Letter to Korea, August 2014


Dublin, Ireland
August 2014

Dear Korea,

I may not make a habit of this, but I thought considering our long affair together the least you deserve is an update on life without you. You know, it has been almost two months since I arrived back ‘home’ in Ireland and you seem further away than ever before. This is not the first time we have been separated for a long period, but always I had that return flight date lingering in the back of my mind. Such a comfort does not exist now.

Perhaps it is significant that I write this today, me who has kind of gone off writing this kind of thing, because it is the day when I receive my last pay cheque from my old work in Korea. In some respects I can look at it as the ending of what was another era for me, although I would laud it with such praise very reluctantly. The period of time for such an era to exist has merely concluded but all who existed beforehand continue on living in Korea regardless of whether or not I am there. Ireland is equally unperturbed by my return.

I was expecting more culture shock but have been lucky so far. The benefits have balanced pleasantly against the expected problems. Having a garden and a job to arrive to have made things much easier on me and my family. Family are nearby, as are friends, and there is a seemingly never ending quantity of tasty cake supplying cafes in the city centre which I seem to find myself in frequently on the way home from work. We discover new things daily and look forward as optimistically as possible to each new challenge the rest of the week brings us.

It may well be the honeymoon period, as arguably I’m still on my summer holidays. Today it rained like December and there was a bus strike. We went to the supermarket and again scratched our heads as to why raw prawns were so hard to find. They aren’t really hard to find obviously, they’re just playing second fiddle to cooked ones. A bit like the sunshine does with the rain, and in terms of fiddling about with transport I can’t fail to mention how much I miss my kyotung card, or transfer card. The so-called leap card is more a stumble along moderately well provided you don’t ask too much of it card.

Today as I taught a class I asked the students to write ten things about themselves, be it physical or emotional, and from here they had to let fellow classmates guess what each thing meant and then they would explain. The idea was to enable them to become confident talking about themselves and their emotions, I think. I gave myself as an example, which is something I probably do too often.

One thing that I wrote I wrote on the board as is ‘old is new’. I had been pacing the classroom trying to come up with things to include as part of my list. I looked out onto South William Street and up Clarendon Street from my classroom and in the distance I could make out the heads bobbing back and forth. There was the great debris of Grafton Streets midday traffic. It was in this part of town where I had worked just before I left for Korea nine years previously, and it was around here that I had spent many days and indeed nights. I don’t think I had spent as much as others but I remembered the streets fondly, almost nostalgically.

It got me thinking about each morning when I walked to the school where I teach. As I walked from Ormond Quay up to South William Street I was having this new feeling of being  new to a city, of being here for the first time. I had that blinkered feeling that ignored the normality brought about by familiarity, the same kind of bland taste you get from the same journey to work every day for a year. I was making a subconscious effort not to recognise what essentially looked exactly the same as before I left the city when I was only 23.

It’s not that everything is new. Perhaps it is seeing everything renewed. The old familiarity I had with Dublin hasn’t gone. I walk around and drive around the city and find my way with relative ease. I know where places and, for the most part, the quickest way to get to them. I stare a little longer in wonder than I used to, and I still hope that sooner or later myself and Herself can finally get a chance to regular sample all the delights our new home has to offer.

But that can’t be everything about living. Those grey walls will lose their lustre soon. The chance to be human will be removed and we will feel like more numbers but on a different chart. Herself waits for me through the long mornings to come home from work. It can’t be easy. I worry that what work I have will not be enough to live on. So much has depended on generousity to date. Consider it a metaphor that the tomatoes planted in our greenhouse will soon be dead and we shall be left to find fresh fruit elsewhere.

We sit and we wait for the ruthless nature of what is clearly a beast that only welcomes those working. The safety net that my teaching job in Korea provided and which we ridiculed for its unrealistic nature has finally been removed at our request. Now as we tumble as gracefully as our naive frames will allow us to fold in positions for safety expecting the thump of landing, I wonder will this next year be as challenging as we are expecting? Or will it be something else?

 

 

 

 

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Letter from Korea, June 2014.


Jumunjin, Korea
June  23, 2014

Dear Ireland,

If you’re not already aware I’ll be leaving in about a week. I know I’m going on about it a fair bit, but it is what I’ve been building up to for quite a while and it feels appropriate to me to talk about it a lot. Right now, in terms of being in Korea, it doesn’t feel like there is much else I should be talking about. One thing though that I’d like to make clear though is my intentions.

Never at any point have I turned around and said I have to get out of Korea for some abhorrent reason, like the usual tripe you hear about the inadequacies of Korea, Koreans, or indeed the inadequacies of those who cannot accept that this is a very different country to the one which they were raised in. I could go on here, but I won’t.

Over the past four and a half years Korea has presented me unlimited opportunities to not only excel professionally, but also personally. What matters to me most now is that I did my best to respond to each opportunity. Master Yoda’s message has always been in the back of my mind ringing strong, ‘do, or do no, there is no try’.

As an adult I think it’s important to know what you want to do in life. Even if this is the wrong decision, knowing your direction makes developing a lot easier. In Korea I have been granted many opportunities, including business, education, journalism, and I have tried to see them through to realise their potential, or has more often been the case, their suitability to me. I’ve worked on the plans, built my image, and connected with important decision makers in all of those fields. In the long run however, I did not have the heart for whatever it was that I was doing. For me this was an incentive to seek different paths.

It may be that success was not immediate and I just needed to try harder. Passion, however, was lacking and the incentives in the long run were even hard to assess. I could not even tell the length of the run I was expecting to undertake. It is important to know the disntance of any race, or indeed the height of the hill you are attempting to climb.

I’m not without my commitment to other areas in my life. I believe it is important to be prepared for everything that life presents to you, but it is equally important to know as many clichés as possible when you choose to back down from a challenge, and I will let you devise them here. You can draw comparisons if the clichés aren’t strong enough for you to understand my point, all I will say for now on this is that some things were not meant to be.

Korea has changed my mentality on so many fronts, not just how I approach challenges but also how I prepare myself. To take every opportunity we are presented is not possible, and to rely on the patience brought about by previous failures is something that probably doesn’t sound too encouraging when you set out. Again, I look to another master for guidance, this time an Irish one:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”*

 
(*I am sorry, I’ve seen several versions of this, but never once have I seen it accredited its exact location in the canon. Regardless the message rings true. And of course, this is Samuel Beckett)

This July I shall be reacting to another failure of mine. The change from Ireland to Korea was always with an open mind and an aspiration to change again in the future. The future has now arrived and while life has been good in Korea, the ladder upward has been flimsy and without a top in sight. Maybe ladders of life do not need tops, but they should at least have milestones, and by milestones I suppose I mean realisable goals.

Since I began teaching in Korea I have always progressed a step at a time. I can realistically chart my progress contract by contract, while always looking to the next stage, but now there appear to be no more rungs. There are options of course, and the position I had teaching academic English language skills in a leading Korean university had many options, many at the grace and mercy of the almost five months of holidays a year, and the limited class contact hours. Perhaps some have always wondered why I managed to maintain such an active online lifestyle, well now you know.

There is plenty to be done with this time of course, and I know many who use this position or one like it as a base for them to find more work teaching office workers or in homes and the likes. I’ve done all this, and I believe I was a good teacher with a decent reputation. Yet the lack of security and the reliance, invariably, on apathetic and often clueless recruiters on temp contracts charged with the responsibility of placing teachers is an experience I can do without in my work life. Added to this, at the best of times work is only available from 7am to 9am, or from 6pm until 7pm or sometimes 8pm. Students, are tired, bored, and overworked. The dynamic in the classroom is as you might expect, tiring, boring, and far too much work for the teacher.

I think that I’m coming across as scathing here, but I’d like to reassure you that for many these options are fine, and I can see why. What helps is a strong commitment, and also close access to the positions which offer these times. Yeongtong, where I lived for the majority of that time, was limited to the occasional vacancy in one of the several colossal Samsung plants that are close, and a scattering of other jobs. Quality positions were few and far between.

So this is the work life I am leaving. I will say little of the future I am traveling towards. Maybe I’ll save that for a later letter. What I can say is I’m leaving it for uncertainty and a smaller pay cheque. I worry a lot that my shrinking of income and free time will make me regret my decision to leave Korea. As a family we are committed, and I don’t doubt the summer will be fantastic, but as the winter settles in I worry. I think more and more now over the coming days how much I’m going to miss Korea. At this point I will also say I’m a little scared.

I know that we will be back to Korea to visit, but I hope that it does not turn out that we return with our tails between our legs again in a few years time. My attitude will have to change of course if I want to come back with my head held high. I hope that I am prepared for this challenge.

Letter from Korea, April 2014


Suwon, South Korea
28/4/2014

Dear Ireland

I haven’t written in several months, I know. Perhaps Thailand got in the way of my regular correspondence, although there was little to stop me from writing a Letter from Thailand, other than the sunshine and other things I was writing. So here is my first letter of 2014, and it is of a sombre note.

Today’s letter takes an obvious theme, and one which is flooding both the Korean television and media outlets, as well as many of the English blogs, websites, and twitter and facebook posts and profiles. It is the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the south-west coast last week.

I’m still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. I still struggle to read anything beyond the headline of an article, let alone watch longer than a few moments of the news. There is no hope of any good news any longer, I can only report, with every story coming out with more talk of bodies found, often clutching together in a final communion of hope for survival together.

What gets to me every time is the victims. Like everywhere, but I think in Korea the bond is reinforced and probably well documented, when we go through a tough time together we become closer to those who share the experience with us. High school students in Korea of course suffer through the insane hours of study before the 수능, an experience which leaves so many shocked and both over and underwhelmed. But when we grow, and feel ourselves changing and growing, we know how important is to us in later life, and we recollect fondly on these times regardless of how frustrating or challenging or hated they were, at least to a certain point. It is this loss here, that so many will never be able to recollect, and those who are lucky enough to be able to will struggle to emerge from this nightmare, this is where our hearts are bleeding for most.

I wrote a poem about this sinking. It took a mere twenty minutes, and even though it was an accidental poem it was the right way to write about the tragedy because any other way would have resulted in a rant, and right now what we don’t need is more rants. We need to sit and we need to wait and let the people bring about the nearest thing to the end of the misery the families and friends of the deceased are suffering.

A lot of writing that is coming out on the internet seems intent to point the finger and blame, be it Korean culture, Confucianism, laziness, the weather, the laissez faire attitude to safety, the captain. I can’t do this. Not because I don’t want to, because I’m so pent up with frustration now it seems like the only thing to do, but because it’s not place to do so. I wish I knew if there was a place to do this, and I wish I knew that there was someone who would listen to me.

This is not something that my pontificating will fix. I might explain something or offer some insight which will allow for someone’s clearer perspective, but it would be an absolute lie because I have rarely seen less clearly on any aspect of Korea before.

There is hope in me that this tragedy will force us all, both foreigners in Korea and Koreans themselves, to learn and not repeat the mistakes that have been made. These mistakes lie in our assertions, our actions, and our words directed in hatred or in casual passing.

Never have I witnessed Korea so tied together in its famed brotherhood before, despite reading of it, I imagined it, but now I am witnessing it, and I hope that I am a part of it. There is a call to pray for South Korea on the internet, and I hope that these prayers are for not only the recovery but also the rectification of all that was done wrong, so that something like this never happens again. We pray, even those of us who are of no religion. Amen.

Image courtesy of wsj.com

Letter from Korea, November 2013


Suwon, South Korea
November 2013

Dear Ireland

If you had asked me at this exact time and date one year ago if I could imagine how my life would be in one years time, I certainly would have described something completely different from how it is now. In fact, to the best of my knowledge I have no idea how I imagined my life to be at this time, but what imagination I did have lacked the drama and dalliance which filled in the other 364 days that filled in the space between.

The reason I’m dwelling on this is because at around this time, about 9.45pm, myself and Herself were resting at home after a meal of grilled eel (good for stamina, you know) in a local restaurant, from which we walked to and from, it being a warm and pleasant evening for late November. We were preoccupied however. The next morning we would go to the hospital and Herself would have her labour induced, having reached her final nine months of pregnancy. The doctor was worried about the size of the baby’s head.

We had read reports of the effects of the inducement on the baby and had hoped for a natural labour. But this is the twenty-first century and we were thankful that whatever would come about would be for the best, and having a happy and healthy baby was the most important thing.

We ended up relaxing a little too much until we realised that we actually were going to have a baby the next day, and started to get ready, half arguing about why we’d relaxed so much and that we should be prioristising. We threw a few things together and promised to finish the job when we got up in the morning, and both of us went to bed.

I fell asleep promptly, while herself was restless, being nine months pregnant and all, and sat up reading. At around two or three o’clock she elbowed me awake and told me that she had a pain in her abdomen. Earlier she said she had cramps but she passed them off as exactly that, cramps. She pulled back the bed clothes to get up and go to the bathroom, and her entire bottom half was soaking wet, like as if she had sat in a bath and just stood up. We looked at each other in the eye with realisation, thinking for a half a second in both fear and wonder, so that’s what your water breaking looks like.

Within thirty minutes we had dressed comfortably, grabbed what was required, and were making our way down in the lift to the car. Dongtan Jaeil Hospital was waiting.

I suppose we were lucky that our doctor was on call that night, herself two months pregnant, and that we lived a mere fifteen minutes from the hosptial. In many respects we may also have been lucky that Herself’s labour only lasted around four hours. But then we were unlucky that her contractions were especially difficult, and this was made more difficult by my desire to get to the hosptial as quickly as possible, and the fact that a good stretch of the road was made up of potholes.

I don’t know about other fathers, but I thought about it the other day and wondered if the cultural stereotype brought on by ‘we’re-having-a-baby’ type films hadn’t forced the notion that the hospital can only be reached successfully if one drives over 60 miles/100 kilometres an hour, perhaps that night would have been a little less eventful. If that is possible.

Even when we were on the nice flat recently paved streets before the potholed chicanery and four wheel drive like antics ahead, breaking suddenly terrified she’d have the baby in the actual driving street was probably just as bad. Still when I drive down the same road to the same hospital it is that stretch over bumpy potholes where I feel a little shudder run up through me, and I thank myself that I didn’t in fact make a complete mess of it.

To cut what is becoming a long story short, little +1 popped out of her mammy’s womb at around 6.40am on Friday, November 23, 2012. Since then I don’t think I could say I am the same person. I don’t think any parent would even bother comparing their life before kids and after.

I feel now that after a year everything that happened before didn’t happen, or that it happened but +1 was always there with us. I look at her now, sleeping in some haphazard cruciform pose on the bed beside me, and if I try to think how my life would be without her, it is impossible. It has only been one year, but perhaps it is one which I will remember the most, and I can’t wait for more of the future we are unfolding together.

Happy first birthday little +1 (a.k.a. Maggot!)

Letter from Korea, October 2013


Suwon, Korea
Ocotober, 2013

Dear Ireland,

It has been well over a month since myself, Herself, and +1 have been back in Korea, and what I expected would be my September letter got left by the wayside and is only being seen to now in October. You know you’ll get the usual excuses for not doing anything which isn’t vital to one’s survival, such as being busy with things which are vital to one’s own survival.

After two and a bit months in Ireland, returning to Korea for life, work, and more life, was less the shock we had thought it might be. A smaller home, no garden, no dog, less rain, and that view from all the way up at the top of our tower just seemed to be what was right at the time. There seems to be less culture shock the more we travel between Ireland and Korea.

Update: Some photos from the last month and a bit back in Korea

When we first came back to Ireland we walked around in a half-daze finding it hard to comprehend that the last time we were here was almost two years beforehand. Yes, we had been back briefly in April for a funeral, but this was different. With the funeral we knew that we only had so much time and that we would be busy, obviously, and the week passed quicker than we knew it before we were back in Korea.

Two months is in many respects a long time, but you know it’s never long enough some times. Every time I seem to go home I seem to leave everything I want to do until the last two weeks of my time. This includes meeting friends, going into Dublin, and a whole list of other things. Maybe because I just feel comfortable up to that point until when I realise that it’s all going to be miles away in a mere matter of days.

This August though, we returned relatively scar free to Korea and returned to the regular humdrum. It’s a humdrum though that exists for everyone after their holiday, regardless of where they were or how long they were away for. Maybe we’re getting better at it, and maybe we’re becoming more aware of what it is we should be doing and when we should be doing it. In this case, it’s getting on with our day in the middle of all the other days.

We go to work, we go shopping, we take +1 out for walks and to her little classes, we meet friends, we go for dinner, and on occasion I get a little drunk. We complain about the weather and things that aren’t working properly in our apartment, we say hello to neighbours we recognise and wonder why others still don’t pay any attention to us even though we’re living here three years. The sunsets continue to decorate that sky to the right when I look out the window around six or seven every night, and always we see our little daughter growing stronger and more mobile to the point that we are often lost for words. This is just a snapshot of everything that occupies us, and I believe we all have our comparisons tidied away somewhere.

At the back of all this foreground lies our future. We could not continue to move forward without knowing what lies there. We have been fortunate enough to be given the many opportunities presented to us, and we know each moment presents opportunity. Korea for all the things it is not is definitely a boiling pot of opportunity, you just have to fight harder to make the most if it. The life I have delved, almost accidentally it seems sometimes, has brought a mightly stew of changes in my life, and my family’s life. Opportunities have been taken and missed, but regrets are something we seem to have few of.

On the east coast of Korea in a small town called Jeongdongjin, right on the coast and just south of Gangnueng, you can see this happening but you need to wait around for a while.

Right beside the broad white beach is a small urban park, and the centre piece is a rather large cylindrical egg-timer. Yes, an egg-timer as I know it as, that drops grain after grain through a tiny hole bit by bit counting down until the end of the year, until it rolls over and starts again.

We never see a grain dropping and we would need to spend the entire year to see the results of this ever gradual change. But like most who see the change, we come and and we go and we see it at different stages of progression.

In the future we know that by sitting here and watching everything reverberate and rotate balancing on its fulcrum, we know that things change with every minute. From full to empty and half-full again, it is worth taking a step back and realising that we never see progress as it happens, only once it has passed.

We don’t need anniversaries or milestones really to see this, just the patience to allow each grain of sand to pass through the hole and for the mound of white sand grow and grow until we have our own little mountain.