Monday, August 30, 2010

Living to work

IT DIDN'T take me living in Korea long to realise that people work long, long hours here. When I go home from work every evening there will always be people still at their desks, despite the fact that deadline is long over. Ostensibly, none of them have anything to do -- no stories are submitted, not edits are necessary -- but nevertheless they want to be seen to put in long days at the office.

I mentioned my observations on the Korean work ethic to one of my teaching assistants last weekend. She told me about a friend she has whose work schedule would put most slaves to shame. This friend of hers typically works from 7am -10pm -- seven days a week. Yes, you read that right: 15 hours a day, 105 hours a week. Oh, and here's the best part: she doesn't get overtime. She gets one day off to herself each month.

Unsurprisingly, I was stunned. There is hard work and there is burnout. With a schedule like that, having friends or hobbies becomes impossible. Even a good night's sleep is improbable. As for holding down a girl or boy friend? Don't make me laugh.

The girl in question apparently wondered why she didn't have a boyfriend. Well, if you are reading, wherever and whoever you are, here's why:

HIM: "Hey babe, you want to watch a movie or something tonight?"

HER: "No, I have to lift large, irregularly-shaped rocks around the office all night. How about sometime in 2015?"

HIM: beep, beep, beep . . .

Korea's economy is doing fantastically well and the productivity of its workers no doubt has a lot to do with that. Work-shy, socialist basket-cases like Greece could learn a lot from Asia's 4th-largest economy. But there comes a point where no salary, no sense of self-reliance, makes up for having no time or quality of life.

More than once, I have found myself acting as an unqualified therapist to people I hardly know. Here's an actual text I received from someone I met ONCE while they were at work (regular readers -- all three of you -- may be interested to know the person in question is the Elton John-loving, unfaithful young lady from early posts).

"I feel so blue ~ I cried T - cuz Im hard to live."

Look, when your job leads you to say things like (when translated from Konglish) "It's hard to live", it's simply not worth it anymore. How could it be?

Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, having surpassed Japan, a country where suicide is endemic compared to most of the West, a few years ago. I can't help but speculate that Korea's unforgiving work culture may have something to do with this crisis of despair.

Much like their attitude to marriage, many young people I've met are looking to the West and hoping to work for a foreign-owned company or abroad. They aren't prepared to endure the work conditions that were normal for many of their parents.

And, really, who could blame them?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Marriage and babies

SOUTH KOREA isn't having enough babies. In fact, it has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Rapid modernisation and a grueling work culture have led women to ditch the Pampers for PDAs. A pensions time-bomb is ticking and a gentrified workforce is waiting in the wings. It is a major, major problem for the future of Korean society and the economy.

Girl after girl I've spoken to here has left me with the impression that isn't likely to change any time soon. Why? Because they have no desire to get married - in Korea that is. One of the girls from my Korean class explained to me that married life for women in Korea is neither blissful nor serene. She said she has seen the sacrifices her mother has made, and she isn't willing to make them too.

Family is hugely important in this country. Almost everyone lives with their parents until they are married. The eldest child in the family is expected to look after his or her parents in their old age until they pass away. Once you are married, you can expect your in-laws to become part of your family to a far more meaningful degree than in the west. They don't just visit on weekends. They become part of your life. Some married couples live with the bride's in-laws.

My teaching friend said that she didn't want to have to please her future husbands' parents and constantly win their approval. She said she didn't want to have to give up her career to have a child, and that almost all but the major companies in Korea would fire her were she to get pregnant. She wants to move to the U.S. and marry a foreigner.

A few days later I met another girl who told me the same thing. A few days after that, yet another girl still said the very same to me and added, rather bizarrely, that she wanted a mixed-race baby.

The younger generation of women aren't prepared to put up with the hardship their parents endured. They have designer handbags and smart phones, and cash in their pockets. They aren't as conservative as their parent's view of marriage requires them to be. For many of them, the West seems tantalizingly free. Already, many Korean farmers import brides from Vietnam and the Philippines because they can't find a Korean wife. Less and less Korean women are willing to live a rural life and mind the family home.

Until it is made easier for women to have children and hold down a job, and their perception of marriage changes from something oppressive and to a partnership of equals, Korea's low birthrate will never rise.

And a generation of bright, beautiful, young women will be Korea's loss and the United States' gain.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The sound of a North Korean attack

I WAS sitting at my desk in the office when I heard it: the shrill, demented wail of an air raid siren. My blood went cold. Was this it? A flash in the sky and a moment to gasp before a nuclear firestorm burnt me to a crisp?

No, North Korea wasn't attacking, but how was I to know? I soon learnt that the authorities do a test of the siren around this time every year - another reminder that peace on the Korean peninsula is not regarded as exactly stable and secure.

Of course, considering they do it every year and people are so used to it, one wonders whether anyone would take it seriously should an actual attack occur.

It's funny how even such an awful, threatening signal can become banal to those who hear it.

I hope that complacency is never shattered.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Possibly the best quote ever from a public figure

WE ALL need a good laugh sometimes. Whether it's global warming, AIDs, sex offenders or swine flu (aren't we all supposed to have that by now?), one would be forgiven for thinking the human race is on the verge of extinction.

Some people bring a smile to their face with a stiff drink or by renting "Anchorman" for the dozenth time. Me, I like to read the Korea Herald for quotes from Korean public figures. Take today's edition, which features a story on a Mr. Jo Hyun-oh, the nominee for the job of commissioner of the Korean police force. Referring to the police response to protests in 2008 against U.S. beef imports, he said this:

“Nobody has died from a water canon shot,” the then-Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Chief said in a lecture for police officials.

“It may even give a pleasant winter-like chill in summertime, when appropriately mixed with tear gas.”

Wow. That's the kind of guy you want running the police. "Pleasant winter-like chill" - marvelous. I can see the Korean tourist board adverts already: pretty young models in bikinis frolic in the refreshing spray of a police water canon, welcome relief from the sweltering summer heat.

"Does your fair skin mean that Korean summers are just too hot to handle? Well worry no more! Thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, you too can now bask in the pleasant winter-like chill of a police water canon! And for limited time we will throw in an appropriate mix of tear gas absolutely free!

Book now for our full police brutality package! Our retractable baton back massage and pepper spray face exfoliation are guaranteed to leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed!"

Honestly, with public figures like these, who needs "Anchorman"?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Happy Liberation Day!

TODAY IS Liberation Day, which celebrates the liberation of Korea from Japan. The President, Lee Myung-bak, made a speech -- which included his, rather vague and unlikely, "plans" for reunifying North and South Korea -- and down by City Hall was thronged with people watching screens filled by people I didn't recognise making speeches I couldn't understand.

Even so, it was quite affecting to see so many turned out to take pride in their country. Sadly, patriotism has something of a sullied name back home these days, what with the actions of the IRA and other murderous gobshites. Overall though, Korea's celebration of independence seems a relatively sombre affair, without the kind of drink and cheer you'd expect on St. Patrick's Day or the 4th of July.

Then again, Ireland was liberated from hoards of deadly serpents, which is much greater cause for celebration than expelling some bothersome Japanese. . .

GIs and one night stands Korean-style

IT WAS raining like God was chopping onions, and I was late. In a feat of impressive stupidity I had set my alarm for 8pm. This wouldn't have been a problem if, like Count Dracula, I generally began my day after dark. I didn't. And on this day, I had meant to rise at the rather earlier time of 8am. My Korean lesson began at 10am. It was now 10.10am - and I had only just left my goshiwon. Saturday morning starts obviously weren't natural.

Umbrella erect, I waded through the rain towards Sinchon subway station. Walking towards me on the other side of the street I noticed a stocky, gloomy-looking black guy. He had no umbrella and had an expression like he had just been sold a tumbler of apple juice at a bar in place of scotch.

"Hey man," he called out in an American accent,"do you know where I can get a cab around here?" He crossed the street towards me.

"Yeah, there should be plenty around the corner. But the subway is just left here. Where are you going?"

"City Hall," he replied, walking along side. "I met this girl last night and brought her back to a hotel and fucked her. When I woke up she was gone. What's the matter with these goddamn Korean girls?"

I laughed. Korean girls went to even greater lengths than normal to convince the world of their virginal innocence. In what is still quite a conservative country, girls who are anything other than pure and innocent are looked down upon even more than in the West.

"Angels", therefore, don't hang around for breakfast. I'd experienced it myself first hand.

"So are you are an English teacher?" I asked him.

"No, military."

We came to the station and he stopped at the steps.

"I'm going to have a cigarette. If I see you, I see you," he said, shaking my hand.

And with that I left him at the entrance to contemplate how it felt to be on the receiving end of a one night stand cliché that was supposed to be the preserve of men. Weren't men the ones who snuck out the next morning without so much as a goodbye?

In Korea, no, apparently not.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Text messages in the early hours

THE OTHER day I got a text message at 7.06am. That's the same 7.06 am when this blogger is usually very much asleep and dreaming of wonderful things. The message was from a girl who had contacted me earlier for a language exchange. It is not unusual to receive text messages at such horrifically early hours in Korea. But this was a new record, making texts I'd received before 9am from other people seem positively welcome.

For some unbeknown reason, Koreans -- or at least girls who do language exchanges -- apparently have no concept of what is an appropriate time to text someone. In my book, phones shouldn't ever beep or buzz before noon - unless there is good reason.

But in Korea, a Saturday morning's glorious slumber will often be interrupted with insightful messages like:

"Are you awake?"

I am now, yes. Thanks for asking.

"It is humid today."

Oh is it? Thanks for the weather update.

"Good morning kind men."


It is truly strange. But it surely explains one thing about Korea: why everyone is so tired all of the time.

No wonder so many Koreans sleep on the subway.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Don't mention the war. . .

JAPAN IS somewhat of a touchy subject in Korea. Resentment over Japan's past actions, as well as their position on some present day disputes, lingers on among many Koreans.

Japan, you see, was a bit of a bully in her younger days. Until the end of WWII, she was the great coloniser of Asia, spreading the tentacles of empire from to Korea to Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and beyond. And she was frequently brutal in her methods.

The Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan in 1910. But what remains the most politically charged legacy of Japanese occupation is the exploitation of "comfort women". These were thousands of Korean women sold into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during WWII. Survivors continue to protest for recognition of their plight and compensation to this day. The Japanese government has apologised for its colonial past, first in 1995 and most recently just this week - a gesture which was tepidly "noted" by Korea. Compensation has not been offered, however.

As an Irishman, I am familiar with the feelings of nationalism and resentment that can flourish in a previously colonised nation. But, from what I can gather, Ireland has come considerably further in letting the past lie than Korea has. The Korea Herald regularly runs features on why Dodko -- an essentially worthless islet claimed by both Korea and Japan -- is really part of Korea and why the 1910 annexation treaty was invalid. It simply would no longer be possible to publish such seemingly petty nationalistic sentiment in the Irish media.

Similarly, mentioning Japan to a Korean will likely provoke a strong response. One of the men living at my goshiwon complained to me how the Japanese had stolen Korea's beloved side dish kimchi and given it a name of their own. On another occasion, a girl I was talking to in a bar insisted that Japanese girls were ugly compared to their Korean equivalents. I couldn't help but feel that, to her, being prettier than the Japanese ladies was especially important.

Koreans certainly are proud, and with good reason in many respects. In a relatively short space of time South Korea has achieved first-world levels of wealth and a functioning democracy, while its Northern brother continues to be a poverty-stricken dictatorship.

But perhaps this success would be all the sweeter if Korea could let go of Japan's past injustices. No country or people should be angry forever.

Korea should be no different.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Strangers wanting your photo

I WAS on the subway on the way to my Korean lesson when he approached me. He was wearing a baseball cap and a goofy grin, and had a PSP game console in his hands. He looked like he was in his teens.

"Are you American?" he said.



"No, I'm Irish."

"Can I take your photo?"

"Eh, sure."

He put his arm around my shoulders and took a picture of us with his PSP, him grinning in triumph, me looking confused beyond belief. He got out at the very next stop and waved goodbye as the subway doors closed shut after him.

I really don't know why he wanted a photo of me but can only assume it was due to the slight novelty factor of a white man in Korea. Maybe he was going to show the picture to his friends, as though I was the latest Pokemon to be added to his collection.

"Hey guys, look what I got! A whitey!"

"No way man! But get this: I saw a real black dude yesterday."

"That's horse shit, I don't believe you! No one could get that lucky."

"Whatever, man. I do and he beats whitey by 8 cool points."

Another oddity, another day in Korea. I'm not complaining, though. I never thought before that pasty skin and orange freckles could be exotic. Maybe I'll set up a stall on the street and charge 1,000 for photos with the white marvel.

I could do with the money.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"Annoyed reader" replies

"ANNOYED READER"/Mr. Kim replied the following to my reply the other day (his name is 'X'-ed out).

Dear John,

I'd appreciate your quick e-mail.
You are the first reporter to reply to me. You won the jackpot. Congratulation !!
I'd apologize my prejudice that your are a Korean.
Since I got connection at The Herald, I will continue my comments with you and your colleagues.
Hopely, the other reporters show the courtesy like the one you have.

Enjoy the sizzling Seoul Summer
P.s. Mr. Kim(my father) passed away 3 years ago. Your email delivered to the ghost.
We go by 'XXXX' and 'XXXXXX', if you don't mind.
For all his English prowess, he clearly has a feeble grasp of sarcasm. I wonder, though: just what sort of "jackpot" am I supposed to have won?

If a lottery win grants you an email from a stranger, I'm happy I saved my €2 coins down through the years, frankly.

The completely unasked for information about his deceased father was nice, though. But what is this "we" business? Is he schizophrenic? I hope he doesn't know where the office is. . .

If I wake up in a bath tub of ice with a number to the hospital written on my arm in felt tip maker in the next week or so, I'll be none too be pleased.

Although, I wonder if you can get a Pulitzer for vital organs lost in the line of duty?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Korean trolls and my proudest day as a young journalist

TODAY I got my first ever angry email as a journalist. One of our loyal readers sent me his thoughtful response to a fluff piece I did about Korean food cooking lessons for expats. Here, completely unedited, is what he sent to my inbox (the red lines are his comments on my writing, although the righteous fellow wasn't consistent with the colour so some of the black ones are too):

"Cookery classes 'cooking classes' is common. 'cookery class' is right, too. But, nobody says that.
A special royal cuisine cooking class Later in your report, you use 'cooking'. Choose one. like choose only woman.

Despite being less well-known internationally than its Chinese and Thai equivalents, Korean food is gaining popularity around the world. Now it is hoped that traditional Korean cookery classes for foreigners will only broaden its appeal further.
The ****** reporters love 'despite'. 'Though' is friendly.
'less well-known' is grade-1 English. 'less known' will do.
'is gaining' shoud be 'has been gaining'.
' will only broaden its appeal further' awkward English.

global food What is 'global food' ? I've never heard that ? Is your inventive writing. English is not your mother tongue. You are not W. Shakespere or Dickenson.
The Herald love 'global'. Seoul will be 'global city'. What is 'global city' ?
But Korea is still a process to work on Korea = a process ???
to prepare Korean dishes bulgogi bulgogi is ONE dish. Why dishes ???
which will focus on other dishes such as Big deal ! which will teach you other dishes.... It's class. Plain Englsh is better.
will also take place in September at a date yet to be decided. 'take place' ??? Class does not take place. Class starts.

According to Yoo Yoo said. 'according ...' is everywhere. Boring composition.
Yoo also says that the center center' somewWhat is the center ? You call Korea House 'center' ? Did I miss 'somthing here ?
it’s a well-being and health food You don't know 'well-being'. You say 'healthy and happy and health'. Well-being is healthy and happy.

I have to stop.
Email your comments on my comments.
After 8 emails to your collagues, I am still waiting for the first reply.
Have a good day.

An annoyed reader."
Boy did I get a laugh out of this. There is something marvelously surreal about a Korean with a standard of English that is, being kind, problematic insisting that English is not this native speaker's mother tongue. Funny, I always thought it was.

But he knew how to hit me where it hurt. Not Shakespeare? You are telling me that you didn't like my theatrical debut, a stirring 400-word tale on classes about cooking up grub that would surely rival the poetic elegance of Hamlet? Fiddlesticks. And I tried so hard.

As for "Dickenson", I imagine he meant either Dickens or Dickinson, as in Emily. Funnily, I failed to notice a realist Victorian vibe or plodding, soul-crushingly depressing tone in the article. My mistake.

I decided to send him this reasonably polite, if sarcastic, reply:

Dear Annoyed reader/Mr. Kim,
I regret that you take such a dim view of my English ability, but I can assure you that English is in fact my mother tongue.
I would also like to point out that at no point in the article did I claim to be either the distinguished William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. Someday I may write a play or book of poems, but for the moment I will stick to writing prose of a more mundane sort.
For the life of me I can not understand why none of my colleagues have responded to you. Perhaps they did not receive your email? You know how technology can be.

***** ****

To my dismay, the heroic fellow did not write back. Of course, he probably has quite a few emails to write.
After all, someone has to stand up to the slimy hacks in this town.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Working 9 to 5, or 6 or 7 or 8. . .

YOU CAN tell Koreans work too hard because on any given subway ride about ten percent of the the carriage will be fast asleep (you can also tell that Seoul is very safe city by the same observation). You will find Koreans conked out in all sorts of places. Soon after arriving I saw a man laid out on a street bench fast asleep. An upright coke can was his pillow. It was about the most uncomfortable-looking posture I'd ever seen.

Some of the comatose citizens of Seoul, mostly older men, are paralytically drunk. But mainly they are simply exhausted. Korean society is highly competitive. Getting the best grades in school and having the best looks matter a great deal - as evidenced by the existence of box rooms to study in isolation in and the huge market for cosmetic surgery.

In business, things are no different. Until a few years ago, Korea was one of the few places on earth that had a six-day working week. The law may have changed, but the culture of working slavishly hasn't necessarily.

For many businessmen, 'work' commitments extend far outside of office hours. A gradually diminishing, though by no means gone, aspect of the business culture involves drinking with your boss or bosses. In order to progress in your career it can be expected that you stay out late with your superiors and talk business over bottles and bottles of soju.

Not only do they work a lot, but a great number of Koreans take classes in English or a musical instrument. You'll notice with frustration just how busy Koreans tend to be when you try and arrange a date or friendly meet-up. Typically, it will involve a feat of schedule juggling so complex that you forget what it is you were asking in the first place.
"How about Monday?"

"Sorry, I have work."

"OK, then Friday?"

"English lessons."


"K2 summit attempt."

"Right, then. . .and where am I?"

I have had enough cancelled and deferred dates to open an "IOU 1 Date" shop. Luckily, I've found the perfect solution to this minor annoyance. Drinking alone.

Honestly, I don't see why there's a stigma around it. I get the subway and get dressed on my own. What's the difference? Frankly, it is insulting to presume that I can't manage drinking perfectly well without anyone else's help.

Besides, just look at these wholesome soju ads.

Now, just what could be wrong with something advertised with such nice, smiling young ladies?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Small faces and pictures of eyes

WE WERE sitting by the side of the river near City Hall when my friend Yujin paid me an apparent compliment.

"You have a small face."

"Uh. . .thanks?"

Yes, that indeed was a good thing, she told me. Westerners, many Koreans seem to think at least, generally have smaller faces than Koreans, a point of envy for folks here. Small faces are considered attractive. So she wasn't just calling me a munchkin in a round about way, then. Good.

Yujin teaches at the Korean classes I go to. She is fun and one of the least flaky people I've met here. She keeps her "appointments" as she calls them. I like her. Today she had brought along one of her friends, Peter. He has a Korean name, but he told me simply that I wouldn't be able to pronounce it.

I'm all for blunt honesty.

Peter said he wished he had a high-bridged, western-looking nose and green eyes. He was also "in love" with the gym because, according to him, he was fat. He was no more fat than Gwyneth Paltrow. I sucked in my stomach and continued to nod attentively. Peter then asked me one of the strangest questions I'd ever heard.

"Can I photograph your eye? I'm sorry, I know it sounds weird. I'd just like to."

"Um. . .OK. . ."

He held up his slick-looking camera phone -- Korean phones are the biz and typically have a small microwave oven and tractor beam attached -- and brought it right up to my eye. This was uncomfortable. Was he trying to take an imprint of my retina? Use my identity for financial gain? If so, all he was going to get was enough dosh for a Happy Meal and the subway ticket home.

After what seemed like an age, I heard the click. I still don't know quite why he wanted a photo. Maybe blue was in this season. He had other pictures of eyes in his phone, though. I wasn't even special.

While writing this, I have been texting "R Q" (as I affectionately now refer to her), she of "R Q R Q R Q R Q R Q" and 8a.m. "are you awake" texts fame. I still haven't met her in person. She just found out I was white and told me she wishes she was too.

What was wrong with being Asian? I asked.

"almost korean people like a white skin like white people so ~ . . .kkk do use suncream!"

No fear there, my dear.

I tan like a lobster.