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!)

Love to Hate Korea: Costco


It’s no secret that Costco in Korea is the epitome of a modern hellhole designed to rip your soul out, divvy it up with a rusty and blunt axe, chew it, then spit it right back at you, so you you put it back inside, then turn around and do it all over again. This place steals so much attention and causes so much heartbreak and frustration, but let’s not forget that all it is is a bloody supermarket!

But why is the place just destined to constantly infuritate me? I blame people. Because, let’s face it, all the ills of the world are brought about by our fellow humans, and Costco in Korea is a perfect example of this.

To get into the place you have to tackle the car park (because let’s be honest only an amateur would take the bus or train to Costco), where the wonderful Korean driving etiquette phenomenon is magnified. Here, the larger and more foreign your car the more entitled you are to be a fucker, while the little guy who has been bullied really doesn’t care who or what you are, and just drives straight over you. Do you see the difference? That’s right, there is none. Rules out the window to beat the band!

This is a mild description, as the car park is really only a primer for the zoo downstairs. In this Parthenon of consumption every man is equal (but some believe themselves to be more equal than others) and wealth and status can no longer be displayed by the make and colour of your car.

I used to think people were just so damn disgusting towards me because I was a foreigner, but the more I have observed this phenomenon I can steadfastly proclaim that no one gives a shit about anyone but themself in this passage to hades of a glorified 광장시장! In fact it’s worse than there. A. Lot. Worse!

It’s like people take the shopping trollies merely as a tool to beat other people out of the way as they browse. Not only do they not look where they’re going, generally I believe they study the area they want to go before hand, and then plot the most insane crowd inducing route possible, including where they can dump their trolley. I find the people who buy one or two things, like a packet of Calvin Klein underwear and some dried jujube, to be the worst perpetrators.

For else that may be right or wrong with Costco in Korea, it’s the culmination of so many people milling around oblivious to the fact that there are a few million within spitting distance of them, and then when they notice these other people they look at them as if they are something disagreeable inside their shoe, that really makes Costco an awful experience that I would reluctantly wish on my worst enemy.

And I am not even going to go into the details of the food court (and here too!)!

But…

I am a consumer and Costco is fantastic because the stuff they sell there is so much better than any other bog standard Homeplus or Emart, and that’s a fact; (generally speaking) better meat, better fruit, better vegetables, better selection of bread, drinks, alcohol, dairy, and whole lot other stuff. And I like eating nice food and buying over priced goods that I probably don’t need Yes you can find better quality stuff in Korea, and cheaper too, but if you are talking about better quality products at an affordable price then Costco is your man.

(Added bonus tip: Costco has a decent electronics section, which is good value, and they also are very helpful with returns and damaged goods, which a lot of the cheaper websites will not even look at you sideways when you’ve even a whisper of complaint)

Yeah I know I’m repeating the same draft that so many other people trump the place by, and believe it or not, the insane fellow customers are in fact worth the battle to get your hands on all that crap which make living in Korea more doable. Hell, I’d do it every week for the bread and cheese only.

Of course, having and car and being able to take home a whole boot load of food makes this whole experience worth the madness.

The Mother in Law


That woman, she’s pure country straight through to the bone and out the other side twice over. She is pure Korean in everything she does, and I don’t mean by her blood line or anything ridiculous like that.

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She works hard, struggles to eat anything without rice and kimchi, goes abroad with tour groups, avoids the sun like the plague, is not really sure how to whisper if she is aware of the concept at all, and of course, is full of all the jingoistic fairytale knowledge that makes this country thrive, among other complaints. She is a wonderful woman. She is a little younger than my own mother, and for a woman on the shady side of her fifties in Korea, she’s looking well. She hasn’t resorted to botox and, as I said, she doesn’t have her hair permed like the rest of the herd. She talks loudly in hushed places, and is obsessed with eating. If I have one complaint against her full fledged ajjumma creditentials, it is that she has never, as long as I have known her, had her hair permed in the fashion many of us know and love. This woman is my mother-in-law.

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Having a mother-in-law who is Korean is, I suppose, a unique experience that not many Irish people have shared. For starters, I should add that we both get on well together, and we would get on better if I could speak the language more, then I could slag her when she does stuff worth slagging about, and vice versa. However, there are conflicts, nice human conflicts that are what make people special because we’re all so bloody different, and we’re all so bloody stuburn that we refuse to accept the differences in others.

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As far as I know, most foreginers who I know who are married with Koreans get on pretty well with their mother-in-law. I can only say this, really, from the perspective that I haven’t heard them complain that much about their mother-in-law, and if she does come into the conversation there’s a certain tone of fondness in their voice when they refer to her.

I also know that several of my friends who have had children here in Korea, they wouldn’t have been able to survive without the dedicated support of their mother-in-law during the first few months after the arrival of the baby. I imagine that as soon as +1 arrives on the scene, I will be seeing a lot more of my mother-in-law in the morning. If anything though, we who are lucky enough to be married to Korean people have nothing but praise for our mother-in-laws when we turn up at the door over Chuseok and are filled to the brim and then some with galbijim!

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These are nice things to say, as mother-in-laws in Korea have a reputation for being difficult, especially if you are a Korean daughter-in-law. Perhaps it’s because we spouses are not Korean so we do not fall within the prescribed rules of son or daughter in-law and mother-in-law. I can only look at if from my perspective as I’ve never really discussed it in depth with others, but I know that my own mother-in-law likes me a lot because I make her daughther very happy and provide her a good, if not peculiar lifestyle.

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Even so, on paper what has she got to complain about? When a woman goes eyeing up her future husband in Korea, specs (specifics) are important, and I suppose if you look at mine I’m quite a good catch – although when we first started going out together I required a fair amount of work. But now? Well, for starters I’ve been educated abroad at undergraduate and post-graduate level, I’m a university *ahem* professor (no laughing at the back), I have my own car and an apartment in a well-to-do neighbourhood on the outskirts of Seoul. Oh yeah, I also speak English really well. So, in that regard she should be proud of her son-in-law, just say nothing about the lack of Korean and poor military service record.

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Still, one thing many people who can’t mind their own business worry about sometimes when they hear that I am happily married for over four years, is how do I get on with my mother-in-law, so I explain the relationship. If I know these people a little better I will tell them some of the gorey details, or if I want to prove a point to a person who seems to think they are entitled to know the intricate details of my life (usually some old, self-proclaimed patriarch), I also give them the details.

The thing is, there is no conflict that does not exist in any other relationship. If anything, the real national characteristics of Koreans are better shown by those who live far from the capitial city in the small towns and villages in the countryside which once thrived but have suffered with the modern demand for jobs and progress which an agricultural society cannot provide. This has changed the way Koreans act courtesy of the intense competition to get by. Now, I know I’m being sentimental by saying this, because what is real is what is present, and the cultural characteristics I’m talking about are being slowly outweighed by those which come from the capital. But still, without our past we cannot have a present.

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When I spend time with the mother-in-law, I can sometimes see really why they call the Koreans the Irish of the east. It’s nothing to do with the colonial history or the national fondness for drinking beyond the point of excess for no purpouse other than it being good craic. It’s not even the preconcieved sense of entitlement brought about by some innate belief that we truly are just better than everyone else. No. It’s the strong belief that, despite everything going wrong, everything will be grand in the end, and in fact regardless of how good or bad something is, generally speaking we think things are grand. On the odd occasion when we think differently we will tell you otherwise.

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It’s in this belief, which can be hard to find when you’re trying to catch the bus or train to work in Seoul, that you really find the understanding and the faith in the common decency of all humans*.

Perhaps you could use any ‘conflict’ that I have with my mother-in-law as a reflection on the differences people have with each other, regardless of who they are. Most are based on both of us being stubborn and believing we both knows better than each other. This may be caused by a generation gap, a cultural gap, or just a gap in our teeth, but it is never something worth going to war over (metaphorically speaking of course), because in the end, it’s usually grand.

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Together, we exist far apart, living on oppostie sides of the country, but we are kept close thanks to the almost daily phonecalls seeking updates on the day’s events – namely how are you and what did you eat. These allow enough fuel for our silent conflicts and disagreements to smolder away unresolved because both of us are too nice to step up and stop each other (we usually just mutter under our breath and complain to Herself). A more significant factor that prevents anything serious ever kindling is buried deep within our relationship, and it is the essential ingredient to our survival together; understanding.

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Without our own understanding that there are polaric differences between each others cultural backgounds (of which I’m fairly sure both of us are equally as clueless of one anothers), we always seem to reach an accord that, while sometimes mediated over by the diplomacy of Herself, is as simple a solution that only human decency can be responsible for.

Neither of us are particularly amazing, nor have we done anything which allows us to stand out above anyone else more than anyone else can stand out above us. We are faces in the crowd, as much as we are the crowd. This is what makes me think more open-mindedly about a lot of things in Korea that are so foreign to my background in Ireland. Everything is different from where I’m from here, and it’s so different it’s almost unrecognisable, but if you stop, look, wait, and listen to everything that goes on around you, then wherever you are you will see that you are no different than anyone else, regardless of the hairstyle and breakfast they have in the morning.

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All photos taken during a stroll around Jumunjin in Gangwon-do this morning, August 5 2012. Jumunjin is Herself’s hometown, and it’s where my mother-in-law has lived for over thirty years.

* Never let it be said that there is no such thing as a dyed in the wool arsehole, but they’re a breed which exist everywhere and there’s nothing that can be done about them except a smile and a wave goodbye.

My Life in 10 Objects


I do this kind of regularly…not as regularly as I like to talk about myself, which I’m going to do a lot about in this post.

I see a blog post that someone else has written and then change the contents and talk about myself. I think you call it a meme. The more I read blogs, what with the whole blogging that I do myself, the more I’m inclined to copy other people’s posts and give my own take on a particular topic. There were a few about Korea and particular articles that were poorly drafted and spoke poorly of the land of the morning calm (heaven forbid). The thing is, I’ve no idea how I managed to ever get into this because I hardly read any blogs about Korea, at least not intentionally (a few links pop up on twitter and give them an ould click and my five minutes, but only every so often, and I won’t go into why I don’t do this now)

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White Day


If you read mylast post you will be familiar with White Day.

During my first White Day – maybe not on or after or before the day but at some stage close to it – I wrote this little poem.

Enjoy!

White Day

A day for the ladies they say
Because they made the first move in February.
Chocolates or flowers, silver or gold
To prove to the maiden intentions aren’t bold.
Dinner for two over candlelight
and a stroll by the river late into the night,
kiss by a fountain for the first time
then wrapped-up in arms wait for a chime.
This day is made for the women
who change the beat of our hearts with adrenalin.

 

© Conor O’Reilly 2006