December 23, 2009

Million foreigner march

I turned on the TV after arriving in Korea this week and I was greeted by a TV program examining various stores and restaurants catering to foreigners in Korea, as well as the foreigners that frequent those places. The name of the program, or perhaps the tagline, was 외국인백만시대 (One Million Foreigner Era). The program gave it the air of it being something to celebrate, which was heartening, particularly because it focused on South and Southeast Asians in Korea, not a very highly-regarded group otherwise.

The statistic of 1 million foreigners is somewhat misleading because about half of the 1 million are ethnic Koreans who retain Chinese citizenship, but given that almost half of all rural children in Korea will be mixed-race, there will be no shortage diversity in the future. Parenthetically, I don't think diversity for its own sake is a good thing, because it means that you think a town full of nothing but ethnic Koreans is inferior to a town of a mixture of Koreans and half-Vietnamese. I often hear fellow Canadians deride a place as "the whitest place ever", and it really only makes sense if you're not being serious and really just complaining about the paucity of dining options.

At any rate, it's interesting to consider that Korea will have an admixture of races in the future. If this helps Korea avoid going the way of Japan, with a stalled economy and a population that will drop by about 40 million in the next 40 years, it's a good thing. It will certainly challenge the conception of Korea as a nation-state populated exclusively by ethnic Koreans, and finding a place in Korean society for the mixed-race children, one that's somewhere other than an obscure corner, will be a significant challenge.

What do you think are some of the unforeseeable changes of an increasingly multiracial South Korea?

December 16, 2009

How to Make the 갈옷. Part 5: Final

All that is left is to cut the patterns and sew up some super cute outfits. Skirts, pants, shorts, shirts, hats, vests, pillow covers, capes. You name it.

A spendy but stylish summer ensemble for a male child. Complete with armpit vents.
A jacket and long skirt set gifted to my lovely spouse. Price tag: 500,000 Won. Never worn by her. She also has a padded vest and a groovy 700,000 Won cape that she has never worn. Me? I have nothing.
"Do you know 갈옷"? Thank you for reading my essay.

December 13, 2009

How to Make the 갈옷. Part 4

The fabric is ready. The persimmon juice/dye is ready. Time to start dyeing. Proceed by pouring ample amounts of persimmon juice into large plastic tubs in order to easily feed the long sheets of fabric in and out. Here the Master's mom loads cotton fabric into a tub of juice for another Ajumma to soak:
It ain't a clean job. But a thorough drenching is required. Keep the tubs full of juice.
Take a break and enjoy some bean-filled 빵 and Cider.
Run the persimmon-juice-soaked cotton fabric through the spin cycle on a washing machine and then spread it out to dry. The first time through the juice, the color is still fairly light.
The more times the fabric goes through the juice, the darker the color. It also helps to dry the fabric in a climate with moist, salty air like you might find near the seashore. This dark fabric is nearly ready for the sewing machines.

December 12, 2009

How to Make the 갈옷. Part 3

Once the cotton fabric is all washed, dried, and prepped, it's time to see to the persimmon juice. The fall season is the best time to begin the actual dyeing; there is lots of sunshine and it's not too hot, but most importantly, the persimmons are in season. It's best not to wait until the fruit is fully ripe to extract the juice. Stock up while they're still a bit green as the juice itself is still potent and the firm fruit is easier to work with.

One fall I took my new wife along on a persimmon purchasing excursion. Six of us piled in two trucks and one van and headed inland from Muan in Cheolla Nam Do. We stopped outside Gwangju and ate lunch and then kept driving what I think was East-North-East ish. It felt like we drove for 2 hours and the scenery got more mountainous and very picturesque. I assumed we would stop somewhere at a market or farm or orchard, but all of a sudden we just pulled over along the side of the road.

There waiting for us were a number of old country folk gathered in the middle of nowhere, standing guard over many many bags stuffed full of persimmons. After exchanging pleasantries and bows, we weighed each bag one-by-one, logged the weight in a book with the seller's name, and then loaded the bags into the trucks and the van. Each farmer received a bundle of cash that the Master removed from a huge wad in his fanny pack. There must have been 75 bags, each weighing between 30 and 45 kilos. I'm not a weight lifter (or a cage fighter) and my body was toast after heaving those loads of fruity booty.

Tired and hungry we stopped at a country restaurant for some Samgye Tang and Makkeolli. The food was delish and the makkeolli was home-made, complete with mystery floaters.

We arrived back at the Master's house around midnight. We wasted no time and unloaded the fruit and started juicing. We had one large industrial juicer that ran from midnight until nearly 10 the next morning. The juice was all stored in large plastic containers. After a few hours of shut-eye we were ready to start dyeing.

December 09, 2009

The narcissism of small differences

"Excuse me, I've been listening to your conversation even though I tried not to, and I think you're really stereotyping Koreans." That's how a girl began a conversation with me at a coffee shop here in Toronto. She butted into a conversation I was having with a Korean friend, speaking to him in Korean and then to me in fluent English. Korea is very homogenous, she said, but I was making too many generalizations, she said. At first I thought that she was taking issue with the way I cut corners to simplify matters for my friend, whose English isn't quite perfect. In doing so, she was really saying what I thought every time I used four words instead of twelve and spared my friend a barrage of largely irrelevant information.

What I realized after the end was that really she was annoyed by the fact that I was speaking about something she knew very well, but I wasn't an ethnic Korean like her or my friend. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. As a member of few other niche communities, namely Western Muslims and serious distance runners, I often see a mainstream report on either community ripped apart over peripheral details. Runners spend a lot of time accumulating knowledge that is ignored and then disseminated by the New York Times for all to see. They irrationally feel that their role as caretakers of how to train for a 2:47 marathon has been usurped, which they try and retake by pointing out things like Belayneh Dinsamo's world record was 2:06:50, not 2:06:52, and that Angela Bizzarri qualified but did not participate in this year's World Championships.

When I apologetically told the girl that she was right, assuming that her problem came from my using simple English, it turned out this had nothing to do with it. She went back to something I had said maybe a half hour previous, when I compared Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper waiting to see what America did about climate change before making a decision to 29-year-old Koreans I knew who didn't take a vacation overseas because their mother was concerned about swine flu. Her issue here was that, first, I couldn't generalize about Koreans based on this one example (which I didn't) and that it wasn't something to deride because my friend passed up a vacation out of deep respect for her mother.

Whatever you think of a 29-year-old being obedient to her mother's whims, the issue wasn't obedience to your parents, or else she would have chastized my friend, who laughed at what I said and agreed. This girl felt a general discomfort at my talking about Korea in her presence, especially at negative comments, because I was not an ethnic Korean. I've been guilty of pulling rank in the way she did, namely that her 20-25 years of being Korean outweighed my one year living there, and I'm sure most people have done this in some way or form when someone who has a a vague familiarity with a topic near and dear to them says something that is otherwise true.

So it wasn't what I said so much as it was the fact that I said it, a somewhat more absurd version of the double standard that says it's okay for a black person to say the word 'nigger' but not a white person. It's common for members of an ethnic minority to reflexively react against any criticism of their group, even if it's a criticism they'd agree with if someone within the group said it. My Pakistani family will criticize Pakistan privately, but this privilege does not extend to others, particularly the Western media. Even Canadians, not exactly an ethnic group, will make self-deprecating jokes about our history being boring and our culture being non-existent, but we would never tolerate an American or a European saying that about us.

December 07, 2009

How to Make the 갈옷. Part 2.

To make the 갈옷, you need fabric to dye. Lots of it. Cotton takes the persimmon juice color very well, and it is very comfy to wear around. Here we are unloading the fresh cotton from the van. Each of these bags is filled with several rolls of white cotton. Each roll is approximately one meter wide and varies in length between 10 and 30 meters.
First things first, the cotton must be washed. Each roll gets unrolled and soaked in clean water.
Truth be told anybody can do the cotton washing part. But if you have ready access to some ajummas, they will do the work for dirt cheap. And they are a bowl of laughter to have around. Note: the ajumma costume is optional, but you'd be hard pressed to hire a country woman who didn't show up to work in it.
After soaking and rinsing the cotton rolls, hang them up to dry. We just hung them in the yard haphazardly over some ropes that were held up by bamboo poles. It is not required to dry the cotton in this way. Feel free to use a laundry spinner to spin off excess water, but you don't want to use a clothes dryer or artificial heat of any kind. It certainly never appeared to me to be the most efficient method of drying long rolls of cotton, but as with most things in life, the process is often more important than the result.
Tangent: that tree in the background is a 무화과 tree (fig tree?). The fruit looks terrible and messy as it falls to the ground. But once the Master convinced me to try it, I found it delicious.

December 05, 2009

How to Make the 갈옷. Part 1: The Recap

What follows is a several part series describing my experience with the process of making the traditional brown clothes worn by Jeju-ites of old.

For those of you who are familiar with my personal history with Korea, you're already aware of how I happen to know about 갈옷. For you folks, feel free to skip this brief recap and join again for part 2 of this series.

For the rest of you, I will provide the Cliff's Notes recap herewith to get you up to speed. Thank you for reading my essay.

Spring 1997. I take a break from substitute English teaching in Seoul and make my way southward down the Korean Peninsula. On a ferry from Wando to Cheju-do, I happen to meet an interesting Korean fellow ("The Master") who invites me to his "traditional Korean museum" of a house. I end up spending two full weeks at his house living, eating, working like one of the family.
And thus began a long and interesting relationship with the Master.
The Master is an expert at many traditional Korean arts, including using persimmon juice to dye fabric. He married his wife, a former mega K-pop star, after she returned from studying fashion design in New York City. She designs the 갈옷 using her flair and the occasional modern twist, and the Master dyes the fabric. The 봅데강 brand clothes are made at their house and sold in several stores in Cheju City and Seoul.

December 02, 2009

I Advise Against Karaoke/노래방 (NRB)

Rule #1 of NRB: Don't do it.
Rule #2: If you must do it, no cameras.
Rule #3: If you must do it, and someone brings a camera, prime the pump with summa this:
Rule #4: Follow Korean drinking customs at all times:
Rule #5: Allow your Korean friends to select a nice place:
Rule #6: Keep the system well lubed:
Rule #7: Don't be a stiff like this lightweight (he got himself dumped by his gal for general weakness of constitution, and his lame NRB effort here didn't help):
Rule #8: Feel it. Bring it. Kill it in the face:
Rule #9: Top the night off with some of these piping hot beauties and enjoy your life.

p.s. bonus points for naming that tune in #8 above. Anyone?

December 01, 2009

A review of Our Fragrance

Tonight I saw 우리의향기 (Our Fragrance), a North Korean movie from 2003 (synopsis here). It was screened by the Canadian arm of Koryo Tours, the well-known Beijing-based travel agency that offers tours to North Korea. About 15 people showed up to a screening at a west end bar that's normally used by indie bands. I was worried that the audience might consist of that creepy group of maladjusted weirdos which actually seems to consider North Korea a desirable place to live without a hint of irony, but everyone laughed heartily enough at the bizarre dialogue that I can say it's not the case.

The movie had all the subtlety and plot of a Platonic dialogue. The movie identifies unique Korean qualities, something called "Korean build" being one, as a fragrance, which is in keeping with the melodramatic, religious quality of North Korean speech. The first half of the movie is quaint and old-fashioned in a way that makes North Korea seem benign and comically out of touch with the rest of the world. The hairstyles, fashion, a conspicuous 20-inch JVC TV and the slow motion chimes when the female protagonist's beauty is considered might as well have been accompanied by laugh tracks for Western audiences.

The story of the movie is of a female tour guide who initially refuses to marry a male kim chi researcher (sic). Incidentally, the two are separately chosen by fashion designers to model clothes for the "spring fashion show", presumably a seasonal occurrence. In person, the tour guide, Sae Byeol, takes a liking to the researcher, Pyong Ho.

The movie becomes a parable with a visit by Pyong Ho and his grandfather to Sae Byeol's house. Pyong Ho mentioned to Sae Byeol that he had lived overseas as a child, when his father had worked in the Korean language department of foreign universities and his mother had wowed foreigners with kim chi. This leads Sae Byeol's family to worry that they won't be good enough. Her mother resolves to prepare "exclusive" dishes such as spaghetti, her father procures champagne (pronounced 샴판, syam-pan), and Sae Byeol decides to borrow a rug from her uncle.

The dinner is a disaster as Sae Byeol's father offers a handshake to Pyong Ho's grandfather even though he is older and Sae Byeol wears a Western business suit instead of the hanbok that impressed the grandfather at first. Sae Byeol then offers the grandfather seuripeo (slippers), a word he doesn't understand, and coffee, even though he prefers tea. The dinner is extravagant, the food is unfamiliar to the grandfather, and he gets splashed by champagne as bottle after bottle is uncorked.

Eventually, the grandfather fakes a stroke to bring an end to the madness. Sae Byeol and his family are rebuffed, and they all engage in self-criticism before deciding to reform their ways and visit Pyong Ho's grandfather to apologize. There, all is forgiven and they appear to live happily ever after as an haunting, ear-splitting song brings the movie to a close. The credits are very brief, one of those rare areas in which North Korea is far ahead of the rest of the world, and include titles such as "people's actor" and "esteemed actress".

A recurring theme throughout the movie is kim chi. Sae Byeol initially rejects Pyong Ho as the "kim chi boy", but later warms to him. Pyong Ho is unimpressed because when she insulted kim chi, she insulted him as well. A surreal scene was one near the end, where Sae Byeol is giving some white foreigners a tour of a kim chi festival. One stall boasts 31 different kinds of kim chi. When a tourist says he likes kim chi, someone summons a kim chi expert to tell him more and Pyong Ho enters on cue.

In a scene that could have been written by a English-speaking satirist, the foreigners then proceed to have an obsequious conversation, in fluent Korean, about the magnificence of kim chi. Pyong Ho delivers a rambling monologue about the greatness of Korean culture, of which kim chi is but one aspect, being tied to its racial purity. "For thousands of years, Koreans have had black hair and black eyes," he says. "You do, and my hair is yellow," observes a female tourist. Pyong Ho then proceeds to follow the greatness of Korea to its root in Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

I have a few some questions and observations left over from the movie, answers to which would be greatly appreciated.

Are there really fashion shows in North Korea?

The end of the movie shows the two families strolling along the Taedong River in Pyongyang. There is then a closeup of a roller coaster, and of Sae Byeol and Pyong Ho riding a roller coaster in as morose a manner as possible. I was debating whether or not it was real, but there is supposedly a roller coaster in Pyongyang, at the Kaeson Youth Park in central Pyongyang. Here is a video with some information, and here are some pictures.

One of the handful of tourists in the movie spoke a few words of unaccented English. I would presume that they're Russian or maybe Pyongyang-sympathizing members of the KFA. I forgot to look at the credits for the answer, so I'm wondering if anyone reading this has any information.

This movie has an obvious propaganda role, but who exactly sees this? Would most North Koreans be as familiar with North Korean movies as South Koreans are with South Korean movies? Or, are movies really just for those living in cities?

Finally, one scene in the movie mentions "Korean schoolgirls" in Japan who wear "Korean jackets" despite harassment. How do North Koreans perceive North Koreans who live in Japan? How can any decent North Korean possibly live there?

November 30, 2009

Gaga for the gayagum

I have recently discovered the magic of the gayagum. The gayagum, if you missed it like I did in your Korean textbook along with Jindo dogs, the guy on the 5,000 won bill and some weird dance that I've since forgotten, is a kind of traditional Korean instrument, to use the words a Korean would.

I'm not ashamed it to admit that it really began with someone playing Wonder Girls songs on the gayageum, the best fusion of the impossibly old and garishly new since Metallica released S&M and Frederick Nietzche released this attack ad against Immanuel Kant.

At any rate, here's the video that got it all started:

Then I moved on to a version of Arirang, which is a kind of traditional Korean folk song:

This was followed by the Mission Impossible theme:

I ended with this clip, which shows the crazier sounds the gayagum can make:

November 29, 2009

48 hours (and 34 minutes)

This may be of interest to no one but me, but I wanted to give some kudos to Apple and FedEx. Sure, I'm not too happy that my two-month-old MacBook Pro is occasionally making sounds like that of a revving engine — after already having the hard drive replaced for a mysterious clicking sound — but I am thoroughly pleased at the quick turnaround time for my most recent Apple purchase, a blue iPod Shuffle to be used for jogging as the battery on the 3.5-year-old iPod Nano I have has begun to slowly die*.

So I bought the $59 device online. I'm only listening to news programs when I jog — NPR, NYT, PBS — so the 2GB "500 songs" version is fine. It's a really tiny device that clips on your clothes; there's a life-size photograph of it to the left of this paragraph.

Anyway, I chose to buy it online, since you can then get the free engraving. I sometimes lose things (my iPhone went missing for three weeks) and so I thought it prudent to have my email address and phone number on the tiny device.

I placed the order late on the 20th, a Friday. By 2 p.m. the following Sunday, the 22nd, I received an email that it was being shipped. Odd, I thought, that they would be shipping things on a Sunday, but then I saw that it was Monday morning (the 23rd) in Suzhou, China, from where it was being shipped. I got a FedEx tracking number.

I had been warned that I could receive the device as late as the 30th, so I was dismayed to see that instead of shipping things out to Honolulu directly (as the ROK post office does with things it ships to Hawaii), my packaged seemed to be taking the route of Magellan to get to the Sandwich Islands (that's us in Hawaii, by the way, just in case you work for the Wall Street Journal). First it was headed for Shanghai, then Anchorage, then Oakland. I was worried that if it kept up that trajectory, it would end up in Memphis, their hubbest of hubs, and then be sent on a special plane for all FedEx packages headed for Hawaii.

But no, they hung a right at the Bay Bridge and headed for the Aloha State. They pulled an all-nighter, apparently, getting my stuff to their Honolulu sorting facility (near the airport, I think) by 8:31. By 10:50 a.m., it was on the truck. FedEx delivery to our dorm is usually in the afternoon, and lo and behold, my package was signed for by the dorm office staff at 2:33 p.m.

I was hoping for a just-under 48-hour travel time for this to be a cool story, but it was 48 hours and 34 minutes. I'll still accept this as a neat situation deserving kudos. Globalization has its critics, but if it gets me my personalized iPod Shuffle in short order so I can hear news about those globalization critics while jogging through the green valleys up mauka-side Honolulu. Below is the FedEx site's updated list of my iPod Shuffle's travels.

One of the criticisms of globalization, of course, is that producers of goods and services (especially large-scale producers) are so hooked on competing in the cut-throat global marketplace that they cut corners in order to bring out the end product. Let's call that Microsoft-ization, to go along with the much ballyhooed McDonaldization, where things are produced so uniformly so as to make them cheaper and cheaper to reproduce.

And I would hate for any cost-cutting measures to, say, the downing of a FedEx cargo plane over the Pacific, with my iPod Shuffle on board. That was, after all, the subject of the Robert Zemeckis documentary Cast Away, with Tom Hanks re-creating the role of the brave Chuck Noland (Why didn't they call it Chucked Away? Missed opportunity for a little light humor, I'd say).

Mind you, this wish is not a selfish one, for I'm confident that Apple and/or FedEx would have insured I somehow got another iPod Shuffle (maybe even two! Score!). Rather, it is for the sake of whatever Chuck would have survived the crash and ended up finding my iPod Shuffle. After hearing "Please connect to iTunes to add music" over and over and over again for the next four years, he surely would have gone madder than the Wilson ball would make him. And I'd really hate to inflict that on anyone.

Plus, the now crazed Chuck (newly rescued) would know my email address and my phone number.

* I wish to preserve the iPod Nano (and its battery) for swimming, since I went to the expense of getting an H2Audio underwater casing for it, and since the shapes on those danged things keeps changing, I would need to get a whole new casing! Them puppies ain't cheap.

November 28, 2009

And now for something controversial

The speed with which ATEK went from being a blog issue to being reported in the Korea Times speaks to the insular nature of Korea's English-language press. It reminds me a bit of my university paper, which was written by the people who read it, and the only people who read it were the ones who wrote for it. Reactions to articles and debates on letter pages were severe, but they were limited to the group of, at most, 50 people, who were part of the cliquish group of campus journalists and those with agendas to push.

Much of what gets reported about foreign teachers or foreigners in general might be true, but the better question, as advocates of English teachers often point out, is why it's reported in the first place. It's not entirely the sensational, often false reports that manage to link, however tenuously, an English teacher with disease or sexual abuse that this argument refers to. It's also the surprisingly regular articles or pictures showing foreigners wearing a hanbok or making kim chi at a department store.

Similarly, the campaign ATEK has launched against the Anti-English Spectrum, which to my knowledge has not harmed or adversely affected an English teacher in Korea outside of the Internet, is a little over-the-top. If harsh words against every minority in the West by xenophobes and racists merited this sort of attention, the Urdu and Arabic-language newspapers here would be filled with reports about the European-based Anti-Islam Facebook group, which has almost 3,000 members, and the Korean-language press would have a field day with the racist remarks on the de facto online home of English teachers in Korae, Dave's ESL Cafe.

The point is that not every slight, insult or slur is something to worry about or deserves a response. Presumably, most foreign teachers are white and have never been a minority that was abused by some members of a majority group. Immigration regulations like criminal background checks, as well as drug and HIV tests, which have been legally challenged, are simple compared to the six-page medical check that Canada requires. Entry to America, until very recently, was not possible for tourists who were HIV positive.

On the other hand, it would be ludicrous for a minority group to let itself be walked over, presumably a group that is well-educated, relatively wealthy and relatively well-organized (there's a message board, if nothing else). But groups representing ethnic minorities in the West don't squander their time, energy and resources protesting malicious but otherwise harmless websites. The effort spent trying to clean up AES could have been spent on the sort of lobbying that might bring about improvements, however small, in the lives of foreigners. The current course of action seems to indicate that many English teachers have simply never been insulted.

November 26, 2009

In Defense of Telling Someone When They Have a Booger Hanging Out of Their Nose

While sightseeing at the Jagalchi Fish Market in 1997, I stopped to watch in amazement as a hard-working man deftly peeled the skin off eel after eel and then sliced them up into perfect cross-section circles. An astute fishmonger Ajumma working nearby noticed that both the eel slicer and I were lacking in the dome hair department. She cracked a joke about how he should teach me some knife skills and together we could start an International Eel Peeling Baldness Co-operative. I swear the earth shook that day from the ripple-effect of granny cackle that passed through that place.

Indeed, if I had a Man Won Jari (sp?) for every time some Korean made a comment to me--or about me--regarding my pate and its lack of fur, I could retire to the Hawaii of Korea and live out my days in baldness and tropical bliss. I’ll admit it took me some time to get used to Koreans with their frequent comments, the prying questions as to why and how, and their suggestions that I get a wig. And now that I am fully adjusted (well… almost fully adjusted), I have adopted a similar approach to celebrating the genetic pattern that makes my head shiny. I have also come to realize that such celebration is not a uniquely Korean thing.

My son went to a private pre-kindergarten. He only spent 9 hours a week there. I spent nearly US $220 a month on that. I didn’t begrudge him the money; I wanted to give him every opportunity I could, within my means. Even advantages I didn’t have. I mean, I didn’t even go to pre-school. I went to public kindergarten and public schools and look at me now.

One day I accompanied my lovely wife and adorable daughter to pick up our son from school. I rode shotgun. My son climbed into his car seat directly behind me. I asked him if he learned anything at school that day. He said he did and shared an interesting dinosaur fact with me. The conversation fell silent and we drove peacefully and comfortably toward home in our fine German-engineered SUV. Then…

“Daddy”? My son asks.
“Did you shave a circle into your hair”?

I know instantly what he’s referring to but I fight the thought for a minute until finally I laugh and sheepishly try to explain that I did not shave a circle; I just can’t grow hair there because that is my pattern. My male pattern. My male pattern baldness.

Now you’re probably thinking that my son is only five, and that I can’t really use him as a witness in defending the Korean practice of calling out any personal feature that is out of the ordinary. That is fair. But I haven’t rested my case yet. Let me provide you with the rest of my witness list and their non-Korean credentials.

My first witness is Philip. He is my French colleague who resides in Amsterdam. His not-so-subtle form of celebration involved gifting me a tube of L’Oreal Men Expert Pure & Matte Anti-Re-greasing Moisturizing Gel. It is meant to take down the dome sheen with its long-lasting shine control. He saw it and thought of me. He gave it to me at a team dinner. How sweet.

My second witness is Susanne. She is my Dutch colleague who lives in Portugal. She, along with Audrey (an American-born Korean who is married to a French Guy), jokingly congratulated me on an award I received. The award recipient and his photo were displayed on the employee portal website. When they saw him, they thought of me. Hardeharhar. In my opinion, the only thing he and I have in common (aside from both being white American males between age 40 and 60) is the pattern; we both have it.

My third witness: One time I was talking to a group of friends at a party, amongst which were a couple former NFL players. Up walks Lee Johnson. My friends introduce me to Lee who looks at me, and then at my head, and says: “What happened to you? Did you get into a batch of Bizarro Rogaine”? Everyone had a nice laugh at that.

It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on up there. I know myself to be bald(ing). It is a genetic fact of who I am and I am trying to live with it gracefully. So here it is: a call to action. Next time you see somebody, be they Korean or foreigner, and they have a lot of zits, or a speck of red pepper flake in their teeth, or loads of ear hair, or are more fat than normal, I say call it to their attention. Celebrate it. It really is OK.

November 25, 2009

Vienna to Pyongyang by train

Most travelogues to North Korea are the same because most trips to North Korea are the same, out of necessity. This blog writes of a train trip to North Korea made special by the fact they entered via Russia unescorted. As a result, they were able to see some interesting things both at the border, as well as traveling across the country.

Starting here is an interesting read about that strange area of the world where North Korea, China and Russia meet. In that area, bordered by the two countries that have sustained it historically, North Korea seems far less reclusive. If your interest in North Korea, like mine, comes from the fact that the country is a black hole from which little emerges save a handful of North Koreans in Russia, as well as relationships with obscure African countries, these depictions of North Korea in the ordinary will interest you. If not, the posts are mostly pictures that are worth seeing anyway.

There are obvious issues to be raised in traveling to North Korea, since the overpriced tour packages, priced in Euros, will really just help keep the government afloat. Nevertheless, the experience of traveling to North Korea might help to humanize North Koreans, who are typically portrayed as a single, creepy mass alternatively hypnotized or pulverized by what is now a dynasty of dictator-gods.

A Russia-North Korea trip is especially interesting for the way it travels through two of the least-known areas in the world: the Russian Far East and, of course, North Korea. The Russia-North Korea border, along with relations between the two countries, is a bit of a time warp, like those Japanese soldiers who emerged from the jungles thirty years after World War II.

The border is a small one, but so are the distances. From Seoul to Vladvistok is just 800 km, meaning it's a drive you could make in a day across a unified Korea. These travelers do see North Koreans in Russia for whatever reason, and there is this haunting documentary about North Koreans in Russia.

November 22, 2009

백십 percent!

I find it fascinating that for a city of its size, very few people have been to Seoul, or Korea for that matter. I keep a running mental list of all the people I've met that traveled to Korea that neither worked in Korea nor had family in Korea. So far, I can name a Swede, an Australian backpacker, a French photographer, and two Chinese, one of whom was a Hong Kong taxi driver that seemed to have gone there for what sounded like sex tourism.

There was a great post by the Metropolitician a long time ago, one I can't find anymore, that argued Korea should market the sheer intensity of the Korean experience. Seoul does have five palaces and excellent hiking opportunities, but what really sets Korea apart from Japan and China is the intensity of the people.

It's really the Korean peninsula that's unique in this intensity, not just South Korea. Consider any activity or idea that exists on the peninsula: capitalism, communism, Christianity, baseball, drinking, studying, public gatherings. All of them are attacked and undertaken with a ferocity that is simultaneously amusing and frightening.

I'm sure anyone who has spent more than a week in Korea has experience dealing with this aspect of Korean culture, which can be obnoxious at times, but it's also the most exhilarating. Metropolitician described the ubiquity of bars and restaurants that stay open until the early morning, and the intense social life that results from this, an experience that's well worth traveling to Korea.

The failures of the government's attempts to brand Korea as a unique country are well-documented, and this approach wouldn't just be to present Korea as a country of alcoholics, but as a country of wildly passionate people. Nothing in Korea is done casually. People are impeccably well-dressed and often at least somewhat plastic in their composition, they drive recklessly, climb mountains well into old age, run marathons every week, sing and draw exceptionally well. Even the hamburgers tend to be better assembled than their North American counterparts.

November 21, 2009

Sonagi Consortium relaunches!

It only took me four years, but I'm determined to get this concept off the ground. I'd like to have a home for occasional bloggers to put stuff up in a forum that will attract people to their material. All posts will be linked and highlighted from Monster Island, so there will be hundreds of eyeballs a day seeing the titles of your posts. If you're interested, please email me.