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 !

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