Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chain Gang

One of the things that really sticks in my mind about the rural Japan of yesteryear is the way that when a new house needed to be built in the village, everyone in the community would get together and spend a day or so building it. The same thing also happened in Korea.

These days we're used to seeing cranes and heavy machinery of various kinds erecting our more modern buildings in the cities, but if those community builders of old could be brought into the modern day and given the task of constructing a small high-rise office block, I think it would look very much like the scene I captured in this photograph yesterday. A human chain passes metal poles hand to hand from the ground up towards the top of the building, and as far as I could tell, the only tethering some of the workers had to the scaffolding was that provided by wrapping a leg around the metalwork. While it was slightly unnerving to see, it certainly meant that construction was progressing at a rapid speed.

Meanwhile people walk by obliviously almost directly underneath... which raises some interesting questions, but this being Korea one must consider the maxim that if something bad happens to you it's probably your fault for not being more careful.

And what are they building? A hospital...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Brokeback Mountain

Towards the end of having lunch with a friend we discussed what to do next and decided on a movie at what has become our regular DVD Bang nearby. My wife wanted to watch Brokeback Mountain and, having spent several years in the UK - which seems to have launched her on a mission to broaden other Koreans' horizons, asked said friend whether she wanted to see a 'love story'. I expressed my thought - in the privacy of English - that this was a mistake but my wife was determined, so I fought to keep a straight face as certain details were revealed while the biggest detail of all remained in the closet. I think our friend was really looking forward to seeing a romantic film so all I could think of as we walked towards the DVD Bang was 'this is going to be interesting'.

There are an absence of women from the early part of the movie, which I thought may give the game away, but the reality only dawned on our friend just before all was revealed. I heard some rushed, surprised and I dare say shocked comments emanating from her mouth - it's funny how in times of stress language barriers seem to fade and somehow you just know exactly what the other person is thinking. I don't think she was terribly impressed by my wife's deception.

Our friend took a couple of phonecalls as the movie progressed, which she left the room to take, and I couldn't help but think that had things been different she would have called back later. As it was, she made her excuses and left before the end anyway, leaving me alone with my wife, who I hope understood by my look that she'd finally crossed the line with her friend.

I don't really understand Korea enough to know to what extent homosexuality is tolerated here, but I get the impression that it just isn't - at best there's a society-wide don't-ask-don't-tell policy in operation. That's not to say that everyone is visibly straight here because they aren't. I'd love to relate the difficult tale of a Korean living here who is one of the most camp men I've met anywhere - and I come from a pretty liberal background - but such is his rarity any details would run the risk of outing him if any Koreans ever read this. Aside from the important principle of not outing people whatever the circumstances, you might wonder how someone so apparently camp could be outed anyway, because in the West nearly everyone would just know, but in Korea they don't, because people don't think about these things so much, and that's what you have to get your head around.

As it is, I've met a few other people leading 'normal' lifestyles here who have caused raised eyebrows on my part, but in a country where they forgot to call time on the New Romantic Period, it's not always easy to tell where the line between fashion victims and camp-clothing. For example, 'man-bags' are very much 'in' in Korea, even if they are in many cases almost identical to the handbags women carry. Even so, one gets the impression that life here for homosexual people may be very similar to the kind of experiences people in the West had fifty or sixty years ago. This said, one is also left wondering to what extent these people realise that had they been born in the West, they might have chosen a completely different lifestyle.

And as for our somewhat shocked friend, we met her again later and she explained that while she was surprised, she wasn't in any way offended or disapproving of what she saw. But I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Room with a View

Our apartment doesn't have double-glazing, but instead a double window, one layer of which is frosted glass - allowing for some privacy. It's been sufficiently cold during the winter months that the windows have only been opened a fraction, but it became quite warm over the weekend, and for the first time since October we opened the window fully to let in some slightly cooler air.

I know it's far from the greatest view in Busan, but one of the first things I appreciated when I came here was being able to gaze out of the window towards the nearby mountain, aerial cabling not withstanding. But when I looked out yesterday, I realised that in the time since we last had the window open, a new high-rise building has started making its way upwards, bringing with it the prospect that in another few weeks what little of the skyline is still visible will disappear. It's disappointing, but that's the pace of progress in Busan, where every other street in our area seems to have some major construction work going on.

Another long forgotten feature of having our window open was the noise outside on the street below. After a relatively quiet winter I think I have a summer of listening to drunk Koreans singing while fumbling their way home - apparently from about 5pm every evening.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Back in the UK we had a weekly routine of going to the local Tesco for groceries, and when we found out one of our closest supermarkets here was Homeplus Tesco, it looked like little would change. But what actually happened was different; we ended up only going once a month at the most, buying what we needed on a day-to-day basis from local stores and street markets. Korea can be wonderfully convenient in that way. Recently we discovered a smaller sized supermarket nearby called Top-Mart and the last couple of times did our more substantial shopping there.

So a few days ago we got to Top-Mart, which like a lot of supermarkets in Korea seems to have almost as many staff as customers, to see said staff all wearing festive hats with tinsel around them as though we had walked into some bizarre Christmas flashback. In fact, they were celebrating the store's tenth birthday, even if the décor would have made you think more like it was twenty to thirty. Maybe the grunge look is just their corporate design.

As we queued at the checkout, we noticed that every few customers a group of staff that were loitering just beyond would suddenly rush up to an apparently random isle, shaking tambourines and generally making a fuss of the customer. The person in front of us was treated to such a scene and won a 5,000 won (about £2.70) Top-Mart voucher, and then the person right behind us. Sadly though, we were destined to be one of the seemingly four out of five who were unlucky. I couldn't help wondering whether this was another example of dubious Korean marketing strategies; it's all very well when one person in a hundred or a thousand wins something, but when you feel like every other person is getting something and you're not you can start feeling a bit badly done to, especially for Koreans who - in my experience - have the kind of competitive spirit that this strategy seems to fly in the face of.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Two Wives at One Wedding

Part of the wedding package which was arranged included a DVD and video of the day's events - including digital photos of the wedding, plus an album of photographs which included the shots from the photo-shoot several weeks earlier. The wedding hall company told us it would be four to six weeks before this would be ready to collect, but this eventually turned into ten before it was finally ready.

Because the albums promised to be large and heavy affairs, one of our friends offered to give us a lift to the wedding hall. When we got there, the DVD had my name on it, but instead of my wife's, there was another woman's name, who I don't recall marrying. Presumably the content was correct, although it did make me wonder whether they'd put my photographs and the other woman's on the disc. So we (by which I mean my wife accompanied by my usual oblivious look) complained, but aside from apologising the staff maintained an oblivious look of their own which told you that they weren't going to do anything about it. I suggested that perhaps it was merely the title on the DVD cover, rather than captions in the on-screen video, so we could take it home and check.

However, back in the car our friend, the same one who'd fought back in Paris Baguette, was outraged to hear of the bad service, and grabbed the DVD before storming off towards the office, while we bravely hid in the back of the car. Five minutes later she was back with the promise that everything would be put right. You can use your imagination as to what happened in those five minutes and most of it would probably be true.

What nothing can be done about is the album itself, which turned out to be unintentionally funny in a Korean way. The photographs themselves were well done, but presumably in order to add to the mood, it was littered with romantic English verses and phrases - or rather, what someone had taken to be romantic phrases. In fact, the phrases actually appeared to be lifted straight out of various songs which may have mentioned the word 'love' but not in the context the commissioning Korean believed, hence -
in beautiful calligraphy - "I'll love you baby, yeah, until I don't". I also liked, "I'll be with you forever, darning" - although I'd probably have appreciated that more had I been American; the colloquial "darn" isn't a word used in England. Presumably that was merely a typo or Freudian slip.

It's a bit perplexing as to why we can experience excellent customer service in Korea for the smallest things, but when it comes to something as significant and expensive as wedding packages, the after sales service is appalling. You might logically assume that they'd be thinking that you aren't going to be using their services again but it's not as simple as that. Aside from the dreaded social network badmouthing that goes on, my Korean Family still have their son to marry - which the Wedding Hall company knows. Anyway, we certainly won't get married there again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Carry on Doctor

I've said a lot of favourable things about the Korean health system before, but yesterday many doctors (including dentists and Chinese doctors) went on strike over Government proposals to revise medical laws, and 57% of hospitals were affected. They converged in Seoul for a public demonstration.

KBS News reported that a Thai man suffering breathing problems tried to visit several hospitals in order to get treatment, but was ultimately unsuccessful and died.

According to the Korea Herald, The President of the Korean Medical Association said that the proposed revisions would "severely threaten public health", apparently without any sense of irony.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Day the Bubble Burst

Back home it's not so hard to find a bank that pays a good rate of interest on its savings accounts, but it seems that in Korea this is more of a challenge. Kookminbank, which we opened accounts with when we arrived in Korea, would pay us 1.7% in an ordinary savings account, when we'd been getting around 3.7% in the UK. The 2% difference isn't purely explained by different national interest rates - the base rate in the UK is currently 5.25% versus 4.5% in Korea - so our Korean bank clearly isn't very competitive.

But in Korea, there is another option. Customers can choose a Money Market Fund (MMF) account, which is linked to the stock market and pays a better rate of interest - currently 4.12% with Kookminbank. However, somewhere buried in the small print is the revelation that it's not merely the interest rate which may fluctuate based on market performance, but the capital amount as well. In other words, the value of your bank account can go down as well as up. It's not entirely clear to what extent most ordinary customers appreciate the potential risks of these MMF accounts, and the breezy way in which the bank staff admit that your savings could go down while paradoxically promising that it won't happen makes one suspect the worst.

Still, some customers are at least sufficiently aware of the link that when the global markets take a sudden turn for the worst, as has happened a couple of times in the last three weeks, there is a rush to the bank to withdraw money from the MMF accounts and move it somewhere safer. The spectacle of such scenes alone is a good reason why most banks in the UK would be wary about the widespread adoption of these market-linked accounts. But it looks like Kookminbank have tired of it as well; they are now requiring customers to give a day's notice before withdrawing money from their MMF accounts which may - or may not - take some of the heat out of any potential panic.

I haven't really fully thought through the implications that major banks here might be speculating on the international markets with customer money that can - theoretically - be quickly swiped away from under them, but it didn't fill me full of confidence about the Korean banking system.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Slightly Used

Sometimes I need a break from all things Korean and start flicking through the TV channels in the hope of finding something I can actually understand for a bit of mindless entertainment. This is how I ended up watching most of Die Hard twice in three months - I'm sure there's a really clever analogy with the use of the word 'trapped' in there somewhere. But every once in a while, Korean TV serves up something which makes surfing through sixty channels of Korean drama and direct shopping worthwhile.

So yesterday I came across a ten-minute segment on a shopping channel simply entitled Get Used Underwear. Fortunately, this is not the legitimisation of some underground fetishist need, and unlike Japan, fortunately there do not seem to be any used underwear vending machines on street corners in Korea, but rather, this is either a cunning marketing gimmick or one of the most monumentally unfortunate uses of English I've seen since arriving here (although this one is probably right up there at the top).

Both the boxer shorts and women's underwear had the phrase Get Used splashed across them, so for a brief moment I thought how appropriate it would be to have some as a condemning indictment of relationships generally. But I couldn't help thinking that this clever post-90s acceptance of social roles and social breakdown was probably a little beyond the Korean marketers who came up with this, at least as far as their use of English is concerned. And can you sell anything under the the Get Used Underwear name, even in the West?

Well for a brief moment it appears you can, because elsewhere a more expansive logo was flashed across the screen, revealing that Get Used Underwear hails from New York. So perhaps this really is another American brand trying to make an entrance into Korea. But I have my doubts for two reasons. The first is that a local clothes store down a back street near us proudly proclaims its other branches to be in New York and Paris, when clearly they aren't, reminding me for all the world of a TV series back home in which a dodgy street-market trader has 'New York - Paris - Peckham' written on the side of his van (there's a lot of that going on here - I don't think the Koreans have any advertising standards bodies). The second reason is that having searched on the Internet the only reference I can find to 'Get Used Underwear' and 'New York' is an invitation to visit an underground S&M club in the city and sites where genuine used underwear can actually be purchased - oddly enough including eBay (no doubt Google will be serving me dubious sex ads for the next month now and somewhere an American government database will label me as a sexual deviant - although they probably think that about all foreigners anyway).

So Korean TV will continue to advertise used underwear during the day, perhaps cleverly but one suspects
actually oblivious to its connotations, while no doubt there will continue to be much scratching of heads in the English-speaking community.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Australian Rules

We eventually made it to the new Outback Steakhouse nearby, which had failed to work out for us on its first day of business. One of our Korean friends arrived armed with various vouchers and a loyalty card, and much discussion was once again held over what could be ordered. Sometimes I think it would be easier to negotiate the complete disarmament of North Korea than order food with my friends, but to their credit the staff in Korean restaurants and stores nearly always seem more than ready to enter into considerable protracted discussions with their customers.

The first time we went into an Outback here, an English language version of the menu was unexpectedly shoved under my nose much to my surprise. This time, my wife immediately asked for one, proving again that once a concession is made it can become an expectation.

What surprised me - aside from the outrageously salty food which left me playing Russian Roulette with my Meniere's Disease - were the particularly large name tags worn by the staff. But it wasn't the name tags themselves, so much as the 'names' of the staff - it appeared they'd chosen English names to identify themselves. While the name tags were smaller, I then recalled that this was also the case in the first Outback I'd visited here. Was this a rule from the Not-Australian (Outback Steakhouse was founded in Florida in 1988 and remains an American company) Corporate Headquarters?

When asked, our waitress told us that the staff had picked the names so that they were easy for the customers to remember. Which struck me as a little odd, given that 99.9% of customers would be Korean and one would think that it might be easier for them to remember Korean names. On the other hand, closer observation revealed that while some staff went under the more conventional nomenclature of Ame and Tina, others had adopted the somewhat more unusual Tweety and Milk, and I certainly didn't forget those in a hurry.

Sometimes I wonder from the amount of talking that goes on when I'm out with Korean friends whether we are, collectively, possibly some of the worst customers in Busan, feared by establishments across the city. Suffice to say I think we complain sometimes and maybe everyone does, but I do wonder if we push things further than most would. Although I say "we", when I really mean "not me" - I'm just a passenger along for the ride. But along with our bill we got a long handwritten post-it note from our waitress expressing the wish that if we came again and looked for her ('Rouzili') then she will do her best to provide even better service. I hope this is just because this branch is new.

Outback is an interesting place, because by relative standards in Busan, it's quite expensive - our bill for three people came to 45,000 won (about £24) for three dishes excluding drinks. This is about the going rate in the UK but the cost of one dish in Outback could often feed three people in some of the Korean restaurants. Despite this, and perhaps predictably, they are almost always full of young people, although it did leave my companions wondering where they get the money from, especially given the fact that some of them were almost certainly from the local university. It feels like despite the evident austerity if not poverty elsewhere, there is clearly an almost yuppy Korean class who gravitate towards this kind of place.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Between Two Worlds

Something bothered me the other day in Mr. Pizza ("Pizza for Women"). We'd gone in to eat with a Korean friend and much discussion ensued with the waitress about the various options available, which as usual I was oblivious to. While Mr. Pizza offers a variety of half-and-half pizzas, they couldn't offer the combination we wanted, but the waitress went behind the scenes to consult further, to return for a few brief words before finally disappearing. I was told that they had agreed to do the combination we wanted, and they wouldn't normally do this but because my Korean companions were "with a foreigner" it would be a special favour. It's not the first time that some level of service was afforded to us purely because I wasn't Korean. I guess this is what goes on here sometimes.

On the flip side it's fair to be said that this is balanced up; there's much anecdotal evidence as to the various ways in which foreigners can often come off worst in the relationship with our hosts, perhaps none more so than the fallout from a foreigner-organised comedy sketch show in Busan several weeks ago, which covered life in Korea and managed to offend the Korean Establishment and leave everyone looking worse off - including the Korean Establishment.

We are not Koreans, and we are not treated like Koreans, and that has positives and negatives, so why not take advantages of the positives when they're offered? But herein lies the crux of the problem - at least for me. I come from a country which historically made conscious efforts to grant special consideration to people who were in the minority, but this only led to these favours becoming expectations, and later demands, and somewhere along the way we didn't have one admittedly broad society any more, but rather, at least two different ones, which have great difficulty coexisting. It worries me that when some Koreans start creating special rules towards foreigners over things which frankly just aren't important, it may create the expectation - knowing or unknowing - on our side, and simultaneous animosity among some Koreans on the other side who may now feel obliged to offer concessions towards foreigners which peers have initiated but which they don't agree with.

I can't expect to be treated like a Korean, especially when I can't speak the language. Frankly there are times I need all the help I can get. But when it comes to something as trivial as getting a customised pizza purely off the back of my skin colour, while the gesture might be selfishly appreciated, it feels like something may be going wrong in the fundamentals of Korean society.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The City of Lost Souls

It follows that after almost five months here in which I've picked up a knife and fork about four times, that the day I should actually meet another foreigner for the first time would be one of them. So it was on the way back from the snake run last week, that we should be sat in a Korean restaurant when suddenly there was some excitement between my Korean minders - a foreigner had entered. He proceeded to sit down at a nearby table and we opened up our conversation.

Maybe going for so long without talking to more than one person can do strange things to you after a while, because faced with the initial question of what I did here, I suffered a moment's shock and felt like I had to dig deep into my brain to rediscover the lost art of small-talk. My new Canadian acquaintance was in Busan looking for a teaching job, so we talked about teaching, learning Korean and life here in the city - or at least as much as was possible given the fortunately short stay of a particularly rowdy group of Koreans during our respective lunches.

Later, Korean Mother made the observation that I'd looked like a fish that had rediscovered water, and I suppose that just about sums things up. I think that after so much time living in my not-quite-present reality, I had a bit of reverse-culture shock when faced with someone who I could actually converse with. And in an odd sort of way, I've begun to wonder whether this means - when I eventually get back to the UK - I will feel the same way when suddenly faced with lots of people to talk to. When I first got here it crossed my mind that I would make some social contacts within the ex-pat community, but life proved too busy to get out and do anything even though I read about the various events on Internet bulletin boards. I suppose it's not very significant, but being cut off completely from other foreigners might seem like an odd choice to some.

Unfortunately for Korean Mother our chance meeting meant that she had to spend most of her lunch lost in her own thoughts, which she didn't really enjoy, and which lead to the realisation that this is how I live most of my life here and it might not be much fun for me, which it isn't. It seemed for a moment that she wanted things to change, but nothing did. Not that I apportion any blame except to myself though; if I want to participate in the world I live in here, the onus is on me to learn the language, a task which I continue to struggle to fit in with the other aspects of my daily life in Busan.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Soylent Green

In the UK, the Inland Revenue - the government's tax collection agency* and official supplier of red tape to the London 2012 Olympics - undertook extensive research to discover the most psychologically offensive shade of blue-green and proceeded to use it in correspondence with anyone who had the misfortune to have to deal with them. After putting most of my financial affairs in order and leaving the UK, I arrived in Korea with the pleasure of knowing that I no longer had to brace myself each morning for the possible arrival in the post of one of their signature brown envelopes containing its soylent-green letterhead inside.

Today, Korean bureaucracy caught up with me. An envelope from the National Pension Scheme was opened with some trepidation, to discover a friendly-looking cartoon character inside inviting me, through much usage of the word 'please' (as opposed to the UK's Inland Revenue's favoured phrase of "you must"), to declare my monthly income. Helpfully, the letter was in both Korean and English. It seems that in return for paying 9% of my monthly income I'm entitled to various social security benefits (not just post-retirement) as long as Koreans living in my home country are entitled to the same under local law, which I'm guessing that they are.

So we're planning a trip to the local office with my declared income statement - which seems to consist of little more than a single figure. Back home, I'm sure we'd already be up to a three page form plus required documentary evidence, with an accompanying notes booklet written by the same government lawyers who got Tony Blair off-the-hook over Iraq**. This looks like it's going to be suspiciously easy, so I think it just can't be true; civil servants, by their nature, surely have to be insanely officious everywhere. I guess I'll soon find out.

*(slogan - "if we make a mistake automatically calculating your tax return you may be prosecuted")
**(another favoured slogan of the Inland Revenue is "ignorance is not an excuse" - though curiously this is exactly the defence the UK Government eventually adopted with respect to Iraq).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


We went out for lunch yesterday to the new Outback Steakhouse which had opened in our district, but due to some miscommunication we discovered it wouldn't open until mid-afternoon. Already hungry, we didn't want to wait for a couple of hours so made our way to a nearby Korean Traditional Porridge Restaurant (so reads the only English clue on the outside). I've seen a couple of these places in Korea, but never really thought about what might be served inside; porridge carries somewhat negative connotations for me, the English word largely being associated with the pre-school and nutritionally questionable boiled oat breakfasts of my childhood.

In Korea, traditional porridge (or maybe it's just 'porridge' and the restaurant is meant to be the 'traditional' bit) is made with rice and various vegetables, and unlike the porridge back home, is served as a main meal. Fortunately what might be an otherwise limited menu is varied with additions such as tuna, prawns and other typically Korean ingredients. We ordered tuna porridge, and our watery rice arrived with said tuna neatly placed on top.

Unfortunately any kind of watery rice reminds me of the meals a former Chinese girlfriend would insist on feeding me years ago when I was sick, and while I didn't recall being thrilled with the taste when I was unwell, I wasn't convinced that it would be much improved when I was healthy - and it didn't disappoint. It wasn't bad, but I kept eating it thinking how much nicer it would be without the soup-like qualities. My wife enjoyed it more, but she actually was feeling a little ill and it transpired this was one of the reasons why we'd eventually come here; like the Chinese, Koreans believe this type of dish to have restorative qualities (or at least, it's easier to digest). Indeed, while we were there, a nurse from one of the many local hospitals came in with an order to take away, though whether it was for the staff or patients I couldn't say; you don't have to feel ill to eat this food. Indeed, the restaurant we went to was called '본죽' (Bonjuk), which is actually a chain - which perhaps I should have guessed from the smart internal appearance (individually owned restaurants can serve great food but in my experience
their décor is often a whole other definition of traditional).

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Hamster Cage

"Do someone a favour and it becomes your job". Well it seems after this week, not only does this phrase hold true, I can replace the word 'someone' with 'hamsters'.

We rescued the mice, which due to something that got lost in translation turned out to be hamsters, bought them a cage and brought them to our apartment. We could have given them back to the pet store but having survived their time with the snake, we couldn't face the idea that they'd just become food for someone else's reptile. I don't know how many people have pet snakes here, but it seems like it's enough that the people in Korean pet stores bother to ask whether you're buying them as a pet or as food. If you're buying them as pets, they try to give you ones from the same cage that get on with each other, otherwise it doesn't matter.

So for a week, everything was fine for our rescued hamsters. My wife undertook extensive hamster research on the Internet and the cage was set up in exactly the recommended way with toys and so on. It didn't work out too well for us though. Being nocturnal, our hamsters kept us awake for significant portions of the first two nights on the cage's hamster wheel, which turned out to be surprisingly noisy. More surprising was the fact that they didn't get tired. At all. For a time, we thought they were taking it in turns, but on closer inspection, they were often both on the wheel, one running forwards, and the other running backwards. In the one room apartment, there was no getting away from the noise, though we tried various schemes in the following days.

Every once in awhile, a hamster scream would wake us up with a jolt, but aside from the occasional sideswipe they appeared to get along well, until the early hours of Sunday morning. We hadn't gone to bed (when you work until 2am every weekday it's hard to break the cycle at the weekend), and a full-blown fight broke out in the cage, sparked off by an attempt by one hamster to get on the wheel while the first was on it. Why the wheel should have such near-narcotic qualities I don't know, but it appears to evoke strong emotions. The emotions drew blood though and we had an injured hamster on our hands. During the next three hours we tried separating the cage into two halves using a pizza box, but what we are assuming to be the male hamster managed to eventually push his way underneath it to get to the injured female, which we rescued again just in time. After that we had to build a makeshift home for the injured hamster using a box.

So we spent yesterday morning touring pet stores with Korean Mother looking for another cage, and failing to find either a suitable cage or a pet store with the right kind of cage in the window that was open. Most stores here are open seven days a week but it turns out when you need a pet store around here in an emergency they are the exception to the rule. The store owner where the hamsters were originally purchased from by Korean Mother offered to replace one of them in the hope that the replacement would get on with the hamster we kept, but we turned it down. I think Koreans have at best a pragmatic approach to the whole pet business - though more accurately it felt like we were unusual for feeling any kind of emotional bond towards our rescued animals. Unfortunately said store owner not only had very small and quite unsuitable cages - I don't know what that says about what happens to most of the hamsters he sells - but he did spend a little time trying to convince us that they were suitable by trying to precariously add water bottles and the like, which the cages were not designed to take, which would probably have quickly led to some hamster-related accident had we bought one. He did however, manage to sell us two quiet hamster wheels.

Now in two separate cages, we got our first proper night's sleep in a week, but now the hamsters appear to be sulking.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Die Patriotin

It's a reality of life where we live that some of the local vegetable vendors, rather than set up in a fixed place, will tour around the neighbourhood in their blue vans advertising their wares through a loudspeaker. After a couple of hours this can get very repetitive and annoying, and it has a disturbing Orwellian quality; I feel as if I could step outside into a world where everyone wears grey and black helicopters watch the citizenry from above.

At least I have the advantage of not knowing what they are saying. I do occasionally get translations though, and today's vendor deserves particular mention for the following sales pitch: "Dear patriotic citizens of Busan, we are selling fresh squid for 500 won". So perhaps we're not so far away from that Orwellian State after all. I almost feel compelled to go out and get some of that seafood - after all, if national honour is at stake...

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Sometimes when you're living in another country it's the small things which the locals might be oblivious to that really stick out. The other day, on our way through one of the central coastal districts of Busan (Yeongdo), we drove past Hanjin shipyards where a new ship was being built - right next to the road. It wasn't clear what type they were building, but it was very large - and only looked even bigger when driving almost underneath it's stern.

In the UK, while there is a shipbuilding industry, like most industrial operations it tends to happen a safe distance away from residential and commuting districts. Certainly, I can't imagine anyone building a supertanker next to a main road. But it's a fact of life in Korea that the longer you've been here the more you start to expect to wander through a residential or commercial district and suddenly find something that looks completely out of place, or rather, something that should be placed as far away from the rest of the population as possible. Still, it did make for quite an impressive sight.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sen no Rikyu

From around the end of May until the middle of June each year a fruit is harvested which Koreans call '매실' (maeshil) - which translates as Japanese apricot or plum. The fruits can then be placed into a jar with brown sugar or honey and left to ferment for one-hundred days. Once the fruit float they can be taken out and placed in alcohol to add flavour to that, or used to make side dishes. Meanwhile, the liquid concentrate left over '매실즙' (maeshiljeub) is used to make '매실차' (maeshilcha) - '차' meaning tea - which is drunk hot or cold, depending partly on preference, but mostly on the weather.

Last summer Korean mother prepared her annual batch of '
maeshiljeub' and it made an appearance shortly after I arrived, although at the time I wasn't really sure what it was and it just got filed away in my mind with a lot of other things under the category of 'strange Korean food and drink'. Since then, I've learned to appreciate it more when the occasional bottle came our way - aside from it's sweet taste people believe it has a range of health benefits, including being good for digestion, liver function, the skin, fatigue, killing germs among a list of others too numerous to mention. Suffice to say it's a surprise it's not claimed to cure SARS and bird-flu (unlike kimchi!) Personally, I can't say I've noticed any health benefits but I don't really care - I just love the taste.

Sadly though, we're about to run out of our last bottle and our dealer, Korean Mother, has no more. So it looks like I'm going to be suffering withdrawal symptoms for the next six months until the next batch can be made, and while rumour has it that it may be possible to buy it from some stores, we've never seen it and it seems that most people go down the home-made route here.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Snake Pit

Korean Brother has a pet snake, which has become a problem given that he's now been away from Busan working for several weeks. He asked Korean Mother to sell it, but that's easier said than done; snakes are not the kind of pets that are sold in your average pet-store here. Meanwhile the snake started to look extremely thin, and Korean Mother faced the choice of whether to try and find somewhere to sell it urgently, or find a way of feeding it. So with great reluctance she went to a local pet-store and bought a couple of small mice... I declined to hear the rest of the details.

Now to my mind it was an easy choice. The snake had to go. But it turned out that the situation had an added cultural complication which made Korean Mother reluctant to see it removed from the apartment. Snakes are believed to in some way protect the places they live in, part of Shamanistic practices dating back to Korean life centuries ago, when snakes in the immediate area around the village were thought to keep evil spirits away. Given that Korean Brother's snake had been with them for a few years - Korean Mother was afraid that if it went it would take something with it. I'm not really sure what that 'something' was - good luck, good fortune or peace and security - and I'm not sure she was either, but 'something' there nevertheless was.

She wasn't very happy to have put the first mouse in the snake's tank, and after it disappeared the next day she put the second one in. But breaking point was reached when she checked on the snake later, and found both mice running around in the tank playing with each other, apparently as oblivious to the snake as it was to them. She finally resolved to sell it.

So today I found myself on the way to the only pet store in Busan known to deal with snakes, with said creature in a large semi-transparent container with a carrying handle. While Korean Mother had put some newspaper at the bottom, I think it would have been fairly obvious to anyone who cared to look on the subway train what we were transporting. As if foreigners aren't sometimes thought of as strange enough, now I was a foreigner carrying a snake through the underground. Still, if the Koreans are going to stare, they might as well stare for a good reason for once. I kept opening the lid slightly from time to time to let some air in, nervously checking to make sure it wasn't trying to escape and fearful creating a 'Snakes on a Plane' style incident, but it barely moved.

The reason transpired to be that it was sick, unsurprisingly. This Bull Python - as it turned out to be - had a heating element underneath its tank which had managed to become unplugged at some point since Korean Brother left. Given that it's a tropical reptile that doesn't like Korean winters it's somewhat surprising that it didn't die in the interim - something which Korean Mother is extremely relieved about because of the perceived bad luck that would have brought. The pet store owner is going to try and nurse the snake back to health and then sell it for us and take a commission. I was just relieved we didn't have to carry it back through the subway.

All in all, it's probably a happy ending for the snake, and it's certainly a happy ending for the mice. They made it through their last night with the snake and Korean Mother is going to keep them.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

War Without End

It's been a chaotic week for someone in my line of work, with global markets tumbling and data feeds failing under the strain of the workload. On Wednesday, I stayed up beyond my normal 2am finish watching the Dow Jones Index fall steadily, thinking I would go to bed when it started to reverse. It didn't, and I eventually went to bed at 6am - 9pm UK time - when the Dow closed. Thursday wasn't much better, resulting in a 4am finish, and a 12pm awakening.

Within an hour of getting out of bed at 12pm, I was sat down in a Chinese restaurant with Korean Mother to have 'lunch'. At least, it was lunch for her, and more like breakfast for me. I may be working UK hours, but Korea isn't, and it's a bit jarring to the system having to wake up for a lunch meeting. Most of this week has involved waking up late morning, and finding very little time after catching up on post-market reports before I'm gearing up for the start of a new trading day at 6am UK time - 3pm local. I was shocked yesterday to discover it was Friday, I've lost track of time so badly.

Recently we've been going out less during weekdays and I've been making more of an effort to learn Korean, although I'm still very busy with other things. My vocabulary has grown to almost 100 words, which is fairly useless of course, and on the face of it little to be proud of save for the fact it probably represents about five hours cumulative work over five days.

My work hasn't been going so well since I came to Korea but it still brought in an income so I thought it worth continuing. After the long hours and increasingly late nights (or early mornings) of the past week though, I'm toying with the idea of easing off trading for a while to concentrate more on learning Korean. I think I could make great strides with the language if I made a serious effort, which I am honestly not doing at the moment. In retrospect I wish that I'd not started trading as quickly when I got here, but instead used more of my first couple of months to pick up some basic speaking skills, which would have then had months of reinforcement and given me more independence and satisfaction along the way.

I never wanted to turn into one of those foreigners who still hasn't learned Hangul after months of living here, and who still can't function even at the basic level in the language after a year or more - but aside from the Hangul which only took a few hours to learn - my lack of any other progress in the language is setting me up to be one of those foreigners. So I'm under an increasing amount of self-imposed pressure as the days tick by.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Messages from Earth

When I came to Korea I left behind something important back home. A war. Or at least, this is what a recent CNN Special shown here in Asia would have us believe "Britain - The War Within". It seems that when young Muslim fundamentalists aren't trying to blow themselves up on the streets of Britain, they are intent on imposing their rules and values on everyone else in the society around them, including more moderate members of their own community - CNN showed the efforts of campaigning Muslim women attempting to be allowed inside several British mosques to pray, but being robustly prevented by Muslim men who despite their presumed desire to eventually see one global Islamic state, really see no public place for women within it's mosques.

Meanwhile - not shown by CNN - the level of racism within the white English community is rising and more disturbingly, the wider tolerance of that racism. One comes across it all the time, in the news, in the media, and in social circles among those who think they are in safe company or simply don't care who hears their comments. Of late the UK-based trading discussion board I read
- of all things - has developed a subtly racist tone judging from the number of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stories posted there, not to mention one comment recently that was, in my opinion, openly racist but went unchallenged.

So overall the result is that Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the UK are locked in an ever-increasing cycle of paranoia and hatred, and not just between each other, but also within themselves. And as the multicultural diversity of Britain increases, the many faceted landscape of distrust grows ever larger. So British social cohesion is breaking down on several levels, and the result seeks destined to be an ever-increasing cycle of hatred and violence.

I come from a multicultural city, and despite being white I've been a victim of racial violence, having been driven out a student house in the wrong area I once lived in by stone throwing youths. I shrugged it off and moved to a safer part of the city. Years later, and while I had other reasons for moving to Korea, at the back of my mind I was glad to escape from the chaos that is inner-city Britain today, and the endless talk of war.

So here I am in Korea, living in exile, and not everything is working out - so sometimes I think of going back to live - even if only for a little while longer before things get completely out of hand, but then I see something like the CNN report from back home, or read another racist comment on a British bulletin board, and I wonder whether I can ever truly go back, or whether I need to live the life of a permanent exile, either in Korea or elsewhere, so I can stay away from all the hate-mongers on all sides who are determined to destroy the country.

And as far as this particular 'war' goes, Korea is innocent in this respect. The only mosque I've seen here is the 'Blue Mosque Hof & Coffee' bar - hof is Korean-English (or German in this case) for beer - which I'm sure would be seized upon as being considered insulting on several levels back home (the Nazi-themed 'Hitler Bars' didn't go down too well either).
Meanwhile, the irony that I - in being here - am contributing to the change or cultural pollution of my host society is not lost on me. Perhaps these are the true costs of globalisation. But in the meantime, innocence is bliss.