Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dante's Inferno

Can you stop the cavalry?

Christmas Day in a Buddhist household be a rather anti-climactic affair so rather than stay in all day reading or watching TV, and considering that I'd already done the Kosin University Christmas Tree Festival two years ago, I planned to go to the Nampodong district, where we could have a quick look around the new Lotte Department Store before finding somewhere nice to eat in the shopping district. But leaving Korean Mother at home on her own on Christmas Day was deemed to be to awkward, even if she was a Buddhist, so she was invited along, and it became a fully-fledged shopping trip.

I had been taken aback at just how busy Nampodong had been when I was last there on the 20th, considering how cold it was, but even that didn't prepare me for the 25th. The first indication was the subway trains, which were much more crammed than usual, as were the underground shopping areas which are sometimes so large it's possible to walk from one station to the next without going up to the surface. Ominously, we started hitting advertising for the new Lotte store well before we reached it, even if the blanket coverage on the local news channels meant it hardly needed any introduction. Oddly, pictures of the Queen's Guard were being used to promote the store. I didn't get the link.

The Department Store is only one part of a Lotte World-type complex which is still under construction. Soon, a Lotte Cinema will follow, and possibly on the principle that there's nothing like guaranteeing an audience, a high-rise apartment block will be built behind it. It's unclear how tall this will be, but from the model it looks like at least 60 floors.

Inside was a vision from hell. Korean hell. Korean shopping hell - which as most foreigners here know, is a very special kind of hell. There was hardly any space to move. It was so bad, not only were there queues for the escalators, there were staff stationed at them to regulate the number of people getting on. Warnings about escalator safety played constantly over the store's PA system. Despite which, there was still nearly a nasty crush at the top of one we were on, as people almost fell over each other adjusting from a moving to a static floor. Later, a snaking pathway was set up with mobile barriers to separate the adjacent top of one escalator with the bottom of the next, to keep people apart. If you could hear the festive music playing over the wall of noise that was a thousand simultaneous Korean conversations, it was Jona Lewie's Stop The Cavalry. And can you stop the cavalry? Of course not.

Dante's Inferno has nine circles of hell, but the Lotte Department Store actually has ten floors - eleven if you count the rooftop - and another three underground. As we worked up through Lotte's circles of hell, the crowds at least did thin out. Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? now played over speakers imploring people to Feed the world, Feed the World as they browsed through the large number of high priced designer stores. And who knows how many people are starving just a few hundred miles from here?

What could be more deliciously ironic than putting a Zen garden on top of all this chaos? And they did, as part of a larger garden area which is fortunately surrounded on all sides making it somewhat protected from the elements of a cold Korean winter. The rooftop work isn't finished though - it's still under construction. In fact, construction workers could be seen amidst the scaffolding at what will eventually be a larger garden area. Christmas Day is a public holiday in Korea, and while it's a reality that shop and restaurant workers are going to be forced to do their jobs, it's more surprising that construction workers are pressing ahead with their tasks today.

The rooftop has two 'Observation Decks' at opposite ends of the building - the 'Sea View' and the 'City View', which afford good views of the city and the docks. No doubt it looks better on a clear day, but there aren't too many of those in Busan - and Christmas Day was no different, suffering from typically Korean atmospherics.

We worked our way back down through the circles of hell to the lowest floors where expensive clothing and even more expensive jewellery gives way to food - and lots of it. Certainly, there are no dangers of a famine here. My wife and Mother-in-law want to eat Korean food - I don't - so I have my eye on some nice looking Turkish food but then get lost in the river of souls pushing me on towards some uncertain fate, and I can't find the place again - more importantly, I lose the will to try. I end up getting a Mexican tortilla, which I ate in a chaotic area reminiscent of a school cafeteria - but much noisier. Christmas Lunch, 2009. By the time Korean Mother and Wife joined me, I'd finished and spent most of the rest of the time writing this blog entry on my phone-with-a-keyboard.

An announcement was made that the opening hours of the store would be extended by one hour, until 9pm. It wasn't clear if that meant staff would be getting an extra hour's wages, but I suspected not.

The slow progress of the war in the lower floors and our constant marching to and from the enemy meant that by the time we escaped from the Food Area Limbo it was dark outside, so I summoned the strength to fight my way back up the building to take some night-time shots of the views from the Observation Decks. With every other 18-year-old girl apparently walking round with a DSLR these days, it hardly seems worth the effort, but I press on regardless with my hacked digital compact. As well as watching Busan Tower change colour against the city backdrop, I could also see the Christmas Tree Festival snaking along Nampodong's main shopping street.

One might assume that the Lotte Department Store had sucked in all the souls that would otherwise we wandering the streets nearby, but this proved to be wrong. Retailers on the local TV news had claimed that since the Store opened on the 17th, business had increased by 30-40%. But Nampodong's main street probably had 300% of the normal number of people on it - with so many people, everyone's pace was slowed to an uncomfortable crawl. People bravely still tried to take photographs of the Christmas lights, but they were also fighting losing battles. I'd been here briefly on Christmas Day two years ago, but this seemed much worse.

It took us a long time to reach the main square, and it seemed appropriate enough that there should be people there offering "Free Hugs" - God knows, I felt I needed one by this time. I was impressed that the Free Hugs Campaign had made it here, and that it was still going a number of years since its inception. I was slightly less impressed at the suggestion from the small print on the placards that it seemed to be a corporate ploy by LG Telecom. I suppose this is Korea, after all.

Number of Koreans seen today - ~30,000. Number of foreigners knowingly seen - 15. 2 Russians, 2 Chinese, 7 Westerners, and 3 Southeast Asians. Even by the standards of Busan, it was a very poor turnout by the foreign contingent - I assume they sensibly stayed away from Christmas Day shopping.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Lights

As we entered the main shopping area of Nampodong the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel echoed around the streets. It was easy to believe for a moment that the sound emanated from one of the many nearby stores, which are never averse to using external speakers to capture the attention of those nearby, but this time the sound had a vastness to it belying a merely local source. Every street lamp for half-a-mile had a speaker, and every one played Emmanuel. Amidst the hustle of a Sunday's afternoon shopping in Busan, the calmness of the hymn seemed to trick the eyes into slowing down the movement before them. It was something simple yet extraordinary to experience, and was only slightly detracted from by the particularly strong odour of raw sewage - which one is never far away from in Busan - permeating the air. All this money spent on events - but they'll never fix the drains.

Nampodong, perennially locked in a battle for economic supremacy against its great rival Seomyeon, hardly needs an excuse to do anything, but on this occasion the speakers were here, and we were here, for the '1st Busan Christmas Tree Culture Festival'. Whether this truly is the inauguration of an event that will be here twenty or thirty years from now I cannot say, because Korea appears to create so many festivals one wonders how they can all be continually supported, although the Festival Festival has yet to be announced. One day, you know it will come.

While there had possibly been some activity on the stage in the central square before our arrival, this is really an event designed for the evening, and it was suitably dark when we returned after eating at a nearby Italian restaurant. The first impression was that while this may be called a 'Christmas Tree Festival', this mainly translated into putting lights in the trees that are planted in the area, rather than something more concerned with traditional Christmas trees as we think of them in the West. In fact, there were lights everywhere from the lampposts to the plants, which certainly created an atmosphere. Floor lighting, embedded in the streets, cycled through various different colours.

Stuffed reindeer shared the street with reindeer lighting, while trees and plants hung with individually written messages, presumably of a festive nature.

At the far end of Nampodong's main shopping street one comes face to face against the consumer paradise that is the new Lotte Department Store with its large anchor motif, which opened amid chaotic scenes earlier in the week. Coverage of the continued apparent dog eat dog madness inside on the local TV news has been so heavy, I felt no great desire to investigate it, and was instead content to photograph its Christmas lights from the other side of the road. Still, this is the store that will revitalise Nampodong - so goes the promise - not that it particularly seems to need revitalising - you'd never know there's been a terrible global recession on the evidence of the volume of people here in the last three years.

We worked our way back towards the square, where on the stage children were dancing to Korean rap music, possibly in the 'popping' style or some other such technique that I couldn't care less about after seeing it so much here. Worse, if I followed the English lyrics correctly, they might have been doing it for Jesus! The great truth about a lot of these new Korean festivals is that whatever the theme in my experience, they often quickly descend into anything-goes stage shows, often involving rap, which since moving to Korea I've developed a real aversion to. After the young Christian rap-dancers, we had a complete change of pace - switching into a traditional Korean 'Sogochum' (소고춤) - or 소 (small) 고 (drum)춤 (dance). It was hard to see a link between this and the 'Christmas Tree Festival' event title, but nobody cares, and as they danced their hearts out in sight of the 'Frisbee' Apple store, I was glad of it too - I fear the day will come when this aspect of Korean culture drowns in a sea of K-pop and K-rap.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I've never been to see a basketball game before; it's not very popular in England. So I jumped at the chance to see a game in Busan last Saturday afternoon, where judging on the crowd turnout, it isn't very popular either. Which is a shame, because while it doesn't have the epic feel of 30,000 people crammed into Sajik Stadium for a baseball game, being seated closer to the action allows for a much more personal experience.

The game we'd decided upon was local team from the Korean Basketball League (KBL), Busan KT Sonicboom (formerly Busan KTF Magic Wings, formerly Busan Korea Tender Maxim, etc.) versus Seoul SK Knights at the Sajik indoor stadium ('사직체육관'). In addition to this representing Korea's two biggest cities, as the names and ownership suggest, it also represented Korea's two biggest telecoms companies - KT and SK. Quite what the significance is of associating a mobile phone company with the name 'Sonicboom' is anyone's guess, but I feel it's telling me to hold their handsets further away from my ears in future.

On arriving and passing the Swine Flu body heat detection units at the entrance, we were handed uninflated clapper tubes which we proceeded to try and blow up with decreasing levels of success while we waited for the rest of our friends to arrive. A Sonicboom employee eventually took pity on me and gave us a hand pump. There were mumblings of positive discrimination within our party in the belief that had it not been for their embedded foreigner, no help would have been forthcoming. We were soon providing a service to others while the somewhat disturbing looking Sonicboom mascot hovered around nearby.

Our friends were barely in time, meaning as we hurriedly entered the indoor stadium the national anthem was already playing. There was much covering of breasts with hands. Around fifty police stood proudly to attention in the corner of the stadium. Later I began to wonder if there was around one officer for every five people, because most of the seats were empty. Despite this, as we reached our seats there appeared to be a couple of people in them, and as ticket seating numbers were compared and our squatters evicted, a Korean fan in the row behind us implored us to sit down, although unfortunately for him my companions were occupied and I tend to filter out Korean unless I'm concentrating. He finally broke into an English "Please sit down! Please sit down!", proving that despite the hagwon educations, most Koreans actually can speak some English in an emergency.

While the attendance was uninspiring, we were sat in the most populated area of the stadium - and apparently what we lacked in numbers, we more than made up for in volume. In fact, during the game, the 'Please sit down!' guy behind us yelled his lungs out in a way I haven't heard since I last watched a samurai epic. Just to make sure though, we had our very own crowd motivator who would dance around in front of us holding various signs imploring us to chant players names and words at appropriate moments - 디펜쓰! Defence! (Or Dee-pen-sue rather, which is shorted simply to a repeating chant of 'Dee-pen!'). Unfortunately, inspiring and entertaining as this was in its own right, these antics did obscure some of the early action.

Busan began to trail Seoul by several points, and the lead showed every sign of widening, but this did nothing to dent the enthusiasm inside the stadium. Our motivator bravely worked his way out into the venue's hinterlands, and even danced with the worryingly young-looking cheerleaders in santa uniforms at half-time. Sponsor Outback Steakhouse threw vouchers into the crowd and Papa John's went one better by handing out pizzas. I didn't know they had Papa John's in Korea - now I know there's one in Seomyeon I feel a pilgrimage coming on. Contest winners were invited to shoot hoops for prizes, but nobody won the motorbike. Inevitably, there was 'kissing time' - where - hopefully - a couple in the audience would be singled out to kiss for the benefit of the stadium screen. Given the lack of people, there seemed quite a high chance of being picked - the foreigner's curse in Korea - so my wife put her Swine Flu mask on in the hope that it would be too cruel of them to choose us in those circumstances.

As the time ticked away and Seoul's victory seemed more certain, our motivator returned with a cheerleader who'd had a change of outfit, although I was even less sure about this than the previous one. With 22 seconds left on the clock, a rapidly improving Busan unexpectedly took the lead by a point and held it. The crowd noise reached a crescendo as Seoul missed their last shot, and I may have contributed to it.

I ended up feeling a little sorry for all concerned. The game was exciting and the atmosphere good, leading to an experience I'd certainly like to repeat. But if this turnout was the best a city of 3.6 million could muster, one must conclude that the people here don't seem terribly interested. I'm told there was a time ten years or so ago, when it enjoyed a brief heyday, but people moved on - possibly as they did with football (soccer) after the World Cup was held here. If it's still here in future, we'll be back - although given how often teams change their names here - the Busan team will probably have a new title next time we're here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Fast and the Furious

The owners of the apartment we rent recently told us they were planning to sell it, which meant we either had to buy it, or find somewhere else to live. It caused me to consider the fact that in a little over three years, I've moved home four times - three times of which were between countries - and perhaps under the circumstances I shouldn't feel ashamed to be reluctant to add a fifth relocation to my list.

Korean Mother was interested in buying the apartment, but when the owners told her the price she told them she would think about it for a couple of days, since she needed to look into what the going rates were for such properties. This seemed to irritate the impatient owners, who subsequently refused to take her calls. An estate agent then phoned with the news that a potential buyer wanted to come and view the apartment, and they were evasive on the subject of the owners selling it to us. All in all, it was a rather inexplicable situation, but one which left us looking for a new place - lest we find ourselves with two weeks notice and nowhere to go.

It may have been a lucky escape though. Later one evening, a message was broadcast over the Orwellian apartment speakers informing the occupants of our apartment block that if they wanted to join the lawsuit against the builders, they had to submit their paperwork by the end of the week. I can't say that I'm entirely surprised by this revelation - for a building only completed five years ago I've often of late cast a leery eye over the external paintwork and fittings, which it's occurred to me would not have looked out of place in 1980s Beirut. One must keep a sense of perspective however - I've since been shown an apartment which was retrofitted with metal bars to stop the ceiling buckling. Admittedly it was older than ours, but this is no more comforting.

When I returned to Korea the area next door to our ailing apartment block was a building site. Now it's a large hospital. In three months. I couldn't imagine anything like that going up so quickly back in England. Workmen toiled relentlessly seven days a week on that project until at least 11pm every night, possibly even later - which may go some way towards explaining the rapidity of their completion. One wonders about the build quality though - how can people not help but be affected by fatigue into the twelfth or thirteenth hour of work which you know they are doing? And perhaps that explains how our apartment block came to have such a beaten look only five years into its existence.

The realities of certain aspects of life here are hardly lost on the locals, who have a term for this kind of thing - "빨리 빨리 병", 'bbali bbali byeong' - 'fast fast disease', the notion that in the rush to do things certain problems are often built into the results, or to put it even more simply - Koreans are impatient. Personally, I admire the drive of Korean society when compared against my own upbringing in the rump of a stagnated and faded empire, but the endless planning enquiries and health and safety considerations which prevent hospitals being built in three months back in England, also tend to stop people recklessly endangering themselves and everyone else.

So it no longer quite surprises me when I see a man standing precariously on the remains of a floor in a building being demolished, trying to knock down a wall with a sledgehammer, or an impossibly overloaded truck which looks like an accident waiting to happen. It's just '빨리 빨리 병', and you can't escape from it here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Shipping News

Before I left the UK, I decided to ship some items to Korea on the basis that if I wanted my life in Korea to eventually feel more like home, I should save at least a few of the possessions of my former life before the rest hit the bins and the charity bags. A few items had sentimental value, some of it was purely practical, but many were simply things which would be hard to replace in Korea, such as books and DVDs. For example, I had a backlog of twenty-three books I hadn't read, and if I didn't have them sent to Korea I had the feeling I would just end up repurchasing them from, with all the extra expense and inconvenience that importing from the US potentially entailed. The downside of living in a country where hardly anyone speaks English is that it can be quite hard to shop for products in your own language.

None of this is to say that one can just liberally transport one's life from one place to another internationally. My house in England had a basement and an attic, and while I never knew the square footage of the property I would estimate that it had at least three times the amount of space that my Korean Mother's four-bedroom apartment has. That's very much a comment on the compactness of what is typically considered to be a larger property in Korea, rather than the largess of my home back in the UK, which was a averagely-sized house. Even if we had been initially moving back to our own apartment in Korea, there would have been very definite limits to what we could have shipped over given the lack of living space, but given that we were initially moving in with Korean Mother, plus of course the costs - around £20 ($33/38,000 won) per box - and practical size limitations in sending items anyway, choices were very limited. It wasn't long before everything I owned in the world - aside from the contents of my suitcase and hand luggage - was contained in five 51x41x31cm boxes which alongside four boxes of other things would later earn the pithy official description 'used personal effects' on the bill of lading.

Women's Clothes and Other Rules

It wasn't quite as straightforward as packing the boxes, however. We had to ensure we complied with the company's rules and more importantly, Korean Customs Laws, which are unsurprisingly numerous and esoteric. For example, one rule stated that while women could import men's clothes under their name, men could not import women's clothes in a personal capacity. The conclusion is that this is not the right country for male cross-dressers to ship their wardrobes to. The practical problem for us was potentially my importing two boxes of my wife's clothes under my name. You can assume that in the end at a Korean Customs warehouse, common sense would prevail, but overestimating the common sense of Government officials has cost me a lot in the recent past. As it happens anyway, the more we got into the rules the quicker it became apparent that everything should be done under a Korean national's name if possible. Even that didn't promise to be easy at the Korean side, but it looked very much simpler than doing it as a foreigner.

In Korea

The company I used to ship the boxes operated a door-to-door service in many countries, but Korea wasn't one of them. Instead it was only door-to-port, though since the port in question was Busan, it didn't seem too big a problem, especially since we had a friend with a van.

It wasn't going to be quite that easy. We had no firm arrival date beyond 'several weeks', and when the ship carrying our 'used personal effects' arrived it was four days before our friend with the van got married, which meant he was going to be on his honeymoon by the time our boxes had gone through Customs and were ready to collect. At least, that was the theory - in practice our role in the matter became increasingly uncertain - were we merely picking up, or would we become actively involved in the inspection process? Phone calls were made, and nobody could give my wife a consistent answer as to what the procedure was, where our boxes were, or even which company in Korea was now responsible for them, given that by this time our original shipping company had subcontracted the job at the Korean end to a company that may have subcontracted it again. We finally found someone at an entirely separate company who was kind enough to check the Port database system to find out which warehouse our boxes were in and possibly therefore, which company was responsible for them.

So when we arrived early one very cold morning at the offices of the appropriate shipping company near Busan's main docks, we had already exerted a great deal of effort in just reaching this point. But this was just the beginning of our day. There were forms to be signed, and then we'd have to go to the satellite Customs warehouse where our boxes were - which was around 30 minutes drive away. Not having any idea at this point where we were going, a staff member helpfully took us to a taxi outside the offices and briefed the driver, who dropped us off at the side of a rather desolate road with instructions on which car to wait for next. Eventually a car pulled up to us driven by an employee of the company which was now responsible for our boxes, and from there we went to the Customs Office nearby. For all the problems we'd had on the phone, at least now we were dealing with people in person they were quite willing to assist us


By this time we'd been given the impression that the boxes had cleared Customs, which was a big relief; the last thing we wanted to be doing was emptying out our carefully packed possessions, potentially for individual and exhaustive scrutiny. It didn't even occur to me until later that I was probably over the limit for vitamins and supplements, several containers of which I'd packed. The big problem was the DVDs and other items which could conceivably be passed off as less than three months old and therefore new, which as such would then likely incur an import duty. Our shipping company back in the UK had advised us to bring receipts with us for as much as we could to verify purchases earlier than three months ago, but we probably only had proof for around half of the items.

And when we reached the Customs desk it appeared they hadn't been cleared after all, so I was beginning to feel pretty miserable as we trudged up and down between one office and another filling out forms and paying various charges. By the time we'd finished, the original cost of shipping - around £180 ($300/345,000 won) - had increased by 111,309 won (£58/$97) for the Korean shipping company, and another 50,000 (£26/$43) in Customs payments. Fortunately though, that was the end of it - the customs officers didn't want to check the boxes after all so we were cleared to go.

We'd managed to come to an arrangement with the local shipping company we were now dealing with, to have someone with a van who they used themselves to take us back to our apartment for a fee of 50,000 won (£26/$43), so we were soon standing in a sparsely filled Customs warehouse besides a pallet with our boxes on it and a small Bongo truck. The few other isolated pallets hinted that there were a least a few other ex-pats who had also tried their hand at the shipping experience, but what really grabbed my attention were the new and expensive foreign cars sat at one end of the building. A couple were obviously severely damaged - one had the metal surface of a rear door rolled back as though it were tin foil, another ended at the rear windscreen. It didn't take me long to realise that they were all quite badly damaged. I know things can get fairly rough on container ships, but I think there are going to be some very disappointed people in Korea when they see what's left of their imported car dream.

With our boxes on the back of the truck, and us squeezed into the cab at the front, we began the final leg of our journey home. I wasn't particularly surprised by the very thick crack several inches long across the windscreen in front of me, nor to discover that our ageing driver travelled all over the country doing delivery and moving jobs both large and small. Korea seems full of people like this - making a modest living with less than ideal equipment, in less than ideal financial circumstances.

Plans, Farces and Results

The plan to ship items to Korea seemed like a good one at the time, but it was one I began to regret as the situation began to descend into utter confusion. There was a time in the process when I genuinely wondered if our boxes were going to have transpired to have vanished into a Korean warehousing black hole, and even though we didn't end up going through several years of shopping receipts with the customs officers, there was the worry for a time that we were going to find ourselves answering endless questions with them. When we got the boxes home and unpacked them, it seemed worth the effort - and certainly despite the expense, it has saved a lot of money in replacement costs. It would not be an experience I'd be in a hurry to repeat though.