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.