Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vacation Time

In America, we had an aphorism about teaching, to wit: "The three best reasons to teach are June, July and August." This referred to our agrarian-based institutional calendar that school shuts down during the summer months.

In Korean public schools, this translates to "The one and a half best reasons to teach are February and a couple weeks in August."

Needless to say, there is nothing great about February in Seoul. Here are two photos I snapped tonight, first outsde the front door of my building, the second at the little park across the street.

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The great thing is that Korea is within striking distance of more tropical climes; therefore, I leave tomorrow for two and a half weeks in the warmer environs of Taiwan and the downright warmish southern gulf coast of Thailand.

After I finish this post, I am going to sweep and mop my floor (all the other cleaning is done), carry out the recycling, and finish packing. Tomorrow I have to get a haircut in the morning, drop by my school--mainly to water my plants, visit the bank, then head to the airport.

See you in three weeks!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

맥주뚜껑, or Maekchu Dduggeong

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... or Beer Caps. I have mentioned previously this example of a new style of bar gaining popularity here, a "self-service" wall of coolers from which one may partake of a healthy selection of worldwide beers.

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They provide a variety of dried anju, but the coolest thing is that you can bring along your own food or order delivery. They even have a booklet of menus from local restaurants.

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Though the chain has several storefronts, in Gyodae, Omokgyo, Sinchon and beyond, I've only been to the one in Sinjeongnegeori near my pal Kevin's abode. Here I am with friendly owner Jina last Friday night:

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Good beer selection, good food (if you don't like the food, don't blame anyone but yourself), good friends; the only downside of the place is the music, which is mostly the electronic shrieking and ear-aching beat of what passes for music liked by kids these days. If you think that makes me sound like a crotchety old geezer, tough--I am a crotchety old geezer.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Innumeracy in the News

Several news sources, probably beginning with Yonhap, the Korean News Service, have reported that Seoul's bus and subway fares are going to rise by 150 won next month.

That translates to about 13 cents US money, or a 17% rise. That's significant to some, especially those who use the system on a daily basis.

But wait. The story goes on to say:
The city government has come up with a proposal to raise bus and subway fares from 900 won to 1,150 won (traffic card fares for adult) next month, while freezing prices for students and children, officials said.
See the problem? An increase from 900 to 1,150 W is actually 250 W, or a 28 percent increase.

The same error is repeated by Korea Times, and Arirang. The Chosun Ilbo gets the numbers right, and adds a piece of information:
If the committee accepts the proposal, city bus and subway fares will rise from W900 to W1,050 and those for red commuter buses from W1,700 to W1,850 when using traffic cards.
Frankly, it's still a bargain, and is the only way to go anyhow, at least for me, who can't afford a car and wouldn't dare ride a motorbike in Seoul.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Report: Seollal 2012

  • Operation Spider-Web by MH Sargent - Sargent has created an interesting team of CIA operatives who work, at least in this tale, third in the series, within Military Intelligence. Gonz, Heisman, McKay and Peterson seem to work together well, and I suspect their backstory is covered in a previous tome, but that doesn't matter so much compared to the current plot. And on that topic, I'm not sure I buy the initial story that gets the team involved in the operation that forms the focus of the book; but once they are in it, it is a gripping and realistic series of events. A fun, easy read for those who lkke battlefield action and intel subterfuge. It's an independent brought out on Amazon, Kindle-only.
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  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami - Slow-moving but carefully drawn and totally genuine characters, I would believe this is exactly what happened to Murakami in his youth except he emphatically denies it. It is a sad pair (or maybe even trio) of love stories told from the boy's POV in the Tokyo and environs of the late sixties. The student upheavals of those times form a sort of background, though no one in the action is a revolutonary--if anything, the action and drama is a counterpoint to their inability to act and move. Nonetheless, Murakami is able to paint a dynamic still life of four real people with Beatles music in the background.
  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart - This is without a doubt the strangest book I have read in quite some time. First off, it is set in an indeterminate near-future where people are largely known by their buying power (LNWI = scum = low net worth individuals), and their personal data is easily read on their apparati, personal information devices. The US as we know it no longer exists, it is the ARA or American Recovery Admininistration, and the Chinese National Bank is about to lower our credit rating. In this crazy world, Lenny Abramov falls in love with Eunhee (Eunice) Park, a slim, self-centered Korean girl whose father beats her and whose mother and sister tend to rely on Geejush to save them. Lenny is a flabby, thirty-nine year old of Ashkenazi stock who works for the megacorp that runs things, despite it being in a little-known branch whose job is indefinite life extension. If the author had replaced "True" in the title with "Weird" it would sell a million, at least in yuan-pegged dollars. Seriously, I would not miss this book if I were you!
  • The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink - Like The Big Chill, except the subject of the weekend together for old friends is still alive--he didn't die (as played by Kevin Costner in his most life-like role), but got released from prison. Jorg is a German terrorist who was convicted of the murder of four people nearly thirty years earlier, spending his first weekend of freedom at his older sister's country estate ; it's very talky, and even at that doesn't manage to explore the key issues to my satisfaction. As with The Reader, I started to like it better as it went on, but I was still left wanting, though I must say the sparks between Henner and Margarete pleased me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

설날, or Seollal

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Seollal is the Lunar New Year, Korea's first or second most important holiday, and its main harbinger is the appearance of domi girls in brightly-colored hanbok at your local E-Mart.

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They are there to hawk gift boxes of various goods, as Korean tradition dictates that you don't return to your hometown empty-handed, apparently even if it means bringing socks:

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Other popular gifts include towels, hair care products and especially Spam:

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Here are a few other items:

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The prices of Seollal gifts can vary immensely, from a few thousand won for dried fish to a hundred bucks or more for mushrooms and 500,000 W for the package of three ginseng roots below:

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I lopped the price off the ginseng, so you'll have to trust me that it was 500,000 W--I'm not 100% with my new camera, and assumed the data bar along the bottom was just covering the bottom part of the picture. Live and learn.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meeting a North Korean

Talk to enough South Koreans, and eventually you meet North Koreans. Our little street in Bongcheon (see the previous post) is populated by ethnic North Koreans who came here through China a generation ago. At my school, I have mentioned we have a boy from North Korea, whose family arrived here in March or April 2011. He came to our school about two weeks after second semester began, in September 2011.

His English was non-existent, and his Korean, at least of the variety spoken in the South, nearly so. Over the course of a semester, he improved considerably, and even semed to understand me a few times. But mostly, as my co-teacher told me, he was overwhelmed and nonplussed by what was happening around him--he has not had much schooling. We have worried about whether he will ever fit in.

Tonight, I met a young man who went through a similar process back in 2001, at about the same age. Ten years later, he is in university here, and was able to speak to me in English quite adequately.

He left NK with his family--his father, his sister and himself--after years of hardship after being sent to a cold, remote area near the Russian border. They were being punished for some error his grandfather had made as a cadre many years before, apparently in the time of Kim Il-sung. What did the grandfather do? He doesn't know. Even his father doesn't know.

Why did they escape? Unrelenting poverty and starvation. How did they escape? They bribed the guards with some food and simply walked across the Tumen River to China. We know there was spate of refugees around this time due to the late 1990s famine.

After about two years in China, they felt endangered and made their way to Mongolia--to the capital, Ulan Bator, and flew to South Korea. How did you get the money for this flight? He wasn't sure, but his father was able to work in China, and it was probably that.

What happened to your mother, why didn't she come with you? "It's a lie," he told me. Huh? "They lied to us," he insisted. The said she had a disease, he couldn't explain it in English.

At this point, his more fluent friend stepped in and showed me in his cellphone dic that it was tuberculosis. The saddest part of the story is that he still does not believe this tale: if his mother died of TB and he doesn't believe it, that's sad. If she hasn't died (or doesn't even have TB), he'll probably never know, and that's just as sad, really.

By the time he came to South Korea, after two years in China and Mongolia, assimilating was not as difficult a time for him as my student has had. What do you miss from North Korea? Nothing. What was the hardest change about living in the South? His father finding work. He is a journalist and writer, but it is still difficult.

Was my chain being pulled? I doubt it, partly because there's no advantage for this young man to lie to me, and secondly because of his tale's internal and external consistency.

So, should we hope his Mom is still alive in NK, probably in a "re-education camp" or a backwards hospital, or should we hope she has passed beyond the tortures of the family member left behind? Cf., Morton's fork.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happy Happy in Bongcheon


The festivities are about to begin! A stack of thirty lamb skewers and some cold, crisp lager are the key ingredients to a delicious meal in the Chinatown street of Bongcheon with friend Kevin (seen here with the 서장님):


This delicacy is a Chinese/Mongolian favorite (most Koreans don't much care for lamb meat) but we're in Seoul, so it's served Korean style, cooked at the table. When the meat is grilled, it's stored on the rack above until you dip it in the seasoning:



The other main attraction of Bongcheon is our favorite country-style makkeoli 집 where the best in the city is still 1,000 won per cup.



After filling up on lamb just a half-block away, I was not hungry, but Korean culture requires that you have food whenever you drink alcohol, so Kevin selected the dubu kimchi, which isn't a bad choice at all:


I know I have posted about lamb and makkeoli in Bongcheon before, but I am testing out my new camera before vacation. It's a Nikon D5100 with the kit lens which is a Nikkor AF-s 18 to 55 mm with VR. I'm playing with the presets, so the food photos were taken with "food" and outdoor shots with "night landscape". Tell me what you think.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Anyang 1 번가

Is the main "eating street" in Anyang, a short walk from the subway station. Here, Nick contemplates the myriad eating choices:

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While this was a nice street, it was not particularly massive, or even terribly busy, on this Saturday night in January after a hockey game.

We passed by one samgyupsal restaurant, and went in the second one, careful to ask if smoking is okay. The ajumma assured us it was. As soon as we sat down and placed an order for two servings of meat and two bottles of beer, the young waiter tells me smoking is not allowed. He checks with the ajumma, then comes back and says only "a little smoking" is allowed. I assure him I will only smoke one at a time.

The food is good:

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... but after repeated hassling despite assurances that a little smoking is okay, and only one bottle of beer provided, we cut our losses and backtrack to the other samgyupsal jib.

Here the pork was just as good, and also less expensive. Plus it was sprinkled with chopped green herbs:

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Sated, we ventured back onto the street to find a bar, and Nick spied a place labeled "World Beer". But once inside, the name was something else:

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맥주광, maekju gwang, which could translate as either Beer Storehouse, or Beer Fanatic. Either one would do. I have seen this business model before, introduced by Kevin, and love it as much as The Stumbler, who dedicated a post to it. A few dozen varieties of foreign and domestic beers are stored in a bank of upright coolers along the wall, which are self-service. That is, you walk up to the coolers, browse a bit, then snag a cold bottle of something tasty--the beers are arranged by price, which is clearly marked on the door. The prices are quite reasonable. When you check out, someone tallies all your bottles and you pay up.

Both Beer Caps and Beer Fan offer only simple anju (beer snacks) like dried squid, peanuts, etc., but you can bring your own food in or order it delivered. Wow! Both are also franchises, and both seem to be doing a pretty good trade. The Beer Caps (맥주뚜껑) we know is in Sinjeongnegeori, but there are several locations, including Omokgyo and out near Gyesan

In sum, these places are quite like WaBar or JS Texas Bar, but more informal and much less pricey. On the other hand, the electronic dart games, loud customers and pulsating music make them harder on my old ears.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Asian Hockey League in Anyang

A little ways south of Seoul on Line 1, you will find the suburb of Anyang.

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A five or six grand taxi ride from the station will take you to the Anyang Halla Ice Hockey Arena, where two-time Asia Hockey League Champions Anyang Halla play their home games.

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I made the trek down there with my friend Nick just to do something new--why not? The Halla are the Bears, and here I am doing the ever-popular photo-op with two iterations of the mascot, each more disinterested than the other:

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We figured we'd probably see about twelve ice hockey fans, but the arena was packed to the rafters, about 1,200 people. A consult of Wiki tells me Korea had a professional ice hockey league that folded in 2003, and the team now in Anyang are the only survivors (they were originally in Mok-dong, and were the Mondo Winia); they became a founding member of the Asia Hockey League, now in its ninth year, which consists of two Korean teams, four Japanese teams and the cellar-dwelling Shanghai team, China Dragon. Here's the home team, currently league leaders, taking the ice:

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The opening face-off, followed by a couple of action shots. Halla beat the visitors, the Oji Eagles, in this first game of a three-game series by a score of 4 - 1, though two of their goals came in the last six or seven minutes to an open net.

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Neither Nick nor I is what you might call a hockey afficionado, but the game was fast-moving, had plenty of action including one and a half fights, and took place about six rows away from us. The enjoyment was perhaps enhanced by the three large bottles of home-brew Nick brought along, one of which was kind of blah and bland, two of which were rather tasty, and all of which had over 5% alcohol. I would do this again.

Next post: what to do Anyang after a hockey game.