Meanwhile. In Korea.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Here are some more pictures.

Originally uploaded by molly_chucker.
Next weekend: the DMZ.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

it's not toronto, that's for sure.

Seoul's Foreign Neighborhoods

It is said that South Korea is the only country where a Chinatown could not take root. Indeed, in what is by some statistics the world’s most homogenous country, the presence of foreign communities has been hard to come by.

The fabled 'Foreign Neighborhood'...

It's cute. It would fit into a shoebox. This is probably the size of a Torontonian neighborhood for gay albino Inuit.

Seoul also has an upscale French village in Seorae Maeul, Seocho-gu. About 20 percent of Korea’s French residents, or more than 450 people, live here. The main road of this village is called Montmartre Street. Blocks of three colors symbolizing <> - white, blue, and red - are enlaid in this area’s sidewalks.

I feel faint...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Korean television.

...Ha! A triumphant return! Let's just see how long it lasts. I've got lots I could write about, and lots of pictures to show, but in order to pace myself I'm gonna start with a request.

Imagine watching television, and then pressing the 'mute' button. You will notice strange things when you do this. For one, you will notice just how strange are the jerky head movements of news talkers. With one eyebrow cocked, they trace strange shapes in the air with their chins. Perhaps you experience a moment of nausea, as you rediscover the bizarre in what should be normal life. You will notice that most commercials will rely on sound to link together random images as they flash in front of your eyes. Subtract the sound, and the ferocity of these images becomes even more apparent.

Obviously, I don't speak or understand Korean. So your possible experience with the mute button is comparable to my experience with Korean television. Images, subtracted from their context and explanation, become all the more striking and aggressive.
I've uploaded part of the Starcraft channel, and some other game show. I haven't been quick enough to capture my current favorites, one of which is the brazenly cynical beer commercial with the doe-eyed girl who is at first unapproachable, but soon 'opens up' after a couple drinks, and then her top blouse button suddenly pops off. Korean beer, incidentally, is utter piss, suitable only for Americans who seem to enjoy drinking piss instead of beer. Actually, that's not charitable. I'd even take budweiser over Cass.
To begin...

...and here's the starcraft. The first video is just pre-game chatter, but you'll probably get a kick out of the pink shirt that the announcer is wearing. Plus the general spectacle of professional gamers, looking pasty and bewildered with all the heavy metal and strobe lights that surround them.

Here's what you're in for: a half-hour to sometimes an hour of white-knuckle starcraft spectatin'. Once I get around to it, I will try and capture the whole denoument routine: suddenly one of the players forfeits the game when it's clear they're going to lose. Everyone cheers, and we cut to the winner, who blinks at couple times, rubs their chin, takes off their headphones, and starts unplugging their keyboard. Cut to: the loser, who only stares at the monitor, maybe blink back tears, and.... fade out to commercial, accompanied to heavy metal music. Is it a more graceful alternative to spiking the ball in the endzone? It is pretty predictable, and pretty boring.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

some photos

If you want bigger copies, say for desktops, just let me know. Flickr resizes everything smaller than I'd like.

So I went walking through downtown Seoul late in the afternoon. Apparently I also had shakey hands (or not enough light to work with) so here's what I saw:

I nearly shit my pants when I found this. I have the smack-my-head moment, yes, even now two months on: 'whoa, I'm not in Canada anymore.' Here was another moment. I mean, we don't really have statues of medieval ass-kicking admirals in our cities, and none of our mountains look quite like those. By the way, this is Yi Sun-sin

Is there anything more cliched in photography than 'old meets new?'

I gotta say, after seeing Yi Sun-sin, this utterly shitty piece of public art was quite a letdown. Say what you want about honoring ancient tyrants, at least we aren't staring up at a stupid gaudy shell.

Yeah, lots of traffic. Off in the distance is Namdaemun, the South gate of what was ancient Seoul.

Off in the distance, Seoul tower in the middle of a park. Closer to the foreground, you can see that Koreans are ready for Christmas. Took this shot just moments before they turned on all those lights. And I do enjoy 'happy sales.'

All that gawking at big buildings is useless without acknowledging the agricultural sector that makes all that impressiveness possible. This was a quick snapshot from the bus... farms seem to get crowded into the tiny spaces left over when the kilometres of furniture shops, driving ranges and garden centres taper off. Most food in Korea is domestic; contrary to the rhetoric of neo-liberals even 'Asian Miracle' countries like Korea protect their agricultural sectors. Korea is negotiating a free-trade pact with the U.S., and agricultural protection is on the cutting block. Just in time, the government is declaring that they will crack down on 'anti-social' elements who might object to the destruction of their livelihoods. At the same time, the Korean government seems to be determined not to lose their farming sector without shaking loose some sort of compromise out of the Americans. And American negotiators don't seem to do too well in offering compromises. Interesting times...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

not dead...

Mired in work. Kids had their finals last week, and now I'm writing comments for their report cards. These comments bring out the 'failed writer' in me, that toxic combination of perfectionism and procrastination that kills most would-be novels within three chapters. What's ironic is that the comments, for the most part, are probably complete gibberish to the Korean parents that read it. Especially after I put my heart into explaining why their rat-bastard kid could achieve their full potential, if only they would stop trying to shiv me. Ha ha, okay that's not true at all. I may have inadvertently exagerrated the depth and scope of shivvings in my classroom.

I had a nasty day when my gas seemed to stop working, but that seems to have cleared up now. The stoves are working (hot coffee tomorrow!) Also: the water heater has just coughed and turned over (hot shower!). What else? After two weeks of searching, I have found a hoodie. I'm not much for the charcoal-grey sweater conservatism of male Korean attire. Already the kids are in love with my wallet-chain and the fact that sometimes I wear glasses, and sometimes I don't. Also, I wear a button-down shirt, untucked, unbuttoned, over a simple t-shirt! This could be another episode of "You're doing it wrong", but honestly I could give two shits, as long as the bosses are happy. I don't wear my Fucked Up band pins, and I keep the hoodie with the 'Fuck white supremacy' patch at home. (Not that I'm embarassed by the principle at play, but the explanation and translation might be somewhat awkward for grade school.)

After two weeks, I have fallen out of love with Korean television. Too many cosmetic commercials! Too many doe-eyed pouty waifs! I've gotten sick of that shit, and I can see why Misun has been denouncing that aspect of Korean culture since I've been here. Also: there's only so many games of Starcraft that you can watch on television before it gets dull-ass boring. Heh, kind of like football. You either have to delve into the minutae of tactics and personalities, or watch it casually a few times a year. Oh, did I mention that the kids who compete in Starcraft tournaments wear racing jackets? Funny shit. No, the only thing I can bear to watch is this: ding. Thanks, discovery channel. You still suck though. At some point I also will force myself to watch an hour of the American Forces Channel, if only so I can review and disseminate it for my other long-suffering weblog. I miss you, pleasure-spot! I just have to finish writing fucking comments for these kids...

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Korean food is comparable to other Asian diets, in that it has a lot of carbohydrates, fresh vegetables, rice and seafood. It's not as oily or diverse as Chinese food, and not as indricate or seafood-based as Japanese. It is frequently spicy. You see a lot of soups, stews, barbecued pork and chicken and kimchi. A hearty and satisfying meal can be eaten in a restaurant for about $3-5. No tipping necessary.

Kimchi is pickled cabbage (usually) fermented with red pepper powder and other ingredients. It's spicy and very tasty, and it is served with almost any meal as condiment. Beside it is a sweet pickled turnip, and beige sheets of something that used to be part of a fish. Also very tasty.

Korean rice is sticky, and actually expensive because of protection for local farmers. Got no qualms about that.

'Korean sushi' is an unfortunate term for Gim Bap. Gim Bap is turnips, tuna, egg and other ingredients wrapped in rice and nori. It usually is the size of a burrito and cut into smaller sections. No green wasabi is included.

Went to T.G.I. Friday's for some reason. Steak dinners cost $30, no lie. Fresh bread and butter accompany the meal, much like home. Hmm, butter has a dried out exterior, looks like it's been heated up and cooled down at least ten times. Guess it's not really popular. Butter in the grocery store goes for $6 and up.

Cheese is either processed crap, or costs about $8. After three weeks I broke down and bought some Swiss cheese. Bread is much cheaper, but is usually made from corn. Wheat bread is a little harder to find, but not prohibitively expensive.

There is a franchise called 'Paris Baguette' that absolutely nails the French bread. Delicious. Starts going stale in about six hours, just like the real thing.

Aloe juice is damned tasty, and has crunchy chunks of real aloe.
Kiwis are popular: they show up in yogurt, snacks, and so forth. Haven't found any blueberry yogurt. I bought a box of Jo Louis-type snacks that have kiwi-cream filling. Very good.

Pears are also quite expensive. They are shaped like apples and are a little larger than a grapefruit. The texture is much harder and crispier than Ontario pears, and the taste is different: more delicate, kind of like a honeydew melon. 4 pears for $5, but they keep well and are worth the price. Also: lots of mandarin oranges, also quite expensive.

Korea is like Japan in that there is no separation between personal life and work life. Thus, lots of workplaces involve going to business dinners and lunches, and, I don't know, complaining about the boss over Bul Go Gi and copious amounts of Soju. Soju is a grain alcohol, tasting like a watered-down vodka. These days it's completely artificial and is said to induce terrible hangovers. 400mL costs as much as a bottle of pop, and is enough to get two adults buzzed. Local beer is roughly equivalent to Coors or some other soulless American beer. It costs about a dollar per can in grocery stores, and 3-4 dollars for a 'pint.' (There are no pints, just 300-400 cubic centimetre glasses. 400ccs is more than a pint) Imported beers cost more. Lots of heineken and corona.

Finally, ginseng sweets are my favorite thing right now. Suck on one and the taste will stay with you all day. Tastes somewhere between ginger and caramel.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

you're doing it wrong.

Note: This is rather long, and about toilets and bathrooms.
When I moved into my current domicile, what did I find in the bathroom?
Well, the whole thing was done up in tile. There was a toilet, and a sink. Extending from the sink fixture was a showerhead. In the middle of the floor, was a drain.
So for the first three days I took a shower.
On the third day, I met my boss, my Real boss. Not just Han, who was there because he was bilingual and young and yelled at the kids who didn't do their homework. The Owner.
Han sat my ass down, and went to go grab something. The Boss sat in complete silence... I don't know if you know this, hell, I didn't know this until just under a month ago, but I find Asian businessmen (with the expensive and inscrutable etiquette and whatnot) absolutely terrifying. I have drunk cheap beer in alleyways with the homeless. That's kinda fun to me. I've gone to food banks because I had to. That's ordinary. Fucking being hired by Asian businessmen is something new, especially when I have never found a button-up shirt that fit me like anything other than a smock. He asked me if I was tired, I nodded. And then, to fill up the awkward five minutes (five fucking minutes!!) I started spitting out verbal diahrrea (sic) about how awesome his school was or some shit.
Dude... the guy doesn't speak more than a few words of English.
He stared down at an issue of the Korea Times.

Eventually Han came back and they yammered together for awhile. Eventually Han turned to me and said that the Boss approved because I looked Smart.

I'm not smart! I listen to hardcore for fuck's sakes.

Three days later...
(If you're attentive you realize that this is linking up to the introductory sentences in an elegant way...)
The Boss (english name=Brian) comes over to my apartment to connect a new gas range.

Here I stop you for a footnote.
There are three native-English-speaking teachers at our school. The most senior is an Australian that's been here for 8 months. The next-most senior is a Canadian that's been here for a month. Then there's me. So, when my predecessor moved out (less seniority than the Australian, but more than the Canadian), The Canadian was instructed to move out of the smallest room and move into a slightly bigger room. The smallest room was to become my room. The Canadian hemmed and hawed, and didn't really want to go through the trouble of packing up and moving across the hall, but did because the Koreans kind of insisted. This is evidence of either Korea's awesome hospitality, or its obsession with hierarchy. After a month I've sort of concluded that the former is the motivating factor, but anyway:

At my apartment there were two gas ranges: one was a two-burner that was connected and ready to go, and the other was a three-burner, that sat inert in the laundry room with a broken hose. I requested that the superfluous gas range be removed, or even I could do it if I knew when the garbagemen would come to pick up stuff off the curb. (Ha! Not so simple.)
Han insisted that Brian (my Boss) would come to connect the superior gas range and remove the inferior from my presence. I hemmed and hawed... genuinely.... I tried to remember the last time I used more than two burners cooking a meal for one... couldn't possibly think of one. Round my former place of residence, we ate a lot of stews and chilis and so forth... one burner was sufficient. But no! Brian would be around to grant me access to the superior gas range.

He came on the third day. I was scared shitless. The dude was awesome: came with a hardcase full of tools and a power drill; no wonder they say that the quintessential traits of Koreans are independence and self-reliance (more on that later), and damned if he didn't hook up my gas range. When it came time to clean off the heavy grease that coated the gas range, he turned on the light in the bathroom, intent on wetting a cloth...
stared.... at the puddles... of water...
(ok! c'mon! this shit is normal when you shower!)
He turned and gestured with the dry cloth: "Clean," he said.
Now, the iron grates had been piled there while we attached the new gas range. I interpreted his gesture as a command to clean the iron grates. I grabbed and in a panic, rubbed bar soap on them and got to scrubbing in the kitchen sink. (I hadn't had time to buy dish soap!) For his part, Brian got to scrubbing the surface of the stove with his cloth. But he took a moment to turn on the bathroom light again, stare longinly at the puddles of water, and then tear himself away and get back to scrubbing. Eventually he grabbed the old (perfectly operational and useable!) gas range, still caked in other people's grease, and held it close to his dress shirt and carried it back to the school no matter how much I gestured that I could take it for him. He smiled and was on his way.
But: what didn't leave my imagination was that last longing look: when he wanted me to clean up the mess in the bathroom, the mess caused by not knowing how to bathe properly, or not knowing how to make the bathroom presentable for a guest:

After that, I started using a basin that I previously couldn't imagine the utility for. Y'know what? Bathing with a washcloth and a basin of hot water is pretty elegant in its conservation of water and whatnot: I spend less time daydreaming and more time washing myself. I probably use half as much water, and I've seen the same basin in every Korean bathroom I've been privy to. But c'mon, how do you conclusively ask somebody the proper way to wash their naked body?

I find what helps is a little social lubricant.
Last Saturday, Misun and I travelled to Itaewon, which is a district of Seoul that caters to foreigners. We were meeting up with a friend of hers and her husband, both Americans. Her husband is a member of the American army.

I s'pose if you know me, you might see stormclouds up ahead. Don't worry he was a nice enough guy, and I can behave when I need to. Honestly, the guy won me over when I realized he was a nurse, and thus aligned with the technics of healing rather than harm.

I digress-
somehow the topic of Korean bathrooms came up during the conversation, and I relayed this whole awkward anecdote as it's written. The couple snickered a little bit, and filled me in:
-The puddles of water are fairly normal. Why install a showerhead if nobody uses it?
-It is absolutely customary to remove shoes in another's living space. Thus, puddles of water (not to mention the leaky drain under the sink) present an obstacle to use of the, erm, facilities.
-And so it is also customary to have a pair of rubber slippers inside the bathroom, for the convenience of guests and host. Aha! I have no pair of rubber slippers.
-Makes sense, doesn't it? Why have both a sink and a bathtub when your bathroom could be the width of a coffee table? Makes more sense to forego the bathtub, and install a drain in the middle of the floor. In any case, it makes cleaning the bathroom a snap. The problem of wet socks is avoided with the rubber slippers. What about the problem of soaking the toilet paper and towels while taking showers? Er, better aim? And so poor Brian's difficulties' on that day maybe make more sense. I start cleaning the grills, and he maybe hears the call of nature, sees the puddles, checks for those slippers, finds none... gets his hustle on to get back to the office and the sane Eastern bathrooms... or maybe he was just checking to see how clean they previous teacher had left the facilities... I don't know.

So all in all, the bathroom situation seemed to suddenly make sense. Until I went into a public washroom in a Seoul subway station, and see a rectangular hole in the floor caked with vomit.