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:

video

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.