Sunday, February 21, 2010

Off The Bookshelf

Hola, Amigos! I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I've been doing my Jim Anchower impression! Call it the Lost Week, during which I meant to go to a quiet little beach in Thailand, but waited too late to buy tickets, so it became ridiculously expensive. Ah, well, maybe in April.

Anyway, time now for the latest installment in "What I Have Been Reading Lately":
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga - Over the course of seven nights of dictation as he sits in his office under a chandelier, Balram Halwai of Bangalore, India tells his life story, framed as advice to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on how to foster entrepreneurship. Having grown up in the "Darkness"--India's interior--Balram ultimately makes his way to Delhi and becomes a driver for the family of a wealthy businessman. The narrator is humorous, self-deprecating and informative about the nature of modern Indian politics and business, even as he is describing how he murdered his boss.
  • The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl - Follow-up to The Dante Club, and much better. This fictional account is based on the best evidence, including original research done by the author, attempting to explain the missing five days of Edgar A Poe's life before he turned up near death in Baltimore. Poe was best known in his day as an editor, essayist and critic, and is today known to American readers as the author of tales of mystery and horror, often made into movies featuring Vincent Price. Poe's character C. Auguste Dupin is the first detective in modern fiction, and Pearl uses the idea that he is based on a real French consultant to the Parisian police in order to unravel the real-life mysteries surrounding Poe's last days. Beautifully written and exciting.
  • The Land of the Banished by Cho Chong-rae - A dark character study of a fugitive Red Brigade leader who lives as a drifter after catching his wife in flagrante delicto with his commander and killing them both in a particularly sanguinary machine gun attack. He later remarries, but his young wife runs away leaving him with a young son. As his TB worsens, he is unable to support the boy so he leaves him in an orphanage and is drawn back to his old village which he has steered clear of all these years. It is told in flashback, which works pretty well here, the prose is spare, and the story is engrossing.
  • A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon - The second adult novel by a well-known children's author, this is a splendidly-written examination of a "typical" English family preparing for their daughter's second wedding, as the father slides into insanity, as politely as possible. The trick to good characterization is to draw people who are real, but not ordinary--the reader should recognise them, in some sense, but still be surprised by their reactions at the right times. It's a good thing Haddon has characterization down so well, since he shifts POV from one to another of the four family members chapter by chapter. The plot builds to its climax at the daughter's wedding reception, but not to a crescendo so much as a multi-car pile-up that gets more and more violent as it spreads down the highway. Brilliant stuff.
  • House of Idols by Choi In-hoon - The title story of the three in this volume, according to the jacket blurb, "illustrates the author's view of Korean society's difficulty in recognizing and establishing sound values." Maybe, but I thought it was about how a young sociopath deceives an establishment type for his own amusement. "Imprisoned" is a stream-of-consciousness piece about an obsessive in an asylum, playing with a "self-righting doll" and talking about love. The best piece, and also the shortest, is "End of the Road", set in the immediate post-war years in Korea. A young woman, probably a prostitute for American servicemen, gets on a bus heading back to her hometown. The lack of civility of some her bus mates, as well as the tortured journey of the bus itself, symbolize the effects of the modern world on Korean culture.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Seollal and Snow

This weekend is the Seollal 설날 holiday, the Korean celebration of lunar new year. What is the lunar new year, exactly? I'm glad you asked. Usually, it begins on the second day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. At least in the Western or Gregorian calendar.

In the Chinese calendar, the solstice must occur in the eleventh lunar month. Now, since there are about twelve and one third lunar months in a solar year, the calendar has to add a thirteenth month now and then, like a leap month if you will, to straighten things out. Therefore, in such a year, the new year is actually the third new moon after the winter solstice. But that won't happen again until 2033, so I don't even know why I mentioned it.

2009 was the Year of the Ox, 2010 will be the Year of the Tiger.

Anyway. This is the most important holiday in Korea, and even more people go back to their hometowns now than do so during Chuseok. So naturally, the weather for the last two days has seen a combination of snow and sleet, which melts in the afternoon and then refreezes in the evening for a treacherous road/sidewalk surface just in time to mess with people's holiday travel plans.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where's Irwin Allen When You Need Him?

After being a science and geology teacher for twenty years, I've finally gotten to experience an earthquake first-hand, as a tremor epicentered a little west of here near Siheung in Gyeonggi-do rocked Seoul at 6:08 PM yesterday, and I'd like to tell you all about it!

... only, I felt absolutely nothing, and wouldn't have even known about it if my co-workers hadn't mentioned it at lunch today. In fact, of the papers I keep on the sidebar, only the Korea Times had an online story about it. One co-worker who lives west of me said her floor shook and windows rattled. She said she worried that the building would collapse.

Of course, Korea is situated along the Ring of Fire, the geologically active edge of the Pacific plate, so the peninsula's violent human history is mirrored by the folded mountains, granite outcroppings and extinct volcanoes that compose its topography.

Very low-level quakes or temblors occur with some regularity, averaging about 40 per year, but most are mere bumps on the Richter scale--the one yesterday registered a 3.0, nothing to write home about. Not much to blog about, for that matter. Anyway, the KT story gives a little bit more:
"The tremor continued for two or three seconds," the [Korea Meteorological Administration] said in a briefing. Residents especially in western Seoul reported that the quake was strong enough for them to feel the buildings they were in shaking.
The tremor was felt as far away as Yongin, Suwon and Goyang.
It was the strongest tremor out of three recorded in the bustling capital city of 12 million since 1987, when the administration began to monitor earthquakes in Korea. The other two occurred on Sept. 15, 2004 and June 14, 1990, but again they caused no damage.

Dong-A Ilbo carried a story last month about plans to improve quake-resistance here in all new buildings regardless of size:
Park Yeon-soo, head of the National Emergency Management Agency, told a news briefing after the meeting, “We decided on comprehensive measures to prevent disasters from earthquakes since Korea saw a record 60 earthquakes last year and experts say we are no longer safe from earthquakes.”
The meeting came in the wake of a Dong-A Ilbo report saying an earthquake will inflict massive damage on Korea because only 18 percent of the country’s buildings are earthquake-resistant.

Yes, I know I'm on vacation, but they had a lunch at SkyOnn Food in Gimpo Airport to say Bon voyage to a team headed for Singapore for three days to visit our "twin school" there.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Know How They Feel

I'll grant you, the off-tune warbling of really drunk Korean girls that sometimes leak through the walls and halls of local noraebang 노래방 or karaoke singing rooms can sometimes run a chill up my spine.

I'll even consider that a note or two of my own has missed the mark on occasion ...

Still, that's no reason to kill somebody. Unless you're in the Philippines. The NYT is reporting on a category of crime in that steamy archipelago dubbed "My Way Killings" by the media there for the frequency with which Ol' Blue Eyes' killer tune seems to be involved in the violence.
... many karaoke bars have removed the song from their playbooks. And the country’s many Sinatra lovers, like Mr. Gregorio here in this city in the southernmost Philippines, are practicing self-censorship out of perceived self-preservation.
Karaoke-related killings are not limited to the Philippines. In the past two years alone, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone at a bar and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Karaoke-related assaults have also occurred in the United States, including at a Seattle bar where a woman punched a man for singing Coldplay’s “Yellow” after criticizing his version.
Still, the odds of getting killed during karaoke may be higher in the Philippines, if only because of the ubiquity of the pastime.

So Frank Sinatra and John Denver are out, which puts a big dent in my repertoire, limited as it is by my vocal range--it's not really a range, even, more like a camping stove. Hopefully a sincere rendition of "Give Peace a Chance" will give peace a chance.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

'Winter Story in Seoul Plaza'

While strolling past City Hall this afternoon, this exhibition caught my eye, titled 'Winter Story in Seoul Plaza: The Antarctic'. As the program brochure explains:
Be the team members of the Antartic King Sejong Station in Seoul Plaza. The story of Seoul Plaza Winter Story is consisted of your application to the Antarctic King Sejong Station to be the member of its crew and through learning of the Antarctic, experiencing the living style in here sseing directly various spectacles and then finally being certified as the honorary members.

The exhibition consists of a half-dozen buildings that look like the Korea Antarctic Presearch Project station. Inside one, you can learn about the lifeforms, climate and conditions of Antarctica; in another building is an exhibit of the daily lives of team members. They apparently eat of metals trays like you often find in schools. Next to the tray is a sujeo tong, a box containing sets of spoons and chopsticks:

I think they do a good job in displays like this in finding interesting ways to provide information; part of the history of antarctic exploration is told using stamps and envelopes, a sample below:

This building is designed to let you "experience mysterious the Antarctic light aurora", though that part was turned off. It was just a big wind tunnel:

There were some snowmobiles, mannekins dressed in heavy-duty parkas, stuffed penguins and the like, but the best photo-op was the pair of cartoon characters milling about outside. Even though I only had my cell cam, I had to avail myself of it, so here you go:

Oh, and it was free, as things like this always seem to be here. The closing date is Mon., Feb. 15, so you have a week to get there.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It May Explain A lot

1) Yesterday was the last day of camp, so I'm finished with school until March 2. Yipee! To celebrate, I went to 3 Alley in Itaewon for a delicious salmon filet with seafood risotto. But they were out of risotto. Boo!

2) We also celebrated in class with a little party, involving some cake, snacks and cola products. We watched whatever videos on YouTube were of interest. On of my students pulled up this one, which is pretty funny, if a bit long:

3) I was directed today to this "This Modern World" cartoon from Salon (at this link, which tends to redirect to the front page, with attendent advertisement: which may explain quite a lot:

(Click to read it full size)

4) January, 1982 - a date which will live in infamy. At least if you are a Korean barber, for this is when the nationwide student hair length policy was changed. Up till then, a crewcut was the simple rule; coming up on thirty years later, as reported in the Korea Times, there is still considerable controversy regarding hair length, with students predictably on the liberal side, and school administrators on the conservative.

There is a hair length policy at my school, and a teacher assigned to visually inspect students as they pour through the gates at the beginning of the school day; he pulls out violators and they do push-ups and crunchs for a while.

At some school in Gyeonggido, however, a teacher was actually forcibly cutting students' hair with clippers to enforce the rules.
The National Human Rights Commission said Thursday that cutting students' hair without their consent for "breaching" school guidelines on hair length is a violation of human rights, advising a secondary school in Incheon not to repeat a similar act.
The agency said, "Such a forcible change of hairstyle by school authorities is an act that infringes upon human rights."

Now, I wouldn't go that far--hair length is a freedom, it seems to me. Still, in American culture, this kind of thing went out of style decades ago. At my schools back home, there were also grooming policies: in fact, I kept a supply of cheap plastic razors and some shaving cream (whose main purpose was pressure demos) for boys with facial hair--but I didn't do the shaving. For recalcitrant cases, at some point, a letter would be sent home and the violator could not return to school until he was in compliance.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Car Nation

One of my students, whose English name is Harry, has become quite the little chatterbox. I can't really boast that camp has improved his English that much, but his confidence is through the roof.

He was complaining today that his father is taking a one-week business trip to America, and taking his mother along with him, but leaving Harry and his little brother at home. His father, he said, is quite respected in his company, but treats him like a soldier. This means he orders him around.

One the one hand, Harry admits he doesn't like being treated as a child, but on the other, he is afraid of becoming an adult. (Remember he faces two years mandatory military duty.) That is, I think, the essential nature of adolescence worldwide.

Then he goes and says his father has promised him a new car on his 20th birthday. He doesn't have a license, and has little prospect of acquiring one in the next year, since--as he is entering his senior year--he is booked into school or hagwons every waking hour from now to November.

Me you couldn't give a car over here. It's just not worth it. The traffic is terrifying, the laws of the road are different, and there is an odd-even day system according to your plate number, so you are only supposed to drive it half the time. And the public transportation is nothing short of awesome.

There are around six million cars in Seoul, but it's interesting that you hardly ever see a beater--cars always seem to be shiny and new. Exception is the ubiquitous one-ton and two-ton work pick-ups in the KIA Bongo and Hyundai Porter lines.

Are there times I miss my S-10? Yes. Absolutely. But I always get over it: I don't have to carry insurance, I don't worry about gas prices, or the idiot in the other lane, or finding a good parking spot. I can't go for a drive in the countryside, but how often did I do that anyway?

But I have to admit, one of my favorite shows, not that I watch much TV, has become "Top Gear" on the BBC Knowledge channel. Pop open a beer and watch these three British chaps test new model cars--and they are relentlessly negative about US-made vehicles--clock celebrity guests on their test track and generally have a dry witty time.

I guess I'm driving vicariously through them. Without insurance. And occasionally, under the influence.