Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 30: Family Month

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


I prepare notes for my radio segment; I always felt that to be my best on the show I had to construct a narrative. Like most of the things I write, it’s more time consuming than the result appears to suggest or justify; I tend to debate each word and nuance in my head. Sometimes it turns violent. This week was a new low; the preparation time for my ten minutes on air was nine hours.

My topics are sometimes purely anecdotal experiences and while there may be deeper points to be made, the intention is primarily to entertain. But other times there are serious issues to discuss, and this seemed to be one of those times. I feel there are a lot of stereotypes of foreigners in Korea, often perpetuated by the media. One of the reasons I agreed to do a weekly slot on Busan eFM – and then sign on for a second season – was the notion that in just being out there and talking to a Korean audience – albeit one that is learning or already speaks English – it might provide more of an insight into the deeper thoughts and fears of a foreigner living here. I wanted to speak out. I think if you don’t, Korea is something which just happens to you.

But after kicking the ideas around in my mind for a long time, forming structure and writing sound-bites, I felt the result I wanted had eluded me. Writing to me feels like a game of chess, where the paragraphs are pieces and the various parts have to be carefully choreographed into a winning position. Except it’s not so much chess as blitz chess, played against the clock for suboptimal results. This week I really felt the need to win the game, but as it wore on I realised I’d forgotten how to play.

The powers that be at the station seemed to like it, but I’m not under the illusion that anyone really cares. In the end, my writing is as much about getting my own thoughts in order and understanding the confusion of contradictions that is myself, as much as it is about anything else.


May is kind of family month in Korea, because of the close proximity of Children’s Day and Parents’ Day. So the TV channels are running lots of family-related programmes. Inevitably this includes the vaguely self-satisfied ‘foreigners integrating well into Korea’ genre of programming, and there are two main types of show – women from South-East Asian countries brought here via marriage brokers for older Korean men, and Western foreigners married to Korean women.

Reality and unreality

I find the programmes featuring the Western men fascinating. Some are obviously willing collaborators, but sometimes I feel that others have a kind of haunted look about them – the look of men who are trapped. There’s something in the body language and the tone of what they say in English. It’s a subtlety I suspect is lost on most of the Korean audience; it’s easy to focus on how well foreigner is eating kimchi or speaking Korean.

I suppose I don’t find these programmes realistic – certainly at least, they don’t match my experience. But then I’ve read a lot of foreigners talking on the Internet about their Korean lives, and these programmes don’t often seem to match their experiences either. They tend to create a positive image, but perhaps that’s not the reality. My wife actually said to me that she hopes her mother doesn’t watch too many of these shows, because they make me look bad in comparison.

Unfortunately she does watch them. In fact we were in a taxi a few ago and the female driver watched these programmes too. “Living with him must be ‘fun’” she suggested. My mother-in-law smiled, but gave no answer, which I think tells you the truth.

So I think these programmes make my life more difficult – I can’t live up to the snapshot positive image they create. I suspect that if I were on one of these programmes, even I’d look better than I am on them; I’d look integrated because I live with my mother-in-law, and now brother-in-law (again), but it’s not the reality.

It can be difficult marrying someone from another culture and living in that culture. It’s easy to feel isolated because of the cultural barriers and language barriers. There’s the pressure to integrate, to learn Korean, to conform, and it can create a lot of stress. My life’s pretty messed up really. Don’t get me wrong, I like living in Korea, but my living here is full of problems – and that’s the reality.

International Marriage Damage and Prevention

There’s been some controversy about these TV programmes in the last week, which stems from the rise of ‘anti-multicultural groups’ in Korea.

One group, the wonderfully titled International Marriage Damage & Prevention Center, plans to hold a rally outside KBS headquarters in June to urge the broadcaster to stop airing the programmes which they accuse of ‘beautifying’ multicultural families by creating ‘illusions’ about them. That’s basically the same thing I said, but the difference is that my concern is purely the portrayal on television of these relationships – I think it’s clear what these anti-multicultural groups really want is just for certain types of foreigners to be kept out of Korea.

I find it fascinating that they are mainly targeting migrant workers and imported foreign wives – not Westerners – even though we’re all part of multiculturalism here. Their argument is that migrant workers are taking away jobs from Koreans and ‘committing crimes’, and immigrant wives are coming here as part of marriage scams to ‘earn money’.

I think this ‘committing crimes’ thing is a huge clue as to where they are coming from. There’s always been a strong nationalistic streak running through Korean society, and there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your country, but there’s a narrow line between pride and hatred. The English author Samuel Johnson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. I don’t think he meant that all patriotism was necessarily bad, but he was highlighting how common it is for people who have no intellectual argument – or no intellectual ability – to dispense with rational debate in favour of appealing to people’s fears and hatred. I think Europeans like myself are especially sensitive to this kind of behaviour because of what happened in 1930s Germany and other European countries in history. Nothing good ever comes out of trying to make an entire country irrational and angry by lying to them, and it scares me when groups start trying to manipulate people by creating fear.

All Foreigners in Korea are (Potential) Criminals*

I don’t agree with these criminal accusations. I’ve said before that National Police Agency figures show that foreigners in Korea commit fewer crimes per-person than Koreans, and it makes sense if you think about it; if you’re an economic migrant – or any kind of foreigner here – the last thing you want to do is commit a crime, get caught, thrown out of the country and lose it all. Of course, a few foreigners will commit crimes, but these groups are trying to create the fear among Koreans that all foreigners are criminals – it’s certainly the implication of the statements they are making – and that’s just simple racism.

Even though they aren’t targeting Western foreigners, we’ve had these accusations ourselves in the past of course. A few years ago the newspapers were full of suggestions that foreign English teachers were coming to Korea and spreading HIV and AIDS. This time, these hate groups are attacking ‘economic migrants’ from countries perceived to be ‘inferior’ (i.e. poorer) to Korea, which is another thing that tells you this is racially motivated.

The odd thing is if you think about it – given the poor job situation in my country and especially America, many Westerners here are really economic migrants too. It’s not uncommon to hear native-English teachers here say they can’t easily go back home because there are no jobs. But these anti-multicultural groups aren’t attacking Westerners - strangely only people from other Asian countries seem to have this stigma attached to them - although if they aren’t stopped they’ll probably come for us next.

Of course, Koreans in the U.S. have committed crimes – some very high profile like the Virginia Tech Massacre. But how would Koreans here feel if American groups started campaigning for Koreans to be kept out of the country? For that matter, people from Busan have committed crimes in Seoul – how would Busan citizens feel if groups in Seoul said people from this city shouldn’t be allowed to move to the capital because people from Busan are ‘criminals’ or only going to Seoul as part of ‘scams’. It would be ridiculous, but then why should foreigners in Korea have to be treated like this?

Fairly unbalanced

I think these TV programmes are actually part of the problem. By making multicultural families look more positive than they are they are feeding these hate groups. I don’t know if there’s a solution, but it’s clear that migrant workers have lots of problems with discrimination and working conditions, and there have been numerous cases of immigrant wives being abused and even murdered by their husbands in recent months alone. Even as a Westerner, I have problems here. Of course, these groups are probably pretending that these things don’t happen, unless they are particularly ignorant – which is always a possibility.

But perhaps if these programmes showed more of these problems then maybe – like my mother-in-law has realised, and that taxi driver hasn’t – multicultural families are not necessarily as much ‘fun’ as they are made to look on TV.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-18 @ ~19:30

Monday, May 16, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 29: Smaller Fish

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


The new season at Busan e-FM has seen some changes, and one of them is a new segment which precedes mine called "Bigger Fish". The title derives from its coverage of literature and by extension philosophical issues which are the bigger questions we often rarely stop to consider in the prisons of trivia we build for ourselves in our daily lives. The content is thought provoking and I'm glad that the station is pushing the envelope as far as its material is concerned.

During my time with the station I'd like to think I've covered some hard-hitting subjects, even if a lot of it has been secretly dressed up under the guise of my personal experiences in Korea and hardly anyone noticed. But some of it - like today - isn't tackling racism, social inequality or anything philosophically substantive - so I titled today's topic 'smaller fish', proving that in the absence of other targets, I can always take a shot at myself.

Someone new to the station said that they'd worked out what most of the other segments were about, but not yet mine. I've been joking for some weeks that as I exhaust my pool of personal experiences and move into personal thoughts and opinions, my segments have increasingly become, in a Seinfeld-type of way 'about nothing' - although possibly without the humour - because there is no common theme running through them. In fact, this is now a running joke with my wife every time something trivial happens, punctuated with the punchline 'and that's a show' - as I struggle with the question of what I'm really going to talk about on air over the next few months. Maybe it doesn't matter anyway; I think the modus operandi at the station is to just plow on regardless sometimes - I suppose that's the mindset live radio creates for you.


This week I'm returning to the subject of food - to talk about a specific type, and that's fish. I quickly discovered the importance of fish here, and perhaps a particular type of seafood is sometimes shocking for foreigners - and that's live seafood.

Going coastal

I’d been in Korea three weeks when my wife suggested that we go to the seafront to ‘eat fresh seafood’ with her mother, in an area of Busan with a harbour and a fishing fleet, from which you can take it that the fish are supposed to be especially fresh, even by the local standard of preferring freshly killed seafood – hence the large number of tanks crammed with barely surviving creatures you see on many streets.

Let me explain how this kind is in England. First of all, we don’t have those kind of tanks – the animal anti-cruelty groups would never stand for it, but we also don’t have much of a culture of eating really fresh - or raw - fish. Given that this is the case, freshness is less important because everything is going to be cooked anyway. But this isn’t to say we don’t have areas where the seafood is perceived to be better because we have fishing fleets there – we do, and when northern English people - ‘northerners’ - go to places like this, we’ll quite often seek out a good meal of ‘fish and chips’.

Fish and chips

Typically, ‘fish and chips’ consists of de-boned haddock or cod in batter, with thickly-cut potatoes fried at very high temperatures in industrial fryers, which makes them impossible to cook properly at home. A slice of lemon may be squeezed over the fish, and the chips are sprinkled with salt and a type of vinegar which seems impossible to find in Korea. It’s a very difficult dish to get right – for example, the potatoes taste different depending on the season and some times are better than others, and if the fish is cooked too long it becomes dry and unsatisfying.

Fish and chips became a popular meal among the British working class – partly because it was filling and inexpensive. When I was young it was really the only type of take-away there was in the working class areas I lived in. In that sense – it is similar to the cheaper seafood dishes in Busan which Korea’s working class eat.

When I came to Korea I assumed it would be impossible to eat fish and chips here. In fact, I worked out that the nearest fish and chip shop was in Australia. But I was wrong, because then I discovered that there actually was a proper fish and chip shop in Haeundae – inevitably – set up by a British expatriate. He wrote on one of the Internet forums here about the difficulty of setting up the business and getting the food right, and he even mentioned the near impossibility of getting the right type of vinegar. [Unfortunately it appears it's since closed].

The Battle of Songdo Bay

So, three weeks after arriving here I went with my mother-in-law and wife to Songdo Bay, a coastal area near us in the west of Busan that is regarded as a good place to eat raw fish. At that point I hadn’t even seen the sea in Busan yet, so given what I’ve said about fish and chips, I had it in my mind that we’d be dining in some sort of restaurant with a window view over the sea. The fish wouldn’t be haddock or cod, but rather some local variety, and Korean Mother might be eating something more exotic such as octopus.

But, as in often the case in my life in Korea, there was a considerable gap between my expectations and the reality which played out. It was windy and raining heavily. The restaurant was a seafront tent, in fact so close to the seafront that the tide was coming in and out of about half of the tent, which creates an interesting theme. There was no menu, but the food was picked from large bowls outside - most of it was unidentifiable and some of it was frightening. My mother-in-law picked some kind of sea slugs - which later I discovered were called 개불 - which was meant to be good for vitality. Ten minutes later thy were on her plate - minus their insides - but the loss of their internal organs was not stopping them trying to escape. I'm told they can live for up to thirty minutes like this. Then she chased the creatures round the plate with her chopsticks, which only seemed to make them angrier. I'd been here three weeks at that point as I witnessed the unfolding horror, and I thought, "What am I doing here?" and "Who are these people?"

I didn't try the 개불. I kept waiting for my 'when in Rome' moment, but it didn't happen. Even my wife wasn't eating them. Then I made a bit of a mistake. As the last few creatures tried to hide in a corner of the plate, I voiced my thought to my mother-in-law that these creatures would still be moving around in her stomach. For some reason apparently she'd never really thought about this before. So she continued, but without the same level of enthusiasm. The next day she didn't feel well, and it was two years before she ate 개불 again, which I feel partly responsible for. [More details and video here].

Bring your own fish restaurant

I haven’t eaten any other live fish here. In fact, the longer I stayed here the more I was put off by the idea. I’ll tell you the problem. Sunday was parents’ day so my mother-in-law once again wanted to eat fresh fish – we went down to Dadaepo Harbour this time, where the restaurants are just over the road from where the fishing fleet is docked.

Now it turns out that the type of ‘restaurant’ she wants to go to was one where you bring your own food, so she walked into one of the markets and before I had time to realise what was about to happen a two-foot long fish was pulled from a bowl, it’s neck or spine was immediately broken and the chopping along with the associated blood-splattering began, even though it was still moving. Then it was taken to the restaurant with us where it was prepared. I'm afraid it doesn't do much for my appetite. When I explained to my wife what I'd be talking about on the radio today, she said that the way I describe it, it "kind of sounds a bit disgusting". But then the next thing she said was "I'm hungry." Maybe it's a cultural thing.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-11 @ ~19:30

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lotus Lantern

If you ever want to know why I like living in Korea, it's because last Saturday evening at 9pm I was stood in the middle of Yongdusan Park with thousands of other people, immersed in the 2011 Busan Lotus Lantern Festival (there's another in Seoul). By contrast, the only reason you go to a park after dark in my city is to shoot up hard drugs or get murdered. And while there are things to do and places to go after dark, it involves locking yourself in your car and hoping someone doesn’t ram you from behind in one of the bad neighbourhoods which are too numerous to avoid, as part of an insurance fraud or carjacking.

During my first stay in Korea, I saw a lot of places and did a lot of things, and now I have a child I have to reluctantly acknowledge that it was a more carefree lifestyle which might never be fully regained. So whereas once we would have made a date to visit Yongdusan Park on Saturday evening for the Busan Lotus Lantern Festival, and culmination of the three-day Joseon Tongsinsa Festival – it was past our son's bedtime and we thought we probably wouldn't make it unless he was in a good mood. But Thursday was Children's Day in Korea, so we went then instead, after lunch. The lanterns were out but the effect was obviously less impressive in the daytime, and we're getting to that time of year where the heat and humidity are becoming uncomfortable, which also detracts a little from the experience.

As things were, we actually did manage to get back on Saturday, although it didn't quite work out as planned. The event was scheduled to begin at 8pm, but it was late starting, and we didn't really think through the nature of the event. We went for the lanterns, but there was a parade. Korean parades are often noisy affairs, and when the lights were finally turned on and this one arrived, it was no different. To an extent you can move away from the samulnori and other sundry musicians, but there was no escape from the on-stage performances which were so loud over the speakers I left the park barely able to hear myself speak - this is not an exaggeration. I haven't experienced anything like it since university. Add fireworks into the mix, which admittedly were rather nicely enhanced by the fog, and it explains why my wife - concerned about our baby’s hearing - immediately fled from the park with several other parents.

Now our baby is old enough to start seriously venturing from the confines of the apartment, it's occurring to me for the first time that, at least as far as festivals and other events are concerned, Korea may not be particularly baby friendly. Maybe there's a way of holding an event like this without getting noise complaints from Japan, but if there is it hasn't crossed the organisers' minds.

Unfortunately at the point at which my wife ran away we were separated, and she had my phone, leaving me with Korean Mother who had taken a seat near the stage and was largely inaccessible – not just because of the language barrier. I spent at least thirty minutes looking for my wife and child, although it could have been longer since without my phone, I didn't know the time either. I discovered why I couldn’t find my immediate family once I worked my way to Korean Mother. "Shall we go?" I asked in Korean, but she said no, she was having fun. I lacked the depth of language to ascertain whether she was saying this for my benefit or not, and I didn't want to press the issue by emphasising that it was really OK to leave, because I was afraid of dragging her away from something she wanted to stay at. Predictably, it later transpired that while she was enjoying the event, she also mainly staying for my benefit.

The misunderstandings meant that I saw the events through to their conclusion. Confusion, noise, colour, laughter, large crowds, barely organised chaos among the performers and the possibility of permanent physical damage afterwards - the Festival was a microcosm of life in Korea, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 28: National Identity

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


Well, unless you were hiding in a cave, this week has seen a huge global news event – the culmination of a ten year plan in fact. And someone who has proven difficult to pin down has finally been caught. I am of course, talking about Prince William and the British Royal Wedding. And this got me thinking about the subject of national identity – and what it means to be British in Korea.

Queen Elizabeth

I didn’t watch the royal wedding, but over 24 million British people did. The week before the wedding someone told me they weren’t watching it, and I didn’t even know when it was. Then I found out, because I received an email from one of my brokers covering the week ahead in the financial markets – and of course, the British stock market was closed.

According to a British newspaper survey, 37% of people in the UK were “genuinely interested and excited” by the wedding. That’s actually 23 million people – so presumably another 1 million watched because they were bored. A lot of people said it was a kind of Cinderella story, and I guess that Korean people can relate to that because many K-dramas seem to centre around a plot where a poor woman falls in love with a wealthy man, or a rich man falls in love with a poor woman, if you look at it from a male perspective, which often seems more important in Korea.

But if 37% were interested, it also means 63% were not really interested and didn’t watch, and I was one of them. I think to a lot of us our royal family is like a long running soap opera that refuses to get cancelled. But on the other hand, the queen is like our own version of a halmoni [elderly Korean woman] – stoically going on despite everything. So I accept she’s a national symbol. I guess Korea has it’s own modern-day royalty in a way, because I keep reading about ‘Queen Yuna” in the newspapers.

Queen Yuna

I didn’t watch the royal skating performance either, but I did see her Olympic performance last year, albeit accidentally. When she skated for the gold I was at a hospital having heart tests – but not because I was worried she wouldn’t win.

My wife told a friend that she might not have watched it if we hadn’t been at the hospital. She said her friend gave her an odd look. Maybe it’s not the sort of thing you’re suppose to admit to. I know there was a strong feeling of patriotism surrounding her performance – and I felt sorry for her because of that, because she’s very young and there must have been a lot of pressure on her; she’d become a national symbol but one, like the British royal family, that could easily disappoint. Of course we have had numerous disappointments with our royal family, and more than that, I’ve even had it with my government – and I’ve come to feel less British because of my experience.

The British Anti-Ambassador

I came to Korea to get married and then I was going to go home. Little did I know that by the time I set foot in England again my government would have done its best to prevent me from calling it home ever again, because they wouldn’t give my wife a visa and told me I was “free to live my life in Korea”. Those were the exact words with which I was effectively exiled. We won our legal case but there was no sense of victory after all the money and time we’d spent on the case. You know what the funny thing about governments is? When you break the law as a citizen, they send you to jail, but when they break the law (they did and I’m pretty sure they knew what they were doing as well), nobody goes to jail, and nobody apologises. That’s difficult when people expect you to be some kind of British representative.

Because there are relatively few British people here, I suppose sometimes I feel a sense that my behaviour and views are representing my country in Korea much more than they might be if I were American. So maybe I play this unwilling ambassadorial role. For example, an old Korean guy walked up to me while I was taking photos once, and after he discovered I was British he starts telling me how he owns a company and met the British Ambassador once – and how he gets invited to their parties sometimes.

I don’t get invited to parties at the British Embassy, and it’s a fair bet that there’s more chance of Kim Jong-il getting an invite than me. But this ajeossi tells me how much he likes British culture, and I’m trying to smile and be polite, but at the same time I’m thinking ‘why should I have to play this role after what happened?’ People say you tend to become more patriotic when you leave your country, but I became less.

National Identity Crisis

I might be having some kind of national identity crisis. It’s not like I feel welcome back home. What is it to be British in Korea anyway? Koreans have this notion of being a pure-blooded race ‘민족’, but there’s no British ‘race’ per se. Overseas Koreans are some of the most vocal defenders of Korean culture – even if they’ve never lived here, but I don’t think any British people really feel as strongly as that.

And there are lots of American brands here, with fast food, coffee and clothes retail. And what do the British get? One supermarket chain (Tesco Homeplus aka ‘Homeplus’ aka ‘Home plus’ aka ‘Samsung Tesco Homeplus’ aka ‘I can’t believe we’re not Korean’), and even that kind of hides its British origins. We can get a bit of British food there. There’s this kind of desperate discussion thread on a website for foreigners here (AFEK), where British expats talked in excited tones about being able to get their hands on tins of ‘Value Beans’ which are probably around 180 won in the UK but cost 1,000 won here.

Another problem with countries like Britain and America – wherever you are in the world, is that you also feel responsible for your country’s foreign policy – all the bad things that it does in your name. I think Korea doesn’t have that kind of issue as much.

The 51st State

I think my experience here is different from that of an American in some small ways. There’s always this worry in the background I think that American soldiers are going to get into serious trouble in Seoul – or American language teachers. But then often I get into taxis and the first question the driver will ask my wife is “is he American?” And you know, sometimes I sense this feeling of relief when my wife says no – he’s British. But I feel a bit bad about it as well, because the thing is with Brits and Americans is that we’re are all supposed to be on the same side now. Although you know what the truth of being British here is – we’re all Americans when we’re in trouble.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-04 @ ~19:30