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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Peace and quiet - and sexy statues

I GOT off the bus from the airport and listened. Something was different - I wondered was I still in Korea at all. It didn't sound like it. It was quiet - almost silent. Where was the rush of traffic, the petulant "Oppa!"s from girls to their men, the incredulous "Chincha?"s, the cascade of feet? Where was the neon buzz, the R'n'B ringtones, the welcoming bells of convenience store doors opening and closing, the sizzle of street food stalls?

Seoul was to my back. This was Jeju island. There was salt on the air - not kimchi, perfume, sewage or household waste. There was blissful quiet - and few people. After Seoul it seemed serene. Jeju island is the No.1 holiday destination for Koreans: a mecca for honeymooners, pensioners and backpacking hikers. The scenery is beautiful, the beaches clean, the pace of life pleasantly slow.

Jeju is also ostensibly the capital of Korean tack. If the teddy bear museum doesn't do it for you -- featuring, among other indispensable exhibits, teddy bear reenactments of the Normandy landings and the fall of the Berlin Wall -- then Jeju Love Land will: if a theme park filled with giant nude statues in various erotic poses "does" it for you.
I visited both. The latter was full predominately of people well into middle age and beyond. The sight of groups of Korean grandmothers guffawing at an enormous water-spouting, penis-shaped hill is worth the admission fee alone.

At the gift shop, I bought the obligatory tat souvenirs. I went for Jeju cactus tea and chocolate. The key rings would have made for a permanent reminder, but I wasn't too tempted. Suffice to say, they didn't focus on the natural beauty of the landscape. No. Their form was decidedly more corporal. I'd had an hour in a park with enough of that "beauty" as it was.

I walked out of the park, tea and confectionery underarm. Behind me, groups of pensioners giggled and whooped. Comparatively, I was as rock'n'roll as Cliff Richard. Circa "Millennium Prayer". In a white tux. On a skateboard.

The exuberance of youth?

You haven't been to Korea.