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?

 

Undol -v- Radiators


In a classroom I teach in the heating hasn’t been working since who knows when. It has probably been broken since the summer. It’s one of those awful heaters that doubles as an air-conditioner, blowing out dry, heated air, in the winter, and flimsy puffs of cool in summer. Yesterday, I was sitting at a desk rubbing my knees and grimacing one of those ‘oh well you know’ friendly kind of faces towards the students who came in wrapped for artic exploration. I actually felt sorry for them because at least I could stand up and walk around for a little warmth.

I turned to one student, who I knew had lived in the UK for several years and proclaimed ‘what we need here are some radiators!’ to which she gave me a blank look. I remonstrated with her, trying to job her memory to which she replied ‘I prefer undol’. And I thought, ‘oh yeah…but no…’

Of course if you’ve lived in Korea, or indeed merely visited, you’ll have experienced undol. It is the floor heating which exists in every home, many hotels, and indeed any restaurant where floor seating is the norm. It’s great, to be honest, to crawl into your home from the cold, kick of your shoes and glide across the sleek floor and then lie down in a warm cosy spot, defrosting with the undol’s loveliness caressing your bum.

Old undol… (image by me via flickr!)

I know Herself is a big fan of it, especially when there’s a nice big cosy blanket to wrap around herself. I would be inclined to blame it for what seems to be every Koreans’ outspoken aversion to anything cold (except iced lattes etc.). Can you blame anyone for liking the cold after probably spending every moment they don’t need to be outside sitting at home on the undol. In fact anything that isn’t undol in winter is in fact cold. I know this sounds like stereotyping, which I’m no fan of, but in this case it’s not necessarily a bad thing. To back me up all I need to do is look behind me at my wife currently engaging wholeheartedly with all that the undol has to offer.

Back to my remonstration.

I grew up with radiators, not undol. Radiators were, in winter, great. Why? They were warm. They radiated warmth. They were cosy, provided you didn’t touch one which was doubling as an soldering iron for some reason. Of course if they’re never turned on they’re not much good. Sure they leaked, stuff got stuck behind them, you burned your finger, and of course they had to be painted every so often. But then again so does a house.

You see for all that radiators have not, and all that undol has, radiators have that undol has not. Let me explain, and elaborate on why Korean needs more radiators.

Radiators, radiators, radiators! (imagae via flickr)

Radiators, radiators, radiators! (imagae via flickr)

So I’ve given one side of the story already. The cosy, slipping under the blanket in front of the TV, versus the burning your finger and laboriousness of radiators. It’s a clear winner, but really it isn’t because you can’t have undol everywhere.

Firstly, I wonder how effective undol would be in a two story house? Firstly there’s the pipes upstairs thing, and then there’s a space issue. How many square metres is your average apartment compared with your average house? Would it work? And if it did, how much would it cost?

Next, while I think taking your shoes off as you enter the home is a nice concept, it can be really annoying and impractical, such as in the hallway, or indeed in the kitchen. A good tiled floor would be much more useful. And then there’s the cultural element. The amount of time I’ve been chastised for even letting the tip of my shoe laden toe touch the linoleum, and all I can think of is, ‘chill the fuck out, if it bothers you that my toes touched the lino, give me a space bigger than a toilet cubicle to take off my bloody shoes in…’ It’s a little overkill. Yeah maybe I should be more vigilant with my size 11s, but come on, it’s a floor not a child’s bed.

Take my argument out of the home, which is where most people I discussed this point with seemed to think was the only place that needed heat.

Oh yes, I’ve opened up the argument to the rest of the world.

Floor heating really only works when you don’t have shoes on. Yes, heat does rise, but when you’re wearing shoes and socks and walking around what does it matter, you’re not really going to be in one place long enough to really appreciate the warm floor. And if you don’t have undol what are you going to do?

What we have ended up with is a world of heatless buildings that seem to have been designed with the idea that, well we can’t have undol, we can’t have anything. There is the odd portable heater, which never does the job, and don’t even get me started again on the hot air belchers. I know that these would probably work better if they rooms they were in were actually insulated.

I know, you’re asking yourself when did I become an expert on construction materials and heating. Well, since I’ve froze my ass off every winter since 2005, I’ve decided I’m an expert.

Back to the point. Undol is lovely, but radiators, yes please! Or even better, lets knock a fireplace into every wall like there should be.

P.S. I say all this with my sockless toes all cosy and warm lodged on a warm patch on the floor.

P.P.S. Stay warm kids!

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.

In Thailand…


I have just returned from a splendid eleven day holiday in the Thailand. Whether or not I deserved it at the time is neither here nor there, I certainly feel like I deserved it now. Which is what’s important, right?

So holidays, there a pain in the tender spots for those among us who plan on being productive on them. I’m always making a mess of things by bringing too many books to read and too many aspirations for writing a few hundred thousand words, or something like that… It’s not that I don’t enjoy not doing anything, but holidays for some reason really don’t bring out the best in me in terms of being productive. Miserably cold winters are much more suitable. In fact, I believe that misery (not abject, but mild doses of the extreme first world problem variety) brings out the best in ones creativity.

So, sitting in front of the pool for a week in a tropical climate is not going to encourage much creativit. Unless of course I’m some breed of alcoholic, homesick, depressed, opium addicted, recently dumped… which I’m not. Not yet anyway. Misery was not an issue on this holiday. This was good. Misery was something I was planning on avoiding for the most part anyway. I had a good think or two though, at least when there was no wireless signal, and that was nice.

My schedule went something like this: Continue reading