Letter from Korea, August 2010


Yongin, South Korea
19/8/2010

 

Dear Ireland

 

Not being one to complain about things I can do nothing about, or more importantly, things that have nothing to do with me, I will do my best in this letter to remain loyal to myself and that which I’m committed to. In this case, I am committed to Korea; I made this clear when I married Jin Won, who is Korean, and this being said she is committed to Ireland. I was lucky enough to have spent several years living in Korea, and to have known her family before I married her. I was also fortunate to experience all that Korea has to offer from the perspective of both a foreign visitor and worker and thanks to Jin Won, as a Korean would.

Being a part of Korea, as I am whether this is liked or not, I don’t stick out any more or less or any differently than before I was married. I still look the same, and while I may have gained a few kilos and dress a little smarter (a phenomenon which I attach to my new job than a change in values), I am very much the same person. If any evidence is needed to show how little I’ve changed, I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing this wearing green shorts stained with chocolate and a faded and well-worn t-shirt of a band that doesn’t exist anymore scribbling this down in a notebook, a pose and costume often associated with me. I am the same person on the outside that I was and I hope I always will be.

Continue reading

Letter from Korea, July 2010


Yongin, South Korea
26/7/2010
Dear Ireland
I forget about every July I have spent in Korea and I still complain about the weather when it comes around. I don’t bother to compare it as it’s just one of those things that seems to never change and remains insufferable. Meteorology always adds to the drama of life for any Irishman, and I still find it in my heart to turn to discussing the weather when I encounter a fellow countryman.

 

Of course the weather is always something to chat about because it’s always there, much like I am always here, so maybe I should just talk about myself or what I plan to do, as opposed to a combination of the two; me and the weather. Oscar Wilde always comes to mind as soon as I strike up a conversation about the weather and sends a few shivers up my spine at the thought that I can be labelled as an unimaginative conversationalist, but in fairness, imagination or no imagination, some people are better suited to being talked to about the weather, regardless of whether they are imaginative or not.

 

Believe it or not, it's hot, really hot - Andong South Korea

Korea and Ireland are very similar on this subject. Not the actual weather itself, or people who deserve to be only spoken to about the weather, or the climate for that matter, but the effect the weather has on the population. I think it’s easy to compare Korea and Ireland in this regard because they are both quite small in terms of landmass and the same weather tends to affect the whole country at the same time. Both countries are also quite modern and have a similar population distribution, whereby the majority live in the vicinity of the capital city with a few decent sized cities and towns spread out as regional centres of commerce, education and industry, and outside of these towns, agriculture dominates.

 

Korean summers have always been a very perspiring time of year, especially for me. The humidity feels like it comes in through the walls and sits waiting to creep out as soon as the fan or air conditioning is powered off. A drop of rain and the clouds that come with it keep the heat trapped in, and the lack of wind turns the temperature even higher. That being said, it’s not the hottest climate I’ve ever been in, nor is it the most humid. I’ve a number of friends who are from The South, or southern states of the United States, places like Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and as far as they’re concerned Korea isn’t that hot. I know for a fact that the night time in Korea is nowhere near as hot as it can get in some of the towns I’ve been to in Spain.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but when you’re here, all that you can think of is the heat. The sun gets really strong and it feels like it is sucking energy from you, it’s not like a Mediterranean sun which makes you want to lie in the sun and do nothing all day. For starters, people generally don’t sit in the sun in Korea; part of this is because the perception of beauty is different (try to buy some fake tan here) and pale skin is a sign of beauty. Also, the sun does physically drain you. Maybe the country just needs to introduce a temporary siesta during the summer to make the effects of it less negative.

 

A lot of people in Korea don’t look forward to the summer because of the heat and humidity, and they prefer winter and its snow sports and hot soups. I don’t like winter because, well firstly I don’t care for throwing myself down a mountain on a pair of flat planks, and also, especially in Korea, it gets so dry and the sun shines for days on end right in your eyes. Maybe a good deal of my dislike is to do with the way that the weather is managed; when it is hot the air conditioning is blazing, when it is cold the heat blows out of the same air conditioner and it feels, I don’t know, recycled or polluted or germ ridden. Makes you wonder what people did before air conditioning.

 

Ireland of course, isn’t as lucky to have such a hot summer. In fact, we Irish, and we’re not alone in this, tend to spend most of our time wondering if the sun will ever shine in the summer. But, I suppose, most of us have given up wondering if the weather will ever get better (incidentally this summer was a ‘summer’ as opposed to the usual warmer extension of the winter we’ve gotten used to recently) and just enjoy complaining that it’s shite all the time. I’d wager that Scottish people share this opinion, while in England I think they like to think that the weather is crap but they’re lucky enough to be in the rain shadow of, well, Ireland and Scotland.

Some would call weather like this a rare occasion in Ireland - Waterville, Co. Kerry

 

In terms of taking over the national consciousness, the weather in Ireland is the national conversation topic of choice; sports, business, socialising, the weekend, are all preceded by a brief or sometimes long dialogue on the sun’s presence or lack of, and usually how much rain came with it.

 

Both countries display different national attitudes; when something is always the same people are prone to complain about the monotony of it, when it changes, we’re prone to favouritism or giving preferential treatment. I’ve always focused on the weather whenever I go to another country, my wife couldn’t understand it, she moved to Ireland and her attitude changed. After three years in Korea I moved back to Ireland briefly for a holiday at first, then later for over a year, I completely forgot what to expect and ‘froze’, in an over-exaggerated Irish sense, for the whole two weeks in the month of May.

 

 

The more I live in places where the weather dominates the more you see how much the weather not only makes the location, it makes the people, and it’s the people that make the location. The rain is in our veins!

 

Letter from Korea, June 2010


Andong
South Korea
June 30 2010

I’ve left this letter until the very end of the month because of my two week trip to Ireland for my brother’s wedding. I did originally plan to write this from Ireland but things got ahead of me and I never even sat down once to write. I’m hoping that I can write a little bit more convincingly now that I’m in Korea, and I can look back on my holiday back home differently than on previous occasions.

In my first letter from Korea, I tried to draw a comparison with Ireland and Korea. To actually draft a definite relationship between two countries which, on paper, are always so dramatically different, is always difficult. Of course there are a number of similarities between both countries and I won’t go into them here because it isn’t my overall intention to cover everything and then have nothing to write about for all my forthcoming letters.

After we got back from Korea I had a few days to spare so we came down to Andong, which is Gyeongsangbukdo, south of Gangwondo. This is by far the most rural location I’ve been to in Korea, and it is famous as a retreat for poets and Confucian scholars during the Joseon dynasty, not that that is the reason for coming here. I heard it was nice and I’ve never been so I figured, why not? Incidentally, Andong is home of Jimmdalk, which is one of my top five of favourite Korean dishes, so it’s fair to say I had to come down here eventually. Continue reading

Letter from Korea, May 2010


Like many “western” countries or “westernised” countries, Korea is perceived as a modern democratic nation, a country that represents the development and organisation expected of the young twenty-first century. It is a country, like many countries at all points of the compass, that has suffered from the over zealous ambitions of its neighbours and rivals.

I’ve always found Korea to be quite Americanised, unlike its neighbours who have more visible influences from Europe. I take it that this has a lot to do with the influences of European colonialism throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This is definitely the case with China, and also Japan which seemed to legitimise its own colonial ventures by replicating the efforts of the colonial powers that dominated the era, who were of course Britain, France, Russia, and to a certain extent the United States. Korea’s greatest ‘foreign’ influence came in 1950 with partition, civil-war and the taking of sides previously unthought-of. Ironically, South Korea went east over the Pacific Ocean and the north looked west to China and the then USSR.

Gyeongbuk Palace, Seoul

During the period before Japanese occupation, specifically speaking the nineteenth century, Korea attempted to keep its doors closed and to prevent foreign intervention. But, the more I think about this period, I wonder how much truth lies in this. The outcome of the Russo-Japo War of 1906 laid the foundation for the Japanese protectorate and furthered its claims to colonial dominance. The war itself, a key event in international power politics, allowed Britain, and possibly France, to concentrate their colonial defence closer to home while relying on a treaty with Japan to police the seas around East Asia. Britain, France and Germany had considerable economic interests in this part of the world and Korea, known as a closed kingdom, lay in the middle. While there may have been no foreign merchants (there certainly were missionaries) carousing the streets, there was no doubt a select few representatives scratching at the Gyeongbuk Palace gates itching for the ears of officialdom. What foreign intervention there was before the 1905 war appears to be celebrated as brief interventions on behalf of convention, as was the case with the French expedition to Gangwha Island in 1866.

Korea maintained its resolute stance against foreign interference only to become the object of  colonial expansion with no say in its own future. Surely any previous arguments in favour of foreign association were quashed once this reality set in. Some may argue today that opinions against foreign involvement still hold in modern day Korea.

The entrance to the very funky Passion 5, a bakery...

The “western” influence in Korea is new and is most clearly seen in the buildings of Seoul. What old western styled buildings do exist in Seoul came from Japan’s colonial authority suffering from its own crisis of identity attempting to meet the criteria of a colonial power. The monolithic ‘nice’ European buildings littered around Seoul are a testament to this.

In the five years since I first arrived in Korea, Seoul has become more self assured of the image it wants to portray to the world. A skyscraper littered cityscape is no longer enough to convince visitors of Korea’s economic prominence. International travel by Koreans has only been permitted since the 1980s and even still it has taken some time for the effects to sink in. Now, governmental delegations regularly visit international partner cities and confer over planning and administration strategies and techniques. Having realised that an open door is a sound method of achieving success, Korea is reaching out.

People here have travelled the world and seen that buildings all go up and a tall building will always stand out, but to really stand out a tall building must look good while standing tall. Koreans, as a society, are very image conscious and it comes as no surprise that this consciousness coupled with the demand for global success has earned Seoul the title of World Capital for Design 2010.

Downtown Seoul from the Namsan cable car.

Yes, there are still many gruesome eyesores all over the city, some crumbling and some that look like they will never go away. These eyesores are slowly losing attention, being replaced (not yet outnumbered) by fresh modern and adventurous design ideas that any city in the world would be proud to own.

Like Seoul, Dublin has been criticised for the numerous dated buildings which dominate the once modern blemishes which now make up Georgian Dublin. Seoul and Dublin both have the intention of becoming cities that are looked on for inspiration by the rest of the world. Both can learn from each other through design which, although modern, must be able to last beyond the next phase in the always fickle fluctuating tastes of design enthusiasts.

When I came back to Dublin in 2008 after three years in Korea I got the feeling that the capital had learned its lesson. Can it be said that Seoul has learned from its mistakes and the lessons of others, or will we have to wait and see?