Category Archives: News

Unintentional Self-Parody in Retail: Coffee and Cell Phones, Together at Last

Jamsil Cell Phone Stores

Apologies for the blurred artifacts in the middle of this photo. I took it with my phone’s “panorama” feature while my hands shook with excitement.

In the ancient Korean conception of the universe, the Earth was flat and sat atop a coffee shop at one end, and a cell phone store at the other. These in turn rested on more coffee shops and more cell phone stores.

One medieval scholar, asked by a student what was at the bottom, quipped over his rice cakes, “It’s coffee shops and cell phone stores all the way down.”

Okay, I lied. That’s actually the belief system of contemporary Korea. Or so one would be tempted to believe after walking around Seoul.

Consider the outlandishness depicted above. A store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies will open less than 20 feet away from another store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies.

The new phone store will be attached to a major coffee franchise. Unseen in the photo, the new coffee shop is around the corner from an independent coffee shop and across the street from a failed independent coffee shop. It is literally next door to a Paris Baguette store, which also serves coffee. It’s also a block away from the famed purveyor of coffee drinks, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Two coffee shops in Jamsil

Two coffee shops next to each other in Jamsil.

How much demand exists for these products? I have a cup of coffee several times a week at Paris Baguette. Sometimes it’s busy and sometimes it’s dead, but I’ve never had more than one person ahead of me in line.

What about phones? I’m skeptical. Even the manufacturers fear not much. That’s because the phone market is nearly saturated. There’s not much room for growth when even some 8-year-old children I taught in Bundang had phones better than my basic model. If you’re Korean and don’t own a smartphone by now, your flip phone is probably going to the grave with you.

One analysis even says there will be negative growth in Korea’s smartphone market by 2016. And yet, here it is, a phone store next to a phone store and less than 200 meters from another phone store. We’re talking about stores selling the exact same products at the exact same prices.

Worse, someone thought it was a good idea to invest in a month-long interior renovation to build a store combining cell phones and coffee. That’s right — they will sell phone contracts inside the coffee shop. It’s like all the jokes I ever make about Korea are slowly becoming real-life scenarios. (Hagwon teachers might want to take cover, since I also have joked that instead of killing themselves, disgruntled students will eventually figure out that terrorism is a far better method for venting their angst.)

I could be wrong, though. Seoulites seem eager to blow money on overpriced fru-fru coffees. But according to this academic paper citing government sources, Seoul had more than 12 thousand coffee shops in 2011, a 54 percent increase over the previous year. How many more lattes can the deeply indebted public afford to keep this bubble inflated?

I’m not the only one who suspects it’s a bubble. The Korea Times reported last year about the “cutthroat” nature of the Seoul coffee scene.

In a bubble, everyone invests without considering the downsides because there is no perceived downside. By the time clueless people have heard about a trend and decided to throw money at it, it’s already inflated most of the way.

Speaking of clueless people, here’s a hilarious quote from the Times story. Just keep in mind that clueless people can also staff giant corporations.

“We’ve decided to open a coffee shop because we thought it would be a relatively easy business to run,” said Kim, one of the two young owners of a small coffee shop along the street. “But it turns out it isn’t.”

Physical labor is the hardest part of the job, she said.

Maybe Coffine Gurunaru, Cafe Bene, et. al will take a page from the Poonglim playbook and start forcing their employees to buy unsold coffee inventory with their own wages when off the clock.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Daily Life, News

A Korean Menage a Trois: Overproduction, Overconsumption and Overeducation

Bluth Model Home

Sudden Valley, a Poonglim venture.

In Korea, if you can’t speak the language, you are forced to be a passive observer of everything you see. Sometimes I have no way of knowing if what I notice is just a one-off occurrence or whether it’s part of a larger trend. I keep the things I notice in the back of my mind and sometimes I make a similar observation later, or catch a blog post or news story where someone explains what I saw. Then everything comes together and a more complete picture forms.

Here’s something I’ve noticed since I first arrived in Korea three years ago. Take a bus out to Incheon, Yongin or Pangyo in the suburbs of Seoul, or spend a day in Busan, and you can’t escape the construction; it’s everywhere. New apartment buildings to the sky, with names ever more evocative of prospective residents’ aspirations  — “Noblesse” is my favorite.

I know that Korea is a country with an aging population and children live with mom and dad until they get married. The overall trends is toward later marriages and fewer children. New births recorded this past March reached a 32-year low.

“Who,” I wonder, “is going to move into these buildings?” Apparently, nobody.

According to Reuters, desperate construction companies are convincing their own employees to buy up the unsold inventory. Construction workers are literally propping up the housing market with their own backs. Many are already neck-deep in debt, though.

South Korea’s household debt has doubled over a decade to levels where debt-to-income ratios are in excess of those in the United States before the sub-prime crash in 2008.

Hit by debt and the prolonged property market slump, January-March private consumption fell for the first time in five quarters as Koreans kept a tight hold on their wallets.

That’s right, Koreans’ spending priorities are as wacky as Americans’.
An afternoon walking around Seoul will quickly reveal to any visitor the local mania for conspicuous consumption.

When I first moved here, I just assumed that Korean youth were really enthusiastic about photography and attended photo hagwons. Every other 19-year-old I saw had a Canon DSLR setup worth thousands of dollars hanging around their necks. Curious, I observed anyone with a camera to see what they took pictures of. This pro-level gear was basically used to take snapshots of their friends in Auto mode.

Of course, high debt doesn’t lessen demand for luxury goods. It just means that demand is satisfied through new channels . Gotta keep up with the Kims, amirite?

It doesn’t stop at handbags and cameras. After living in one of Korea’s richest areas for the past two years, I currently live in what can best be described as a lower-middle-class neighbourhood of so-called villa homes, laundromats and chicken hofs. Walking down the street, I am confused when I see as many Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars as I did living in affluent Jeongja-dong. My housing is provided by my employer, as cheaply as they can get away with. If you live around here, you sure as shit aren’t fooling anyone as you dodge vegetable ajjummas with that Benz.

Massive consumer debt, combined with overproduced and overpriced housing inventory, should lead to a price correction. Indeed, that’s what’s happening according to the Reuters story.

Due to oversupply and lack of affordability, apartment prices in the Seoul metropolitan area have fallen 14.7 percent to end-2012 from July 2008, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Unfortunately, despite the high per-capita number of college degrees, few can afford these low prices. According to the Korea Times, “Nearly four out of every 10 young workers in their 20s and 30s said they were overeducated.”

More and more people with college diplomas have to work as bank tellers, clerks and other simple labor jobs that have long been filled by high school graduates. If they don’t take such positions, many of them have no other choice but to remain unemployed.

A certain smug blogger needs to understand that the heli-tiger moms and their unrealistic expectations are killing the country’s labor force with every violin, EFL and Chinese calligraphy lesson they push their dead-eyed kids to sit through. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. This is from the Korea Times article quoted above (emphasis added):

The finding indicates that the problem has reached a critical point where the nation’s socioeconomic structure is threatened. The ratio of college graduates to the total population surged to 43.2 percent in 2010 from a mere 6.6 percent in 1970. It is a matter of time before the figure surpasses 50 percent.

The chaebol are just helping the heli-tiger moms finish the job. Like in the US and Cyprus, regular people are being coerced into bailing out incompetent companies and their investors.

Forcing employees to personally take on your company’s risk is shadier than than any black-listed hagwon owner I’ve ever read about. Pity those poor Poonglim employees and their kids who will be under that much more pressure to level up in my classroom.

(Hat-tip to Expat Hell for bringing the linked sources to my attention.)

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Culture Shock, Daily Life, News

Super-Badass Train Will Connect Seoul to Busan in 90 Minutes

From the Korea Times, a new train is being tested with a top speed of 430km/hour (267miles/hour)(!!!).  For my North Carolina readers, of which there are at least two, that’s Asheville to Raleigh in one hour.  Fuck. Yes.

HEMU-400X

The super-badass looking HEMU-400X is coming to Korea if it passes government testing.

The story says government testing will be thorough due to unforeseen problems with Korea’s current high-speed train, the KTX.  From the article:

In particular, the latest “KTX-Sancheon,’’ which was built through the country’s own technologies, suffered various mishaps including derailment and stoppages although there were no casualties.

The KTX currently tops out at 300km/hour (186m/hour). That’s not too shabby on its own, though I’d sure hate to be on one of those derailments!

Speaking of derailments, the high-fallutin’ US plan to introduce high-speed trains appears to have fallen off the tracks without ever moving forward.  Guess I might have to sign up for a car-share program if I don’t want to blow my savings when I get back from Korea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Life, News, Travel

Bundang Line Opens Stops in Yongin

image

image

image

Three new stops opened on the Bundang Line this week recently, part of a plan to eventually connect to Line 1 in Suwon.

The new(ish) stops are Guseong, Singal and Giheung, opening up Yongin as a convenient new area for Bundang residents to work and play.

The Bundang Line is in yellow on the pictured map.

On a related note, Popular Gusts dug up a 1988 article about Seoul’s plans for the metro. Notice that 24 years ago, Seongnam was very peripheral.

Daniel Daugherty

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Life, News

Thanks to Our Readers! Here’s the 맙소사! Year in Review

Thanks to our readers, 2011 was a huge success for us!

Extra special thanks to Jen, who’s been a content machine.

Check out the link below and see a summary for the year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

–Daniel Daugherty

Leave a comment

Filed under News

In Seoul Public English Education, Everybody Loses — Again

Thanks to The Marmot’s Hole for the translation of this article.  Apparently, “students and parents preferred Korean instructors fluent in English over native speakers.”

Let’s just sidestep the issue of public education policy being left to parent and student surveys, rather than language and education experts. I kind of understand the policy decision to de-emphasize native speaking teachers as a key toward English proficiency for Korean students. Native teachers are very expensive to bring over. However, they are not the real problem. The real problem is an English education policy that mismanages personnel and fails to respect students’ needs, forcing parents to spend ever more money on the diminishing returns of a farcical hagwon industry. (Do I sound jaded and cynical, or what?)

Let’s address the elephant in the room, first. It’s apparent before you arrive in Korea that the vast majority of people TEFLing here are grossly un-qualified. Most haven’t even got a fly-by-night TEFL certification or any experience remotely related to teaching, let alone experience managing groups of children. Forget all the AIDS fear, drug testing and worries about “corrupting the youth” — most Korean kids are taught by under-qualified individuals. Yes, that included me when I worked at Avalon. (For those scoring at home, I no longer teach EFL.)

However, the wholesale sacking of mostly unqualified native teachers isn’t going to fix the problems with public English education in Seoul.  From what I can tell of friends’ and colleagues’ “work” schedules, the public EFL curriculum is a non-priority at many schools. They often go weeks without seeing a single class while student assemblies, test days and other events crowd English classes off the regular schedule. A common complaint on Facebook is, “the internet ran out of things to entertain me at work today.”

When these teachers do see the kids, it’s in groups of 30 or 40 who come once a week. Not a chance for anyone to form a rapport or give kids enough reps to justify having a native teacher on hand.

My own students describe public-school English as a one-size-fits-all failure. They lump kids together by age, not ability. This means kids who lived in Canada and can read classic novels in English sit next to kids who can’t pronounce a “z” sound or remember the days of the week. How is this helpful to either student? And remember, this is Korea, where saving face is a paramount concern woven into the fabric of the culture. Some kids will just be left behind by their own ingrained desire to avoid embarrassment. This is a public education policy that fails to respect the socio-cultural reality of 99.9 percent of students.

Dropping native English speaking teachers wholesale is also poor management of personnel assets. Yes, most are unqualified. However, for the few who are qualified and passionate about teaching, the public school setting is the only place that gives them flexibility and planning time to apply themselves properly, as well as a pay scale that respects experience and credentials.

Hagwon hiring standards, on the other hand, are bizarrely low throughout most of the industry. Teachers are replaceable cogs in a preset curriculum cleverly designed to take parents’ money. In most, any actual learning is a happy coincidence. Seoul students will now be deprived of the only qualified, enthusiastic EFL teachers and lessons they can hope to encounter. Unless …

This policy might help the hagwon industry since parents who want native speakers will still be able to demand it with their pocketbooks. Those public teachers who are qualified and enthusiastic will likely gravitate to the industry if they want to continue living in Korea.

However, unlike hagwon teachers, public teachers are used to having the flexibility in their curriculum to design effective lessons based on professional best practices: Lesson plans that integrate reading, speaking, listening and writing skills; and games to reinforce those lessons, keep kids engaged and make them think dynamically in their new language.

Hagwon parents don’t get anything like that for their money, nor do they demand it. As I’ve previously written, they demand more homework and bigger vocabulary lists, not creative lessons and teachers who make the language fun. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teachers with any level of enthusiasm will become soulless TEFL zombies in most hagwons.

In the end, everybody loses. The education system will become even more dependent on hagwons and their flawed educational environments, good teachers will leave Korea or have their souls sucked out, bad teachers will proliferate the system even further, and the needs of children will continue to be ignored.  They’ll lose sleep and stress out over a bunch of classes that aren’t designed to teach them anything, for teachers who don’t care about them.

–Daniel Daugherty

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Employment Details, News

Sin Bundang Line Opens Today

image

After a few last-minute delays, Sin Bundang express subway line opened today, connecting Jeongja to Gangnam in 16 minutes. Anyone worried that Seoul was too far away from Bundang will now have a speedy option to complement the extensive bus coverage already available to Bundang residents.

Daniel Daugherty

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Life, News, Travel