Letter from Korea, April 2014


Suwon, South Korea
28/4/2014

Dear Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of wsj.com

I Just Want to Scream


I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

I heard that a ferry to Jeju that was sinking. News implied all would get out alive. I thought it was Costa Concordia like, if only it was comparable now.

We watched the television late into last night, and all of this morning the volume was up high. We heard talking heads of doctors and divers explain what is wrong and what is right. At one stage I almost cried. I felt that here was the greatest loss of life. And all the time the television showed that hull, the end where those rotors spun south, poking and bobbing like a message in a bottle, an arrow directing all souls to heaven’s heights.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

There are others more suited to anger. There are others more suited to decry. What matters now is to get those kids out alive. Kakao Talk told us some have survived. In a bubble somewhere with all kinds of refuse and the water as cold as those who died. We wait, and we wait, and we watch another news broadcast. And again a talking head tells us we cannot hold out hope for how many might be inside.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

A crane, they said, is floating to the site. A day it will take. I wish I could go and help push. Heave it with everyone else watching, in tears for these boys and girls in their formative years. The years when our lives are determined and we certainly never forget. Our friends who last with us until there’s none of us left. We go through it, our highest triviality til then,and we think it’s the end but come out together.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

The lies. The ineptitude. The waste. The love lost. The flowers laid. The broken days. The way so many lives were left to be taken so carelessly away.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t be loud enough.

Peter Clarke


By Ray Hyland

The first adults you meet in life will forever leave an impression. Family notwithstanding you rely on your teachers and headmasters to guide you along the early roads.

Personally speaking I don’t think Dunboyne realises how lucky they had it. Peter Clarke served the area with great distinction, a place right on the edge of Dublin,for so long rural, growing rapidly as housing estates shot up as quickly as you could build them.

Many dreaded when their class teacher would be occasionally absent,for fear of the principal coming down to take the class for the day. I for one loved the tales of mice running around the skirting boards of the old school and the nuanced pronunciations from the teacher’s copy of Buail Liom. Not to mention the P.E class out in the mucky field,O’Neills footballs flying everywhere but scarcely over the bar.

That school was far from perfect. But while there was always sadness at the end of each summer holiday there was never true dread. Staying on the right side of the tracks just seemed the most sensible course of action when you heard of the legends of meter sticks and canes. In my experience the legends were just that, as mythical as those school plays whereby enthusiastic actors turned up for a production of Tir Na Nog.

There were problem children(your writer included,especially in junior & senior infants) and for them there was the principal’s office; a cologne fragranced mass of papers and a filing cabinet with a long lost typewriter sitting atop of it. Rare was it that you visited this room for anything other than bad news. Thankfully its charms remained a mystery for the most part.

Not unlike that fascinating Mercedes Benz, a cream coloured behemoth with left hand drive. Some lucky boys were even afforded the opportunity to be chauffeured home on occasion, but only if their grey uniform had not withstood the onslaught of a puddle and they faced the day in wet trousers. Mr.Clarke always had a bit of style.

Looking back on it, admittedly with rose tinted specs I’d say they were happy years. Nothing seemed out of reach, everything was possible. The school trips were always a real treat. We had Wexford and a trip to the Heritage Centre in 4th class. Any chance of misbehaviour was quickly culled when we saw we not only had Willie Lyons but also our headmaster to contend with. The train home was class though, crisps,coke and a game of snap.

Going back as a secondary school first year for a ‘visit’ the place seemed much smaller. To be greeted by the silver haired principal was proof that we were now on our way, headed for the real world whether we wanted to or not.

I only saw him a few times in the years after Dunboyne National School. He looked like a man enjoying his retirement. The hair was of course still silver and the smile never seemed far away.

Farewell then sir, I will be thinking of you at the three o’clock bell.

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit please follow this link.

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Hi, my name is Ray and I live in Ireland. I am slowly learning how unfair life is and dealing with it accordingly. Currently I live at home with my parents at the tender age of 32, having decided that success and a nice abode of my own was all too predictable. I presently work as an Intern, which in Ireland means, the same as everywhere else in the western world (no job prospects!). My principle interests include observing soccer players secretly laughing at the rest of us, wrestling with the reality that sometimes you’re better off not trying, wrestling full stop oh and fast food, consummation and critique thereof. I don’t like long walks along the beach, Monday is my favourite day of the week and if there’s an American TV show out there that you love and can’t stop talking about chances are I probably despise you.

A Catch Up


For the past two weeks I’ve been stuck in a mini-post rut. I dilemma if you will.

A couple of weeks ago my grandfather passed away back in Ireland, which meant a return home at short notice. I brought Herself and +1 along too, because Herself really liked my grandfather and we’ve a lot to be grateful to him for. We could hardly have left +1 at home now could we?

The dilemma has been how to write about it, because initially I wanted to say something about it. I’ve already started a 1,500 word post on this experience, but it is just a stream of and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened. Maybe you or someone else would have liked to read this, but I just couldn’t finish writing it and had to stop. It’s not because it made me sad, it was something else.

It was an emotional return for several reasons. First, we had to come and say goodbye to my grandfather, a man we hadn’t seen in a year and half, but whom we both loved dearly. Secondly, we had to return for the first time in a year and half, and this is something we’d been hoping on doing for a year and half. Third, we had to bring +1 to see everyone, and this was perhaps the most amazing part of the journey, but we had hoped that we could introduce the two of them to each other when we go back to Ireland this summer. In terms of knowing how to react it was difficult.

We should have been sad, but it was hard to mourn. It wasn’t a black and white happy -v- sad thing, that’s not how we do it in Ireland. I’m already going on again.

Still, the more I think of this the more difficult it has been to make this post which I was crafting into something. I think in the end I’ve decided to keep this event, essentially, private. It will be something that you’ll know happened but I will keep the finer points to myself, family, and friends. 

That’s all I wanted to say.

That being said I don’t want to let everything I wrote to sit and rot in a folder in my computer. Here are a few snippets and thoughts which cropped up while drafting the longer post.

  • The cursing was not because I would be going back to Ireland. My grandfather was notorious enough in his own way, but he had always been a source of gentle encouragement, antagonism, and support over the years, and since I married I don’t think that myself and Herself could be in our present position without his help.

  • We bought my ticket first, but then we realised that this was not a journey which I could do alone. After a few hours of rummaging around we eventually managed to pay for another pair of tickets for both Herself and +1. At three in the morning we finally went to bed, and for some reason I set my alarm for nine, but fortunately our natural alarm clock (a.k.a. our five month old baby girl) had us up before seven. We set to packing and eventually we managed to pull ourselves together and made it to the airport bus, and to catch our flight in plenty of time.

  • For parents traveling with an infant for the first time on a flight that would last a combined length of fourteen hours, the scene was set for the unpredictable. In hindsight this was good. We are travelling back to Ireland in the summer, but with over two months to ‘plan’ the journey, I would not doubt for a second that we would have worried ourselves into taking the bus eventually. Fortunately there is no surer cure to nerves than having to do something without thinking.

  • The death of a loved one or family member is never easy, but we had travelled across the globe for a funeral of someone who we had not seen in a year and a half. This was also someone who was quite unwell. When we last left Ireland in the summer of 2011 myself and Herself tried to say goodbye properly but the last memory we have of my grandfather alive was of him boarding a bus to go on a trip with the other people who he was now living with in the care centre where he lived out the last of his days. He was in such a position that he didn’t know much better and my old man told us not to worry over it, and that it was better like this. Of course you can never really know the best way, and we will not know as none of our family got a chance to properly say good bye to him as he passed away in his sleep. 

  • When we arrived everyone was caught between two emotions. Sorrow at my grandfather’s passing, but also delight and gratitude for our arrival, which I think this was multiplied greatly by the arrival of cooing and gurgling +1, who revelled in the attention of so many new faces. 

So anyway, that’s it. Back to normal now. Oh, except for the fact that +1 is still jetlagged. Fan-fuckin-tastic.

 

 

How do you Mourn when you’re 8000 Kilometres from Home?


How do you mourn when you are so far away from the grief? This is something I’ve been asking myself over and over again since last Saturday when I got an email from my mother telling me that a friend back in Ireland had died. He had been suffering from cancer which set in and aggressively took over his body. In the end he died in his sleep.

It’s not the first time that someone I’ve known has died since I’ve been in Korea, but the way I have dealt with it each time has been different. I never knew what to do, and I still don’t know what to do.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with problems, and there is no right way or wrong way to deal with most. We can only hope that we can respond the best way that suits us. I think that of the three times I’ve had to mourn seriously in Korea, I can’t say that I’ve done it properly at all. I blame distance as much as I blame my own nature.

Richie was everyone’s friend. He was as Dunboyne as Brady’s Pub and parish church, and more. I’ve always been a closer friend with his younger brother Alan, but don’t let that take away from this, please. I really only got to know Richie when I was in my early twenties, and there were plenty of people of who knew him a lot better and a lot longer than I ever could. Back in the day, I can clearly remember wandering up to his small flat above the supermarket where I used to work, and sitting up drinking cans, and listening to him or his friends play the guitar late into the night.

Richie and his brother Alan playing in the Sugar Club last summer.

It was always a bit surreal as I could clearly remember that apartment being the storeroom when I worked in the supermarket downstairs, but fortunately enough good nights soon removed those awkward connections. Those days we’d be leaving the pub anxiously waiting for a text message from someone that simply said, “no. 5 is alive”. It almost became a motto for the weekend. Often we were not disappointed, and many a great night was had with Richie as our host extraordinaire.

The thing about Richie was he was just pure sound. And I mean proper sound. He was a decent, loving, caring, and engaging young man who loved everything about everyone and always gave you the time of day and listened to your story. If there were more people like him in the world then it would be a better place, and I say that from the perspective that there can never be enough people like Richie in the world.

I’m not sharing my own obscured and mournful perspective on Richie’s personality. If you ask anyone who knew Richie, even for a few minutes, they could not disagree with this assertion. That being said, I’m sure Richie had his enemies. We all do. But some of us choose to dwell on these things more than others. I don’t think Richie was the kind of person who did that.

When I first came to Korea, a good friend of mine’s father died. I didn’t deal with the situation very well. I dwelt on it for days but never picked up the phone and spoke with my friend. I was young and had never dealt with funerals and death well before. Usually I prefer to be on my own with my thoughts, but this wasn’t about me. Dealing with something like this can never be overly personal. I didn’t cope well, and more importantly I let my friend down when he needed me the most.

A couple of years later while in the middle of a writers’ group meeting the Grand Ole Opry in Itaewon, I got a phone call from my Da. The news wasn’t good. My grandmother who had been ill for a long time passed away. It was a long struggle, but it was something that, even if I knew how to deal with it in Korea, Ireland was the place I should be.

I got that phonecall on a Sunday night, and on Monday I went to work and told them that my grandmother had passed away and that I wanted to return to Ireland for the funeral. My hagwon at the time offered me four days off to travel, which when you consider that most Irish companies will only offer you three when a relative dies, I thought this was generous. However, if they had offered me an extra day I could have made it home.

Unfortunately, because of this lack of an extra day I couldn’t afford the flight. If I had an day extra I could have afforded it. My Da said he would pay for the flight, but I didn’t have enough of a limit on my credit card to pay for the ticket. I took the bus back home and the next day I went to work. I figured I was better off in work keeping busy than sitting at home kicking myself over that flight, and more other more distressing things.

Both times I have crawled into my own hole and kept to myself. I don’t think I’ve been overly upset and I don’t think I’ve mulled over the loss. I have just kept to myself and got on with it.

Not being in Ireland means I don’t absorb much of the grief. It’s a sad situation where I have to compare it with the idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s not the subject of conversation on everyone around me’s tongues, and I can’t attend the funeral, and I won’t see his family and I won’t see his brother Alan, my friend. I am here on my own, both physically and emotionally, and with deaths I’m used to dealing with it that way, but this time it’s different. I’m waiting for everyone else to return to normal so they’ll pop up on skype and I can talk about this. I want to mourn and I want to mourn with my friends who knew my friend as much, if not more than I did.

I can’t help that being in Korea at this time is the wrong place to be. Why am I here when my friends are going through ordeals like this but it seems to pass over me almost like a crow?

Before, I wrote about unpacking boxes and looking at it like it was a time machine, and how it can feel like the world had stopped as you moved on, but with death it’s different. This is the kind of time capsule which is always waiting to haunt you whenever you pass down the street and pass somewhere that you shared a memory.

All week an amazing tribute to Richie has been posted on Facebook: photos after photo of him with friends sharing good times as only he knew best. Every like I see I smile and cry at the same time. It’s strange how we deal with memory and mourning at the same time.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s so complicated now that I can hardly put a finger on everything that needs to be talked about. The more I think about it, the more the reality sinks home that this young man who was full of life, love, and decency is no longer with us, the more I struggle to regard anything that has no human relevance as necessary.

Regardless of everything we have, we are nothing without the people around us. They are the people who remember us and they are the people who make us great.

Thank you Richie for being who you were, and for being the best that you could always have been. You will be missed by everyone you every touched, and that number of people is large, and those who knew you best can never forget you. Never. And we will all love you always.

Now, despite my own attempts at mourning, all my thoughts and love go to Richie’s family, especially his wife Helena and daughter Tessa Rose, and his parents and brothers and sisters, and his closest friends, several of whom are good friends of mine. Be strong everyone.

Rest in Peace.

Richie Yeats 1976-2012