10 Things About Korea…


So I won’t be along here much longer, so I thought I’d give this a shot.

There’s plenty about Korea that I’m going to miss, without a doubt, and then there’s a fair amount of things I won’t miss about Korea. It would be fair to say the same about anywhere, of course.

So here goes nothing…

10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – forget about how you spell the bloody word auf English, the reverence paid to these two pillars of society is beyond impressive. I often long to be one myself, just so I can get stuff done. I have looked for a  temple to worship but have only found people pushing me out of the way because a worshipped one is oncoming. I challenge my readers to find a more ubiquitous beacon in honour of how to get shit done than the lowly, and not so lowly Uncle and Auntie.
  2. Food – Yum. Season care me not, belly always happy. Tasty with or without MSG, the local tucker satisfies beyond compare, and at a price to match my much unencumbered wallet (in that it’s empty of cash). I still amaze my Irish brethren with the fact that four strapping lads could fill themselves with deadened meat and a decent skinful of schoops (an Irish dialect for pints) for about 20 blips, or there abouts. That is merely the tip of the iceberg.
  3. The weather – I’m going to Ireland, a country not renowned for it’s tropical beaches and balmy breezes, and after an afternoon where I strolled into work in short sleeves, spent an hour under a tree reading in the shade, and then dozzily cantered home in anticipation of me din-dins all in glorious sunshine, it will be hard to compare. In fairness, you would do well to better yon land of the morning calm for it’s months of May and June, and September through to even November. Regardless of when you go to Ireland, the advice at the best of time is ‘bring a good jacket’.
  4. Deliveries – You could spend your whole life in your home and never, ever, ever have to leave. I mean it. Think of the luxury of, in theory, only having to put clothes on when the delivery guy turns up, and even then it wouldn’t be much more than a bed sprawl thrown over your shoulders to cover your jiggly bits! Can you do that with as much a degree of comfort elsewhere as you can with as much success as in Korea? I sincerely doubt it – although fixing an income would be a a challenge if you were a carpenter or marine biologist… And half the time, if not all of the time, delivery is everyone’s favourite price, free! Did I mention stuff arrives the next day?
  5. Communications – Roads, telephones, internet, taxis, buses, trains, and of course subways, exist in abundance (they’d want to considering how many people live here) and they are all efficient, effective, and extraordinarily everything the public transport or whatever system in your country is not. Don’t try and argue, you’re wrong. Not without it’s faults, of course, but man I couldn’t believe it when I was in London a few years back and I heard that they were excited that they were testing getting mobile signals into the underground. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, in Seoul it was unheard of that your phone wouldn’t have a 3G signal underground, let alone just a regular bar or two on your phone.
  6. English – Ok, so not everyone is fluent and as an English language teaching professional it’s my wont to complain about the inadequacy of the English language ability of such a massive proportion of the population given the time spent on language teaching and yeah so fucking what? Not only has the country provided me with a lifestyle others would aspire too, as well as a family, friends, and many wonderful memories, it’s also the reason that made living here initially so easy, and today it’s not much different. I could go on but I won’t. English in Korea, who’d have thought it was so great?
  7. Health and Safety – Up until about two months ago this wasn’t such a big issue, and in the respect that I am now going to mention, I still thinks it’s alright. There’s not really a penchant for preparing everyone for the inevitable. You’d wonder some times who is more adult about the way that people should be constantly protecting others. Remember, we’re adults, so you know, look where you’re walking down the street and don’t expect everything to be so perfect for you. It’s a welcome thing that the love of suing the shite of some poor misfortunate for not being impeccable has not landed with the same rigour as it has in the Republic of Errors…I mean Ireland.
  8. Silence – One of the great things about being in Korea and not being completely fluent in the language or the whimsicalness of everything about you is that so much moaning and nonsense which your life is better off not knowing about floats gently and tenderly over your head and evaporates into the clouds above. And even if you do understand it, it’s a lot easier to tune out when it’s in a foreign language than when it’s in your native brogue. This lack of generally ignorable bullshittery is a fantastic advantage to being a resident in the land of such placidity in the AM, in my own most humble opinion.
  9. Suwon – It has been my home for over four and a half years, and the place where we live now has been our home for three and a half of those. I haven’t lived anywhere longer but for my folk’s place back in Ireland. I love the view from above everything. I like that suddenly we have a subway station right next to us. I love Hwaseong Fortress and the Jin Mi Tong Dalk  nearby. I like that I can walk to work in twenty minutes, and even more importantly I can walk home and not get stuck in traffic. Did I mention we recently found a butcher who sells decent steaks nearby?
  10. My job – This factor would have sounded offensive to the same me some years back. The idea that me, of all people, would actually like my job is in many respects absolute madness. But aside from the five months holidays a year, and the less than 15 hours teaching I have to do as part of my contract, it’s quite an enjoyable situation. I’ve not only had some fantastic students over the years (really, some real class acts, I’m not lying) but I’ve actually learned from my experience, not just about how I can teach better, but how to deal with people more effectively and also, how to be a better writer. I’m genuinely sad to be leaving this job.

10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – Isn’t it nuts? Really! I can’t get over it that someone saggy and poorly dressed can hold a higher position in society solely based on the fact that they’ve had more time in it. It genuinely drives me mad that I play second fiddle to someone who has no genuine advantage to me, in terms of the two of us standing side by side, other than they are a middle aged and Korean. Sure some deserve it, but why can’t I be given the same level of amazeballs for just standing on the corner and being a thirty year old?
  2. Food – Man I long for some variety, and I’m not talking about variety in Korean food, because you can’t beat the variety of Korean food in Korea I’ll tell you that for nothing. I’m talking about the variety of any food that isn’t Korean. I’ve seen enough Pizza and Pasta places to last me a lifetime. And as for Japanese noodles spots, which aren’t bad at all, I can’t handle it, I really can’t. And while I’m at it, I just long for some bread without sweet cream cheese and/or hotdogs (note: I love these things…but sometimes I care not for them). In fact, I wish it was mandatory for every person who opened a foreignesque restaurant to visit the country where it comes from so they can taste the food they’re attempting to replicate and then they will realise that other countries in fact do like to use an ingredient known as salt, and not sugar, to bolster the deliciousness out of the food.
  3. The Weather – Winter and summer can suck my balls frankly. Last winter I went to Thailand because, lets be honest, I like going outside. And to be honest, I don’t like taking the nine showers a day required of summer in Korea. Did I mention yellow dust and or course micro dust? Yeah, not weather, I know, but come on let’s be honest….
  4. Deliveries – If I don’t get killed by one of those lunatics in their vans or on their bikes, I’m going to kill them for me almost killing them as the somersault through another red light. I could say more but after my food rant I’m going to control myself. Deep breaths. Think of happy places. Mmmm, no delivery lunatic bikes in Ireland…that’s nice….
  5. Communications – I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that fast internet speeds and high rates of connectivity aren’t the be all and end all. This is especially the case when the price is censorship and ActiveX/mass rates of identity theft with little to no repercussions for those responsible for protecting said identities. And while I’m here, driving will grow you a thicker layer of skin than is really necessary. You might think it’s alright, that is until you encounter Sunday drivers, a phenomenon quite the opposite from its western counterpart.
  6. English– It irks me that so much of Korea is so English friendly. I’m on the other side of the planet but life here is so cushy that it’s just wrong, to me at least. This is a moral thing, personally speaking. In Ireland we speak English purely because English was the way to communicate and get jobs, essentially if you emigrated, and I personally don’t see why Korea should be so obsessed with this language which has such a foreign baring on everyone’s lives. You may disagree with me, and I’m sure many do, but this is how I feel. I think Korea should be less concerned about having the entire country fluent, and more concerned about giving an even spread to it’s education. Or something to that effect.
  7. Health & Safety – Ok, fuck this, I’ve had enough. Firstly let’s stop by cutting steel on the fucking street, and when you’re down there do me a favour and share the fucking footpath with the people who are using it i.e. those walking from A to B. See those fancy changing coloured lights up in the sky? There’s a reason for them and it’s not because they go well with all the neon. Yes, I am childish in that I need to be protected from your inanity, but please I do in fairness have a right not to take my life in my hand as I walk down the street to buy a carton of poxy milk.
  8. Silence – ‘I heard them say ‘waygook’ …then did they say ‘Conor’…they’re talking about. What? Come here and say that to my face! Arrrrrrrgh!’ and other stories.
  9. Suwon – There is an expression in Korean that basically says you shouldn’t spit into the wind. And in this case I shall not spit into the wind. What I will say is that Suwon, while not without it’s charms it does lack a certain amount of finesse, says the fella who wants to walk around his apartment naked until his dying days.
  10. My job – My job is no better or worse as it is, but I’m in my early 30s and I’ve a family to look after. In ten years, I could be in the same state, and this is not something I am willing to accept. There are ways which I could change this, but to be honest the right move is to stick to myself and Herself’s long term plan and get moving. I hold no regrets and would recommend it to anyone, but for me right now I have reached the point where I new stage must be entered upon.

So that’s it.

Anything you’d miss and wouldn’t miss about Korea?

 

Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

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.

Supermarkets -v- the People?


It has been bothering me since about the time it has been instigated. It’s a simple thing that shouldn’t really get me agitated as it has very little effect on me, and in many respects it is a good principal to take. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong step and I don’t think it really solves any problems, only encourages more populist resolutions to complicated social and economic problems.

What am talking about? Sunday closing for the so-called discount stores in Korea.

Now lets establish some terminology first.

“Discount stores” are what major supermarket chains are called in Korea. These include E-Mart (part of Shinsaegae international), Homeplus (owned by Tesco, the second largest supermarket company in the world), and Lotte Mart, which are the biggest ones.

“Sunday closing” is a government regulation which has called for all “discount stores” to close on two Sundays a month, or in some cases two Wednesdays a month. The reason for this is because they were blamed by smaller businesses for taking away too much business from smaller shops and businesses which were nearby.

Now that we understand this, allow me to explain why I find this to be bothersome.

To begin with there’s the obvious inconvenience of wanting to buy something that the major supermarkets stock. I personally haven’t been overly bothered by this on many occasions, and I’ll admit that the one time it really did get to me, and is probably where the idea for this blog post came from, was on a nice Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Yeongtong Homeplus and pick up some tasty foreign beer.

I fancied a few warm cans of something elaborate and I was looking forward to the painstaking decision I would have to make in the aisles. When I came to the front of the supermarket the shutter was pulled down and there was a big yellow banner acorss it explaining, I imagine, that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t buy my beer, blame the government.

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I don’t doubt that at this moment you’re thinking I’m some crazed anti-government vigilante who feels the world is against him, but this is not the case. I am not going to go into why I didn’t want Korean beer either, but if you’ve been in Korea long enough, you’ll understand. The way I see it is that as a consumer we’re being forced to buy things we don’t want to buy when there are better alternatives available.

I’m all for buying from the little guy, believe me, and I would happily choose the alternative over a major mulitnational blood sucking vampire such as Tesco any day of the week. But I’m also a consumer who has grown accustomed to buying food and products that meet a certain standard, and there’s also the added bonus of liking a bit of variety in my life also.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

One of the arugments put forward for Sunday closing was that the prices of the major supermarkets were suffocating the smaller businesses. But if you’ve spent any amount of time in the supermarkets, you can’t really argue successfully that they are in fact ‘discounted’ prices. Yes there are some discounted goods, but really can you say they are slicing a hole in the belly of the competition and watching them bleed dry on the streets? No. Maybe a pinprick would be a more apt comparison.

There is more to this picture than just prices, its the very nature of competition and the lack of innovation in the realm of small businesses. Take smaller supermarkets for example. What do they sell that would make you want to choose them over the major supermarkets? Nothing. In fact that lack of variety and bog standard middle-to-bottom of the line brands in stock are in my opinion a turn off, especially to young and middle sized families, the kind of people who go into a supermarket and drop 200,000 won in a weekly shop. Other than being a place where you can pick up something urgently in case you run out, I struggle to see what other function they can serve. Of course across the world these smaller shops suffer from the same plight, so it’s not only a Korean problem.

Before this situation with supermarkets came to light, it was another issue raised by smaller restaurants who again complained that the supermarkets where threatening their business. Around 2010 or 2011 Lotte Market announced they were selling fried chicked for around 5,000 won per portion. Compare this with the standard delivered variety costing over 10,000. You can imagine why the fried chicken restaurants went up in arms over this. Not long after this E mart copied them by selling jumbo pizzas at cut prices, and again the pizza shop fraternity went baloobas. In the end the government jumped in and put a stop to this opportunism by the considerably wealthier and resourceful supermarkets by putting a cap on the number they could sell every day.

If we take a look at the pizza and fried chicken places around Korea you can see the problems already, as there are already too many. To the average armchair enthusiast they seem to be a get rich quick scheme which doesn’t seem to be such a hot ticket any more. Pizza places seemed to be the next to follow, and recently I’ve noticed a surge in tteokboki restaurants – I suppose it depends on what’s being promoted the most at whatever franchise fair people end up going to with a sack of inheritance.

*This video will give you an idea of the problems with the fried chicken business in Korea

The propenderence of fried chicken and pizza franchises, to name a few, is a key ingredient in understanding where I’m coming from. I see that these clearly point to a lack of much needed innovation in the small business sector.

For example, if you have all your little supermarkets which are competing against E Mart and Tesco change their stock to sell organic or direct from farm fruit and veg, or high end products, or homemade/locally produced condiments (you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about) you’ll not only encourage people to shop there you encourage the wider national agricultural economy to prosper. This is just an example. Easier said than done I know.

Another avenue is to really go out of your way to provide excellent service. Take camera shops for example. If you go into a camera shop, the guy selling you the stuff is a photographer, and knows all about what you are looking at. Invariably they throw in all sorts of others freebies like bags, memory cards, and other things. Of course the supermarkets aren’t the threat to these people’s livelihood. Their situation is even more serious because they have to compete against the internet.

For the most part a lot of the people who own these places are older, don’t have a lot of money, and really lack the inclination to innovate. Perhaps though they could lease out their premisis to someone with the inclination to innovate. Retail rents are extraordinary at the best of times, but if they could do a deal where the older owner keeps his deposit down as kind of insurance while the younger person pays the rent and some, or something to that effect.

I’ve heard before that a lot of these places are only kept open by some older people because they don’t really have anything else to do, so you know, they keep plugging along. This is mere speculation of course as there are undoubtedly other social issues which may be at play which I’m unaware of.

Regardless, the main thing is that the business is busy and the people involved are all making money. I know that this will not be something that will not happen overnight, and I know that in many circumstances it will not happen at all.

Populism and complaint to the nanny state will continue on as before. If a little innovation were to come it needs to be encouraged by those in a position to do so. There’s no reason why people who are already burdeoned with inexplicably high rents need to suffer because no one wants to buy what they are trying to sell. But at the same time, if no one really wants to buy it perhaps its worth considering what it is for sale.

There is so much room for growth in Korea, despite what people might think, but it is on a micro scale. Large scale development has polarised the economy and increasingly society. If a little vision were employed perhaps we could find ourselves living in new neighbourhoods which were welcoming to all our tastes.

Get Ready, Get Set…Chuseok


by Ben Haynes

What a wonderful time of year we’ve happened upon! The harvest season, celebrated in as many ways as there are people and religions on this blessed planet. Yes, it’s all about getting together and enjoying the company of family and and gorging on the fruits of a well worked field or cubicle. Maybe packing on a few kilos for the winter months for good measure.

To observe this time of bounty, Americans roast up the largest, antibiotic-filled, corn fed turkey we can find at the grocery and then stuff it with some….. stuffing.

Apples for Chuseok

Apples for Chuseok

Israelis celebrate Sukkot, the feast of the Tabernacles, bringing together neighbors. All are welcome! Other than those blocked off by a huge cement wall, of course. Gnoshing on the harvested grains in a most biblical fashion and observing the quintessential element associated with all Jewish holidays- “remembering” wandering through the desert. Symbolized by modern Jews by being lost in the car on a hot summer’s day.

Indonesians celebrate the rice harvest. Offerings are made to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice in Bali. Mushroom shakes are offered to tourists. Lammas, historically celebrated by early Britons baking the first harvest’s grain into a bread offering is now keenly observed by the oh-so-unique hipster Pagan or Wiccan in a most dogmatic fashion.

Koreans have Chuseok, where sungpyeon, a sweet-tasting rice cake, is made and enjoyed by all. Families gather around, making ceremonial table settings to remember loved ones passed.

As well, they buy gift packs of 10 apples for 100$ or 5 fish for 400$, or maybe a packet of peanuts for some exorbitant price.

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Yeah that is 200,000 Won for a watermelon.

Oh yes. Let the bells of capitalism ring throughout, and watch, as local department stores dress up their employees in hanbok to sell fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and Spam. Priced as though these items are rare, illegal, magical or forbidden,or all of the above. A pumpkin being sold for 200$. But this was no ordinary pumpkin, sillly. It had a bow on it!

As a foreigner in this “land of morning calm,” we get enjoy our autumnal shopping trips to Lotte or E-mart with an additional spike of bustling insanity. No child is safe unless riding in a shopping cart. Even then, they are subject to the possibility of a 4-5 cart pile up. It’s best to leave the small ones at home with grandma during the weeks prior to this nationally beloved holiday.

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BenHaynes

Ben Haynes has resided in Seoul with his wife, Ren, since 2011, where he is regarded as a local hero. He has the foresight of a community channel televangelist. He leads with the fortitude of Aurelius. His sweat is sweet as freshly squeezed juice. Villagers whisper giddily when he walks by. He enjoys a good book and cold glass of beer.