Friday, May 29, 2009

Continuing with our theme of amusing remarks coming out of Washington, Hillary Clinton said that another country has "ignored the international community" and is acting in a "provocative and belligerent manner toward its neighbors." Oh dear. Foreigners both inside and outside of Korea are flying off the handle when it comes to the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the Korean People's Army, but shiny suit-wearing South Koreans don't seem worried about it.

The newspapers and television news remain obsessed with Roh Moo Hyun. Both YTN and MBN television news discussed Roh, and the websites of the Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo and the Joongang Ilbo give greater importance to Roh's upcoming funeral than their impending annihilation.

That's why I had to go to the New York Times to find out that the situation is so grave that the South Korean military is on its highest alert in almost three years (that's thirty-six months!). As well, the paper notes that no panic has broken out here in the face of nuclear annihilation (omigod!). The alert level is the second-highest possible, going from 3 to 2.

For any Americans reading this, that's like going from yellow to orange ("elevated" to "high") on the Homeland Security system. Needless to say, I went out to look for orange golf shirts to wear in the 30-degree heat, but without luck. Raising the level from elevated to high is like going from worried to concerned, or perhaps going from concerned to worried.

At any rate, what happened is that North Korea tested a nuclear bomb on Monday, then some short-range missiles on Tuesday. The South decided to join the Proliferation Security Initiative in response, which nominally commits it to inspecting ships suspected of carrying prohibited weapons. Since challenging North Korean ships is confrontational, it would never happen. North Korea responded by threatening to attack the South if it intercepted its ships, though it routinely threatens to attack the South anyway and the South would never actually intercept its ships.

As a result, everybody moved their ships close to the western sea border, where there were minor skirmishes earlier this decade, and now we wait.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Let no one ever say that Canada is a weak nation:

Canada's Governor General Eats Seal Heart

RANKIN INLET, Nunavut (AP) -- Canada's governor general ate a slaughtered seal's raw heart in a show of support to Canada's seal hunters, a display that a European Union spokeswoman on Tuesday called ''too bizarre to acknowledge.''

Governor General Michaelle Jean, the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as Canada's head of state, gutted the seal and swallowed a slice of the mammal's organ late Monday after an EU vote earlier this month to impose a ban on seal products on grounds that the seal hunt is cruel.

I don't know how to react to this, but I'm impressed by the sturdiness of Jean's will and stomach.

AWYHIGTC asks, what's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? For me, it's live squid forced upon me by a stranger at Seoul's massive Noryangjin fish market. A close second is goat head and feet, a favourite of my dad.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's not a good time to be a South Korean. On Saturday, former president Roh Moo Hyun (Roh is pronounced 'no', seriously) committed suicide by jumping off of a cliff at his country home. Today, North Korea announced that it had conducted its second nuclear test.

Koreans don't normally discuss politics with me for whatever reason, my impression is that controversial issues convey a less than positive image of Korea. The North Korean test was no exception to this rule, not that the threat from the North means anything to anyone here. Case in point: the evening news on state-run television is covering nothing but Roh's death, showing footage of thousands of mourners at a spontaneous memorial outside Deokso Palace in central Seoul.

Today, however, I had my first taste of a Korean expressing a political opinion. In November they asked Americans how they voted, without any hesitation, but no one has ever shared anything resembling an aversion or preference for a political party or candidate. I had a coworker tell me that Roh, who rose from poverty to become the president, was very popular with younger people for his attempts to break from Korea's authoritarian past. The corruption charges he faced of late, she said, were fabricated. Another coworker broke down in tears talking about it.

Korea is famous, or at least it should be, for the intensity of its politics. Seemingly insigificant issues such as imported beef from America attracted hundreds of thousands of people to rallies last summer. The death of a former president, similarly, has absolutely captivated people in a way that I don't understand (twenty minutes into the news, the first mention of the country that tested a nuke today is to say that Kim Jong Il sent his condolences to Roh's family).

The coworker who talked about Roh's popularity also said that she and her family didn't go out to see a movie on Saturday because they were too upset about Roh, though I suppose she might have meant to say that she was too captivated by the news. That sort of paralysis over the death of a leader I thought was no longer popular mystifies me, moreso than the indifference to today's nuclear test.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

With respect to the arrest of two Americans in North Korea, US State Department Ian Kelly complained last week that he is "not aware of any kind of reasons that have been given to us as to why they’re denying consular access, which, of course, is contrary to the Vienna Convention." I don't understand where Kelly's complaint comes from, nor his appeal to international conventions, which has not been a major concern of the American government. His country, of course, is the one that picks people up in foreign countries, holds them in another foreign country and then denies them rights accorded by foreign conventions.

The sad result is that America lacks justification in crying foul at the arrest and treatment of the two journalists. The two ostensibly crossed into North Korea from China with the predictable result of being arrested. A trial has been set for next month, and access to Swedish diplomats who represent America in North Korea has been denied. I have a hard time seeing America's point here: nothing this country has done of late suggests that there is something wrong with arbitrarily arresting and detaining foreign nationals on your territory, particularly under the catch-all mumbo jumbo of national security.

Lang and Lee have done valuable work in focusing attention of any kind on North Korea, but their government comes across as a hypocrite in defending them.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Here are some things people said to me this week:

Scene One

Six-year-old: (black person).

Scene Two

Nine-year-old: Do you have a Korean name?
Adeel, not wanting to reveal it: Uh, no.
Nine-year-old: Your Korean name is Kim Hong Jae.

Scene Three

Man in suit, calling from 30 feet down the street: Nice to meet you!
Adeel: Hi
Man: It's a hot day, isn't it? You'd agree (pointing to the sweat on my forehead).
Adeel: Uh, yeah, it's very hot.

He then proceeded to talk to me about Jehovah's Witnesses, all in English. Just before handing me a Tagalog copy of the Watchtower magazine, he said:

Man: May I ask where you're from?
Adeel: Canada.
Man: Oh! Sorry! Here is the English copy.

Scene Four

Man at baseball game: Where are you from?
Adeel: Canada
Man: Canada?!? TORONTO?!?!

It turned out that his uncle lives in Toronto. He was so excited that he was going to call his uncle about this exciting new development, but I persuaded him not to, since it was 5:22 am in Toronto.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Here are some of my favourite Kimisms over the months:

"When I was a tour guide at the infiltration tunnel, I saw many foreigners and, you know, some of them were as big as a door."

On seeing my friend's passport picture, the first time he met her: "You look like Britney Spears when she did not manage her body well."

On squat toilets: "Have you ever shit in that kind of place?"

On meeting a new coworker: "I thought she would be taller, like Lisa (6 feet) or Kerri (not much shorter)". Apparently all Western women are supposed to be around 6 feet.

"It is a kind of _____________". Kim loves explaining things to me using this sentence. It sounded strange at first and made me laugh, but I had to admit that it had a certain zen to it. Racial discrimination, tour packages and all sorts of foreign ideas were all simplified using this tone.

"I think this restaurant must be Chinese". Before eating at a restaurant in Beijing, Kim made this observation by reading the Chinese on the menu.

"I like a girl who is hot and whose hobby is reading books."

"______________ is good for stamina." So far this list includes exercise, chicken soup, dog soup and, actually, most foods we've had.

"This restaurant is quite famous." We were standing in front of a restaurant serving nothing but acorn jelly, in a town located precisely in the middle of nowhere.


"Her shirt was quite low and then I feel very embarrassed."

"Waaaayy-uuuhhhhllll..." (Well...)

"[The movie] was full of insulting remarks."

"Sure! There are several Koreans with chest hair."

"The facilities are quite good." Speaking of a nearby love motel.

"I think she is an ethnic Korean." Kim thinks 80% of the people who work at restaurants are ethnic Koreans from China, his tip-off is when their Korean sounds strange.

"I will go to the library and read a book." His favourite way of spending Saturday afternoons.

"This morning, my sister gave birth to a baby girl." Slipped nonchalantly into the middle of a conversation.

"I had a gathering." His word for party or 'hanging out'. I can assure you that he doesn't play that nerdy card game.

"No, I want to go to a movie. Alone." Why he left a bar at midnight, in order to catch a 1 am show.

"Ah! Scarface! Al Pacino! I want to be like Al Pacino!"

"Clint Eastwood is quite old, but I do not want him to die."

"It was quite difficult." Speaking of a recent date.

"SHE IS MY LATEEKA!" A text message I received after the same date.
This entry is about the Tao of Kim. Tao used strictly refers to Taoism, but used loosely, it means the way or the path. The Korean word for road, gil, comes from the Chinese character that is pronounced dào in Chinese. So this entry, then, is about the Way of Kim.

Background: I hadn't seen Kim in about a month before tonight. When I asked him if he was busy because he just recently seeing a girl, he replied instead by asking me to meet him at the bar across the street from my apartment. This was at 11 at night. This bar is expensive, but has very attractive waitresses, except for the one that glares sternly at us, as though she is aware of the absurdity of our conversation.

It's safe to say that I've never seen anyone wearing running shorts at a bar, certainly not at 11 pm, and certainly not in image-conscious Korea, where it's rare to see anyone wearing track pants in public. But, of course, this the Way of Kim. I vacillate between thinking that he doesn't understand social conventions and that he doesn't care for them. Whatever, the case, it takes a certain amount of confidence to walk into that posh bar with shorts to your mid-thigh, especially as a full-blooded Korean with the Resident Registration Number (the actual name for what I mistakenly called a national ID) to prove it.

I've learned a lot from friends that are far bolder, far more eccentric than I could possibly dare to be. If Andrew Fisher is reading this, I am eternally grateful to him for his penchant to engage complete strangers in direct conversation, which I think I have picked up. It's rare to see someone who will say exactly what is on his mind, even if it is sensitive, to a complete stranger. Seeing someone do it makes it okay for you to do it, and that's how I was able to invite myself to a wedding last fall.

What I've learned from Kim is to say and do exactly what is on my mind for the satisfaction it provides. It's frustrating to keep your thoughts to yourself. It's satisfying to say, without varnishing, what you're thinking, whether good or bad. Kim has told people that they're too fat to wear skirts, that their nose looks broken, that they are very sincere (a very high compliment in Kimglish) and so on. Kim also shared extraordinarily intimate details of his life with me the first time I met him and said "yeah, you look like a bear" when I said that I hadn't shaved in a few days. He also wears short shorts to bars, asks waitresses if the food he's about to order is delicious and blames all sorts of impertinent inquiries (the price of poisonfish, why North Korean waitresses are not singing to us) on his foreign friends.

This is the Way of Kim, but to be honest, every post about Kim adds one dimension to the infinite dimensions of the Way of Kim.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Death in Tehran is a recurrent theme in my life. I wrote about it here. In my case, it's not really death in Tehran that I'm facing no matter what, but having my day prorogued by brown people. I may have come all the way to Korea, but brown people are still the bane of my existence.

I was at the bank today. There are eight employees but only one that speaks English. Usually I deal with her. Today, I arrived 30 seconds too late and an Indian woman, the only other foreigner I've ever seen there, got to the English-speaking teller before me. She spent the next 45 minutes not understanding anything, just like back home. Just like back home, the time I could've spent sipping tea or coffee evaporated behind an obtuse brown person.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Korean songs, much like the Indian songs I've grown up with, are liberally sprinkled with random bits of English. They help my students learn English in a way that's sometimes helpful but mostly just intensely frustrating. For example, consider the following sentences with the names of popular songs italicized:

"Does nobody have an eraser?"
"Who can tell me what a noun is?"
"Oh, I'm sorry!"
"How do you spell running? R-U-N-N-I-N-G."
"No, no way, that's crazy."
"Boys and girls, is it hot or cold outside?"

Random snippets of English from commercials are also included, I suppose. If I use the word "really", my older students say "really...simple...easy" in a voice that mocks how native speakers sound, which comes from a credit card commercial. When I use one of those words in a sentence, students often giggle hysterically and then sing the relevant part of the song they're reminded of. It's too much to handle that the word from the song is an actual word used by actual English speakers. So, they giggle.

Needless to say, here is one of my favourite Korean songs (Crazy), which taught my older students how to insult each other in English.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Going to a noraebang (Korean for "singing room") with Koreans is really a treat. Koreans learn to a lot of things really well and singing has to be near the top of the list. Going with other Westerners ensures that you'll know all the songs you hear, but it's the equivalent, with rare exceptions, of amateur night at a hick bar in a college town. Going with Koreans is like going to a taping of American Idol, with virtually every song turned into a ballad or power ballad with range and power that strain credulity.

Your otherwise normal friend becomes a Korean Aretha Franklin and if you're not looking, you won't even recognize the quasi-professional voice. It's amusing to see the English songs they choose. Tonight there was Hoobastank, Maroon 5, a Korean cover of Guns N' Roses' Don't Cry, Michael Jackson's Beat It and The Cranberries' Zombie. My favourite was the time my friend sang You Are My Sunshine without a trace of irony. As impressive as it is to hear someone sing Michael Jackson and do it well, the real treat is in finding someone that knows the words to all your favourite songs beyond "gee gee gee gee gee gee baby" and "oh oh oh oh oh".

In honour of well-done amateur singing, here are people around the world singing the Wondergirls' Nobody:

Saturday, May 09, 2009

As much as I love Seoul, for the second-largest city in the world (20 million people in the area), there is absolutely nothing about this city that would attract people from around the world. There are world-famous landmarks in Beijing and world-class tourist attractions in Tokyo, but Seoul comes across as a shabbier version of Tokyo, where the Japanese and North Koreans destroyed all the heritage.

People come to Korea for very specific, predictable raesons. if you see a white or black person here, odds are that they are a soldier or English teacher. If you see a South Asian, they're either an engineer, university student or factory worker. If you see a Southeast Asian, odds are they work in a factory. Only with a Chinese or a Japanese person are all bets off.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

As I sit here in my 8 x 6-foot hotel room that would bring a proud tear to the eye of any warden, I'm looking at perhaps the most unexpected sight of all in Tokyo: a Sanyo video cassette recorder, commonly known as a VCR. Tokyo is supposed to be the world of the future and for the most part it is. The searing bright lights of Shinjuku in the west end bear testament to that, but I'm far from all that. This is Taito in the east end, roughly Tokyo's equivalent of Brooklyn or Queens. There are many shuttered businesses, sleepy bars and restaurants and lots of old men wandering the streets in baggy pajamas. Bearing in mind Japan's massive population of centenarians, it's a fair bet to assume that at least some of them date back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which brought imperial rule back to Japan.

You can't bring too much back to Japan these days. For an industrialized country, it's extremely closed-off and wary of foreigners. It's a lot like America in that sense, except here they fear my germs, not my guns or my steel. That and they talk to me like I'm a human being. Upon arrival, visitors are fingerprinted and photographed. Checking into a hotel requires your passport and many personal details. A sign here informs me that it's illegal to walk around Japan without my passport, but I pretend that I didn't see it.

Before arrival, I filled out a form declaring that I have not been in Canada, America or Mexico in the last ten days, nor do I know anyone who has. I can only pity the fools who did and dared to come to Japan. Flights from Mexico (I did see one Mexican plane at Narita) are examined carefully and passengers examined by some sort of doowhacky sensor for the swine flu. Upon clearing immigration but before clearing customs, I was handed a yellow card that reads:

It is generally known that there are many kind (sic) of serious infectious diseases abroad, which have not occurred in Japan. Even if you contracted such a disease, you wouldn't show any symptoms when entering Japan because of the incubation period.

If you developed any symptoms such as fever, rash, abnormal bleeding, diarrhoea (sic), and jaundice within 28 days after arriving in Japan, you should consult a physician as soon as possible with showing this card (sic).

Standard policy back home, of course, is to ignore abnormal bleeding.

All that nasty business aside, Japan is great. Everyone should have the experience of wandering Shinjuku on a Saturday night mesmerized by the towering bright lights, tall buildings and the hordes of people, passing by Yakuza types and affable black men touting bars at intersections.