Sunday, November 22, 2009

Off Screen

We travelled all over Busan looking for a television, but it rapidly began to feel like there were only three types of stores - the official manufacturer outlets of Samsung and LG, the second-tier electrical stores Hi-Mart and Etland, and the third tier volume discounters E-Mart and Tesco Home plus (sic). And this pretty much summed up the price differences as well, so inevitably it wasn't long before we had worked our way down the pricing scale and were honing in on buying from 'Home plus'.

Not that price was in any way a fixed concept as it turned out. It's understood where I come from that while there is some scope for negotiation in the large 'high street' electrical chains, it might be considered lucky to shave 10% from the advertised price - and negotiating in a Tesco supermarket is normally out of the question. By comparison, it didn't take long to realise that the prices on the store stickers in Korea bore no relation whatsoever to the price one might actually be expected to pay, with staff discounting the advertised prices by up to 40% without batting an eyelid. It reached a point where I started mentally discounting everything I saw by 30% as a rough guide before converting it into British Pounds - which I'm still given to do in order to consider its attractiveness, and we rapidly learnt to enter a store and immediately ask what the 'real price' of a particular model was

Presumably having sticker prices which bear no relation to the actual price is meant to encourage the notion of having found a bargain in Korea, but I just found it annoying; every now and again there would be a price that would look genuinely good, but the staff would go on to explain that as this was a special offer they could only discount a little from the sticker price. If there was consistency in advertised pricing and the discounting, it would have been much easier. I was left wondering what the point was. At least it explains why Samsung and LG TVs appeared to be more expensive in Korea than the UK - something which has always mystified me; they probably weren't - it just looked that way. Hefty discounting was rampant from the manufacturer's branded stores down to the likes of 'Home plus'.

There's another thing which they all had in common - the range of manufacturers to choose from - Samsung or LG. Yes, you might spot the occasional rather neglected-looking Sony Bravia LCD here or there desperately trying to undercut the domestic brands - but otherwise, you were choosing one or the other. Confusingly, not that Samsung and LG TVs are actually branded Samsung and LG. No, on the whole, for Samsung read PAVV, and for LG read Xcanvas. You might very well wonder why, when you've invested a considerable amount in creating brand names like Samsung and LG, you'd want to hide it from your products, and so do I, but that's the way things are here. LG is Xcanvas for TVs, and DIOS for refrigerators, whereas Samsung is PAVV for TVs, Hauzen and Zipel for refrigerators, and so on. I'm sure there's some method to it, and to be fair I can see it creates the (false) sense of living in a more diversified society with more consumer choice, rather than a two-horse town (as my American cousins would call it) or more appropriately, a duopoly. And perhaps, if you're living in a rather shoddily constructed LG apartment block (for instance), you might be less motivated to go out and buy an LG TV because there's that logo again from your ill-fitting window frame (yes, I do live in an LG-built apartment block and yes, the logo is everywhere).

If by some chance we wanted to live the LG life any more than we already did, we could buy an Xcanvas LCD with a built-in 'Time Machine' hard disk and IPTV system to deliver video on demand. In principle, this seemed like an option because we hadn't yet decided which cable TV provider to subscribe to. However, this was discouraged by one particularly knowledgeable and younger store assistant, who pointed out the redundancy of paying for video on demand when 'everything is on the Internet (in Korea) within fifteen minutes of it being broadcast'. Good point.

Everything may be on the Internet in Korea, but surprisingly, shopping for TVs online proved more complicated than in the UK, where it is a given that the likes of Amazon, and Ebuyer would offer the best prices. Yes, there are large 'online malls' such as Auction and Gmarket, but these really serve as venues for a style of peer-to-peer trading which has more in common with the eBay model. Consequently, there are real trust issues involved, and potentially scant protection from fraud in a country that - as far as I can tell - thanks to the power of the Chaebols was never big on consumer rights in the first place.

So when we chose to buy our 42" Xcanvas LCD from 'Home plus', it was in the full knowledge that the cheapest Internet price was almost 15% less. As it turned out though, it was about this time that our friends who were getting married wanted to buy a TV for their new apartment, and through a personal contact of theirs who worked at a 'Home plus' store, coupled with an additional discount for buying two TVs together, we actually ended up getting a better price than on the Internet. Buying locally also meant that we had an engineer come round from the store and set it up and test it for us, which might not sound like a big job, but did involve the annoyance of extending an existing TV socket which saved us some work. He gave us his card before he left as is the norm here.

And as it turned out, for the first time we actually came to use one of these cards for an after-sales enquiry. Our three-year old PCs don't have HDMI outputs, but I did bring a DVI-to-HDMI cable with me from the UK, which I'd been using to link to a TV there. Since DVI doesn't carry sound, this requires an additional audio cable, but I was unable to get this working with the Xcanvas. The engineer was able to suggest a solution over the phone which worked. Another win for Korea's customer service ethic. So once again we are able to watch Hulu properly...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wedding Crashers

Sunday was the day of our friends' wedding, and it would be the first ceremony I'd attended in Korea where I was merely a spectator, rather than a participant. Surely being on the other side of the fence would be less stressful? Maybe not so much.

Suiting Up
My wife and I were scheduled to meet the bride and groom at the wedding hire store early in the day, where we would presumably offer any moral support that was required. Also attending were the bride's mother in her hanbok, her brother clutching a camera, and the groom's 'junior'. The whole subject of Korean male hierarchies is one which I haven't fully understood, but suffice to say that formal relationships are bonded in universities and the army during national service, out of which come a complicated, but individually and specifically defined network, of seniors and juniors through which a lifetime of social responsibilities and obligations will follow. This was one of those times.

The bride's Korean Mother can't get her hanbok quite right despite numerous adjustments, and the bride herself has long since disappeared for her preparation, but aside from this the atmosphere is relatively calm in the waiting area, and good natured banter is exchanged back and forth between the groom and the others. I can only follow bits of the conversation - enough to sometimes guess at the context - and understanding the humour is out of the question, so before long I'm probably the second most stressed person in the room. When the bride is finally ready, we decamp in some haste from the clothes hire store to the wedding hall, which is probably about a mile away. This is when we discover that due to a slight failure in planning our attendance, there's no space in the cars for us, but fortunately the store owner kindly offers us a lift.

Dunkin' Donuts
The Wedding Hall is in the middle of Seomyeon, within a tall building in a narrow and busy commercial street several floors up above a branch of Dunkin' Donuts. We've rejoined the entourage in the street and when we make our way up the building to emerge chaotically from an elevator it is to be greeted by the sight of a large hall from which several separate wedding rooms open up - some large Western church-style affairs, with aisles and faux alters, and some Korean in the style of small traditional rooms. The reflections of disco lights are beginning to improbably roam the walls of one of the rooms, making it look not so much like a wedding as the beginning of Logan's Run

Hanboks and Mobiles
I am lost in a sea of Koreans, most of whom I don't know, but some of whom perhaps I should - the problem is it's impossible to tell who belongs to which wedding. There are suits, hanboks and mobiles every direction I turn. I'm suited up too - not a look I've promoted for myself in this country, but even though this may be radically different from my everyday thirty-something clothing style, I stick out like a sore thumb.

So I'm immediately recognised and greeted by people who look so radically different in their make-up and clothing I have trouble remembering who I'm supposed to know, and how well. This is important because one needs to say the right greeting based on familiarity - who I am saying annyeong haseyo '안녕하세요' to and who simply gets a more casual annyeong? Inevitably, it isn't long before I make a mistake and slight someone who I haven't met before but who I greet as though I had.

Additional rooms provide areas for photos before the ceremony, and it was in one such room that the bride cries ruining her make-up. So with five minutes to go before the ceremony is due to begin, a team of helpers are working on her with all the fervour of a formula one pit crew. A disaster is very narrowly averted. As we rush towards the designated room, buffet vouchers are thrust urgently into our hands from the bride's family like they are some form of contraband, which later turns out to be not so far from the truth.

Because we've been otherwise engaged the room is full when we get there, and as there's no designated seating we have to stand at the back, which seems a bit off - especially when my wife holds the semi-official title of 'matchmaker' to the couple. The bride enters shortly after us, and her immediate family have to fight their way through the chaos we are now part of. We end up watching quite a lot of the ceremony on a cheap screen, which has thoughtfully been provided for the cheap seats, although judging by the loud talking that goes on constantly through the entire ceremony, I think it is a wasted effort.

Food Beats Wedding
But the crowd did thin out - as did the initially crowded seating. Ten ajeossis and ajummas had left before the bride and groom had finished walking down the aisle with its illuminated fake rose petals and the music had abruptly stopped. Before the ceremony has finished, I roughly count around another thirty out, and those are just the ones I saw - because it wasn't long before I could take a seat and get away from the pub crowd behind me. I'm still perplexed by this incredible display of rudeness, and am no less staggered by it when it is explained to me that the people leaving are heading for the buffet. Apparently, this is very common in Korean weddings, and unlike with a Western wedding it's the back seats which are coveted, not the ones nearest the front - as these allow a quick getaway from the ceremony. I learn later that the bride's mother has apparently had to cajole guests to move forward before we arrived.

The groom plays his pan flute as part of the ceremony - and for the first time this quietens down some of the talkers. The boyfriend of one of the bride's sisters has announced his intention to sing as well, and we brace ourselves as he lifts up the microphone, but actually he's... quite good. There are rounds of photos - cut short by the next wedding party angrily trying to claim the room - and a Korean wedding ceremony to go, which few people attend as it's in one of those small traditional Korean rooms, and is really just for the families and a few onlookers. The bride and groom have to change into their traditional costumes - complete with a bizarrely uncomfortable (I speak from experience) square metal belt for the groom - so there is a lot of waiting around.

Lost in Buffet
We reach the buffet at 2.30pm, by which time those first ten people - who left as the bride and groom walked down the aisle - have an hour's head start on us. Not that this means that there's no food left; it's a big place catering to multiple ceremonies and the buffet is rolling. Much as there were several wedding rooms around the main hall, there are several eating areas off from where the food is provided - but with no guidance on where anyone should sit, the guests from the various weddings are hopelessly intermingled. By some chance, we are found by two other friends of the bride and groom who will probably be the next to marry, and then by the happy couple themselves, so some of us actually manage to eat together.

Over the lukewarm food I'm asked about British wedding traditions by the girl I'd slighted earlier. I got as far as explaining how we tended to marry in churches rather than wedding halls - which felt a bit like a wedding factory with four or five ceremonies going on at once. But I didn't manage to get far enough into our hybrid English-Korean conversation to explain that when we get married in church, that's when you're really married. In Korea, it's just a ceremony and the actual legal act of marrying is done in a local government office. Our friends won't do this until they return from their honeymoon in the Philippines - so technically they're still both single...

The Wedding Car

We escort the bride and groom out to the wedding car, complete with Kartrider inspired '100ton' aerial and windscreen wipers stuck out into the air - which thankfully weren't turned on as they sometimes are with gloves on waving in celebration, and they unexpectedly offer us a lift home. So there we are - four of us crammed onto the back seat - which seemed a bit hard on the newly married couple, even if they'd insisted on it. At a junction, the lights are out and a soldier is directing traffic, but the situation is difficult. Our driver jumps out and puts the windscreen wipers down - 'I can't see anything' he says, unsurprisingly. But he keeps the hazard warning lights on all the way home.

Despite the hazard lights and ribbons covering the car making it somewhat conspicuous, we are still carved up on the road twice on our way back, confirming that Korean drivers aren't willing to spare anyone an accident, no matter what the circumstances.

The Work Is Just Beginning
It is around 4pm when we reach home, and for us, it is over. I'd struggled through the day trying to understand conversations and make myself understood, mostly failing and feeling all the more frustrated for it. By comparison, my own wedding ceremony three months after arriving in Korea seemed so much easier; I was merely a passenger with whom there were few expectations, and after our honeymoon in Gyeongju we went back to our apartment to get on with our lives. Our friends would be flying to the Philippines later, and after returning would spend their first night back at one parents' house, and then the next night's at the others' as Korean tradition dictates, before finally moving into their new place together, and commencing a lifetime of new family responsibilities.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Zoom Suit

For the first time since I was 18, following the great purge of my possessions known as emigrating, I found myself without a suit to my name. So rather than just buy some casual trousers for our friend's upcoming wedding, slumming it a bit on the day and looking like I don't fit it - again - I instead decided to go hunting for more formal attire.

My search took me to the Migliore shopping mall in Busan's commercial centre, Seomyeon, which for a Saturday afternoon was distinctly lacking in customers. The first store selling suits I entered was run by a tailor. It has its usual representation of somewhat outlandish designs which must pass for fashionable in Korea in some vaguely 1970s American-Midwest-Retro-Chic sort of way, but I opted to try on something more conservative which doesn't make me look like a used-car dealer.

I was immediately awarded a 40% discount from the 480,000 won (£250/$416) starting price. Apparently this included an additional 10% 'foreigner' discount, which as the name suggests is the notional extra discount one sometimes gets at various stores for not being Korean. By this time we'd already established that I was British, not American, though it's impossible to say which one earns the lower discount. It is of course, hardly likely that foreigners get any additional discount, but if they did, it might at least balance out the the groups distributing flyers around Seoul and posting on Naver accusing foreign teachers of 'purposely spreading AIDS, molesting children, raping Korean women and consuming large quantities of narcotics'. You have to love Korea sometimes.

The price is now 290,000 (£150/$251), but Korean Mother - who's come with us - gets it down to 240,000 (£125/$208), with one free shirt and two strange Korean ties which are like clip-ons except with a hoop on some kind of zip. I've never seen anything like it, though it works rather well.

As the owner took my measurements for alterations, he told us that business is down because of Swine Flu. Between the H1N1 virus and the allegedly depressed economic environment there's certainly no hiding the fact that a good number of the concessions within the shopping mall were empty, even if other store owners gratefully use up all the space available to them in front of apparently hastily vacated areas. I felt a bit bad about Korean Mother's haggling. The measurements were done and we were told we could pick up the suit a little later the same day, which is a rather mind-blowing concept if you're from the UK.

My wife found a suit at another store, and Korean Mother once again set to work on owner, a rather round and jolly woman who promised to give as good as she got and never lost the twinkle from her eye as she deflected every attack. Sure enough, from the noises emanating from Korean Mother's throat it was apparent that she was most displeased by the final deal - but we bought anyway. Finally a store owner chalked up a victory to the scourge of Busan's shopping districts.

We ate before returning to collect the suit. I naively had the notion that it would be unceremoniously delivered to me in a plastic store bag in the style of most British high street shops and every other suit I ever recall buying. Instead it was given to me in a proper and rather nice suit holder which easily prevented the clothes getting crumpled as I fought my way back home through the subway, which Swine 'Flu or not, appeared as busy as ever.

The suit of course, fit perfectly. You have to love Korea sometimes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


In Korea, mobile phones are called '핸드폰', or 'hand-phones', and it seemed that now I was living in Korea I had to have one. The search began soon after my arrival. It proved to be a monumentally frustrating experience, so a friend loaned me an 'old' Samsung SPH-M4655 as an interim measure. I carried it around for a while, but found it slow, and the on-screen keyboard was too frustrating for my main intended purpose, which was making various notes while I was out, such as Korean words I saw and their translations.

I wanted a smartphone with a keyboard, but as I visited one store after another a depressingly familiar pattern began to emerge. Again and again I was told that 'nobody' really uses phones with physical keyboards. Sometimes the store was large or varied enough to have a selection - but the selection was, without exception, either the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, the Samsung Omnia Pro B7610, or the LG KE850 aka the LG Prada Phone. There was nothing else, and maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, because no matter how many hundreds of stores there can be in one area - and there are - it doesn't take long to realise that they all carry the same stock, and most of the stores are basically the same. KT, SK Telecom and LG Telecom. The lack of diversity extends to the network providers, who are... KT, SK Telecom and LG Telecom. Now you begin to see the problem. Here are three mobile phone stores, for example, opposite each other on a road, all selling the same phones for the same networks:

And it became more surprising, because if I had any ideas about cheap and ubiquitous mobile Internet access, which I definitely listed as a nice to have, I could forget it. The limitations, complications, and charges per gigabyte (Gb) were simply so far off the scale with KT and SK Telecom that they were out of the question.

For example, with SK Telecom there are four 'different kinds' of 'Internet' access:
  • Free Zone - consisting of twenty SK ring-fenced web-sites
  • Nate - which allows connection to Nate-related services
  • June - which obviously allows something else, which I never quite worked out
  • 'Direct Internet Access' - which allows actual connection to non-SK controlled web-sites
So, when you take out your phone service, you first have to decide what kind of 'Internet' access you want - Free, Nate, June, or Real. After this, you then need to decide on your data allowance. There are three types of data allowance package:
  • NET - allows you to connect to the 'Direct Internet' only, and
  • DAT - allows you to connect to the 'Direct Internet' and the SK mobile services ('Free', 'Nate', and 'June'), and
  • Data Perfect - which allows you to connect to the 'Direct Internet' only, and cuts you off when your quota is reached
The details are:
  • NET 1000 allows 1Gb of data transfer per month, and costs 23,500 won (£12.17/$20.28)
  • NET 2000 allows 2Gb of data transfer per month, and costs 41,500 won (£21.46/$35.81)
  • DAT 35 allows 4Mb of data transfer per month, and costs 3,500 won (£1.81/$3.02)
  • DAT 70 allows 11Mb of data transfer per month, and costs 7,000 won (£3.62/$6.04)
  • DAT 150 allows 80Mb of data transfer per month, and costs 15,000 won (£7.76/$12.94)
  • DAT 250 allows 250Mb of data transfer per month, and costs 25,000 won (£12.94/$21.58)
  • Data Perfect allows 33Mb of data transfer per month, and costs 10,000 won (£5.17/$8.63)

This might be confusing enough, but with the exception of 'Data Perfect' it's the additional above-quota charges which can really provide the sting in the tail. Additional data usage is charged at approximately 1.8 won per kb (although the precise amount depends on the tariff you are on), which means around 1,843 won per Mb. So running just 100Mb above your quota would land you with an additional bill of 184,300 won (£95/$159). And people do, so there are a considerable number of horror stories and tales of woe on various Korean message boards about people receiving absolutely huge phone bills. Suffice to say, one of the first things a lot of people seem to do with their new phones - is disable 3G and their data services to ensure that they never accidentally use it.

Fortunately, it seems the Korean Government decided the mobile network operators were deliberately making life difficult for people and they ordered them to switch to clearer service offerings. Which is just as well, because having worked through all this trying to make sense of it, I felt like giving up entirely and buying the cheapest phone on the market for the occasional call. The upshot of the Government intervention is that from this month, SK now have the following packages:

  • 50Mb of data transfer per month, which costs 10,000 won (£5.17/$8.63)
  • 500Mb of data transfer per month, which costs 15,000 won (£7.76/$12.94)
  • 1.5Gb of data transfer per month, which costs 19,000 won (£9.84/$16.40);

By comparison, LG Telcom appeared to be a much better system - charging 6,000 won (£3.10/$5.18) per gigabyte under the old system, which seemed much more reasonable. I was minded to choose LG Telecom as my provider, but there was another complication - we couldn't get a smartphone with a keyboard on LG Telecom, not even LG's Prada Phone, although LG were happy enough to sell us numerous phones from their bitter rival, Samsung. LG produce a number of phones with a keyboard, but not for domestic consumption, and not on their own network. I came around to the idea that this was why their mobile Internet access was comparatively cheap - it wasn't something you were probably going to be using a lot with the phones they did support; once you pulled up an on-screen keyboard the amount of space to view what you were doing was typically so small it was extremely off-putting, and far from a genuine browsing experience as far as I was concerned. So it seemed I could forget about having mobile Internet access with the kind of phone which would make it worthwhile.

And what of KT and SK Telecom? Well, they were more than happy to sell me the LG Prada Phone for almost 1,900,000 won (£1,000/$1,644), and it is a very nice device, but there was no way I was going to spend around 1.2 million won just for the word Prada written on an electronic device. If I wanted to advertise the lack of meaning in my life I could write a blog, I don't need to advertise it in public with my choice of phone. And since their mobile data charges were so expensive, it took away some of the purpose of having a device designed to provide a more interactive Internet experience.

Besides which, I didn't really like the Samsung Omnia's keyboard, which seemed to defeat the purpose, and the feedback I got in the stores on the Xperia X1 was far from positive, with one assistant going so far as to tell us that they were withdrawing it from sale within their chain of stores due to the huge number of after-sales faults it developed. Allegedly. I couldn't help wondering if it suffered from a very common but somewhat hard to define fault that blights a range of items in this country, including the Sony Bravia screens which are often to be found forlornly in the corners of some of the electrical stores - that of being 'Not Korean'. Certainly, while the phone isn't perfect, the Korean Xperia experience seems hard to resolve against the Western one.

So I gave up, and bought a Samsung SPH-M4800, which ironically isn't very far away from where I began with the borrowed M4655. It has the questionable virtue of having a tiny Blackberry-style keyboard on the device which makes it possible to write slightly faster than the hardened text junkie can with predictive input, but I guess it's enough for me to wander around Busan writing down notes and words in Korean and English. Of course, the device uses Korean Windows Mobile 6.1, which makes navigating around its unfamiliar interface somewhat challenging, even though I've been using Korean Windows XP on my desktop and NC10 netbook for some time now. It is at least, quite fast, unlike the M4655.

If the whole phone buying experience was ultimately very disappointing from a form and function perspective, there was at least some good news. The price was 70,000 won (£40/$66) on a 24-month 10,500 (£5.40/$8.85) per month contract with and a 60,000 won (£31/$51) charge if I cancel before the end of the contract. Assuming I don't cancel, this puts the total cost of ownership at 332,000 won (£170/$279), which I didn't think was too bad for a Windows Mobile-based smartphone which can be synced to my desktop and automatically hold my calendar, contacts and Word files with lists of Korean vocabulary and phrases. In fact, a friend of ours who's thinking of going into mobile phone retailing when he graduates picked out the deal for us, and seemed to think it was a good one, so I just went with it. Maybe two years from now, I can find a smartphone with a keyboard which can be used for cheap Internet access in this country.

Shortly after I bought the M4800, the same friend who'd picked out the deal bought an Xperia X1, so perhaps I'm not the only one who thinks that physical keyboards have a future.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Second Shot

So our friend who is getting married got the photographs of their wedding shoot, and she wasn't happy. To my mind, they were the kind of typical Korean fare which I've become conditioned to expect - a little too suggestive of some period romanticism which never existed except in Western period dramas or paintings - and that brought some oddities into the equation. In one shot the groom-to-be sat on an faux-antique chest of drawers while his partner stood by its side in her long white dress. Unfortunately this created the impression that he was very small in comparison to her, and even evoked vague connotations of ventriloquists' dummies, so that set of photographs wasn't ideal. In another set, the photographer hadn't given him the wooden platform he'd stood on for most of the other shots, so he looked smaller than the bride-to-be in that set, which generally seems to be unacceptable in Korea, no matter what the realities of people's heights might be.

The third problem was that despite our lively photographer's repeated cries of "Don't worry, it's all going to be Photoshopped!", the consensus seemed to be that they just hadn't been Photoshopped! enough. A social network contact in Seoul happens to be a wedding photographer in the most prestigious area of the capital city, and he was dismissive of what he was shown, likening it to the kind of shots 'we were taking ten years ago'. Truly, there can be no greater condemnation in Korea than that of being dated. So our friends asked the Seoul photographer to re-Photoshop! them, and there was no doubt they looked a lot better afterwards...

The Wedding Planner hadn't turned up to the original shoot, even though he was supposed to, so we all went along to his office to discuss the matter before our friends had their scheduled appointment for selecting the dress and suit that would be worn on the actual day of the wedding ceremony. To his credit rather than be defensive about the work that had been produced he was instead profusely apologetic, agreeing that it was sub-par, and another shoot with a different photographer and a different studio would be arranged. Incredibly, this would mean another eight-hour session and another day of lost work for the self-employed groom-to-be, but it was arranged.

There then followed a mad chase through the streets of Seomyeon as we followed the wedding planner to the bridal dress store, where we performed our roles in giving second opinions on the various outfits that were tried. Meanwhile, our otherwise respectable suit-wearing Wedding Planner sat outside reading Manga comics, an image I couldn't quite square with his appearance, position or role on the day.

We did not attend the second wedding shoot, as it was a weekday and we had to work. When the photos came back they were a mixed bag to my mind. Unlike the first shoot one set was outside this time, and on the principle that you really can't do anything artificial or silly with trees, it was much better for it. However, another set had the prospective groom crouched like a frog wearing a shirt, waistcoat and... shorts, next to the bride standing formally in her full wedding dress. Perhaps it was meant to evoke a metaphor, otherwise the purpose was mystifying. There was no doubt the overall results had the impression of being more professional - for the most part - but there was still something terribly and terrifyingly Korean about them. But our friends were happy with the results, which is all that matters.

I think if there's a lesson in this - from our friends' experiences and that of my own two years ago - it's to not be afraid to try and reassert some control of the creative process of a wedding shoot, otherwise there's a very good chance of being dissatisfied and looking silly. Perhaps very silly. It's likely that behind the language barrier Korean photographers tend towards being self-absorbed prima donnas as photographers are everywhere else. Of course, they bring a certain amount of expertise to the table which should be respected, but it shouldn't give them carte blanche to indulge their esoteric artistic whims. It's the couple getting married who have to live with those images for the rest of their lives - not the photographer.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Couch

Our search for a couch had ground to a halt. The prices on Furniture Mountain had generally started at 800,000 won (£421/$688) for anything comfortable, and this seemed high compared to some of the local stores we'd visited, so we resolved to try again later.

Unfortunately the first opportunity which really arose was the one Sunday in three when a lot of stores seem to be closed, which meant our browsing choices were limited, and when we arrived at the store where we'd bought our desks, the owner was nowhere to be found even though it was open. I tried out the couches and the office chairs, waited, went outside, stared up and down the street, and marvelled at the evident lack of crime - or fear of it- which allowed a business owner to desert his premises on a regular basis. I suspected he was out delivering to a customer.

He returned ten minutes later and we asked about the item we were interested in - 680,000 won (£358/$585), which was an improvement on the Furniture Mountain prices, but not so much that we could do a deal there and then - we would return with an ajumma to battle the store owner. Fast forward 30 minutes and Korean Mother is sat with us in the store, loudly disbelieving the expense of the item. I'd seen this before when buying furniture for our apartment the first time we lived here, but some of the amusement value had been replaced with embarrassment. 'Apparently' she knew people at the factory and there was no way 680,000 won was a fair price. The store owner seemed as taken aback by this revelation as everyone else was. The battle ebbed and flowed and I stepped outside for a while so I could cringe in private.

When I returned the price had dropped to 500,000 won (£263/$430) and Korean Mother was promising to come back and buy everything else we needed from him, to which the store owner replied in an exasperated voice "What difference does it make when you're leaving me with no margin?!" The deal was done and the couch will be delivered tomorrow.

As we left Korean Mother thanked him and said "We'll come back later for some bookcases." to which I heard the desperate reply "No! Please don't!" I think he might have actually meant it.

About 20 minutes after we'd arrived home Korean Mother phoned up the store owner. The day before she'd bought some artwork which needed hanging on the wall - would the owner bring his drill and do it for her while he was here? What struck me as a completely outrageous request was simply met with "Yes, OK" at the other end of the phone, because this is how things can be done in Korea, or maybe he just wanted it to all be over.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Fire and Ice

I first came here in October 2006, I changed my climate from an already cold England to a pleasantly warm Korea, and greatly enjoyed being able to walk the streets in a t-shirt at a time I might otherwise be bracing myself against a cold Autumn wind. But as October 2009 wore on in Korea this time, there was no respite from the clinging warmth and humidity of a summer that threatened to never let go of its grip.

There was one cooler day just over a week ago, and on that day the Koreans decided to start wearing long sleeves and coats. It was as though some subliminal command that only Koreans could understand had been broadcast via the television that morning, and they all dressed differently. The temperature was still about 19°C, and I stuck to a t-shirt.

When the weather got warmer the next day, back to the incessantly irritating 24°C-or-so which it has been for most of the time since my return, I expected the Koreans to give up and go back to something more comfortable - but they didn't, which was oddly disconcerting. During the week I sat on in a subway carriage where everyone was dressed for autumn, while far above us a heat-mist clung heavily around the mountains. At the weekend I was up in the PNU district with Korean friends. The biggest wardrobe question on my mind before I set off was whether to wear a thin t-shirt or a thicker one - I went with the former and was glad of the decision. One of our friends, evidently still under the influence of that subliminal broadcast, turned up in a t-shirt, under a shirt, under a thin sports jacket, and they remained on throughout the day in spite of any logic to the contrary. And he was not alone.

This morning I awoke to the news that snow may occur in parts of Korea, which sure enough it did, and when I went outside it was bitterly cold. So two days after wearing a light t-shirt in Busan, I was now wearing a long-sleeve top and a coat, which I quickly had to zip up against the biting wind. I gathered it was about 10°C, but more like five with the wind-chill factor. By the time I reached my destination, my ears were ringing with the cold. So to my mind we've gone straight from summer to winter - a big shock in the land of the four seasons.

Beijing also had snow today, because the sudden cold snap over this part of Asia coincided with Chinese scientists seeding the clouds with silver iodide to make it rain. Which led me to idly wonder to what extent China's climate engineering might impact Korea. Seoul is 594 miles from Beijing and Busan is 770. Is that too far to effect us or not? It's certainly the case that we're getting their 'yellow dust' - are we getting their silver iodide as well, and does it matter? If we are - perhaps it does.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Desk Set

When we first came to Busan, we'd bought a couple of small desks for our small one-room apartment, which allowed us enough space for one computer monitor each and a third shared screen to display certain stock market data. This was a big downgrade from the six screens we'd had back in the UK, so now that we were back here to stay, we wanted to get back to having the kind of larger desks which would support more monitors.

It quickly became clear that looking around in our local area wasn't going to yield results; generally speaking, Koreans seem to make do with less living space than British people, and it's primarily small desks which are sold in stores. Fortunately, we were still able to buy a couple from a catalogue in what is rapidly becoming our regular supplier of furniture. They weren't quite an ideal size or shape, but it appeared to be the best selection we could make without a much more prolonged and vigorous search.

Our hopes for a quick delivery were not high, because it was the Friday before Chuseok - effectively making it the last business day ahead of the holiday - and yet four hours later the desks were being delivered to our apartment in preparation for being assembled. Fortunately assembly wasn't a problem, because the owner of the furniture store would be doing this - it's automatically part of the service in Korea, something which I'm sure would be music to the ears of so many of my countrymen who've struggled over incomprehensible pidgin-English self-assembly booklets in flat-packs which often seem to be omitting something important. It's an aspect of the Korean shopping experience I really appreciate.

The speedy arrival of the desks though set up an unfortunate clash. In recent months I'd been on my treadmill in the UK almost every day, and it wasn't an activity I wanted to give up despite my change of country. Earlier in the week we'd been shopping around for a Korean replacement, and it hadn't proved to be easy. I didn't want anything too sophisticated - and invariable larger - but the search for a simple manual treadmill was an elusive one, with one fitness equipment store owner after another telling us that 'no-one' wants a manual treadmill any more - everything they had was electrically powered. We'd eventually found something that fitted my needs - more or less - on the Internet, but because it was a Taiwanese import the delivery would take three days. We'd chosen it anyway and the 'engineer' who would deliver it and set it up, phoned us after we'd bought the desks in order to set up a time to come to our apartment in the afternoon. Sure enough, despite our hopes to the contrary, the desks arrived about ten minutes after the treadmill, leading to the unfortunate arrangement of two workmen trying to set up large pieces of equipment on opposite sides of a room far too small to really accommodate either of their activities easily. It was organised chaos, but as is the way with these people, they rose to the challenge.

The treadmill, as its description had suggested, was something of an oddity. Aside from being twice the price of my old British one, it was surprisingly narrow and short in comparison. Perhaps this suits Koreans - or Korean apartments - but the 33.5cm width means there is little scope for drifting left or right, and 106cm length means it is easier to step too far to the front or back of the running surface, either of which issues could cause an accident. It appeared to be the best we could do though.

While both the desks and the treadmill were not quite ideal, at least the service was much better than anything I could have expected in the UK.