Elwood 5566

Somewhat Greener Grass

Posted in Comparative, Entertainment, services and facilities by 노강호 on July 18, 2012

The speed of construction in Korea; a year between clearing the lot to the opening of Starbuck’s on the ground floor

Koreans will tell you their economy is in recession but there are recessions and recessions. Prices don’t seem to have increased much over the years and my utilities bills are in some cases cheaper than they were five years ago. Meanwhile, my electricity bill in the UK has increased by almost 300% in the last five years and it’s the same with gas and water utilities. Indeed, the price of one bill in the UK, my Community Charge, currently almost £150pm (w300.000), would not just cover my all monthly Korean utility bills but, my health contribution, internet and cable TV, and my monthly subscription to the most exclusive gym and jimjjilbang in my area.

My monthly Korean gas and electric bills always contain a graph showing the price you have paid for each month over 13 months so at a glance you can not just see if you’re paying more this month than you were in the corresponding month last year, but can access seasonal variations. The same system in the UK would mortify me as we have been subject to massive hikes every year for the last five years – indeed in one year there were two large increases. Meanwhile, the restaurant in which I’ve eaten for the last four years has increased the price of pork kimchi stew by 500Won (25 pence).

Coffee houses – an indicator of disposable income

When business folds, another quickly opens, more often than not, a mobile phone store or a coffee house. Coffee houses in Korea are often used as an indicator of disposable incomes. One of the most pertinent signs that the Korean economy isn’t in the same depressing mess it is back home, is that rate at which buildings are erected. It isn’t just the case that buildings are being built but that they are speedily completed. In Korea, you can expect a 12 story building to be completed within a year and in a five mile journey across the city a few weeks ago, I must have past at least 20 buildings being erected. In one area alone there were at least six that that weren’t there a year ago.

a busy building program in Dasa, Daegu. Construction can be seen from early morning until it begins to get dark – six days a week!

But there are other markers of a relatively healthy economy despite the world recession; many of my students have the latest mobile technology and in some cases expensive technology and on the streets at the weekends it’s easy to spot new jeans and trousers, especially on teenagers. New trainers are common and the current trend New Balance, not just in trainers but as logos on T-shirts and bags. Korean students have a ‘preppy,’  respectable appeal and there is a distinct lack of the ‘East European fashions’ which tend to dominate British streets such as leggings, cheap trackies and hoodies.

new trainers on my students

And then there are middle school students with cameras costing anything up to 1.000.000KRW(£500). Take a trip to any popular Korean destination and you’ll see an inordinate number of Koreans not just with expensive cameras, but with enormous telescopic lenses.

The quality of life in Korea is high and living on the peninsula reminds me of the years I spent in Germany, during the late 70’s and 80’s, in an economy equally as vibrant. More important is the atmosphere generated when there is a good quality of life. Economic depression casts a gloom over the societies it infects and no amount of social manipulation in the form of festivals, flag waving jamborees or ‘big events’ can shake off the feeling that society is sick. Yes, currently, Korea is probably one of the best places to be to ride out not just the current global recession, but the general greed that seems an endemic part of my own culture and in which most transactions leave you feeling ‘ripped-off.’

Creative Commons License
©Amongst Other Things –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Advertisements

Quality of Life

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Health care, services and facilities, video clips by 노강호 on November 7, 2010

고운 Skin Clinic, and to the right (hidden by tree) an animal hospital. Both less than 1 minutes walk from my one-room

One reason I find Korea a more enjoyable place to live is that they have not yet learnt to be as efficient money grabbers as some western countries. Yes, Korea is capitalist but it is certainly not as aggressively exploitative as the UK or indeed much of the western world.  Of course, bad things happen in Korea, like anywhere else, and without doubt political and corporate corruption exist here as much as  in Britain where a ‘forgiving’  population has effectively pardoned the  recent greedy excesses of politicians. The things I like in Korea are possibly destined to disappear in the greed which seems to epitomize aggressive capitalism but until then, here some of the benefits I enjoy.

'Best' ophthalmic clinic and 'Beauty' Dentist - 2 minutes walk from my one-room

a tinnitus clinic  less than 30 seconds from my one-room

specialist hospital some 4 minutes walk from my one-room

I love the idea of ‘service’ (서비스) that shops and restaurants offer to loyal customers. A few weeks ago I recorded and wrote about the ‘concessions’ I earned (see: Freebies)  in a seven-day period, and which amounted to 20.000 Won (£10). I had free onion rings, quite a number of free beers, garlic bread, small bottles of vitamin drink and was given 1000 Won (50 pence) discount for medicine, by my pharmacist. Being given a ‘service’ immediately puts you, the customer, in a ‘ special relationship’ with the business and though you can reject it and immediately ‘shop’ elsewhere, it is rewarding and re-energizes my belief that humans are not all money grabbers. There is much more a sense in Korea that a customer is important primarily because smaller businesses vastly outnumber the large ones where in terms of customer numbers, your individual allegiance is unimportant. In Home-Plus or Tesco’s UK, my own opinions and importance are marginal and quite often the response to my complaints summarized as: ‘your expectations and tastes are obviously higher than the average customer.’ With a multitude of small businesses in the form of shops, restaurants, markets and street vendors,  your importance as an individual customer in Korea, is of more significance. The practice of being able to negotiate a discount for large purchases is an added bonus.

I’m crap at wrapping gifts but in Korea this is a complimentary service and I’m sure the wrappers have had special training. In the UK gifts are usually only wrapped at Christmas and in the season of goodwill, the biggest hypocrisy of all given it’s the greediest period of the whole year, you can expect to be charged for the service. When I hand over £3-4 (6000-8000 Won)  for the wrapping of a gift which I have just paid £40 (80000 Won) I really feel ripped-off. You can shop your entire life at small businesses in the UK and in all but the rarest of  occasions can you  ever expect reward for your loyalty.

six assistants in one opticians store

On my last visit to the UK, almost a year ago, both my local supermarket, Tesco’s, which in Korea masquerades as ‘Home-Plus, and one of  the large,  do-it-your-self  stores, B and Q, were introducing automated checkouts. As I stood in a queue in B and Q, a number of assistants were on hand to help familiarise customers with the new machinery that would no doubt put some of them out of work. Shopping in either of these stores is unpleasant as the are both gargantuan warehouses where cameras outnumber staff 10-1 and seeking help requires several  laps of the premises only to find the teenage assistant has no idea where anything is.  The automated checkout  had been programmed to welcome customers and provide basic instructions and I was pleased to hear a number of people in the queue voice displeasure at yet another facet of  customer services being relegated to a brainless machine. Despite the fact the moaning will achieve nothing and  that by this time next year  the automated checkout will be fully accepted,  I too voiced my dissent. Of course, what separates me from other customers  is that not only are my ‘expectations higher than the average customer,’ but the lengths I am willing to go  in revolt verge on the lunatic. My Luddite tendencies would not think twice about squirting superglue  in the slot designed for a credit card and I can wage a solitary regime indefinitely. Gramsci once suggested that even shopping is a political activity and I can take mine to the extreme.

3 minutes walk from my one-room, directly opposite my academy - 'Joseph' neurosurgery

When I went shopping yesterday, in my local E-Mart, I counted 4 pairs of staff on duty at each point of entry onto a level of the supermarket. As customers entered a level they were greeted with synchronised bows and verbally welcomed. Apart from the checkout assistants in stores not yet fully automated in the UK, eight members of staff is probably about the number employed on the entire shop floor of a British supermarket. In Korea, customer support isn’t  a luxury but an expectation and there are always a couple of staff employed for every section of shelves and assistance is never more than a few meters away.  Parking your car, a subject a broached in Ear Piece Mania, can entail as many as 10 parking assistants all of whom are trained in the intricacies of the bizarre hand signals used within Korean car parks. In the UK and many other places, customer support and adequate staff to assist shoppers, are either relocated in somewhere like India or have been viciously culled in the drive to maximize profits.

The first of an army of car parking attendants encountered in parking your car in the supermarket car park

 Several years ago a faulty USB port on my computer damaged my camera and electronic dictionary but this was no worry. Most companies, especially ones such as Samsung, Iriver, and mobile phone manufacturers, have service centers in every major town. For eighteen months, one of the Daegu service centers for Samsung was next to my academy, until it moved a five-minute walk down the road. Regardless, there will be a number of other Samsung centers in the city. Iriver, the manufacturer of both my MP3 and my palm reader are twenty minutes down the metro-line and the service center for my Nurian electronic dictionary, is five minutes away by bus. So, whenever I have had some problem, customer support is on hand, easily accessed and the product repaired and back in my possession within days and possibly quicker. On two occasions, mobile phone problems were repaired while I waited. When I recently had my camera repaired in the new Samsung service center, it took three days and when I went to collect it, it was wheeled out from the an adjacent room on what I can only describe as a cake trolley. Much the same support is available for computer problems and a computer service shop is located less than two minutes from my one-room. Meanwhile, in order to keep frustrated customers at bay and continue operating a  second-rate service, a token service at best, UK service centers are located in the furthest corners of the country and require your  faulty  goods to be  ferried away by courier service. And to ensure they can operate a slow service that is cheap to run, all public interface is removed and the call center relocated to Bombay or Bangladesh.

directly behind my academy, 'Future' urology clinic above which is my doctor

Korean medical care is efficient and there are more doctors and medical facilities within a six-minute walking radius of my one room than there  are be in my entire home town. Indeed, 4 hospitals are within a five-minute walk, and in less time than it takes me to walk to work, three minutes, I can reach two ophthalmologists, 6 opticians, urology, cardiology, neurology and ENT clinics, and a women’s’  health center. In addition, there are probably 5 dentists, a number of skin clinics, and a dietitians and two veterinary clinics. Remember, Korea is much more up than out and one high-rise block can contain more facilities than an entire British street where commercial businesses traditionally  and almost exclusively, occupy the ground floor. A few weekends ago, the husband of one of my colleagues needed an MRI scan after though I’m told there are a limited number of such facilities in the city, he was able to get a scan on the day he needed one and at a cost of 111.000 Won (£56) after deducting the amount provided by insurance. My colleague actually moaned that this was too expensive. Visiting the doctor involves a wait of no more than an hour and I don’t need to make an appointment. Even without Korean medical insurance the cost of a visit is no more than 7000 Won (£3.50) while the cost with insurance, is an ‘extortionate’ £1.50. And the greatest advantage for anyone living in or near a Korean city or big town, is that most medical needs  do not interrupt your daily life. When I have needed anything other than minor medical assistance in the UK, I have usually had to travel a substantial distance and then sit in various queues for several hours. All clinics in Korea have tasteful waiting areas with televisions, complimentary tea and coffee etc, and very often a couple of computers with free internet access. Admittedly, I hear and have seen examples of doctors and nurses not following universal procedures, but back home despite our rigorous rituals hospitals  are still plagued with skin eating viruses and for every account of bad practice I experience or read about on the Korean peninsula, I can match them with corresponding ones from the UK. At least when I spot something unsavory  in the Korean system, I do so in comfortable surroundings, with a complimentary coffee while watching the television and all without sitting in long queues which have necessitated taking the day off work.

a sneaky shot of my local ophthalmic clinic

a wide variety of side dishes usually replenished at no cost

With eating is my main pleasure, the ample amounts side dishes that accompany a Korean  meal and which can usually be re-ordered at no extra cost, is enjoyable. The recent cabbage shortage (Ersatz Kimchi in a State of Emergency) saw prices rise to 10000 Won (£5) for a large cabbage and caused subsequent problems with kimchi production but rather than just hike the cost up, and  subsequently leave it high  even after production costs have fallen, as happened a few years ago with petrol prices  in the UK, most restaurants in my area decreased kimchi and salad amounts and to compensate increased the portions of meat. My local bo-sam restaurant (보쌈) doubled the slices of pork from 7 to 14 and has only recently reduced the number as the price  of vegetables, and most especially cabbage, has decreased. In restaurants, chilled water in summer, and warm water in winter are complimentary and a can of coke is usually the same price whether chilled or not. In recent years, especially in hot weather, it has become a trend in the UK to charge up to as much as 1000 Won (50p) extra for the privilege of a cold drink, especially in extremely hot weather.

A Samsung service center

In Britain, unless shoes are leather it is difficult getting them repaired and for items like trainers you don’t repair them at all. Over the years we have been encouraged to sling things out and replace them as soon as they are worn.  In Korea you can easily have the  worn collars of shirts reversed and repairing shoes with rubber soles, including trainers, is easy. I had my rubber shoes soled and heeled almost a year ago whereas in the UK I would have been compelled to throw them in the bin.

Need a pair of glasses? It would probably work out cheaper to fly to Korea and buy a few pairs than pay the excessive charges levied in the UK. There is no charge for the eye examination and the price of frames begin at about 15.000 Won (£7). I have three pairs of glasses and all have frames costing less than 20000 Won (£10). Koreans love colourful frames and the range available, extensive. Cleaning cloths and cases for glasses are all free and the cleaning clothes cute and decorated. A pair of varifocal glasses, with the glass graduated so they look like ordinary glasses, costs around 200.000 Won (£100) and outside one of the opticians within a minutes walk of my one-room stands a special electrical device which you can use to clean your glasses. It’s free to use! Since optical care was privatized in the UK, the British have been abused by high street companies ripping them of. You can easily pay in excess of £300 (600.000 Won) for a pair of varifocals but the monopoly held by such greedy companies is being seriously threatened with the emergence of online opticians.

There are many flaws in the Korean system and I probably turn a blind eye to many of them,  but with all the advantages I have outlined, plus a national tax of around 3.3%, (my monthly bills, including tax, all amount to a grand total less than that I would pay for  the lowest of my monthly utility bills in the UK), I do not feel I am being fleeced or financially raped. Unlike many western countries, quality of life doesn’t cost and arm and leg.

Further Links

The Great Spectacles Rip-Off

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Memory Lane

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on November 1, 2010

Kimpo Airport

I often mention how rapidly Korea is changing. I have only lived here four and a half years, spread across ten years, so in comparison to friends who have over twelve years experience, I’m somewhat of an infant. I would love to have been here fifteen or twenty years ago, when Korea was truly a country where other than American soldiers, few ventured. ‘Fat ‘has arrived in Korea, an observation I often point out in my posts on bathhouses, and EPIK has brought an army of teachers into schools to such an extent our uniqueness has been lost. And no doubt those who first came to Korea in the 90’s will have noticed even greater changes.

Kimpo in 2000

When I arrived in Korea in September 2000, Inch’on International Airport was still being built and looking back, it is quite incredible to think that the piddly sized Kimpo was the country’s major airport. Kimpo was basically one big room through which people arrived and departed and I’m sure it’s bigger today than it was ten years ago. Few restaurants had English menus and on every street corner were  ‘video shops’ renting the latest videos. The internet contained little information on Korea in terms of cooking, culture or history, zilch on hanja and very little on Korean. Few teachers had air-conditioning and for those in English academies, split schedules, a common practice, meant the 6 hours you’d been led to believe you’d end up teaching in Korea, were probably closer to 8 or 9. Maybe it is still the same in some language academies, but  class sizes  were big, sometimes twenty students packed in small classes and often with no air-conditioning. There were fewer academies and my school, the largest in the area, occupied three floors of a large building. There were few resources, wall sockets often didn’t work and only a couple of tape players if they did and if you complained you were simply told to read to the kids. Most of the westerners I remembered meeting at the time seemed to work  under similar conditions.  Back then, university posts really were the cream of jobs with significantly more pay than other types of teaching and before the recent changes in bureaucracy, transferring from one town to another or one school to another, was easy.

If you had a pair of shoes like this in 2000, you were 'sexy.'

Big shoes were the fashion on young lads. By ‘big’  I mean long and so long that I thought I easily find a pair of English size 13’s. Indeed, they were so long, a little like the old ‘winkle-pickers,’ that they turned up and gave them a medieval appearance. On younger boys, even very young ones, a long forelock on the side of the head was tinted gold meanwhile their teeth were black. While older children seemed to have good dental hygiene, milk teeth were seen as unimportant and many of my younger students had black baby teeth. Today, this is something I rarely see.

Coffee beans or ground beans were hard to buy and I remember a coffee filter machine in supermarkets attracted small audiences and if you wanted a bottle of wine, if you could afford it and could find it, they were stored in a glass cabinet and the choice very limited. It seemed everyone wanted English lessons and were willing to pay for the privilege and being stopped and asked if you would teach privately, was an almost daily occurrence. In my diary for Saturday 18th of November, 2000, I wrote:

Here (KFC in Song-So) I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return for lessons. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday.

The KFC near Han-song Plaza has closed and is now a stationary store in which the glass stairs are still embossed with Colonel Saunders’ face, but in the last two years I haven’t once been asked to teach privately by strangers in restaurants or on the street.  I used to teach a few privates on a Sunday and would earn around a 100 000 Won an hour for teaching a small class of 3 or 4 students.

at one time were were as novel as coffee-filter machines and wine

Your presence, especially with children, was often enough for people to stop, gasp and gawk at you in awe.  Only yesterday, a boy of 14 told me how he remembers seeing westerners when he was four years old and how he would be filled with excitement. Few schools had resident foreign English teachers and what foreigners existed were a novelty. Many of the children, and some adults, you met ten years ago had never spoken to a foreigner. Then there was the starring… I remember times when the constant starring stressed me to such an extent, I’d occasionally step into a recess or doorway for a break. Unlike today, when a solitary passenger stares lazily from a busy bus, a westerner on the street would turned every head. I imagine it was even more intense in the early 90’s and 80’s and probably not much different to an experience I once had on a station platform in Delhi, in 1984, when a crowd so large gathered to stare at my friend as he opened a map, that after a few minutes you couldn’t see him. In the Korea of today, you are noticed and not much else and it rarely causes excitement or stops people in their tracks.

A few weeks ago I was up Warayong Mountain in Song-So, Daegu; I’d stopped for a coffee at a small stall almost at the summit and was attempting a conversation with a woman sat on the next bench along.  I noticed a couple of small children coming down into the clearing where we sat and around which were various communal exercise machines. Suddenly, their faces broke into excitement and they started running and skipping towards my seat. For a moment, it was the kind of reaction I remember on my first visit when kids would run up and then stand and stare, or might bravely attempt to say hello or stroke the hairs on a bared arm. However, ten years later and the focus of their attention isn’t me but the dog sat beside the woman with whom I am talking.  The children skip up to it and lavish it with as much excitement and attention as they’d once have given a foreigner. It isn’t even a real dog but one of those ‘handbag pooches’ which look more  like a wisp of cotton-wool on straw legs. I could have understood if it had been a real dog, a labrador or sheep dog, but this pathetic specimen! I realised in that instant that this is what it has come to; a miniature poodle now commands more attention, is more interesting and exotic than a foreigner. I am not exaggerating when I add that despite my height and size, and sitting right next to them, they didn’t even notice me.

a puff of wind and it's dead

Amongst all these changes however, one convenient constant; unlike the rest of the world prices have changed little. I bought a hanja dictionary in 2000 at a cost of 15.000 Won and in exactly the same store, nine years later, the same book cost 15.500 Won. That’s an increase of 25 pence in UK sterling! Quite amazing!

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.