Saturday, September 24, 2011

August Rush: The First Birthday Party

The failure to go to England had another consequence. Our son would celebrate his first birthday in Korea. So we had four options in order of my descending preference: do nothing, have a meal with friends and family at home, have a meal with friends and family in a restaurant, or submit to the complete circus that is a baby birthday hall. Yes, they have baby birthday halls.

Tired, sick, rejected from a job I wanted, and generally extremely fed-up, when my wife broached the subject with me, I famously said “just choose the option you think best”. Tens of thousands of years of language development and men still haven’t learned not to speak those words in sequence to women. I suppose one would have to conclude at this point that it must serve some evolutionary purpose, but if it does I certainly can’t imagine what. And I said it in Korea.

So the baby birthday hall it was then, with all the consequences stemming from this that you don’t clearly think through until they are making your life a misery, such as the one-year photo shoot, the video, the invites, the hanboks, and the breakdancing.

The Photo/Video Presentation

Yes, it is not so simple as booking a time, sending out some invites and just turning up, because the first thing you’re going to need is to arrange the video and photo presentation that forms one of the centrepieces of the birthday celebration. Now in all probability you’ve spent the last year taking copious amounts of photos and videos of your baby – this is Korea after all - so you might be led to believe that these would prove sufficient, but nay, nay and thrice nay.

The photo presentation must contain pictures from the one-year photo shoot – it’s the law – so this involved another trip to a self-studio, a lot of silly hats, and an understanding wife. Understanding because just before we were about to set off for said studio, I received an email telling me I hadn’t got an interview for the job I wanted, so I spent twenty minutes writing a reply trying to persuade them to change their minds (they did), and telling them I’d go there immediately if they wanted to interview me that afternoon, which would cause us to miss the shoot (I ended up going the next morning). We were late arriving at the studio, but they didn’t have another booking after us, so they let us run over, which was pretty decent of them.

So we now had our full portfolio of photographs and videos, but they had to be packaged in a proper presentation format, because well... everyone else does and so like most things in Korea, it’s something of a social arms race.

There are one-and-a-half ways of doing this. Either have a specialist company produce one for around 70,000 won, or go down the cheaper road of doing it yourself. Well, we’re all into self-empowerment here at Busan Mike Inc. (i.e. we’re cheap), so we did it ourselves. And it can be both fun and therapeutic too. Once I’d produced an outline photo and video montage and a credits sequence where I was only listed under Professional White Guy as ‘Dada’ and which ended with the phase “No Piracy in Korea!” I really began to see the possibilities for indulging in a little satire for the purposes of self-therapy. It would have been lost on the audience of course, in fact there’s every chance they might have viewed the result positively as taking the process into a ‘new paradigm’, but sadly it was not to be. I became too sick to work on it any further and my wife did it instead. But I’m sorry my baby video as a parody of “Korea’s Got Talent!” never saw the light of day.

My wife’s video-photo montage was more conventional, and perhaps the Windows Live Movie Maker produced result was not as polished as the professionally produced videos we’ve seen at other first-birthdays recently, but on the other hand my wife also speaks English well-enough to know not to choose a soundtrack with the lyrics “ooh, my ass, my ass, my sexy ass” to accompany those videos of baby crawling around. It’s possible the singer was intending some action to be performed in relation to her ass, but I never did decipher those lyrics, and perhaps it’s just as well. Meanwhile, one of the English captions read “Let is wet the baby is head” and since it appeared at a point devoid of head wetting, its purpose and that of several other captions will remain a mystery.

Of course the other problem with burning a DVD is who does that any more? We had to go out and find a disc that was compatible with our computers and their DVD player, because you really only have one shot at this.


The next problem, if indeed it isn’t actually several problems further down the road, is that you need a hanbok, Korea’s traditional dress and method of ensuring that you take up twice the physical amount of space you would otherwise need. For some inexplicable reason, hanbok have failed to sweep the world to the extent that even Koreans don’t normally wear them or own them these days. So a trip to the hanbok-hire store is in order so that you, your spouse and your child can pick out matching hanbok. Matching is a strong word because in my experience many hanbok are something of a conflict of colour which rarely match themselves let alone anything else, but in the end we pick the ‘Microsoft Office’ hanboks which limit themselves to pale blue and white. They even have ribbons as well, though it’s unclear if anyone wants them.

It has taken us some time to reach this point however, because the small branch office of the hanbok-hire company located in the baby hall building has a very limited selection so we have to visit their headquarters, which much like those descriptions in Korea’s traditional fairy stories is “‘five minutes walk’ from a subway station in a land far, far away.” Which means more time wasted. Sorry, I mean more time usefully spent in subway trains with a crying baby.

But I am relieved to discover that on this occasion, the hanbok I have to wear does not include a square metal belt and badly fitting Wellington boots. And this is fortunate, because by attending other baby birthday parties recently I have discovered that it is customary in Korea to call upon the father to engage in the traditional Korean dance form known as ‘hip-hop’, ‘breakdancing’ or ‘b-boying’.

Can You Breakdance (in a Hanbok)?

“I’m the MC” announces a disturbingly wild-eyed youth who comes up to me at the start of proceedings – or at least as close as he can given my hanbok-exclusion zone. Except phonetically he says Em-Shi because Koreans pronounce ‘Ci’ as ‘Shi’ which is why Centum City is potentially such an immaturely amusing place to live. “Ah, Em-Shi-shi”, I greet him using the polite formal suffix for personal names, but it’s lost on him. “Can you breakdance?” he obliviously continues. I am wearing a large hanbok and after one year of being a parent I have the physical appearance of an 80 year-old. The correct response would have been a withering “Do I look like I can breakdance?”, but the best I can manage is “No.” One day, my language abilities will be good enough for my personality to escape its prison, and then the Koreans will hunt it down and kill it.

So he tells me to just copy him when the time comes, because obviously the only alternative is to go with my own routine that helped my crew win the R-16 Battle three years in a row, although we weren’t wearing hanbok at the time. I promise you that hanbok breakdancing will be the next big thing though. I might even email it in as a suggestion to the Ministry of Culture. They’ll go for it as well. You know it. I know it.

Guests or No Guests

So the guests arrive. I feel this requires mentioning explicitly since for the first 20 minutes, when nobody came, it didn’t appear to be a given. I was once setting up a meeting with some African-Carribean student leaders and their constituency, and they told me we’d meet at 8pm, which meant 9, “it’s a cultural thing” they explained. As a person who’s always been driven by each tick of the clock I admired that about them. Koreans are not always so unpunctual in my experience, but with our baby’s birthday and those of the other people’s we attended, people tended to drift over an extended period of time rather than actually turn up when you expect them.

To be fair, it’s not like anything particularly urgent is scheduled, and perhaps that’s why. These birthday baby halls are much like wedding halls insofar as food is organised around a extended buffet layout, with side rooms leading off from this central area. The prepared baby video plays on a loop in the room for around an hour, until the MC turns up for his 15 minute entertainment slot. In the meantime, guests come along, bringing their envelopes of gift money, which has largely replaced the old tradition of giving gold rings. In fact to some, the money is the most important part of the proceedings because before this point, an equation has been carefully calculated and much like an exam, this is when you get your answer.


The equation is highly complex and normally requires several hours of supercomputer time to complete, or your Korean mother-in-law. Grossly simplified, the number of guests invited is divided by the ratio of guests likely to come, the costs of the wedding hall, per-guest buffet charge, hanbok hire and sundry expenses, versus the amount of gift money the guests are likely to bring (which is usually more than cost per head), plus the likelihood that these said guests will retaliate by subsequently inviting you to one of their baby or grandchild parties, which negates the financial advantage of inviting them given that you will, essentially, then have to return their gift money. There are many further sub-equations, such as the table-bottle amplification, which calculates the additional cost given that soft and hard bottled drinks are charged extra per bottle, and their consumption can rise exponentially if certain demographic critical masses occur, but they are beyond the scope of my explaining here.

Overall, the more people you can invite, the more likely it is you will see a profit. But one complication of being a foreigner is that I know very few people to invite, and even if all but one of them weren’t working on a live radio programme at the time of our party, the Korean gift-money system makes inviting your friends tantamount to asking for money from them.

Stress has been shown to be a major cause of health problems, so let me put your mind at ease now by revealing that we broke even on our baby party. We will probably end up running a small loss though as guests go on to have 20% more babies than us, according to our calculations.

Baby’s Future Career

So we reach the main event of the proceedings, which isn’t the hanbok breakdancing. After some gifts have been given out in faux-competitions by the MC, and more gift money has been begged for with a Catholic-church style collection tray, the collection tray, which has several other items within it, is presented to your baby for them to choose... their future career.

In the tray is a toy pencil (scholar), stethoscope (doctor), ball (sportsperson), hammer (judge), microphone (entertainer), mouse (dot-com millionaire) which alongside the recently donated and now untraceable cash (Korean politician) provide you with your career options. But there had been a slight complication. A few days earlier our dog had torn the ball apart and it no longer existed, thus potentially changing the future course of our son’s life. Our son chose the pencil instead, which I suppose means my wife and I had better plan for our own retirement, and not expect our son to take care of us financially. Oh well.

Next there is a fake cake with a candle on top to light. The cake is made out of some kind of material which – this being Korea – is probably highly flammable, but despite this it appeared to have survived several dozen previous parties.

Hanbok Breakdancing

The potential conflagration was followed by the threatened hanbok breakdancing. By this time our MC had been temporarily joined by two accomplices who were evidently either professional breakdancers or were used to being electrocuted a lot and had memorised the moves. I readied myself for my inevitable invitation to join them in front of the crowd as I’d witnessed with previous fathers at baby birthday halls. But it didn’t happen. I think our MC let his lack of English get the better of his clinically extroverted personality, and he decided against it. It was a wise choice. Deprived of their entertainment, the guests gradually drifted away seemingly destined to not eat again for days afterwards.

The Undiscovered Country

When I was told that there was a 100-day photo shoot for my baby, it came as a surprise because I wasn’t warned until the time arrived. The same is true for the 200-day photo shoot, and the one-year photo shoot. Similarly, the one-year birthday baby hall party had not been on my agenda. So I can not conclude this piece with a sense that I can put it behind me and consign the experience to history, because living in Korea is rather like the conquest of space – it’s a journey of exploration and you never know what you’re going to find next. Oh yes, and no-one really trusts the aliens.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

August Rush: England

I was scheduled to return to England with my wife and baby son on the 25th, but that never happened; we cancelled our tickets on the 20th. Our baby is not a good traveller. In fact he is not a good sleeper or eater either, so this last year has been exhausting. Losing face in Korea is best avoided, so I’m not supposed to talk about it, but that’s the reality. It's been an extremely tough year. Our trip to England felt necessary for the sake of relatives and an ageing parent, but it was probably always the wrong decision, one made out of emotion rather than logic.

Our long and many subway journeys across Busan from Saha-gu to the east of the city where we were searching for an apartment during August were fraught experiences, because he was not a happy traveller. Sometimes we had to get off at stations to calm him down, and once it was so bad we gave up and went to the surface to catch a bus. Suddenly twenty-four hours of travelling and fourteen hours of flights with him appeared a reckless idea, and we took the emotionally gut-wrenching decision to cancel the trip and disappoint my family. But as parents we had to do what we thought best for our son, and that was not going.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of international relationships when the two countries are far apart; one partner is always going to make the potential sacrifice of being separated from friends and family. And for all the Korean government’s constant attempts to support multicultural families within Korea, there is one important respect in which they certainly don’t support them, and that’s in the provision of holiday time legislation, with a mere five discretionary days a year typical in many jobs. Contrast that with England, where twenty days is common. This means that when I get a job I simply may not have the option of returning to England except for a week, which stripping out travelling and jet-lag hardly amounts to quality time. It seems that sometimes the only solution to the problem is to quit your job, and apply for a new one when you return.

Another ominous sign of more difficulties lying ahead came in the form of ticket prices. We booked well in advance as we always do, but this time there seemed to be much fewer viable choices in terms of airlines, and the price we paid was over twice that last time we bought a return tickets three years ago. Of course, the major variable in airline ticket costs is the oil price, but as someone who sometimes traded oil and certainly has the charts to hand, I know that by coincidence, the oil price was almost exactly the same this time as last. The airlines would probably argue about such arcane subjects as forward buying and hedging, but I don't really believe a word of it. Until there's more competition again on those routes in happier economic times, the costs of returning home may be destined to remain considerably higher.

Monday, September 12, 2011

August Rush: Voice in the Wilderness

I eventually had to stop applying for English teaching jobs – at least temporarily. After several days of problems mid-August I’d ended up with a sore throat so bad that it somehow managed to spread as far as my shoulders. That was a new experience. After two hospital visits where I’d been unsuccessfully treated for some kind of chest infection, I went to a specialist ENT hospital to be quickly diagnosed with tonsillitis, and it wasn’t long before I had a second opinion from another specialist confirming this.

I lost my voice almost completely just three days after my web development job interview, and I really don’t know how I managed to get through that in the first place. I was really under the weather around that time, but I don’t think it particularly impacted my unsuccessful interview, which I think I largely failed on my own merits.

Still, it’s no fun being in an interview thinking that you’d talk more if you felt you were physically able to. I’d gone to the local pharmacist with the notion of buying something to get me through it but the best she could offer were some kind of cough sweets that I’d had before and lack the edge necessary to actually do anything. This seems to be a bit of an underlying theme with me in Korea – the kind of powerful over-the-counter medications we get in England either aren’t available here or actually seem to be illegal (like ‘Vicks’ for example, which I’ve gathered is banned in Korea as well as Japan). Maybe the medical profession just wants you to go to the hospital instead, but it's a pity.

My voice came back and then went again the next week, so I had to accept that not only was I not getting better, but also that it was clearly absurd to be trying to get interviews for teaching jobs when there seemed no prospect of being able to speak at them, unless I could pioneer an entirely new category of occupation here – that of the English-teaching mime. And just to put the icing on the cake, the many medications I was put on caused such intense drowsiness I was even unable to stay awake at my desk. Not that they warned me I’d be practically losing consciousness when I took them – it needed a visit to another pharmacist armed with the pills for them to confirm that yes, in fact that might happen.

But I was not a good patient, and not just because of the language barrier. I heard the same phrase from each doctor - “the most important thing you can do is rest”. In Korea. Right. Seriously. It isn’t that kind of culture here and I’m not sure Koreans even know how to. And in that respect, I’m just like them – perhaps I’ve found my spiritual home.

A further complication arose when my ENT doctor went away for a conference. I don’t know what it is about Korean doctors, but they often seem to be away from their jobs, on holiday, stuck in traffic, or on strike. Maybe I’m just unlucky but I seem to be forever hospital-hopping these days, although at least Korea is a country which actively supports that. Perhaps it has to.

So I finished up in a rather dingy little clinic with a singular aged doctor - but my wife assured me that he was ‘famous’ locally, which is presumably why he didn’t feel the need to trouble himself with details like décor and the customary young women on reception, instead apparently opting to employ their mother, who also transpired to double up as the ass-injection nurse. But by this time I didn’t really care about the image of the place because I was beginning to think my tonsils and I were not destined to be ending the year together.

The old doctor did give me some new pills - and they seemed to work more effectively than anything I'd had before. A few days later, my sore throat returned and voice went again, but this time, as it's the Chuseok holiday period, I'm just going to have to live with it. Hospitals everywhere, but no cure in sight.

Friday, September 09, 2011

August Rush: The Web Job

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

"Ulysses", Alfred Tennyson

I always liked that poem, especially those final lines. I learned something shocking during my early days in corporate life and public office. Most people are basically apathetic and most people actually don’t know what they’re doing. So the secret to success in life is generally to give a damn and know your stuff. That might sound deceptively easy, but most people are lazy, so it means that all you often need to do to pull ahead in life is to go the extra mile and put in some of those twelve-hour days I regularly work. Of course, if you want a healthier work-life balance, you’re not going to do that, and for all I know maybe you’d be right not to. In fact, I think you probably are.

As I’ve got older, the lines in that poem have increasingly summarised my life. Towards the end of my time as an elected representative serving 9,600 constituents I wondered if everything I would do professionally after it would seem like an anti-climax – it did – and before long I ended up in a job that, anti-climactic or not, paid such a lot of money really that nothing was ever likely to surpass that either, unless I progressed into upper management, a near impossibility for an IT person in the medical corporation I worked for.

So I’ve done my own thing past my peak, including working around the three years of my professional life that Meniere’s Disease wiped out, and actually I’m not sorry about much – but it has left me feeling like I’m a highly determined person blowing on the embers of past achievements. And while I know who I am and I know what I’m still capable of, my years out in the career wilderness working for myself means that I’m a riskier hire. I have to rebuild my resume. In Korea. Somehow.

It was becoming apparent that even with my TESOL qualification, getting a foot in the door of the English teaching circuit in Korea wasn’t going to be entirely easy. I was logging into Koreabridge every day and I applied for my first position, a short-term role teaching Business English, which I thought there might be a least a little chance of progressing with given that relative to some people, I have around sixteen years of business experience. Still, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get an interview, because I’m feeling my way in the dark here with almost no expectations. As far as teaching is concerned, I probably have to work my way up from quite a low level, and I suppose Business English jobs probably go to more experienced teachers, not experienced business people, even ones with TESOL certificates.

So the upshot of everything which has occurred recently is that I’m down on my luck, with a baby and an apartment to support, unemployed with only savings rather than income to pay the bills and career prospects that look about as attractive to me as the front of a subway train. I was desperate to find something outside teaching, but I knew it was probably impossible... until the fifth day of my Koreabridge search, when a job was advertised for a web developer with an F-class visa living in or near Haeundae, which at the time felt like a highly unlikely combination of attributes to find here in Busan amongst the relatively small expat community.

The academic institution concerned - which is reasonably well-known - didn’t seem to have much in the way of expectations either, because they offered training for any candidate who was at least IT-literate. Yet here I was, a Computer Science graduate, former software and Internet developer with years of experience, a co-founder of two serious dot-com start-up companies behind me and a couple of mildly popular British websites to my name, which were still running, and which I thought nice and publicly demonstrated my proficiency in HTML, JavaScript, MySQL and PHP along with other equally relevant technologies they ought to want. I hadn’t kept up with some of the more peripheral or specialised tools in the way I once did, but I never let my core skills lapse - aside from anything else I’ve been developing my own desktop and intranet systems over the years to support my trading. Old habits die hard.

My wife saw the job first and told me excitedly “you have to get this job”. And when I looked at the details, I replied that if I didn’t there really was no justice in world, although my answer may have used slightly stronger language. It felt like the Universe, having gone through a phase of persecuting me – things haven’t really been working out in recent months - was now offering me a break; the job was perfect for me, I believed I was perfect for it, and it came at a time in my life when I really needed it. And what was so perfect you couldn’t even make it up, was that six members of the institution’s management were British, so for once I didn’t even have to worry about the disadvantage of not being a “North American passport holder”.

I saw the job on Friday and I spent the weekend brushing up my technical skills and analysing their website, which had issues, thinking about how it could be improved and developed to meet their business goals while applying a user-centred design approach. It was good preparatory work and while I was excited and I didn’t get too carried away, because I know my days of being a well-paid software engineer are long behind me. Now I have to be grateful for finding any job in Korea I can use my skills in, which until I’m fluent in Korean and lose ten years off my age are virtually none (age discrimination is a huge problem in computing in England - where 25-34 has often been touted as an IT contractor's prime period - and I imagine Korea’s little different).

Initially I didn’t get an interview partly due to a mix-up about when I was moving to the vicinity of Haeundae, but I made an effort to persuade them to change their minds, which to their credit they did. And despite the fact that it all happened so fast that I wasn’t geared up for an interview in the way I would have been in England – I own one suit in Korea and I took notes with me in an old National Union of Students folder rather than the expensive leather-bound document wallets or attaché cases I used to have back home, I thought I gave a decent interview - not my best - but then I was also feeling really ill, and not just because I wanted the job so much - more on that later.

I suppose I’ve been around a bit in the business world. In fact, last time I sat in an interview it was when I was the one doing the recruiting and interviewing. So I knew during the interview that I hadn’t got the job. My wife had gone with me to look at the campus for future reference, and when I met up with her afterwards I told her the bad news. It was a pretty long and depressing journey home for both of us, because it looked like I’d failed in the one shot I had at reviving my technical career proper before I succumbed to the seeming inevitability of teaching English to children, and we both knew how much I’d wanted it to be different.

I’ve been told many times, particularly in the last year as my enthusiasm for working alone and 2am finishes in the financial industry has finally waned, that I should draw upon my experience and find another non-teaching job, because the perception was that being a native-English speaker with an F-2 with my background in software and Internet development gave me a fairly unique selling point in an area that admittedly looked like a narrow market niche in Busan. But I discovered that the the institution I'd applied to had been overwhelmed with apparent talent and experience, so as much as anything it was depressing to discover that I probably didn’t have any apparent unique selling points after all, at least not in the activity commonly referred to as ‘web design’, so that illusion was shattered.

I suppose for a brief moment I felt the Universe was setting me up to give me a break, but it turned out that it was just setting me up, because indeed, I didn't get the job.

It transpired I did have one unique selling point - my experience in the field of web-based databases -  So the institution suggested they might employ me to work on something else, but it didn’t sound very hopeful at the time.

When you miss out on a job in your own country, you know another will come along shortly, but given the dearth of positions in my professional field here, it felt like I'd just missed the last bus home - leaving me stuck where I am, which is probably on the verge of becoming an English teacher. And with it this country moves a step closer towards turning me into to person it wants me to be, rather than me finding my own way in life here through having a plurality of options.

John F. Kennedy once said that "True happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope." That's a definition - if you hold it to be true - that raises a lot of unhappy questions in Korea for an expat in my position.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

August Rush: North American Passport Holders Only

Chronologically, we signed to buy the apartment and then I lost quite a bit of money in the market, so I now had a major financial commitment and barely the funds to meet it. I remember my wife working through the apartment paperwork as I watched the London FTSE market futures drop a huge amount - 8.4% at one point - on my mobile phone. I was recklessly long overnight in the market on the ‘Centum apartment play’, and there promised to be an enormous progress crushing fall at the open, which there was.

So it was definitely time to find another job in Korea, and for the first time I had to truly confront one of the fundamental problems with living here - namely that while I’d always been able to use my software and web development skills in England to put food on the table, and there I was capable of doing a myriad of other things, in Korea apparently there is really only option open to me, which is teaching. This was a pity because the one conclusion I had from doing a TESOL course many years ago is that I never really wanted to teach English again, even though I got good grades. Worse, many of the jobs involved teaching children. This is not my thing, and if I thought having a child might kindle some enthusiasm for it on my part, it only made me realise that I need a break from that, not more of it.

Life is suddenly looking a lot tougher.

And then, after I decided I had to find a job, I discovered something I’d always been vaguely aware of in Korea, but the scope of which had never quite registered in my mind. I started searching in earnest for jobs on Koreabridge, and I began reading the phrase ‘North American passport holder’ rather more than I expected. I hadn’t realised that being a Canadian and speaking Canadian English was a class above being British and speaking English English, but I guess now I know.

I suppose it’s all aboot [sic] the accent, because while the job ad I saw which asked for an “american (but, if you have a very neutral accent, another nationality is possible.)” perhaps represented an individual preference rather than a corporate policy, it may well encapsulate the underlying prejudices Koreans have about anything which isn’t American English, or perhaps as I’m learning, Canadian English as the second choice.

Korea seems to get very little bang for its buck when it comes to the subject of English teaching, and perhaps part of the reason is the kind of profiling that prioritises people based on nationality and race rather than on actual English and teaching ability.

Another good one I saw recently - though sadly I can't find the link now - involved a group of male corporate executives who were looking for “an English tutor – female only”. Dear Sirs, I think what you are actually looking for, is a geisha.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

August Rush: A New Home and a Financial Setback

Since I last wrote I feel as though I’ve lived another lifetime and I’ll forever call it August 2011. It’s hard for me to explain recent events in my life in a short narrative so over the next few days I’ll post a series of entries under the theme of my ‘August Rush’.

My wife and I decided to buy an apartment. Since we returned to Korea we’ve lived with her mother, and that had both its emotional and logical reasons, but it changed the nature of our relationship and not for the better. Summer tends to be the slow season for apartment hunting in Korea, for the very good reason that people don’t want to hike around in the unbearable heat as I have just spent the last month doing, and with prices of apartments in Busan rising at a bubble-like pace, we were watching our relocation options dwindle by the month. We had to take advantage of any lull there was.

I became a full-time financial trader in December 2004, and I was quite successful for a few years, but since my wife stopped working alongside me last year - providing an all-important extra set of eyes and second opinion - my profitability just ebbed away and my heart wasn’t quite in it any more. I sat alone in my office trading London hours into the early hours of the Korean mornings, I wasn’t getting out of the apartment much at all, so I was failing to learn the Korean language. And the relentlessly negative financial macroeconomic environment of the last few years began to take its toll on me, because in the end I found it doesn’t matter whether you’re winning in the market if the constantly depressing news environment just wears you down. I started doing a weekly radio segment on Busan e-FM during trading hours just to get away from things, an unthinkable move during more motivated times.

But the end of my career as a trader in August came quickly. I have a rule that if the running annual total of my profits falls sufficiently below the level I could earn from a normal salaried position, then I have to accept that I’m in the wrong job. When you’re ‘in the zone’ in trading, as we call it, you feel untouchable, but when you’re not it’s easy to see extended runs of losses, because this is an activity where studies have suggest 90% of participants consistently lose money. When you find yourself in that 90%, when general market conditions seem no longer aligned with your trading style, you have to find something else to do with your life. And while it would make for a great narrative if could say I’d suffered a major financial blow-up, really it’s been more of a setback, albeit a significant one.

The culmination of my minor financial crisis was connected with the search for an apartment. I’d done a radio segment about ‘the gravitational pull of Haeundae’, and like a lot of Koreans in Busan I felt like I had to be there, but not just out of the need to climb the property and perceived social ladder; the two prominent foreign schools - Busan Foreign School and Busan International Foreign School - are both in the area, and with the prospect that this is where my son needed to go one day, we were planning ahead. But Haeundae is expensive, and it seemed like we had a choice – buy a nice apartment in a good area, or a bad apartment in a good area. We started looking around and it only seemed to make that choice seem even more stark.

I’d seen some nice apartments in Centum City, but they were out of our price range, and yet tantalisingly close enough that if I pushed hard with my trading accounts living there might be possible. So I did something I hadn’t done in a long time – broke my risk management rules, ignored the warnings I’d built into my systems, and went for it. If I failed at least I could say that I met my undoing out there on the ragged edge which so often defines who you are as a person. In earlier and more reckless times as a trader I’d done the same thing, and I’d always come out of it on top, but not this time. My decision came just days before the market entered a particularly high period of volatility, and in trading parlance, I was long when I should have been short and short when I should have been long. By the time it was over, I’d lost quite a lot of money and Centum City was no longer tantalisingly close but instead an even remoter dream.

You live by the sword and die by the sword as a trader. I knew what I was doing, I let frustration and impatience get the better of me, and now I have to pay the price. That was my first financial disaster. My second may be buying the apartment itself, because I’m convinced that Busan is in the midst of an unsustainable property bubble that could entirely conceivably implode in on itself at any moment. But we urgently needed a place to live, and rather presciently as it turned out, while watching what was happening in the international financial markets and the Korean construction sector, I predicted that Korean banks might stop lending, as banks in the UK had a few years earlier, excluding a generation from the dream of home ownership.

In fact when we were arranging our loan, in a remarkable and frightening admission the bank manager told us that he couldn’t guarantee the bank would still be willing to honour it at the end of September when it was supposed to be released. Despite this, it wasn’t certain then that the turmoil in the financial markets would translate into real-world actions, but just days after we arranged to buy our new apartment, the Korean banks made their move as I’d believed they would, but much sooner than I expected.