Sunday, December 11, 2011

Greta and Kongi: The Experiment Continues

It's been over 6 months since we welcomed Kongi the poodle into our home. Back in August I posted about the challenges of persuading our Japanese cat and our Korean dog to co-exist peacefully in the same apartment.

My loyal readers must be just brimming with curiosity at this point; have the two former enemies managed to settle their differences and establish a "peace regime" in the apartment? Or does their speciesist/nationalist confrontation continue? And, if the latter, which side has dominated in the zero-sum competition for hegemony?

I cannot yet provide a definitive answer to these important questions. But I can provide an update, in the form of the following music video composition, and invite my readers to decide for themselves.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kimjang Season

I've been buried under a pile of work and grad school applications for the last month, but I thought I could at least share with you this nice photo I took of some ladies kimjanging (making kimchi) in my neighborhood.

Unni and I don't need to make any kimchi ourselves, because she keeps receiving tupperware containers full of the stuff as gifts from her students, relatives, and friends. She gets so much kimchi this time of year that we're running out of refrigerator space. It's one of the perks of knowing a lot of middle-aged women in Seoul.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

North Korea, the Arab Spring, and the Curse of the Billy Goat

I grew up in Cubs country. Everyone I knew was a Cubs fan, so naturally I assumed the Cubs were the greatest team in the history of the game. "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was originally written by Harry Carey, the correct lyrics were "Root, root, root for the Cubbies," and anything else was heresy. Every once in a while our family would drive in to see a game at Wrigley Field, where we would fill out score cards and eagerly watch the scoreboard to learn all the official products of the Chicago Cubs. And when the sound system prompted we would all belt out the song,

"Hey Chicago, waddya say? The Cubs are gonna win today."

It was only as I got older that I started to notice a strange, ironic look in the grown-ups' eyes as we sang those words. It didn't seem to matter what Chicago said or how loudly we said it, the truth was most days the Cubs were not going to win.

Season after season, we always started out full of new hope; maybe there was a promising new pitcher, or new ownership, or an early-season winning streak that put them at the top of the division for a while, and we gullible kids would start to think "Maybe this year..." But then the team would hit the June Swoon and flounder on down through the rankings until it hit the inevitable: Mathematical Elimination Day, and another year to wait before the Cubbies would have another shot at the World Series. Once in a great while they would make the playoffs, but those years were even crueler to our innocent childish hopes. The Curse of the Billy Goat was upon us, and the Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908.

Sooner or later all Cubs fans learn the same soul-crushing lesson: never dare to dream, and you'll never be disappointed.

Following North Korea is kind of similar. The country has been stuck under the thumb of the Kim dictatorship since 1945. Many game-changing world events have come and gone in that time, many stronger regimes have fallen, and countless experts have confidently predicted the imminent downfall of the Kim regime time and again - but so far, all have been proven wrong.

Even when their supreme leader died right in the midst of a nuclear crisis and just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Communist regimes were falling left and right and the North Korean people were entering a period of unbelievable deprivation, still the regime kept on going with barely a hiccup. Today, they appear to be preparing for a 3rd-generation leadership transition to an untried 28-year-old, despite unprecedented popular dissatisfaction in the wake of a failed currency redenomination and a dangerous amount of information seeping in from the outside world.

Yet few respected North Korea watchers are putting their weight behind any solid predictions about the fall of the regime. They've all gotten smart; they've learned the same soul-crushing lesson the Cubs taught me as a child; never get your hopes up. The only ones you'll hear talking about the regime's imminent demise are young scholars who are new to the game of Pyongyang watching; the little kids at the ball park with their hearts full of hope and their bellies full of cotton candy.


When I was 18, I went off to college in New England. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Boston Red Sox and their chances for finally winning the World Series. Apparently the Red Sox had also become somewhat infamous in this regard, failing to win the World Series every year since 1918. My New England friends seemed to think this was impressive. They even had their own curse, the Curse of the Bambino, an obvious rip-off of our Curse of the Billygoat.

A few years later the Red Sox finally beat their so-called "curse," and my New England friends rejoiced and then went on about their business. Meanwhile, the Cubs continue to flounder on, now well into their second century of disappointment.

In Seoul we've experienced a similar feeling over the last year, as we've watched the news of the Arab Spring and the wave of change toppling the old regimes of northern Africa, and listened to breathless speculation of how the movement might soon sweep aside the regimes in Yemen or even Syria. Never was the imagery as striking as in the last week, as we learned that Kim Il Sung's erstwhile friend and fellow traveler Qaddafi had met his gruesome end. The reporters have constantly referred to the "42-year reign" of Qaddafi, their voices quavering with awe, as if it were unimaginable that a brutal dictatorship could last so long.

Kim Il Sung and Qaddafi in Pyongyang, Oct. 1982

Meanwhile, over in their corner of the world, the North Korean people are now suffering through the 66th year of the Kim regime, with no end in sight. Though doubts exist, the Party officials continue to serve up their empty promises. "Sure, times have been hard," the propaganda line goes, "But just wait, next year is really going to be our year." As the North Korean writer Kim Myong Chol recently wrote in the Asia Times, "There is every likelihood that in 2012, supreme leader Kim Jong-il and his heir designate Kim Jong-eun will preside over North Korea's admission into a third elite club, that of strong and prosperous states. The North is already a member of the space and nuclear clubs... Full of confidence and pride, Pyongyang also plans to follow up on next year's achievement by joining the ranks of the 'most advanced' countries by 2020."

Or, as we say back home, "Hey Chicago, waddya say? The Cubs are gonna win today."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Making Wishes

One thing I've noticed in both Japan and Korea is that people are not shy about praying for their own personal happiness/wish-fulfilment. In any Buddhist or Shinto temple there will be some way for people to write down their wishes on tiles or wooden placards, which are then hung up for all the world to see. In Korea as well, people are fond of writing their wishes down at temples and even at non-religious sites.
Roof tiles with wishes written on them, at a temple on Kanghwado
At a neighborhood flea market I recently visited with Unni, there was a free "painting experience" booth where patrons could write their wishes on a big board in gold paint.

I'm generally wary of making wishes. I guess I've read "The Monkey's Paw" one too many times, and I'm always uneasy that even the most innocent wish might be twisted around to bite me on the ass. However, this seemed innocent enough; it wasn't like the paintboard was blessed by a priest or anything.

Most of the entries were for personal requests like "pass my entrance exam" or "get a new job" or "health for my family." I did see where one person had written "world peace." Unni wrote out the name and address of her shop. I pointed out that that technically wasn't a wish, so she scribbled 대박 ("big success") underneath. While Unni was busy bedazzling hers with gold stars and curlicues, I made several wishes for generic things like unification, equality and harmony, etc. I glanced down and noticed Kongi gazing up at me with her sad puppy-dog eyes, so I painted another wish for "No animal cruelty." 

I think cultures with traditionally polytheistic beliefs are more comfortable about making wishes of the Gods. It makes sense that if you have many different Gods, they seem smaller and more approachable, and you feel less guilty about asking them for help with your problems. In monotheistic cultures, God is in charge of everything and thus obviously very busy, and besides He is really freaking scary and wrathful, so people mostly just want to stay out of His way. Even though Christianity seems to be taking over in Korea nowadays, it seems that the polytheistic tradition of making wishes remains active.

On the other hand, Christians tend to assign a lot of responsibility to God after the fact for some pretty trivial things. One of my Japanese friends thinks it's hilarious that actors or musicians in America always thank God for their wins at awards shows. I'm inclined to agree.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Theme cafes in Daehagno

I've already blogged about cat cafes and dog cafes in Seoul, but that is hardly a complete picture of the theme cafe scene in this hyper-caffeinated capital. In the Daehangno area alone you can find a variety of cafes to suit all imaginable tastes. One that I have been particularly eager to try is the "cupcake cafe," where customers can wile away a rainy afternoon creating cupcakes, cookies, and cakes of various flavors.

I first spotted the "cakeimade" cafe several months ago, around the corner from my favorite kitty cafe in Daehangno. I had high expectations, having heard hilarious stories from a co-worker who had been to a similar theme cafe with her boyfriend. "The place was full of couples," she said, "and not one of the guys looked happy to be there." I figured this would make for some amusing photos, so I talked my cousin into going along last Sunday.

Disappointingly, there were no unhappy males in attendance; in fact, we were the only customers. But the shopkeeper was very energetic and pleased as punch to see us. She set us up right away in the big windowseat with some books of samples to get inspired.

We had a choice of making cookies, cupcakes or a cake; we opted to make four cupcakes each. First we had to choose what flavors dough to use; choices included vanilla-almond, chocolate chip, green tea and cheese.

After choosing our flavors, we were given trays and directed to the stacks of goodies with which to decorate our cupcakes.

We both ended up piling way too much stuff into our trays.

Then our hostess brought over our cupcakes: four each, ready-made. Judging from the texture, these cupcakes were at least a day old.

Cousin Katherine immediately set about decorating her cupcakes like she'd been doing this all her life:

My cupcakes were somewhat less aesthetically pleasing. These were the sort of cupcakes that would get picked last for a pick-up baseball team. The sort of cupcakes that would win the "best effort" award at a latin dance competition. In short, they were losers, and I felt a certain affinity for them. After putting the finishing touches on her masterpieces, Katherine glanced over at my work and charitably remarked, "I like yours. They're so... colorful."

So the cupcake cafe turned out to be much more of an art-intensive than a baking-intensive experience, to my chagrin. I had envisioned us mixing the batter ourselves and then sitting and sipping capucchinos while waiting for them to cook. Baking is an area where I feel I could perform with enough authority to at least give the appearance of imparting the wisdom of age and experience upon my younger cousin. But art is quite another matter. Even if I had a basic appreciation of aesthetics, my hands are just not steady enough to realize my artistic vision. My poor cupcakes were doomed to fail from the start.

Unni showed up as we were putting the finishing touches on our creations. My artistically talented housemate surveyed the pastel-colored interior with an inscrutable expression as we went about loading our cupcakes into cartons and paying our bill. The cost for my four cupcakes with all their accoutrements came to about 25,000 won. Before we left, the shopkeeper was particularly keen to get a photo of Katherine and I holding our cupcake boxes. I wouldn't be surprised if I see our smiling faces on the posterboard the next time I walk by.

After that Unni and Katherine humored me for a brief visit to another theme cafe in the neighborhood:

Here at last I was able to observe some of the couples that had been absent at the cupcake cafe. I couldn't tell if the guys were happy to be there or not. They seemed too engrossed in their smartphones to display any emotion.
 (identities have been tastefully obscured)
I made sure to check out the restrooms before we left: 

Update (2011-10-26): We made the cakeimade bulletin board!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Couple Outfits (커플옷)

This summer I've had a lot of fun looking out for instances of 커플옷 (couples wearing matching outfits). I'm not sure how or when it started, but this phenomenon is now quite widespread among younger couples in Seoul. On sunny days in any of the popular date spots in Seoul, I could usually find one such couple every 15 minutes or so on average. With the intention of someday making this into a blog post, for the last several months I have gone to great lengths to spot, creep up on, and discreetly photograph such couples.

Unni was amused and non-plussed by my mission, asking, "Don't they do that in America too?" I can't say I'm very in-tune with the youth trends in America these days, but I can't recall anyone trying to pull this off back in my day. Certainly it would be unthinkable in Japan, where the rule is to try to attract as little attention to yourself as possible.

Nevertheless Unni is an enthusiastic supporter of all my blogging efforts and she got into the game herself, helpfully pointing out couples I overlooked and even lending her camera a few times when I was caught unprepared.

Without further ado, I present my collection of 커플옷 photos from the summer and early fall 2011 (faces are tastefully obscured, because I figure a single day's humiliation is enough for most people):

Monday, October 10, 2011

Keeping Shop

After over two years of living together, last Saturday for the first time Unni trusted me to look after her shop for a few hours. The request came, like most of Unni's plans, out of the blue on Saturday morning. She had a wedding in Kangnam to attend that afternoon, and she just wanted someone to sit in the store in case anyone came by. "I don't expect anyone will come," she said. "I just need someone to keep the place open and the lights on."

I showed up as requested at 2 o'clock with my book and some coffee and donuts. Unni fluttered around for a while longer getting organized before dashing out the door. As advertised, there were no students or customers when I arrived.

Unni's shop is in a great location on a busy street right next to a bus stop. There are a few other art/ceramics shops near by. She doesn't often get random strangers coming in to buy her wares, however. Mostly she spends her days giving lessons and overseeing her regular students who come in to paint; in free moments she works on her own stuff, mostly on commission.

I was still nervous that someone might chance by and want to buy something, however. For some philosophical reason that I don't understand, Unni never puts price tags on any of her stuff. Whenever I express interest in buying something and ask how much it is, she quotes me an outrageous lowball figure that even an art philistine like myself knows couldn't possibly be right. From overheard phone conversations I've gotten the idea that she bases her prices mostly on how much she likes and/or is indebted to the person she's dealing with.

For the first hour, however, I had the place to myself. A little after 3:00 two young women came in to pick up some cups that they had made. They seemed unperturbed by the presence of a foreign shopkeeper. I gave Unni a call and got her to tell me where the cups were, and they happily went on their way. "Thank you, come again," I called after them in a jaunty sing-song. It was the first time I had used that phrase outside of role-playing in Korean class.

A little later our friend Jongshil came in, apparently just to chat. As regular readers of this blog know, Jongshil is our amateur expert on Korean traditional medicine (hanihak), specializing in prescribing diets based on the 4 basic body types. I showed her the dietary recommendations Unni had gotten from a new haniwon clinic she had visited, which conflicted with what Jongshil had told us on several points. "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about," she said dismissively. "I checked out his book; he's a big fraud. People who don't know any better respect him because he's famous." She then sat down with a pencil and began briskly scratching out and amending the various columns.

As Jongshil was doing this, my second set of customers came in, a lady and her little boy. "I just wanted to get him to paint something for fun," she said when I explained where Unni was. I set them up with some paints and a practice plate from the discard bin, and the little boy happily set to work at a squiggly composition that turned out to be a "stilosaurus," while his mother sipped coffee and we chatted. She asked me how I came to speak Korean, so I explained that I was the shopkeeper's housemate. "Ah, that explains the North Kyongsang accent," she remarked, to my delight. They stuck around for over an hour, the boy painting dinosaurs in increasingly muddled colors, while I continued to reassure his mother that Unni would be back any minute. Finally, an hour late, she walked in and relieved me of duty.

Later I had a dream that I left the door of Unni's studio unlocked and someone completely wiped out her entire inventory. Obviously the small business world is too stressful for someone of my delicate constitution.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Butt-Sniffing Good Time at Cafe Gaene

Yesterday I took our dog Kongi on a fun excursion to Cafe Gaene, a "dog cafe" in my neighborhood. We were accompanied by my second cousin Kathryn, who recently arrived in Korea for a semester abroad.

Cafe Gaene is located off of a funky shopping street near Sungshin Women's University, and they always have one of the dogs standing outside to invite customers. These "greeter dogs" are extremely well-behaved and beautifully groomed, and they patiently submit to the attentions of swarms of children and students taking photos.

I called ahead to make sure it was okay to bring Kongi. They had a well-orchestrated procedure for introducing new dogs into the cafe. First I surrendered Kongi to one of the attendants, who held her tightly on her lap for about five minutes to give the curious younger dogs a chance to check her out. Kongi looked a little bewildered but happy.

The cafe was one large room with picnic tables around the walls. There were 17 resident dogs of all different breeds, and many of the other customers had brought their own dogs as well. A few of the smaller dogs were sleeping in cages by the door, and one large wrinkly Sharpei was confined within an enclosure in the center of the room.

We ordered our drinks, and then I was directed to hold Kongi quietly in my lap for another 10 minutes, after which the attendant took her by the leash and led her out into the room. The other dogs promptly crowded around her in excitement. The Sharpei flung itself across the room, dragging its enclosure along in its eagerness to enter the fray. Kongi tensed up and tried to run away, but the attendant held her in a gentle but firm grip.

After a few minutes the other dogs calmed down, and Kongi was unleashed and allowed free movement. She promptly returned to our bench and hid between my legs, peering out warily at all the other dogs. A little whippet crawled into my cousin's lap and fell asleep. We sipped our drinks and chatted while watching the dogs play together.

The whole scene was suggestive of an indoor dog park, with drinks. I noticed there were no toys to be seen; upon reflection, I figured this was probably a necessary measure to prevent fights from breaking out.

Our Kongi was very popular; several little kids came over to pat her. Several times I tried to lead her out into the room to meet some of the other dogs, but she seemed a bit overwhelmed and insecure. She enjoyed greeting the other human customers, though. I think if I take her back again regularly, over time she will gradually get used to it and make some friends.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gyegok nori (playing in a mountain stream)

Korea has a lot of mountains, and these mountains feature a lot of fresh mountain streams running down through ravines. In the summer, Koreans like to go swimming and picnicking at deep spots along these streams. There is one such spot near our offices, and since the start of summer break it has been full of kids splashing around having a great time. A lot of days I feel like jumping in there with them.

Last weekend I got my chance when I went with Unni, our friend Jongshil, and another friend of Unni's on an outing to Gapyeong, east of Seoul on the border of Gyeonggi and Gangwon Provinces. First we stopped at the "Saneum Forest Nature School" (산음 숲 자연학교), a kind of eclectic arts & crafts center / campground, where Jongshil was friends with the owners and arranged for us to change clothes in their bathroom.

When I had earlier asked Unni if she was packing a swimsuit, she giggled as if I'd made a joke. "Silly goose, you don't wear a swimsuit to play in a stream." It's true, everyone seems to just jump in wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. I wore my old Umbros and the blue "Korea Team Supporters" tee-shirt I got at the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

It was a short walk from the nature school to the stream. We waded in at an open spot just below a bridge, where someone had built a rudimentary dam of stones to create a pool about two feet deep. Little kids were catching minnows, while their parents watched from the shade under the bridge. We seemed to be the only adults in the water. The stream was pretty cold but the day was sunny and hot, so it felt just right.

Another popular thing to do is eat at outdoor restaurants that spring up alongside mountain streams. By the by, the Korean word for a ravine is "gyegok." One time, my friends the Shins called me up to invite me to join them for dinner at a stream-side restaurant. Over the bad phone connection I misheard the word "gyegok" as "gegogi" (dog meat) and thought they were inviting me to feast on dog. I'm not opposed to other people eating dog meat but I personally have no desire to do so, so I struggled to think of a polite way to turn them down. Luckily, they quickly cleared up the confusion.