Barb Waldern report from Korea: Masan City Part 1

Barb Waldern report from Korea: Masan City Part 1

Barb Waldern is a beloved member of the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team.  She is currently teaching  English in South Korea. 

Barb joined the Gung Haggis team last summer and paddled with us at Cultus Lake and Vancouver Taiwanese dragon boat races.  This year she paddled in the ADBF regatta, Lotus Sports Club regatta in Burnaby and the Alcan Dragon Boat Races.  We gave her a send off party at the end of June.

August update from Barb Waldern in South Korea

 
Masan City
Part 1
 
Masan
City is located on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula in a
subtropical zone. It is a 4 to 5-hour drive to the capitol from here.
 
All
of Korea is mountainous. Masan is an industrial harbour town of 1/2
million people nestled against the hillsides with their terraced farms
and lush mixed forests of coniferous and deciduous trees. Most industry
is not located right in the boundaries of the city proper.
 
Date,
fig, pomegranate, ginko trees and the occasional palm are scattered in
and around the city, their fruits about halfway to ripening now.
Grapes, tomatoes, white peaches, and many other fruits are ripening and
on sale in the markets.
 
The severe heat is
lingering beyond seasonal norms and the monsoons continue. While
cicadaes still roar in waves upon waves, a strange bug can now be heard
over the: the big brown thing with long rear legs that flies makes
amazing noise. It sounds like a Jews harp playing frog-sparrow. It
begins by buzzing like a group of cicadaes, then twanging to an
accelerating rhythm, exciting itself into a fit of loud chirping.
 
At
night or early in the evening, the cuckoo calls. It really does cuckoo
every hour! One in my area begins at 7:15 and repeats at every quarter
of the hour. Magpies and other birds unknown to me besides the sparrows
are numerous and make enchanting calls all day long.
 
Koreans
appear to take pride in nature and there are many parks/conservation
areas and outdoor activities. There is a large national park west of
Masan. The nearest such place to Masan is Muhak Mountain.
Koreans consider that mountains have spiritual value. For one thing,
graves are located on mountains. Pairs of perfectly round grassy
mounds, often with stone markers, can be spotted here and there.
 
Hiking
Muhak mountain is one way Masan residents get regular exercize. Elderly
and mid-aged men and women often head up Muhak in the early morning,
wearing protective clothing and carrying backpacks, to return before
noon.
 
School yards are also popular places
for power walks  or  jogging as well as socializing in the evening air.
Groups of old women often congregate under a tree on benches near a
track. Public spaces are few and far between, and what exist are small
patches.
 
Elderly people group themselves in
dry and shady areas during the day, gossiping and playing
games. Some squat together on street curbs, a rendez-vous point for the
frail to wait for friends to emerge and spread the news.
 
Most
of the elders have been raised on traditional farms in peasant life.
They have seen fantastic changes, the good and bad, over the past 35
years since monopoly capitalism was systematically planted and S. Korea
rose as a “Tiger” state.
 
When
they are not in school or some kind of training, boys meet in PC stores
to play computer games for hours at a time. Some 30 to 50-something men
join them. (That makes me an oddity here.) The girls are likely having
visitors or going shopping if they are not helping their mothers and
grannies with housework.
 
The youth? As I said
before, young people study a lot and adults spend long days working
hard. The people have known severe poverty through decades of
occupation and war, and they invest a lot in education and work while
they can. There is a university here. Teens and university students
hang out in the two fashion/shopping districts, one on the eastside and
the other on the westside (both are affluent areas). There are sports,
from martial arts to golf, swimming to soccer, happening…somewhere.
There are gyms and bowling allies in Masan.
 
Koreans
today are attracted to the cosmopolitan while they retain a strong
sense of national pride. The are eager to explore and benefit from the
world's riches, tangible and intangible, while protective of their
country and ways.
 
I hear of a lot of cultural
events taking place in Pusan, where theatre and music and visual arts
are quite active. There is not much happening in that regard in
Masan. I hear of public events such as laser shows, sandcastle exhibits
and others taking place around the province (Kyong-nam) from the
children. Hollywood and international moves are shown in cinemas in
most cities. Masan has one.
 
Dating is
generally a slow process wherein couples usually spend a long time
getting to know each other as friends before engaging in a more intimate
and serious relationship. Here, one shouldn't assume that a
“boy/girlfriend” is a lover. Couples are generally in for the long
haul. Marriages are performed by neither state or religious
officials–teachers are often selected to officiate. I imagine that
there must be some sort of state registration, but I understand that
divorce is a simple process here, though the divorce rate is still
lower than that in, say, Canada.
 
Foreign
men may be interested in having relationships with Korean girls, but I
would say that their chances are not good. It is expected that the man
make an effort at an elaborate romance and make most of the moves. When
they make a move they must be very cautious because a woman could
easily take offense. I know an anglophone foreigner guy who's been
dating a young woman for four months. He and the woman have never
kissed.
 
Men from Europe, UK, Canada or the
US would likely lose patience. They generally approach sex and
relationships more casually and tend to be fast. Not that there aren't
sluts and fast women here too, and some of them seek out foreigners for
flings. Foreign guys often wait for the woman to initiate things, make
most of the moves. If a woman calls a man in Korea, it's taken as a big
sign of romantic interest by the man. Of course, one ought to be
skeptical about the boasts of another, for they may wish to impress.
Also, people will often prefer to give misleading information when they
do not know an answer to a question, rather than expose their
ignorance.
 
The girls ought to be cautious
with foreign men. After all, foreigners are largely here on a temporary
basis. Even if the relationship got serious, there is a lot involved in
making a decision to have a life with a foreigner, such as the prospect
of emigration. There is also the question of national pride, among many
others. There is also reaction to ethnically mixed couples and certain
kinds of foreigners (see the news article I'm forwarding along with
this one that gives an international rating of racism in SK). For
example, a viewer will notice the occasional “white” face on TV, but no
Asian other than Korean.
 
Koreans
travel for work, business, pleasure or family, frequently between
cities in Korea, and the middle class goes to neighbouring countries
often. However, the price of gasoline and oil is very high, because
Korea does not have its own petroleum sources. Korea imports oil and
gas to power motor vehicles, and produce electricity, as well as
plastics I suppose. Electricity prices are also relatively high. There
is a VAT (value added tax) on gasoline and a lot of merchandise, a
source of state revenue for state expenses. Yet numerous taxis roam the
city streets 24/7, and flatbed trucks laden with fresh farm or wharf
products cruise day and evening constantly, megaphones blaring,
especially in this season. The system of diesel buses is thorough and
very accessible. (I've seen one experimental natural gas bus so far.)
And, Koreans, always in a hurry, love their Korea made cars
and “camions” (SUVs).
 
Korea
has a limited welfare state system. I wonder how it will fare given the
recent signing of the US-Kor FTA and Eur-Kor FTA. I do not think it
will play out the way it has in North America. For one thing the
progressive labour movement is well warned and prepared. Already laws
such as the new one regarding part-time and temp workers are in place.
For another, Korean nationalism is inspiring regional trade
negotiations (N-S Korea, SK-China, etc). Thirdly, traditions die hard.
 
Work
days in non-unionized environments are long, often up to 12 hours with
just a one-hour break. A Korean office worker that we know, who used to
work at our school, says she works those hours.
 
Service
in Korea is great. I think retail service in the Korean context is
reinforced by the norms and traditions of hospitality and courtesy just
as much as it is by the motive to promote and sell store products. Many
men and women work in retail service. If you want help, you'll get it.
And someone will always be there to acknowledge you with a nice smile.
 
As
an example of the effects of resistance to free trade, take the E-Land
group of big box stores. It is Walmart in disguise. (The “E” is
actually an upended “W”.) In disguise because of Walmart's bad rap
internationally. Nevertheless, the progressive unions main focus of
attack is the E-Land store chains. 
 
Business
leaders hope for a North Korea-South Korea FTA, but I expect there to
be a particular regional trade agreement instead, eventually. There are
state health insurance and state supported health care, with clients
and employers each being obliged to pay half of the insurance premiums
for basic medical and dental coverage. In parts of Masan, there is a
city garbage collection service with recycling program in many
(precincts??), the latter being paid for through the consumers'
purchases of official plastic bags. There is a government postal
service. Government workers maintain road, sewers and other aspects of
the infrastructure.
 
I'm
surprised at the number of taxis in this town. Transportation is
largely privately owned. The taxi drivers (all men) are often quite
pleasant and courteous, but not so the bus drivers. The bus system is
extensive and while city and suburban buses may be few and far between
in some areas and at some times, intercity buses are frequent and
rapid. I have not been on a train in Korea yet.
 
General
education through secondary school is government paid and run. Private
schools are supplementary and not an option as opposed to regular
public school Teachers never flunk or expel students, whatever the
case, because the state believes that rejected students will become
hostile to society and fall into a life of crime or addiction. Teachers
get a year-round full-time salary, with a month of paid vacation in the
summer. It is illegal for many kinds of employees to take a second job.
 
Most
jobs are full-time. If an employee agrees to perform some other service
for someone else, they may be paid a stipend or remuneration in kind,
or at least have expenses covered. The Union movement is expanding
because of the surgence of a progressive federation of labour that was
legalized only a few years ago and that is countering the yellow
confederation supported by employers and big corporations. There are
labour standards, though I don't know much about them.
 
Telephone
service is private, with many available firms providing it. SK Telecom
is one such firm. It has been suffering a major scandal; all I can
figure out from Korean language (Hangukaw) news media is that SK
Telecom executives were caught on a recording device hatching up some
sort of scheme and dumpsters full of discarded client records were
discovered.
 
New and old converge, sometimes
meshing sometimes jarring. For example, haggling is the normal practice
anywhere except department stores. I'm not good at it, but vendors and
merchants are usually very kind. I think they appreciate foreigners
attempting to shop in regular Korean places. I think they are concerned
about strangers managing and adjusting in the new country.
 
END OF PART ONE
 
Barbara

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