Keep on keeping on

It’s been a trying week. After a conversation with a friend, I realised that this blog didn’t reflect how difficult my experiences here are. So, in the interests of journalistic accuracy, I’m going to vent a little.

Korean, English and Arabic – a reflection of the ethnic make-up of my neighbourhood. This is the only place in Korea that this many languages would be necessary.

Before I begin the litany, I’d ask you to put on the hold the ‘it could be worse’ argument. Yes, I’m not working 12 hours in a factory. Yes, I’m on the right side of the law. But just because things could be worse doesn’t mean they couldn’t be better as well.

a) After many complaints, and being told I’m complaining a lot, my landlord finally came this week to ‘get rid’ of the mould in my apartment. I knew he was coming this week but I didn’t know when. I kept getting out of the house as early as I could, but I’ve also been working late preparing a presentation. Tuesday night I caught the last subway home at 12:50am, which promptly stopped running at 1am rather than finishing its route. I had to wait to catch a cab along with other stragglers – all the Koreans got picked up before me. I finally got to sleep at 2am – and was woken up at 8am by my landlord knocking on the door, ready with the repairmen. He signalled that he would paint the doors and window frames as well as deal with the mould.

A night walk down Namsan (South Mountain), near my neighbourhood.

I made myself scarce for 12 hours, and when I got home the interior was indeed painted. The mould had been temporarily scrubbed off the wall – though of course, without replacing the plaster, it will come back, but that’s not my problem. My problem was that my house now smelt of paint fumes. Luckily I had a friend to stay with. I turned the fan on, and returned the next night, to find the landlord had turned the fan off. The fumes had receded a little so I turned the fan back on and stayed, but this morning I feel like I’ve taken up smoking again. Nothing like a few VOCs to sharpen the mind.

Sure, I’m all dizzy and nauseous, but where’s the inflated sense of self-esteem?

b) I need a Criminal Reference Check to work in Korea. I have a basic one that I got before I left for Russia, but they’re only valid for 6 months. Mine expires mid-November. In preparation, I got fingerprints taken at a police station, which I planned to submit to the national police back home. This normally takes a month; this week I checked with the Canadian Embassy and found that’s been bumped up to five months. This means that, even though I got it in the post today, I won’t have a new one till February. If I get a job offer after November 15th, it won’t be valid without a lot of pleading on my part. (This is a brief summary of months of research, by the way, as the requirements for a CRC change in both Korea and Canada, constantly.)

I love the ‘river of light’.

c) To reiterate, I’m trained as an academic. I want to research and teach. But academic work is invariably part-time. This is how you get a job at a university after you’ve completed a PhD: you pick up contract courses, put the experience on your CV and then apply for a job. (You can, of course, apply for a job without doing this but, as I’ve learned, no one hires you.) But Korea only issues visas for full-time work, despite most jobs in the country being part-time or contract. So despite being offered a teaching contract, I had to turn it down. I’m now faced with looking for full-time academic work despite my lack of teaching experience (I have four years’ writing instructor experience but most employers don’t think that counts.) Or, nightmare scenario, I teach children at a private school for 45 hours a week and try to run a graduate seminar on the side. I can imagine how well that will work.

And, next to it, the tunnel of light.

These are my circumstances now: precarious. I’m doing my utmost to function as if I’m employed, looking for work, writing academic articles and such. But doing all this for free without any guarantee of success at the end is stressful. I’ve gone into debt to be in Korea; if I hit my limit on that as well, I face the prospect of returning to Canada, broke and prospectless.

Much worse than the static ones.

In these circumstances, it’s amusing to contemplate culture shock. Culture shock is real but it’s the least of my worries. The foibles of Korean culture are charming and mystifying in equal measures, but I’d be overjoyed for the chance to get upset at failing to adapt to collectivist social norms. Instead my mental and physical energy is spent on failing to adapt to capitalist labour laws. This does not put me in a good frame of mind to appreciate this place.

Art on display at Sangsangmadang, an artists’ centre sponsored by a major rice wine manufacturer.

If I haven’t written about this at length, it’s because I’m conscious of not wanting to become one of those foreigners who blunder into Korea, see something they don’t understand and start complaining about it. I think I’m mature enough to separate out my reactions to things here, good or bad, without attaching a chauvinist judgement to the phenomena themselves. So, in complaining about Korea’s ridiculous immigration laws (and Canada’s equally arbitrary rules) I’m not saying that Korea sucks or that my society is fundamentally better. I’m trying to understand Korea as a contradictory society like any other. Some of those contradictions are hard to appreciate when I’m foundering in the deep end of the labour pool.

On some positive notes, I can say that Seoul in autumn is a lovely place to be. It’s still warm enough to wear a t-shirt during the day, but at night the temperature dips to sleepable weather. There are arts and culture festivals all over; last night Psy was playing a free outdoor show at city hall, which explains why the surrounding square was packed 500 meters thick with people.

A cafe in Itaewon. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of space inside.

The fall fashions for men are still leaning towards the country gentry look that took over London the last couple of years; but, this being Korea, which hasn’t had gentry since the Japanese occupation, I can take it all with a healthy dose of postmodern scepticism. If anyone looks good in well-tailored tweed, it’s Koreans; but it doesn’t signify a nostalgia for a time when the oiks knew their place.

A small portion of the house of the owner of Samsung, up the hill in Itaewon, the foreigner neighbourhood. It takes up the entire block on top of a hill. After I took this photo, a lanky, serious-looking guard emerged out of nowhere and told me ‘no photos’. So please don’t use this image for anti-social purposes. It’s just a beautiful fortress house.

I’m grudgingly impressed at Korean sidewalk etiquette. I may have mentioned before how Koreans think nothing of stopping mid-stairway climb and turning around, wandering out into the sidewalk without looking if anyone’s coming, or wandering back and forth in front of subways, buses or exits while making up their mind which way to go. On the one hand, this is deeply annoying for someone like me, from a city where you go in one direction, quickly. On the other hand, there’s more going on here: I think that Korean meandering betrays a subtle resistance to capitalist discipline. One of the most famous Korean expressions is Pali Pali (빨리빨리) – Hurry Hurry, which no one would have to say if people, in fact, hurried. Their developmentalist state may have forced them to work 12 hour days, but Koreans will be damned if they’re going to participate willingly.

Yet another subculture appropriated and done better than the original… a Korean mod Vespa.

There may also be other reasons. Practically, in a city of 10 million people, you can’t hurry, there’s always someone in the way. And culturally, in a society based on conforming to social expectations, it may be more important to be seen pursuing a goal, than to actually have that goal figured out. But this is pure speculation, subject to correction when I finally ask a Korean about it. I’m much happier with the first explanation. In any event, I’m learning to slow down and get out of the way.