Letter from Korea, June 2014.


Jumunjin, Korea
June  23, 2014

Dear Ireland,

If you’re not already aware I’ll be leaving in about a week. I know I’m going on about it a fair bit, but it is what I’ve been building up to for quite a while and it feels appropriate to me to talk about it a lot. Right now, in terms of being in Korea, it doesn’t feel like there is much else I should be talking about. One thing though that I’d like to make clear though is my intentions.

Never at any point have I turned around and said I have to get out of Korea for some abhorrent reason, like the usual tripe you hear about the inadequacies of Korea, Koreans, or indeed the inadequacies of those who cannot accept that this is a very different country to the one which they were raised in. I could go on here, but I won’t.

Over the past four and a half years Korea has presented me unlimited opportunities to not only excel professionally, but also personally. What matters to me most now is that I did my best to respond to each opportunity. Master Yoda’s message has always been in the back of my mind ringing strong, ‘do, or do no, there is no try’.

As an adult I think it’s important to know what you want to do in life. Even if this is the wrong decision, knowing your direction makes developing a lot easier. In Korea I have been granted many opportunities, including business, education, journalism, and I have tried to see them through to realise their potential, or has more often been the case, their suitability to me. I’ve worked on the plans, built my image, and connected with important decision makers in all of those fields. In the long run however, I did not have the heart for whatever it was that I was doing. For me this was an incentive to seek different paths.

It may be that success was not immediate and I just needed to try harder. Passion, however, was lacking and the incentives in the long run were even hard to assess. I could not even tell the length of the run I was expecting to undertake. It is important to know the disntance of any race, or indeed the height of the hill you are attempting to climb.

I’m not without my commitment to other areas in my life. I believe it is important to be prepared for everything that life presents to you, but it is equally important to know as many clichés as possible when you choose to back down from a challenge, and I will let you devise them here. You can draw comparisons if the clichés aren’t strong enough for you to understand my point, all I will say for now on this is that some things were not meant to be.

Korea has changed my mentality on so many fronts, not just how I approach challenges but also how I prepare myself. To take every opportunity we are presented is not possible, and to rely on the patience brought about by previous failures is something that probably doesn’t sound too encouraging when you set out. Again, I look to another master for guidance, this time an Irish one:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”*

 
(*I am sorry, I’ve seen several versions of this, but never once have I seen it accredited its exact location in the canon. Regardless the message rings true. And of course, this is Samuel Beckett)

This July I shall be reacting to another failure of mine. The change from Ireland to Korea was always with an open mind and an aspiration to change again in the future. The future has now arrived and while life has been good in Korea, the ladder upward has been flimsy and without a top in sight. Maybe ladders of life do not need tops, but they should at least have milestones, and by milestones I suppose I mean realisable goals.

Since I began teaching in Korea I have always progressed a step at a time. I can realistically chart my progress contract by contract, while always looking to the next stage, but now there appear to be no more rungs. There are options of course, and the position I had teaching academic English language skills in a leading Korean university had many options, many at the grace and mercy of the almost five months of holidays a year, and the limited class contact hours. Perhaps some have always wondered why I managed to maintain such an active online lifestyle, well now you know.

There is plenty to be done with this time of course, and I know many who use this position or one like it as a base for them to find more work teaching office workers or in homes and the likes. I’ve done all this, and I believe I was a good teacher with a decent reputation. Yet the lack of security and the reliance, invariably, on apathetic and often clueless recruiters on temp contracts charged with the responsibility of placing teachers is an experience I can do without in my work life. Added to this, at the best of times work is only available from 7am to 9am, or from 6pm until 7pm or sometimes 8pm. Students, are tired, bored, and overworked. The dynamic in the classroom is as you might expect, tiring, boring, and far too much work for the teacher.

I think that I’m coming across as scathing here, but I’d like to reassure you that for many these options are fine, and I can see why. What helps is a strong commitment, and also close access to the positions which offer these times. Yeongtong, where I lived for the majority of that time, was limited to the occasional vacancy in one of the several colossal Samsung plants that are close, and a scattering of other jobs. Quality positions were few and far between.

So this is the work life I am leaving. I will say little of the future I am traveling towards. Maybe I’ll save that for a later letter. What I can say is I’m leaving it for uncertainty and a smaller pay cheque. I worry a lot that my shrinking of income and free time will make me regret my decision to leave Korea. As a family we are committed, and I don’t doubt the summer will be fantastic, but as the winter settles in I worry. I think more and more now over the coming days how much I’m going to miss Korea. At this point I will also say I’m a little scared.

I know that we will be back to Korea to visit, but I hope that it does not turn out that we return with our tails between our legs again in a few years time. My attitude will have to change of course if I want to come back with my head held high. I hope that I am prepared for this challenge.

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Of Suwon No More


I am no longer a resident is Suwon. It’s a sad day, I suppose, but one myself and Herself talked about for a while. It may be a new idea to you but it’s one thing we’ve known about for some time.

Over the past week boxes were filled, as we’re plenty of those 100 litre rubbish bags. The bags went to the dumpster down below, the boxes to the post office. Thankfully there’s surface post from Korea to Ireland.

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On Tuesday we sent our good bits of furniture to a new home and life in Ansan. They looked happy there, being put to good use at the hands of newlyweds. We’ll miss that fridge I could fit into, and the bed too. It was as comfortable as they get, with a memory or two attached as well.

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In the morning we packed and watched Korea’s draw against Russia. It was already hot and I was hungover from farewell drinks with colleagues the night before. It looked like we’d never come near to leaving that evening, but sleeves were rolled up and sweat was wiped from brows and not a thought was given to what might be, only to what must be.

By five o’clock we had the house cleared and we dined at a plastic storage box. The apartment was bright with evening light, and our words amplified in the echo of our now empty walls. It looked bigger than ever, but it was as still as tiny as it always seemed with all our acquired accoutrements cluttering corners to abandon.

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Eventually everything was gone. We dumped our leftover furniture for disposal and jammed the final bags we meant to pack more sensibly into the back of the car. We panicked again when we saw another pile of something we’d neglected to economise space for, but found a solution through the good will of a generous neighbour.

Before we pulled away we checked the apartment once more, went to the toilet, and I managed to get one last picture of that skyline which looked across at us for three and a half years.

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When I say it like that, the whole adventure probably doesn’t come across as anything nearly as dramatic as it should. Yet, it was where myself and Herself both finally got a chance to settle a little for the first time after we married some six years previously. We are grateful for this opportunity, and none more so than the chance to start a family, itself as new a chapter as any.

Now though, the three of us are starting another phase of life. We are moving country. This is not myself and Herself’s first venture, but for +1 it is. Although I really can’t tell if she knows what’s happening; throughout the past weeks he has just been really good and allowed whatever to happen as it has.

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For now we are in a humid and overcast Gangnueng for a little over ten days, spending time with Herself’s parents and relaxing before we finally fly to Ireland and start settling into the onslaught of reverse culture shock we are expecting on arrival.

Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

Smartphone Perspectives


Not so long back a blog post by photographer John Steele on the pros of using a smart phone for taking photographs turned up in my timeline.

Of course, you’d have to live under a rock, and that rock would have to be in the middle of a very large and uninhabited space to not realise the dominance of smart phones in 21st century everywhere. Not just for the photographic capability, but also for their connection to the wider internet, and all their other conveniences. Let’s not forget the well worn trope of folks staring mindlessly into their screens 24-7.

I’m a bit of an Instagram nut as you already know, but when I’m not posting pictures there I can be found taking pictures of other things. Like John Steele, I also use Snapseed, but mostly on my iPad where I actually edit pictures taken with my DSLR. I decided I’d download the app again to my iPhone and try it out on my shots there.

I’ve used other apps for editing photos before, like Camera+, but I’m more familiar with Snapseed’s simplicity of use, and I quite like the colours and tones that come from the editing process. They’re not as smooth or natural as Lightroom on a desktop, but they can almost give an HDR effect.

Here’s a few recent spring type shots taken around Suwon, with a Gangwon-do cameo in there for added effect, that I’ve edited with Snapseed over the past week of two.

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As I am the proud owner of the humble iPhone 4, which is approaching vintage status at this stage, the pictures probably don’t have the clarity of newer and more advanced Smartphone cameras. When I put them up on a larger screen they could do with some more clarity as the graininess is pretty obvious. I could buy a new phone I suppose, but after dropping over 500,000 won on this one a few years back I‘m inclined to want to get more milage from this – I also like the idea of have a phone bill of a mere 30,000 won every month.

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And yes, I know that all of these pictures are in colour.