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.
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A Gully of Urine and Discarded Cigarette Ends – Vacation Finished!

Posted in customs, Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on March 1, 2012

Vacation fashion – the shaggy perm

These past few weeks I’ve experienced the naughtiest behaviour many Korean kids, especially boys, get up to. I live in an area of one and two room accommodations close to a university and sandwiched between high rises on three sides. One-rooms are basically studio type accommodation for one person which range from spacious and comfortable to poky and claustrophobic. Two-rooms are the same but have two bedrooms. The bathroom is always an additional room even if a one-room and often, though not always, so is the kitchen. Usually there is an enclosed veranda bordering the ‘rooms’ and in which you can hang washing, store items and is often the best location for a washing machine.  The enclosed veranda provides an excellent insulation in the winter as it effectively produces an enormous form of double glazing. I’ve lived in most of the variations. The worst was in Cheonan and though it was clean and pleasant, it was on the ground floor and as usual, there were bars on the windows. Worse however, was that the kitchen was in the bedroom area and it was small, small enough so that I could sit on my bed and prepare meals. Indeed, I could do everything either sat at my bed or by taking one-step. A ‘one-step’ would have been a far better description for this type of accommodation.

A small table pulled out from the kitchen unit alongside the bed so that I could prepare food and eat from the comfort of my bed, ideal for invalids and the infirm. Then, by standing and taking one small step, I could wash dishes and cook. For several years I was always embarrassed to say I lived in a ‘one-room’ because it sounds so much like a dingy UK bedsit but I’ve learnt there is great variation in size and comfort. My first two-room, in 2000, for example, had no air-conditioning; ten years ago air-con wasn’t a standard part of a teacher’s accommodation contract and we weren’t even supplied with a fan. My current one room is quite large and probably four times the size of my ‘one-step’ room in Cheonan. I suppose the worst thing about such accommodation, and purely based on my experience, is the lack of any view. Ground floors feel like prison cells due to the barred windows and very often the only glimpse of life beyond is that of the adjacent building’s wall. And of course, the outer windows of one rooms are generally frosted so even if you have a view it’s obstructed by this and the mosquito screen.

the alleyways around my one-room

Around and between the tightly packed one-rooms/two rooms in the area in which I live, are a maze of small passage ways. These provide access to down pipes, gas pipes and air conditioning units rather than a means of walking from one place to another. For nimble and athletic school boys however, capable of climbing over the walls which separate them, they are perfect recesses to hide from the adult world. For most of the year these passages are void of life but during vacation month they are frequently visited by groups of lads up to the Korean equivalent of ‘no good.’

a myriad of hidden recesses

So, this afternoon, March 1st, a national holiday (삼일) marking the earliest public display of resistance to the Japanese occupation which took place on March 1st 1919, the last gaggle of school boys huddle on their haunches under my kitchen window to commit some of the naughtiest acts possible for Korean teenagers. The first of these is smoking which is always accompanied by dribbling spit onto the pavement. This act has a sort of fashion to it and spit is rarely spat out but dribbled with an accompanying intense interest and fascination practiced by the performer. Next comes the pissing, which two boys do against the wall of my building. This is naughty but it’s not an altogether uncommon site in public. The third offence is their noise, boisterous and lively, but too loud! After the cigarette session, they run around a little playing chase and wrestling, almost deliriously happy. One of them throws a stone, not at a window or another person, but simply on the floor. Then I am spotted! There are a few seconds when they freeze, rather like a pack of wolves, in this case toothless, and stare in my direction, sniffing the air, motionless and silent. Then, without any discussion, they are gone. I am still able to hear their chattering and laughing but from a passage I can’t see. Their final offence is in the litter left from the visit, cigarette ends and a discarded packet. However, Koreans litter with impunity and this is only deemed an offence by foreigners. For school boys, such behaviour is about  the closest Koreans come to being hoodlums or delinquents.

Today is the last day of the long winter and spring vacation, two holidays interrupted by a few days school, which preceded the start of the new academic year. Of course, nothing is ever quite as it seems in Korea and despite the fact students have a school vacation, most attend the private academies in the afternoon and evenings or school academic camps.  High school students have hardly any vacation and attend academies on the weekend.

The long holiday period, spanning about seven weeks, allows elementary and middle school students to truly let their hair down. In academies they are often tired from playing lengthy sessions of video games or watching TV until the early hours of the morning and dyed hair, painted nails, earrings and perms are all tolerated. After seven weeks the shorts back and sides of many lads have been groomed into more lengthy and fashionable styles and I’ve even noticed boys tossing their head to flick hair out of their eyes, in a manner reminiscent of Justin Bieber.  It’s all been tolerated, even encouraged, that is until today. I’m sparing a thought for the thousands of kids who will be washing out the dye, getting their haircut and scrubbing their nails clean as they prepare for school in the morning. My fitness center will be void of  the peer groups of teenage boys and girls whose chatter and laughter have accompanied my training sessions for the last two months.  Going back to school in the UK, after the summer vacation, was always depressing but the respite of a week’s half term holiday was at the most only ever about six weeks away.  With the obsessive and intense nature of Korean education and the next vacation laying far in the distance amidst the screaming memis’ song of summer, the end of the spring vacation, the beginning of a long, long  haul marked by a chain of exams and the relentless daily trudge from one academy to another, must be especially gloomy.

a gulley of urine, cigarette ends and a discarded cigarette packet mark the remains of the long vacation

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Patriotic Taekwon-do and Sam Il – (Bathhouse Ballads March 2011)

Korean Teenagers’ Wacky World of ‘Vacation’ Fashions – (Bathhouse Ballads July 2010)