Saturday, 29 December 2007

Taiwan Web Album

I've created a web album of the first leg of my round-a-small-part-of the world tour -- featuring Jin, Steve and Rowena in Taiwan. You can find it here:

Stay tuned for some first impressions of the land of smiles...

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The long and the short of it

I was shocked to notice it's been nearly a month since I've written anything here. Trying to remember what I've been doing for three weeks... I can remember being busy but am sure I will now struggle to describe what it is I've been busy doing. I will have a go anyway.

Were I still in Korea on 27th of December I would officially become an illegal immigrant, my three month visa-free tourist status having come to an end. This fact lies behind two of my busynesses – coming up with a travel plan so that my exit from Korea is more of a holiday than an eviction, and finding the offer of a full-time job so that I may return triumphant after my travels equipped with an employment visa. Fortunately these two goals are now nearly achieved.

I won't say too much about my travel plans now – the story should unfold on this blog during the travel itself (including pictures!). Jin and I are leaving for Taiwan on Wednesday where we will spend six days together. We are both feeling a bit exhausted and are greatly looking forward to some relaxed time together. After Taiwan, Jin will return to Korea for the important business of money-making, and I will continue on to Thailand and Malaysia. I will meet up with Ant for most of the rest of the tour, and along the way hope to see Steve, Rowena, Paradise, P'Pie, P'Nun (and their marriage!), Peyshan, Peng, Luangpor and Tahn Manapo. It should be a good trip :).

Meanwhile, I have accepted an offer of postdoctoral research at The Catholic University of Korea (which thankfully appreciates religious freedom enough to admit non-Catholics). The choice was made rather easier by the impending visa deadline and by the fact that it was the only definite offer I have thus far received. The work will be on analytical study of models of biological evolution. Like most analytical (non-computer based) studies in physics, the models are greatly simplified to make the analysis possible – the hope being that even though the model is far from realistic it has enough in common with reality to share some important features (the notion of 'universality' is often cited in this regard). I am just starting to read around the subject, but so far it seems like something I will be able to make a useful contribution to. My work at Catholic University will also include giving a couple of lecture courses which should be fun, if a little daunting (for both inexperienced lecturer and non-native-English-speaker students). Unfortunately the pay is not very good, but it is enough to get by, and the University offers cheap accommodation which should mean Jin and I will finally be able to move out of her parents house.

I have found looking for a job very draining, not demanding huge amounts of time but a constant investment of energy – as opposed to working in a job, which demands large amounts of time (especially in Korea!) but is made easier by the daily routine and familiarity with the tasks involved. It is surprising how difficult the lack of daily routine was, some days I was full of energy with nothing much to do, waiting for responses of prospective employers before planning my next move; other days there was a lot to do but I felt like staying in bed (such as the NIMS presentation, two posts ago). I guess such an experience may be common to anyone seeking a job but it is the first time I have tried it, having stayed a student for as long as possible. I'm not sure how much more difficult being in a foreign country made things, although it certainly reduced my options and opportunities, which were much less widespread than I had hoped. Indeed, before coming to Korea I received much positive reassurance from Jin's friends that there was much investment in scientific research in Korea, and that universities were keen to recruit foreign staff who could teach in English. Unfortunately these aspirations have not turned into foreigner-friendly recruitment policies on the ground – positions are usually filled through personal networks and so there are few advertised positions, and information is often available only in Korean. Also the financial investment seems very heavily focussed on research leading directly to new technology (to which my specialisation does not lead itself). Having dreams of walking into a job upon my arrival certainly made the real process more painful.


Three days after my last post was Jin's mother's birthday, and it turned out to be quite a fun occasion. On the evening before we had a small party at our house with Jin's two sisters, her older sister's husband, her uncle and her aunt (who's birthday was just a week before). Jin and her younger sister did most of the cooking (so that their mum didn't have to) – the sexual segregation of labour in Korean society being again underlined when they failed to receive much in the way of thanks, whereas I was praised to the heavens for spending a few minutes washing up afterwards. It was the first time for Jin's younger sister to have a meal with her parents after acrimoniously moving out at the end of October, and it served well as a reunion between them. I presented Jin's mum with the wrist warmers I'd made and she received them with (possibly genuine) delight, insisting on wearing them for the remainder of the night. Jin found herself politically isolated (again) within her family over the upcoming presidential elections (her younger sister would have had sympathy but was with me doing the washing up at the time) but there was no blood shed. In the course of proceedings Jin's mother, father and aunt drank rather a lot of soju, and with their usual social filters dissolved in the ethanol we set off to a karaoke club together.

I had had my first experience of the Korean noraebang (lit. song room) in Gwangju during my and Jin's tour of the country, and I had liked it. With Jin's family though it took on a whole new dimension – Jin's younger sister sang some hip new tunes, Jin's aunt is keen to learn English and so enlisted my help in producing some new covers of Beatles classics, I did my best to sing some Korean love songs, and though Jin's mother and father hit about five right notes between them that didn't stop them belting out the songs as though performing the national anthem at an international sporting event. Compared my perception of Jin's parents before that night it was a complete and shocking (but amusing) metamorphosis. The next morning though they were both totally poker-faced and giving nothing away. Jin's aunt is now desperate to go to the noraebang with us again.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

You must never do a tango with an Inuit

In England I remember Christmas time usually starts around the beginning of November, with glittery accessories and monstrous 'Santa Claus and his happy raindeer' tableaux appearing in shopping centres, shortly followed by a media outcry about how commercial Christmas is these days (no doubt accompanied by a free CD of the latest mass-produced noise pollution certain to be Christmas number one this year).

Unfortunately Christmas fever seems to exist in Seoul too. I am currently in a comfortable modern cafe near Jin's parent's house, where it has become my habit to visit when in need of internet access. The food is good, the seats are comfortable, and the place bubbles with the soothing sounds of quiet conversation. So why -- oh god, why -- did they decide this week to start playing a single CD of "cheery festive songs" on a 50 minute loop in the background??? I used to quite like "I wish it could be Christmas everyday", but after you've heard it for the fifth time in a single day you start to realise why that wish isn't such a good idea. And if you don't know the song referred to in the title I suggest you find it and try to listen to it -- more ear- and mind- wretching than Britney Spears in her pre-crazy days. Just thank god He only had one son...

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Do you ever feel like you're a piece of a jigsaw which doesn't really fit anywhere? Further, do you ever suspect that the cosmic jigsaw player isn't too bright, and his/her reaction to a badly fitting piece is to bash it angrily with his/her fist?

I did on Monday night. On Tuesday I was meant to be giving a presentation at the Korean National Institute for the Mathematical Sciences. Not my first contact with the Korean Scientific network by any means, but my first real chance to show off what I can do. However, I rather foolishly underestimated the amount of time it would take to make a new presentation -- reasoning that since most of the material would just come from my thesis it wouldn't be a huge challenge. It was clear by Monday morning that I still had much work to do. Still, I thought, a good focussed slog that day would crack it no problem. Something went wrong...

A couple of months ago I had an interesting discussion (with Michael) about the comparison between conceptual time (how much time seems to have passed) and time as measured by a clock or other external device. The jist (I hope) was that the label of regularity we apply to time as measured by external instruments is justified *only* by comparison to our conceptual time. Thus it is false to say that our intuative measurement of time is only as good as its agreement with external instruments, rather it is the other way round. From this point of view the clocks in Korea (and the Earth's rotation, and all the other supposedly `regular' phenomena I encountered that day) were way out. The period from when I started work at 10am and finished at 10pm can't have been more than a couple of hours. I got nothing done. To add insult to injury I started to get a headache in the afternoon (probably a combination of stress and having been hunched unmoving over my laptop) and by the late evening it had transformed into a body wetching, mind bending symphony of... not pain really, there was some pain, sure, my head ached and my stomach grumbled, but much worse was the disorientation. When I looked away from the computer screen I could barely tell whether my eyes were focussed or not, and trying to take a break felt like trying to let go of a rope holding me suspended over an abyss. The whole world was melting. It's scary what the mind can do to itself if overstressed. It was this (rather than lack of presentation) which eventually forced me to cancel the presentation (and Jin's and my outing to Daejeon).

Fortunately my contact at NIMS was very understanding and has rescheduled the presentation for Monday. This time I will finish the presentation in a relaxed manner, with regular breaks for mind-earthing activities and regular exercise -- so far so good. The cosmic jigsaw player's attention seems to have been drawn elsewhere for the time being.

Saturday is Jin's mother's birthday. I am going to knit her a pair of wrist warmers, since she has been struggling with painful and stiff hands brought on by the cold, and because it is more feasible than the alternative present of lots of money. I have noticed that when she goes shopping she has a wonderful way of looking at things presented to her by shop assistants -- suggesting the thought `am I really going to demean myself by purchacing this inferior garment?', even if she really wants it and it's a good deal. I'm sure it maximises her discount but I hope she doesn't use it on Saturday :P.

Monday, 12 November 2007


The title sums up this post well: it's cold, and I have a cold. In fact the minimum temperature at the moment (about 5C) is probably warm compared to the UK (or Finland), and perhaps I need to remind myself it is the middle of November. However, if my first complaint is somewhat unjustified my second is doubly justified. You see, my first Korean cold is much worse than your typical English cold (possibly a consequence of being in a new environment meaning that the cold viruses are sufficiently different to be more of a shock to my immune system -- if any doctory type people reading this want to confirm or deny my suspicion please do so). One possible explanation is that I actually have SARS and am just really tough. Anyway, on Friday morning I was surprisingly tired after an hour of table-tennis, which usually just serves as a nice appetite builder for lunch. It turned out that this unusual fatigue wasn't just because Jin had beaten me, and by the evening I had the tell-tale tickling throat and nose. That night I was slowly transformed into a disorientated zombie, with aching body and so much pressure behind my eyeballs I thought my head would explode. I spent the weekend mostly bed-ridden. Two consequences of this were that I had my first experience of Korean medicine (which seems based upon the principle that if the medicine is repulsive enough the patient will do everything in his power to recover and thus avoid having to take any more), and I read "Life of Pi" from cover to cover (which if you haven't read it is absolutely brilliant). Today I am feeling partially recovered and managed to venture out to a cafe with internet access, from where I now write.

Anyway, some other things have happened since my last post, so I won't spend any more time telling you what a cold is like. Last weekend Jin's younger sister moved out of her parents house. Apparently there had been some family friction before we arrived, and after we arrived she had been forced to share a room with Jin (there being only two rooms available, and an unmarried man and women sharing a room being totally unthinkable) which provided the impetus for her to find a place of her own. Still, it looks like things worked out alright, her new single-roomed apartment we helped to clean was small but in a reasonable condition, and after it had been furnished with bed, tables, cupboards and the like it started to look quite homely. I hope she will be happy there.

On the same day, Jin and I were walking back to her sister's flat after going out for some lunch when we were barked at by an old man passing us in the street. The exact noise is difficult to describe but it was clearly a sign of contempt. I was walking in my usual day-dream and so it took me a few seconds to even realise it had happened, but Jin was rather shocked and responded with a rapid and doubtlessly offensive string of Korean. It's not clear whether he was unhappy because I was foriegn or just because we were holding hands (public display of affection is still shocking to the older generation in Korea, in fact when Jin and I arrived we decided we'd have to be much more discreet than in the UK, a policy which lasted less than a week...), but whatever the case it was rather unpleasent. Fortunately though it's the first time something like that has happened and on the whole people have responded to seeing Jin and I together with interest rather than hostility.

More tomorrow...

Friday, 2 November 2007

It is an outrage!

For the last two days I have been unable to access my blog. Today I found out the shocking truth... It has been blocked by Korean ISPs because of the upcoming Presidential elections! This disgraceful disregard for free speech will not stand! The people of Korea must not be denied the chance to read my important thoughts!!

Actually it's rather more serious than that, it seems that all blog addresses on blogspot ( have been blocked. I guess the idea is to stop South Korean bloggers from making politically sensitive statements. Isn't it shocking? Imagine the control that government officials can exercise over public opinion if they have this sort of power. Ugh, politics is sickening...
Fortunately I found a way around it using some clever proxy-server thingamugigs, so now I feel there are a few things I ought to tell the world:
  • GNP party candidate Lee Myung-bak eats babies for breakfast
  • candidate Lee In-je has more illegitimate children than I've had cups of tea
  • Kwon Young-ghil is actually an alien planning to enslave the human race
  • Moon Guk-hyeon is a really great guy and would make an excellent president. Vote for him.

All of which may or may not be true... but surely if the electorate are trusted to elect the president they must also be trusted to assess for themselves the value of opinions or allegations expressed by others (on blogs for example), without interference from the governing body.

[Update: Umm, actually it looks like I can access the blog now. So probably it wasn't an evil government action after all... oops, slightly embarrassed now... sorry Korean Government people! Still it was very weird. I found a help forum about the problem and it effected other South Korean users in the same way as me, and only happened to South Korean users... Maybe it was interference by Kwon Young-ghil and his alien friends then...]


On Tuesday night Jin and I accidentally found ourselves at dinner with a Director General of the Ministry of National Defense, a Director of the Oil and Gas Development Division of the Ministry of Commerce, the Chairman of the Korea Research Council of Fundamental Science and Technology, and several other high-flying officials. The connection -- they were all graduates of Sussex University, where Jin did her MA. What we didn't realise was that this particular reunion was meant to be reserved for powerful old men (and one woman). Fortunately they didn't kick us out and so we were able to sit in the fancy restaurant and listen to their lofty conversations (in Korean, but I was given occasional translation by Jin). Here are some of the opinions expressed -- that renewable energy was a waste of time (the Oil and Gas guy liked this one), that NGOs were usually troublemakers who needed reining in, that national interest should always be the deciding factor in any decisions, that democracy had gone to far, etc, etc. Deary deary me. Any comments? Ant?

Even more damning was the fact that not one of them offered me a job. Fortunately though things are looking up for Jin and I on the job front. Jin has been looking for some part-time English teaching work until her University work starts next academic year (which is March in the Korean educational system), and has had two definite offers (although she rejected one because the pay was low), and several other possibilities. For my part I went to see the Chairman of Mathematics at Korea University on Wednesday, and he said he could offer me some part-time lecturing (up to 12 hours / week) starting next March, provided that (i) I could get a work permit for it, and (ii) his department agreed (which he was pretty confident about). Of course I'd like to find something more than that, and preferably a research post, but still it's a start...

[Amusing anecdote to end this post will appear later...]

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Mark and Jin's Travels II

Ok, just a quick post to finish the story of our travels. I've created a photo-album on picasa, so I'll just fill in the gaps to make the pictures make sense.

The previous post left us at the 5.18 National Cemetery last Sunday morning. From there we drove slowly down to Naju, a large town to the south where we spent Sunday night. On Monday morning we visited an old Confucian academy and a few other sights of interest about the town, then we set off south for the Buddhist temple of Daeheungsa. We arrived there in the early evening and got permission from the monks to stay the night there. After a walk around the temple surroundings in the morning we set off for another smaller temple further to the south. Jin had her second go at driving the car along the quiet country roads -- she was so excited! Fortunately the car survived it too.

By Tuesday evening we had reached the southern coast of Korea. I wanted to visit a beach so we set off along the coast to find one -- unfortunately the southern coastline is mostly rocky and sharply sloped, and the beach we did visit the next morning was rather disappointing. We made up for it however with a bathe in the public bath-house (a popular activity in Korea), which featured both sea-water and green-tea filled hot baths (the latter owning to us being near Boseong, renowned for its tea plantations). I was sceptical of the murky water of the green-tea bath, and so decided to give it a miss, for which I was sharply scolded by Jin.

In the afternoon we had a look round some of the tea-plantations of Boseong, before driving back to Gwangju to return the hire car. By now Jin was pretty confident with the car and we shared the driving back. On Thursday morning we took a 4 hour bus journey to Gyeongju in the southeast. Gyeongju is the ancient capital of the Shilla Kingdom (c. 50 BCE -- 900 CE) so there are many historic artifacts to see roundabouts. In fact there was far too much to fit into the two days that remained to us, so we'll have to go back again sometime.

We got back to Seoul on Saturday night. It's a shame it wasn't longer, and we crammed so much in I was a bit tired on the return. Still it was a very scenic and memorable trip, we enjoyed it a lot, and it was nice to escape the eyes of Jin's parents for a few days too.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Mark and Jin's Travels I

It's Monday night, 22:14pm, and it's time for another blog entry! I'm sitting in the main room of Jin's parents house. Jin's mother is busy peeling one of the multitude of chestnuts she collected from her latest sojourn into the mountains, and Jin is on the computer organising some documents for tomorrow's interview in an English teaching Institute. The television is showing one of the many period-dramas that seem so popular here (men in silly hats and women with unnecessarily complicated hair-dos, much like English period-dramas, although usually with more murder involved...).

We got back from or travels around the country on Saturday evening. Eight days before we had taken a train down from Seoul to Gwangju, the capital city of the south-western province of Jeollanam-do. Whilst significantly smaller than Seoul, Gwangju is still large enough that it's centre – where we stayed for the first two nights – is just as crowded and noisy. Therefore we spent as little time there as possible. On Saturday we took a bus to the nearby town of Damyang, where our target was a large Bamboo park. It turned out to be rather tacky and touristy (think smiling cartoon Pandas), but still it was pleasant to walk around the shaded paths. In the evening we returned to our motel in Gwangju which, whilst undoubtedly frequented by gamblers, teenage lovers and adulterers (you can rent the rooms by the hour if you prefer), nevertheless provided cheap and relatively clean accommodation.

On Sunday morning we rented a car and went off to explore the rest of the province. Jeollanam-do is an interesting place for many reasons. The southern end of the Sobaek Mountains run down its eastern side and plunge into the sea, creating a highly fractured coast and numerous small islands. Away from the mountains there are fertile plains which a combination of warm climate and higher than average rainfall have made into the rice bowl of Korea. Agriculture is a major industry here, although thankfully it has avoided the trappings of agri-business, and most of the land seems to be split into family small-holdings of a few acres. Perhaps because of its agricultural roots, the province tends to be viewed in other parts of Korea as rather backwards and undeveloped. Its people also have the reputation of being rebellious and hot-headed (whilst some of this is probably just prejudice, their reputation is borne out by their driving, which is impatient and reckless even by Seoul standards). In the period after the Korean war Jeollanam-do was known as a breeding ground for Communists, which lead to much persecution of its inhabitants by the military governments of the time. During the 70s and 80s it was a leading player in the campaigns for democratisation (which were also blamed on communist elements by the state controlled media). In May of 1980, following the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-Hee, and the military government's subsequent attempts to hold onto power by all means necessary the protests reached a climax. In an event known as the 5.18 (May 18th) uprising the government acted to brutally crush the increasing protests in Gwangju. Special forces where sent in, and over a five-day period hundreds of people were killed (the exact numbers are not known). It is clear that the event is still raw in the minds of the people of Gwangju from the monuments and parks that have been constructed in its memory. Chief among them is the 5.18 National Cemetery, which was our first stop on Sunday. It is set in a large park on the northern outskirts of the city containing the tombs of those involved with the uprising, as well as several large exhibitions documenting the events and the people involved. It was an impressive and powerful monument, and one obviously designed to attract tourists and citizens to come and learn about the event it remembers.

Perhaps the thing that most stuck with me from our visit to the cemetery was how new it all was. Although the uprising happened in 1980, the cemetery as it exists today was only built in 1997 (following the election of Kim Dae-Jung, the first President from Jeollanam-do, who had been involved with the pro-democracy movement). Jin had visited the cemetery before that time, and she remembered it as a wild, disorganised and almost deserted collection of tombs in a field at the end of a dirt-track. Before 1997, many people knew virtually nothing about the massacre (except for the government broadcasts at the time, which predictably blamed it all on the Commies). At one level it shows how quickly Korea has changed – walking around Seoul now feels much the same as walking round London, its sights, its systems, the outward behaviour of its people seem familiar. However it also indicates that under the surface significant differences from a Western-style democracy remain, the currents of history take much longer to disperse.

I seem to have written quite a lot already, so I'll leave the rest of our travels to another post. I'm going to set up an online photo album somewhere too, so when I've done that I'll post the link. I hope everyone who reads this is having a happy time whatever they are doing :).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Temple Trip

Seoul is a huge metropolis. Its population is estimated at around 10 million, although (I am told) it more than doubles during the day with commuters coming in from the many satellite cities. The sheer density of people in the centre of Seoul create an atmosphere of relentless rush and bustle from which is difficult to detach oneself. I have had the same impression in London and New York during the peak times of travel and in the busiest places, but in Seoul the feeling is continual and nearly ubiquitous. The subway trains are crowded whatever the hour, and work for most starts early and finishes late. To stay there for long is tiring, even just sitting in a café and watching the mayhem outside.

Last weekend Jin's mother took us out to a couple of Buddhist temples in the outskirts of Seoul. It was a good opportunity to escape the hectic life of the city and seek out some peace. While Seoul is highly populated it is surrounded on all sides by mountains (the tallest of which, Bukhan-San stands at 837 metres), which provide refuges of relative tranquillity. It is on their slopes that the larger and quieter Buddhist temples are found.

We first visited Hwagye Sa, an old Zen temple where the famous Korean monk Soongsan Seunim stayed for a time. The public part of the Monastery contains a large central meditation hall surrounded by a number of smaller shrine buildings, set on several levels up the mountain side. It had a quiet, welcoming atmosphere and Jin and I had a short meditation in one of the smaller rooms. In the large central hall a lone monk was chanting some verses of scripture, although from outside his tones were drowned out by the noise of what sounded like a drum-bashing competition in the one of the rooms below, which rather spoiled the otherwise tranquil atmosphere.

After a quick not-really-vegetarian meal in a small local restaurant (the Koreans have the annoying habit of putting in small amounts of fish or meat into otherwise vegetarian dishes) we visited a second temple, Dosun Sa, which was rather weird (and sad). Suspicions were first raised by a life-size statue of the laughing 'Buddha', whose belly people were supposed to rub for good luck (and to ensure that their next child was a boy – Jin refused...). Then there was the interesting choice of title “Meditation Centre for the Protection of the Nation”. The really shocking part was in the first of the small shrine rooms, in which set upon the side walls were large portraits of the ex-military dictator General Park (who was in power 1961-79) and his wife. The prominent place given to this ex-dictator, whose actions contradicted many of the most basic Buddhist teachings, was quite unsettling. It may serve as some explanation, though not justification, to say that General Park is regarded favourably among the more Conservative Koreans for his role in the rapid economic development which made Korea one of the “four tigers” of the Asian economic miracle.

I came across another distasteful mix of religion and politics while searching for university posts. Many of the universities in Seoul were founded by Christian missionaries from the late 19th Century. While this can be seen as a charitable act, a less selfless aspect can be seen in the present day power-structures and university regulations. The posts I have seen advertised at these universities require applicants to give statements of religious affiliation, and emphasise that those employed are expected to uphold the 'Christian ideals' of the University. Some of them have mandatory Chapel attendance for students, and one of the smaller universities even explicitly states that only Christians will be considered for job appointments. It's almost like a kind of bribery to convert to Christianity...

As people have been asking me, I should mention that no, I don't have a job yet (any would-be employers reading this?). I'm still exploring possibilities but currently I remain an unemployed doctor. Jin has a part-time teaching job for next term but is looking for something more. The 'personal letter' to Jin's parents resulted in a rather uncomfortable chat about marriage. However they are still talking to us and they haven't mentioned it any more for a few days, so I won't either...

Jin and I are going to do a bit of travelling next week, which should help us to relax a bit and get some nice pictures for the blog.

Seoul Driving Lesson 1: Changing Lanes

Before attempting to change lanes it is important to remember the acronym MSM (manoeuvre, swerve (wildly), mirror). Signalling should only be attempted by advanced drivers. When wanting to move into a faster lane, first stick the nose of your car into the other lane just far enough to slow the traffic in that lane down to your speed, but not far enough to cause a collision (the difference is usually about 2-3cm). When this has been achieved spin the steering wheel as fast as possible to make the car lurch into the adjacent lane in the minimum possible time. You know you've done this properly if two of the wheels leave the ground (particularly if you are driving a bus/truck). Next, check the mirror to see if your carefully sculptured hair style is still in place. If it is, you may now complete the manoeuvre by accelerating towards the bumper of the car in front of you as quickly as you can.

Another procedure is necessary if you spot someone attempting to merge in to your lane. In this case, the correct response is to stick to the car in front like a limpet. If you do become separated then liberal use of the horn may deter the would-be intruder. Remember, letting a car merge in front of you is not only dangerous but will make you several valuable seconds late for your undoubtedly important appointment.

In the next lesson – How to ignore pedestrians in three easy steps (don't look, don't listen, don't care)

Friday, 5 October 2007

Some views around Seoul

Ok, to make up for my lack of blogging over the last week I've done two posts in two hours! Here's a picture of Jin's family -- father, mother, and older and younger sisters.
The view from the window of their 4th floor apartment (to which we had to transport 100kg of luggage without a lift)
The main street in Seoul, Chongro. The city is much prettier by night as all the signs make it lit up like London at Christmas.
A misleadingly peaceful picture of a park in the centre of Seoul, near Insadong market. Just off the left of the picture is the most appalling place I have yet found in Seoul -- a narrow street full of stalls selling all imaginable parts of the pig. In the warm air the stench is unimaginable. I made the mistake of trying to traverse it without breathing, but ran out of air right next to the pig-face stall and had to take a deep breath :-0~{
A picture of 네 예쁜 여자칭구 by a traditional rice milling water wheel at the museum of agriculture
That's all for now folks! I'll add so more when I've got a moment :D

Meet the Parents

The Korean concept of family is different to the one I have been used to. Rather than a loose association of individuals, the Korean family is a single atom in which the lives of the members are tightly bound, and their identities defined in relation to one another. Thus the interests of one person are considered inseparable from the interests of their siblings, parents, and distant relations (or at least, the difficulty of separation is comparable to the difficulty of splitting the atomic nucleus, and with comparable consequences). Thus marriages are not marriages of individuals but of families. And thus, when I landed in Seoul to stay at Jin's family home I rather underestimated the symbolism and interest I would bring for her family.

Shortly after I arrived at their home on Friday a tiring 30 hours since waking in my home the morning before, Jin's father decided it was time for us to have a heart-to-heart chat, with Jin acting as an occasionally pained interpreter. He wanted to welcome me into the family Lee, he said, for since I had come to Korea with Jin I had become a part of it (although I myself had not noticed the metamorphosis). And as I was now part of the family, it was reasonable that we should get to know each other just as we know ourselves (ok, I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea). Given the obvious difficulties in communication, he requested I wrote a short 'personal letter', detailing my interests, future plans, views on marriage (arrgh!), and my own family atom (but no pressure, he assured me).

Six days later and we have got to know each other a little better in spite of the language difficulties. Jin's parents have learned to speak a little s-l-o-w-e-r and use simple words, and my Korean has improved somewhat. Jin's father bears some features which Jin describes as fairly typical of middle-aged Korean men – useless around the house, with a loud voice and commanding ego. Having said that though he is clearly making efforts to be friendly and make me feel comfortable. At times he is rather comical. Jin's mother is incredibly hard working, and the times she's not been busy in the house she's made a couple of trips into the mountains to pick chestnuts for the family table. Despite her having very forward attitude, typical of the Korean ajumma (middle-aged women), which can be intimidating to genteel English types such as myself, she is friendly and supportive too. Both of them love to moan at Jin (in particular, her mother was most upset when she let me help with the washing up, rather than doing it all herself (some aspects of Korean society are dangerously attractive to my kilesa)). Still, when we are all together the mood is usually relaxed and occasionally humorous. I have written something resembling a 'personal letter', and Jin now faces the unenviable task of translating my words.

Korean Lesson I: Personal Pronouns

One of the more confusing differences between English and Korean is the use of personal pronouns. All the words for I, you, we, he, she, etc. are there, but a literal translation of their usage is misleading. For a start, in Korean it is usual to refer to the person you are speaking to by their name, which in English sounds a bit crazy e.g. (to Jin) “Would Jin like something to drink?”. Also, to use “you” directly to someone older or senior to you is greatly offensive. I was unaware of this when I asked Jin's venerable mother on our second night here “너 알았어요?” (did you know?), and was greeted with a sharp intake of breath and reproachment by Jin. Fortunately her mother didn't understand me or else assumed that as I was using such familiar language I must be talking to her daughter, so disaster was narrowly averted.

When referring to someone in your family rather than saying “my sister” (brother/etc) you say “our sister” even if you are the only one in the room for whom this relation holds true. This seems to be related to the rather strong concept of family I mentioned earlier. This rule even extends to the rather polygamous sounding “our husband”.

Still to come...

- Some information on what I've actually been doing
- An essay on the state of Korean driving
- A petition for the forced immigration of European bakers

Thursday, 27 September 2007

At Heathrow Airport

According to the flight schedule I have less than 2 hours left in the UK, and only 20 minutes until boarding the flight (which may explain the quality of this post). I feel strangely normal... whereas before I have been excited and energised and scared and stressed, now in the moment of travel I seem too close to appreciate its magnitude. In fact, perhaps it is a better explanation to say that its apparent significance was previously magnified by my occupation with the plans and preparation; now I have nothing to do but wait and blog.

The last week has been pretty busy. This time last week I had just started helping Jin with a final proof-read of her thesis, before driving down to Warwick on Friday to have it printed and bound. We spent the evening and the following morning at the Forest Hermitage, which was a pleasant farewell to a place which has been a big influence on both our lives over the recent years. I was able to reminisce about my time there when I was unexpectedly sent out in the morning on an errand to get some sharp sand. After a moving final goodbye we set off again to the University. The rest of the weekend was spent in the hospitality of some of the many friends we have made there over the years. All was wrapped up by Monday afternoon and it was back to my parents to pack. Goodbye Warwick!

The packing was surprisingly easy given my dislike of packing (see previous post). My critical side tells me this might be because I let Jin do most of it and busied myself with other things. My more supportive side tells me that this probably made things easier for her as well so I needn't feel guilty. The drive down to London this morning made more interesting by a exciting police car chase down the M1 which momentarily transported me into the world of James Bond (I was quickly transported back by a police car who won't let the rest of us follow, spoil-sport). We had a nice afternoon getting reacquainted with Hema and her delicious cooking, where I dropped of my car into her possession. She assures me that once a few evil spirits have been dispelled it will be safe for her to use, and I'm sure she is right.

A taxi ride later brings us to the present moment, from where I started this post. How poetic :).

Thursday, 23 August 2007

My first post

So here is my long-promised and short-planned blog. Now that I've started I've realised I didn't plan at all what I was going to say. The blog gives no indication of the pauses for thought I make between sentences. My life slips through my fingers as I try vainly to record it in this text...

It would all have started a day earlier were I not recovering from the shock of packing up and moving out of Claycroft on Tuesday. The day began well with a relaxed breakfast in the half-empty flat around 9am. The day before I had confidently told my parents that all would be done by 3pm, and that we would be back with them in time for dinner. We eventually pulled out of the university campus at 10:30 that evening. Jin had earlier vetoed my suggestion of getting away quickly by indiscriminately throwing everything away, but instead she arranged for us to deliver a car load of kitchen utensils, food and miscellanea to the newly arrived students at Westwood. They accepted our 'gift' with such joy that I can grudgingly accept that her way was the better. In the latter stages of the day our sanity was kept intact with the help of Hema's "could it get any better" CD mix (a fitting title...), but at half past eight the stereo was loaded into the car and even that small mercy was taken from us. The last two hours were spent cleaning the flat and were conducted in a half-awake state of tired misery, which I have no desire to review further in my mind.

Well, two days later and maybe things weren't quite as bad as I made out. I am writing this post on the shiny new laptop I bought yesterday, and today I went to see the dentist, so at least I should make it to Korea with a blogging capability and a good set of teeth.

Days to go: 35