Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas in Seoul

CHRISTMAS creeps up on you in Korea. November 1 does not begin a two-month overload of horrendous music, lights and shops begging you to buy, buy, buy. Until December, there is little indication any holiday is on the way at all. But then lights finally arrive, strung out on buildings and trees, and coffee shops begin playing Cliff and Mariah and the rest of it.

Christmas here isn't about family, so much as your girl or boyfriend. It is yet another day in Korea for young romance, cute gestures and gifts. Another day for booking love motels for secret love or lust. 

There is no turkey, no Brussels sprouts, no Christmas pudding. Rather than grow weary of the barrage of festive cheer and cheese as you might at home, in Korea, you barely notice it's Christmas at all. And then, suddenly, it is the day before Christmas Eve and there's no missing it any more.

Until a few weeks ago, I was not particularly looking forward to Christmas in Seoul: the cliché of the expat pining for home and family made me cringe as much as it threatened to define me as well. But I have no such worry now. I have a stupidly large bottle of wine in the cupboard, ready to heat and infuse, and someone extremely nice, the girlfriend, to spend the day with. There won't be turkey, but there'll be plenty of cheer all the same.

The wine should see to that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting mothered Korean-style on the subway

IT WAS a subway morning commute like any other. There were the scores of people huddled in a mass that heaved forward and back each time the doors opened at a stop. Some watched TV on their smartphones, others wrote texts or played games on them. Some, seeming almost quaint in a sea of gadgets, read newspapers.

I stood staring into the reflective window of the carriage, watching the blur outside. The hood of my jacket was ruffled, tangled in the strap of my shoulder bag. I reached behind my head to straighten it out. I was jerking the hood awkwardly from side to side when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an ajumma (older Korean woman).

Without a word or gesture, she pulled the hood this way and that and zipped up one side which had come undone. For 20 seconds -- which passed like 20 minutes -- she fussed over my jacket, before setting it in order without so much as a word.

"감 사 합 니 다 (thank you)" I muttered, at a loss for what else to say. She nodded gruffly in silence. I was being mothered by a stranger on a train. This was the sort of home comfort you expect to well and truly leave at, well, home. Perhaps there was no need for Skype calls to the mother after all.

It seemed a sort of nice, no-nonsense gesture -- almost touching. But it felt bizarre nonetheless. The kind of gesture that would earn you a trip to your local A&E in most countries. I can imagine poking at people's clothes and playing mum on the Luas tram from Tallaght in Dublin -- imagining would be the only safe way to do it.

At the office I told a few colleagues about my apparent applicant for adoptive Korean mother. A Korean workmate expressed surprise and insisted what had happened was far from usual. But my foreign colleagues had felt the tending hand of Korea before.

Apparently, I'd gotten off lightly. One guy had the buttons on the ass of his pants fastened before -- by another guy, albeit a vague acquaintance. Now that is lending your fellow man a helping hand. But it is also lending a helping hand where it's most probably not wanted.

Quite. Bloody. Literally.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Subway perverts and Burberry men

I CAME across this video of a girl who appears to be passed out being groped on the subway on Gusts of Popular Feeling. Very creepy indeed.

What is most striking is how open and public the man is about what he is doing. It doesn't seem at all credible that no one -- discounting, of course, the person filming -- noticed.

An article in the Korea Times recently looked at the topic of sex crime on the subway, and many women here, rightly or wrongly, seem to think that Seoul is a dangerous place at night.

One Korean phenomenon that stands out aside from subway gropers are the flashers. Many girls -- certainly a very sizeable minority at least -- I have spoken to here have seen one, mostly during their high school years. Known as "Burberry men" because of their penchant for Burberry trench coats, they hang around outside high schools and flash students at first opportunity. So common they seem to be that The Wonder Girls, a Korean girl group, featured one having his ass kicked in one of their music videos (skip to 1:30 if you can't stomach K-pop).

There are perverts and strange folk of every description in all countries. But, for whatever reason, some of the harassment that goes on here seems to have a uniquely Korean, or at least Asian, dimension. Culture manifests itself in sometimes strange and insidious ways. Japan has women-only subway carriages, whereas the U.S., Britain and Ireland do not for a reason.

Just why that is, and why Burberry men aren't known about Dublin isn't easy a question to answer, nor am I sure it is one which can be answered definitively.

Either way, it's for another day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Political in-Fighting!

POLITICS in Ireland tends to be a mundane affair. We don't do coups, revolutions, riots or assassinations all too often -- they'd be a whole lot of effort. Then there's the Dail, the national parliament. What goes on there is generally only marginally more compelling than TV static with the sound off, while our representatives typically have the charisma of a clinically depressed cow chewing cud listlessly for all eternity. One Irish politician's four-letter word outburst at an opposition member a while back was probably a highpoint in Irish parliamentary excitement.

There is no such drama-deficit in Korean politics. No, in Korea there is plenty of passion, drama and emotion on show in parliament: quite literally enough to land you in hospital. So one Grand National Party member can attest to after being "rushed" to hospital on Tuesday. He'd been hit with a gavel during the latest bout of fisticuffs at the National Assembly.

The main opposition Democratic Party hadn't been thrilled about the GNP's proposals for next year's budget, so, embracing the democratic process, the two parties tried to resolve the matter in a robust manner.

Such scenes are not exceptionally rare in Korea. Just last week, similar argy-bargy shenanigans broke out at a Seoul council meeting over free school lunches. And if you think that throwing punches in parliament is a little bit undignified, how about bashing your way into the debating chamber with a sledge hammer? Because that happened in 2008. You might say there is something bizarre about elected representatives breaking down the doors of their own parliament. You'd be right -- and sane. It's utterly mind boggling.

But it is also highly entertaining. And the way things are back in the home country, it seems people could do with some drama from their elected representatives. A bit of spice. Some unhinged emoting for a change.

So now then. Who'd have the best wood-splintering swing among the Irish crowd, I wonder, Cowen, Kenny, or Gilmore?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Rating the beer

ALONGSIDE indigenous tipples such as makgeolli and soju, Korea has a fair selection of its own beers. There is no need to pine for mass-produced fare such as Carlsberg or Budweiser here -- though both are easily found. Korea brews plenty of flavourless party juice itself.

Cass, Hite and OB are the three main options and are indistinguishable from one another. Each of them is a liquid alright and comes with obligatory bubbles to tickle the tongue. But then so does sparkling water. And at least sparkling water doesn't pretend to have a discernible taste.

Max, almost as readily available, is their comparatively attractive cousin. Max actually tastes vaguely like beer, with an appreciable hint of barley and malt. Even the name is utterly bad ass next to its competition: Max. It sounds like the kind of drink Indiana Jones probably chugged on after recovering the Ark of the Covent, having reduced the band of dastardly Nazis in his way to a whimpering mound with nothing but his fists and a whip from Anne Summers.

But, to be fair, one quality does set even the blandest of Korean beers apart: their astounding ability to reduce you to a despondent, irritable sociopath the next day. Korean beer may be the quickest, most efficient route to a raging hangover there is. Before coming here I didn't know it was possible to get a hangover on three beers. But, in fact, it is. Korea has devised a way.

Why waste hours and hours drinking into the early hours, when a couple of cans of Cass can grant you all of the aftereffects of an Irish wedding with none of the effort or expense? That's the kind of efficacy that builds a country's economy from nothing. No wonder the G20 took place in Seoul this year.

But the wonders of Korean beer don't stop there. Oh no. If one too many rough 3-beer (not quite) nights has you worrying about your health, never fear. Korea does healthy beer. No, really. It's good for you. It says so on the bottle.

Now, I know what you are thinking: this is too good to be true, one of those thing you hear and wish was the case but isn't. Like the inventor of the bra really having the name Otto Titsling.

S "stylish" -- yes, "stylish" is really written on the bottle -- beer with added fibre begs to differ. Apparently -- according to the manufacturer --Koreans don't get enough fibre. So the kind folks behind S decided to add some to their beer. As its bottle says, it's "exclusively designed for well-being of [sic] young generation".

Wonderful. Kids who skip their Weetabix in the morning can swig down a few bottles of S instead and defecate without strain. Human progress truly knows no bounds.

If that is not enough to have you running to your nearest (Korean) off-licence, you simply must be a deeply cynical person. You have my pity. But here's one last nugget to convince you. From their website:

"For the first time in Korea, S with dietary fiber was marketed in a green PET 1,600ml bottle. The special emerald-colored packaging and 8g dietary fiber give you reason to get together with friends, lovers, and colleagues. What’s more, it is now more affordable, so you can make your special gatherings even more special."

I tried, didn't I?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Jitters in Pyongyang's shadow

THERE WAS an immediate sense in the office that something big had happened when the shells hit Yeonpyeong Island on Tuesday. People stood around the TV watching the video grab of smoke clouds filling the sky above the West Sea. Almost everyone was quiet.

When I first saw the images on screen I was afraid. Yes, I could laugh it off and remind myself how common it is for North Korea to cause trouble. I could tell myself full blown war would never really happen. I could run every clam, logical sentiment through my mind - but it couldn't completely shake the unease bubbling in my brain; that dreadful 'what if'. For the next 30 minutes I waited anxiously, half-expecting to hear the wretched squall of air raid sirens. What would I even do? Run? Freeze? Would it even matter?

Once the shelling had become the previous day's news, the thought of war left my mind. In Korea, I felt strangely isolated from the doomsday, worst-case predictions that were filling headlines around the world. South Koreans are used to North Korea acting up. The world outside isn't - or chooses not to be. Few people here seem as worried as the comment emanating from the rest of the world would suggest. It was only when I read a Fox News headline a few days later about the North's claims of being on "The brink of war" that the jitters returned. It was so easy to forget that "the Korean Peninsula" is no longer just a string of characters in some news copy to me -- it is now also where I live.

And, for better or worse, news never seems to matter as much as when it's on your own doorstep.

Monday, November 22, 2010

All peoples are equal(ly smelly)

I CAN tell different Asians apart by their smell. They all smell different, she, a Korean, tells me in all earnest. She is an air hostess and has met lots of people. She must know.
Oh, well do tell, I say with an amused grin. This is going to be good, I think, I can feel it.

Chinese people smell like feet. They dont shower much.
I collapse forward onto the table in hysterics. My eyes water. I can barely fill my lungs with air. I havent laughed so hard in weeks.

Japanese people shower more, she goes on in all seriousness, but they smell like grandmothers and grandfathers.

I cant take it. My belly aches with great paralyzing yelps of laughter. People in the hoff (bar) are probably beginning to stare. Im so giddy I dont care.

Im serious she says, her eyes opened wide. Im not being discriminating, really! She seems worried Ill judge her for her talent. I dont feel qualified to judge. Im usually about as politically correct as a copy of Hustler at a Women Against Pornography conference.

OK, OK, I say, gasping for air and trying to regain a semblance of composure. Then what do Koreans smell like?
I think. . .garlic. (The kimchi I imagine.)

Off I go again. I need a tranquiliser - or perhaps to watch a soul-sapping misery-fest like Requiem for a Dream. No, even heroin addiction, needle-induced infection and amputation could raise a chuckle out of me at this moment.
And Indians smell like ” -- surprise, surprise -- curry, she adds.

Usefully, her nationality-by-smell powers of deduction dont stop with the peoples of Asia. She is an air hostess after all. She has traveled. I learn that Westerners smell strongly of armpits. Rather boring an aroma, I think. Wheres the flair? 

The unique pong that sets us apart? I half wish for the distinct geriatric odor of those from the land of the rising sun.
But not to worry. Westerners are said in Korea to have another, unique bodily fragrance. Something quiet apt when considering the tint of Caucasian skin. Ive heard of the theory before. The air hostess doesnt have to tell me.

Folks like me are supposed to smell of milk. Thats the stuff you put on your Frosties. I hope the fresh kind, but Ive never asked. It does shed light on our inability to cope with the slightest hint of sun, what with dairy products coursing through our veins.

No wonder I spoil so easily in summer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweet like chocolate

SO TODAY is Pepero Day, one of four, yes four, romantically-themed days in Korea. If Valentine's doesn't get you, there's White Day -- which is when girls are supposed to gives gifts to their men -- and if you escape that there's Christmas Day, which is more about dating than family.

Pepero Day, though, is when guys are supposed to buy their ladies Pepero -- a type of chocolate-covered stick-shaped biscuit -- and other sweet treats. If you think Hallmark is bad, well, this day was invented by a biscuit company. Sweet indeed.

Make no mistake, the day is well adhered to. The streets are thronged with couples on this day, and the shops full of displays to remind the most forgetful of men.

Happily, this lonely traveller got his Pepero today. The company gave them out to everyone in the office. That's keeping up employee moral if I ever saw it - pity confectionery for singletons.

Who says money can't buy you love?

(Well, it can buy you a chocolate biscuit anyway)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Drinking with the islanders

AS SOON as he heard the word Irish he straightened upright, alert, like a Meer cat. Id exchanged a few words with him - a Korean in his late twenties who worked at a local hotel - at the last pub seemingly one of three in Seogwipo city, Jeju Island. He was at this place too. Id spotted him across the bar as soon as Id sat down. It wasnt difficult to run into someone in a place with as many brothels (they are called Room Salons, which is accurate in so far as they are rooms in which you pay for sex) as drinking dens and people as stray cats.
After my nationality was revealed in conversation with the bar staff, he hopped off his stool and saddled over. He set an almost-full bottle of tequila down in front of him.
Can I sit with a real Irishman? he asked, sitting before I could reply.
Eh, sure, I said. One thing I could indeed claim to be was a real Irishman.
I am Irish. I am a man. I neither chose nor earned either of these wonderful qualities. Besides, nationality isnt like sportswear. The Chinese dont churn out poor quality Irishman knock-offs for export. There is no windowless factory in Beijing lining Britons, Poles, French and Greeks on conveyor belts to have shamrock stapled to their chests, potatoes stuffed in their pockets and whiskey sprinkled on their breath at least as far as Im aware. But give it time.
My new Korean friend was enthralled by Ireland. He had even been there several times. It wasnt long before he insisted I have a drink of his tequila (cactus poison) and another. And another. An almost-full bottle became a much less full one. He didnt drink like a fish. He drank like a Humpback whale.
At 5 a.m. he decreed we go to another pub. He could barely speak. Words left his mouth with the intelligibility of a jelly-eating Russian reading Finnegans Wake - in Chinese. I tried to protest. It was late. Id had enough to drink. But I was wasting my breath. I would have had more luck convincing Kim Jong-il to change North Koreas official name to George W. Bushs Glorious Republic of Capitalism.
He dragged me, quite literally, to another place. We sat down and he ordered a bottle yes, bottle of 12-year aged Jameson, priced at a tidy 130,000 won (90 euro approx). What in Gods name was he doing? He could barely talk. He could barely even stand. Should it have come to it, I didnt feel up to trying mouth to mouth resuscitation.
He swayed on his stool and blabbered away inanely in a guttural, spit-laced parody of English. I didnt know what he was talking about. I wasnt quite sober and was distracted. The barmaid was gorgeous. She had mounds of curls and big brown eyes. I stared at her. I would impress her with my wit and charm. In Korean too. Of course. Genius.
Ne-eel shee-gahn iss-uh-yo (Are you free tomorrow?)
Ops uh-yo, she replied, beaming. (I dont have time/Not likely buddy.)
Hmmm. . . Well, if at first you dont succeed. . .

Ne-eel shee-gahn iss-uh-yo?
Ops uh-yo.
That was the problem with knowing only a dozen phrases in a language little room for maneuver. She wasnt having any of it. But she didnt walk off or stop smiling - she was enjoying the attention all the same.
It was then I noticed that my Korean drink-sponge was gone. His coat, wallet, bag everything wasnt. Ten minutes later he hadnt reappeared. I asked the owner if she knew where he was. Home probably, she said, and took his stuff behind the counter for safe-keeping.
The next day I found his business card in my bag and sent him a text telling him where his stuff was. He sent back: sorry, john. Because much drunk, cut film of myself. got the my stuff in G-bar.
He hadnt made it home, but slept in the stairwell of another bar. Of course.
Well, P. J. ORourke hadnt honoured (?) Koreans with the dubious title, The Irish of Asia for nothing. Forget that Irish counterfeit factory in Beijing.
Theyd do it better in Jeju.