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.

The End of the Summer


It’s still hot in Korea. By hot I mean warm enough to prefer shorts to trousers but pleasant enough to consider the walk, wherever it is you’re going, enjoyable. Only this afternoon it started raining the kind of rain that smells of the heat that has warmed it. Like some kind of stagnant puddle water. And as it drops and hits the ground the water mixes with all the other smells walked into the street, then stewed up to create a black paste which seems to follow every foot’s step in the city. It’s a summer rain true, but not a high summer deluge.

When we returned to Korea from Ireland a little under two weeks ago we were told we had missed the worst of the summer. The breeze which we found chilly was a much welcomed breath of life into a country drained to exhaustion from the hottest of summers. We were grateful that we had chosen our flight dates well.

When I first spent a summer in Korea I can’t recall how I felt about it. I don’t remember when the heat began or ended, but I do remember staying outside long and late into the night at the weekend dressed only in shorts and t-shirt. I also remember walking into the ice cold bank to find 10 to 15 people sitting around in small groups chatting, snacking on fruit, and generally just hanging out in what was a free air-conditioned space. A few years later and I would do the same, but with a cheap ice coffee in the local Paris Baguette.

Now, that cool breeze I mentioned seems to have let up a little, but there is still a heavy rattle of cicada in the afternoon. Occasionally a dragonfly will drop to the ground dead in front of me, a sure-fire sign of the end of the summer. I still carry a handkerchief with me to avoid looking like I just stepped from the shower, but I can feel the weather getting steadily cooler.

In Ireland the summer ends in July, apparently, and autumn runs from August through to October. In many parts of the world August is an unbearable month, but Ireland it can be cool and the most unbearable thing we have are the wasps which seem to enjoy lunches in the garden as much the next person. It’s a far cry from the crowded beaches and sweltering streets of Korea, but that’s where I was a couple of weeks ago.

 

A view in Ireland

A view in Ireland

I was not thinking of the Korean summer, just of how nice it was to be in Ireland for what was a very enjoyable and warm summer by Irish standards. If anything the only reason I didn’t want to go back to Korea was because it meant the summer would be over and I would have to return to work.

It’s always easy to get all sentimental after leaving your summer holidays behind and returning to work, normality, and routine, as you sit there, wherever it is and doing whatever you have to do, looking invariably at a scene quite different than you have recently made familiar to yourself. My view from where I write is often uninspiring, faced with a computer screen backed onto a white wall, and the view through the windows leaves nothing to the imagination. The mountains in the distance even being too far off to be wistful.

An example of 'the routine'.

An example of ‘the routine’.

Coming to Korea you’d think that all would be amazing, especially from little old Ireland. But equally so, leaving Korea and going to Ireland presents such stark contrasts, not just visually, but also physically and socially. One is here and the other is there, and there is so distant from here that it bears such little comparison that highlighting the differences only serves to be counterproductive. Each country exists in such stack separation from the other that seeing the two in any light never presents any recognisable image.

I say this with a fair amount of regret, but I know that it’s true. To worry that, for example, your holiday has ended and that you must now return to the routine does little but to feed your own sentimental wishes and dreams which are likely to be realised. It serves to remember that those who can be considered fortunate enough to live where you have returned from also have the same concerns as you, none more so than complaints about the weather, bills, normality, routine, and a desire to find a better life somewhere else. I would also hasten to add that if I were fortunate enough to be so wealthy as to afford to sit around and play golf all day at such a young age I think I’d find myself bored. Perhaps when I’m old enough to retire I will be of a different mind-set.

It is safe to say that we make decisions in life about where we want to be and what we want to do. Where we choose to live and how we choose to live are important decisions. Of course not everyone is in as comfortable a position as myself to be offered a choice, I know this better than I used to, but still it’s in our power to change this, somehow.

Living in Korea, I have been frustrated by many things, but at the same time I find a lot of enjoyment in living here. I work hard enough to enjoy a lifestyle which many in Ireland do not enjoy, but we are just as happy living where we are. I have being living in Korea long enough to know what to enjoy and what to avoid. I know the limitations of my luxuries and envy those without them, which sounds odd I know, but it is nothing unusual for a person to covet what they cannot have.

A view from Korea

A view from Korea

I have never really felt myself unhappy in Korea, homesick yes, but never unhappy. There are plenty here who find fault with so many social and political issues here, but I always look at it from the perspective that every country has its problems and no one country manages to deal with them in any way more effectively, as a whole. Societies face pressures from all angles, but rounding them off they are internal and external issues which time itself and the experience it brings often help to solve most complaints. Whether we live to see some of these changes is probably what concerns us the most.

I started this post talking about the weather. I see the weather as a metaphor for how we deal with our lives in different countries from our own. I can’t say it matters much to me or anyone in Korea, unless there’s some agricultural or aeronautical connection I’m forgetting, how the weather is in Ireland right now. I’m concerned that my family and friends are doing alright of course, but I don’t think that this supersedes my own situation, which is the rain from now until some time tomorrow.

And that is what I will do. I will wait until it stops and then I will see what happens next. I wonder will the rain be light enough when I get up so that I can walk to work, or will I have to drive. I wonder if it will rain all day and what I will do in between my classes if it is still pouring down. It’s what is here and what I must deal with, regardless of what the weather is in Ireland.

A Letter to My Seven Month Old Daughter


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Dear +1,

Look at you with your smiles and shitty nappies, you are the world too me. You may not realise it as you are undoubtedly focusing on something you just saw and must now touch, but it’s true, you mean so much to me.

I am writing to you today as I wish to part with some advice. As you are young it is hard for you to understand much, and as you are young it is your natural inclination to believe that you are 100% correct about everything. If the truth be told you will not learn the fallacy of this until you are, well probably close to your own deathbed many years from now.

You see little +1, as your father it is important that you realise that while you could reasonably argue that I know sweet fuck all about anything, other than knowing when I’m hungry, tired, or need to go to the toilet, I do indeed know a lot more than you. One day you may indeed know more than I, but first of all I beseech you to learn to speak.

Myself and your mother do our best in this world to not educate you the wrong way and I hope you will trust us when we direct you towards so-called child friendly paraphernalia. But I realise knowing the difference for you is difficult, so please allow my lifetime’s experience to know that not chewing those shiny scissors is the best option. And the hot teapot is best left on the table, because it is both heavy and hot.

It is unfortunate that in life you will have to learn to understand what is hot and what is cold yourself, as we all have our own levels. But let me give you a pointer: when your skin hurts from touching something, hot or cold, generally that means it’s bad. There are other signs which you can look out for in advance, such as is their ice on it, or in fact flames coming from it, is stuff melting nearby, is there steam emanating from some orifice etc. In fact anytime you feel pain it doesn’t promise to be beneficial – except for massages, and possibly tattoos, if that’s your thing.

There are other things which you don’t really need to touch, such as the dark coloured damp residue inside the nappy I just removed, my armpits in summer, the floor underneath the couch, and everything about ten centimetres outside your immediate reach. What you need in life will come to you with the right application, and while I appreciate the need to seek much out, searching in ever corner of your immediate world will reveal little for now.

Your youth, and I really sound like an old man now, is your greatest obstacle. Please give it time, as you have so much to experience and so much seems so new, which means it’s strange, which means that is the reason that you are probably complaining about it. Again, take our word for it, it’s for the best.

For example, when we strap you down in a cushioned seat with a nice soft head rest and sides inside a large self propelled two tonne piece of steel and plastic full of highly flammable fossil fuels, which then competitively attempts to travel at high speed with a plethora of other such devices, often around bends and over bumps, and even in poor weather with sight seriously reduced, it is, believe it or not, considered safest for you to be harnessed in, and not free to wriggle and squirm as your young body sees fit.

While I’m discussing this I should also advise you that I’ve also found that it is easier to fall asleep at night when you sit back, relax, and just wait for your sleep to find you. Incredibly, worming, squirming, and shouting in my arms does not work. I worked this out a few years ago when I was a bit of a night owl, and the more I socialised with others late in the early hours I found it more difficult to fall asleep, but if I sat on a plastic chair outside a convenience store or the likes, sleep soon came to me quite easily. It’s a strange phenomenon I know, but like much of my advice in this letter, time will help you realise so much more.

I trust that you will take this advice to heart and do your best to apply it to your forthcoming years. Soon it will seem like second nature not to try to eat your faeces or the nearest scissors, among other revelations of age, but remember that until that time I will be standing over you applying my care in a way that may seem intrusive, and equally like I am trying to ruin your appreciation of life. This is not the case, I am merely attempting to guide you through your early days with as few physical threats to your self as is possible.

For now, please trust me that I am right, because one of these days you will be just like your mother and I will never have this opportunity again. Until then allow me the glory of being somewhat correct.

With best wishes for your future,

Your loving father/Dad/앞파/ould fella/

Differences. Think About Them, They’re Not So Different


Difference isn’t something we should chastise, it’s something we should celebrate. How many of us who complain about how things are done in Korea don’t complain about the utopia which we came from?

Yang Liu was only 14 when she moved from China to Germany, where she became a graphic designer. She presented a series of artworks detailing the differences between living in Germany and living in China. Her collection of graphics were based on her experience growing up in two distinctly different cultures, and despite the generalisations, they are relatively true, especailly if you change Korea for China.

I say this from a country that I believe has many socially cultural similarities (and many huge differences also) with Koreans but which is also considered western. And I also know that there are huge differences between western national cultural traits.

However, what is most important is that you have to understand here is that these images just describe the cultural attitudes, they do not judge or speculate the problems which either practice may encourage.

Every time I hear people complain about anything and everything in Korea, and I hear it a lot including from myself, this helps me to remember that this is just the way things are done.There is nothing you can do about it, you just have to hope that things don’t effect you negatively.

Ost trifft West (East vs West) by Yang Liu

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