An Unconventional Christmas


Two days before Christmas day we had landed at Chiang Mai International Airport after a brisk six hour flight from Korea, and the day before, Christmas Eve, we pottered about our locality and did some shopping for the apartment we were staying in. We went to bed that night as we would have any other night, happy that we had made it finally to Thailand for the winter, and hopeful for what the coming few months would bring.

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The next day of course was Christmas Day, and we had not done much in preparation for it. We woke and breakfasted on what we could scrape from the fridge – an egg or two, some bread, tomatoes, and fruit. We played together with +1 for a while, waiting for it to warm up outside and for +1 to fall asleep again for her morning nap, which she dutifully did at the usual time.

Upon awaking we quickly packed what was required for the day and caught a cab to a big shiny new shopping centre on the ubiquitously named Super Hi-Way which circles the city. Once there we entered and began to potter around.

Spending Christmas Day in a shopping centre with all its glitz and annoying repetition of door after door bedazzled with logos and products may sound like an awful turn following the usual Christmas charge for presents. However, I don’t think we had been in one all December, and to be honest, it was an easy way to take the mind off obvious alternatives several thousand miles away.

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There was of course plenty to see and with a little baby in tow (or doing the towing as the case may be) finding the most appropriate entertainment is always the main concern. We wandered around different shops, obviously, trying our hand at the Japanese version (original perhaps) of Daiso in Thailand, a kid’s café, and we even took a few moments to wonder at the indoor ice rink on the fifth floor.

Before long we found a big kids section and went about choosing a few presents for +1 for her second Christmas. Although she’s only one, she was all but a month old for her first birthday so this would be kind of like her first Christmas. We decided against Santa because, to be honest, she will not understand or ever recognise the amazingness that is Santa Claus on a Christmas morning. We discussed it but decided that simply giving her presents without that kind of ‘appreciation’ seemed a little unnecessary. Herself didn’t really experience Christmas until she lived in Ireland with me, so when it comes to Christmas-like decision making generally she takes my word (at her peril). From next year I think there will be a big change.

After a little more shopping, like for stuff like food for the fridge (to vary the breakfast content and the likes), we settled on the notion that we would be well served by having some dinner. We had perused the restaurants already and knew for certain that there wasn’t a turkey to be found in the square mile of Thailand we were in, so we settled on the next best thing; wine, cheese, and serrano ham.

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We had snacked earlier and didn’t feel like going in for a huge feed, and we decided that if we could manage this and still feel hungry then we might consider something greater. We immersed ourselves in the wine and accoutrements, while feeding +1 who was happy enough to demand what we were eating while throwing all her toys and food on the ground. Later we decided on a plate of pasta, more I think to keep +1 satiated than for our own appetites, and cake.

At some stage, I’m not exactly certain when, we skyped my family in Ireland who were all up and busy with Christmas morning. It is always worth witnessing how the wonder of Christmas can relieve a good hangover, but I believe St Stephen’s Day is a little less effective. We did our best to hear what everyone else was saying over the din of the restaurant, and after a decent chat we let them be with promises to call back when we got home to stronger connection.

By the end of the day we were home again in our apartment not far from the city’s old walls. We quickly got +1 ready for bed, made another call or two wishing people happy Christmas. Once +1 had gone to bed, myself and Herself stayed up chatting, while I polished off more wine. She fell asleep and I decided to sit up at the computer. I may have wrote something, but that may have been the night after.

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So that was my Christmas. It was unconventional sure, but I think I’ve become used to unconventional Christmas happenings, although I will always stand by the belief that it’s not what you do that matters, it’s who you do it with.

A belated merry Christmas and happy new year to all my readers wherever you are in the world.

Gangneung Bus Station


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What this place is is a blur. A moment of passing. Transit. From there to here or from somewhere else to another place. All that is left is the grey area, a space with less colour than grey, as distinct as the indviduality in a large packet of A4 paper. Where is there when the moments worth remembering are elsewhere? But I am here and there is this other place which I should be in and it may be where I am going – perhaps with the sun shining and flowers and colours and other weather and familiar faces and absolutely no apprehension – there is no longer part of me until the next time I see it.

Take this bus station. A point of arrival and departure that never moves but just sits here swallowing up and spitting out people moving between to positions. It’s only function is to sit in the town at a crossroads. People sitting around, waiting with boxes and bags and nervous looks on their faces. Huddled in front of heaters with collars pulled high against their chins, waiting in silence for their bus too be called. Everyone is looking at everyone, and not at their shoes like they usually do. Nervous and out of place, no one belongs in a bus station. Everything that is here is designed to convenience transit away from and to this place; restaurants, shops, cafes, seats, clocks, doors, steps, lights, everything. You could say that nothing belongs here, but I do, at this moment moving from there to here or wherever in my journey I am, looking at my feet hoping nobody sees me too clearly.

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o be in this place is to be dislocted. To be abandoned to a schedule. To be out of place. To be a number in a queue, waiting as the seconds tick away. And then you’re gone and any memory you have of the place is a mystery why it’s a memory.

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Words and images © Conor O’Reilly 2013

Typical


It wouldn’t be a snow day in If I Had A Minute T0 Spare Towers if I didn’t have a stream of photographs of the lovely traffic jam inducing whiteness.

Hark! Here they cometh. Snow photos from Yeongtong-dong!

(Yes, I know I’m spoiling you)

The real fun begins tomorrow when all this is frozen, of course.

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All photographs © Conor O’Reilly 2013

Is it December Already?


So now that Halloween is over we can all start getting our Christmas decorations down and checking the fairy lights are all working. While we’re at it, order a turkey, and for christ’s sake start knitting that jumper, there’s a 12 Pubs of Christmas on somewhere…

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Is it a bit early to be joking about this?

The thing is I can titter to myself, but I know that for a fact this is how things might as well be. Christmas is a bigger and bigger ordeal as each year passes. The lights in the cities go up earlier, there are more and more elaborate Santa’s grottos in supermarkets, and for some reason many people’s livers do not collapse, despite the increased effort.

If I was back in Ireland I could probably complain about this. But I’m not. I’m in Korea. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to invite you, my humble reader to celebrate this phenomenon.

In case you haven’t already noticed, preparations for the Christmas period are already in motion. Not more than two or three weeks ago I was in Costco and not one Halloween thing-a-majig did I see. However, Christmas trees and cribs to abandon were in stock. One crib, which to my eye was a walk-in one, had statues of the shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and Mary, not to mention the assorted livestock which usually comes with these things, all of which would have dwarfed little +1 at full stretch.

In starbucks yesterday, November 1st lest we not forget, they had rolled out their red Christmas campaign with all their Christmas flavoured coffees and whatnot over heating from too much cream and chocolate sprinkles. And this afternoon in Emart, the Korean supermarket chain, there was even a small section of plastic Christmas trees and flashing Santa Clauses.

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There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t make me irate.

First of all there are more important things to get angry about.

Second of all, I kind of expect it so what is the point of getting angry about it – I wish I could say the same for driving standards in Yeongtong…

Thirdly, it’s Korea.

“What? That’s not a very good third excuse”, I hear you chirp.

Well it is. Korea is not a Christmas country. When I think family and holiday in Korea I think Chuseok and Seolal. When I hear Christmas in Korea I hear day off and drinking. Wait. That sounds the same as an Irish Christmas.

When I first came to Korea in 2005 I was lucky to even see the colours red and white together. I lived near a McDonalds which kind of helped me realise it was Christmas, but otherwise there was hardly any wind of it in the Seoul air. By 2008 I was living in Itaewon and you could kind of pick up on it a bit. I was also working in a much bigger school so they pushed the western holidays or whatever a little more, so I was reminded of Christmas somewhat more.

Around that time, someone in Seoul City Hall had the bright idea that fairy lights all over the place made the city look nice in the dark of winter, so Seoul suddenly looked like it was all lit up for Christmas. Of course these lights persisted until February, but in early Decemeber you could be forgiven for feeling the Christmas mood.

Despite this history of Christmas in Korea, my main thought still is that Christmas isn’t a Korean holiday, and any attempt to celebrate it isn’t going to match the ideas we have of Christmas in our own western homes. It’s not a family holiday for starters, and it’s certainly not one that many Koreans look back on with any amount of nostalgia. Now, you do see some kids getting Christmas presents from Santa Claus, and there’s that phenomenon of couples going to Myeong-dong on Christmas Day, but aside from that… oh yeah, don’t forget the twenty million or so Christians in the country (but since when has Christmas been about Christianity, right?).

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If you want to get an idea for where Christmas stands, maybe you should look at Halloween, which for some reason is called Halloween Day (yeah, I know…). There is no resemblance between the Halloweens in Korea and any of the Halloweens in Ireland I remember. For starters where is the abject fear of teenagers in the streets after dark? I could go on.

There is little point in growling about how Christmas is celebrated here. It’s like a Korean in Ireland complaining about how they just don’t do Chuseok like they do back home. And anyway, the fact that the commercial aspect is sneaking into popular culture should be comfort enough, seeing as it’s probably the most dominant feature of a typical western Christmas.

For me, I can find Christmas in Korea a very lonely time, even with a fantastic wife and now and amazing little daughter to keep me company, but I’ve never found a comparable comfort in the Christmas that Korea provides. That doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate it. I’ve tried different things and always had a great time, but it’s not what I’d liken to Christmas. This doesn’t make it a bad thing.

The way I see it is there are two holidays here, one in the place it originated, and one attempt to liken it. Neither are wrong, neither will every be better, neither will ever suppress the other. Sure one may be more commercially driven than the other, or vice-versa.

So this December as I’m gradually getting used to red Starbucks signs and cups, mispronounced children’s Christmas songs, I’ll be happy knowing that at least there is something here that helps me get on with another year. What matters to me more than anything is, like any celebration, is who you spend it with and what you do, not what everyone else does.

Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present


The big talking point in the land of the morning calm is undoubtedly the election of the conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye to the presidency. Park’s father is man by the name of Park Chung Hee, whose name is both revered and reviled in Korea. Park Geun Hye is a woman, but more in the vein of Margaret Thatcher, where it could be argued gender is incidental.

Park’s election has sparked plenty of talk due to her relationship with her father who ruled this nation with a very controversial iron fist for the best part of two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. While I didn’t follow the election race in too much depth, I know that Park’s victory ticked all the boxes in terms of surprise, disappointment, doom, and any other negative or positive political emotion you can think up.

Now, I rarely talk politics here as it’s not in my writ really (unless it’s Irish politics but I save that for places like twitter and pub, which is the best place for it – I wouldn’t want to go and develop a bad reputation or anything like that now would I?). In terms of international politics, as in the politics of countries I’m not from, I do my best to merely observe, as becoming too involved or concerned does little other than frustrate me, and whoever decides to troll my comment thread. There’s more to this than that though.

Four years ago when Barrack Obama was running for president I made a determined effort to step back and ignore the entire debate. I knew he presented some viable opportunities for change but at the same time he was running for the office of American president, so despite all claims of wonder he was, deep down, aspiring to be a crook and a war criminal. Now I won’t deny that I did get excited by this year’s election as, well, the whole thing was so entertaining. The most disappointing thing about the whole process was that it was real life.

That’s just how I deal with politics, and I treated the Korean election with a similar amount of interest. You might wonder why this would be the case considering I have a vested interest in the outcome, and I do – I have a job, family, and lifestyle here in Korea, as well as paying all of my taxes here – but what good would it have done? Other than me being incredibly disappointed or annoyed (about another thing) it would serve little function. Korea would continue and I would have to seek to continue on within it without a say in how this continuance happened.

Now, for a better analysis of the result of the election, I’m going to direct you to Bobster’s House (Bobsters House: The Day After the Last Day of the World), which is where I took the title for this post from, as he has a more detailed, passionate, and constructive criticism of the situation on his blog. What I am going to do now is continue to observe as best I can.

The thing about elections is, and this is something not mentioned enough in this kind of discourse, is that the result of an election, be it a landslide or decided by a few loose votes, is always a reflection of the mind of society in which we have chosen to live. Love it or hate it, this is always the case.

In the case of Park Geun Hye’s election, it’s a story of the dictator’s daughter who actively participated in the administration who has emerged as the president of the country, now a respected democracy and global player in international affairs and economics, among other complaints. This country is now a starkly different one from the one her father took charge of and it now has the laws and institutions to protect itself from another despotic regime taking over – unless the North invades of course. But does that make a difference? Perhaps. No one actually knows what is going to happen. Alas.

Yes there are going to be some serious outcomes from the new president. I believe freedom of speech and freedom of information will continue to be threatened.  I believe equality will continue to remain something to be aspired to in the future (putting it mildly). I believe the wealth gap will continue to widen. I believe that few solutions to Korea’s economic situation worth remembering will be instituted.

Society in Korea has decided that it wants this lady to rule the country, and there is little more that we can complain about. Korean society is a lot more different and diverse than the bright lights of Gangnam and this election has done well to remind us of this significant reality. I travel to the countryside quite a lot, especially into Gangwon-do and around the outskirts of Cheonan and Yongin, and there is no doubting that eclectic neon-clad districts of Seoul such as Gangnam and Hongdae are more the exception than the rule.

As The Bobster pointed out, there are now more fifty year-olds in Korea than forty year-olds; that’s more people recalling the glory of full employment and rapid economic development than those who recall the aftermath, which was at the height of Park Chung Hee’s despotism. Even members of Herself’s own family who voted for Park in the recent election used the fact that because of her father she would do a good job.

It does not surprise me so much that Park was elected as president. Korea is a conservative country, and she is from the conservative Saenuri party. In fact, it strikes me that the opposition parties have done quite well considering how conservative Korea is, both politically, but also socially and culturally.

What doesn’t seem to be being mentioned loudly enough is that Korea is such a different country from what it was. It is a different time with different demands, of which there re too many to discuss here. I don’t think enough people know this. Korea doesn’t need full employment and rapid economic development as its highest priority any longer. It needs stability and support for its population, which is overpriced, aging, and suffering increasingly from its overly competitive dynamic. The miracle on the Han River is no longer as miraculous. The Han River’s economic development is now routine to the point it has become stagnant.

Back when Korea was developing, becoming an export economy was the best option, as there were plenty of people desperate for work, food, money, and everything else society required in the latter half of the twentieth century. Now is it any different? I would say no, it is not. Korea is still an export economy and its population revolves around the survival of its key players, namely Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and possibly some of the smaller, less famous Chaebol.

If you come down to Suwon where I live you can see this. Samsung’s Digital City is located in the centre of the city, which is an old and aging one without much industry around it. Surrounding Digital city spread out across both Yongin and Hwaseong counties are at least six more large Samsung manufacturing plants, all top of the line and all make Foxconn’s Chinese production facilities look primitive. This is the core of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing empire in Korea.

Overall Samsung employs around 100,000 people in Korea (about half its global workforce). However, the local economy’s reliance on this company is staggering. From my window I can see large construction projects being carried out in Digital City. In the Dongtan plant, there is also large construction work underway. Surrounding all these factories are companies which supply and support Samsung’s manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget the newly developed towns, such as Yeongtong where I live, new expressways, subways and buses to connect to Seoul, schools, shopping and dining facilities, and more. This kind of development has nothing to do with Korea’s economic prominence; it has everything to do with the global demand for Samsung products.

As usual, this export orientated development is no different from the 1960s when Korea fulfilled a similar role to the one now carried out by China – a manufacturer of cheap but high quality goods, but ultimately dependent on the international economy for its survival. Is Korea not any better now as it churns out televisions and mobile phones at a high rate to satiate an always hungry global consumer?

The thing is, when Lee Myoung Bak became president, it was argued that he was the right man for the job and he could reinvigorate Korea’s stumbling economy (let’s not forget that this was 2008 – a time when major European economies and the US were themselves beginning to falter). The same party’s candidate can hardly have much more revolutionary steps up her sleeve for seeing about an economic rebirth, especially for a country that is tied to the ups and downs of its buyers across the world.

What Korea needs now is a change, and a big one, across the board. The economy is just one area which needs work, but it is certainly an obvious and easy one to provoke. Korea needs to learn to innovate and it needs to become attractive to the international environment – which isn’t easy when you consider the compeititon in Asia alone is places like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course Singapore.

Korea has a fantastic population of hardworking and concerned citizens who only want the best for their country. But are these people being misled? Possibly. It needs to re-educate and approach the world from a new angle. It needs to change its institutions and it needs to respect them. It has to look at itself and rely on itself more.

Changes need to be made to turn away from this old-fashioned overly dependent means of running the country to one which encourages the old to develop into the new, and one which sees its Korean identity as pivotal in its interaction with others. This is not the case now. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and this is an iceberg that will take longer than five years to melt.

P.S. I could be very wrong about all of this.

*UPDATE* Have a read of Roboseyo’s take on the election, including a more in depth and less one sided (and despondent) perspective on the role of Park Chung hee’s role in Korea’s past and present.