Three years ago we went to Pusan National University to see Jeon Jeduk (전제덕), a famous Korean harmonica player who was making an all-too-rare foray down to Korea's second city. He was back in town yesterday - for one day only - holding a concert with a woman regarded as one of this country's most famous jazz singers, who has been described as Korea's Ella Fitzgerald - perhaps in reference to her ability with scat singing. She's simply known as 'Malo' (말로). This time it was no mere university campus the concert would be held at, but rather Busan's Citizen's Hall in Beomildong.
A few years ago $900 million was spent creating a 6km recreational space along a stream in central Seoul. I've visited this urban renewal project 'Cheonggyecheon' ('청계천') and it is quite beautiful, although as its Wikipedia page suggests, it has not been universally welcomed.
After my wife became pregnant, she joined the Busan Momsholic. Momsholic Babyis a national club in Korea which was set up for both pregnant women and mothers. They provide an online community as well as a number of off-line opportunities to meet and participate in activities. Recently some of the expectant members, along with their partners, signed up on a first-come-first-served basis to a one-off pottery class and my wife and I went along at a cost of 10,000 won per couple.
We went to see 'Alice in Wonderland' on Saturday evening, and after escaping from the hole we'd fallen into, my wife turned her five-month old Windows Mobile phone back on and it didn't work properly. I have the same model and we hardly ever turn them off - this is Korea, it's practically a social crime. Not answering within two rings annoys people, so mid-way through a sentence you can often find yourself talking to someone holding a suddenly produced phone to their ear; phone conversations have priority over face-to-face meetings.
Korea's Lunar New Year holiday ('설날') occurred over the weekend. It's a time of year that involves families gathering together, and all the inevitable responsibilities that go along with this, both subtle and overt. This year it clashed with Valentine's Day, leaving people with a choice of which to celebrate. With family being so important the New Year invariably won, although once again, ever-evasive Korean Brother managed to avoid any such obligations. As the eldest in her family, and with both parents having passed away many years ago, it is Korean Mother's responsibility to host to her young siblings for New Year's meals, and it's not an event without its tensions; with a sister who works as a Buddhist psychic and a brother who works as a Christian pastor, they are a microcosm of the religious differences which can sometimes bubble away uneasily in Korean society.
I received a letter from the Ministry of Justice at the weekend. It was about the Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which neither I, nor apparently Google, had heard of before. I grew up in a city where it was a given that any communication from local government or schools would arrive in four different languages, but this attempt to reach out towards certain immigrant minorities in a spirit of friendship was interpreted by a fringe element as an invitation to burn English books they disagreed with between City Hall and the Police Headquarters. Later, a good number of them decided that protest was inefficient, and the brilliantly elegant solution to creating an integrated society was to kill everyone who disagreed with them.
Author's note: A version of this article appeared in February 2010's issue of the Groove Magazine.
A friend recently asked me if I had heard about how Daegu women were the “prettiest”. No, I hadn't, I replied - but it might be an interesting topic worth studying, I thought. My trusty Moon guidebook on South Korea mentions the topic - hardly the only voice to pay attention to, but certainly a point in the theory's favor. Needless to say, it was worth finding out for myself. Off I went using Korea's excellent express bus system - albeit with an expectation that every Dae-gurl was somehow a supermodel just waiting to be discovered.
My wife and I have been trying for a baby for a year, and were beginning to face up to the possibility that we needed to get ourselves checked to find out if there was a problem. I was facing up to the question of what life would be like if that problem was with me - it would have been bad enough in my own country, but to live in Korea and be the one responsible for a childless marriage was a burden I didn't know how to bear; my paranoia focused on all those deeply held suspicions that a certain section of society here wants to believe about foreigners. My state of mind not helped by the revelation that our newly-wed friend had become pregnant on their first attempt.
I'd been out with Korean friends and eight of us wended our way back to one of their apartments. A Japanese Nintendo Wii sat next to the television, but it had been borrowed so nobody knew how to use it. My wife showed them and before long games of Wii Sports Tennis and Baseball were generating considerable competition within the group. There would be a party a week later here, and perhaps aware that ultimately, this was not a truly interactive experience for everyone, attention turned towards discussions of what activities could be organised for the day of the event.
When I was asked if I wanted to attend a 'non-verbal' performance vaguely themed around the idea of cooking for a Korean wedding, it didn't exactly sell me on the idea although I agreed to go. As I gathered it might involve - amongst other activities - drumming with kitchen equipment, my interest was piqued; I'd been to a taiko performance in England and really enjoyed it.
As we entered the main shopping area of Nampodong the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuelechoed around the streets. It was easy to believe for a moment that the sound emanated from one of the many nearby stores, which are never averse to using external speakers to capture the attention of those nearby, but this time the sound had a vastness to it belying a merely local source. Every street lamp for half-a-mile had a speaker, and every one played Emmanuel.
I've never been to see a basketball game before; it's not very popular in England. So I jumped at the chance to see a game in Busan last Saturday afternoon, where judging on the crowd turnout, it isn't very popular either. Which is a shame, because while it doesn't have the epic feel of 30,000 people crammed into Sajik Stadium for a baseball game, being seated closer to the action allows for a much more personal experience.
The owners of the apartment we rent recently told us they were planning to sell it, which meant we either had to buy it, or find somewhere else to live. It caused me to consider the fact that in a little over three years, I've moved home four times - three times of which were between countries - and perhaps under the circumstances I shouldn't feel ashamed to be reluctant to add a fifth relocation to my list.
Sunday was the day of our friends' wedding, and it would be the first ceremony I'd attended in Korea where I was merely a spectator, rather than a participant. Surely being on the other side of the fence would be less stressful? Maybe not so much.
In Korea, mobile phones are called '핸드폰', or 'hand-phones', and it seemed that now I was living in Korea I had to have one. The search began soon after my arrival. It proved to be a monumentally frustrating experience, so a friend loaned me an 'old' Samsung SPH-M4655 as an interim measure. I carried it around for a while, but found it slow, and the on-screen keyboard was too frustrating for my main intended purpose, which was making various notes while I was out, such as Korean words I saw and their translations.
Our search for a couch had ground to a halt. The prices on Furniture Mountain had generally started at 800,000 won (£421/$688) for anything comfortable, and this seemed high compared to some of the local stores we'd visited, so we resolved to try again later.
Unfortunately the first opportunity which really arose was the one Sunday in three when a lot of stores seem to be closed, which meant our browsing choices were limited, and when we arrived at the store where we'd bought our desks, the owner was nowhere to be found even though it was open. I tried out the couches and the office chairs, waited, went outside, stared up and down the street, and marvelled at the evident lack of crime - or fear of it- which allowed a business owner to desert his premises on a regular basis. I suspected he was out delivering to a customer.
When we first came to Busan, we'd bought a couple of small desks for our small one-room apartment, which allowed us enough space for one computer monitor each and a third shared screen to display certain stock market data. This was a big downgrade from the six screens we'd had back in the UK, so now that we were back here to stay, we wanted to get back to having the kind of larger desks which would support more monitors.
My wife planned to buy her best friend a relatively expensive watch for her upcoming wedding as a special gift, but somewhere along the way it was decided that while the budget might remain the same, it would be better if 'couples' watches were purchased. I had a feeling that someone got the casting vote in that decision amongst the electorate of two.
Koreans readily embrace the 'couples' concept - which can mean having the same style of watches, wearing exactly the same style of clothes, phones and anything else which occurs as a possibility. It is some disturbingly outward sign of their homogeneity in an already dangerously homogeneous society.
Thus far, my reintroduction to Korean society has been unexpectedly bumpy at best for various reasons, but there are some aspects of life in Korea which would have to go a long way downhill before they become negative parts of the equation. One of these is the Korean health system with its immediate treatment, availability of hospitals with their second and third opinions if you want them, all at a price which show up the National Health Service back home for what it is - a self-absorbed and expensive bureaucracy which two years ago Wikipedia alarmingly cited as the fourth biggest employer in the world. By comparison, the privately-based Korean system seems much more certain to actually treat illness effectively. However, there is a catch - which is the money.
"Chuseok is one of Korea’s most largely celebrated holidays. It is a time when families and friends gather to share food and enjoy their time together, giving thanks to their ancestors for the year's bountiful harvests." - Korea Tourism OrganizationBut there was no bountiful harvest for me on Saturday - except of misfortune; Chuseok will now also be known as the day I caused the Great Internet