Saturday, January 16, 2010

Computer Shopping in Yongsan

After dithering for several weeks and investigating various options, I finally purchased a new laptop for home use. I decided to go with a Samsung Sens, though I variously considered models from LG, Sony and HP. Samsung has the best image as a durable and powerful Korean-made notebook; though LG is getting very good reviews for speed and performance, it is a relatively new player on the market and some of my Korean friends viewed it with skepticism. Samsung is said to have the best "AS" (After-Service), a Korean-English term for customer support.

In my search I first checked out English-language reviews of various products on the web, then tried shopping for them on Korean online shopping sites such as I quickly found most of the models advertised on US sites are not available (or have different names) on Korean sites. Also, many non-Korean brands such as Sony VAIO are considerably cheaper on US sites (by several hundred dollars for the same basic specs); I even considered buying from a US site despite the shipping costs. However, I tried in vain to find any online store that would ship to Korea; Amazon won't even ship to Hawaii; Compusa offered a long list of countries including Japan, but no Korea.

So I was resigned to buying in Korea. Navigating Korean sites was a challenge because of the sheer number of similar models available, as well as all the ads and extra garbage on the sites which slowed down my already over-burdened 5-year-old Toshiba (don't they know people shopping for new computers likely can't deal with that much bandwidth?!?). Also the typical PC available in Korea has way more spectacular graphics capability than I require; it is a market oriented towards hard-core gamers and people who intend to use their PC to watch TV and movies as well.

I might have bought online, but I felt the need to see and touch what I was buying. Also I suspect that if I had tried I would run into the obstacle of not having a jumin-teungnokseo (citizen registration number). This number is the bain of existence for many a foreigner living in South Korea. All Korean citizens have them from birth, whereas foreigners are given the deceptively similar but inferior foreign registration number. Any time you try to fill out an online form, pay for something digitally, or sign up for something like a gym membership or a library card, at some point in the application process you inevitably get asked for your citizen registration number. 95% of the time the system balks when you try to put in a foreign reg. number. Amusingly, the Korean customer service people often seem just as non-plussed as you are when they hit this obstacle. I wonder how much business Koreans lose every day by not having a more foreigner-friendly system. In this case, Japan definitely has the advantage; they are happy as long as you have a valid credit card number (though maybe as recently as 10 years ago there were Japanese sites which refused foreign cards).

So I went out on foot to do my shopping the old-fashioned way. I heard that E-marts have good deals on computers, but was disappointed with the small inventory of the two E-marts I went to. Eventually I ended up doing what I had been avoiding all along: I went to the Yongsan Electronics Market. This cluster of huge stores around Yongsan station has everything in electronics from high-end to budget to suspiciously marked-down used goods. I'd shopped there before several years ago for a voice recorder and remembered well how nervous I was talking to the store personnel. I was much more confident this time, at least linguistically. I enlisted my friend Hyerim to assist, and she did her level best to get the sales guys (they were all guys) to knock down the price.

The Samsung model I liked was a few ten-thousand won less than it was online, but they marked it down further if you paid in cash. So after deciding, we then had to go on an epic voyage around the Yongsan I'Park department store before we found an ATM that would allow me to withdraw enough cash. Again, this was much more difficult than it should have been in an area where people are bound to be needing cash all the time. But finally we succeeded and trekked back to our starting point, I with a big envelope of cash gripped nervously under my coat, Hyerim standing by ready to act the bodyguard.

The friendly salesman set up my computer then and there with an English version of Windows7. When I inquired if they sold an Office package, he said no, but they could install a "scratch version" if I wanted. Neither Hyerim nor I understood this term at first, but when he explained I realized this is the Korean-English phrase for free imitation programs like OpenOffice.

I probably could have gotten a better deal if I had searched longer on US websites, but so far I am happy with my decision and I don't want to hear about other brands for a while. Compared to my last computer, which was purchased in Japan's Akihabara electronic market, this one is rigged up like Fort Knox with every imaginable security and backup program. I don't know if this is because the Japanese environment is more trusting or because the world has just gotten a lot scarier. Probably both.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kim Jong Eun flower already lined up

The news this week has been buzzing with articles about Kim Jong Eun's birthday celebrations in the DPRK. It seems like they have officially decided on Kim Jong Il's youngest son as the next heir apparent to the leadership. Jong Eun had his 26th birthday (by Western reckoning) on Friday, and all the major news outlets are reporting that the day was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time this year. Government cadres held meetings and listened to lectures on the achievements of the Kims, while humbler North Koreans had rallies and sang songs such as "Footsteps," the anthem in honor of Jong Eun.

They will have to work a little harder this time to get public acceptance of Kim Jong Eun as leader, for 3 key reasons that I can see: 1) Jong Eun is much younger, at 26, and has had much less time to be groomed for succession than his father had; 2) Jong Eun is the third son, with an older brother and half-brother who are both alive and healthy; traditionally Korean royalty (as well as many modern South Korean companies) have given preference to the first-born son unless there is something seriously wrong with him (Kim Jong Il was himself a first-born son) 3) the economy is in much worse shape than it was in 1994 when Kim Jong Il unofficially-officially took over, and reports indicate that people have begun to wrap their heads around the concept that a son can have faults even if his father was the Most Perfect Human Ever Born.

Nonetheless, with the reports of these birthday celebrations, it seems that North Korea has finally committed to Jong Eun in a way that would be very difficult to back out of. In further confirmation, I saw an article in the Daily Chosun newspaper today claiming that the Japanese botanist who created Kim Jong Il's flower hybrid, Kimjongilia, has already created a new flower for Kim Jong Eun. If true, they are indeed moving ahead quickly with the succession propaganda.

North Korean publications dwell a lot on these flowers, praising them as great scientific achievements and symbols of international admiration for the Kims. The first, Kimilsungia, was reportedly a flower hybrid developed in Indonesia which Sukarno decided to name in honor of Kim Il Sung during his visit to the country. Subsequently, in 1988 a Japanese botanist developed his own flower hybrid and named it Kimjongilia. I've heard that North Korea's botanists run themselves ragged each year trying to get this flower to bloom in special greenhouses in time for Kim Jong Il's birthday on February 16th. I can only imagine how they must be privately grumbling at the prospect of having to get this new flower ready even earlier next year by January 8th.
Photo of Kimilsungia display courtesy of songun-blog

Monday, January 4, 2010

Winter Wonderland

This morning I woke up wondering if I had set my alarm wrong. It was 7:30 but still dark outside. Looking out the window I realized it was daylight, but so overcast it seemed almost like night, and snow was falling steadily outside. I groaned inwardly, knowing that more snow would turn the steep hill my apartment sits on into a ski slope (one thing I have learned in the last month is that, in snow or ice, there is a whole world of difference between walking down a flat street and walking down a 30 degree incline). But I was unprepared for the scene which greeted me outside.

The hill I walk down to the bus stop was covered with a thick coat of new snow through which people had trod paths. There were no cars on the road except for one which had gotten stuck partway up the hill and was spinning its wheels uselessly. People were walking in the middle of the street, wherever it looked least slippery, edging their way down by baby steps, and I saw more than a few fall on their butts (we learned the word for this in last week's class: "ongdong banga rul ji da"). I managed to make it down the hill with my dignity intact, but even with my hiking boots it was hard going.

I considered waiting for my bus, but saw that even the busses were creeping by and one appeared to be stopped with engine trouble. The few cars that ventured onto the main roads were doomed to spin within a few meters if they did not have snow tires. I took the subway, which was predictably packed and only took me within about 1.5 km from school. The shuttle busses taking students up the hill appeared not to be running, so after waiting fruitlessly for about 5 minutes I joined the throng trudging up the steep slope through the snow. Even taxis were nowhere to be seen today, though they could have made a killing if only they'd been able to drive.

When I finally got to class I was 30 minutes late and had collected a thick mantle of snow on my head and shoulders. Our classroom was packed - our teacher had not arrived yet so they had combined us with another class for the morning. There was a holiday atmosphere in the room, and we cheered as each red-cheeked and frozen classmate blundered in out of the cold.

Our teacher said that Korea does not have a system of cancelling schools on snow days. She said they did have a snow day once, in 1981.

It kept snowing all day, though it lightened up somewhat after noon. By the time I headed home, the main streets at least had turned into a drivable slush and paths were being cleared through the sidewalks. Individual shopowners took responsibility for clearing the paths in front of their shops, the weapon of choice for this task being a broom with bright green plastic tines. These brooms are used everywhere to clear snow, always the same shade of bright green. They must be mass-produced somewhere. I also saw army guys and laborer types with big shovels clearing the smaller roads, and at one point I saw a big mechanical shovel, the kind you see at construction sites, being used to clear a patch of road.

The news today was full of footage of cars slipping, sliding, and spinning in the roads. A lot of people abandoned their cars and took public transport. Apparently it's the heaviest snowfall on record for Seoul. Tomorrow is supposed to be cold but clear.

This would all be so much more fun if I didn't have to deal with all the hills!

Picture taken from my apartment window looking down on the parking lot