Wednesday, 27 January 2016

My least exciting post so far

Winter has been going on for a hell of a long time here, and there's more to come. People say that Korea really only has two seasons - winter and summer, which so far seems correct; then again, I'm not sure it could be regarded as any more depressing than an Irish one. Where Ireland gets relatively mild but extremely cloudy and rainy days, Korea has nice, bright, crisp mornings, but it sure knows how to serve them up cold. The cold snap of the last fortnight was sudden and severe, going from -4°c down to -10° over night, and hitting a low of -17° while I was in Seoul over the weekend (with -23° in the east). As with the Irish winter, it encourages people to go directly from home to work and straight back again; while I tried to run by the river through December, being outside at all eventually became something to be avoided whenever possible. In spite of the temperatures a makeshift vegetable market still springs up on my commuting path on Tuesdays, which provides a window into old, rural Korea. Korea's old ladies (known as ajummas) brace the cold to come in early in the morning from their farms, hunkering down to sell their produce and packing with them small stoves over which to boil their kimchi soup lunches. Almost of all them with some level of hunch in their backs (possibly from years of sleeping on floor mats rather than beds), the ajummas juxtapose modern Korea in a interesting way. These women have lived through the Korean War and the several dictatorships and decades of abject poverty that followed, suggesting the cold winds blowing against them at the market aren't much of a threat. They are, perhaps, the last of their generation, as Korea has transitioned in the last 20 years into one of the most technologically advanced and economically prosperous countries in the entire world. I think a lot of my qualms with Korea spring from this fact - it has known wealth and indeed freedom for very little of its history. One sign of this is the rampant consumerism on display. Koreans love to buy. They love new things. Their clothes don't just look clean, they look brand new all the time. Expensive winter coats abound, and indeed the main street in my town makes it look as if their whole economy runs on selling each other sportswear, top-of-the-range smartphones and overpriced coffee. It often reminds me of the depiction of America in the 1950's, from its conservatism to its capitalism. Travel is not something on the agenda of most Koreans, with few of the students or indeed teachers I've met here having ever been outside the country, and the majority of them show little interest in doing so, claiming everywhere else is too dangerous (even Japan, which is famously as safe as Korea). Most use their money to buy more things, and certainly haven't heard of any of the minimalist or experiantialist movements that have taken off in pockets of the West.
I've discussed their hard work ethic before, but I was still surprised and pretty shocked to hear that despite being on winter vacation, most of the kids still go to supervised study all day (not just exam years), with some saying they actually prefer term-time to vacation. The ones suffering under the biggest tiger moms even said they don't get weekends off, with one 12 year old saying "every day is the same. If I don't have school I study. I don't even get Sundays off". When I questioned one of my colleagues on her views on the education system (and indeed 12 hour work days once you leave school) she responded "you should be happy Koreans work so hard. Otherwise you wouldn't have a
job here". That whole situation bothers me quite a lot, and my heart goes out to some of the kids. I could rant on the topic, but you can make up your own mind on it.
They drink out of tiny envelopes instead of paper cups. To quote my friend Brian,
"I would need 50 of those to not be thirsty anymore."
Sorry there aren't any lighthearted anecdotes in this post, my January has been mostly spent avoiding the cold and being a little sick (aside from an unremarkable Grimes gig in Seoul). And for what it's worth, if you find my posts at times ill-informed or presumuptuous, well you're probably right. I'm not here to write a blog and I can only judge based on my own experiences as well as what I hear from those around me. If for some reason you're dying to know more about Korean culture, come visit.
I'm gonna leave it at that. Hopefully spring isn't too far off, there'll be more adventures to be had
and more photos to make the words in between more bearable. 안녕 !

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The lights and buzz, and the Korean work/drink culture

Not being home for Christmas was always going to be one of the major hurdles or at least points of note in this adventure. Knowing Christmas isn't much of an event here at all bar one day of public holidays, my plan was to embrace the experience of not really doing it this year, in contrast to it being a centrepiece of our calendar year back home, and the one real chance in the year to catch up with friends from both school and university, given the vast majority of my Irish friends are currently scattered between England, Spain and a few other places. I approached it with a contradictory mixture of intentionally overlooking it most of the time, whilst occasionally dipping in and out of contact with friends to remind myself it was still happening. All in all, it wasn't that difficult to focus on other things, given that we worked every day except for the 25th and it was only the American chain stores here that were doing their job of reminding us of the impending holiday. I got lucky with the year I chose to be here, however, in that Christmas Day (and New Year's, obviously) fell on a Friday, so we had the weekend to enjoy what felt like a small vacation. The day itself was spent mostly in Seoul with friends, acknowledging it would be best to not be alone and turkeyless in my apartment. This worked a charm, and while we brought our own festive cheer, it simply wasn't Christmas with all the shops open. Though I did enjoy the flash mob in Gangnam doing a coordinated dance to a medley of Christmas hits. Friends, family and care packages certainly acted as a nice reminder of what was going on on the other side of the world, which added to the sense of not missing out, but also to the awareness of not being home for it.

Not missing out on the Christmas cheer

Word from home was that my absence was noted given I'm "the one who loves Christmas the most" (which is news to me, though understandable), and while it was an experience worth having, I'd be happy to have it just the once. A friend of mine here said that missing Christmas gets harder every year, and I'd believe it. The novelty of not having it surely wears off after the first go round.
Ringing in New Year in Busan was another novelty, in that most New Years Days are spent festering in a friend's house with a dull hangover, but this one I spent wandering through Korea's biggest fish market, watching eels get skinned alive and live octopus get turned inside out (they're not big on animal welfare here), as well as a less ethically dubious visit to a Buddhist temple.
Visiting a Buddhist temple on NYD
Live to Work, Work to drink
I was at a work dinner last week to celebrate the end of the year, which was a perfect snapshot of Korean drinking culture, as well as work culture. As the evening developed from barbeque to drinking, it was pretty obvious that one of my coworkers would rather be at home or in hospital - she was pretty sick, and heavily sedated, but so keen to not miss out on the work dinner (it would have been a snub to the entire staff, apparently), that she powered through the evening matching us shot for shot, holding one and later both sides of her swollen face, resolute in her decision that illness would not get the best of her (I think the Northern regime would have been impressed). By the time we left, she had tears in her eyes from how much pain she seemed to be in. I don't know enough to say if this is reflective of how any Korean employee would act in that situation, but it does fall into line with what I've been seeing and hearing so far. 
As for the drinking, it's all a very structured affair - given the importance of respect for elders and authority here, the elders or boss controls the pace of drinking for everyone at the table - there's a jug of soju, everyone has shot glasses, and every few minutes a new round is poured which everyone has to join in on. There's no freedom to drink at your own pace; again, everything is dictated by group decisions from the superior, just like how we all leave work at the same time together. On top of all this the younger employees turn away from the boss to drink, as it's seen as disrespectful to face them while drinking. This almost seemed like a dance given the pace the boss was setting. I'll be the first to admit to Ireland's messy drink culture, and I don't claim to not be a part of it. I do feel, however, that it's even worse here. While a night out at home is drenched in alcohol, hopefully conversation or dancing or something else is the centrepiece of the night - here, the alcohol takes centre stage. Little else happens other than drinking - no one leaves the table, everyone watches and waits for the next shot, they're knocked back at an alarming rate until blood alcohol levels resemble a strong cocktail and the streets are awash with vomit in the morning. Amidst all this drinking my boss turned to me and asked me aloud what I thought of my new female colleague who was sitting in between us. She responded to my dropping jaw by saying "maybe after a few more drinks", and refilled my glass. You can make what you will of that scenario, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary here.
It's not your filthy mind, this actually translates as "penis fish". I didn't try it cus I'm...uh...not into chewy foods
Last but not Least
If I've had one great moment here so far, it was on the morning of New Years Eve, when I turned up to taekwondo class to find about 30 Korean kids there, all also hoping to upgrade their belt colour. As a complete novice, you can imagine how silly it made me feel to line up with a bunch of seven year olds to perform the most basic moves to get the yellow belt, all the while being watched by kids and teenagers with red and black belts. Leaving my apprehensions and pride at the door, I had a blast, and getting to watch kids as young as 12 do all sorts of incredible flying/scissor/roundhouse kicks was pretty inspiring. It was by far the most perfectly Asian moment I've had since coming here, and the kids seemed to enjoy having a white boy stumble around in their midst.
You've gotta start somewhere