Thursday, December 30, 2010

3 Seasons of Awesomeness

Did I mention that I work in a very nice place? Our institute is tucked into a nice little parkland at the base of Bukhansan mountain, at the intersection of two popular hiking trails, and the grounds are well-maintained by a crew of invisible elves year-round. I've been here long enough to take some photos that give a sense of the place at different times of year.

This is what it looked like in mid-August:

Here it is in November:

And this is what it looks like today:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Seoul, PDA Capital of the World

A fun thing about being the only foreigner in a group of people is that I am often looked upon as a source of information and advice about foreign culture. People are continually asking me, for instance, why Americans don't eat steamed pig's feet or why American actors have so much chest hair.

Sometimes people ask for my input on various different cultures of which I have little actual knowledge. The other day my female co-worker asked for my opinion about a quandary her friend was in. This friend, a Korean woman in her early 30s, had been walking in Myongdong one day when she was engaged in conversation by a foreign-looking gentleman who said he was new in town and wanted a Korean friend. The two exchanged phone numbers and met for coffee later that week. This man said he was a pilot for Turkish Airlines who typically stayed over in Seoul for a few days each month. He said he was 45; when the friend gave her age of 32, he expressed surprise, saying he thought she was only 16. During this second conversation the man became very straightforward, said he liked her, asked if she liked him too, etc.

This friend knew that my colleague worked with an American and asked her to get my opinion, as a Westerner, of what this man's true intentions might be. "I know Westerners are much more forth-coming and casual than we are," she said. "But is it really common to approach a stranger on the street like that? Do you think he really just wanted a friend, or what?" I explained that I couldn't speak for Turkish culture, or even offer an accurate generalization about American culture, but in the particular part of America I come from such behavior would be considered strange, and I thought her friend should be careful. We puzzled together particularly over the comment about her age. It wouldn't be all that bad for a 40-something man to pick up a 30-something woman, but if he truly thought she was 16, wasn't that a little odd? Or was this simply a clumsy attempt at a compliment?

I've often heard both Koreans and Japanese express the belief that "Westerners" are more casual about relationships and generally feel more free to show affection in public. I've heard two different teachers at my language institute, both of whom claimed to speak with some authority, say that it is common for Americans to greet friends and acquaintances on the street with a kiss. Even after I tried to disabuse them of this notion, they seemed doubtful. "I'm pretty sure I've seen it in movies," they'd say. I've met several people in Japan and Korea who are fans of the TV shows "Friends" and "Sex in the City" and who truly believe that those shows are representative of typical American behavior.

Americans may or may not be more promiscuous in private, but I can state with confidence that Koreans are the grand champions of creative public displays of affection. Kissing in public is still somewhat uncommon, but they make up for it with all sorts of other amorous displays. Particularly in and around the university areas of Seoul, at any time of day or night you can observe young people experimenting with various ways of twining their limbs together, stroking each other's hair, holding each other's faces, gazing soulfully into each other's eyes, struggling to eat one-handed while holding hands across a table, etc. One time in the Krispy Kreme in Daehakno I saw a couple eating donuts and then passing the chewed donut goo mouth-to-mouth, mother-bird-style. Another time, also in Daehakno, I saw a couple preparing to leave a restaurant in mid-winter, the guy standing stock-still with his arms out and patiently allowing his girlfriend to slowly bundle him up - buttoning his coat, adjusting his hat, awkwardly fitting his hands into his mittens, lovingly winding his scarf around his neck. Words simply cannot do justice to the look on this guy's face as he went through this ritualistic display in full view of the entire restaurant.

Sometimes I share tales of the interesting PDA I've seen with Unni. She is always surprised that I even noticed: "I  thought you Westerners did worse stuff than that all the time; Westerners are much more casual than Koreans." Unni has been to Europe but not America; like many Koreans, she nods impatiently when I say that American and European cultures are quite different, but she doesn't really take me seriously. I suppose this attitude is only fair considering all the Americans who think Korean and Japanese cultures are basically equivalent.


Much has been written already about Korean permissiveness toward same-sex PDA; how Korean women often walk hand-in-hand or even arm-in-arm down the street, and this is a purely platonic display which should not be interpreted as a sign of greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality. The same seems to apply for Korean men, though strictly in an intoxication context. For instance, I've often seen pairs of businessmen stumbling arm-in-arm toward the subway together after a night of drinking, but have never seen similar behavior from apparently sober men in the light of day.

But just when you think all same-sex affection in Korea can be written off as platonic, you catch a rare glimpse of something more passionate. One very rainy evening last July, while waiting at the bus stop at the north end of Insadong in a throng of people, I saw the two girls standing beside me exchange a quick kiss on the lips under the relative privacy of their umbrella, just before one girl hopped onto her bus and sped away. Holding hands and linking arms are acceptable platonic behavior between friends, but Unni assures me that in Korea, kissing definitely implies a romantic attachment, and observing such a display in public by a same-sex couple is rare indeed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Several weeks ago our institute had its annual overnight bonding roadtrip to the mountains. Apparently in the past they went to the Kumgangsan resort in North Korea, but for obvious reasons since 2008 they have gone instead to Soraksan, just south of the border from Kumgangsan. The official theme of this workshop, as we would learn, was "Everyone have fun together." The institute director was kind enough to invite me to come along, even though as a contract employee I was not technically supposed to go.

We traveled in two big tour buses which left from the institute bright and early Thursday morning. We were provided with coffee and donuts before getting on the bus, which made me nostalgic for the old bus trips I used to go on in college with the band for away games. There was no singing on this bus though. We stopped for lunch at a place that served bibimbap with mountain vegetables from Soraksan, as well as a bowls of dongdongju (a makkoli-like beverage) and spicy herbal tea. Our group took up the entire restaurant.

Where's Waldo?

After lunch we arrived at our hotel. We stayed at the Kensington Hotel, which advertises itself as an "English-style hotel" and was decorated with kitschy icons of British culture, such as bears dressed in beefeater garb and a double-decker London city bus. Everyone had a roommate; I was paired with a cute girl from my office whom I had worked with briefly but did not know very well.

British culture... and dried squid.
I like to think of someone driving this bus all the way over from London.
Sadly but not unexpectedly, when we arrived it was misty and raining lightly. This did not stop us from doing our best to enjoy a short hike to a waterfall and back. We were provided with ponchos in a range of colors, as well as bottled water and cucumbers to snack on.

It was the beginning of the busy autumn season, and the trail was crowded even on a Thursday. The ponchos should have made it easy to identify our group, but I found as we walked that there were many other groups which had bought the same ponchos. I discovered that several of our people appeared to be keeping a close eye on me to make sure I didn't get lost. Their caution was unnecessary; I had walked the exact same trail a month ago with my mom during her visit. When we got to the bridge spanning the canyon, the man who works as our institute's official photographer (as well as a driver) was standing by to take photographs.

After returning to the hotel and resting for a while, we all got back on the buses and took of for dinner and karaoke. This proved to be the most interesting part of the trip, the part where the liquor flowed freely and the personalities really started to come out. It started out innocently enough as one of the guys at the table taught us a method of mixing soju and beer known as a "bubble jet." Then Dr. Huh - one of my personal favorites among our research fellows - took the microphone and MCed as a series of people came up and gave toasts. Dr. Huh is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my work on the online series. He spotted me sitting nearby and invited me up to make a toast. Unfortunately I had not imbibed enough yet to feel really comfortable speaking in front of everyone, and of course my hands were shaking. I got the toast over with quickly, sat down, and set about ingesting soju as fast as the guy next to me could pour.

Later, looking through the official photo record of the trip, I found that the photographer had perfectly captured this series of events:

At first, no amount of soju seemed to make any difference. I still felt tense and self-conscious. I kept thinking of better toasts I could have made. Then the director of our institute came over with a bottle of Ballantines' scotch whiskey. Whiskey is the only beverage in the world that I really cannot tolerate. I learned later that he had brought 3 bottles of the stuff. Everyone had to have a shot - even the young interns who normally refused to drink as much as a single glass of beer.

After that, things started to blur together. I started having difficulty putting sentences together. I remember at one point looking at the huge banner hanging against the wall, one of those professionally printed things that they make for all such occasions in Korea, and telling the table how such things always made me feel sad because I anthropomorphize the banner and think how depressing it would be to exist just for this one event, and then get thrown away or stored someplace. Everyone at the table agreed that it was a sad, heartless world, especially if you were a banner.

At some point we moved on to karaoke - or noraebang, in Korean. I wasn't planning to sing anything, but for the very first song Dr. Lim, another of my favorite research fellows, launched into "My Way," and I couldn't resist jumping up to join her. This obviously was Dr. Lim's regular selection, and she did a very soulful job. There was a professional noraebang guy there, whose job was to accompany people when they appeared to need help. I sang another duet with Dr. Lim later on, and did another song by myself - a Korean tune which I normally know quite well, but at that point my mouth just couldn't seem to move properly. Fortunately no one seemed to notice - or even remember, the next day, whether I had sung anything at all. At some point I remember noticing that my beer suddenly tasted like whiskey, but shrugging and continuing to drink it anyway. Talking with my friends the next day I noticed that others had had the same experience; I suspect the director had been going around pouring Ballantine's into everyone's glasses.

By the time we got back to the hotel, our group had been reduced to a single bus - apparently various people had bailed throughout the course of the night. I was proud of myself for staying to the end. The next morning at breakfast my roommate told me I had been speaking Japanese in my sleep - adding to suspicions of my being a Japanese spy. Most of our group appeared to be still sleeping it off in their rooms. The two of us actually felt quite good, and it was a gorgeous day, so we went out and took the cable car to the top of the mountain. At 9:30, when we bought our tickets, there was already a 1 hour wait for the cable car; but it was worth it for the view at the top, where the fall leaves were in full form.

I actually do feel that I achieved a stronger bond with my co-workers through this trip. I got the chance to converse at length with several interesting people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance before, and people who had previously avoided me for fear that I did not speak Korean are now much more willing to sit next to me on the bus to and from work. My reputation appears to be not too badly damaged by my wild night. Who said college doesn't teach any useful real-world skills?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The most awesome translation evah!

I'd just like to mention the most recent paper I translated for work. I am particularly proud of this one, because the author had written some seriously long, convoluted sentences which nearly succeeded in causing my brain to explode in the process of translating them. Check it out if you want!

It's funny to think that just a year ago I was writing childish little reports for Korean class about my hometown and my favorite food, and now I'm producing sentences like this one:

"Particularly in a familial/individual leadership structure which is based on informal support relationships, these sorts of conflicts can lead to factionalization within groups which share common interests, and dramatic changes in power dynamics and opportunistic conflicts between factions brought on by the realignment of power and interests are likely to contribute to an overall disruption of regime stability."

Of course, all due credit goes to the author, Kim Jin Ha, political scientist and North Korea expert extraordinaire!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Photo of Kim Jong Eun published, golden opportunity lost forever

North Korea finally published an official photograph of its intended future leader Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il's second son by his third wife. Here he is shortly after getting appointed to a variety of high-level posts which effectively make him the 2nd in command of the country:

In revealing this photo to the world, North Korea wasted a rare opportunity to make some real cash selling something other than drugs or missiles. For years, North Korea watchers have had to be satisfied with one grainy, outdated photo of the heir apparent as an awkward teen. Various media outlets have demonstrated their willingness to pay big bucks for a more recent photo, as Barbara Demick of the LA Times recently reported. One Japanese  TV network even paid $1600 last year for an "exclusive photo" which turned out to be just a photo of some random South Korean construction worker downloaded from the internet. In recent months networks have grown so desperate that they have begun pointing out random people who happen to be standing beside Kim Jong Il in official news photos and claiming they are Jong Eun.

If celebrities today can get hundreds of thousands of dollars for photos of their babies (which, let's face it, just look like babies), I figure North Korea could have picked up some easy cash itself by auctioning off the first images of this grown man to the highest bidder. Too late for that now...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Typhoon Konpasu

We had a great typhoon come through last night. It's probably the most direct hit I've ever experienced, which is remarkable considering how relatively more exposed I was all those years in Japan. It definitely sounded more impressive even than the one that trapped me in a youth hostel in Kyushu for 4 days in 2005. That time I was safely ensconced in a low structure in the mountains; this time I was on the 8th floor of a tall building surrounded by other tall buildings, and the sound of the wind was like a freight train.

Check out the path of this thing:

(Notice the border between the two Koreas is not shown. This is typical of weather maps.)

It seems like it made a bee-line for Seoul. I was actually just thinking of the phrase "bee-line" the other day. It doesn't make much sense to me - are bees particularly known for traveling in straight lines?

Anyway, the typhoon hit in the middle of the night last night. I could hear the wind howling outside the window - it would get really loud in 10-second bursts, then die off again. My kitty got pretty spooked. This morning there were quite a few trees down. An entire stand of young-ish trees next to my apartment had been completely squashed to the ground. There were also some power lines cut and sagging on the poles near my bus stop, but no one appeared especially wary of walking underneath them. None of the trees on the grounds of our institute appear to have been affected - I guess they were protected by the mountain, or had stronger root systems, or something.

They're calling this typhoon "Konpasu" (compass), a name which the Korean press says was decided by the Japanese. Which is odd, because in Japan the typhoons always had numbers instead of names, and for the really big ones the press would sometimes call them by their Korean name.

The wind is still gusting and it's raining in bursts - looks like this could keep going all day!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Breaking news: I agree with John Bolton on something!

When I saw a video clip of John Bolton speaking on Fox News about Jimmy Carter's impending visit to Pyongyang, my first thought was, "This should be good." Actually I thought Bolton expressed the crux of the issue quite well; perhaps, aware that on Fox News he would be preaching to the choir, he refrained from his usual vituperation.

"I understand the emotional pull of trying to get this hapless American released," Bolton says. But, "The precedent that he's setting... puts more Americans in jeopardy, because it says to the North Koreans in effect, if you hold an American who comes into the country, poses no national security threat, but you threaten to lock 'em up unless you can get a former president to come, it simply provides North Korea... with the incentive to hold Americans unjustifiably."

"Hapless" is a charitable choice of words to describe the current captive in question, Aijalon Gomes. Following the precedent of Robert Park, who was also influenced by the same hyper-nationalist Christian group in Seoul, he crossed into North Korea last winter out of apparent compassion for the plight of North Koreans and a desire to do something to help. His actions, however, will likely only end up making things worse.

The North Korean regime wrings tremendous propaganda value out of these presidential visits. They love nothing so much as a photo op which makes it seem as if the US on equal terms with North Korea; it gives legitimacy to the regime and makes people feel like they are "winning." Last year when Clinton visited to negotiate the release of the two American journalists, their spin on it was that the American leader, terrified of North Korea's military might and nuclear weapons, had come to beg for mercy.

I also enjoyed a remark by a South Korean expert quoted in Asia Times Online which I thought was particularly clever: "I am not sure whether Kim Jong-il would want to meet Jimmy Carter. Within a month of Carter meeting Kim Il-sung, Kim Il-sung died." I had forgotten about this, but it is true that Carter's last visit and the elder Kim's death were so close together that the two events must be inextricably linked in North Koreans' minds. And the younger Kim's health is none to good these days. If he meets with Carter during this visit, and then suffers another stroke in the near future, the mild-mannered former president could quite possibly be suspected of being a harbinger of death!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Lunar Calendar: Don't Believe the Hype

Just now I had a pleasant shock when I realized that I was a whole year younger than I had been thinking I was.

In Korea, age is calculated in a rather unconventional way.  A newborn baby is considered to be age 1 on the day of birth, and adds 1 on every New Year's Day afterwards. This means that a baby born on New Year's Eve is counted as being 2 years old before he has even lived 2 whole days! When I first heard about this tradition, I was skeptical. Sure, a little kid or teenager might play along with it for a while, but I couldn't believe a 39-year-old woman from any culture would ever say she was 40 before she absolutely had to. However, upon arriving in this country I quickly found that this system is in fact followed faithfully by Koreans of all ages, even those who had lived overseas for many years. When a Korean person tells you their age, you can generally subtract 1 or 2 years.

At first I rebelled and continued to use my mathematically accurate, non-Korean age. But at some point, unconsciously, I became assimilated and began to think in terms of Korean age. Lately, without thinking about what I'm doing, I've been automatically telling people that I'm 33, to the point that I started believing it myself. But I just realized I'm not 33, I'm still 32, praise the Lord! It's a pleasant surprise, like when you wake up early and realize you still have 30 minutes to sleep.

Actually, because my birthday falls between Solar and Lunar New Year, it may be that, strictly speaking, my Korean age is 34. I've been unable to get a consistent answer on this from my Korean friends - some say you add one on January 1st, others say it happens on Lunar New Year, which is usually sometime in February; if the latter is true, then I'm 34. But thinking of myself as 34 already is so appalling it creates a short-circuit in my brain, so I immediately push the idea far away and think of something else.

Koreans are still seriously trying to make the lunar calendar work. The other day I asked Unni when her birthday was, knowing it was coming up soon and wanting to be ready. She responded "Let me check," picked up a calendar, and appeared to do some mental calculations, counting forward from a certain day. After watching this for a moment, I hesitantly asked, "Don't you know?" She explained that her birtday is a different day every year; it's the 7th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar, so she has to check to figure out what day it is in the real world.

I have to say I stand with the rest of the world on this one. Scientifically speaking, the concept of a year has always been based on the earth's rotation around the sun, not the moon's rotation around the earth. Even before people knew anything about modern astronomy, they knew that the seasons changed in a regular cycle, from cold to hot and back to cold again, and when they got through one full cycle that was a year. People tried to fit this year into a lunar calendar at first because, before modern scientific instruments, it was a lot easier to tell when the moon was full than when the earth had returned to a certain position relative to the sun. This is why many early civilizations - yes, even western ones - had lunar calendars. But the lunar cycle doesn't fit very well into the solar one. There are 12 lunar cycles plus an additional 11-12 days in one solar year. To prevent the calendar from drifting relative to the seasons, they must use a complicated system of "leap months." Or, in the case of the Islamic calendar, they allow New Year's Day to drift so that it comes back to the same position every 33 years (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Obviously, as science advanced and people began to learn more about what causes the seasons, most cultures switched to the solar calendar, only keeping certain religious holidays according to the old lunar system. I don't know of any other culture in which people still calculate their own birthdays according to the lunar calendar - though I'll have to check with my Chinese friends to see what they do. The fact that Koreans continue to adhere to the lunar calendar to such an extent, as well as their unflattering age-counting system, speaks to both the incredible patience and stubbornness of their culture.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You cannot resist the Chamisul gnomes

I'm fascinated by this recent commercial for Chamisul brand soju. These little cartoon characters come prancing around the bottles and physically manipulate people into relaxing their inhibitions, like invisible puppeteers; it's both cute and disturbing at the same time.

Also, the ad appears to encourage drinking Chamisul at work to raise your spirits when your boss is giving you a hard time:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On being a movie lover trapped between worlds

When I was stressed out in Japan, I discovered that American movies provided a much-needed escape from the culture shock and tedium of everyday problems. Movie theater tickets are expensive in Japan, typically 1500 yen (about $15) except on special discount days. Happily, rental DVDs are quite cheap, less than $2. In Kyoto I lived about a 10-minute bike ride away from "American Video", which had an extensive collection of both movies and TV shows from America on DVD. I got in the habit of rewarding myself with a movie night at the end of a busy week. I rarely found that they lacked a movie that I wanted; I once memorably found a Rocky Horror Picture Show DVD and treated my friends to a RHPS viewing party, initiating them in that glorious American tradition. In addition, a large section of the store was dedicated to "Hanryuu" (Korean movies and dramas), which I made extensive use of, particularly in the last year in preparation for moving to Korea.

Japanese and Mongolian friends enjoying the Rocky Horror Picture Show, at my Kyoto apartment, Fall 2007
When I got to Korea, I expected to find an even cheaper and broader DVD selection available, given how famous Koreans are for piracy and their affinity for US culture. I was disappointed when the only rental stores I could find were tiny, grimy cubbyholes inside of local shopping arcades, with barely one row of US DVDs. The domestic movie section was not much more extensive. Watching movies in the theater was blessedly cheaper, only about $7, and new movies came out almost immediately after their opening date in the US (unlike Japan, where one often has to wait 2 months or more). But I was puzzled - where were Koreans getting their home entertainment?

After talking with various people, I eventually came to the conclusion that internet cable services and streaming movie websites had become so pervasive that no one was renting physical media from stores anymore. My friends recommended I go to one of the many Korean online movie sites for my entertainment needs. However I found that all of these sites, like most things in Korea, required a jumin tungnokso (residents' registration number), which as a foreigner I do not have. Also they typically expect payment by Korean credit card, which I was not qualified to have under my student visa. None of the foreigners I talked to had any luck using these sites.

Most frustrating was hearing the talk from my Chinese classmates, who were merrily watching the latest US dramas on Chinese streaming websites. There was one girl in my class who always appeared to be exhausted, nodding over her textbook. Whenever our teacher in exasperation demanded to know what she had been doing to make her so tired, she would reply, "I was up all night watching Criminal Minds" or some such. The Chinese websites also offered the most recent Korean dramas with Chinese subtitles, which meant that even the least capable student in my class had a better idea of what was going on on these shows than I did.

I eventually decided that if the Korean websites did not want my business, I would try an American one. I had heard many of my friends from the US talk with enthusiasm about Netflix, which sounded like a similar kind of service. However, when I tried to register, I ran into a familiar problem. The system would not accept my US credit card address as correct, since it knew I was registering from a computer in Korea. This is an automatic anti-fraud measure that either has been recently developed or else specifically targets Korea, because I never had any problem with it in Japan.

I still thought Netflix was worth a try, though, so during my last trip to the US I went online and had no problem in registering. I had my doubts, but the service offered a free 2-week trial period, so I figured if it gave me problems in Korea, I could just cancel.

Back in Korea, I promptly logged in, beginning to feel the faint stirrings of optimism that I would soon be able to enjoy the Simpsons, X-Files, and all my favorite movies again. However, I was rudely denied:

I was disappointed, but not surprised. I did a little digging online and found a useful blog entry from one very pissed-off US marine who had just arrived in Korea and was having the same problem. Many helpful people had commented that it is possible to get around the problem by using a VPN program to mask the computer's IP. Such programs are readily available on the internet, but using one to watch Netflix overseas is at least quasi-illegal, and of course I would never deliberately act against the laws of my country. Just as I would never lie in a blog entry...

So anyway, if I had done that very bad, naughty, illegal thing - which I definitely did not do - I would have found that it is possible to watch streaming video on Netflicks from Korea, and the video quality is reasonably good and fast. The only problem is that many of the TV shows, and nearly all of the movies, that I would have wanted to watch are not available for streaming online. Still, Netflix is a partial solution for those who are not choosy and just want to watch something, anything, in English. And now that I have an E7 visa and a job, I am hopeful that I will soon be able to obtain a Korean credit card so that I can use a Korean movie site. In the meantime, I should be thankful that the law, and the cultural trend against dvd rentals, have saved me from myself, and I am doomed at least in the short-term to spend my after-work hours on more productive activities.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hiking, Korean-Style

Several weeks ago I enjoyed a day hike up Kwanaksan, in southern Seoul, with my friend Mrs. Kim. Hiking in South Korea is an extremely popular leisure activity; you are likely to find hordes of people on any reasonably accessible trail in the vicinity of Seoul, especially on the weekends. Koreans like to go up the mountains in large groups of 20-30 people, always dressed head-to-foot in brand-name hiking wear and equipped with those high-tech walking sticks and various other gear, as if prepared for a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The Saturday we visited Kwanaksan was somewhat overcast, and Mrs. Kim assured me that the crowd on the trail was much thinner than usual, but to me it felt like a concert was just getting out all along the side of the mountain. There were so many people that the crowd wound up the trail in a nearly continuous line, and I could hear the conversation of the person behind me, who was chatting absorbedly on his cell phone all the way up. Nobody seemed to want to pause or look around at the scenery at all until we reached a series of rocky promontories along the ridgeline which offered goods view of the city. I've heard it said that, for Koreans, the objective in hiking is to "conquer" the mountain - in other words, rush as quickly as possible to the top, savor the victory, and then rush back down. On low mountain trails around Seoul, it is common to find little parks equipped with exercise equipment, for those who crave a little extra exertion than what they can get from mere walking.

Mrs. Kim opined that hiking is the poor man's alternative for retired people who are looking for a hobby and can't afford golf. There may be some truth in that, but it's undeniable that most Koreans feel a genuine affinity for the mountains. Among my Korean acquaintances, there are few who don't list "hiking" as one of their favorite means of stress relief, and several are accomplished international hikers. Mrs. Kim herself is a member of a walking club that meets three times a week just to walk for miles and miles around the parks of Seoul, sometimes after dark on weeknights.

I've often wondered if North Koreans feel the same draw to get up into the mountains in their rare snatches of leisure time. After all, the northern half of the peninsula is where all the most spectacular peaks are, and they presumably haven't paved over so much of their wilderness in a frenzy of overdevelopment as the South has. I recently found a sort of answer while listening to Free NK Radio, whose website I frequent as a way of studying Korean. They have an intriguing series called "North Korean Defectors' Views of South Korea," and in one recent episode a defector recounted his coworkers' frequent attempts to get him to join them on hiking trips around Seoul. This defector said that he initially was not very enthusiastic, as he associated mountains with the arduous task of collecting firewood and undergoing harsh wilderness military training, so mountaineering in North Korea is generally not seen as a fun leisure activity. However, over several pleasant weekend hikes with his co-workers, he came to appreciate the activity for the easy camaraderie of his companions and for the sense of achievement felt upon reaching a summit.

But back to my hike with Mrs. Kim. When we reached the top of the ridge, we came to a broad flat area capped by rock, where people were sitting around in their groups having picnics and enjoying the view. On group hikes, each person typically brings a dish, or some fruit, to pass around - and there are always several bottles of beer, makkoli, or soju. On a previous hike, with Mrs. Kim's walking club, I completely stuffed myself as everyone wanted "the foreigner" to try their dish. For those who need additional refreshment, there were also basic food stands periodically spaced along the trail - even right up near the top of the mountain - selling all the essentials at only slightly marked-up prices. I'm always amazed at the enterprising spirit and sheer physical fitness of such people, who make their living hauling food and drinks up the mountain every day.

As a solitary sort of hiker, I have to say I personally prefer the quiet trails around Kyoto, where it is sometimes possible to hike for an hour or more without seeing another person. The trails there were mostly well-marked and well-maintained, but not pounded into mud by a thousand boots like the trails here in Seoul, and they were full of quiet, lovely little spots to enjoy - sometimes marked by a little Buddha statue or a small shrine under a waterfall. Though one must always watch out for snakes and leeches over there.

It's tough to decide where to assign the advantage for this one. As I said, I personally prefer quiet trails where I can go off and get lost in thought. But that's just my personality. My Korean friends seem to genuinely enjoy being surrounded by hordes of happy hikers all along the trail, and claim they would go nuts from solitude and boredom if no one else was around. So I have to acknowledge the merit of the 'social hiking' argument, even if I can't relate to it myself. Besides, if I'm honest I must admit there have been many times when I have been privately critical of the Japanese, particularly the residents of Kyoto, for failing to get out and appreciate the natural beauty in their own backyard. Now I'm in a country where people do appreciate it - way too much, in fact - and still I'm complaining.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Great Expectations

Last night's World Cup match brought all of Seoul out onto the streets or into the stadiums, decked out in Red Devil outfits and brimming with a near certainty that their team would triumph over Argentina - who are those guys anyway? Everyone was so excited about the game that it didn't seem to cross anyone's mind that our side might lose.

Downtown, masses of people were crowded together in City Hall Square and other designated locations, as well as in the stadiums, watching on Jumbo TVs. One of my co-workers even said that she was going to watch the game in a movie theater that had contrived to show the action in 3D.

I was as excited as anyone else, though I resisted the impulse to buy some of the cheap plastic devil horns and tridents on sale outside my train station, and watched the match alone at home with my kitty. It's fun to watch from our apartment because our building is part of a large complex of 20-story highrises, and whenever an important play is made, it is possible to hear the cheers and groans of other parties in other apartments echoing through the concrete canyons between the buildings. It really brings home the feeling of being a part of a whole nation of fans watching the same game together, separated only by walls.

Unni came home about halfway through the 2nd half; unfortunately that was just about exactly when the game started really going downhill.

Unni is one of the most unforgiving fans I have ever met. She walked through the door saying "We lost, didn't we?" even though the score was at that point 2-1 with about 30 minutes left to go. She proceeded to get more exasperated as South Korea let in two more really unfortunate goals. The last goal, in particular, when the Korean goalkeeper dove for the ball just as it was kicked to the undefended other side for an easy goal, raised her ire. "Who is that number 12?" she demanded. "They can't just let in easy goals like that! They have to fight until the end!" I tried to console her by mentioning that Argentina had some of the best players in the world and was highly favored to win, but that seemed to make it worse. "We said that we would shock the world with this game, but we ended up shocking them with how badly we lost," she lamented, as we sat around eating the pasta she had brought home and the pachon I had cooked. "2-1 would have been okay, even 3-1 would have been okay, but 4-1... that's like the score of some neighborhood kids' game!"

We continued to hear the neighbors roaring well into the night. They must have been watching the next game, Nigeria-Greece, which would play a big part in determining whether or not South Korea can proceed in the tournament. Unni watched it for a while but quickly switched over to a drama on another channel.

This morning, I asked Unni if she had stayed up long enough to see how the Greece-Nigeria game ended. She replied, "I'm done with watching soccer." Unni could never be a Cubs fan.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Kitty cafes I have known

Cat cafes are a rapidly growing phenomenon in Japan these days, and I am pleased to discover that they are also expanding to Seoul. I visited my first cat cafe, in Osaka, last August, not long before moving to Korea. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing; on a visit to the Korean consulate in Nanba, I noticed a sign right around the corner advertising the "Guru Gurudou Cat Cafe" and decided to check it out. I was immediately enchanted.

There was a fenced-off foyer area in which to remove shoes and wash hands, then a second, inner door for preventing kitty escapes. Once inside, a lady explained the rules (no pestering sleeping kitties, no holding kitties who don't want to be held, etc). Guru Gurudou charged 1000 yen ($10) for one drink and an hour with the kitties. The interior was decorated in an eclectic Southeast Asian motif, with soothing zen music playing, and 10 kitties lazing around on the various plush cushions and kitty furniture. None of the kitties were over two years old, and two were still small kittens. All were expensive breeds: a Maine Coon, a Somali, an American Shorthair, a Ragdoll, a Norwegian Forest Cat, 2 Munchkins, a Russian Blue, 2 Scottish Folds. A cute flow chart on the wall introduced each of the kitties and described their relationships to each other. The litter boxes and food dishes were cleverly hidden away somewhere.

The scene at Guru Gurudou

That day there were about 3 or 4 other people inside, and the atmosphere was very friendly; unlike a normal cafe, it was easy to strike up conversations with the other guests while playing with the kitties. There was a variety of cat toys available for teasing kitties, and while a few were inevitably sleeping, there was always one or two who wanted to play. Some of the other customers were almost as fun to watch as the cats.

It was such a relaxing atmosphere and amusing way to spend an hour with fellow cat-enthusiasts. A few weeks later, I found another cat cafe, this one on Oike-Doori in Kyoto. "Neko Kaigi" (Kitty Conference) was quite different from Guru Gurudou in that all the cats were former strays that had been picked up off the streets of Kyoto as kittens. I highly approved of its mission to "reduce the number of unhappy stray kitties in Kyoto," as I own a Kyoto kitty myself.

Also unlike Guru Gurudou, the interior was sunny and decorated like a nice living room, with a large cat tower in the middle and a sun-baked shelf by the window for kitties to nap on. I must say I could appreciate the difference between the fancy breed cats of Guru Gurudou and stray mixed-breeds of Neko Kaigi. Both sets were appealing in their own way. The fancy breeds seemed more delicate, fluffier, and more whimsical in their play. The strays felt more substantial, muscular, and played mainly with the purpose of hunting and killing their toys. Most of the strays were short-haired tabby mixes not unlike my own cat, though I couldn't help but wonder if it was just mother's pride that made me feel that my own was far prettier than these.

A Neko Kaigi board member

A special feature of Neko Kaigi is that someone on staff there apparently has a very high-shutter-speed camera, and they have several albums lying around with beautiful pictures of cats jumping, legs splayed in all directions. They have posted the best pictures online in a slideshow at - a must-see!

A few weeks after that, of course, I moved to Korea. Koreans supposedly have a cultural aversion to cats and prefer dogs, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that a few cat cafes have opened in Seoul. One such place just opened right down the hill from my university, calling itself "Sonamu Kil Koyangine" (Pine Street Cat Spot).

This place is fairly small and just opened about a month ago. They have 6 cats, all kittens, the oldest a 6-month-old Maine Coon. Unlike the Japanese cafes, this one seems to have very few restrictions on how to handle the kitties, and they even encourage guests to bring their own cats in. I wonder if this free-wheeling attitude will change as they get more experience.

The kittens at "Koyangine" are adorable and require a lot of sleep. I've been there twice now, both times in early afternoon; both times there was only one other customer, and the kittens were mostly sleeping. If there was none awake to play with, the proprietor would pick up a sleeping kitten and place it in my lap. There is no entrance charge or time limit, but they charge about $7 for a cup of coffee or tea, which is effectively the cost of admission. Other than a cat tower and a few cushions and toys lying around, there are few props for the kitties, but they are adept at finding toys among the customers' bags and other belongings. As there are few other customers, the atmosphere is very free and relaxing.

I had so much fun at Koyangine that I told my cat-loving friend about it, and she told me another cat cafe had opened recently in Myongdong, Seoul's shopping mecca for Japanese tourists. The name of this place is "Koyangi Darakbang" (Cat's Attic). We went there together on a weekday afternoon, yet surprisingly the place was packed with customers. In stark contrast to Koyangine, the atmosphere is busy and the interior spacious, with over a dozen cats of all varieties, most full-grown and clearly accustomed to ignoring the constant stream of customers trying to pet, play with, and take pictures of them.

The most impressive thing about this place, to my now-experienced eye, was the effort they had put into constructing elaborate cat towers, platforms, and climbing shelves all along the walls. There were even running platforms overhead where cats flitted back and forth, out of reach of the patrons. The customers were very obedient about following the rule not to disturb a cat sleeping inside one of the cat beds, and the cats clearly understood that that was their refuge when they needed a break from being groped and patted.
The mood in this place was a little too hectic for my taste, and the cats clearly had all the attention they needed (and then some). Nevertheless it is reassuring that this wonderful new trend is gaining popularity here in Seoul, as well as Japan.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Unsung Hero

The other day in Korean class, we had an activity where we were supposed to describe the person we respected most. My other classmates, all good filial sons and daughters of China, almost invariably chose either "mom" or "dad." The only exceptions were a couple who went with a grandparent. I, with no hesitation at all, said "bus drivers."

It's not that I have anything against my parents. But out of everyone in the whole world, I've always thought of bus drivers as the one group of people who do a job I could never do myself, even if I trained for 50 years. They must have amazing powers of concentration, to keep circling around the same route over and over again, never getting distracted or missing a stop or overlooking a person running to jump on. And maneuvering that massive vehicle around the chaotic streets of Seoul without ever so much as scraping a fender, when disrespectful drivers are constantly maneuvering in and out of the bus lane and motorcycle couriers are trying to cut in front, is a feat worthy of a medal in my opinion. Plus they have to be patient with little old grannies who step in the doorway and ask which bus will take them to such-and-such, even when they're running late and it's rush hour.

I take two buses to get to school every morning. First the 162 city bus, which takes me from my neighborhood to a stop near my school, and then a school shuttle which takes me up the long, steep hill leading to campus. Both buses are absolutely jam-packed with people before 9 am, and sometimes the driver has to holler at everyone to squeeze further in so that he (it's always a man) can shut the door.

To pass the time, I've gotten in the habit of assigning nicknames to each of the school shuttle bus drivers. There's Spike, who has a spiky crewcut, Chewbacca, who's always chewing gum, Michael Jackson, who only wears one glove, and Amadeus, who teases his bangs into an artistic swirl.

For the city buses I pay by swiping my city transit card when I get on and off. It usually costs 900 won (about 85 cents) unless I ride a really long time. The school shuttle bus takes little yellow tickets that I have to buy periodically, 250 won each. Compared to Kyoto buses, which cost 220 yen (about $2.50) no matter how far you go, it's a steal.

Lotte World class trip

Last week, after our mid-term exams, our Korean class had a "cultural outing." Once more we went to an amusement park, this time "Lotte World," which holds the Guiness world record for largest in-door theme park. Wandering the park with a group of my Chinese classmates, I enjoyed myself more than I expected. First we all rode on the extremely slow-moving carousel, famous for featuring in one of my all-time favorite Korean dramas, "Cheonguk ui Gyedan" (Stairway to Heaven). Then we got on the "hot-air balloon" ride to get a birds-eye view of the park and identify which rides had the shortest lines. From our high vantage point we could also look down on the ice-skating rink and see some very young future Kim-Yunas-in-training practicing their spins.

My favorite ride of the day was the "Gyro-Swing," in the outdoor portion of the park, which was a rotating wheel of seats on the end of a hammer that swung back and forth, causing me to produce screams I hadn't known I was capable of. Very good for stress-relief. Another highlight was having lunch with my Chinese classmates at a Korean-style Chinese restaurant. Of course, now that I'm the only non-Chinese person left, it's unavoidable that I get stuck in the middle of a lot of animated conversations in Chinese that I can't understand. Although they do their best to stick to Korean when I'm around, I can't help but feel that my presence is a hindrance to them sometimes.

The lines weren't too bad - the longest we had to wait was about 30 minutes. While waiting, the park provided excellent opportunities for people-watching. I especially enjoyed the girls in extremely short skirts and spiked heels, competing to see who could make more of a display of draping themselves around their boyfriends. Also the park was full of groups of kids in matching school uniforms out for their class trip. Their teachers didn't seem to regulate much which rides they were allowed to do, and I saw a few little ones crying while walking out of the scarier rides, but overall I was impressed with their fearlessness.

Around 3 pm, the parade started. Colorful cartoon characters, dancers, and floats wound their way around the park on a pre-cleared path. At the very end was a float of good-looking young guys in heavy make-up smiling and waving at the crowd. From the female reaction I gathered that they must be some sort of celebrities, and later my friend confirmed that they were members of the boy band "UKISS."