24 December 2008

Six Months In Country

Christmas Day marks six months since I set foot in Korea on June 25th. I can't believe it. Time has certainly flown. Before I came I read, and I believe wrote about since, the stages of culture shock. I am glad I did although it didn't help much. There were times when I thought: "Ok, I have moved on to the next stage." Looking back over the time now I realize that I was always behind a little. The honeymoon lasted longer, the low period was longer and deeper, and the comfortable, homey phase is still kicking in. Going through that, somewhat thoughtfully, has been one of the best things about this. It is amazing to come fresh to a new place and make a home there. Not a literal home but a heart home.

My poor blog has been whimpering in the shadows of neglect for a couple of months. I write when I want and I haven't felt like writing down the day-to-day of the life into which I have now, officially, settled. The holiday calendar in Korea is lumpy: there are no official holidays on the calendar for over three months and so we are in the last weeks of a long slog toward Christmas vacation. This has meant little travel outside of regular trips to Daegu, and I have written about that. So subject matter has been lacking a bit.This should change as a week's vacation and a lot of three day weekends are around the corner.

When I first got here someone told me to treasure my first weeks here. The wonderful terror of that first transition is fast fleeting. I am very happy that I wrote as much as I did during that time. I didn't have to go farther than my own street for material at that point. Every trip to the corner for water seemed like an incredible adventure. Although every day still seems magical and I am constantly aware of being an alien here, my main preoccupations now have returned to what they were before I came here: friends, work, and my Sig other.

Each of these things are of course completely different from before for a variety of noteworthy reasons. Friendships here are intense and brief. You meet people and, because of the surroundings and the relative anonymity of an expat community in a city this size, feel both more willing to open up to them and at the same time free of certain social responsibilities (like a keeping in touch afterwards). And people are always coming and going. There is a sizable group of foreigners here who aren't going anywhere any time soon, but the majority of the people (especially the youngest set) are only here for a year, so close friendships bloom and fade. I have been blessed with some very wonderful friends while I have been here. I have no reason to believe this will not continue. My gregarious nature has been a great asset to me here, perhaps the greatest. People are always shocked that I will literally talk to anyone. It's a hobby.

Work here is also an utterly foreign experience. Prior to coming to Korea I was a dabbler, holding down two or three part-time jobs and playing a lot in between. There was a period when I was very unhappy with my job here and I think this was partly due to the adjustment to full-time employment. There were also times when I felt that they expected too much for what they were paying me and that they took for granted all of the extras I felt I was already putting in. All of this led me to feel dissatisfied with my position and unhappy in general. But I have now come to believe that life is a matter of perception.

The Buddhist texts that I have been reading say "You are what you think." I was obsessed with the thought that I was being exploited, ridiculed, and overworked. In addition, I reached the point of paranoia that I felt my employers were looking for a reason to get rid of me. Maybe they were, because I wouldn't have blamed them. My attitude was horrible. Then, one day, after reading about Right Livelihood, I realized that this job wasn't about me. At all. I had become a captive of my own negativity. By realizing that my own perceptions of my position were the only thing that mattered I made a choice to make this about what I could offer to others, not what they could offer to me. What they owed me and whether or not I was getting it ceased to matter at that point and my job became a source of joy to me, not an anchor. I work for the kids. And they need me. And, more importantly, I need them.

And then there is 손유진 (Yujin), the real bedrock source of joy in my life now. Being around her is like hooking myself up to a battery charger. Her laughter is a like a song that gets stuck in your head. Her smile is like the clouds parting. We have a lot of challenges to face, but I believe that in the end it will all work out. I look forward to sharing many wonderful experiences with her in the future.

There is one sad thing to report. It was with great regret that I bid farewell to my friend Tom this last week. His shipping company had invited him to work in an exchange program and his six months here were up. We met in September and enjoyed many great adventures together, including one memorable trip to Japan. I, and others here, feel his absence. He is a fine individual.

Six months! Merry Solstice everyone!

19 December 2008

The Christmas Show

A great time was had by all at the Christmas Program hosted by KidsClub on Thursday evening. I have posted pictures and they are available in the Photo section. Some of them are from rehearsals on days leading up to the performance. I will relate more of the story behind them soon. Merry Solstice!

11 December 2008


I get most of my news from the New York Times and it was nice to see today on the front page of the online edition that South Korea's central bank has announced yet another massive cut in its prime rate. I am not an economist and I know very little about monetary policy and I am not going to sit here and bitch about how this downturn is affecting poor little me, but from reading the article it has become apparent to me that things are worse than even I thought.

The whole premise of the American bailout is that they can get money from Asia and Europe to plug up the holes. But according to the Times, the double-digit growth period enjoyed by the Chinese economy is a thing of the past. The growth rate in China is expected to drop to as little as 8% next year. This credit crunch will eventually affect the dollar as foreign funds become more and more pricey. That is one side of the Won/Dollar coin. The other is this: for two thousand years South Korea has been the ground meat of a cultural and economic sandwich between Japan and China and that has never been more true than today. Korea also needs capital as an emerging economy and far worse. To compound things, the Korean export economy is far more dependent on Asian demand that of the US.

My complaints about income erosion led my boss to tell me what has become a mantra in South Korea: now is the time to save money. It will bounce back. Wait it out. But what if you have no choice? What if you have to turn your hard won Won into dollars? You want to see grown men cry? Go sit in the waiting room at a Korean exchange bank. As of today the exchange rate is $1/1393. It was sitting at $1/950 when I signed in June. That is a drop of something like a rather large number in front of one of these: %.

So ok. I lied. I am complaining a little. Sorry. But I have a readership (and I really appreciate both of you) and I ultimately have to say how I really feel. People email and ask if coming to Korea is a good idea and I am responding with a resounding "IF." If you don't have to send it home right now. If you are good at saving money and can live frugally. If you enjoy working really, really hard and like teaching for teaching's sake, then by all means get your butt over here. If not, go work at Walmart. You can save a lot of money with your employee discount.

The real problem, of course, isn't the world's economy, but my own personal lack of fiscal discipline. I put off sending anything home as long as I could but I can wait no longer. And IF I would have save more this wouldn't have been as painful but... The economy, the paraphrase the poet who wrote it, is a big shit pie and everyone gets a bite.

So if it is time for dinner, lets look at the entire meal and not just desserts. I have said before and I will say it again: I love this place. The food, the city life, the people. And if you have to live on the cheap somewhere, this is a pretty good place. I could be getting paid in pesos or godforbid American dollars. The inflation rate in Korea is so low that it is actually too low. This is a two-edged sword as well: while the local buying power of your income is steady there is little justification for employers to increase salaries. I am wondering how this currency situation is going to effect salary offerings for foreign teachers. We could, after all, go teach elsewhere. But I predict that as the unemployment rate continues to climb in the US many young people might see this as a great option regardless of the economics and thus serve to hold down demand over here. Or maybe blogs like this one will influence people to take a good hard look at the realities of thier finances before making the jump. This, of course, would have done me little good in June. And I did look at the exchange rate and show it to my friends and go: "Look, it's a goldmine." A goldmine with some serious structural issues maybe, but how was I to know?

The other way to look at it is that there is probably no where to go but up. And the action by the ROK central bank yesterday bears out that they are going to do everything they can to stop the skid. Short of a worldwide economic collapse there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel so coming over here now really wouldn't be all that bad of an idea. If....

18 November 2008

Not Another How-to Post

I was thinking about how to survive in your tiny Busan apartment but then I remembered that many of the youngsters here were surviving in a place just as small with four roommates in college but I am going to write a few pieces of advice anyway if only for the people I know (you know who you are) who could benefit from a bit of motherly nagging.

  • First: Even if you are happy in your squalor, recognize that your inevitable guests will not be. Do you dishes. How to: if you have a one-holer, and you do, fill the sink with suds and dishes. As you wash them, place them on the counter where you just made a mess (the suds will drain a bit but that will help clean the counter). Arrange artfully. After all the dishes are done drain the sink and put the clean dishes back in. Clean the counter. Lay down clean drip towel. Rinse dishes and arrange artfully on drip towel, making sure that there is room for air circulation. Smoke a cigarette and admire.
  • Next: Make your bed. This has two effects. First, it causes you to take a basic step toward housekeeping first thing in the morning and this could accidentally lead to others. Second, it gives you a signal that the bed is for sleeping at night. Not at six in the evening or two in the morning. It is, and should be, a special place of sanctuary. Respect it through the ritual of bed-making.
  • Creature comforts. I am a dude. But even dudes, on solitary nights, might find the presence of candlelight comforting. I am always surprised at how a little soft light and jazz (not smooth jazz, but, like, miles or jarrett) can completely change the atmosphere of a room. If you have the energy, get to a HomePlus and pimp out your bed. Pillows, down, the works. And get some nice towels for god's sake. And a throw blanket to wrap up in. All of this, needless to say, will come in handy when you finally get drunk enough to talk to someone of the opposite sex (or).
  • Laundry. Just do it. And the more often the betterer. And don't throw your dirty underwear in the hall. Get a basket and put the stuff that needs washed in there. The stuff you can wear again fold and put at the bottom of the clean stack (duh!).
  • The Bathroom. The shower stall/crapper/toothery/shavities in these apartments present their own special challenges. Anyone who has been ready to go only to sense that they had a facial issue or hair issue has been faced with the following choice: take off your socks or go fix it at work. Solution: I have super-glued a mirror to the exit. This allows me to take one last look at my beautiful mug before launching it into the world while maintaining moisture-free hosiery. And the combination of rubber gloves, a bucket, water, Dawn detergent, stiff bristly brush, and a post-wash bleach spritzer (I have mine in an old Windex bottle [2 parts water/1 part bleach]) will (probably) keep the fungus at bay, unless you live in Nampodong, in which case you should scrub with an old fishing net and sea water.
  • Beer. A little liquor of an evening can lubricate the proceedings nicely. Just put on some music you favor and tipple. It is fun and makes the room seem comfy yet expansive. Take it from me. And Hite isn't that bad after the first two liters. Never, ever, drink Max or Soju. Especially on a school nite.
  • Cooking. A little bit of creativity and you can make a home cooked meal in that closet of a kitchen. I made a delicious soup this evening by sauteing onions, garlic, celery, carrot, baby mushrooms, and scallions in a quarter stick of Land of Lakes butter, later adding three cups of water, 1.5 cubes of Knorr's chicken bullion, and a half of a smoked chicken. After that had simmered I pulled out the chicken and threw in some egg noodles. I pulled the meat off the chicken carcass and threw it back in (the meat, i mean [the skin and bones and gristle I remained to the freezer for carcass soup later]). A friend brought a baguette (the ones at Paris Baguette don't suck) and we dined like rednecks at grandma's house. And then I did the dishes.
I could go on but I will save some of my more pointed suggestions for the inevitable eventuality that these don't work. Again, you know who you are.

09 November 2008

Unqualified Food Criticism: Dave's Fish and Chips

Several friends of mine had recommended the breakfast at Dave's so we decided to head out to Jangsan and try it out on Sunday. I have only had an English breakfast a couple of times before and neither time was in England, so what follows is merely the opinion of my own sizable gut.

There were several couples in the cozy place when we arrived. The dining room sat about twenty four and had a huge (and remarkably clean) picture window which offered a pretty nice street view and brought in a lovely morning light with the southern exposure. One wall was decorated with a hand drawn mural depicting a mill on a stream. Painted on another near our table was a hearth with a roaring fire. It was only noon on a Sunday but I still contemplated sampling some of the beers Dave keeps cold in a corner cooler. The list was impressive. I will definitely be going back for dinner.

The food came out quick and hot. Crispy bacon (I like mine a little chewier, but that is a matter of personal taste), hot toast, and a fried egg (this was exactly the way I like it although I wasn't asked: they must have read my mind), were accompanied by baked beans and a grilled tomato slice. It was all delicious and I don't think they had to wash the plate when I got done (no, I didn't lick it...I used the last piece of toast). And a nice hot pot of black tea. And juice. Many of the coffee shops in Busan serve their sugar in liquid form (sugar syrup) and I went for what I thought was a squeeze bottle of that and it turned out to be lemon juice so watch out for that. There is a dispenser of granulated white sugar in the basket as well.

We arrived more around lunch so we took the opportunity to try the specialty as well and the fish and chips did not disappoint. I like my potatoes fried a little bit more but I suspect that they are done medium rare on purpose. The fish was divine. A huge slab with just the right amount of breading done to a golden turn (that phrase courtesy of Mike Madonia in a catfish commercial back home). It was wonderful.

After our meal the proprietor came out and chatted. He has been in Korea for six or seven years and I don't think he's leaving. I probably told him way more than he wanted to know about my life (sorry...its a habit), but he was a very nice fellow who shared with me the physique of someone who knows how to find the bottom of a bowl or a bottle. I look forward to going back and sharing a beer with him soon.

Dave's Fish and Chips is a five minute walk from the Jangsan subway terminal, three if you are hungry. When you leave the subway station look around and find the 2001 Fashion Outlet store. From the corner it sits on walk to the opposite corner (the intersection has the jaywalk crosswalks) and take the sidewalk on the right. It is about half a block past the next stoplight, 2nd floor on the left. Look for a rather small (by Korean standards tiny) red sign. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Tell Dave Joe sent ya!

08 November 2008

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

I have never been a rainy day type person. I am actually a little more mental on cloudy days than I am normally and that isn't good usually (yay! three adverbs) but I love Busan when it rains. This city, for reasons peculiar to itself, really benefits from a bath. It is normally a little dusty, a little grubby, and wears all of its odors maybe a little too proudly. A little rain gives it a shine and softens the stonger smells. It is nice.

And so it has been for the last few days, which have produced a steady drizzle. I don't even need to look. I can hear the rain tread of the tires in the busy street up the alley. I think, BTW that the alley that terminates in at my building is the steepest and shortest in Busan, but this is most certainly wrong. It is certainly fun to navigate when neither of us are too dry (me or the alley).

I went to my first professional basketball game last night, the (Busan) SK Magic Wings versus the team in green. 'Magic Wings' always makes me think of some innovation in feminine hygene but I cannot recall from my subconscious the source of the association. The crowd, like so many here at any sporting event other than baseball, was sparce but enthusiastic. Koreans love to cheer and they aren't afraid to jeer either. Professional Korean sports teams are allowed a limited number of foriegn players, and basketball is no exception. They were each allowed two gigantic African-Americans. Only one was allowed to play in the second and third quarter. we missed the first quarter (Allison, Jiho, and I attended), but when we arrived Busan was about three points down. The center for Busan (who remained in) was a likeable fellow who didn't hog the ball and made some very good assists to his Korean teammates. By the end of the third quarter Busan had built a ten point lead mainly through team defence and excellent passing. The Koreans were not great drivers but they were able defenders and played a complicated pick and pass game akin to the WNBA. The center was several times signalled to stand on the baseline in three point land to draw his counterpart out of the lane, allowing the Koreans to run a successful set play, a role he graciously accepted.

The fourth quarter ushered in the other foreign player, a guy who probably would have played point or shooting guard in the NBA, and who thought (mistakenly) that everyone in attendance had come to see him. He asked for the ball every time down the floor and got it and proceeded to drive on triple teams. He usually ended up either laying on the floor, producing a fast break for the other team or being called for charging. The opponents scored 16 unanswered points and won the game handily. Needless to say I was disgusted.

Afterwards we went down to Yeonsandong (my neighborhood "downtown") and walked the narrow alleys until we found a cute little chicken spot to eat. We ordered the variety platter and it was really good. Allison, my new coworker and apartment neighbor, ordered a pitcher of Soju and fruit punch, and ended up drinking most of it. The chicken was great and I brought the leftovers home. So ended another lovely rainy Friday night in Busan.

04 November 2008

What to do if you get sick while teaching in Korea:

Go to the hospital. Once you have your alien registration card and your physical you are registered into the country's mandatory medical insurance plan. I pay about 37000 won per month out of my paycheck (employer pays the other half) for the coverage and it is well worth it. I have been sick twice since I got here and both times I got fast and effective medical treatment. Today during lunch (this is why I am writing about this) I went to the hospital across the street with a bad cold. I was examined at the door and sent directly to the doctor who diagnosed me with an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) and wrote me a prescription. I had that filled at the pharmacy down the street and I took a dose and lunchtime isn't even over yet and I feel better already. I can breath at least.

Moral of the story: get your alien card and physical as soon as possible after you arrive and if you get sick (and you will) go to the doctor immediately. I started working on my alien card fairly quickly and it still took almost a month to get everything back (you have to enroll in the medical plan after you get your card and that takes a minute as well). Also, bear in mind that immigration will be holding your passport while they process your alian registration. I had to adjust my travel plans for the first month to compensate for not having a passport. I arrived at the end of June and the school closed for the last week of July and I would likely have gone to Japan if I was sure I would have got my passport back in time.

And at these prices there is no use trying to medicate yourself with over-the-counter meds. The doctor's visit cost me 3500 won and the prescription, which included six doses of four and a half pills each, don't ask me what) cost me 1400 won for a grand total of 4900 won. That is $3.81 in the current exchange value.

Which sadly brings me to my second topic: the exchange rate. I have tried in this blog to avoid any negativity about my experience here in Korea, and there has been very little of it. My job is hard sometimes, but my jobs at home were as well. I love Busan, my beautiful adoptive hometown, and the rest of Korea (what I have seen) is a gem. The people here are wonderful and kind, and there are many other things I could say about this wonderful experience...but there has been one big downside for me.

Korea sends a major portion of their exports to the United States and as a result of the US financial crisis the won/dollar conversion rate has tanked. Since I started watching it last January it has dropped by about 30% against the dollar. It is still very cheap to live here and there is very little inflation to erode my standard of living (which can't be said of other ESL hotspots where I read that you may go from comfortable to desperate in the course of a one year contract) but I have financial responsibilities and waiting till the currency rebounds (which it almost certainly will eventually) is not an option for me. If you are in the same situation, bear that in mind when looking at your contract: if you need US currency look at the current exchange rate when contemplating a budget. Of course, there is not way to predict what will happen in six months, but is is worthwhile to see what you are working with if you have an immediate need for dollars.

Here is a link to the English language website of the Korean National Health Insurance Corporation (turn down your volume before clicking or you will get blasted with a special video message that's set to stun).

03 November 2008

Hallowe'en and Other Funtime Pictures.

Here's a set of pictures from the last two weeks or so. Included are: a kite-flying trip to the beach, a soccer game, and Hallowe'en at work. Enjoy!


Holding my Breath

One of the things I am most grateful for about coming to Korea is that I dodged the brunt of another presidential election. I do keep up on the news back home but I am never in a situation where I am forced to watch Fox "news" out of the corner of my eye (Sangamo Club) or listen to Rush Limbaugh sound bites (Cardinal games on WTAX). These things I don't miss. Even filtered however, news of this election has been disheartening. I and others (notably The Economist, my primary print source of international news) thought that this election had the potential, because of the two candidates, to be an above the belt affair. Sadly, this potential has not been realized. I had a great deal of respect for McCain prior to this election. I didn't always agree with his views but I felt that he was frank about them and had the kind of integrity woefully lacking in the rest of his party's leadership. All that went out the window with the nomination of Sarah Palin, about whom less said's the better. It seems since that time McCain has lost what little control over the character assassins heading his campaign. There have, to be fair, been warnings from many Republican operatives that Palin might permanently destroy the party, but this, sadly, is unlikely. This election, should it lead to a Democratic victory, will likely spell the end of a NeoCon minority controlling the Republican party, as it has for the last 25 years, and this can only be good for everyone. Indications are that the Christian right, fiscal conservatives, and Purple state labor have finally seen through the lies and are prepared to defect. If so it would mean the end of the Hannitys and Rowes. I should probably wait to post this until after the election but what the heck. I am a blogging maverick.

24 October 2008

Thank You Kenya!

I have been waiting and waiting for a legit hit from Africa and I finally got one today. Someone from Kenya looked at my blog. I thought about calling Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates Africa but they are Asia. So now I have been read on every continent but Antarctica and that doesn't count. Some of you might wonder why this is important to me and why it should be important to you and why I am writing about who reads my blog and they answer to that is simple. I am vain.

The other answer is that I want certain people to know that a lot of people apparently find what I write interesting enough to check it out. Many, many people read this blog and many of you have taken the time to write and say hi or even to ask me questions. The last post, on teaching, generated some interesting emails from people who were teaching in Korea who had similar or dissimilar experiences and a couple of people who were thinking about coming over and had questions. I wish that I had done that and I am glad to help in any way I can. And if the last post came off negative I am sorry. I love it here and coming to Korea is the best decision I have ever made. It isn't easy and there are bad days but most of the time it is a dream. I wouldn't trade my time here for anything.

It rained here for a few days but today there is a high blue sky and visibility is incredible. From my classroom window I can see ships out on the ocean and that must be at least 10k. I have been going out for guy night every Thursday with Tom for a couple months and last night Brian joined us. Steamed pork and the batting cages. Tom and I have been hitting at least once a week and I am not joking we are getting pretty good. Last night I changed Tom's grip and he was cranking them. The pitching machines throw like Bob Gibson. I didn't hit much in the USA so I don't have a point of reference but these machines are wild. I mean throw at your head wild. A couple are consistently high but the one I usually hit (the fastest: 140kph) throws mostly strikes with the occasional beaner. The lefty machine threw a Rick Ankiel last week (about twenty feet high and outside). That will keep you on your toes.

I am now the only male teacher (out of thirty) since Clayton left and that is kind of weird. I have to go get the rice by myself now. Carrying two stacked pots of rice and water up six flights of stairs every morning is good for me. This morning the cook filled my pockets with tangerines as I left the kitchen.

Yujin had midterms this week and I can tell talking to her on the phone she is utterly exhausted. She is coming to Busan tonight on the train and I am going to give her some TLC and relaxation tonight. I think we are going to fly kites this weekend. I bought some small ones and Brian has a stunt kite and I think we are going to Daedaepo. It is a very wide beach with lots of room to run around. I think the water has gotten to cold to swim but I might try. Hopefully I won't get burnt.

17 October 2008

Teaching English in Korea

I have been waiting a while to write this post. I wanted to see how things shook out and to let time mellow my perspective. Let me say first: I am not an expert on teaching in Korea. There are people who have been here for many years and if I were to seek out advice on the subject I would search out someone with far more experience than me. I will even put you in touch with them if you want. That said, what follows are merely my perspectives on the topic.

If I had it all to do over again I don't think I would teach at a hagwan. Not if I really wanted to teach and I think I do. A hagwan is a business, and as such has a responsibility to its clients to provide them with what they want. There are two ideas at work in this business/education dynamic. I am not an economist, but I am familiar with the principle that it is more important to provide a customer with what they really want, not what they say they want or mistakenly believe they want. This is one thing. The other thing to consider is who the customer is. This is really where the complication begins because at a hagwan there are two sets of customers with conflicting desires. The children are the front line clients, the ones who directly receive the services we provide, and they want one thing: fun. This is fine. They are kids. The parents want their children to learn English. Or this is what they say they want. But Korean parents, and Korean society in general, have a belief that childhood is a time for happiness. They take this seriously, and if a kid says she isn't enjoying her classes they pay attention. Korean children, in the company of their parents, are generally allowed to run amok. I like this approach to childhood. I am actually very good at providing the children with this service: I can have fun and run amok with the best of them. I can also teach English. I am rather good at it and have been doing it for some time.

The problem is doing both: even an unbalanced blend seems impossible at times. Because when you have a classroom full of kids laughing and talking and having fun, discussing the quirks of English articles is not going to work. They won't even hear you. Learning English, at least at the third and fourth year level, is hard. It involves memorization of a massive vocabulary, the comprehension of a syntax completely different (in the case of Korean and Japanese) from their native form, and, in addition, the mastery, or at least comprehension, of the base material (for example, I have two classes that use science textbooks to learn ESL, so those kids have to get the taxonomy of invertebrates [not a simple thing] while trying to learn English).

The classes in the morning, 7-year-old first and second year ESL students, are easy to entertain and it is possible to use stealth education techniques. The 9- and 10-year-old third and fourth year students in the late afternoon aren't bad either. They are trained as learners by now and wouldn't be here if they didn't want to be.

It is the four classes at the beginning of the afternoon that are a bitch. These are older (8-9) kids who are just coming to English for the first time. Some of them are second year and didn't get anything the first year and are sinking. Some of them are really bright 9-year-olds and reading about Herbert Hippo and Tess Tiger going on a picnic is not ever going to stimulate them to learn or behave. So I end up with half of the class really struggling and needing what amounts to individual attention as challenged learners and the other half needing individual attention as disciplinary problems arise because they are bored out of their minds. And if that isn't bad enough (and it is), there are the parents who want to know why their genius child is bored or standing in the corner or can't speak one sentence of English after two years of expensive lessons or has homework every night or comes home and says he hates English class and never, ever wants to go back because it isn't "fun."

So this job is really frustrating sometimes. Sometimes I wish I would have taken the advice of my recruiter and taught at the university level, four classes a week and two months vacation. I imagine: no unrealistic parents, no unmotivated learners, no ddongchim in my hemorrhoid, no smart-asses. There are also times when I am having a bad day and I feel a little hand slip into mine and a little black pair of Asian eyes looks up into mine and they say "Why are you sad?" And the funny thing is, at that point I have to say I don't know.

15 October 2008

Gyeongju Part II

Gyeongju was the capitol of Shilla, a kingdom that ruled the southern Korean peninsula for nearly a thousand years. The dynasty was formed there in 57 BC and remained in power until 930 AD. This city at one time topped one million inhabitants, then making it one of the largest cities in the world. In 668 the two other kingdoms on the peninsula (Goguryeo in the area now controlled by North Korea and the Baekje centered around the Seoul area) were subdued and Korea was first united under one ruler. The kingdom was weakened by factionalism within and pressure from another kingdom in the north until in 930 a Goguryeo military leader, Wang Geon, defeated Shilla and once again united the continent under his dynasty, Goryeo (from which the name Korea is derived). This dynasty lasted until its overthrow in 1392. The succeeding dynasty, founded by Yi Seong-gye, lasted till 1910, when the country was occupied by Japan. (This historical information from the Lonely Planet and travel pamphlets.)

Over the last thirty years the Korean government has made monumental efforts in the recovery, preservation, and restoration of the thousands of structures and artifacts located in the Gyeongju area. History is incredibly popular in Korea, and they rightfully feel proud of the relative stability of their kingdom throughout history. Whenever I have the opportunity to flip channels on Korean TV I invariably find a few channels devoted to historical documentaries and dramas based on the ancient era. Koreans also love to travel, and Gyeongju is a choice destination for many people. When we were there the place was packed, but there are so many sites to see and they are so open that it didn't seem too overused. Only at Seokguram, where there is one way in and one way out and only room for maybe twenty people to look at a time, was it a real problem.

And the curators of the place have done a good job to balance the reverence and respect necessary for things like tombs and temples with the entertainment value and crowd control necessary for high volume tourism. The city itself has made an attempt to maintain the feel of an ancient city. The two most obvious ways are in the restriction of multi-story buildings around the historic sites and the insistence on traditional roofing in those areas. Many people, wanting the traditional experience to extend to their palette will dine at one of the many restaurants near the historic sites offering "traditional Korean food." I couldn't tell the difference between "traditional" and "modern" Korean food and that is telling. Korean food is excellent across the board, and if the adage holds then "if it ain't broke don't fix it."

Here are the things we saw while in Gyeongju, in no particular order:

  • Cheomseongdae: This is "the Far East's oldest astronomical observatory. We went to this site twice, once on foot and a second time on a tour bus that duplicated couple of the previous day's path. I mention this because the tour guide had to explain to us why we were parking so far away. The observatory, because of nearby traffic among other causes, had begun to tip slightly a la Piza. This is particularly problematic for an astronomical observatory obviously. Various stones and their arrangement indicate the various components of the astronomical system as they were understood when the structure was built in the seventh century. I was interviewed by a college student when we visited the first time and he asked me what I thought the significance of this place was. I told him that while his culture was practicing actual science my ancestors were burning people at the stake for even postulating that the earth might not be flat or at the center of the universe. (If you want more technical information about this and other sites in the list I have linked to Wikipedia above.)
  • Anapji Pond: When this site was reconstructed in 1975 researchers were delighted to find out that many of the original artifacts and archetectural components had ended up in the pond. As it was dredged and rebuilt they foudn ceramics, fixtures, wooden beams, and foundation stones from the palace. It was originally built to be a "pleasure garden to commemorate the unification of the Korean peninsula under Shilla" (LonePlan 200).
  • Bulguksa: With construction beginning in 528, this sprawling temple complex in the mountains south of Gyeongju has been called the "crowning glory of Shilla temple archetecture." It is situated in the midst of beautiful gardens and landscaped grounds. A pond with a beautiful bridge and grotto lay between the main gate and the temple complex. Huge courtyards surrounded by an arcades hold the two main temples. Others are accessible only by climbing incredibly steep stairways. Monks were painting in the courtyard of the temple highest up the mountain. It was a beautiful place. If I am able to do a temple stay at some point I would like to do it here. Buddhists from all over Asia have been making pilgrimage to this place for centuries. The Wiki for this site is particularly well done.
  • Seokguram: Like Bulguksa, Seokguram has a place on the Unesco World Heritage List. This is the only historic site that I had previous knowledge of before coming to Korea. The huge stone Buddha at this site was one of two or three depicted in the Asian section of the Humanities 101 textbook I taught with at Lincoln Land. It was truly amazing to see this in person. The Buddha sits in a stone rotunda that is partially carved into the side of a mountain. The Bhudda itself sits 3.5 meters tall and overlooks the sea from its mountain perch at 750 meters above sea level. Since times of old he has been regarded as a protector of the nation.
  • Cheonmachong: One of the many tomb mounds, or tumuli, in Gyeongju, this one has been escavated and is open to the public. Half of the tomb's core has been removed, allowing visitors to see how the tombs are constructed. Wooden beams box the burial chamber, which in this case was about 3x5m. There were many gold artifacts unearthed from the tomb and replicas were on display, including golden crowns, diadems, and breastplates, painted horse tackle, and bronze table service.
There were other things, including a group of traditional dancers, which were talented and beautiful to behold. All of these things are viewable in the picture album posted here. Thanks for reading.

14 October 2008

Haedong Yonggungsa and Songjeong Beach

This Sunday past Yujin and I went for a short trip to Haedong Yonggungsa. The temple is located in a place that (I think at least) is geographically significant. I think of the point it sits on as being the southeastern corner of the squarish bottom of Korea. Why this is important to me is because when I first can here I had a very difficult time getting my cardinal points straight in my head. Part of this is due to the Korean idea of space and its measure and marking (the streets here don't have names and they have a habit of printing maps without regard to the compass so north isn't always on top). It is also due to the fact that I somehow got it into my head that Busan stood on the easter shore of the peninsula. It doesn't. It faces the sea in an almost due southerly orientation. I have slowly reoriented my head, but once you screw something like that up you never really get it right again.

The beach was nice. I would like to go there again. There were a few hotels on the strip and some restaurants but the whole scene was a lot less built up than Haeundae or Gwangan. There was even a little surf shop that rented kayaks. Next time I am taking a kite.

The temple was crowded but beautiful nontheless. It seemed like more of a wishing well than a temple I fact, the temple was reached by a large granite bridge spanning an ocean gorge and there was a pool at the head of the gorge with a Buddha in the middle holding a bowl and people were chucking money off of the bridge at a hectic pace, trying to hit that bowl. I emptied my pockets. There were also little places to pray and light candles and incense all over. Several of the statues are accorded special powers. The Buddha whose belly I am touching is supposed to grant male heirs. I don't want any heirs of either sex but we will see what happens.

There are quite a few pictures and they are posted here. I tried to take a variety of shots, landscapes and close-ups. I have been watching photography lessons on You Tube. I hope my photography is improving but it is not my strong suit. Yujin has a real knack for finding artistic subjects so if you see a very good one it is probable that she took it.

There Was a Farmer Had a Dog

We just got back from the best field trip we have been on. The director (owner) of the school (daycare) owns a farm (house and garden) near Gijang and we went there for the children to get a taste of the country life. They shelled beans (the red soy variety that goes into the red bean sauce), dug potatoes, dug peanuts, picked about a peck of peppers, and generally had a great time. I loved it. After we were finished in the garden they took me into the courtyard of the house where they were in the middle of a variety of industries: drying peppers and beans, salting vegetables for kimchi, and picking the seeds out of huge cucumber-ey looking things (they use the dried membrane around the seed to scrub dishes). I told Jenny teacher to ask if I could stay and the lady who lived there said something that made everyone laugh and Jenny translated it as "you can live here with me," but I think it was maybe something more suggestive. They told me I can go there anytime I want and I think I will. There is a bus (181) that goes right to the gate. About ninety percent of the gardens were given over to the cultivation of three crops: cabbage, peppers, and sweet potatoes. There were also peanuts, onion, eggplant, and a few things I didn't recognize. The mountains closely surrounded the farm but it was on the southern face of the hillside so it was light and warm. The mountains across the valley were cool and dark. In the valley below workers were in the fields haresting cabbage. It is the time of year now when everyone puts up their stock of kimchi for the year. The kimchi made now, properly salted and buried in the ground in huge crocks, will last until next year this time. I am not a fan of the "ripe" kimchi that is everywhere now, as it has been fermenting for almost a year. I like the fresh stuff. Hopefully that will be more common soon. We tried some pickles at the farm that the farm lady had made and they were delicious. Along one side of the garden was a vine covered place to sit, and I think I might go there and sit under it soon. Next time I will take my camera.

09 October 2008

Gyeongju Part I

Although Busan and Daegu and Gyeonju roughly form a triangle I thought it would be nicer to travel together so I took the train to Daegu after work Thursday night. Friday was National Foundation Day (3 October 2333 BC Tan-gun left his heavenly home and bear-mother and formed the Choson dynasty and, as a result, Korea). Yujin had a class till 9:30 but she ditched the end of it and we went out for some dinner: makjang, table grilled pig intestines sliced into little rings which I actually like quite a bit if they are cooked at least medium-well. I stayed at the same hotel by the station and the same old lady asked me if I wanted a sex-partner and I again said no and it felt like home.

They had been giving me a room on the fifth floor with a view of the dirty back of the hotel behind and I, habitually convinced I am being screwed, had determined to get one of the nicer rooms I had seen on the street side down on the second floor (the first floor is a couple of restaurants). Well I found out that night that they had actually been doing me a favor because the second floor is a very busy place. I heard things I am still trying to forget and I think I actually started dreaming even worse things and as a result I am not sure what was what. And there was some confusion anyway when I told them I wanted to be on the second floor they showed me the clipboard and I thought the ones with the checkmarks were open and I pointed to one of them and they looked at me real funny and took me up there anyway and got out the house key (bad sign) and unlocked the door and there was a pile of shoes inside the door (worse sign) and strange noises were clearly audible. I said "AnnEEEEEEE!" ("NOOOOOO!!!") and we slammed the door and took off down the hall and ducked into the first open door and that became my room. Never again.

There were no seats on the train so we got a couple of tickets on the bus for the following morning (3300W! [$3.30]). It was a nice trip and quick. On the way there we got out the old LonePlan and called around to some hostels and motels and I wanted to stay in the Hanjin Hostel which is supposed to be super cool but they didn't really have couples-type accomodations so we got a room down the street from there at the Taeyang-jang Yeogwan (30000W) and when we got there we found the fella to be very nice and the room even nicer. It was decorated with genuine imitation Victorian furniture and had a huge bed and a nice big brand new bathroom with a nine headed shower, not counting the hand-held. Lovely.

I am skipping over a couple of things that we saw because I want to put all of the sightseeing in the next post together. The rest of this post I want to devote to Friday's lunch and the afternoon's entertainment.

At lunch we went to Kuro Ssambap. The parking lot and the entryway were surrounded by cages filled with exotic birds and the foyer had a strange set of figurines set up in a display of folkways. There were also stuffed birds (former members of the menagerie outside?) and a large collection of interestingly shaped rocks. This is a hobby of Chinese origin (called suseok I think in Korean) practiced of old by the aristocracy: the collection and artful display of rocks that vaguely, and I mean very vaguely, resemble something else. I have seen these before (in Mokpo), and it always seems to me that there must have been a rock somewhere which more resembled a horse or whatever it is supposed to be, but that part of the deal was that you really had to squint to see it. If it was too close, it ruined it. That is the way it seems to me anyway. For all of this (I didn't even mention the souvenir stand), the real show is the food. The goal of ssambap is to fill the table. It is considered crappy ssambap if you can fit any more dishes on the table when they are finished carrying it all out. And that was the first thing that amazed me. The speed at which the staff got the food out. The first lady brought out three or four of the larger items and the second lady brought all the rest on one big shiny aluminum tray. It all fit together like a puzzle. These trays, I could see in the kitchen, were stacked to the ceiling along the walls and they got one down and put the hot items on there and muscled it out. And these gals were not big either. They bussed the tables just as quick. All the dishes nestled together and everything fit just so and back it went. I don't like to think about that because we ate about one fourth of the food they brought and the economic reality of the situation is that it all went back and got recycled. But anyway...

The food. I took the time, with Yujin's help, to write it all down. This is a good primer into the basic principle and selection of Korean restaurant service. All Korean meals include up to a dozen refillable side dishes, called banchan. These vary from restaurant to restaurant and most places change at least some of the dishes regularly based on season or the whim of the proprietor. Some of them are very strange, and some of them are not very tasty to my palette at least, but I like to try new ones anyway and I have found that some things I was almost positive I wouldn't like were absolutely delicious. So, in the picture above, starting in the top right corner, here is the line-up (apologizing in advance for inaccuracies and misspellings. Yujin even had to guess on a couple of identifications and my notes have corrections made after tastings. I also apologize for the photograph, which is slightly out of focus and will not justify much magnification, although you can try by clicking on it):

  1. songpyeon: traditional Korean rice cakes. Like eating Playdough. Yujin loves them ("I'm Korean") and ate all four of these.
  2. Sesame leaf, blanched.
  3. Sesame leaf, pickled with kochujang (see below).
  4. Yujin's rice pot.
  5. Yujin's soup.
  6. Cucumber kimchi.
  7. Yujin's rice water. Don't ask.
  8. Fresh greens (for wrapping and flavouring). Lettuce, kale, dandelion, cilantro.
  9. (row two, beginning on the right) Oysters in kochujang. I am guessing on the seafood. When you order hoe, the Korean raw fish banquet, the sides often include a selection of gutted sea squirts, sea cucumbers, and sea snails. It could have been one of those but I thought I recognized something about them and am calling it oyster. Complex and delicate taste and texture.
  10. Small dried anchovies with tiny hot green peppers in rice vinegar and sesame oil. These little boogies were hot, now. I made Yujin a wrap and snuck some of this in and asked her if it was hot: "I'm Korean."
  11. Spinach cooked in soy sauce with sesame oil and sugar.
  12. Small dried anchovies in kochujang. These little fish add a nice salty flavour to a wrap. The kids at school often have a fistful for their morning snack.
  13. Beef boiled with soy sauce. Dry but delicious.
  14. Larger whole anchovies in a pepper sauce.
  15. Lemongrass pickle, we thought.
  16. (row three, right) Paek kimchi. This is the white cabbage kimchi. Less spicy, more sour notes.
  17. This plate holds two kinds of kimchi. The one on the right is similar to the gat kimchi sold in Hyangiram. It is made of what I think are mustard greens and has a slightly mustardy marination. The other is the traditional red cabbage variety, called baechu kimchi.
  18. Whole fish, lightly battered and fried. This definitely fell into the "better than it looks" category. It was light and fresh and surprisingly meaty. This, and the next five dishes (excepting the sauces and egg pot), comprised the main courses of the meal.
  19. Pork bulgogi. Absolutely wonderful. Just a little fat and cooked down in a sweet, spicy marinade.
  20. This and the next, adjacent the bulgogi, are the ketchup and mustard of Korean cuisine. First, on the right, is red bean sauce, made from soybeans and red pepper. Mildly spicy, it is a key component in many soups and stews and goes well with anything in wraps.
  21. The other sauce, kochujang, is red pepper paste. I have both of these sauces in the fridge at home. I have come to really love this one, however. It is a reduction of red pepper powder and glutinous rice flour. Very hot, very sweet. Some varieties add in some garlic and I like those the best. I eat it in everything. Tonight for supper I had kochujang tuna salad over tomatoes (I found some!).
  22. Beaten egg soup in a hot pot. Some of these are more soup, less egg. This one was all egg. They heat the pot up till it turns red and pour in the liquid (usually salty chicken or fish broth) and then drop in the egg. It is still boiling away when they bring it out.
  23. Same with this. It is doenjang jjigae, which means soybean paste (think miso, but stronger) stew. It had seaweed and bean sprouts and was really good. This might have been Yujin's single favorite dish. Guess which one was mine?
  24. Not this one: rice porridge. I don't remember if this one had much in it. I have had very good rice porridge, but for me the texture has to be just right and I like mine with seafood and vegies. To gritty and I think grits, too smooth and it feels unfoody. I think now that if it wasn't in the picture I just would have clean forgotten it.
  25. Pajeon. Green onion pancake. If I could have got the nerve up to ask for a refill of anything (which is not only allowed but usually appreciated), it would have been this. I get this whenever I can. The batter is more crepe than pancake, crispy on the edges and gooey in the middle. Many times served with chopped octopus: fantastic. (After writing all of this my mouth just now started watering.)
  26. (row four, right) Cucumber pickles.
  27. Mushrooms. These and a dish on the next row were served in a white marination of a kind I have not encountered. It tastes good, but something about it seems, well, alive. (I am sure corrections will be forthcoming so hold on.)
  28. Pickled fish. Tiny raw filets in a spicy brine, almost a sweet ceviche. But not quite. It was another good wrap ingredient. I think we ate all of it.
  29. Clear noodles with tofu. Classic, simple and delicious.
  30. Bean sprouts.
  31. Bracken. She looked up the Korean word in her cell phone translator and that is what it said.
  32. (bottom row, right) Silverware. This is how it comes.
  33. My rice water.
  34. My soup.
  35. My rice pot.
  36. Long beans in the mysterious white marinade.
  37. Bell flower. Translator again.
  38. Blanched greens (for wrapping). White cabbage, kelp, and turnip greens (my favorite, excepting sesame leaf).
Well there you have it. I meant to get to the entertainment tonight but that ain't happenin'. There are pictures up now and you can view them here.

08 October 2008

Name That Fruit

I thought it would be nice, given the title of the last post, to contradict myself and literally eat some raw fruit just to show the world (and I guess myself too) that I am not a chickenshit and can still eat raw fruits and vegetables in Korea. I just don't know what I am eating. I meant to buy some tomatoes to go with my canned tuna. I got off the bus one stop early and went to the street vendor there and bought these beauties. I got them home and started cutting them up and noticed immediately that they don't have seeds. I thought: "Hey, I like seedless tomatoes! Wait. Seedless tomatoes?" Then I tasted one. It ain't tomato. I have no idea what it is. They are actually quite good. A bit of mellow sweetness and a very light flavor. The closest I can come to the taste is cantaloupe, but that isn't right either. If you know what they are let me know, and if you need a better look, click the pic.

By the way. I scrubbed them with soap.

I had intended to get a post on my trip out tonight, since it will be Sunday before I can work on it again. But when I plugged my card into the computer I realized I had 535 pictures. I want to publish the photos with the posts and it will take a little time to get through them. Some of them are rather good I think and I want to work on them a bit. So bear with me. There will be a Gyeongju post shortly.

06 October 2008

Don't Eat Raw Fruit or Vegebles In Korea. Ever.

I woke up Sunday morning in Gyeongju feeling bad. Really bad. I got out of bed and immediately threw up the entire contents of my stomach. And then some. At first I cursed the soju which I had drank the night before but it soon became apparent that this was not alcohol poisoning. I had only drank maybe five beers and a couple of sojus the previous evening and that would not ever make me throw up. This was something worse. Far worse.

I had read in the Lonely Planet and on the CDC website the warnings about eating raw fruits and vegetables in Korea and I had scoffed. This was a horrible mistake. The night before we had visited a bar and as part of the "service" one is always provided they gave us some cucumbers and grapes. I had eaten of the poisoned fruit.

The immediate problem, aside from my impending death, was that we had tickets for the train that morning. I was so sick I could barely walk. I begged Yujin to go without me, to leave me to die. She refused and packed everything and dressed me and helped me out to the curb. We flagged a taxi and I limped from the cab stand to the platform and got a can and a half of Pocari Sweat down me. I threw this up soon after the train left and spent most of the next hour and a half in the tiny train toilet alternately standing up and sitting down and sometimes both. I was really hurting bad: horrible abdominal cramping, dripping with sweat, aching all over, green. And the train stopped like ten times and I wasn't sure where we were so every time it slowed down for a station I got myself together a bit and went to wake up Yujin (gods bless her) and ask her if we were there yet.

We weren't. The air conditioner in our car was broken so the conductor kept fiddling with the electric console (right outside of the bathroom is why I know) and he finally rigged up the fans or something but we were the first car behind the engine and the fans sucked in the diesel fumes. This really helped. As did the fifty screaming children on their way to the beach. By the time we got there the car was empty but for a few seats, including the one behind me, and I will tell you how sick I was: this Person had a bag of chips or something and the sound of the bag crinkling was sending waves of nausea through me. I muttered curses about it and I think Yujin must have said something to him because the sound stopped but I am not sure because the sickness had gotten worse and worse and I was delirious.

We then faced the walk to the terminal (the car closest the the engine of course being the furthest from the 150 steps up to the station. There was a down escalator.) We got a cab and I somehow made it home before I threw up again outside my apartment in front of three of my neighbors and the Chinese delivery guy. Yujin had seen enough by this point and shooed me up to my apartment and went to get the "medicine" I had to this point been refusing. She came back from the pharmacy with two pills, a small brown bottle, and a tiny brown vial with a rubber cork in it. She told me to drink half of the brown bottle with the pills and then she uncorked the vial and poured that in the bottle and shook it up and I drank that. It tasted like the distilled contents of a compost heap. I felt better immediately.

I asked her about it later. She said she described my symptomology to the "pharmacist" (these pharmacies don't sell prescription medicine) and he went back behind the counter and started mixing. There has been previous mention in this blog of secret serums (see the sea-sickness episode) and I am now a believer.

I spent the next twenty-four hours in bed. I am a complete baby when I am sick, but Yujin seemed to think this was heaven: her very own patient! After the nausea and diarrhea went away I developed a pretty high fever. She put cold rags on my head and put another one in a Ziplock in the freezer and put that one under my neck and made me soup and made me eat a little of it. She stayed Sunday night instead of going back to Daegu and I woke up periodically to the feel of her little hand on my forehead. She is an angel. I don't know what would have happened if I had not had her here. I think I really could have died. I drank almost four liters of water last night and today and I still feel dehydrated.

This was the end of a wonderful weekend at Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom, a dynasty that ruled the peninsula for a thousand years. I have many wonderful pictures and stories to relate and they will be coming forthwith. Peace.

28 September 2008

They Take a Pair of Scissors...

It has been a quiet week for the most part. I had the end of the month paperwork to do at work, which filled the few minutes around classes and the week seemed to go quickly. I went out with friends a couple of nights and Yu Jin came to visit on Saturday. That really about covers it.

I guess I have to admit that the trip to Japan affected my view of Korea more than I thought. It would have been easy enough to begin to look at things differently, but seeing firsthand an Asian culture with a little more (ok, a lot more) affluence really knocked the shine off of things around here. I still don't really understand a lot of things about Korea and going to Japan made me ask a lot more questions. This is an old culture, far older than the one I come from, so it is difficult for me to find perspective. And at the bottom of it all this is still a very beautiful country with incredibly warm people. The city can be shabby and in places dirty but it also has its little gem neighborhoods and a stunning natural setting. And to be fair, my tour of Japan was far from comprehensive. I will keep trying to figure out what I mean and try to say it at some point without sounding superior (which I really don't feel anywhere here in Asia).

I spent about four hours today sitting at the cafe Yu Jin and I have made a habit of take brunch at on Sundays. It is right on the beach (Gwangali) and looks straight out at the bridge. I like to read and sip tea. She did homework today and drinks coffee. It is a lovely setting. The days have become a bit cool now, and I broke out my fleece for the first time today. It was nice to sit on the terrace and read. Sailboats were out in the bay and further out the big freighters were loping by either toward the port or away. Above the seacoast cliffs off to the west a group of para gliders were looping through the updrafts in slow turns. I counted nine at one time.

The brunch is simple. In addition to the tea and coffee there is toast and scrambled eggs, soup, tater tots, vegetables, and mini-make-em-yerself pizzas on garlic toast. I use the pizza fixings to make melty omelets. The little salad bar is highlighted by honest to god tomatoes. Pastries and cookies and tofu-rice pockets (what are they called?) are also available. And at 6600W I think it is a great deal, especially since they don't care if you sit there for three hours and drink four cups of tea.

Saturday we went to a Giants game. Before that we went to the gymnasium across the street from the stadium to see what the TreX Games were about. It was billed as a gathering of traditional sports from all over the world. At the gymnasium there was a Thai boxing competition underway, and the field was indeed international. I saw flags from countries I didn't recognize, as well as Mexico, Iran, USA, France, Russia, and Serbia. The Iranian team fielded a female boxer who came into the ring wearing (I am not making this up) a BURKA under her boxing outfit. She then proceeded to beat the crap out of some girl with a blond ponytail. I took the opportunity to enlighten Yu Jin about female circumcision and she agreed that this could account for the girl's hostility.

Next weekend is a three-dayer and I am going to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla monarchy and home to several UNESCO world heritage sights. Next weekend is also the opening of PIFF, the Busan International Film Festival so we are going to try to catch a few films as well. Should be a busy weekend.

22 September 2008

The Weekend in Pictures

This post contains a haphazardly selected group of photos taken over the last few days. They were taken at Somyeon, Gwangali Beach, and Nampodong, among other places, and have been partially captioned. Say "Kimchi!" KoreaPics18

19 September 2008

Fukuoko, Japan. Bonus Pics!

Here are some pictures that Tom took of our trip to Japan (the captions are in German). I think that his are better than mine and he got the biggest Buddha. Enjoy!
Tom's Japan Pics

16 September 2008

Fukuoka, Japan. Part II

Thus began my favorite part of the day: the archaeological building, sports grounds, Fukuoka castle ruins, and Ohori Park, with its beautiful lake and Japanese garden. It is worthwhile to note that the pace of our trip and the direction it took were the accomplishment of Tom. He had a pretty good plan and he kept us moving. I could not believe the ground we covered in one day. I'd had a bad time the previous night with my nethers but I was determined not to be inhibited on my one full day in Japan so I took some supportive measures on Sunday and this really helped (thanks WebMD momma!). I also took the time to rest periodically and Tom was kind about that. By the end of the day we had walked from Hakata Station to Hawk's Town and my dogs were barking a good one. Luckily, I knew an electronics store with a full-body massage chair.

Tom eats about every two days. I eat about every two minutes. I think, and I told him, that the best way to experience a culture is to put it in your mouth. He allowed this point, if for no other reason than that if I was eating at least I would render myself unable to speak. We looked around and quickly found a noodle shop and went in and sat down. We stood back up and were directed to a vending machine by the door with the menu and prices. We picked a couple of things out and stuck in our money (Y550) and gave the ticket and shortly were delivered steaming grub. I got the special (see the picture) and Tom got something with some crispy noodles. I ate a bite. It was all good. Sides of fried dumplins. Green tea.

On through the shopping district and, after finding a present (a little cherry tree made out of copper wire with rose quartz petals), we broke through to the Fukuoka-jo archaeological area. Tom, walking blind, hit it smack on. We went down an uneven path bordered by a ditch populated by giant koi and trees occupied by a group of huge blue-black ravens. They apparently thought we were hilarious.

And I must have appeared strange to to the birds and all the bird-like zero-body-fatted peoples of Japan, but they don't stare and point like the Koreans. A friend of a friend, female and apparently attractive (I haven't met her), told Tom that she didn't want to live here for much longer because she didn't want to fall victim to what she called the "princess syndrome." Males and females alike she had seen afflicted by an artificially high sense of self-esteem because of the attention: they get a big head, in other words. I, not being the typical "stylishly skinny, twenty-something, just-graduated, hot-enough-to-club-anywhere" type foreigner, have felt something quite the opposite here at times, something which I will call the "Shrek syndrome." I feel scary, at times, and sadly small for my size.

But I digress. There is, upon my first impression anyway, less danger of this in Japan. And (nice segway) this might be because of the unfettered wanderlust displayed by the Japanese throughout history. I actually recognized some of the amphora at the ceramics display in the archaeology display (I taught Humanities 101 a couple of times back home). The pots came from as far away as Greece and Spain. I could only read bits of the notation but I think the dig dated to the tenth century, three centuries before a European came this far East. I am not saying the Japanese went to get them and they were actually after what was in the pots, not the pots themselves, but that is some kind of trading network. According to the literature Fukuoka was Japan's gateway to the west and it remains so to this day.

The complex excavated was a merchant and diplomatic centre for years. Guarding it, just above, was a fortress built of huge fitted stones, a deep gray wall canted inward and topped with earth-works. None of the original wooden structures survive, but a beautiful garden of cherry trees and a guardhouse give one the impression of a wealthy and secure culture that remained impenetrable till 1945. Nagasaki is just 100K south of Fukuoka, Hiroshima 200K north.

Between the archeology building and the castle there was a large flat that probably had some history but it now holds a baseball field and a dusty rugby pitch. We sat under the ginko trees and watched the end of one rugby match and the beginning of another. It was brutal. I was very glad to be on the sidelines. There was usually at least one person writhing on the ground in pain and from where I was sitting it wasn't playacting. Huge collisions, no pads. It reminded me of a game we used to play when I was a kid called "kill the man with the ball." It had another rhymey name that time has rendered inappropriate that could roughly be translated "splatter the homosexual." It was a lot of fun. These fellas were really enjoying themselves, too.

We climbed up through the maze, though the wide guarded stairways and under and over former drawbridges, up several levels to the very top. The uppermost level was only the size of a tennis court but it offered a spectacular view of the city. I tried to imagine the blood that had been let on those steps and terraces and when I closed my eyes the screaming and clash of the rugby match below could just as well have been a battle raging outside the castle gates.

A five minute walk brought us to the edge of Ohori park, which contains a large lake, an art museum and a theater. I have read that the park is a copy of another in China and that it is famous throughout Japan. We walked through the Japanese garden (Y200) that was built to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the park's construction. The park's name means "trench" and derives from the fact that the lake was built using part of the outer moat of the castle. The land itself was reclaimed at one point from the bay, which is amazing since it is a few kilometers from the water now (much of the city lays on land that was once ocean and if my readings of the satellite images are correct there is a large reclamation project underway currently to the north of downtown). One of the old maps in the archeology building showed the water coming right up to the castle and I thought at the time that it was a map of somewhere else.

A walkway with bridges connecting small islands allows one to walk across the center of the lake and we did this, stopping to watch the families peddling around in swan boats, young people rowing skiffs, and a regatta of RC sailboats. On the opposite side there were restaurants and fountains and a concession stand where you could buy little plastic bags of fish pellets to throw to the huge carp patrolling the shore. Some of these fish were four feet long and weighed at least 100 pounds and that is no fish story. There was also a public bathroom and it was a sitter and it had a door! Hooray!

We walked a while further till we got to the Yahoo! Dome complex and Hawk's town, a set of two or three huge shopping malls. We walked around in there and Tom bought some soccer jerseys (he collects them) and we had dinner (Y4000). Curry. I can't believe it either but the guy was slapping naan on the inside of a huge tandoori oven right out front and that was it: I was having Indian in Japan. Oh, well. It was great, too. A surly bearded and turbaned Sikh ran the place and when I told him it was good he looked down his nose at me and grunted his disdain. I love it.

I was foot-sore by that point so after a powwow about how to proceed we decided to take a quick cab over to the Fukuoka Tower and then hunt down a bus back from there. We went up the tower (Y800) and I fiddled around trying to take a decent picture with my poor camera and got a couple that are OK I think. Down below there was a brightly lit complex of buildings sticking out into the water that looked like a medieval manor, complete with chapel. We went down and walked across the causeway but they weren't having us and the bar there wanted Y2000 just to walk in the door so we walked around on the beach for a minute and then went and found the bus stop and went back to Hakata Station. A brief stop at the massage chair display at Yodobashi while Tom got some CDs and then on home. I drank a few beers on the balcony and watched the people walking around outside till I started getting noddy.

The trip home was more eventful than the one there. At one point the sky darkened and it started sprinkling and the ferry slowed down abruptly and they said something over the intercom and everyone started looking out the windows. I asked the Korean guy across the aisle what was going on, "Is it a storm?" "No," he said. "Whales." Then the ferry took a hard turn to port and I looked out the window to the starboard and about 200 yards off I saw it: a huge black dorsal fin rising and turning away into the water.

When I got home I had another surprise. Yu Jin had told her mother that she was going to the movies and then went and got on the train.

Fukuoka, Japan

As the country basically shuts down for Ch'usok and I had a three and a half day weekend, I decided that I would take the opportunity to go to Japan. It was a short trip, but I learned a lot about the country and was able to experience another Asian culture. This had the added effect of clarifying my perspective on Korea in many ways.

We took a jetfoil over the Eastern Sea (Sea of Japan). It was very fast and hovered above the waves on wings. The ride was very smooth. We met some other people on the ride over, including a fellow working for the US Navy. He was able to give us some important information about finding our way around and gave us a breakdown of the relative currency values. I am horrible at the whole money thing under the best of circumstances, but the breakdown for Yen was fairly simple: 1000 won = 100 yen = 1 dollar. I had bought 30,000 yen at the ferry terminal before we left, which turned out to be fortuitous. Tom intended to use his Visa to get money in Japan, as he could get it without paying huge exchange fees (as I did). The problem is that most Japanese ATMs will not accept any card, even a Visa, that is not issued in-country. On the second day we located an ATM at the post office that accepted any card (thanks Lonely Planet!) and the crisis was averted.

When we got through immigration we went out to the cab stand and the back doors to the first cab opened automatically to meet us. We got in and they closed automatically to welcome us still further. We showed the hostel address to the driver. He looked at it, said something in Japanese, and got out. After a while I decided I would take an opportunity to have a smoke. The doors were locked from the outside. I don't like that. After a while he came back and took us to the hostel. It was real nice. Clean and simple. It had a couple of showers for everyone to share and a large communal bath. Boys at one time and girls another. I didn't get in. It was so nice in fact that I am not even going to tell you which one I stayed at. I'm selfish.

After a short nap we took off to check out the town. The hostel was a bit out of the way, but after about a twenty minute walk we got to Hakata Station, Fukuoka's train terminal. Near there was a Yodobashi store, huge and packed with everything electric. Tom went off in search of CDs and I climbed into a massage chair. I almost never got out. It was heaven. See picture of this thing. Unfortunately it was over 400000 yen or I would have bought it. After a bit more walking around looking at things we had some supper and went back to the hostel and bed.

The next morning I woke up early and took a shower. I knocked on Tom's door at 8AM and after he got cleaned up we went to a Cafe next door and had breakfast. I had potatoes and eggs and sausages (hot dog size, polish taste) and a warm bun with BUTTER! A clear soup with veggies and Earl Grey. Yummin. Sounds a lot like a Western breakfast but according to the LonePlan that is what they eat. Order the "morningu setta."

On down the road to the bus stop and back to Hanaka Station, where we finally found the Post Office which was closed but the ATM area was open and boy were we glad to see that. Tom took out way too much money and we went off walking in search of several shrines in the area. They were very beautiful, with large manicured grounds and extensive cemeteries. The temples in Korea that I have been in have all been in wilderness areas with little in the way of landscaping. The pine woods tightly surround Beomosa and a wild mountain stream runs through the complex. Hyang-iram is built into the side of a cliff and the steps up and the buildings are really the only man made thing there. Most of the five or six Japanese temples we saw had grounds. There was far more open space in Japan in general. In Busan the only place without permanent structures are the streets, mountains, and beaches. In Japan they even had parking lots. I know of only a few in Busan and they are minded by full time parking attendants.

I am trying not to make sweeping generalizations about either country. Bear that in mind as I draw these comparisons. I am really only comparing two cities and likely not even doing that well. I came away feeling that, in general again, Fukuoko is far cleaner than Busan. Sorry.

We began working our way toward the shopping areas in Canal City. This is an area diced up by several canals and rivers that filled with malls and small streets full of shops and restaurants. It was beautiful and nice walking. I was looking for a present for someone so I drug poor Tom through a lot more of that than he probably would have stopped for without me.

There will be more tomorrow and some pictures are available here.