November 20, 2007

Half way in Korea

안녕하세요 ( = annyong haseyo = hello),

November in Korea, the weather's taking a distinct cold turn - I hope
you enjoy the NZ summer for me if you're there! Today marks the
half-way point of my time in South Korea, with 223 days down and 223
to go, so seems like time for an email update.

First off a couple of music links - I've been uploading some of my
back catalogue to the web so help yourself to free mp3s at, and you can also get The
Winter's entire instrumental 'Parataxes' album from 2003 at - please spread
the word and enjoy.

Progress with new works is coming along gradually - I'm spending a lot
of my spare time practising instruments and sorting through the
stockpile of field recordings - will get some videos up on youtube
soon. Main event so far was Cynthia and I winning 100,000 won in a
Korean song competition at the Chinatown festival, with our
banjo+clarinet+melodica arrangement of 'Arirang'.

Latest chapter in the Asian odyssey was a side-trip to Japan the other
week, had an amazing time visiting Hiroshima (gut-wrenching A-bomb
memorial in a friendly modern city with Melbourne-like trams and great
okonomyaki or Japanese omelette), Kyoto (sights of old Japan) and
Osaka (sights of new Japan). The one thing I was disappointed by was
that we spent a Saturday night in Osaka and couldn't find any live
music. Is going to gigs just too much of a western concept? As far
as I can tell music in East Asia is all about ringtones and portable
mp3 players, and 'live music' means going to a karaoke room with some
drunken friends. We did see a Bunraku performance at the national
puppet theatre though, which made me think that was the inspiration
for the Vulcans in Star Trek.

Asian pop music is terrible (think 1980s), so I'm most interested in
traditional Asian styles here. The Koreans do have some half-decent
hiphop eg Drunken Tiger, but the rock music is pretty average from
what I've seen. I would have guessed Koreans would be into heavy
metal due to their bolshy natures, but instead they like soft ballads
'to calm us down'.
The highest energy music here is the traditional samulnori drumming,
which is accompanied by an obnoxiously loud (in a good way)
double-reed taepyeongso, and head movements that create a ribbon dance
via a streamer attached to their hat.

Living in Korea I was struck by the Japanese contrasts such as clean
streets, orderly but not identical buildings, calm friendly people
with diverse dress sense, drinkable tap water, comfortable trains,
less air pollution etc. It was 'interesting' arriving back in Busan
to see barbed wire and guards with machine guns at the airport, hazy
sky and a bumpy bus ride back. Going to a supermarket I was struck by
the noise of 'hard sell' for products, each salesperson shouting to be
heard over the others.

This weekend was good though, we went to Gyeongju, the capital a
thousand years ago. There were more traditional-style buildings per
square kilometre than anywhere else I've seen in Korea (even the
petrol stations had traditional roofs), plus clean air and beautiful
autumn colours. It'll be a good weekend getaway town as there's
plenty more to see and it's only an hour from Busan.

Now that I'm half way through Korea and settled in, the focus can
shift from surviving here to planning for what's next. There are lots
of options, time to start focussing them down into actual plans, eg

Best wishes, keep in touch, it really is nice to hear from friends &
family out here...



Posted by fiffdimension at 05:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October in Korea

안녕하세요 ( = annyong haseyo = hello),

How are you?

It's autumn in South Korea, the leaves are going yellow, the temperatures have dropped in the last fortnight, and the newspaper today reported the season's first snowfall on Baekdu-san (san = mountain). Daytime temperatures are pleasant but it's getting cold at night, and the summer humidity has gone. I'm sitting up on the roof of my 5-storey apartment building, which is small compared to the 20-25 storey blocks across the other side of the subway on my left. Most urban Koreans live in these tall buildings of identical design. Busan has the population of Melbourne, but the area and geography of Wellington.

On my right, past the shops and Pusan National University, is Geumjong-san, which is 700m high and takes up the western skyline. It's one of the highlights of living here, as it's big enough to tramp around all day and provides much-needed green space. It has Buddhist temples, granite rock formations, and squirrels running around in the forest. As a Taranaki boy, it's good to have a mountain nearby.

From here I can hear trains, construction work, water pumping, traffic and a fruit-seller's truck with its monotonous loudspeaker sales pitch. A train has just passed; they come every five minutes. I have to walk up on the mountain if I need quiet. At night-time there are often cats "fighting", arguments, alms collectors and an ajuma (= old woman) who comes at midnight to sort through the rubbish bags.

The air today is clear, with a minimum of haze. Coming to a densely populated country (about 10% larger than Tasmania; double the population of Australia and New Zealand combined) with air pollution issues has definitely taught me to enjoy clean air and blue sky when I can get it! Busan does have its bad air days, but is a big improvement on Suwon. It also has seven beaches, though I've become disillusioned thanks to a persistent ear infection I picked up swimming at Haeundae a fortnight ago. I'm on antibiotics.

Overall things are going well. I'm 191 days down, 255 to go in Korea. I've adapted to the local conditions and food (gained weight a few months ago but have slimmed back down), and paid off my student loan. From here I can concentrate on making music trying to book gigs in Seoul and get involved in the NZ-smalltown-sized Busan music scene, and making some new pieces out of my backlog of Korean field recordings. I'm also keen to take the opportunity to visit some other Asian countries when I get time off work Cynthia and I are visiting Osaka and Kyoto in Japan from Nov 1-4.

Korea is just one specific Asian culture, with a different language and writing system, food, arts, culture and history from anywhere else. It's a conformist society, and one part of the world where the cold war is still going for example (the Korean war 1950-1953 never officially ended, the North and South just had a ceasefire) - military service is compulsory for young men. They're keen to take on the West in some ways, but take a lot of the wrong things (brand names, plastic surgery, rampant commercialism) onboard. Then there's the Stalinist dynasty North Korea, making the two countries a kind of split-personality yin/yang.

We're on target to finally get to Europe in the second half of 2008. Scandinavia (the "every man's right" law of free camping on public land) and Portugal (the Carnation Revolution, where the soldiers declined to open fire on peaceful demonstrators, thus forcing the military government to step down) particularly appeal to me at this distance.

In the meantime I want to learn what I can about this part of the world and make the most of it. I'm alive and well in Busan and hoping to hear back from you!

Best wishes, Dave

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