The whole premise of the American bailout is that they can get money from Asia and Europe to plug up the holes. But according to the Times, the double-digit growth period enjoyed by the Chinese economy is a thing of the past. The growth rate in China is expected to drop to as little as 8% next year. This credit crunch will eventually affect the dollar as foreign funds become more and more pricey. That is one side of the Won/Dollar coin. The other is this: for two thousand years South Korea has been the ground meat of a cultural and economic sandwich between Japan and China and that has never been more true than today. Korea also needs capital as an emerging economy and far worse. To compound things, the Korean export economy is far more dependent on Asian demand that of the US.
My complaints about income erosion led my boss to tell me what has become a mantra in South Korea: now is the time to save money. It will bounce back. Wait it out. But what if you have no choice? What if you have to turn your hard won Won into dollars? You want to see grown men cry? Go sit in the waiting room at a Korean exchange bank. As of today the exchange rate is $1/1393. It was sitting at $1/950 when I signed in June. That is a drop of something like a rather large number in front of one of these: %.
So ok. I lied. I am complaining a little. Sorry. But I have a readership (and I really appreciate both of you) and I ultimately have to say how I really feel. People email and ask if coming to Korea is a good idea and I am responding with a resounding "IF." If you don't have to send it home right now. If you are good at saving money and can live frugally. If you enjoy working really, really hard and like teaching for teaching's sake, then by all means get your butt over here. If not, go work at Walmart. You can save a lot of money with your employee discount.
The real problem, of course, isn't the world's economy, but my own personal lack of fiscal discipline. I put off sending anything home as long as I could but I can wait no longer. And IF I would have save more this wouldn't have been as painful but... The economy, the paraphrase the poet who wrote it, is a big shit pie and everyone gets a bite.
So if it is time for dinner, lets look at the entire meal and not just desserts. I have said before and I will say it again: I love this place. The food, the city life, the people. And if you have to live on the cheap somewhere, this is a pretty good place. I could be getting paid in pesos or godforbid American dollars. The inflation rate in Korea is so low that it is actually too low. This is a two-edged sword as well: while the local buying power of your income is steady there is little justification for employers to increase salaries. I am wondering how this currency situation is going to effect salary offerings for foreign teachers. We could, after all, go teach elsewhere. But I predict that as the unemployment rate continues to climb in the US many young people might see this as a great option regardless of the economics and thus serve to hold down demand over here. Or maybe blogs like this one will influence people to take a good hard look at the realities of thier finances before making the jump. This, of course, would have done me little good in June. And I did look at the exchange rate and show it to my friends and go: "Look, it's a goldmine." A goldmine with some serious structural issues maybe, but how was I to know?
The other way to look at it is that there is probably no where to go but up. And the action by the ROK central bank yesterday bears out that they are going to do everything they can to stop the skid. Short of a worldwide economic collapse there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel so coming over here now really wouldn't be all that bad of an idea. If....
On Saturday Sarah and I took advantage of a spectacular clear and crisp (and cold) afternoon to go explore a side of Korea we’d heard much about but had yet to see for ourselves. The practice of eating dog meat is one which has earned Korea a considerable amount of infamy in the West and with Busan’s largest dog market only four stops from our apartment, it was something we couldn’t resist seeing for ourselves.
Gupo market lies a short walk from Deokcheon subway station, the other side of the hill from our neighbourhood in an area we’ve up until recently left largely unexplored. This side of the mountain things seem to get a little less polished than the downtown and beachside areas, with the city gradually giving way to rice paddies and other agricultural land the further north you go. The market itself is a sprawling maze of alleyways and backstreets where everything from live frogs to house slippers fill the buckets, tanks and tables of the work-beaten market ajummas.
While our original plan had been to find something to eat before hitting the dog market, after only a few minutes walking the cawing of chickens heralded the onset of the livestock section and with it a heavy dose of culture shock. Rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and black goats were all on offer but while the array of live animals was astounding, as we’d expected it was the dogs themselves that proved the most striking.
They were large, reasonably young looking animals, confined seven or eight to a cage and resembling a cross between a wolf and a labrador. They looked surprisingly domestic, and for the entire time we were there remained eerily silent. Behind the cages, dog carcasses lay either splayed and ready to be butchered or (more unrecognisably) hanging from hooks and laid out on meat counters.
Sarah and I were unsure about whether we’d actually eat dog soup, but after seeing the dogs we decided to pass. I don’t have any qualms per se about the practice, providing everything is done humanely (though by the looks of it this may not be the case,) but the truth is I like them too much to eat them myself. There is something dopey, faithful and reassuring about dogs and to turn on them like that would just seem like a betrayal
(For 4 people)
Chicken (boneless thigh) 1 lb or 500 g
** if you prefer chicken breast, feel free to use it.
** you can also use pork or beef if you prefer.
Potato Starch 2 cups
** you can get potato starch at Korean markets
Salt & Pepper
Oil 1L to 1.5L (depending on the size of your deep fryer or pot)
Sweet & Sour Sauce
Vinegar 1 cup
Sugar 1 cup
Water 2 cups
Potato starch 1 Tablespoon (mixed with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water)
Soy Sauce 1 Tablespoon (optional)
Salt & Pepper
Vegetable Oil 1-2 Tablespoons
Chopped Garlic 1/2 Tablespoon
Red Pepper 1/2
Green Pepper 1/2
Sesame seeds (optional)
** These vegetables can be easily substituted with others available.
** You can use other fruit such as pineapples, mangos and lemons.
HOW DO I MAKE IT?
1. Slice all the vegetables and fruit.
2. Cut chicken into small pieces and sprinkle salt and pepper over both sides of chicken
3. Pre-heat vegetable oil for deep frying (350 F or 180 C)
4. Add a little bit of oil in a pan (med to high heat)
5. Add chopped garlic
6. Add all vegetables and stir fry for 5 minutes
7. Add 2 cups of water, 1 cup of vinegar and i cup of sugar and mix well.
8. Bring it to boil and reduce the heat to low.
9. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce for color and season with salt (about a table spoon) and pepper.
** it should be just a bit saltier than normal food since it goes over chicken to season it. If you are not sure, add gradually.
10. MIx a tablespoon of potato starch with 1/4 of COLD water in a small bowl (add a little more water if potato starch is not completely dissolved.)
11. Add starch mix to the sauce slowly on low heat.
12. Mix well and let me simmer on lowest heat to keep it warm.
12. Spread potato starch on a plate and drench chicken pieces lightly.
13. Beat 6 eggs and season with salt and pepper. (1 teaspoon each)
14. Dip drenched chicken pieces in the egg.
15. Deep fry the chicken about 10 minutes
** try a small piece. If it floats on the surface, it means the temperature is hot enough.
16. For chicken (and pork), make sure it's cooked all the way. No pinkness! It can make you sick.
17. Take the pieces out of the oil when they are golden brown and drain all fat.
18. Serve on a plate and pour the sauce on top.
19. You can sprinkle sesame seeds on top for accents.
First off, Korea is the most ethnically homogenous place I’ve ever been in my life. Apart from a handful of Indians, some Filipinos and of course the English teaching contingent, there are literally no non-Koreans here. This ethnic homogeneity (along with centuries getting bounced between China and Japan) as such has also engendered a fierce nationalism (and occasional racism) that seems to become apparent from about age seven upwards. My first experience of this was during the Summer Olympics, many of my students found it impossible that I could be supporting Ireland and Korea, preferring things to be more racially defined.
Japan is not in favour. One sure way of pissing off a bunch of Koreans is by telling them that Dodko is Japanese. This is a small group of rocks between Korea and Japan that the Japanese recently claimed was disputed territory in one of their school text books. While the rest of the world didn’t register, almost every man, woman and child in Korea became instantly incensed. This of course goes back to Japan’s raping of the peninsula over many years but the depth of feeling is pretty scary. Teenagers who should be lurking around ally ways smoking are instead pounding the street convincing the 0.0001% of Koreans who aren’t bothered. I was assailed in Seomyeon by one such youth and it’s not an exaggeration to say she was literally foaming at the mouth!
There is virtually no crime here (unless you count corruption) and Busan in particular is incredibly safe. This is why it is not uncommon to see power tools lying outside building sites that have been closed for the night and why Sarah and I recently saw a policeman sitting in another’s lap. As such, I fear some of my kindergarteners are going to take this place apart when they come of age but by that stage I’ll be long gone (from Korea.)
Appearance trumps everything. This is perhaps the strongest impression I have gathered in the last four months here and is the reason why the Hagwon system we are currently labouring under is so broken. Education is important, but the appearance of an education is more so. Korean kids spend the vast majority of their time in some educational establishment or other, often until late at night and during the weekend, but seem no more intelligent than the average British, Irish or North American. It is also the reason why in a few weeks time Sarah and I are set to grace the stage (again) to perform a “Christmas Dance” for the new mothers and children. This is not only demeaning, but is also apparently the benchmark by which all parents will judge our suitability to teach their little darlings. Throw in the fact that later in the year we are due to spend an entire month rehearsing a single class for the benefit of the parents and its not hard to feel like we are part of some gigantic propaganda machine. Goebbals would have been impressed.
Work is often a case of Quantity over Quality. Aside from 10 public holidays a year, the Koreans (in our school at least) can’t take any holidays. Hagwons are petrified that if they shut their doors for a full week the parents will send their kids elsewhere and for this reason school holidays are strictly restricted. Neither can they take personal holidays as no-one seems to have realised that with a little downtime productivity might just increase and even getting sick comes close to a fireable offence. Some of the Kindergarten teachers in our school stay long after we leave at 6:30, despite the fact that most of the under sevens leave at 2:30pm (what they actually do in these intervening hours is not immediately apparent.)
For all the reasons mentioned above, workers rights are non-existent and Confuscus has a lot to answer for. He may have scored a goal by advocating the use of chopsticks but the deference to authority here is frightening. I’m all in favour of giving up my seat to and old person on the subway but more often than not this “respect” seems to lead to downright exploitation. Old over young and rich over poor but I’m not trying to rewrite the Communist Manifesto or anything so I’ll leave it at that.
Koreans’ are by and large a warm and generous bunch. Often if standing on the bus with a few bags of shopping someone will wordlessly unburden your load, and the other day when I went to pick up my trousers from the tailors he refused payment, claiming it was only a small repair and I could pay next time. Things like this tend to brighten my day and the same behaviour in the UK would probably warrant a smack on the head.
That does it for my observations for now – I may very well return to this topic in another four months time and recant everything I’ve said but such is the nature of experience.