Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

*

 

P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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About Irish Alcoholics and Education Thingies


The story of the Irish woman who was refused a position in the Korea because of the alcoholism nature of her kind is one we are all familiar with (if you’re not here’s the original scoop!). It’s a sad story, it really is, and the fact that it is still being discussed is probably all the more sadder.

For starters, the woman who was refused the job was dead right to report and to notify the press about it. It’s this kind of stuff that people put up with in foreign countries all the time that needs to be highlighted. I think the fact that it went viral enough to be taken note of in the Korea means that some level of embarrassment should have a positive effect. Remember, no ones wrist will be slapped over this as there are no laws against this behaviour in the Korea.

It’s kind of a typical Korea story. Normal person applies for normal job but gets refused because someone heard that all these people from the same country do something abhorrent which may effect the well being of the poor children’s education. Or whatever.

First thing we are quick to point out is that this is someone in the Korea saying that the Irish are all alcoholics, which isn’t news to any Irish person who has lived abroad for longer than a weekend. In this instance there’s the serious case of the pot calling the kettle a pot. I would wager that whoever earned this opinion won it from keeping good company from some other bottom feeder who was familiar with Irish ‘culture’, and by ‘culture’ I mean drinking all day on St Patricks Day – be that in the Korea or wherever.

Ireland and it’s ‘ness is not a well known subject in the Korea. I suppose some people are aware that Ireland is where the film Once came from, and they’ve heard of Robbie Keane, some of our golfers, and that it’s beside England. Things like Guinness are regularly confused as from other parts, Germany in this case, and notions such as our infectious charm, love of potatoes, tollerance of precipitation, and enjoyment of a drink or two are in fact alien to many a Korean in the street (and there are many Koreans). My point is that said numpty didn’t lick their opinion off a stone, they heard a rumour and sure that’s good enough for them. A stereotype was preached, and not for the first time an Irish person didn’t get a job because we’re all mad drunks. Maybe because it’s 2014 we are upset, but I’ve heard this to be a common enough reaction in parts of Australia.

I’ll give you a comparable anecdote.

Back in 2007 I was interviewing for a hagwon (read small privately owned school which taught mostly kids and likely to where our victim applied). I spoke with two manager type teachers, and was grilled kind of awkwardly about my nationality. Somewhere along the line this person had encountered Irish people, and there was a big problem – Irish people played a lot of sport. Yes, this is pretty serious I know. I mean athletic healthy people are problem in any business right? What’s worse is I’m not athletic although I eat like a weight lifter. So you can gather that at this point I was pretty incensed.

Her argument was that Irish people played a lot of sport and got injured and couldn’t teach because of said injuries. I tried to wrangle how serious she was about this accusation, but decided to let it settle. The rest of my interview seemed to progress well, and I managed a second stab at it. Maybe that’s why it’s always good to have two people interviewing you at the same time.

Later in the week I met with the principal and we interviewed again, and the woman who was so endeared by the athleticism of the Irish (myself included) was present. She attempted the spiel about Irish people playing sports, and may have even thrown in a bit about us having a drink or two, but as she said it in Korean my internal bullshitometer kicked in and I cut across her and said ‘excuse me no – your’re interviewing me, and I’m professional blah blah blah.

In the end I got the job, and low and behold, the woman who interviewed me wasn’t a feature a month later. I stuck around for another year and a half and still get a big hug from the principal if/when I walk in the door – and this is coming from a guy who was so locked on the teacher induction day I tackled a co-worker into a table where all the senior teaching staff were seated. But maybe I was lucky to have a decent boss who liked a good laugh (although she’s gone a bit OCD on the whole CCTV in the classrooms of late I’ve heard). If I had not got the job maybe I would have emailed the Irish Mirror or whoever was certain to publish the story.

I’m glad this story went viral though, and I hope there’s some numpty at a recruiters desk is now nursing their wounds, be they merely inflicted on their self esteem. This whole thing though shouldn’t really tarnish the Irish’s reputation as English teachers or people in the Korea. Every so often you hear stupid stories like this coming from the penninsula and you just have to shake your head and wonder when will they learn. Learning doesn’t really mean that they should be more open to other cultures and respectful, just that they stop and think before they make projections about other nationalities, and perhaps remember that it’s another person you are speaking to (with access to the internet).

The other problem we have here is that, much like Korean knowledge of Ireland, Irish knowledge of Korea is at about a similar level. Despite the large number of Koreans in Dublin at the moment of which most are studying English, many people don’t know anything about their country, other than….well you can tell me yourself. Are we perpetuating reverse racism by being appalled by the actions of one probably poorly made decision and seeing it as a judgement presribed by the entire Korean society? It’s hard to see any benefit in this whole charade to be honest. Yes, we’re raising awareness about a kind of serious incident, which the victim herself said she kind of laughed at, then took the right steps. Listening to the radio and reading the news reports was enough for me to see that a change of perception of Koreans by Irish people is a concern.

It is important in these situations to be wary that we do not allow ourselves to descend to a similar level. Regardless of what you think, racism and discrimination is active in every society. In some cases it is more obvious than others. Ireland and Korea both have their problems, namely that we are both very prone to lazy stereotyping. I can’t speak for other countries, but I’d be surprised if I was far wide of the mark.

I’ve heard of plenty of Irish people getting screwed over for it just being the Korea and the English language schools there have in many respects little to no moral standards. Most Irish people have the problem of trying to convince potential employers that they can teach in an American accent, and I would now urge any Irish teacher never to lower themselves. If they can’t accept diversity then you certainly don’t want to be part of that staffroom. There have been worse incidents, but I can’t think of any directed at Irish people specifically because they’re Irish.

It’s sad that these stories do come out, not just because someone has to endure this sort of stupidity, but also because despite all the developments and hard work many people have done to make Korea more internationally welcoming and diverse, idiocy still prevails. I would advocate for some kind of legislation that sees every person, regardless of nationality, age, and of course gender, as equal and with the right to be free from being discriminated against. But it’s the Korea, and there are just too many factors that need to be changed before anything as reasonable as that will happen. One of these factors is the need to enforce the plethora of laws which are currently ignored on a regular basis.

To conclude I hope that girl went out and got herself a better job, and one where her employers respect and trust her to be a professional, not one where they just play up to stereotyping and hearsay. Korea is a great place to live, make friends, gain job experience, and from my perspective fall in love and start a family. I only wish, dream, hope, that one day it will just tidy its act up and catch up with whatever standard it seems to expect it projects.

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?

 

 

 

 

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.

Of Suwon No More


I am no longer a resident is Suwon. It’s a sad day, I suppose, but one myself and Herself talked about for a while. It may be a new idea to you but it’s one thing we’ve known about for some time.

Over the past week boxes were filled, as we’re plenty of those 100 litre rubbish bags. The bags went to the dumpster down below, the boxes to the post office. Thankfully there’s surface post from Korea to Ireland.

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On Tuesday we sent our good bits of furniture to a new home and life in Ansan. They looked happy there, being put to good use at the hands of newlyweds. We’ll miss that fridge I could fit into, and the bed too. It was as comfortable as they get, with a memory or two attached as well.

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In the morning we packed and watched Korea’s draw against Russia. It was already hot and I was hungover from farewell drinks with colleagues the night before. It looked like we’d never come near to leaving that evening, but sleeves were rolled up and sweat was wiped from brows and not a thought was given to what might be, only to what must be.

By five o’clock we had the house cleared and we dined at a plastic storage box. The apartment was bright with evening light, and our words amplified in the echo of our now empty walls. It looked bigger than ever, but it was as still as tiny as it always seemed with all our acquired accoutrements cluttering corners to abandon.

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Eventually everything was gone. We dumped our leftover furniture for disposal and jammed the final bags we meant to pack more sensibly into the back of the car. We panicked again when we saw another pile of something we’d neglected to economise space for, but found a solution through the good will of a generous neighbour.

Before we pulled away we checked the apartment once more, went to the toilet, and I managed to get one last picture of that skyline which looked across at us for three and a half years.

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When I say it like that, the whole adventure probably doesn’t come across as anything nearly as dramatic as it should. Yet, it was where myself and Herself both finally got a chance to settle a little for the first time after we married some six years previously. We are grateful for this opportunity, and none more so than the chance to start a family, itself as new a chapter as any.

Now though, the three of us are starting another phase of life. We are moving country. This is not myself and Herself’s first venture, but for +1 it is. Although I really can’t tell if she knows what’s happening; throughout the past weeks he has just been really good and allowed whatever to happen as it has.

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For now we are in a humid and overcast Gangnueng for a little over ten days, spending time with Herself’s parents and relaxing before we finally fly to Ireland and start settling into the onslaught of reverse culture shock we are expecting on arrival.