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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

North Korea Discovers Photoshop

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the North Korean media has apparently been photoshopping its images of Kim Jong Il to cover up age spots on his face. They would have gotten away with it, too, except that the Chinese media hasn't been as accommodating in the photos they've published, and some alert Pyongyang watchers have begun to notice the difference.

From left: Kim Jong-il on May 23 (Chinese media), June 2 (NK media), July 12 (Chinese media), and July 29 (NK media)
 In related news, a minor sensation erupted last month when the North was caught trying to pass off this photoshopped image of its flooded streets to the AP.

North Korea's crack team of levitating amputees inspects flood damage in Pyongyang
The AP initially released the photo but became suspicious and killed it a day later, to the glee of NK bloggers everywhere. I just feel sorry for the poor graphics department that was responsible for this fiasco; if past defector accounts remain accurate, it seems likely that the entire team and their supervisors have been relocated to a remote area or sent to the camps.

The AP got a lot of flak from the hawkish crowd for setting up a Pyongyang bureau last month, but I think it will do more good than harm in the long run for those who hope to open up the regime and expose its secrets. The regime may see the AP presence as a propaganda victory and its reporters as easily manipulated tools, but in the long run the extra exposure will be impossible for regime's propagandists to manage. They are accustomed to an isolated, credulous population that has no choice but to accept their goods wholesale; they are not used to the challenge of dealing with a global networked audience, and they will continue shooting themselves in the feet with careless mistakes like these.

Blast from the Past: Mabangjib

At the height of the rainy spell last month, Unni and I went out for a drive to gawk at the flooding, accompanied by Unni's favorite uncle and his lady friend. After a long drive through the suburbs east of Seoul, we started thinking of where to stop for dinner. Unni said she was in the mood for some doenjang chigae, and Unni's uncle said he knew just the place.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I took one look at the big wooden plaque over the gate and said, "Hey, I think I've been here before!" It was Mabangjib, a popular restaurant in Hanam with an old-timey feel, where they serve Korean-style set courses of spicy grilled pork and chigae surrounded by numerous panchan (little side dishes). So numerous are the panchan that, rather than bringing the dishes out one by one, they set everything up in the kitchen and then carry the whole table out to the guests.

A mabang is literally a "horse stable," but the term implies a roadside inn where travelers could stop for a rest and a bite to eat in olden times, sort of like a highway rest stop. The restaurant derives its name from its location, supposedly the site of one of the most famous mabangs along the old route to Hanyang (Seoul) from the east coast; the restaurant itself has been in operation for over 80 years.

I know the exact date I last visited this place: March 1, 2006. I know the year because it was during my first extended stay in Korea, and the date because it was a national holiday and I didn't have to go to work. My host family, the Shins, had been planning to take me skiing, but their daughter wasn't feeling well so we went for a drive instead, and ended up at Mabangjib for lunch. I even have a photo from that occasion:

And here are Unni and me at the same place last month:

I think I look much older and more mature, don't you?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Adventures in Korean Traditional Medicine

Recently Unni and I made a visit to a haniwon, or Korean traditional medicine clinic, on the recommendation of our friend Jongshil. Unni has recently been suffering from headaches, aching shoulders, and hair loss, while I am still engaged in my life-long battle with acne, dandruff and hand tremors (before you start with your own personal miracle cure for any of the above, let me advise you that in two decades of living with these problems I have heard helpful suggestions from all manner of people: professional dermatologists in three different countries, friends, coworkers, relatives, random people at bus stops who take one look at my skin and declare that they know exactly what will solve my problem; none of these cures has made any difference).

We visited Myungbo Kyunghui Haniwon, a small clinic near Mia Samgori station. According to Jongshil, this doctor treated another foreign woman for chronic knee joint pain and within a month she was completely healed. Unni had high hopes going in; I am not yet convinced of the efficacy of Korean traditional medicine, but I will try anything once.

In Korean medicine all humans are divided into four chejil, or body types: greater yang, lesser yang, greater yin, and lesser yin. Different body types have different needs and therefore must be treated in different ways, even if they have the same problem; treatment mostly involves eating certain foods and avoiding others. Thus our first item of business was determining our respective chejil (Jongshil had already examined our pulses and declared that both Unni and I were lesser yang, so I was eager to see if the professional concurred with her diagnosis).

First they had me put my face up to a machine that took extreme close-up photos of each eye, dilated and undilated. The technicians had some trouble getting the device in position because my big nose kept getting in the way. I never did learn what the eye thing was all about.

Next they strapped me to a device similar to a blood pressure gauge, except that it strapped onto my wrist instead of my upper arm. This measured my pulse and spit out a series of numbers. The strap left a series of circular marks on my wrist.

So far so good, but the next step is where things really seemed to detour into witchcraft. The doctor took my arm, held out a peculiar gold pendant, and dangled it over each of the marks in turn.

He explained that the indents on my wrist marked the centers of energy for various organs: liver, pancreas, kidneys, and stomach. In each person, some organs give off more energy than others. The pendant will wobble more strongly over the organs that give off more energy, and this helps to determine the imbalances that are causing problems. He said that in my case my pancreas and kidneys are extraordinarily energetic, and that means I will be more prone to diabetes and pancreas-related problems. By contrast the signal from my liver is relatively weak, and thus I should have little fear of ever developing hepatitis.

The doctor concluded that both Unni and I were of the lesser yang type, just as Jongshil had said. We were given lists of the foods which are healthful and harmful to lesser yang people. "Healthful foods" for lesser yang include barley, cucumber, melon, pork, raw oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, bananas, beer, strawberries, foods containing mercury, aloe, eggs, pineapple, starch syrup, shikye (sweet fermented rice drink), mint, alkaline beverages such as Pocari Sweat, and vitamine E. "Harmful foods" include glutinous rice, brown rice, millet, sorghum, potatoes, seaweed, curry, chicken, goat, roe deer, pheasant, rabbit, dog, sesame oil, apples, oranges, tomatoes, mangoes, ginseng, garlic, green onions, onions, mugwort, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, jujube, honey, acidic beverages, calcium pills, nurungji (scorched rice), mussels, genip (sesame leaf), sangwhang mushrooms, and vitamin B.

The idea is that if we eat a lot of the foods on the "healthful list" and avoid the "harmful" foods, we will see a gradual improvement in our various ailments. I was disappointed by many items on my list, particularly chicken, potatoes, garlic, and onions, which are not only delicious but hard to avoid here in Korea. There are also a lot of items on the "healthful" list that I'm not crazy about, although "beer" was the one silver lining on the whole list. Unni was appalled to learn that mugwort, honey and ginger are no good, since she specifically makes tea from these things whenever she's feeling ill.

Unni had some acupuncture done on her head, but the doctor said that I didn't need any. He said that if I simply stick to the special diet, I should see a gradual improvement over time. My skin problems should improve within a month or two, he said, but the hand tremor will take longer. Unni could not get over how nice the doctor's skin was, "like a woman's, only prettier," and she took that as a good sign. I admit that he did have extraordinarily creamy, young-looking skin for a man his age.

We also each bought a month's supply of hanyak (Korean medicine) to help speed the healing process along. These arrived by mail the next day, in identical little packets of brown fluid. Unni's and my medicine are supposedly different although the packages are unlabeled, so we keep our respective stashes in separate refrigerator compartments. We were instructed to drink one each morning and evening until the supply ran out. The hanyak cost 200,000 won for a month's supply, but the diagnosis and consultation were free. Unni's acupuncture cost about 7000 won.

We've been on our special diet for a month now, and just went back for a refill on the hanyak packets. I've noticed no real improvement in my face and scalp, although Unni swears my face looks better. However my hands do seem to be less shaky of late. It's something that comes and goes, so it's hard to be sure, but I haven't had a really bad tremor in weeks. Unni's still complaining of headaches and hair loss, but she did not expect to see results very soon and seems more willing to believe in this stuff than I am. We'll keep at it for a bit longer, but if there isn't a big difference in a couple of months, I'm going to get myself a tub of garlic fried chicken to celebrate the failure of yet another "miracle cure."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Traditional Living Experience in Mungyong (문경새재 오는 길)

I've finally gotten through the White Paper and the pile of backlogged work that trailed in its wake, so I have time to post some photos.

Last month, Unni and I traveled to the countryside for an overnight trip accompanied by three of Unni's friends. Our destination was the mountain village of Mungyong, which is fairly well-known to Koreans and easily accessible by highway despite its remote and bucolic image. I once got confused and hilariously referred to this town as Wolgyong (*wol = moon, wolgyong = menstruation).

We stayed in a log-and-earth cottage built and managed by a formidably talented married couple, who in their previous lives had been chefs at a high-end hotel in Seoul. Unni had read a feature article about this place in the travel/food magazine Essen, which can be viewed online here. They accept only one "team" per night, and tailor the meals based on the team's particular composition (a team must have a minimum of 5 people). The cost was 150,000 won per person, including meals, lodging and use of the local bathhouse. I was told that foreigners would normally be charged 200,000, but this presumably included the cost of an interpreter. I paid the normal Korean price.

We arrived somewhat late, after Unni's car navigation led us on an adventurous circuit of narrow farm roads carving through terraced hillsides awash with heavy runoff from the rain; we had to make several calls to ask for directions. When we arrived our hostess was waiting under the front awning to receive us.

Our sleeping quarters were in a small annex set apart from the main building and equipped with traditional ondol (heating by woodfire beneath a clay floor). The room was pre-heated to be toasty warm when we arrived and some of us eagerly dove right under the covers to warm up from the monsoon-season chill outside.

The evening and morning meals were meticulously prepared and featured an assortment of local produce. Most of the vegetables were grown on-site, and a neat arrangement of pickling jars stood just off the driveway.

By the time we settled in, it was time to start dinner. We were seated at a circular stone table around an iron stove/chimney contraption. Half of the room was taken up by a series of cooking stations and a whiteboard; they also teach hands-on classes on country cooking techniques.

Our host Mr. Huh stayed in the adjoining kitchen preparing dish after dish, while his wife, the indomitable Mrs. Pak, shuttled back and forth serving us. She also lectured us on the healthful properties of the food we were eating and how to properly enjoy it, including a rather stern lesson on posture directed at one of our companions who had been sitting in a way that was apparently harmful to digestion.

Health through diet was the theme of the program. The food was rather minimally seasoned by Korean standards; Mrs. Pak explained their underlying philosophy that modern Korean food has become excessively salted and flavored, departing from traditional Korean tastes and contributing to unhealthful eating habits. They emphasized that their courses hewed more closely to the "original" diet of pre-modern Korea.

After the evening meal, we moved to the living room and enjoyed a lengthy discussion with our hosts over pink makkoli and dried fruits. As we sipped our drinks, the couple told us the story of how they decided to start this business and the process of constructing the lodge.

Mrs. Pak explained that building her own home was a childhood dream of hers, inspired by the birth of her younger brother and the realization that he would inherit everything from her parents, including the house. "I thought then, why is it that this kid gets everything and I get nothing, just because I was born a girl? And I vowed that one day I would have a house of my own that would be far superior to anything my brother had."

The couple met when they were both working as chefs at a major hotel, and Mrs. Park made the first move in their courtship. The couple had discussed going into business for themselves, and were spurred along after a serious car accident nearly claimed both of their lives.

Five years ago they designed and built this lodge in Mungyong, a superstructure of sturdy log beams with clay-like earth filling in the gaps. The description of the construction got quite technical and I couldn't understand most of it, but I gathered that they sought to imitate a building technique that dominated in the Korean countryside in the early post-war years, when people had to rebuild their homes quickly and used whatever materials were abundantly at hand.

After this discussion, Mrs. Pak gave us a demonstration of her skill in diagnosing people based on Korean astrology/physiognomy charts. We were given forms to fill out which included a variety of rather detailed questions: blood type of course, as well as the year, month, date and hour of birth, and a sort of personality test which involved making a drawing  out of a given set of geometric shapes. I tried to make my drawing look as much like a kitty as possible.

After we were finished, Mrs. Pak collected our papers and got out an enormous reference book which she cross-referenced with each of our answers. She also closely examined the shape of our hairlines across our foreheads. After about 45 minutes of intense calculation, she addressed each of us in turn and explained what her research had revealed about our personalities, physical types, life histories and fortunes. For instance, she told Unni that she sensed she had a lot of untapped potential, and that she would soon reach a point where she would have to make an important life decision. She told me that because I was born in mid-winter that meant I was uncommonly strong and sturdy physically.

She shared more details to the other women in our group; all were amazed at the accuracy of her diagnoses. But as she talked, I realized that everything she said could have been deduced or inferred by an attentive person based on our physical appearances or the contents of our earlier dinner discussion. Once I realized this, it was rather fascinating to watch her work: sort of like living in an episode of the Mentalist.

After more drinking and discussion, we finally retired to our separate quarters at about 10 pm. The room was still as warm as a jimjilbang from the ondol floor heating, which would have been quite pleasant in the winter but on this particular evening in mid-July was rather uncomfortable. The sleeping arrangements were completely Korean-style: no beds or mattresses or even futons, just a cloth mat spread out over the clay floor. There was just barely enough floor space for the five of us to stretch out side by side. I discovered that one end was somewhat cooler than the other and claimed my space there.

Once we turned the lights out the room sank into the kind of total darkness in which you cannot see your hand in front of your face. We had opened the windows wide to try to let out some of the heat, but that meant we got the full blast of the chorus of frogs outside. Though the heat and the hard floor kept me awake and the outside noises bothered Unni, this sort of sleeping arrangement is considered the height of comfort by many Koreans including our other three companions, who were soon snoring sonorously.

We woke up early the next morning and headed off to the local sauna/bathhouse before breakfast. Our hosts had arisen much earlier, before dawn, and had breakfast ready upon our return. The breakfast meal featured various fruits, steamed potatoes, mushroom sushi, colorful rice cakes, and pork shumai. One interesting innovation was American-style pancakes which we were instructed to dip in juk (rice porridge) as a kind of sauce. After the meal we were urged to write in the guest book; they were particularly eager for me to write something in English. I noted that there were a number of entries written in Japanese. Then it was time for a group photo!

Unfortunately it rained throughout the duration of our stay, so I was unable to do what I had most been looking forward to - stargazing. The nice thing about this weather was that the mist lying low on the mountains made for some very pleasing views from the lodge.

Unni made such a good impression during our stay that the couple commissioned her to make 10 ceramic plates depicting their home and garden. Unni had to rush to get these done in time because they were expecting some kind of big-shot in the ceramic business as a guest at the lodge the following weekend.