Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Dentist 2

Little did I know, but much did I suspect, that when I last wrote about the joys (lie) of visiting Korean dentists, that this was merely the beginning of the saga.

It transpired that I had a serious problem with a deep filling and the only solution was some root canal work followed by crowning the tooth. The dentist provided so little proof of this he could have worked for the Bush Administration, and his vague pointing at X-Ray smudges only served to extend that Colin-Powell-at-the-UN vibe, and much like the the International Community at the time, for some reason which I'm not entirely clear on with the benefit of hindsight, I went along with it.

Then we suffered from mission creep, as it transpired that a cosmetic white crown was not recommended, and I should instead consider a nice gold one instead, because clearly in Korea, the Bond-villain look is in.

Recently we got a psychologically disturbed dog who will of late has taken to rooting himself to the ground for no reason those around him can fathom, growling at the incomprehensible events unfolding around him, and I fear he may have learned this behaviour from me.

So I growled at the dentist for some time as a battle of wills ensued in which only one of us was armed with sharp dental implements. Eventually I agreed to have the gold crown put in towards the back of my mouth where he insisted nobody would notice. And maybe he was right; I'm married.

He also insisted that this would be a good time to remove all my wisdom teeth on the grounds that they would 'eventually become a problem'. But explaining that they weren't a problem now seems to be an entirely illogical line of defence in Korea. Finally, another tooth had a temporary filling courtesy of the first dentist I'd seen - Kim Pain as I called him - and this would have to be filled with gold too, not ceramic or even amalgam.

More debate ensued in which it was alleged - in a remarkable outbreak of honesty - that Korean dentists don't do amalgam fillings because there's no money in it. Finally it was mutually agreed in the interests of preventing a diplomatic incident that I would get my inferior British dentist to undertake this clinically dubious work when I got back to England, which at the time I thought was a matter of some weeks away, but the British Embassy had other ideas, and this is how I happened to discover that a temporary filling can last at least nine months.

So after three weeks of having root nerves scraped out on a weekly basis, and about a week after I pronounced myself minimally satisfied with the gold crown, it started to hurt a little when I ate, which just about brought me full circle to where I was when I started, but this time I opted for the ignore-it-and-it-might-go-away sanctions-type strategy, as opposed to another round of shock-and-awe. Nine months later, I'd have to admit that didn't work either, but much like Korea, I decided to live with it.

It's not that Korean dentists are bad, but it's one of the experiences where I can say there was eventually an insurmountable culture clash, with one person insisting things are done the Korean way, and me drawing my line in the sand and saying you know what - this is the point at which I don't go native and want things done the way I would back home. In reality, that meant not getting any treatment at all when the Korean dentist refused.

To be fair the UK's National Health Service should be renamed the National Stealth Service because actual treatment is so hard to find (something I fear Michael Moore omits to mention when he extols the supposed virtues of universal health care). Relevant case in point, my NHS dentist back home has closed, or had his practice closed, for some indeterminate reason, leaving me without a British dentist now anyway, and with no guarantee of being able to get one, because they're about as rare as pacifists in the Pentagon. My nephew - who's in the same practice - needs a painful tooth removing under general anaesthetic - and because that can't be done just anywhere there's a four month waiting list, which the implosion of the practice is turning into seven or eight. I wish that I could get the treatment I want in Korea, but when I compare it with my own country, I have to accept that at least here you can walk in off the street and get treated. In my country, such a thing is unthinkable.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Easy Rider

"Pics or it didn't happen!"

I've been reluctant to relate this story because it's probably ranks up there as the equivalent of a '외국인' (waegugin/foreigner) UFO sighting.

I'm in a car just outside Busan moving at a very slow speed through heavy traffic, and it's a given that while we are stuck on the road the motorcyclists are taking to the pavement/sidewalk and continuing on to their destinations at some speed. The usual assortment of mopeds and mid-range bikes passes us by, before something a little more noticeable comes along - I'm no motorcycle expert but it looks a lot like a Harley-Davidson.

But while I was busy looking at the machinery, it was who was on the bike that attracted the attention of my fellow prisoners - '외국인! 외국인!' (foreigners) they cried - and as the machine passed by, there was little question of the apparently Western features of the two riders in the fleeting glimpse I snatched before they were disappearing into the distance.

I admit to being so desperate to catch this sight on camera, I failed to properly confirm what I was seeing, and taking a picture of a fast-moving bike, in a moving car through traffic only resulted in blurs. Later I realised I should have just taken a video and screen-captured the results.

So no pics, and maybe it didn't happen. After all, what are the chances of there being waegugin riding around Busan on the back of a Harley? The next day, like all sensible UFO spotters, I told myself it was my imagination. Maybe they were just Koreans who looked like foreigners, having an Easy Rider theme afternoon? But then, by coincidence, I found this YouTube video channel from 'Pusanguy', and now I'm not so sure I should be so ready to doubt. The truth can be stranger than fiction, and maybe the truth really is out there.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


We never did get around to having our two 100 megabit connections installed in our new apartment, because the requirement to lose our standard landline in favour of an Internet phone proved too problematic. In any case, our work is winding down now as we prepare to leave Korea next month, so our requirement to have a backup connection diminished.

But the preparations for leaving threw up an unexpected Internet-related problem. During my time here I've taken around five gigabytes worth of photographs and sixteen gigabytes worth of videos, which amongst other things I'd much rather back-up somewhere safe on the Internet as opposed to trusting to carrying with me on numerous DVD-ROMs or an external USB hard drive. I'm also not happy that border officials in various countries now seem to have the right not only to search through one's baggage for dangerous items, but also to search through one's electronic devices for dangerous ideas.

Encryption, of course, is no barrier to search since there are precedents for passwords being demanded. Personally I object to governments rummaging through my private life on paranoia-fuelled fishing expeditions, so on principle I'm committed to keeping as much of the detail of my dull and largely uncontroversial life out of their hands as possible if only to avoid being held up by immigration officials. Perhaps that makes me the paranoid one, but having spent over six months embroiled in a legal battle with the British Government, my relationship with my government is not exactly a happy one these days.

After some fairly exhaustive testing of various online backup solutions, I came to the conclusion that none of them actually seemed to work very well. Yes, various services were ruled out because they lacked features or added annoyances, but fundamentally they all had one thing in common - they were very slow, some incredibly so. The fastest option I found was via improvised 'Google Drives', either via 'shell extensions' or Firefox addons, but there are bandwidth limitations, and such techniques are beyond GMail's terms and conditions so continue to exist at Google's whim. My preferred commercial option, Amazon S3 in conjunction with Jungle Disk, could apparently only transfer files at 32kbps per second, which meant the 36Gb's-worth of files I wanted to back up would take 128 days of continuous operation to complete.

I never suspected a problem with my ISP, because the 'GMail Drive' transfer was quick enough, as were my uploads of large amounts of files to YouTube and Flickr. But eventually I was directed to try Speedtest.net to do some testing. The results were consistently poor - LG Powercom might have decent download speeds, but uploading outside of Korea seemed to be a real problem. I could only surmise that my fast speeds uploading to the likes of Flickr and Google might be due to the variability of various servers or the possibility that unlike my backup servers, Flickr and Google were benefiting from directing me to more local servers behind the scenes. I'm not a network engineer so I don't know, but either way, what it certainly did mean was that I couldn't realistically use Amazon S3 or any other backup service I'd tried.

So I took a chance on dumping LG Powercom in favour of Korea Telecom's (KT) MegaPass service, which I hoped might have better international connectivity by virtue of being owned by the national telecomms company. My wife phoned LG, and the operator told her that KT wouldn't be any better when the reason for leaving was given. When that tactic didn't work, we were offered a permanent 15% discount.

We had to take the chance though, and fortunately KT didn't disappoint. While it doesn't consistently beat LG Powercom in every area, there's no doubt that upload speeds are vastly in excess of anything LG could provide. The results below are inevitably snapshots of the two Internet service providers (ISPs), but I tested both more than once at different times, and I'd say these offer a consistent picture of the differences.

The above results notwithstanding, it's hard to say whether this really matters to a foreigner choosing an ISP in Korea. I used LG Powercom for a long time ignorant of its poor international upload speeds, and while there's little doubt in my mind that KT's Megapass is faster both technically and noticeably in actual use, the reality is that the download speeds they provide are so fast it's questionable whether it really makes a great deal of difference. Upload is another matter, and while I only took to undertaking formal speed tests fairly late in the day, I'm satisfied that the problems I experienced with various services for two months before the realisation, suggest that LG has been poor in this area for weeks if not months. In other words, it is not just a recent technical problem which is causing the slowness, but rather a more permanent infrastructural issue. I'm also mindful of the fact that when we experienced some routing issues with LG last year, that it transpired that the connection from Busan was quite likely inferior to the one from Seoul, so the LG Powercom upload problem may not manifest itself to the same extent in the capital.

As for Amazon S3, I'm now uploading twenty times faster at around 640kbps, which maybe still isn't that great relative to what the above tests suggest could be possible, but at least it reduces my backup's total upload time from 128 days to 6.4. Meanwhile, LG have lost a customer and I'm afraid on this experience I'm not likely to be back even if I return to Korea at some point in future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Hot Bed

When I originally moved into a one-room apartment with my girlfriend, in was a blank slate, to be furnished with what few possessions we deemed it necessary to buy. But moving into an apartment with Korean Mother has certainly taken my experience to a whole new level, as I find myself immersed in more Korean objects. This cylindrical wicker-looking affair is for sleeping with, but it is not, as I first thought, one of the many tortuous pillow-substitutes you can find the older generation resting their heads on at night.

This is in fact, a sleeping companion of sorts, called a '죽부인' ('jugbuin'). It's actually made from bamboo, and the idea is that when positioned next to you in bed at night and hugged, air can circulate within the enclosed space, which in combination with the bamboo, keeps you cooler. It's unclear however, whether there's a danger of waking up with a deeply imprinted diagonal pattern on your body...

Prompted by Cat's comment, I have to edit this to add that that it transpires '죽부인' literally means 'bamboo' (죽) 'wife' (부인). Interestingly, it also transpires that strictly speaking '부인' is the respectful form for somebody else's wife. Since committing adultery is actually illegal in South Korea, this might be the closest you can get without actually breaking the law.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Takeshi's Castle

"Your prestige will rise from the moment of choice. Lotte Castle will preserve your presitge."

It should immediately tell you something that when someone wants to sell you 'prime Busan real estate', but they have to put their sales showroom two districts away where there are more people walking by, that maybe the area they're trying to sell you isn't that great after all. Perhaps it will be after they've built a couple of dozen apartment blocks, but it's a chicken and egg deal where the early adopters are going to have to take a bit of a leap of faith as to the desirability of their new residence; they could equally end up living in a Pyongyang-style concrete block ghost town, particularly given the way Busan has a depopulation problem.

But then, the conglomerate behind this new vertical town is not one of the usual suspects such as LG or Samsung, but in fact the Japanese-founded Lotte corporation, who have a Lotte Mart supermarket located not 100 meters away from the construction. Coincidence? Not really, the strategy is straight out of the playbook of a certain British supermarket which long since realised that if you can't place your supermarket near your customers, find some way of placing your customers near your supermarket.

The showroom, like the area it's trying to sell, bears the name 'LOTTE CASTLE', or 'LOTTE CAST E' at night. Despite its questionable location, Korean Mother has been sufficiently intrigued to have looked around it once with my wife, and last Sunday I went along with them as they made a second tour.

It's ironic that while I do my best to respect people's privacy while taking photos, and was sensitive enough not to try pushing the perceived limit the day before at Busan Racecourse, I wrongly assumed that taking shots of the model apartments for our consideration later would not be an issue. Not so - because when the stern looking saleswoman realised what I was doing, she informed us in clearly unamused tones that not only was it not permitted, but they had the right to remove the photos from my camera (note - not ask me to remove them but physically do it themselves). Conversely, I have the right to relate the experience on the Internet, but let's face it, only one of these things was actually really likely to happen.

Lotte seem to be concerned at people stealing their interior design ideas - and there was I thinking they were actually trying to sell people apartments. Under the circumstances, you might think that a team of Nobel-winning Lotte scientists had slaved away for years in developing designs that would redefine the concept of Korean living for years to come, but it actually looked like the kind of place a Burt Reynolds movie character might have owned - in the 1970s. But that's Korea for you - dark wood is in... even if it means mixing four different types in the bedroom.

Anyway, the real irony is that - as you might expect - photos of the model apartment interiors are in their sales brochures, so what I was doing to them, that they hadn't already done to themselves, is a real mystery. Korean Mother was not impressed, and I think it's safe to say from the faces she pulled afterwards with an associated diatribe, the saleswoman, and possibly Lotte as a whole, lost any prospect she had of making a sale with her. The moral of the story is, if you're trying to sell £200,000 (384.5 million won) properties, don't be rude to your customers - even the foreign ones, and if not taking photos is such a big deal, put a sign up somewhere.

I stopped taking photos of course, while some of the Koreans who were also wandering around continued to snap away with their camera-phones - and not for the first time. Once again it seems the conspicuousness of my ethnicity and equipment has marked me out in Korea, and I dare say it won't be the last.

And amongst the various ornaments and books placed in the model apartments? The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which despite being out on a couple of desks, evidently isn't compulsory reading within the Lotte group.

But remember, Lotte will preserve your prestige - unless you're a foreigner taking photos.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Back to the Future

It's election day in Korea again today, this time for the National Assembly, which means that the last few days have seen a succession of political candidates trundling around the local streets on the back of their blue Bongo trucks in the company of young girls (what is wrong with this image?). Not content with this, candidate number 2's campaign team evidently hit upon the idea of broadcasting their message to the captive audience in our apartment block complex, by parking underneath and delivering and impassioned (i.e. typically sometimes near hysterical) speech to anyone who cared to listen, or couldn't escape from the racket. Take note future politicians of Korea - this may actually be a vote loser.

I could almost spot the tired looks on the policemen's faces from fifteen floors above, as I suspect the campaign workers placated them with promises that they would shortly leave and move on to harassing some other block.

Meanwhile, there's a seemingly well-funded new entrant, in the shape of the recently-formed 'Family Party for Peace & Unity'. Their Bongo pitch seems to involve videos of girls dancing - no, not those sort of girls.

Now call me an old political hack but I get a bit suspicious about apparently well-organised party machines appearing out of nowhere, especially with words like 'family', 'peace' and 'unity' in their title, because it's been my experience that those who talk about such concepts in combination are usually not quite at the liberal end of the political spectrum - there are a lot of politicians in this world that think that peace and unity is something you force on people. Now, there may be a bit of controversy here because I gather that the Family Party for Peace & Unity deny they are a front for the Unification Church (aka The Moonies), it's just - they say - that they happen to have a lot of Moonies as party members...

Anyway, the way they want to unite families is by ensuring the reversal of a recent change in the law which considerably weakened the patriarchal 'household head' system - instead they favour a stronger male-dominated family unit which is harder to legally sign yourself away from. I guess that would take care of 'family' and 'unity', but good luck getting some peace in that scenario.

Meanwhile the people over at Party 6 don't actually have bad and highly infectious colds, but rather they are very sad, because the woman on the left, who was a presidential candidate for the Grand National Party, lost the nomination. Consequently, she split from it with her supporters, who claimed they were being frozen out of party nominations, causing them to write in their leaflet:

"As long as truth and justice are alive, Korea never cries."

(ergo truth and justice are dead - something I could have told them some time ago). Their local candidate goes on to expand on this line in his leaflet, asking:

"Was supporting her the worst sin ever? Was it a crime supporting Park Geun-Hye?"

Or that could be Bag Geun-Hye (박근혜), depending on your Romanisation. Either way, it's sounds like Pak in Korean pronunciation, which almost certainly means they missed a trick in not calling their new Party 'Pak to the Future', rather than the equally bizarre but not nearly so punchy, 'Alliance of People in Favour of Pak'.

Please go out and vote if you can - because nobody else is so far, with Yonhap reporting a low turnout at 3pm, despite the incentives offered to voters:

"The National Election Commission fears a record low turnout of around 52 percent. In an unprecedented move it is offering people incentives -- discounted entry fees to museums, parks and cultural facilities -- to cast their ballots."

But it's raining, so the Election Commission's move is unlikely to be much of a vote winner.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The House on Telegraph Hill

You never know quite what to expect in Korea. When out in the countryside, it can often seem like you're just passing by one blue-roofed farmhouse after another. But if you let that lull you into a false sense of security you'll miss architecture like this which we photographed just outside Busan. We think it might be a café rather than a private residence, but we aren't really sure. It certainly makes for a rather strange site sitting by the road in isolation.

It also happens to be the brief cherry blossom season right now, and many of the mountains are turning green again after their bare winter. Mixed with bright pink patches, it can make for a particularly spectacular sight outside the cities. There is of course, no escape from the overhead wiring...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Only Fools and Horses

We were out with a couple of friends Saturday afternoon, when one of them suggested on the spur of the moment that we go to the Busan horse racing track to watch a race. What he didn't realise was while there were races on Friday and Sunday, Saturday was an off-day, where the only action was happening in Seoul. But this in no way put off the hardy Korean gambler, who were still out in force when we got there.

Now I come to think about it, while there are sometimes so many shops, restaurants, bars and amenities of all kinds in Busan you wonder where people find the space to live, I've never actually knowingly seen a betting shop, which conversely are fairly prevalent on the streets of the UK. Perhaps Korean gamblers are happier to congregate at the racecourse, or perhaps this is the only place such betting is allowed - I'm aware, for example, that Koreans aren't allowed into most casinos in Seoul (although I understand that one is open to them) - which suggests the laws are more draconian here, even if Go-Stop and associated betting represents a major subculture. Actually, I've watched a Korean movie where the police were regularly busting underground Go-Stop dens which only adds to this impression.

The 'Busan Gyeongnam Racecourse Park' ('부산경남경마공원') was built in 2005, so the main stand seemed fairly new, but the major surprise was the interior, which bore more than a passing resemblance to a large airport lounge, complete with screens, seats and severely haggard looks. Alongside the more traditional various betting counters were ATM-like automated betting machines, and enough security to run a small police state, which it distinctly began to feel like as I tried to move around the building to take photos, while evidently being followed. James Bond always made it look easy blending into a crowd, even when he was the only foreigner in an Asian country, but let me tell you, the reality is somewhat different. Maybe I should dye my hair black.

If some of the people inside had a look in their eyes like Jack Nicholson after a hard night, those outside in the seating facing the track were even more hard-core, because this was where the chain-smokers - sometimes with their children - came to watch the races on the big screen... when their heads weren't buried in their form-books. It may be the first place in Korea I felt like nobody noticed me.

My companions decided to bet on a race but I declined; fifty hours of stock-market trading every week is more than enough gambling for me. It seems they placed an 'exacta' bet, where one horse is chosen to win and one of several others is chosen to come second. Inexplicably they won, multiplying their stake by a factor of five. I thought our nearby resident professional gamblers would register some form of visibly negative reaction to this, but they were far too busy plunging their heads back into their form-books for the next race.

Gambling on horses is obviously a big business here, but even so I was mildly surprised to discover a classroom in the stand where a staff member stood at the front waving a pointer at the various odds and statistics, while the trainee gamblers took notes or stared at the changing numbers as though they were in a trance. Well, I guess I know that feeling.

The Korean Racing Authority (English tagline: 'Life&Love with KRA'), also seems to have put some thought into those bored spouses that they can't convince to part with their money, and their children - there's a small park in the middle of the course, a large slide on a slope behind the stand, pony rides and various stalls and activities taking place nearby.

One problem with the racecourse though is its location near Gimhae Airport in the uncharted south-western backwaters of Busan. The large estuary separating the bulk of the city from this satellite area means that traffic is funnelled there and back via a couple of bridges, which was fine mid-afternoon, but as people returned from their trips to the outlying reaches and beyond, the road network turns into one long jam. It took us around twenty minutes to travel out to the racecourse, and about one and a half hours to return at a considerably slower speed.

Given the apparent popularity of the location, I was mildly surprised not to have heard of it before. Evidently it doesn't feature prominently in any official promotional material for Busan I've seen. But there is an English blog entitled Horse Racing in Korea, which I think surprised me even more. Wikipedia gives the impression that while horse racing may not be widely watched in Korea, it is quickly growing in popularity.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Cats & Dogs

As we are now leaving Korea in May, and Korean Father is still looking after his father down in Namhae on a full-time basis, we thought about getting a dog for Korean Mother to keep her company after we've gone. As it happened we knew of someone with a puppy which long working hours meant they were no longer able to take care of, so we went to have a look one Saturday evening three weeks ago.

I don't know how things are generally done in Korea, but having grown up with dogs I was taken aback to discover the puppy had been separated from its mother after only fifteen days. It wasn't to be our last surprise, and half-an-hour later we unexpectedly walked out with Max, or to give him his somewhat more annoying and previously given Korean title, 'Maegseu (맥스)' (I have real problems making Korean 'eu' sounds properly as it's not something we have in English). Fortunately, while Korean Mother has never had a pet before, and had to cope with an idea becoming a suddenly unexpected reality, she took to him immediately, and more fortunately for him, he took to her. Even the initial meeting with Korean Father went well, although he quickly established the ground rules with the words 'you don't know me yet, but I'm very scary, so behave', which as a former Korean marine, he certainly is.

Like most other amenities in the crowded city of Busan, a veterinary practice was not hard to find - there are four that I know of within 100 meters, and unlike the vets back in the UK, it almost went without question that they would be open on Sunday. The 'Animal Clinc' (sic) nearest us even operate a 'pet hotel' (i.e. kennel), which solves that potential problem, even if they're not as fancy as one we found on the Internet in Seoul, which has web-cams in each of the cages so that owners - and anyone else for that matter - can check on their pets from afar.

Our dog, which at this point was five months old, was not house trained (he'd been kept in a porch), so aside from frequent visits to the vet in the last three weeks we've had the dubious pleasure of teaching him not to randomly soil the apartment. But this revealed another crucial cultural difference - in a house when our dogs want to relieve themselves we let them go outside. What exactly do you do fifteen stories up in an apartment block - especially one with an elevator which can sometimes take five minutes to arrive? The answer is some kind of toilet pad which is placed in the bathroom, and which theoretically you teach your dog to use. I guess it beats chasing after your dog with a scoop and a bag, but I still think the idea will take some getting used to.

There's a certain type of dog in Korea, possibly the most common type, that I think are best generically described as 'ajumma fashion accessories'. You see them on the street, but they are never walking, but rather being carried by their invariably older female owner. It's possible that many people here are first-generation dog lovers who haven't quite accepted the notion of a potentially dirty dog coming into their living space - so carrying, and keeping their feet and fur away from the dirty ground, is the unique solution to this quandary. A related consequence of the fashion and hygiene issue is the way in which such pets are not only highly groomed, but end up with quite stylised hair-cuts into the bargain. Unfortunately, when Maegseu's nerves had calmed down after a week of care, the vet deemed him sufficiently able to handle going under the razor - and what came out of the other side of the process was like a whole new dog.

But if every small ajumma-dog looks like it's about to be entered into a show, maybe the cats don't get off much easier either, if this one spotted in the vet's is anything to go by: