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

Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014