Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Roses are red...wait, I like sports.

KOREA has plenty of its own unique twists on romance. And so it is with Valentine's Day. The date is the same. Romance is still the theme. But, for reasons I have yet to determine, in Korea, Valentine's is all about the men.

 It's the girls who buy the chocolates for guys, not the other way around. A month on, it's payback time, with White Day for the ladies. Now, you might think that the chocolates the guys get here would be somewhat "manned-up" compared to the ribbon-wrapped, girlie offerings we are used to in the West. Perhaps chocolate-shaped tanks or pralines fashioned like nude women. Nope. What's on offer is just as chick-tastic as anywhere.

Outside every convenience store tables will offer baskets, teddy bears, fake roses and colourfully-adorned boxes and boxes (and boxes) of chocolates. Is there a (heterosexual) man who appreciates the kind of saccharine tokens of Hallmark's favourite holiday that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "My Little Pony"? Perhaps in Korea. Or perhaps they have no choice.

Yes. Men do like chocolate on occasion. This is acceptable. There are, for instance, blood sugar justifications for tolerating, at times, sweetness. Men, however, do not like flowers, teddies, angels or pink. Especially not pink. It is just not right. It's a weak colour. Neither red or white, but iffy. No character. Pink sort of says, "I thought about running the four-minute mile, but then decided instead to buy a kitten and bake muffins." 

There is an order to things, there are jobs to be done. And pink does not fit into this order for men. No one stormed Normandy wearing pink. Or bench pressed 200lbs. Or chopped down a tree. 

Of all nations, Korea should no better. There is a belligerent and unstable commie state on its doorstep. Do you think Kim Jong-il is going to be deterred from throwing his weight around by Hello Kitty or pink heart-shaped boxes? No. No he is not. He'll be encouraged if anything. There is a reason men here have compulsory military service. And bringing men into contact with pretty Valentine's wares goes against it.

No one ever punched anyone in the face wearing pink. Not like a man anyway.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

War and sacrifice

IT WAS over Seolall that I finally made it to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. The complex is huge and it would be easy to spend hours moving between the different rooms and exhibits. And well worth it would it be too.

There are few things more trite-sounding than the insistence that life was harder in times gone by, or that we've never had it so lucky as today. But what is trite is not necessarily untrue. And, truly, it is almost impossible when walking the streets of Seoul today, with its Starbucks branches and people on smart phones, to comprehend what the city was like just a few decades ago.

The occupation by the Japanese turned particularly nasty with the outbreak of WWII. The Korea War, which followed, was horrible by any measure. Some estimates put the civilian dead alone at 3 million. And yet, it is a war which barely registers in the European and, I'd suspect, but perhaps to a lesser extent due its heavy involvement, American consciousness. We've heard of WWII. We've seen the films and know the players. We've heard of Vietnam. We've heard the soundtrack and of Hendrix and protests and seen the photos of the effects of napalm. But the Korean War?  How many of us know much about that?

But it is only when you try comprehend -- and try is all you can do, because really understand one cannot -- the sheer difficultly of life in Korea until relatively recently, that you begin to appreciate the marvel that Korea is today. And you begin to understand, if only faintly, why the country is the way it is.

Almost every westerner who comes here is amused, aggravated and charmed in equal measure by just how tough the older generation is. At 7am on a Saturday morning they are hiking mountains, at 3pm they are pushing you, moving though you are, onto a subway carriage, at 10pm it could work, washing, cooking, and cleaning. They must be truly aghast at how soft the Korean young and western visitors are.

But they didn't have time or a choice to be any other way. Life was hard and that, one can imagine, was that. At the memorial, my girlfriend told me about how, during the Korean War, her grandmother had to avoid Chinese soldiers' attempts to have her drafted into prostitution. To make herself unattractive to the soldiers, she would cover her face in urine or feign retardation. This is a woman who is still alive and whose grandchildren are not only never hungry, but drink lattes for 5,000 won and buy cinema tickets on their phones. The speed at which life improved for the next two generations of Koreans is astonishing. Life was hard, much harder than today. And it's trite, but that hardly matters.What matters most of all is what is also so inspiring: things can and do improve. 

Dramatically, widely, unstoppably. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


AGAIN a holiday has sneaked up on me from somewhere in the Korean calendar I didn't know was significant. This time it's Seolall -- the Korean new year. It's the year of the rabbit. And I'm a rabbit. It means you are supposed to be lucky and smart. Apparently it is the best animal to be. I'm supposed to stay away from boars at all costs. I think.

 Three weekdays lie free before me. The last one is accounted for. The rest, not yet. Like Chuseok, Seolall is all about family. People in the cities clear out to the countryside and visit family and eat and remember the dead. Everyone I know seems to be gone. It is a holiday that doesn't affect the average westerner apart from the time off. And so I'm sitting and waiting. Waiting for what, I don't yet know.

Waiting to think, probably. Spring is here now. The ice is turning to slush. The new year has come again. Twice in just over four weeks. 

Time to make a whole new set of resolutions.