Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tragedy and News Coverage

For the last month, the top news story here (really the only news story) has been the mystery and tragedy surrounding the explosion and sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy vessel. The cause is still under investigation, but as the mounting evidence continues to point inexorably in the direction of a North Korean submarine attack, the question is what is the South Korea government, and the wider global community, going to do about what probably amounts to a belligerent act of war.

In South Korea, the public mood is getting very restive, and the government is playing a balancing act between calling for restraint (which angers the already upset Korean people and seems to belittle their loss) and sending confrontational signals (which might frighten investors and damage the economy). It looks like the Lee government is committing to putting the problem before the UN, but the Chinese and Russians on the Security Council will certainly veto any retaliatory action, and the UN has already tried putting the full weight of economic sanctions on the North after the last nuclear test, with little effect. It is easy to understand why South Koreans feel their lives are being traded cheaply in favor of maintaining the regional equilibrium.

One thing I noticed, even before this happened, is that South Korean news stations really get in the faces of the poor families of the victims when tragedy strikes, no matter how grief-stricken they may be. When the news first broke, they were waiting as the families arrived at the military briefing room, and showed some of the family members fainting and having to be carried away. As each sailor's body was recovered and examined, a clot of reporters were waiting at the doors of the morgue to follow each bereaved mother out and beseige her with flashbulbs and microphones, hoping to get the "money shot" of her collapsing in grief. The strange thing is that none of the grieving families seemed to lash out in response to this. If that happened to me, I would probably punch someone in the jaw.

This sort of thing has been on the nightly news every night for a month now. If you want to see what I'm talking about, a good example of this sort of reporting is watchable here.

Japanese news is relatively tame, though I can recall them broadcasting a fair amount of grief in the face of tragedy as well. American news is positively restrained. As far as I know, US news stations are still forbidden even from showing flag-draped coffins coming home from war, though I still don't understand how they worked that around the 1st Ammendment. I'm not sure which approach is worse.

Monday, April 19, 2010

New job!

Eagle-eyed regular viewers of this blog (hi Mom!) will notice that I have updated my profile to "part-time student, part-time translator." Shortly after returning from vacation and starting a new semester, I achieved my dream of getting a job as a Korean-English translator at a research institute in Seoul. I will also have various other tasks including English proofreading, handling English correspondence, English-speaking conference liason, managing a small English conversation class, and perhaps even some web site maintenance.

The research institute that hired me is one I have been familiar with for quite some time, and in fact was my first choice of a work location. It focuses on North-South Korean relations, security studies, and all things North Korea. So far I have mainly been translating their online newsletter which comes out once a week and contains one in-depth analysis article about some current event related to North Korea. So far I have translated articles about the latest session of North Korea's parliament, Obama's new nuclear policy, and the US-Russia arms deal. The work is interesting - I don't think I've ever had a job where the hours went by quite so fast - helpful for learning Korean, and also an opportunity to meet a lot of very interesting people involved in research.

They were nice enough to let me continue my Korean studies through the end of the semester, since I had already attended a full week of classes and thus my tuition was un-refundable. Also they agreed to let me work from home 3 out of 5 days a week, so that I don't have to spend my entire life commuting. So at the moment I am in class every day from 9 am - 1 pm, then lunch, then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I take a bus directly to the institute and work until 6. There is a shuttle bus at 6:15 that takes people from the institute to the train station, and the brief 10-minute ride is proving a good opportunity to meet a lot of researchers.

On other days I go home directly after lunch, and alternate working and studying until time for bed. The schedule is tough on my brain, and I've noticed I need even more sleep than ever to feel refreshed. But right now I feel like I'm living the dream. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but so far my new job seems like everything I had hoped it would be.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Vacation in Cebu Part 2

Because we rode taxis out to Mactan every day, we grew familiar with all the ins and outs of taxi fare negotiation. We refused to ride in taxis without a meter. Even so, in the mornings going out most drivers would try to get us to agree to 450 pesos out to Mactan. From experience we knew that we could get this down to 300, or else agree to pay 50 over whatever the meter said. A few times I had to open my door and start to step out before they agreed to the lower fare.

Some taxi drivers were more talkative than others. Many of them asked us if we were married, and then, how old we were. Our favorite driver was an aspiring tour guide who gave us a detailed tour of all the sites along our route, complete with personal tidbits. For instance, "That's the call center where my son works," and, "This is where my cousin lives."

This driver did not welsh on personal details. He had 7 children (like everyone in Cebu, he was a devout Catholic). As traffic slowed going past the provincial capital, he abruptly said, "I have a gay." As we took this in, he continued. "Do you know the gay? My son. He is it." It was unclear why he was telling us this, but he was clearly proud of his son. "He speaks English very well. He has a job at the call center. Maybe if you come to our house you can meet him. It's his birthday today, we're having a party. You should come."

One taxi ran out of gas 5 minutes into the ride, and we had to get out and find another. Another time, we were on the bridge when we felt a sickening thud underneath. Our driver swore and got out to inspect things, as cars piled up behind us. Then I saw the driver rolling a tire off the road. Apparently it had fallen off the back of the truck in front of us.

And then there was the gauntlet of roadside vendors and beggars we had to run every night. Some of these were merchants of a sort who approached cars at red lights, selling anything from fruit to sunglasses. More heartbreaking were the small children who pressed their dirty faces up against our taxi windows when we were stuck in traffic. There was one brother-sister team who came up to our windows on both sides and sang their little hearts out with their hands cupped around their mouths against the windows. The little girl looked about 5, her brother maybe 8 or 9. I had heard that these street children are often managed by an adult, sometimes a relative, who takes the money they make.

One night we went walking near the Fuente Osmena rotary, where my guidebook said the "local nightlife" was based. It turned out that "nightlife" meant mostly strip clubs and sports bars. The beggars in this area were particularly pernicious. They crowded around us as we waited at a crosswalk, a group of teenagers asking for money or food. Finally we got away from there and escaped into a restaurant, where Yukiko noticed that one compartment of her back was unzipped, and her camera was gone. That was definitely the low point of the trip.

The poverty in Cebu was inescapable, and took me by surprise. I knew the Phillipines struggled with poverty and corruption, but I expected that a major tourist destination like Cebu would be better off. Other places I had visited, like Bali and Thailand, clearly benefited from tourist dollars (and yen and won) so that the local community appeared, not exactly wealthy, but relatively comfortable. Cebu showed such a stark contrast between the glamour of the resort complexes and the ugliness of the rest of the town. The most attractive and well-maintained public places by far were the Catholic churches, which lit up on Sunday night like a fairground. Most areas outside of the malls and resorts were dirty and grim, with poorly constructed buildings and so many street hucksters that it was impossible for a tourist to walk freely anywhere. One time, through the taxi window, I caught a glimpse of a crowd of maybe 30 people all sitting together on the floor of a cafe, all facing an ancient-looking TV which was playing some soccer game.

I couldn't help but wonder how different things would be if this area could just get a decent government that wasn't so corrupt. They have such a beautiful environment, perfect weather, and with the steady stream of tourism from Japan, Korea, and Australia, they should be able to afford to enjoy some of it for themselves. I noticed some posters up encouraging people (in English) to re-elect so-and-so, and I privately thought that if I were them, I wouldn't re-elect any of their current leaders.

After the disastrous night at Fuente Osmena, we gave up searching for restaurants in town and learned that the majority of tourists and wealthy locals eat at one of the many malls. The Ayala Center mall had just about every imaginable kind of mall-restaurant, from TGI Friday's to Thai, French, Italian, Indian, Japanese - but all with American-style serving sizes. That mall was the sort of place I dream about; full of the sort of food I could never find in Kyoto or even Seoul, as well as shops selling clothes big enough to fit me, and a big bookstore containing rows and rows of affordable English-language books.

The mall was full of families every night, little kids running around the well-lit courtyard while their parents enjoyed a leisurely dinner, groups of teenagers carousing around the shops or playing in the game center. We also saw a number of odd couples made up of middle-aged white men with young Filipino women, who were clearly on intimate terms but also very eager to "see and be seen" together.
Ayala Center Mall at night

Every resort we visited was enjoyable in its own way, and most had reasonably priced day passes to enjoy the facilities. Only one place was so outrageously overpriced that we walked away. All the resorts had some degree of security keeping vendors and other unwanted visitors away; the most strict was probably the Hilton, which had its own completely blocked off little cove for swimming, and had dogs stationed at the gates which sniffed the inside and trunk of our taxi.

If I had to choose my favorite resort it would probably be a tie between the Hilton and the Maribago Blue Water. Both had very nice swimming pools and beach areas; the Maribago beach had a nicer view, but Hilton had better snorkeling because they had obviously cultivated a variety of exotic fish and plants in their protected cove area. On the other hand, Maribago had a little island just off shore which was an envigorating 10-minute swim away at high tide, walkable at low tide. Various entrepreneurs were wandering in this area trying to sell boat rides out to better snorkeling spots. Unfortunately, some of these were not connected with the hotel and were a bit annoying in their persistence. As I was swimming out to the little island, an outrigger canoe actually pulled up alongside me and offered me a ride, saying I could pay when I got back to land. Aside from these annoying but unflappable salesmen, it was one of the most refreshing places I could think of to spend a long tropical day.