Saturday, 8 May 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore: Notes from the Korean Peninsula


"I shall make that trip. I shall go to Korea."

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Okay, so I came here under slightly different circumstances, but the past week has been one of the most wonderfully bizarre of my life. I even had to read the title of this post again. I did make this trip: last Friday, I flew from Heathrow airport, via Dubai, arriving in Incheon Airport just outside Seoul at 10pm. A four hour bus journey later and I was in the city that will act as my home for the coming year, Gwangju.

You can try to prepare yourself for something like this. I read a lot of literature, books and online articles. I thought I had a decent grasp of Korean culture and its people before I left. I was wrong and I am truly delighted I am. So far, this country has been overwhelming in every respect: the food, the friendliness of the people, the weather, the LIGHTS! The journey from the airport, driving the length of the country's coastline was my first eye-opener. It was the wee hours of a Sunday morning, yet the place was lit up like a Christmas tree... everywhere. Even the crosses on top of the churches are in neon.

Next day, I went exploring, taking in the sounds, smells and sounds of an alien culture: struggling to grasp the reality... this isn't a holiday. I live and work here for twelve months. It took a while for this to sink in. In fact, I still don't think it fully has. There's a real normality about my days that makes the experience utterly surreal. One minute I'm in my apartment eating cereal, listening to We Were Promised Jetpacks, the next, I step out my door into an Oriental street market.

Yesterday, I woke up early to watch the Election 2010 online. I slipped into a Dimbleby induced comfort zone. The next thing, the onion cart rolls by (the onion vendor who drives around the streets at silly o'clock selling his wares, complete with a loud speaker fixed on top of his pickup, playing pre-recorded advertising-yell in Korean. It's a bit creepy, actually. Slightly Orwellian). My thoughts turned to Mogwai: "Yes! I am a long way from home."

My days are structured (get up, go to work, go for dinner, yadda yadda), which I think adds to the surrealism. Coupled with crippling jetlag (four hours sleep a night: max. And I thought it made you sleepy?), the first week has been a struggle, but I've enjoyed it nonetheless. This year will be an amazing experience. There are people at home I will miss. They know who they are, but I have to make the most of it.

I'm having a tough time deciding what to do with this blog. There isn't much by the way of live music in Gwangju (although I will take every attempt to see what I can. Actually, I am going to see a band called Angry Bear tonight, update to come later), so I guess it has morphed into something of a travel journal. An online account of one ginger man's attempt to get to grips with a culture as alien to him as any in the world. I will also keep the blog updated with published work (I will be writing for a number of Korean publications and probably some at home).

But now, if you'll excuse me, it's 20+ degrees outside. The sun is shining, and I've got a mountain climb.

Video - Mogwai: Yes I Am A Long Way From Home