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.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Stem Cell

"We don't have a contingency plan, because it's not likely to happen". - Anonymous Korean Stem Cell Company Representative.

Before we went to the BEXCO Baby Fair, my wife broached the subject of umbilical cord stem cell harvesting with me. Apparently the idea was that if the cells were harvested from the cord blood and stored, our child would potentially have a better chance of recovery from future diseases such as diabetes and blindness, and eventually also problems that would benefit from a regenerative medical solution, once technology allows.

I'd heard about stem cell harvesting, but thought it was a niche activity much more in the realm of fringe science than common reality. As far as I'm aware, it's not a subject which tends to raise itself in my own country for expectant parents, but I should have guessed that in Korea - which has pioneered some stem cell research - the question is much more in the public domain. And the three Korean stem cell harvesting companies with stands at BEXCO only brought me more rapidly to that realisation. This is a big business here.

So during our trip to the Baby Fair we sat down to talk to each company, armed with questions. Apparently this was not the norm for the company representatives we met, who implied that most customers just listen to their extended one-to-one presentations and sign up, quite possibly with the perception that everyone else was doing it, so they should too. It doesn't help that the business is premised on the collective guilt-trip that is doing everything you can as a parent for your baby's future health (the American Academy of Pediatrics in their review of cord blood banking nicely summarised this as "families may be vulnerable to emotional marketing at the time of birth of a child"), and worse that there is more than a small element of naked self-interest, insofar as treatments derived from the stem cells can also be used by the parents for themselves should they need it - in which case the child's guaranteed allocation is supposedly filled from a general stem-cell bank.

To be fair, one of the issues we were concerned with was the financial stability of the companies concerned. There seemed little purpose of going to the expense of putting stem cells in a tissue bank if there was the real risk of the operating company going under and switching the machines off at some point in the future. Since retaining these stem cells is a one-time-only opportunity, the benefits of which may not be called upon for fifty years or more, it stands to be a very long term relationship. I was not encouraged to discover that some companies in the industry had upfront costs but no further maintenance charges, because while it sounds financially attractive, the business model runs the risk of being little more than a stem-cell pyramid scheme which is financially unsustainable in the long term. The companies concerned might argue that all future costs will be absorbed by the upfront charge, but since they can't know what the future cost of electricity, storage and wages will be, any company operating this model might start running a loss on progressively more of their inventory. Such developments have a habit of bringing down companies very quickly. We were also quite inquisitive on what contingency plans existed in the event of extended power outages at the tissue bank. This possibly transpired to be a prescient line of questioning since the particularly hot summer this year is pushing Korea's low electricity reserve margins to the limit and threatening extended blackouts.

To their credit, one of the company representatives we talked to was armed with financial statements allegedly showing their robust financial health, demonstrating that they knew that there was a concern over long-term security of the stem cells in their care. The problem was though that the balance sheet concerned - impressive though it was - belonged to their publicly-listed parent company. Indeed, none of the three companies we talked with were truly independent or integrated operations, but rather financially separated units of larger publicly-traded groups which made it entirely conceivable that they had to be independently viable and may not receive backing from the parent company should the business make losses and become insolvent.

We didn't really make a lot of progress conducting limited due diligence on the companies we were considering entrusting our stem cells to, nor in truth did we expect to, but it wasn't a wasted effort on our part; a couple of companies stated that in the event they could no longer store our cells they would allegedly inform us, but we didn't choose to do business with the company whose representative told us of financial failure "we don't have a contingency plan, because it's not likely to happen"...

In truth, the whole business of harvesting stem cells is little more than a contingency plan - a little insurance and peace of mind if you will. The evidence of the efficacy of treatments is mixed, scientific progress may render the availability of umbilical cord stem cells less relevant, there's currently little evidence that donations from unrelated donors in stem cell banks are any less effective (or ineffective), and the wild claims that are made regarding the treatment of hereditary or genetic conditions such as leukaemia may be wide of the mark - these are pre-existing conditions which may not benefit from the use of stem cells which may carry the same problems.

We signed up anyway, because even if one of the companies we talked to didn't have contingency plans, we wanted to have one for our baby. The cost was 1,300,000 won (£702/$1,115), and the company will liaise with the maternity hospital to take the cord blood and rush it off to the tissue bank as quickly as possible when my wife gives birth. The cost covers the first 20 years of storage rather than it being an open-ended lifetime commitment, after which the company we signed up with "doesn't have a charging policy yet" - this is still a relatively new industry. It may not be ideal, but we tried to chose the company most likely to be around in 20 years. Because the stem cells are not really geographically portable, it also means that should our child need any treatment in future, we will need to return to Korea for it if we aren't living here.