Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Waking up to the next ice age

I KNEW the temperature had gone from warm one day to skin-numbingly cold the next because of two texts telling me so that morning. Ah, the Korean girl SMS weather service. And for free too.

I also knew because I woke up genuinely cold for time first since coming east. A 20 degree plunge in a single night. How could such a drastic change even happen? It was like God had burned his toe playing keepy-uppy with the sun and blasted into the next galaxy in a rage. This wasn't a change of season - it was a climate shift.

When you are Irish you assume that getting on a plane automatically entails going somewhere warmer. It is just the way it is. There are countries that receive sunlight for the growth of plant life and production of vitamin D in people - and then there is Ireland. Snow in Scandinavia? Urban myth. The Swedes only pretend it gets cold so everybody won't come and live there. There is only so much room in paradise.

So I came to Korea without a single jumper, jacket or even thick T-shirt. And until this very day, that decision had served me well. But now, in a single night, my entire wardrobe (well my metaphorical one. I might get a literal one for Christmas) has been rendered unfit for purpose. A trip to Home Plus and its wonderful talking aisles is in order.

There is one spectacle which winter's sudden arrival has me looking forward to. Something to warm the heart against the cold. I've been told that Arctic conditions are no obstacle to Korean women's steely determination to keep up with the fashion.

Girls. Heels. Ice.

I'll pop the corn in the hot glow of my schadenfreude.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Saying "Hi" to the white guy

A MIDDLE-AGED Korean man in a suit said hi to me on the street today. I was on my way to work and he was standing at the top of some steps which emerged from a tunnel under a busy main road. "Hi," I said back, as a reflex. I had no idea who he was and still don't. I didn't stop walking. I don't think he expected me to either.

I don't know why he said hello to a complete stranger. I imagine it was probably because I am foreign and it was his way of saying, strange as it seemed to me, "Welcome to my country". I have had random strangers say hello to me on the street a few times before - presumably for the same reason.

In a city as wealthy and developed as Seoul this may seem strange. Foreigners -- especially whites -- are not exceptionally rare in Seoul. Birds-of-paradise we are not. Much is made in the Korean media of how "multicultural" Korea has become and continues to aim to be. And, indeed, there are now over one million foreigners in the country.

This came about, somewhat like it did in Ireland, in rapid fashion. In the decades after Japanese occupation, Korea remained remarkably ethnically homogeneous. But between 1995 and 2007 the number of foreigners in Korea quadrupled. Quite a rise. So things happened very quickly - surely going someway to explain the curiosity (and, unfortunately, though I believe much less prevalent, xenophobia) newcomers can encounter in Korea.

But Ireland saw a rapid influx too. And could anyone imagine a Chinese person being approached on O'Connell street for a photo or being greeted by strangers in St. Stephen's Green? No, I don't think so. Why?

Actually, Korea's level of immigration has been quite small compared to many nations - certainly much smaller than Ireland's.

One million foreigners sounds like a lot - and in some ways it is for a country with a historically very closed society. But that figure accounts for just over 2 percent of the population. The number of residents born overseas in countries like the U.K. and France easily tops 10 percent. For the U.S. it is over 12 percent - Australia almost a quarter. Korea doesn't come close in comparison -- although, thanks to continuing immigration and Koreans' reluctance to have babies, this is set to change.

Despite all the waffle about multiculturalism, despite the unstoppable march of globalisation, it is not difficult to feel "different" here. And that isn't necessarily something to bemoan or be sanctimonious about. I didn't come here for the Big Macs. I was looking for difference myself.

So next time a "Hi" is thrown my way by a stranger on the street, perhaps I should reply in the same manner.

Stop. Bow. And simply say: "Ahn-young-ha-seh-yo." (안녕하세요)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A phone call

MY PHONE rang. It was a bit after 10pm. I'd been frittering away the evening online, looking at nothing worth looking at. It was Mary*. Mary was a girl I'd "met" online maybe two months before. I'd spoken to her a few times since. We'd never met in the real world. And I hadn't heard from her in weeks. Why would I have? I didn't know her. No matter. She was wondering how I was.

"Hey, good. And you?"

"I'm sorry if I am bothering you," she said.

"No, of course not, it's fine."

I was surprised to get a call from her. I told her so.

"We are friends. I was just wondering what you were doing," she replied. We were? Making friends here was easier than I thought. This I didn't say out loud.

After a few minutes of chit chat, I asked would she send a picture. I like to know what people I talk to look like. Call that shallow, but it's hard to relate to somebody when you don't know their face. I'd think twice about having a conversation on the street with someone with a sack over their head. Balaclavas do more than protect a wear's identity - they intimidate. Of course, at a less lofty, more basic, male level, I always wonder what members of the fairer sex look like. I tried an intellectual justification. Oh well. Blame biology.

She wasn't happy to provide a photo. "No. I am fat, ugly and short," she replied matter-of-factly. That renowned Korean self-esteem again. What did one say?

"Woah, that's a terrible thing to say about yourself!" I said, genuinely, but not as surprised as I should have been. After all, this is the first country I've ever been to where a girl has asked me directly and without irony, "Am I beautiful?". You could be as frank about appearance as you liked - positively or the opposite.

"If I show you, you will be disappointed and leave me," she said fretfully. Leave you? Leave you where? Had I taken her somewhere? Was I in a position to leave her in any sense of the word? Had I gotten married? Was I even awake?

"Uh. . ." I said nervously.

"Just kidding!" she squeaked. Of course. A joke. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Before she hung up, Mary told me to call her anytime. Outside my apartment students were having fun and making noise in the street. Free. I thought about going out to join them.

There was always tomorrow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The "Grunt"

KOREAN is by no means an easy language to learn. That I can even order a beer as the locals do is an achievement in my book. As for holding a conversation - well, Seoul wasn't built in a day. Or something to that effect.

But after a short time wandering the streets of Seoul one may wonder whether there is any point learning the language at all. Why? Because a great deal of communication between Koreans doesn't involve words. There is another way. That way is the "Grunt".

You will experience the "Grunt" on any street corner. You'll hear it in shops and on the subway. "The Grunt" knows no boundaries. What is it? Well, it consists of a range of non-verbal "uh"s, "ah"s, "oh"s and "oo"s, commonly used in casual conversation. But people everywhere rely on the odd "um" or "ah" when chatting, so no big deal, right? Not quite. Koreans manage to take speaking without really speaking to a whole new level.

People here can seemingly have whole conversations employing only the "Grunt". A typical exchange might go like this:





Despite the apparently limited range of the "Grunt", Koreans mange to infuse the system with a whole range of emotions and meanings, ranging from the affirmative "uh", to the rising "ooooo", signifying the "speaker" is impressed.

The "Grunt" can also often be observed in people on the phone, leading a colleague of mine to ponder whether in fact the caller at the other end of the line is ever similarly reticent, resulting in a bizarre extended game of nonverbal ping-pong.

That said, the "Grunt"can only convey so much, and newcomers should be advised that actual words may be required for the transmission of more complex or subtle thoughts or ideas. So, with this mind, surely I'm going to keep up the Korean lessons?


(That'd be yes.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Korean girl sells herself

THE TITLE got you reading, didn't it? But no, nothing like that. You should be ashamed. I mean a different kind of selling yourself. I was poking about cyberspace when this self-description from a girl on a Korean dating website caught my eye.

"hey~ guys *_*zz Let me introduce myseif. l am ***-**** Kim. l am a little short and fat now. l want to be taller and thinner. l jog every morning l'm not sure if l will be thinner than l was before. But l will try."

Awe-inspiring self-confidence indeed. The earnest "But I will try" part kind of breaks my heart. Poor girl - who, if you are wondering, doesn't seem remotely fat if her picture is anything to go by. Not by any Western standard anyway.

But I wonder what she's planning on doing to become taller? I haven't seen any racks on sale down at E-mart. . .

Not yet that is.

The company retreat

I FOUND out a few weeks back that there was soon to be a company retreat. Attendance would be mandatory. No matter. I wanted to go anyway. I was curious about what to expect - especially as the email announcing the trip was in Korean, only partially translated by a Korean-speaking Brit in the office.

I'd heard of these things before - camping in woods and songs around the fire, all the while being reminded of how indispensable you are to the company. Touching. We don't really go in for such sentimental guff in Ireland. To me, it has always seemed a very American, and strange, concept. I've never felt like I needed to be loved by any employer. So long as I'm paid and have some sense of self-worth, I can handle being a cog in a machine. At least that metallic, grinding sound rings true.

But in Korea, a business can sometimes be seen as a sort of a family. A sort of family which you are obliged to drink with and spend far too much of your time. So last Friday, the whole office, me included, filled two buses and headed down the country. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I'd have been happy with a free meal. And a night's sleep in a bed. What bliss that would be.

We arrived in the evening. For the first time in three months I could smell the countryside. It smelt like pig shit. Ah, back to nature at last. After a canteen dinner, we had speeches from the CEO and managing editor
in Korean. I did my best to look engaged. It wasnt easy.

But the language barrier had obviously been factored into the next bit of the evening, where the English-speaking staff members all five of us were sent off by themselves to discuss ways to improve the company. The list we came up was long.

Our education for the evening was done. The fun could begin. Everyone filtered into a large hall with a stage and tables assigned by newsroom desk culture, national, business and new media. There were beers on every table. And a bottle of Scotch. Nice.

An MC entertained the crowd in Korean. But I knew when to laugh at least. Laughter sounds the same in any language. Throughout the night he doled out prizes like he was Santa Clause. And not just any old tat: smartphones, pane tickets and more. I wondered how much this was costing the company. Perhaps not too much. After all, for a smartphone they could bloody well have my soul.

Then an (apparently) up and coming Korean hip hop/R n B boy group hit the stage. One Way was emblazoned on their baseball shirts and caps. Now, I dislike hip hop more than almost anything in this world. Its rampant egotism and vapid ravings about sex make me die inside a little every time I hear it.

But these guys were good. They could sing and were on the decidedly cuter, less Ive-spent-10-in-a-state-penitentiary end of the scale. Somewhat untypically for the genre, the audience was neither informed of the number of women the group had slept with nor the number of rivals killed. A soft boiled egg would have been as hard.

Then it was our turn. A talent show for the employees. Plenty of people in the office could hold a tune, I found out. One guy Id never seen in my life at the office played the sax. I stumbled through the Backstreet Boys with a guitar.

At the end everyone was compelled to form a circle and hold hands. Yes, really. Hold hands. Then, one by one, each person had to go around the circle shaking hands and doling out hugs. It was a beautiful moment. Or something.

After that, the drink flowed, and flowed, and ran dry. I got to bed at 4am. We had to be up at 8am for another meeting and kickball. But it proved to be more then a fair trade. The next morning I won two plane tickets to Jeju Island, Koreas premier honeymoon destination. Not too shabby. Two tickets, though.

The question was: who would I bring?

Monday, October 4, 2010

A date with higher things

WALKING out of Myeongdong Cathedral, I couldn't help but think that if it was a date I was on, it was one of which my mother would heartily approve. Not too many girls in Ireland suggest a visit to a church these days. But then not many Irish girls are like Korean girls. K-ladies are far too perplexing, infuriating, petulant, warm and endearing -- and often all at once -- for that.

Her name is Pom. I'm not likely to see her again -- not, for the record, entirely down to my choosing. But what's interesting about her is that she is unlike the majority of young women I've met here. The dominant opinion among young women here -- at least those I've met -- runs something like this: "women have to make all the sacrifices in marriage; I'm not getting married, or if I do it will be to a foreigner".

Pom, on the other hand, can't wait to get married. She gets misty-eyed at the thought of her big day. She's only 21 now, but reckons she'll be hitched by the time she's 24. That's her plan anyway. She's dead set on it.

That night the universe was clearly conspiring against me. Already Pom had made me silently question my shallowness and cynicism. Just for how long was superficiality and flippancy when it came to women going to cut it?

Someone in the stars was determined to hammer the point home. As we walked down the slope from the cathedral, a man was proposing to his girlfriend at the bottom -- right there on the street with a microphone. Beside the presumably happy couple (see, I can't help myself) was a truck with a huge video screen. On it read his proposal. They kissed and a small circle of friends and family clapped and cheered.

Romance is big in Korea. You'll see more girls walking about with bouquets of flowers than you ever would in Ireland. At the top of Namsan, a mountain poking right out of the city, thousands of locks inscribed with messages from young couples adorn the railings by the peak's edge
like barnacles.

And then there are the strange expressions of devotion that perplex every foreign visitor. As you pass clothes shops, you notice "his" and "hers" matching sets of underwear. Some couples take this bizarre, clone-of-my-other-half concept further and wear matching hoodies, shoes or t-shirts. Cute or creepy, you decide.

But you know, watching this rather young-looking couple express such a profound commitment I was touched. Really I was. Genuinely. There needs to be some optimism and loyalty in the world, even if it happens to sometimes be naive. Good luck to them. I wish them the best. In a sense, I even envied them.

But as I walked the streets of
Myeong-dong with Pom, I got my answer about whether I could be ready for something a little more "real" myself. To the left, a beautiful woman was sauntering down the street. To the right, another. And another and another. How I wanted to follow.

I wasn't one of those guys with a truck and a flashing screen. Not yet.

This was clarity.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Moving on up (in?)

GOODBYE goshiwon and hello apatuh (apartment). It is small, but so is everything in Seoul. It also has no bed, wardrobe, desk, crockery, cutlery, pots or pans. This can be worked on. But not for a while. Money is still tight. On the plus side, it is in the same area as before, Sinchon, which means four subway stops to work and more bars and restaurants than any area could ever really need. And I haven't seen a cockroach yet. Not one. Nasty creatures.

I've embraced sleeping on the floor. The best way to make it comfortable, I've found, is to roll yourself in a blanket like the contents of an over-sized burrito, close your eyes and hope for the best. And I've discovered underfloor heating.

Most dwellings in Korea are heated through the floor, creating the sensation that you are living on top of a giant, apartment-shaped frying pan. Which is just well as I hear Korea's winters get very cold and drag on quite a bit. Bring on the those -10ºC nights, winter, I'm ready.

Another thing that is rather nifty about the place is that it has no key. No living in the past in Seoul. Key? Ho, ho, dear child, you might as well dry your clothes with a mangle. Instead, you enter the apartment by typing a password into a number pad which flashes and beeps upon verification like something out of "Robocop". The real test of the actual value of this will be whether I can remember the password after a bottle of soju late some night soon. Robocop, of course, wouldn't need a password - he'd just kick down the door with his steel size 13s.


One thing that is very easy to under-appreciate about Ireland is just how much space there is. Wide, open, uncluttered, God-given
room. Even in Dublin -- which in my memory increasingly seems like a quaint village in comparison to Seoul -- a park rarely seems to be more than a short walk away. And people live in houses. Houses with a dozen rooms and back gardens.

Now you may think that living in a house is a given, a matter of course. It's not. In fact, the degree to which Irish people feel entitled to a four-bedroom semi-d is a fairly isolated
phenomenon globally.

Practically no one, bar the exceedingly wealthy, lives in a house in Seoul. There is no space. Costs are enormous for what meagre
accommodation is on offer. A modest apartment typically costs, relative to the average wage here, a small fortune. This, along with a host of cultural factors, explains why just about everybody in Korea lives with their parents until they are married.

But my small, empty apartment comes as a relief. I can look out on the lights of Seoul from my window and feel that I have something to ground me here for the time being - a modicum of stability in a strange jungle of a city. Oh, and I forgot to mention. My TV -- a vessel for broadcasting of indecipherable, utter lunacy -- is a good six inches bigger too.

Who needs a bed?