Monday, September 27, 2010


CHUSEOK HAS come and gone. The annual three-day holiday can most accurately likened to thanksgiving. As with other harvest festivals, it has traditionally been a celebration of a good year's harvest.

I had three days off for it - time to see the country, to explore. I didn't get around to any of that. Chuseok barely knocked at my door as far experiencing it went. I didn't plan things for a trip down south in advance. Then I drank too much on my first night off. I didn't plan some more.

For the holiday, the year's biggest, people typically clear out of the cities and visit their extended family in the country - if, of course, that's where they live - and eat and drink well. What struck most about talk leading up to the holiday was how negative it was.

Few people seemed to be looking forward to it. In fact, it sounded like the exact opposite of what a holiday should be. Rather, it seemed a sort of dreaded obligation instead. The women of the family generally do a lot of cooking for a lot of extended family. That probably goes some way toward explaining female antipathy for Chuseok.

For some of the younger generation, time with the extended family is an tiresome chore. This, at least, is a universal trait of the hormonally volatile. Spending time with your uncle and aunts or grandparents is about as uncool as an Aran sweater paired with stonewashed jeans. And if your relatives don't pay out like bizarre ATMs with pulses and a shared family name -- well, that just compounds the indignity of it all.

What also stood out for me was how busy Seoul continued to be, Chuseok or no Chuseok. More than half of the shops where I live were open. If you really couldn't wait to go to Dunkin' Donuts, you were in luck. Irish streets on a Christmas day by comparison are as quiet and empty as a school at midnight.

How my company decided to mark the occasion and reassure me of my worth is worthy of note. Actually, to me, it was downright odd. They sent me a 10kg sack of rice in the post, as they did every employee. Such gestures from employers are quite normal in Korea.

Unfortunately, though, my sack never made it to this end and possibly now resides in a post office depot somewhere between Seoul and Bangladesh. It's a shame. It was one huge sack of rice and, given my current financial status, could have come in handy for warding off malnutrition.

You can live off of just rice, right?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Turning Japanese. . .

AS SOON as I joined the queue for my flight from Gimpo International Airport I could tell who the Japanese passengers were. Brightly-coloured, ill-matching clothes and dyed blonde beehive haircuts were a dead giveaway. Compared to conformist Korea, they resembled a troupe of circus folk.

It was to be my first time in Japan. I was excited. It was a country that had long seemed strange and unique in my imagination. The purpose of my trip was for a Korean work visa, which for some reason had to be acquired outside of Korea. Osaka, suitably huge and bewildering, was my choice. In on Thursday morning, out on Saturday evening, visa-stamped passport in hand. If a little fun could be had along the way, all the better.

As a westerner, ignorant of the subtleties of different Asian cultures, it was easy for me to assume that Japan would be just like Korea. Wrong. Many things are substantially different -- and immediately and obviously so.

For a start, Osaka, despite its size, is not as manic and bustling as Seoul. People in Osaka ride bicycles everywhere. In Seoul, you only ride a bike in one of two scenarios:

1) As a convoluted and protracted attempt at suicide.


2) For leisure, along the the Han River on a specially designated cycle path.

Not only that, in Osaka trees line the streets. Traffic is quieter. The air smells less of sewage and other noxious odours and more like, well, air.

As aforementioned, the fashion is, at times, nothing short of bonkers -- especially when held against the simple, but classy, attire of most Koreans. I don't think a single girl in Japan has her natural hair colour. Red-brown and dirty blond mops were everywhere -- as were, to a lesser extent, multi-coloured, rainbow-like styles seemingly taken from the sickly fluorescent world of the Teletubbies.
Another girl I saw appeared to be dressed as Little Bo Peep -- sheep not included.

The men weren't much less conservative. Many looked very "pretty", or simply very strange.

Japan is also very expensive. Horribly so. In fact, it is quite probably more expensive than Ireland. My money dwindled faster than a septuagenarian's hair in a blizzard during my (not quite) three days there.

But by far and away my most memorable, and truly bizarre, experience of Japan was my trip to a "maid cafe". What's this? Well, something approaching a nerdy Japanese teenager's wet dream. Having read about this phenomena before, and noticing the sign emblazoned with a cutesy manga girl minutes from my hostel, my curiosity was piqued.

So in I went. The first thing that made me aware I wasn't just in Starbucks was that all the waitresses (and they were all waitresses) were wearing pink French-maid outfits and bows in their hair. They were also generally strikingly pretty and worryingly young -- the youngest in this place was 16. There was no manager or older person anywhere in sight.

I sat down and ordered a coffee. The clientèle were mainly bespectacled Japanese youths. In the corner, one guy was belting out karaoke in earnest to a Power Ranger video, mimicking the fight moves on screen with gusto. With difficulty I repressed a laugh. This was hilarious.

Then the coffee came. A frighteningly young-looking waitress with a cute factor somewhere between that of Bambi and Hello Kitty, brought the cup, sugar and milk. She set them down, knelt before the table and starting pouring the milk and sugar, asking me to say "when".

In a maid cafe, you don't pour your own milk and sugar, oh no: the customer is king -- so much so, in fact, that waitresses refer to their customers as "master" in Japanese. Most bizarrely of all, you can actually pay to be spoon-fed. Yes, spoon-fed. By a waitress. Like a child.

Stick-in-the-mud that I am, I didn't give it a try. I'm immature enough already. As it is, it is only a few tenuous societal taboos keeping me from reverting to a helpless infantile state, where wearing nappies, blowing my own spit and dribbling down my chin is par for the course.

But this cafe. It also had a menu with, from what I could make out, different points levels. I asked a guy with, just about, functional English what it was all about. Apparently the more you spent the more points you collected. The first level entitled you to a photo of one of the girls on your phone.

The last? A day spent (in platonic fashion, I gathered) with one of the girls. To get enough points for this apparent play date one needed to spend about €2,500. That's a lot of fecking coffee.

I was so gob-smacked by the whole thing that I wanted to get one of the girl's impression of things. Did she enjoy working here? Didn't it seem weird? Wasn't it uncomfortable?

"It is cute. It is funny," she said, cocking her head in ridiculously affected fashion. She might not have fully understood what I asked. Though she seemed genuine enough and unperturbed. But I couldn't be sure.

It was kind of hard to concentrate with her batting her eyelashes at me and some guy in the corner screaming into a microphone.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Korean text-alanche

I RECEIVED the barrage of text messages below from a potential language exchange, all in the space of five minutes before I had replied to the first message.

"^^;; can u come in msn?"

"i'm not familiar with text in english"

"photo is important to meet together?^^ll" (I had asked could I see a photo of her earlier. Yes, yes, so I'm a lecherous pervert.)

"i don't care how you look like" (Oh, yes, and I watch French cinema for its captivating use of silence and monosyllabic, inconsequential dialogue.)

"i don't make a friend by their appearance" (I bet if I had an anus affixed to my forehead you'd reconsider that position.)

"i don't judge them by their appearance^^" (Really keen to drive this point home. I never doubted you for a second!)

"i add your address on my msn" (OK.)

"what brings you come to korea^^?" (Gimme a chance, woman! I only got your message three pokes of a hungry chopstick-wielding Korean ago!)

You have to admire the persistence -- even where persistence is not required whatsoever.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The future is Korea

MY FATE has been sealed: I'll be in Korea for the next year at least. My visa issuance number came through the other day, and on Thursday I'll be making my way to Osaka, Japan, to collect and activate my work visa. I'm relieved. Ireland has little for me at this moment: few jobs, over-familiarity and little optimism. I couldn't have contemplated going back so soon.

A salary will be nice for a change too. The soles are coming away from my soles. My jeans -- my only pair -- are wearing thin. My laptop is slower than a college dropout with a cannabis addiction; and it's missing four keys. But it's not as though the English language has much use for 'k', 'm', 'n' or 'l' anyway, right? No one likes those constants anyway . . .

I've gotten to a point where I'm just about comfortable here. Yes, the novelty of everything is beginning to fade, but I've also come over the inevitable cultural hump of frustration and loneliness that at times marred my first month or so in Korea. I feel good about the next few weeks and months. I'm happy to be here a while.

I'll always be a citizen of Ireland. Assuming Fianna Fail and the Greens manage not to literally sink her beneath the Atlantic, she'll there when I come back.

And in the meantime, if I get homesick enough, there are always those ₩ 9,000 pints of Guinness on sale in every second bar in Seoul. But you know what?

I haven't been tempted yet.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When "no" isn't really no

THIS POST is likely offend some people, particularly women of a feminist disposition, but probably many others too. So be it. What I am about to write is not a comment on how Korea should be or what is right or wrong, but simply on what I've observed and what is. OK then. All buckled in? Off we go.

In Korea, when a woman says or indicates "no" to a sexual advance, she may not actually mean no. Yes, I know how that sounds. But bear with me. And, no, I'm not saying there is no such thing as genuine "no" either. Of course there is. What I am saying, however, is that Korean culture encourages many women to turn down the advances of men they desire, in the expectation, and hope, that they will persevere anyway.

In what in some respects is still a deeply conservative country, where Confucian ideals still exert considerable influence, women are generally expected by men to be sexually innocent and pure. One of my language exchange friends went as far to tell me that many Korean men would be jealous to know that their girlfriend had ever kissed anyone before them. To repeat: before them.

But like in many socially conservative societies, there exists a more liberal, not oft-spoken of underbelly. "Love motels", from which young couples can be seen scurrying in and out of day or night, exist on every second big street. Most Koreans have sex before marriage, despite the stigma that still exists around it. The sex industry is vast and lucrative.

What this means is that Korean society is not as sexually conservative as it pretends to be. Appearances, however, are everything. So, in order to maintain the veneer of purity a woman may repel the advances of a man, even where she is willing to kiss or sleep with him and ultimately will. She may not even just repel him once, but several times. This way, she keeps her conscience clear, having not "done" anything, knowing -- and hoping -- that the man will likely try his luck again.

One Korean saying pretty much sums up the attitude that prevails, translated loosely as: "If you knock a tree ten times it will fall". Astounding, I know.

This dynamic of "push and pull" (as it has been to described to me by locals) can be seen played out on Korean television. Women rarely seem happy or aroused in TV love scenes, instead usually appearing shy and even downright reluctant. In fact, to western eyes, many of these scenes are deeply uncomfortable to watch, appearing nothing short of sinister.

One girl -- note girl -- put Korean sexual politics as starkly as this: "If you try and kiss a girl and she slaps you, try again." She told me this not as a critique of Korean attitudes, but as a piece of advice for me as a young man. Another young woman told me, via translation, of how many of her female friends would complain when they rebuffed a guy they liked who didn't push the issue. As a result, this girl now says "yes" when a man she likes tries to kiss her.

As a western man, all of this is rather bizarre, as well as unsettling. I don't particular relish the idea of "forcing" the issue. I would like to think that I generally respect women. More pertinently, this cultural trait is potentially highly problematic. Just when, for instance, is "no" really no? And does it not encourage men to disregard womens' consent, at least in some instances?

Of all the things that have surprised, delighted and dismayed me about Korea, this has been the hardest to get my head around.

But then this is Korea. Where girls go to motels with guys to "study English" and girls who don't kiss on first dates do that and much more in DVD rooms.

Culture shock doesn't even cover it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Classifieds and being a woman for a day

I GOT the first text message in the morning while at work work. The texter in question had seen "my" ad in the classifieds of the Korea Herald. Ad, what ad? I didn't place an ad. I flicked to the relevant page. Sure enough, there was my number -- only it was printed below an advert from a "24-year-old girl looking for someone to play with". I'd been pranked.

I soon found out that one of the Canadian subeditors, who left the paper this week after some five years there, had placed an advert with my number as a joke some time back. Finally, it made yesterday's edition.

The texts kept coming after that. Some of those who contacted me were on the creepy side. Having explained to one texter that I wasn't in fact a girl looking for someone to "play with", I was accused of being a liar. Look at the classifieds page, I was told. Yes, buddy, I know, but I ain't no horny lady. Another was "looking for someone to play with too".

So far today I've gotten five responses. Five guys who had no idea what this "girl" looked like but were almost certainly looking for sex with "her" all the same. What they all illustrated is the fundamentally different way in which men and women see sex. There is no way the same ad with the word "man" in it would garner the same interest. Not a hope.

The reality is that us men need women far more than the other way around. For most women, sex is easily available -- so long as they aren't too discriminating about the who, why and how of it. In general, sex never has been, and never will be, as unattainable a pleasure for the fairer sex.

Needless to say, I got the girl in charge of the section to cancel the ad. A barrage of messages from horny men wasn't something I needed.

Although I am wondering would my Canadian friend appreciate some attention. Surely he wouldn't mind being some guys' "special" friend?

Now, where was that email address to the classifieds page. . .