Thursday, January 31, 2008

15 Storeys High

Our Asylums & Immigration Tribunal Hearing finally went ahead on Monday, but despite of all the research and reading I did in connection with it, one small fact escaped me - you don't necessarily get a decision on the day. So the wait goes on. Meanwhile, I'd expected to be going about the business of moving apartment with a weight lifted off my mind, one way or another, but now it isn't. Even so, the last couple of days has still been necessarily filled with packing and cleaning and generally preparing for the big day.

Yesterday, we went over to the new place - the previous occupants have moved out and we wanted to look at the rooms, and decide which one to take as a bedroom and which to turn into an office. And we were told there was a problem. As a condition of moving in the landlord had agreed to redecorate. Now, in the course of the immigration case, it's become apparent that there are people back home who think my big mouth, sometimes combative nature, and deeply cynical and non-trusting attitude have been a liability of sorts. And maybe it's true - though who can really say what might have been otherwise - but there are times when you need someone with these traits around, and that time is when you're trusting your landlord to redecorate, without stipulating fairly precisely how it should be done. So apparently, it was hideous (I did warn you), and we went over to find out how hideous, and whether we had to redecorate again ourselves, quickly.

In fact, the wallpaper wasn't hideous - it had a barely discernible pattern which Korean Mother took objection to - but it was nothing we couldn't live with. However, call us old-fashioned, but in my country it's traditional to stick all of the wallpaper to the wall rather than just pasting the outside edge - leaving most of the middle area of each sheet sagging away from the wall in a couple of places. If the apartment block wasn't only four years old, you'd swear it was hiding a chronic case of damp. And while the apartment had been decorated and cleaned - after a fashion - there was still graffiti on the doors from the previous occupants' children, who had evidently done their best to age the fixtures and fittings by about 25 years.

Moral of the story - never trust a Korean landlord. Well, never trust a landlord anywhere actually. And another lesson learned - walking around an empty fifteenth-floor apartment consisting of very large windows with very big drops on the other side of them,m is not conducive to Meniere's, or likely anyone suffering from any kind of vertigo or balance disorder. I need to live closer to the ground in future, where I don't constantly feel like I'm falling out of the building (yes, I know that sounds bizarre).

So we chose out our room and office, and we'll have to fit some blinds to the window because there aren't any and never were, which begs some questions about how the previous occupants dealt with certain aspects of their privacy. The bedrooms all have these strange dead 'balcony' areas which lessen their size considerably - not a great design decision as far as I can see.

Back at the one-room apartment we've called home for over fifteen months, a succession of prospective tenants came around for the one-minute grand tour, possibly missing the wall mould which is so aggressive in places it's likely to shortly develop language skills, as the many flashing numbers on our screens gave away our occupation. "Oh, stockmarket". Well, it seems like our landlord isn't going to have any trouble filling the place - apparently as builders go for the more lucrative end of the development market, small apartments are in short supply.

I'm going to miss this place, even if I'm not sorry to be leaving behind a tiny bathroom which somehow managed to be ten degrees colder than the rest of the apartment in winter, and ten degrees hotter in summer. There's something very convenient about living in a centrally located 'one-room' apartment, on the first floor of a small apartment building, with opaque windows directly above a mini-mart. Perhaps I won't have to listen to the incessant cry of "yangpa, yangpa", the training sessions of Korean Olympic Phlegm-Throwing Squad, or the occupants of the music school fifteen feet across the street from us regularly murdering The Girl From Ipanema, but it must be said that living this close to the ground in this country certainly gives you a good flavour of it - pretty much 20 hours a day. I wonder if Korea is ever going to seem quite as real again?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Snow Day

About a month ago we were in a DVD Bang when a friend sent a text telling us it was snowing in the Seomyeon district of Busan. The movie had nearly finished and sure enough, when we emerged from the dark interior of the building into the darkness which in the interim had descended outside, a fine dusty sprinkling of ice began descending from the heavens. For someone who grew up in the north of England around 800 feet above sea-level, not quite a definition of snow though, and certainly nothing to get particularly excited about. It did try a bit harder later on, and on our way home, shop staff were gathered at windows looking out and marvelling at the occasionally more defined clump of white material fluttering its way towards the ground. I didn't bother trying to take pictures because nothing would have been visible. Still, given that it's apparently been a few years since snow fell in our district of Busan, it was something worth noting to the locals.

The phone buzzed again this morning with a similar message - "it's snowing outside!". Pulling back our opaque apartment windows revealed the same disappointing fine particles of ice blowing down the street outside. But either we'd missed the main event or the weather's persistence paid off, because a couple of hours later the mountains nearby had turned subtly white. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is as bad as winter gets here.

I miss the snow we used to get back home, where you could wake up and discover a couple of feet had been dumped on you overnight, even though these days - probably thanks to global warming - it rains more than it snows in winter. In fact I miss any kind of weather here in Busan - where the winters largely seem to consist of one cold, dry sunny day after another. Is it possible for an Englishman to go mad from the lack of changeable weather? I may find out. Meanwhile the Koreans are still sticking to their four seasons story.

Korean tags: 겨울, 날씨, ,

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kililheun cheolsae

There's an island near us called Eulsukdo, or rather 'Eulsuk Island' since 'do' means island in Korean. In the sense that there's an area of space there that has not been built on, but rather set aside for leisure purposes, parts of the island pass for a park, though there isn't as much greenery as you might imagine.

We've been there a few times since I came to Busan but last time I discovered an area designated as a 'sculpture park', and the sculptures within it all seemed fairly innocuous until I encountered a piece entitled 'Migrant Worker'. Unfortunately the photos I took weren't very good because it was twilight. Between illness and being kept busy with other things it's taken me a long time to get back there, but I finally made it back today - so here I present to you 'Migrant Worker':

Personally, I was struck by the dark almost non-human features and the general unkempt demeanour right down to the open fly in the migrant worker's trousers. The artist is from China, and as I understand it, despite its location in Korea this is more of an internal Chinese commentary than anything else. But like all art, I suppose you have to draw your own conclusions about what it all means.

Korean tags: 이주, 노동

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Don't Look Up

Sometimes I wonder if living in Korea is going to shorten my lifespan. Even if I can survive the mountain bus journeys, you never really know what dangers are lurking out there.

There's a new building going up near us, again, and walking by it requires squeezing through a narrow pathway. It never really inspired confidence but it took me a while before I looked up and appreciated the way scaffolding was being passed around in high places above the pedestrians' heads. The sign at least does tell you - if you needed a hint - that there is work going on and they'll do their best to be safe...

The global stock markets certainly haven't been dull since the start of the year, and Korea's market has not escaped the carnage. Since coming to Korea I've never ceased to be amazed by the amount of construction work happening, with new buildings rapidly rising up and often old buildings being pulled down to make way for them. Even if the politicians have had to talk down the country's growth rate from 7% to 4.5% of late, as economic indicators go, it tells you that some people at least are making money here.

We're teetering on the brink of recession and Korea won't escape from this unscathed, so perhaps the skyline isn't going to be changing quite so much as it has been for the foreseeable future. But at least it might make the local streets a bit safer.

Korean tags: 건물, 경제

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Apartment Hunting

Korean Mother has to move. She doesn't want to but amidst everything else which has been going on recently a problem has come to a head in the last few weeks which has consequences for her apartment, so she has to sell it quickly. I might go into the details one day but suffice to say it is complicated, and I've learned it is wise to be extremely cautious of Korean property deals because of it.

For reasons I'll also leave somewhat opaque for now, my wife and I decided to move in together with her at a new place, which means we're leaving our one-room apartment which has been our home for these past 15 months since I arrived in Korea. Before I came here, I wouldn't have imagined I could live with my wife's parents - even though such arrangements are quite common in this country. In fact, everyone here had expected that we would, and it had been an option, but we both wanted our own place and we haven't regretted that. But now that I know Korean Mother well, and with Korean Father, who's nice enough but can be a little overbearing at times, living down in Namhae to take care of his father, I think it will be fine. Plus, as I can only communicate with her in Korean, which she never tires of trying to teach me even if it is Busan dialect, it may even help my progress with the language. But when all's said and done, it's a move largely borne out of necessity at this point, so like it or not, fate has thrust us together amidst a maelstrom of events beyond our control.

She'd already sold her apartment, receiving what would have been the equivalent of a five-figure deposit in my own currency, which to my slight alarm she proceeded to carry with her today as we went on the hunt for a new place, which we had to locate with some urgency given that she had four-weeks to move out.

Apartment Number One was on the 15th floor of a building one stop away on the subway. It had four bedrooms as opposed to the three in Korean Mother's apartment, but was only slightly larger at 39 pyeong (a Korean unit of measurement) as opposed to 35. Korea's trying to move away from the pyeong in favour of the square meter, but away from the Government in the real world, everyone still seems to use the pyeong. Somewhat disconcertingly, with the exception of the extra rooms, the apartment layout was very similar to Korean Mother's - to the point at which there was little difference to tell between the kitchen and lounge areas. But unlike Korean Mother's existing apartment, each room had a balcony about four feet wide, which were arguably not wide enough to do anything useful with and yet which served to lessen the feeling of size of the rooms considerably. In the estate agent's office, an artist's impression of the apartment from the original build was pinned to the wall, which rather optimistically depicted a small table for two on one of the said balcony's. I'm sure it looked great in the original brochures. But we decided the apartment was acceptable, as long as the owner redecorated; their children had drawn and written all over the walls - apparently with impunity.

Apartment Number Two was in what the Koreans would call an old building - over 30 years old (back home, city centre apartments are often in buildings 100-150 years old and we think little of it). So the building may have a bit of a stigma to it, even if when it was put up it was considered the height of luxury for the well-to-do and at 55 pyeong, a size to match. I loved the name - it was called 'Freedom' - a little ironic considering it was built when Korea was governed by a military dictatorship. Unfortunately it was on the ground floor, and Korean Mother wanted a view, but with time short and opportunities few and far between, we had to look. We got there with the estate agent and the owner rushed back to meet us, tapping her code into the apartment door's keypad before we went in, at which point I realised that these keypads aren't such a good idea when you're opening the door with complete strangers standing behind you. Another four-bedroom affair, Apartment Two would best be described as cavernous, but in common with many lower-floor Korean apartments, it had bars over all the windows, giving it a sort of community prison feel.

It's odd because I don't get the impression that property crime is as big a problem here as it undoubtedly is in the UK, where we usually don't put bars over ground floor windows - although it may be impossible because of fire regulations. The trees growing outside many of the windows detracted from the bars a little, but also made it quite dark inside. The lack of light reminded me of some of the houses back home. In common with the first apartment, it had a piano in one of the rooms and there were a lot of books - I couldn't help noticing the complete collection of The Encylopedia Britannica. Middle class.

Apartment Number Three was another four-bedroom 55-pyeong apartment was available in Freedom on the 6th floor, so we looked while we were there. Oddly, despite the elevation it wasn't much lighter inside, although copious amounts of dark wood did nothing to help. The décor was very expensive. In fact, there was something oddly familiar about the place that I couldn't quite put my finger on, until I saw an overly large Roman-numeral clock with expensive canvas backing hanging on the wall, and then I knew where I'd seen this all before - in 1980s British catalogues selling interior dreams of dark-wooded and leather furniture, thick heavy curtains and beds built like tanks. It dripped money and designer lifestyle - albeit from a time twenty years ago in my country (we've gravitated towards the aesthetically clean IKEA look these days) - and all that was missing was the page numbers in the corner of the rooms. The owner told us he'd spent £50,000 (about 91.8 million won) on decorating and furnishing it when he'd moved in a few years ago, and I could believe it. It was no surprise when we found the room with the piano.

The first two apartments were rentals but the third was to purchase, so that was potentially more complicated - but it didn't matter because Korean Mother didn't like it. Her favourite was Apartment Two on the ground floor, but the maintenance charge was £200 (367,000 won) per month as opposed to £70 (128,000 won) with the first one. These probably sound ridiculously cheap when you consider there's no rent on top - for the uninitiated this is how a lot of Korean apartment rentals work: you put down a really large deposit - it could even be half-to-three-quarters the cost of buying the apartment outright - but then there's little or no rent to pay, although there's normally a maintenance charge payable to the building owners. When you move out, usually after a minimum two-year contract, you get the deposit back. Now I'm a stock-market trader and by necessity I can price companies and evaluate business models at speed, but in the two years I've known about the way Korean apartments are rented I still can't quite get my head around it in the same way I can't understand how anyone seriously thought that mortgage-backed Collateralized Debt Obligations were basically sound financial products. I mean, you own an apartment, you rent it to someone, collect their deposit, don't take rent, and then when they leave, pay it them back.

So you make whatever you can with the money - from interest, investments or 'pyramidding' into other properties before returning the money. And if you lose it or can't pay it back? Well the tenant keeps the apartment until you do, which doesn't exactly seem entirely suitable from their perspective if they need to move. On the other hand, I suppose as a landlord if you're making 5% interest from £100,000 (183 million won) every year then you're doing OK. It's not nearly as much as you'd normally make from renting out a British apartment worth £150,000 by the month, but this is clearly a business model which works in Korea. Still, it seems it's a model which has the potential to suffer a cascading collapse in any serious economic downturn depending on what landlords are doing with deposit money. When my wife and I came to Korea we didn't have the luxury of taking a chance on tying ourselves into such a contract, we rented our apartment for £163 (300,000 won) per month with a minimal deposit of about £2,700 (5 million won) - it's less than half the price that a similar apartment would have cost in the UK and we weren't planning on staying here for two years... although obviously that's working out differently.

So even if Apartment Two was Korean Mother's favourite, it seems we weren't destined to live in Freedom (that figures), so Apartment One it was. We went back to the estate agent's office and the deal was done. We move at the end of this month in a date selected by a fortune teller she went to see as the best choice in the narrow window available. The fortune teller wasn't so lucky with their other recommendation though - that Korean Mother's karma would be best suited living in the Daeshindong area of Busan - we're moving to Goejeong.

I'm going to miss our 'one-room' and I'm not looking forward to the move at all - even if we don't have a lot of things, but I think this will be a good thing on the whole. If we lose our legal case back in the UK on the 28th I will have to return home for a while to sell my house and resolve all the other aspects of my British life which I will no longer have - so I'm glad my wife will now be living with her mother and not alone in our apartment for the six months or more I'm likely to be away. Even if we win, now my father's dead there's no longer a pressing rush to return home immediately on expensive short-notice flights, so we'll book in advance and make sure Korean Mother's properly settled into the new place before we go.

Korean keywords: , 아파트

Friday, January 11, 2008

Silent Running

"You know when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it." - Freeman Lowell, Silent Running

My father died last Thursday. He developed Alzheimer's at a relatively young age and while the progress of the disease was slow, it means he'd been in a care home for several years. He became very ill in June for no discernible reason and received the Last Rites but recovered somewhat unexpectedly, so when he contracted Norovirus last week, which has been sweeping the UK and has seen his care home quarantined during three separate outbreaks in the last two months, the priest was called in for a second time. I still had some hopes that he would get better so that I could see him again, but it wasn't to be.

I suppose you could say that these are the risks that are run when you travel far away from home and are separated from loved ones, but I can not ignore the fact that I would have been back home if my Government had allowed my wife and me to return there last year. My Government's actions have denied me those final days with my father, and being there at the end with the rest of my family, and I feel I lost out on something that was very important - but as my Government seek to make my effective exile permanent, this is just the beginning of the life they are forcing me to lead. The costs will only continue to mount. Someone once wrote that you can learn a lot about your own country by being away from it, and I certainly did, though none of it was good.

During the last week as I sat around doing little and contemplating life, I reached the decision to write a book about my battle against my Government - or more properly - their battle against me, because there's much to say about what's happened, and not just because of people in the Government. But whether this is ultimately categorised as 'revenge thriller' or 'farce' I can not say. I don't know what my father would have made of my Korean experiences, and if they have Internet connections in the afterlife I'm still not sure what he'd make of it, but as a former union activist, I'd like to think he would have understood how I came to get stuck in this country, and that he's with me in spirit as I try to fight back from this corner of a foreign field.

The funeral was held yesterday but I didn't travel back for it. Meniere's Disease is a fact of life for me. It means a lot of things which most healthy people take for granted are very difficult. Travelling alone is one of them. What you read is this blog - I did this, I did that - not that I often did these things while suffering from dizziness and nausea while pushing myself to the limits of my endurance, in the name of leading, or pretending to lead, as normal a life as possible. Was it a mistake coming out to Korea in the circumstances? I'll tell you now from my experiences - and some of the abusive blog comments I filter - that there are those who will say yes. You know the type - they have all the answers to everyone else's problems but somehow their own lives fail to seem entirely happy. The attitudes I've encountered in the last few years have led me to the conclusion that people who live with a disability can't win sometimes. If you try and lead a normal life you will get criticised for it, or people will forget that you're doing it under duress and sometimes you have to make compromises. And if you lock yourself away at home - and clearly there are quite a number of Meniere's sufferers who feel they have no choice but to do just that - people will criticise you for that too. Still, if people like this didn't exist, who would my Government employ?

I went to the local Catholic church last Friday morning, again, where I got a little upset amongst the memories of a thousand paternally enforced and reluctant mass attendances, and may have scared away a elderly ajumma doing the Stations of the Cross (sorry). It was suggested from back home that we go to a temple to commemorate my father on the day of the funeral, and I thought that in the evening we could attend a Catholic church while the funeral was going on in England. Surprisingly, the decision proved a little controversial in some nearby Buddhist circles. It wasn't that there was necessarily a problem with going to a temple, but going to both a temple and a church seemed to be regarded as - at best - an uncomfortable blurring of the lines between religions. I don't know what to say about this - people do a lot of interfaith activities back home in order to try (clearly unsuccessfully) and remind us that religion is ultimately meant to be about love, not hate. Well, most religions anyway, despite - or perhaps because of - my upbringing, I've never been entirely sure on where the Catholic church stands on this. Like a lot of lapsed Catholics though, I've defined my own stand on this among many other issues. But, I was a bit surprised at the Korean Buddhists. Perhaps that tells you something about the virtual state of Cold War that sometimes seems to exist between Christianity and Buddhism here - though having been harassed by Christians in the street myself - to the point at which on one occasion my wife had her arm grabbed by one evangelical as she walked by him, I can understand some of the reasons.

So my wife and I, along with a friend and Korean Mother, went up one of the nearby mountains where a functional looking temple, as opposed to a grander building hundreds of years old which you might typically imagine, nestled amongst the bare trees. We entered, lit a couple of candles, burned some incense and offered our prayers - each in our own way - while performing 'big bows' towards the statues of Buddha. Korean Mother read some Buddhist scripts. Away from the constant noise of the city, it was completely silent aside from the birds singing outside, so it was nice. We may eventually put my father's name on a lantern here - the type that hang from the ceiling with all names of both the living and the dead on them, and then this will be the place I come to remember him.

Brevis ipsa vita est sed malis fit longior.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Historically in China, Korea and Japan people had stamps or seals which were used to affirm official documents, but in Korea at least, these days a signature with a pen will often suffice - but not for everything. When my wife registered our marriage in a local government office, her parents didn't come with us, so she took her mother and father's stamps, which are called dojang ('도장') in Korean, in order to 'sign' or authenticate the marriage papers on their behalf. This is, incidentally, the point at which she no longer belonged to her family unit in the eyes of this country's civil bureaucracy, but instead formed her own. Normally the man would be the notional head of the family, although I'm not quite sure why there actually needs to be such a designated position, but I think I later established that because I'm a foreigner my wife is the head of our family unit.

For Christmas my wife bought me my own dojang. Unlike those of a Korean person, which would typically have the appropriate Chinese characters representing their name, mine are in the Korean Hangul script and they've managed to fit my name into the space. Here it is (with my name suitably blurred):

This one's made of wood, but my wife has a plastic one and so they aren't all as necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, cases can vary from the Chinese-style hard case design here to simple plain zip-up pouches. The raised black dot on the stamp indicates which way is up when you're stamping a document, as you wouldn't want to stamp it upside down, especially not when you're dealing with Chinese characters. Mine's already been dipped in a red ink-pad as a test, although the reality is that I'm not sure I'll ever need to use it as a necessity, because I believe that these days most institutions allow signatures rather than requiring a dojang stamp. That said, I understand that Korean Mother still has to use her stamp in the bank sometimes, because she set up her account a long time ago and she hasn't switched over the authorisation method to a signature because it seems it's not entirely straightforward.

Apart from the obvious problems of not having your dojang with you when you need it, or not being able to find where you last put it in your apartment, there is another danger. Since it can be used in place of a signature there's a considerable risk of fraud if it should fall into the wrong hands, so it's quite important to keep it safe. Still, I'm really happy to have one as it makes me feel a little more like I have a proper Korean identity, which is becoming an increasingly significant issue given I am being prevented from having my British one.

Korean tags: 도장, 역사

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Same Time, Next Year

Last year I spent New Year over in the Haeundae area of Busan and we watched the sunrise from the beach at dawn, or rather, we watched the clouds get brighter until eventually a gap allowed us to see the New Year sun some time later. Watching the sunrise from a beach or mountain-top is something of a tradition in Korea, and the beach we were on was suitably crowded with thousands of people.

We were invited over to stay with friends again, but my enthusiasm for it all was not what it was last year. I've met some of these friends during the year but not necessarily their partners, and I didn't look forward to spending time with people who may quite reasonably - one year on - be expecting me to be fluent in Korean which of course I am not. I finished the year with a vocabulary of 465 words and while it's surprising the number of sentences that allows me to make it's still a long way from communicating anything advanced or understanding what is said to me with words outside my vocabulary in a Busan accent. I've discussed this problem before recently, of facing people whose expectations are perceived to be beyond my level of progress, and while it's easy to dismiss it as just being in my mind certain experiences have proven otherwise. Unfortunately, until I push myself a lot further this is likely to become a reoccurring theme here. I should get myself out there regardless because it's all good experience and it all helps the process of learning the language, but sometimes avoiding people and situations is the easy option which amongst the problems of legal cases and issues back home, becomes the most tempting option to take. This is the lot of the bad Korean language student in Korea.

It's been very cold here in the last few days, for Busan anyway, and the temperature overnight was forecast to be -3°C. Admittedly, that's a far cry from the -8°C forecast for Seoul, and it's not a temperature that would be unusual back home, but maybe after the very long hot summer I'm feeling the cold more, because these days I'm even struggling to stay warm in my apartment - and the idea of standing out on a beach waiting for a sunrise that might in any case be obscured by clouds was not a great motivator. So we decided to pass on the Haeundae beach experience in favour of a local one instead with Korean Mother, but my wife was not feeling well when she woke up so it didn't happen. In any case, part of the reason for doing this in Haeundae, if anywhere at all, is to experience the crowd and the sense of the event. Three people stood forlornly on a desolate piece of coast is something that can be done any morning of the year. But there wasn't a cloud in the sky when the sun rose somewhere beyond the apartment window's field of view amidst the mountains and apartment blocks of the city, so I'm sure Haeundae would have been better this year, and now I regret missing it.

These are not the only reasons I ended up seeing in the New Year with a whimper rather than a bang, unlike the woman in the neighbouring apartment judging from the noises I heard during the night. There are things going on back home which are robbing me of my enthusiasm at the moment, and I find myself plodding around Busan like it's a contractual obligation rather than through any genuine desire to do so.

I could not have conceived a year ago that I'd still be here a year later to have the option of repeating the New Year experience, but after all that has passed with my Government in recent months I have reached the conclusion that they have betrayed what it is to be British, to the point at which I question whether Britain really is any longer what it was and whether I any longer have any real rights as a citizen. So as I face another New Year I can no longer believe with any conviction that I will ever be able to return home to live - if one can call a country that treats its citizens like this home at all - and I therefore think it's entirely possible that as we welcome in 2009 I'll be stood on that beach in Haeundae again, where I expect it to be cloudy.

Korean tags: 설날, 한국어, 바닷가, 추위, 날씨