Friday, February 19, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Korea's Lunar New Year holiday ('설날') occurred over the weekend. It's a time of year that involves families gathering together, and all the inevitable responsibilities that go along with this, both subtle and overt. This year it clashed with Valentine's Day, leaving people with a choice of which to celebrate. With family being so important the New Year invariably won, although once again, ever-evasive Korean Brother managed to avoid any such obligations. As the eldest in her family, and with both parents having passed away many years ago, it is Korean Mother's responsibility to host to her young siblings for New Year's meals, and it's not an event without its tensions; with a sister who works as a Buddhist psychic and a brother who works as a Christian pastor, they are a microcosm of the religious differences which can sometimes bubble away uneasily in Korean society.

Pastor Uncle stipulated that he would only eat food which hadn't been in any way involved in any kind of Buddhist blessings or rituals, which theoretically required Korean Mother to spend the whole day preparing the dishes for the meal. This was unfortunate because Korean Mother was extremely tired having just returned from two days of New Year family duties in Namhae, and Psychic Aunt provides a steady supply of religiously-tainted food and dishes to our apartment. Thus a moral dilemma was created of whether to pander to someone's religious objections - or take the easy path of claiming an incorrect provenance. I was not keen on the latter but my limited experience in the murky world of Korean religion is that neither faction necessarily affords the other much reverence.

Korean Mother and Psychic Aunt wanted Makgeolli ('막걸리') - Korean rice wine whose popularity is rocketing - to drink with their meal, and phoned Pastor Uncle to ask him to buy some on his way to the apartment with his family. He was completely taken aback - he couldn't possibly be seen by his children buying alcohol (despite the fact that Jesus was well known drinker). Perhaps he's one of these people who've made up their own version of the Bible. So the two Buddhists had to go out and buy their own booze.

When Pastor Uncle arrived, our borderline-insane dog tried his best to feign a case of rabies and scare him into leaving. But Pastor Uncle had evidently been drinking the Biblical Kool-Aid and persisted in holding out his hand repeating "I love you, I love you", in English - oddly enough; our dog doesn't speak English nor does he have the gift of tongues. As usual, almost all the hospitals were closed for the holiday, so it wasn't clear where Pastor Uncle intended to have his finger sewn back on, but perhaps he felt that God would provide. He explained that the power of love could conquer any animal, which makes one wonder how these missionaries keep getting themselves killed overseas.

His children performed their 'big bows' to Korean Mother - a ritual at this time of year. It's extremely important partly because it confers respect on ones' elders, and affords them a formal opportunity to impart wisdom and/or lecture their juniors, but mostly because - from the point of view of the juniors - they are given gift money in return. We'd already done our bows earlier and made our profit, and while Korean Brother had to go, he'd somehow managed to stay long enough to get his pay-off too.

Before long the collected family factions were sitting on the floor around a long low table reminiscent of some medieval European banquet - if Europeans ate copious amounts of crab, noodles, rice and plants. But before we could eat, Pastor Uncle had to say Grace, and his faction put on their most serious looks as they bowed their heads while the rest of us waited. Once he'd finished, Psychic Aunt decided to immediately follow it with a Buddhist prayer, which is not normal and very much felt as though it was designed to make a point. I believe this was obvious to everyone and the atmosphere seemed to have become very uncomfortable. It looked set to be a long evening.

But if there's one thing that can unify Koreans it's food - so it wasn't long before animosities were buried in favour of devouring the feast of potentially questionable provenance. Bits of crab flew through the air amidst this fine social scene, with Psychic Aunt pausing at one point to pull a piece out of the hair of Pastor Uncle's wife. Perhaps there could be peace in our time.

I was not faring so well. The soup tasted of seawater, the meat was of the don't-ask-don't-tell variety so popular in this country, and by the time I'd finished I felt like I'd been sucking on a metal bar for fifteen minutes. Five minutes into my re-acquaintance with authentic Korean food the Makgeolli had started to look like a good way of conducting a mercy killing of my taste buds, but it seemed rude to ask the two older Buddhists for a glass of their hard-won liquor. Unfortunately, I'm not usually offered alcohol since I'm possessed by the evil spirit which is Meniere's Disease, and for my sins I go through much of life having the balance of a drunk while actually being stone-cold sober. So it was just me, the seawater soup, and the misery of being all alone behind the language barrier with only the partially-obstructed view of the South Korea v. Japan Asia Cup game for company.

But an interesting thing happened. The Christian wants to know how work is going and the truth is I'm growing fed up with it. My wife and trading partner doesn't want the stress while pregnant, leaving me to work alone, and I've finally realised that if there's one thing I really can't stand about trading, it's the people. So what about teaching he asks - after all, one of my wife's degrees is in English Literature which has to be good for something, and in my abortive attempt to teach English in Japan post-graduation I'd acquired a TESOL qualification, although the more I learned about teaching English the more underqualified I felt - and the more I didn't want to do it. The upshot of that was we may have agreed to a potential career change somewhere on the horizon, though unfortunately I can't blame it on the non-existent alcohol.

While the Christian enthused about all the potential clients he could gather - and he's a very well connected person - his equal and opposite sat in silence, making no offer to network for us. On this evidence, I'm not sure how Buddhists intend to win hearts and minds in this country against the onslaught of a group who so rabidly want to help.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I received a letter from the Ministry of Justice at the weekend. It was about the Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which neither I, nor apparently Google, had heard of before. I grew up in a city where it was a given that any communication from local government or schools would arrive in four different languages, but this attempt to reach out towards certain immigrant minorities in a spirit of friendship was interpreted by a fringe element as an invitation to burn English books they disagreed with between City Hall and the Police Headquarters. Later, a good number of them decided that protest was inefficient, and the brilliantly elegant solution to creating an integrated society was to kill everyone who disagreed with them. Just so you know where the Ministry of Justice are coming from, their letter is written only in Korean, and it points you to a website - more on this later with a warning - which is also only available in Korean, save for an English menu entitled "INFORMAION" and a section curiously called "MORGUE". One might have thought the website at least could have had a brief explanation in English, Vietnamese and the language of any other major immigrant group that tends to end up on F-type visas - especially as the Ansan Migrant Community Service Centre managed it - but then perhaps that would lead us to the point where we're burning Korean books outside the Ministry of Justice a few years down the road.

The Free Dictionary defines integration as "The bringing of people of different racial or ethnic groups into unrestricted and equal association, as in society or an organization". So there may be an important lesson here - integration in Korea in 2010 does not necessarily mean arriving at some level of equal association through multicultural mutual understanding, or being in any way really being accommodating, it means complying with the Korean way of doing things from the outset. Maybe that's fair enough, and maybe it isn't, depending on what you believe integration to mean. Given my experiences back home, I didn't want the Korean Government to make the same mistakes we did in our liberal naiveté and post-colonial guilt either, but on the other hand, I felt as though they could have given a little - but then, maybe that's how that long spiral downwards begins.

So what does the Ministry of Justice want? It wishes to invite me to undertake two conversion courses, one in Korean language and one in Korean culture, which will help towards naturalisation. I'm not interested in becoming naturalised - there's little natural about me in the first place - but with further investigation the situation becomes a little vaguer. While it is only an invitation, it carries an incentive - or possibly an implied threat - that successful completion will contribute points and therefore "help" towards visa renewal - potentially even general F2 ones where it says that 'skilled workers applying get 10 points'. You don't need to have studied logic as part of your degree course to see that the implicated flip-side of this positive condition is that not doing the courses may be "unhelpful" towards future visa renewals. Which leaves one wondering what all this really means, and where it's all leading. The letter makes a point of stating that the courses are open to 'any foreigners' and goes on to list many examples including 'overseas students' although curiously, English teachers aren't mentioned. One has to presume at this point that 'any foreigners' will only include those fortunate enough to have someone with the time to translate the letter for them, investigate the website and inevitably, phone up the office concerned when they realise how inadequate the former two are.

Language is one thing. I've been studying between one and two hours a day since returning to Korea with little success, and yet I certainly see the need to achieve fluency - lest I end up like those people back in my home city who don't speak English living in their ethnically-divided cantons. So if Korea is to extend the gloved-hand of friendship and help me down that road with the carrot before me and possibly the stick behind, so be it. Culture though, is another matter, because it can be very subjective. Before giving up and unexpectedly leaving the Disunited Kingdom, my wife undertook and passed a sometimes difficult and mandatory Government-run Life in the UK exam, which is similarly presented as contributing towards visa applications. It largely - though not completely - boiled down to a predictably politically correct and uncontroversial exercise in dry facts and statistics about life in Britain, which I promise you most British people would fail. If you happen to be British and think you wouldn't - try this - I've no idea when an adult should join the New Deal programme, what percentage of children live with both parents, or precisely how many Jewish people live in the country. The test has to be studied for and there's quite a high failure rate. Political correctness in the UK largely demands a certain line in bland questioning, but what of a Korean cultural test? I can foresee problems here, because I have a certain Copernican view of Korea which I'm not sure my hosts share. Furthermore, while I have some interest in Korean history, politics, economics and culture, and possibly some 'interesting' views, I have no interest in the lives of Korean celebrities or the kind of television programmes which audiences make "ooooo" noises to every five seconds. To be fair, I share the same disinterests in British and American culture too.

As well as containing a section called "MORGUE", Avast said the Korean Immigration and Integration Program website contained a Javascript trojan the moment I allowed it with NoScript, so my attempts to navigate through the pages were somewhat thwarted by the anti-virus program's prevention of functionality to protect me. I try be very careful when it comes to matters of computer security so there was only so far I was going to go under Windows. The website is but under the circumstances I'm not going to directly link it here - it may well be a false positive but enter at your own discretion.

I tried it under Ubuntu instead which is probably safer, but the menu wouldn't load at all so I gave up. If one of the questions on the cultural test is "Should Koreans be allowed to design websites?", I'm going to get that answer wrong. It's sad because Korea's refusal to adopt international and more security-friendly standards in web-design surely results in lost export business, and the day Digital Pearl Harbor finally occurs is most likely the day this country is cyber-bombed back into the 1980s. The people here will wish they'd never even heard of ActiveX the day their mobile phones stop working.

I got as far as learning that there are - I think - four language levels taking 100 hours each, and a fifth level for culture which takes 50 hours, but there appeared to be no information on whether this consists of one hour a week or 40, nor where the courses might be held - it can take me well over an hour to reach certain parts of Busan, so it has a bearing if I'm supposed to be commuting for over two hours a day for the sake of an hour's class. My wife, who had to work through all this on my behalf, concluded that "surprisingly, it doesn't have the most necessary information". I wasn't so surprised, if there's one thing bureaucrats everywhere have in common, it's their unfailing inability to think anything through properly or arrive at a functional and public-friendly result.

My wife phoned on Monday morning to be told that the courses were held for two hours three times a week, at a government office near PNU - which is just about as far away from me in Busan as it's possible to get - and at a private university in Seomyeon - which is a more reasonable 30 minutes journey. She also took the opportunity to complain about the fact that the letter and the website were written in Korean - to which the man taking the call laughed - but in bureaucratic embarrassment or belligerence it's impossible to say. There are a number of factors I have to weigh up before deciding whether to do this or not.