Monday, February 28, 2011

서울 속의 세계: The world inside Seoul

The Chosun Ilbo article I linked to in my previous post also details various ethnic enclaves in Seoul (complete with a map), most of which I knew about, but some of which I didn't.

Itaewon is home to a Nigeriatown, which points to either a lot of Nigerian tourists or a lot of Nigerians being here illegally, since only 1200 are here officially. There's also a Muslim street in Itaewon.

Hyehwa-dong has a Filipino market on Sundays, and not far away is a Nepali/Indian community by Dongdaemun. From what I've heard, the South Asian presence there is a relic from the days when there was a more active clothing and fabric presence in the area. Today they seem more out of place, since few South Asians live in the area. The best-known restaurant in the area is Everest, though I find it overrated and expensive compared to other Indian/Nepali restaurants in Seoul.

The Mongolian community, along with that of other Central Asian countries, is located by Dongademun Culture and History Park (a soon to be one-stop shop for your historocultural needs!). I once had excellent Russian food at a restaurant clearly run by an Uzbek or Kazakh, though I no longer remember the name or location. I was very impressed with this Uzbek restaurant, where the price, quantity and quality of the lamb and potato I had was impressive.

Now, there's a Vietnamese community very close to my house near Wangsimni station, which I did not know about, and the same goes for a Japanese community by Ichon station. Once again, the Chosun Ilbo distinguishes between a Chinatown at Daerim station (exits 9-12) and a Chinese-Korean community at Garibong market by Namguro station.

I'm very familiar with Garibong market, having been there a few times. It has a closed-shop feel, a place that's made by Chinese-Koreans for Chinese-Koreans. Unlike an Uzbek, Indian or Middle Eastern restaurant, you really won't see ordinary Koreans walking around there. I've grown very fond of a lamb skewer restaurant there, though having been served both times by a waiter who spoke so little Korean that I had to resort to Chinese doesn't make me think of it as a Chinese-Korean community, neither do the boisterous Chinese-speaking guests at the restaurant.

That a lamb skewer restaurant belongs in a Chinese-Korean neighbourhood is an amusing example of how food gets appropriated. Many restaurants in Seoul advertise "Yanbian-style lamb skewers", which is sort of like seeing a poster in Thailand for a Korean take on American-style Chinese food. Lamb skewers are a Central Asian food also found in Xinjiang province in Western China. They've grown popular as a street food all over China. So, it seems that some Koreans from mainland China brought it to Korea, where a Central Asian food turned Chinese is now billed as Chinese-Korean.

A clearer picture of foreign residents in Korea

This handy Korean-language chart breaks down the numbers of foreign residents in Seoul, as well as which districts have the most and fewest foreign residents. Too many Westerners consider the relationship between Korea and its foreign population to begin and end with its treatment of English teachers, American soldiers and, if there's time, the Japanese. Are visa regulations getting more onerous or simpler? A simple look at E2 visa regulations will tell the story!

A look at the district-by-district foreign population indicates that it's heavily skewed towards towards the southwest districts of Yeongdeungpo (I would die a happy man if I never had to spell Yeoungdeoungpowh in English again) and Guro. About 60,000 of the 250,000 foreign residents of Seoul live in those two districts, followed by nearby Geumcheon and Gwanak, with 17,000 each.

Why do Yeoungdeung-po and Guro have about 8% of the overall population but about 25% of the foreign population? Also, why do most of these 250,000 people never seem to turn up at Gecko's? And, finally, are they the reason that the line for Tuesday night wings at Three Alleys Pub is so long?

Well, it's not like there are a lot of hidden private academies in southwestern Seoul, so maybe there's something else keeping people down there, maybe factory jobs? Can you do that in Korea? Do they recruit Australians for that?

There are 12,000 Americans and 2,000 Canadians living in Seoul, compared to 184,000 Chinese citizens, most of them ethnic Koreans. The ethnic distinction between Chinese is one that seems natural to Koreans and is important in the sense that they can be virtually invisible foreigners in ways that I could never be. Let's add in another 8,000 Taiwanese

At any rate, this means that 70% of the foreign residents of Seoul are Chinese, and while about 5% are American, this number undoubtedly includes American soldiers who tend not to be a part of everyday life in Seoul. But here are the numbers: there are five Mongolians in Seoul for every Australian, three Filipinos for every Briton, and three Vietnamese for every Canadian.

Here are the numbers for foreign nationals in Korea divided by nationality, information that I find excruciatingly hard to find for how obviously it's posted by the government. These are the numbers as of December 2010:

Overall - 918,917 (this is the number of registered residents, another 200,000 are here illegally)
Chinese - 505,415 (I don't count Chinese-Koreans separately)
Vietnam - 98,225
Philippines - 39,525
America - 28,643
Thailand - 27,572
Indonesia - 27,447
Mongolia - 21,775
Taiwan - 21,490
Uzbekistan - 20,766
Japan - 19,448
Sri Lanka - 17,369
Cambodia - 11,672
Bangladesh - 9,317
Nepal - 9,208
Pakistan - 8,328
Canada - 7,301
India - 4,752
United Kingdom - 4,130

Now, that gives us about 50,000 Westerners at most, weighed against hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners, whose ranks would be bigger still if you consider how many people are here illegally.

However, how often do we even discuss the 95% or so of foreign residents who are not English-speaking Westerners? The response, I suppose, will be that it's natural for us to be concerned with 'our own kind' first and foremost, but that's the sort of parochial thinking for which we spend all day criticizing Koreans. Koreans are woefully unaware of foreign residents, we say, and then we as Westerners are woefully unaware of our own relative unimportance.

Moreso than English, the use of Chinese and Vietnamese is mandated in public, is it not? Bus stops are announced in English and Korean only, but there are about seven Chinese speakers for every English speaker. We equate "foreign-friendly" with "English-speaking", "foreign population" with "other white people" and "foreigner bars" with "bars where English-speakers gather".

The social invisibility of migrant workers is immense. You and I will never have any problem making friends with Koreans or getting someone to cater to our needs. But middle-aged men don't make a habit out of shouting greetings at Thai or Filipinos walking down the street, or of practicing their awkward Bengali. Visa regulations might treat English teachers as potential rapists with full-blown AIDS, but daily life dishes out much worse to our Asian counterparts.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Koreans are people too, part 2, or why Korean netizens aren't all apeshit maniacs

Korean newspapers, for whatever reason, like to talk about things without actually talking about them. Names of victims are never used, nor are faces shown, and television coverage of yesterday's horrific earthquake in New Zealand blurred out the names of businesses, as is custom here. So, I'm going to talk about a website that posts pictures of Koreans who have passed out as a result of drinking too much.

On the website in question, Koreans in English ranging from bad to awful have left death threats and messages tinged with racial and sexual violence. Anyone reading the comments could conclude, in keeping with past instances (eg Apolo Ohno), that Koreans are all slightly-deranged nationalists who react to any shortcoming of their country, perceived or otherwise, with profanity, death threats and violence.

However, much as Westerners point out in these situations that not all Westerners are bad people, not all Koreans are crazy. If you read Korean-language discussions of the topic elsewhere on the Internet, they're remarkably tame, dull and unconcerned with foreigners.

The first paper that seems to have reported on this is the Chosun Ilbo. Compared with the site itself, that has well over 100 comments, this article received ten comments. Here they are, translated (or summarized) to the best of my ability:

1. "It's not something to be proud of, but it's not like everyone in Korea is doing this. There are all sorts of people here. I don't know where the person who uploaded the pictures is from, but [drinking and passing out in public] is common with the exception of Islamic countries. It's worse in Russia."

Someone responds: "If Russia is first, then Korea is second. In twenty years in America, I never saw anything like this."

2. Something to the effect of "what about homeless people and trying to help them instead of this nonsense".

3. Every culture has problems like this. The Americans who did this were in the wrong, but the problem in the picture is a big one that our society needs to fix.

4. America has the same problem.

5. I can't really translate this, though I think it's insightful.

6. Alcohol is garbage. We must make a law to ban alcohol.

7. That's a bad idea, don't ban alcohol.

8. I wish I understood this, but I don't.

9. What's that blue thing on his back? (This is in reference to one picture from the blog)

10. Attack these biased blogs and websites right away and set them right. Post the addresses (of the sites).

Let's take the last ten comments from Twitter, not counting ones that just explain the blog:

1. A blog by the name of [blog name here] is uploading pictures of drunken Koreans for international (국제적) ridicule.

2. (A repsonse to #1) Time to stop drinking. (술좀 그만마셔라)

3. Foreign residents are running a blog called [blog name]. The pictures are funny...and embarrassing.

4. [Blog name] is a site where pictures of drunk Koreans lying in the streets are uploaded. I got really angry, but then I also considered that this is a shameful on our part. We should easy up on the drinking.

5. This is an overseas site with pictures of drunken Koreans. This is an international disgrace. We should drink and then sleep at home.

6. "Do these drunks represent us?" I don't understand this sentence: "단순히 그러한 모습을 보는 외국인의 시선은 놀림거리일 뿐인가 봅니다." I read it as something along the lines of "People who see drunks in the street only think of that sort of thing."

7. Today I read an article that made me feel really bad. A foreign blog is posting pictures of drunken, passed-out Koreans. What do you (well-known Korean Twitter user) think of this? I feel really bad.

8. These bastards are pretty funny.

9. I laughed but also worried about the people in the pictures.

10. I've seen a hell of a lot more passed-out drunks than they ever have.

There wasn't really any criticism of the people who uploaded this, which is surprising. People were surprisingly introspective, far more than they needed to be. I suppose, in this case, the status and actions of foreign residents are irrelevant to people who really just care about their own society.

I would also point out that discussion on Twitter is now dominated by the Japanese. I'm not sure what they're saying about it, hopefully it's motivated more by novelty than condescension towards Koreans.

For my part, I hope that the people posing with passed-out drunks in the pictures are identified and lose their jobs. There are retroactive explanations that justify this site, but basically it's the work of people who don't really see Koreans as human beings in the same way that they are human beings. Yes, alcohol culture in Korea is a disgrace, and yes, criticism is acceptable no matter where you are or how long you've lived there, but posting pictures of passed-out drunks is an awful thing to do.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book#1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As I turned out, I read 12 books in 2010 though I wanted to read 15-20. I do read a lot online, preferably something very long and very well-written, but this is something I'm trying to get away from, particularly when I live in a city with as many coffee shops as Seoul.

I bought the Hunchback of Notre Dame in September or so, started reading it in November, and would've finished it in about a month if not for the fact that I didn't touch it for most of two months. I read it almost exclusively on buses and trains after that, even taking it onto a half-dozen airplanes though I don't even think I opened it.

I imagined this book as a dramatic love story between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, against the backdrop of societal disapproval. I imagined it as being cheerier than it actually was. In reality, it was dark, brooding, obsessed with architecture and city streets, and, above all, very well-written. It was hard for me to accept that the sort of drama I imagined didn't turn up for the last hundred of the book's 500 pages. So, if I'd never half-seen the pertinent Disney movie, I would have loved this book immensely.

The more I read the book, the more medieval Paris reminded me of Seoul. I spend a lot of time inside the old city of Seoul, more or less bound by the mountains of Bugaksan, Naksan, Namsan and Inwangsan. This area north of the river, only a portion of Seoul today, is often puzzling, run-down and very much second world in places. But it's humbling to know that the same ground that is today the heart of a wealthy Seoul was once the heart of a capital city of a poor, insignificant country.

Paris at the time was a mishmash of streets, neighbourhoods and administrations that wasn't really all that different in spirit from the Seoul of the Joseon period, where bells tolled 33 and 28 times to open and close the city gates. Paris may make more sense today, but Seoul is still an unnerving mixture of streets, buildings and mountains, especially in the old city.

I promised myself that I wouldn't buy other, easier-to-read books until i finished this one, but I did go out and buy Stones into Schools, the sequel to Three Cups of Tea, about an American building schools in northern Pakistan. After I finish that, though, I'm going to have to finish Herodotus' Histories and a collection of short stories by Franz Kafka before I can buy another one.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Facebook could have been Korean, but wasn't

I wrote here, and will talk endlessly, about the bizarre, segregated nature of Korean society and the Korean Internet. Part of it is language, for sure, and while it's generally safe to assume that everyone reading Naver is Korean, there's really no need to make that ironclad by presuming that everyone is a South Korean citizen (let's add the criterion land-owning male while we're at it).

And yet that's exactly how Korea does business. Western TV networks shoot themselves in the foot by requiring you to be in the country to watch programs on their site. Korean TV networks don't, but Korean websites make you feel like an idiot for your presence as anything other than a South Korean adult.

This is the most recent example: I signed up for an discount online bookstore. To do so, I had to lie and say that I was living overseas, even though books can only be shipped within South Korea. Someone living in the Amazon, working at the South Pole or typing away from a cushy prison somewhere is more than welcome to sign up, but not someone like me sitting 11 km from the company's headquarters.

Most of the time, these are the sort of petty disputes and annoyances that form the core curriculum of certain departments at universities, the sort that use words like 'post-colonial', but this article raises the question of whether Korea could have had Facebook before there ever was a Facebook.

Korea has had its own equivalent of Facebook (I don't use the term 'social networking' because it's a stupid buzzword) called Cyworld since 1999, five years before Facebook was even launched. I did make an account when I got here to see a friend's photos, but I was directed to the American version of the site, sort of like Facebook telling Korean users of the site to go fuck themselves rather than interact with their Australian friends.

Of course, Facebook would never do such a thing, but if you have to treat the Korean website as different from the American website conceptually, you have to realize just how strangely Korean companies operate online. Compartmentalizing users to various countries (America, Vietnam, Germany, etc.) actually passes for forward-thinking by Korean standards considering that the standard response would be to not allow those countries in the first place.

Cyworld was there before Facebook, Pandora was there before YouTube and Korean cell phones have long been ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet while the rest of the world treats the entire world as its market, Korea can't even treat all of Korea as its market, never mind all of East Asia or any significant part of the world.

Monday, February 07, 2011

This is an 알림 for overseas foreigner residing in KOREA, Republic of, for chewing of the fat with respect to tepid, turpid and turgid lexical locution

Lately I've begun noticing Korean legalese more and more for its vexing mix of awkward English, high-minded legal terms in a vain grasp for authority, and general sense of being ridiculous bullshit that no one without at least moderate Asperger syndrome could understand, never mind take seriously.

First, let's produce some comical examples of how these things typically read. The absolute classic example, is this piece of satire from a supposed Korean written driving test, quite possibly the funniest thing anyone has ever written about Korea.

3. Which ,if any, or if not any, either none or all of the following vehicles mustn't you not fail to refuse to yield the first right of way to regardless of whether or not the subsequent vehicle previous to the aforementioned vehicle has or has not failed to?

I'm personally a big fan of the phrases "overseas foreigner residing in the Republic of Korea", which I've modified for the still-more-awkward KOREA, Republic of. What's comical is that this mouthful is probably just an awful translation of the far-neater 재한외국인.

Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't a case of simple Engrish. Often the English contains no obvious or significant errors, it's just impenetrably useless. This is one I made up myself

Foreigner residing in the Republic of Korea for more than 91 but less than 366 days shall be required, as required by the relevant officials in the Ministry of Immigration of the Republic of Korea, to present the official identification documents issued by the Republic of Korea to foreigner residing in the Republic of Korea in accordance with visa and immigration regulations pertinent to the situation with respect to which this sentence has been constructed.

Note: official identification of the Republic of Korea to signify and indicate acknowledgement of foreigner registration of foreign national sojourn within the Republic of Korea will only be issued after a successful completion of a health check at a hospital accredited, approved and designated by the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Korea.

Naturally, when someone reads that, their eyes gloss over and they have to find someone with a more resilient brain to read through this. Upon reading this, you would find that the government wants you to present ID when asked and that the ID will be issued after a health check.

I received a letter today from the ministry of immigration, which prompted this entry. In the normal world, a letter can be addressed to someone by name, but the ministry took the liberty to affix my ID number as well as a picture of myself, presumably in case I've forgotten what I look like.

The letter begins:

"This notice is issued to the report subject who is allowed to change or add an employer without current advance permission but with report. It provides general information on the procedure to change or add an employer for the person mentioned above. Therefore this notice is not legally binding."

Thousands of people received this letter, all addressed to "the report subject". Was a more obtuse term not available to the meathead pouring through the thickest thesaurus at hand? The letter is heavy on technical terms, or terms relating authority, such as 'notice', 'report subject', 'current advance permission' and 'legally binding'.

It goes on to state:

1. The aforesaid must report to jurisdictional immigration office concerning change or addition of employer within 15 days from the effective date of the new work condition. (Report may be done by proxy. There could be penalty for violation)

I'm not sure, but I was addressed as both "report subject" and "the aforesaid" in one letter, a peculiar breach of manners and grammar at the same time.

This style of writing always has an amateurish quality to them that makes it hard to take it seriously. It's not as though they're written by someone with an elementary grasp of English, which would result in a comical but cheery letter. Rather, it clearly shows evidence of someone who sat down and tried to sound as serious as possible, but came out sounding slightly unhinged instead.

The tone of authority first establishes that someone's in charge, namely the state. That's why the letter comes with your ID number and photo. Then, apparently to go toe-to-toe with the legalese of other countries, there's an attempt to sound weighy and serious. However, if you look at the website for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, you'll see that it can be confusing and vague, but tries to sound polite and friendly through it all.

Skilled workers are people who are selected as permanent residents based on their ability to become economically established in Canada.

Federal skilled worker applications are assessed for eligibility according to the criteria set out below.

To render this into Korean legalese, look no further than the Korean equivalent, the website that seriously bills itself as "e-Government for foreigner". I'm not sure what this means, but this is apparently part of the process by which I got my visa here in Korea:

The process to apply for a certificate of recognition of visa issuance

  • The Applicant: the person himself/herself or the inviting party
    - When a faculty staff is applying as a representative, a letter of attorney, a working certificate and a copy of ID are submitted.
  • Where to apply: local immigration office or branch office
  • Required Documents: refer to the required documents listed below
  • Application for the visa can be made at the embassy or the consulate of the Republic of Korea after the applicants get a certificate of recognition of visa issuance or certification No. of visa issuance
  • The process to apply for a certificate of visa issuance → Click Here
  • Saturday, February 05, 2011


    While I'm sitting at my computer typing away in my unwieldy, cumbersome macro-blog like an idiot, the Chinese have developed the latest hit technology: microblogging. You see, writing a thousand words on a site like Blogger is superfluous and ill-suited to modern society, which explains why the Chinese have blocked it.

    The China Daily, China's premier source of daily news about China, hence the name China Daily, explains:

    The National Report on Micro Blogs in 2010, released by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in December, suggests more than 65 million people are active micro blog users. Micro-blogging here is much the same as in other countries, with the ability to send images or embedded videos, and messages with a maximum of 140 characters.

    Over the past three years, more than 50 operators have started providing micro blog services and many people believe the pattern of information exchange between people has been transformed.

    "Micro blogs can transmit information fast and, more importantly, we can use mobiles to stay in touch any time and anywhere," said Cheng...

    I think it's incumbent upon the West to develop a counterpart to these proliferating Chinese microblog websites. In the twenty-first century, information is power, and the Chinese are getting away with their light, stealthy microblogs, while our stodgy, plodding macroblogs are being left behind.

    Why don't we use the peculiar verb that they're using to describe the act of microblogging? They call microblogging 'tweeting', so why don't we make a website called Tweeter?

    On a somewhat related note, notes from my layover through Beijing on Thursday:

    - no bizarre wait in an immigration line, followed by a lengthy wait on plastic chairs, just for transit

    - workers at airport appear to have been schooled in elementary school-level English and manners. Flinging feces at passengers is no longer acceptable. Pleasantries may be exchanged.

    - Beijing airport has the high level of sterile shine you need from a world-class airport. Terminal 3 is long, empty and spotless. This is apparently a very busy airport, but you could see about a kilometre and maybe see a cleaner or two and an endless row of TVs showing the same thing.

    Wednesday, February 02, 2011

    St. George Street: the patron saint of quality quackery

    St. George Street is one of my favourite streets in Toronto. It runs north-south from Dundas to Dupont. It's nice because of the quiet streets, old houses, University of Toronto and proximity to Chinatown and the Annex. For the most part, it's quiet, a street of leisure (ie not business-oriented) and rather beautiful.

    Then there's the stretch of St. George from Harbord to Bernard. At Harbord you have the University of Toronto's Robarts library, a 14-storey concrete peacock that no one would willingly visit, then a palatial Scientology building at Lowther, and then the Chinese consulate at Bernard.

    I visited the consulate twice in the last two days, spending four hours there. Here are my observations:

    1) The building requires ID to enter. This performs no obvious function other than the appearance of security. It's a good example of China's nascent rise to match America for superpower paranoia and security theatre. The American consulate on University Avenue added protection against car bombs a few years ago, so China still has a long way to go, though I remember metal detectors at all subway stations in Beijing and at bus and train stations all across the country.

    2) The visa section of the consulate is a complete disaster, roughly on par with trying to board a train at a Chinese megacity. When I walked into the room, it was filled with people. There were no signs, in English or Chinese, indicating which windows did what. The act of moving in the room required pushing people away. At one point, a couple lined up in the winding line just to be told that this 20-deep line was for the photocopier, not visa applications.

    3) There are two windows for picking up visas, two windows offering consular services to Chinese citizens, and three for visa applications. For visa applications, two people dealt with travel agents clutching passports by the dozens, and one dealt with ordinary people.

    4) I waited one hour and forty minutes in line to be served for one minute. People occupied windows for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, for reasons I don't understand at all.

    5) Lest anyone forget what a dodgy government this is, even in Canada, the Chinese government is not above stealing the passports of Canadians it doesn't like.

    6) The only pleasant part of the experience was the constant Falun Gong protest outside, meaningful only because this sort of thing would earn you a disappearance in China.