An Old Fisherman’s Advice


We were walking around Jumunjin Harbour on an early April morning. The sun was warm and the docks were busy with tourists and workers. Underneath the carpark the wharf was busier than usual. Long gone were the fish sellers, moved to another less in the way location of the port, so to see so much coming and going was unusual. While not regulars in Jumunjin port, we would be more regular that most and seeing a flurry activity as such was something reserved for the height of the squid season, and it was not that time of year yet.

We edged closer, hopping over river sized puddles and landing on tiny atolls of uneven concrete, until we came to what was of so much anxiety and interest to the workers and curious visitors. On the concrete were nets and nets full of fish. They were litterally exploding with them. To see nets this full in a small port like Jumunjin, where even in their tourist markets they mostly sell farmed fish, was a delight. There were wheelbarrows full to bursting being shoved past, and nets being stretched long for cleaning and recasting. Of greatest interest though was the a stocky greying man, sitting on a plastic chair pulling the fish from the nets.

Herself began to talk to him, as I tried to take a few photographs of the action. He was very garrulous and you could tell that the catch had enlivened him. He cracked jokes and offered advice. We put in an order for some fish and a much used plastic shopping bag returned full to near bursting with oily, unscaled and still to be gutted fish. I think they said there was twenty in it, but later we found that there had to be even more. They charged us a mere 10,000 won.

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As we stood around chatting with and I continued to take photographs, he made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you sit down here and pull the fish out, and I’ll take a photograph of you while you do it? You can even wear my oilskins and hat”. He laughed out loud at the idea and gave my wife one of those looks, while nodding in my direction. Needless to say, me being no fun and afraid of actual work I declined the offer, shirking away in the process. The man didn’t seemed bothered and continued to laugh and crack jokes with Herself.

Later that day as I was looking back over my photos I could not help but think about this suggestion. He didn’t seemed bothered by any stretch of the imagination, and was certainly only having a good laugh at my expense, and probably rightly so. What I could not stop thinking of was that this was worthwhile advice for anyone who is a  tourist, or a photographer, or just whoever is nosey and wants to inspect as you go about your work. If you think that something is so fantastic you feel enticed to point and stare, or photograph, or watch with intense critical interest, perhaps you should don those oilskins yourself and really see how interesting an experience it is.

Whenever we travel we take so much time to find authentic experiences, but rarely do we take into account that what is an authentic experience to someone is a life and way of living to another. Yes it’s interesting, but isn’t it more important to have a little personal respect for people who are going about their lives? It’s not as if they would choose to be so interesting to the point of fascinating.

PEN Reading in Jukjeon, April 26


Just a little announcement regarding an exciting event which I’ll be participating in this Saturday afternoon in Jukjeon, Yongin.

There is a PEN Korea poetry reading by Korean and foreign poets based in Korea taking place and yours truly will be one of the readers. Expect a good eclectic mix of readers in a relaxed and informal setting. If you’re about please drop by. I’ll be reading one of my poems about Korea. I don’t really know anything about the other readers, but personally I’m intrigued and excited about this opportunity.

The event will take place in the Poeun Art Hall just at Jukjeon Station from 3.30PM – 5.00PM on Saturday, April 26.

This is a free event and will take place in English.

For more information on PEN and PEN Korea please follow these links:

pen-international.org

penkorea.or.kr

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Saint Patrick’s Day in Seoul, 2014


When you live in Korea long enough expecting public holidays from home to fall on their usual day or date becomes a waste of time. Really. Anyone American will be familiar with Thanksgiving falling on a Saturday, and even the Superbowl the night after. Irish, like myself, are now most familiar with a Saturday Saint Patrick’s Day, and yesterday was no different from other years (except for last year and the year before when Paddy’s Day actually fell on the weekend…which kind of ruins my point), the day of Ireland and it’s ‘ness was transformed from its early weekday schedule to a much more alcoholic friendly Saturday.

And with that Seoul, and by Seoul I mean Guro-gu, and by Guro-gu I really just mean Sindorim, but it’s probably best to be accurate as well as honest and admit that it was a small park at Sindorim Station.

But I digress.

This years festival was as big as any before, and it may have been bigger. The open stage which was brought in last year has allowed for a wider festival space, allowing for crowds to fill the entire squre or plaza and swallow up and who naively attempted to pass through on their way too or from the subway. The removal of the big purple C4U beer tent was a welcome sight personally, although it was still lurking in the background cleaning up from the thirsty festivalers. I’d like to add that for all their generosity providing drinks to the thirsty, none of of this is reciprocated to the organisers who provide such a lively crowd. Sour grapes? Yes, but for a festival which always struggles for a source of finance you’d think a donation would be nice. Perhaps if the festival moved away then maybe they’d appreciate us more.

What about the rest of the festival though? There was a busy information area just above the escalators which seems to grow each year. The Seoul Gaels were en masse providing info, as were face painters, balloons, and new to the scene story tellers. It’s a good setup, as anyone who comes within view can’t miss the fact that something is happening, encouraging leisurely Saturday curiousity as well as providing a beacon those lost at sea in search of the infamous festivities.

 

And what of the festivities? Plenty of Seoulites indeed attened, and plenty of nationalities in the mix too. There has not been an overall majority of westerners at this festival for some years now, and while it’s a relatively even balance it’s always good to see a large number of Koreans of all ages in the crowd. Granted many are probably staring in wonder at the madness, but that’s not really what is important.

This year saw the return of many tried and tasted favourites such as Dara Sheahan, the dancers Tap Pung, Bard (the Korean Irish trad group), and another American military band, although those who I spoke to couldn’t be sure which one they actually were. There was also a band flown over from Shanghai called Boxty Rebellion, which was a big deal, I suppose. They played early though and the crowd really could have been drunker to enjoy them. From the pictures I saw after four o’clock things livened up to a more than typical level of manic.

With Herself and +1 in tow however, I decided that a calm and responsible exit was required. We bowed out not long after half past four, and from there we seemed to be banished to traffic as the rest of Seoul was, as usual, trying to go in the same direction.

Well done to all the organisers and the team of volunteers who worked hard to pull this one off. It was definitely a very professionaly run event that was suitable to everyone, from raving lunatics infested with beer, and young families (yes, I know, it was that good!). A fine feather in the cap of new IAK Chairma…woman Shauna Browne, and long may her good work continue.

For more on the Saint Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul for 2014 visit iak.co.kr or check the facebook page, or on twitter (@irishinkorea or #paddysgotseoul).

 

Note: Author (me!) was chairman of the Irish Association of Korea from 2011-2013 in case you’re wondering why I may be biased.

Korea in Chiang Mai


You spend enough time in Asia as an Irishman and you give up expecting to find Irish stuff. You know you’ll stumble across something here or there, but at the best of times all you can find is a can of Guinness and a Westlife song. Chiang Mai, despite its large expat population and even larger tourist numbers was no better than Korea, or anywhere else I’ve been. I had hoped for half a day or so, but any hopes I had were soon dashed by the obvious.

Not so much of a disappointment was the preponderance of Korean influences. In fact it wasn’t really anything close to a disappointment. Obviously you can make that Asian connection, which in many respects is a loose connection. More significant to this is the economic connection, the good old supply and demand of goods and services. Despite these two, where Korea shined through the most was in its culture – that being its food and its music.

I could be in Suwon

Herself is better at spotting Korean music (do you spot with your ears?), and by Korean music I mean K-Pop of course, than I would be. It’s not essentially because she can hear the Korean, which would stand out, but I think because she has a better idea of what songs are out there at the moment. All I could hear was the confounding ‘jumping, jumping, everybody’ song by Crayon Pop. There were other instances too but for the most part when out and about you’d hear a K-Pop tune or two, and seeing as this wasn’t in Yeongtong where everywhere was playing the same K-Pop tune I was not prone to writhing in misery at all stages throughout the day.

My experience of Koreaness in Chiang Mai was by all accounts primarily visual. There was a fair amount around, but this popularity is clearly surmounted by the plethora of Japanese ramen and sushi places, and the unmissable presence of car after car of Japanese manufacture. The big pick-up Toyotas and Izzuzus rumbling up and down filled gangs of workmen are hard to ignore, and while this is notable in my two months there I only saw one Korean car, and a ten year old one at that. You can shun this but don’t forget that Hyundai-Kia are the fourth largest auto manufacturers in the world.

In the supermarkets though, Koreans could hold their own. There was no lack of ramyeon or indeed gochujang or your usual list of regular supermarket supplies. To add to this Korean cosmetics were to the forefront of most major supermarkets, equipped with a Korean flag and pristine models face; you’d almost think you were in E Mart at times.

Around town as well there was a decent number of Korean restaurants, of which we never bothered to eat in, although I think we promised ourselves often enough. Mostly they were barbecue places, but there was a dakgalbi place, and oh yes now I remember we tried a place called K-Pop Ddeokbokki which was, to be honest, awful. Not just for the name, but because the food was really bad, and not because it was Korean food in Thailand, because it was bad. I think the kimbap we had was passable, but maybe not.

There were a few other peculiarities about, like a Magic water purifier manufacturer store which was proud of its Koreaness, and there was a Tom and Toms coffee shop near where we were staying that seemed to be perpetually waiting to be opened. As much as a novelty as this was, I was happy we missed this grand affair. More random than all of this had to be the woman we ran into who was wearing a Lee Myung Bak election hoodie – yeah like the ones you see the electioneering dancers at the corner wear. She had no idea what it was about.

           

There were no shortage of Koreans out and about either. The familiar sounds of their voices followed us around, and it has to be said, I could spot them well in advance. There were the young university aged independent travelers over protected from the warm sun who wandered up and down Nimmanhaemin in the afternoon, and then there were the golf groups of men and women who stayed in the condo where we stayed. They mostly stuck to themselves, I suppose, and rarely came to the pool which I couldn’t understand.

I met one Korean man who actually lived in Ulan Bator in Mongolia – and to think Myself and Herself complained about the Korean winter – who was baffled by many of his fellow Koreans who just came to play golf all the time. While he played a little, he was mesmerised by the wonders of Chiang Mai and that there was in fact a lot to do. The guy was having a good time it has to be said, and was heartbroken when he got called back to Mongolia for work. He did however leave me a bottle of whiskey which he had yet to get around to putting a serious dent into.

For the most part though, Chiang Mai was comfortable place for many Koreans who lived there all the time. I’m not sure what they did but there is a decent core population who send their kids to the international schools, and they work and live in safety and comfort, although nowhere near on the same scale as the number of Japanese in the city. I suppose it’s always reassuring from our perspective to find a Korean community, even if we don’t necessarily interact with them for whatever reasons.

So this was Korea in Chiang Mai, or at least the Korean stuff which I experieced. I was pretty happy to see this all round, and hope that next time I visit there’ll be a better representation of my adopted home.

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In conclusion I should add that while Chiang Mai did appear Irishless, it did triumph in two particular areas – Tayto (once but once can sometimes be enough!) and cans of Bulmers!

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For those not in the know I spent two months in Chiang Mai from late December 2013 until the end of February 2014. It was a good time.

All photos taken with my aging iPhone 4

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.