Sunday, December 19, 2010

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

When you reach a certain age the Korean Government start to write to you inviting you into a hospital of your choice for an annual medical, which helpfully serves as a reminder that you might have more years behind you than ahead. Generally, it seems like a good thing, because in England people are encouraged to get sick or die before visiting a medical professional; the public health service long since discovered that the longer it can avoid treating sick people, the greater the chance of them expiring before expensive drugs and care need to be employed. In Korea, the Government seems to want to prevent you getting seriously ill in the first place, and I'm sure the private health insurance industry here is grateful for that.

The trip to the hospital got off to a worrying start after discovering an ambulance parked at the entrance bearing the legend “Pusan Mental Hospital”. Just the day before, I'd read about a new law that allegedly enabled the Government to detain foreigners without trial on mental health grounds, in an article which ended with the words of a Korean wife saying "Now I can trick my non-Korean speaking husband into attending the hospital on some pretext, explain some of his habits to the doctors, and get rid of him." Worrying.

Given that the article is a satire, or at least I hope it is because the original news story leaves some room for doubt, I took this as proof that my life may now finally be approaching the point of maximum absurdity it's possible to reach as a private citizen without becoming a government employee. Five minutes later we were filling in the psyche questionnaire.

How many times a week do I get depressed? How many times a week am I sad? Why does the answer scale only go up to four? “Looks like you might be going to see a psychiatrist” quips my wife as she ticks several numerically high boxes. Thanks. Helpful. I don't know, isn't this normal for a foreigner living in Korea? Well, maybe it isn't, but I have no reference point. But I didn't get referred to a psychiatrist, so maybe it is. Or maybe they don't care, I certainly don't – that's the advantage of feeling down that all those happy people don't want to talk about.

So do I want to have a camera stuck down my throat? No... why would I? Honestly, I know network television in South Korea is so apparently awful that even the North Koreans find it stereotypical these days, but what lengths will medical staff go to just to entertain themselves in front of a TV? The procedure requires me to be heavily sedated or unconscious anyway, and I weigh up the obvious advantages of this versus the inherent risks and decide against it. I'll do it when I actually think I have a problem I thought, slipping into exactly the kind of sociological conditioning the British National Health Service works so hard to cultivate. “Yes,” says the nurse detecting my internal dialogue, “I can see that while you're physically ready for it, you're not mentally ready for it”. I don't even know what that means. What does that mean?

Now comes the really hard sell. So my blood is going be tested for thirteen different problems. Would I like to pay extra and be tested for seventy problems instead? It's only 30,000 won extra. This is how it begins. You can even pay extra to receive a forecast for future medical problems based on a range of additional tests, questionnaires and the hospital computer's random number generator. Or you can visit a fortune teller, because it might be cheaper. Buy into enough extra tests and the one problem they are guaranteed to detect is that you are haemorrhaging money. But I paid for the extra blood tests, because I'm intrigued to know the answer to test number 67 – 'percentage of banana concentrate in blood'.

An x-ray to top-up my Korean half-life, an ultrasound to see if I'm still generally sound, an ECG to test my short-circuits, and we're done. As we walk up the stairs from the dungeon of devices, I reflect on the fact that I'm clearly in much better shape than the hospital building, which is six months old and features an alarmingly large crack running down its side.

When we leave they forget to ask us to pay, resulting in two nurses chasing after us outside the building. Perhaps their unwillingness to wait a few days for my return appointment may not bode well for the test results after all.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead

Having a baby in Korea can expose you to a great deal of culturally odd experiences. There are rules about staying in hospital, rules about keeping the rooms there at high temperatures, beliefs that new mothers shouldn't shower for a week, and when the fortune tellers get involved, the minefield of baby naming to navigate. Eventually, those first few weeks pass by and you're left with your newborn at home, and you think things might start to get a little less strange.

But when my wife came into our office and said "I need a picture of a chicken to hang upside down over the baby's bed", I was hardly even surprised even if I had no idea what the reasoning behind it was. Does there come a point where you've been in Korea so long that nothing surprises you any more?

In this case, it seems there an old belief which has its roots in the practices of Korean Shamanism, and the upshot of it is that if your baby is a bit of a handful, doesn't sleep at night - or at all - and generally cries a lot, you should hang a picture of a chicken (or technically I believe, a rooster), upside down over the baby's bed as this will - apparently - be a calming influence. The reasoning is that during pregnancy the baby generally sleeps during the day and is active at night, so the rooster picture is supposed to reverse the cycle, although it's important that the red part of the rooster's head (the 'comb' - really) is exaggerated, hence the reason why my wife extended it with a red colouring pencil.

Now, it occurs to me that several hundred years ago there wasn't an Internet to download chicken images from, and even having the kind of tools and paper around enabling a person to draw a fair representation of a chicken might have been rare, so I can't help wondering if this means that people back then used to hang real chickens - presumably dead ones - upside down over their babies beds. But I'm afraid to ask. When you can walk into your kitchen and find a pig's head staring at you unannounced from the kitchen table - and I have - anything is possible.

By the way, before you rush out to procure your own chicken, drawn or otherwise, I have to tell you that it doesn't work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

When the Last Sword Is Drawn

You can be free. You can live and work anywhere in the world. You can be independent from routine and not answer to anybody. This is the life of a successful trader. - Alexander Elder - Trading for a Living

I don't write about my job very much; it's usually not relevant to my Korean experiences I document here. Occasionally though, the two worlds do become intertwined.

I've worked for myself as a derivatives trader for the last six years. An oft-repeated statistic is that 90% of financial traders lose money, which makes me one of of the remaining 10%. By that measure you might say I'm good at what I do, but the hours are long, and I'm not so good that I've made enough to retire. Traders often have to work hard to perfect their art, but there comes a time when you have to accept that you might be doing well enough by a lot of people's standards, but 70-hour weeks are not conducive to having much of a life outside work, and for me, those extra hours cut into time that could - and increasingly should - be studying Korean.

So three months ago I finally decided to try and make a transition into something called automated trading – where instead of actually trading I'll code my trading rules into a program called a 'bot' (from 'robot'), and then it will trade for me. Then I free up around 8 hours of my typical 11-hour work day to do other things – such as studying. At least, that's the theory.

Trading is about choosing your weapons as much as it is about yourself - and trading with 'bots' requires a different sword - specialised tools such as MetaTrader and specialised accounts, so you can only do this if companies in America and Europe will do business with people in Korea and the problem is that a lot won't.

For example, one of the world's largest retail forex brokers who I suppose I shouldn't name – it's FXCM – refuses point blank to do business with anyone living in South Korea. Others notionally allow it but make opening an account from here so tortuous that you know they really aren't keen on the idea. Fortunately one of FXCM's large rivals - Alpari - has no such policy and a relatively streamlined (though still far from straightforward) account opening process [edit: see my footnote]. But while this good news, potentially it gives me only one sword to choose from rather than many, and it may not be the sharpest blade. So while it's all very well for Mr. Elder to think you can be free and work anywhere in the world as a trader, clearly he didn't have to put up with trying to be a trader in the modern world outside the US, and certainly not in Korea.

The Korea location problem doesn't just effect trading - try ordering some vitamins from outside Korea and see what an odyssey that can turn into (that blog entry will turn up eventually). And beyond the worlds of trading and vitamin supplements – two areas which I can tell you from personal experience are inextricably linked - lies the pedestrian world of longer-term investments. Just before I moved to Korea I transferred a large portion of my investment holdings from one broker who wouldn't let me be a customer in Korea to HSBC, that said that I could, and two months later HSBC wrote to me in Korea to tell me that after all, they couldn't hold my investments while I lived in Korea – leaving me scrambling to find a broker to move back to – the situation was so dire for a while I thought I might have to completely liquidate my portfolio which would have caused all kinds of tax complications.

Statistically it's unlikely that my foray into the world of automated trading will be successful, but the potential reward justifies the risk and that's what trading is all about. So right now I'm trying to open trading accounts with specialised foreign exchange – or 'forex'/FX – brokers, and because I'm living in Korea I'm hitting the same identity problems here that I have before - I needed my passport and a bank statement stamped and witnessed. The passport may not be a huge problem but my prospective forex broker has no use for a bank statement in Korean – of course it has to be in English with my Korean address on it, which is more of a challenge.

It seems inevitable that I will continue to work at the tenuous sufferance of brokers who treat their support of international customers as a seasonal activity. But to be fair I'm sure the Korean Government don't make it easy for them, because for all their lofty notions of being an 'Asian Financial Hub', the psychological scars from the Asian Financial Crisis mean that they aren't terribly keen on the idea of the free flow of capital, which is a bit of a problem given that - whether you like it or not - it's quite an important aspect of modern global capitalism, especially if you want to be some kind of global financial centre.

So it's true to say, that one way or another, Korea constantly gets in the way of me doing my job. Every day I go out there and do battle on the global financial markets with some of the brightest and dumbest minds this Earth has ever created. Which one am I? Victor or victim? I control my own destiny, financially I live by the sword and die by the sword that are the tools that I use and the way that I wield them. In Korea, that's a fight which I undertake with one arm tied behind my back and the only sword they'll give me. That's the life of a financial trader here.

[edit: I take what I said about Alpari back. After I'd gone through all the document verifications I finally reached the point where I was ready to fund my account. And that's when I found out this wasn't possible electronically because I was in Korea, even though my credit card and bank were in the UK. Alpari hadn't mentioned this small but really quite crucial fact during my emails and phone conversations about opening an account while residing in South Korea, and this would have been bad enough in itself, had they not managed to notch up a first in my many years of trading with many other companies - one of their staff sent me an impolitely worded email. Why it is that Alpari staff think they can vent their frustrations on the company's customers this way is unclear, but I don't have to take that sort of behaviour, and that was the end of my plans with them].

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's More Expensive to Do Nothing

I'm not writing this to offer any insightful analysis about the attack on South Korea today, this is just an account of how I spent my afternoon and evening.

When my wife came into our office and said something terrible had happened while scrambling to put the news on the TV, a heavy sense of deja vu was already descending on me as she explained that Yeonpyeong Island was being shelled by the North Koreans. It wasn't a surprise; it's long been a potential target and was thought to be under threat recently due to the transition of power in North Korea and in the run-up to the G-20 meeting.

So it was the Cheonan all over again, except this time the attack was immediately more photogenic, and because of the proximity to North Korea's previous attack the thought briefly entered my head that this time, yes - maybe this time - the politicians in Seoul would respond militarily, and hit back against their attackers. Our attackers in fact, because I live here too.

If the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan taught me one thing, it's that you can't rely on the media or the military here to give you accurate information at times like these. And it isn't about media restrictions or secrecy - but rather it's speculation - sometimes wild speculation - dressed up as authoritative fact, seemingly for its own sake. And the media slips into it's Wag the Dog rolling file footage of ships firing their guns and soldiers running around purposefully. You can almost believe you're watching the war live, if a war was really going on.

This time we were told that South Korea had responded militarily, but later this was said to be with the firing of a singular 'K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzer', and the official announcing this declined to say whether North Korean territory had been hit. Which left me rather suspecting that they'd deliberately missed for fear of escalating the situation. Indeed, while the attack was apparently still under-way, President Lee Myung-bak was - truly or falsely - said to be desperately trying to calm the situation.

In the midst of such gravity, the situation tips into apparent farce. The South Korean government have responded to the ongoing attack... with a telegram. And before long the MBC network reported - with a deadly straight face - a South Korean military source complaining "Even though we sent a telegram, they are still firing." Meanwhile we watch South Korean houses burn on TV.

So if you were hoping the still active North Korean artillery positions were going to be targeted, this is the point at which your heart sinks - because you know the script from here on. The South Korean government vow 'stern retaliation' for any further provocations, but South Korea is like a man in a pub who is knocked to the floor by a bully, and gets up waving his finger saying, 'next time you hit me, I'm really going to get mad'. Punch - 'next time' - punch - 'next time' - punch... and so on. The depressing cycle of a country without any idea of what to do about a neighbour that sinks its ships and shells its civilians. Well, not that I do either.

There will be bluster and harsh words spoken by the government in Seoul but just like post-Cheonan they will never amount to much, and the North Koreans will spend tonight laughing at the weakness of their victims. Then they'll blame South Korea for starting it or claim it was an accident. And some in South Korea will even believe them. It's incredibly frustrating to watch, and even more frustrating to live here watching it all unfold.

South Korea is playing a long game, heads-in-the-sand hoping for a North Korean collapse to take the problem away from them. The old-Korea hands brush it off and say they've seen it all before but I believe they're wrong; this is no longer a conventional stand-off, but a nuclear one where only one side has the bombs. South Korea nestles under the U.S. nuclear shield, but if the day comes when North Korean nuclear missiles can reach American cities, or Tea-Party isolationists control Washington, how far can South Korea really rely on its old ally?

The Government in Seoul will try to brush this under the carpet and move on in the name of diplomacy or absurdity. But for tonight at least, the mood in Korea is sombre - and it's enforced - they've cancelled all the light entertainment shows.

And then there's me, and the butterfly effect from North Korea's attack today. I think radio programmes are like sausages. You might like them, but you never want to know how they are made. So you don't want to know how much work I put into preparing for a 10-minute slot I do on Busan e-FM every Wednesday. An hour ago I took a call telling me that tomorrow's topic - which was about festivals - was now predictably inappropriate, leaving me to prepare something entirely new at quite short notice. And it musn't be funny, which makes the task that much harder. So I'll probably talk about Korean apartments, because in my experience, they aren't something to laugh about. But it pains me to go on the air aiming to deliver a bland performance about a subject I will have to make as humourless as possible while not tackling the elephant in the room of what it's like for me to live as a foreigner in Korea at times like these. But I suppose we don't want to depress the listeners either.

It's nobody's fault that these media upheavals happen at times like these (well, apart from North Korea), and my problems are trivial in the scheme of things. Two men are dead, many more people are injured, people have lost their homes, and we can add them to the list of all the other victims of North Korea's unprovoked attacks. We can pretend their deaths will one day be avenged, but they won't. We'll agonise over our collective ineffectiveness for a few days and move on.


A few weeks ago I ran into problems registering my son's name with the local district office, and I said it wasn't likely to be the last time having a multicultural child was going to cause problems in Korea. Well I didn't have to wait long for the next issue to raise its head – our son's health insurance bills have arrived and because his Irish surname takes up four Korean character spaces (it's four Western syllables), there was only one character space for his first name rather than two – so he's lost the last syllable of his name. I should have seen this coming because – with my middle name - only the first syllable of my surname appears on my health registration – and this is how I get called out in the hospitals.

This can't be good because when it comes to dealing with officialdom in any country – and I know Korea isn't different – it's quite important to maintain a consistent identity across systems otherwise computers and bureaucrats start to insist that you are not the same person. And when computers start thinking you are different people, the complications can just multiply. Since my son is more Korean than I am – and he'll have to grow up here - I see how it could be a particularly irritating problem for him.

My wife was not confident of our ability to get them to add the extra syllable to his first name, and neither was I because I kind of knew deep down – speaking as an ex-software designer myself - that some incompetent Korean software designer (I'm beginning to wonder if there is really any other kind) decided there was going to be a five-character limit in the database. Because, you know, Koreans don't have such long names and who else would ever be registered in the Korean health system except people with Korean names? Right? (For more on the Korean IT mentality - read this).

I found my wife's initial reaction very telling - “I feel bad now about giving him a strange name”. And that is the wrong answer. Your first reaction is supposed to be righteous indignation, otherwise you've fallen into their trap.

Korea keeps saying it welcomes a multicultural society so I think it would be better if they started planning for it rather than mysteriously thinking that Korea's future multicultural society will consist of people from lots of different countries all pretending they are Korean. Or does Korea really think all the foreigners are going to change their surnames to Kim? Don't answer that – they probably do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Voice in the Wall

Apparently today was 'no car day'. We heard it in an announcement yesterday evening over the Orwellian-style speaker that can't be turned off which is fixed into our apartment wall.

I don't really understand much of what's said by Big Brother, or at least his local representative - the security guards/janitors who skulk in an office in the basement of the building. But sometimes the rambling and slurred delivery leaves little doubt to how some ajeoshis get through their working day. And as jobs go, I'd rather people like this be working as security guards than bus or taxi drivers, although from the quality of the driving of the aforementioned types of vehicles, I'm rather afraid they actually do both.

It's also not clear who designated today 'no car day'. Of course, you'd like to think it was the local council, but then if I worked as a apartment building security guard I imagine I might have great fun making false announcements. Sunglasses day, no bike day, bike day, wear red day and 5am day would all be my ideas. After all, there's only so much pleasure to be had watching people on security cameras, telling them off for incorrect recycling bin allocations, and reminding them every ten minutes that there's a package waiting to be collected from their office until they come to get it. There's a package waiting for you. I still have your package. You should come and collect your package. Package. Package. Package.

I gather that a growing number of Koreans are seeking help from psychiatrists to relieve stress.

Package. Waiting. For You.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no discernible lessening of the traffic volume on the road outside this morning. And if, disappointingly, this is some kind of Busan-wide political campaign rather than just being the security guard's late evening solution to boredom, I have to wonder what exactly the politicians expect compliant citizens to do? Is everyone who foregoes the use of their car just expected to pile into the rush hour's (or in Busan, should that be rush hours?) already tightly-packed buses and subway carriages?

Recently I became radio active and started travelling to Busan e-FM every week during the busy commuting period, and they certainly don't call it the '지옥철' - jiogcheol - for nothing (a Korean play on words, 'jihacheol' - 지하철 - means subway, jiog - 지옥 - means hell). Trains come every five minutes and you can't really fault the Busan 'Humetro' Authority, but there are just two many people living here all trying to get to the same places at the same times. No wonder people drive in Busan despite the high risk of death involved.

Oh, did I mention there's a package waiting for you in the janitor's office? Right now. Please.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Battle of Tsushima

Korean Mother went on a two day trip to the Japanese island of Tsushima – which is called Daemado in Korea. You shouldn't read too much into the different naming – it doesn't necessarily make it another Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks situation.

However... in March 2005 the local council in Korean city of Masan designated June 19 as Daemado Day, claiming that this was the date in 1419 the island was annexed by the Korean Joseon Dynasty. Therefore, Daemado is Korean territory. But this isn't necessarily just some Tea Party-style fringe movement; in 2008 50 members of the Korean parliament stated their support for the territorial claim over Tsushima, and an opinion poll at the time showed 50.6% support amongst Koreans for the claim. Read on for a little more plot thickening.

So Korean Mother went to Tsushima – or Daemado - and it was meant as a short holiday, not the advanced recon party for a future invasion. Apparently Korean trips to Tsushima are quite popular. I once read that back in the 1980s the best slogan the Korean tourist authorities could come up with for a Japanese campaign was the rather weak but technically correct “Korea – the closest country to Japan” - which is practically apologetic in its lacking of ideas regarding what was attractive about Korea at the time. Now the roles are reversed, because – to paraphrase - Tsushima is the closest part of Japan to Korea.

Unfortunately Tsushima rather projects the image of being the Japanese version of Namhae. Rural and, what the tourism brochures might describe as 'contemplative'. Perhaps Tsushima isn't like that, but if not, the official Korean tour did little to sell it. The tour itinerary included – and I'm not making this up – a primary school and two banks, in addition to two very small temples. At least the latter is more fitting with a trip to another country, I'm not so sure what a 'cultural visit' to a bank really gives the tourist.

Then there's the Japanese hotel experience. It had no toilet paper or anything else which couldn't be screwed down (to be fair I've stayed in a Japanese hotel and it wasn't like this – but then I wasn't on Tsushima). And the meals were apparently minimalistic – even by the minimalist standards of the Japanese. Hunger became the Koreans' constant travelling companion. It made me wonder whether, given the festering animosity the Korean territorial claims have created on Tsushima, these two facts were entirely disconnected.

So when Korean Mother got back, the first place she and her friends visited was a Korean restaurant near the ferry terminal. The manager saw the terrible hunger writ large across their faces and said “You've just come back from Daemado haven't you?”

Oh, and that plot thickening I promised? While they were being shown around Tsushima the Korean tour guide told the assembled visitors... “Daemado was Korean territory you know, but now Japan claims it is theirs, so we have to get it back...”

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Hornet's Nest

Apparently Namhae has killer bees. Or something like that.

Korean Father was out very early in the morning on top of an isolated mountain mowing the grass around his mother's grave, during the last days of the summer's heat. It has to be done otherwise it would become unkempt and that would be disrespectful, and since graveyards in Korea are generally small and don't employ anyone to maintain them, it's a family responsibility. The graves of those with no nearby or surviving relatives can often easily be spotted as isolated patches of chaos in an otherwise ordered scene.

This particular morning Korean Father was stung three times by large hornets. It seems that this is OK as long as they don't get you in the head. Then you die. Really. In fact I understand that earlier this year a forty-two year old farmer died in Namhae after this happened to him, and there have been other deaths and incidents. The fourth sting caught Korean Father right between the eyes. His right eye began to lose focus, his lips numbed, he started to lose movement in his jaw, and his arms and legs weakened. He called a friend who's the head of a health clinic, and he phoned for an ambulance, which had to negotiate its way to the top of the mountain Korean Father had walked up. Fortunately there is a road, of sorts, although it's one of those Korean ones you really don't want to look down over the side of.

Fortunately with rapid treatment Korean Father quickly recovered, unlike some other unfortunate victims, although his face was still swollen days later.

Before city dwellers lull themselves into a false sense of security, according to the JoongAng Daily the Busan Fire Department had to administer first aid to 145 people this year, so clearly it's not an issue just confined to the countryside. And while we have a lot of bees and wasps (hornets) where I'm from, they pale in comparison to the Asian Giant Hornet, which grows up to two inches (50mm) in length, and injects a venom so strong it can dissolve human tissue.

So it seems like this is an important safety tip, beware of Korea's killer hornets...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Radio Active

"One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

About once every two months I'm approached to write for a magazine, do a radio show or appear on TV, just because of this blog. Why? I'm not really sure. It's probably a similar story for the other foreign bloggers in Korea. Sometimes it seems people here desperately want to know what we think about Korea – although the vox populi vox dei (semper insaniae proxima) is the sword that potentially hangs over us if what we have to say veers too far off-script.

So while apparently these media offers are always a great opportunity for me to reach a wider audience, usually nobody seems to stop to consider whether this is really a good idea. Except me, so in the past I've always politely declined, for this and other reasons. In any case, I consider myself to have a face for radio and a voice for writing. In other words, I don't want to see myself on TV and I don't want to hear myself speaking. What's more, to some previous disappointment in Korea, sadly I don't have one of those Hugh Grant-style English accents – I'm from Northern England, where the accent – like so many other things – is a lot rougher. Writing a blog is about my level.

The latest invitation came from Busan e-FM, an English-language radio station here in the city, and it coincided with a few things including a bout of serious boredom I get every few years – or maybe it's a creeping sense of despair. Something needs to change – some new perspective needs to be added, no matter how small. So I decided to go over to the KNN building in Yeonsan-dong to talk to them about being a guest on one of their shows. It wasn't the first invite I'd had from the station – had my schedule allowed I would have accepted a different invitation several weeks earlier, but it didn't. I guess this means I've been bored for months.

By this time it had transpired that I was being invited in as a regular guest – once a week – to talk about my experiences living in Busan. And it follows – and I made sure – that not all my experiences can be positive ones so there would be certain topics that were more about the difficulties I'd faced. But that said, I've come to realise something important about living here in Korea. There isn't that much I really hate about it. I'd been avoiding the Korean media in part because of all my pent up 'Ignoreland'-style anger, except when I really sat down to think about it, I was mostly angry about other things and my quality of life in Korea was better than that of my life in England. So I believed I could talk on the radio and be genuinely 'fair and balanced' (in the true sense of the phrase – not the Fox News version) without upsetting anyone. Well, probably anyway. If there's one thing I don't like about Korea, it's that vox populi issue. People don't always need an excuse – or logic in the case of Tablo – to believe counter-factual dogma or to get angry about something, as I well know.

Before I even went on the air for the first time on Wednesday in the 'Open Mike in Busan' segment of the 'Inside Out Busan' show, I had already pushed my boundaries. The truth is - there's no getting away from it - it's a long time since I lived in the minor media spotlight, delivering speeches to audiences of hundreds and doing regular media spots. Ménière's Disease has left me a shadow of my former self, so whereas once a ten-minute weekly radio slot would barely have registered on my radar, now it's my own personal Everest. I've written this blog over the years to challenge myself into leading the most normal life possible; the desire to write about some event or place pushes me to go out and have that experience - but if it has portrayed the impression of normality it has been a façade. Now I've come to believe I'm in remission - or at least - the best remission I'm going to have, and I'm pushing the envelope of a tantalising possibility - that I might be able to lead a more normal life again, one in which I can work to a deadline, and make commitments to people that I can keep.

I'd also gained another new perspective. It was my first experience of working with Korean people professionally, and it's certainly been an education well worthy of detailed analysis in this blog. But there's a good rule with writing blogs, the machinations of your professional life stay private. Or to put it another way, the first rule of what happens in Busan e-FM, is that you do not talk about what happens in Busan e-FM. The second rule is that you DO NOT talk about what happens in Busan e-FM, and the third rule is that if someone yells “stop!”, goes limp or taps out, then it's over. So I'll have to save it for my memoirs.

But suffice to say, language and culture barriers can be difficult enough to overcome in social life, but when those barriers extend to business life, where important things are being done to a schedule, they can take on a whole new edge. And they certainly have – in fact I'm reminded of an old project management adage:

"I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”

As always, the real problem is me. In this case, my lack of understanding of Korean business culture and my lack of understanding the Korean language. So perhaps this out of character decision of mine to stick my head above the parapet has already served a purpose. I have widened my perspective, seen the world from a different point of view, and realised – I have to up my game. For three years in Korea I have sat at my desk through some of the most turbulent times in financial history, and it has sucked away huge amounts of my time at the expense of the development of my Korean life. The longer this continues the more problems I will have here, so it can't. Whether I can do anything about it is a more open question – I feel like my IQ is dropping by about two points every year – which doesn't sound like much but it's a problem if I didn't have much to spare to begin with, and it mounts up. Learning Japanese fourteen years ago was much easier than this, and I didn't even live there.

In some respects it's a measure of how insulated my life here has been that I never listened to Busan e-FM until recently. Which is a great pity. Much of the Western foreigner experience in Korea centres around Seoul, in fact most of Korea seems to centre around Seoul. Korea reminds me a lot of those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls – if you live in Namhae you want to move to Busan, if you live in Busan you want to move to Haeundae, if you live in Haeundae you want to move to Seoul, and if you live in Seoul you want to move to Gangnam. What do people in Gangnam aspire to? Making even more money and 'enhancing their prestige' would be my guess. Anyway, I doubt they're really as happy as they might have us believe.

So even though Busan is the second city, for me it hasn't always felt as though there was a strong ex-pat community here – most Western foreigners seem to be in Seoul. Or at least, I never heard much from the Busan ex-pat community aside from the few discussions on the Busan-friendly Koreabridge. But these days some of that insight – that connection – is perhaps only ever a radio dial away, on Busan e-FM.

In fact it's a measure of my isolation that I will add what might be an interesting insight. Since coming here in 2006 I've spoken to one foreigner face-to-face, on one occasion, for about twenty minutes – he came into Gimbab Nara where I was eating. That was in 2007, and it's the kind of life you can lead embedded in a Korean family in the unfashionable Western edge of the city of Busan. On Wednesday evening, at Busan e-FM, I massively increased the number of foreigners I've ever met here in Busan from one to three. One of them is Tim, the new host of Inside Out Busan, who was great and really put my nerves at ease. Well, as much as possible in the edgy, nervous world I inhabit these days.

My time on Busan e-FM will be short, but I expect to be listening to Inside Out Busan long afterwards. For anyone with an interest who is unlucky enough to be living outside Busan, the podcasts or “AOD” (Audio-On-Demand) downloads can be found here. I'm afraid it seems to be Windows only, or at least ironically, it doesn't work on my Ubuntu system. Well, that's life in Korea for you.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

When the Smoke Clears

I really don't like mosquitoes, the dreaded Korean 'mogi'. Recently I related some of my mogi-chasing stories to someone here and she seemed to think it was more amusing than I did. When I got home, I asked my wife, "what's so funny about that?" She told me that Korean people don't usually bother enough about mosquitoes to spend an hour out of bed in the middle of the night chasing one with a newspaper. OK, that's fair enough, I may be a little crazy. But look at it this way - I'm a completer-finisher*. (*I wish - I'm actually a dangerously high scoring 'shaper').

But am I crazy enough to want to run trucks around crowded streets spraying insecticide at everyone? No - so who are the crazy ones now?

I didn't see this the first time I was here, but this summer one day I noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance. My first thought - that some old Hyundai Accent had finally reached its expiry point - proved incorrect.

It was, I was told, mosquito spraying. I'd heard about this, but thought it was a practice largely consigned to the past. Apparently not, it seemed, as the scene was repeated every couple of weeks thereafter.

It didn't look very healthy either, as the truck in our area dashed around the narrow streets spewing a chemical cloud behind it leaving people nowhere to hide.

Obviously, the insecticide is designed to kill mosquitoes rather than people, but I can't help thinking that it can't be particularly healthy, even if it won't kill you. And will this chemical concoction still be seen as safe in future? There was a time when people thought DDT was fine too.

But what I didn't expect, was to see one of these chemical spraying trucks do a circuit of the local school ground every two weeks, enveloping the children practising football in thick clouds of insecticide.

But perhaps this means if the Korean national team ever have to play a game in fog, they're bound to win.

Maybe it doesn't cause any lasting damage though. My wife used to run through the smoke chasing the trucks down the street because she said it was fun. That was when she was a child by the way, not recently - which would be more disturbing.

Now I'm a parent though, I watch that mosquito truck making its regular rounds of the local school, and think one day that could be my child enveloped in a chemical soup. I'm not really thrilled at the idea.

But does it work? Well, this summer was amazing for three months - I didn't see a single mosquito. But just as I was contemplating the notion that actually, it really does work, I read that the unusual weather this year meant that mosquito numbers were down significantly. However, as the autumn arrived they emerged with a vengeance. The mogi-trucks are still doing their rounds, I suppose they would argue that it would be worse if they didn't. But how can we know?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Horror Hospital

Recently I wrote about some of the problems my wife and I had experienced with the maternity hospital we were in, but things were going to turn out to be worse for other people in what seemed to me like a perfect storm of Korean cultural issues.

The first aspect of Korean culture which differs from my own country lies in the fundamental nature of the birth experience itself. In Korea, women can – within a period of around four weeks - choose when to give birth; they pick a date and then report to the hospital to be induced or – if this is their preferred option, to have a caesarian section to deliver the baby. Now add to this ability to schedule a birth to the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok, one of those extremely rare times of the year when family might not be out working 12-hours a day, apparently making it a good time to schedule said birth. Next add in the near total contempt some business owners demonstrate for their customers in Korea, nurtured through a pathological pursuit of profit that might even make a financial trader blush. Add a little of the legendary local construction quality on top, and mix all these things together to achieve predictable results.

So this is what happened. A large number of women checked themselves in to have their babies during the Chuseok holiday, and it was probably double what the hospital could cope with. Normally, the recovery area of the maternity hospital, the 'sanhujoriwon' (산후조리원), takes up three floors – over Chuseok, the hospital expanded it to six by commandeering other floors which were not designed for the purpose. Whereas my wife's room was solely for her with en-suite, a desk, a TV and double bed for the husband to sleep in, the Chuseok mothers ended up in shared rooms with four beds and little else. That makes it no better than a bad British experience, and possibly worse because the already seemingly understaffed Korean hospital had not employed extra personnel for the holiday rush. Crucially for the people here though, this was not what they are accustomed to expecting, and it certainly wasn't what they were sold in the brochure.

And it gets worse. I said the hospital hadn't employed any extra staff, but in fact they'd gone the other way. The cleaning staff had the week off. So you have these new mothers, packed into rooms kept at abnormally high temperatures because of the belief here that this is better for their 'shattered' bodies, there's a lot of sweating and a lot of clothes going in the hospital wash baskets. But now nobody is around to clean them, piles of smelly clothes are building up in the corridors, and mothers are running out of clean clothes to wear. You can imagine the situation with bedding, bearing in mind that many of these women have undergone operations or procedures and were still bleeding.

And then there was the woman in the room next to us. Like my wife, she had been lucky enough to have her baby just before Chuseok, so she had a room to herself as she was supposed to. But the bathroom had a drainage problem. It was fitted incorrectly with the drainage grate too high, so after showering water would just collect creating an indoor pool. The room isn't exactly new so presumably it's been like this since it was built two or three years ago. She complained to the Sanhujoriwon Director - he offered her a small tool to push the water uphill into the pipe. She'd just given birth and could hardly walk, but the Samhujoriwon Director apparently thought nothing of her bending over pushing water around the floor. She protested.

Was he embarrassed? Afraid? His response was “If you don't like it, I have plenty of other women who would gladly have your room.” And sadly he was probably right, because when you're packed into a small room with three other women with no facilities whatsoever, you'd certainly see a single room with an inch of standing water in the bathroom as an upgrade. This is not really a good excuse, and it reminds me of the time I found a long black hair baked into my pizza at an expensive restaurant in Busan, and when we complained, the manager looked at us incredulously and said “well, it's only one.” On the face of it, Korea often seems to have a positive customer service culture – but perhaps only because they want to sell you something – once the transactions is done, attitudes can rapidly change – not always, but often enough to make you feel like you're stepping into a minefield every time.

It must have been bad because the husbands got unionised and all went to see the Hospital Director to complain, and by this time you can probably guess how that went. 'If you don't like my hospital, pick another!' I understand that a private Internet forum for mothers in Busan is now buzzing with anger about it, so word of mouth may at least provide a little karmic retribution.

Given the appalling conditions in the lower decks it almost seems churlish to mention another area in which the experience fell below expectations, but I will for completeness. The 'samhujoriwon' experience is about recovery and education, with mothers attending various classes to help them transition from hospital to coping on their own with their babies. There were no classes during Chuseok which meant that of the ten days of activities promised, many women only got seven. It's understandable that this is just bad luck and while I would expect cleaning to continue during the holiday, educational classes are a bit much to ask for. But there certainly won't be any refunds for the women who were short changed in this and other ways during the holidays. By this time, I couldn't say I was surprised.

Can I name and shame the hospital here? Sadly, probably not. The way things seem to work here is that criticising companies in public can easily lead to lawsuits. And in a nutshell, this tells you a lot about reason why the Hospital Director all but laughed in the faces of his patients and their families.

The problems I detail above effected others far more than they effected my wife. We were lucky – if you can call it luck - to have our own room away from some of the horrors. But I asked my wife, in principle rather than with intention, what could we have done to formally complain about the hospital had we suffered like some others had suffered. I was curious. She really wasn't sure, because often it seems people really don't ask those kind of questions here. I had an idea that ultimately, hospitals had to be licensed, and medical companies that ask new mothers to crawl around the bathroom floors of understaffed hospitals in dirty clothes are probably not what the government have in mind when handing out those licenses. So one imagines there must be some mechanism for calling people who run institutions like this to account. But it's not really my problem and it's a given that the Koreans who suffered won't take action either. Nothing will change. Meanwhile the Korean Government will keep talking about their desire to promote medical tourism to Korea within the Asian region, with discounts for properly qualified plumbers, presumably.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Name of the Father

Having chosen a name, my wife and I went to District Office to register our son's birth. And of course, we immediately ran into difficulties.

I believe that the children of some male foreigners in Korea take their father's surnames, so I didn't think we were treading entirely new territory with our decision to give our son a Korean first name and my Western surname. However, the first employee at the District Office said that she didn't know how to enter it into the computer. A supervisor was called, but he didn't know either.

Specifically, the problem related to our desire to register my son's first name in Chinese characters. This would be fine for 'the computer' if his surname had Chinese characters, but it only has the Korean character transliteration of the Western surname. Picking Chinese characters for names is hard, and I don't have a Chinese version of my surname. So 'the computer' said no.

We'd actually gone to the District Office to do two things - register our son as an individual and add him to our family register. The computer allowed his name to be added to the family register, but it wouldn't allow the individual registration. While this might at least seem like some sign of social progress - it probably isn't; when I got married my wife was designated as the head of our household, so I believe the computer allowing the family registration has more to do with her being Korean than any anything else. The staff told us they would have to consult their regional office for guidance, and we left without registering our son's birth.

It's not the first time I've encountered the 'computer says no' problem here due to my being a foreigner, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I used to be a computer programmer and I know that all you do when you write a program is take a snapshot of your own world view and create something which makes the computer behave the same way.

Later came the phone call from the Regional Office. Along with the 'computer says no' syndrome, my patience for Korea's passive-aggressive 'it-would-be-better-if' society is beginning to wear pretty thin as well, so the caller's suggestion that "it would be better if" we dispensed with the Chinese characters for my son's first name - rendering it without meaning - did not go down very well. Neither did the bizarre but apparently legal suggestion that he have a Korean surname on his Korean passport and a Western surname for his British one. The elephant in the room of that conversation seemed to be - thankfully left unspoken - that actually it would be better if my son just had a Korean surname.

When my wife thoroughly rejected this proposal, it was then - and only then - that the unknown official said that it could be done our way by registering the name in Korean characters and adding the Chinese characters for his first name later in some official way. It does nothing to alleviate my sense that the bureaucracy here is continually trying to beat people into homogeneous submission and only gives in to diversity when all else has failed.

That said, I'm not a big fan of multiculturalism as a national policy. In my country it became the equivalent of inviting a homicidal maniac to stay with you in your house, and an incredibly boorish homicidal maniac at that. And while the leaders of my city perpetuated the big lie of multiculturalism, it was never multicultural - it was just increasingly bipolar, like - I suspect - many of its residents. But Korean politicians talk a lot about multiculturalism these days like it's a good thing. I'm not saying it won't be in Korea, but they haven't experienced what I've experienced. However, on a personal level - and this is the unavoidable paradox - my son will grow up in a multicultural environment, and while I think every native-English speaker who expects Korea to bend over backwards for them should be sent back home never to return, I draw the line at my son's name. He is half-Korean, half-English, and as much as a name reflects a more fundamental identity, I want that identity to reflect his twin heritages. I guess that's where I draw the line. This probably isn't going to get any easier.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Your Name Here

It's normal for Westerners to name their children once they are born - or even before. In fact, the traditional Catholic dogma of my upbringing almost demands it insofar as an unchristened babies are left in limbo, or at least they used to be until the infallible Church changed its mind three years ago. But leaving organised religion aside, it seems sensible that a baby should have a name, rather than simply being 'the baby' or any other range of personal pronouns.

This is not the traditional Korean way. The foetus is given a nickname which often sticks until a name is chosen two or more weeks after the baby is born, which is when the advice of a fortune-teller/Chinese character naming specialist is sought - they suggest the most fortuitous names, and how to write them in Chinese, based on the baby's date and time of birth, and the father's surname. You can't know some of these things until after the birth, ergo it is impossible to properly name the child beforehand.

Choosing a Surname

The first problem to be tackled was the thorny subject of the surname. Korean family names almost always one-syllable whereas my Irish one has four and consists of eight characters. This causes problems within Korea's bureaucracy because it doesn't always fit into databases which were designed exclusively for homogeneous domestic use. And if my son was to inherit my family name we feared it would really mark him out as a non-Korean, and only add to the problems he's likely to face growing up here. On the other hand we knew he was going to have to live with being different - it wasn't as though the surname was the only issue. An additional complication was that unlike the Western tradition, wives don't take on their husbands' surnames in Korea and neither did mine. So perhaps someone was going to feel left out one way or the other.

We made the decision to keep my surname, and choose a Korean first name. This condemns our son to having an impossibly long name by Korean standards, but on the plus side if he ever gets conscripted he probably won't be chosen for dangerous missions, because by the time they've called out his name the war will be over.

Choosing a First Name

I believed choosing the first name would be the easier decision. It wasn't, and not just because of the need to consult a fortune-teller/naming specialist whose decision we didn't want to be beholden to. We needed a name that my wife felt was a good Korean one, and which was relatively easy to pronounce for my relatives back home. It needed to be non-embarrassing if our son ever lives in the West, which ruled out a lot of 'hos' and 'suks' amongst others. It needed to be modern, which seemed to dash my hopes of naming my son after a famous Korean physicist on the principle that it was something more to aspire to than the usual bland meanings behind Korean names such as 'noble' or 'heroic'.

I tried to do some research but apparently Western websites mainly list Korean baby names which most Koreans have never heard of or find laughable. We spent six months before the birth gathering ideas but nothing leapt out at us and we had to wait for the naming specialist's suggestions anyway.

Korean Mother Comes Down From the Mountain

Then a few days after my wife gave birth I was sat at my desk when Korean Mother entered the room and announced a new name I hadn't heard before. I assumed it was just another idea but then she came back shortly afterwards with it written down. She repeated it verbally, pointing out while doing so the corresponding Korean characters which I was perfectly capable of reading on my own. It seemed to have come from Korean Father down in Namhae. The mood had changed. There was something serious about this. It was as though she'd just come from from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments on stone tablets and put them in front of me.

I didn't really know what she was getting at, but what irked me was that the name was written as my wife's Korean surname followed by the newly chosen first name. My surname was nowhere to be seen. I suddenly wondered whether to her, this was going to be his name, and this is what she'd be calling him, possibly along with everyone else. It's bad enough that my own identity is being eroded here, without watching my son's vanish before my eyes. I gave her my best "thanks but don't call us, we'll call you" look, and in return I got the "I find your lack of faith disturbing" face back. I texted my wife in hospital.

Our Plan Versus What Actually Happened

So here is what we planned to happen. When my wife finally escaped the hospital we would go see a fortune-teller, get a handful of suggestions based on the specifics of our baby's date and time of birth, and then we choose one of them, or something else entirely. It's the well-worn path a friend who has just given birth went down.

Here is what actually happened. Korean Father recruited an allegedly famous fortune-teller from his social network to do his thing and we got one name back - and only one - and this is the name that had landed on my desk. Through being a police officer, Korean Father knows some... interesting people, so, given that the name of our child is quite important, I just wanted to check how he knew the naming specialist. Well, yes, he had been in prison. OK, but at least tell me it wasn't for fraud I asked half-jokingly. Sure enough... But my wife liked the name anyway.

Several hours later two friends of ours visit the hospital and out of nowhere, and apparently on the spur of the moment while brainstorming, one of them suggested two names that I actually rather liked. In fact one of them seemed rather clever because it's a fusion of the Korean words for 'Korea' and 'England' and it's actually used as a real Korean name, although my wife feels it lacks the levity of the fortune-teller's option, and it might be a little old fashioned. Anyway, I'm in no position to decide on the suitability of a first name.

But we knew that if we chose the fortune-teller's singular suggestion then we'd always have the vague feeling that he named our baby, not us. If we didn't choose it, every time our son suffers a misfortune it's possible that my wife is going to think that somehow it might not have happened if we'd chosen the right name for him. In other words, the moment that name landed on my desk it was probably a done deal.

We decided to consult another naming specialist to try and break the spell, but I'm not sure this was entirely to Korean Mother's approval. An animated discussion on the subject took place in my wife's room at the hospital and although I didn't think Korean Mother was particularly happy I didn't read too much into it because honestly, Busan people can talk about what they had for lunch and make it sound like an international crisis. But here's the thing. I'd spent a lot of one-to-one time with Korean Mother since my wife went into hospital and we became something of a double act as we laughed our way from one attempt to communicate to the next. Walking home together after the hospital that night was no laughing matter, because it was in total silence.

The second naming specialist provided us with ten additional suggestions, and also told us that the name recommended by the first specialist was "no good". But predictably most of the new names could be immediately ruled out for incompatibility with English or English pronunciation. And my wife still liked the original name, so it stuck.


Just as we accepted our son's new name in our mind, it turned out that Korean Father had given the wrong time of birth to the first naming specialist, potentially changing the baby's fortune and rendering the name inappropriate. But Korean Father didn't want to contact him again to tell him because of the loss of face this would involve, which left us at an impasse. My wife eventually got in touch with the specialist to be told that the hour difference "didn't matter".

But somewhere quite far along the way it had also become apparent that the chosen name - and its 'flow' of strokes in Chinese characters, was in any case based on the incorrect premise of my son having my wife's Korean surname. Since this wouldn't be the case, it rendered the whole process suspect at best.

And that's the story of how I set out with aspirations of naming my son after a famous scientist and actually finished up having him named by a convicted fraudster.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Access Denied

Twenty minutes after my son was born, I was finally able to take my first picture of him... through the glass partition of the 'Baby Center'. But that was more than my wife, who despite being awake wasn't able to see him again until 4pm Sunday afternoon - eleven hours after the birth.

I said a mistake was made in those precious few seconds after his birth, and it was that my wife handed our baby back to the impatient staff at their beckoning, and not to me. I would have liked to have held him. But they wanted to take him away and clean him up. It didn't seem unreasonable and I didn't think it was going to have the consequences it did.

Holding the Baby

My only question after taking that first photo was when could I hold my son. The answer wasn't clear, but it certainly became clear over the next 24-hours. I couldn't. The staff were determined in their inflexibility, and I was completely mystified. I couldn't really conceptualise the notion that the staff could refuse me access to my child when both I and my wife wanted me to have that moment. Even though living here has conditioned me to live with the sometimes bizarre cultural mores such as fan death, which people doggedly believe in despite any rational argument to the contrary, this was probably the most surprising cultural difference I'd ever encountered.

When my wife felt better she tackled the staff about the subject. When could I hold my baby for the first time? "In two weeks when you go home." was the rather curt response. And there you have it. The first physical contact I will have with my son won't be for another ten days.

Five Days, 30 Minutes

The visiting times don't help. There are two one-hour visiting sessions and one which lasts 30 minutes at the 'Baby Center'. But that doesn't tell the whole story. What happens is you go, and they place your baby in a crib behind the glass partition, often for around two to three minutes. So five days after the birth I've spent less than half-an-hour with my baby, and of course what I have had has been through that glass partition. Before the birth I didn't know how I'd feel about becoming a father. And now I still don't know, because I don't really feel like one.

Germs and Hygiene

Their reasoning is germs. Fathers are not allowed access to their babies because of germs. I thought this was a little hypocritical of the hospital judging from what I saw of their hygiene standards when my son was born. It didn't really seem to stand up to much rational scrutiny either. Medical staff and mothers were coming in and out of the 'Baby Center' all the time, and they had to put on a gown and wash their hands. I didn't understand why fathers couldn't do the same.

It's also hard to take quite so seriously when you consider that until a few months ago - after we'd chosen this hospital - babies were allowed to stay in the rooms where mothers recuperate for two-to-four weeks after the birth, often with their husbands who stayed with them.

Bubble Boy

If my baby's isolation is rather questionable, mine seems more real. I'm unable to express anything beyond simple concepts in Korean so I have no ability to explain exactly how I feel to any of the medical staff. I know in reality I have no hope of convincing them to change their mind - whatever I have to say about Attachment Theory, my emotional position or basic human rights - but it would at least be a comfort if I could register that intellectual disapproval. I can't and that just adds to my sense of powerlessness.

The truth is that much of my life in Korea comes down to battling the sense of worthlessness which can easily arise from people constantly discussing issues concerning me, and sometimes in front of me, without my input. To an extent that's an inevitable consequence created by the language barrier, but it doesn't make me feel any better. It seems that being dismissed as a non-participant is also the modus operandi at the hospital, except it amplifies my existing sense of living apart from the society I'm supposed to be participating in. The glass wall which divides my son and I serves as a metaphor for my wider experience in Korea.

I feel I've missed out on something important because those first few hours and days are gone now. So to my mind the hospital have taken something from me which I'll never get back. And if anything were to happen without me ever having any physical contact with him I think it would be even more difficult to deal with.

That said, I think I'm getting to a point now where I've gone through disbelief and anger and am arriving at apathy. I'm resigned to not having any real contact with my son until the end of the month. What else can I do? The increasing sense of apathy is better for me than the anger I had before, but I do wonder what a psychologist would make of it - it may not be a healthy emotional start to the bonding process.


When we signed up this wasn't how the hospital operated and they never said "by the way, we've changed the deal". Once my wife had given birth, and realised they'd changed the way they operated. it wasn't a realistic option to change hospitals so we were stuck with it. I suppose you could argue that it's a breach of contract, but this being Korea there's little to be done about it; consumer rights are comparatively weak here and the law certainly gives the impression of favouring its corporate paymasters. Welcome to Chaebol Country.

If I could go back in time I'd do it differently. So my advice to anyone who finds themselves potentially heading towards the same situation as me here is to think very carefully about what you want out of the experience, and how it's likely to unfold. I wish I'd held my son after he was born and I lost that chance for two weeks. But ultimately it's about more than that. Visiting times are extremely short, my wife doesn't see her baby except when she feeds him which I don't think is emotionally healthy, there may be a worrying lack of emergency backup, and hygiene standards seem questionable at best.

Not all Korean hospitals are going to operate the same way or be the same. Next time - if there is a next time - things have to be different.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Five days ago my wife gave birth to our first child, a boy. Over the last couple of years, we'd talked about whether it was better to have a baby in England or Korea. I've always been impressed with the Korean health system - yes, it costs money, but it is fast and efficient in comparison to the slow lumbering bureaucracy of the British National Health Service. Korea seemed to be the clear winner. Now I'm no longer sure. I want to document my experience here as a possibly cautionary tale for other people who find themselves in the same position. Had I known a few months ago what I know now, things may have worked out differently.

I'm splitting what I have to say into the before and after - a tale of two halves if you will, and then there may be quite a lot of post-match analysis, so if you don't want to know the result, look away now.

She's Having a Baby

My wife's water broke at 9.35pm on Saturday evening. The hospital said she had time for a shower before checking in. That's important because Koreans firmly believe that women can not take a shower or bath for a week or more after giving birth otherwise it will damage their health for life - after giving birth Korean people's bones are 'brittle'.

An hour later we arrived at the hospital. It's not a huge state-run complex of buildings as you would expect to find in the UK, but rather eleven stories of a very small office block situated on a major road. Like most Korean hospitals, it's specialised - in this case, as a maternity hospital. When we reached the delivery floor, we stepped out of the elevator into a small empty waiting area. I soon discovered that the entire floor was being staffed by one nurse, although since there was only another patient there, who was busy screaming in agony, perhaps that was the appropriate staffing level. The nurse split her time between checking us in and disappearing into the first delivery room to admonish the woman for her behaviour. Really.

Korean Mother was with us, and she went down on the forms as the next-of-kin. My inability to communicate at the level of Korean necessary to deal with a medical emergency made it necessary, but that was to prove only the first of a series of unhappy experiences during the next few hours.

The Red Gloves

The unseen woman gave birth and the baby cried for around a minute before silence descended on the otherwise unoccupied delivery floor. Retrospectively, I see now I should have seen that as a clue, but my head was full of other thoughts. We were in the next door delivery room by now with my wife lying on the bed. The nurse entered with heavily bloodied surgical gloves and much to my shock began adjusting my wife's bed and bedding. Korean hospitals have always seemed to have good hygiene standards so this wasn't what I expected at all. It turned out my wife was already 30% dilated so we were told the baby was likely to come by the morning.

I suppose the room wasn't quite what I expected either. It was very cramped - only wide enough for one person to stand on either side of the bed - and it didn't fit my possibly wrong image of the clinically clean environment I'd expected. It was really just a room, with some rather dingy circa-1970s wallpaper.

I'd chosen to be present in the room during my wife's birth. I don't think this is really negotiable for British people and it would be very unusual if you didn't want to be. I got the impression that Korean men are not so enthusiastic about the idea, and I was told the husband of our neighbour stayed outside for the big moment. But again, the reality was different from my expectations. Korean Mother and I were regularly told to leave by the nurse and the pedometer that I wore eventually told me I'd walked over a kilometre in the corridor outside, partly out of frustration and partly just to keep myself awake. Korean Mother took to crouching by the entrance to the curtain-off delivery room chanting Buddhist mantras over and over.

The Wreck of the Mary Celeste

It was while I was pacing up and down the narrow and claustrophobic corridor of the Mary Celeste Maternity Hospital that I finally started looking at the crib positioned near to the door of my wife's delivery room. A green blanket sat in it and it was stained with blood and other bodily fluids. Another equally stained blanket lay underneath it. I suppose the hospital would argue that they were perfectly clean despite their appearances, but I was so surprised I took a photo of it. Unfortunately, I'd left my DSLR in the maternity room and was only carrying my compact digital camera, which I discovered had developed a fault preventing me from altering its settings, so the noisy picture didn't do the reality of it justice. Anyway, I was rather surprised, and not in a good way.

My wife was determined not to be a screamer so only moaned occasionally, but even after two epidurals she was in considerable pain by 3.30am, which is when apparently to her great surprise the nurse discovered that my wife was 80% dilated, suddenly moving the expected time of arrival up a number of hours. The nurse had now been the only person we'd seen since arriving five hours earlier, but she began making phone calls to a doctor, giving me some comfort that we really weren't the only people in the entire building. But lingering questions remained in my mind - if there was an emergency, how equipped was a small hospital like this to cope with it? How long would it take a crash team to get here? Did they even have one? No, say what you like about British hospitals, at least you probably have every conceivable specialist to hand if there's a problem. I began to think a larger Korean hospital might have been a better plan.

Push Pull

Within half an hour the nurse was giving instructions to push but there was still no sign of the doctor despite a series of phone calls. In my mind I'd editorialised them as increasingly urgent pleas of 'where are you?', but perhaps it wasn't.

Twenty minutes later the nurse, whose attendance throughout the night had been sporadic despite the theoretical one-to-one ratio of nursing care, disappeared, leaving Korean Mother to work with her daughter on the pushing. When the nurse returned, with the doctor, a second nurse, and a large vacuum pump in tow, we were bundled out of the room. I discovered later that the baby had been judged to be stuck, but my language isolation prevented me from understanding what was happening and Korean Mother didn't appear to know either. Her Buddhist chanting became louder which I didn't take as a particularly positive sign. It was a critical time in the delivery, and we were kept outside for twenty minutes, but they hadn't properly closed the curtain to the room, so occasionally I managed to see beyond the medical staff to the horrors that lay beyond. My wife had clearly lost quite a lot of blood. It's hard to know at the time what can be considered normal, so I wasn't especially worried, but later she had to have a transfusion.

30 Seconds Over Tokyo

We were finally called in three minutes before the birth, and for the first time we had to wear gowns - but no masks. Because of the cramped conditions - caused in no small part by the large vacuum pump that was already attached to my wife, I could only stand at the top of the bed, so when the baby came it's the only angle I could see it from. The umbilical cord was clamped and I was given what felt like the world's bluntest scissors to cut it with. Yes, Korean men apparently might sit out the actual delivery, but its normal for them to cut the umbilical cord.

We'd had all these grand plans about taking lots of photos and even filming the moment of birth, but in the reality of the situation it seemed heartless to take pictures like a tourist when my wife needed my full attention. When the birth happened at 4.57am it was so quick that I was taken aback. I didn't understand how rapid the vacuum pump could be, although having seen my baby sucked out of its home head first like that I think I understand why so many people in the modern world have nightmares about being abducted from their beds by aliens. I was quickly conscripted into cutting the cord and then the baby was passed to its mother while I struggled - and failed - with the now certainly faulty camera I had to hand to take a shot. I couldn't reach my DSLR in time. Thirty seconds later the baby was bundled outside by the nurses and I once again tried and failed to take a photo in the corridor despite the protestations of the staff. Blink and you'll miss it. Our baby was hurried away.

In the end, while giving birth is a terribly hard thing to go through, it ended up being comparatively straightforward. The baby was fine and after a couple of days, my wife was much better too. But a mistake was made during that thirty second period and it was going to linger with me and cause a great deal of unhappiness and frustration.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Aquatic House Party

"Our department store is turning into an amusement park."

When Lotte opened a large department store in the Gwangbokdong area of Busan it didn't seem quite finished. They were still building a new section but it finally opened last week to reveal even more designer stores, and to try and balance the cultural vacuum they create, a large bookstore and 430-seat concert hall on the higher floors. The centrepiece of the new space features fountains and a waterfall. A Lotte Mart and Lotte Cinema are next to be built. Construction will be completed in 2016 with a large Lotte apartment skyscraper which will provide - possibly in breach of the Geneva Convention - a captive audience for all things Lotte. It's a cunning business strategy but you certainly won't catch me living there. Well, not until 2016 anyway.

I went to Gwangbokdong the day after the 'Aqua Mall' opened to take a look, not honestly expecting to see very much, but Lotte were holding an 'Aquatique Show' which you can tell was meant to be something special because they used a French word. Some foreign gymnasts - probably not French - were performing a floor show and there may have been clowns buried deep within the crowd to add to that slightly uncomfortable circus feeling.

It appeared that someone from head office in Seoul was visiting, but perhaps he was not a fan of the entertainment - "Our department store is turning into an amusement park. Is this so fascinating?", adding words to the effect of 'people in Busan are easily pleased'. No, let's be honest, what he actually said was "What a bunch of countryside people". His Busan colleagues then nudged him to be quiet. You never know who's listening, but I think he got away with it. Anyway, I shouldn't be too hard on him, he's only saying what most people from Seoul think.

If he thinks people in Busan are easily pleased, he doesn't know the people here I do. In fact, 74.4 percent of workers in Korea said they thought their jobs had driven them to depression in a recent survey. People need their distractions. Plus, it's not easy deciding which of forty designer stores to buy yet another $1,000 handbag from. Very stressful.

It's also easy to be blasé about the importance of what you have when you spend your day working in a regulation 26°C air conditioned 50% humidity environment. Many shoppers in the crowd had just escaped from the 34 degree 80% humidity outside and after that, the sight of fountains and cascading torrents of water falling from the ceiling is practically pornographic.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Feat of Clay

Recently I stumbled across a shop selling art in the Gwangbok Underground Shopping Area near Nampodong's Lotte Department Store. There's nothing particularly unusual about this - the underground shopping district is extensive and there are a number of artworks on display, but they are usually the kind of typical Korean fare popular with tourists and apartment living rooms. Colours are often limited to black and white. What made this particular shop stand out were the vibrant reds and greens enticing the visitor inside.

The particular artist concerned has taken to updating traditional Korean black and white flat paintings with red and green coloured clay which also adds a relief and therefore more depth to the work. I doubt it's the case that what the artist is doing is unique, but in all my time trudging through the back-streets of Busan I've never seen anything quite like it. It's easy for art to stagnate and become almost a stereotype of itself, but it's exciting to think that despite the temptation to pump out the old clichés, that someone out there in Busan is prepared to take an old favourite and give it an updated spin. More images are available on the artist's (정창원 - Jung Chang-Won) website.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sex Crimes

As my wife and I entered the subway carriage I was so wrapped up in role-playing my impending potential immigration interview that I paid no attention whatsoever to my fellow passengers. The upshot of this was that when she asked me about the man and woman sat opposite us I actually had to look to understand what was going on.

A young woman wearing quite high-cut shorts was facing me with her legs crossed away from a man around the same age who was staring straight at us with the same type of vacant yet menacing eyes which witnesses often attribute to the perpetrators of mass shootings. But it was the placement of one of his hands which had drawn the attention of my wife - it was at the side of his leg, on the seat, in the place the woman's bare flesh might have been if she hadn't had her leg raised and crossed over the other. The man's hand was, as a consequence, slightly under her leg, though not touching it.

"I don't think they're together" my wife stated, to which I replied after another glance that they must be, surely. I've had a lot of Japanese friends over the years and you hear about things that go on their crowded trains, but the idea of something happening so blatantly in front of me - in Korea - never seriously crossed my mind, even if they did introduce women-only carriages in Seoul a few years ago.

My wife was convinced his hand was moving closer to her but short of staring at him and his hand - which could be incredibly rude if they actually were together, I didn't detect any movement as I stole glances. Finally, his apparently fixed yet slightly spaced-out stare, which had quite possibly never deviated from us, provoked me into staring back at him and his hand - now I was sure his hand was getting further under her leg. My wife was beginning to mutter abuse while giving him increasingly dirty looks said that if the woman moved, then our suspicions would be confirmed.

The woman got up and moved to a seat further down the carriage, while the man remained impassive and emotionless, confirming our worst suspicions. Then we were both free to stare at the man more obviously. He got off the train a couple of stops later, looking for all the world like any other normal university student or young professional. But, after all, 20% of sex criminals in Korea are college graduates, so what does that prove?

It's easy to look back in retrospect and think of all the things we could have done or said, but we couldn't be certain there was anything improper taking place until the woman moved. My wife felt that after we sat down the man had actually touched the woman but stopped when we started to look. It's a pity the woman didn't make a scene because she would have had two willing witnesses, and someone I'm convinced was seriously mentally disturbed beneath an otherwise disturbingly normal façade could have been taken to task.

What was rather chilling about the whole affair was the number of people sat in the carriage even before we entered - the seats weren't full but it was far from empty, and yet in full sight of everyone he did what he did. If he'd been an old Korean man - not that this excuses it (unless you're a Korean judge) - you might have put it down to alcohol or simple desperation, but the fact that this was a young guy in his early twenties suggested to me - coupled with the look on his face I'm not going to forget in a hurry - that he has a promising career as a serial killer in front of him.

So after almost three years of riding the Busan subway this is the first time I've seen anyone being sexually harassed - in fact it's the first time I've seen any kind of harassment taking place, and it's a shock. But it's not as though there aren't a lot of sex crimes taking place in Korea, because there really are according to official figures, especially against children, and one suspects the figures would probably be much higher if women were prepared to call it out when it happened rather than being burdened with hundreds of years of cultural shame in such situations. Unfortunately even though 76% of Korean women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, 55% of them did nothing and just put up with it, according to a recent survey.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Body Language

When I returned to this country last September I was given a one year F-2 visa as the spouse of a Korean national. One day I hope to be able to graduate to an F-5 visa - permanent residency - under which I'll no longer have to report to the Immigration Service at regular intervals amongst other benefits.

It's said that if you ask two Korean immigration officers a question you'll get at least three different answers, so when I say that I was once told that I needed to be on two year F-2 visa before I could apply for an F-5, it's important to emphasise that this is not necessarily correct information, it's merely something I was told by an official - so it's a given that it might be inaccurate. In the same vein, I was also told that I might be interviewed the next time I reported in to my local immigration office, and my Korean skills could decide the difference between my getting a one or two year extension. This passive-aggressive language requirement is often also stated in connection with F-5 applications - despite the fact that there seems to be no legal basis for it, though personally I'm not opposed to the principle behind it. Anyway, perhaps in a nod to the highly subjective nature of the possible assessment, the immigration officer's parting words to us were "bring a baby with you next time, and it will be better".

They actually didn't say who the baby had to belong to, but subterfuge didn't appear to be required in the end because as things turned out the next time I entered their office it was with my eight-month pregnant wife, which while not quite the requested entirely separate person, seemed like a considerable down-payment towards that goal.

Baby or not, I was never convinced that I was going to face an inquisition, but I had to assume the worst and tried to study harder in preparation for it, although I can't honestly say that I was pleased with the results of my studies. But after months of it vaguely playing on my mind, there was no interview and the immigration officer told us that she could give me a one or two year extension but considering my wife's condition she'd make it two. And that, along with 20,000 won (around £11/$17) was the end of my visit. A year ago, my wife was preparing to apply for a one year visa extension in the UK, requiring a small mountain of supporting documentation, an interview in another city, and a non-refundable £800 fee. It can be tough getting clear answers from the Korean immigration system, but at least it isn't designed to hate people the way the British system is.

So barring any last-minute hitches, my next mandatory visit to my local immigration office won't be until 2012, by which time if I can't hold a fluent conversation with the officers there I'd probably be better off leaving Korea anyway.