Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Korea has a lot of '빵집', or bakeries - so many in fact that one franchise owner recently felt motivated to go to extraordinary lengths to fight back against a rival located nearby.

It wasn't 'rat bread' that finally gave me my first bout of food poisoning in Korea, but it was bread-related. Korean Mother brought home a bag of various products from a nearby shop. When she does this it usually sets of a frenzy of bread-eating for a couple of days, not particularly because of some desperate desire to eat more Westernised food on my part, but more because she buys so much of it that it's very easy for some of it to go to waste otherwise.

I find the products available in Korean bakeries a constant source of interest - they regularly change and are always inventive. In England, no-one would think to bake peas into an otherwise sickly sweet cream cake, or put tomatoes on top of a birthday cake, but in their apparent never-ending battle to push the boundaries of something new, these are just some of the surprising innovations brought to you by the local bread and pastry researchers here.

The problem with Korean Mother bringing bakery products home with her, aside from the sheer quantity, is the identification issue. Namely, that the products are often placed in anonymous bags which renders the contents on the product contained within a mystery. Usually though, it's fair to bet that anything which seems to be savoury and have contents will have some variation of vegetables, crab and darker mystery-meat.

So when I decided to heat up one of those doughy products with its mystery contents, I thought little of it. But I became sick shortly afterwards, which was surprising because if anything I'd overcooked it due to lingering at my trading desk for a little too long while the microwave was on. That's just the way it goes sometimes, I figured.

What I'd forgotten about in the subsequent fog of illness which enveloped me was that after eating it I'd followed it with half of some sweet bread, which I'd also heated up - though not so much. When I returned to complete the second half of the latter product the morning after I got better, I discovered - with the advantage of daylight - that mixed in with the sweet bean paste and slightly sugary coating were small bits of meat, which I'd merely heated up to room temperature the night I became ill.

Sometimes my struggles with the contents of our fridge and food cupboards come down to my failure to understand the Korean language, but getting food poisoning from a bread-based product has made me realise that there are some things in Korea which are always going to exist to challenge me... although I should also know better by now than to eat my food in the dark here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


One of the things that surprised me when I moved from a self-contained and somewhat isolated one-room apartment into a large apartment block, was the speaker on the wall from which the building's janitors/security guards would issue pronouncements from their bunker far below. The disembodied voice - with its Orwellian overtones - which can suddenly cut into any conversation or private moment and can not be switched off, has continued to be one of the more disconcerting aspects of living in a Korean high-rise community. But it also has a comedic value that I fear I will never truly appreciate until I am fully conversant in Korean.

Sometimes the reason for amusement is subtle - advice is dispensed carrying a chastising undertone of things the residents have done wrong and should not do again. And sometimes the reason is more overt and quite possibly alcohol-related, although to be fair, the disembodied voice has only become so slurred on one occasion that my fellow Korean-speaking prisoners could not understand it either. By comparison the series of announcements that began on Saturday were at least comprehensible, if delivered in a rather uncertain and rambling fashion.

The speaker told us that our building's pipes were frozen, and we should not use our taps. Then later it was OK to use the taps but not the sinks. Then certain sections of the block were clear to use everything, and others weren't. And so it went on through the afternoon, as one imagined the Korean equivalent of the Mario video game character running around desperately from one crisis to the next. Later, when my wife got to the checkout of the local mart, the assistant asked noted the lack of bottled water in her cart and asked if she wasn't buying any. They were running out of water, demand had been so heavy. The apartment announcements continued into Sunday.

I had been surprised to turn on my computer screen on Saturday morning to find Ubuntu's weather applet telling me it was -8 degrees Celsius outside. Surely some mistake I thought. But in fact, temperatures had hit -12.8 in Busan overnight, the lowest here in 96 years according to the JoongAng Daily, although the problems with water pipes were clearly much worse in Seoul, causing problems for Korea's often low-profile poor. Even the higher-profile middle-classes, who are in no danger of freezing to death, are feeling the effects of the cold - with the government imploring them to cut back on their electricity usage as underfloor heating usage saps the capacity of South Korea's power stations. Evidently however, it is a call falling of deaf ears.

Even we finally succumbed and turned on our underfloor heating for the first time since moving here last week, but it didn't work. It transpired that - according to the plumber who came out to fix the problem and turned out to be very familiar with our building's problems - the construction company didn't put the right amount of anti-freeze in the heating pipes seven years ago, leading to many of the underfloor boiler pumps becoming damaged when they tried to move the semi-frozen water. While the freezing problem has long since been solved, the damage caused to the boilers apparently hasn't, leading to new residents discovering the issue the first time they tried to use their heating. Fortunately, our plumber fixed the problem.

As for the weather, unless you've had one of those diseducations (sic) which are so popular in the West these days, especially in America, you probably accept that climate change - whatever factors are causing it - is gradually leading to more extreme weather events. So Busan's coldest temperatures in 96 years are not incompatible with the claim from the National Institute of Environmental Research here that Korea's temperature could rise by 2.2 to 4.2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, although apparently this means that by 2040 the streets of Seoul could be lined with tangerine trees. It's not clear to me that there's a particularly high national demand for tangerines in Korea, and why therefore this is seen as an advantage, but that's what they said. Presumably if it's that warm in Seoul, the higher temperatures in the south will mean Haeundae Beach will stretch inland to Seomyeon. Or that's how they'll probably spin the desertification of Busan, at least.

In fact, last summer had the highest number of 'tropical nights' in ten years, and perhaps mindful of that Lotte Department Store is already doing a brisk - and apparently rationed - trade in selling aircon units for the summer.

When I first arrived in Korea I marvelled at the fact I could wear a t-shirt in October, and I was willing to accept the constant Korean assertion that this country has four seasons. Five, if you count the Yellow Dust season. But perhaps it's a sign that I'm becoming acclimatised because I'm increasingly feeling that recently Korea has just gravitated between very hot and very cold.

Personally, having grown up in a Northern English gulag, snow reminds me of home and I'm rather partial to it. Plus I'm sure it would look wonderful on the nearby mountain which dominates the view from my office. Unfortunately for me this is yet another year of no snow in Busan, although it has tried a couple of times at least, which is more than I can say for previous years. But it's best to hope for warmer weather, because the cold isn't doing anyone - not least the poor - any favours.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

It Could Happen to You


I have a psychic Korean aunt, who makes her living travelling around the country dispensing advice about peoples' futures and occasionally cleansing evil spirits using a special dance, along with her spirit guides - an old man and a small boy. I always liked Psychic Aunt because like me she's clearly slightly unhinged, but I didn't much care for her younger spirit guide - while we were back in England he insisted on taking a stuffed toy from our office that we'd been saving for our child. When you're having difficulty having a baby, and someone takes something you'd been saving for if it finally happens, it has an unhappy subtext, especially when that someone is supposed to be able to foretell the future. Perhaps you're entitled to be a bit of an ass when you're dead, but personally I think the dead should hold themselves up to higher standards.

Despite foretelling that I would live an extremely long life and become quite wealthy, neither of which seem very likely at this point, apparently Psychic Aunt is quite well known and very good at what she does. I suppose you'd say she has 'the gift' if you believe in such things. A lot of people in Korea do, and it supposedly runs in my wife's family, so Korean Mother and Korean Brother are both 'seers' too, but they didn't accept the calling when it came to them in an ancestral dream, as it does. I had an ancestral dream once when I was 14. It involved some recently deceased ancestors dressed as death chasing me round a running track, and while I gradually tired they didn't. So I suppose I saw my own future, but they didn't indicate whether it meant I could see other people's.

Their failure to take up the calling hasn't stopped the dreams and premonitions within my immediate Korean family. And to be fair, after about a year of trying, Korean Mother finally had a baby boy dream about two weeks before my wife became pregnant with our son. My background is in science, so while I'm generally dismissive of apparently superstitious nonsense I also try to remain somewhat open minded, and recent psychological research and developments in rather frightening reality-challenging cutting-edge theoretical physics suggest that in actual fact, foreseeing the future might not be quite as ridiculous as it first appears.

I have to admit to being slightly unnerved by some predictions which have been made within my Korean family, and things that have consequently happened over the years. Enough that I've become more open-minded than polite-cynicism would normally dictate. Perhaps it helps that along the way I developed Meniere's Disease, which has given me a more reality-challenging relationship with the concepts of space, time and gravity anyway.

That said, I am not so open-minded that when a conversation begins 'Mother has had a dream', that I don't feel a slight sinking feeling in my stomach at what will come next. Although sometimes that could be the Meniere's - you can never really tell. At the weekend the dream in question was fortuitous money dream which apparently ranked quite highly on the spooky-scale. So my wife bought lottery tickets. Now to me that seems like a leap of faith - who's to say that the dream wasn't telling us to rob an armoured car instead? After all, it wasn't specific about how this money would fortuitously come to us. But lottery tickets it was.

So it was with great faux-excitement that I read the numbers to my wife when she woke up Sunday morning and entered my office brandishing the tickets. But as I read out the first three numbers, and she ticked them off on one of her two tickets, I began to get that unnerving feeling again. And indeed, we'd won the lottery - a prize of 5,000 won. Does this keep Korean Mother's psychic track-record? Perhaps, but the tickets cost 10,000 won.

Apparently she had another dream overnight...

The Lurking Horror

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Infinity Limited

One of the problems I've identified with myself psychologically as far as my language studies are concerned, is that learning Korean feels like an open-ended commitment that will last the rest of my life. I'm very objective-oriented as a person. I used to write software for a living, and then became a financial trader -  both these activities produce definable end points, whether it be in terms of a completed function in a program, or a trade which is closed for a profit or a loss. There's no definable end-point in learning a language. Yes, you can say it's attaining fluency, but what is that exactly, and how far off into the future is it?

As a trader, I live my life by numbers. So when Tim, the host of Inside Out Busan, told me on the show that he'd read that it requires 4,000 hours of studying Korean to reach competency, I began to think about the number and how much progress I was making towards that goal.

So inevitably before long I'd created a new worksheet in the spreadsheet I use to record the results of my vocabulary tests, and into this worksheet I entered 240,000 – that's the number of minutes in 4,000 hours. I studied for an hour, and entered 60 into the box next to it - leading to the spreadsheet reporting that I'd  accomplished '0.03%' of my target. It wasn't much, but it felt like I was a little closer to my goal. It's oddly satisfying, and will remain so for as long as it takes me to realise that my rate of progress means I'm going to reach 100% in 2021. Yes, I worked that out.

I don't believe it's as simple as just putting the hours in though, because in my life I've found that the real benefits which accrue from studying language come from studying it in a reasonably concentrated period. When I was studying Japanese, in my first year I ended up in a class with a couple of people who'd been doing it for eight years, and it wasn't long before I felt that I'd surpassed their level. But they had jobs, and I was only working part-time back then. It gave me an incredible advantage.

My life in Korea has never been like that. Some of it has been my choice – but like those people back in the Japanese class – I have a job too – and just because I work for myself it doesn't make it any easier to quit – like them, I still have to pay the bills at the end of the month.

I feel that this year is a make-or-break year for my Korean studies though. Time is moving on and my abilities are clearly not. So I've decided to set myself that 4,000 hour target. I don't even care if the academic research backs this up or not - it feels about right. It's also merely indicative - it's a mistake to chase hourly targets because the most important thing is to put in good quality study time.

I started my hours off at zero - partly because I haven't recorded how much time I've put in before now, but mostly because at this point in time I feel it was largely worthless. My 4,000 hour target is not going to be achieved in one year; 4,000 hours approximates to two years working the hours of a full-time job with no holidays. Even as a trader, I only work about 2,750 hours per year, and those are long hours I'll never want or be able to do with the language.

So during the course of this year I'm going to publicly shame myself by placing a Korean-language competency progress meter after each post, you can share in the unfolding horror. Right now, I've done 480 minutes in the last week, reaching 0.2% of my target, meaning that the bar on the progress meter below is undetectable. Some may view setting such a difficult target as counter-productive, but for me, with my kind of background and character, it really does feel like setting any kind of target - even a large and possibly unattainable one - is putting some sort of limit what otherwise feels like an endless infinity of language study.

The Lurking Horror

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Off Key

Recently I met a man on the subway who fought for Korea in the Vietnam War. When I'm old, the only war story I'll have to tell my son is how I fought in the Credit Crisis. It's not nearly the same thing, but I didn't emerge from the financial battle we traders fought unscathed; my keyboard was damaged when a wall hit it after one of my data providers failed at a crucial point in the conflict. So for the last three years the keyboard has been propped up on my desk by the handle of a screwdriver. In this life you should live with the consequences of your mistakes... unless you actually caused the Credit Crisis, then apparently, not so much.

The Financial Crisis was a little like the Korean War; it ended in a stalemate rather than a victory. But now relative peace has returned to the financial world and our thoughts slowly turn to the process of rebuilding, I've decided to buy a new keyboard. I write a lot, so I'd like a nice keyboard, but that's always been a difficult task. These days keyboards are often made to the lowest common denominator because few people care enough to pay for high quality mechanisms beneath the keys, and I rue the day I let go of one of the early Model M IBM keyboards that some university friends and I liberated a job lot of from a dumpster in the grounds of a large company we'd trespassed onto. IBM spared no expense in making keyboards back then – I think they charged $200 for them. That was a lot of money in those days – to put it into perspective if everyone who bought one of those early IBM keyboards had bought something cheaper and given the rest of the money to Ethiopia instead, there would have been no famine. Ten years later the Ethiopians were still suffering from hunger but these excellent and still very usable keyboards were sitting outside in corporate rubbish bins all across the Western world. And we're very proud of our civilisation.

When I first came to Busan, I only had my English laptop and I needed a Korean keyboard to plug into it, but in those early days the quickest and lowest common denominator option was buying a $10 LG keyboard from a branch of Hi-Mart. I believed that the quality of the keyboard must be reasonable because it was made by LG and they wouldn't put their name to cheap rubbish. I was naïve about Korea back then.

Admittedly, $10 seemed quite cheap for a keyboard, but I really had no idea about Korean prices just after arriving here. As it happens, the keyboard had a dead feel to it which I quickly decided I didn't like, and a couple of keys which either didn't like to be depressed, or if they did, didn't like to come up properly afterwards. That was one of my first cultural lessons in Korea – the chaebols really don't care what they stick their name on, and rather more oddly, neither – apparently - do Korean consumers. In fact if I was in any doubt, shortly afterwards I figured out that Daelim make toilets, and motorcycles. Worse, in our neighbourhood we have a Daelim motorcycle dealership and the Daelim toilet dealership is only a few doors away, so it's hard to avoid. The potential for parody is enormous and you'd never, ever, get away with that in a Western country. I still don't quite follow how any self-respecting Korean youth can sit proudly on their Daelim while not thinking that back home their father is probably in the bathroom sitting on his.

Later I bought another keyboard from another Korean manufacturer which was a bit more expensive but strangely developed exactly the same fault. Then I bought a computer, which came with another keyboard. This had the now unique quality of actually working properly, but unfortunately it was also the one involved in the Credit Crisis friendly-fire incident.

Because I spend a lot of my life living in the dark these days – it's a Korean social metaphor as well as referring to the lighting in my office – I'd like a backlit keyboard. It won't help my life in Korea but it will help my typing. Even though there are quite a few backlit keyboards around, it's apparently little too specialist to find in the local branch of my unnervingly-friendly electronics store, and there aren't nearly as many specialist computer stores here as you might expect because people use public PC rooms, their phones, and if they need a computer at home, the Internet to buy things from. There are two billion clothes shops in Busan – I know – I've counted them - but in all my time here I've only ever seen six computer stores, seven if you include a store that improbably just sells games for the 0.1% of people here who don't seem to pirate their software.

I can't really ask my wife to help me because she's so busy with our baby these days, and she's suffering from ICSF - Internet Comparison Shopping Fatigue - a serious health problem which big media is suppressing for their corporate masters. Fortunately I don't have one of those Korean wives that spends her life looking lovingly at her husband's wallet, but now I'm living in Korea with an insufficient level of Korean language ability, it does make it difficult for me to buy things too.

So my trick is to search through Amazon.com, find product codes, and enter them into Korea's shopping search engines along with the smattering of Korean I know such as '키보드' and '바보'. It usually gets results but the problem is too many results. Sites like Gmarket and Auction are just like eBay – so much so in fact that eBay bought both of them - with multiple vendors selling the same item at sometimes suspiciously different prices. But whereas eBay is just one option in the online shopping space in England and the U.S., this seems to be how the vast majority of Internet shopping is done in Korea. Back in England, I'd know exactly which specialist online sellers to deal with – and when you found what you were looking for – it was only one entry on a page with one price and one set of claims, not twenty. And crucially, my attention wasn't being sapped by fifty different flashing boxes on the web page while I tried to read.

And there's another problem. After browsing through Amazon I found one of the Logitech keyboards I was looking for in Korea. But then I took a closer look at the product pictures – and while they were small, there was no mistaking the fact that they were pictures of the American product. That's the thing about keyboards with letters which are lit – it's easy to tell that there's only one letter on a key, and the Korean letter is at best, not lit up, or at worst, not there at all. I've encountered this before with another keyboard I was thinking of buying – there were no Korean letters, which surprised me before my wife told me that Koreans didn't necessarily mind that much because they knew where the Korean characters were as long as the English letters were visible, which is no use to me. Are these people selling the American product or the local Korean equivalent? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that despite this being a very shopping-driven culture, a lot of the actual selling technique strikes me as being half-assed. You'd think people would care about what they sell, but consumer protection law isn't very strong here, so perhaps issues such as accuracy and putting the right product picture up aren't so important.

I think there might be a business opportunity there. After all, if a tiny minority of Koreans choose to actually buy software rather than copy it from their friends, I can't help thinking that there might be a few Koreans who would prefer a more Westernised Internet shopping experience, where visiting an e-commerce page doesn't make you feel like you're tripping acid. Plus, with so many people here these days using their phones, iPads and other CPU and bandwidth-challenged non-Windows devices, maybe – just maybe – the era of Internet Explorer-only 10Mb Korean web pages needs to come to an end.

Meanwhile, my search for a keyboard goes on.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

That Was the Year That Was

A few years ago the American company I worked for sent me on a management course which was a predictable exercise in the fascism of extroversion run by morally nihilistic extroverts telling me to be extroverted. I wrote software. Software writers are supposed to be introverts – otherwise we're really not going to be happy sat at our desk on our own all day. But I guess the course had some effect on me because that's when I realised I really wasn't happy about it. So I quit, which probably wasn't the result they were expecting, although perhaps it's just as well because later they sent my boss to jail. While extroverts might run the world but they can be as dumb as rocks in dealing with introverts. I'd set up an Introverts United support group to help raise awareness of our plight, except I wouldn't want to go to the meetings.

So I'm not really an extrovert at heart, but my life in Korea has often been more extroverted, and when Busan e-FM asked me to do a review of my year for the weekly segment I appear in on the station, I was reminded looking through this blog of just how much I got out in the first half of the year, and just how little in the second half due to my wife's advanced pregnancy and the subsequent birth of my son. Our social life inevitably collapsed, and until I met the small group of friends I belong to just before Christmas – yes, this is Korea and it really is a formal group with a name, its own homepage and message forums – I hadn't seen some of them for months.

Which means when I started thinking about what I would talk about on the radio last week, one of the many thoughts which occurred to me as I was forced through the process of putting the year into perspective was that my life had changed from that of a resident tourist eager to experience different places and events, to something more akin to that of a resident – working, commuting, and going out for functional rather than pleasurable reasons.

It's said that the first 100 days of a baby's life can be the toughest for the parents, and I believe I can attest to that. Our son was sick over the Christmas period turning an already difficult introduction to the world of parenting into a marathon sleep-deprived endurance test at a time when I was already very busy with other work. One of the things I never expected about writing a blog was the steady stream of email messages it would provoke. Unfortunately I've had to neglect them over the last week so I'm sorry to anyone who thought I was ignoring them.

This blog has inevitably suffered through a lack of time, and also because I've found that trying to write on five hours sleep a night with a baby screaming in the background is not particularly conducive to the writing process, for me at least.

I said on Busan e-FM on Wednesday that this might be my last year in Korea. My heart isn't really in the language studying process and while I'm putting some of the hours in I find I'm not absorbing it terribly well. Tim, the host of Inside Out Busan, told me that according to research Korean apparently requires around 4,000 hours to gain competency – that's around two years of treating it like a full-time job, an admittedly predictable statistic which I nevertheless find rather discouraging. And yet for me, studying Korean piecemeal – a little here and there – never develops its own momentum with the result that I don't feel like I'm seeing a return on my investment.

I don't want to end up being one of those foreigners who has been here for several years and still relies on their wife to do things, so as much as I actually like Korea, if I can't function independently here I think it's time to move on. In my life I've co-founded three businesses, been the elected representative of 9,000 people, and done work I found important that rewarded me in kind. None of it is terribly important to anyone else but it mattered to me. From that I've become a kind of non-person in Korea that struggles with something as simple as buying tea for a Christmas present in a department store boutique. When people talk about culture shock it's usually the food and the environment they are referring to, but to my mind there's a culture or psychological shock that comes with transitioning from being a highly organised problem solver to an environment where I am constantly the problem that others have to solve.

After the psyche-profile of my now annual Korean medical revealed some numerically high results, they wrote me a rather depressing letter telling me I was depressed, but not clinically so, which was nothing I couldn't have told them myself – it often goes with the territory when you have Meniere's Disease anyway. But given the high numbers of Koreans suffering from stress and unhappiness I took this as a rather positive sign that despite my language difficulties I am gradually becoming more integrated into Korean society. Perhaps things are already looking up.

I didn't write much on my blog last year because I was too busy. I'm still busy, but while I'm not a manic self-publicist and never really cared whether anyone read my blog or what anyone thought about me because of it, I do care about writing it, so as I looked back over it at the end of last year as necessitated by Busan e-FM's request, I was sad that I hadn't really kept it more up to date. I have a huge backlog of outline notes I've made over the months that I intended to write up as posts and never got around to. So this year I might write more. Certainly, I'm going to tackle some of those topics I never quite got around to, which means that the chronological narrative – if there ever truly was one – might be a little off. But I'm writing them anyway, because this is another year I intend to plough on regardless in the face of chaos, confusion and sheer indifference. That was the year that was, and this is the year that will be.