Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Canadian politics has become an unusually shrill, partisan and intransigent affair"

This week's Economist takes a look at Canadian politics. Politics have become more aggressive and petty since 2006, it notes, which was roughly the time I noticed Canadian politics more or less consisted of people debating small differences in loud voices. For a long time, maybe a century, Canadian politics have more or less coalesced around the Liberal party and its likeable if not lovable leaders: Laurier, King, St. Laurent, Pearson and Chretien.

When Jean Chretien was replaced by Paul Martin, then Stephane Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, the centre collapsed and a vacuum ensued. It's not to say that I support the Liberals, but in the absence of competent leaders, Liberals have become more shrill and more partisan. This is partly because they have been outwitted by the Conservatives, who are following American Republicans in their tactics. Whatever you might think of them, they play the game very well.

Having lived outside of Canada for most of the last three years, I have to admit that most of my knowledge of Canadian politics comes from angry, indignant attacks on the Conservative government for relatively small issues: cuts to women's and arts programs. The Conservative Party's lack of appeal to the sort of urban voters who skillfully use Facebook and Twitter is a biased echo chamber. Granted, it's better than the appeals to God and country from the Conservatives, some of whom seem as though they wouldn't be upset if Canada regained its Dominion status, but it's certainly not a fair approach to politics.

Enter the weekend's (well, the weekend here anyway) news about Jack Layton having been found by police in a massage parlour in 1996. His wife Olivia Chow released a statement admitting that he had been found by police, but that he had gone there for innocent purposes. Jian Gomeshi wrote on Twitter that this was "a shamefully cynical reading of the [Canadian] public". This may or may not be true. Is it still shamefully cynical if both sides do it?

I don't have a great memory of what Gomeshi has or has not written on Twitter or elsewhere. I do know that there are websites such as Shit Harper Did and the related video "Canadian Women's Favourite Pick-up Line, the former portraying Harper as something of an ogre and the latter portraying him as not just uncaring, but unsexy and unattractive to women. Apparently women's concerns, represented only by hipster women 20-40, boil down to things like advocacy, Status of Women offices and other things that most Canadian women had never even heard of.

This is not to say that none of these aren't true, but why should women get furious over something that they haven't heard of? A great case could be made about the Harper government having contempt for women, who make up the majority of the electorate, by abusing Parliament. This would be a situation where women would actually have heard of the institution in question.

When opponents of the Conservatives have to resort to cherry-picking of this sort, is it any surprise that Conservatives accuse Liberals of "just visiting"? Or that a 15-year-old report about Jack Layton surfaces three days before the election? If the shoe was on the other foot and the people at Shit Harper Did had received the same information, what would they have done? What would Gomeshi have done if he received that information about Harper? I'm not asking these people in order to receive a denial from them, I'm asking others to imagine the likely outcome.

It's not as though Canadian politics have always been perfectly respectful, but it's hard to muster interest in one side that doesn't care about democracy and another that doesn't care about fairness. This certainly helps to explain a lot of the support for Jack Layton and the NDP. Many of their ideas might not be the best, but they are liable to do what they say. Electing someone for honesty is a bad choice, but it makes sense for people subjected to ad-nauseam debates and ad-nauseam imperatives to vote.

Ultimately, another coalition government might be the best result for Canada. Clearly, this is a system that has been in flux for almost a decade now, in the absence of a capable leader acceptable to all regions. Until the system has one such leader, it would be best if all the inadequate actors in the system were checked by the shrill, indignant voices of the other actors.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two rocks! Two rocks! Half my kingdom for two rocks!

Every country, naturally, has its red herrings, the meaningless non-issues that develop into significant issues. In Korea, this issue is Dokdo. Boiled down simply, these are two islands in the sea between Korea and Japan. Korea controls them and has for decades, but Japan claims them. The issue provides the nationalists on both sides with something to talk about.

I've documented the issue here before, but with this week being North Korean Freedom Week, I thought I would raise the issue of the country that claims not just a tiny part of South Korea, but all of South Korea. This country, of course, is North Korea.

Not only is this country a significant military threat to South Korea, but it also prints textbooks showing Seoul, Busan, Jeju and every piece of South Korean soil as part of North Korea. As far as North Korea is concerned, South Korea doesn't really exist, it's just 남조선, the southern part of North Korea.

Despite the egregious textbooks and the military aggression in the face of financial and food aid, South Koreans never really get too bent out of shape about North Korea. After all, why should they? Even though the North Korean issue involves starvation, hundreds of thousands in prison camps and the world's worst dictatorship an hour's drive away from Seoul, resolving the issue is neither possible nor particularly feasible.

For a fashionable, liberal but still patriotic South Korean in their 20s or 30s, the Dokdo issue is a great way to feel like they're doing something to improve the international standing of their country while not really doing too much. All you have to do is list your location on Twitter as being in Dokdo or to pass along some tempest in a teapot about Google not showing Dokdo as part of Korea or referring to Dokdo by its Japanese name.

Thus, it falls to the much-maligned older generation of South Korea, the one thats backwards, conservative and the source of everything that's wrong with the country, to defend the other half of Korea. Officially, South Korea not only does not recognize North Korea, but its constitution defines its territory as all of the Korean peninsula. Needless to say, South Korea is not known officially as South Korea.

The younger the Korean, the less knowledgeable and interested he or she will be in North Korea. Memories fade with time and the gap between the two countries grows to the point that to reunite the two countries now would be to take in your homeless brother you haven't seen since childhood and buy him a mansion next to yours. North Korea, needless to say, is the issue that's convenient to ignore because it's both intractable and uncomfortable. The Dokdo issue is the one to focus on, not North Korea or even China's support for North Korea, which includes forcibly sending North Korean refugees back to North Korea to face any number of brutal, nasty fates.

Korea is hardly a stranger to the phenomenon common here and elsewhere, where people consider signing an online petition or passing on a Tweet, this decade's version of the email forward, to pass for political action. Combined with fashionable but hollow issues, the result is the prevalence of idle issues in public space. For Canadians, think of snarky liberal potshots at Stephen Harper in the form of websites and memes, ones which would not pass for serious debate were the shoe on the other foot. For Americans, a classic example was seen yesterday with the White House wading chest-deep into the debate over Barack Obama's birthplace.

None of this is particularly ground-breaking, but for some reason, we forget that Koraens are people just like us. Just as a great number of us, even the ones who think the way we do, get sidetracked by minor, unimportant issues, so do people here. Granted, it's exceedingly rare to meet the Korean who considers any action or statement on the topic of Dokdo to be excessive, but this might be like looking for an American in 2002 who thought the obsession with 9/11 was going too far, a view that's relatively common now but hard to find back then.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Do world records really mean anything?

Monday's Boston Marathon was spectacular mostly for the 2:03:02 that Geoffrey Mutai ran, along with the 2:03:06 turned in by Moses Mosop. It often takes a remarkably unremarkable performance to show the true significane of another performance, so focus on Mosop's 2:03 instead of Mutai's 2:03.

Both were not, relatively speaking, the world's A-list marathoners on Monday morning. Mutai had run a 2:04:55 as runner-up in Rotterdam last year, but that time was only the fourth-fastest time ever on that course and, combined with the fact that he was a Kenyan, meant that just about no one had heard of him.

If you thought you had, you were probably thinking of Emmanuel Mutai, who was similarly more or less an unknown to fans despite having been a runner-up at both London and New York last year, given the way most North American running fans gravitate to a few East African runners and then whichever white guy or girl is an also-ran.

At any rate, Emmanuel Mutai won London on Sunday in a 2:04:40 which was more notable for the way he ran a 28:44 10k from 30k to 40k, disintegrating a field that included a 2:05:45 return-to-action by Martin Lel, who was second. Then Geoffrey went out on Monday to win Boston in 2:03:02, trailed closely by Mosop four seconds behind.

The debate ensued immediately as a lot of people thought a world record had been set, to which others responeded that it hadn't, at least not in official terms. The debate that has been going on recently is whether a 2:03:02 with a tailwind on the Boston course is superior to a 2:03:59 on the Berlin course, and whether the rules on records-eligible courses are hurting the sport.

The answer to the first question is more opaque than the answer to the second and also less interesting. It will always be unclear whether a 2:03:02 on Monday is superior or inferior to Haile Gebrselassie's 2:03:59 world record. Sports are fickle and fleeting in that performances are reflections what a particular person at a particular time in a particular place was able to do.

We could have the Gebrselassie of the morning of September 30, 2008 run the Boston Marathon course in Monday's conditions, or take Monday's Mutai and send him back to Berlin 2008, but even that wouldn't settle the question. Maybe Gebrselassie is uncomfortable and unsettled coming to America because of the distance and time difference. He probably doesn't run hills as well as he runs flats. Maybe Mutai doesn't run quite as well on flats, so the best he'd manage would be a 2:04:10 on a Berlin-type course.

To really answer this question farely, there's a lot more to talk about. What about the Gebrselassie of January 2008 who went out too fast in Dubai and ran a 2:04:53? What about the run that Samuel Wanjiru had at the Beijing Olympics in 2008? He ran a flat course, but in hot weather without pacemakers. Clearly, a lot of setting records is unfair, regardless of what the rules say. Even within the rules, we have unfairness that reflects conditions and circumstances.

The question of whether Boston is a slow or fast course reflects individual abilities with respects to uphills, downhills and a combination thereof and, for elite competitors, things like competition in the absence of pacemakers. Generally, no one has run that fast in Boston, but no one has ever had a tailwind either. Boston is disqualified as a world record course not only for being a net downhill, but also for being a point-to-point course where the effects of a tailwind in cool weather can produce stunning times.

Those rules are reasonable restrictions to keep someone from running 42.195 km on a highway in cool weather with a tailwind. If Boston is exempt because it is "obvious" that it is not a fast course, can other races apply for exemptions? If we're going to go down this route, won't world records essentially become maddening judged events?

A more interesting question which LetsRun broaches from time to time, is whether the obsession with world records is helpful to the sport or any sport. Clearly, the time will come when world records become less and less significant. Since I've been watching marathons, I've seen three world records in the marathon, which stood at 2:05:38 when I started watching: Paul Tergat's 2:04:55 and Gebrselassie's 2:04:26 and 2:03:59. Other world records have barely moved: Daniel Komen's 7:20 dates to 1996 and Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:26 dates to 1998.

World records don't always mean something. As a kid, I couldn't understand how, with players like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, someone I'd never even heard of held the world record. What's more, Roger Maris only hit about 300 home runs in his career. Within running, usually with respect to women, many official records are meaningless while seemingly insignificant marks count as the "real" record: is Pamela Jelimo's 1:54 better than Jarmila Kratochvilova's 1:53? I think so.

Many career records are the product of longevity, while single-season or single-game marks reward freakish conditions. Considering that not everyone considered Gebrselassie to be the best marathoner in the world in the first place, why does he suddenly become a better competitor than Mutai? Mutai ran a solo 2:03 downhill with a tailwind, Gebrselassie was paced to a 2:03 on flat ground. Mutai ran a minute faster.

No matter what, we are going to compare the two, along with races like Martin Lel's 2:05:15 from London 2008, where he outkicked Wanjiru and Abderrahim Goumri. To allow world records to dominate the conversation is ridiculous, and we've always known that. Conditions, competition and victories are always taken into account, which is why Moses Mosop will never really be able to say that he is better than Gebrselassie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book #4: 내 이름은 심은경입니다

My Name is Shim Eun-Gyung (내 이름은 심은경입니다) is not the first book I've read in Korean, but it's the first book for adults that I've read in Korean. The premise is an interesting one: Shim Eun-Gyung is the Korean name of the American ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens, which she picked up when living here as a member of the Peace Corps in the '70s. Stephens is able to offer significant insight into the way Korea has changed in the last thirty years, but doesn't do so as much as she could.

In fact, once the novelty had worn off about halfway through this book, I was disappointed to realize that it was quite boring. Stephens is, of course, a diplomat, and she wrote a very diplomatic book that returns, time and time again, to two central ideas. The first is the beauty of Korean culture, both modern and ancient, and the second is the importance of the American-Korean alliance.

When you add in the cheery, overly formal tone of this book, it reads like a letter from a bank or a lecture from a middle school teacher who won't get into the really interesting parts of a topic. Obviously, as a serving ambassador, Stephens has a job to be, well, diplomatic in both her tone and her message. This is unfortunate considering that she has seen Korea's rise over the last three decades, its democratization in the 80s and now is someone who remembers what it was like when meat was hard to come by, a fact she mentions briefly in her book.

Now, the book was not a complete wash. Here and there are interesting anecdotes about Stephens' time in Korea, usually meetings with dignitaries, but sometimes stories like seeing someone take a whole chicken (possibly live, it wasn't clear to me) up a mountain when hiking.

This aspect of the book is one that I think many Westerners could take to heart. Too many spend their time complaining instead of marveling at life here. That's not to say that Korea is the pinnacle of civilization, a claim only made by foreign residents who think they know what Koreans think of their country, but that this, like any other part of the world, has so many things at which to marvel. For someone like me who has not lived here all their life, living in a city as large and as confusing as Seoul with as many mountains is a never-ending marvel.

It's interesting to see someone so amicable work in the US embassy in Seoul. The embassy is located at Gwanghwamun in the present and historical heart of Seoul, which is not a problem, although its absurd security theatrics make me wince. The embassy is set far back from the street and protected by a high security wall, with a courtyard in between. At any point, you can see about one or two dozen police officers in front or next to the embassy, along with various police or military vehicles. This is how Naver depicts the US embassy on its street view function.

At any rate, once Stephens retires, she would no doubt have the experience and the knowledge to write a great story about her time here. An honest, frank and somewhat undiplomatic book would be a great read. Still, if you're an intermediate-level speaker of Korean and want to read this book, which only costs about 7,000 won at an online bookstore, it would be a good choice. Reading about topics familiar to an English-speaker, such as American place names and ideas, as well as ordinary daily life in Korea, is less intimidating than a tougher book about more unfamiliar topics.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Public language made private

Partly because I teach a language, partly because I speak a few languages and partly because I'm in the process of learning a foreign language and forgetting a few others (Urdu, French and, yes, even English), I think about language a lot. If my mom is reading this, she would probably not be amused to learn about my latest personal foible: that while I can read a book or newspaper in Korean, a language I've spoken for less than three years, it's an ordeal to do so in my native language, Urdu.

So much discussion about foreign languages with ordinary people tends to boil down to long, dull explanations of: 1) why the person I'm talking to is bad at learning languages, 2) a narcissism of the small differences between European languages and 3) the "best" method to learn a foreign language. This is unfortunate, because I think that this is truly a fascinating topic, far more than the sophistic beat-the-test industry of Korea or the "Italian sounds so sexy" mentality of North America would ever admit or realize.

Somewhere around the time I started middle school, I began to feel more comfortable in English than in Urdu, and though I don't remember when exactly I started to think in English, eventually my parents and I had bilingual conversations. This wasn't the sort of conversation I hate, with words from one language mixed into the other, but a conversation where one person spoke one language and the other participant another.

I think my mom and I have many conversations where she speaks in Urdu and I speak in English, but when I speak to my dad, we seem to try and walk on eggshells by trying to accommodate the other. This is why sometimes I speak in Urdu to my dad and he responds in English, even though the opposite would be more comfortable for both of us.

A one-sided conversation like this doesn't fully correspond to Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea of a private language, but it does bring to mind the idea. A private language would be a language comprehensible only to one person in theory rather than practice (i.e. only I can understand this language, not that I am the last person who speaks this language). The idea of a private language raises its own set of issues which I will not discuss here, nor are one-sided conversations even close to the idea of a private conversation, though the idea of a person speaking in one language and being answered in another is a step in that direction.

At any rate, living in East Asia, where the three major states all speak different languages, I had always wondered how diplomacy worked. When Hillary Clinton met South Korean president Lee Myung-bak today, which language was spoken? How about when Lee meets Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan? Or, when Kim Jong-il speaks with Hu Jintao?

My answer, confirmed by Steve Herman from Voice of America and Sam Kim from the Korean news agency Yonhap, is that interpreters are almost always used. It's likely that Lee, the former head of Hyundai Construction, speaks English, but Herman says that "when I was in the room [Clinton and Lee] were using respective interpreters."

The insistence on speaking in two languages when you could be speaking one was not lost on me. It's not only an experience to which I subject my parents, but also some friends, many students, and even my boss. When I signed my current contract with my school, the administrator spoke in Korean which I generally understood. I replied in English which he mostly understood, but there was someone to translate anyway.

It also goes the other way. I teach classes in English only, with the exception of jokes or a precise translation of an otherwise fuzzy idea, and I find that about two-thirds of students will never speak to me in Korean. The other third, regardless of whether or not I understand, will speak in Korean. Many students take being addressed in Korean as something of an insult, in the sense that I'm switching to Korean because they couldn't understand the English, so they'll summon a stiff upper lip and reply in English.

"I didn't have any paper, so I'm writing my suicide note on Twitter."

About two hours ago, a Korean man serving his military duty close to the DMZ in Gangwon province left a suicide note on Twitter, which naturally spread like wildfire. Though someone was able to reach him and talk him down from what he was doing, quickly enough that he's posting as I write this, others are still posting messages trying to find him before it's too late.

Tonight at 6:46, he wrote:

"I don't see the point of living. If a flower withers, it blooms again. Why won't my flower bloom? Is life supposed to be this difficult? Why is happiness always so far away? I think it'd be more better if I was dead, yeah."

정말 삶의 가치를 못느낀다. 꽃이 지면 다시 피는법인데 왜 내꽃은 피질않는걸까. 삶이라는게 원래 이렇게 힘든거였나? 행복이란것도 느끼며 불행도 느끼는건데 왜 항상 행복은 저멀리 있는걸까? 기댈사람도 없는이 세상, 차라리 죽는편이 더 편할꺼같다. 그래.

At 7:54:

"So long, world. This was hard. Sang-heon and mom, I'm sorry."

잘있어 세상아 고생했어 상헌아 미안해 엄마 미안해..

At 10:02 he posted a suicide note, from which I've taken out his name and the name of his unit:

"This is Private Lee of the such-and-such unit in Cheorwon, Gangwon-do. Please read this carefully.

Dear brother, I truly, really love you and I'm sorry.

Mom and dad, I'm sorry that I went first. Please understand. I talked back and I was disobedient, but did you know that I loved you? I love you..

Su-hyeon! I hope you see this. I pray that you get into Hanyang University. Don't fail!

Yeon-jin, Su Hyeon has my bankbook. I worked and saved some money. It was always hard for you to pay for lunch. The PIN is 1327.

I changed my number but didn't tell you (?). I'm sorry that I couldn't even text you.

I don't have any paper, so I'm writing this on Twitter. I'm terribly sorry.

Guys, I really, really love you and I'm sorry."

친형이 강원도 철원군 ㅇㅇ부대 ㅇ중대 ㅇ소대 ㅇㅇㅇ 일병이에요 잘봐주세요 너무 PX업무만 보게하지말구요
형 진짜 너무너무 사랑해 그리고 미안해
그리고 엄마아빠, 먼저가서 미안해 이해해줘.. 항상 대들고 반항했어도 사랑하는거알지? 사랑해..
내 반쪽 수현! 이글 꼭 봤음 좋겠다 너가맨날 노래하고다닌 한양대, 꼭붙도록 기도할께. 재수하지마!
연진아 내 통장 수현이한테 있어 알바해서 월급모아둔거야 너 항상 급식비때문에 고생했잖아..^^ 비밀번호 1327 이야
번호 바꼈으면 말을하지그랬니.. 문자도 못하고 좀 섭섭했어..

종이가 없어서 유서를 트윗으로 남기네요 정말 죄송합니다

애들아 너무너무 사랑했어..^^ 그리고 미안해..

He returned at 11:40 to write:

"I'm going to keep going. I'm very sorry to have caused this distress. Everyone will have a day when their flower blooms. When that day comes, the world will be a happy place. I will remember this. Once again, I'm deeply sorry.

"계속 나아가겠습니다. 이밤에 우려끼쳐드려 죄송합니다. 누구에게나 꽃이필 날이 올것이고 그날이 오면 세상 그 누구보다더 행복하다는 사실을 명심하겠습니다. 다시한번 깊이 사과드립니다.."

At 11:52

"To military personnel, the police, firefighters and my friends on Twitter, I would like to offer a deep and sincere apology."

"군관계자분들, 경찰, 소방서, 그리고 트위터 친구 여러분들에거 정말 진심으로 사과드립니다.. 정말 죄송합니다.."

Now Lee's focus is on responding to his 900 new followers and to delete his picture from the Internet.

This incident comes a week after a professor at the prestigious university KAIST committed suicide, which in turn came after a string of suicides there, and the less-publicized suicide of a graduate of Seoul National University, Korea's most prestigious university.

In the case of the SNU graduate, the weight of expectations was a factor. It was one thing for the graduate to be unemployed, but another to be unemployed as an SNU graduate, the pinnacle of academic achievement in this country. After spending a decade in training to be great, how can life possibly match up to expectations? Even if this woman had a job, could it possibly have been good enough? Expectations rather than life itself have a lot to do with why this is the most unhappy place in the developed world.

Errors in translation are, of course, many and egregious, I'm sure.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why feel-good voting campaigns are misguided

As I wrote three years ago, I'm sick of feel-good campaigns that try to get everyone over the age eighteen with a pulse (or no pulse if you vote the right way) to vote. On top of that, not voting is portrayed as an unpatriotic, antisocial activity.

This is not productive, helpful or accurate for a number of reasons. I'm not sure if I'll vote in next month's election because of the steps involved, but even if I was voting, it's ridiculous to argue that the only (or the most) meaningful way in which a citizen can serve the state is to engage with the electoral process. One of the reasons for the decline in voting, however unfortunate and however untrue, is that Canadians increasingly feel that there are other ways to engage with politics outside of voting.

Voter apathy is, of course, unfortunate. Misgovernance and injustice do rely on the ignorance and apathy of voters who are either distracted by things like tax cuts or petty union struggles, or simply indifferent. The duty of citizens to be informed is real, though if we don't excoriate the population of the segment that doesn't read newspapers on the 1,800 days that are normally (this is the fourth in seven years) between federal elections, why turn voting into a feel-good exercise that unites conservatives and liberals, idiots and the intelligent?

While on one hand, an informed citizen who has decided that the Conservative government ought to be kept in power or voted out truly ought to act on that belief, demanding that otherwise unengaged or unsatisfied voters engage or satisfy themselves because it's what people do is absurd. The claim that you can't complain if you didn't vote is absurd; this means teenagers, immigrants and outsiders can't comment on our politics. This also means that someone who voted for a party that said it would ban the consumption of milk and then carried out its promise has the right to complain.

Voting is a right, not a duty. All of us should vote, but there are enough of us who know how politics work to know that this is not a life-changing election, to the extent that there are ever life-changing elections in our country. So much of the change in our lives, for better or for worse, is driven by education, business and factors and actors external to Canada that at best the federal government is in the position of offering a limited reaction to our lives and our world.

I believe that a strong federal government will do the best for Canada, but I also know that the people who run our federal government have a limited capacity to affect change, for better or for worse. While the Conservatives have taken the last five years to do real damage to our parliamentary democracy, I don't know that I could ever vote for the Liberals either. Every time I think about voting for a party, I think of the sort of truth-flexible person who decides to join and work for a political party. Even if I end up voting, I will certainly respect the rights and indifference of those who do not vote.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nike holding women's race in Seoul on June 4, all welcome, no grannies please

Women's races in running are interesting because the women's race tends to take a backseat in mixed-gender races. Even if the world's best woman crosses the finish line of the Boston Marathon a good 15 minutes after some C-list male runner, she'll still an afterthought to some extent. If male runners competed alongside cyclists, the experience would be comparable.

Women's running is something of an oxymoron in Korea, where running is extremely popular, but amateur female runners are almost impossible to find. So, Nike took it upon itself to create a women's-only race, but 7 km instead of 10 km because women are delicate, and started marketing it heavily on university campuses.

The race's slogan is "스무살, 그녀들이 처음으로 달리기 시작했다 (At the age of 20, those girls first started running)". Interestingly, the videos on the website mostly feature young women standing, talking and, um, jumping rope. The idea, I suppose, seems to be to target a younger generation that's more open to new ideas for a popular race that largely targets people that have never run before.

Why Nike is specifically targeting people who don't run instead of those that do is bizarre on the surface, but can make sense in some way. Running, as promoted in the West, is about as cool as Oprah's book of the month. It's something that fat people do to stave off heart attacks and others do to raise money for some charity. A few skinny guys and girls might be training for the Olympics, but they only register every four years. Running is similar in Korea, something that generally old people do. If you see the first woman in a Korean road race, she will be in her 30s at least, often older.

So, naturally, Nike defined the race as such:

Register starting midnight on April 15.
Events: 7k race and after party (note: the Korean sickeningly uses entire loan words like 7k 레이스 & 애프터파티, a sure tip-off of cheesiness)
Eligibility: 3,000 women who are running the first race of their lives (생애 첫 레이스에 도전하는 20대 여성)
Fee: 30,000 won ($30)

When I saw that, I noticed the absurdity of the race. A women's race presumably tries to afford women sporting opportunities that they can not find in a more intimidating mixed event, which is generally one that's mostly for men. This is by no means the only women's race in Korea, and I imagine that the others are not as preoccupied with age.

I wrote on Twitter:

"so #nike #korea came up with a women's race. but for some reason, it's only open to women in their 20s. bizarre, no?"

Nike wrote back:

"Training Run and We Run Seoul in autumn this year is available for all men and women. Thank you."

I wrote:

"상관 없는 것 같아요. 이번 대회는 nike women's race보다 "nike 아까시 run" 아니죠?"
("I don't really think it makes a difference. Isn't this race more of a Miss Nike Run than a Nike Women's Race?")

The Korean word 아가씨, which I misspelled above because I'm an idiot, refers to a young unmarried woman. Better translations than "miss" are welcomed.

Instead of ignoring me, whichever genius is in charge of the Nike Korea Twitter decided to lie:

"Nike Women's Race is available for all women over age 20 in Korean age. Thanks."

I pointed out:

"then why does it say "참가자격: 도전하는 20대 여성"?" (translation: only women in their 20s are eligible)

Nike wrote back: "The race mainly focuses to 20s though, all women over 20 may register for the race. '참가 자격' (eligible) in the website has been changed as '참가 대상' (target) for the moment. We're sorry for confusion."

So now, women over 20, who were previously told to kindly fuck off, are now just requested to stand in the corner and avoid getting their wrinkly faces in any of the promotion shots of thin young women engaging in light, pleasant yuppie-friendly exercise.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Change in the Land of Morning Calm

Much like the last time I lived in an apartment I really liked doing something I enjoyed to the fullest, I live a few minutes' walk from a Burger King, the way I did in the year 2005. I don't really like to eat there except for breakfast, some of my friends having discovered my fondness for a hot breakfast in harsher circumstances than others.

It's not that Burger King is my first choice and while I could cook at home, I run a finely-tuned morning routine with all the give and go of a just-in-time supply chain. I sit around for 30 minutes reading news or streaming TV reruns before heading out for a run of 30-45 minutes, ideally taking 25 minutes to get ready for work before completing my 3-minute commute that gets me to work 2 minutes early.

Running the same route to wander the hills and paths of Kyung Hee University (also accepted: Gyung Hui, Gyonghee, Kyeonghui, etc.) is interesting because I pass the same people everyday. There's the pimply high school boy with glasses who I imagine to be quite smart, the homeless woman who walks around the neighbourhood trying to sell gum and chocolate to people, the street cleaner who acknowledges my efforts in the way I acknowledge his, and so on.

While some things never change, other things never stop changing, namely the overnight staff at this Burger King. I like to finish runs there to buy a coffee and a croissant sandwich of egg, cheese and questionable taste, walking back home because running with a cup of coffee is not feasible, as I've learned.

In the year and change that I have been living in this neighbourhood, I have probably visited that Burger King at least 50 times, if not closer to 100. While I get the same thing every morning, they still ask me if I would like to stay or to have it to go. That's largely because of the amazing turnover I see. It's hard to tell because they tend to hire tall, mature-looking university students with pleasant voices, but I don't think I've ever seen the same person there more than a few times, which is kind of surprising since they all seem to start at the position of assisant manager and then, presumably, move up.

My time at Burger King in the mornings has become a giant experiment of sorts, since the only variable is the person who takes the order. I always come in at the end of a run between 7:15 and 7:25 and pay by card. Western breakfasts aren't really popular (read not at all popular) here, so most of the people who come in really just came in to get a Whopper. As you might imagine, the number of people who want to eat a croissant or a Whopper at that hour is rather low.

Some employees enjoy the time to chat with the coworkers they barely know, others give off the impression of soldiers standing at attention. Some try to speak in English, others refuse to speak to me at all and treat the transaction as a non-verbal event, while most speak in well-rehearsed phrases without concern for whether I understand or not.

With the exception of the guy who looks like a Japanese policeman and has been there for some time, I would have trouble identifying the person who helped me at 7:15 if they fell on top of me at 7:45. I sometimes wonder where they go; generally I imagine that being paid $4 per hour to work the overnight shift at a 24-hour fast food restaurant in a university district produces a high turnover rate, though I suppose anything is possible.