ever actually have to defend ourselves.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave the UK was that I got sick of the increasing social chaos and crime. I have few illusions about living in another country, but I've voted with my feet on the principle that ignorance is bliss. It's interesting that my girlfriend, despite her years in the UK, may still have had some of that ignorance, whereas once back in Korea she won't open the door to anyone without satisfying herself of their legitimacy first through the intercom.

So she eventually opened the door to the cable guy after some commotion, pleading and veiled annoyance on his part. He'd come to collect the connection fee for the cable - 55,000 Won. We were a bit surprised by this as the cable had already been connected when we moved in, though allegedly this was because the previous occupants had disappeared owing three months on the bill and they hadn't been cut off yet. Pointing out that there had actually been no connecting to do, the demand was lowered to 22,000 Won. At which point the a member of the building landlord's family turned up and more slightly tense discussion was had, by the end of which we handed over 11,000 Won.

Despite his attempts to make Korea seem a more dangerous place, the very fact that the cable guy was turning up on doorsteps to collect cash suggested that the country was still safer than the UK where such a thing would invite violence, robbery or both.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Rage of Paris

I was out with my girlfriend and her friend yesterday evening when we found our way in a branch of Paris Baguette on our way to a DVD Bang, to stock up on snacks for the movie. Having selected three items, the friend took them to the counter but while paying the shop assistant's face suddenly developed the kind of look people only usually have when their mother has been insulted. She froze to the spot and I didn't need to speak Korean to know that she was refusing to do something and offended into the bargain. Two other shop assistants - who might have been even younger than the 18-or-so the first one looked, hovered on either side of her in a vague show of moral support.

It turned out our friend had asked the assistant to cut the items she'd bought into smaller pieces before she put them into a bag, something which apparently was no problem in every other branch of Paris Baguette she'd ever been in but inexplicably seemed to amount to a crime of heresy in this one. More words were exchanged and with great reluctance - and no attempt to hide the disgust on her face - the girl cut up the two smaller items with a pair of scissors from behind the counter which our friend had pointed out to her in a 'why-can't-you-use-those' kind of way. But the third item - a plain piece of sponge cake was the final straw and the girl just stood there motionless. Our friend grabbed the scissors and cut it herself, demonstrating to the still motionless girl how such things were done while admonishing her for her unhelpfulness.

In my time in Korea I've never met anyone in a retail environment that was anything less than bend-over-backwards helpful and accommodating, and I'd thought this so ingrained in the culture that it stopped occurring to me that the experience here could be anything less. The incident in Paris Baguette proves otherwise, though it wasn't so much the refusal to cut the items as the unhidden disdain on the shop assistant's face to an elder that really caught me off-guard. I don't know whether it's just this one girl, or whether it may be an indication that Korea is catching the Japanese 'shinjinrui' disease which saw the social cohesion that had kept the country ordered for generations start to break down.

Friday, November 24, 2006

While You Were Sleeping

Cold, we left the school event at ten-past eight and went up to the Pusan National University area to get something to eat, ending up at a branch of 'Mr. Pizza', where - without my girlfriend who'd gone to the toilet - I blagged fluency in the Korean language for the first time by paying for the meal with a '여기 있습니다' (here you are while handing over the money), '감사합니다' (thank you when receiving the change), and the stock-phrase on leaving a store '수고하세요'. Thank God they didn't ask me how my meal was. The downside of being embedded in a Korean family is that everyone does the talking for you so opportunities to fly by the seat of your pants in Korean are few and far between.

My girlfriend's friend joined us at twenty to ten and we shopped for an hour before snacking at an 'as seen on TV' (apparently) food vendor near the station. They did seem to be doing good business though.

So it was 23:15 by the time we set off on our forty minute subway journey back home. Bad enough for us, but a very long day indeed for our friend who'd taught all day before taking part in the event she'd organised - and tomorrow was the school's 'sports day' which meant more long hours. How does she do it? She sleeps between four-and-a-half and five hours
every night. I wondered - given what else I've observed here - whether that was so unusual for a Korean.

Of course, our friend sleeps on the subway - as most Koreans seem to - and that may go some way to make up an additional hour or so every day - but it doesn't seem very good quality rest time to me. And despite Koreans' uncanny ability to usually wake up in time for their station, there are the inevitable times this doesn't work, and you spend more time backtracking the other way to the stop you missed. In fact, just that morning our friend had awoken a stop beyond where she was going, but that pales into insignificance against the time my girlfriend, returning late one night from
university, not only slept right the way to the end of the line, but was only finally awoken by the sound of the cleaners cleaning the carriage in the subway depot some time later.

Meanwhile, since coming to Korea and finding the pace of my lifestyle vastly accelerated, I've found myself involuntarily sleeping eight hours a night rather than the six I used to back home, because all the activity is making me tired. I'm going to need to work on reducing that if I'm to keep up with the Koreans.

The School of Rock

We'd been invited to a high-school event on Tuesday this week. It seems that schools in Korea have a kind of open-evening once a year, where students provide demonstrations of their field of interest or expertise to other students and visitors. Although partly a recruiting tool for prospective entrants, it is meant to provide a chance to relax and even have some fun.

So it was we found ourselves in a dark playground in front of a typically anonymous-looking Korean school building, watching a succession of high-school kids take to a stage in order to profess their desire to be singers or dancers before launching enthusiastically into their acts to the supporting screams of a few-hundred peers.

There were a depressing number of 'Korean' rap numbers which despite my occasional rap indulgences just washed over me in their genericness, so the stand outs were a girl singing soul in English who possibly had the most amazing voice I've heard since Norah Jones, and a boy who implausibly sang what seemed to me like the kind number which Sinatra would have done - had he been Korean. They could both easily have been professionals though - and if I'd have been a music agent I'd have been signing up the girl for a record contract afterwards. Maybe this is what comes of the Koreans' fondness for locking themselves in singing rooms on an evening for hours at a time.

It has to be said, one male power-ballad singer really didn't work out, and as he left the stage the professionally employed presenter said that it was possibly the worst act he'd ever seen. Near the back of the stage as I was, I expected to see the boy skulk away devastated but he appeared remarkably nonplussed by the critique. And presenter aside, that was a remarkable thing about the event. The crowd were supportive, no-one wanted anyone to fail, and when things got rough there would be attempts to join in with the words to drown out the imperfections booming out from the PA system.

The teachers also performed a few acts - although I'm told this is more unusual. One would have thought that even if the students didn't invite public ridicule on themselves, the teachers might by breaking down the barrier between them, but it was all remarkably good humoured. Personally, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to turn up to school the next day after doing some of the things they did but I guess it's just not the same here, where teachers generally command much more respect than their British counterparts.

While the stage-show was very professionally produced, we were a little surprised at the lack of other activities. This was a vocational high-school specialising in the hospitality industry, so their were a couple of stalls where students had cooked dishes and mixed cocktails, but otherwise that was it by the time we got there - it seems we'd missed more of the food and drink stalls though. Even so, apparently many other school events are much more extensive than this.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Spectacle Maker

A pair of glasses in the UK will typically cost in the region of £130 from a high-street chain like Specsavers - and possibly much more. I'd been promised cheap prices in Korea, so while I had no urgent need to change, I mentioned to my girlfriend this afternoon that I might look for something during the week.

Half-an-hour later we're at a branch of Davich, and fifteen minutes after that we've bought a pair of rimless frames that cost 30,000 won (£16.89), and 40,000 won (£22.53) for the lenses. Total cost - £40. In the UK, I think the cost would have been about £150, and they'd have charged you for 'extras' such as 'anti-reflective coating'. The Korean lenses include anti-reflective coating, U/V ray protection, and 'electromagnetic wave' protection as standard. OK, that last one sounds completely ridiculous I know, but that's what they said.

And they'd be ready in an hour. They're sorry it couldn't be sooner but rimless frames take a little longer. Well, it would have been at least a week in the UK, maybe two.

Unfortunately, we couldn't pick them up today though, as we had to get home for the start of London trading.

Barbershop Blues

Needing a haircut, we descended some stairs into a basement barbershop we'd stumbled upon while walking down some side-streets some distance from our apartment. The enthusiastic barber was not put off by the prospect of cutting non-Korean hair - in fact - I could be shaved as well if I liked. I kindly refused the offer and being told 'but a woman does it' did nothing to increase my enthusiasm - I'm not partial to sharp blades being held to my throat, whether the protagonist is male or female thank you very much.

Now, sat in the barber's chair, I saw a shape flash by in the murky background - my girlfriend told me afterwards it was a woman in her early twenties who does the shaving - and apparently as it turns out, the massages if they are requested - in a back room. She wore in a red dress which was more revealing than you might have thought necessary... fascinating.

It was a good haircut, but I think we'll try somewhere else next time.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Raging Bull

On MBC ESPN this evening I was less surprised than I should have been to find them covering a bull fight. Not the Spanish kind, but rather one between two Korean bulls, locking horns while the studio-based presenters commented in an American NFL-style. So does this pass for a sport here? I can't help wondering if the American Humane Association know or care what ESPN cover overseas. There was no gore in the end, but whether that was by design or accident I can't say.

After the bull-fighting, but presumably not because of it, came an even unlikelier contender for sports coverage - beefburger eating - from Tennessee, interspersed with the same excitable commentators and clips of the participants weight-training while talking about the importance of keeping in condition as an athlete. So that's Korean ESPN for you.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Coded Language

Aside from not finding much time to study, my Korean language education has hit another, more unexpected snag. When I was learning Japanese I made great progress writing out (eventually 1,400) cue-cards with Japanese words in hiragana and katana as appropriate. While this didn't help me much with learning to read - most Japanese words are written in Chinese characters - it did wonders for my spoken Japanese and listening comprehension. But the modern Korean transliteration standard, while providing a basis for the pronunciation of words, doesn't always accurately represent the actual pronunciation, where syllables (arranged in blocks of characters) can change in sound depending on the immediately proceeding or succeeding syllable. This can mean 'ㅆ' forming a long 's' sound or a 't', or 'ㄹ' being a 'l' or an 'n'.

This presents a real problem in working through cue-cards, because it would be easy to start memorising incorrect pronunciations in a way that was very hard with Japanese. Since I didn't want to have to ask my girlfriend sit with me through every hour of study, reading each card as I drill through words and phrases, I looked for a solution.

Spurred on by the discovery yesterday evening of a 'Korean Audio Word of the Day' Google widget from Declan Software (which incidentally insists 순 translates as 'lip' which my girlfriend said was just plain wrong), I looked into whether Microsoft's text-to-speech would support Korean. Although I thought it was a vain hope to begin with, there did in fact turn out to be a Korean voice, but I couldn't get it to work with either XP, Office or Agents, which led me into third party and web-based tools, where I found this useful NeoSpeech demo page.

NeoSpeech led in turn to the discovery of TextAloud, where NeoSpeech and other compatible voices are sold. While a TextAloud demo succeeded in getting the Microsoft Korean voice to work, the quality was predictably robotic - though my girlfriend thought at first it was reading with a North Korean accent - make of this what you will... Having satisfied myself that a combination of TextAloud and the NeoSpeech Korean 'Yumi' voice was the best, I bought them. Purchasing was fairly painless but the voice file was a 550Mb download which took a while.

Later I went back to look at the Declan Software site again, and purchased their Korean Flashcards product. Initial impressions are that this is going to be really useful, as it provides audio alongside the flashcards and this should really accelerate my learning and pronunciation. However, there is a slight caveat. My girlfriend just shook her head on hearing some of the words and phrases saying there were either just wrong or used odd language that no-one would actually use. So I've started working through the 3,600 words and phrases deleting the ones she disagrees with and editing the English descriptions of others where she feels Declan's doesn't match her translation. It's great that the software allows this kind of functionality (I believe you can even add your own words and audio clips into the system), but it's a shame that I currently find myself deleting about 10% of what was in there. Anyway, as a former Windows developer it's not often I come across software that seems well-designed and really knows exactly what you want to do with it so well-done Declan, even if we're going to have to agree to disagree about some of your content.

This afternoon a Casio EW-K2500 electronic dictionary I'd ordered arrived, opening up a third-front in my attack on the Korean language. Although it's a little bigger than I expected (I really should have taken more care in measuring the dimensions), I'm intending to carry it around with me so I can try and translate things as I go. At the very least, it should give me something to do in restaurants while everyone else talks!

Sunday, November 19, 2006


My girlfriend came down with sickness yesterday, so her mother recommended that she eat a particular type of soup which we didn't have. So armed with little more than a few stock phrases of Korean and a cue-card with the name of the soup on it, I went down to the mini-mart at the bottom of our building and asked the shopkeeper to help me in Korean, before handing over the name of the soup. In the end he pointed out three different kinds and I bought them all just to be on the safe side.

I realised that while I might have the advantage of being totally immersed in Korean society in a way some ex-pats are not, it does mean that I'm not having to learn Korean through the necessity which comes from having no-one by your side to help you out. After a promising start, my language ability has clearly stalled and the mini-mart situation really emphasised that.

Korean Mother came round later to drain some blood off from her daughter's fingers. I've come across this before with some other Asian cultures so it looks like Korea is no different. The blood came out thick and dark - a sign of illness apparently - but she felt a lot better afterwards.

I've come to the conclusion that it's very hard to be ill in Korea; it's impossible to sleep when everyone in this phone-obsessed society seems to be phoning you up to ask how you are...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Grandparents

Last week Korean Grandmother had - apparently - fallen ill and there was talk that this was 'her time'. It had been three weeks since my girlfriend and I had arrived in Korea, and their disappointment that we had not yet visited was made known during the subsequent flurry of communications between Busan and the island of Namhae (tagline - 'the Leading Namhae that is a good place to live'), where they lived. So, a family trip was arranged, and held to even when Grandmother turned out to be fine later the same day when Korean Father travelled there directly.

So it was on Sunday I spent what seemed like most of my day on various Korean buses to get to Namhae, travelling through some spectacular countryside and possibly over Korea's oldest suspension bridge. The taxi driver that took us on the final leg of our journey told us that this rural area used to have 137,914 people thirty years ago, but now there are 54,392. Everyone's moved to the cities, especially Busan, and such is the desire of the local government to stem this depopulation they offer 300,000 won per month for couples who move there, and free university tuition. It wouldn't have been enough to convince me having been there five minutes; the area was certainly beautiful, and amazingly quiet, but the lack of shops and the distances between places of use were a real shock after the convenience of Busan.

Despite being modernised four times in its seventy year history, Korean Grandparents' house was small and cold. I ate lunch wondering whether growing up under Japanese occupation and then
through two major wars made the cold and the flies bearable, but it was too much for me - I guess I'm from a city and I don't have the same concept of hardship older generations have.

Having made our obligatory appearance, had lunch, and went for a brief walk in the nearby countryside. Perhaps I have a romanticised view of small Japanese villages which I expected to find the Korean equivalents of - but the reality was typically haphazard collections of oddly-coloured boxes of no fixed architecture, which made the Korean countryside appear to be a paradox of stunning scenery punctuated by randomly dropped shanty-towns. A real shock - click on the image for the picture in all its horror.

After our walk we set off back to the city. Our taxi driver had warned us that traffic back would be bad today because so many people had come to the area the day before, and sure enough he was right - the return journey was a nightmare, taking three and a half hours versus the two we had spent outbound.

But the real story of our return is not the when, but the how. Before setting off our bus driver asked if anyone on board suffered from motion sickness (never a good sign), and on failing to illicit a positive response announced that we would take 'a short cut' back. This transpired to mean vaguely following the highway towards Busan but weaving around (and under) it rather than actually driving on it. At one point our bus squeezed through a tunnel under the highway little bigger than the bus iteslf, drove for 50 meters before a similar return tunnel took us back to the original side, and another tunnel saw us swap sides again. At some points the roads we took felt like little more than dirt tracks but I had to stop looking eventually.

A mystery was thrown up in Namhae from a road sign. Not the one that read 'Agricultural Traning Center', because official looking but incorrectly spelt signs are common here, but rather the one that read 'German Village'. On pointing this out our driver told us that there were in fact, quite a few Germans living there (on 'benefits' allegedly - is there such a thing in Korean though?), and hence the name. So there you have it - a small German enclave at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula - further investigation reveals a surprising story of returning Korean emigrates and their German spouses living in their German-style houses in this quiet corner of Korea. On the way out of Namhae another sign pointed to 'American Village' - where perhaps the next chapter of this bizarre story will be played out.

Of its own people Namhae says,
"There children’s success have been their greatest pleasures, while their backs have gotten bent due to the hard work farming on the small steep mountain slops" (sic). I took home the message that while I may be able to live in comfort in the city, not to forget that perhaps this is in fact, the real Korea - and one which mourns the loss of its children to the cities - while dreaming up schemes to bring people back.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nos amis de la banque

My girlfriend got a call this morning from her branch of Kookmin Bank. They wanted to thank her for using their credit card very often, and for their part they would try to 'keep up the good work'. Had she had any problems with the service or was there anything else they could do to improve her experience? No. Had the head office in Seoul phoned her? No - why? Because sometimes they phone customers to make sure their branch staff are keeping everyone happy. Well, if they did call, please tell them how happy you are.

Korean mother also got a call the other day. She never uses her card, and the staff in the branch felt hurt and disappointed. Please could she use it? She felt so sorry for them that later, for the first time, she did.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Umi no hanabi

I gave up an evening's trading Friday in favour of attending the Busan Fireworks Festival - South Korea's biggest - and something the city authorities seem determined to turn into an international tourist event.

While Busan may be Korea's second city, there's a feeling that it's got some way to go as far as the development of cultural events are concerned, as the Fireworks Festival seems to be one of the relatively few events of note in the annual city calendar. This of course meant that the desire of local people to attend was particularly high, making the two subway trains we took more like cattle trucks. Clearly the subway authorities had become concerned enough by th
e number of people to announce that changing trains in Seomyeon would not be possible. It didn't put my Korean companions off - nor the other locals who dashed from the first train to the second in a worrying race.

The initial impression of chaos was not to last though. A huge number of police at Gwangalli Beach ensured good crowd control and everyone who arrived early enough was able to take a seat on the beach with relative ease - though we had to wait two hours for the fireworks to begin.

Gwangan Bridge - which arcs across the bay in an improbable fashion to apparently link points A and B on the mainland in the longest way possible (it's currently Korea's longest bridge) - was lit up spectacularly, although most of the fireworks were launched from the shore rather than the bridge itself. We'd been promised a multi-media fireworks display, though predictably this translated into meaning fireworks accompanied by loud music. It sort of worked though. If we go next year, I think we'll take cushions for the beach though; two-and-a-half hours sat on sand and pebbles with nothing more than a thin ground-mat for protection is not to be recommended.

Despite the heavy police numbers the post-festival experience was worrying. We were staying with friends at a beach-side apartment in the very fashionable Haeundae Beach area, but when we left Gwangalli Beach to walk towards Haeundae we found ourselves pushing against a flood of humanity surging in the opposite direction. The small group of us intent on going the other way eventually succeeded, but there's a serious accident there waiting to happen one year. Now I know how salmon feel.

I read that 600,000 people watched the festival last year, and the city authorities expected over one million this year, but our Korean companions told us that this year actually seemed quieter, in which case I can only imagine the horrors of the previous event. It certainly felt like we fought our way through tens of thousands of people walking towards Haeundae Beach, and the crowd didn't really tail off until we were almost at our destination - a one hour walk.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Keimusho no naka

When I got here I was fairly busy for the first several days, and I put this down to our need to buy furniture, see people and generally settle in. What little free time I had after this was consumed with blogging and learning Korean, and I've only managed about seven hours of the latter so far. Only nine of the nineteen trading days have ended up being full days - the rest succumbing to various trips or family vists.

We've been so busy in the last week that there's been no free time at all and I've found myself not really keeping up to this blog for the first time, which is a shame because there's been a lot to say and it tends to get lost when I only write about them several days later. Such is life.

Having been away since Friday at a fireworks festival and then a trip to Namhae, I've finally returned home - hopefully to a slightly less hectic week ahead. What I'm learning though, is that life in Korea, surrounded by Koreans, is lived at a frantic pace - and there may never be much let up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Tabasco Road

When you're doing 100kph in a taxi, you miss a stationary car by inches and you think it's a long way, you've probably been in Korea too long. From my experiences so far I'm beginning to settle into expecting one near miss every three minutes and I've learned to deal with it by simply suspending my sense of disbelief.

Even though I'm not as comfortable as the Koreans, I've also progressed to allowing cars to brush past me in the street at 10mph now without it making me jump, and I hope to advance this to 20mph in the coming weeks. I do worry though that when I return to the UK I need to avoid taking this habit with me because British drivers operate on the notion that any pedestrian in their proximity will ultimately - and sensibly - jump out of the way, and will plot their action accordingly. My experiences in Busan may lead to my surprising them - and not in a good way.

Despite the utter chaos that is the Korean road system - no observance of speed limits, lane discipline, cars driving through pedestrian crossings when the lights are red, a frequent absence of pavements, and motorcycles weaving around on what pavements exist - I've yet to witness an accident which seems statistically implausible. But every other car has scratches around its bumpers - and shops sell a line of hardened rubber bumper protectors which some people put on their cars. I guess that tells the truth of what's really going on.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Streets of Ghost Town

When I first got here the evenings were warm, the daytimes warmer, and a mass of people thronged the streets day and night. Located where a main road intersects two side streets, the voices of passers-by were regular background noise in our apartment into the early hours.

A few days ago it got a little cooler. A few Koreans started wearing coats and I switched from short to long-sleeved tops; it's still 18 degrees Celsius here. But it is several degrees cooler at night, and the people are gone. I don't just mean there are fewer - I mean they almost completely gone. I'd say the footfall beneath our apartment window is down 95%. I'm writing this at 21:00 on Friday night and the only sounds I can here are a few cars passing by and their horns being sounded which from my experience of Korean roads I'm guessing never goes out of fashion here whatever the weather.

This does not seem to be offering any respite to the shop-owners and their fourteen hour days though; as far as I can tell all the small side-street shops are still open.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Walking through the nearby streets the other day I was rather surprised to see a man in a small car park wielding a sword around his head in slow, deliberate yet somewhat menacing movements. Nobody even gave him a second glance - in the UK armed police would have been surrounding him within five minutes.

The sword could have been a fake one but it's glinting in the sun and the effort he seemed to be making suggested otherwise. Maybe they don't have such a big problem with knife crime here. Martial arts with weapons in the street? It's just another day in Korea!