Thursday, April 30, 2009

If you read something about Korea before you come here, you might come across the idea of Confucian harmony. Seeing harmony everywhere seems like nonsense, but an integral part of the Korean cultural experience is experiencing the harmony. Harmony here is really just another word for sameness. Consider dining out with Koreans. If you're not picky and agree to be taken to a typical Korean restaurant, you're in for a treat.

First of all, every single Korean I've ever met likes every single kind of Korean food. Odds are you've met a Westerner who, say, doesn't like pickles but likes tomatoes, and another who likes pickles but won't eat eggs. This is not the case in Korea. No matter what random, unappetizing concoction you put in front of them, they'll eat and tell you how delicious it is. Like everything else about Korea, they are loathe to criticize it because they are Korean. This means you can go anywhere from a place that serves pork intestine to acorn jelly to grilled meat to ground-up soy bean paste.

Second, a Korean restaurant will have something like 6 things on the menu, which is on the wall and entirely in Korean. Two of the dishes might not be available, two of them you'll have never heard of, even if you can read the Korean, and the waitress will passionately dissuade you from ordering the fifth one for reasons you don't quite understand (eg it's not the season for it).

This lengthy description, however, doesn't do the process justice. What will actually happen is that someone will mysteriously ask you if you like soy beans. You, having no enmity towards them, will say yes. You will then go to a soy bean paste restaurant. The Koreans will discuss the matter among themselves in astonishing depth for 5-10 minutes, and then they will order without asking you what you wanted, or without you even knowing that you ordered. This process will repeat itself for a year or two or however long you stay here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Koreans like talking to me and I like talking to them, especially if they're middle-aged men who conduct conversations through a variety of throat-clearing sounds. I get all sorts of questions. The first one, however, is always the same: "Where are you from?" Sometimes some of the sharper people like to guess where I come from. It's not easy, I guess. I've heard it all though: Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, America, New Zealand (yes, I just scream New Zealand), India, Turkey and, once each, even Pakistan and Canada.

Others, mostly middle and high school students, just assume that I come from Canada or America. When they do this, they wave hello at me. Or yell it from 50 feet away. Or yell it while running out of a restaurant, giggling. Yesterday, on the subway, four kids around 12-15 were sitting across from me. The three girls nominated the boy to come and talk to me. I pretended not to see this.

"Where are you from?"
"I'm from Canada.

He turned around to the others and said "Canada". They giggled. He turned around and stared at me. I stared right back. He gave me a thumbs up and said "good".

When I run a race, people feel more entitled to talk to me. Over 21 kilometres yesterday, I had many people on the course mutter or yell their hellos. I also had a guy yell, at the top of his lungs from the distance, "WAEGUKIN! WAEGUKIN!" Then he decided that maybe I didn't understand Korean, so he switched to yelling in English. "FOREIGNER! FOREIGNER! GO! GO! FOREIGNER!" Others weren't as kind and decided to treat me as a museum oddity. One guy said "hello". Then "good". Then "I love you!", and "will you marry me?" A girl at the 17 km water station pulled out her camera and stood in my way so that I'd slow down, allowing her to get a picture of the time she saw a foreigner running.

Other times, people just stare. I had a guy stare at me for ten minutes yesterday before proceeding to lecture me about the four distinct seasons of Korea. I'm sure it's not easy talking to a foreigner, but I urge you to try. The next time you see a person that you think might not be from your country, say "ni hao".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The peculiarity of this trip in tailoring itself to my eccentrities amazes me. On my second day in Busan, I ran a 1:35 half marathon that injured both my back and my pride, wrote sad poetry in my head at spectacular Gwanganli Beach, admired the massive Gwanganli Bridge and impressed an old woman with my Korean. I even won a travel gym (jump rope, resistance band, wrist weights?) and a tea towel for finishing in the top 30 at the race. Then I got back to my hostel and met an Iraqi-born Swede. Like Simon, I didn't think much of Busan when I first got here, but it redeemed itself well with its natural beauty, seaside charm and easygoing disposition. It makes a very nice counterpart to the megalopolis of Seoul. I was certainly wrong to think that every other city in Korea was simply a smaller, duller version of Seoul.

Suspension bridges, making friends with old people in foreign languages, running and tapping into the international fraternity of brown guys. Tune in next week for another set of anecdotes from Tokyo. In the meantime, come over to my apartment for tea and ask about my new tea towel.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

This trip has it all, I think. I am in Busan on the Pacific Ocean, all the way on the other side of Korea, almost 400 km from home. This is the second-largest city in Korea and, unlike Seoul, it is less hectic and has less concrete. About the only thing that draws people from Seoul to Busan are the beaches, though I came here to run a half marathon. A twenty-one-kilometre city tour aside, this trip has bullet trains (I came via the 250-km/hr KTX), a Russo-Chinese shopping district, and fellow swarthy foreigners of indeterminate origin.

If nothing else, it's gratifying to go somewhere in Korea where the foreigners aren't unruly Americans. Rather, so far at least, they've been burly, intimidating Russians. The Chaoryang Foreigner Shopping Area (their name, not mine) is opposite the shabby main train station. The signs are almost exclusively in Chinese and Russian, though there are Uzbeks, Filipinos and whatever else the sea washes ashore in Korea's largest port.

So far I've been dragged by a woman of questionable morals into a bar full of Russian goons, entered an ostensibly Uzbek restaurant only to find out that it's really more of a meat market (think slabs of beef), walked through a massive aquacultural street market where unsold fish laid morose and had someone's food delivery shoved into my face at this smoky Internet cafe. Really, though, I like it. It's not as concrete and maddening as Seoul, though I have to go before I start smoking to inflict an equal and opposite pain on my neighbour.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Korean court recently acquitted an unemployed blogger for "maliciously spreading false information" on the Internet. The man was accused of causing stocks to dive with his economic commentary, some of which was remarkably prescient and some of which was not. Of course, if maliciously spreading false information on the Internet was a crime in the West, a large number of people would be in jail.

This speaks to the authoritarian nature of the Korean government. This country was a dictatorship until 20 years ago, and the result is that the rule of law is very, very strong. The example I like to use is that of national ID numbers, which are used for just about everything. I have an ID number too, but my sequence of numbers clearly marks me out as a foreigner. It is, generally speaking, the bane of my existence. Having a foreigner's ID number wouldn't matter if the card was used like a social insurance number back home: useful for getting a job or a bank account, but not relevant to daily life.

However, a national ID number is used to sign up for an email address, road races, shop online and, most comically of all, buying movie tickets from a machine instead of at the counter. None of this, therefore, I can do without the help of a friendly Korean. Everywhere you go, no matter how mundane the purpose, someone wants to make sure that you're not a North Korean infiltrator and that you can be tracked down as yourself. Anonymity does not exist on the Internet, though censorship does. Sites linked to the North Korean government are blocked, for example. You can read the eloquent dispatches of the Korean Central News Agency (you know you're an international power when the country you threaten to annihilate hosts the website of your news agency), but I can't.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

When I want to be reminded of, I don't head to the nearest McDonald's or Starbucks, but for the Sean Paul. McDonald's, Starbucks and other prominent representatives of Western society are so omnipresent that I never really left that. Given that I come from (straight outta) Malton, I like to listen to Sean Paul and think of the heavily accessorized mid-sized automobiles and sport utility vehicles, their questionable occupants, and, of course, the music they blare.

The image of North America here is so sanitized that sometimes I forget about the door thugs, the cruising of residential areas with high-end subwoofers, that Gat is a word and that many of my students speak better English than my high school classmates. When I was there, of course, I hated it, but just once, once only, I'd like to go somewhere and hear someone say "bloodclot" and not refer to a medical condition.

(If you are reading this on Facebook, you misssed the real point of this post, which is this video.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I have a friend named Kim. I can't believe it has taken eight months in Korea to discuss this topic, but it has. Kim is 29 years old, the same age as my oldest brother, and he has been kind enough to take me under his wing. He has educated me about Korean society, particularly economics, life as a military conscript and Korean girls, the three areas of his strength. Having listened carefully when he speaks, I have been able to deduce what I call Kim's Three Laws:

1) Beef is always expensive.
2) Korean girls are flat, like coffee shops and want to marry a man who makes at least 3.5 to 4 million won a month (about $40,000 Canadian).
3) Sure! You can do it!

Kim's First Law, that beef is always and everywhere expensive, is almost a tautology. To quote, "you know, on the Korean peninsula, farmers, they do not grow beef. They grow rice or chickens or pigs, but they do not grow much beef." Consequently, beef is expensive at both Korean and Western restaurants in Korea. However, this extends elsewhere too. When we went to China and were charged exorbitantly for a meal that included beef, Kim commented that "I think beef is expensive everywhere", completing the law.

Kim's Second Law comes up constantly, given that about half of Korea is populated by females. At first, I thought the three principles comprising this law were merely exaggeration, but research over the last eight months has shown this to be true. Korean girls are very slim, make up 95-98% of the patrons at a coffee shop and really do want a man who makes about 4 million won a month (most of the women I know around the age of 30 are single).

Kim's Third Law is rooted in his never-ending encouragement of all my endeavours and half-baked ideas. Can I go have dinner with his parents in the country? Sure! You can do it! Can I go buy a chicken from that man over there? Sure! You can do it! Can I move to the countryside and make all my students bow to me? Sure! You can do it!

There is much, much, more that Kim has taught me, but let this suffice as a first post. This is the first post of roughly 1500 that I have tagged, so that you can easily find Kim-related posts in the future.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Watching hour 300 of the never-ending television coverage of the North Korean rocket launch, I think North Korea played South Korea, America, and Japan quite well. The result is that the North essentially has free rein to do what it wants and there's nothing anyone can do about it because they have virtually no leverage. North Korea is a miserable country where cell phones are banned, radios are doctored to block foreign signals and people starve to death. Nevertheless, the Kim Jong-il government has done well enough with its fiercely independent juche ideology, savage indifference to the deaths of its people and massive army that foreign powers have great difficulty exerting control or influence.

Pyongyang has dug itself into its retrograde time stasis quite well. It needs food aid but will not give up its nuclear program to do it. It needs foreign investment and currency but will not give up its nuclear program to do it. Pretty much everything and everything is expendable but the nuclear program, because that is the only card North Korea can play. A lesser madman would have come to his senses by now, but North Korea wouldn't hold the horrifying fascination it does for so many if it was even remotely sensible.

North Korea's independence would be admirable if it was not the worst place on earth, combining unimaginable tyranny and complete exclusion from the outside world with unimaginable suffering. Roughly 10% of North Korea's population starved to death in the mid-90s and the situation has not improved all that much since. Clearly, the Kim family's model of statecraft, while not one to be envied or copied, certainly is functional.

Today is a day of triumph for North Korea, whose people don't realize that a few hours' drive from their hopeless gray existence dominated by absurdist Kim family propaganda are the tall buildings, bright lights, plentiful food and modernity of Seoul. Whatever the future holds for North Korea as Kim Jong-il's life enters its endgame, today they managed to thumb their noses at the idle warnings of the world's powers.

Consequently, here is a North Korean propaganda video.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

This space turned 6 years old on Monday. What is your favourite AWYHIGTC memory? Comment for a chance to win acclaim and accolade in a future entry of AWYHIGTC.