Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Exams and Conferences

Lots to write about and no time and very tired! I just got through a very busy week. We have finished our fall quarter of Korean class, so we had exams to determine whether we would pass into the next level. Oral exam on Tuesday and written on Wednesday. For the oral exam, they gave us four possible topics to prepare presentations on. In the exam, we drew numbers to determine which presentation we would actually give. So in other words, I had to prepare (and memorize!) four different short speeches, though in the actual exam I would only need to do one of them. It seems like a strange testing method, but I realized it is a useful way to review a lot of grammar before the written exam (we're required to use at least 5 of the grammar forms we studied in the presentation).

The tests were in the mornings. Afterwards, I had to eat a quick lunch on the go and scurry off as quickly as possible to the press center building downtown for a conference on foreign aid to the DPRK. The conference was co-hosted by my friends at the Korean Sharing Movement, and they let me come and help out with compiling the English conference notes. It was a good chance for me to meet some interesting people who have actually worked in the field in North Korea.

There sure are a lot of North Korea experts out there. Unfortunately the speaker I was most looking forward to meeting, Dr. Hazel Smith, fell suddenly ill and had to cancel at the last minute. But there were plenty of other interesting speakers. One gentleman had just retired from the WHO and had a lot of strong feelings about how the aid effort was being managed. I enjoyed talking with him and with some of the researchers from KINU. It seems like nobody expects any major changes in DPRK in the near future, so they're resigned to doing the best they can with the status quo for now.

Thursday I skipped the last day of class to go to the last day of the conference, marring my otherwise perfect attendance record. The conference wrapped up with a big luncheon at a Korean-style restaurant which served all my favorites - doenjang-jiggae, bossam-bab, twiggim. They also served some interesting pan-chan (side dishes) including ginseng kimchi, which was a little odd-tasting.

In contrast, on the first night of the conference we had an extremely Western-style dinner at the press center, complete with all the formal dinnerware, 5 forks and 4 knives, and a 5 or 6-course meal which featured a small but very tasty square of steak. For my small contribution of taking notes, it was a pretty nice deal, and meeting the different presenters gave me a chance to observe several potential future career directions for myself.

On Friday we had graduation and I found out that I was able to pass into level 4 Korean class. The graduation ceremony was more elaborate than I expected. The students who were leaving after this quarter had dressed in caps and gowns which had very long sleeves and ropes tied around the waist in a nod to Korean traditional dress. The result looked a little like the 7 dwarves from Snow White. We cheered our one departing classmate as he went to get his certificate. Then they gave out awards to specific people in each class, such as highest score, most improved, most congenial. My teachers had given me the award for most effort, which I found very touching. After the awards, the drama class put on a play, and some other group did a traditional fan dance, and then the departing level 6 students showed a video presentation and they all did a very impressive dance number. If I make it to level 6, I hope I am not expected to dance.

Now I have 2 weeks of vacation before the next class starts. I'm spending the first week in Japan, tying up loose ends and meeting old friends. I arrived in Kansai last night and now I'm staying with my friend Yuka in Kuzuha. I will have more to say in a few days.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


In the evenings after unni comes home from work, we usually watch some TV drama together. The newest one which I am attempting to follow is IRIS, which stars two of my favorite Korean actors, Yi Byong-hon and Kim Tae-hee, who are both highly trained agents working for something called the National Security System (NSS).

I can't understand enough to make out the details of the plot, and anyway I missed several episodes, but it's very fun to watch. Many of the basic elements are clearly borrowed from the American drama "24" - the 3rd-person camera angles, the darkly lit high-tech NSS office full of computer workstations and glass-walled conference rooms, the bad guys who have somehow infiltrated the highest levels of the agency. There is even a female technician at NSS who is painfully reminiscent of Chloe O'Brian - quirky, snappy, cute but not elegantly beautiful like Kim Tae-hee, and she always comes through in a pinch with some last-minute computer hack. Yi Byong-hon is a talented actor with enough charisma to match Keifer Sutherland, although he has become too much of a boy-toy in recent years and never loses an opportunity to take off his shirt. Like Jack Bauer, he rarely gets through an episode without being tortured or double-crossed by some trusted friend.

The significant difference with 24 is that, particularly in the love story aspects of the plot, they can't resist working in some of the standard Korean drama cliches. So, for instance, you'll have Yi Byong-hon and Kim Tae-hee working together to chase the bad guy through the streets of some foreign city, but for the background music there'll be this really inappropriately sweet "we're-falling-in-love-for-the-first-time" type of Korean pop song.

The bad guys seem to be a combination of Japanese yakuza and North Korean agents. Some of the North Koreans are good though, and some South Koreans are bad. When we were watching the other night, I had an interesting and revealing conversation with unni. I asked her if the actors playing North Koreans spoke with northern accents. She seemed surprised by the question. Of course not, she said, after all they are all well-known South Korean actors. It would be weird if they suddenly started speaking with different accents. I told her that in American movies, actors are commonly expected to adopt a different accent to suit the character, be it British, Australian, South African, whatever. She seemed to accept this but didn't think it was necessary in the case of the two Koreas.

From this and other conversations I've had since I've been here, I've come to suspect that a lot of South Koreans are unaware of - or in denial about - just how different their two societies have become. It's not just the accent, or the different levels of development - They don't seem to consider that while South Korea has been changing all this time, North Korea has been changing too. I've heard two different people (South Koreans) tell me that, although South Korea is a nicer place to live, they believe that North Korea is more "essentially Korean" or "true to its roots" than the South. This is a common theme in DPRK propaganda, but I don't agree with it and I'm surprised that so many Southerners buy into it. I think it's wrong to simply equate economic backwardness with a greater respect for traditions. Particularly in the case of a Communist society like North Korea, with the pressure placed on people to reject old ideas and religions, the radical attempts to upend the class structure, and the elaborate system of ideological training and control. Of the two, North Korea shows far less respect for Korean history prior to 1900; they would certainly never erect a 10-meter-high bronze statue of any historical figure other than Kim Il Sung in the middle of their capital city. I suspect a Korean from 100 years ago would be equally bewildered trying to have a conversation with someone from either the North or the South.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Something for the folks back home

Yesterday in Korean class we had an assignment to prepare a presentation about a festival in our hometown, or, if our hometown lacks a festival, we could choose one from somewhere else in our home country. Most of my classmates chose the latter option, and presented about some of the biggest most famous festivals in their respective countries, though many students had not actually attended the festival themselves.

I chose to present about "Two Cylinder Days," an event which is held once every two years in August in my home town of Grand Detour (population ~300). At this event, held on the grounds of the old John Deere historic site, antique John Deere tractor enthusiasts from around the region gather to show off their tractors. Then they all parade in a circuit around the roads of the village. That's it.

I thought this was a good way to demonstrate to my classmates what life is like in the rural areas of America. They were interested to know if my family had a tractor and if I had ever driven a tractor myself. I found it amusing to follow up presentations about Chinese New Year, the Cheung Chau Bun festival, and the Hokkaido Snow Festival, etc... with Two Cylinder Days.

I've often felt that Asians have a different attitude about living in the countryside than I do, as an American who grew up in a rural area. There seems to be a strong feeling here, even among rural people, that it is better to live in the city if possible. Nobody boasts about what a small town they come from, the way they do in the U.S. Even people from relatively big cities such as Sendai complain about how provincial their lives are. I've heard a few Japanese people speak whimsically about retiring to live in some cottage in the mountains, but few of them ever go through with it.

I've noticed some Koreans and Japanese alike tend to equate quality of living with how brightly lit their streets are at night. I've heard people apologize if they feel their streets are not sufficiently brightly lit. This theme seems to come up in Chinese novels that I've read as well. Whereas in my home town, we feel oddly proud about the fact that we don't have any street lights, and we brag about how well we can see the stars at night. I'm probably in a minority because of my background, and there are plenty of Americans who prefer the city, but it strikes me that the question of preference does not come up at all here in Asia - it's assumed that urban is better. In cities there are better job opportunities, more cultural diversity, better education, etc. In Asia, living in the countryside signifies only a life of limitations.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The "Keep Right" Campaign

Effective since October 1st, Seoul City has enacted a new campaign to get people to walk on the right side of streets and sidewalks. To encourage this, they've reversed the directions of escalators and moving walkways and changed the directional arrows on stairways in all subway stations. Also, they've posted cute little advertisements all over the place depicting how much fun it is to walk on the right side:

The posters read: "It's safe and convenient: Walk on the right!" and "It's the walking culture of Korea and the world."

Of course, Koreans have always driven on the right side, and usually they walk any old way they want, but until now the general rule has been to walk on the left. This was apparently put into law over 80 years ago, during the Japanese occupation, and I can't help but think that this reversal is something of a subconscious rejection of the Japanese cultural legacy in Korea. Walking on the left is an aspect of the Japanese shinto religion, as shrine visitors are supposed to always keep to the left side when walking around the grounds (I believe this is also true of Zen Buddhism).

This is all just speculation on my part, however. Seoul City gives no such historical reasons. It promotes the campaign with the reasoning that "most Koreans are right-handed, and walking right is more convenient for those people." An article in the Korea Times also provides the following impressive statistics:

The Korea Transport Institute says psychological burden will be reduced 13-18 percent when walk right. It also expects the switch to increase walking speed 1.2-1.7 fold, reduce pedestrian collisions 7-24 percent and pedestrian density 19-58 percent.

Korean Class Party

I'm not sure St. Peter is tech-savvy enough to deliver judgements on internet-related sins, but if so I'm certain he has blocked off a special section of Hell for those who post videos on their blogs of their friends' drunken revelries.

That said:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

House-hunting in Daehangno

Yesterday I went on my first house-hunting excursion in the area near my school, aided by Mrs. Suh, the mother of a friend from Japan. Mrs. Suh speaks some Japanese and, more importantly, has the ability to patiently repeat things in Korean in a way that is easy for me to understand.

We consulted two different real estate offices near the school gates. At each place, a woman spoke with us and then took us around to some apartments in the area. I was surprised that they took us to some places which were still occupied. Not only that, but the current tenants clearly had not been given any warning of our arrival. In two cases we walked in on women who had apparently been sleeping (although it was mid-afternoon). At other places, the tenants were not home but their personal items were strewn around for all the world to see. All this was a bit shocking to me; in Japan, I have gone house-hunting on several different occasions, and I can't remember ever being taken to a place that was not completely empty and clean. Needless to say, walking in on the current tenants made me reluctant to give the rooms a complete inspection as I normally would.

Most of the the places we looked at were too small for my needs. I told Mrs. Suh that I really won't consider anything less than 10 p'yong (a Korean unit of area similar to the Japanese jo, 1 p'yong = 3.3 square meters), but apparently this part didn't get communicated. I think they all figured that because I am just a student I must be on a shoestring budget.

The rents in Seoul are all very cheap, compared with Kyoto, but they charge a huge deposit which can run as high as W30,000,000 (about $30,000). In general, the higher the deposit, the better the deal you can get on monthly rent. This deposit is returned in full when the tenant moves out, so it makes sense to pay a high deposit if possible. However, I am still currently struggling to convince my U.S. and Japanese banks to allow me to transfer money to Korea (foreign banks seem to have a strong mistrust of Korean banks, and the feeling is mutual). So amassing that amount is going to take some doing.

I decided to hold off on moving for a few months, since I am in no rush. The big moving season in Seoul occurs in February and March, when the school year ends and a lot of students move out.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Doljanchi Party

On Sunday, my housemate Jinsuk (I call her Unni, which means big sister) invited me to accompany her to a friends' Doljanchi party. This is an elaborate party Koreans throw for a baby's first birthday. There are many traditions involved. This party was held in a banquet hall at one of the ritzier downtown hotels. The whole room was decorated beautifully in pink and silver, with a dais at the front on which the baby was seated, surrounded by presents and toys, dressed in a froofy pink tafeta dress. Her mom was dressed to match.

I had never met the couple before, so I felt a little embarrassed to be there, especially since we got to partake of the mile-long buffet of gourmet food. This buffet had every imaginable kind of sushi, dimsum, salad, western-style buffet food, soups, etc. It just kept going on and on and on....

By the time we sat down to eat the party was about to start. An emcee directed the festivities from the front. First we watched a very cute, professionally-made video presentation of young Su-Hyun's life so far. It was clear from watching this that she had two very doting parents and all the cutest clothes and toys money could buy. While we watched, Su-Hyun went through a costume change and came back out wearing a baby hanbok (Korean traditional outfit). She was held in her father's arms at the front dais while each of her parents made speeches to her.

Then it was time for the traditional doljabi, when a tray of various items (a book, a pen, a bowl of rice, toy money, etc.) is placed in front of the baby, and whichever item the baby grabs first signifies what sort of life he/she will have. Su-Hyun chose the brush, which signifies that she will be a good student (of course her parents helpfully prodded her in the right direction).

Then the two grandmothers came up and gave speeches, followed by the two grandfathers, one of whom sang a traditional song in a soulful, quavering voice. He seemed to really be working the crowd. After that, they began to give out presents to the guests. There weren't enough presents for everyone, so we each had raffle tickets and they called out numbers. Then, when they got down to the last few presents, they started giving them to specific categories of people, like the youngest, the oldest, the person who had known the couple the longest, etc.

When they got to the final present, the emcee said, "Let's give this one to the person who has come from the farthest away!" Various people started shouting out "I'm from Daegu!" "I came from Pusan!" I tried to shrink down in my seat, but Unni grabbed my hand and shouted, "This one's from Japan!" I shook my head vehemently, but the emcee was already headed our way. He thrust the microphone at me, and I had no choice but to stand up. I stuttered, "I'm an American but I live in Seoul now." They insisted I should take the last present anyway. So I walked up, very embarrassed now, bowed low and accepted a package from the parents, whom I had just met an hour ago. It turned out to be a bathtowel with the words "Su-Hyun's 1st Birthday" embroidered on it in English.

After that the party wrapped up quickly. The whole thing took about 1 hour. I had heard that Korean weddings are typically over in half an hour, and it seems they have the same philosophy about Doljanchi ceremonies. I was really grateful to Unni for taking me along, as I had learned about Doljanchi before but never had a chance to see one.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Walking around Namsan

Today was gray and hazy, but not too cold. A good day for a walk. I met a friend at Dongdae Ipgu station and we took the bus up to the top of Namsan, the mountain park in the middle of Seoul. I think the last time I was there was on my first trip to Korea, over 7 years ago.

The tower observatory on top of Namsan

The long gentle walkway leading down the mountain

Looking down from Namsan onto the Myeongdong district. We walked down into Myeongdong from here, had coffee, and watched the swarms of tourists.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Seoul Land Outing

For a break after the mid-term exam, all the Korean language students went together to Seoul Land, a theme park in the south of the city. It was similar to Great America in some ways, though there were some Korean touches. Also, the rides were generally smaller but there were more of them, so the lines were shorter.

My classmates and me

Cute funny English!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Idioms and Name Games

This week in class we've been learning phrases like "to clean one's ears" "to pick one's nose" and "to pick gunk out of one's eyes." Suprisingly the verb for each of these is different. Also, we've been given a list of proverbs to memorize. I am somewhat less enthusiastic about these. When I studied Japanese, I remember we were given pages of colorful Japanese proverbs to learn. This seems to be a favorite topic in foreign language curriculae. I spent a lot of time learning such gems as "Even monkeys fall from trees" and "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." But I can probably count on one hand the number of times I ever actually heard one of these proverbs spoken by a Japanese person in regular conversation. People don't really use these sayings much anymore (though they do offer some cultural insight). I'll study them for the exam, but I'm not wasting long-term memory space on them.

Since I've come to Korea I've adopted the Korean name "Changmi" (Rose). I did this for two reasons: 1) I like nicknames and have given myself a new one every time I've moved to a new place; 2) Every Korean I ever met in the U.S. had adopted some Western name for him/herself, the most common ones being "Michael" "Eugene" and "Grace". Either that or they offered only their initials, as in "Hi, I'm H.Y. Kim." I think they do this because they think their names are too difficult for foreigners to pronounce. So I felt it was only right that I should reciprocate by giving myself a Korean-sounding name to use in Seoul.

Fast-forward 2 months. I have convinced most of my friends and class-mates to call me Changmi, but it is difficult to get Koreans to accept this as my name. When I introduce myself as "Changmi", nearly every time people immediately respond by asking what is my "real" name. If I explain that I chose "Changmi" because my middle name is "Rose," that person will simply call me "Rose" ever after. I've never gone by this name before, and it sort of defeats the purpose of choosing a Korean name. So I have to really insist upon "Changmi," though this often draws disappointed frowns from people expecting a Western name. I think it's funny, when they wouldn't think twice about changing their own name when abroad.

Similarly, when I was living in Japan I got in the habit of introducing myself and signing my name Japanese-style: surname first, given name last. I did this for years before I realized that most of my Japanese friends were under the impression that my surname was my given name. They had come to expect that all Westerners give their names in reverse order. When I explained my thinking to my friends, they were surprised but then acknowledged that if they were in the U.S., they would naturally give their own names in the Western order, as in "Hiromi Suzuki," etc.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

First Post!

I've finally submitted to the pressure and started blogging! If you are reading this, thank you and I hope you will enjoy my posts.

The purpose of this blog will be to detail my thoughts and impressions as I adjust to my new life here in Seoul. First, I should explain what I am doing here.

As you may know, I am an American and a long-time student of East Asian language. After studying Japanese for about 6 years, I moved to Sendai in 2003. Since then, I have worked in Japan by turns as a software engineer, graduate student, translator, interpreter, and part-time lecturer.

Meanwhile, I have been interested in Korean peninsula issues since high school, when I was assigned a certain fateful research paper (more on this later, maybe). Also, I have been studying Korean on-again, off-again since 2002.

At some point in the last 2 years, I decided that Japanese life was getting to be too easy; I was understanding too much of what people said to me, which is no fun at all. So last September I quit my job, sold off all my furniture, cancelled all my subscriptions, packed my bags, loaded my kitty into her crate, and flew off to Seoul.

This being my second international move, one would imagine that the process would be relatively painless and familiar, wouldn't one? However, I decided to do things differently this time. Instead of attempting to find a job, sponsor, etc. before moving, I decided it would be easier to start out as a student, study Korean language intensely for a period, and then worry about finding a job. This way, I reasoned, my school could help me with settling-in issues, and I could do my job search in person, which is highly recommended in East Asia, where personal connections are the only way to get in the door.

Things haven't been easy so far, but then I didn't really expect them to be. First of all, my school hasn't really been able to help me as much as I thought with basic issues (I've basically been on my own as far as banking, visa issues, insurance, househunting, etc.) Not yet speaking Korean at a comfortable level, each of these simple tasks has at times driven me to scream into my pillow. Second, though I've saved enough to be okay for at least a year, it's awkward being an unemployed student again after all this time. My classmates are mostly younger, some of them much younger, and I can't help occasionally wondering what I am doing with my life. Also, the world is not really set up for a 30-something student living abroad without any anchorage in a home country. It seems every form I fill out asks for my "address in Korea" and then my "home address."

I sometimes feel like a Japanese spy in a Westerner's body. When people ask where I'm from, I'm still tempted to say Kyoto; if I'm not constantly vigilant, I still tend to answer people in Japanese. Physically, however, I'm large, blue-eyed, brown-haired, big-nosed, and about as white as can be. When Korean people learn that I've lived in Japan, they are usually anxious to inform me about all that the Japanese have done to their country, as if concerned that I did not know this. People say things to me about Japan that they would never say to my Japanese classmates at the language institute. It gives me a unique perspective on how Koreans really feel about their neighbor after all these years of history.

So part of this blog will be a comparison of expat life in Japan with that in Korea; part of it will be an examination of Korean-Japanese relations and the similarities and differences between the two cultures. Part of it will probably be me griping about the latest bureaucratic hassle or awkward communication problem I've had to deal with. I'm not really limiting the topics at this point and we'll see what I come up with.