Arts: Groove’s 8th year anniversary issue


First published in Groove Korea magazine October 2014

As the expat community continues to grow and diversify, so too do the arts and music circles within. Over the last eight years, the scenes have welcomed new ways of thinking, creating, performing and sharing.

Costa Rican photographer Joe Wabe, who arrived in Korea 11 years ago, has seen the number of active foreign photographers multiply. “Social media has been an incredible tool that has tripled the amount of people that can be involved in any project, and that has made a huge difference.”

Canadian belly dancer and instructor Eshe agreed. “Everyone’s online presence has dramatically increased, so events are easier to find, book, promote and attend.” Eshe arrived in 2007, and within no time was able to begin teaching classes and forming her own performing troupe, Navah. The year 2010 saw an increased appetite for international activities, and this was the perfect time for Eshe to open Dream Dance Studio.

Social media has also created an opportunity for Korea to share its wealth of creative talent with the rest of the world. Over the years, music collective Loose Union has received international attention and they’ve used this to help promote other musical talents born in the Korean expat scene. “We believe in independent music and culture in Korea,” said Adam Brennan, one of the group’s contributing artists. His comments are obviously not an idle claim if you look at the Korean gigs and North American tours they have organized for expat bands based here.

As the cultural hub of both the Korean and expat art and music milieus, Hongdae has seen the rise of many artistic ventures. This is where the founding members of rock band Magna Fall first met and where they continue to play gigs. The band started playing five years ago and says a lot has changed since then. Members have come and gone, styles and influences have been transformed and personal musical abilities have developed and improved.

“It’s still tough to get your name out there and people at your shows,” the band’s drummer David Holden said. “But appearing on Korean TV shows like ‘Top Band’ has helped a lot,” added guitarist and singer Kevin Heintz.

In the television world, opportunities for expat entertainers are on the rise. Stars such as Robert Holley, Sam Hammington and Bronwyn Mullen have made waves over the past decade, as has British TV personality and sought-after MC Jake Pains. He said the hard work has paid off for him too, and now he is able to pick and choose which events he performs at. “As the first ever foreign MC to do real emceeing in big clubs, not just ‘are you ready, let’s go!,’ I’m proud to see how there is a real club culture for MCs now.”

Hip-hop artist Pinnacle TheHustler echoed Pains, saying he, too, now has more control over his career as there is more demand for hip-hop and other internationally influenced music. “The scene has developed considerably,” the American rapper says. “There are more creatives that are doing some great things in the expat community, and there are more Koreans taking risks.”

And although the arts continue to gain more recognition and support, artists still run into obstacles, with the language barrier obviously being a big one. Irish visual artist Aoife Casey explains that finding gallery space and getting permission to shoot in particular locations would be made easier with a better grasp of the language. “However, there are organizations like PANK (Professional Artist Network Korea) which help facilitate and curate group shows for artists.”

Mike Stewart opened Jankura Art Space, a place for artists to come together, create and learn in English, and said since he got his “artistic gears rolling again in 2006” he has seen more serious artists emerge. “It’s great to see people not giving up on what they had a passion for before crossing the sea,” he said — something all foreign artists and art enthusiasts in Korea can assuredly agree on.
More info 
Joe Wabe
Loose Union
Magna Fall
Jake Pains
Pinnacle TheHustler
Aoife Casey
Jankura Artspace

Culture shock in South Korea

First published on in 2012
If an expat has ever dreamed of being a celebrity, they should move to South Korea. It’s doubtful there is any other place in the world where an average-looking Westerner gets showered with as many compliments as they do here. Being constantly gawked at and told how beautiful or handsome they are is probably the biggest thing foreigners have to get used to when they first move to South Korea.

That, and the language barrier. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test out their English skills on expats with a friendly greeting, most of the older people in the country do not speak much English. As a result, they avoid too much contact with foreigners because they find the interactions rather awkward. Don’t misinterpret this as bad manners – South Korean people are generally shy and avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs.

A simple way to ease these situations is by brushing up on basic greetings. Also, learn to bow. A bow can work as a greeting, a thanks or just an acknowledgment, and should be given to anyone who is of a similar or higher social ranking. South Koreans pay great respect to their elders, so expats should always bow to people who are senior to them, unless they are being served by them in some way.

If someone is visibly foreign, South Koreans generally won’t expect them to be completely clued up on their social and cultural practices – they are very welcoming and accommodating people. Once an expatriate has been in South Korea for a while, they will quickly learn the ins and outs by simply observing those around them. For starters, it is important to be accepting, adventurous and respectful.


An expat’s South Korean hosts will be incredibly impressed if they try all the food that is placed in front of them. The food may look odd, but looks can be deceiving. Those with a delicate palette should try building up their resilience to spicy food before they arrive, as the majority of the dishes here have a bit of a bite.

Foreigners should also brush up on their chopstick skills because most restaurants in the country do not stock knives and forks. Locals are very impressed by expats who can wield a pair of chopsticks but are just as supportive of those that simply make an attempt at using them .

While most Western foods are available in South Korea, the local cuisine is worth a try. Vegetarians in South Korea should be aware that most of the main dishes have meat or some kind of seafood in them. A good idea for vegetarian expats is to ask a Korean friend or co-worker to write a note for them, saying that they do not eat meat of any kind, so that they don’t end up with chicken or seafood in their meal.


Koreans are fashion conscious, a fact visible in almost every facet of daily life. New shops and eateries pop up overnight to keep up with current trends. This dynamism requires expats to be flexible; because things change so quickly, they have to be able to keep up. While this is rather enjoyable in a social context, it can be annoying in the work place.

Foreigners have often found themselves slightly perturbed by last-minute announcements that spring up at work. But since there’s nothing that can be done about it, try to be accepting and accommodating – causing a scene won’t change the fact that the day will have to be rescheduled in order to accommodate the changes.

For the fashion conscious, it is wise to mirror the dress code of people of a similar age. In the workplace it is advisable to dress formally for the first week or two and then adjust according to one’s particular work environment. Women should take note that although they can wear short skirts, no cleavage should ever be shown.

Another thing foreigners will have to get used to is taking off their shoes whenever they enter a home, workplace or restaurant. Keep a pair of indoor shoes (which can be found at most convenience stores) at work and change into them after arriving. Whenever they enter a restaurant or someone’s home, expats should be sure to take off their shoes and leave them at the door.


South Korea is a very modern, hi-tech place. The public transport is incredible and the Internet and telecommunication services are lightning fast and cheap. Although most of the road signs, instructions and bus terminals here are written only in Korean, the language is one of the easiest in the world to learn, so be sure to take weekly classes at the local YMCA.


Another cultural aspect that takes some getting used to is the use of space. South Korean cities are crowded with apartment blocks, skyscrapers and bustling markets. Being able to adopt an ‘Eastern space not Western space’ mindset will be helpful, especially when negotiating apartment sizes and Seoul subway carriages during peak hours. Although the cities are crowded, there are plenty of forests, beaches and islands to escape to on the weekends – always a welcome respite after a busy week amidst the hustle and bustle.


Although Korea is arguably a male-dominated society, the modern-day Korean woman strongly values her independence and will generally stand up to belittlement if she needs to. A word of warning though; women who smoke on the street, walk around in low-cut shirts or drink excessively will be looked down upon. Being foreign does give expats a bit of leeway, but they will probably receive a few dirty looks if they behave this way in public.

South Korea is a country that balances ancient heritage and cultural appreciation with the best in modern-day technology and pop culture. It is a place that offers an abundance of natural wonders and easy access to the rest of Asia. Delicious food, amazing people, a huge expat community and great money-making opportunities also help foreigners adapt easily to life here. With a little bit of effort, a Korean phrase book and an open mind, expats can have it all.


DO get toilet paper before heading to the stall. Most public toilets in South Korea do not have toilet paper in each stall; there is usually one big roll near the sinks for everyone to share.

  • DO be prepared to squat. Although most toilets in the country are the usual Western style, expats may encounter a squat toilet at some point.

    DON’T expect to eat much fruit in South Korea. It is very expensive.

    DON’T write anyone’s name in red ink as this traditionally signifies death.

    DON’T leave chopsticks sticking up in a bowl as this is only done when commemorating the dead.

    DO look away from the table when taking a sip of alcohol with a group of Koreans, this is considered to be polite.

    DON’T pour your own drink: if another person at the table offers another one, let that person pour it and return the favour by pouring one for them.

    DON’T fold your arms in front of yourself when in the company of older people – this is considered rude. Rather leave them hanging by your side.

    DO always use two hands when accepting money, a business card or anything of importance.

    DON’T ever blow your nose at or near a table of people who are eating.


Teaching English in South Korea


First published on in 2012

A steady stream of English-speaking foreigners make their way to South Korea each year in search of financial, professional and cultural gain. By far the most popular source of income for these expats is English teaching jobs which are relatively easy to obtain as long as you meet a few basic requirements. Jobs can be sourced from overseas before you arrive, so your employer can apply for a work permit on your behalf.
Most employers in South Korea will only hire English teachers from the UK, Canada, America, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia who have an accredited university degree and a TEFL or TESOL certification behind them. Some of the more lucrative positions also require the applicants to have some English teaching experience behind them, but this is not always the case. The types of English teaching jobs are varied and abundant and include positions at public schools, private after-school academies (hagwons), private lessons and universities in both cities and small towns.
The Korean people place great value on an ability to understand and speak English. Children as young as four are introduced to the language and from elementary school level English must be taken by all students as a second language. The nation’s insatiable desire to learn and speak English means that finding a job teaching is pretty easy, whether you chose to find work online before you leave or when you arrive in Korea.

Perhaps the most pain-free and trustworthy way to get an English speaking job is by going through the South Korean government programme, EPIK (English Programme in Korea).

EPIK is a programme affiliated with the Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) and is operated by the National Institute for International Education (NIIED). Established in 1995, EPIK aims to improve the English-speaking abilities of students and teachers in Korea, to foster cultural exchanges and to reform English teaching methods in Korea. The EPIK programme encourages cross-cultural exchanges while promoting the development of English language competencies for Korean students.
EPIK teachers are interviewed over Skype before they are hired and then go through a week-long orientation and training period when they first arrive in Korea. Teaching in public elementary, middle and high schools across the country, EPIK teachers are essentially government employees and enjoy benefits such as a furnished home for the period of their contract, 50 percent of their medical insurance premiums, a travel allowance, settlement pay out and an exit allowance on the completion of a contract. A teacher who has gone through EPIK will generally teach for 22 hours a week and spend the rest of their office hours planning lessons. Applying through EPIK can be done directly on their website, or applicants can go through a recruiter (usually free of charge) which can make the whole process run more smoothly. There are two big yearly intakes in February and August but direct placements throughout the year are also possible.


A hagwon is a private academy that students attend after school that focuses directly on the one subject. Children of all ages attend English hagwons, even those in the pre-school age bracket. Hagwon jobs are easier to find once you’re in Korea, but going through a recruiter in your home country may also prove fruitful. Hagwon jobs are usually better paid then public school ones but hagwon teachers do not enjoy the same kind of governmental ‘protection’ as public school teachers do and receive less vacation time each year.
When searching for a hagwon job, be sure to do plenty of research. Ideally, go and meet the owner of the academy before you sign a contract as you may sign yourself up for something you did not expect. Hagwons that cater to students who want to get a head-start on their English usually employ a staff of both Korean and native English-speaking teachers. They can vary quite considerably in size from very small operations with only a handful of staff members to huge franchises employing thousands of teachers. Classes are divided according to age group and level and it is usually the role of the foreign teacher to help students improve their conversation and pronunciation skills. Hagwon employees will also usually be provided with a fully furnished flat, reimbursement for their air ticket to Korea and receive 50 percent of their medical insurance from the employer. Hagwons hire new English teachers all year round.
Teachers wanting to work at a university generally need a Masters degree in English. These jobs usually have better hours, more vacation time and a higher salary. Plus, the fact that you will be working with Korean co-workers and students who already have good English ability often makes for a better experience. Finding a university job is easier to in Korea, but can be done online too. It seems a common progression for English teachers who have worked the public or private school system for a while to become university employees.

Big bucks in beauty


First published in Groove Korea magazine August 2014

“The more you spend in Korea, the more beautiful you will be,” says Kim Hye-ra, a 28-year-old office worker from Seoul, as she peers at her perfectly manicured nails. “I haven’t had surgery, but that’s just because I haven’t had the money to do it yet. I guess I should save, but I’m always spending my money on my hair and nails and makeup.”

Kim says she’s been keeping up with Korean beauty ideals since she was a teenager. She visits the nail salon every week to get a manicure, gel color and nail art, and has her hair colored or restyled bimonthly, though declined to disclose her spending. “I do it to keep up with my friends and coworkers. … I don’t want to be the ugly duck. No one does.”

It’s no secret that beauty is big business in the country nicknamed “The Republic of Plastic Surgery.” According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, 1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had plastic surgery. “I got double-eyelid surgery last year as a gift from my parents,” says Choi Min-seo, an economics student at Seoul National University. “I did it because I want to be more attractive, but also because if you are more beautiful in Korea, life is easier for you.” In the country’s intensely competitive job market, she explains, the better looking you are, the better you fare in finding employment. “Beautiful people will always be chosen first. My parents understand this, and they also think it will help me find a good husband,” she adds shyly.

Korea was ranked seventh in the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global survey on the number of cosmetic procedures performed in 2011. It also comes in at seventh place in the global rankings of the number of plastic surgeons by country. When looking at both of these statistics, it’s worth noting, however, that five of the six countries ranked ahead of South Korea (U.S., Brazil, China, Japan and Mexico) all have populations well above 100 million people, as compared to the ROK’s 50 million; the number of surgeons and plastic surgeries per capita here actually places it at the top of the list. According to Korea’s Fair Trade Commission, there are 1,767 surgeons in the country with upwards of 4,000 registered and unregistered clinics performing aesthetic procedures. “Just look at Gangnam,” says Kim. “It’s like a plastic surgery department store — anything you want to change about yourself, you can change there.”

And business is booming. The Fair Trade Commission reported that plastic surgery brings in 500 billion won ($473.9 million) a year, and one-quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea. The country’s obsession with beauty is a huge driving force for the economy, and the figures continue to rise.

But women in Korea aren’t just digging deep to go under the knife. They are also shelling out for non-invasive procedures: cosmetics, makeup and regular beauty treatments.

Kang Chan-koo, a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, reported that the Korean cosmetics market grew to 8.9 trillion won in 2011, from 5.6 trillion won in 2006. That’s an annual increase of 10.4 percent, which he says easily outstrips the annual average retail sales growth of 6.1 percent in the same period. But research shows that Korean women aren’t blowing their budget on imported beauty products, which are sold at upwards of 6.5 percent higher than their duty-added import prices; instead, the fastidious consumers are keeping things local.

“The Korean cosmetics market has been growing at a rate of more than 10 percent a year, even amid the global recession since 2008,” the Korean Health Industry Development Institute reported. “The main reason is mushrooming budget cosmetics shops, which have increased 37 percent a year on average.” These shops account for one-third of Korea’s total cosmetics market, which was worth 2.5 trillion won in 2010.

According to research carried out by Cos’In, a website dedicated to cosmetics insight in Korea, women are now spending less money on more products at these types of stores. “Korea has beauty shops everywhere,” says Kim, an office worker. “They always have new products and I want to try them all out. When things are cheap, it’s easy to buy a lot, and if it’s not so good, it’s okay because it wasn’t too expensive.” A steady growth of sales at single-brand beauty shops saw people spending 7,500 won per item in 2011, 7,900 won in 2012 and 8,000 won in 2013. Meanwhile, in 2011, customers would buy a single product on average 4.2 times a year, 4.4 times in 2012 and 4.8 in 2013.

And the top-selling products at these stores are skin care products and what are coined “fast beauty items” such as BB (blemish balm) creams and CC (color control) creams. The skin care segment has been a particularly strong key growth contributor in the Korean beauty market, says Kang of SERI, with consumers gravitating away from glamour makeup. “They are more youth- and health-conscious. Skin care accounts for 48 percent of Korea’s total cosmetics market and is growing much faster than other segments like makeup and perfumes.”

“If you have beautiful skin, it’s easy to be attractive because makeup can’t hide everything,” says Choi, the SNU student. “There are excellent creams and cleansers here, plus there are many small procedures like face peels and injection fillers that give a good natural beauty look.” She says she has friends in their twenties who have had filler injections to manipulate their face shape and improve the luminosity of their skin.

Known as “petite surgeries,” these procedures are rapidly gaining popularity as plastic surgery’s less invasive alternative in Korea, which ranks seventh in ISAPS’ global rankings of every nonsurgical procedure on the list. Botulinum toxin type  A injectables (Botox) and hyaluronis acid fillers were the two most performed nonsurgical procedures in the world in 2010, making up 38.1 percent and 23.2 percent of all procedures, respectively, according to ISAPS. Botox likewise tops cosmetic procedures performed in Korea, with 145,688 administered in 2011, followed by hyaluronic acid fillers, autologous fat fillers and calcium hydroxyapatite, respectively.

Dr. Shin Yong-ho, a director of BK Plastic Surgery in Seoul who has been in practice for 16 years, says he has noticed a craze for “down-aging” in Korea that finds the noninvasive nature of petite surgery a popular choice. “It can be carried out regardless of time. It is good for downtown workers,” he explains. “Even a busy office worker can receive this simple procedure during lunchtime and get back to work quickly. It is possible because the procedures do not require (a) complicated anesthetic process and only need topical anesthetic cream to numb the area.”

Although much cheaper than full-on surgery, as of this year, a 10 percent value-added tax will be tacked onto these noninvasive procedures and other treatments such as body hair removal, skin care treatments, eyebrow tattooing and hair loss treatments. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance says this taxation is expected to bring in 2.49 trillion won in revenue over the next five years.

The five most common treatments in Korea — nose jobs, liposuction, wrinkle removal, breast augmentation and double-eyelid surgery — have all been subject to the value-added tax since 2011.

“No matter what the price is, people will find the money to be beautiful,” says Kim. “I sometimes think I would rather live somewhere bad or not buy a car and instead have surgery because I know it will make my life better in the end.”

City of self-starters


First published in Groove Korea magazine September 2014

There is a close-knit community outside of Seoul called Cheongju where there is always someone to share a drink or game of darts with, rock music is a draw and there’s plenty of space for people to share their talents. Restaurant and bar owners catering to the city’s expat population know their customers by name, and the host of sports, language and cultural clubs ensures that those who prefer to spend their social lives sober have mates to do it with.

Located almost smack in the middle of Korea, Cheongju has all the spoils of a big city but manages to maintain a small-town charm. As the capital city of North Chungcheong Province, it also boasts the most foreign residents in the landlocked province, with an estimated 400 English teachers working here.

It’s only an hour and a half away from Seoul and 40 minutes from Daejeon, so it’s easy to get out on the weekends, although there’s enough going on here to keep residents entertained the whole year through.

American David Sparks, who has been living in Cheongju for the past five years and plays in two local bands, sums up many expats’ sentiments about the size of “The Cheong,” as it’s affectionately called:

“My wife and I really enjoy the size of our city. The expat community is tightly knit, so we always feel welcome, but it’s large enough that we can be wallflowers and just hang around if we want.”

Bars and guitars

“Music has always brought foreigners together here,” says Lee Won-jae, who has owned expat-friendly bars in the university area, Cheongdae Cheongmun, since 2002. “The rock music that played in the stairwell of my first bar is what drew English teachers in, and from there musicians would meet up, talk about and create music in the bars.”

Open mic nights at The Bugle (previously known as Pearl Jam) and rock ‘n’ roll bar Soundgarden see Korean and foreign musicians get up and strut their stuff weekly. Local expat bands The Primary, OTL and the Prison Murder Gospel Choir also play regular gigs.

It’s not just rock music that gets Cheongju going. Soundgarden has played host to successful Motown, garage and funk nights, while Buzz bar, Road King and MJs keep people dancing to ‘80s and ‘90s classics, house and hip-hop every weekend.

Still, many agree that the live music scene is not quite what it used to be. “A lamentable development is the decline of the music scene here in Cheongju,” says American saxophone player and longtime resident Tim Crawford. “There used to be a good bunch of pretty decent musicians, but many of them left and no one has come along to replace them.”

In an attempt to remedy the situation, Crawford, along with Sparks, has put on a few arts and music festivals that have gained national attention and had widespread community support. The Art from the Moon and Live from the Moon 1 and 2 events featured art exhibitions and auctions, local and national live music, DJs and juggling performances from American couple Bob and Trish Evans.

“We’ve been actively involved trying to create a ‘culture initiative’ that crosses between Koreans and foreigners here,” says Sparks.

Groups and gatherings

Although it’s not uncommon to see foreigners crawling home as the sun rises on the weekend, many of them are up early to play sports. The Cheongju Tigers soccer team keeps many a beer belly at bay, while social male and female friendly soccer games take place during the week. The Reapers baseball team plays every weekend during the season, and American and Canadian hockey players hit the ice in winter. Ultimate Frisbee is also a popular way to keep in shape, as is cycling along the Musim River or to nearby Daejeon during the less extreme seasons.

Language exchanges take place weekly across the city, and it’s not only Korean and English that are being shared: French, German and Spanish exchanges also go down.

Once a month, brains are flexed and egos flaunted at The Bugle’s pub quiz. Quizmasters come up with questions on a huge array of subjects as quirkily named teams battle it out for the pot or a second-prize pitcher of beer.

The Cheongju Art Club meets every Sunday for workshops with Matthew Anderson, and their efforts are exhibited at events throughout the year. Originally from the U.S., Anderson has been teaching art classes and art history since he received his MFA in painting from Miami University in Ohio in 1994. “I studied Eastern-style painting after graduate school and my teacher, who was Korean, taught me a lot about Korean culture as well,” he says. “This, along with my studies in Eastern art history from my university days and my enduring interest in Asia, led me to Korea.”

Board games and role-playing games are other ways some Cheongju folks spend their free time. Canadian Joe Brady, who has been in Korea for close to six years, is involved with an ever-changing group of players who dive into games like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer and Silverline. “The groups change pretty regularly and the dynamic of the game changes with it. So some groups tend to use a lot more role playing, while others use meta-gaming a lot more.”

He is also heavily involved with the Cheongju Board Game Nerds, which began in April and always welcomes new members. The group meets at Monopoly, a board game café in Cheongdae Cheongmun, which stocks a wide selection of English and Korean games. “Most of the games we play at Monopoly are strategy board games and card games, but everyone is very accommodating if someone wants to try something new or different.”

Green space

Camilla Ugarte, a Canadian who recently returned to Cheongju, says the public parks and the walking and bike trails that line the city are some of her favorite things about living here. The most popular place to gather outside is the square beside the Musim River, just below the main bridge downtown. It’s a perfect place to rollerblade, skateboard, ride your bike, have a picnic or just people watch.

The Sandangsangseong mountain fortress is also a popular spot to get some fresh air. The fortress wall dates back to 1716 and stretches over 4.2 kilometers in circumference, and within it there are some great hiking trails, the brightly painted Suamgol cultural village and a selection of restaurants from which to enjoy the view.

The nearby Hwayangdong River within Songnisan National Park is also a top spot to visit with a picnic and bathing suit. Foreigners have often tried to find hidden swimming and drinking spots away from the demarcated areas, but park officials have wised up to this and now keep an eye out for pesky interlopers.

Cheongju’s claim to fame is the Heungdeok Temple Site, home to the Early Printing Museum. There you can learn about Jikji, the oldest existing book printed using moveable metal type. Yes, Cheongju did it before Johnannes Gutenberg.
Online connections

Cheongju residents don’t have to leave their houses for a sense of belonging in the community thanks to Amanda Hayes, an Illinois native and Cheongju resident since 2007. She keeps people in the know with the Cheongju Weebly site, which she says was a labor of love that took about five months of organizing, research and writing to create.

“I just got tired of the same questions being asked over and over, and thought there had to be a way to compile all of this information about the city,” she says. “I would have loved to have a reference guide like this when I was first here.”

It’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by many of the city’s new arrivals.

“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback, especially from newbies, saying that it’s helped them a lot,” she says.

Hayes also moderates the What’s Going on in Cheongju Facebook group, which is the fastest way to peruse opinions about the area or get advice and even a laugh.

Making people laugh is something Manchester native Mark Hulme certainly enjoys. Besides often making wisecracks on the Facebook group, the cheeky bugger has made a parody page. His What Street Shit is for Sale in Cheongju! group encourages people to post photos and bid on the furniture people leave out on the street for garbage collectors.

Jokes aside, he’s proof that there’s a current of creativity running through the city that’s given rise to a community of self-starters, whether they’re seeking to share their art or engage in an enterprising new venture.

“The cool thing about Cheongju is that if you’re interested in something and you put it out there, chances are someone else will share your passion and you can start something,” says South African Helen Lloyd, who recently left the city after two years. “Cheongju folks are proactive. It’s one of the reasons I love them.”


Disturbing but beautiful


First published in Groove Korea magazine September 2014

There is something to be said for stories that leave images swimming in your psyche long after the last word has been read. Oxford-based writer L.P. Lee has that knack, and after reading her Korean-inspired piece “The Man Root” you will probably never look at a piece of ginseng in the same way again.

Her haunting short stories are inspired by geography, culture and social practices, and they will soon be adapted for the screen. Groove Korea caught up with Lee to find out more about her writing process, influences and future plans.

Groove Korea: When did you begin writing fiction?
L.P. Lee: I’ve been scribbling on and off for a while. When I was a child, the earliest things I wrote could have been Rudyard Kipling knock-offs, with titles like “How the Giraffe Got its Long Neck” and “Why the Arctic Hare is White.” I would bind these into little books with illustrations and cardboard covers.

How would you describe your work? 
I’ve dabbled in different styles to expand my range, though they all tend to have a focus on imagery. I draw a lot of inspiration from the visual arts, like painting and photography. I’m a bit uncomfortable ascribing adjectives to my own work, but people will often say it’s “haunting” or “disturbing but beautiful.”

How does life in Korea influence your work?
Stories for me are a way of exploring a subject, doing a bit of research and thinking through the different aspects for myself. Life in Korea has influenced me to think about topics like the relationship between city life in Seoul and the countryside, but we can also find universal themes here.

Although I’ve written about other places, Korea is a special place for me because of my family connection, and fiction is a way to explore Korea with both my head and my heart. I can take something that I find compelling, like the history of ginseng, and weave it into a story.

In your story “Reflections,” you explore plastic surgery and the constructs of beauty in Korea. Why did you choose to write about this?
Plastic surgery in Korea has become a hot media topic, with a lot of people talking about it. Stories such as the Miss Korea 2013 beauty pageant went viral, for instance. In the midst of this, sometimes people can be very condemning of these women without critically approaching the context in which they make their decisions.

In many ways, a Korean’s decision to go under the knife makes sense when we consider how important appearance is in Korean society, and how they believe that enhancing one’s beauty can significantly affect employment and marriage prospects. There was even a New York Times article that interviewed Korean doctors who said that their main patients are young women who have come to believe they must look good in order to survive. Then there are the direct personal relationships, which can include, perhaps, a fault-finding parent, or a partner who makes you feel inadequate the way that you are.

In “Reflections” I try to provide insight into how society might affect an individual’s reasoning. I also wanted to take into account how easy it is for bystanders to look at a complex situation and crudely simplify it to stereotypes, interpreting it unreflectively according to their preconceived worldview. So I included a scene where international students are making reductionist remarks about “Asian” women, revealing their prejudice. Unfortunately, this is a behavior that I have seen in Korea and abroad.

What have people’s reactions been to it?
One Korean-American lady said that the narrative resonated deeply with her because she was already tired of the predominant beauty standards that make her feel flawed. Because of her own experiences with conducting fieldwork on Vietnamese marriage migration to Korea, she also brought a perspective that related the dynamic between the stepmother and the automaton character to issues concerning the status and treatment of migrant domestic workers.

What I find really interesting is how people interpret the character of the automaton differently. Some see it as an irrational and frightening machine — a monster. Others as a victim that reclaims control — a symbol of resistance.

That being said, I think it’s important not to prioritize what other people think and be influenced by it too much. No piece of work can speak to everybody; it’s the nature of any art. Trying to please everyone will only compromise your vision.

In “The Man Root” you seem to be exploring something more dark and personal. Do you use writing as a form of catharsis?
Yes, writing can be cathartic for me. But some things that might seem like catharsis may just be a decision to do something in the interests of the story. In “The Man Root,” the exploration of themes like human and nature, and gender and power, led me to feel that the climactic scenes would be beneficial to the story’s arc.

You have mentioned that some of your stories are being adapted for the screen. Can you share some more about this?
I’m lucky to be working with some talented people who are developing my stories into short films. I’m collaborating with filmmaker Carrie Thomas on a film that has come out of “Reflections,” with Gaelle Mourre of the London Film School on “The Feast,” a fantasy allegory with a European setting, and with journalist-videographer Emiko Jozuka on “The House of Locks,” a psychological horror with a transnational twist.

Where else can you see your writing taking you?
I don’t know where my writing will take me, but I’m happy to be a part of something creative. I’m very excited by the possibilities of creativity, and how it is accessible to all of us. Creativity provides us all with the capacity to envision a different reality from the one that we are already embedded in. It frees us to transcend those pressures and rules that may bind us or oppress us, and to see them for what they are: constructs that we have the power to change. Even in the simple act of transporting ourselves to other worlds, temporarily suspending the norms and regulations of our own reality, we are taking a step back. And from this stance we can question the validity of that reality and ask whether it can do with some improving.



Song of the schoolboy


First published in Groove Korea magazine in August 2014

Many English teachers in Korea are accustomed to students casually dropping the “L” bomb on them. But American musician Henry Bloomfield didn’t need confessions of love to write, arrange and perform his schoolboy crush-inspired song “Ms. Mary.”

Impersonating a lovestruck tween, Bloomfield belts the Korean-language hook “I’m so in love with my homeroom teacher” between equally sugary English lines about the fictional Ms. Mary. “This song would be so much cooler if I could say it was about a student who was obsessed with me, but I can’t,” says Bloomfield. “When I’m teaching a class I often wonder what my students are actually thinking about and to what extent they feel for their teachers, so this song was just a lighthearted take on that.”

The humorous nature of the music video contrasts with Bloomfield’s suave looks, confident vocals and the jazzy instrumentals. The coy allure of the lyrics and melody highlight the appeal of Ms. Mary herself, while the immature antics the men get up to in the video seem to be aiming for laughs. It’s all in good fun, though, with the lion’s share of the giggles going to a scene where Bloomfield and the band battle it out for Ms. Mary’s affection using fruit offerings and paper balls as ammo.

A Berklee College of Music graduate, Bloomfield says he was brought up with a jazz background, but that his sound is quite varied and “constantly moving back and forth,” which is something this playful piece of music illustrates well. “With the groove and the horns, my hope is that the song has a retro Motown feel,” Bloomfield says.

Bloomfield was drawn to Korea by the tight-knit Korean community he was in contact with at Berklee. He says the chances of him teaching and creating music in the country would have been pretty slim if it weren’t for the friendships he developed at college. “I met Sung Taek Oh, the band’s drummer, at Berklee, and this completely arbitrary connection has changed the track of my life,” he says.

Soon after meeting Oh, Bloomfield met another person who would end up having a tremendous influence in his life. Bloomfield was in his first steady full-piece band when he met session bassist and music professor, Hoon Choi. “Hoon is my musical mentor.” Bloomfield says. “Since I arrived in Korea, he has helped me so much. I feel like I owe him everything.”

Choi is the bassist on the “Ms. Mary” track. He also connected Bloomfield with Roll the Dice Pictures, who shot the video in an atypical Seoul apartment and the hagwon where Bloomfield works. The same people are involved in Bloomfield’s latest single, “Her Leaves,” which the artist describes as “a more contemplative, smooth-sounding electronic piece.”

And while YouTube may be the easiest place to catch him, Bloomfield also plays shows around Seoul as the front man of The Henry Bloomfield Band. Bloomfield hopes to spend his next stretch in Korea focusing solely on his music while making himself more commercially available to write and arrange for others. He is currently working on his first Korean LP.

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