Thursday, March 08, 2012

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Recently I’ve been travelling out from the edge of known space at Jangsan to Gijang, which means that on the return leg of the journey I have found myself trying to catch taxis in the countryside to return to civilisation. It quickly became apparent that this may not be the same as catching taxis in the city.

Situated as I have been, in the middle of hardly anywhere by a long stretch of six-lane pork-barrel project next to a bus stop, I can see the taxis approaching from some distance away, but there is clearly a problem. Out here the taxis have entered into what can best be described as Busan Taxi Hyperspace, and either the taxi pilots have no ability to see beyond hyperspace, or it is impossible for them to decelerate to pick me up without turning themselves into a thin layer of jelly on the inside of their windscreens [that’s a ‘windshield’ for North American Passport Holders].

It has crossed my mind that I am not helping in this process. A reserved English cultural upbringing generally does not predispose me to jumping up and down like an American Televangelist by the side of the rural highway to attract the attention of the taxi pilots in good time. But it has also occurred to me that it may go further than this – because there may be an unwillingness to stop for foreigners. I mean, is it worth the hassle of trying to talk to an alien for the sake of $5? For all the movies and television episodes produced, Star Trek never adequately answered this question.

The first time this happened, four definite taxis obviously passed me and I identified a further two blurs as probables. I was considering a new strategy of starting to run in the direction of Jangsan as soon as I saw an approaching craft in the hope that the reduced speed differential might actually tempt them to drop out of hyperspace briefly for me to jump in, but then one actually did stop for me, and I didn’t even have to recreate any of my greatest moments as a 100m sprinter for my school, which was fortunate because there weren’t any.

When we reached civilisation my unfamiliarity with Jangsan caused me to reach for my wallet early and withdraw a 10,000 won note. The driver, who by this time had finally been forced to come to a stop due to the tiresome ‘red-light convention’ which even Korean drivers sometimes adhere to, saw this in his rear-view mirror and started organising the 1,000 won notes he’d give me in change. And then he gave me the change. This was confusing on account of the fact that we weren’t at my requested destination of Jangsan subway station yet, I had no intention of getting out, and my survival Korean does not extend to phrases like, “the rest of the ride is free”. Maybe I’m not meeting the right kind of women.

So I revert to my well-worn Confused Foreigner Look. Seeing my confusion and sadness as finally outing myself as someone whose Korean ability was more of a carnival act of stock phrases designed to simulate actual cleverness, rather than being the real thing, he proceeded to press a button on his charging meter which moved it to zero, finishing with a fait-accompli gesture which marked him out as a person who even knew more French than me. I thanked him. In simulated Korean.

We got to the subway station and I parted ways with my oddly charitable taxi pilot and waved farewell to his small craft. But it was as I descended into the subspace of Jangsan Station that I had a moment of self-awareness. I was very short-haired, wearing a black suit and carrying a small black attaché case with my documents, but not my Bible. Yes, I might have looked like a missionary, and while my frustrations with being unable to catch a taxi out there in the Forbidden Zone had not quite caused me to adopt the missionary position in a final attempt to attract attention, I may have been projecting the image of a lonely Christian-in-need.

It then occurred that this might explain the philanthropy of the taxi pilot, and also the intriguing outside possibility that the reason the other pilots didn’t stop for me was because they were Buddhists.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


“If you do a live radio show in the morning, nothing worse can happen to you all day.”

Open Miked in Busan

I’ve been very busy recently. It’s the kind of busyness where you’re basically on the move and working from the moment you awake after five to six hours of sleep to the moment you go to bed, seven days a week, and I’ve pretty much been like this since November. It seems like a superhuman effort for a foreigner, but it’s just normal life for many Koreans. Is it a sign my attitude is becoming Korean? And if I don’t care, is the answer yes?

Before I became one with the near catatonic mental state that the Korean work experience brings about, I used to write this blog – this post may well be a figment of your imagination – and along the way I tried, and failed, to keep up with posts taken from my Busan e-FM radio segment, Open Mike in Busan. For the sake of posterity, my desire to maintain a record of my Korean experience, I intend to complete these posts, which in the end will number 51, because my time on the show came to a close, something I was extremely glad of because after 51 weeks of strip-mining this blog, I’d run out of material and laid waste to the environment.

Zen and the Art of Radio Presenting

The radio station then posted an advert for writers and presenters, and I decided to apply because even though all the station’s writers are Korean, I like writing and the worst they could say was no if I expressed an interest. A phone conversation ensued during I was asked if I’d like to try out as a presenter, and even though I regard myself as having a face for radio and a voice for writing, I ended up going along with it because I’d decided to let the cards choose my fate considering how letting my intellect and logic choose the course of my life had turned out. There was also a strong element of my saying I was interested in writing, and the person on the other end of the phone hearing I really wanted to present. Many of my conversations in Korea seem to follow this pattern.

So it was that I turned up one day at Busan e-FM thinking someone was going to interview me about both options, but instead found an unfamiliar script thrust into my hands with the words “you’re on in ten minutes.”

As far as I understand the process, writers write pieces for the radio station, which are then translated into English by Koreans, and in my experience the results are invariably less than perfect in the way that a large asteroid hitting the Earth would be less than ideal. So I spent a tense ten minutes correcting what I was about to read in the studio.

During the reading, half-way down the second page and so far word perfect, I saw the end in sight and thought “I’m going to make it”, which almost inevitably was the trigger to make a small mistake. The producer immediately cut me off and ended the test recording. I knew it was over – live radio is a harsh mistress. As the producer clicked away on the computer, I stared out of the window contemplating the fact that if I’d had more than five hours of sleep the night before – which my baby son’s screaming had prevented – I might have been better. But in those moments I enjoyed the Zen-like realisation that my son was going to wake up at night for the foreseeable future, I was always going to be this tired – and hosting a live radio show was not for me.

I won’t pretend not to have been a little disappointed though; I was curious about how things would have turned out given that I’m just far enough beyond giving a damn not to try and have fun with it, which I expect would have ultimately pitched me against the people who run things.

This Segmented Life – Busan and More and Less

Something unexpected came of the test recording though. It was played to the station’s producers who’d gathered to formerly reject me in favour of someone better, but one of them was looking for a new segment guest and so it was that I was offered the role of writing and guesting on the Morning Wave in Busan show segment, Busan and More, which every Monday morning discusses the events taking place in the city in the week ahead.

On the downside, there was little scope to indulge in the kind of subtle freelance subversion I’d engaged in for Open Mike in Busan, but on the other hand I thought researching all those events would be a good opportunity for my wife and I to kick-start our social and cultural life which had ended after the birth of our son (I was wrong).

And then I unexpectedly got the chance to host a show after all, when – and I’m going to be necessarily vague here – the new presenter of a show was absent on their first day, leaving a hanging question of whether they would appear for their second. It was a one-time deal because no-one else was available and they were desperate, so I spent two hours the next day working through the translated English script trying to understand what it meant – no easy task - and correcting it. This certainly gave me an additional perspective on just how much work being a presenter at the station required, and how ill-advised doing such a job would be considering the hidden commitment.

I worked through that script correcting it and practising the Korean names within it, knowing that the missing presenter may resurface and I may not appear anyway – and so it was. I’d sent the station my corrected script anyway and later listened somewhat perplexed - and yet somehow completely unsurprised – as the new presenter awkwardly read out the original English translation, not my corrected version.

International Media Talk and Historical Figures

After this, I was offered another segment on the Weekly Review programme, called International Media Talk, which I would do every other week and discuss news in the global media. Finally things came full circle when the formerly absent presenter left the station after three months, the original host returned, and I was offered another segment on his show – Inside Out Busan – called Historical Figures, which essentially tries to discuss facts about famous people from history you possibly never knew.

Even by my standards, I knew the new segment would likely push me to breaking point, but the presenter and I had become friends along the way and I’d always said I would do more for his show if called upon. I also saw that the new segment potentially promised to be something I could have fun with because the entire premise bordered on the subversive. Seeing society through the perspective of the absurd is the only thing that motivates me to get up in the morning these days. Later in writing it though I’d discover that producing something that matched my expectations in the limited time I had would be a difficult trick to pull off.

About twelve to fifteen hours goes into writing those 30 minutes of radio for Busan e-FM every week, which I’d be the first to accept is probably far in excess of what most other people in my position would sanely put in. This is not work I’d recommend to anyone; I’ve long since developed a love-hate relationship with it, although I suppose at this point that could be said of most of my Korean experiences in general.