Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Typhoon Usagi

Typhoon Man-yi brushed by Busan earlier this month, but by all accounts we saw the worst of the weather before we left for Seoul. Typhoon Usagi on the other hand, is currently forecast to hit Busan almost directly on Friday morning. We're supposed to have an appointment Friday lunchtime but we're moving it up to Thursday just in case, although forecasts being what they are, a lot could happen between now and the end of the week.

Korean keywords: 날씨, 태풍

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Watching Eyes

This is a small oddity from our recent trip to Seoul uncovered while doing our accounts. The receipt of the restaurant we went to the night before our ill-fated trip to the British Embassy has the following information:

내국인 (native persons - i.e. Koreans, 2)
외국인 (foreigners - 0)

I don't think I'm suddenly being mistaken for a Korean, even if it was dark in there, but I find there's something slightly unnerving about the idea that people are watching and keeping count of racial differences in this way. Perhaps it says a lot about Korea that anyone thought this could be done in the first place - back home it's sufficiently multicultural that it's impossible to tell on sight who was born in Britain and who wasn't.

Korean keywords: 외국인, 레스토랑, 계산서

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Of all my experiences in Korea, one of the more frustrating has proven to be the long-running saga of our Internet connection; despite this country projecting itself as something of a high-tech paradise the reality of life under LG Powercom has been one of routing problems and downright failures of varying durations. After our cable modem was replaced back in February, there was an improvement for a time, but lately we've been losing connectivity sporadically, and one of the websites which became permanently inaccessible was that of a stockbroker in the UK I happen to use, and that escalated it from an irritation into a major problem.

So having exhausted my own investigations into the issue, my wife phoned Korea Telecom (KT) yesterday morning to have their allegedly 8Mb MegaPass ADSL service installed. Meanwhile, LG offered to come around to troubleshoot their existing 10Mb connection. Early afternoon, both engineers phoned us to confirm the directions to our apartment and we faced up to the slightly awkward reality that they would arrive within minutes of one another. Sure enough the KT guy had barely sat down to start fiddling with our phone socket before the LG representative appeared. I think had it been in the UK the two engineers would have talked, but aside from one of them asking the other to move his computer at one point there wasn't even eye contact - maybe there was some genuine sense of rivalry under the surface.

Our KT engineer had me up and running at 6.5Mb (unsurprising as we're not sat on top of the exchange) within twenty minutes, and he was gone, a mere four hours after our order - when customer service is good in Korea it can be truly excellent - I know someone back home who's having to wait for two weeks for a large provider to come out and fit her connection, and it's not uncommon. Even better, the unfortunate clash meant that our LG engineer got to see our troublesome website loading up unhindered on his competitor's system while we enjoyed a quiet moment of triumph - though I did feel terribly sorry for him at the same time.

What was really intriguing though is this. LG Powercom's main office in Seoul told us on the phone that they could access my stockbroker's website. But when the engineer failed even with his own computer he phoned his office in Busan to be told that they couldn't either. When we'd phoned KT in the morning to place an order for their service, an knowledgeable-sounding employee told us that he suspected that LG filters sites outside Korea and sometimes innocent sites get wrongly tagged as being against the Korean rules in some way, and are then caught up in the block-list. I thought something of this nature might be the case because I could 'traceroute' through to the site in question but all attempts at direct web access (i.e. without using a proxy server) failed. The fact that the LG network operations centre in Seoul probably sits above this filter but the one in Busan doesn't fits with what happened, but Seoul denied they were operating such a list. By the time our LG engineer left though, he wasn't so sure that what they were telling him was true.

So we now have two Internet connections, even if it's something we should have done months ago, the KT engineer has the story of how they put one over on their rivals LG, and the LG engineer has a small conspiracy to unravel.

Korean keywords: 아파트, 인터넷, 엔지니어

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Chicken Run

It didn't take long to discover just how serious the weather forecasters had been about yesterday. When we opened the door to our badly air-conditioned apartment in the morning a wave of heat hit us from the corridor outside, and while it was windy outside, I can only imagine it's the sort of wind you would feel if trapped in a tumble dryer. It was so hot that for the first time, my wife resorting to bringing along the suspiciously ajumma-like parasol which her mother had bought for us recently. Still, the important thing was that it did its job of protecting us from the burning rays, and this is obviously why so many people can be seen with them now that the 'real summer' is upon us.

The season was in fact the reason we were out, because it was one of three specified days during the summer when among other things Koreans eat one of two meat dishes designed to restore proteins otherwise sapped by the conditions. It may seem odd to designate specific meat-eating days but this has to be seen in the context of the sparsity of meat in the ordinary Korean's diet historically, when it was a luxury rather than a just another 3,000 won item at Lotteria.

This business of the 'three days' bears some explanation. Two of the three days mark the beginning and end of the hottest period - approximately thirty days - the second designated day is ten days after the first for reasons which don't seem entirely clear, and because it's all based on the lunar calendar these dates move around when compared to the Gregorian calendar. Allegedly this means that twenty days from now we hit the end of the hottest period but I suspect this is going to prove entirely false.

So one of the dishes is that old Korean cliche, dog-meat - bosintang (보신탕) to be specific, and the other is samgyetang (삼계탕), which consists of a much less controversial whole chicken. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we'd opted for samgyetang.

By the time we'd reached the restaurant though, it was too hot for me to face it and I had crab rice instead, and even Korean Mother, who we'd met for the special lunch, opted for something else. That left my wife to bravely uphold traditions and consume the dish, which she reported to be 'disappointing' this year. Normally, restaurants here stuff the chicken with especially sticky rice, but the Chinese restaurant we'd gone to appeared to use normal rice and it just wasn't the same. Next time, we'll probably stick to Korean restaurants when we want to observe Korean traditions...

Korean keywords: 날씨, 삼계탕, 음식,

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

After the Rain

According to the weather forecast last night the monsoon season has now officially ended. And did I notice? Hardly. There have been a few wet days, and some periods of heavy rain, but otherwise it's been the usual story of heat and oppressive humidity, irrespective of whether ominous grey clouds hung overhead or blue sky with bright sunshine seeking to burn those of us who are melanin-challenged. I'm told that this year's monsoon season here has been unusually dry. Ironically, it's been wetter back home where flooding has been causing an increasing amount of chaos.

At the risk of annoying everyone I know back in the UK, I will miss the rain here, because the little we saw at least provided a refreshing respite and now that it's gone we have to face the 'even hotter weather' which has long been threatened. Sure enough, today was certainly unpleasant.

But whereas our near street-level apartment is often uncomfortably stuffy at night, it has transpired that Korean Mother's place many floors above ground is pleasantly breezy after dark - a fact no doubt helped by the presence of windows at both sides unlike our 'one-room' box. It's something for me to bear in mind should I ever find myself hunting for apartments here.

Korean keywords: 날씨, , 아파트

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Fan

After my introduction to baseball in Korea I've been watching it regularly on TV, although I'm still learning the intricacies of the game so I'm not sure I can be defined as a fan yet. Still, on the way back home from an afternoon out on Saturday, we stopped to watch outside an LG clothes store as Lotte Giants were tied 3-3 in the 9th innings against SK Wyverns. Normally these monitors just show adverts, but some of the staff had gathered outside to watch - to be honest it wasn't as though they were doing a lot of business selling casual wear at seven in the evening. I'm told that Lotte's record against SK is woeful and that a victory for Lotte would be a rare event, so there was a real sense of tension out there on the street as a progressively larger crowd gathered.

Lotte and SK had actually played the night before, and would play again on Sunday evening in addition to Saturday. I can't quite get my head around why they would play three games against each other one day after another, but apparently doing things this way cuts down on travelling, which is logical though no less stranger for it. In the UK football teams regularly criss-cross the country on their way to and from matches, and they tend to head home immediately afterwards as a rule. Friday's game had been the more usual one-sided affair, and ESPN tried to hold the TV audience's attention with coverage of a woman dressed in a boob tube, jumping up and down in a sparsely occupied stand, presumably with the intention of encouraging the local team. Apparently oblivious to the sudden celebrity her gravity-defying antics were creating, this being Korea one of her friends eventually called to let her know she was now officially more interesting than the game going on below her. She stopped and Lotte lost.

Saturday's game didn't appear to be any better attended from the TV pictures, but this proved deceptive. A friend of ours had actually gone to the game and later informed us that not only was there a good turnout, but that fighting broke out between SK and Lotte fans and bottles had been hurled between the two groups - which may explain the sparsity of crowd shots in the coverage - sex yes, violence no (although bull-fighting may be OK). Apparently the fighting may have started when the Lotte fans started chanting to their rivals that they should 'go back to making ladies underwear' - before SK was yet another large Korean conglomerate, it made its money from oil, and before that, the aforementioned female undergarments. Corporate-back baseball rivalries bring up such interesting situations - does any die-hard SK fan ever shop at Lotte Mart or buy Samsung products?

When I'd watched Lotte play the Samsung Lions, everyone seemed good natured despite the considerable quantities of alcohol being consumed, and I had assumed this was normal here and that Korea didn't suffer from the kind of violence we get regularly at football matches in the UK. I don't know why I should think that the bad temper that is regularly on display in the streets these days (there was another altercation between a cyclist and motorist yesterday next to our apartment which required a police presence) should not extend to baseball stadiums - clearly it does. Another happy illusion about my newly enforced home is shattered.

Lotte eventually beat SK on Saturday, but normal service was resumed the next day and the home team were once again, soundly thrashed.

Korean keywords: 야구, 싸움, 경기

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Korean Father had his birthday while away in Namhae, but as soon as he got back it was our obligation to take him and Korean Mother out for a nice meal at their favourite Chinese restaurant. Somehow, we ended up arriving there later than them and he'd already started drinking tea, but after my recent introduction to the world of manly Korean handshakes, I was not thrown off when he immediately thrust out his hand towards me, and more importantly, I remembered to place my left hand a little below my right elbow as we shook in the way a junior should to a senior. Points scored I think, if he noticed. I immediately went for a high score record by noticing his cup was empty and picking up the kettle to pour him more, as is the responsibility of the son-in-law in these circumstances. I'd been in the restaurant less than twenty seconds by this point so there was no way my performance was going to be maintained at this high standard, and as he began to talk to me and I struggled to comprehend and find the words to reply I felt an all-too-familiar slump settling in. About a minute later as the frustration grew too much later he made the all too familiar noise I call his 'grunt-sigh', and I took it as my cue to settle into my usual background position while the meal unfolded. It wasn't long before he was pouring his own drinks.

I don't recall the handshaking happening between us before, but in reality I haven't seen that much of Korean Father since we came to Busan. His parents' ill-health, followed by the death of his mother, has resulted in him spending time away fulfilling his own obligations as a son. Beyond that, we went through a period when he used to arrive unannounced at our apartment slightly worse for wear after evenings out with his friends, in experiences I can best describe as surreal, although I don't think this is a particularly unusual in Korea. When he doesn't want me to climb mountains with him, he's expressed a wish for us to go out drinking together as a father and son-in-law, but this is complicated by the almost complete lack of communication with each other, and the fact that I basically had to give up drinking alcohol after developing Meniere's Disease (most days of late it feels like I've had a few glasses of wine from the moment I've got out of bed so there's no point adding to it). We bought a couple of bottles of soju over Christmas - if you can call Korea in late December Christmas - but they're still unopened - and I had my first drink in about a year up in Seoul because I got really depressed out the Embassy and the extent to the homeless problem I saw. In any case, it's a long time since I went through my brief vodka phase at university and even without Meniere's to content with Korean Father could drink me under a table in a matter of minutes. He's Korean and has therefore had a great deal of practice. Incidentally, when he saw our still unopened bottles of soju he quickly found the alcohol content and snorted in the international drinkers' gesture translated as 'what is this... water?!'

As it happens, he really took a liking to the alcohol he was served with in the restaurant, but sadly because it was Chinese he couldn't figure out the name. When he asked one of the waitresses if she could read it he was in for a bit of culture shock of his own, not only are all the waitresses Chinese but their Korean is often limited to food related conversations. After a couple of minutes of trying to understand various text on the bottle, he gave up. At least for once I wasn't the source of his cultural frustrations.

After the meal he rediscovered my presence as we walked home and insisted on holding my hand as he led me down the street. This is not uncommon in Korea but this never, ever, happens back home. The fact that I let him this time though may indicate some progress on my part because the first time it happened shortly after I'd arrived I snatched my hand away in much the same way one does from a crocodile and shot him my best horrified 'what the frak do you think you're doing?!' look. No-one had warned me. Apart from anything else it doesn't stop me feeling about five years old though - another part of Korean culture I don't think I'll ever get used to.

With his daughter married to a foreigner, Korean Father is missing out on the bonding activities that he'd been expecting to do with any future son-in-law, and this clearly saddens him. But it goes further, because another aspect of a normal Korean marriage they are missing out on is the connection that would develop between them and the family to which their offspring would marry into, as they find common activities to share in. In a country where the family is regarded with the highest importance, much is lost when these links can not be fostered.

Korean keywords: 가족, 아버지, , 악수하다,

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Severed Dreams

"I have also taken account of the provisions of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. I consider that refusing this application is justified and proportionate in the exercise of the immigration control. I note that refusing this application will not interfere with family life, for the purposes of Article 8 (1), which you can enjoy in Korea".

British Embassy, Seoul

And just like that my wife was refused entry to the UK and the British Government effectively exiled me to Korea for the rest of my life. No, you don't know the full story - there's just too much of this farce to tell here - but when I tell you that one of the reasons for refusal was that the officer making the decision concluded that we didn't intend to settle in the UK (what?!), then you may gain an insight into the utter absurdity with which my entire life has been turned on its head. Not that I played any part in it because I was not part of the process. I thought as a British citizen I had the right to reside in my own country with my wife and come and go as I pleased. Well I don't.

Earlier in the day we'd dropped by Korean Mother's apartment and discovered that she was with Psychic Aunt, preparing food for offerings in an afternoon prayer session which they'd hired a special room for at a temple. They were praying that we would receive a favourable judgement from the Embassy, which was pretty selfless of them since all other things being equal they would much prefer that my wife stays in Korea. Of course, they want her to be happy, and they want me to be happy, and they know it can't be very pleasant getting told by your own government that you have to live in a different country. The fact is I've been pretty down since returning from Seoul because when I heard how the interview was conducted I had a strong sense of where this was going,
no matter how hard it was to believe. So for once, Psychic Aunt's attempts to cheer me up with her bizarre and simply indescribable dancing met with nothing more than a forced smile from me.

We got the letter by courier late afternoon - can you believe that after the non-refundable 950,000 won (about £506 - yes over five hundred pounds - say it slowly and let it sink in) application fee (
for a form and my wife's twenty minute interview) they actually made the 3,000 won courier charge payable cash on delivery by us. (edit: the next day, they sent the passports which turned out to be missing from the first envelope, pay-on-delivery, costing us another 3,000 won). Then we had to phone Korean Mother and tell her to stop praying because it hadn't worked.

So with the monsoon rains fitting my mood this evening, I'll sit here reading stories of foreigners attacking Koreans, and Koreans attacking foreigners, contemplating the wider world's growing propensity towards nationalism and wondering what my future - a future stuck in Korea - holds. It's not that Korea is a terrible place - I've had fun here - but I want to be able to go home. I'm still not sure the enormity of this situation has sunk in.

Korean keywords: 정부, 대사관, 망명자, 불교, 영국

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Race Through Dark Places

Saturday - Deoksugung, Seoul Plaza, Cheonggyecheon, Namdaemun

We left Busan early Saturday morning with the wind and rain from the periphery of Typhoon Man-yi battering us, and travelled up to Seoul in almost deathly silence at speeds approaching 300kph on Korea's equivalent of the bullet train, the KTX. The weather improved and then it was bright sunshine all the way to our destination. From Seoul Station we took one stop on the underground to the City Hall (Jung-gu) area where the British Embassy is located. Once we'd found it, we looked for a motel - our searches beforehand on the Internet had not yielded any results. But while there were motels to be found beyond the plush hotels of the main road running by City Hall itself, their shabby appearance and locations - down narrow back streets amidst massage parlours - eventually saw us checking in to the New Kukje Hotel next to the tall 'Seoul Finance Center' (SFC) building at 120,000 won a night. We'd been trudging around for well over an hour in the heat and the moral of the story is to plan things out beforehand. People we stopped to ask directions were nervous, cold or just downright unhelpful, and I missed what I perceived as Busan's friendliness.

The SFC makes a virtue out of the two floors of underground restaurants beneath it, but with prices (by Korean standards) to match the yuppie aspirations of those who worked above it we found a KFC across the road instead; by this time our desire to eat was entirely functional and the expensive meals could wait until they'd be more appreciated. I think I've become used to paying Busan prices. After lunch, we visited Deoksu Palace (Deoksugung) (entry cost: 1,000 won - not everything here is expensive) next to the British Embassy before crossing the road to Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall where an event was taking place, people enjoyed the weather on the grass and children sought relief from the heat in the fountains.

A short walk down the road took us to the famous Cheonggye Stream (Cheonggyecheon). While the project has been controversial, it is also clearly popular judging by the considerable crowds it was attracting. We walked some distance down it as the daylight faded, before turning around and walking back in the dark. Along the way were a mix of old and new bridges, one with an art exhibition underneath, a jazz band on a bridge, fountains, waterfalls and artwork. Many of the locals whiled away their evening sitting on the banks with their feet in the water, and underneath the Citigroup building we joined them, finally finding some relief for ourselves as well.

From the stream we sought out the equally famous 'South Gate' Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun). While using the nearby subway we also discovered something that isn't on the tourist maps - a cardboard city of homeless people bedding down for the night - shocking in itself and perhaps all the more so for its proximity to City Hall and the many embassies located in the area. I snatched a quick photo, but we were not of course welcome and needed to leave quickly.

We'd planned to have a nice meal under the Finance Center Mall, but the sight of the homeless made me lose my appetite for such indulgences. Inexplicably, all the small restaurants and diners along the road back seemed to close at ten or eleven so with midnight approaching we retired to our hotel with no more than a bag of crisps and a can of beer.

Sunday - Insa-dong, Tapgol Park, Unhyeongung,
Cheonggyecheon, Seoul Finance Center

After breakfast in at a reasonably-priced Singaporean toast place in the Seoul Finance Center, we headed towards a traditional Korean craft area in Insa-dong, first stopping by Tapgol Park (free entry) which is famous for being the origin of the 1919 'March 1st Movement' calling for Korean independence from Japanese occupation. Various monuments in the park tell of the struggle against the Japanese. The Park seems to act as a focal point for those old enough to remember the occupation, and they gather here to talk or simply to sit. The Park also contains National Treasure No.2 and Tangible Cultural Property No. 73.

Later we went to the Japanese Cultural Center next to another palace, Unhyeongung, to get their side of the story but it was closed. I didn't care for the
architecture at Unhyeongung but the insides of some of the buildings were set out to show what life was like for the privileged in its day. A photography club armed with digital SLRs and a model made it a little difficult to negotiate.

At what point is a place no longer real but instead it becomes a theme-park version of itself? The Korean craft area at Insa-dong crossed that line for me. Predictably full of tourists (ourselves included), and enough Korean trinkets to satisfy all your friends and family back home - or if you're feeling more extravagant, there's an old map hanging on the stairway of one establishment for a mere 18,000,000 won (about £9,700). We bought ice-cream from a Turkish ice-cream vendor - a task not quite as straightforward as it might seem in Korea. Yes, our experience was pretty similar.

Somewhere back near the Seoul Finance Center we encountered a protest against political interference by the Korean equivalent of the National Security Agency in the political process. It seemed from the elderly demographic of the protesters they were right-wingers, though we could be wrong... If the Korean security agencies are trying to get left-wingers elected they must be just about the one in the Western world. Then again, whether you class someone as left or right-wing very much depends on where you're coming from yourself - which in this context is a sobering thought. A photographer - who may or may not have been with them - took photographs of the seated protesters who, in the quest to take good shots myself, I found myself standing amongst. As he raised his camera very deliberately in my direction it was hard to imagine that he wasn't taking a shot at me, so I pointed my camera back at him in return. A little further along the road there was a heavy police presence with patrols and multiple buses. At first it wasn't immediately clear why, but we'd stumbled upon the US Embassy. By contrast the British Embassy had one police car sat at the end of the road.

We'd debated whether to take a ferry along the Han River, but it was getting late and it started to rain, so for a second evening we sat with our feet in
Cheonggye Stream, but under a bridge this time.

As I'd walked around today, I'd noticed more and more apparently homeless people - in the subways and the parks, slumped up against buildings and asleep on benches in the open spaces. If Seoul had any glitz or glamour, the sight of the bedraggled and psychologically defeated underclass gave it a sinister edge, and although we had our 'expensive', and as it turned out, very nice meal in the end in the Finance Center, it was at one of the cheapest places with a bill totalling 26,400 won. What life is like here is beyond my control but it doesn't lessen the sense of frustration.

I took a lot of photographs over the weekend and a number of videos, and spent time looking out for an electrical store where I could buy another SD card, to no avail - in Seoul. There seemed to be a Dunkin' Donuts on every block though.

Monday - The British Embassy

I dare say whatever its problems Seoul is a vibrant and colourful place, and I fear I may have been remiss in my descriptions of its people and places. There was much more to say but if what I have written seems soulless, it is because I had what soul I had left ripped from me by the unseen officials lurking in the Embassy building, and everything else that happened this weekend seems like a black and white film in comparison. There is a problem with my wife's visa application and it is not at all clear that there will be a satisfactory resolution to this story, so today I am facing up to the reality of being made a de facto exile by my own government if I am to live with my wife.

Koreans on the Net have quite a lot to say about their experiences with the British Embassy so perhaps it shouldn't come as a complete surprise, but when it becomes personal and you realise just how high the stakes can be it really hits home.

Perhaps this will all blow over, perhaps it won't. In the meantime, there is considerable emotional distress and much time, like yesterday evening, spent reading Acts of Parliament, the European Convention on Human Rights and legal precedents, because it was not my plan to never be able to return to live in my own country.

Korean keywords: 기차, 여행, , 공원, 호텔, 대사관

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Hour of the Wolf

Typhoon Man-yi slowed down in the last couple of days, so what became the expected brushing by of the south-eastern coast of Korea as it made its way up through Japan has yet to happen. Even so, it became so windy during the night that I woke up several times between 4am and 5am as the wind blew through our building rattling our apartment door, and the whistling noise outside was punctuated by regular crashes as some great piece of ad-hoc Korean exterior DIY met its end. But the rain, which was coming down heavily yesterday, had stopped by the time I awoke proper this morning - it was even sunny for the first time in a couple of days. But given the latest satellite photos I suppose things will get worse in the next few hours before they get better, although Man-yi has at least been downgraded to a Category 2 storm now.

Korean keywords: 바람, 소리, 소음, 날씨

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Dentist

Three weeks ago I developed a toothache that wouldn't go away. Finally there was nothing for it but to find a dentist, and preferably a good one; I take the view that one trip to a bad doctor might not cure you, but one trip to a bad dentist can cost you teeth and that's more permanent. So last week I went to one nearby fittingly entitled "Good Dentist". I hasten to add that I didn't just go because of the humour value of the name - not that I had much else to go on truth be told - but Korean Mother had been there once and he seemed 'OK'.

Herein lies the first revelation about Koreans and teeth. Recommendations can be a bit thin on the ground because it seems that many of them only actually bother to go to one when there's a problem. This came as a bit of a shock because back in the UK regular check-ups are a fact of life - it simply hadn't occurred to me that it could be any other way. It was also surprising given the way many Koreans consider an annual visit to the doctor for a medical to be good practice. In fact, I was little irritated that when I related the general lack of such comprehensive pre-emptive diagnostics back home, there was some sad shaking of heads that only the more enlightened can bestow on you, and yet when I related my surprise about the lack of pre-emptive dental care, there's a general shrugging of shoulders followed by a casual "we don't do that here". Just when you think you've got something in Korea figured out, they change the rules on you.

None of this is to say that dental care in the UK is any good, because it isn't. I have to make appointments two months in advance and if I have a problem - no matter how painful - I probably wouldn't be in the chair before three days at the earliest. So the Korean dentistry experience got off to a good start when I walked in the door and two minutes later was sat besides an X-ray machine pointed at the troublesome area. Admittedly, back home I'm used to holding things in place myself rather than having a strange Korean woman's fingers stuck in my mouth while the pictures are taken. And wasn't she going to wear gloves? No, apparently not.

Two minutes later I was in the dentist's chair, or one of his three chairs - it seems he multi-tasks, with an LCD panel on an arm in front of me with the legend Windows XP Professional flicking around the screen. My dentist doesn't have a computer screen built into his chair and I wondered if Korean dentists were going to be more high-tech - admittedly something which would not be difficult. Sure enough, the screen is brought to life and there's a nice cross section of my mouth looking at me. But this is where things start to go downhill, because whereas my British dentist has the diplomatic skills of a U.N. negotiator, my Korean dentist's first words to be are words to the effect of 'this looks bad and I think you'll lose the tooth'. He asked if I wanted to watch TV on the screen while he worked, and then before I could formulate a reply he stabbed me with a needle.

As the anaesthetic almost completely failed to take affect he scanned around the fillings already in my mouth - also without surgical gloves - and asked if British dentists were any good because it looked like the kind of work Korean dentists were doing 'twenty years ago'. Moments earlier, he would have had a receptive audience - I once had an abscess which wasn't successfully treated for well over a year and may been a factor in the development of my Meniere's Disease - so I'm rooting for this to be a more positive experience, but for all the implied superiority of the practice here, I was beginning to have serious doubts.
The doubts were only magnified when I pointed out that pre-numbing the target area pre-injection was commonplace in the UK and this was met with a surprised "we can't afford that here".

Sure enough, when he began drilling my mouth was barely numb and it wasn't long before it was too painful to continue. Cue second injection which tellingly, hurt almost as much as the first. It doesn't work well on some people and 'sometimes we have to inject up to eleven times' he explained. Had he laughed manically at this point it would not have seemed at all out of place. But the anaesthetic finally took hold - so much so in fact that in a new experience my eye went numb - and the work was done - or at least partially done - because a temporary filling was put in place for a week since it turned out things weren't as bad as the X-ray had suggested. So I was supposed to wait a week to see if the pain had gone before returning.

Total cost - 6,500 won - about £3.50 and a price that is unlikely to pay for more than a few minutes of a dentist's time back home, so you can't argue with that, especially when you can't use your tongue.

Still, on the way home I thought about phoning my dentist in the UK and making an appointment for October. I wrote an entry for this blog, but then in an attack of paranoia brought on by the reality of a second trip to the Good Dentist, decided not to publish it.

After a few days of thinking things over, today I went to a different, and more expensive, dentist - "Happy Smile" (if they can really give me one of these they're miracle workers, not dentists), and got a 3D mouth X-ray, a significantly different diagnosis (worryingly), and enough pre-numbing before the injection that I didn't have a banging headache afterwards. The waiting room was more plush, the software on the Windows XP Professional screen was fancier and they used a camera to take additional pictures of all my teeth - but we had to sit in the waiting room for twenty minutes and the nurses and the dentist still didn't wear gloves when they had their hands in my mouth so it wasn't all positive. There was no offer from the dentist of a Korean soap opera to keep me entertained while he worked; he used the screen and camera to work, not that I could really see anything because they stuck a special cloth over the rest of my face, thus robbing me of the ability to give him feedback in the form of variously strained and accusing looks, depending on how bad things got.

Aside from the actual injection and drilling, all the other work - including the scaling I had before I left - was done by the nurses, so I imagine they're probably qualified to some extent. Well, hopefully anyway.

Of all the things I've done in Korea, I'd have to say that having to go to the dentists has been just about the worst. I never had any fear of dental treatment back home but when this was placed in a foreign context with me not being able to understand what was being done I rapidly came to dread subsequent trips. This is not to say the standard of treatment here is worse than home - in many ways it's better - but some of the differences and difficulties leave a little to be desired, and of course, for all the high-tech gadgetry, it really comes down to the accuracy of the diagnosis and who you can trust.

Korean keywords: 치과의사, , 치통

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sanai aksu

I was at a friend's house when their father came home unexpectedly. We've met very briefly before in passing and said hello but this time there was more of a chance to meet properly - except for the fact that due to my limited Korean skills there really wasn't much chance of us conversing. Still, we exchanged hellos and shook hands. On the way out we said goodbye and with one foot already in my shoe another handshake was apparently necessary. It was all nice and social but I couldn't help noticing that he didn't shake my wife's hand on either occasion.

It transpires that in these kinds of social settings men readily shake hands with one-another, but not with women. So it's taken me all this time to realise there's a big male handshaking culture. I also was reminded, because I'd forgotten, that unlike in the West when shaking the hand of a senior you're suppose to place your opposite arm respectfully underneath the shaking arm, in a similar method to the one used when handing over money (although with this the other arm tends to be closer to the wrist). Another slight faux pas then.

There was something else too. It seems that while my wife was talked to in the way a senior talks to someone of their children's age, I was talked to in the more respectful form of an equal. In truth I'm not sure quite how to take this. On the one hand, I don't particularly care for the notion of being talked down to in some way, but on the other hand, if I'm not then I'm potentially in the realm of the ajeoshi, and I'm sure I don't care for that.

Korean keywords: 아저씨, 악수하다

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


As a stock-market trader I have to be constantly aware of the kind of macro-economic, geopolitical and geophysical events and risks which can affect global markets. Depending on where they occur, hurricanes and typhoons are one of the variables to be tracked due to their direct influence over oil prices where producing fields are threatened, not to mention the economic fallout from the devastation caused by landfall.

Two days ago tropical storm Man-yi formed in the Philippine sea and headed towards Taiwan and the Japanese Kyushu Islands gathering strength. Computer models now show the storm strengthening into a Category 4 typhoon by Thursday evening, meaning it will have sustained wind speeds of 131-155mph. On the face of it the furthest forecasts show it heading towards the Chinese coast. However, this is where the computer models take over, and beyond the immediate forecast they are predicting a turn north which have it heading directly towards Kyushu itself and possibly South Korea beyond. Perched on the south-east corner of the Korean Peninsula, it does look as though Busan may be in the emerging typhoon's path this weekend. These computer models are probably no more than 50% accurate though so it may yet not make that turn and hit China instead, or do something else the machines don't predict.

Under the circumstances it's a rather sobering thought to consider that our apartment is no more than 500 meters away from the sea in a rather low-lying area, and I can only imagine that a storm surge would be a problem for parts of the district. As the UK doesn't really get hurricanes, I've never sat through one, and while storms with gusts up to 100mph are not uncommon it's clearly not the same thing at all. Even if Man-yi decides not to pay a visit to Korea, I suppose it's only a matter of time before a typhoon catches up with me.

But if Man-yi does end up in our part of the world by the weekend, by an ironic twist of fate we probably won't be here. My wife has been summoned to the British Embassy in Seoul on Monday as part of her application for a spousal visa and we've already planned a weekend up there seeing some of the sights.

Korean keywords: 날씨, 태풍, 바람,

Monday, July 09, 2007

White Palace

One of the first things I noticed about Korea as our bus drove us into Seoul from Inchon Airport, was the high-rise apartment blocks with numbers like "205" painted on the side, implying that there might be another 204 similar if not identical buildings somewhere out of sight. For a moment it felt as though we'd landed in the Soviet Union.

Since then I've come to realise that apartment buildings here tend to have these kinds of numbers on them and while you can't necessarily relate them to anything else, it does make identifying them somewhat easier given the anonymity they would otherwise have; I've often wondered if there are only five basic designs of apartment block here (this is now changing but the old buildings tend to be fairly uniform). It's only in relatively recent times that Korea decided to implement a system of street names and building numbers (don't even ask how they delivered the post before this), and even now getting a taxi driver to drive you to a specific place - given the unfamiliarity with what names exist - can prove a difficult affair even if you're Korean. In addition to the thirty-foot high numbers, and in an odd break from their otherwise Stalinist aesthetic, some blocks also have random pictures such as one near us which inexplicably feature a thirty foot elephant looking out across Busan.

None of this is to say that buildings don't have names, they do, but in recent years as the alleged quality of the interiors - if not the often generic exteriors - have increased, they have taken on such immodest titles as 'Rich House', of which we have two - apparently entirely unconnected with one another, staring at us from different places on the horizon. So how do you get one up on this when you're putting up a new building? Perhaps by calling it 'Noble Palace'. Unfortunately, my desire to outright make fun of this is somewhat tempered by the possibility that I might be living there in about a year's time if I return back here from the UK, as a convoluted series of events has led us to having something of an option over one of its apartments. Still, it's probably better than living in a building called 'evevil'.

In another slightly odd turn of events, 'Noble Palace' is going up opposite the
'Nyukaeseul Naiteukeureob' - or 'Newcastle Nightclub' in other words - it even has stripes on the building, but unfortunately they are black and brown rather than black and white.

Korean keywords: 아파트, 건물, 이름, 예술, 그림