korea

The Newbie Game

My long promised book about Korea and what it is like spending a year there (following on from the one I did about Nepal) is continuing at a decent speed.

I thought I’d put a little excerpt here…

THE NEWBIE GAME – DIDN’T WORK WITH ME

When a new westerner arrived and presented themselves in the pub, the big joke was to tell them that there was a party and that they must take a taxi to it. They would then be told to ask the driver to take them to Pyongyang.

This one didn’t work with me, but you would be surprised how many people actually fall for it.

It also usually left behind a fairly angry taxi driver.

Yellow and Red Dust

In the Mediterranean there is a climatic condition whereby at certain times the clouds look like they are boiling red. As they come over the hills the air looks almost as if the oxygen in it had rusted.  This happens because the winds are blowing the desert sand over the Mediterranean from Africa. These clouds usually bring rain with them too and when the wind dies down the rain evaporates and the sky returns to normal leaving all the cars with a coating of red sand. When I saw it most clearly, with a mountainous backdrop, is the time in my life I most regretted not having a camera on me because as the clouds roll over the mountains it is a quite spectacular sight.

That said, the red dust isn’t pleasant and covers your clothes too. However, in South (and presumably North) Korea there is something called the yellow dust which is extremely nasty. I’ll get to explaining what the yellow dust is exactly in a roundabout (or should it be rounders?) sort of way.

Baseball is quite a popular sport in the USA but it is something I had never been able to like. I like to at least give things a try though and several times had tried to watch an entire match from start to finish on TV, always with the result of falling asleep.

Therefore, shortly after I arrived in Korea in March and noticed baseball was a rather popular sport there, I thought I would go along to a match and see if it was any better in the stadium . When April began it was getting warm enough that you could go out basically with just a t-shirt and jeans in the daytime so I was only wearing exactly that . I noticed also in April that people were wearing the face masks that you see so often in pictures from Japan but I didn’t bother to get one.

It must have been about 25 degrees that day, which is not hot but certainly not cold. I was just wearing a t-shirt but all the punters in the crowd were telling me to cover up. I thought they must be telling me this because they were being nice and were worried that I could get burned.  Not so.

You see, the yellow dust (or Hwang Sa as it is called in Korea) is something which  sweeps down from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China into Korea. The sands from the deserts in those countries are blown down by seasonal winds in March, April and May, sometimes as far as Japan or further.

This is obviously something that has happened for thousands of years. It is worse now though because…

In the last decade or so, it has become a serious problem due to the increase of industrial pollutants contained in the dust and intensified desertification in China causing longer and more frequent occurrences, as well as in the last few decades when the Aral Sea of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan started drying up due to the diversion of the Amu River and Syr River following a Soviet agricultural program to irrigate Central Asian deserts, mainly for cotton plantations.

Furthermore,

For the past few years, the dust storms often carry oxides (aluminium, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and silicon) and toxic waste thus increasing the risks of respiratory and skin reactions.

So I think now that the Koreans were trying to tell me to cover up for another reason entirely and

I experienced the double whammy of watching a crap sport and getting a little bit sick for a few days on account of that.

For a few days after I didn’t feel so good but the main thing that annoyed me was that no one at my work bothered to tell me about it until after the event. I explained about my weekend and I that I wasn’t feeling so good and they told me “Oh, that would’ve been the yellow dust”. Kamsa Hamnida for that!

So if you are going there, you have been warned.

The Scene of the Crime(s)

I got  a surprise yesterday looking on BBC site and it reminded me of a couple of incidents.

There was this picture of the Daejon World Cup Stadium in South Korea and a story about match-fixing involving the team that plays there.

I used to live right next to that stadium. Do you see the Green bridge at the bottom of the picture? I lived on the near side of that, about 20 metres out of the picture.

Occasionally I would go and watch Daejeon play. They weren’t very good but there you go. However, I used to frequent a bar where some of the Daejeon Ultras used to hang out. In very bad Korean and quite bad English we used to have a chat. They were some of the nicest people I met in my time in Korea, always friendly and willing to chat. I wish more people had been like that there.

One of the stories that this BBC story reminded me of was meeting one of the players. Most teams in the Korean league are not very good and each team always seem to have a Brazilian and a couple of Croatians that weren’t good enough to play in Europe.

One day, with the 어머니 and 아버지 of all hangovers I was in the supermarket/hypermarket thing, trying to buy some decent speakers and I ran into the Brazilian who was buying a computer. He saw me, and non-koreans being something of a rarity in that city, foreigners tend to speak to each other or at least acknowledge each other. He nodded and I said hello, then he asked me where I was from and I said Scotland and he asked

“Celtic or Rangers?”.

 “Celtic, obviously”.

“Ahh, good team, good team”

“I’ve been to see Daejeon play a couple of times as well”.

“Really? What did you think?”

As I previously said I was a royally hungover and my next statement, if factually accurate, represented a complete loss of tact…

“They’re not very good are they?”

Immediately after the words came out I realised that I hadn’t been entirely dimplomatic. He mumbled

“I suppose not, I would like to play in Europe.”

And then with both of us too embarassed to continue the conversation I made my excuses and left and I went for a walk along the river to clear my head a bit.

A LITTLE TALE FROM THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

When I was in South Korea, something that would often interrupt my nights out was the American military. This happened particularly in Seoul but not only there.

To set the scene, you might be out in a bar in Itaewon in Seoul with a few friends and as the night got on a little bit you would suddenly be confronted with military policeman who were demanding to see your ID.

The point is that these were not Korean military policeman, they were American.

They were looking for soldiers who had not returned (or were not going to return) to their base before their curfew.

A couple of times I argued the point with them and said I was not going to show them any ID. I said “I’m not American and this isn’t the USA. Can’t you hear from my accent that I am obviously not American?”

However, this usually only served the purpose of making the people I was out with  angry as they had already all shown their ID and were anxious to continue the night. Those people were for the most part not American but they didn’t seem to have a problem with it the way that I did.

I must say that on the two occasions I made a point of (initially) refusing to show ID, the military police were not particularly aggressive or rude. They just stood there and continually asked to see identification and made it quite clear that they weren’t going anywhere until I showed them it.

The argument would then continue until my companions started getting angry with me because the argument “could just be stopped in 2 seconds” if I would just show that I wasn’t a soldier.

To my shame, both times I did eventually do it but not without it leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

SATURDAY IRRELEVANCE ONE – HANGUL

Annyeong Haseyo.

564 years ago today the Hangul alphabet was first published in Korea. In my year in South Korea I learned it and to this day my crap party trick is to write your name in Korean.  Linguistically the language and alphabet are  extremely interesting and the Koreans are very proud of it and will tell you, given a chance, that it is the most phonetically perfect alphabet in the world.

People often think Korean must be something like Japanese or Chinese and words are represented with little pictures but that isn’t the case at all. It is a proper alphabet which you can learn quite quickly and therefore you can read anything in Korean in a phonetically perfect way even if you don’t have the slightest idea what it means. The way that the language works however is that you write in syllabic boxes which read from left to right and then down. I have also listened to a lecture on the subject of Korean as a language which strangely said that it has more in common with Mongolian and Turkish than it does with Japanese and Chinese.

 

I SCORED A GOAL IN A WORLD CUP STADIUM DURING THE WORLD CUP

No joke, I have. And since it is South Korea playing at the moment I will recount the story.

When you are in another country you do things you just wouldn’t consider at home.

I was in Korea during the world cup last summer (this article was written in 2007). Due to the time difference between Korea and Germany some of the games were at 4am Korea time.

It was Korea’s last match and they needed to beat Switzerland to qualify for the next round. A few of the other foreigners and myself decided to go and watch it with the Koreans on the big screens in the local stadium (which is the one where Korea beat Italy in the 2002 world cup).

The problem with watching a game at 4am is that there is quite a lot of drinking time before the match.

We had been out to a few bars and then made our way to the Daejeon World Cup Stadium. It was amazing that at 4am it was completely full and we nearly didn’t get in.

Anyway, we smuggled some more booze in too. Before the game two of the expats ran on to the pitch with a Korea flag, which went down very well with the locals.

The game didn’t go too well for them and they ended up losing 2-0 and exited the tournament, so they were no longer exactly in the mood for fun.

It was at this point that I dropped down the ten foot wall (you can see it in the picture) to the pitch and ran on with another guy. He started to crawl under the huge Korea flag in the centre of the pitch so they would have to go under it in order to fish him out.

I made straight for the goals. I have never scored a goal in a huge stadium before so that was my mission. I didn’t have a ball though, so I scored (left footed volley, top right corner) with the only available thing, which was my cigarette packet and then proceeded to do a Klinsmann dive celebration.

Ok, job done. The next thing is to get back into the crowd. I tried unsuccessfully to climb up the wall. A Korean dropped the end of a scarf down for me to grab onto so I could pull myself up but the scarf snapped.

At this point the security came over. I was now shitting myself because if you invade the pitch in Scotland you are most likely off to the cells for an evening or two.

I had one burly security guard on each arm and was convinced I was going to the cells/going to be sacked/ deported (which would have been extreme). The two security guards frog marched me…..wait for it….wait for it….. back to my seat!

Then they just left me to get on with it.

Unfortunately my camera had been stolen a week or so before so I don’t have any pictures of the night in question. The pictures here are from the same stadium but at a different occasion.

OCH AYE, THE NOO

There are positive and negative stereotypes for every country and usually they are just convenient ways to label people and have little grounding in fact.

For example, I have spent time in Italy and I found the people to be neither lazier nor more stylish than people from other countries. Nor do they know more about food than other places as a lot of them are very nationalistic about this and don’t try food from other countries. Then again, a lot of them do so it is a dangerous thing to label people altogether in this way.

Similarly, in Korea I did not find the people to be obsessed with politeness and honour etc. All that bowing business only occurs on the rare occasion that you can’t actually avoid it. They do seem to work more than in some other places but they are as p*ssed off about that as anyone else would be. There wasn’t the deference to authority that we are always told about. There is a long history of striking and vehement protest in Korea. Take this photo as an example.

There is one Scottish steretype that has always baffled me though, which is this thing about saying “Och aye, the noo”.

I have NEVER heard someone say this except when taking the p*ss out of the fact we are supposed to say it.

It means basically, “oh yes, just now”. Doesn’t this strike you as rather odd thing for a nation of people to walk around saying?

Try to think of questions that go with this response. There are a few, but there aren’t too many.

I don’t know how the idea that this is a commonly used phrase came about except that it is often repeated that we actually say it. Maybe it is a species of self-reinforcing myth. The steps go like this…

  1. Someone said we say it
  2. Other people heard we say it
  3. We heard that other people said we say it so we started saying it to make fun of the fact that they said we say it
  4. Other people heard us saying it so they believe that we actually say it
  5. etc

However, having said all this, I should point out for the record that having spent some time there I can confirm that Italians really do say “mamma mia” quite often.

KUINSA – 구인사 – STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN TO ME (Repost)

This was originally from a couple of years ago when not many people came to the site….

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Another travel story today. As well as Nepal, I was a year in South Korea.

guinsa.jpgKUINSA – 구인사

Some really strange things happen to me. Most people go to a Buddhist Monastery hoping to get some peace and quiet. I personally went to this place to soak up the atmosphere, look at the stunning architecture and smell the trees, which are all things there was no reason or opportunity to do in the city in which I was living.

When I went to Kuinsa I ended being pestered by Monks (in a friendly way) so much that I had to leave.

The complex is in Sobaeksan national park. When the 4.jpgbus drops you off you have to walk up a steep hill till you come to a large gate. When you pass through the gate the first buildings in the (I think) fifty building temple complex are on your left.

It is all actually relatively newly built (1945) and is part of the Ch’on’tae sect of Korean Buddhism. Thousands of monks are around, dressed in grey from head to foot.

I strolled up the hill taking photos as I went. This is not an unusual thing in a place of such beauty. The terraced buildings are extraordinary. Nevertheless people started to notice me.

Part of my problem is that I am just over 6′ 3″ (192cm) tall, which is considerably taller than the national average in Korea (or Nepal for that matter). So I tend to stick out a bit.

I carried on up the hill through the stunning temples. I went inside one or two and had a look around. The buildings are wonderfully elaborate outisde but not quite so much inside. In the large halls hundreds of mats are laid out on the dark wooden floors, about two feet apart. The monks sleep here and you are free to join them for the night if you wish.

After a while I found myself walking up to a what looked like a tunnel through the mountain. I wanted to go through this and up to the next level of the complex so I could get to the statue at the top end. Inside the tunnel, the concrete steps had a constantly dripping roof of bare rock overhead and I was hemmed in by hundreds of monks on all sides who seemingly had the idea of going the same way at the same time.

A barrier was put across the top of the steps so we all had to stand there and being a good 20 cm taller than most (if not more) and the only tourist, I was attracting a lot of attention. I couldn’t figure out why we were being stopped. After about 10 minutes the queue moved a little and the barrier went down again. Another 10 minutes, same thing. The third time I got past the barrier and we were herded like cattle into the food hall of the complex, which was something like an army barracks or a school dining hall.

Now, I had eaten a large meal just before I arrived and had also been in Korea for several months before this, so I knew what the food was likely to be – some Korean food is very nice, I just didn’t want to eat at that particular moment, I wasn’t at all hungry.

With a combination of poor Korean and sign language I tried to explain this to the hall monitor or whatever he called himself but he decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

mess-tray-mug_1.jpgHe was trying to be incredibly nice to the tourist and stranger so he marched me to the front of the queue where I was served HUGE amounts of food in one of those grey trays with the indentations for different kinds of food. They gave me so much because they figured if I am much taller I must eat so much more than anyone else.

There then followed a 10 minute session of him sitting me down, then deciding that that seat wasn’t good enough for me and moving me again, then repeating the process. Then he made a huge palaver about getting me a fork even though I am fine with chopsticks.

Eventually I just made my point and sat down.

I began trying to eat everything they had given me (its only polite) but I physically couldn’t. I think I managed to eat about two-thirds of it and at this point could not possibly have eaten any more.

The monk who had taken so much trouble to take me to the front of the queue, sit me down (several times) and give me a mountainous portion of food was clearly gravely offended. Somone else who wasn’t a monk began to reproach me on his behalf.

Remember, I only ended up in there because I wanted to go through to the top of the complex.

So, I had to walk apologetically to the place where the people were cleaning the trays with some food left in mine whereupon I got a few more harsh words from the man doing the cleaning.

So, from being the focus of attention and the golden boy for the hundreds of people in the room I have now become the obviously uncouth, uncultured and downright rude foreigner.

I was a little uncomfortable by now so I tried to make my way out as quickly as possible. Some people outside who hadn’t seen any of this kept trying to push me back in, after all, I am big, I obviously need food right?

I got away and sat down quite near this place, hoping for a bit of respite.

1434.jpg
(the pots are for making ‘kimchi’, Korea’s favourite food)

Immediately upon sitting down another monk came up to me (he hadn’t been in the food hall) and asked me in English were I was from, I replied in Korean, as best I could “Scot-u-land-u saram imnida” (I am from Scotland [or, more accurately, ‘I am a scottish person’] – sometimes its best to add a vowel there… scot – U – land -U). He asked me if I spoke Korean, I said no and that I was trying to be polite.

Then we began a conversation I have had many times in the course of travelling.

Him – “Ah, Scotland”

Me – “Yes”

Him – “England”‘

Me – “No”

Him – “Scotland is in England”

Me – “No, it isn’t”

Him – “Yes, it is”

And so on.

When dealing with this before in Korea or Nepal I had a tactic that worked quite well. They would say “ah, England” and I would ask “Where are you from?”. Slightly taken aback (it is, after all, their country) they would say “Korea” at which I would reply “oh, Japan”.

After that they usually got it. However, for some reason I didn’t have the heart to do it to this monk and I was in no mood to argue the point.

000029.jpgI chatted away with him for a while and eventually made my excuses and left, the worst of the overeating having worn off.

It was getting dark at this point and I made my way up to the top where they were constructing another huge building in the same style and sat around for a while, trying to take in the scene.

I had planned to spend the night there but after annoying everyone in the food hall and being the centre of attention all day I decided I would rather just leave. I had seen the complex which wasmy main concern so it wasn’t too bad and I just couldn’t face the scene in the food hall being replayed in the sleeping area and at breakfast the next morning.

Unfortunately it was more or less too dark so I made my way down to the bottom end of the complex where I promptly got on the wrong bus and had to get off and get a very expensive taxi to the place I was supposed to go which was called Danyang and looked like this (photo taken the next day)…

000021.jpg

I found a hotel and a decent restaurant, then a seat by the lake, got my book, and finally got a bit of peace.

HOW TO BE UNPOPULAR IN KOREA

Haven’t done a travel story for a while so I am going to do two this weekend and this is the first.

Korean people really don’t like Japanese people.

This is not a silly or small thing. For a long time in South Korea it was [and I think still is] illegal to buy a Japanese car or other Japanese technology.

It is not a background historical feeling, it is current and ongoing and in the news every day.

The historical animosity comes from the numerous Japanese invasions of Korea, the last of which finished at the end of WW2 and was extremely brutal. Many or indeed most of Korea’s historical buildings were burned or destroyed in that occupation [as in the ones before] as the Japanese attempted to eradicate the Korean language, culture and history.

Scots know how this feels but for the Koreans it is much more recent.

For example, current disputes between the two nations include the ownership of a small island or two between them, compensation and recognition of the plight of the Korean ‘comfort women’ who were raped/kidnapped and taken to Japan or forced to live with Japanese soldiers and officers.

There is also the matter of the name of the sea that separates them. The Japanese call it the ‘Japanese Sea’ and the Koreans call it the ‘East Sea’. The school I worked in had a few world maps on the walls and in all of them ‘Japanese Sea’ had been covered over with ‘East Sea’.

So that is the background for our current story which involves that mentioned above but also football.

In the school, I got on well enough with most of the students who were mostly Manchester Utd fans. They were Manchester Utd fans partly thanks to the success of that particular club’s marketing and also because the Korean Park Ji-Sung plays for them. Park gets wall-to-wall coverage in Korea.

Due to the time difference [8 or 9 hours – they don’t do daylight saving] if I wanted to watch a game it was on around midnight or if it was a 7.45pm kick-off in the UK then it was 3.45 or 4.45am in Korea and I would have to start work at about 9 or 10.

So, Celtic were playing Manchester Utd in the Champions League and it was a 4.45 am kick-off for me.  I had also been on the beer. I had the Korean TV on watching the game and the Celtic TV on the internet.

Celtic have [soon to be had] a Japanese player, Shunsuke Nakamura. He did this and Celtic subsequently won the game.

The next day in a dreadfully hungover state I had to go in to work and meet the locals. The fact that they had lost the match to a great goal scored by a Japanese player had really p*ssed them off.

In fact, I never got on some of their good sides again.

DON’T JOIN THE MINISTRY

When I lived in South Korea there was a small scandal around Christmas time. I am not referring to the Americans eating all the food before anyone else got a chance at the foreigners Christmas dinner [though they did] but rather something that went on with the Ministry for Gender Equality.

When I first heard about it I was alarmed that it was necessary to have such a thing but I suppose in a highly patriarchal society [and it is over there] something like that might have a useful role to play.

“So, what were they doing?” I don’t hear you ask. Well, it transpired that they had been offering some incentives, the details of exactly what were sketchy, to major companies to NOT send their executive to brothels for the Christmas night out.

I think it is an obvious case of treating the symptoms and not the disease but don’t take it as an invite to get uppity because I think you could put recycling, biofuels, hybrid cars and a whole host of other things in the same bracket.

But when you boil this minor incident down it seems to have quite a few parallels with the dreadfully named ‘credit crunch’.

In both cases there were governments paying rich people good money to stop them f*cking poor disadvantaged people -it’s like Pretty Woman in reverse. Also, in both cases it didn’t work.

In Korea at least there was a scandal about the whole thing. In the west it seems the feeding frenzy must continue while we all find some way we can pimp ourselves to the rich of the world so that we might eat.

We have to kiss their arses with our own hard-earned while they try to get us to find ways to kiss them on the mouth and strip away what remains of our dignity.

If you ask me, it has been all too personal for years.