Letter from Korea, January 2012

January 10, 2012

Dear Ireland,

For starters, Happy New Year.

Another year of my life in Korea has passed. This March will mark the seven year anniversary of my first arrival in Korea. It seems like that long. That’s neither good nor bad; it’s just how I feel. If I look back on 2011 I can say that it has been a good year. As well as passing some milestones, it has been productive, it has been exciting, it has been tragic, and it has definitely strengthened my resolve to see things through in the future. But, I don’t really want to go on about how 2011 was when 2012 is here and happening now.

I’m always optimistic about most things in life, and the older I get the more realistic I get about my optimism. For starters, while I still look forward to many aspects of life and adventure, I look at things a bit more realistically. Responsibility is to blame for this. That being said, realistically approaching things does allow for a more fulfilling experience – while the experience itself may not be as much fun as the old drop-everything-gung-ho perspective of the past, the results are better as I’ve planned and prepared adequately leaving me with less to worry about before, during and after whatever it is that is happening. Optimism prevails always, although in a more measured and regulated manner. Let me raise a glass to more of this in the future.

So what has that got to do with the year ahead here in Korea? Well, I suppose there are some things to look forward to but many of these don’t really have any significance here, other than offering me a means of looking back in 12 months and realising how many opportunities I made a mess of. I thought it would be appropriate to look at the year ahead in Korea.

As I said in my last Letter From Korea, I’m now Chairman of the Irish Association of Korea, and there are a few things that should mark my tenancy in this role. The first is the announcement of the winner of the first ever Irish Korean Essay Competition (and hopefully the good news that the Irish government is willing to sponsor it once again). More significant than this will be Saint Patrick’s Day in Seoul. While I have been in the thick of the organisations for the past few festivals, this will be the first time I will be leading the organisational drive. It is daunting, time consuming, blood pressure increasing, but always a real buzz to see the whole machine come to life on the day! Expect a decrease in blogging frequency around early March courtesy of this madness.

This isn’t really that important compared to everything else that is going to happen in the next few months. What inspired this unusually objective blog post behaviour was the release of two CNNgo articles over the past couple of weeks. The first one was 12 Reasons to Visit Korea in 2012, and the second was 50 Beautiful Places to Visit in Korea.

The 50 beautiful places post is a very blunt reminder to me of how many places I have yet to visit in Korea, and of the places I need to go back to. I’ve been all over the country but I still have yet to visit some of the more unique locations in the country. The most obvious example of this is that I’ve never been to Jeju-do. Plenty will scream in shock at this, but it’s just somewhere I’ve never been. I’d like to go. It would be nice, I suppose, although I’m much more interested in visiting Ulleongdo.

The article is a gentle reminder of how much there is to see in Korea and how wonderful it can be to spend your weekends jumping on a train or bus and getting into the countryside. Other places I’d like to visit on this list include Mupo Marsh, Jirisan, and Jeolla-do in general. For what it’s worth, I’ve been to around a third of the places here, or at least close enough to them. It’s actually a good list and you won’t find many on your typical list of places and things to do courtesy of the wonderful guides in KNTO (is that what they’re still called?), who seem to direct everyone to the same places all at the same time. Of course, having a command of Korean, a good sense of direction, and a barometer for appreciating Korean tourist destinations can help, but despite these the adventure is well worth it.

As for the 12 reasons thingy…. Well it being CNNgo it’s no surprise that there is a lack of consistency in the usefulness and quality of information supplied. Sometimes you get the idea that the people who write some of these articles really struggle to come up with some worthwhile things to say and randomly select stuff like you would an choose an apple from a barrel.

It’s true that these are 12 reasons to visit Korea in 2012, but they aren’t really good reasons to be honest. I will do my best to avoid a full scale rant against this article as it’s not really going to do anyone any good. But, I will say a just a few things about each one:

  1. Visit Korea year was 2011 and 2012. Shouldn’t it just be visit Korea every year? What difference does a year make?
  2. Korea Grand Sale has always been on as far as I can recall.
  3. I’m sick of music I don’t like and being told it’s the greatest thing despite it being cheesy and catchy pop music. I can rant more but maybe another time…
  4. This will not make my life better, or many more people in Seoul for that matter.
  5. Eh…
  6. I am actually looking forward to the EXPO, and I’m quite excited about making a trip down to the south coast for this. Might even throw in a trip to an island or two while I’m at it! So, yeah, woot, bring on the EXPOOOOO!
  7. Between this and Songdo, I can see the international visitor numbers skyrocketing in 2012…
  8. This could be very, very, very cool. The only thing is that there are already countless other high quality film festivals in Korea and considering I’ve never gone to any before, I don’t see myself heading here either. If there are any worthwhile films I suppose I can wait until someone uploads them to youtube. But still, cool and probably worth checking out, but not sure if it’s a particularly good reason to fork out a grand for an airline ticket…
  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but does putting ‘International’ before Marathon actually make it any different from the countless other city marathons around the world?
  10. Wow, another thing that has been going on for years will be happening AGAIN in 2012. Better get signed up before it happens again next year…
  11. Firstly, how many ‘years’ can you have in one ‘year’? Second of all, so what?
  12. Call me narrow minded, but allow me to offer a better alternative to this. Ireland in Summer.

Now that I’ve had a good go at another mediocre list of things about Korea, maybe it would be worth talking about some of the things which will be on everybody’s lips in 2012

1. Elections!!! The most exciting thing about the elections, both presidential and parliamentary, is the actual electioneering on the streets. It’s hilarious! It’s like one big competition to see who can afford the most ajjumas to dance on the side street to some catchy tune. I love it!

But more importantly, this is the year when Korea goes to the polls nationwide, and we will know how popular LMB and his cronies and presidency really are.Most of the criticism of LMB and his administration seems to be publicised by young socially conscious people, but as far as I know, young and those who are socially conscious are in a minority. Not everyone reads blogs and listens to podcasts about how decrepit the country is…. I wonder will there be as big an overhaul as some people are hoping…  And once that is finished, well, let’s let if finish first!

2. North Korea!!! Yes, there’s a new Kim in town (is it cliché to say this yet?). Many are holding their breaths and watching every move, but still they have little notion of what will actually happen. There has been a lot of broad statements sent south by the north about oceans of flames etc. However, I seem to recall that an agreement was made about nuclear weapons and food aid just before the death of KJI.  Maybe this was renounced… There’ll be a lot in the press about the comings and goings of the misbehaviour of North Korea, but how much will actually effect the day to day running of things in the south? Will anything actually change? Dum dum dummmm!

3. The 2012 EXPO in Yeosu. As I said, it could be really good. But, me being an absolute cynic about how things are done here, you will have to listen to me complain for a moment. To start, we aren’t going to hear the end of how great the EXPO is and how great Korea is for hosting the EXPO. And, fair play to Korea it has to be said, but getting the patting on the back over and done with and get on with the job may be another story. It wouldn’t be brash to suggest that the powers that be are in danger of blinding themselves to the fact that they could be making an absolute balls of it. One other thing that will bother me is that there’ll probably be a complete lack of understanding of how non-Koreans (and also non-white westerners) go about life in the world. These things bother me. Am I generalising? Yes. Am I wrong? Maybe. Does it matter if I’m right or wrong? Probably not.

4. Euro 2012!!! Yes, it’s not in Korea but it will be on the telly in the pub in Korea, and most importantly Ireland will be playing. More importantly it will be on in the summer and I can stay up late watching late night games and drinking cold beer. Then when the morning comes along, I can sleep in the full glory of my long-holiday. Did I mention Ireland is going to win it? Yes. It’s true. I read it on twitter.

Anyway, without being to predictive and allowing the world flow in its own special way, these are so far the stand out issues for 2012 in Korea. I could go on about the US elections, but that’s merely a sideshow. I could go on about politics in Ireland but that’s depressing. So, I’ll stick to Korea (and Euro 2012) and a distinct lack of educated guesswork and foresight.

Don’t expect me to pass too much comment on these issues, at least nothing too serious (except Euro 2012 – rants aplenty ahoy!) There’ll probably be very serious things that warrant more attention than these, and there’s probably more I could say on these things I’ve mentioned, but I’m far from an expert and I prefer an armchair view of the world.

So with all this in mind, I suppose I should mention that there’s a chance I could be moving to England in February to do a Phd, and all this will be a distant flurry on the international stage (except Euro 2012), although I will miss the electioneering ajummas…

(What was that I said about looking back in a year at opportunities I made a mess of?)

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