Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Week 2 of Seoul International Marathon training

The second week of training was probably the most uneventful. Unlike the first week, which had the pomp and circumstance of yet another vow to train hard, this was a week where I enjoyed the fact that it was only the second week. I didn't have to run much and I didn't. I only ran the one workout, intervals on Tuesday that realistically should have been at 10k pace (6 x 1k with about 1:15-1:30 jog) that I tried to run at something like tempo with a decent pace on the recovery. Looking at the splits, I didn't really get that done, but the 3:47 at the end was nice.

Registration starts tomorrow for the Dong-A Ilbo Seoul International Marathon, which takes place on March 20. Sign up even if you don't live anywhere near here, considering that it costs only $20 or $40. Don't miss your chance to run kilometres 2 through 7 along Eulji-ro, which the New York Times calls "a neighborhood reminiscent of New York’s Canal Street 30 years ago".

Seriously, the chance to start in the heart of the city and then run through Seoul's wide, stunningly empty thoroughfares is a chance you should take every time. This is probably not the most beautiful marathon in Korea, but you run through many of Seoul's busiest, most interesting districts. For that reason, urbanophiles (?) like me should love this marathon.

november 22 - november 28

monday - 4k
tuesday - am 4k, pm 6 x 1k in 4:05 with 250 moderate jog (3:59, 4:09, 4:11, 4:10, 4:16, 3:47)
wednesday - 4k
thursday - 4k
friday - 8k
saturday - 4k
sunday - 11k in one hour on mountain trails, clear sky with views past bukhansan

48k

About Sunday's run: it might be possible to see North Korea from land here in South Korea. I'll get back to you on that.

Where in the world is the Blue House?

I had a strange realization earlier this year: I had no idea where the Blue House was. I'd seen countless maps of Seoul, but the Blue House had never been on one. I assumed it was on Yeouido by the National Assembly for some reason, but in reality it's in the centre of the city behind the old royal palace. A picture to be used by potential spies is here.

However, Korean maps don't show it. Google shows the White House plainly on its maps, and unsurprisingly there are nice shots of Canada's Parliament as well. By comparison, Naver, Daum and Google maps show the Blue House as a white space on their maps and as a blurry mass of black on their satellites.

More amusing was a picture I saw of Gyeongbokgung, the palace right in front of the Blue House, used by the Seoul government to promote tourism in the area. This picture was in Gyeongbokgung subway station and had a shot of the palace, which should have had the Blue House in the background. However, in this picture, all we saw were a mass of trees. They'd airbrushed it out. Considering that anyone standing about a mile away can see the Blue House if they know that it's blue, this was a bit too much.

South Korea has its reasons, namely the 1968 raid on the Blue House that justifies all sorts of security apparatus in the mountains north of Seoul, though with virtually every man around 20 or 21 years of age in the army to fight a dormant enemy, you have to send them somewhere.

This is also, however, the country with an official YouTube channel that until recently considered YouTube illegal for not complying with its idiotic Internet censorship law. Their solution to the laughable status was to exempt foreign websites from the law. Of course, Korea still remains what I call an Internet leech, freely using websites like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and the like while demanding non-citizens to provide ID to use their own sites.

At any rate, the Blue House paranoia would all seem justified if the website was similarly tight-lipped. It is, in English. Visitors might be mystified to learn that although you can tour the Blue House, it is virtually impossible to figure out where it is. The closest we come is an admission that the Blue House is somewhere near the "East Parking Lot adjacent the Gyeongbokgung palace", which is where tour start. I'm sure if they could, they would start tours blindfolded at Incheon airport.

But wait! There's more! If you go to the Korean website, you can hold your mouse over 'Blue House information' (청와대안내), then go to 'directions' (청와대 오시는 길) to find this detailed map of how to get there, complete with driving directions and public transit information.

So, apparently, South Korea has a lot to fear from foreigners knowing where the Blue House is. And it's true. Except that the foreigners to fear also speak Korean. Who was behind the 1968 raid on the Blue House? North Koreans. Who has tried to assassinate the president three times, a fact mentioned by the current president yesterday? North Korea. Who is the only country to have ever attacked South Korea? North Korea.

What language do they speak in North Korea? Korean. Naturally, providing a nice Korean-language map of the presidential palace is a fantastic option. Similarly, security in the mountains north of the city is also somewhat comical, considering that anyone with a South Korean ID is waved right through. To get a South Korean ID, it's not hard for North Korean spies to pretend to be North Korean defectors and show up via China. That's even how two assassins got through.

So, the options are clear for South Korea: restrict sensitive information to the English language to guard against North Korean spies and remote surveillance, or simply get over it and put the presidential residence on the map. Or at least stop giving free tours on the second Saturday of every month.

Friday, November 26, 2010

It's like the Hollywood sign, but bigger and crappier

South Korean TV news right now is focusing on a couple of North Korean shells that have landed in the sea between North and South Korean land on the West Sea, near the site of this week's earlier shelling. They have since accepted the explanation from the Ministry of National Defense, where the minister resigned yesterday for failing to anticipate or defend Tuesday's attack, that this is simply a North Korean exercise.

Regular programming is back on, but it may return just yet. News coverage showed images such as this one:



This picture from Yeonpyeong-do, South Korea, looks at North Korea. The sign in the distance says "Long live the revolutionary ideas of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung" (위대한 수령 김일성 동지 혁명사상 만세).

When South Korean pans across the scene of the shooting and when it zooms in, the slogan erected in massive letters on the hills in North Korea becomes clear. In effect, the viewer is being forced to read the slogan. This sort of free advertising is obviously why the imposing, menacing slogan was put there, though I doubt it convinces more than it intimidates.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Promise less, deliver even less

For the fifth straight year, I find myself training for a spring marathon, and for the third straight year, it will be the Dong-A Ilbo Seoul International Marathon. The Dong-A Marathon is sponsored by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and starts by the paper's Gwanghwamun office, but ironically, it's the rival Chosun Ilbo's office tower that you notice at the start line.

I've run this race twice with liberal over-a-month-long stretches of absolutely no running at all, and gentle training when I was running, but this time I'm hoping that aspiring to run no more than 80k in one week and no faster than 3 hours (as opposed to that desirable 2:50) will keep me from getting bored out of my mind.

In the last four years, I've concluded that I hate long runs, so this time I will take the advice of the Hansons marathon training plan and limit my long runs to 16 miles. I don't run in miles, so I'll shorten 25.6 miles to 25k and maybe even 24k since 24k workous out to a neat 2 hours for me. The reasoning, of course, is that a 20-mile run probably hurts a 40-mile-a-week runner more than it helps. I'm not a big fan of overselling one boring, finger-numbing run, so I was easily convinced.

Doing speed early on and then strength work in the marathon-specific phase makes sense too (why blast 800s a few weeks before a marathon?), although the Hansons offer cupcake workouts for someone running 80k a week (4 x 1200?). There's nothing really novel about the plan other than shortening a 30k run to 25k, and a 10-mile tempo on Thursday followed by 7 miles easy on Friday, 10 miles easy on Saturday and 16 on Sunday is plenty of running when you look at where I am right now.

I ran a 39:31 10k last weekend, which is good enough to look forward to the spring. Here is the first week of training, capitals omitted:

november 15 - november 21

tuesday - 4k
wednesday - 7k
thursday - 7k hilly tempo
friday - 4k
saturday - 9k
sunday - son ki jung half marathon as an easy long run

54k

Friday, November 19, 2010

Stop the bus!

I received a flood of input on Twitter today from my sub-140-character post referring to Seoul, somewhat satirically, as a world-class racist city. If they can call it a world design capital, I can call it a world racism capital. The situation is not entirely analogous to a black man hailing a cab in America, at least not to a number of Koreans, who feel awful but empathize with drivers who are apparently afraid of speaking English.

I don't think anyone has ever had a problem getting somewhere in a taxi because the driver couldn't speak English. The problem would be with a passenger who can't speak English, but generally passengers compensate by giving general directions, saying the name of an obvious landmark and working from there. I'm not even sure why I'm taking the time to defend the idea that a university-educated adult living in a developed country can get home on their own in a taxi, but I am.

Anyway, I think I have enough responses to create a poll. Everyone who wrote was unfailingly kind, even if defending the current status quo. Apparently, it's reasonable that I can't get a taxi ride even though I speak the language, just because drivers don't speak English (an absurdity if you've ever talked to a driver, I've never had one mention it in their interrogations of me).

Of about a hundred mentions that I received today, not counting yesterday, many didn't say anything other than to repost what I said, or to offer a simple apology. If you count people that said they were embarrassed or that what happened was ridiculous as feeling that what happened was racism, then about 70% feel that it was racially motivated.

I'm not sure how those numbers compare with New Yorkers and a black man not catching a cab. The rest insisted that it was purely out of a fear of English and that I should understand. They're nice enough people, but what do I have to do short of a skin transplant?

Lest we go down the road to Korean exceptionalism, the very definition of racism is to negatively treat someone based on their race. Here we have a case where I can't catch a taxi because of the colour of my skin and everyone agrees that it's so. But apparently it doesn't count as racism because taxi drivers supposedly (no one has ever asked) have an irrational fear of taking money from English-speakers.

Yes, a significant number of people are excusing racism, and it's obviously about a lot more than taxis. Excusing prejudice due to Korean exceptionalism ("they've never seen a black person before", "parents don't like black people", "drivers don't speak English, so even though you speak Korean, you should get stiffed and not complain") is what keeps black people from getting jobs here, perpetuates the problems of factory workers and allows children and adults to act with astonishing boorishness.

We spent the last few months hearing about how great Korea is, how it's at the heart of the global economy, a leader in IT, Seoul is the city that the world wants to both see and to be, and so on. It's not asking too much from this city and this country to, in exchange for its own proclamations of its own greatness, expect it to act like something other than a global backwater.

I always knew I was black

When I first got here, a lot of kids asked if I was black. Or, more commonly, they told me that I was black, from Africa, and that I looked like Barack Obama. So, I took my blackness to heart, which might explain my difficult hailing cabs of late. I lost about seven cabs tonight to drivers uninterested in picking me up and more interested in picking up Koreans.

I've never taken taxis anywhere but Korea, but I've generally assumed that if two people hail a cab, the person farther down the street got there first. At least, that's how it often seemed to happen. I'm more than willing to defer to someone who has been waiting before me, even if I didn't see them, though that deference is never returned here, much like no one ever holds the door open.

So, if the person behind me is more entitled to the cab, that's fine, as long as drivers never pick up the person waiting in front of me. But, today, I was, in order, passed over right and left for Koreans standing in front of and behind me. Naturally, the only difference between us was that they were Korean and I wasn't. A couple of cabs flat out refused to stop for me. The one that I did hail, I had to walk into the middle of traffic to hail, and even he was about to roll down his window to ask me where I was going before I got in and pretended I didn't understand what he was saying (i.e. "What the fuck are you doing? Who walks into traffic like that?").

For good measure, this repeated itself later this evening with an middle-aged couple and a lazy driver.

About the only effective way of affecting social change in Korea is to point out that the rest of the richer, whiter world is doing it, so I wrote about it on Twitter:

"세계 인종차별의 도시 서울입니다. 택시 잡을 때 한국인도 있으면 기사가 저를 무시해요. 저 앞에 있는 한국이을 먼저 보고 먼저 승차했어요. 저 뒤에 있는 한국인은 오랜 기다려 하고 있었어 먼저 승차했어요. 한국인 없으면도 저의 얼굴은 싫어해요."

("Seoul: a world-class racist city (a play on Seoul's obsession with being a world-class city for this and that). If there's a Korean around when I catch a cab, drivers ignore me. They take the person in front of me because they saw him first, and they take the person behind me because he's been waiting longer. If there's no Korean, then they just don't like my face.")

Calling someone's city a hub of racism is pretty controversial, but as much as Koreans love their country, the 20-somethings that use Twitter know that the state of things can often be ridiculous. Saying it in Korean is probably much better than saying it in English, much like a Korean saying it is better than a non-Korean.

My inbox was flooded with notices of about 30 people following me in 20 minutes, and a flood of retweets made it easily the most popular post I've ever made on Twitter. The next time we fly into a panic about Koreans being rigid, defensive and racist, it's fair to at least remember these replies from people who generally don't speak English, don't talk to anybody who's not Korean and are generally ordinary people that will be running this country in a generation.

@metalcandy: "Let me apologize instead. I worry that Korea's image suffers because of just a few people. I'm sure you know this, but there are more good people than bad ones."

@woo0c: "Hi, You're from my wife's country. I saw your tweet about taxi and i am really sorry to see that. But most of the seoulites are very kind, aren't ya?"

@70retro: "Embarrassing"

@RapTioNarY: "Oh man..." (in reponse to 70retro)

@seo_jung_kim: "Wow, that really sucks."

@bobozzang: "I'm very sorry. That is so embarrassing."

A lot of people responded to say that this isn't racism, which is right in the sense that drivers don't drive around looking for ways to avoid giving rides to dark-skinned people. But, apparently, if they can choose between a dark-skinned person and a Korean, evidently they'll choose the Korean every time.

A lot of those who felt this wasn't racism said it was just an unfortunate case of drivers not being able to speak English, but really, isn't that the definition of racism? Leaving aside the obvious fact that you don't actually need to speak any Korean beyond the rough vicinity of your destination (e.g. "Suwon bus terminal" can go in the place of "Gokbanjeong-dong Chuksanmul Yutongsaenteo"), the very definition of racism is judging someone based on how they look.

It would be absurd in Korea to assume that a non-Korean speaks Korean given how many don't speak any, but it would be equally absurd to assume that a non-Korean adult is incapable of getting himself home in a taxi. While this isn't out-and-out vicious racism, when I'm trying to get somewhere and running late, I don't appreciate having to stand in the cold just because some middle-aged man supposedly thinks I can't say Wangsimni station.

If this is merely an unfortunate cultural understanding, the remedy presumably would be giant billboards informing people to treat those who look differently with equity. This remedy is, incidentally, identical to the one for racism.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Royal Me

Adeel: Julie, do we say "Tom and Julie are" or "Tom and Julie is"?
Julie: "Tom and Julie is"
Tom: Why? There are two people!
Julie: Yeah, but I'm one person.

This is what you dream of as a kid

Everything that you do as a teacher in this country is coming to push or shove right now as 700,000 graduating high school students write their university entrance exams (suneung in Korean, CSAT in English if you want to talk about it but not be understood by anyone). This is no mere test, but something that will determine employment, status, marriage prospects and a general sense of self-worth for this year's graduates.

This is what I've seen so far:

- at the closest test centre to my house (one of 1206 in the country), hoardes of students were walking holding colourful bags. These weren't test-takers, but spectators carrying gifts, as well as blankets for the long wait outside. It was 2 degrees at the time and the test is about eight hours long, so it could be a long wait. This video shows the scene outside a high school in Gwangju.

- the news had nothing else to report this morning. The traffic discussed traffic conditions relating to the test, as in "today is the day of the exam, and this is how the traffic is looking". Many companies and schools (not mine) started later today to allow students to get to the test centres by the 8 am start time.

- even the weather report was about the suneung. SBS offered a graph showing the temperature over various parts of the test. It would be 2 degrees for the Korean portion at the start, but rise to 12 degrees by the time students hit the English-language portion. Whatever that means.

- pointing to what you can do in a centralized, homogeneous society with a very small area, all airplanes in the country will be grounded during both listening portions (morning and afternoon, English and Korean).

- this Wall Street Journal article discusses the various suneung-related sales and promotions. The best one I saw was at Myeongdong's posh Noon Square building, described as a Mecca of fashion by Koreans, but as a Myeongdong of fashion by Saudis. One restaurant promised a free cocktail to anyone who ordered a meal, though it was unclear if the sale targeted everyone or only high school students alone. The legal drinking age in Korea is 19, but students who take the test won't turn 19 until next year.

To explain the title, Korean kids dream of being soccer players rather than Seoul National University graduates, but then, they probably have nightmares too. Korea may have missed the boat on the cultural excess that accompanies football in America, but this is not a country that does anything halfway. Given the party atmosphere outside of schools, to be followed by drama, this day is roughly like the Super Bowl mixed with American Idol mixed with a weird science fiction movie about our meritocratic, automatic future.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In defense of farmers in suits

Two months ago I decided to answer the question "where are you from?" with the non sequitur "I'm from China". I would then explain that although my nationality is Chinese, I'm really Uzbek/Kazakh/Kyrgyz/Uighur. Part of it was to introduce some novelty into a conversation that I've had probably hundreds of times by now, partly just to see how much I can get away with.

Right after I said that, surprisingly no one ever asked me where I was from again, absolutely stunning considering that sometimes I answer that question 3-4 times in one day. It's not that I stopped putting myself in strange situations, I made a couple of trips out of Seoul, went to a wedding and generally felt comfortable enough to ask all sorts of people all sorts of things.

Tonight, finally, as the driver explained that he would take one bridge across the Han River instead of the other (these cab rides are like ordering off a menu you can't see or read), he took the chance to ask where I was from, literally just "where person?". For some reason, I responded with the neighbourhood I lived, then caught myself and said Uzbekistan.

That stopped the conversation cold, but when I said a few more words to direct him, the interview started. He asked what I thought of Korea. I replied, in character, "it's very rich, much richer than my country." He said he didn't like Korea, because Koreans were honest. The grass is often greener on the other side, I replied, but Korea was a great place to live, all things considered.

I added that I felt Seoul's passive-aggressive mania with the G20 summit indicated a lack of self-confidence, but that it's not a country which needs to be so insecure. It's not the richest country in the world with the widest eyes or the fairest skin, but it's a developed country with a high quality of life.

Many Westerners on message boards deride Koreans as farmers in suits. This is a country that was built out of nothing, so I wouldn't necessarily take that as an insult, though others would. The not-so-distant agrarian past is, to me, both interesting and something to be proud of. Korea has much to teach the developing world, a role that it is gradually taking on even as others try and sanitize Korea into a globalized "advanced nation".

In this highly critical, often unwarranted thread about Korea's racism and its psyche (albeit from one of my favourite bloggers), a few comments caught my eye. First, this one about the farmers in suits mentality:

Koreans went straight from rice paddies to modern cities in a very short amount of time, and it shows in the way they treat themselves and each other. While foreigners may complain about the rude comments Koreans make about them, it often pales in comparison to their provincialism and distrust of anybody outside their immediate circle of friends and relatives.

My mother would recall with tears in her eyes how badly she was mocked by her co-workers in Seoul for speaking the Gyeongsang-do dialect, yet it never occurred to her or my other relatives that it is just as damaging to make disparaging jokes about people from Jeolla province. I could go on and on.


With respect to Korean nationalism, someone writes:

Korea is just not mature enough to accept a fairly mediocre history for people who insist that they are 'older' than others although Europeans, Africans, Indigenous people and everybody else have old or older histories.

Korea's relatively mediocre history is not something that many Koreans would ever admit. To them, this is the country that invented the world's most scientific alphabet, a movable printing press, bibimbap and, retroactively, has been one of the world's greatest civilizations for thousands of years. Except, of course, that it's not true.

Nor does it need to be true, because many now-great countries were nothing until they were. Prussia was nothing until Frederick the Great came along, Arabia was nothing until the Prophet Muhammad came along, modern China was nothing without Deng Xiaopeng, and even Britain was nothing until trade allowed it to gain power disproportionate to its size and military.

But my favourite comment was this one, by someone who was in the Peace Corps in Cheongju from 1971 to 1974. Writing to a Korean-American, he wrote:

In the winter there was a black pot belly stove in the middle of the room, that never seemed to get warm, let alone hot. The kids were cold all the time..hands red, noses running with a long school day, until 6pm....So damn cold....even the teachers froze.

We had ondol floors, charcoal to heat the floor but not the room.
I remember walking to school over the bridge in November, already cold by then, and in the river below, more a stream, I saw the wife of my laundry guy, in the cold water, washing clothes..

Korea has come a long way since then, thanks to the sacrifices of folks like your parents. Hug them, kiss them and bless them for what they did.


This is undoubtedly still a country that I call rough around the edges. It's corrupt, laws are often disregarded, women and minorities have a status that ranges from low to nonexistent, and as it Korea prepares to put the icing on the cake of development, it also confronts the issue of demographics, namely that its population will start to decline before the end of this decade. But as a wealthy country, Korea should be mature enough to recognize and even embrace the fact that it was dirt-poor just two generations ago.

It's disingenuous to talk about the country to outsiders as though it's the greatest thing ever invented. This ad, for example, combines what I love and I hate about this country. Its accomplishments are greater than the status it has (51% of Americans don't know that this is a democracy), but look at the cringe-inducing commercial (fun fact: haughty in Korean is 'dodohan').

The gist of it is that non-Koreans don't know about Korea, but through developing a "national brand" (their words, not mine), apparently blue-eyed white people will be impressed and shake the hands of square-jawed Korean men (but not women). The moment Korea can stop caring what the rest of the world thinks, out of confidence instead of insularity, will be the moment that it will be a truly "advanced nation", "global hub", "developed nation" or whatever the buzzword of the day is.

There won't be any family portraits

"Do you want a live chicken or a dead chicken?"

One 12-year-old said this to me when I asked her to draw a picture of a chicken to help explain the riddle of the farmer with a chicken, a fox and a bag of corn (changed here to rice).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Run a mile in someone else's shoes, or even your own shoes

One of the most absurd things about marathons is how bad most people's predictions are. Granted, marathons are notoriously hard to predict, so hard to predict that I think the most unpredictable thing is actually a predictable race (ie the favourite wins in the sort of time you expected), but I'm amazed at how people ignore everything they might possibly know about running.

Let's take predictions for the men's race at today's New York Marathon, which was won by Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam in 2:08:13, the fifth-fastest time ever at that race. Leading up to the race, this thread wondered if American Dathan Ritzenhein was a lock to run a course-record 2:07 based on his training.

Over here, readers variously predict a 2:06, 2:08 and 2:09 for Ritz, as well as a 2:09 or 2:10 (one person boldly said 2:07:50) for Canadian Simon Bairu. One especially astute person wrote: "I'll say 2:07-08 range [for Bairu]. Ritz most likely in the 2:08-09 range if the injury, poor training, etc, etc, rumors are true, 2:06-07 if he's 100%."

New York is, of course, a hilly course with several bridges and the hills they entail, as well as a tough uphill finish in Central Park. More importantly, with no rabbits and lots of competition, it's pointless to do anything but jog for the first 15 miles. Consequently, times are always notoriously slow. Not everyone who tosses out predictions actually watches these races, which is reasonable, but shouldn't the detail of your predictions be reasonably proportional to how much you actually know?

A ridiculous prediction is fine, especially on the Internet, but why use scant knowledge to offer a supremely detailed guess? If all you know about the race is that it's in New York, why tap some obscure Ethiopian for the win in 2:08:47, and then go on to pinpoint the very street corner on the Bronx where he will distance himself from the pack?

The other thing we can take away from New York is the hit to Haile Gebrselassie's legacy. The knock on Gebrselassie is that he can only win non-competitive marathons in flat, cool, dry weather (essentially a large treadmill). Dropping out at New York, where the large lead pack is the antithesis of the duos or trios at Berlin or Dubai, will do a lot to boost the case of the naysayers. It is by no means impossible for him to run at the age of 39 in the London Olympics, but it's very difficult to imagine even a fit Gebrselassie winning a tactical marathon, which is the only thing he hasn't done in his 19-year, 3:31 1500 to 2:03 marathon career.

Edit: I wrote the above right after the race, about an hour before Gebrselassie announced his retirement at this press conference. In retrospect, assuming this announcement is permanent, his career seems about 99.9% perfect, much like Tergat's lacks an Olympic or World Championship medal. I don't think anyone who saw him beaten in the 10,000 at Athens 2004 would have predicted that we would be debating his merits six years later. If he had retired then, he still would have been one of the greatest ever. Now, he's still the greatest ever, but his greatness as a marathoner has the flaw of no wins at a highly competitive race.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book #12: The Karmazov Brothers

As countless mountaineering documentaries and books, as well as my trip to the Boston Marathon, have taught me, part of life is struggling for weeks and months towards a goal and then coming up just short. I bought The Karmazov Brothers by Dostoyevsky in March and struggled for eight months to finish it with valour, meekness and at times bewildering indifference. I took this book to about nine different countries and even an overnight hiking trip, but unlike Crime and Punishment, which I read in a matter of a few days, I just couldn't get interested in this book, much less finish it.

Still, having read 800 of its 974 pages, many of them a few times, I'm going to count this as a book I read, or at least a book about which I can write a few uninformed paragraphs. The first thing I learned about the book is that the name really should be The Karmazov Brothers. Russian renders it as The Brothers Karmazov(Братья Карамазовы, Brat'ya Karamazov), and the phrasing (e.g. The Brothers Crane) survives to this day, but as translator Ignat Avsey writes, we should "no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karmazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx".

Much of Dostoyevsky's work is about what he's thinking than the story itself. The Karmazov Brothers is not so much a story about a family as it is Dostoyevsky's answer to atheism and nihilism. Religion, specifically the redemption of sinners, is also a prevalent theme in Crime and Punishment, as it is here. People who have done awful things by any measure, particularly Dostoyevsky's, are presented calmly and coolly. They exist, they do what they do, and their placid existence, albeit in the face of coming trials, points to the possibility of redemption for everyone.

I thought a lot about why I didn't like the book. Much of it was how I read it, in 30 and 40-minute chunks here and there, at home or on the bus. A simpler book would have read itself in that time, but Dostoyevsky takes a lot more attention and a lot more time. Secondly, as much as Dostoyevsky wrote about heavy topics in a powerful, open-minded and self-examining way, I was more interested in contemporary Russia, the people and their mindset than I was in the cosmic struggle that Dostoyevsky wrote about.

Characters more often than not were mouthpieces for viewpoints than they were people, which elevated the cerebral discourse within the book but, to my addled brain, it took away from the force of the story and the novel. Countless other writers have done this, admittedly, and I have enjoyed it, and I suspect you too might enjoy it. I, too, might have enjoyed The Karmazov Brothers if not for the stodgy anti-intellectualism in my head whenever I opened it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Don't judge a cop by his mustache

"Ay-pee-pee-ell-ahee-she..." the policeman carefully spoke into the phone. "Sir, that says applicant," I helpfully translated. "Ah, that says applicant," he spoke into the phone. Then, he looked into my eyes for a second before speaking: "they'll talk to you in English".

The voice on the phone was even more clueless than the poor police officer. "Uh, hi, the, uh, police officer would like to know why you need fingerprints." I explained my reasons briefly, as best as I could, thinking of how ancient texts made their way to us: copies of copies of copies made by someone who heard it from someone who first heard it and memorized it.

The fingerprints were required by the Korean ministry of immigration, who told schools, who told me, who told the volunteer translator (the police had resorted to calling a help line on their own cell phone), who told the police. Clearly, something in there had to go wrong, and yet it didn't.

Sure, at one point the policeman asked me if I spoke English, and about 30 people gathered around to gawk, with older officers doing what they could to seem less clueless than subordinates. This sometimes meant arguing about things utterly irrelevant to the task at hand, sometimes it meant proving their worldliness with some sophisticated English conversation like, "where are you from?"

Before I went there, the police emphasized the worst about Korean society: older, male, authoritarian, unhelpful and unconcerned. I was embarrassed but pleased to realize that the police, though not very good at speaking English, were as accommodating and helpful as any other aspect of Korean society.

Of course, I'm sure that they may let me down yet, but on this day we generally had the run of the place, up to and including washing our hands in their evidence lab, aptly titled CSI. Afterwards, they even served us cocoa (okay, it was green tea) and we shared a mutual bonding moment until someone asked "why the hell are they still here?" So, then they asked us, "uh, why are you still here? Finished?" Before we could answer, they'd shown us the door out.