Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting fed up with food (in a good way), security theatre and particulates in Beijing

I just got back from Beijing from the fourth time, though two of those trips have been 24-hour layovers. I don't claim to know much about China, but having spent a little bit of time there in 2009, 2011, 2013 and now 2014 allows me to see superficial changes in the city over my time in Asia. Visiting Beijing for the first time after 2008 is a bit like starting to watch baseball in the mid-90s, you get to assume that a 70-home-run season is normal and that someone leading the league with 47 home runs implies that everyone collectively sucked.

The food is great, though I presume that it was great before as well. Beijing is one of the two cities (the other is Paris) in the world I've been where I became conscious of the fact that I could only eat three, maybe four meals a day. There are many terrible restaurants in Beijing, the sort that are $100 per person and are featured prominently in tourist maps, a lot of which presume that every person who finds themselves in Beijing is a Western executive looking for the most obnoxious and pretentious meal possible. There is no shortage of such places in Seoul as well, places that take Korean dishes, triple the price and make the decor and atmosphere as uncomfortable and uninviting as possible.

I had dinner and lunch in Beijing at great restaurants, but having run and showered by 6:20 in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, I gave up and went to my hotel's buffet for breakfast, reasoning that part of experiencing China and Beijing was to eat at a hotel buffet. You don't want to come to China and eat only at McDonald's, but you also don't want to go out of your way to do things that no one else would do, such as going to the Chinese opera, which I presume is more popular with tourists than with Chinese people (if I'm wrong, replace 'Chinese' and 'opera' with 'Korean' and 'pansori'). 

The food at the buffet was decent, and my model of over-authentic overcompensation was vindicated by Chinese people who went for toast, bacon and sausages while I went for cabbage and porridge. The food was good, but some of the vegetables and one of the drinks almost caused me to vomit. There's no shortage of bad food either in China, but I ate very well, even at a tourist trap such as Wangfujing.

Beijing installed metal detectors at subway stations prior to the 2008 Olympics to scan bags for explosives and weapons and I don't remember there being metal detectors for me to walk through, supplemented by disinterested guards with handheld metal detectors, and this article agrees with me. I've also seen the progression of security at Tiananmen Square, where I ran 800 metres to see the flag-raising ceremony at dawn. There was a big crowd of several thousand people there, but it seemed to be in the tens of thousands by the way we all came to a stop hundreds of metres from the square.

The crowd was already slowed by the barricades that divide the sidewalks, bike lanes and streets in this area in complex ways, and then funneled by one of the barricades into three metal detectors. If you can imagine the door of an elevator jammed with people functioning as a metal detector, you'll understand what this metal detector was like. This was required to be in the vicinity of Tiananmen, the gate with the famous picture of Mao Zedong. To enter the square itself required another, similarly crowded metal detector. The crowding is worst for people with bags, as 99% of the people in this area are Chinese tourists who all carry some sort of bag with them and have to take it off, put it on a belt and then retrieve it.

Like restrictions on liquids being carried onto planes, the trouble with security theatre, things done for show to make people feel safe, is that it's never undone. Metal detectors in the Beijing subway were expanded, not removed. The police presence has increased. I was once surprised enough by a group of soldiers marching down the street to take a picture of it, but yesterday I saw a jeep of soldiers with machine guns. The barricades in the area have increased. My impression yesterday, because I didn't spend time walking in Tiananmen Square, is that visitors are now restricted more to the sides of the square with much of its heart restricted, though I might well be wrong on this, and I hope I am.

I used to say that air quality wasn't really that bad in Beijing, but I haven't seen something resembling the sky in my last three trips to China, with PM 2.5 air quality readings ranging from 200-800 (anything over 100 is unhealthy, Toronto is usually around 30). I run and have no trouble breathing walking around, but I feel filthy and don't like touching anything. I can't see anything more than a kilometre away. I don't blame China for this in particular, no more than I blame myself or anyone else who owns Chinese-made products, drives a car or uses electricity, but China has this problem, and it's a fact. It adds a disgusting, depressing backdrop to any visit, and I would debate going back again.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Summarizing a 2011 Hankyoreh series on Muslims in Korea

Various sources claim that there are tens of thousands of ethnic Korean Muslims in Korea. Wikipedia puts it at just under 30,000, while the Korea Muslim Federation puts it at 35,000. The way I try to understand these numbers in my head is that this means if you meet 1,500 Koreans, you could expect one to be Muslim, higher than what I've seen in my six years here, though just because you don't see something doesn't mean it's there (if you never go south of the Han River, you wouldn't know how much money was in this city). Googling for more precise numbers, especially numbers in Korean, led me to a four-part series of articles from the Hankyoreh on Islam in Korea. Like much of the best journalism done in Korea, it never made its way into English (at least not that I can see on Google).

Part 1: "난 한국인 무슬림이다" ("I'm a Korean Muslim")
Part 2: '코슬림' 알리 "내 나라 코리아야" ('Koslim' Ali: "Korea is my country")
Part 3: 젊은 영혼들 ‘샤하다’와 접속하다 (Young souls take the shahada)
Part 4: 이슬람 예배당 바로 위 교회 예배당 (The church above the mosque)

Part 1 begins with the story of Yoon Aliyah, a 36-year-old who converted to Islam in New York in the summer of 2001 after being moved by the faith of a Moroccan friend. Although she described being stared at for wearing a hijab and long sleeves and a long skirt even in the summer, she also described comparable experiences in New York. Eight years after returning to Korea, Yoon was married with two kids and said that all of her friends were Muslim, most of them Korean.

However, she married a Turkish man, now a naturalized Korean citizen, who ran an online community aimed at introducing Islam to Koreans. When becoming a Korean citizen, her husband chose the last name Jang for its history. During the reign of King Cheungnyeol of the Goryeo dynasty near the end of the 13th century, a Yuan dynasty official sent to Korea stayed, took a Korean name (Jang) and started a clan, the Deoksu Jangs, that today has 20,000 descendants.

Two other couples are profiled in part 1. The first, a pair of newlyweds, is Muhammad Asim, a 36-year-old Pakistani, and Shin Miseon, a 29-year-old Korean. Asim, a Korean citizen, trades carpets. What makes their marriage unusual is that Asim is already married and Shin is his second wife. Asim's first wife, also a Korean, lives in Pakistan, where she went to ensure that their four children were sent for a Muslim education. What this means for Shin, however, is that she legally isn't marired, which is just as well for her father, who refers to his son-in-law as "that Pakistani son of a bitch".

Though Shin admits that there is some jealousy in marrying a man who is already married, she claims that she sees Asim's first wife, who will eventually return to Korea as, "family", new family that she has gained. Although Shin and Asim don't have kids, they might well have kids by now, three years later, a reality that, as the Hankyoreh puts it, "test the boundaries of Korean law, culture and society."

The second couple is Jang Dong-hyeon, 35, and his Indonesian wife, 31-year-old Ariana Tari (due to the fact that the names are only written in Korean and I'm not familiar with Indonesian names, I can only guess at their Romanization). Jang and Tari met at the auto parts factory where Jang works and Tari was a trainee. Although Tari didn't speak much Korean and Jang spoke no Indonesian, Jang says that they found a way to make it work. Jang initially gave up eating pork for the woman he loved, but would eventually convert to Islam and now even fasts during Ramadan.

Given that part 1 focuses on Muslim couples in Korea, part 2 of the series is about Muslim children who have grown up in Korea. There were roughly 143,000 foreigners married to Koreans living in Korea as of March 2011, and of those, about 4,000 were from Muslim countries, numbers that have surely grown in the last three years. As of 2009, the number of children born in such families was 4,000, with most of them being too young to attend school. The children of these 4,000 households will naturally be more significant than the generation before them, in part because unlike at least one of their parents, they will have known no other home.

The children profiled in part 2 are Pakistanis born to Pakistani parents who have lived in Korea for eight years. Ali, 16, came to Korea with his younger brother and sister (their sister, 12, is not featured or named in the article). Ali considers Korea to be home, not Pakistan, and says that he plans to live here in the future. His brother, Mohas, 14, speaks Korean just like a Korean, the Hankyoreh says, while Ali, who speaks it well, speaks it as a foreign language.

The brothers, however, struggle mightily at school, both socially and academically, being two years behind their peers even after eight years in Korea. Part of this is due to the fact that they started school late, but part of this is the fact that unlike in a Korean household, there is no one to help them with their homework. Their mother apparently speaks no Korean beyond "do you have any potatoes?" Their father, who works long hours, struggles to pass the elementary school-level Korean proficiency requirement on the citizenship test. Not aiding matters is the fact that there is not a single book in their house except for copies of the Quran.

Mohas, who wants to do his homework, can never manage to do it. The impression given by the Hankyoreh is that his parents care mostly about him reading the Quran and aren't too perturbed by him not doing his homework. For Ali, and presumably also for Mohas, their struggles are compounded by race and religion. His fellow students consider him dirty and make a point to avoid even brushing against him. They bully him and tell him to go back to his country, particularly painful to boys who consider Korea to be their home.

Also featured in part 2 is Jiyoung, the three-year-old daughter of Jang and Tari from part 1. They recited the azan, the call to prayer, in her ear at birth, taught her to tell the teachers at her daycare that she doesn't eat pork, to recognize when it is time for one of their five daily prayers. Jang, Tari and their daughter also don't eat any other meat that isn't certififed halal, any brands of ramen except for one, as well as Choco pies, the latter two because they contain small amounts of pork and gelatin.

Finally, the article looks at Zina (젠나), the older daughter of Yoon Aliyah and Jang Hussein. Sending five-year-old Zina to a Korean school worries Yoon, who says doing so would be "like throwing away Zina's soul", adding that "Koreans don't respect those who are different. For now, Zina attends a hagwon run by the Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. Of the 50 kids Zina's age, most are the children of Muslim families residing in Seoul for the short or medium-term. However, seven were born to Korean parents and for four of those seven, both of their parents are Muslim.

"These days, there are a lot more young Korean Muslims," says Yoon. These young Koreans practice Islam in ways that are very different from the way its traditionally practiced in Asia and the Middle East, as well as immigrant communities in Europe and North America. In doing so, they are 'Koreanizing' Islam, adapting it in ways that fits the Korean context, particularly their specific context, which is of individuals practicing a religion in comparative isolation. The way that they practice is, in many ways, similar to the way that Koreans take up other activities, which is through on and offline groups, both geared towards Koreans by Koreans.

One way to understanding this is to understand that three of the four Korean Muslims profiled in part 3 did not use their real names. Most of them do not live openly as Muslims, meaning that they have told only some people about their identity, and do not necessarily act in ways that would identify themselves as Muslims in public. To do so openly as referred to as 'coming out' by the Hankyoreh.

Jo Younghee, a 24-year-old university student, converted to Islam because she wanted an alternative to living in a highly-competitive society such as Korea. "There's more to life than just getting a good job." Her experience is typical for Park Dongshin, a 26-year-old who started with an online community for Koreans interested in Islam and now runs an office near the Itaewon mosque that does the same thing. "Most [of those who convert] are university students," he says.

Similar to how Jo was introduced to Islam by a German she met while volunteering in Japan, Moon Heeseob, 23, learned about Islam online from a Malaysian. After studying Islam online, Moon converted. Moon's story is similar to that of Lee Seungmi, a 15-year-old high school student, who began by making an Indonesian friend online. From there, she joined an online community for Korean Muslims and then, with two Korean Muslims who live in America looking on as witnesses, she converted to Islam. Jo also converted in front of other witnesses that she met online, although the article isn't clear on whether this happened online or offline.

Islam, for Jo, is free and personal. "It's a flexible religion," she explained. "There are no commandments saying that if you don't follow it, you're going to be punished. There are no leaders that force you to obey. Everyone can follow it with the level of devotion that suits their circumstances."

The others profiled in this story appear to feel similarly about Islam, which is markedly different from the more traditional Muslims profiled in the first two parts, ones with a greater connection to those born as Muslims. Those in the first two parts have their lives revolve around their faith, but not so for the young Koreans in part 3.

Jo only prays four times a day because she can't get up in the morning. Moon only observes Ramadan, the month of daily fasting from pre-dawn to sunset, for a week. Lee doesn't eat pork, but will eat non-halal beef or chicken. Although Jo wears the hijab regularly and has endured some abuse for it, Lee The Koreanized Islam practiced by Jo, Moon and Lee is more of a belief system undertaken by individuals instead of an organized religion practiced as part of a physical community.

Part 4 covers the predictable backlash faced generally by unknown cultures, ways of life and ways of dressing. It covers the generally positive relationship between different religious groups at KAIST, as well as the existence of anti-Islamic sentiment, which exists mostly online and is vastly disproportional to the number of Muslims in this country and the sort of power they have (most are transient migrant workers or students, interviewees with roots and families here are by far the exception).

As is generally the case in Korea when it comes to racial issues, the official and institutional treatment of Korea is good, but there is a minority of small voices that speak very loudly, and often incoherently, about how Korea will became a Muslim country by 2020 or 2030 if present trends are left unchecked. The Hankyoreh, in soliciting feedback on the series, noted that it received insults, slurs, as well as threats alongside both positive and critical feedback on the stories.

All of this is to say that while I enjoyed reading about the lives of both Korean Muslims as well as immigrant Muslims in Korea, I remain thoroughly unconvinced as to the existence of tens of thousands of Korean Muslims. While Park reports 40 conventions in the last 4 months and many of the online communities (Naver or Daum cafes) have more than a thousand members each, it seems hard to believe that the number of Korean Muslims is several times greater than that of the number of Muslims living in families where one parent comes from another country. There are 4,000 foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries married to Koreans and they have 4,000 children, implying a population of 12,000. This would seem to be the vast majority of Korean Muslims, not the minority, but I remain open to being corrected.

Monday, June 09, 2014

What does it mean to finish a 26:44 10k in 1:57?

In 2011, not long after losing a 10k on the track for the first time in his life, Kenenisa Bekele ran a 26:43 at Brussels. He ran the last two laps in 1:57-1:58, closing in roughly 60-61 and then 57 for the last lap. Kenyan Michael Rotich was not far behind as Bekele barely held him off. You can probably credit him with the same splits. Galen Rupp was unable to keep up, but ran the last two laps in around 2:03, with splits of roughly 61 and 62. Bekele's 26:43 remains the fastest time of this decade and the 21st-fastest performance of all-time.

Galen Rupp, though, came close to topping that performance with a 26:44 last Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. Having set out to run faster than his national record of 26:48, he slowed in the ninth kilometre, and it looked as though he would finish in just under 27 minutes. Improbably, though, after having let the pace slow to 65-second laps, Rupp ran the second-last lap in 59 seconds and then came back to run the last lap in 58 seconds. If this Rupp had been in the 2011 race at Brussels, he would have been either right behind Bekele. He might even have been able to beat Bekele.

A 1:57 800 for a 10k is not unheard of, especially in a championship race. Bekele ran the last 800 of his first Olympic gold medal in around 1:54, splitting 61/53 in a 27:05 race. He ran 27:08 at Helsinki, closing in 63/54 and then 1:58 at Osaka (63/55) in another 27:05 race. I can't find his splits for Beijing, but in his last major global title, Bekele ran 26:46, closing in 63 and 58 seconds for the last two laps, destroying a highly competitive field in the process (Rupp was almost a minute back in that race). But, in a race where he was pushed to the absolute limit of his abilities, his 26:17 world record, Bekele ran the last 800 of his world record 26:17 in just 2:00, split as 63/57.

Clearly, Rupp wasn't pushed to the absolute brink of his abilities. While it's probably impossible for him or anyone to push themselves so hard in the first 24 laps that the last lap is simply an average of the first 24, a 1:57 finish is remarkable. At the very least, we can agree that Rupp can run under 26:40. What is remarkable, though, is that Rupp has closed his PB faster than Bekele, and probably most of the others ahead of him on the all-time performance list for the 10,000 metres. What's even more remarkable is that Rupp, while always a talented distance runner who, along with his coach, was willing to forego success at a younger age for bigger goals in the long-term, was never really known for his speed.

As late as 2012, his 26th birthday, Rupp could barely break 4 minutes for the mile. His best performance at either the mile or the 1500 was a 3:39 1500 in 2009 or a 3:57 in 2010, performances that are roughly equivalent. Then, all of a sudden, Rupp ran a 3:34 in May of 2012. He won a silver medal at the London Olympics, which was not a surprise for someone who had ran 26:48 the previous year, but what was surprising was the fact that he ran the last lap in about 54 seconds. Rupp then went on to run a 3:50 indoor mile the following winter, while his training partner, who had his own mid-career breakthrough in 2012 from an also-ran in championship finals to a sudden world-beater, ran a 3:28 in the summer.

There are any number of explanations for these performances, such as focused training, sprints, weights, thyroid medication, excellent coaching, excellent tactics, late-blooming talent, and so on. We don't know for sure whether Rupp and Farah are doping, and we probably never will. On the other hand, they're a bit like Barry Bonds, who hit a career-best 49 home runs at the age of 35 after having never hit more than 46 in a single season (which he did at the age of 28), and then hit 73 the following year at the age of 36. Bonds never failed a drug test and we'll never know for sure whether he used drugs. However, no one considers Bonds' records to be legitimate.

I can only hope that track fans in America and around the world, who were so quick to accuse Taoufik Makhloufi of doping after coming out of "nowhere" to win an Olympic gold medal against an underwhelming field, are more skeptic of all athletes who suddenly achieve mid-career breakthroughs that are akin to Seinfeld's magic loogie that changes direction in mid-air. As one commenter on this interview with Vern Gambetta, former conditioning coach with the Nike Oregon Project says of his conversation with a doctor highly involved in an Olympic sport, "the only surprise for him is never the discovery of doping, nor the relative rarity or frequency of its occurrence, but always the level of public shock."

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smaller audiences, global audiences and focus groups are homogenizing movies

As I sat down to watch the latest X-men movie, I got the feeling that I had seen this movie before. "Isn't this the tenth time I'm seeing the exact same movie?" I asked myself. The answer, after getting home, was that the complicatedly-named X-men: Days of Future Past is the 7th X-men movie since 2000, and that there are two more sequels on the way in 2016 and 2017, at which point we will have had nine X-men movies in 17 years. This goes along with five Spider-Man movies since 2002, with two more scheduled for 2016 and 2018, three Batman movies since 2005, three Iron Man movies since 2008, and so on.

Then I remembered a recent piece in The Atlantic explaining the present suffocating homogeneity of movies. The author, Derek Thompson, says it's so because "studios are making fewer, more expensive films, there is much more risk riding on each project. Hollywood mitigates that risk in two ways: safer subjects and more testing." As well, "Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it's become better at making relentlessly average movies." While I'm put off by the annoying preponderance of superhero movies, Thompson points out that not only is the trend towards superhero movies, but it's also towards ordinary movies that are neither excellent nor terrible.

It's unfathomable (or maybe only slightly fathomable based on the way people act in old movies, TV shows and novels) today, but Thompson writes that there was a time when 60% of Americans would go to the movies on a given weekend. Americans bought an average of 20-30 movie tickets per year, a number that's now at 4. As a result, studios make fewer movies and have a far greater need for these movies to succeed financially. They are also far more dependent on overseas audiences for revenue, meaning that a movie like "12 Years a Slave" is less likely to be made than it once was, because it theoretically does not appeal to audiences in, say, Seoul or Beijing unlike another Transformers movie, no matter how insipid the latter might be.

The other reason for homogeneity, which discourages risk-taking, is that studios have refined and mastered the art of understanding what audiences like. Although Thompson only mentions typical domestic viewers, there is no doubt that studios take into account the tastes of audiences outside of America considering the extent to which the sensitivities of the Chinese government play a role in shaping Hollywood movies. Thompson writes that "studios are so worried about what audiences think—and so skilled at soliciting their feedback—that they ensure that the next blockbuster always reminds audiences of the last blockbuster."

It's not the case that audiences are dumber, as popular thinking would go, or that studios have run out of original ideas. It's not that there's a shortage of original ideas, or that people today are too dumb to enjoy good movies, but that studios, which release far fewer films than they once did, have figured out how to make each release count. Viewers, such as myself, who went to see X-men because I like to eat popcorn and don't mind an X-men movie, have helped Hollywood make each release count.

With China projected to become the world's biggest movie market by 2020, we're unlikely to see this trend change at any point in the future. Although this may well change before China becomes the world's largest movie market, China allows just 34 imported films to be shown in its theatres each year, an artificial bottleneck that encourages not just homogeneity but also greater watchfulness to things like clothes hanging outside to dry in scenes depicting Chinese cities. If Chinese audiences are anything like Korean audiences, sci-fi and superhero movies like Avatar or Transformers are likely to dominate at the expense of movies like 12 Years a Slave or No Country for Old Men, which are much more difficult for foreign audiences to understand for a number of reasons.

Just about every country has seen its culture altered by the intrusion of American pop culture. What's interesting is the prospect of American pop culture being altered by the importance of overseas ticket sales. While nine X-men movies in less than two decades might seem ridiculous, in a world where Chinese audiences count for more than American audiences, we might as well see another nine X-men movies between 2020 and 2040, a prospect that might be utterly ridiculous but not so ridiculous as to not be profitable.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cultural explanations of, and reactions to, national tragedies

Something I never understood before I went to Europe, and something I understood even less after having gone to Europe, was the way people would debate personality traits of different European nations. The Dutch are so-and-so, someone would say, unlike the Poles, who are such-and-such. The interlocutor would respond by contrasting the Poles, who are such-and-such, to the Greeks, who are this-and-that. I never understood how having spent at most a few weeks in a country as many as several decades ago allowed somebody to make such declarations. I understood it less after having traveled through Europe, and I understand it even less when it comes to cultures that are inherently foreign to the West, Pakistani, Islamic or South Asian cultures, as well as Korean or East Asian cultures.

Let's take Koreans. Some English-language commentators on the Internet, depending on the day and the situation, declare Koreans to be overly blunt or treacherous backstabbers that will never tell you the truth. They can be mindless drones who follow rules, or they're yokels with no regard for the law. They might be vicious xenophobes who hate foreigners and all things foreign or trend-following suckers who are ruining everything that is good and holy about Itaewon. They love the government because they're rabid nationalists or they hate the government because they're secretly pan-Korean communists. They're either workaholics who have no lives, or time-wasting slackers who take hours to get anything done.

The truth, obviously, is in the middle of these pairs of absurd extremes, to the extent that you can even make declarations about a group of 50 million people. Try the same thing about Canadians, Americans or Pakistanis. Which part of a polarized country like America is representative of America, the part that gives us Fox News or the part that gives us the Fox network? Are Americans polite because they leave big tips or rude because they speak loudly? Are Canadians good at math? Do Pakistanis like computer games more or less than other cultures? Do Russians pay their bills on time? Would Koreans be fond of a national jai alai league? Is it docile Korean students who would do whatever they're told by authority figures or is it polite, line-forming Canadians? Or both?

Each culture has traits that are identifiable. I know that Americans tend to like football and discuss the state they're from while Canadians tend to like hockey and boasting about wind chills. Koreans will mention the year of birth, university attended and major of someone they're discussing even when it's not directly relevant to the conversation. Russians probably drink more alcohol than Saudis and Nepalis are less likely to show skin than Britons. Devout Muslims tend to wake up earlier than most people. I don't know how far you can take these traits, though, and this is probably the work of sociologists, not armchair theorists who know a few buzzwords.

This post is motivated, of course, by the horrific sinking of the ferry Sewol. Analysts and would-be analysts, based both inside and outside of the country, ask whether Korean culture played a contributing rule. These questions are limited to non-Western cultures. Seldom is it asked if American individualism played a role in some plane crash, or the Canadian preoccupation with short, intense bursts of work you see in hockey shifts contributes to some Canadian disaster, or whether French airplanes crash because the French give up easily in the face of adversity, as the American stereotype goes.

One way of looking at this is the national, collective response to this tragedy. I don't read everything written about the ferry, particularly in English, but I don't know if the way daily life has changed in Korea has gotten much international press coverage. The major South Korean networks cancelled all TV shows through Sunday, singers and entertainers cancelled appearances, festivals and events were cancelled, and baseball games proceeded without cheerleaders and even much cheering. So, you might want to ask, are Koreans over-reacting in cancelling events?

The tendency of those who explain the actions of Koreans as being explained by their Koreanness or, in other words, explain the actions of Koreans as being unique or different because they are Korean, would be to say that the Korean response, whether an over-reaction or not, is somehow unique. The collective mourning that followed for at least five days after, the presidential visit and oversight of the government response, the vast media coverage and the dominance of the event of public discourse, is fairly standard. The emergence of heroes and villains from the tragedy, of iconic imagery and of a backlash directed at the media and certain government officials, is also fairly typical.

To pick one example, running, a number of road races were cancelled in Korea. This could be termed a Korean over-reaction, but what about calls to cancel the 2001 New York Marathon, taking place two years after the 9/11 attacks? What about American restrictions on backpacks at subsequent sporting events and marathons? Is one an emotional overreaction while the other is a sensible response?

Cultural universals are traits shared by all human cultures, supposedly without exception. Donald Brown identified 67, though I would dispute the universality of some of them in that I can think of exceptions. The explanatory power of culture is not as great as we think, and I'm not even discussing cultural differences that are really just myths or far reaches. Korean honorifics and hierarchy don't cause plane crashes. The Afghan tradition of hospitality doesn't explain why the Taliban protected Osama bin Laden. The Spanish fondness for siestas didn't cause last year's train crash that killed 79 people. Rugged American individualism doesn't explain the 2007 bridge collapse that killed 13 people.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Handicapping the 2014 London Marathon

As I often do, I'd like to use the odds for Sunday's London Marathon as a starting point for predicting the winner. At roughly 2:1 is Wilson Kipsang, who is on a three-marathon hot streak. He ran 2:03:42 at Frankfurt in the fall of 2012, then won London last year in 2:04:44 before running a world record of 2:03:23 last fall in Berlin. He has remarkably better odds than Geoffrey Mutai (about 6:1), who seems to have slightly worse odds than Mo Farah, even though Farah (around 5:1) has never run a marathon and Mutai has run 2:05:10 or faster in five of his last six marathons, with the one exception being last year's New York Marathon, which he won in 2:08.

You would have to expect this race to be a duel between Kipsang and Mutai as the favourites, with Ethiopians Tsegaye Kebede and Tsegaye Mekonnen looming just behind, along with Emmanuel Mutai, who ran 2:03:52 last fall in finishing second at Chicago and holds the course record here. Emmanuel Mutai hasn't won a marathon in a couple of years, and Mekonnen ran 2:04 in his debut, but it was just two months ago.

I'm a huge fan of Kebede as quite possibly the most consistent marathoner in the history of the sport, having finished in the top three of 13 marathons in a row dating back to 2008. He won here last year after a brutally fast early pace that left him a minute back at around 35k. If the pace is torrid again, which it probably will be, as the men will likely go out in 61:45, Kebede's pedigree as the best racer if not necessarily the fastest runner will serve him well.

I can't imagine Mo Farah being much of a factor besides finishing in the top 5 in around 2:05-2:06. One reason to be optimistic of Farah's chances for the win are that he's going to go out behind the lead pack in 62:15, which would leave him poised to make a late run similar to Kebede's last year, though this strategy will likely only improve his placing since the winner will likely be whoever slows down least in the second half.

The women's race is interesting because it marks Tirunesh Dibaba's marathon debut. Dibaba has a better distance-running pedigree than Mo Farah, who may well turn out to be more of a middle-distance runner than a marathoner, but she faces tremendous competition in Priscah Jeptoo and Tiki Gelana, among others. Dibaba, however, won gold on the track last summer, looking as good as she ever did, and has a better chance of winning than Mo Farah.

If I had to bet money on someone, I would bet on Dibaba (about 4:1) and Emmanuel Mutai (around 7:1 to 10:1) since I think they're the most undervalued, but the best bet in any marathon is to bet on the field. If I had to pick a winner, I would pick Geoffrey Mutai for his slightly longer streak of consistently winning, although consistently winning for a marathoner implies that you've already peaked and will slowly start to fade. While I wish I knew enough about women's running to pick a winner, I don't. I'll just pick Dibaba to lose.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Korean drama 별에서 온 그대 (My Love from the Star) causes minor international incidents in China

This Buzzfeed article outlines the tremendous popularity of a Korean drama in China, to the point that it became the sort of cultural phenomenon not controlled by the state that drives the Chinese government nuts. The feeling was so strong that Chinese fans took out a full-page newspaper ad after a Korean professor's research indicating that Chinese fans of Korean and Taiwanese dramas were poorer and less educated than Chinese fans of Japanese and American dramas, published a year or two ago, came to light. The ad in the Chosun Ilbo demanded that the professor apologize to a character in the drama.

A one-party state consisting of 1.4 billion people really is only sustainable by either monopolizing or banning human interactions. Much of the persecution of the Falun Gong is explained by the fact that it is a large group of people that isn't entirely within the control of the Chinese government, the latter fact made evident by the time it surrounded Zhongnanhai, the sort-of-acknowledged headquarters of the Communist Party and, therefore, also the Chinese president. In that sense, it's odd but not inconceivable that the annual lianghui, or meeting of one rubber-stamping legislative body and one pointless advisory body, spent an entire morning discussing the success of this Korean drama and others like it, as well as the failure of China to produce anything that could compete with Korean dramas, American movies, Japanese comics, and so on.

The reason is obvious, of course. Dictatorships aren't too good at soft power, and China is no exception. The Chinese film industry is, as an American producer described in a New York Times article examining the problems faced by Hollywood in the Chinese market, the industry is controlled by a body that is "the equivalent of Universal, Sony, the M.P.A.A. and Regal all tied up in one". If you're like me and had never heard of Regal, it's a chain of movie theatres. The reality of Chinese cinema is that it still features propaganda films like 1911, which has an 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, or the Beginning of the Great Revival, which was a commercial success thanks to mandatory viewings for students and government employees.

Japan and Korea face their own challenges in the promotion of cultural exports even as they are by far the most successful in all of East and Southeast Asia. Both countries have state-sponsored initiatives to create and improve cultural exports, as though this was the sort of thing you could create in a lab. Of course, if you look at some of the musical exports or even some of America's film exports, it's clear that a formulaic product manufactured with as much calculation as a cell phone or a car can achieve commercial success. The problem, as Korea discovered with Psy, is that while success can occur alongside such initiatives, there might be absolutely no connection between the two.

Another problem with cultural exports is that people won't like what you'd like them to like about you. The things that overseas consumers like about Korea are not the things that Koreans would like them to appreciate, Robert Fouser writes. "The logical problem with official efforts to promote Korean culture is that Koreans want to claim ownership not only of the cultural product, but also of its reception", preferring high-end culture to low-end culture, and prioritizing out of pride instead of appeal to outsiders, as seen in the case of Hangul. Fouser writes that "[t]he solution is simple: the government should focus on efforts that create opportunities for foreigners to come into contact with Koreans and Korean culture".

China's weakness in this area is tremendous. It's hard to market your culture to outsiders while it's quite easy to make TV shows that people in your country like. China's consistent failure in this regard points to the paranoia of the Chinese Communist Party, which probably isn't going anywhere any time soon, but whose fall from power could be precipitated by something as mundane as a Korean drama, given the way in which these things can have unpredictable consequences, e.g. a craze for chicken and beer. Given the way in which the Communist Party prides itself on staying two steps ahead of people, banning words like 'today' and 'tomorrow' around June 4 in recent years, allowing for the vacuum in Chinese pop culture to be replaced by suitably censored, apolitical American B movies might be preferable.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The vagaries of loan words and their forgotten equivalents, Korean-only movements in Korea

This post is actually a comment on this post, which I could have actually posted as a comment on the Marmot's Hole, but didn't because I'm too scared. That Marmot's Hole post comments on this BBC story about a Japanese man who sued NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, for "mental distress" caused by too many English words on the air.

He is a member of a Japanese group that advocates for the use of Japanese equivalents of English loan words. The comment thread, as is typical on the Marmot's Hole or any other open discussion on the Internet, mixes the uninformed with those who inform. Some people relished the notion, apocryphal as it may be, of young Koreans saying that they don't have any 계피 (the Korean word for cinnamon), but readily putting a dash of cinnamon when asked for 시나몬 (a transliteration of the English word). There's some bizarre joy taken by Internet commenters in stupid young, hip Koreans misusing English and moving away from the beauty of pansori and red bean (I have no idea how old the people commenting at the Marmot's Hole are, or where they live, but I hope for the sake of consistency that they're all Korea specialists in their 40s who have lived in Korea since at least before the IMF crisis).

I was sympathetic to the apocryphal story, though, because:

1) Something about living in Korea can make people more cut-throat about language in ways they might not be elsewhere. I feel it's related to the emphasis on native-speaker proficiency, usually related to English and usually coming from Koreans. The truth is that native speakers constantly don't know words in their own language. Would every 20-year-old working at a Starbucks know what cumin was? How about turmeric? Ask the nearest Chinese person to write down the Chinese character for 'sneeze'.

2) Sometimes it's easy to forget the equivalent word in your native language. Two examples I often discuss are from Urdu, where I can't think of a way to talk about chicken or being at work without sounding overly conservative or formal. I would add the caveat that my Urdu proficiency is only better than the Urdu proficiency of those who have none, but I'm pretty sure that you could easily stump university-educated speakers of Urdu or Korean by asking them for the native-language equivalents of common loan words which which they have no familiarity or which are seldom used. Start with blueberry if you're Korean, as this menu from the inter-Korean family reunions shows the native Korean (?) word for blueberries, 들쭉.

Korean has its own unique uses of chicken. The rough guide seems to be something like this: if you're eating Korean food, you use a Korean word for chicken, but if it's Western food, you use the English word. There are exceptions (파닭), of course, but it goes with things like 팝송 (pop song), which is just 'pop song' transliterated, but refers only to decades-old Western pop songs.

Finally, I'd like to touch on movements aimed at protecting the Korean language. Although Korea, like France, has a government body that manages Korean, there is comparatively little appetite for Korean-only movements in any sense of the word. One of the few noticeable concessions is that shops in the Insadong and Gwanghwamun areas have their names in Korean instead of English. Another is the ongoing movement for "pure Korean" (순우리말, literally "purely our language"), which reminds Koreans of Korean equivalents to words of Chinese origin, e.g. 씨밀레 for 친구 (friend). Of course, that the campaign is put on by broadcasters with names like EBS probably makes it more of a losing battle, as does the fact that so much of Korea's tradition is written in Chinese characters.

There is probably something to be said about a campaign, even one that doesn't catch on, for linguistic purity of this sort. It reminds me of angry letter-writers who wrote to Canadian newspapers chiding them for abandoning the Queen's English and spelling grey as gray, or their Quebecois counterparts who obsess over the status and positioning of the French language in Quebec, both figuratively and literally. What makes Korea somewhat odd is that protection of its language seems to be fairly compartmentalized.

There don't seem to be any laws or widespread movements against English-like gibberish or English-for-the-sake-of-it when it comes to marketing or products that are seen as being modern or even slightly Western. A typical example is this picture from a Starbucks, which uses the English word 'food' transliterated, despite the fact that it sounds nearly identical to the English word 'pooed', for no obvious reason. Another example is this ad from Hewlett Packard Korea, which is typical for advertising copy by being half in English (I once spent a bored hour at a cafe conducting a case study that indicated roughly 50-60% of the words on the cover of magazines or in advertising were in English or transliterated English).

Given that Korea is constantly importing English words into its own language and using them in ways, and with meanings, that are markedly different from the original, there isn't really much appetite for Korean-only movements of any sort. However, Koreans at the same time would widely support knowledge exporting their language and their alphabet to other countries, with the idea being that it is unique and individual. They would also, like someone who wants to buy books that look pretty on a shelf and don't need to be read, support a purer culture and language in certain official or ceremonial contexts (Hangul Day on October 9, or around Insadong), as long as it doesn't interfere with the salad bar at Mr. Pizza.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Belated review of Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military

In the past, I used to count and post about every book I read in this space. I did not read Imperial Grunts this year, so there is no number, but it is the book I wanted to write about. Imperial Grunts: The American Military On The Ground was written in 2005 by Robert Kaplan, a journalist I know best from The Atlantic. I found it surprisingly interesting as an explanation of what the American military does best and what it doesn't do so well, strangely comparable with Financial Times' Richard McGregor's The Party, as an explanation of one of the world's most powerful organizations about which I knew surprisingly little.

You may not know about all the places where the American military has a presence that are mentioned in the book, such as Mongolia and Kenya. Whether it's a small presence in those countries or a much larger one in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kaplan makes the case that the American military works best as a small, light and autonomous force that isn't weighed down by Washington bureaucracy. Kaplan makes a convincing case, pointing to countless cases where the sheer size and bureaucracy governing the army hamstrung its goals, but he can sometimes sound like a politician advocating small government as the solution to any economic problem, or a football fan who thinks the coach should "open the offense up" to allow the players to succeed.

Kaplan is probably right in arguing that two large government armies will never again face each other in a land battle. This is not to say that military strength is not needed, the sheer number of flags found on this page is evidence to the contrary, as is the number of flags that could have easily wound up on this page over recent tensions. Rather, the sort of military strength that is needed is profoundly different from what has been needed in the past, a cliche of which everyone is aware, but the American military was simply unable to put into practice until David Petraeus was put in charge of the multinational force in Iraq. The trend in all organizations towards increased formalization and bureaucracy, the US military being no exception, also works against the the need for a small, responsive, fighting force.

Kaplan is a very good writer, but we could have easily done without some of the cliches in the book as a Jewish intellectual from the US Northeast marvels at grunts, a very large percentage of whom are Christians from the South who never went to college, and reminds the reader over and over that they're different. This is something that the book could have done without, to be replaced instead with a more critical look at whether the presence of the United States military in more countries than just about anyone realizes is good for all those countries, the United States included.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Race in Suwon denies prize money to Kenyans

After a lengthy hiatus, AWYHIGTC is back for its second decade. Thank you for your patronizing patronage.

A few months ago, as part of my mandate to pay the race registration fees for anyone who has met an Olympic track and field standard, I decided to sign up a Kenyan runner for a half marathon in Suwon that had a nice prize purse. I even recommended the race to someone else I know who would have been competitive for the money. Eventually, I regretted venturing into the world of amateur sport amateur agency, mostly because it seemed to involve me making a two-hour trip to Suwon, and then this whole thing fell apart.

A number of Kenyans, some of them possibly including runners living and working in Korea, tried to enter this race without elite bibs, trying to win the money available to amateurs. This apparently provoked an outcry that went all the way to the "top", according to the person I spoke to on the phone, the result being that the race put out a statement affirming its status as a "pure festival for runners and clubs" and declaring that "foreign nationals who enter the race for the purpose of winning prize money" would be excluded from the awards. Those who win money without trying to do so, however, would probably also be excluded from the awards. Part of the reasoning was that the prize money was aimed at developing the sport in Korea.

An argument can be made, though I don't think it's a good one, that outsiders, usually Kenyans, who travel around a country running road races for small amounts of money kill the sport, though I don't know how good it is for the sport to financially reward comparatively mediocre performances. Many races work around this by having domestic prize money, including major races in Korea, America and Canada. This was already the case in this race, which has separate prize money for international and domestic elites (in typical Korean fashion, they're actually competing in separate categories, it seems). This is actually a matter of not allowing anyone without Korean citizenship to win amateur prize money and doing so two weeks before the race, after registration is closed, which is pretty much the worst conceivable way of managing a terrible decision.

I would love to name this race and its major sponsor, which was behind this fiasco, but a healthy fear of Korean libel laws keeps me from doing so.