Letter to Korea, August 2014


Dublin, Ireland
August 2014

Dear Korea,

I may not make a habit of this, but I thought considering our long affair together the least you deserve is an update on life without you. You know, it has been almost two months since I arrived back ‘home’ in Ireland and you seem further away than ever before. This is not the first time we have been separated for a long period, but always I had that return flight date lingering in the back of my mind. Such a comfort does not exist now.

Perhaps it is significant that I write this today, me who has kind of gone off writing this kind of thing, because it is the day when I receive my last pay cheque from my old work in Korea. In some respects I can look at it as the ending of what was another era for me, although I would laud it with such praise very reluctantly. The period of time for such an era to exist has merely concluded but all who existed beforehand continue on living in Korea regardless of whether or not I am there. Ireland is equally unperturbed by my return.

I was expecting more culture shock but have been lucky so far. The benefits have balanced pleasantly against the expected problems. Having a garden and a job to arrive to have made things much easier on me and my family. Family are nearby, as are friends, and there is a seemingly never ending quantity of tasty cake supplying cafes in the city centre which I seem to find myself in frequently on the way home from work. We discover new things daily and look forward as optimistically as possible to each new challenge the rest of the week brings us.

It may well be the honeymoon period, as arguably I’m still on my summer holidays. Today it rained like December and there was a bus strike. We went to the supermarket and again scratched our heads as to why raw prawns were so hard to find. They aren’t really hard to find obviously, they’re just playing second fiddle to cooked ones. A bit like the sunshine does with the rain, and in terms of fiddling about with transport I can’t fail to mention how much I miss my kyotung card, or transfer card. The so-called leap card is more a stumble along moderately well provided you don’t ask too much of it card.

Today as I taught a class I asked the students to write ten things about themselves, be it physical or emotional, and from here they had to let fellow classmates guess what each thing meant and then they would explain. The idea was to enable them to become confident talking about themselves and their emotions, I think. I gave myself as an example, which is something I probably do too often.

One thing that I wrote I wrote on the board as is ‘old is new’. I had been pacing the classroom trying to come up with things to include as part of my list. I looked out onto South William Street and up Clarendon Street from my classroom and in the distance I could make out the heads bobbing back and forth. There was the great debris of Grafton Streets midday traffic. It was in this part of town where I had worked just before I left for Korea nine years previously, and it was around here that I had spent many days and indeed nights. I don’t think I had spent as much as others but I remembered the streets fondly, almost nostalgically.

It got me thinking about each morning when I walked to the school where I teach. As I walked from Ormond Quay up to South William Street I was having this new feeling of being  new to a city, of being here for the first time. I had that blinkered feeling that ignored the normality brought about by familiarity, the same kind of bland taste you get from the same journey to work every day for a year. I was making a subconscious effort not to recognise what essentially looked exactly the same as before I left the city when I was only 23.

It’s not that everything is new. Perhaps it is seeing everything renewed. The old familiarity I had with Dublin hasn’t gone. I walk around and drive around the city and find my way with relative ease. I know where places and, for the most part, the quickest way to get to them. I stare a little longer in wonder than I used to, and I still hope that sooner or later myself and Herself can finally get a chance to regular sample all the delights our new home has to offer.

But that can’t be everything about living. Those grey walls will lose their lustre soon. The chance to be human will be removed and we will feel like more numbers but on a different chart. Herself waits for me through the long mornings to come home from work. It can’t be easy. I worry that what work I have will not be enough to live on. So much has depended on generousity to date. Consider it a metaphor that the tomatoes planted in our greenhouse will soon be dead and we shall be left to find fresh fruit elsewhere.

We sit and we wait for the ruthless nature of what is clearly a beast that only welcomes those working. The safety net that my teaching job in Korea provided and which we ridiculed for its unrealistic nature has finally been removed at our request. Now as we tumble as gracefully as our naive frames will allow us to fold in positions for safety expecting the thump of landing, I wonder will this next year be as challenging as we are expecting? Or will it be something else?

 

 

 

 

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In Defence of Stamps


Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make the difference. There was a time when I would check the post every morning in the hope that there would abe a letter for me. I would ask my mother why was there never anything for me, and wistfully she would respond “well if you sent a letter to someone then maybe you would get something in return”. My obvious response was to drop my shoulders and curl my nose and skulk off muttering about some injustice or something.

I didn’t realise it until probably now that my mother’s response was probably something similar to what I know now. Personal letters or emails are wonderful, but they rarely come, or at least their infrequency is dwarfed by the sheer quantity of spam and bills. And even if I jump to the twenty-first century and talk about emails it doesn’t get much better, in fact it worsens.

Throw into your inbox all your newsletters, online transactions, receipts, work related mail, social network updates and notifications, and whatever else streams in between nine and six daily, and probably continues throughout the night if you recieve mail from across the timezones, email loses all the charm it had, if it ever actually had any in the first place.

I’ve come across a few articles recently where someone disconnected from their email for a year and found out how wonderful the world is, or something to that effect. There are also countless amounts of surveys or reports proclaiming the effects and costs laid on the corporate world from people checking and responding to overburdened email accounts.

I should also elaborate on the state of my email inbox at the moment, with over 3,600 unread emails and counting, many of which will not change or improve my life if they ever are opened. This amount started to grow from about six months ago when I suppose I just got tired of deleting them. There may be some important mail in there I should have read, but if it was really important they would have emailed back, right?

Sure enough you could argue that social networking has removed our need to email so frequently, and of course email has removed the necessity of writing letters, just regulary mail services removed whatever messenger network was there before. Perhaps there is someone out there busily considering the medium to overtake social networking, and good luck to them.

For all our complaints about social networking though it won’t go away, and neither will email, and incidentally neither will regular mail. We will see how and why we use these forms of communication change though, and some day we will be as nostalgic for old-fashioned tweeting or email writing as we are now for a hand written letter.

Modernity and modernising has always been about making it easier and more efficient to do things. To compliment everything modern there is always the old way, deemed in some respects old fashioned and antiquated as equally as it is is considered traditional or vintage. Speed and efficiency is undoubtedly the defining and divisive factor in establishing the difference.

Who is to say that there is actually anything wrong with, for example hand writing a letter, walking down to the post office, queuing up to buy a stamp, and then popping it in the post box, and heading off to finish the rest of your business? Compare this to standing on a bus grasping a railing one hand as it trundles through town, whilst tapping uncomfortably the tiny letters on the screen of a smartphone, including the backspace repeatedly, and clicking send, whereupon your email is sent directly to its recipient who is likely to be experiencing something similar in another part of the planet. Either that or it will be waiting for them when they wake up in the morning.

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Speed is everything. Even more important than money, seemingly, because somehow the idea that time equals money has proliferated and began obliterating everything that once stood for something, and by something I mean a person’s job and livelihood. Nostalgia is making mighty waves promoting the way things were and how the world was better before we had a full communication suite trapped inside a small black device which fits into our pocket. Conveniently, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia available online, or at least you can book it or order it online. How fortunate are we?

There is a tremendous amount of modern speed which does seem unnecessary. In Korea, I feel like every building over three floors must have a lift, buses bull through red lights, there is ultra fast internet for all users, deliveries are made at low cost and arrive the next day, and there is one of the fastest high speed rail systems in the world in a country where it only takes five hours to drive from one corner to its furthest extremity on the opposite side of the peninsula. Yes, I know that the clogged expressways undoubtedly encouraged this development, but they’re not always clogged. Speed equals progress, development, and of course convenience. This is good and the goal we should be setting for all of ourselves.

Don’t think that I’m critical of Korea here, a similar list could be drawn up about any country. In Korea and especially Seoul it seems that everyone and everything has to be where they should be now, and not tomorrow, and certainly not soon or over the next few days. Seoul is the only major city I’ve lived in so I can’t reasonably compare it fairly, but I’ve heard enough comparisons with such poster cities as London and New York to recognise the same obsessions with this instant. For all I may feign complaint over, the convenience of Korea is by far its most redeeming factors after living here for over eight years.

But let me ask you would you go back to slower and less convenient times? I wouldn’t. It’s not solely because I have a recognisable addiction to things been done instantly, or because of the convenience, or the cheaper cost, it’s because it’s better. Whether we are better people is an unnecessary observation, as again nostalgia feeds on these grievances. For all that I or others may raise about a modern obsession with speed, I don’t see myself slowing down, let alone stopping.

What I would do though is ask myself or others to think a little about what is really necessary? For starters, much of the devotion to doing things quick stems from the time is money notion I mentioned earlier. To do things quicker and more efficiently will save us more money in the long run, right? Well in many respects yes, but at the same time this is not always the case.

Take stamps for example. Mail or post is in its own right a fairly new phenomenon, and while the effort of writing a letter and posting may be considerably less efficient and signicantly more time consuming, it already seems to be becoming a redundant service that is poorly equipped to compete with the efficiency of email and multi-facetted social networks. Barcodes instead of stamps do little to help this cause.

If you want to post something you need a stamp. This something could indeed be a letter, but it is more likely to be some kind of a form, application, or parcel, but still you need to pay for it and since the Penny Black the preferred way has been to use a stamp, although of late some innovative soul discovered that barcodes are much more effective.

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I’m sure there is some reason for utilising barcodes as a means of determining the price of postage, and I suppose it’s probably a smart reason, right? I think though that maybe the world would feel a little less like a factory floor if we had less barcodes and numbers defining so much of our lives. Mail is such a small thing that perhaps we could be left enjoyed one of its redeeming traits, the small intricately painted and uniquely designed stamp.

At all corners there are numbers and codes pigeon-holing us. The favoured tool of streamlining our bureaucracy, giving a number not only makes us easily findable amongst the rest of the rabble, it removes the face of its owner, leaving if we’re lucky a male or female looking silhouette behind the digits.

Now comparing the barcode for a stamp with an national ID number is a bit severe I admit it, but I hasten to add that I don’t see any problem with regular old stamps. There was something to them which if anything make our connection with mail or post a little more tenable. They had a connection with not only the sender, but also the receiver.

There is a little more than nostalgia attached to this notion that stamps have a bit more attachment to people than barcodes. There is a novelty to them, and not just from the perspective of a stamp collector, from the point of view that we can try to make out the details, however intricate, of a stamp. We can see a little something that is special to another country. We can read the script and possibly have an idea what the currency is, and of course there is the feeling that it was not applied by a machine in a dark basement. Let’s be honest, when it comes to stamps there’s always that human element we can all recall, the taste of the glue on our tongues from licking the back.

The stamp has more personality in its own personalised way. In Ireland stamps come across as a celebration of the nation, which is odd for a country which doesn’t flaunt its patriotism as much as you may imagine, with pictures of flowers, birds, animals, historical figures, architecture, and indeed special events and occasions such as the Special Olympics, and fortunately never (or perhaps rarely) living politicians.

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It’s unfortunate that in Korea I haven’t seen a stamp since I was here in my first year in 2005 when I tried to send some postcards home. The stamps were small Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea, bright in their purpleness and backed by green leaves, and as typical a stamp as you could get. Some years later I went to send Christmas cards home, and each individual envelope was popped up on the scales, and a barcode sticker with its varieties of code was printed out and stuck on the top corner.

Much of this only sank home recently when I received and sent plenty of letters and parcels. I felt that, here was a little way of sharing the rest of the world. But at the same time it was a way of keeping a small industry and interest in the world alive, where we would be encouraged to look at the finer details of the wrapping of the objects which arrive in our letterboxes.

There is little argument against it, other than speed, perhaps. Yet, if you want to take it from the perspective of the consumer or the sender, you can be sure that when they go to the post office they still must queue up, and they still must put their letter on a scales, and the person will probably still tap a few things on a computer, if anything just to get a receipt.

Stamps are little things, but when we add up all the small things we find we have something greater. Efficiency will not make the world a better place, and in changing through development we often forget to stop and look at what it is we are changing. Stamps are small and insignificant but like most of the things which change without us knowing it will be long after they are gone that we notice we can’t tell one barcode apart from the next one.

70


by Ray Hyland

For as long as I’ve been a resident of dear Dunboyne, there has been a tenuous but definite link back into Dublin City. An artery if you will, which pumps from the heart of the City Centre back to the edge of the old green belt.

I’d guess I’ve been on the 70 bus or one of its variants at least 5000 times since 1985 or ‘86.Probably more actually. I remember all subtle route changes. Did you know its original terminus was just by the Ha’penny Bridge beside an old carpet shop? From there it would wrap around to Liffey Street back onto Lower Abbey Street, pass the old O’Connor’s denim shop ( complete with weird mural that nobody remembers) back onto Capel Street, over Grattan Bridge and back to the still familiar route.

The terminus was pushed around a fair bit after that. The 70 made its home in Middle Abbey Street for a while, near the old Chapter’s book shop, before switching to the Abbey Theatre. It was moved to facilitate the Luas works, whereby it took up residence at the model railway shop on Hawkins Street. Right now it starts at the Burlington Road, hitting Dawson and Suffolk Street before going back onto the quays.

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Image courtesy of Dublin Bus Stuff http://www.dublinbusstuff.com

To live in Dunboyne without a car is much like living in a rural town without your own transport. For a long time, the bus only ran every two hours and sometimes not even then. Weekends especially were(and are) quite frustrating. I used to visit my Gran near NCR and by the time it got there from town, the single decker bus was always full, leaving me to sitting in the old luggage hold by the double doors.

So many times I’ve had to put my faith in this wretched service. The worst was on those busy winter nights when it would already be full by the time it got to Prussia Street. You knew well it was full of fuckers from Castleknock who had just missed the 39.Worse yet, going to school in Blanchardstown for 6 years meant I either had to get the special school bus or the 70 on Wednesday half days.

It improved slightly over time as the single deckers where taken out of commission and a new 270 service was deployed in the late 90s. This was to provide transport to the newly built Blanchardstown centre. Now noisy little yellow red mini buses went up and down the motorway. No matter what ideas you had about yourself, any passenger on these looked a bit ‘special’.

There was never any real novelty value going on the bus. It was good seeing friends or acquaintances on there that might break up the long journey. It was even better to sometimes feign sleep when you saw someone you didn’t to see getting on at the next stop.

A fond memory was the quiet man. He was a lad of maybe 25 and he’d sit down the very back of the top deck and roll himself a lovely joint. He’d have about half of it, never say a word and then offer it to whoever was sitting beside him before he got off at Littlepace. I wonder what became of him.

I finally managed to move out in my early 20s, free now from the grip of those dusty green(then blue) seats. But I still get shudders when I think of all the time wasted waiting around for that bus, or worse yet having my life dictated to by its questionable scheduling.

I never even mentioned the epic adventure that is the 70 Nitelink service or the old 70X that ran from UCD belfield for many years.

Nowadays there’s a train that goes from Dunboyne into the city, though it doesn’t impress me much. It’s a long walk back into the village but I guess it’s better than nothing!

My advice, get a car, or make lots of friends with available couch space in town.

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit please follow this link.

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Hi, my name is Ray and I live in Ireland. I am slowly learning how unfair life is and dealing with it accordingly. Currently I live at home with my parents at the tender age of 32, having decided that success and a nice abode of my own was all too predictable. I presently work as an Intern, which in Ireland means, the same as everywhere else in the western world (no job prospects!). My principle interests include observing soccer players secretly laughing at the rest of us, wrestling with the reality that sometimes you’re better off not trying, wrestling full stop oh and fast food, consummation and critique thereof. I don’t like long walks along the beach, Monday is my favourite day of the week and if there’s an American TV show out there that you love and can’t stop talking about chances are I probably despise you.

Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present


The big talking point in the land of the morning calm is undoubtedly the election of the conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye to the presidency. Park’s father is man by the name of Park Chung Hee, whose name is both revered and reviled in Korea. Park Geun Hye is a woman, but more in the vein of Margaret Thatcher, where it could be argued gender is incidental.

Park’s election has sparked plenty of talk due to her relationship with her father who ruled this nation with a very controversial iron fist for the best part of two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. While I didn’t follow the election race in too much depth, I know that Park’s victory ticked all the boxes in terms of surprise, disappointment, doom, and any other negative or positive political emotion you can think up.

Now, I rarely talk politics here as it’s not in my writ really (unless it’s Irish politics but I save that for places like twitter and pub, which is the best place for it – I wouldn’t want to go and develop a bad reputation or anything like that now would I?). In terms of international politics, as in the politics of countries I’m not from, I do my best to merely observe, as becoming too involved or concerned does little other than frustrate me, and whoever decides to troll my comment thread. There’s more to this than that though.

Four years ago when Barrack Obama was running for president I made a determined effort to step back and ignore the entire debate. I knew he presented some viable opportunities for change but at the same time he was running for the office of American president, so despite all claims of wonder he was, deep down, aspiring to be a crook and a war criminal. Now I won’t deny that I did get excited by this year’s election as, well, the whole thing was so entertaining. The most disappointing thing about the whole process was that it was real life.

That’s just how I deal with politics, and I treated the Korean election with a similar amount of interest. You might wonder why this would be the case considering I have a vested interest in the outcome, and I do – I have a job, family, and lifestyle here in Korea, as well as paying all of my taxes here – but what good would it have done? Other than me being incredibly disappointed or annoyed (about another thing) it would serve little function. Korea would continue and I would have to seek to continue on within it without a say in how this continuance happened.

Now, for a better analysis of the result of the election, I’m going to direct you to Bobster’s House (Bobsters House: The Day After the Last Day of the World), which is where I took the title for this post from, as he has a more detailed, passionate, and constructive criticism of the situation on his blog. What I am going to do now is continue to observe as best I can.

The thing about elections is, and this is something not mentioned enough in this kind of discourse, is that the result of an election, be it a landslide or decided by a few loose votes, is always a reflection of the mind of society in which we have chosen to live. Love it or hate it, this is always the case.

In the case of Park Geun Hye’s election, it’s a story of the dictator’s daughter who actively participated in the administration who has emerged as the president of the country, now a respected democracy and global player in international affairs and economics, among other complaints. This country is now a starkly different one from the one her father took charge of and it now has the laws and institutions to protect itself from another despotic regime taking over – unless the North invades of course. But does that make a difference? Perhaps. No one actually knows what is going to happen. Alas.

Yes there are going to be some serious outcomes from the new president. I believe freedom of speech and freedom of information will continue to be threatened.  I believe equality will continue to remain something to be aspired to in the future (putting it mildly). I believe the wealth gap will continue to widen. I believe that few solutions to Korea’s economic situation worth remembering will be instituted.

Society in Korea has decided that it wants this lady to rule the country, and there is little more that we can complain about. Korean society is a lot more different and diverse than the bright lights of Gangnam and this election has done well to remind us of this significant reality. I travel to the countryside quite a lot, especially into Gangwon-do and around the outskirts of Cheonan and Yongin, and there is no doubting that eclectic neon-clad districts of Seoul such as Gangnam and Hongdae are more the exception than the rule.

As The Bobster pointed out, there are now more fifty year-olds in Korea than forty year-olds; that’s more people recalling the glory of full employment and rapid economic development than those who recall the aftermath, which was at the height of Park Chung Hee’s despotism. Even members of Herself’s own family who voted for Park in the recent election used the fact that because of her father she would do a good job.

It does not surprise me so much that Park was elected as president. Korea is a conservative country, and she is from the conservative Saenuri party. In fact, it strikes me that the opposition parties have done quite well considering how conservative Korea is, both politically, but also socially and culturally.

What doesn’t seem to be being mentioned loudly enough is that Korea is such a different country from what it was. It is a different time with different demands, of which there re too many to discuss here. I don’t think enough people know this. Korea doesn’t need full employment and rapid economic development as its highest priority any longer. It needs stability and support for its population, which is overpriced, aging, and suffering increasingly from its overly competitive dynamic. The miracle on the Han River is no longer as miraculous. The Han River’s economic development is now routine to the point it has become stagnant.

Back when Korea was developing, becoming an export economy was the best option, as there were plenty of people desperate for work, food, money, and everything else society required in the latter half of the twentieth century. Now is it any different? I would say no, it is not. Korea is still an export economy and its population revolves around the survival of its key players, namely Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and possibly some of the smaller, less famous Chaebol.

If you come down to Suwon where I live you can see this. Samsung’s Digital City is located in the centre of the city, which is an old and aging one without much industry around it. Surrounding Digital city spread out across both Yongin and Hwaseong counties are at least six more large Samsung manufacturing plants, all top of the line and all make Foxconn’s Chinese production facilities look primitive. This is the core of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing empire in Korea.

Overall Samsung employs around 100,000 people in Korea (about half its global workforce). However, the local economy’s reliance on this company is staggering. From my window I can see large construction projects being carried out in Digital City. In the Dongtan plant, there is also large construction work underway. Surrounding all these factories are companies which supply and support Samsung’s manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget the newly developed towns, such as Yeongtong where I live, new expressways, subways and buses to connect to Seoul, schools, shopping and dining facilities, and more. This kind of development has nothing to do with Korea’s economic prominence; it has everything to do with the global demand for Samsung products.

As usual, this export orientated development is no different from the 1960s when Korea fulfilled a similar role to the one now carried out by China – a manufacturer of cheap but high quality goods, but ultimately dependent on the international economy for its survival. Is Korea not any better now as it churns out televisions and mobile phones at a high rate to satiate an always hungry global consumer?

The thing is, when Lee Myoung Bak became president, it was argued that he was the right man for the job and he could reinvigorate Korea’s stumbling economy (let’s not forget that this was 2008 – a time when major European economies and the US were themselves beginning to falter). The same party’s candidate can hardly have much more revolutionary steps up her sleeve for seeing about an economic rebirth, especially for a country that is tied to the ups and downs of its buyers across the world.

What Korea needs now is a change, and a big one, across the board. The economy is just one area which needs work, but it is certainly an obvious and easy one to provoke. Korea needs to learn to innovate and it needs to become attractive to the international environment – which isn’t easy when you consider the compeititon in Asia alone is places like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course Singapore.

Korea has a fantastic population of hardworking and concerned citizens who only want the best for their country. But are these people being misled? Possibly. It needs to re-educate and approach the world from a new angle. It needs to change its institutions and it needs to respect them. It has to look at itself and rely on itself more.

Changes need to be made to turn away from this old-fashioned overly dependent means of running the country to one which encourages the old to develop into the new, and one which sees its Korean identity as pivotal in its interaction with others. This is not the case now. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and this is an iceberg that will take longer than five years to melt.

P.S. I could be very wrong about all of this.

*UPDATE* Have a read of Roboseyo’s take on the election, including a more in depth and less one sided (and despondent) perspective on the role of Park Chung hee’s role in Korea’s past and present.