Elwood 5566

Looking Waeg With Mobile

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Westerners by 노강호 on June 27, 2011

who needs one?

Podcast 85

If there’s one technological item which has the potential to do the foreigner a disservice in Korea, it’s the mobile telephone. I’ll admit I’m a technological moron and am quite proud I’ve never bothered to learn to drive a car, and have no interest in doing so, most especially in Korea, and I have neither used an ATM machine in the West or posses or want to posses a mobile phone.

Recently, I’ve been observing how Koreans use mobiles. Everyone has one, at least one, even the youngest students. Everywhere you look they are being held like little pets and are constantly accessed. As I observe, I’m wondering, what they hell are they looking at? What is everybody doing that I’m not? At crossings, when people have to stand still for a minute, there is a sudden splurge of activity and out they pop. Mobiles are total mediocrity; they take mediocre photos, make mediocre videos, have mediocre sound production and anything which entails interfacing with that piddly little screen is definitely mediocre. Even one of their saving graces, a dictionary, is mediocre as it designed for Koreans learning English and not vice-versa. Apart from the  telephone facility, most of the functions built into a mobile are second-rate.

mobile mania starts at a young age

 I detest they way most Korean streets are infested with mobile mania stores in much the same way beautiful English villages have been invaded with estate agents. Every time a business shuts down, usually something useful and interesting, like a bakery, café, or restaurant, someplace where I might possibly go a few times a week or simply peer in the window, it is replaced by a mobile store which I am personally never likely to enter. Even if I owned one, I doubt I’d need to access it more than a couple of times a year. But that’s not all, I’m also irritated by the way they clutter up the streets, not just with young lads tempting customers into the store but with even more shit music blaring out and with the various forms of bait stashed against the store fronts which is used to lure and entice customers. It seems that on every corner of Song-so, in the area around the Lotte Cinema Complex, not just one store has opened but several. On one corner there are three and walking past them is like running a gauntlet; first, the hideous cacophony caused by the clash of three competing hip-hop ditties and then the onslaught of lads passing out leaflets or pointing at bait. I’m lucky, they usually ignore me because I’m male and foreign but if you are a lithe little female college student, I suspect being accosted is a regular encounter.

one company but two seperate shops

and just around the corner...

and next to the one just around the corner...

and next to that one...

and on the next corner, you can get your ' free' toilet rolls

Most of the mobile stores in my immediate area, and there must be fifteen of them, lure custom with offers which in one store are bicycles. Further down the road, another offers large packs of toilet paper which are stacked on the sidewalk. I can understand the bicycle appeal especially as some of the bikes are actually quite attractive, though probably made in China, but do punters really get lured into signing a mobile contract because they get twenty rolls of toilet-paper? I shouldn’t be condescending or judgmental because of course, Koreans use shit paper as napkins, kitchen roll, tissue and whatever. A bumper pack  lasts me a year and in Korea it’s a very versatile commodity.

...and a free bicycle

The most fascinating group who use mobile technology, however, are the waegs. I’m often bemused by westerners in Korea as they wander around with what is predominantly a piece of techno-trinketery. Most waegs can’t string together a few words in Korean, myself included, and even then it probably hasn’t been understood. This isn’t a criticism as there are a number of reason which make the learning of Korean a slow and labourious process but though we like to think we can ‘speak’ Korean, and often suggest we have an ability to ‘get by’, the reality is very much that once we have said ‘hello,’ or ‘more kimchi, please,’ that which follows is baffling and might as well be Venusian. Clearly, waeg possession of a mobile isn’t intended for communicating in Korean which leads me to conclude that its function is as a fancy address book where you compile, through numerous social media or the Boring Boroyeong (Mud Festival), the greatest waeg festival on the peninsula,  a network of waeg chums. Even in my area of Daegu there aren’t many foreigners and of those many do not want to communicate, are here for the job rather than through an interest in Korean culture, or are simply weird.  This is probably how I appear to many waegs as my views on life and cynical disposition towards western society, make compatibility elusive. Even back home I find it difficult ‘connecting’ and my circle of friends is small. However, every so often I met a waeg with whom there is a mutual connection and a friendship will develop. The number of foreigners I am likely to form a relationship with, and I should add, I’m not one of those waegs who passes-by and pretends not to notice you, is small and doesn’t warrant buying an address book let alone an expensive mobile. I came to Korea to experience its culture and escape the depression of Scumland UK and too many waeg chums not only takes me away from the Korean experience, but takes me too close to an expat community and many of  the things I dislike about the West.

marketing through mediocrity

Naturally, I’m being cynical and modern mobiles have a range of  facilities which are very useful but which we learn to need. But I can’t help but see that the more advanced the tools of communication become, the less we actually communicate. I did once use a mobile for a short period but after having to respond to frequent inane questions from friends, I chucked it out. I can remember my one and only week with a mobile phone;  7.30 in the morning on the bus to work, and a colleague is texting me: ‘wot u d-ing?’ It’s busy, I’m having to stand and I’m surrounded by teenage schools kids who are actually texting each other.  What a waste of freaking technology! Texting a message which is beamed up to a satellite and instantly beamed back to Earth and all that separates the correspondents is me!  Suddenly, I’m a member of the moron club! I try keying a response to my dumb-ass colleague but my fingers are too fat for the keys so I keep hitting two at a time and it doesn’t help that the bus is jiggling about. I don’t even get to send a reply before another message appears on the screen; ‘is any 1 sxy sat near u?’ This is a deep and meaningful communique! I can’t be bothered replying and chuck the phone in my bag and simply ignore it. A few moments later, a mobile starts ringing. It emanates from nearby but I don’t know from where. The horrid jangle is lost in the noise of the bus and busy morning traffic. The ring continues and people are beginning to mutter. “Answer the bloody thing!”  Someone suggests, loudly. Then I realise the ringing is coming from my bag! It’s my phone! I ignore it but it persists and so I am forced to leave the bus two stops early and avoid looking back over my shoulder as I alight. I can feel eyes burning into my back as the annoying ring diminuendos with my departure.

dingly-danglies

Texting, the art of communicating without really communicating, has to be one of the dumbest forms of human interchange to have evolved and has probably done more to retard those attributes that separate us from other primates, notably the manipulation of symbols, than develop them. I’m convinced that for many, texting is both a means of keeping people at bay rather than risking any real, meaningful dialogue, and giving the impression you have something to say when actually, you don’t. With a mobile phone hooked up to your various social network sites, you can very quickly have a few hundred ‘friends’ and be spared actually having to get to know them. By pumping out a continual splurge of text we not only give the impression we are important and have something to say but in the meantime, we keep others at a distance. And, of course, mobiles have a use in enhancing your image by providing a  range of accessories, similar to those for toys such as Barbie Doll or My Little Pony, by which you can personalize your mobile, not just with fab jangles and cute stickers but by an infinite range of little dingly danglies.

jazz it up with a dingly-dangly

For the week I trialled a mobile phone, I was pestered by the texting assault by the aforementioned colleague and suggested he phone me to talk rather than insist on using that silly digital semaphore. The problem however, was when he did phone he had nothing to say and what communication we had was filled with embarrassing black-holes. Digit-speak was far less painful than attempts to actually talk to each other.  I suspect a great swathe of text communication has been rendered by individuals ‘letting their fingers do the talking’ and certainly many of the examples I’ve seen and experienced are the product of something brainless. Perhaps their really is some closer relationship between the mobile and toilet tissue.

kids displaying their danglies

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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In the Days When Google was Gobble-dee-gook

You naively expected this

Podcast 72

I often mention that ten only a few years ago there was little information available on most aspects of Korean culture. Looking back just a few years the changes that have taken place are truly incredible. For those of us who are older, it is easy to forget that access to a whole range of information, all at your fingertips, is a luxury that at one time did not exist and that ‘one time’ was only a couple of years ago; for those who are younger, it is worth pondering the Korean experience before the incredible growth in access to, and compilation of, information – a process still in development.

and found this

When I decided to come to Korea in 2000, it certainly wasn’t for a job and the only factor influencing my decision to step on the plane was to discover a country which at the time ranked with exotic and mysterious destinations such as Mongolia and Tibet.  Just ten years ago anyone coming to Korea, perhaps more so from Europe than the USA, which has had both a closer relationship with Korea and attracted a substantial number of Korean immigrants, did so blind. Other than the information supplied by your recruiter and the odd book in libraries, access to information or first hand accounts was scant. Those who decide to come to Korea today are able to furnish themselves from the abundance of information available in a range of formats and I suspect many are now lured here not because of  the mysterious, but in search of employment. I in no way mean to demean or underplay the reasons people currently come to Korea and it certainly provides a culture shock. But I envy  those who arrived here in the early 1990’s or 1980’s at a time when Korea was not the place it was in 2000.

when your PC looked like this (Macintosh PC circa 1999)

I kept a diary from my first day and reading through its pages it is clear how the internet has become a fundamental resource in both deliberating whether to undertake the experience and in influencing and developing your understanding of Korea. It may even influence the experiences you engage in while on the peninsula. Change has been so rapid, and the resources we now access  have become so integral, it is easy not just to take fore-granted its impact,  but to even doubt that it was really that difficult to access information in the first place.

and your mobile phone, if you had one, looked like this (2000)

Writing in hangul was a major obstacle and you simply couldn’t go into your PC, make a few tweaks and then be able to write in Korean or hanja and besides, in 2000, few teachers had air-conditioning let alone a personal computer with an internet connection. Before laptops and net-books, most of the waygukin you met were in PC bangs where you spent a substantial part of your week. And If you bought a PC  you were privileged but still required Microsoft Proofing Tools to enable you to write in Korean or hanja and which cost c£70 a package.

Korean dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were small and difficult to buy. On the eve of my first trip, I went to London’s largest bookshop, Foyles, and discovered the entire range of books on the Korean language amounted to two introductory books, a useless dictionary and the small copy of the NTC Compact Korean English Dictionary. I bought all four depleting them of their entire Korean language collection. The dictionaries used transliterated Korean rather than hangul script. Meanwhile, books devoted to Japanese occupied an entire book case.

and this was what you needed to write Hangul (and it was expensive)

I’ve known a number of westerners who arrived in Korea in the late 80’s  and whose Korean, many years later, is still rudimentary. It’s easy to criticise such apparent laziness until you remember there was no internet to support your learning or provide lessons, few decent language courses or dictionaries and unless you were in Seoul or one of the big cities, few language classes. After a few years enduring such conditions it becomes a case of, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ As for hanja, I’ve met westerners proficient in Korean who didn’t even know what hanja was. While access to information on the internet existed, certainly around 2000, there was very little compiled on Korea or Korean culture and the ability to write in hanja characters was difficult, costly and dependent on Korean based language packages. Today, though limited for the non Korean speaker, information on hanja is available and if you aren’t interested in trying to learning it, you can very easily research what it comprises.

a time when you really did have to 'teach yourself'

Once again, in the UK, other than on the Korean war, there were few books on Korean history and finding information on topics such as the Hwa-Rang-Do or one of the Korean dynasties, was difficult. And when you did find such books, usually in academic libraries rather than public ones, they were specialist and somewhat boring for the reader who wanted general information. It has only been in very recent years, by which I mean the last 6 or 7  that such information has appeared and I can remember trawling Google in 2002 or 2003 and finding very little other than specialist academic references to major, Korean historical periods. Exactly the same conditions applied to Korean culture, prominent figures, cooking or geography.  Back in the UK I have a small collection of books on Korean culture, history, cooking, hanja and language etc, but all of them were printed and bought in Korea, and ferried back to the UK. So, on returning to Britain in 2002 and 2004, I felt I had to take a part of Korea home with me because there was no way to access ‘Korea’ in the UK. In 1997, when TOPIK, the Korean language proficiency test was introduced for non-Korean speakers, it attracted 2274 people; in 2009, 180.000 people took the exam and test centers now exist globally.

TOPIK exam hall

Korean related information on the internet was in its infancy; Google, for example, became a registered domain name in 1997  and certainly before 2000 most lay-people researched information from software such as Encarta. In 2000, I was originally going to teach in Illsan, I can remember using the internet to find information on this location and found very little. I have just this moment keyed ‘Illsan’ into Google search and in 14 seconds have access to 1.800.000 written resources and 1200 images. Learning Korean and hanja meant you compiled your own dictionary because the words or characters your learnt weren’t in dictionaries and there were no translation tools such as Babblefish or Google to provide support. Even with hangul, I still keep my own dictionary because western ones, even on the internet, don’t explain words uniquely Korean. As for idioms? Try searching Korea idioms on the internet or the availability of electronic dictionaries which are designed for the English native speaker learning Korean. All resources still being developed.

Resources in their infancy 10 years ago, blogging, vlogging, podcast, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter etc, have since become a fundamental means of sharing experiences and providing first hand information not just about all aspects of Korean culture, but on more specific topics such as life for the foreigner and whether you are vegetarian, teacher or gay, information is readily available. Blogging now provides an immense wealth of information but it is worth remembering that the term ‘blog’ was only coined by Peter Merholz, in 1999. Major blogging software which has helped give rise to the blogging phenomena are recent developments: Blogger emerged in 1999 and WordPress in only in 2003.

Song So, Daegu, November 2000

Even today, unless you live in London, obtaining Korean foodstuff is still almost an impossibility and online order of Korean foodstuffs is undeveloped. None of this is very surprising given there were very few Korean living in the UK until recently. Between 1998-1992, at a university with one of the most diverse students populations in the UK, there was a total absence of Koreans and Russians. Indeed, I was to meet Mongolian students before I met any from Korea. And, I can recall the very first five Korean I met; the first, a taekwondo instructor in London, in 1979, the second, a taekwondo instructor in Paderborn, Germany, in 1986, the third, a student in a school near New Maldon,  London, in 1998, and finally, two Koreans in a hotel in the Philippines, in 1998. I had a fleeting ‘meeting’ with Rhee Ki-ha (now  9th Degree Black Belt, taekwon-do), in 1988 but as a grading taekwon-do student, I was forbidden to talk to him.

Daegu 2001. When westerners were still a little unique

Korean Culture – the Korean Wave, Korean football players playing for British football teams, LG, Nong Shim, I-River etc, all arrived on British shores in the years following my first visit and indeed, this Christmas, I was treated to the first Korean cookery program I have see on British television. However, I suspect its genuineness as the recipes included beetroot and English pear (you can easily buy Asian pear in the UK). And neither chopsticks or kimchi featured!

and before the advent of the Korean wave

Up until a few years ago, if you arrived in Korea from Britain, you probably knew nothing about Korean society and possibly expected ‘second world’ conditions. Much of what you learnt about Korea occurred through accidentally stumbling across something and you certainly couldn’t learn from a computer screen. Indeed, access to a computer was probably detrimental to your Korean experience, removing you from, rather than immersing you in, Korean culture. Today, a computer can certainly enhance your experience and if you need to know how to: use your Korean washing machine, plan a trip, find a doctor during a holiday or translate a sentence from Korean into Blackfoot, it’s at your fingertips. Day to day life in Korea has been ‘made simple’ by the tomes of information we can now access  and only last week I used the internet to help me adjust my ondol heating control. With hundreds of accounts on topics such as soju, the Boryeonng Mud Festival  and kimchi, done to death, a blogger is forced to use a range of media formats (vlogging, photographs, podcasts, even cartoons), and  driven to be more creative and original in their perspective  especially if posting on what are now common, if not mundane subjects.

Link to TOPIK Guide.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.