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?

 

 

 

 

In Dublin


Today was the twentieth day of August, 2013. On this day, myself and Herself went to Dublin. Here are some of the things we saw.

Words will follow shortly.

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I use a Nikon D5100 to take these photos, with either an 18-55mm or 35mm lens attached. Photos will be uploaded in more detail to my flickr page, but for now please enjoy them here.

All photographs copyright of Conor O’Reilly 2013. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.

Letter from Ireland, August 2013


Dunboyne, Ireland
16 August, 2013

Dear Korea

Negativity is an often attractive topic. It’s in our nature to be critical, to find issue with what is at fault, and even when we are happy we still find reasons to complain. This isn’t exclusive to any particular situation or condition, everyone does it in some manner or form. There may be some explanation to it, but that is not my aim today.

I wanted to write today about something which has being an increasing source of bother for some time, and since I am now in Ireland I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on it from a particular standpoint.

Some time back, possibly longer than one year ago or more, I wrote a post on this blog entitled “10 Reasons Why I Dislike Korea“. I suppose when I wrote it I felt that I had to say what I said. I was feeling inciteful as well as insightful, and at the same time I was approaching the living in Korea thing from a new angle. I didn’t consider it an “I hate Korea and here’s why you should too” kind of post, and I still don’t. I read it again recently with the thought that I might take it down, but decided that no it wasn’t my post which had the problems, it was the people who read it, and of course those who commented on it who had the problems.

Regularly people find my blog with search topics which automatically create the idea that they hate Korea, or that they are looking for people who hate Korea. These kind of people who go searching for previously written complaints find my blog post with a set agenda, that is they agree with me, or accuse me of being a racist, which I don’t believe I am. But what gets me a little is that more often than not, people take what I have written and muddle my meaning.

I suppose that’s just part of writing to be read though. That some people disagree with me, or that they take what I write and twist into some other meaning and confuse and confront me as if I have some sort of agenda is something I have to deal with. I have kind of stopped replying and interacting with many commentors, with the exception of the odd clarification. That’s my way of dealing with it.

I had thought of removing the post from my blog but I think that would be against what I stand for. I do still believe in what I wrote, and if it’s a little more negative than how I usually think or write, let it be a lesson for me to think these things through. On the up side, it does bring a lot of traffic to my blog, more than many of my other posts, but I don’t get the impression that many people do what I suggest they do and that’s read some of my other posts to get an idea of how I really think.

And you know, how I think now is no different than how I ever think. I try to think as openly and as relevant to my current situation as possible. I try to approach my blog posts about wherever I may be as honestly as I can. I don’t think I’ve ever lied, or taken anything out of context before (too much). As I say, it’s a personal blog and I am just the opinion of one person. This is the internet, I suggest using it to find a counter opinion.

You see it’s always easy to choose the reasons we dislike somewhere when we are there. Call it a constant search for a better situation, or something, something that encourages us to simply desire a better slice of the cake, because every human is entitled to want.

I could easily turn around and write ten reasons why I like living in Korea (and maybe I will but it would be a challenge to avoid cliches – which may be why I wrote the ten reasons in the first place). What I can do is point to where I am now, Ireland, a country where I have lived for a lot longer than I have lived in Korea, and one where I left in 2005 when I was 23 because I disliked living here. Today I couldn’t even attempt to rattle my brain to recall the simple causes of my initial departure, but there are plenty of things which get to me already and I’ve only been bacl here on holidays for a month and half.

Things like this odd superiority complex, the casual racism, the expectation that Ireland is and always will be perfect for everyone, that it is impossible to get real, good, Korean food, that we still as a people cannot stand up and fight and demand together the changes this country needs (but this could be a universal problem), that we still can not turn left on red, and that the majority of pubs still insist on serving only Guinness, Heineken, Carlsberg, Smithwicks, Bulmers and Budweiser…

We are people and we all want a better lot. We see things which we believe can be improved and we try to talk about them, to raise awareness where we see wrong. Some things will never change, such as the poor beer choices in Ireland and the human zoo that is Costco in Korea. We hope, and in this hope we continue on, making our own changes to see the progress in our lives, because we know how little hope we stand of ever finding the solutions we seek elsewhere.

I do dislike many aspects of living in Korea, but I bear them as an acceptable weight, and I see them as challanges which would be merely different but equally pertinent in any other country I might choose to live in, including my own. There are plenty of reasons that I like Korea also, but I chose not to write about them at that time.

There is no such thing as utopia. With every situation were people live together there will always be complaint and distaste. I believe it is in our nature. The important thing is that we do our best to concern ourselves with our own goals and our own future and we look beyond what others see as wrong. No place is exempt from criticism, just as much as no country should be criticised for only its mistakes and wrongs.

The same can be said for people. If you see what someone has done or said, look back and try to see what else they have said or done and try to realise how much of a human they are and how their actions reflect our own, regardless of skin colour or place of birth. In the world, it’s all just best that we get along, regardless if we’re from Ireland or Korea or somewhere in between.

The Koreans of Europe


No two cultures are the same but every one is similar, right? You could certainly say that about much of Europe, where thousands of years of breeding, trading, warring, traveling, and sharing across ever-shifting borders has caused a mixology of international characteristics of which one can be difficult to discern from the other.

In Asia, it is a little more difficult to separate the differences because the continent has suffered less fluctuation of its borders, and in terms of today’s map, colonialism for the most part decided on today’s borders. But still you can throw in the changes, regardless of actual influence, of international trade, development, colonialism, the sharing of ideas, television, and migration, and the wind at the weekend if you wish, and you will soon realise the stark similarities between peoples and cultures there.

Now that might seem like a simple notion, and it is, but if you take away cliché comparisons such as the idea that your culture and my culture are very musical, or that we have a distinct cuisine, or family is central to the social contract, then you have to get off your armchair and take a look a little closer.

When I first came to Korea from Ireland I was fascinated by the notion that the Koreans were called by someone as the Irish of the east. I thought to myself as I spent more time here that this was something to connect me with the country, that it was something stronger than the bonds which other nationalities might ascribe to their connections with Korea. But those reasons for which Korea is lauded for its Irishness really didn’t appear to be that strong.

Of course there are very strong reasons for calling Koreans the Irish of the east, such as our tenacity for drinking, our colonial history, the fact our country is divided by a significant border, we’re stuck between two significant world powers, we both have a distinct national cuisine, and we’ve a social structure which focuses on both age and gender hierarchies… oh wait forget the other two.

You see, the whole comparison thing between Ireland and Korea seems to be done by someone who sat down with Wikipedia one day and got this notion into their head that Ireland and Korea are very similar. I suppose they are in some respects but in many respects they are far from complimentary. For example if you considered the alcohol consumption aspect you run into problems. Anyone who has ever drank knows that there is an etiquette to drinking, sometimes very formalised and other times apparently informal, but there is always a way to drink. When we think about drinking, in countries that drink a lot, how we drink and what drink is far more important than how much (because we already know that’s a fair amount).

Now if you’ll excuse me if I turn to some reliable Wikipedia statistics. In terms of thirst Ireland and Korea are ranked quite closely together , but you can’t help but notice that Ireland is not the only country on the top half of that list with a dark history linked with its geopolitical situation. Yes, being fond of a drink is a stereotype both countries fall into, but it is by no means an exclusive club, and if anything it hardly characterises the entire culture and people (but in fairness it probably does).

There are of course many similarities between the people of Ireland and Korea. In the same respect, similarities exist across the entire planet and to single them out as unique to Korea and Ireland, or indeed only to Ireland and to Korea would be selling things a little short.

Take for example Italy, or indeed Italians. For the past four weeks I’ve been teaching Italian high-school students in a summmer camp just outside of Dublin. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, and if I do come back to Ireland for the summer I use this work as a means of earning a little pocket money for the adventure. It’s generally good fun, and interesting from a teacher’s perspective to meet students from another country where English is also considered very important for university and employment prospects.

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A building on the university campus where I taught for four weeks under typically Irish summer skies.

First impressions present Italians as completely the opposite as Korean students. They are lively, opinionated, and vocal, very vocal. The stereotype of a Korean high school student is anything but this, and I come across the remnants of their much discussed experience in the university students I teach. They are generally shy, reserved, and for the most part quiet, very quiet.

Now I recall that when I was in university that we were also quiet but that was probably more out of fear that we would be asked a question. We were not afraid that we might get the question wrong, but because we knew we would have no idea of the answer to the question asked. Anyone who ever took a foreign language class in secondary school probably cannot recall the classroom being abuzz with Irish/French/Spanish/German/whatever. I think that this is probably close to the same case with the majority of Korean English language students.

Yes, for a person who goes from teaching very quiet and reserved students to a class of lively and mostly enthusiastic students, with the added benefit of being western (even more western than myself I’d hasten to add) it is easy to offer immediate stark contrasts, many of which are likely to have been formed from well established national stereotypes. I’m sure if I stood at a bar in Itaewon or Haebangchon and professed that in fact Koreans were not that different from Italians, and they were in fact more like Italians than actual Irish, I would be shouted down for such a ludicrous assertion.

Before I go into detail here, please take into account my experiences. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t really know Italians in any way as well as I know Irish or Korean people. Most of my experience with Italians stems from teaching them over a number of summers in fairly relaxed situations, and I’ve never even visited Italy, let alone lived there, like I have being doing in Korea since 2005. I think that it’s also important to explain about the students I have been teaching; for the most part they all appear to be middle class, relatively well schooled teenagers, mostly of high-school age as far as I could discern. With these things in mind please ascribe your own prejudice to the study sample.

Anyway, this isn’t a scientific expose, but more a reflection on my past experience teaching Italians in Dublin on my summer holidays, which may also have some significance as you read this words. I did come across some worthwhile comparisons which allude to national character more so than the demographics and historical comparisons which plague Irish-Korean analysis.

At the top of the pile has to be food. Now don’t expect me to give a foodie’s detailed description of each respective nationality’s cuisine. That’s near impossible for me, for now at least. What is significant is that each country is obsessed with food (yeah I know, what’s the big deal?) but more importantly, with their own national cuisine. It could be reasonably argued that a large portion of each country’s economy is powered by its tenacity for its own cuisine. Ireland, unless you count the local chipper on a weekend night, would not fit in here.

I know how good and how diverse Korean food is, and while it may have its critics there is little doubt in how much Koreans miss Korean food when they leave the country. Yes, we can all poke fun at the flocks of ajjumma with instant noodles and gochujang stuffed into their suitcases as they travel, but can you blame them when much of what they know in terms of food is Korean food (and Chinese take-away). Expecting them to revolutionise over the space of one-flight, probably in a tour group full of similar minded folk, is probably asking to much. Anyway, they’re happy so what does it really matter?

It’s always easy to point the finger at people who do things differently, and especially in Korea where many are particularly reserved. I know that it’s easy to praise younger people who are keen to experience new food from around the world, but again it’s equally easy as one who enjoys variety but dislikes expense to notice that much of the international cuisine enjoyed by many young Koreans is indeed spaghetti with seafood and a cream or tomato sauce, or worse, the evil brunch made up of a sausage, an egg, some salad, and some other concoction. Despite this attempt at snobbery you’ll do well to find Koreans who don’t have a list of Korean dishes they crave after so many days away from a suitable supply, and if all else fails you’re bound to find somewhere to stock up on the always reliable ramyeon. I’d warrant that Italians aren’t that far off, at least the ones I was teaching weren’t.

Now granted that the restaurant in the university they were staying in was far from haute cuisine, which could have influenced their thoughts. but a day didn’t go by without some lamenting for “Italian” pasta, or “Italian” food. Their own food of course, which many will tell is fantastic, and rightly so – much like Korean food – but it still bothers me a little when people who apparently obsess so much over food, when given the opportunity to try something other than the stainless steel served chicken and potato slop they’d been divvied out the first port of call for sustenance in Dublin was either McDonalds or Bugger King.

Travel broadens the mind and when it comes to food this is especially the case. Koreans, in their defence, were not really allowed to travel up until the 1980s, and even then it was not on their own that they all began to encroach on the UNESCO heritage sites of the world. This way of traveling is only slowly leaving the mass conciousness of the the country, and independent travel is becoming a thing, especially for university and post-university aged people who are eager, for the most part, to acquire stronger English and also to have a good time before they end up having to sell their soul to a full-time job.

And I suppose my wonderful Italian students, many of whom had only traveled with their parents (I did a survey) and even then only to neighbouring countries on school excursions or lanugauge exchanges, would be far from an acceptable sample to base my argument on, but I can’t help but find this issue which has been recurring over the past number of years when I have taught Italians in the summer.

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One of my classes of Italian teenagers from all over Italy, with their certificates of completion…and me, grinning stupidly!

The other area which struck me a bit more thunderbolt like, and is something which is certainly a recognisable trait in Korea, and that’s image.

What always struck me is that the youngsters I’ve taught have always been for the most part, despite the bags under their eyes from self-imposed sleep depravation, very well groomed and image conscious. I won’t say whether they were well dressed or not, but they did obviously take the time to wear what were nice clothes and spend some time fixing their hair in the morning. Now they were teenagers so you can’t expect too much variety from their attire, but that being said even though they were away from their parents they didn’t come in with their clothes hanging off them, unwashed and smelly.

I had a conversation about Irish fashion with these students one day and we went on about how Irish people dressed and whether or not we were considered stylish or not. The general consensus was that it was hard to know because they hadn’t seen too many Irish people, and when they were in Dublin it was hard to know who was Irish and who wasn’t. I told them next time just listen to them.

The conversation developed over the coming days as I tried to get more information from them on their experiences. It turned out that they were impressed by Irish dress sense (not style or fashion mind you). In Italy, I was told, people always had to take into consideration their appearance among others. That their look was always being scrutinised, and that there were in fact many ways to dress in Italy which were socially unacceptable, especially for women. Does this sound familiar to my readers from Korea?

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My final class of Italian teenagers before they packed their bags and headed back to Italy.

I told them that this was also the case in Korea and I gave them some examples, such as keeping shoulders covered, not showing too much skin or clevage, and some others. These youngs adults explained to me that they were impressed by the general social acceptance of one’s own way of dressing. I explained that sure enough plenty of people probably thought they were stupid looking or whatever, but they empathised that this did not stop them wearing what they wore, and it was accepted that this is how some people dressed in public.

I explained to the Italian students, as I was a little misled at first, that don’t be put off by the people on the street who seem scruffy and who don’t apply as much time in the mirror as they may, they probably spent just as much time making sure they looked suitably unwashed. They understood this, but what was important was that they were allowed to do this.

I know that Herself has expressed the same feelings about living in Ireland also. She enjoys being in Ireland because there is less pressure to dress a particular way, and to meet a certain standard. This is not to say that she dresses less fashionably or doesn’t apply herself with as much care, it’s just that she has more options in the wardrobe than she would have in Korea. Of course image is important for every country, and Ireland is definitely the case.

I found this to be, well honestly, fantastic from an Irish perspective. I don’t think the Irish go out and win too many acclaims from the armchair fashionistas of the world, but too me this seemed to be something to be proud of. Now, I’m sure if they were in another part of Ireland this idea would be slightly less obvious, but still the more I think about it the more likely it is the case….maybe.

I know that in this rather drawn out comparison between Korea and Italy may seem to have holes all over it, and I don’t doubt that my arguments and assertions here are quite week. Let me reiterate, they are mere observations, and I hope when you read this, like when you read anything else I read, it gives you the inclination to search around a little more to find another opinion.

What I will assert though, to conclude, is that if anything my loose comparison here should be seen as a way of firstly drawing attention to the ridiculous notion that two countries would be so alike as to be compared as twins. But more importantly I hope that I can give you a decent example of how similar every human being is, and that despite thousands of miles seperating us our different upbringings and cultures do have similarities which are indistinguishable, and even when that is not the case, the differences are what make being a person interesting. In the end let us forget that all our blood is red.

Letter From Korea, August 2012


Suwon
August 24, 2012

Dear Ireland

I’ve been kicking myself a little lately because even with so much free time on my hands, I don’t seem to be getting the same amount of work done that I would like to be getting done. In a recent post I ranted about having too many distractions and found it difficult to scratch things off my list. Things have gotten a little better – I think – and maybe it was the rant that allowed me to get much off my chest. Still productivity, or lack of, bothers me still.

I get a lot of free time with my job. I won’t say how much but I will say that I am granted the luxury of less than normal holiday time, as well as limited contact hours in the classroom. So when I don’t get what I want done as quickly and easily as I should it bothers me. Preparing for the arrival of +1 is obviously taking up more of my time now, and a lot of this revolves around caring for Herself and keeping her company during the day, but I still have ample time.

Still, as the days pass things get done, gradually. Herself gets bigger and bigger and, bit by bit, I finish things I’ve being saying I should be doing.

One of those things that I haven’t had close to the top of this list is writing another blog post. I’ve kind of gone off the boil. I don’t really feel inclined to talk about anything going on in Korea so much – I think other people do a better job – and I also don’t feel that pushed towards talking about just day to day things that I usually go on about. I have a list of posts for this blog that I will eventually get around to, but for now I really am not inclined.

I know that I go through different things with varying levels of enthusiasm, and I know if I look back through my posts I’ll see months where I have written less, and months where I’ve churned out three or four posts every week. Now I’m not sure what to think as I do, I suppose, have some reasons for toning down the content.

Recently I bought an iPad to use, mostly, as an e-reader and browser. The reason is that I find a lot of content when I’m on twitter that I want to read but because I mostly use twitter on my phone and computer, I find it hard to read much of it. The phone’s screen is very small and my eyes hurt, and my computer is big clunky old thing that isn’t very mobile and the battery lasts about as long as it takes to boil the kettle, maybe less. So I figured the iPad would be a sound purchase.

Still, I keep looking over at my previously mentioned old dinosaur of a Fujitsu (about five years old, maybe more), sitting lonely in the corner of the room. This is my old warhorse when it comes to the written word,  and to really feel like I’m getting work done, I have to turn this on.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I came across this blog post on a website called the Blog of the Impossible. In the article, the writer describes an odd but enlighening encounter with the inventor of the computer, Russell Kirch. Frankly, it reads as a bizarre situation, and the author is clearly and justifiably humbled by the interaction. The reason I’m talking about this is not because Russel Kirch is obviously an amazing scientist and inventor who has achieved much more than me, but because what he said about computers and creativity:

“I’ve been against Macintosh company lately. They’re trying to get everyone to use iPads and when people use iPads they end up just using technology to consume things instead of making things. With a computer you can make things. You can code, you can make things and create things that have never before existed and do things that have never been done before.”

“That’s the problem with a lot of people”, he continued, “they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before.”

It’s an interesting notion. All around us are the tools to make the world a better place for ourselves, but we can be easily distracted by other entities which confuse us, making us wonder about what is the right pathway to be taking. Creation is such a simple concept and without it the world wouldn’t exist in it’s current state. In fact, I’d be willing to argue that without human innovation, humans would be still hanging from trees.

Making or creating new things can be as simple as changing your breakfast to the way you walk to work, or even just walking against the traffic going down the stairs in the subway – upset the norm. The blogosphere and twittersphere in Korea is a fine example of people going out of their way to upset the norm and to make changes to their life. In Korea, opportunities don’t happen for you and you have to step outside of your shell if you ever want move upwards. I suppose the same could be said of everywhere in the world.

Carried on from this idea is the second kind of reason that I’m feeling less inclined to write posts here of late. I’m beginning to think that I should be looking for markets for a lot of my essays here. I don’t see why not. I think they’re good enough, but many are probably too long for many people to read – I know when I look at a post on a website I automatically check how long it is before I started reading it. Certain people look for certain types of writing to read, and some people don’t want to read long articles, and some people do.

What does this blog have to do with that though? First of all, please excuse the comparison but I recall reading that it was a shame that T. S. Elliot spent so much time writing academic criticism and not writing poetry as this kind of swallowed up his creativity for years. I get the feeling more and more of late that I shouldn’t spend two or three hours writing a blog post, but  I should spend that time writing something else, be that an article for a magazine that will pay, or an essay, or some poems that have not gone past the stage of scribbled in my Moleskine notebook.

In Korea there’s not that many options other than blogging if you want to write and publish regularly, and while that’s a fairly narrow minded perspective to take, it is the truth if you ask me. There are only three newspapers, a handful of magazines in English, and then there’s a number of websites of varying quality and content. Fortunately, the internet is a magnificent gateway to so many more sources for anything you are involved in, and especially writing.

It may sound like an odd concept, but a computer can actually be a gateway to a more productive and creative life. This holds true in Korea for certain. Although, much like any piece of technology, so much depends on what you actually do with it!