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