Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dog Gone

The decision to move out of my mother-in-law’s apartment set in motion a lot of unintended consequences. One of these was the surprising declaration by Korean Mother that because she intended to spend most of her days out of the apartment, or engaging in bouts of potentially uninvited babysitting at ours, she wouldn’t be in a position to keep the dog called Max we’d rescued three years ago and given to her to keep her company.

It was always clear we wouldn’t be taking him with us, because he doesn’t like to be poked and our son is very much at the poking stage, though I think he’s showing signs of graduating to tail-biting. The other problem was that if Max felt he’d been slighted in some way, he’d take revenge, and it got to the point where scolding him for something would almost inevitably lead to him urinating on one of the beds in the house, and if he needed to wait a couple of days to pick his moment, then he would. Max is a dog that plots against you.

So plans were hatched to send him down to Namhae to stay with my father-in-law and his father, who eventually vetoed the plan. It was probably a lucky escape for Max anyway. I met a dog on their farm once. It was tied up by a short rope walking around in a puddle of its own urine in the freezing cold, and it was pleased to see me in a way that was so friendly it suggested a certain form of madness and the impossible hope of rescue. The next time I went to Namhae, the dog was gone. I think something bad happened to him but I didn’t want to to ask. That was a ‘working dog’ I was told, so Max would be treated differently, but I had my doubts. Most Koreans are coming to terms with being the first generation of keepers of dogs as pets, and it shows.

Without the easy option of the Namhae plan we were back at the status quo ante, and between everything else that was going on at the time, Max’s situation was not the foremost one in my mind. But what I didn’t expect to happen was for my wife to suddenly tell me at 4.50pm on some random Sunday that his new owners were coming to collect him in ten minutes. Max has bitten me badly enough to draw blood three times, once very early on when we were establishing our levels in the pack and twice I think in the mistaken belief that he was protecting our baby. So there have been long periods when there has been no love lost between us, but I have played with him a lot, and there was a time when I considered him my only friend in Korea, so I suppose when it came down I was rather attached to him, for all his faults.

I’d scolded him at lunchtime because he’d been trying to bite a towel on the floor, and with the handover now happening fifteen floors below me outside our apartment building after vital time had been spent with my wife who was trying to calm me down, it promised to be the last interaction Max and I ever had. Maybe ending things that way shouldn’t have mattered, but it did.

I rushed down to try and say this sudden and unexpected goodbye. None of it was very pleasant as my wife and mother-in-law were both upset and I was angry about not being told of this development. I might not speak the language but at one point I broke etiquette and deliberately stared at my wife’s mother in order to convey my feelings towards her. To my mind Max was part of the family and she’d made the decision autonomously with people we didn’t know anything about, and she had also failed to inform anyone. I was even more angered when she eventually appeared to reluctantly accept the money the new owners had brought for her, because it turned it into a cheapened financial transaction. Later I found out that it's considered 'unlucky' - for both parties - not to pay for a dog in Korea, even if it's a token amount. Not knowing this, we'd never paid any money when we rescued Max, and there may well be those who believe that in failing to appease the Gods in this way, everything else that followed we brought upon ourselves.

As for not finding out until ten minutes before, it turned out my wife had known in the morning – which is still far too late – and in rushing out to meet a friend had forgotten to tell me. So her stock wasn’t exactly going up in this whole affair either.

It’s a sore point with me that – especially because of the language barrier – I tend to be the last to know anything in my life in Korea, both domestic and beyond, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s not good enough to just excuse it as a function of language difficulties. Rather, I’m coming to the conclusion that most Koreans I know are not great sharerers of important information, not because they aren’t good gossips, because they are, but because they aren’t always good at talking with foreigners, even if they can speak perfect English, like my wife.

Apparently Max’s new owners were ‘dog people’ of long standing, who had just lost their previous pet to old age. Needless to say though, this is not an ideal way to transfer ownership of a dog. But when the status updates came in, it was all positive. They’d taken him home, let him run around the garden of their house which he’d greatly enjoyed as I can imagine, and then they’d given him a bath and gone out and bought a new house and basket for him along with other items. The husband would take Max for walks by the river in the morning, and the wife stayed at home during the day, ensuring Max would have a happier life than we had been able to provide for him. I made my peace with it and wished him that better life.

The next day they brought him back. He’d growled at the husband and he’d refused to eat. And while the couple might have been dog people of many years' experience, they apparently didn’t know much about adjustment periods, or perhaps it finally dawned on them that when we said Max had a troubled early life and needed a good home with patient owners, this was really meant. So they had second thoughts, or no patience, and Max came back, but he still needed a new home and I was sure it would be worse than the one he had for a day.

Predictably I wasn’t told Max was returning either, so the first I knew of it was when I heard the familiar sound of his feet on the floor.

We moved out and Max disapproved of it. So he decided to step things up a gear, by urinating and defecating everywhere every time my mother-in-law went out. Despite this, I wish I found out what she was going to do before she handed him over to a government-registered kennel to be re-homed, because I believe they are inherently untrustworthy and there’s always the thought at the back of your mind that they will find ways of creating spaces in their kennels whatever it takes, even if officially their government registration supposedly guarantees that they will never put a dog to sleep.

Max was probably traumatised by being separated from his mother after six days, and he never recovered from it, becoming a victim of this country’s general attitude towards dogs, if not – I increasingly feel - its general attitude as a whole. So when he had his lucky breaks he didn’t make the most of them, but while I was sympathetic I also didn’t know what to do because he was unmanageable and untrustworthy. You can’t easily have an untrustworthy dog in your apartment when you have a baby.

Still, I hatched a plan to rescue Max if he hadn’t been re-housed within a few weeks, although I didn’t tell my wife and I didn’t know how the idea would be received. The plan involved taking Max back and bringing him to our apartment despite his problems – where I would take him out every morning to exercise and tire him to see if this altered his behaviour for the better. Then, if it didn’t, he might have to go back to the kennel. But it wasn’t to be. Officially, Max was re-housed after two weeks, and that might be really what happened, or he might be dead, but either way it’s over and I’ll never know the truth.

Goodbye Max

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 36: Love Hotels, Sex and Adultery (Banned)

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


It took 36 weeks, but I finally had a script refused for broadcast. When I started doing my weekly segment with Busan e-FM, it was with the agreement that I could be honest about my experiences in Korea, but the question is, does Korea want to be honest about itself?

Ostensibly, the problem was that Love Hotels and Adultery – the main thrust of my piece – were “not appropriate subjects” for the radio. TBS eFM – an equivalent English-language radio station in Seoul had covered these subjects before – but that’s Seoul and this is Busan, which is generally much more socially conservative.

Exploring where these newly discovered boundaries lay, and whether they were strictly sexual, I asked - mindful that the 2011 Dog Meat Festival in Gyeonggi Province had recently been cancelled amidst protests – if the subject I was allegedly considering for the next week – that of dog meat in Korea – would be acceptable. I was of course, just screwing with them. I felt I saw a slightly pained look cross the face of my assigned handler. It was not really an acceptable subject either.

And so it was we reached the climax of our conversation. It was probably best to avoid ‘controversial subjects’. That was the spot I’d touched. The two people I knew that regularly listened to my segment – who for all I know were actually the only two people who listened at all - were surprised. Hadn’t the radio station really been listening to what I’d been talking about before now?

I’ve always found the foreigners who only tell Koreans what they want to hear for the sake of a quiet life somewhat soda-masochistic, even if we’ve all done it from time to time. So I escaped my temporary bondage and continued tackling controversial subjects in the weeks that followed, going on to reference attitudes to homosexuality in Korea, monoculture and corporate enslavement, racism and the often enforced dystopian existence of foreigners, consumer nationalism, chaebol media lies and the absence of critical thought, [stay tuned!] but I did it in my usual style – hopefully relatively gently, diplomatically, and with humour.

I’d like to think that if done sufficiently eloquently, it is possible to speak truth to power in Korea, but whether that’s because people here are truly prepared to have a light shone on certain subjects, or simply because they weren’t listening or didn’t understand, is the loaded question.

I include the script below as an example of the realities of Korean life and culture you can’t talk about on the radio in Busan in 2011.

Introduction – Love Hotels, Sex and Adultery

Last week I talked about ‘bangs’ - such as the ‘DVD bang’ couples go to. This week I’m talking about a related subject, that of ‘love hotels’ or ‘love motels’. I don’t quite know how to translate this because we don’t use the word ‘motel’ in British English, but I’ve seen them called both hotels and motels here.

I think this highlights an issue with the cultural development of language. A motel is described as a ‘hotel for motorists’, and it makes sense this word would emerge from American English because of the long road journeys people have to make in the United States. They don’t have to do this in England because the country is geographically small – so you can normally get to where you want to go in a day. But I understand that many American motels are dropping the word now because it’s seen as being ‘seedy’.

We still have slightly seedy hotels in England – we just call them ‘bed & breakfasts’. But there are no love hotels in England that I'm aware of.

Love Hotels

So I was surprised when I saw the love hotels here, although not totally shocked – Japan is famous for its love hotels and most people outside Japan have probably heard of them. To a Westerner like myself, there seem to be a lot of general cultural similarities between Japan and Korea, so it’s not a complete shock to discover love hotels here, but as I’ve said before, I really didn’t know that much about Korea before coming here, and I certainly didn’t realise how popular they are.

I took them as a sign of social restriction in Korea, in the same way that ‘DVD bang’ represent the same issue. They are both somewhere to go because so many young people live at home. Maybe ‘DVD bang’ are where they go to fool around, and when it gets more serious they graduate to love hotels. I find it funny though how people going there want privacy, but the buildings are usually so very visible and obvious because of their architectural tendency to employ large fake Roman columns, cupid statues, small windows and plenty of neon lighting.

Staying in a Love Hotel

I’ve actually stayed in a love hotel. The first time I went to Seoul it was just for an overnight trip, and my wife and I wanted to save money, so she said “love hotels are cheap... and usually have Internet connections.” I thought ‘why not?’ Anyway, if the word ‘cheap’ didn’t sell it for me, the word ‘Internet’ certainly did.

So we quickly came across a love hotel in some Seoul backstreet near the Blue House, although I’ve learned that in Korea love hotels certainly don’t feel compelled to hide themselves away. That said, they do try to maintain a certain air of privacy, with curtains at the entrance to the drive-in areas to avoid cars and perhaps car licence-plates being seen, which always gave me the impression that a lot of older people might be using the hotels given that younger people generally own fewer cars – and probably don’t care about that kind of privacy as much. This quickly led me to believe that love hotels are frequently the venue for affairs in Korea. But if that didn’t convince me, when we reached the counter it also had a curtain over it, our money went underneath and a hand comes back with a key. No faces are visible and it’s all quite seedy actually, which made me feel vaguely guilty. I felt like trying to look underneath the curtain to say “we’re married”, but then I suppose everyone feeling guilty says that.

Last week I talked about going to DVD bangs with two Korean women, which in retrospect – given the area we were in – looked bad. And in some ways I felt the same way at the love hotel – if the staff had seen my face it wasn’t going to do anything positive for the reputation of foreigners. Then again, love hotels don’t always do much with foreigners for the reputation of the Koreans who run them – last year there wasn’t enough hotel space at the inaugural Korean Grand Prix, so a number of journalists ended up staying in love hotels – perhaps unsuspectingly. Anyway, the main point it that they were charged $310 per night – in other words they were ripped off – which means that evidently the love hotel owners realised they were foreigners early into the transaction – curtains or not.

While it might be cheap – unless you happen to be an unsuspecting foreigner – it’s not necessarily easy to get a good night’s rest there, because my wife was worried about hidden cameras. I don’t know if this is just an urban legend or whether it actually happens – actually I suspect it probably does happen sometimes. So it’s all about undressing in a part of the room where you think the camera won’t see you, then hiding under the covers and sleeping. I don’t want to be famous on the Korean Internet.

So I guess the love hotels are still too much of a risk for some. I was up on Hwangryeong Mountain late one night in Busan taking shots of the city after dark, and there were a few cars parked along the road, spaced apart. There seemed to be some kind of activity in a couple of the cars, and one of them had the stereotypical steamed up windows, and the car was moving around. Given the executive and old fashioned nature of the car concerned, I imagined there had to be an older couple inside.

Adultery is a Criminal Offence in Korea

Of course, adultery is illegal in Korea, so people have to be careful. I was really shocked when I found out about this law, but perhaps it goes some way to explain some of the behaviour I’ve encountered. When my wife and I were at another love hotel, another couple happened to come out of the room at the same time as us, and as soon as they saw us they dashed back inside.

I don’t know what to think about the adultery law. On the one hand, adultery is a bad thing, but on the other hand, in my opinion it seems like the kind of law the Taliban would have, and not something you find in a modern country.

I think the law creates a bad impression of South Korea. Maybe it’s not fair expecting Korea to be socially liberal, but this country is very keen to attract foreign investment and foreign companies, but I imagine business executives in foreign companies look at Korean society as a whole before they decide to come here and think “what kind of country is this?”

What I can’t figure out about this law is that legislators are mainly men, and men are usually willing adulterers – in fact male politicians around the world are known for their affairs – so why did these men create and pass this law? Do they like living dangerously or were they really worried about their lives? [I left this question hanging but I’m convinced that men passed this law to control women in the traditionally misogynistic Korean court system, although more recently judges may have been a little more balanced in their judgements].

It’s also worth making some comparisons between South Korea and other countries. China is not known for being socially liberal, but adultery isn’t a criminal offence there. But then adultery is a criminal offence in the U.S. state of New Hampshire – it isn’t enforced and there are people trying to get it removed from the statute books.

I think the whole issue raises some fundamental questions about freedom and democracy in South Korea. Should the majority be able to dictate to – and criminalise – a minority that don’t meet their moral standards? For that matter, what right does the government have to legislate people’s sex lives?

It’s a dangerous road to go down in my opinion. Some Islamic countries have ‘moral police’ who enforce compliance with Sharia Law – is that really what the police should be doing in Korea? Last year, I read about an incident in Malaysia where the ‘morality police’ were knocking on people’s doors in a hotel, and they ended up arresting 52 unmarried couples. I suppose if the Korean police really wanted to enforce the law here they could just visit love hotels, check people’s marital status, and make arrests. To be fair, they don’t, but the fact that the law exists means that one day they could, or just choose to do it selectively to target certain individuals or groups, which is why bad laws should never be on the statute books. Anyway, as far as Korea is concerned, I think the people should be spending their time arresting motorcyclists who ride on the pavements [sidewalks], rather than getting involved in policing people’s relationships.

Korean Porn Movies

While I don’t worry about getting arrested in a love hotel, I do worry about the perceived issue of hidden cameras and ending up on the Internet, but I haven’t avoided Korea’s love hotels despite this. When we went to a funeral in Namhae we found ourselves in the countryside and it was quite isolated. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a proper hotel for miles, but there was a love hotel just up the road from the the funeral hall. So given that Korean funerals tend to be multi-day events, and given that we didn’t want to sleep in the funeral hall with a heaving mass of older Koreans, we had little choice but to stay in a love hotel once again.

This one was even less subtle because even if the building's fake Roman columns and cupid statues didn’t give the game away to the uninitiated, it had a large collection of pornographic videos outside the elevator on our floor - most appeared to be Korean-made. It also had a great looking Jacuzzi placed centrally within the room, but sadly we daren’t use it because of the potential for hidden cameras.

Korean Culture

Staying in a love hotel is an interesting experience. When it comes down to it, staying in hotels in England is often all the same, but Korean love hotels have character. At the risk of giving Korean newspapers even more reasons to hate us, I think it’s something every foreigner should try at least once. They are part of what Korea is, and part of the cultural experience here.

Planned air date: 2011-06-29 @ ~19:30


Five weeks after the planned air date of this piece, South Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the provision in the Criminal Code imposing a maximum two-year prison sentence on adulterers, saying it was 'an infringement on the sphere of sexual life that society should maintain on its own' and that 'the state was excessively restricting a matter of personal decision.'

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I got a job working part-time as a software engineer for Busan International Foreign School (BIFS), developing and implementing a Student Information System (or 'SIS') using PHP and MySQL. The position is open-ended but because I’m working on a specific project it feels more like one of the IT-contracts I used to do.

The hours work well for me because my wife is doing a TESOL course at the moment and I’m babysitting when I’m not working. That said, I had notions that a part-time position would leave me with much more chances to study, but after my first day of babysitting duties, I managed no more than ten minutes, and it set the pattern for what would follow. Perhaps I’m never going to be able to study Korean effectively or do anything else I want to until my son gets older, or someone pays me enough not to madly chase around Korea after work as I have been doing of late.

Busan International Foreign School is situated in Gijang, which Wikipedia describes as "the most rural of Busan’s districts" consisting of "mostly of vacant and agricultural land", which just about sums it up. Getting to the school before I moved from one side of Busan to the other - another of the many things which have occupied my time this month - involved travelling thirty-three subway stops and then using a taxi, because Gijang is sufficiently off the grid that it lies some distance to the north of Jangsan - the last station on Line 2. After I moved, I managed to cut my journey time down from one hour twenty minutes, to fifty-five minutes, which I'm obviously very happy about in a sarcastic kind of way, but we bought the apartment before I got the job, so I wasn't to know how inconvenient it would really be. In principle my new apartment is closer than the travel time would seem to suggest, but having to change subway lines twice to get to Jangsan really slows the journey down.

It’s somewhat ironic that I’ve found myself working for one of the two foreign schools here - because the question of whether to send my son to Busan International Foreign School or its rival, Busan Foreign School, has been vaguely at the back of our minds since before my wife even gave birth. Now that I work for BIFS I’ve finally undertaken more research into both schools and the choice has become much clearer - there isn’t one because I probably can't afford either of them.

The campus is newly built and larger than I expected, and the vast majority of the teachers and students are non-Koreans. That might sound obvious, but in fact some foreign schools which teach foreign curricula in Korea end up doing so primarily for the benefit of more internationally-minded Koreans. Another interesting and probably highly unusual aspect to BIFS is that it doesn’t teach a US curriculum which the US is not a particularly good advert for, but instead the International Baccalaureate, which seems determined to produce the kind of well-rounded individuals which Korea is desperately lacking due to the latter system's tendency to overspecialise and focus solely on measured examination outcomes while discouraging critical thought.

While there are American teachers at the school, most of the senior staff are British, and a surprising number of teachers are non-American native English speakers, so after what I wrote about the number of jobs in Korea which advertised for 'North American passport holders only', it feels like part school, part search-and-rescue mission for non-American English-speaking expats.

And so a new Korean experience has begun for me. Three days a week, I travel the subway like the office worker I now am. I have my first salaried position in this country, and much against expectations, it isn’t teaching English.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

August Rush: The First Birthday Party

The failure to go to England had another consequence. Our son would celebrate his first birthday in Korea. So we had four options in order of my descending preference: do nothing, have a meal with friends and family at home, have a meal with friends and family in a restaurant, or submit to the complete circus that is a baby birthday hall. Yes, they have baby birthday halls.

Tired, sick, rejected from a job I wanted, and generally extremely fed-up, when my wife broached the subject with me, I famously said “just choose the option you think best”. Tens of thousands of years of language development and men still haven’t learned not to speak those words in sequence to women. I suppose one would have to conclude at this point that it must serve some evolutionary purpose, but if it does I certainly can’t imagine what. And I said it in Korea.

So the baby birthday hall it was then, with all the consequences stemming from this that you don’t clearly think through until they are making your life a misery, such as the one-year photo shoot, the video, the invites, the hanboks, and the breakdancing.

The Photo/Video Presentation

Yes, it is not so simple as booking a time, sending out some invites and just turning up, because the first thing you’re going to need is to arrange the video and photo presentation that forms one of the centrepieces of the birthday celebration. Now in all probability you’ve spent the last year taking copious amounts of photos and videos of your baby – this is Korea after all - so you might be led to believe that these would prove sufficient, but nay, nay and thrice nay.

The photo presentation must contain pictures from the one-year photo shoot – it’s the law – so this involved another trip to a self-studio, a lot of silly hats, and an understanding wife. Understanding because just before we were about to set off for said studio, I received an email telling me I hadn’t got an interview for the job I wanted, so I spent twenty minutes writing a reply trying to persuade them to change their minds (they did), and telling them I’d go there immediately if they wanted to interview me that afternoon, which would cause us to miss the shoot (I ended up going the next morning). We were late arriving at the studio, but they didn’t have another booking after us, so they let us run over, which was pretty decent of them.

So we now had our full portfolio of photographs and videos, but they had to be packaged in a proper presentation format, because well... everyone else does and so like most things in Korea, it’s something of a social arms race.

There are one-and-a-half ways of doing this. Either have a specialist company produce one for around 70,000 won, or go down the cheaper road of doing it yourself. Well, we’re all into self-empowerment here at Busan Mike Inc. (i.e. we’re cheap), so we did it ourselves. And it can be both fun and therapeutic too. Once I’d produced an outline photo and video montage and a credits sequence where I was only listed under Professional White Guy as ‘Dada’ and which ended with the phase “No Piracy in Korea!” I really began to see the possibilities for indulging in a little satire for the purposes of self-therapy. It would have been lost on the audience of course, in fact there’s every chance they might have viewed the result positively as taking the process into a ‘new paradigm’, but sadly it was not to be. I became too sick to work on it any further and my wife did it instead. But I’m sorry my baby video as a parody of “Korea’s Got Talent!” never saw the light of day.

My wife’s video-photo montage was more conventional, and perhaps the Windows Live Movie Maker produced result was not as polished as the professionally produced videos we’ve seen at other first-birthdays recently, but on the other hand my wife also speaks English well-enough to know not to choose a soundtrack with the lyrics “ooh, my ass, my ass, my sexy ass” to accompany those videos of baby crawling around. It’s possible the singer was intending some action to be performed in relation to her ass, but I never did decipher those lyrics, and perhaps it’s just as well. Meanwhile, one of the English captions read “Let is wet the baby is head” and since it appeared at a point devoid of head wetting, its purpose and that of several other captions will remain a mystery.

Of course the other problem with burning a DVD is who does that any more? We had to go out and find a disc that was compatible with our computers and their DVD player, because you really only have one shot at this.


The next problem, if indeed it isn’t actually several problems further down the road, is that you need a hanbok, Korea’s traditional dress and method of ensuring that you take up twice the physical amount of space you would otherwise need. For some inexplicable reason, hanbok have failed to sweep the world to the extent that even Koreans don’t normally wear them or own them these days. So a trip to the hanbok-hire store is in order so that you, your spouse and your child can pick out matching hanbok. Matching is a strong word because in my experience many hanbok are something of a conflict of colour which rarely match themselves let alone anything else, but in the end we pick the ‘Microsoft Office’ hanboks which limit themselves to pale blue and white. They even have ribbons as well, though it’s unclear if anyone wants them.

It has taken us some time to reach this point however, because the small branch office of the hanbok-hire company located in the baby hall building has a very limited selection so we have to visit their headquarters, which much like those descriptions in Korea’s traditional fairy stories is “‘five minutes walk’ from a subway station in a land far, far away.” Which means more time wasted. Sorry, I mean more time usefully spent in subway trains with a crying baby.

But I am relieved to discover that on this occasion, the hanbok I have to wear does not include a square metal belt and badly fitting Wellington boots. And this is fortunate, because by attending other baby birthday parties recently I have discovered that it is customary in Korea to call upon the father to engage in the traditional Korean dance form known as ‘hip-hop’, ‘breakdancing’ or ‘b-boying’.

Can You Breakdance (in a Hanbok)?

“I’m the MC” announces a disturbingly wild-eyed youth who comes up to me at the start of proceedings – or at least as close as he can given my hanbok-exclusion zone. Except phonetically he says Em-Shi because Koreans pronounce ‘Ci’ as ‘Shi’ which is why Centum City is potentially such an immaturely amusing place to live. “Ah, Em-Shi-shi”, I greet him using the polite formal suffix for personal names, but it’s lost on him. “Can you breakdance?” he obliviously continues. I am wearing a large hanbok and after one year of being a parent I have the physical appearance of an 80 year-old. The correct response would have been a withering “Do I look like I can breakdance?”, but the best I can manage is “No.” One day, my language abilities will be good enough for my personality to escape its prison, and then the Koreans will hunt it down and kill it.

So he tells me to just copy him when the time comes, because obviously the only alternative is to go with my own routine that helped my crew win the R-16 Battle three years in a row, although we weren’t wearing hanbok at the time. I promise you that hanbok breakdancing will be the next big thing though. I might even email it in as a suggestion to the Ministry of Culture. They’ll go for it as well. You know it. I know it.

Guests or No Guests

So the guests arrive. I feel this requires mentioning explicitly since for the first 20 minutes, when nobody came, it didn’t appear to be a given. I was once setting up a meeting with some African-Carribean student leaders and their constituency, and they told me we’d meet at 8pm, which meant 9, “it’s a cultural thing” they explained. As a person who’s always been driven by each tick of the clock I admired that about them. Koreans are not always so unpunctual in my experience, but with our baby’s birthday and those of the other people’s we attended, people tended to drift over an extended period of time rather than actually turn up when you expect them.

To be fair, it’s not like anything particularly urgent is scheduled, and perhaps that’s why. These birthday baby halls are much like wedding halls insofar as food is organised around a extended buffet layout, with side rooms leading off from this central area. The prepared baby video plays on a loop in the room for around an hour, until the MC turns up for his 15 minute entertainment slot. In the meantime, guests come along, bringing their envelopes of gift money, which has largely replaced the old tradition of giving gold rings. In fact to some, the money is the most important part of the proceedings because before this point, an equation has been carefully calculated and much like an exam, this is when you get your answer.


The equation is highly complex and normally requires several hours of supercomputer time to complete, or your Korean mother-in-law. Grossly simplified, the number of guests invited is divided by the ratio of guests likely to come, the costs of the wedding hall, per-guest buffet charge, hanbok hire and sundry expenses, versus the amount of gift money the guests are likely to bring (which is usually more than cost per head), plus the likelihood that these said guests will retaliate by subsequently inviting you to one of their baby or grandchild parties, which negates the financial advantage of inviting them given that you will, essentially, then have to return their gift money. There are many further sub-equations, such as the table-bottle amplification, which calculates the additional cost given that soft and hard bottled drinks are charged extra per bottle, and their consumption can rise exponentially if certain demographic critical masses occur, but they are beyond the scope of my explaining here.

Overall, the more people you can invite, the more likely it is you will see a profit. But one complication of being a foreigner is that I know very few people to invite, and even if all but one of them weren’t working on a live radio programme at the time of our party, the Korean gift-money system makes inviting your friends tantamount to asking for money from them.

Stress has been shown to be a major cause of health problems, so let me put your mind at ease now by revealing that we broke even on our baby party. We will probably end up running a small loss though as guests go on to have 20% more babies than us, according to our calculations.

Baby’s Future Career

So we reach the main event of the proceedings, which isn’t the hanbok breakdancing. After some gifts have been given out in faux-competitions by the MC, and more gift money has been begged for with a Catholic-church style collection tray, the collection tray, which has several other items within it, is presented to your baby for them to choose... their future career.

In the tray is a toy pencil (scholar), stethoscope (doctor), ball (sportsperson), hammer (judge), microphone (entertainer), mouse (dot-com millionaire) which alongside the recently donated and now untraceable cash (Korean politician) provide you with your career options. But there had been a slight complication. A few days earlier our dog had torn the ball apart and it no longer existed, thus potentially changing the future course of our son’s life. Our son chose the pencil instead, which I suppose means my wife and I had better plan for our own retirement, and not expect our son to take care of us financially. Oh well.

Next there is a fake cake with a candle on top to light. The cake is made out of some kind of material which – this being Korea – is probably highly flammable, but despite this it appeared to have survived several dozen previous parties.

Hanbok Breakdancing

The potential conflagration was followed by the threatened hanbok breakdancing. By this time our MC had been temporarily joined by two accomplices who were evidently either professional breakdancers or were used to being electrocuted a lot and had memorised the moves. I readied myself for my inevitable invitation to join them in front of the crowd as I’d witnessed with previous fathers at baby birthday halls. But it didn’t happen. I think our MC let his lack of English get the better of his clinically extroverted personality, and he decided against it. It was a wise choice. Deprived of their entertainment, the guests gradually drifted away seemingly destined to not eat again for days afterwards.

The Undiscovered Country

When I was told that there was a 100-day photo shoot for my baby, it came as a surprise because I wasn’t warned until the time arrived. The same is true for the 200-day photo shoot, and the one-year photo shoot. Similarly, the one-year birthday baby hall party had not been on my agenda. So I can not conclude this piece with a sense that I can put it behind me and consign the experience to history, because living in Korea is rather like the conquest of space – it’s a journey of exploration and you never know what you’re going to find next. Oh yes, and no-one really trusts the aliens.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

August Rush: England

I was scheduled to return to England with my wife and baby son on the 25th, but that never happened; we cancelled our tickets on the 20th. Our baby is not a good traveller. In fact he is not a good sleeper or eater either, so this last year has been exhausting. Losing face in Korea is best avoided, so I’m not supposed to talk about it, but that’s the reality. It's been an extremely tough year. Our trip to England felt necessary for the sake of relatives and an ageing parent, but it was probably always the wrong decision, one made out of emotion rather than logic.

Our long and many subway journeys across Busan from Saha-gu to the east of the city where we were searching for an apartment during August were fraught experiences, because he was not a happy traveller. Sometimes we had to get off at stations to calm him down, and once it was so bad we gave up and went to the surface to catch a bus. Suddenly twenty-four hours of travelling and fourteen hours of flights with him appeared a reckless idea, and we took the emotionally gut-wrenching decision to cancel the trip and disappoint my family. But as parents we had to do what we thought best for our son, and that was not going.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of international relationships when the two countries are far apart; one partner is always going to make the potential sacrifice of being separated from friends and family. And for all the Korean government’s constant attempts to support multicultural families within Korea, there is one important respect in which they certainly don’t support them, and that’s in the provision of holiday time legislation, with a mere five discretionary days a year typical in many jobs. Contrast that with England, where twenty days is common. This means that when I get a job I simply may not have the option of returning to England except for a week, which stripping out travelling and jet-lag hardly amounts to quality time. It seems that sometimes the only solution to the problem is to quit your job, and apply for a new one when you return.

Another ominous sign of more difficulties lying ahead came in the form of ticket prices. We booked well in advance as we always do, but this time there seemed to be much fewer viable choices in terms of airlines, and the price we paid was over twice that last time we bought a return tickets three years ago. Of course, the major variable in airline ticket costs is the oil price, but as someone who sometimes traded oil and certainly has the charts to hand, I know that by coincidence, the oil price was almost exactly the same this time as last. The airlines would probably argue about such arcane subjects as forward buying and hedging, but I don't really believe a word of it. Until there's more competition again on those routes in happier economic times, the costs of returning home may be destined to remain considerably higher.

Monday, September 12, 2011

August Rush: Voice in the Wilderness

I eventually had to stop applying for English teaching jobs – at least temporarily. After several days of problems mid-August I’d ended up with a sore throat so bad that it somehow managed to spread as far as my shoulders. That was a new experience. After two hospital visits where I’d been unsuccessfully treated for some kind of chest infection, I went to a specialist ENT hospital to be quickly diagnosed with tonsillitis, and it wasn’t long before I had a second opinion from another specialist confirming this.

I lost my voice almost completely just three days after my web development job interview, and I really don’t know how I managed to get through that in the first place. I was really under the weather around that time, but I don’t think it particularly impacted my unsuccessful interview, which I think I largely failed on my own merits.

Still, it’s no fun being in an interview thinking that you’d talk more if you felt you were physically able to. I’d gone to the local pharmacist with the notion of buying something to get me through it but the best she could offer were some kind of cough sweets that I’d had before and lack the edge necessary to actually do anything. This seems to be a bit of an underlying theme with me in Korea – the kind of powerful over-the-counter medications we get in England either aren’t available here or actually seem to be illegal (like ‘Vicks’ for example, which I’ve gathered is banned in Korea as well as Japan). Maybe the medical profession just wants you to go to the hospital instead, but it's a pity.

My voice came back and then went again the next week, so I had to accept that not only was I not getting better, but also that it was clearly absurd to be trying to get interviews for teaching jobs when there seemed no prospect of being able to speak at them, unless I could pioneer an entirely new category of occupation here – that of the English-teaching mime. And just to put the icing on the cake, the many medications I was put on caused such intense drowsiness I was even unable to stay awake at my desk. Not that they warned me I’d be practically losing consciousness when I took them – it needed a visit to another pharmacist armed with the pills for them to confirm that yes, in fact that might happen.

But I was not a good patient, and not just because of the language barrier. I heard the same phrase from each doctor - “the most important thing you can do is rest”. In Korea. Right. Seriously. It isn’t that kind of culture here and I’m not sure Koreans even know how to. And in that respect, I’m just like them – perhaps I’ve found my spiritual home.

A further complication arose when my ENT doctor went away for a conference. I don’t know what it is about Korean doctors, but they often seem to be away from their jobs, on holiday, stuck in traffic, or on strike. Maybe I’m just unlucky but I seem to be forever hospital-hopping these days, although at least Korea is a country which actively supports that. Perhaps it has to.

So I finished up in a rather dingy little clinic with a singular aged doctor - but my wife assured me that he was ‘famous’ locally, which is presumably why he didn’t feel the need to trouble himself with details like décor and the customary young women on reception, instead apparently opting to employ their mother, who also transpired to double up as the ass-injection nurse. But by this time I didn’t really care about the image of the place because I was beginning to think my tonsils and I were not destined to be ending the year together.

The old doctor did give me some new pills - and they seemed to work more effectively than anything I'd had before. A few days later, my sore throat returned and voice went again, but this time, as it's the Chuseok holiday period, I'm just going to have to live with it. Hospitals everywhere, but no cure in sight.

Friday, September 09, 2011

August Rush: The Web Job

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

"Ulysses", Alfred Tennyson

I always liked that poem, especially those final lines. I learned something shocking during my early days in corporate life and public office. Most people are basically apathetic and most people actually don’t know what they’re doing. So the secret to success in life is generally to give a damn and know your stuff. That might sound deceptively easy, but most people are lazy, so it means that all you often need to do to pull ahead in life is to go the extra mile and put in some of those twelve-hour days I regularly work. Of course, if you want a healthier work-life balance, you’re not going to do that, and for all I know maybe you’d be right not to. In fact, I think you probably are.

As I’ve got older, the lines in that poem have increasingly summarised my life. Towards the end of my time as an elected representative serving 9,600 constituents I wondered if everything I would do professionally after it would seem like an anti-climax – it did – and before long I ended up in a job that, anti-climactic or not, paid such a lot of money really that nothing was ever likely to surpass that either, unless I progressed into upper management, a near impossibility for an IT person in the medical corporation I worked for.

So I’ve done my own thing past my peak, including working around the three years of my professional life that Meniere’s Disease wiped out, and actually I’m not sorry about much – but it has left me feeling like I’m a highly determined person blowing on the embers of past achievements. And while I know who I am and I know what I’m still capable of, my years out in the career wilderness working for myself means that I’m a riskier hire. I have to rebuild my resume. In Korea. Somehow.

It was becoming apparent that even with my TESOL qualification, getting a foot in the door of the English teaching circuit in Korea wasn’t going to be entirely easy. I was logging into Koreabridge every day and I applied for my first position, a short-term role teaching Business English, which I thought there might be a least a little chance of progressing with given that relative to some people, I have around sixteen years of business experience. Still, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get an interview, because I’m feeling my way in the dark here with almost no expectations. As far as teaching is concerned, I probably have to work my way up from quite a low level, and I suppose Business English jobs probably go to more experienced teachers, not experienced business people, even ones with TESOL certificates.

So the upshot of everything which has occurred recently is that I’m down on my luck, with a baby and an apartment to support, unemployed with only savings rather than income to pay the bills and career prospects that look about as attractive to me as the front of a subway train. I was desperate to find something outside teaching, but I knew it was probably impossible... until the fifth day of my Koreabridge search, when a job was advertised for a web developer with an F-class visa living in or near Haeundae, which at the time felt like a highly unlikely combination of attributes to find here in Busan amongst the relatively small expat community.

The academic institution concerned - which is reasonably well-known - didn’t seem to have much in the way of expectations either, because they offered training for any candidate who was at least IT-literate. Yet here I was, a Computer Science graduate, former software and Internet developer with years of experience, a co-founder of two serious dot-com start-up companies behind me and a couple of mildly popular British websites to my name, which were still running, and which I thought nice and publicly demonstrated my proficiency in HTML, JavaScript, MySQL and PHP along with other equally relevant technologies they ought to want. I hadn’t kept up with some of the more peripheral or specialised tools in the way I once did, but I never let my core skills lapse - aside from anything else I’ve been developing my own desktop and intranet systems over the years to support my trading. Old habits die hard.

My wife saw the job first and told me excitedly “you have to get this job”. And when I looked at the details, I replied that if I didn’t there really was no justice in world, although my answer may have used slightly stronger language. It felt like the Universe, having gone through a phase of persecuting me – things haven’t really been working out in recent months - was now offering me a break; the job was perfect for me, I believed I was perfect for it, and it came at a time in my life when I really needed it. And what was so perfect you couldn’t even make it up, was that six members of the institution’s management were British, so for once I didn’t even have to worry about the disadvantage of not being a “North American passport holder”.

I saw the job on Friday and I spent the weekend brushing up my technical skills and analysing their website, which had issues, thinking about how it could be improved and developed to meet their business goals while applying a user-centred design approach. It was good preparatory work and while I was excited and I didn’t get too carried away, because I know my days of being a well-paid software engineer are long behind me. Now I have to be grateful for finding any job in Korea I can use my skills in, which until I’m fluent in Korean and lose ten years off my age are virtually none (age discrimination is a huge problem in computing in England - where 25-34 has often been touted as an IT contractor's prime period - and I imagine Korea’s little different).

Initially I didn’t get an interview partly due to a mix-up about when I was moving to the vicinity of Haeundae, but I made an effort to persuade them to change their minds, which to their credit they did. And despite the fact that it all happened so fast that I wasn’t geared up for an interview in the way I would have been in England – I own one suit in Korea and I took notes with me in an old National Union of Students folder rather than the expensive leather-bound document wallets or attaché cases I used to have back home, I thought I gave a decent interview - not my best - but then I was also feeling really ill, and not just because I wanted the job so much - more on that later.

I suppose I’ve been around a bit in the business world. In fact, last time I sat in an interview it was when I was the one doing the recruiting and interviewing. So I knew during the interview that I hadn’t got the job. My wife had gone with me to look at the campus for future reference, and when I met up with her afterwards I told her the bad news. It was a pretty long and depressing journey home for both of us, because it looked like I’d failed in the one shot I had at reviving my technical career proper before I succumbed to the seeming inevitability of teaching English to children, and we both knew how much I’d wanted it to be different.

I’ve been told many times, particularly in the last year as my enthusiasm for working alone and 2am finishes in the financial industry has finally waned, that I should draw upon my experience and find another non-teaching job, because the perception was that being a native-English speaker with an F-2 with my background in software and Internet development gave me a fairly unique selling point in an area that admittedly looked like a narrow market niche in Busan. But I discovered that the the institution I'd applied to had been overwhelmed with apparent talent and experience, so as much as anything it was depressing to discover that I probably didn’t have any apparent unique selling points after all, at least not in the activity commonly referred to as ‘web design’, so that illusion was shattered.

I suppose for a brief moment I felt the Universe was setting me up to give me a break, but it turned out that it was just setting me up, because indeed, I didn't get the job.

It transpired I did have one unique selling point - my experience in the field of web-based databases -  So the institution suggested they might employ me to work on something else, but it didn’t sound very hopeful at the time.

When you miss out on a job in your own country, you know another will come along shortly, but given the dearth of positions in my professional field here, it felt like I'd just missed the last bus home - leaving me stuck where I am, which is probably on the verge of becoming an English teacher. And with it this country moves a step closer towards turning me into to person it wants me to be, rather than me finding my own way in life here through having a plurality of options.

John F. Kennedy once said that "True happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope." That's a definition - if you hold it to be true - that raises a lot of unhappy questions in Korea for an expat in my position.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

August Rush: North American Passport Holders Only

Chronologically, we signed to buy the apartment and then I lost quite a bit of money in the market, so I now had a major financial commitment and barely the funds to meet it. I remember my wife working through the apartment paperwork as I watched the London FTSE market futures drop a huge amount - 8.4% at one point - on my mobile phone. I was recklessly long overnight in the market on the ‘Centum apartment play’, and there promised to be an enormous progress crushing fall at the open, which there was.

So it was definitely time to find another job in Korea, and for the first time I had to truly confront one of the fundamental problems with living here - namely that while I’d always been able to use my software and web development skills in England to put food on the table, and there I was capable of doing a myriad of other things, in Korea apparently there is really only option open to me, which is teaching. This was a pity because the one conclusion I had from doing a TESOL course many years ago is that I never really wanted to teach English again, even though I got good grades. Worse, many of the jobs involved teaching children. This is not my thing, and if I thought having a child might kindle some enthusiasm for it on my part, it only made me realise that I need a break from that, not more of it.

Life is suddenly looking a lot tougher.

And then, after I decided I had to find a job, I discovered something I’d always been vaguely aware of in Korea, but the scope of which had never quite registered in my mind. I started searching in earnest for jobs on Koreabridge, and I began reading the phrase ‘North American passport holder’ rather more than I expected. I hadn’t realised that being a Canadian and speaking Canadian English was a class above being British and speaking English English, but I guess now I know.

I suppose it’s all aboot [sic] the accent, because while the job ad I saw which asked for an “american (but, if you have a very neutral accent, another nationality is possible.)” perhaps represented an individual preference rather than a corporate policy, it may well encapsulate the underlying prejudices Koreans have about anything which isn’t American English, or perhaps as I’m learning, Canadian English as the second choice.

Korea seems to get very little bang for its buck when it comes to the subject of English teaching, and perhaps part of the reason is the kind of profiling that prioritises people based on nationality and race rather than on actual English and teaching ability.

Another good one I saw recently - though sadly I can't find the link now - involved a group of male corporate executives who were looking for “an English tutor – female only”. Dear Sirs, I think what you are actually looking for, is a geisha.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

August Rush: A New Home and a Financial Setback

Since I last wrote I feel as though I’ve lived another lifetime and I’ll forever call it August 2011. It’s hard for me to explain recent events in my life in a short narrative so over the next few days I’ll post a series of entries under the theme of my ‘August Rush’.

My wife and I decided to buy an apartment. Since we returned to Korea we’ve lived with her mother, and that had both its emotional and logical reasons, but it changed the nature of our relationship and not for the better. Summer tends to be the slow season for apartment hunting in Korea, for the very good reason that people don’t want to hike around in the unbearable heat as I have just spent the last month doing, and with prices of apartments in Busan rising at a bubble-like pace, we were watching our relocation options dwindle by the month. We had to take advantage of any lull there was.

I became a full-time financial trader in December 2004, and I was quite successful for a few years, but since my wife stopped working alongside me last year - providing an all-important extra set of eyes and second opinion - my profitability just ebbed away and my heart wasn’t quite in it any more. I sat alone in my office trading London hours into the early hours of the Korean mornings, I wasn’t getting out of the apartment much at all, so I was failing to learn the Korean language. And the relentlessly negative financial macroeconomic environment of the last few years began to take its toll on me, because in the end I found it doesn’t matter whether you’re winning in the market if the constantly depressing news environment just wears you down. I started doing a weekly radio segment on Busan e-FM during trading hours just to get away from things, an unthinkable move during more motivated times.

But the end of my career as a trader in August came quickly. I have a rule that if the running annual total of my profits falls sufficiently below the level I could earn from a normal salaried position, then I have to accept that I’m in the wrong job. When you’re ‘in the zone’ in trading, as we call it, you feel untouchable, but when you’re not it’s easy to see extended runs of losses, because this is an activity where studies have suggest 90% of participants consistently lose money. When you find yourself in that 90%, when general market conditions seem no longer aligned with your trading style, you have to find something else to do with your life. And while it would make for a great narrative if could say I’d suffered a major financial blow-up, really it’s been more of a setback, albeit a significant one.

The culmination of my minor financial crisis was connected with the search for an apartment. I’d done a radio segment about ‘the gravitational pull of Haeundae’, and like a lot of Koreans in Busan I felt like I had to be there, but not just out of the need to climb the property and perceived social ladder; the two prominent foreign schools - Busan Foreign School and Busan International Foreign School - are both in the area, and with the prospect that this is where my son needed to go one day, we were planning ahead. But Haeundae is expensive, and it seemed like we had a choice – buy a nice apartment in a good area, or a bad apartment in a good area. We started looking around and it only seemed to make that choice seem even more stark.

I’d seen some nice apartments in Centum City, but they were out of our price range, and yet tantalisingly close enough that if I pushed hard with my trading accounts living there might be possible. So I did something I hadn’t done in a long time – broke my risk management rules, ignored the warnings I’d built into my systems, and went for it. If I failed at least I could say that I met my undoing out there on the ragged edge which so often defines who you are as a person. In earlier and more reckless times as a trader I’d done the same thing, and I’d always come out of it on top, but not this time. My decision came just days before the market entered a particularly high period of volatility, and in trading parlance, I was long when I should have been short and short when I should have been long. By the time it was over, I’d lost quite a lot of money and Centum City was no longer tantalisingly close but instead an even remoter dream.

You live by the sword and die by the sword as a trader. I knew what I was doing, I let frustration and impatience get the better of me, and now I have to pay the price. That was my first financial disaster. My second may be buying the apartment itself, because I’m convinced that Busan is in the midst of an unsustainable property bubble that could entirely conceivably implode in on itself at any moment. But we urgently needed a place to live, and rather presciently as it turned out, while watching what was happening in the international financial markets and the Korean construction sector, I predicted that Korean banks might stop lending, as banks in the UK had a few years earlier, excluding a generation from the dream of home ownership.

In fact when we were arranging our loan, in a remarkable and frightening admission the bank manager told us that he couldn’t guarantee the bank would still be willing to honour it at the end of September when it was supposed to be released. Despite this, it wasn’t certain then that the turmoil in the financial markets would translate into real-world actions, but just days after we arranged to buy our new apartment, the Korean banks made their move as I’d believed they would, but much sooner than I expected.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 35: 방 잡아! (Get a Room!)

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


PC bangs, DVD bangs, norae bangs, jjimjilbangs, manwhabangs, sojubangs... According to Arirang TV bang culture is ‘unique to Korea’, so today I’m talking about Korea’s 밯 (‘function-specific rooms’).

밯 in England

We don’t really have 밯 in England. Karaoke became famous there in the 1980s, and so it was very popular in pubs, but they weren’t really ‘rooms’, so you couldn’t called them ‘bangs’. We do have cybercafes though, which are a bit like PC ‘bang’.

PC 방 on Planet Arirang

According to Arirang TV Korea’s PC ‘bang’ represent “an advanced cultural space that is benchmarked by businesses around the world”. [Drugs are strictly illegal in Korea but if you eat enough kimchi perhaps it has the same effect].

My impressions of Korea’s PC ‘bang’ is that they are usually windowless, hot, and occupied by mostly males, which combines to produce a signature smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. Is this what Korea defines as an ‘advanced cultural space’?

They remind me of university, except they are better than that because they have snacks such as noodles with hot water so you can eat and keep playing [and get DVT]. Certainly PC bang are everywhere here - ubiquitous you might say [I really need to stop the intentional irony of using Korea’s most ubiquitous word] - but cybercafes were never hugely successful in England, where they are much more expensive.

PC ‘bang’ are all about gaming in Korea really, but in England, the cybercafes serve coffee and food. People there might go in and just pay for Internet access, but if they do it’s typically to check their email or Facebook updates, not to play games. Once I wanted to print out a document here in Korea, and it took a long time to find a PC ‘bang’ to do it in - and while we did, even then it wasn't part of the normal service, which only convinced me further that what they are used for here is gaming - not any kind of office work.

I rarely go to PC ‘bang’ these days [which are sadly dying now], because we have computers at home [and my social circle have moved on from their Kartrider obsession]. When I did, I was very aware of security issues so I couldn’t do anything sensitive there, but I can understand why people once did check their emails and social networks there, because when I got here having a PC at home wasn’t common.

Timothy Leary - the 1960s counter-culture icon [and as an advocate of the use of psychedelic drugs, perhaps in some ways the spiritual father of Arirang TV] popularised the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, and when I look at Korea’s PC ‘bang’ I think of those words, because they seem like the kind of place Koreans go to escape from the realities of Korean society.


I’d been in Korea two weeks when I went to a DVD 방 [or ‘DBD’ bang once it’s got over the Korean language’s lack of a ‘V’ sound] in a local university area with my girlfrend and her best friend. We watched ‘Inside Man’ for 13,000 won and I thought it was a really good idea - much more relaxing than going to a movie theatre.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how the DVD ‘bang’ were heavily used for dates [or shall we say, ‘used for heavy dates’ - even casual sex] - especially given the nature of that area. It didn’t occur to me at first [though I should have guessed from the clientele], but when we got into the room it had an amazingly comfortable couch, like a bed... If I was in any doubt at this point, then I noticed the room also provided a variety of wet and dry tissues, and when we left, a staff member went in armed with toilet roll and some serious looking cleaning products.

With most young people in Korea living at home, where can they go to make out with their dates? So retrospectively I see that the strange look got from the staff as I disappeared into the room with two women probably didn’t do the reputation of foreigners any good at all. But it didn’t stop me frequently going back; it became one of my favourite things to do in my first year here.

Norae 방

According to Arirang “Korea’s noraebang [노래방] culture is unique in that everyone in the room comes together to share a single space for singing.” Of course, I’ve already mentioned that karaoke became famous around the world [i.e. not unique, not yours]. I think I understand the reasons why - there is a lot of social conformity in Japan and Korea, so ‘bangs’ are a place where you can let your hair down - and in a noraebang especially.

I haven’t really let my hair down in a noraebang, and not just because I have very little hair to let down. I don’t like singing. In fact, I’m a bad singer. And that’s a problem in Korea, where everyone has so much experience in noraebang they are all practically professional singers [or at least they think they are, if ‘Korea’s Got Talent’ is any guide].

I went to a noraebang once after eating. I didn’t want to, but there was a lot of pressure to conform, and then once in the room, a lot of pressure to perform. But I resisted. They had few English songs anyway - and certainly nothing easy - but the real problem for me is this: Koreans think they’re letting their hair down and escaping social conformity, but they are actually just replacing one kind of conformity for another.

Arirang says that “in a noraebang, borders of nationality melt away as everyone sings their heart out!” I guess I like keeping my borders.

Other 방

I have no experience of manwhabang [만화방 where you can read comics or 'manwha' - at least until the machine uprising], sojubang [where you can drink soju], or the ‘kiss bang’ I’ve been reading about [where you pay for someone you don’t know to kiss you in a room, and maybe go a bit further]. My wife’s father has invited me to a jjimjilbang [찜질방 - bathhouse/sauna] a few times, but apart from the language barrier I think I’d find the experience culturally and psychologically traumatic; I don’t really want to see my father-in-law naked.

So although I’ve found Korea’s ‘bang’ fun, sometimes they are also difficult. Noraebang and jjimilbang are not for me. Do all Koreans like all ‘bang’? I don’t know, but ‘bangs’ made me realise that if that’s what I have to buy into to be a Korean, then I’m never going to be.

Maybe someone here should combine a jjimjilbang with a noraebang, then I could do both at once rather than suffer twice.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-22 @ ~19:30

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 34: Brands, Counterfeiting and Piracy

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


A week earlier while I was waiting to go on air at the station, a situation was posed which led me to say “But that would be unethical”. I needed to repeat that last word a number of times. We quickly established that the English word ‘ethical’ may sound hilarious to Koreans. I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was merely a phonetic issue, which resolved me to pick a topic related to ethics for this week’s show.

Whatever I talk about on the radio, above all else I’ve been told that it has to be entertaining, so it’s fair to say I peppered the segment with the word ‘ethical’ on the principle that if it makes people laugh, instant comedy. I’ve also experimented with the word ‘morally’, but I don’t think the audience is quite ready for it yet, although I’m told ‘contract’ is quite an amusing idea here too.

I wish I was able to communicate with the engineer, because perhaps then we could have set up some canned laughter for every time the word ‘ethical’ was used. That would have been great. Anyway, we decided that ‘ethical’ was the ‘word of the day’.


Korea seems to be a country which is particularly obsessed by brands, whether they are real or fake. I’ve always thought it must be something in the Korean psyche – there’s a need to belong to the clan.

The Korean Bag Market

I read in a newspaper that “For Koreans, a designer bag can earn prestige and maybe even a profit.” What that referred to was the fact that in some cases, second-hand prices for these bags are rising above the original purchase price because the price of new bags is rising so quickly.

As a financial trader it reminds me of the stock market – and it does seem that some people in Korea are buying these bags as investments and agonising about waiting to buy them while watching the price move away from them. I think nine times out of ten, when you find yourself in that position, it’s best to let it go. But why do prices keep rising? It seems that from the price differences between Korea and other countries, the brand companies are just raising prices here because they know the market will bear it. They are ripping people off in other words, turning Korea into a bubble-market. [This was especially noticeable when the recent Korea-EU Free Trade Agreement came into effect, and the removal of tariffs were actually accompanied by European designer brand price rises, instead of price cuts]. So Koreans are going overseas to buy these bags instead. [Yes, it’s international designer bag arbitrage!]

The 397 Generation

It’s not as if we don’t have brands in England or the West in general, but there seems to be more trust for them here. I think this is bad economically, because it makes it difficult for new brands to break into the market, and you end up with the chaebol system leading to a lack of choice. Two reasons why this is bad have been in the news recently – large chaebol-built apartment buildings have been accused of poor safety, and then there’s the beer issue. When I got here I kept seeing the same two brands of beer – which largely turns out to be because there are only two major domestic breweries [plus once again, tariffs help]. Korea isn’t a very diverse society but if nothing else you should really have diversity with beer.

Apparently a lot of the brand-worship these days is being blamed on the ‘397 Generation’, who are in their 30s, went to college in the 90s, and were born in the 70s. But from what I see, it seems more like it should be blamed on what I would call the ‘295 Generation’ - 20-somethings with IQs around the 95 mark [logically meaning in England we should probably have a ‘285 Generation’]. Anyway, it certainly isn’t limited to young people, because older people in Korea appear to have an obsession with German cars [specifically, Audis – which mainly men buy – and BMWs, which mainly women buy].

But does this make people happy? In a recent OECD Happiness Survey South Korea ranked 26th out of 34 in the Index, with 36% of South Koreans saying they were satisfied with their life [I don’t know who these people are either because it’s nobody I know here, leading me to wonder how honest the respondents were considering the potential loss-of-face involved in telling the truth]. A lot of it is linked to stress, and a fixation with money [and probably brands by implication]. But I thought a Gallup poll around the same time offered a fascinating insight into Korean life: Koreans aspire to be richer and happier, but apparently they hate rich people.

Faking it

So people harbour a lot of brand aspirations here, and animosity towards those that achieve what they don’t. Perhaps it’s this which leads to the view that if you can’t have it for real, you have to fake it. Making counterfeit items big business in South Korea.

I was surprised when I came here and saw all the counterfeit goods. It’s not as if we don’t have this problem in England as well, but here in Busan they are just out on the street in plain view in districts such as Nampodong. And then up in Seoul you have areas such as Itaewon and Myeong-dong where it’s said that 1-in-10 street vendors are selling counterfeits (and I can’t help thinking that number is probably only that low because a lot of the other vendors are selling food).

But there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of incentive to crack down because it’s good for tourism, with evidence that Japanese and Chinese tourists particularly come to Korea because the quality of fakes here is known to be ‘very high’. And this is the tip of the iceberg, because many more counterfeit items are being sold online.

Does it matter?

Personally I don’t care about bags, and I don’t get paying $1,000 for one. But morally, the business of counterfeiting is unethical [stare into control room]. But then more visible danger is counterfeit drugs; counterfeit goods are a kind of cheat, but counterfeit drugs can kill.

Doing business is an issue – if I were visiting Korea to sign a deal with a company, and saw all the counterfeiting activity going on and that it appeared to be so publicly acceptable, I might think this makes the country and people I’m dealing with in it seem less ethical, like with honouring contracts for example. So I’d wonder, is Korea an ethical or unethical country?

Software Piracy

It also extends to the media industry of course. At PIFF [The ‘Pusan’ International Film Festival], when a message came up saying “No Piracy in Korea”, people laughed. And when I first came to Busan I noticed that while there were shops everywhere, there appeared to be a distinct lack of music, DVD and software stores. Every shop seemed to be running Windows XP Professional though – which is a premium priced version of the Microsoft operating system – and you have to think that the reason is because they’re probably not genuine copies.

I used to be a software developer and I like the ‘open source’ concept but it doesn’t pay the bills. The incentive to build software that would help people in this country isn’t as prevalent as it should be, because there’s no reward if people pirate their software rather than buy. In fact it’s said that piracy in Korea may cost this country around 20,000 IT jobs. [I’ve never been totally convinced by these arguments – it may well cost 20,000 IT sector jobs, but I think the money saved just results in jobs getting shifted elsewhere – admittedly into the service sector which is a dead-end for economic development which Korea shouldn’t want].

The excuse people who pirate always use is that they weren’t going to buy the product anyway, which is undoubtedly true in some cases and undoubtedly false in others. People in Korea don’t seem to care though. I went into a computer store once to ask for a quote on a computer, and was told “we can supply whatever you want – any software... no extra cost.” I actually wanted to buy a genuine copy of Windows – and after overcoming the proprietor’s incredulity he finally laughed and said sheepishly “we don’t have any”.

I think this isn’t isolated because there was a case recently of a large supermarket chain being caught selling pirated software on netbooks, and according to official figures software piracy has reached a five-year high.

You know what really got me about my trip to a computer store? That the proprietor admitted that the one downside of the pirated copies of ‘Windows Vista’ these days is that you can’t update them, which means no security updates and all that implies. But people “don’t really care”. So there’s an ethical issue here but the bigger issue to my mind is security.

Korea’s Digital Pearl Habor

People are taking reckless chances with their online security by running pirated software, because even if you don’t get caught by some downloaded virus, your pirated version of Windows itself may include programs that spy on you, and steal your passwords and bank account details. It’s obviously occurring too because once I was called in to look at a friend’s computer that was ‘running slowly’, and it transpired to be because of the large number of spyware programs infecting the machine.

That’s a practical outcome of these security weaknesses – that to access your bank you have to go through a lot of quite complicated procedures involving digital signatures, and that sounds like it has its advantages on the principle that more security is always good, but it isn’t, because the upshot of the technical environment here is that everyone has to use inherently flawed ActiveX technology and because most people are running pirated versions of Windows which often can’t be updated, everyone designs their websites and security for Internet Explorer 6, which is very insecure.

But where this problem might really manifest itself, is in the field of cyber-warfare, which is already with us, as the attack on Nonghyup Bank earlier this year – which was blamed on North Korea – demonstrates. People often think that if war with the North happens, it’s going to start with thousands of North Korean soldiers rushing over the border, but I think it’s more likely war will begin with a massive cyber attack which, will cripple South Korea. I can see this country very quickly losing its mobile phone networks, Internet, TV, financial, GPS, power and traffic infrastructure. And even if nuclear power plants aren’t connected to the Internet as the authorities in this country claim, the same was true of Iran but foreign intelligence agencies still managed to introduce a devastating virus into that closed system.

North Korea allegedly has 30,000 ‘electronic warfare agents’ or hackers as it is, so it seems optimistic to think they aren’t going to used as part of the initial strike against this country.

So the way I see it, I feat it will be chaos before the first shot is even fired. And that’s the problem. Never mind stealing your bank details, how do you know your pirated copy of Windows doesn’t have a foreign program on it waiting to trigger as part of a cyber attack? You don’t, whether it’s ethical or not, using pirated software might turn out to be a danger to South Korea’s security, whether through war directly or just industrial espionage. Fake bags are not going to bring down society, but the thinking that accepts it, just might.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-15 @ ~19:30

Friday, July 08, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 33: Humour/Humor, Satire and Ire

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


In retrospect, I can’t quite believe I got to make some of these points on the radio. I love humour - I'd much rather be watching an episode of Blackadder, Community, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory or Better Off Ted [which inexplicably nobody watched] than Saw 6. In fact I consider my life to be one long extended joke. So I wanted to talk about the subject of humour, but I also thought it would be nice if the next generation of Koreans that largely make up the Busan eFM audience could learn to lighten up. They won't of course, life in Korea is often an extremely serious, depressing and stressful experience, and anything I say on air is a drop in the ocean - an ocean in which everyone has long since drowned. But you know what? Never give up. Never surrender.


Last week I talked about how the Expat Internet is hell. But foreigners can be funny too, and not just in a strange way. This week I’m covering expat humour in Korea.

What's so funny anyway?

Humour is a very funny thing. What one person finds amusing, another may not. Between foreigners, there’s a difference between British and American humour for example – even the words are spelt differently. I feel that British humour is more deadpan, darker, sometimes meaner, and more surreal. I think American humour is different, but still funny.

Babopalooza in Busan

I think there’s a huge difference between Korean humour and Western humour though. My first experience of this here came in the form of an expat comedy called ‘Babopalooza’ here in Busan back in 2006. It became quite a big issue in the foreign community.

This is my understanding of it: essentially a group put on a theatre performance which made fun of life in Korea. The targets for the humour were Koreans and Western foreigners. But one of the potential dangers with cultural comedy, especially here I think, is that Koreans only see Koreans being made fun of. In fact one of the co-writers actually said the ‘babo’ in Babopalooza were the foreigners. Anyway, apparently the police or immigration officials came to watch, and allegedly the upshot of it all was that people lost their jobs and had to leave Korea, while others had problems with visa renewals. So really, it was a comedy with a sad ending.

Babopalooza happened six weeks after I came to Korea for the first time. I appreciate that public comedy performances are really tough to pull off, but the reaction to the show made me think that however nicely people were treating me, beneath the surface this country might not be a very friendly place.

I’ve seen Korean performers on TV putting on ‘black faces’ [or masks] and pretending to be black or Africans. I guess that’s – apparently – OK here [it’s not], but you can’t do that in England because it would be racist. By our standards, that’s quite nasty – not funny at all – but it’s acceptable here, whereas Babopalooza was unacceptable.

So these examples made me think that Koreans can make fun of foreigners, but foreigners making fun of Koreans is unacceptable. I’m afraid that doesn’t create a good image of Korea or Koreans [some foreigners also lean towards the view that foreigners in Korea should keep their mouths shut and just do their jobs].

Anyway, while I gather there was a lot of creative energy here in Busan before Babopalooza, after what happened – for a while – foreigners were afraid to do any public performances. Busan wants to have art and culture to create a multicultural city, but it makes me think that what they want is the Korean version of multiculturalism, where everyone thinks like a Korean. [Bazinga!]

The Line

I don’t think Babopalooza went too far, but I’m not going to pretend that other expats haven’t crossed the line. Last year a foreigner started a blog [Blackout Korea] which others perhaps contributed to as well, that consisted of pictures of drunk, unconscious Koreans. I can see how that might seem funny for a couple of moments, but beyond that I don’t find it funny – instead it’s a rather sad reflection on all the pressures in Korean society which causes this.

Some drugs (like alcohol) [Korea likes to think of itself as ‘drug-free’ but that depends on your definition] are OK in moderation, but this kind of drug abuse seems a big problem in Korea, just like it is in my country – and it’s not funny there either. But obviously some foreigners found it funny, and this shows that the problem with humour is that it can easily be one-sided and insensitive, and that ultimately it can easily slip into racism. It doesn’t have to be like that though because I think there are better and genuinely funny blogs written by foreigners in Korea.

Humorous Expat Blogs... Or What Amuses Me

I’ll tell you how I feel about expat blogs here. There are the big name bloggers which everyone reads, and they’re churning out entries for their audience, but some of the lesser known blogs here such as Expat Hell and The Supplanter feature – to my mind – excellent writing which really attracts me, and they contain a lot of self-deprecating humour. I feel I make fun of myself quite often in my blog so I suppose I appreciate that style.

But then some of the expat blogs are written explicitly not as personal experiences of life in Korea, but more for the purpose of satire, which I find especially interesting.


The satirical blogs are different to the other expat blogs, which tend to cover daily life. Wikipedia defines satire as a format in which “vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.”

So people can find satire uncomfortable, and that was the problem with Babopalooza. In fact, the Wikipedia page on satire even mentions something that happened here in Korea to the foreign journalist Michael Breen, who wrote a satirical article in The Korea Times, which resulted in him being sued for $1 million by the chaebol he satirised [Samsung]. Mike Breen said the prosecutor in his case didn’t get his satirical article, telling him “It’s not funny if it’s not true.” [comment 24].

I gathered that apparently there’s no tradition of written satire in Korea, so writing satirical material can be a dangerous activity in Korea. And yet I think it’s important in today’s world because so many people are ignorant of the news. In fact, in America surveys show that presenters such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are the only way some people actually know what’s going on – even if it’s dressed up as satire.

The Yangpa, Dokdo Is Ours, and The Dokdo Times

I think the first satirical blog in Korea was The Yangpa, which presumably was inspired by the famous American satire site, The Onion. The Yangpa blog started before I came to Korea, and people talked about it back then but I must admit I rarely read it. The problem for me was highlighted by one early entry about a pop singer/actress who was guilty of plagiarism with her degree. When I first came here I didn’t understand enough about Korea to know who this was or why plagiarism was a good satirical subject, so the humour was lost on me. I think this illustrates why satire requires knowledge.

The Yangpa ended in 2008, then a site started called ‘Dokdo Is Ours’, and when the writer ended that last year, another new site started, this time called ‘The Dokdo Times’, which is essentially written in the style of a fake Korean newspaper. What I like about these sites is that they aren’t just aimed at satirising one group of people – but everyone, including foreigners. For example, the most popular ‘story’ on The Dokdo Times’ site is about a Korean woman who married a foreigner and then realised he’s actually an idiot. I think that’s something both Koreans and foreigners can relate to.

But What Do They Think?

I’m not sure what Koreans really make of this foreign humour. Despite what Mike Breen said about the prosecutor in his case, I believe from what I've read that some Koreans in Korea really find some of these satirical sites funny. [And at least one Korean comedian may be out there pushing the envelope as well]. They are a test of English as well – if you understand humour written in another language then you’ve really done well. Even when I’ve learnt Korean, I think it might still be some time before I understand Korean satire, assuming that exists.

‘Babopalooza’ was judged ‘not funny’ by the authorities, and sometimes Koreans get very angry at some foreign humour – either they don’t get it or the humour wasn’t funny in the first places and it just ended up being offensive. Comedy and satire can be very difficult things to pull off, especially in a foreign country.

Learning About Korea Through Humour

I’d say that I’m learning about Korea through humour. I read the Korean news but it’s easy to miss things or not really think about them deeply. For example, one of these recent satirical ‘news articles’ from The Dokdo Times detailed how people with three or more drunk driving convictions would be banned from working as bus and taxi drivers. It sounds like a joke but it’s actually really true, which to me is a serious issue which people should be thinking about more. Maybe if people did, the society we live in could become a better, more tolerant and less hypocritical place [or it might at least become safer].

Can Satire Change Attitudes in Korea?

I don’t know if satire can change attitudes in Korea though. Can anything change Korea? Recently I read that that Korea is the fifth ‘most socially tight’ country in the world [actually, the fifth among 33 countries surveyed, not that the Chosun Ilbo ever let a detail like that get in the way of a good headline], meaning there is a great deal of conformity here, and pressure to conform. Satire represents the opposite of conformity in many ways, because it points out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies in society. There’s nothing wrong with conforming if that’s what you want to do, but humour and satire are good ways of encouraging you to think for yourself too.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-08 @ ~19:30