Letter from Korea, April 2014


Suwon, South Korea
28/4/2014

Dear Ireland

I haven’t written in several months, I know. Perhaps Thailand got in the way of my regular correspondence, although there was little to stop me from writing a Letter from Thailand, other than the sunshine and other things I was writing. So here is my first letter of 2014, and it is of a sombre note.

Today’s letter takes an obvious theme, and one which is flooding both the Korean television and media outlets, as well as many of the English blogs, websites, and twitter and facebook posts and profiles. It is the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the south-west coast last week.

I’m still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. I still struggle to read anything beyond the headline of an article, let alone watch longer than a few moments of the news. There is no hope of any good news any longer, I can only report, with every story coming out with more talk of bodies found, often clutching together in a final communion of hope for survival together.

What gets to me every time is the victims. Like everywhere, but I think in Korea the bond is reinforced and probably well documented, when we go through a tough time together we become closer to those who share the experience with us. High school students in Korea of course suffer through the insane hours of study before the 수능, an experience which leaves so many shocked and both over and underwhelmed. But when we grow, and feel ourselves changing and growing, we know how important is to us in later life, and we recollect fondly on these times regardless of how frustrating or challenging or hated they were, at least to a certain point. It is this loss here, that so many will never be able to recollect, and those who are lucky enough to be able to will struggle to emerge from this nightmare, this is where our hearts are bleeding for most.

I wrote a poem about this sinking. It took a mere twenty minutes, and even though it was an accidental poem it was the right way to write about the tragedy because any other way would have resulted in a rant, and right now what we don’t need is more rants. We need to sit and we need to wait and let the people bring about the nearest thing to the end of the misery the families and friends of the deceased are suffering.

A lot of writing that is coming out on the internet seems intent to point the finger and blame, be it Korean culture, Confucianism, laziness, the weather, the laissez faire attitude to safety, the captain. I can’t do this. Not because I don’t want to, because I’m so pent up with frustration now it seems like the only thing to do, but because it’s not place to do so. I wish I knew if there was a place to do this, and I wish I knew that there was someone who would listen to me.

This is not something that my pontificating will fix. I might explain something or offer some insight which will allow for someone’s clearer perspective, but it would be an absolute lie because I have rarely seen less clearly on any aspect of Korea before.

There is hope in me that this tragedy will force us all, both foreigners in Korea and Koreans themselves, to learn and not repeat the mistakes that have been made. These mistakes lie in our assertions, our actions, and our words directed in hatred or in casual passing.

Never have I witnessed Korea so tied together in its famed brotherhood before, despite reading of it, I imagined it, but now I am witnessing it, and I hope that I am a part of it. There is a call to pray for South Korea on the internet, and I hope that these prayers are for not only the recovery but also the rectification of all that was done wrong, so that something like this never happens again. We pray, even those of us who are of no religion. Amen.

Image courtesy of wsj.com

I Just Want to Scream


I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

I heard that a ferry to Jeju that was sinking. News implied all would get out alive. I thought it was Costa Concordia like, if only it was comparable now.

We watched the television late into last night, and all of this morning the volume was up high. We heard talking heads of doctors and divers explain what is wrong and what is right. At one stage I almost cried. I felt that here was the greatest loss of life. And all the time the television showed that hull, the end where those rotors spun south, poking and bobbing like a message in a bottle, an arrow directing all souls to heaven’s heights.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

There are others more suited to anger. There are others more suited to decry. What matters now is to get those kids out alive. Kakao Talk told us some have survived. In a bubble somewhere with all kinds of refuse and the water as cold as those who died. We wait, and we wait, and we watch another news broadcast. And again a talking head tells us we cannot hold out hope for how many might be inside.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

A crane, they said, is floating to the site. A day it will take. I wish I could go and help push. Heave it with everyone else watching, in tears for these boys and girls in their formative years. The years when our lives are determined and we certainly never forget. Our friends who last with us until there’s none of us left. We go through it, our highest triviality til then,and we think it’s the end but come out together.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

The lies. The ineptitude. The waste. The love lost. The flowers laid. The broken days. The way so many lives were left to be taken so carelessly away.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t be loud enough.

“Getting There”


This is a short narrative post I initially set out to write for Groove Magazine‘s “Share Story, Win Trip” writing competition. The call came out for ‘funny’ travel stories where a lesson was learned. The winning pieces would be read out loud dramatically. Frankly, there just aren’t enough of these kind of encouraging writing opportunities in Korea. I could say more but I’ll get distracted.

I started writing mine and about two paragraphs from the end I decided that it wasn’t a travel story. So I stopped writing. I came back about a week later and took another crack at it, tidied it up but left it loosely over the 500 word limit, which kind of left it for any kind of flash litt and too short to be considered anything else. Still it’s a good story. You’ll laugh. I hope. 

Getting There

When I was bundled out of the taxi by the Englishless man who collected me from the airport, it was exactly twenty-four hours after my flight had left Dublin. He left me there shaking hands with a tall, spectacled and skinny Korean man with a mane of hair almost comically emerging from the top of his head. He told me his name was Richard, or Reeechard as he did his best to pronounce the R sound fully. He was dressed smartly in black pants, a grey jacket, white shirt, and burgundy skinny tie, all of which seemed to shine magnetically in the heavy overcast sky.
Richard helped me with my bags as we entered a building and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. I was brought into the school where I would be working, where I was introduced to the director, a man shorter than most I’d ever met before, but he effused authority and shook my hand confidently. He directed Richard to get everything sorted and then vanished into his office.
We picked up my bags again and made for the elevator. I was told that we would go to my apartment where I could get some rest or have some food. I would be sharing my apartment with my co-worker and with the teacher who I was replacing.
When we made it outside, we walked into a large apartment complex of twenty-five storeyed buildings. To say I was dizzy wouldn’t explain it properly. I had left an Ireland where buildings rarely stretched further than three or four storeys high, and in my home town of Dunboyne (pop. 6,959) there probably wasn’t a building, other than the parish church, more than two storeys high. Seoul (pop. 10,581,728) seemingly had no room for buildings that small.
We entered one of these behemoths and walked up to the elevator. There wasn’t much chat as I was tired and nervous, and Richard seemed a little uncomfortable with small talk for whatever reasons. When the doors opened he punched the number 23. I gulped and blinked hard. With a jolt we rose and the numbers flickered higher and higher, until they reached 23 where the elevator halted with a lurch. Outside on the landing Richard confidently asserted that “finally, we are here!”.
He pulled out a key and went to the door where he jerked to a stop with an “unghh” kind of sound coming from his mouth. He stood rigid with key holding arm outstretched towards the part of the door where a key hole would traditionally be located. I looked around unsuccessfully for Medusa but quickly found the problem was there was no keyhole in the door. Instead there was a small electronic pad.
He touched it and with a beep it lit up with numbers. Again an “unngh” sound. He looked at the key, looked at the pad, scratched his mane, and then looked at me. I looked at him and felt like replying “unngh”. He then rang the doorbell, whereupon a young girl opened the door, and Richard asked her if foreign English teachers lived in the apartment. The girl said no they didn’t, and closed the door. We stood looking at the green metal door in silence.
Richard sprung into action. He pulled out his phone, dialled, waited, and suddenly burst out chattering, then stopped talking, asked me to wait a minute, then started chattering again. He then hung up asked me to please wait where I was, and then he disappeared into the elevator which subsequently plumeted to the ground floor.
And there I stood, bags at my feet, jet lagged and clueless on a tiny landing on the twenty third floor of an apartment building a good 8,000 kilometres from home, diligently waiting a minute.
Richard eventually returned smiling and reassuring me repeatedly. We took the elevator down stairs to the ground floor again, and left that building, walked around the corner and into a completely different building. Here we took the elevator to the eighteenth floor, where a door stood with a keyhole in it.
Richard somewhat less confidently than before approached the door, inserted the key, and turned it. There was a loud unlocking click, and he let out a huge sigh of relief, then looked at me with a beaming smile. We entered the apartment.
Richard left a few minutes later, and I was left standing in the middle of a room looking around my new surroundings on the eighteenth floor. The large windows brightened the room. The was a purr of traffic outside but all I could see was clouds and mountains in the distance. I took a deep breath. I had arrived in Korea, and it was good. I think.

Making do…


Woe of woes!

I was in town on Sunday and on the way into Itaewon from Jongno, my camera dissappeared! It wasn’t stolen, I don’t even remember when I had it last, but I know for definite when I didn’t have it!

To say that this is a shite buzz is an understatement.

Not only do I have no camera, I now have to buy a new one. And yes, I do HAVE TO buy a new one.

Fortunately there weren’t that many pictures saved on it but most of what I had planned for the next year in terms of taking pictures has now gone out the window until I can somehow land myself 1,000,000 won to buy a new camera. And yes, I do HAVE TO pay at least that much; it’s what I paid for the previous one four years ago.

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