Thursday, 29 March 2007

I saw this a little while ago and was astounded at the creativity and skill employed by this guy. I'd like to know what he's doing now as I'm sure he has moved on to bigger things.Fantastic.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

“I remember Nam”

A brief introduction to Korean surnames

Surnames are an important distinguishing factor for anyone but in Korea they play an interesting role.

In Japan the number of surnames is in excess of 100,000 but here in Korea there are only around 270. Surprising isn’t it? Even more surprising is the dominance of a few names, Park, Lee, Kim and Choi are the most frequent. Almost a quarter of the residents of this peninsula are named Kim and 15 per cent are Lees. There are different strands of the same name, each having its own ancestral home or clan but, in theory at least they can all be traced back to the same point in history.

There does however seem to be a distinct lack of names that refer to work based names as are popular in the west. Cooper and Fletcher are clearly based on the jobs their ancestors did but these kind of names don’t really exist in Korea and this is, at least in part due to the distain held by the Korean ruling classes for menial work and so names were intentionally disguised and subsequently lost to history.

Until the turn of the century there was a law that forbid inter clan marrying but nowadays it isn’t uncommon for Parks to marry Parks or a Lee to join with another Lee. Whilst there are many Parks, Kims, Lees and Chois the individuality of the clans these names came from are remembered. The ancestral homes of the clans are besieged during festival periods and there is a kind of inversion of the population with the most densely populated areas being vacated and the normally tranquill country side being invaded by city folk.

Tradition also survives in every Korean home as Korean women do not take the name of their husband; they cannot become part of the family absolutely as the family name is of the utmost importance and cannot be diluted.

So with the limited variance in family names, try to imagine how difficult it can be for some teachers in Korea when you suddenly have a several classes, each of 8 or 9 students with only a few surnames and sometimes indistinguishable first names to help you tell them apart! Some teachers work for local high schools and sometimes have classes of around 30 kids!

Why Nam you ask, well I have a student called David Nam, not a common surname and certainly the only combination of David and Nam I have or am likely to come across here and I'm thankful for it.

So what's in a Nam(e)? Well a lot if your Korean.

Monday, 26 March 2007

St Patrick and his merry band of followers

Having spent this past St Patrick’s day in Itaewon, Seoul I can safely say one thing, I’m sick of people jumping on the bandwagon. I’m Welsh and we celebrate St David’s day, it usually stays in Wales as it has little significance to many others and I like it this way. It’s one day of the year that we overtly celebrate being Welsh, we dress our kids up and wear lapel badges; we sing songs and all talk about Wales in one way or another. I like it, I like the intimacy and I like that it’s ours.

St Patrick’s Day is another matter entirely.

It has been said that the Irish people are Ireland's greatest export (possibly after Guinness) and that is, or was right. There are lots of people all over the world of Irish descent as their Diaspora was caused by famine and general economic blight. Fair enough, but how Irish can you be if you’ve never been there and your only connection to the ‘Mother land’ is a handful of songs, a green T-shirt and a Guinness hangover once a year?

Itaewon in South Korea is a city of foreigners within the capital of Seoul and St Patrick’s day was celebrated here as it may well have been in locations all over the globe, but why and how has this one time religious holiday been so expertly exported and why has it been received so well?

I understand that in the US the day has been around a long time but I still fail to see how dying a river green pays homage to the mother land. The other major point in this is why so many people of non-Irish descent decide to be Irish for a day.
I'm sure the last thing any true Irish man wants is to see some tit in a ‘kiss me I'm Irish’ hat throwing up several pints of Guinness on the doorstep of their local.

Do these people not have their own identity? Do they have to borrow/assimilate from others?

The Americans in work talk about what they are doing for St Patrick’s Day. Why do flag waving Americans who love their country and the American way of life (with all its lexical quirks) suddenly take a day off from being American and convert to being Irish, complete with Irish flag dress and a bloody shamrock painted on each cheek. Are they part time patriots?

I haven’t asked any born and bred Irish people what they think about this borrowing of St Patrick or the pseudo Irish tide that sweeps the world, but if it were Wales and St David’s day were portrayed in this way then I would be none too happy for people to think they could don a rugby shirt, carry a leek around, take the piss out of our accent and get pissed in the name of Wales. No, being Welsh is not something you can slip in and out of when you choose. I’m sure the same applies to Ireland and Scotland too. Why doesn’t it apply to everyone else?

Does the current incarnation of St Patrick’s Day have anything to say about who the 21st century Irish are? Are we to believe that St Patrick’s Day reflects the Irish character and they are all drunk, joke telling, happy idiots?

Well I would suggest that Guinness have had a big hand in it, the proliferation of Guinness hats in Itaewon was testament to that and that may well be why the other saints days aren’t celebrated with such venom, especially in Britain. The marketers from the major breweries in the UK haven’t yet been able to open up the market for the other Saints days, although I’m sure they’re trying.

St Patrick’s Day seems to be nothing more than an excuse to get drunk and act and look stupid, the shamrocks on faces seem to be physical proof to this.

I suppose the main point of what I’m trying to say is about patriotism.
Patriotism is problematic for me as I’m sure you will be able to tell by the end of this. We have no choice where we are born but grow up loving (usually) the place we come from, I come from Wales and we are a patriotic people but Patriotism implies a preference for a specific community and that we have a preference for our town, our county even our continent . I’m ill at ease with saying I’m a patriot. In fact if I look at patriotism as choosing my county or countrymen over others purely based on the fact that they are from the same country or town as me then I would have to say I’m not patriotic. Most of the idiotic, retarded, arrogant and ignorant people I have ever met come from my very own country although I have met more people from Wales than anywhere else. I love my country and I love celebrating and supporting it but I stop at the point where it turns from a fun and enjoyable rivalry with friends into something more sinister.

In football there is the huge debate over club v country and a lot of people choose club over country, in essence choosing the local over the national.

Religion is also an important factor when looking at patriotism as Muslims and Catholics are often seen to be more loyal to their religion than to the country they were born in, giving their loyalty to something other than their nation, the pope in the case of Catholics, Mecca for Muslims.

A few days ago I felt proud of Britain and of being from there when I heard the speech Winston Churchill gave to the British people; we’ll fight them on the beaches etc we’ll never give up but I quickly remembered that I actually don’t care much for the UK except when its all people know. I fight for Britain when arguing against Americans and others who seem to confuse Great Britain, the UK and England, but only because the conversation ends when I say I’m from Wales (They rarely know where it is you see).

Am I less Welsh for feeling a pang of patriotism towards the UK? No, I do however find it hard and strange to actually care about the UK as a whole, maybe now I can see it from afar and on a global scale, the world looks at us all as the UK (or ever more infuriating as England) and we are all, whether we like it or not judged by the union flag.

So to go back to where we started, Can we be patriotic to another country?

Is it OK to be ‘Irish for a day’?

Do we let these people off the hook?

Some people say no, they say you can be patriotic to your own country only and people like George Orwell and Hemingway, who both involved themselves in the Spanish civil war didn't necessarily care about Spain, they aren’t Spanish patriots, rather they just do not want to see the country fall under the rule of fascists. Political motivation supersedes a love for the country.
Alasdair MacIntyre (a Scottish philosopher) would probably argue that these people were idealists and not patriots.

Back to Ireland, is it then fair to say that these people who go over the top with St Patrick’s day are not patriotic (For MacIntyre, patriotism by definition can only be a preference for one's own country) if they're not Irish?
I’m not sure what to make of them but then maybe being patriotic isn’t such a good idea, as Oscar Wilde said “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Cass Red 6.9

Koreans like a drink. In fact I would go as far as to say that they really enjoy a drink. Very often on my way home from work i 'll see groups of business men staggering along the road on their way home. Women too enjoy a tipple and they too can be seen in their gaggles strolling down the road on their way to another bar, these women are known in Korea as 'Ajumma' and they are a certain type of woman. They are usually of a certain age and have paid their dues, raised the kids and took care of the family and now they are going to have their fun, they aren't disimilar from the multitude of hen parties you see in every city in the UK every weekend.
Drinking in Korea seems to be as widespread as it is in the Britain, there are bars everywhere and every restaurant serves alcohol, one alcohol in particular is ever popular, Soju. Called Korean vodka by some, this potent liquor is a mainstay in korean restaurants and is consumed in quantites that would make the average rugby playing, hard drinking man wince. It is made, predictably from rice and the alcohol content usually averages around 20 per cent but it is also available at a coma inducing 45 per cent. Korean restaurants vary in their posh-ness from the roadside tent setup to the lavish restaurants you get in every city but one thing is ever present, Soju. Beer (Mekju) is also popular as are things called yakju's ( another kind of spirit). They all have one thing in common, they are consumed like they are going out of fashion.

It's important now to explain that there is very little alcohol induced violence in Korea, relative to the UK and although I base this comparision on my own experience I'm convinced it's accurate. In contrast to this lack of violence on the street there have been many reports of a high amount of cases of spousal abuse, this I'm not sure about.

The reason for this little jaunt into the world of Korean drinking habits is that I am currently 'testing' the current offering rrom the Cass beer people, Cass Red. At 6.9 per cent it's a potent little number and after one bottle I'm feeling 'happy'. I've no doubt that a few more of these and this writing would spiral into a collection of letters with no coherence at all and I woul dhave to spednt eh best part of sunday in bed with, what I'm sure will come to be known as a Cass headache.

I will keep you posted if this new brew has any effect on the number of violent, drink related crimes I witness, but dont hold your breath.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Welcome to America town.

Itaewon is a dumping ground for homesick expats. It’s Koreas very own America town.

My first impression of Itaewon when I stepped off the subway was that I had inadvertently gotten on the wrong train and transported myself to a dirty, decaying corner of a western city.

There is a red light district and apparently there are drugs, which people have blamed on the presence of American soldiers. They’re probably right. Although drugs and prostitution aren’t limited to Itaewon, the proliferation of cash laden soldiers would be enough to encourage them to remain.

The amount of westerners, mostly Americans and Canadians is unbelievable and the place feels less like Korea and more like Las Vegas, but without the high rolling casinos and expensive hotels. Itaewon is a single strip of neon encrusted real estate and attracts westerners like moths to a flame.

Itaewon is a few subway stops from the heart of the city centre and you emerge from Itaewon subway station into a melting pot of western “culture”, although there is distinct lack of culture and no hint of kimchi, just walking, talking, western stereotypes.

Accommodation was my first concern. The lonely planet guide says the Seoul motel is the best in Itaewon. Sat on top of a McDonalds at one of the street it couldn’t be better placed to explore Itaewon from and therein lies its only plus point. It really is a horrible little place. It may be the best Itaewon has to offer but it falls short of my very modest standards. It’s cheap, both literally and metaphorically and it’s certainly nasty. Half of the lights in the room didn’t work, along with the TV and the shower and the bedroom floor could be likened to the standing room on a rush hour tube, my partner and I had to take turns standing up! But for 40,000 (28 pounds approx) won a night, what do you expect.

I would recommend hotels in other parts of the city and suggest you look around on the net and find something that suits you. As Seoul has a underground network it isn’t worth settling for anything less than satisfactory, the co-op uljio residence near dongdaemun stadium is much better and still reasonably cheap, it has a kitchenette, TV and internet access in the room (just bring your own computer).

Don’t be under the misconception that I don’t like Itaewon, it is what it is and it does what it does well and I like it for it. The people who live in Korea and come here, do so for one thing, to escape Korea.
I come here to eat western food and drink western beer, speak to western people and buy cheap tacky souvenirs that are aimed at western people, watch western sport and generally be western.

Korea and Seoul have a lot to offer the tourist, centuries of history along with some spectacular architecture and some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten but Itaewon isn’t designed for the tourists as such, it’s designed for foreign residents. This is a subtle but important difference.
Itaewon is the eye of the storm so to speak, but this storm has the calm, serene Korea around it and the fast food soaked streets of Itaewon at its heart.

This "ugly, lovely town" was used by Dylan Thomas to describe Swansea but could equally be applied to Seoul’s city within a city. The place could be called a blot on the landscape but it is a haven for expats who need their regular fix of the west.
Itaewon isn’t Korea, not in a real sense. It is of course literally in Korea but that’s where the similarities end, instead Itaewon is a Mecca of all things vulgar, it lacks charm and it’s the home to all that is seedy and disgusting and foreign in Korea. But we like it.

My quest continued, after securing the “best” budget hotel in Itaewon to food. I went to Ali Baba’s, an Egyptian restaurant on the main strip. It’s a small place with seating for no more than about 30 and the food is excellent, I’m not sure how authentic it is but its tastes delicious. The price is also magnificent in its magnitude, extortionate would not be an over statement and here in lies another problem with Itaewon, along with the western comforts come the western prices. Ali Baba’s wouldn't be on my list of places to go again and that’s mainly because of the price.

To wash down my delicious but wallet busting meal we went to a new bar called the Wolfhound, run by 2 Irish guys and 2 Korean guys the place is just as Irish bars in Britain are. It has the obligatory Irish football shirts on the wall as well as a darts board and as much Guinness as you can stomach. The place fills up at the weekends and they show live football and rugby from the UK.

Then there is Gekos, an Itaewon institution that sells the same pub grub as most Wetherspoon style chain pubs in the UK. They do it well here and the fish and chips were a very welcome sight on the menu and tasted as good as I’d hoped they would.

There are numerous stalls and shops selling all sorts of cultural artifacts with the Korean flags on and if you want a fake pair of Ray-Bans or a fake Rolex then this is the place for you.

Itaewon is definitely not the place for authentic Korean culture seekers but it is a welcome respite from Korean culture, if you feel you need one.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Seoul international Marathon 17th March 2007

The 78th Dong-A marathon as it is also known was held yesterday in the South Korean capital. Held the day after St Patrick’s Day there were surely a few spectators who were destined to not make it to the 8am start and of the many who did a few (mostly westerners) looked as though they should have stayed in bed.

The coinciding of the event with the universally celebrated saint’s day was tough luck for some people who I’m sure would have us believe they would have competed if it hadn’t been for the date clash.

From my room on the 16th floor of the Seoul plaza, I had a magnificent view of Seoul and the starting point for the Marathon. From 6am the roads were closed and final preparations were put in place for the start, the weather was fantastic for the thousands of runners taking part, a bright and dry day with a gentle breeze keeping the temperature down a little. The runners started turning up at around 6am and the buzz of excitement and nervousness was in the air.

At 8am the elite runners set off with their ears ringing from a combination of the booming microphone of the compere, who seemed hell bent on getting heard and the mini firework display that signalled the start of the race. The others followed at 5 minute intervals ranked in groups according to their ability. The participants ran south from City Hall under the watchful gaze of Admiral Yi Sun Shin, the Korean mastermind behind the victories against the Japanese navy during their invasions of Korea.

The route, which started at the statue of the Korean hero and finished in the Jamsil Olympic stadium, has been called scenic and personal highlights from competitors in the past have included crossing the Han River and entering the Olympic stadium to see yourself on the big screen crossing the finish line.

The $80,000 first prize and the $300,000 prize for breaking the world record were distant dreams for most participants but there were a few who would fancy their chances.

Two of these hopefuls were Korea’s Lee Bong-Ju and Ji Young-Jun and both were cheered on ferociously by the patriotic crowd in Seoul. Bong-Ju, who finished 5th in this race in 2004 and won the Boston marathon in 2001 will be one of the older members of the elite runners at 36. In contrast Young-Jun at 25 was another Korean hope, with 4th, 6th and 2nd place finishes in this race in the past he was sure to be near the top of the field come 10:07 am.

After doubling back on themselves on the cheonggyecheon stream in the heart of the city, the route then moved south east, near the children’s grand park, past the Seoul forest, finally crossing over the Jamsil Bridge and into the Olympic stadium for a triumphant final lap of the old stadium.

The stadium, which has capacity for around 69,000 seating spectators was built to be the center piece for the 1988 Olympics and took 7 years to construct. It does have somewhat of a chequered past as it was here in 1988 that the infamous Ben Johnson cheated his way to Olympic gold and Sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner won three gold medals and a silver on the track.

The stadium also hosted that year’s football final with the USSR beating the mighty Brazil 2:1 but it was overlooked as a venue for the 2002 FIFA world cup.

The atmosphere around the stadium was carnival-esque with fast food stalls and refreshment stands all ready to serve up Korean treats to the competitors and their supporters after the marathon. The sight of the huge Olympic rings motif on the outside of the stadium must have signalled a long awaited rest was just around the corner for some weary legs, but at the same time also gave a much needed burst of adrenalin to flagging combatants and helped them drag their tired bodies over the finish line. As with all events of this magnitude there were inevitably casualties, some poor souls (forgive the pun) were transported to the stadium via ambulance and hobbled into the stadium to cheer on their running brethren.

With number 3 on his vest Lee Bong-Ju was destined to finish well in the Seoul marathon but his finish was 2 places better than his shirt number suggested, the veteran Bong-Ju Lee crossed the line in 2:08:04 and took the $80,000 first prize, not only that but it was also the fastest marathon time in the world this year. His time put him joint 174th in the all time world marathon times. This isn’t his first entry into the list either, he comes in at 117 too, a feat achieved in Rotterdam in 1998.When you think that only 3 minutes and 17 seconds separate the top 200 times then you realise how impressive it is to even get into this elite field.
The Cheonan native defied the odds to finish ahead of Kenya’s Kirui by a full 25 seconds. Another Kenyan runner Laban Kipkemboi came third, 9 seconds behind Kirui.
The woman’s race was won by China’s Wei Yanan with a time of 2:23:12, again the fastest time this year.

The crowds got a victory on home soil and everyone headed toward the subway station right next to the stadium happy. The station was incredibly but predictably busy after the race and some of the carriages had the distinct odours of pride, accomplishment and sweat. The race seemed to be a success and a good day was had by all especially Lee Bong-Ju who I’m sure celebrated in true Korean style with some grilled meat and copious amounts of soju. Then again maybe not.


1 Lee Bong-Ju KOR 2:08:04
2 Paul Kiptanui KEN 2:08:29
3 Laban Kipkemboi KEN 2:08:38
4 Edwin Komen KEN 2:08:45
5 Jason Mbote KEN 2:10:32
6 Dmytro Baranovsky UKR 2:10:51

1 Wei Yanan CHN 2:23:12
2 Rose Cheruiyot KEN 2:27:25
3 Hellen Cherono KEN 2:29:33
4 Thabita Tsatsa ZIM 2:30:12
5 Worknesh Tola ETH 2:30:56
6 Chae Eun-Hee KOR 2:32:01

Friday, 16 March 2007

Me not Me-guk*.

Recently I have been becoming more and more irritated at the blind ignorance and general imposing aura of the new American teacher.

Im sure she's not a bad person but she does really piss me off and does nothing for British-American relations.
Her ignorance seems to know no bounds when it comes Britain especially.

She mistook a scouse accent for a Welsh one, not a tragedy I grant you but her finest hour was to come when, after being corrected that scousers actually come from Liverpool (England, if your not sure) she proudly proclaimed that she felt so stupid because she (The scouser) clearly had an almost Scottish accent!

She then added ignorance to stupidity by claiming that Ireland (She Said Eire with strange pronunciation) was part of the British Isles and that you spell it Isle-and. Something that I'm sure does not go down to well in Ireland

I don't condemn her for not knowing the difference between accents, cities and countries but I do condemn her confident and expert manner that usually seems unfounded.

Later that week , through a partition in our adjoining classrooms I heard her tell the kids that in Britain we add a 'U' to colour. While we do indeed have an 'extra' letter, it would seem logical to me that Americans took it away and not that we added it. This can be seen with the holiest of American documents, the declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson ( of Welsh descent) drafted the document and used the British spelling of Honour and although it was changed to the American spelling in the final draft it seems to be more of a pitiful swipe at Britain than a much needed example of spelling reform.

Finally, after being a bit annoyed most of the week I was called into the office for a chat with the Diretor**. She sat me down and proceeded to creep around me in an almost pathetic manner. Turned out some of the students from the TOEFL learning class had, how can I say, expressed concerns about the new teacher and really would like it if I came back. She could of demanded that we change classes but instead she tried to be diplomatic and appeal to my ego, it worked and I felt a small victory for what at times seems to be a massive minority here in British English speakers. We'll fight them on the beaches.....

*This is how you say America in Korean.

** This is how it appears on her door.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Ever need to go to the toilet in the bath?

Have you ever gotten into the bath and suddenly found you need the lavatory? Well I have and it seems to be a little joke that gets played on me from time to time by my comedy bladder. I don’t bathe often, let me clarify that, I mean I don’t use a bath a lot, I shower as much as the next man but when I do have a bath all the liquid in my body seems to want to leave.

My apartment doesn’t actually have the luxury of a shower, it has the head attachment connected to the taps but no fixture on the wall and anyway if I stood up in the kidney bowl shaped bath I’d bang my head on the ceiling!

You know the old joke about putting your pissed mates hand in a bowl of warm water and then standing back and watching as he pisses himself, well try it on a grander scale.

If you are lucky like me and have your toilet practically in the bath this is even easier. You just stand poised to get into the bath, put one foot in, wait a few seconds and voila, you suddenly need a whiz. I can do it projectile style without even taking my foot out of the bath! The liquid is happily deposited in the toilet and you are free to get on with your bath, cue applause.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Beijing, China's capital war-zone

Here is an article i have just had published on travel website Enjoy.

Thankfully most of us will never have to see a real war zone but if you have ever wondered what it is like, the safest way to find out is to visit China during the lunar New Year’s celebrations (I have been chastised in Korea for calling it Chinese New Year). I have to admit to being scared out of my wits several times during my weekend stay in the Chinese capital as fireworks of all shapes and sizes are constantly exploded into the air, no matter what time of the day or night it is. The deafening noise from morning till night and through till morning again is almost unbearable sometimes and you really do have to watch where you’re walking and be aware of Beijingers running in the opposite direction to you as this is a surefire sign that they have just lit a firework or a box of firecrackers. The spectacle is something to behold, with giant plumes of smoke billowing from every street, alley and hutong and the constant stream of the firecrackers provides what sounds like covering fire. Occasionally there will be a mortar fired up and every foreigner around ducks for cover while the locals, after years of experience with these celebrations waltz around and dance amongst the potentially eye and eardrum destroying projectiles.

I arrived in China at Beijing international airport, which is about 27km from the centre of the city and had planned to get a bus. Its very simple when you know how, you just go out of the airport at exit 11 and tell the guy at the ticket desk there where you want to go and he decides for you which bus is best, you buy a ticket for 16 Yuan and get on the bus.

That was easy wasn’t it?

You get off the bus but still have no real idea where you are, all the signs are written on some pictograph language and you scramble with your guide book to try and make some sense of it all. I think it’s safest to get a taxi when you are relatively close to your accommodation, at least then you can orientate yourself from a known point. With a sense of nervousness at being ripped off within hours of arriving in the Chinese capital I managed to get into a taxi and had the driver moving, in what was hopefully the direction of my hostel.

With a few turns and momentary stops for the driver to look at my bad computer printed map we made it.

The Red Lantern hostel is located in one of Beijing’s famous hutongs and is within walking distance from Tiananmen Square. The hostel has two buildings; the main reception and an annex, located a few minutes walk away, which is where I stayed. The place is fantastic, located behind a big wooden door in a small alley way, it opens up into a compound with a main reception area with a few sofas, a computer with internet access (1 Yuan per 10 minutes) and a large table that people congregate around to have a very cheap Chinese beer (3 Yuan) or to write the obligatory postcards. Lit up all over the place with red lanterns (obviously), it was a fantastic introduction to Beijing proper.

The hostel was basic, as basic as hostels are designed to be but was perfectly nice and any shortcomings, like not being able to flush paper down the toilet were more than made up for by the fantastic hospitality of the staff who for the most part spoke excellent English and were very knowledgeable and helpful when it came to asking for directions, bus times and other enquiries. The hostel seems to be run by a family with several daughters, uncles and grandparents all pitching in.

When we arrived at the reception of the annex we were told straightaway that there would be a dumpling making session that night for the residents and this is where the family feeling of the place came into its own. At seven pm we all gathered around the table and were instructed how to crimp and fold and a pile of dumpling wrappers and filing turned slowly and awkwardly into neat little Chinese dumplings. It felt like a real traveller’s experience, I was standing shoulder to shoulder with locals in Beijing, making Chinese dumplings on the eve of Chinese New Year (I mean lunar new year!). The dumplings were cooked (even the deformed ‘foreign’ dumplings) along with several other dishes and we all feasted before heading out into the war zone like night.

I spent the first day mostly at the zoo, looking at the pandas. Unfortunately they weren’t being kept in the best conditions and they themselves didn’t look in the best condition but it was still a sight to see these almost mythical creatures in the flesh. The Chinese have a few breeding facilities across China, I don’t know of any in Beijing but there is one in Chengdu I intend to visit on my next trip. There were other attractions at the zoo but none compare to the pandas, I hope to see them in better condition in the summer when I visit again.

The attractions are vast in Beijing as is the city itself and as China is so cheap taxis are quick way to travel from place to place. Because of the language and its intricacies (4 tones with each indicating something different) Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to imitate and so even a simple taxi journey can be a Herculean task and of course taxis are the best way to not interact with any city as you bypass the real people and places if you just flit from attraction to attraction. Another and somewhat easier way is to use the subway, it’s a good way to get around as the price (3 Yuan per trip) is cheap and the need for conversing is minimal, you may need to learn to count though, at least to one ( ‘e’ pronounced as it looks is the number 1 in mandarin)
The cheapest and best way to see the city however is to use your very own in built transportation devices, namely your legs. From our hostel we could walk to Tiananmen Square, which we did, passing through the vast Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was off limits for 500 years to all commoners but has since become a haven for tourists from all over the world who come to see this city within a city. I got lost once and had to ask for directions to get out, it’s that big. With so many alleyways and side streets I didn’t get to explore the city in its entirety as you can spend a day or more on this mammoth attraction alone.

Beijing is a true mega city and is built on a grid system with a north-south axis running through the city and directly through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in accordance with Feng Shui rules. This sprawling city is navigable by foot because of its linear layout but beware that some of the longer streets will change name several times along their lengths and this can lead to some confusion.

The highlight was Tiananmen Square. This huge open concrete space is as vast as it is awesome. Being stood underneath the image of Mao, the iconic image that symbolises a nation and an ethos is a strange experience, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, especially when we crossed the road into the square proper. This is the site of the ‘tank man’ incident. The image of this single protester shook and shocked a generation when he stood in front of the tanks in the very square I now stood in, an interesting sensation to be sure. The fact that the worlds largest public square is now a site for peddlers of cheap tourist souvenirs with Mao pasted on everything from commemorative stamps to watches (with Mao seeming to wave at you on the stroke of every second) seemed to lighten the mood and make you realise that modern China isn’t the place it once was.

Around the corner from Tiananmen Square is Donghuamen night market, a market designed for foreigners and selling all the fantastically diverse food people have some to expect from the Far East. The prices here are more than you would expect to pay from hutong vendors but the list of exotic food quickly makes you forget this, included were deep fried star fish, large black and small brown scorpions, animal testicles as well as small shark type fish, all on sticks. There were also lots of ‘normal’ meats and various fruits and veg kebabs for the less adventurous.

There are other markets like this that aren’t necessarily geared around tourists, notably Wangfujing snack street, which is another place I didn’t make it to but is located closer to Tiananmen Square, just east of the Forbidden City and is recognisable for its archway entrance.

The food in restaurants wasn’t very different from any Chinese food I’ve had back home, apart from the fact that they waste less here. My chicken dish came with free feet, head and even the flappy bit on the head and the Peking duck (where better to eat it?) was mediocre at best. It is hard to tell the tourist places from the real deal and so I will reserve judgment on the entire cuisine of the nation!

There are many things I didn’t do on this trip, the great wall at Badaling isn’t far away (70 km North-west of the city) and the Lama temple (one of the most renowned Buddhist temples outside Tibet) will be high on the list of priorities for my next visit ( probably post September 1st).

You need to spend some time in Beijing to appreciate all it has to offer, whether you plan to come here and see everything in one go or do as im going to and come here for several visits doesn’t really matter, what matters is that you get to come here once.

Click here to be taken to the article on the site.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

I dont dislike Americans

I don’t dislike Americans. I really don’t. Not all of them anyway. I have to be honest and say that the majority of Americans I have met haven’t been my favourite people. I just think they're a bit…well simple, brash, loud, outspoken, boastful and a bit ignorant. They seem to have this urgent need to simplify everything and to try to avoid any possibility of any misunderstanding. Their finest hour to date I think is probably the mangling; I mean interpretation of the English language. They have simplified it in many ways; I mean why does colour have a ‘U’? Why do favourite and neighbourhood have ‘U’s? And why can’t I change my f’ing spell checker on word to respect my decision to leave the U’s in?

Okay, there is a lot to be said for doing away with some older, outdated, over complicated additions to words such as the ‘K’ in knife, we don’t need it, it doesn’t do anything and it can cause some confusion to people who learn English as a second language. But we like it, it’s ours and for Britain it signifies a time when English was very different to how it is now. We deal with it, you just have a silent ‘K’ at the start, remember it and there is no problem. Americans have decided the time is not right to do away with the K’s, they haven’t finished with the U’s I don’t think.

Maybe Americans have a disadvantage as they don’t have a history to speak of, maybe that’s why they want to make it their own. I can understand that I suppose.

Now if this new language, lets call it American, stayed in America I wouldn’t have a real problem with, but it’s when it comes steaming into your life and has a go at you for pronouncing it ALUMINIUM instead of ALUMINUM, that’s when it gets my goat! Apparently they seem to have a grudge against I’s too!

I work as an English teacher in South Korea and have done for the last six months and I have to say that the abundance of Americans (and Canadians) is overwhelming; I sometimes have to question where I am. This in itself can be bad enough but it's when you get criticised for saying it Arabic and not Erabic that I feel is taking the piss a little. They seem to forget that it’s called English, not American, although I am in favour (there’s another U that has escaped the spell checker) of American becoming an official language and then they can butcher away to their hearts content.
This dumbing down of the language isn’t so much a problem as it is frustrating and infuriating as they don’t seem to see or accept that it is indeed dumbing down. Some of the stupidest people I know are from Britain and when faced with the apparently tongue twisting film title of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone’ they too have to ask what a Philosopher is, but when JK Rowling wrote the book Im sure there wasn’t any doubt that’s what the book would be called all over the world and any film would be called that too, should it be made. In America however the film and book were called ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone’ as the studio and publishers were concerned that people wouldn’t know what a philosopher was.

The very thought that these two words are interchangeable is laughable and a generation of American Potter fans have now missed an opportunity to ask a grown up “what’s philosophy?”

For the record, the definition of philosophy is famously a difficult matter for even philosophers to define but a sorcerer is someone who practices sorcery, the belief in magical spells that harness occult forces or evil spirits to produce unnatural effects in the world. Quite different.

This changing of the title and even “translating” the book into American-English proved unpopular with the New York Times who ran an article titled "Harry Potter, Minus a Certain Flavour"

I don’t want this to sound like a rant against Americans, its not, more like a critique of the way some Americans have a knack of ignoring or not understanding where certain things come from. I am a big fan of many things American: film makers, writers, musicians and many other things but there is a line and some of the less intellectual Americans I have come across do not so much cross it as find it and do a little jig on it. I can't pin them down geographically or say they all have certain traits but if you've met one of these kind of Americans you know it.

The real reason for this rant (oops I said it wasn’t a rant) is because South Korea is in love with America. They have had a long standing relationship with them since the Korean War and many of the older generation feel they owe the US a debt of gratitude for saving them from the commie northerners and as a mark of respect they have decided to bend over and take it in the backside, I'm sure there are other reasons for this and I don’t profess to know them all but I call it as I see it.

Korea is overrun with Americanisms, the worst for me is the absolute mushrooming of English hagwons that, often openly admit to a preference for American or Canadian speakers, the books I use in class are also a source of their surrogate patriotism, the worst claim was that it was the US that saved the world in WW2, charming. TOEFL learners are also encouraged to practice their north American inflection, even though in an article on a English teachers forum a recruiter wrote that most English learners use it to communicate with other non native speakers, So having a distinct American inflection would be no advantage whatsoever and may even be a disadvantage.

Our diretor (that’s how she spells it on the door) lived in the US for a good few years and now feels she too owes a debt to the US and at every turn promotes America and Americanisms and im sure feels a sense of superiority over us because we are British, despite the fact she pronounces it finish-id and not finisht. We have an American and another Korean who lived in the US for 20 years to contend with too and sometimes I find myself getting annoyed at their pure ignorance. Only the other day one of them admitted that they wouldn’t claim bread as an American creation (nice of them) but they might claim hamburger buns, until I pointed out that they probably came from Hamburg (which indeed they did, a theory states that in Hamburg, Germany, meat scraps, similar to modern ground beef were served on a Brötchen, a round bun-shaped piece of bread.)

Anyway I end with a call to peace, just accept that your English is inferior and British English is the original and best and we should get along just fine. Other than that rename the language American and be done with it.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The importance of being British.

I come from Wales , which for those of you who dont know ( Shame on you) is in the UK.
We are a small but proud nation and here are a few little known facts about Wales;

  • The name, in English at least for the highest mountain in the world is named afer a Welsh man, Lord Everest.

  • America may have taken its name from a Welshman

  • Wales is not represented on the British Flag

  • Welshmen invented two important mathematical symbols

  • America's Oldest Ethnic Society is Welsh

  • A Welshman founded The New York Times.

  • There is an inscription halfway up the steps of the Washington Monument which reads Fy iaith, fy ngwlad, fy nghenedl Cymru - Cymru am byth! ("My language, my land, my nation of Wales - Wales for ever!")

  • A Welshman was responsible for the mid-19th century US industrial might.

  • The author of the Declaration of Independence, President Thomas Jefferson, was among those of Welsh descent, along with eight other American presidents.

and the list goes on.

I just thought I'd try and explain why the name of this blog is " The Importance of being British".

In Korea, Wales is not widely known ( to their detrement!) and they confuse England and Britain and, like may other nations assume the two are the same. They aren't.

I am British by default but when asked where I'm from I have always said that I am Welsh and not really British, we have a strong sense of identity which would be diluted if we just accepted this homeogenous tag of British and In Europe Wales is known widely.

Anyway, while I'm in Korea and there are a lot of Canadians and Americans around ( Many times more than Brits) I have to ease Koreans into the reality that Im not North American, I am in fact Welsh and the easiest way to do this is to get them to understand Britain first, then the explaniation of Wales is a little easier. So here it is important to stress the difference between America/Canada and the UK, hence the name.

Maybe the blog should have a subtitle but I'm sure there will be no doubt where Im from if you read a few entries.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Liverpool FC V Barcelona

Euro nights are special for Liverpool anyway but when you have the likes of Barcelona in town these nights seem to have that little something extra.

Barca’s team sheet looked formidable on paper with an attacking line up to make even the most experienced defenders shudder. Messi, Eto and Ronaldinho all started and the game plan would surely be to get the ball up to them as often and as quick as possible, the tie would then take care of itself wouldn’t it?

Well as it turned out the legendary 12th man was in attendance at Anfield tonight and was in full voice, he seemed to have the visitors unnerved a little as they timidly tried to go through the gears and find that top gear that in the past has seen them effortlessly cut through defences and rack up the kind of scores you'd expect of such a talent filled side. From the off Liverpool played like a side possessed, Gerrard starting out on the right and running himself ragged, as did Bellamy and Kuyt. Along with Carragher these four formed the backbone of the Liverpool effort and crisp passing from Gerrard and Alonso added to Barca’s problems. Momo’s presence in the middle was also a thorn for Barca although his passing wasn't up to much. Riise was a constant threat down the left and continually ran down the wing to test Thuram and seemed desperate to score as he kept eyeing up goal every time he was in range. His efforts almost paid off when he hit the crossbar after Thuram backed off enough to give him the room. Sissoko also hit the bar in a John Barnes style effort after Valdes had sliced a clearance and at half time the shot counter read 10-1 in our favour.

Wait a minute, I can’t remember Barca having a shot.

The formidable front three line up that was supposed to have the Red defenders shaking in their boots were AWOL. Not one of them had a major impact on the game and Eto slipped off the pitch without anyone really noticing. Were Barca just going to lie down and accept defeat?Probably not.

Whilst Barca seemed to have more possession, Liverpool seemed to be more sensible with their time on the ball, reflected in the shot counter and I'm sure I saw Rijkaard say “Have you seen the bloody shot counter?” to one of his coaching staff.

Rijkaard’s team talk at half time seemed to have little effect, Barca managed to rack up a few shot counter style efforts in the second half but did little to threaten the Liverpool goal other than that. Ronaldinho did his best to level the woodwork count with a shot curled around Reina and off the post, Liverpool deserved to be in front overall.
With time ticking away and Liverpool still taking the fight to Barca through the efforts of Kuyt and Gerrard particularly, Barca needed something more and the change came with the substitution of Eidur Gudjohnsen on for Lilan Thuram. It seemed to be just what the Dutchman ordered. Gudjohnsen scored with 15 minutes left and the game was left to sit on a knife edge.

There was a kind of storm from Barca where they controlled much of the last quarter of an hour of the game and at one point it looked like they might get the second goal they needed; the ghosts of Man united seemed to be returning with Liverpool maybe paying the price for not taking advantage of the chances they created. The referee had been very generous with the yellow cards all night and took acceptation to Pepe wasting time and gave him one too. Pennant came on for Bellamy and later Crouch for Kuyt, the two combined well to create an opportunity for Crouch to calm anxious Liverpool hearts but he blasted over from close range.
Ultimately we deserved to go through, it would have been nice to have gone through without losing at home but we’re through to the last 16 and that’s all that matters.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Sidewalk Shopping

The latest on 'Sidewalk shopping' is that an item in the sale was indeed tagged by one shopper, a former cello was cleverly turned into a small cabinet. The 'cello' apparantly had the neck missing but the lucky shopper was able to drag it home and remove the strings and viola ( You see what I did with voila and how I worked in the instrument thing, clever eh?)a 'brand new' unit for your flat that can go next to the salvaged bed, complete with salvaged matress and salvaged pillows.

Good night, sleep tight and the bed bugs should be ok now they have a home.

One mans rubbish is another mans treasure. Isn't it?

I'm not sure if it's a British thing, a civilised thing or a me thing but picking up and taking home things that are lying in the street obviously waiting for a refuse collector to come and take them isn't something I do. If it seems obvious to me that something has been abandoned and is left lying in the road, I tend to leave it that way.

If your thinking to yourself that it isn't the kind of thing that anyone does, read on, if you think its perfectly normal then you wont be a bit surprised by what I'm about to say.

Again I'm not sure it its just a thing of the people I've met in my time here but a lot of them seem to think it's ok to just pick up rubbish from the streets and take it home; I'm talking about bits of furniture, old sofas, chairs and stuff like that. At least that's all I've heard them talking about!
So far all the people who practise this scavenging are North American, that is to say American and Canadian.

Is it something that is popular in North America?

I know these aren't bad people and I have no problem with buying second hand goods but I still think its a bit odd to be walking home from work and to see a pile of rubbish outside someones house or a designated dumping point for a building and think that some of it would look good in my house, am I alone in thinking this?

Two work colleagues were discussing an item one of them had seen and recommended the other take a look and suggested she 'tag' it if she liked it, she even offered to help her carry it back to her apartment! Others have mentioned prime ground for good quality things in the past and it has also been mentioned in a positive light by a good few more.

As far as I'm aware stealing rubbish or things from skips, aside from being bizarre is illegal in the UK isn't it? Maybe that's why I don't have the urge for a bit of pavement shopping on my way home from the pub.

Please, I would love someone to confirm my sanity on this, are the rubbish stealers mad or am I just a bit snooty when it comes to putting rubbish, literally other peoples crap into my house?

One man's rubbish is another man's treasure my arse.

Ice age - The return

The weather in Jeonju has just changed dramatically from typical spring weather back into the ice age. It feels like there has been some catastrophic atmospheric incident and Korea is bearing the brunt. Coming from the UK I'm not exactly new to terrible weather, in fact it hasn't rained here during the winter as it does at home but a sudden and unexpected change caught me off guard. I found out from work colleagues that this in fact is no surprise, its a regular occurrence at this time of year and is known as Go-sem-chew-e and was explained to me as the time when the weather is jealous of the emerging spring flowers and tries to exact revenge by freezing them all to death!

Im assured that this return to the freezer will be done and dusted within 2 weeks and we will restart our march toward summer and I for one cant wait.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Dydd Dewi Sant and all that

This is something I wrote for St Davids day 2007.

The first of March means little to most people and most nations but there are a few for whom this is a special day.

The 1st of March, St David’s day, is celebrated by the Welsh all over the world. St David is the patron saint of Wales and every year on the first of March he is remembered. His biggest known ‘miracle’ occurred at Llandewi Brefi (now better known from little Britain’s only gay in the village sketch) when he laid a handkerchief down on the ground and it rose beneath his feet so all around could hear. Unlike some other saints, David was born, lived and died in Wales.

St David’s day has been transformed from a religious event to a celebration of Wales, being Welsh and all things and people Welsh. It is a day when we remember who we are and where we come from.

‘Cambria will not yield’ echoes around Wales in the spirit of the people and for brief moments (such as those 80 minutes every Feb/March when we play the old enemy in the 6 nations) we really feel like we are different from our Anglo-Saxon neighbours. We feel proud of what we have achieved as such a small nation and look forward to the future with high hopes for next February and beyond.
The tide of patriotism that sweeps the nation soon subsides and we go back to living our normal lives but the ‘ddraig coch’, the spirit of the red dragon is always lurking on lapel badges, in words we use that seem as foreign to our English neighbours as any other language, Cwtch being a particular one I have trouble with and with the feeling that boils up inside us every time someone says ‘Wales, that’s in England isn’t it?’. There is also the proud and competitive streak that surfaces every time Wales is mentioned on the news or a Welsh person is being praised anywhere in the world for anything!

The day is usually celebrated with school children dressing up in traditional costume and the people wearing either or both of the national symbols of Wales, the leek and the daffodil. Although St David’s day isn’t a bank holiday yet it is a national holiday, although that could change as a poll conducted by the BBC on March 1st last year found that 87% of people questioned would be in favour of making St David’s day a public holiday.

With a population of only 3 million people you might think St David’s would be a rather quiet affair, passing by without the world taking much notice, but you would be wrong. Last year the Empire state building, the tallest building in New York illuminated its upper portion in the colours of the Welsh flag to celebrate the day and remember the Welsh contribution to the US.
New York will again celebrate Wales and St David’s day with another annual Welsh week taking place from the 23rd of Feb. to the 3rd of March (

March the first is also celebrated in other countries round the world including Bosnia and Herzegovina where it is Independence Day, Iceland where it is called Beer day because it was this day in 1989 that beer became lawful again and Romania and Moldova where Mărţişor is a seasonal holiday.

The 1st of March is also celebrated in Korea.

Samil Jeol (literally meaning 3/1 day) or Independence movement day is a national holiday in South Korea and serves to remind everyone of the occupation of Korea by Japan and the struggle for independence that ensued after the movement began. The death of emperor Gojong was a symbolic and decisive moment in Korean history as his death brought to an end the Joseon dynasty and with it the death of one of the remaining symbols of the Korean nation.
Instigated directly or indirectly by Woodrow Wilson, whose fourteen-point speech formed the basis for the German surrender of WW1, Korean students in Tokyo drafted their own statement demanding independence from Japan.
This reached the Korean underground movement and the wheels of revolution were in motion.
On St David’s day 1919 the declaration was read aloud in public at several locations throughout Korea and an uprising gathered pace until it was finally put down 12 months later.
It was enough however to lead to the formation of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea (which was at this time in exile in China) and later the KLA (Korean liberation army). WW2 proved to be an opportunity to declare war on Japan and the KLA took part in allied operations in China and other parts of south East Asia. With Japan eventually surrendering, the battle was won and Korea was born. Although independence day proper is also celebrated in Korea on the 15th of August, Samil Jeol is recognised and celebrated as the day when independence was conceived.

Wales and Korea have few ties directly, there are a few notable and infamous examples however: Various industries have come and unfortunately gone (notably LG who only last year announced their departure from Newport in South Wales as a competitive market forced production costs down), A Welshman, Robert Jermain Thomas, was the first Protestant martyr in Korea; he was killed in 1866 in North Korea and Traditional music dance troupes from South Korea come to perform at the LLangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

We do however have a few cultural ties or at least similarities. Both countries are mountainous, small nations when compared to their neighbours and both have been the subject of invasion and cultural suppression at the hands of ‘foreign hoards’. Notable because of its freshness in the minds of the Korean people was the occupation by Japan and the subsequent attempts to erase Korean culture and language from history. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and live as Japanese citizens, much the same as the Welsh had to endure their language being outlawed by the English. The industrial revolution, while good for some led to an influx of English migrants into Wales and a dilution of the language. Migrants seldom learnt to speak Welsh and their Welsh colleagues tended to speak English to them. The legal status of Welsh was inferior to that of English and so English came to prevail in all but the most rural areas.
While around only 20 percent of Wales currently speak Welsh, the story is a little different in Korea. Korea not only survived, but thrived and can now boast a thriving economy and production of some of the most advanced technologies around.

With the rugby world cup in France fast approaching, Korea were one game away from qualifying. A play off game with Tonga was all that stood between them and a place in England’s group in the tournament, which is due to kick off in September. Rugby is not at all popular in Korea compared to other sports and as a Welshman living here it is sometimes frustrating to have to listen to great tries being scored on internet radio (it can also be a blessing as currently a lot of tries are being scored at the wrong end), hopefully rugby will begin to appear on the radar of Korean sports fans who are as patriotic (almost) and blindly biased as the Welsh when it comes to supporting their nation and everything in it. Unfortunately Korea were hammered by Tonga, 83-3 and so their rugby world cup debut will have to wait.

March the 1st will be celebrated by both nations for different reasons but one thing will be true of both, St David’s day or Independence Day will bring a sweeping tide of nationalism across these two small nations and for a Welshman in Korea it will be a welcome and familiar feeling.

Finally, probably the oddest connection between these two peninsula nations is the production of a set of commemorative stamps to celebrate the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Diana Spencer in 1981 currently for sale on e bay!

Whilst anti Japanese feelings run high in Korea the Welsh have come to accept our neighbours across the Bristol Channel as brothers, just from that distant arm of the family nobody mentions anymore.

Who am I and what do I want?

I live and work in South Korea as an English teacher and have decided to share some of my experiences with friends and family and who ever else wants to read. The blog will probably end up being my musings, thoughts and observations as well as some practical tips for travelling in Korea as well as the other places I have been or intend to go. Football and rugby will feature a bit and I'm sure Wales and Liverpool FC in particular will appear from time to time in various forms. I will probably include current events and other things that take my fancy, I hope it will be entertaining as well as useful.

Everything I write is meant to be taken in the right spirit, I will, where possible highlight the light hearted nature of what I'm saying unless I feel very strongly about it, then I won't. Some people may get upset or offended by things I say from time to time, thats unfortunate but unavoidable. I'd like to think that there will always be a logic or at least a kind of sense being made even if i dont put it across in the best way, suffice it to say I'm not going to offend anyone for the sake of controversy.

I'm sure there will be inaccuracies in some of what I say and i invite anyone to correct me, I hope you enjoy reading about my next 6 months in Korea and beyond and all the quirks the 'Land of the morning calm' has to offer.

Thanks for reading.


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