Monday, April 30, 2007

Finding Nemo

After our visit to Yongdusan Park we went to the nearby Jagalchi, where Korea's largest seafood market is situated. Walking around Busan, I've become used to the site of live fish in shop windows or even just in small tubs in the side streets, but Jagalchi Market takes it up to another level. There's an indoor market in a large modern building, but long before we got there we started to pass stalls selling fish and other seafood - although one was selling pig's heads, which are used here in shaman rituals. A predictably pungent smell of fish hung in the air.

As we approached the market building, we discovered a talent contest going on behind it, by the edge of the docks. It didn't seem a very natural place for such an event, and the scene was made even more surreal by the rows of predominantly middle-aged audience surrounded by the heaviest police presence I've seen here. It didn't seem likely that the audience would storm the stage but who knows? Some serious police stares discouraged me from taking photos.

Inside the market building, where we were greeted by an even more overpowering smell of seafood, I was free to take some shots and a couple of videos with my camera, but I would come to wish I wasn't. Korean Mother walked down the isles, offering some displays of mild interest to hook the vendors, after which she would reel them in with a couple of questions before finally enquiring about the price. By this time the vendors were already catching fish from their tanks with nets, but if the price wasn't good they would be thrown back as quickly as Korean Mother threw back the vendors.

We have a fish market back home, but apart from the flies everything inside is dead, so I was admittedly intrigued by the process of shopping with live fish. By the time Korean Mother found a vendor with a fish at the right price then, I was ready to video the scene, but my inexperience meant that as the fish captured struggled to jump out of stall-holders net, a shower of water hit me even though I'd cautiously positioned myself about six four away.

I'd seen enough in the market by this time to know what was coming next, and sure enough in very short order the fish - still wriggling, was secured on a chopping board and the head was neatly sliced off and, with blood still running out, was thrown into a very visible bin at the end of the counter where the discarded remains of dozens of earlier victims lay festering. The vendor expertly sliced the body and it was probably a little over a minute later that the remains of the fish were nicely wrapped for Korean Mother to take home for the sum of 15,000 won (about £8). When three people can eat out comfortably in a diner for the same price, this is quite expensive by local standards.

I was however, unable to fully concentrate on the speed and expertise of the fish vendor's work, because as I stood there my attention gradually fixated on the bin, and the recently deposited fish head, the gills of which had begun expanding in an out rapidly in an apparent last desperate effort to breathe. As I watched it, I saw other fish parts still moving, but while I suppose I can put that down to muscle movements, I wasn't so sure about the head. I decided not to take a video, because there are some things I really don't want to think about any more than I have to, but on the other hand, this is the reality of life in Busan.

We set off for home and Korean Mother made for quite a sight walking at some pace through the subway - and occasionally breaking into a jog - in order to get back and eat her fresh fish as quickly as possible. Like many Asian countries, freshness is of course, very much prized in Korea, and Busan people do like their raw fish, sushi or 'chobab' (초밥) as it is called.

Today as we were walking down one of the local side-streets and we noticed a large fish, maybe 60cm long, had jumped from out of its tub, away from about ten companions who were crammed inside, and was wriggling around with decreasing strength on the road. We called in to the ajumma (아줌마 - middle-aged woman) inside the store to tell her, and she gave the fish an indifferent look before carrying on with what she was doing. As we walked away I couldn't help but think that all things considered, perhaps it was better to die that way than decapitated in a bin full of fish parts.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Walk in the Park

After my Korean massage torture, I ventured out for the first time since Wednesday with Korean Mother today who suggested we go to Yongdusan Park in the Nampodong area of Busan. In Korean 'yongdu' means dragon's head and 'san' means mountain so it seems this is Dragon's Head Mountain Park. Apparently the mountain looks like a dragon's head from the sea - I guess I'll take their word for it. Anyway, despite the long road to the top of the park, which is lined with poetry carved into large stones, the actual park itself is very small, the main attractions apparently being a performance area, a large tower, some seats and a couple of forest paths which we didn't go down.

We quickly made our way to the collection of buildings which form the base for the park's tower to escape from the heat. Amongst the usual cafes and shops selling tourist trinkets, were an art gallery which perhaps wasn't too keen on photos being taken, and a small aquarium which while interesting was embarrassingly modest, and the fish looked rather bored - though they had a better life than some of their peers which we'd meet later. Also nearby was an artist who busied himself creating pictures by burning them into pieces of wood, a significant number of which showed some Christian leanings, although the piece we eventually bought for Korean Mother was of a more traditional kind. Many of the signs around the buildings were in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese, and there were certainly a good number of Westerners visible, as well as Japanese, judging from the conversations I overheard. When a Japanese group started talking to the artist I thought we might have to step in to try a three-way translation, but it seemed he spoke Japanese better than I did.

So we went up the Busan Tower, which stands 120m tall from ground level, though by this time that's not where we were starting from, with the rapidly ascending elevator counting off the rise in tens of meters. We stopped at one-hundred to be greeted by a restaurant and viewing area, although to reach the proper observation deck near the top of the tower we have to travel up one more floor via a very narrow staircase. The views were worth the journey and admission cost of 5,000 won, as Busan treated us with one of its rare relatively clear days. That said, it was still hazy from the heat, so we were unable to see the Japanese island that apparently is sometimes visible in the distance.

Back at the bottom, we worked our way towards the Samulnori (사물놀이) performance we'd spotted from the Tower, and this time we were able to see it properly. Buddhist Monks followed this up with a religious ritual called Yeongsanjae (영산재) - designed to lead spirits to heaven. Certainly their colourful clothing in the bright sunshine made for a very vibrant display. We stayed as long as we could but the combination of very strong sun and empty stomachs eventually drove us back down into the city in search of some food and shelter.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hell's Crossroads

A few days ago a notice appeared on the entrance to our apartment building, informing anyone who cared to read it that work was shortly commencing on the adjacent road outside. But they really undersold it. On Thursday a man in a mechanical digger armed with a large pneumatic drill worked his way up the edge of the road gradually breaking up the tarmac until around seven in the evening, and I resorted to putting earplugs in to avoid being driven insane. But the best was yet to come.

Fast forward to today, and having gone to bed at half-past two this morning (such is my work), I am awoken from my stupor at seven-thirty by the distinctive noise of the world coming to an end. Gradually realising that I was not Arthur Dent, and our heavily vibrating room was not in imminent danger of destruction by a large yellow bulldozer, I even managed a little more fitful rest before finally surrendering to the sounds of progress and getting up to enjoy the artificial earth tremors created by the apparent annihilation of the world outside more fully.

I suppose I should feel grateful that they didn't just work through the night, an encroachment on individual peace and quiet I wouldn't rule out in Korea. But where were these people when I needed them for my house projects back in England - a country in which you can only hire people to work from nine in the morning, and even then on the understanding that they won't actually start doing anything until ten? Another one to file in my mental list under 'Korean Work Ethic', '24-Hour City' and the increasingly popular 'General Insanity'.

But every cloud has a silver lining. They are working on the sewers, and aside from the fact that while walking around Busan you can experience some of the most wonderfully festering smells ever created by four million people living too close to each other wafting up from underground grates, there is a more specific back-story. A few months ago, not content with seeking us out in public, the Busan Sewer Smell started visiting us in our apartment courtesy of a drainage hole for our non-existent washing machine in the corner of the room. We taped it over with some short-term success, but later it evidently found other, more mysterious ways of entering, requiring the regular burning of scented candles and occasional trips to the far end of the apartment for the purpose of breathing. So perhaps this problem is finally going to be fixed - although I won't hold my breath. Or maybe I'll still have to.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bu tuo wa de ren

We got a phone call today, which followed a pattern we've experienced before. When the phone is answered, an automated voice explains that your credit card has gone over its limit - the randomly generated excuse this time (they do actually differ) explained we'd spent 1.5 million won in a Lotte department store in Seoul this morning - a neat trick when you've been in Busan all day. Please press '9' for more details. On pressing the keypad, you're connected to a real person who proceeds to ask how they can help you.

Which is where the fun begins, because when you explain that you've been called, the no-doubt carefully rehearsed Korean accent breaks down and you're left trying to decipher what sounds suspiciously like a heavily-accented Chinese voice which is presumably trying to persuade you in halting Korean to give them your credit card details. I'm told it's usually so bad it's not only laughable, it's actually just impossible to understand. Which is where this scam breaks down and it makes you wonder why they bother.

Except that I've heard that a few Koreans do fall for it - maybe some of the people in the call centre are more convincing than others, even if the whole thing seems to have the word 'con' written all over it. I suppose hardly anyone falls for the Nigerian 419 scams either, but all it takes is a handful to make it worthwhile. I guess it's an open question as to whether there's a Chinese-staffed operation running somewhere in South Korea or whether an enterprising criminal group in China is taking their recent WTO entry to heart.

In any case, it looks like that these are far from isolated incidents with Korea's financial regulator warning of the increase in these so called phishing frauds just this week. However, apparently the solution to this lies in making it harder for foreigners (particularly those of Chinese ethnicity) to obtain bank accounts in Korea, the supposed logic of which bears some thinking about.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I discovered after yesterday's trip to the orthopaedic hospital that I had a physiotherapy session scheduled for today as part of the 'package', so even though I felt a lot better I thought I ought to attend.

Twenty minutes of heat treatment to my neck and shoulder later, I was beginning to wonder whether it was such a good idea, considering the burn marks I felt sure would be on my back once I got up from the table (and there were). But worse was to come - as I once again felt the massaging pads I'd first experienced last year molecularly bond themselves to me - followed by rather more pain than I would personally choose to experience. As my shoulder and neck began to spasm uncontrollably the physiotherapist offered to turn up the setting, which I declined to some laughter on her part, and a sense that I had let the side down on mine. Sorry England - there's only so much I'm going to put up with in the name of public relations and diplomacy.

Because I'd had this before, I knew what I was likely to look like after the treatment - but it was further up than last time, and I didn't appreciate that with the weather being mild I wasn't going to be able to hide the after-effects under a winter coat. And this is what the damage from the top two pads looks like:

I still went to eat lunch with Korean Parents afterwards but now that I've seen myself in the mirror I think maybe I'll stay in for a couple of days.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pins and Needles

I've managed to have a re-occurence of my spinal-disc problem, and could hardly move my neck this morning, so I offered no resistance to the idea of going back to one of the local orthopaedic hospitals where I'd had some treatment late last year. I thought another round of physiotherapy might put me right, and after four x-rays and two sessions with the orthopaedic specialist which were completed within ten minutes of my stepping into the building, I was once again making the trip two floors up to Dr. Kim's Neuro-Pain Clinic - but not before a nurse had given me a painkilling shot in the ass this time, which made the climb up those stairs so much more interesting as I dragged a rapidly numbing leg behind me.

Much as Dr. Kim was itching to give me that highly-invasive neck injection I'd avoided last time, only confirming her belief that Westerners hate needles, I ruled that out leaving the options of acupuncture for twenty minutes or physiotherapy for forty. So I chose acupuncture, partly because I didn't have the time, but mostly just to prove that people from my country don't have an irrational fear of sharp objects wielded by medical professionals, even if we quite rightly do.

Two minutes later I'm face down and shirtless on a table with a mere four needles embedded in my neck, which by coincidence was the same number of nurses I believe had gathered in the background for the entertainment. The stabbings failed to illicit any response from me, I imagine to the disappointment of Dr. Kim's beliefs, but I hardly felt a thing, even when they upped the ante by adding some kind of magnetic pulse machine to work on my shoulders. The TV in the waiting room was stuck on the Christian channel and while I was worked on Christian songs echoed round room from an unseen speaker, greatly enhancing the feeling of having stumbled into a scene from the Spanish Inquisition.

There are pills to take as always seems to be the case here, the whole hospital visit only cost 23,500 won (about £12.63) and took forty-five minutes, for the typically efficient Korean health service, and I still marvel at it when compared against Britain's NHS, whose treatment strategy is premised on you getting better of your own accord while you wait for an appointment, or alternatively dying, both of which solve the problem from their point of view.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that the downside of the Korean system is over-treatment. I've irradiated myself a little further today, had a pain injection, a bit of acupuncture, and started a course of drugs, and I dare say things will be back to normal in a couple of days, but I can't help thinking I could have achieved the same effect by not going through any of it and just taking it easy until the end of the week - which is no doubt what my cost-conscious doctor back home would have dismissively advised - which is why you don't bother going in the first place. The Korean health service is good, but I'm begining to wonder whether it's maybe a little too over-enthusiastic.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Korean Father developed diabetes a few years ago, and has to be careful with his diet. It seems that in Korea, if not more widely in Asia, there is something which is believed to greatly help in the fight against this condition. Silkworm - or '누에' (nue) in Korean.

Now while this might sound like the basis of one of those Chinese medicines based on long-standing belief rather than science, there has at least been some serious research undertaken into the subject. So, sections of the Korean diabetic community are munching away on dried silkworm taken with a kind of yoghurt, or just washed down with milk. But there is another, perhaps easier, solution - silkworm bread, which as you might expect, is bread baked with powdered silkworm as an ingredient.

Of course, it's not the sort of thing you can pick up at your local mini-mart or Tesco (although powdered silkworm apparently is fairly easy to come by), but this being Korea there are Silkworm Internet bakeries ready to fulfil your order. So we've 'subscribed' - at a price of 80,000 won (about £43) for silkworm bread deliveries to be sent to Korean Father, who is still down in Namhae, once a week for five weeks, after which we can renew the subscription. Each pack has six boxes with six silkworm bread rolls - which strikes me as being a lot of bread to consume by any measure, even if it is for medicinal purposes, and I can see he might have to be joining us at the gym when he returns.
While he's eaten silkworm powder before, this will be the first time he's had the bread so we'll have to see whether he thinks it's effective - his blood-sugar testing kit should reveal all.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Strong Language

It turns out that one of my uncles-in-law works in an engineering company where amongst other roles he teaches immigrant workers to speak Korean. I asked how quickly they learned and was rather disappointed to discover that they apparently reach a basic but workable level of fluency within two months. Since they are mainly Thai and Vietnamese he told me not to be put off because he thought their languages - or grammatical structure at least - had much more in common with Korean than English does. But I couldn't help feel discouraged because I became comfortable with Japanese sentence structure a few years ago, and Korean is similar, so it just made me feel I should be doing better.

In fact, when I add together the sixty or more hours I work each week with the amount of time I spend rushing around Busan for various reasons it's a wonder I have any free time to study at all, and I remind myself on an increasingly regular basis that I didn't come here to learn Korean. Even so, I thought that being immersed in a Korean family and lifestyle would give me an easy path to fluency, and it really hasn't. I think the problem was that I had no previous knowledge of the language at all before coming here, and for a long time that made every conversation that went on around me little more than noise, so I've spent the months lost in my own thoughts on the whole, thinking about trading and dreaming of pizza. I'm sure someone with more motivation or a greater head
start in the language would have done a lot better than me.

A couple of months ago I decided to start making the time to study formally and on twenty-six days so far I actually succeeded, usually for no more than thirty minutes admittedly, but it's a beginning. Since I find my learning requires constant reinforcement though, missing odd days here and there - and sometimes several at a time - has been a real setback. My plan was to build up my vocabulary using Declan's Flashcards program, starting with fifty words and adding another fifty every time I scored 80% or more. I alternate between Korean to English and English to Korean, going through both each day if possible. Of course, an increasing vocabulary means an increasing amount of time is required to run through every time the word pool expands, but it was never going to be easy. As of today I'm up to a vocabulary of 294 words, which when slotted into some standard sentences allow me to say important things such as 'what's for lunch?', 'where's the bathroom?' and 'you need a psychiatrist' (well, 'head doctor' had to suffice in that instance but I think I got the message across).

Predictably though, this has far from unlocked the world around me. Understanding around one word in thirty does allow for some inspired guesses to be made as to conversation topic, sometimes even correctly, but if anything it merely adds to the frustration. The fact that Busan has its own accent distinct from the more standard Korean (or Seoul pronunciation) I am generally learning presents another difficulty, though curiously the woman in the flashcards program sometimes sounds like she's speaking with a Busan accent, so my accent is all mixed up anyway. Still, rather than existing in my own world while people talk around me, I can at least now listen intently to their conversations and find the effort slightly more rewarding. I also have the satisfaction of knowing that the people around me are beginning to be more careful about what they say in front of me...

There is another odd downside I'm discovering. I'm reminded of The Hitchhiker's Guide's Arthur Dent who leant bird-language because it sounded so beautiful, only to discover that all birds talked about were air-currents, wingspans and other bird-related trivia. I'm already beginning to wonder from the snippets of conversation I am deciphering whether I'm going to be sorely disappointed, and perhaps even, like Arthur Dent, driven slowly mad by what I hear around me. After all, how many times can you hear people say 'I'm on the subway' when they answer their mobiles underground before it all starts to seem mundane? There really is no choice of course, but while I hope to continue studying Korean, it lies somewhere down in fifth or sixth place on the priority list of things I'm doing, so realistically I'm not going to make great strides forward, but I feel like I've made a serious start at last.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wild Seed

We all want to be lucky, but it's been my experience that good luck - or the desire for good fortune - is particularly ingrained in Asian Cultures, and Korea is no different. It's what lies underneath the surface of the rituals we go through here, and why the fear of the wider social network turning against us is so palpable.

So when a large plant which Korean Mother bought two years ago, and which only flowers once every ten years, suddenly came into bloom, it was the cause of much excitement in her immediate social circle; i
n Korean, the plant (a Dracaena subspecies) is called a 'luck tree' - '행운목' ('행' means luck). It seems that these luck trees are sometimes bought as gifts, especially on occasions when luck is felt to be important, such as starting a new business.

Korean Mother's Friends came round to visit, one imagines partly in the hope of some of that good fortune rubbing off on them, and it wasn't long before we had our official viewing as well. This being Korea, she has of course taken a multitude of photographs of said flower with her mobile phone, so I think she's genuinely quite excited by it, but perhaps in a nod to the ethereal nature of these things she hasn't rushed off and bought a supply of lottery tickets - although it seems this is not an uncommon response in some other people.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nowhere to Run

As part of my plan to get back into shape after six months of bombardment by Korea's food culture, we went over the road to the local gym again in order to sign up. Normally when you enter a place here and see dozens of shoes stacked up outside you expect to discover about the same number of people inside. In fact, the opposite was true here because customers leave their trainers in the hallway when they leave.

A sign on the wall ominously warns anyone who cares to read it not to steal shoes although it was somewhat vague on the consequences. It's an odd site to me given that in the UK anything that isn't nailed down is entirely likely to disappear in a very short space of time. Korea might be rising up the world economic tables while conversely suffering from some shocking poverty, but it has a long way to go before it catches up Britain in the theft league, so the warning seemed somewhat unnecessary.

As the shoes suggested, the gym was empty, and possibly with good reason - the owner told us it was closing down at the end of the month. So there went my plan of joining a place that I didn't have to walk too far to... He helpfully suggested a rival establishment at the other end of the road, but when we reached the location we thought he'd indicated, all we found was a 'Relax Sports Thai Massage' establishment, and I'm not sure that's the kind of exercise we had in mind.

Korean Mother has loaned us her 'fitness hoop' - a large hula hoop style device with rather hard raised domes on the inside, the purpose of which seems designed to cause bruises on the abdomen. Ideally designed for use in open spaces or at least a larger apartment than our 'one-room', we are nevertheless risking life, limb and quite possibly our television by using this to exercise until our search for a gym is successful.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Namja Shijang

We were walking up the road outside our apartment negotiating the endless sea of blue vans that is a local market day in our area, when we passed by what appeared to be a tense stand-off between a man and a female vendor. It wasn't clear what the problem was but when we returned home ten minutes later a police car was in attendance with its lights flashing. Heated explanations were exchanged while a policeman stood between the two parties.

It seems that in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988 the government, presumably wishing to present a clean and modern impression to its overseas guests, banned street vendors from using carts to sell their wares, although it apparently remains perfectly acceptable to park your blue van just about anywhere and sell from the back of that. Small wooden affairs with bicycle wheels are out though.

Like a lot of Korean street laws, it's unlikely that much heed is paid to the no cart rule, but the man seemed to object to the woman's cart for probably unrelated reasons. In any case, it looked like the woman was about to get arrested much to the man's satisfaction. My wife noticed that the woman was on her own and remarked that she didn't think the man would have made a fuss if her husband had been with her, which probably says a lot about Korean society.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

100 Proof

Someone's been counting the days since the wedding. It's my wife's best friend, who helped out on the day and been handed the bride's bouquet after it was all over. It wasn't because she was wondering how long it would last, instead she had a duty to perform one-hundred days after the ceremony took place - burning the bouquet to ensure our marriage would be a trouble-free one. Today, apparently, was the 100th day.

So other plans were dispensed with and two hours later, and inexplicably near a dozen soldiers with large guns milling about on the street above us, we were perched on an embankment opposite Eulsukdo Island trying to light the now long-withered flowers armed only with a cheap lighter against a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea. We only succeeded in burning the lighter, which stopped working after a sufficient amount of its plastic melted.

We drove across the bridge to Eulsukdo and its park with accompanying vendors where, one new lighter later, we finally created our fire. We also succeeded in attracting the attention of an elderly local man who sidled up to us to ask what we were doing, followed shortly by his wife to whom he repeated our explanation. "We never burned anything and we've had a happy life" she told us. It seems this 'tradition' is a relatively modern creation by the younger generation, and the man thought it was a pointless superstition - but he stayed until the fire burnt out.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Southern Hospitality

Maybe it just used to be much wetter back home, but in six months it feels like it's only rained about ten times here, and today was only the second wet day from start to finish I recall (KBS News actually showed scenes of heavy snow near Ulsan - not that far away from us). Of course, when it rains here it really means it, so the streets were awash and sheets of water flew through the air in waves doing battle with Koreans trying to shield themselves under their umbrellas.

Korean Mother had a check-up scheduled at the large Dong-A University Hospital so we huddled in the relative safety of a taxi which proceeded to aquaplane and shudder alarmingly from side to side every time it started moving. This did not encourage our driver to opt for a different strategy to the two-speed 'stop-go' system which I've noted taxis here employ with their binary use of the brake and accelerator. After skidding up the hill to the hospital I baled out of the vehicle full sure I was going to confirm my belief that the tires were completely bald, but in fact they looked new. Perhaps it's a design feature.

Any hospital which greets you with the words "We hope you will get well soon" above the entrance can't be all bad and the interior is more reminiscent of an airport waiting lounge than a place where you're supposed to be sick. The impression is only enforced by the existence of a coffee bar, fish tanks and a pianist at a grand-piano whose music echoed around an atrium near the main waiting area.

So amongst its more conventional fare the Rosebud coffee bar serves Sweet Potato Latte, a refreshment breakthrough which hasn't quite made it to the frothy milk section of the Starbucks menu thus far, but which perhaps should as it transpired to be surprisingly nice. Still, like many things in Korea, it requires something of an intellectual leap over the chasm of obviously stupid ideas in order to arrive at a consensus with the locals. Somewhere closer to the precipice though, is getting your patients (or staff?) to design posters extolling the importance of keeping clean hands if they have issues with people poking them in their bloody wounds. Radically, unlike Britain, they actually bother to clean the hospital buildings here as well.

As we left, one of the nearby mountains continued doing its job of parting the steady stream of clouds which raced by it. Even on the murkiest of days, the scenery here can still provide some spectacular sights.

It began to occur to me recently that after I've left Korea pictures and words don't quite convey the sense of being here as much as video, so somewhere possibly in the crevasse of fairly pointless ideas and as much as my camera, its storage space, and my shaking hands allow, I've started taking more videos.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mad Max

Generally, I've tried to avoid posting about other blogs and user generated content on the Internet because I fear that it just helps towards the creation of the written equivalent of a Dyson Sphere where all blogs become comments on other blogs. Still, every now and again something comes along that is so brilliant it demands a mention even at the risk it's already been seen, so here is the video guide to staying safe as a pedestrian in Korea. While it may seem like a rather amusing aside, having lived in Korea for six months I see it as a rather biting satire since it has an alarming element of truth running through it. I say this influenced by a car missing my foot by inches on one of those wide Korean crossings the other day when the pedestrian light was green because the driver, having come out of a side road almost adjacent to the crossing, evidently felt that since he was already beyond the actual red traffic light, it didn't apply to him and he could therefore drive through the crossing area - and the people on it - at a 45 degree angle until he got to his preferred lane and sped off into the distance. Just because he was driving relatively slowly doesn't make it much less disconcerting when a car suddenly appears from behind you on a crossing.

Motorcycles of course, are even worse, and have free run of the road, the pavement (sidewalk), crossings and generally anywhere there's an open space. I'm waiting for the day one drives through my apartment building because of some perceived short-cut or convenience. And there's a good chance that said motorbike will have a large take-away box protruding from both sides, or potentially more alarmingly, an LPG canister strapped precariously to the back, because for reasons that still elude me, accident-prone motorcycles are seen as the preferred method of delivering potentially volatile LPG canisters to customers in Busan. And if it's not gas cylinders being carried on the back of a bike, often the challenge is to see just how much you can balance behind you on a small motorbike without defying the laws of gravity.

You might think that the fact that ninety-percent of bike riders here don't wear helmets of any kind would make them more cautious and therefore the whole affair safer, but based on my increasingly extensive observations I have to say otherwise. Pictures I wish I'd taken - a guy on a scooter the other day doing about 40mph (sans helmet of course) weaving in and out of slower traffic, all while using one hand to chat on his mobile phone - and the four people on one scooter seen heading towards the local university one afternoon which I'd have believed it impossible if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

Conversely, or perhaps because Korean drivers take red lights as merely an advisory rather than a hard rule, I've seen - and yes stood with - pedestrians at small crossings (occasionally people break ranks) where there have been no cars but because the light was read everyone waited patiently, perhaps for two minutes. Because, you never know where the next Korean killer car or motorcycle is going to appear from.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Further Gesture

An occasionally important gesture back in the UK is the eye roll; it's useful to be able to catch a private moment with another person and express some disbelief and something a third person present is doing or telling you, of course, not letting that third person see you. It's taken this long but I've just discovered they don't have this gesture in Korea. Now I can roll my eyes at some of the things that happen here with impunity.

A gesture the Koreans do have, and frequently use, but we don't, is holding up a hand with the index finger on the thumb to form a circle. It means OK here, or it is used to symbolise money. If Wikipedia is to be believed it also means OK in the US and most of Europe, but not Germany or Brazil where it refers to a posterior part of human anatomy thus inferring that the person the gesture is aimed at, is one. Either the UK is with Germany on this one, or it's just the company I used to keep, but every time I get one of those circle gestures pointed at me here I have to remember not to react with a shocked look.

Another cultural oddity is that in the UK raising the first and second fingers in a V-shape, with the hand facing towards the body, is an insult similar to the more universally known one-finger salute, but in Korea I often get the this when I'm being asked if I want two of something. In a more conventional orientation, the V-sign can also mean 'peace' and in a somewhat bizarre gesture of friendship or drunkenness I've also had a couple of Koreans come up to me with their fingers thus and yell "peesu!". It's clearly a sign of great courage to shout peesu to a Westerner with your friends watching, but it's really not that brave because I don't bite. Often.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Payoff

When people came to the funeral in Namhae they left gifts of money (or sent them in absentia) for the bereaved family as is tradition. However, tradition also demands that it can't be just left at that, so in a reciprocal symbol of gratitude it is normal for the family to return a much smaller gift of money in return. This has become complicated in recent times, as it seems that because these reciprocal gifts are a pleasantry rather than a social necessity, they can run the risk of being seen as bribery where the receiver is a member of government, the civil service or the police.

Now that the immediate tasks post-funeral in Namhae are out of the way, Korean Father has returned to Busan for a couple of days, and one of his tasks while here is to write to the people who either came to the funeral or sent money instead thanking them. But, although he
has retired from the police service, many of his former colleagues are still working, so rather than send small gifts of money with the thank you letters, he is including a lottery ticket instead. It seems that some years ago someone came up with the idea of substituting small financial gifts with these, the idea has stuck, and now it's a quite common thing to do.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Super Size Me

"Would you like a donut?"
"No thank you. I'm not hungry."

"Gotta be hungry to eat a donut? I never heard of such a thing." - Other People's Money

When my time in Korea is over, there'll be a few stand out things which will remind me of my stay here. One will be the smell of Busan, and another will be the food. Food is pervasive in Korea, it's part of the lifestyle, it's recreational, it's in the blood. And after six months, it's probably in my blood too, because frankly my stomach's always full so it must be going somewhere. In retrospect, I can see my problems began on my very first day, when having arrived in Korea, we sat down with the family for the first time and ate pizza, at the end of which Korean Mother insisted of stuffing grapes into my mouth, even though they had nowhere to go. And this has been the implication ever since - that I should eat more. Korean Mother looks so sad when she thinks I'm not eating enough. So despite all the dashing around rapidly expanding Busan, my stomach decided to emulate the city and undergo some expansion of its own. I keep telling the Koreans to stop feeding me but they won't.

Korea is one of the thinnest nations on Earth according to the OECD, but it doesn't stop Korean Mother and Wife stressing themselves about their weight. So yesterday there was a visit to a gym-type facility where there were various fat-busting machines for customer use, most of which seemed to involve trying to shake it loose. I call it a 'gym-type facility' because it seemed that there was no actual exercise involved, which I suppose is perfect if you're the type of person that wants to get into shape but doesn't want to expend too much effort in the attempt. And after the hard work of being worked on, some of the customers took a well-earned lie down and ate cookies...

It wouldn't be Busan if there wasn't a gym, two churches, three
hair salons, four mini-marts and five take-aways all within a 50-meter radius, so in an attempt to actually make an effort to lose weight rather than just relying on technology, we found our local gym today which turned out to be on the second floor of the building across the road from our apartment block - a fat-busting 30 meter walk. So we went to enquire around lunchtime but despite being open it was somewhat bizarrely devoid of both customers and staff. We'll have to try another time.

Not to be put off, we walked up to the main road and having checked the Adidas, Asics, Ellesse, and Fila stores - how Koreans live their brands - I bought some new trainers from Reebok (after which I also found the Nike store - too late). So now I feel that I've made a commitment to make a spectacle of myself at some future point in a Korean gym...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Navy Blues

On Sunday a friend invited to The 45th Jinhae Cherry-Blossom Festival, Jinhae being a city about 40 miles away from Busan. Beyond that I had few preconceived ideas as to what to expect, but I didn't think I'd be spending most of the day at the ROK (Republic of Korea) Naval Academy, who were having their annual open day as well.

The more modern ships were off-limits but the ROK Navy have a full-size replica of a turtle ship, which the public could board and look around. The numbers were tightly controlled for obvious reasons, but we only had to queue for around five minutes.

The insides were functional if a little cramped, and one felt the pressure to move around quickly, but despite this my wife persuaded a Korean naval cadet who was hanging on to a small rudder (there seemed to be a bigger one elsewhere) to let me pose with it, even if I think I would have preferred to mind my own business. There may have been more to see at the base beyond some miscellaneous military hardware and an aircraft sat outside one of the buildings, but instead we hurried off towards the centre of Jinhae to see another event which transpired to be the Jinhae International Military Band Festival 2007.

This is where things began to go downhill. We arrived about ten minutes before the event was due to begin - too late to sit in the stands, so we were directed to join a four-row deep group of people squatted on the floor by the edge of the central square. Koreans are not tall but neither am I so the view was often obscured by heads, particularly when the inevitable escalatory kneeling up began. The first event was a
Samulnori (사물놀이) performance. This is a style of korean drumming and dancing which has its roots in Korean agricultural tradition - people would perform samulnori to ensure and to celebrate good harvests.

I managed to take some video, but I missed the best part when some of the performers cartwheeled around and danced in a way that reminded me of whirling dervishes.

We decided to move to another area a little further back where people were stood, on the principle that at least we would be able to see then. It would have been a great idea if the organisers hadn't continued to let people in, resulting in an ever larger and increasingly agitated sea of humanity all desperate to see something and presumably failing. Meanwhile, people moved through the crowd to get from place to place, and I discovered Korean Crowd Etiquette - which involves using your elbows to viciously shove people out of the way as if you'd just spotted the last piece of kimchi on Earth, without so much as a sorry. I'm not joking when I say that this is apparently the done thing and nobody apart from me seems to get angry about it. Still, anyone who cared to listen would have got free advanced colloquial English lessons - my Meniere's Disease is bad enough some days without getting heavily jostled around in a crowd. Anyway, we were being pushed around, we couldn't see, it started to rain, and a brass band started playing, which were all good reasons to give up and head for the famed cherry-blossom road on a nearby mountain called Anmingogae (안민고개).

Except we couldn't find it. We'd come with a friend and her car's GPS didn't recognise the location, which left us flailing around the central roads of Jinhae until she finally and dramatically beached the car off the road in order to look at the overly simplistic Jinhae tourist map. I'd like to say that I think she realised she'd just arrived at a rather unconventional parking position outside a small police cabin (the police car parked outside might have been a give-away) but I think it came as a surprise to her when she noticed it. Unperterbed, she went inside, asked directions, and we ended up getting a police escort up to where the mountain road began. Thank you Jinhae Police.

While there was a fair amount of cherry-blossom on the road up the mountain, I felt like I'd seen so much of it around Jinhae, Namhae and Busan already that it was losing its aesthetic impact. In any case, my camera's battery died and the spare refused to work properly for some unknown reason so all I got was one shot of the mountain from a distance and a shot of Jinhae the top of it. Overall, the festival was interesting but like many things in life I guess it needs a bit more planning to get the most out of it.