Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gyeongju City Tour

At long last, here are some photos from Unni's and my trip to Gyeongju several weeks ago. We took the standard city bus tour, which cost about 15,000 won, plus another 10,000 or so for admission fees. We made our reservations the night before and were lucky to get the last available seats, this being the peak cherry-blossom season. The bus took off from Gyeongju station at 10am, which meant we had to be on the KTX from Seoul station at 7 AM.

The large tour bus was full to capacity.  Our tourguide, an energetic ajumma and Gyeongju native, took charge from the front of the bus. After collecting our cash, she made a long speech introducing the city's history, then showed a video in English which repeated the salient points of her speech for those in the audience who could not understand Korean. There were three of these: two Filipinos and one Filipino-American.
Our fearless leader
Gyeongju is marketed as "Korea's answer to Kyoto," because it was the capital of the Shilla dynasty (57 BC - 935 AD) and today has more intact historical structures than any other city in South Korea. When I tell my friends in Seoul that I miss living in Kyoto, they often suggest Gyeongju as a way to get a similar experience. However after taking this day tour I have to conclude that the two cities are quite different in terms of atmosphere and personality. Kyoto is far more populous, narrowly laid-out and walkable; Gyeongju has a very wide-open feel, with broad streets, vast empty fields, and long distances between sites. While both cities exude a certain aura of "faded glory" as ex-capitals, today Kyoto is still considered an important hub for business and academia, whereas Gyeongju feels like its existence is mainly defined by its tourism and historical significance.

A large chunk of central Gyeongju has been redeveloped with modern accomodation and recreation facilities for the Gyeongju World Culture Expo, which will open this fall. The redeveloped area includes an enormous man-made lake, a giant hotspring resort, an amusement park, and assorted fancy hotels. We didn't go there on our tour but we drove past it several times, and our guide proudly pointed out the pièce de résistance, a distinctive looking building with the shape of a pagoda cut out of its center:

This photo is borrowed from the official Gyeongju City tourism website
Gyeongju was also apparently gearing up to host some sort of major event for the World Taekwondo Federation. Several times our bus passed huge banners welcoming visitors to the "WTF Championships." I deeply regret that I was unable to get a photo of one of these signs.

After passing by and acknowledging the newly redeveloped area, our tourbus climbed up into the foothills of the eastern part of the city to Bulguksa Temple, where we made our first stop. This temple seems to be the must-see site for any Gyeonju tour, due to its age and historic value; the original temple site dates back to 751 BC, although as our tour guide explained the buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and the oldest part of the present structure is the elaborate stone base (I was paying close attention at this point, because it was still early in the day and I felt responsible for translating for the Filipino tourists).

Unni & me standing in front of Bulguksa Temple. This is the obligatory photo that every visitor to Gyeongju must take.
Next we toured the Silla Arts and Science Museum, which focused on the advances in astronomical knowledge made during the Shilla period and the ancient construction techniques employed in constructing Gyeongju's architectural wonders. Roughly 80% of this museum was dedicated to explaining the construction of the Seokguram Grotto, a domed structure of giant stone slabs, built in the 8th century AD. Our tour did not actually include Seokguram, which is quite far from central Gyeongju, so it seems this museum stop was included as a consolation prize.

The next stop was Bunhwangsa, a somewhat dilapidated temple featuring a 3-storey stone pagoda and a pile of stone tiles nearby. According to our guide, the stone tiles were discarded by Japanese raiders during Hideyoshi's invasion, allegedly out of spite because they didn't have anything like it in Japan and couldn't stand the idea of Koreans having greater architectural achievements. Based on the size of the pile Korean historians have assessed that the original pagoda was probably 7 storeys high. The pagoda was undergoing renovation when we visited, so it wasn't much to look at.

Next it was time for lunch. Our bus dropped us off at a cluster of different restaurants, giving us less than an hour to eat. Unni and I unwisely chose the Korean barbecue restaurant, but the service was so slow that after sitting and fuming for 30 minutes with no sign of our food, we gave up and ran over to the buffet-style restaurant next door to scarf down an unremarkable meal in about 15 minutes. We were nearly the last ones back on our bus.

After lunch we spent an hour at the Gyeongju National Museum complex. Memorable exhibits included an intact thousand-year-old egg, a giant bronze bell, and numerous ancient artifacts dredged from the bottom of Anapji Pond. The exhibit explained that this pond turned out to be the richest source of such artifacts, because the 16th century Japanese invaders took away nearly everything they could find that was on dry land.

Wooden pavilion overlooking Anapji Pond
 Our next stop was Anapji Pond itself; this marked the beginning of the walking-intensive section of the tour. We passed by several historic monuments and a large park full of people flying kites, part of some sort of annual festival. Near the kite-flyers was the chimney-like ancient stone tower, Cheomseongdae.
Unni and me in front of Cheomseongdae, believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory in the East.
Early on the tour we each started one of those stamp rally cards, a ubiquitous feature of tourist areas in Korea and Japan where there are many important sites spread out over an area. These are designed to keep kids interested as their parents or teachers drag them from site to site through the city. By the end of our tour, we had acquired a respectable number of stamps.

The problem was that we didn't start our stamp cards until the second site on the tour, so we never got stamps for Bulguksa. As the day wore on Unni became more and more obsessed with this undeserved blank spot on her card. By the time we reached Cheomseongdae, she made up her mind to just put the Cheomseongdae stamp over the spot for Bulguksa as well, rationalizing that she deserved a stamp there even if it wasn't the right one. A little boy waiting to get his stamp noticed her stamping the wrong spot and asked her what she was doing. "Oh, we went to Bulguksa but we never got a stamp, so I'm using this one instead." Unni told him distractedly. "Well, I went to Bulguksa too," said the boy, and copied Unni's lead. I chided Unni about setting a bad example for Korea's youth.
I couldn't think of any particular reason to include yet another picture of Cheomseongdae, except that it's a particularly flattering shot of me, and it's my blog so I can do what I want.
At the end of the walk we passed through a pleasant park dotted with large ancient burial mounds. The guide explained how the ancient treasures that once filled these mounds were looted by the Japanese. The story goes that Hideyoshi's troops nearly overlooked one of the most significant of the tombs on their march through the peninsula. Unfortunately a soldier noticed some children playing with some very valuable relics, and asked where they had come from. The guileless child responded, "There's tons of stuff like this in my backyard." Well, the Japanese got the kid to show him where the stuff was, figured out there was a tomb there, and that was the end of that.

At the end of the park we came to a pleasant rest area beside a stone pond, and we all sat down to rest our feet as our guide launched into a rather extensive monologue. By this point I had reached my daily limit of Korean listening comprehension, so I kind of zoned her out. Instead I sat back and admired the symmetrical shapes of the burial mounds, and wondered aloud to Unni if it would be okay to climb to the top of one of them. Nobody else was doing so, but I hadn't noticed any fences or signs expressly forbidding it. "Go ahead, try it," Unni said. "Nobody's stopping you." Not wanting to be the ugly American, I declined.

But a few minutes later, some of the bored kids in our group apparently decided to give it a try.

We watched with amusement as the kids trekked halfway up the side and slid back down. They repeated this process several times before our tourguide noticed them and interupted her oration to exclaim, "Oh, dear; they shouldn't be up there. There's a 500,000 won fine if they catch you up there." I nudged Unni and gave her a look that said "Look what you almost got me in to!" But the children continued their adventure, and whoever their parents were made no move to intervene; probably too embarrassed to identify themselves.

Our tourguide midway through a lengthy speech; bored kids kicking dirt into the pond.
The final stop of the tour was General Kim Yushin's tomb, a relatively modest mound of earth bounded by stone slabs featuring carvings of the 12 zodiac signs. The key activity at this site seemed to be getting one's photo taken in front of one's zodiac sign, so Unni and I promptly took care of this.

Unni standing in front of her zodiac sign
The tour bus dropped us off  back at the Gyeongju KTX Station at about 5 pm. In front of the station they had set up a miniature replica of a burial mound that kids could climb over and into. "Here's your chance!" Unni said, and even though the mound was swarming with kids she talked me into climbing up it for a picture. Most of the kids scrammed as I approached.

King of the mountain!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I'm against radiation. Unless it's free...

All this month, employees at our institute can go in for their annual health checkup. I went last Tuesday with my coworker Mikang.

We met bright and early at Gwanghwamun Station and walked to the offices of the Korea Medical Institute. Both of us had fasted since the night before and brought along our completed information forms, which we handed to the pretty receptionist who was dressed much like a Korean Air flight attendant. The receptionist showed us the list and had us to choose which exams to take. Mikang wanted one extra test that wasn't on the list, so she had to pay a small amount, but everything else was covered by our institute. According to the information I received, the total cost of all the procedures was 578,990 won per person, of which our institute paid 200,000 won, and insurance covered the rest. (US$1 = 1100 won)

Then we were given numbered keys on wrist bracelets and directed to the women's changing room. The setup was similar to a public bathhouse. The numbered keys led us to our lockers, where we found slippers and loose-fitting orange jumpsuits with blue trim and velcro fasteners. I was relieved that the pants on my jumpsuit were not too "Korean-sized" to cause a problem for me.

When we were suited up we proceeded to exam rooms. There was a large waiting area filled with comfy couches on which examinees sat waiting, with numbered doors leading to each of the small exam stations. The fancy medical equipment and matching orange-and-blue jumpsuits on everyone gave the place a vaguely Star Trek-like feel. There were more flight attendant ladies guiding patients from station to station.

This photo taken from KMI's website shows the exam waiting area.

When we stepped into the waiting area one of the flight attendant ladies had our charts set up and ready, and led us first to the bathrooms to prepare the urine sample. We had to pee in a paper cup, then filter a small amount from the cup into a test tube.

You know how, when it's really important not to spill something, you find it almost impossible not to spill it? My hands were shaking pretty badly from not having breakfast, and the paper cup-to-test tube transfer was a somewhat delicate operation, so I decided it would be a good idea to do it over the toilet bowl in case I spilled. But somehow, crouching in front of the toilet with my pants still down and trying to juggle the test tube, the cork stopper and the paper cup full of pee was too much for me and I overbalanced. Luckily, I was able to save enough of the precious fluid to fill the test tube, but I made a bit of a mess.

After that we proceeded from station to station all around the waiting room. The numbers on the doors were not in order but after each exam one of the flight attendant ladies would tell us which number to go to next. The exams took most of the morning, but there weren't many people and we went through each exam station very efficiently. The only time I had to wait more than 30 seconds was outside the ultrasound exam room. The whole deal took a little under an hour. Mikang said that in previous years, when it was more crowded, it had taken all morning.

Each station was manned by a different technician. Thus each exam began with a little routine;  glance at my chart, glance up at me, sharp intake of breath, anxious query if I understood Korean, relieved laugh when I said yes. Around about the 8th time this happened, I said "yes" before the technician even asked the question, and then we both shared a good hearty laugh.

They tested my blood pressure, vision, hearing, body mass index, extracted some blood, did an EKG, a chest X-ray, an arteriosclerosis test, a CT scan (choice of head, lumbar vertebrae, cervical vertebrae, or abdomen), and an ultrasound (abdomen and choice of thyroid, uterus, or carotid). There was also the option of doing a pap smear, mammogram, and choice of UGI X-ray or endoscopic exam, which I opted out of.

In retrospect I probably should have opted out of the CT scan as well, but at the time I wasn't aware of how much radiation was involved. Everyone else seemed to be doing it, and considering how much people here freaked out over the tiny trace amount of radiation from Japan detected in rainfall we had a few weeks ago, I figured that this couldn't be that bad or more people would be objecting. Plus it was free. Honestly, it's a wonder I haven't joined a cult yet.

The strange thing is that one of the nurse/flight attendant ladies went to great lengths to talk me out of the mammogram, on the grounds that at my age it wasn't worth the risk involved in exposing my breasts to that much radiation. Then, literally in the next sentence, she directed me to the CT scan room.

Another promotional photo from the KMI website. In real life, the technician totally does not stand reassuringly by your side as you undergo the scan. He hustles his butt behind the lead door and stays there.
I opted for the head scan, because in the last year I've heard several horror stories of seemingly healthy people keeling over from some sort of brain aneurism or stroke, so I thought it would help ease my mind. Also I was kind of curious to see what my brain might look like after I've spent so many years stuffing it full of Kanji and vocabulary words. While they were doing the scan, just for fun, I tried thinking about geometry problems. Anyway, I don't know if they'll give me a copy of the scan or not, but if they do I promise to post an image.

After our exams were finished we changed back into our street clothes and headed downstairs for the dental exam. This involved filling out a questionaire cleverly designed to passive-aggressively make everyone feel really guilty about their dental hygiene practices ("How many times do you floss each day? Do you think that's an adequate amount?"). Then I stood in front of a video monitor while a lady stuck a wand in my mouth and showed me an extremely magnified high-resolution view of the state of my teeth.

Luckily she didn't spot any cavities, but I hadn't had a proper cleaning in over 4 years and she expressed much consternation over the amount of plaque buildup I had. She asked when was the last time I had something called "scaling." I didn't know what this word meant, so I said "Um, never?" Now very displeased, the lady sternly advised me to schedule an appointment with my dentist to get this done ASAP. As her lecture wound down, I timidly inquired if I couldn't just get the "scaling" done there. Why, certainly, she said, and it would only cost 40,000 won, probably half as much as a regular dentist would charge.

At this point I started feeling like I was caught in an elaborate sales pitch, which was entirely unnecessary since she pretty much had me at "hello." Dental work is one of the few things that is significantly pricier in Korea than in Japan, and I believed her when she said 40,000 won was a good deal.

"Scaling" turned out to be your basic scrape, grind and polish. It took about 10 minutes, and then we were free to go.

The next day at work, I asked Mikang if she wasn't concerned about the radiation in the CT scan. She said she wasn't sure how bad it was but, like me, she figured it must be okay if everyone else did it. Then she did a quick Google search and promptly started freaking out. "Oh my God, I've been getting one of those every year!" she exclaimed. I noticed on the KMI website that their scanner is marketed as "a low-radiation CT scanner," in which "the amount of radiation can be minimized to 1/6 of conventional CT," so there's that. I figure one time wouldn't kill me, but next year I think I'll skip it.

I had physicals several times while I was living in Japan, but nothing as extensive as this. The first was when I was working at a private company in Sendai. I don't remember much about that one, except that it was done at a local hospital and there was some trepidation among my coworkers because the Japanese government had just instituted a tough campaign to fight obesity, and supposedly if they deemed your BMI too high they could put you on a diet regimen and make you come back to monitor your progress.

Then when I entered grad school in Kyoto I remember having a physical at the school medical clinic, which was fairly basic. Later on when I was teaching at a different university in Kyoto, I took advantage of the annual physical available to all teaching staff. This happened on a designated date, before which we received a notice in the mail along with a labeled test tube. We were instructed to collect our own urine samples at home in the morning and then bring them to the physical. On that day a whole university building was occupied with exam stations set up in various classrooms, and little arrows guiding us from station to station. It was kind of fun; like a haunted house, only with doctors. The chest X-ray was done in a special van parked just outside.

The physicals I had in Japan were all somewhat less extensive than the KMI physical - they certainly didn't offer any CT scans or endoscopic exams. But one thing they offered me in Japan that they didn't in Korea was the chance to sit down with a doctor to assess the state of my health and address any questions or concerns. The Korean physical was very thorough about mechanically running through every imaginable kind of test, but there was no face-to-face encounter with a medical professional.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tales of waste disposal

One of the things I was instantly impressed by on my first stay in Seoul, way back in April 2002, was the diligence with which apartment complex residents separate and recycle their garbage. Most Seoulites live in massive, 20+ story apartment buildings, usually within a complex of several similar buildings. In the parking lots of these complexes you will find trash and recycling receptacles used by the residents.

There are separate receptacles for glass, aluminum, various different kinds of plastic and paper, styrofoam, and food waste.

A: glass B: aluminum C: hard plastic D: PET (plastic) bottles E: yogurt containers F: paper food cartons G: styrofoam H: vinyl (plastic wrap/bags) I: cardboard boxes J: paper K: non-recyclable trash L: food waste
It's not very picturesque, but it is an extremely convenient and user-friendly setup. In our complex, we can put out waste and recycling at any time. Trucks come by every night to pick them up. My coworker tells me that in her smaller complex the trucks only come on specific days, and the receptacle area is monitored by CCTV cameras so they can nab anyone who tries to leave something on the wrong day. Still, even at her small complex there are collection services for all the various recyclable materials.

The food waste is put in hard plastic tubs with lids secured by heavy stones, to prevent birds from scattering it. The other materials are put in large cloth sacks which are replaced when full. Non-recyclable trash must be put in special bags, which are sold at supermarkets for a small fee, which goes to pay for city garbage pick-up. Recycling is free for all residents. This gives people a slight but definite financial incentive to recycle as much as possible.

By comparison, the recycling situation I had in Kyoto was far inferior. Although Kyoto residents take a great deal of pride in their city's reputation as the site of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, in fact they only offer recycling for plastic, bottles, and cans - and they only recycle one type of plastic, and they only started doing that in 2007! Considering how Japanese food companies love to encase their products in multiple layers of plastic, styrofoam, and vinyl, this is quite disgraceful.

There were different pick-up days and sites for trash and recycling. If you put something out on the wrong day or in the wrong place, often a nosy neighbor would open the trash and go through it searching for something with an address on it, and then leave the bags outside the offender's front door with an accusatory note attached.

In both Kyoto and Sendai, both recycling and regular trash had to be put in special bags sold by the city, giving no financial incentive for recycling. In most neighborhoods, there is simply a designated site along the sidewalk where trash and recycling must be put out on certain days. There is seldom any means of protecting food trash from birds and other critters - at best, there might be a bit of plastic mesh netting to throw over it to keep it from blowing away. Back in Sendai, I remember one day going home mid-morning for some reason, to find that the garbage collectors had not come yet and the entire street outside my house was covered in trash that had been strewn by hungry crows. This explained a lot; I had rarely seen anyone littering in Japan, and yet the streets in my neighborhood always seemed to be full of trash.

Of course, waste disposal is a lot more manageable in a place like Seoul, where hundreds of households live together in the same massive complex. This is not possible in Kyoto because there are aesthetic laws restricting the heights of buildings. Also, Japanese people generally prefer not to build too high off the ground, due to the ever-present fear of earthquakes. I can understand how it would be impractical to have regular pickup of multiple different categories of trash for apartment complexes that are typically only 3-4 storeys and contain 10-15 units at most. But considering the massive amount of plastic that the Japanese consume every day, they ought to have a better system for recycling it.

Not only is every food product wrapped in layers of plastic, but whenever I bought anything from a convenience store in Japan, even a single bottle of juice, they would automatically put it in a plastic bag. I had to constantly remember to ask them not to bag it, and they would always give me a strange look when I did so. In Korea, unless you buy about 3 or more items, they won't give you a bag unless you ask for one, and some stores charge a small fee for bags.

Also, to this day I have no idea how one disposes of batteries in Japan. At one time in Kyoto I personally undertook a concerted campaign to figure this out; I asked everyone I knew - coworkers, friends, former professors, my landlord - and nobody seemed to know. Even an electronics shop that sold batteries couldn't give me an answer. In Seoul, by contrast, there is a bin for discarding batteries in every apartment right next to the elevators.

Also by the elevators, you will often find used furniture that people throw out when they don't need it anymore or when they move way. Some of this furniture is of quite good quality, and if another resident wants it they are usually allowed to just take it.

The discarded furniture selection in my apartment on a typical day
 When I moved away from Kyoto, getting rid of my furniture was a major ordeal. I was able to sell a few things to various "recycle shops," and I gave away a few things to friends. But everything else - my bed, microwave, refrigerator, and desk - had to be taken away by a disposal service, for which I had to pay a considerable fee. Some people in Japan clearly find these costs too burdensome, which is why anyone who hikes extensively in Japan is familiar with the sight of little graveyards of discarded furniture slowly rotting alongside dirt roads out in obscure parts of the countryside. So I was very pleased to see this simple system for discarding and re-acquiring used furniture right in my own building.

Seoul city is very proud of the efforts it has made in recent years to boost its eco-friendly image. These include significant increases in renewable energy use, several new parks and recreation areas, and a new fleet of city buses that run on natural gas. Seoul is not what I would call a pretty city; there is always a lot of pollution blowing over from China, and the highly concentrated population means inevitably there is a lot of litter on the streets and not enough greenery or parkland. Kyoto is gorgeous by comparison, blessed with clean air and surrounded by lush green mountains. Yet in terms of environmental awareness, I would give Seoul an A for effort, and Kyoto perhaps a C+.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Linguistic Milestones

The other day on my way home from work, I passed by a crazy guy on the street and realized something amazing - I understood what he was saying!

This is a big deal for me, because I have long considered understanding the rants of crazy street people to be a sort of holy grail of achievement in language learning. When I was in Japan, this was one of the very last classes of people that I eventually gained the capacity to understand. Even in the US they can be a challenge for me - they tend to mumble, and what they're saying often doesn't follow a logical sequence. Thus, as a student of foreign languages, I privately consider that when I can comprehend one of these unfortunate people speaking in a certain language, I can consider myself nearly fluent in that language.

There have been many false calls for me here in Korea, due to the growing prevalence of handless cellphones and tiny ear-pieces. Many times I have overheard someone apparently engaged in impassioned conversation with himself, and started to get all self-congratulatory, only to belatedly spot a dangling cord or a tiny device hooked around his ear and realize that he's merely a sane person talking on the phone.

But I got a good look at this guy, and with his neat buzz cut there was no way he could have had any sort of device hidden in his ear. He also displayed the telltale mannerisms, the shifty eyes and slightly sheepish grin. In the few seconds as he passed by I could understand him very clearly: he was saying something about how "In May it's all completely different." I'm not sure what that was about, but the point is, I understood him.

Over the years I studied Japanese, I developed a distinct set of benchmarks for measuring my listening comprehension. The sequence of categories can be listed as follows, from easiest to hardest:

LevelPeople I can understand
BeginnerJapanese teacher
Other foreigners speaking Japanese
Advanced BeginnerSmall children
Simple questions from cashiers and shop clerks
TV news anchors
Look Mom, no hands!Conversations between educated, clear-speaking adults
Commercial jingles
Really getting good nowPop song lyrics
Soap operas
Elderly people from the city
Borderline awesomeElderly people from the countryside
Announcements on loudspeakers
Move on to next languageCrazy people talking to themselves

I expected my Korean comprehension to proceed along a similar sequence. So I was surprised to have understood the gentleman, because I still am far from being able to understand Korean comedians or elderly people from the countryside. I'm not ready to grant myself "fluent" status yet in Korean, and I'm certainly not about to move on to a new language anytime soon, so I'll have to consider this instance an "outlier." It seems likely that this was a particularly clear-spoken individual, or I just happened to catch him in a fairly lucid moment.

After thinking about it for a bit, another explanation occurred to me: Perhaps that guy was actually another foreigner like me, and it was the process of learning Korean that drove him crazy.