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.