Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's probably a good thing if you can turn the negatives of a place into positives. In Hong Kong, I've come to love the stifling humidity, the combination of shiny new and hideous decrepit architecture, and the abruptness of the people. Waiters hand you things unceremoniously, store clerks only sometimes say thank you, and the English is stripped of articles and filler words, making it harsh and imperative ("you no this").

Positive negatives aside, there are also positive positives: surprisingly blue skies, lush mountains, milk tea, cool seaside breezes and, above all, the acceptability of conducting your daily business in the absence of a shirt.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Chinese onion

I will spend four of the next five weeks somewhere in the People's Republic of China, which The Onion acknowledges with what may well be the greatest satirical output on the Internet since Satirewire closed in 2002 (never forget!). The current issue of the Onion is written from a Chinese perspective but not, mercifully, in a Chinese perspective (i.e. their language).

Pretty much everything on the page is hilarious, but I'll just pick ten, starting with the video I've embedded.

Police Still Searching For Missing Productive, Obedient Woman

The Following Are Examples of American Weakness
Potato-Faced Youngster Lauded For Memorizing Primitive 26-Character Alphabet (I like this because I memorized a 37-character alphabet and a 26-character alphabet as a youngster)
Internet Adds 12th Website
No U.S. Military Leader Is Worthy To Be Namesake Of Breaded Chicken Dish (Onion Radio News)
Collapsed Mine Used As Excuse To Stall Coal Extraction
Nothing At All Happens To 28 Tibetan Protesters, Their Families
How Can We Be More Productive To Society?
Three Dozen Confirmed [Redacted] In Power Plant [Redacted]
Grandfather Disrespected In Own Home

I realize that some of this reads as being critical of China. Therefore, I would like to say 中华人民共和国万岁!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

대한민국! 대한민국!

Korea isn't entirely a perfect country. To the last entry, I can add that when I was running in a quasi-eclipse yesterday, a construction worker stopped me to offer a prism for looking at the sun. Still, the country isn't perfect. Take, for example, Korean politics. Chris from Reading, Pennsylvania writes "So uh, WTF IS UP WITH THAT CRAZY PARLIAMENT?!!!"

Readers from B&O and Short Line have so far been silent on the matter, but a media ownership bill drove the Korean National Assembly into all-out violence for the second day in a row. This does not happen in Canada, to the best of my knowledge.

Here's a video. If you are seeing this on Facebook, click here to see the video.

Not pictured is the pro-wrestling-style leap one man took from a table onto the podium. I will try and find it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Southern hospitality

This is the fifth post in my series of quirky cultural differences. Four and death are homonyms in Korean, so I will do no fourth post. South Koreans, and I suppose North Koreans too though I've never been, are very hospitable. They will go out of their way to help you get around in their country. This does stem from a somewhat justified belief that you're a complete buffoon who could not possibly get around in this country without their help, but it comes from good intentions.

Take for example, Saturday afternoon. I was waiting for a bus in a slight drizzle. The guy with an umbrella standing 10 feet away came over and stood with his umbrella over me. I suspect he would not have extended that same courtesy to a fellow Korean. At the pizza restaurant where I've been going for a year, a woman explained (in Korean) how to order: look at the menu, choose a pizza and then order.

My favourite kind of hospitality is the kind where someone follows you around. At the mighty 63 building (Korean is good at telling you what things are: fish is "water meat", Namsan is "south mountain" and a phone is "electric speech"), I had a hard time finding the observatory at the top because its actually an art gallery. I was looking at a map when all of a sudden, a girl appeared behind me. She explained the matter to me and then disappeared. When I couldn't find the ticket booth, she appeared from thin air again to direct me.

The other time I was assigned a personal agent was at a birthday party. A baby's first birthday party is an over-the-top celebration, and I went to my co-worker's baby's first birthday in search of the food. I was the only foreigner there and as I walked around the banquet hall looking for the food, a girl appeared from nowhere. "My aunt told me to help you," she said. "Is there anything you need?" "Uh, I'm okay," I said.

"Actually, where's the food?" I cracked. "It's over there," she pointed to the back.

Other items on the list are people who carefully watch me reload a subway fare card, friends who hail taxis for me because Korean right arms are special, and the sauna in central Seoul where there is a fridge-sized poster urging patrons to be kind to foreigners. I can't forget, however, the Korean tourism information helpline (simply dial 1330). You can ask them anything you've ever wanted to know about Korea.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Come on and feel the Kyrgyzstan

I've long suspected that a visit to Kyrgyzstan would be absurd to the highest degree. So far, my suspicions are holding out. I went to the Kyrgyz embassy in Seoul today (it's the same building as the Danish embassy, halfway up Namsan, if you're so inclined). Right off the bat, you notice that:

1) The embassy is putatively located on the forth floor of the building, except that it's also on the ground floor. The third floor is in the basement, it seems.

2) My 50-square-metre apartment has more furniture than the massive, four-room embassy. One of the rooms there consists of nothing but a massive rug on the floor.

In keeping with the Sisyphean nature of life in Kyrgyzstan and related countries, the three people there had no discernible function or purpose other than reading what looked to be electronic manuals.

The application fee needs to be paid in US dollars. When I asked where I could get US dollars, the man made a face and indicated that, perhaps, I might be able to pay in Korean won. The woman who took the money, in a dark room, took about 20 minutes to accept the money, and disappeared for minutes at a time inside the room.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The country may be communist, but the Chinese like to sell things. That's a fact. This morning I was looking for a Chinese travel agency in Seoul, but couldn't find it. Making things worse was the pouring rain. All of a sudden, someone called out "CHINA VISA! CHINA VISA! Yogi! Yogi! (Here! Here!)" There was a woman standing and pointing into a building. This wasn't the reputable travel agency I spoke to yesterday, which I think was about 100 metres down the alley, but it was raining.

After I filled out the application and walked away looking for an ATM, she saw me again, this time at the entrance to a subway station. "CHINA VISA? CHINA VISA?" I told her that I had already done it, in Korean, but that didn't concern her too much. The woman is Korean, but she deals with China enough to absorb its relentless entrepreneurial spirit.

I have every reason to believe that she was simply touting for the travel agency, asking anyone and everyone walking down this busy street if they wanted a visa to China. No plans to go to China? No problem, you have three months to use the visa! Circumstances change.

Applying for a Chinese visa at a English-speaking travel agency is like a job interview: the travel agency asks a series of questions to determine how the Chinese government will arbitrarily discriminate against you. For example, if you are a brunette whose parents were born in Hungary, you will have to apply for your visa in the Chinese prefecture with a sister city relationship to the Hungarian county in question. Visa-free entry to the Chinese prefecture in question is available to all Europeans except those of Hungarian origin. Those of Hungarian origin must apply for their Chinese visa at the prefectural Public Safety Bureau. Yesterday, an English-speaking travel agency told me that express visa service (two days, not four) was not available in my case because my legal residency in Korea expired in September and I was going back to Canada after my trip and...

Korean travel agencies are simpler. The only parts of the form I filled out were my address, phone number and a statement testifying to my absence from any other countries over the last two weeks (probably swine flu-related, but it wasn't specified). I've learned to curb how many revelations I make when dealing with immigration authorities. Explaining my entire life story and planned itinerary (traveling on a one-way plane ticket, my religion, traveling to the currently troublesome Xinjiang province, etc.) in the interests of sociability is, I've learned, a bad idea.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The death race up Namsan didn't quite pan out. The course was a very tough but not superhuman 3-kilometre road on the side of the mountain. Three-and-a-half made up a half marathon. I woke up at 7:30 for an 8:50 start, meaning that I ate no breakfast and spent about $12 getting to the race (two taxis, one Mugunghwa train). Still, I missed the start by 20 minutes. It had been raining heavily all morning, and continued until the afternoon.

I jogged the first 12k and ran the last 9 hard, and I didn't think this was too difficult, though I don't have the endurance these days to go much faster. I didn't time it, but it took about 1:50. The winning time for the half was only 1:26, so I would say the course is about 8-10 minutes slow. I can't say enough about the rain that fell, which was so loud that I couldn't hear anything else.

A chapter in my Korean textbook teaches you to ask if you have ever been to Namsan. If you have never been to Namsan, you've missed out. The views are spectacular, though spectacularly misty yesterday, and the lush greenery could fool you into thinking you weren't even in Seoul. I also strongly recommend the place I went for lunch, an Uzbek restaurant at exit 5 of Dongdaemun Stadium (look for the Uzbek flag). If they can make lamb taste edible, they probably do wonderful things with other meats as well.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The nature of celebrity in Korea is #3. Canada has 30 million people, but who is the most famous person in Canada? Sidney Crosby? Wayne Gretzky? Celine Dion? Pierre Trudeau? Asked to name a very famous Canadian, Americans or Koreans I've met will name Celine Dion or draw a blank. Ask a Canadian the same question and it's not much easier. The best known name in Canada is perhaps the deceased hockey player with the chain of coffee shops. Living in Canada doesn't make you much better at naming famous Canadians.

Korea is much easier, although the coming diatribe is qualified by the fact that the most famous Korean outside of South Korea is Kim Jong Il. To North Koreans and the rest of the world, he is the first person you name if asked to name a Korean. That said, celebrities are everywhere and known by everyone in Korea. Canadian celebrities have their presence diluted by the fact that they participate in English-language pop culture, which includes Americans, Britons, Australians and so on.

Singers: Wonder Girls, Big Bang, Sonya Shidae, Super Junior, and so on. Athletes: Kim Yeon Ah, Park Ji Seong, Chan Ho Park (he played in America and got his names switched), Park Tae Hwan, and so on. Actors: Lee Min Ho and, well, I don't really watch Korean dramas. These people are known to everyone, including kindergarten students. A lot of younger children identify the activity with the athlete. Show them a swimmer and they'll say Park Tae Hwan, "not swimming".

These people are everywhere. The Wonder Girls, a popular singing group, advertise for a bakery. The boy band Big Bang pimps cell phones. Eighteen-year-old figure skater Kim Yeon Ah advertises cell phones, refrigerators, cars, milk, and apparently even a bank. She's so famous that even her Japanese rival Asada Mao is famous. Park Ji Seong the soccer player has a street named after him here in Suwon. The actor Lee Min Ho is a spokesman for Dunkin' Donuts, Pepsi, Cass beer, Levi's as well as cell phones. Son Dam Bi the singer advertises cell phones, some kind of juice and Lord knows what else.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The second lesson on Korean-Canadian differences is safety. Westerners are generally obsessed with safety, going so far as to create a song about it. We have warnings, regulations, fences, boundaries, laws and fines aiming at stopping you from having your head split open like a melon. Korea, on the other hand, is not so big on safety.

Maybe it's the half a dozen car accidents I've seen here, or the time my bus went into the left lane to go around a bulldozer, and then veered 45 degrees in front of the bulldozer, narrowly avoiding the curb but making the stop. Maybe it's my third day here, when the bus I was on drove straight at another bus on a double-parked street, with the result that both buses were stuck. Maybe it's the fact that children walk home alone at midnight, and run along busy streets with no parents around.

Whatever the situation, safety is not a big concern here. People park on sidewalks and walk in the street. Traffic lights are treated like stop signs (if there's no one right in front of you, you can go) and I've seen only a few stop signs, which are really more like suggestions to stop then legal imperatives. The restaurant on the first floor of my building has an offer where if you give them seven bottles of soju, the eighth one is free.

There are some exceptions. You have to wear a helmet to go ice skating. Women wear Darth Vader-like visors, also seen in Toronto but almost omnipresent here, if the weather is anything other than rainy. Some of my kids showed up in knee and elbow pads for our sports day.

The Darth Vader visor-in-sun mentality doesn't apply to this Sunday, when I will be putting my life on the line, at least the part of my brain that keeps me out of a persistent vegetative state. I will be running a half marathon that, according to my understanding ascends and descends Seoul's Namsan three times and change.

There are few things on Earth more punishing than running 21 kilometres up (and down!) a mountain in central Seoul in the middle of July, but just wait! There's more! In most places in the world, this race would start at 6 in the morning. In Dae Han Min Guk, where safety is perhaps measured against the benchmark of war, this race starts at 9 in the morning.

To be fair, we have a bizarre preoccupation with safety. We dismantle playgrounds so kids have nowhere to play, we don't let our kids play outside so they get fat, and we inculcate them with fear of just about everything and everyone, seen and unseen, so they expect to be kidnapped or abducted by terrorists if they stray too far from the nearest Bed, Bath and Beyond. Korea is rough around the edges and delightfully nonchalant in its approach to safety, partly out of an expectation that people know what to do and partly because it is a very newly developed country.

Friday, July 03, 2009

This is a week of firsts. On Monday, I took my first Korean test, a TOEFL-style test of Korean proficiency. It started well but things fell apart when I had to read and understand sentences. My mangling of verb forms was familiar to me as an English teacher. The amusing and disheartening part is to be told that you actually said the complete opposite of what you want. Funnier than all that is, as I've found when writing tests for 7-year-olds, instructions for a test are impossible to write in plain language.

"Fill in the blanks?" What does fill mean? What's a blank? (In Korean grammar: "Fill meaning is what? Blank is what?") The last thing I'll come to understand in Korean will be the instruction page that came with the test, which is actually supposed to be the first thing.

After all that, I saw my first Korean movie in a theatre, having seen a few on TV. This was a typical Northeast Asian horror movie, featuring high school girls wandering around their large high school with the ghost of a dead girl appearing at random intervals. I understood a few words in each sentence, but on the whole, I don't think I understood any better than someone living in Cuba, with the exception of a key plot turn where a girl says she's pregnant.

Here's the trailer:

I think horror movies are scarier when you don't understand them.

Finally, this weekend, I get to travel into the greener pastures of South Korea's countryside, actually its mountainous northeast. That lets me cross three of Korea's eight provinces off my list. I can add that to six Canadian provinces (and one territory), about a dozen US states and all but one of Pakistan's four provinces.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Eleven famous Canadians living in America share what they miss about Canada.

My list:

- snow and cold
- open space
- reasonably priced bagels
- vaguely British street names, or even street names at all
- the peculiar (in Korea) Canadian social niceties that I explain to Koreans as "Canadian manners": holding doors open for people, letting others go ahead of you in line, and saying thank you for every insignificant thing that someone does for you

To add to the list:

- good Chinese food
- Jamaican slang
- other runners