Saturday, July 31, 2010

Konglish T-shirts

TODAY I saw a girl in Hoegi station wearing a T-shirt with the following printed on it:

"Cum again"
There was something written after it that I couldn't make out but does it really matter? I would guess that the girl in question didn't really understand what her T-shirt was projecting to the masses. You'll often see similarly unfortunate examples of "Konglish" around Seoul. "Crap", in place of "Crab", on restaurant menus is a favourite of mine.

Call me cynical, but I have a hunch that some of the guys working in English translation over here are having a laugh at Korea's expense.


Non-consenting men and Mongols

IT WASN'T nicely aggressive or kinky, it was just painful - really, really, bloody painful. She'd been chewing on my lip like it was a stick of Wrigley's for half an hour and showed no signs of stopping. Each grimace of pain on my behalf only seemed to encourage her. I didn't know what to do.

"Ouch!" I exclaimed for the dozenth time since we'd started dancing in Helios, a packed, slightly shady, bar in Itaewon largely frequented by black U.S. soldiers.

See barely had a word of English, but she saw it hurt all right. She was smiling. "No, lady," I felt like saying, "this isn't playful. I feel like I'm being savaged by an attack dog." It was no use. She wouldn't have understood anyway.

She may also have been the first girl I've met to sexually assault me. That's probably dramatic, but the notion of consent wasn't something she really paid any attention too. She's certainly top of the leader board in the violating yours truly Olympics. But, hey, men never say "no", right?

I'd put bought her a gin and tonic, which for some reason she insisted on giving me back orally with every lip-chomping kiss. I was becoming hammered, and I'd bought the drink for her. "No more!" I insisted after several recycled mouthfuls. She didn't listen. She kept lunging for me, unstoppable as a tsunami. I tried holding back her shoulders. My arms folded like paper cups against a rushing train. It was no use. She was too strong. She docked. I had been violated.

She was Mongolian. Mongolia - there was a place you didn't read about everyday. My only knowledge of the country was that it was once ruled by Genghis Kahn and a vast army of brutal warriors. Conquering and violent - judging by this girl, I could well imagine it.

When I woke the next day my upper lip was blue. It looked like I had been punched in the mouth. A punch would have been less sore. Still, I had (some) fun.

You know, modern genetic research suggests that 8 percent of men in a large part of Asia are descendants of Genghis Kahn. I wonder what the figure is for women?

I think one of them might be floating about Itaewon, Seoul.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Goshiwons and lonely people

IT HAS become clear to me that some pretty sad and lonely people probably live in my goshiwon. Traditionally, these blocks of box rooms with shared bathrooms and a kitchen were places where students could go and study for exams in isolation. But in reality many residents of goshiwons are simply poor people who can't afford to rent anywhere else. Just about everyone I've seen in my goshiwon is in their thirties or forties.

A guy who looks like he is probably in his forties occupies the room next to mine. He always leaves his room door slightly ajar - perhaps because the corridors are air-conditioned, whereas the rooms are not. Whenever he hears me open my door or walk down the corridor he pushes the door shut. So every time I so much as tip-toe to the bathroom I am greeted with a door swinging shut in my face. Every single time.

I can understand people wanting their privacy. But this strikes me as a little strange. Not only that, it somehow seems sad. I don't know if he's shy, hateful, depressed or just introspective. We've never said hello when we've passed each other in corridor. I doubt we ever will. He also never sleeps or, so it seems, leaves the goshiwon. If I come home from the pub at 5 a.m. he is there in his room, light on, door ajar. Same at 2p.m. Same at 12p.m.

I heard him laugh at the television a few minutes ago, a first sign of humanity. Up until now, I was seriously beginning to wonder if he was really human.

There is one guy here I talk to. I think he is about forty. His English is not good and I don't even know his name. Whenever I see him he always asks me where I'm going and have I had dinner. He reckons that kimchi keeps Koreans mentally sharp. He also complains that the Japanese stole their beloved national dish and gave it their own, vaguely different, name. The Japanese are somewhat of a touchy subject in Korea. He is studying for something, but I haven't been able to understand him well enough to know what.

A week or two ago we were on the stairwell talking, having a Coke. He told me he has been living at this goshiwon for a year, but he plans to leave and get a high-paid job in computers. Job satisfaction didn't matter to him, he said, money was his goal.

But one thing he said shocked me. One of the guys at the goshiwon has been living here for seven years. Seven years is much too long to live in a place like this. Seven years is a long time to share a bathroom and kitchen with dozens of other strangers, your only personal space being a glorified cupboard. Seven years is much too long to live alone.

I wondered was it the guy in the room beside me he was talking about. If it was, I could understand why he guarded his meagre personal space so fiercely.

After seven years in a goshiwon who wouldn't?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Korean text messages

PEOPLE TEXT differently over here. I'm still in the process of figuring out all the different smiley faces; there are a lot, and nothing like the ones we use in the West. So a typical text conversation can be quite fun - mainly because you may not know just quite what is going on.

Are they crying, winking, smiling, frowning, flirting? Who knows! It's all part of the fun of being western in Korea.

Anyway, I went online looking for someone to practice Korean with and hangout. There are countless ads on the net looking for language exchange buddies. Within 12 hours four people had contacted me. One girl included her number, and I gave her a shout.

We'd been texting for a few hours when she asked how much Korean I knew. Very little I told her. She said she could make me a Korean for a month (I think). I told her good luck but she could try.

Here's text I was sent back:

"ㅋ ㅋ ok! I can do it! R Q R Q R Q R Q R Q"

I have no idea what she is talking about but she sounds loud and excitable - and friendly. I wonder what she's like in person?

"R Q R Q" all the way, girl.

Korean men, age and the lingering handshake

I WAS BEGINNING my night out in the usual fashion: sitting outside a convenience store with a bottle of makgeolli. After a few minutes a middle-aged Korean guy nursing a beer approached and gestured could he sit down. He had barely a word of English, but soon started asking me questions the best he could. As is typical in Korea, he wanted to know what age I was.

Age is a very big deal in what is a country highly influenced by Confucianism, especially for the older generation. Essentially, relations are very hierarchical: the older you are, the more deserving of respect you are. The Korean language itself places a great emphasis on how you address elders, with formal and informal ways of saying the same things.

So when I told the guy I was 23 (Koreans count age differently; you are at least one when you are born. Two if you're born during a lunar year.), he laughed gleefully.

"I am older than than you!"

He was, considerably, at 44. It is not unusual for a Korean to triumphantly point out his or her superior age. I was once introduced to a 26-year-old guy who reacted the same way. To a Westerner it is bemusing to say the least.

"Welcome to Korea!" he said. As he spoke, he struggled for the English words, making an "X" with his arms and frowning.

"You are. . .handsome!"

This again. For the second time I'd been called handsome by an older man. I really had it - the sex factor. If only I could get the good ladies of Korea to feel the same way, I thought. Then it got weirder.

"I love you!"

Woah, buddy. You are great too and all but shouldn't we get to the "like" stage first? I imagine he didn't really mean "love", but it was still bloody strange to hear.

One interesting thing about Korean men is that they apparently have a different attitude about what is appropriate interaction and physical contact with other men than the average straight Western male. Shaking someone's hand here, for example, can be quite an uncomfortable experience. Invariably it is a lingering, pawing affair, lasting far longer than any robust, manly handshake should. You'll find yourself shaking hands well into a conversation.

One of the expats at the Korea Herald even told me that one of the older Korean editors will often effectively try to hold his hand while speaking to him. Odd indeed. Girls are big on physical contact with each other as well, in fact much more so (predictably enough). Female friends regularly walk down the street hand-in-hand.

Eventually I had to bid farewell to my new, oddly affectionate friend and go in search of frolics and fun with people a little closer to my own age. The night was young and so was I.

He -- he'd happily point out -- was not.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Korean public figure quotes of the day

YOU COME across quite a few chuckle-worthy quotes in a typical day at The Korea Herald. Here's two from today that deserve a mention:

This -- from an education ministry official responding to moves to outlaw corporal punishment in schools -- is priceless:

"Also, despite the negative effects of corporal punishment, it is irrelevant to put a sudden end to such a custom which has long existed in our educational culture.”

I love this line of thinking. He doesn't justify corporal punishment as being custom but harmless; he happily admits it is terrible but then goes on to justify it anyway because, well, it's custom.

It's a bit like going: "Slavery? Oh, yes, awful. Ban it?! No, no, couldn't do that. It's tradition."

But apparently banning such classroom punishment is "irrelevant" so there you go . . . how's that for a schoolyard retort?

Next up, a special mention to Rep. Kang Yong-seok of the ruling Grand National Party. Here's what he apparently said at a recent dinner with some university students, after judging at a college debating competition:

"When we have a debate competition, judges don’t really pay attention to the debate. They are actually interested in how participants’ faces look,” Kang was quoted by one of the students as saying.

“I’ll tell you how to make a debate team. It should be two ugly faces and one pretty one,” he said.

Fantastic! He has a point (if I can quite understand what he's talking about). Ugly people can't debate. They can't even look in the mirror without crying. Freaks.

He also apparently said this when one female student asked him about how she should follow her dream of becoming a news anchorwoman:

“You will have to give ‘everything.’ Can you still do it?

"Everything", the paper tells those of us who find that too subtle, is a reference to something a bit beyond regularly clocking in from 9 to 5 ("cocking in" from 9 to 5, perhaps?).

This guy sounds like the kind of politician that would make it big back home. He could give us hope in a time of national crisis.

I wonder are FF, FG or Labour recruiting?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Learning Korean, Han River, Commies and Home Plus

HAVING HEARD the words "I no speak English" constantly since coming to Seoul, I was pretty relieved last week to find an internet ad offering Saturday morning Korean lessons for beginners. Not only that, but according to the ad they wouldn't cost me so much as a wad of used gum: completely free. Fantastic. Free meant more Korean won for essentials like Makgeolli (creamy rice wine) and roach spray.

I had my first lesson yesterday at the not very Friday-night-clubbing-friendly time of 10am. It was almost miraculous I made it. The night before I'd gone out in Hongdae. I'd been determined to banish memories of my first night there, when friendly, unwary, English-speaking souls had been as elusive as a bulging Korean waistline. But things were much the same. Conversations were brief and guarded, if entertained at all. It had rained like the entire Pacific had been dumped out of a bucket by God. Drunk and disheartened, I climbed into my bed after 5am.

Three hours of sleep later and my alarm roused me. I stumbled out of bed like a George A. Romero film extra. I stank, my mouth tasted like sewage and my mind was porridge. Learning was the last thing I wanted to do. But I went. And I'm so glad I did. I picked up a few phrases and took down the alphabet, and I'm hoping I can put some of it to practical use. But what was really great were the people there teaching. There was a guy and a girl in college, and another, older girl who works for an airline. They were full of questions, gregarious and outgoing. The prefect antidote to the night before. After the class I went to lunch with them. I'll be back next week.

Later on I went for a jog by the section of the Han river that runs by the 2002 World Cup Stadium. It is not as scenic or tranquil as it sounds. It's dirty and smells, but it is just about free enough of people to allow you get above walking pace. But I gotta say, old folks over here can really move. I think I was overtaken by several power walkers who last had their own teeth when "gay" was a mood.

But the undoubted highlight of the day was my discovery of Home Plus. At last, a proper, full-sized supermarket. No more wimpy, ladies handbag-sized 7/11s for me. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a commercial whore. I love buying stuff. Even more, I love wandering the aisles of Tesco and gazing longingly at all the differently coloured labels. I don't care what joyless Commies like Noam Chomsky or Rage Against the Machine say about capitalism and the establishment: the establishment can provide me with 63 slightly different types of chocolate bar all featuring identical ingredients. I want 63 sightly different types of chocolate bar. I bet in Cuba they have one. Probably red too. Idiots.

Home Plus* was the real deal all right: huge enough to get lost in, only to re-emerge years later senile and with a foot-long beard. Aside from the mini LCD screens beside certain products that started talking to you as you walked by, the best thing about the place was the fact that every second aisle seemed to have a lady giving out free food samples.

By the time you walked the three miles or so from each end of the shop to the other, your belly was full and you could start all over over again because the first woman had forgotten who you were in the intervening hour. I may just begin conducting my regular eating arrangements in such a fashion.

So there you have it: Seoul money-saving tip number #43: sustain yourself with free supermarket samples. Tomorrow, I explain how regurgitated kimchi can make a great surface cleaner, antiseptic and pesticide.

(*This post was in no way paid for by Home Plus or any of its subsidiaries)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Korean women

OK, SO this where the pervert westerner expounds on the delights of oriental women, I hear you sigh. Cynics, the lot of you.

Actually, I just want to make some interesting observations about Korean ladies, and some of the differences between them and the lovely lasses back in Ireland. Something that struck me straight away upon arriving here was how well Korean women dress. In fact, they are without doubt some of the most attractive and well-presented women I have seen anywhere.

I'm constantly astounded by the effort that these women go to to look good. Even during the day, short skirts and high heels are practically as standard. And looking good often goes beyond just clothes and makeup. One BBC report from a few years back suggested that over 50 per cent of Korean women in their 20s have had some form of cosmetic surgery - a truly astounding figure. By far the most common procedure involves adding a fold to the eyelid, giving the patient bigger - and more western-looking - eyes. Nose and boob jobs are also popular.

Then there is the fact that there are simply no fat people in Korea. Well, actually, they are about 11 - and I'm one of them. Presumably, with the likes of McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts infiltrating every corner this is beginning to change, but, for the moment at least, rates of obesity just don't compare with those in the West.

Something else I've noticed is that - forgive me girls - Korean women seem to be just a little bit more vain than, say, Irish women. On the subway, you will typically see girls fixing their hair and make up in the carriage windows. In the subway stations themselves, there are mirrors on the walls by the ticket stiles. Even many of the mobile phones here have mirrors on the back.

The very funny cartoon at the top of this post by Luke Martin of Groove Korea magazine, an expat mag here, on the key difference between western and Korean women says more than words ever could.

Of course, when you are hot you can typically get away with blue murder. Much to my amusement, you often see guys carrying around their girlfriend's handbags. This, to me, is more than a little bit emasculating (not that I wouldn't do the very same in a heartbeat if I was asked to - oh we are a weak bunch, us men).

But, as a pervert westerner, it is difficult to have to much of a problem with women putting effort into their appearance. The only problem is really if they expect a comparable effort from men. Because, where I come from, a shower, clean T-shirt and a lick of hair gel indicates that a man has put serious work into his appearance.

And this old dog is too old to be learning new tricks.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spitting on the street and Barney the Dinosaur (kind of)

IT IS easy to assume that what counts as good manners or plain rudeness is more or less self-evident: you don't eat from other people's plates, you don't pick your nose in public, you don't touch yourself - or anyone else - up on the bus etc. . .

But, of course, what we call "good manners" is culturally determined. Consequently, some of what Koreans consider everyday behaviour might seem rude to outsiders at first. For example, Koreans don't say "sorry" when they bump into someone on the street. Now, Seoul is packed, and I mean packed with people. If you felt the need to apologise every time you rubbed shoulders with a stranger your lungs would probably pack up and quit. You'd be better off sticking a "sorry" sign to your forehead.

You will also never hear "thank you" if you hold open the door for a stranger. I've read that this relates in part to their Confucian heritage, which traditionally saw society as very structured and hierarchical, in which people had their place and stuck to it. As a stranger, your place in this scheme of things simply isn't known.

Least pleasant of all is many older Korean men's tendency to spit on the street. And they won't just spit either. They'll hawk and rasp until whatever persistent globule of phlegm is discharged. Charming stuff to drink your iced coffee to in the morning.

But in many other ways, a lot of Koreans display a level of kindness that would be rare back home. I've had dinner bought for me. Another man stopped to replace a creased bank note of mine with a fresh one because it wasn't working in a vending machine. At various restaurants, well-meaning staff have warned me about how spicy the food will be, as though nothing fierier than a packet of smoky bacon Tayto's is ever eaten in Ireland. In short, my experience of the people so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

When you jump in at the deep end of another culture, especially one as distinct as Korea's, you simply have to make allowances for the inevitable differences. The differences, after all, are half the fun. And if we can all try to understand each other, maybe we can all just get along and then the world. . .

Right, enough of that, I'm beginning to sound like Barney the Dinosaur. And that purple freak wouldn't last a day here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Climbing up the walls. . .

HOW LONG again did I say it would be before I felt like the walls were closing in? The light in my room has died, and I'm in semi-darkness. Two cockroaches that were scaling up my bedroom wall lie dead on my floor, victims of some recently purchased insect spray. Survive a nuclear holocaust? They couldn't even handle a hand-held chemical weapon out of a convenience store.

I keep thinking I see creatures creeping about out of the corner of my eye. I realise it takes supreme arrogance to question the Almighty's work, but what was he thinking when he created the cockroach? Nasty, sneaking, creepy, vile, ugly, relentless creatures. You can only have contempt for something that lives of off rubbish and shit.

My laptop keeps making noises and won't type properly. It's hot. It's always hot. There is a fan, but all that does is blow hot air at me until the sweat congeals on my body. About as useful as a virginal prostitute.

I'm beginning to appreciate the meaning of the phrase "you get what you pay for". Somewhere in this neon-rich metropolis there is a better place to live. I've got three weeks left here. Three weeks to find somewhere else.

Karaokee, Elton John and wandering Korean girlfriends

IT WASN'T my typical way of ending a night out: belting out Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" with a girl I'd met hours earlier swaying along side, providing the appropriate backing vocals.

I'd met her at a club in Itaewon and she'd insisted, in patchy English, that we go find a karaokee room or "Norae-bang", which was basically a room you rented with a screen, a microphone and all the rubbish songs you could ever ask for. Her friend and a guy she'd just met came too, but had left a little earlier.

She seemed impressed with my drunken, off-key rendition and snuggled up close to me - "The Lion King" was a bloody romantic film, after all. Then she dropped the bombshell.

"I'm a bad girl," she cooed.

"Oh, why's that?"

"I have a boyfriend."

Fuck. She hadn't told me this important piece of information when I spoke to her at the club. She'd hadn't told me after we danced. She hadn't told me after we kissed. No, she had told me now. Excellent.

"Oh. . ." I said, dumbly.

She didn't seem too worried and stayed close against me. There was the ethics of all this, sure; cheating wasn't something I was particularly fond of. But there was a fairly pressing health and safety angle to consider as well. Korean men learnt Taekwondo in school. They all did compulsory military service. I did neither. Plus, I was built like a 80s-era Skoda - pretty shoddily.

What I was supposed to do? Things had been going great, and now I was potentially gearing up for firsthand experience of the Korean health service. What if it was anything like the HSE? Oh Please, God, anything but that.

But I liked her. And looking down into her deep, brown eyes wasn't helping.

"Do you want to go?" I said.

"Sure, bathroom first."

I waited outside in the hall, trying to think clearly through the fog of Elton John and watery beer. What would Elton do?

"When the heart of this star-crossed voyager beats in time with mine. . ."

What that did that even mean? What crap. Anyway, he'd probably dress up in flamboyant clothes and sing about the experience. Never mind.

She came out of the bathroom and I fell back to reality. I still liked her. Even if she wasn't the most virtuous woman who ever lived. Oh well, I wasn't looking for Jane Austen in a companion anyway. As we moved towards the exit, she said something to the owner in Korean. She saw my puzzled look.

"You know what I say?" she said to me with a smile.

"No, what's that?"

"I said to him you are my boyfriend," she said, giggling.

I frowned, and hand in hand we walked into the street and the early-morning light.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Drinking, dancing and early morning subway rides.

WHEN I stepped off the plane into Seoul's sticky air last Thursday I was determined to hit the town that very night. The jet lag hadn't raised it's nasty head and I couldn't wait another day to see how Seoul moved at night. Rather naively, I was also determined to stay away from the expatiates. I wanted to see the real Korea I told myself. No Starbucks and pints of Guinness for me, oh no.

So rather then head for Itaewon, where it seems practically all of Seoul's foreigners live, I took the one-stop subway ride to Hongdae, an area with four universities and more nightclubs than a dog has got fleas (assuming, of course, said dog has not fallen victim to one of Korea's specialist dog-meat restaurants).

When I got there, Hongdae was swarming with people, most of them young, ostensibly students. After flitting in and out of a few empty bars, I quickly learned my first lesson about Korean nightlife: things kick off much, much later than in Dublin. As clubs stay open all night, there is no mad dash to get tanked while the night is young - you have hours and hours to do that.

At about midnight I found myself in a club playing hip-hop that fancied itself as being straight out of the Bronx. Beer in hand, the only non-Asian face in the packed room, I bobbed awkwardly to tracks about shooting rivals and fornicating with women of easy virtue. Really clever tracks managed to incorporate the two.

But, despite the bad-ass nature of the music, the Korean crowd was among the best-behaved of any club gathering I'd ever seen. There was no grinding, no kissing, no drunken staggering - anywhere. Save the profane rapping, it was the kind of club atmosphere my mother might just approve of.

Talking to people proved rather difficult. Actually, it was nightmarish. Almost no one had English or at least that's the way they wanted it to appear. After confirming the worst aspects of the male western stereotype by gawking at pretty women and dropping my beer like a clown, I left. I needed to rethink my social strategy big time. There was always tomorrow.

The next night I caved. Maybe expats weren't all that bad. Maybe there was a reason they all went to Itaewon. The contrast couldn't have been stronger. There were black and white faces everywhere, there was mild debauchery in the clubs. There were brothels off the main street. The district's nightlife had grown out of its proximity to a U.S. army base and now was as close as Seoul came to a bastion of sin. And if sin was friendly and willing to chat, that would be fine by me.

Within minutes of sitting at the bar at the first place I happened upon I was chatting to the barmaids. They were Korean but they had English and were open to banter. One of them reminded me of what Beyoncé might look like if she was Korean. I definitely would have married her. I had to keep proposals to a minimum -- I was here for three months yet -- so I held my tongue. Yuna, I will come back for you.

The rest of the night reinforced the change of mood from the night before. There were plenty of Koreans in Itaewon, it wasn't just expats, but the difference was that they seemed more open to foreigners, or perhaps they were simply more used to them.

Things went well. People were friendly. I didn't feel as though everyone regarded me with suspicion, as one would a particularly nasty sex offender. It was a relief after the disappointment of my maiden voyage on the seas of Korean booze. I even got a phone number or two (one of which, handwritten, I couldn't read in the cold light of day. Damn Korean handwriting.)

I went to get the first subway home at 5:30am (yes, 5:30am on a Saturday). At the station I met an American soldier who was stationed in Seoul. He was very tired and very drunk. He'd been hoping to ship out to Iraq or Afghanistan, but he got S. Korea instead. He'd didn't know quite what they were doing there.

"They keep inventing stuff for us to do," he complained.

"At least you are not being shot at," I told him.

"Yeah, that's true. I guess I'm better off here than Afghanistan," he said.


I reckoned I was better of being here too. The train home was coming down the line, and a sweaty, stripped mattress was waiting for me close by.

Would I have either in Kandahar?