Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


So . . . echem. Yeah, not much posting going on here.
Here's the thing: Despite my grandiose opening statement made some months ago, this blog was never ever meant to really be anything more than practice. I needed to get in the habit of writing regularly so that I would keep up with some other, more important blogging projects. I figured I'd start a personal blog, do a little writing until I got into the swing of things, and see what happened from there. Really, I presumed that I could just slowly write less and less, but now, gosh darn it, I'm getting as many comments here as I do on my main blogging endeavors, so I might as well keep writing. I won't write often (here) and I won't be consistent (HA! as if I ever could be) but what the heck.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Yes, I did pass this on to Roboseyo. Sometimes our evil plans to get a song stuck in our arch-nemesis' brains backfire . . . hmm, on to plan B for the destruction of Roboseyo. Anybody know where I can get a set of rubber pants and lessons in Yiddish?

On a related note, I am disconsolate that Skunk Hell is closed. Whatever will I do now?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Actually, Roboseyo, This is More Me

I don't know what gives me more pleasure: picturing your mug on the dad, the monster, or the little girl.


Ok, a dumb thing to crow about, but I just replaced the seat of the toilet in my god-awful bathroom. I did this sans instruction manual, sans help, and sans sighing in despair and calling somebody to help. A small victory, but deeply symbolic.

Or Maybe This Is More Your Style?

Yeah, seems like it fits you, RoboseyWHAAAAT!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hey Roboseyo - I Got Yer Walrus Right Here!


Seriously,this is the stuff of social scientists' dreams!
55-Year Diary Shows Life, History
This guy kept a diary for 55 years? Heck my only attempts to keep a diary lasted . . . well, two consecutive days. But this diary has such a wealth of information, I think it's going to go down as one of the more significant items in the museum's collection. A 55 year diary complete with related miscellanea like cashbooks and medical prescriptions? Holy record keeping, Batman!
In graduate school I worked at the Oral History Institute for a while, and did a bit with the collections and researchers there. The records generated by oral history are invaluable, yet by and large recorded well after important events happen - they're direct and intimate and valuable, but this . . . recollection of events as they happen, along with corroborating records? Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

change in tactics

To those it may concern: I've switched so that anonymous users can't leave comments. It's no biggie, but I've recently gotten a few comments left by people who weren't trolls or anything really nasty, but were a bit belligerent in tone. I'll actually put 'em up, if anon will do it under some kind of name. I'm happy to respond also via this blog or by email, but as it now stands they kind of gripe me. I don't feel like I can "converse" with somebody leaving posts anonymously, so I've decided the anonymous comments are out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rigor Mortis

Ok, so hospitals don't bring out warm fuzzy feelings in most people - but yesterday's experience really, really got my blood boiling. Not that it needed it - I was already feverish . . .
I've caught a particularly nasty cold that started as a mild sniffle one night but by the wee hours of the next morning had turned into some kind of mutant virus that was attempting to destroy me from within. It was bad, it was ugly, it was not fun. Normally I'm healthy as a horse, and on the rare occasions I am sick I tend to go about my daily life as much as possible. That once backfired and my school actually took me out of class and "kidnapped" me to go to the hospital, and it turned out my "mild cold" that I insisted would go away just fine was actually bronchitis. Oops. My family has always belonged to the "if you're not dying, unconscious, or waving a severed limb then you are GOING TO SCHOOL, YOUNG LADY" train of thought, and I've never gotten used to the idea that anything short of consumption should bring you to the doctor. Experience, as shown above, has softened my views somewhat, and this time I was feeling bad enough to merit a visit to those nice men in their clean white coats.
I retract the nice bit. Since it's on my way to work, I decided to go to the university hospital instead of hunting out a clinic, which would have been less expensive. Besides, they already had a patient history on me from last year, when I was enrolled as a student. The nurse at the info desk has always been especially nice to me, partially, I think, because even though she's technically their designated English-speaker I usually speak to her in Korean. She's patient, nice, and makes sure I muddle through all the necessary paperwork each time. The problem is when she hands me off to the tender mercies of whichever specialty I'm supposed to be seeing.
For the record, those of us used to the American medical divisions of labor will be surprised at how the Korean medical system is divided. For example, if you're having a problem with your foot, there are no podiatrists - you can choose between an orthopedic surgeon, who will assume all your problems are bone problems, or you can chose a dermatologist, who will assume that everything is a skin problem. That's great, unless your problem isn't related to either of those, in which case you will spend the rest of your life on crutches and in medical limbo. The doctor who I saw last year for a muscular problem was virtually no help - other than ordering a bunch of expensive x-rays that told him nothing because my problem wasn't a bone problem . . .in the end I had to tell him what I had, and then he sort-of, kind-of remembered possible treatments.
Near as I can tell, surgeons of various stripes are vastly over-represented. It's almost certainly where the big bucks and prestige are, and few doctors want to bother with the unsexy jobs that don't involve slicing and dicing and their attendant big paychecks. Anyway, I digress.
I spent about thirty minutes waiting (not bad, considering I was a walk-in) to see the doctor for . . .less than a minute. No, I'm not kidding. I came in, sat in the exam chair, and he asked me what my symptoms were. I was just starting to explain when I was interrupted by him jamming a very cold instrument up my nose, then a brusque command to say "ah!" so he could look at my throat . . .for about half a second. He was still circling things on his chart while I was being hustled out of the room. I went up to ask the desk staff a few questions, and the resident behind the desk would not say a word to me. He just gestured rudely that I should slip a piece of my paperwork into a particular box. That was a little less than helpful.
Mind you, I'm doing all the asking and everything in Korean. The staff was answering other people's questions . . . but the mental arithmetic for many Koreans goes something like this:
foreigner = English = difficulty x potential embarrassment = AVOID AT ALL COSTS
So I was ignored. Again.
Did I mention I was also prescribed what is almost certainly too much medication? And some of it clearly unnecessary . . .I told the doctor when I came in that I had been taking tylenol for some of my symptoms, yet lo and behold if he didn't PRESCRIBE IT FOR ME?!? Just more proof that he wasn't listening. I would have gone back and complained if I thought for a second it was worth my time to do so.
Yeah, I know that hospitals are busy places and doctors are overworked. But its things like this that lead to all kinds of dangerous situations. I'm sure if there actually had been a problem, it would have been blamed on me and my lack of communication skills (because obviously, as a foreigner, I couldn't have expressed myself in Korean). I don't expect somebody holding my hand and walking me through the entire process and listening to my every woe and worry. But I do expect a medical professional to act . . .well, professional.
And just to add insult to injury, this morning my cab driver pulled essentially the same stunt. Usually I walk, but sometimes I'm tired or sick or late and the only other alternative is a complex set of bus transfers. My research institute is the very last building bar one, and virtually nobody knows where it is and how to get there. It also doesn't show on any of those GPS Nav units that are steadily ruining the average cabbie's ability to remember how to get places (geez, talk about a technological crutch . . . this is practically its own rant), so I usually have to explain how to get there. That's not a big deal, but every once in a while I get a driver who sees a foreigner get in the cab and just plain stops listening. I'll tell them "head to hospital x, but after the turn go straight and keep on the road for the funeral hall. Keep going on this road until you pass the stadium and see building z on the left." Some taxi drivers, including the one today, stop listening as soon as I say "hospital x" and try to go directly to the hospital instead of taking the road I need and it gripes me to no end. I know this can happen to Korean people, too, but Korea Beat just had an article translated today on cabbies and foreigners.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thank God for Small Favors

It seems there is one advantage to having the completely useless foreigner registration number: Google hasn't released it and nobody could use it for anything useful even if somebody got a hold of it.

Google Exposes Thousands of Korean ID Numbers

There's a lot of google-hating going on here in Korea, much of it completely undeserved. The Korean internet is a ghetto where non-Korean search engines are systematically excluded in favor of inferior local search engines (a nightmare for researchers - when I look up stuff online through Google, I'm likely to get pretty similar search results to what I get from yahoo, or ask, or dogpile . . .the rankings or organization might be different, but I'm going to find most of the same stuff. On the other hand, if I'm searching for something in Korean, I'll run it through on Google but then I have to search on Naver or Daum and get totally different results, which is pretty darned annoying to have to do.) The place is littered with active x. But perhaps most vexing, the Korean internet requires your citizen registration number to do anything from set up a blog to shop to make train reservations. All foreigners who are here for more than 90 days have to register and get our own alien registration card and number, but they don't work for anything. I can't make a train reservation (another reason for not making the Chuseok trek to Daegu) or buy movie tickets online or do . . .well, just about anything.
The people to blame for this kind of sensitive personal information getting out and online isn't Google - it's the Korean websites requiring too much information with not enough security. Thank God my information is too worthless to be used for anything.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gomushin Girl is Guilty

or, why the boys'll just have to cook their own damn rice.

I done a bad, bad thing!
I skipped Chuseok with the host family. I feel bad about this, but not bad enough, I think. But the fact remains that my reasons for not going were pretty lame - it just wasn't convenient, and I didn't want to spend eight odd hours on a bus, or get up at five am and wait around Seoul St. to see if I could stand on a train for three hours while other people's luggage fall of the racks and onto my head.
I can't even say that I skipped for anything worthwhile. Sure, I had an out of town guest for Friday and Saturday, but there was nothing to stop me from dragging my lazy self off to 큰아버지's 집 on Sunday - except that daunting trip out to 대구. I might have been a little more motivated if we had our holidays in 안동 but 대구 fails to excite me. I'm probably being unfair to the city, but since the only thing I ever do in Daegu is hang out with the host family . . . can I be blamed? All holidays follow a similar pattern:

Go to 안동 to get in a car and drive umpteen hours through crazy traffic to 대구
Arrive in 대구 too tired to muddle through the 사투리
Men, Women, and Children (aka the unmarried) divide: men to the living room to watch TV and goof off, children to the bedroom to watch TV and goof off, women to the kitchen to slave for the next two days
Intermittent force-feeding

Don't get me wrong. I adore my host family beyond all reason or measure. I think it's a testament to that fact that almost five years after I lived with them I still get calls from my host brother to help him out with homework, from my host mom to make sure I have enough banchan in my fridge, and from my host dad to see when I'm coming "home." I try to go back when I can, but I just didn't have it in me this holiday. Normal visits are fine, but the extended relatives and holiday routine are stressful.
Besides, I've never quite lived down that time I told my 큰아버지 in a fit of pique that the menfolk should, "cook their own damn chesa rice!" Thankfully, he has a good sense of humor and took my comment with hilarity rather than offense.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Public Service Announcement from Tom Lehrer

I feel in light of recent comments I made on the Seoul Podcast that I should also say a few words about the importance of, um, safety. Instead, I'm going to let Tom Lehrer do it for me:

Actually, I really just wanted an excuse to slap up some Tom Lehrer. The fact that I listened to his songs as a child probably goes a long way towards explaining what kind of person I grew up to be . . .

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mea Culpa!

You should always pay attention:
Putting up that last post, I realized that my number 6 pick for things to do is listed as Bomunsa. I'm too afraid of the sound of my own voice to listen, but I suspect I owe listeners a major mea culpa: I meant to talk about Bongamsa instead!

Bongamsa is in Mungyeong, and is only open to the public once a year, on Buddha's Birthday. The rest of the time the monks there engage in hard-core study and meditation, and don't want the likes of us coming around and disturbing their practice (note: you can also get in if you're invited for a specific purpose by one of the monks.) When I went on Buddha's Birthday this past year, the monks there seemed to come in two varieties: Those who were annoyed that the place was crawling with hundreds of tourists, and those who seemed to be pleased beyond belief to see and talk with somebody new for a change. One monk would barely answer my questions about the name of a building. I turned around and was accosted by another monk whose fondest wish in life was to show my friend and I every single detail of everything entire temple.
In any case, Bongamsa is absolutely beautiful, and well worth the wait and effort to see it. While you're there, you can check out gads of geeky fun:
  • Stupa of High Priest Jijeung-Daesa (Treasure No. 137),
  • Stele to the Stupa of High Priest Jijeung-Daesa (Treasure No. 138),
  • Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Bongamsa Temple (Treasure No. 169),
  • Stupa to High Priest Jeongjin-Daesa (Treasure No. 171),
  • Stele for the Stupa of High Priest Jeongjin-Daesa (Treasure No. 172),
  • Relief of Seated Buddha (Provincial Tangible Cultural Property No. 121),
  • Bell-Shaped Stone Stupa (Local Tangible Cutural Property No. 135
But why did I mess up and call it Bomunsa? And what about the real Bomunsa?
Well, the slip twixt tounge and lip is probably because I live near and frequently visit Bomun Temple (English link) in Seoul - another temple well worth mentioning because it's not only seperate from the dominant Chogye order, but is the head temple of the only Buddhist order of female monks(Korean link.) The temple itself is on the site of another historic temple, but the current buildings and everything else are all modern construction. Probably the most interesting thing about the temple is their reconstruction of Seokgulam grotto, and a very large 고려 style 답, along with a few significant paintings. They also do temple stays and run some education programs, so go check 'em out.
But when I checked Zen's links, turns out it's not even that Bomunsa! The best known Bomun Temple is on Gangwha-do. I've never been, but here's a photo essay from the English Chosun Ilbo.

Top 10 Lists - from the Seoul Podcast

So, as announced before, a rash of poisonings and death threats kept the normal, important bloggers from joining Joe on the Seoul Podcast, so I ended up as their guest last week. As part of the venture, we all made a top ten list of things to do and of things to see while in Korea, which I'll repost below. Ten was a difficult number to stick to, and some of my ten are so unbelievably facetious I ought to be horsewhipped. I also can't claim to have actually done all of them. I might have been a tad more serious, or a tad more thorough, but this all came at the end of may well go down as one of the most ridiculous days of my life, and my brain was not operating at full capacity. I know I missed being eloquent or enlightening, so let's hope I at least managed to be amusing:

Ten Things to Do in Korea


10. Convince an old man to give you a ride on his motorbike
9. Korean booking club *
8. Innertube down Cheonggyecheon River
7. Ruefully mock a Korean child by refusing to speak in English
6. Ride a yellow bus around Namsan Mountain
5. Eat a live octopus
4. Jjimjilbang (Sauna) and get an exfoliating skin scrub *
3. Check out or
2. Sleep in a nasty yeogwan
1. A Korean


10. Rooms (Jjimjilbang, Noraebang, DVD Bang) *
9. Go shopping at Dongdaemun Market
8. Eat all the food samples at the Lotte Department Store in Myeong-dong
7. Get kicked out of Lotte Department Store
6. Go on the psycho Chucky doll ride at Everland
5. Get into a fight with a drunk ajosshi while eating odeng
4. Climb over the tanks and planes at the Korean War Museum
3. Korean booking club
2. Steal a Korean flag from a lamppost on August 15th
1. Go fishing at the Cheonggyecheon River


10. Sunday at the Seoul Racecourse Park
9. Korean nightclub *
8. Taekwondo

How to Participate in the Taekwondo Experiential Program for Foreigners

The Taekwondo experiential program for foreigners is held three times a day (10:30, 13:30, and 15:30, except Mondays) in Gyeonghuigung Palace until December. Each 90-minute session accommodates up to 40 people.
The sessions each offer a different program: the 10:30 session covers basic taekwondo moves; the 13:30 session, self-defense techniques; and the 15:30 session, breaking techniques. Participants can choose one or more sessions or take part in all three. Everyone receives a taekwondo certificate and badge upon completion of the session.

Visitors wishing to participate can visit the website of Kukkiwon ( to reserve online. The price is 15,000 per program. Gyeonghuigung Palace can be reached via Subway Line 5, Gwanghwamun Station, exit 7. It is a 15-minute walk from the subway station.

7. All-nighter in Hongdae
6. Temple stay
Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism
5. Hike a mountain (Seoraksan) *
4. Noraebang *
3. Experience Chuseok
2. Jjimjilbang (especially charcoal sauna) *
1. Go to a country restaurant/see the countryside

Ten Things to See in Korea


10. Watch someone else eat live octopus
9. Watch a pansori
8. Dinosaur footprints in Goseong *
7. Crash a wedding at a wedding hall
6. Bomunsa Temple and Seokguram Grotto on Buddha’s Birthday *
5. Namsan Mountain in Gyeongju
4. Byeongsan Seowon Confucian Academy in Andong
3. All the national museums
2. Anapji Pond at night
1. Watch a shaman ceremony


10. Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress
9. Seoraksan Mountain
8. The Island of Uido
7. Anywhere in Jeollanam-do
6. Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto *
5. The DMZ
4. Seven Luck Casino
3. Dinosaur footprints *
2. Submarines at Seoguipo
1. Woljeongsa Temple


10. Yongsan Electronics Market
9. Myeong-dong on Christmas Eve or Apgujeong’s Rodeo Street
8. The DMZ *
7. Seoul from any high place (Namsan Tower, mountain)
6. Folk Village in Suji
5. Changdeokgung Palace
4. Insa-dong’s hidden alleys
3. Korea National Museum *
2. Cheonggyecheon River at night
1. The city of Gyeongju *

* Some overlap with other lists

I should also say that none of us knew the content of the others' lists until we recorded, and had I known Gyeongju was going to come up so often, I would have given my love elsewhere. S I've traveled pretty extensively around the country, so I'm kind of ashamed for not getting some other sites out there . . . but if you're a tourist coming for just a few weeks, I'd still have to say that your time is probably best served in Seoul and Gyeongju and Andong, simply because they pack the most sites and the most historically significant sites together. But for those of us who are lucky enough to have time to really get out there and explore:

Heinsa (this should have been on my top ten list!), Ulleung-do, Sogwangsa, Gangwha-do, Sogni-san, Gongju, Gimhae, Chuncheon (the best 팥빙수 I've ever had is from a little place outside the front gate of 강원대), Damyang, Namwon . . .

dang, this is starting to get out of hand.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Surving Singly in Seoul II

I am the last person on earth who should be giving this kind of advice but what the heck! It's my blog and I'll advise if I want to^^

Gomushin Girl's Guide to Surviving Singles Seoul

Tip Number 2:
Always carry reading material.

Korean society isn't one that has yet really embraced the idea of doing stuff on your own. You don't go to the movies alone, you don't sit in a cafe alone, and you certainly don't eat alone. But if you're an expat gal, there are times when you don't have the choice but to strike out on your own* and brave the theater or 식당 on your own.
When you do, always have something in your pocket to read.
Seoul cafe's have gotten better at stocking magazines, but you're likely to be left with last months' Luxury magazine or if you're really lucky, a six month old copy of Cici (in cases of foreigner-frequented areas, replace Luxury with last months' Eloquence, and have fun snickering at the bad writing.) But bring your own book along as you ride the subway or wait for the bus, and you've killed two birds with one stone.
First, you have brought your own entertainment.
Second, you have a conversation starter.
I don't know how many times I've been stopped and asked about the books I'm reading by random people. These conversations have been everything from short, pleasant exchanges to long winding conversations that culminate in exchanges of phone numbers and later meetings.
Books give people an opening to talk to you, while also giving you an excuse to bow out of conversations you don't want. Just as it can bring people to you, you can also use it to shut them out and retreat to a private world within a public space without seeming really rude. This is great when you're being pestered by some random 아저씨.
The next question is: what kind of book should I bring?
Korean books are sometimes just the ticket. Besides advertising your language skills and making it easier for non-English speakers to strike up a conversation, they're also a great way to keep those same language skills in peak condition. Practice makes perfect, right? No need to rack your brain too much to find the perfect book - just pick up anything that looks interesting from the bestseller table at Kyobo. One note: this makes it pretty impossible to pretend you don't speak Korean when you're trying to ignore somebody.
But what about non-Korean books? What you read reveals something about you at that moment. Mind you, it might merely reveal that your book club has artsy-fartsy tastes or it might say that you've read everything you brought with you from home and are now chomping through the used book piles at the 아름다운가게 for anything that looks like it won't melt brain cells.**

*what? you like being alone? perish the thought! what's wrong with you? You must be lonely and need a man! ^^V
** there's some mighty fine reading there though . . . where else will you find "99 Steps to Becoming a Ninja"?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Seoul Podcast

I was the guest of (dis)honor this week on the Seoul Podcast. May God preserve us!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Earning my geek credentials

OMG! Dude, there's going to be a showing of the oldest existent (complete) Korean film, Turning Point of Youngsters. And as if that weren't already mind-blowingly wonderful enough, it's going to be accompanied by live, not canned music. But what's really going to push this over the edge for me is that they've hired a "film talker" to do the narration! I'm so happy I almost can't stand it! AND IT'S FREE?!?!?! God must love me.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

I want you to want me

An amazing piece of art, information, and sociology . . . wow.

More great infoviz art here at Visual Complexity. Here's an example of the crazy stuff you'll find: a character rabbit mandala . . .

Friday, August 22, 2008


Now THIS is summer weather I can tolerate . . . in the low twenties and raining!
Been very, VERY busy lately with a number of projects, so there will be virtually no posting - I know, all -what, three, four people?- who read my blog will be very disappointed. But I'm writing a lot of other stuff that may, wonder of wonders, be published and so that has to take priority.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More 부대찌개 investigation

Eventually this will all go up as a more comprehensive folklore of 부대찌개 on, but for the time being . . .

I've collected a few more folk and personal histories of 부때찌개 both from informants who I've been able to talk to, and a few more over the internet. I'm still getting a great many versions of what I'm going to call "Variant A" in which Koreans are directly taking meat from scrap heaps, or receiving food like spam as food aid, taking home, and cooking. I'm starting to find more and more accounts of "Variant B" which locate the source of the spam, hot dogs, etc. as the black market (the one I currently believe to be closer to the actual historical origins of the food - which I'm still interested in, but for now I'm going to concentrate on the folklore aspects of it.) I've also gotten a few secondhand accounts of how rare some of the ingredients would have been (if available at all), further dating the origins of the stew as we now know it firmly outside the immediate postwar period. I'm going to look for a few people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's (and older) who can give accounts both of what kinds of food were readily available, and their first experiences of 부대찌개. The earliest recollection anyone has of eating it in a restaurant was in the 80's, and they further speculated that it probably really came onto the culinary scene in the 70's as the economy started to take off.
I've been further thinking about the significance of the name, too, and the 부대 part seems to me a bit strange for something that should have had stronger "American" ties. Just a hunch, but it does push me towards thinking that maybe this was something that started with American rations being shared with Korean soldiers, who initially combined ingredients to make the stew, and continued to make it using black market ingredients after their discharge . . .? Maybe? Anyway, for now, I think I'm going to focus on collecting personal recollections of the dish from older informants than I've been using (mostly out of laziness - things have been busy at work and I've been neglecting personal research. We've had more conferences and workshops in the past month than in the previous six altogether! And I opened my big fat mouth and volunteered to organize two more over the next two terms . . . oy vey!) At any rate, the one thing I really have found is almost a total lack of the name "Johnson탕" as common usage. Not a single one of my informants so far has used it, and most of them had never even heard it before - I'm now 99.9% sure that all the Johnson탕 stories are apocryphal.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Today I did a favor for one of the research prof's in one of the other offices at our 연구소, and in return she brought me a copy of her book, The Rhetoric of Korean Films 서사의 숲에서 한국영화를 바라보다 so now I have some lovely but difficult new reading material. I've always had a hard time making my way through books and novels in Korean, for which I routinely chastise myself. I just can't read quickly or easily enough yet in Korean to make reading longer books and novels fun, so I usually practice on news articles or 만화잭. Even then, I have a bad habit of sticking with translations of Japanese manga - partially because I enjoy historical fiction (there's far more choice from Japanese books than Korean) and partially because they're more familiar. Since I already know the storyline of Fushigi Yuugi I'm more willing to drop the cash on that, instead of taking a chance on 궁 or something else I might not enjoy.*
Right now I'm having great fun with the shoujo take on the bakumatsu-era: Kaze Hikaru (바람의 빛) by Watanabe Taeko. Rurouni Kenshin (바람의 검) was a big hit among anime-lovers when I was in college (back in the day when it was not yet quite cool, and everyone watched their favorite series on second-hand bootleg fansubbed tapes, which of course made us way cooler than this day and age's cartoon network babies, HA!) and this has something of a similar feel, but girlish. At the same time, the author has turned into a real history freak, and spends really extraordinary amounts of time and effort researching the period in which the book is set. She also spend a lot of thought on the gender issues raised by her story - a teenage girl decides to join the Shinsengumi to avenge the death of her father and older brother at the hands of Chushu agents. Although cross-dressing and gender-bending are pretty common in manga, Watanabe works hard to maintain some realism and keep it dramatically relevant. It's the only one I know where a truly disguised character regularly has her sexuality questioned and probed while realistically maintaining the fictional gender . . . at any rate, I like the art, I like the story, and I love that at the end of each book the author shares the results of some of her research and admits mistakes. One volume was a lengthy mea culpa for having Edo-style roofs on Kyoto houses in the first few volumes. Another went into explaining the details of Edo-era toilet habits for women, including how to make a rudimentary tampon. How cool is that?!?
The problem is that a) it's not culturally based in Korean, so I'm losing a chance to pick up useful information b) names and whatnot are a complete bitch - titles and groups and just about everything except personal names are given Korean 한자 readings, so it took me forever to figure out that the 신선조 and the Shinsengumi were the same. I'd read earlier volumes in Japanese** and English (in which they simply romanize a lot of the stuff instead of translate because, let's face it "New Politics Group" doesn't sound that cool) so I spent a lot of time wondering who the heck this 귀신부장 was . . .
But I digress.
Back on point: Kids books in Korean bore me. It's not that they're too easy, but they're kids books in the end and the story lines aren't meant for adults. On the other hand, adult novels are generally pretty hard for me to slog through. I had great fun working my way through 조선을 뒤흔든 16 살인사건 because although the vocab was pretty challenging, the grammar by and large wasn't too hard and the chapters themselves are short. It's basically a simple "history with conversation" style book, and not a bad read if you're into history and violence (and who isn't?^^) I was also able to use it as research material for my graduation 발표 at my 어학당 - many thanks to the teachers who finally gave up and let my group talk about 살인사건^^
And that's the problem with reading in another language. It's a delicate balance between something appropriate for your level and something that's actually interesting. I've always found that I'm far more willing to stretch myself and do the work if the subject is one I care about. That's why back in grad school I spent hours translating the "X-File" gossip about celebrities instead of doing my classwork. All the stuff I used to get in class was always so boring:
Korean holidays
Korean food
Historical sites of 경주
and I swear to God, if I ever have to read another thing about 세종대왕 and the invention of 하글 again, there will be blood!
But a bit of celebrity gossip or murder mysteries or a history of plumbing? Now that's fun! And the point is that in order to stick with something, it has to be fun. And, since I'm interested in Korean film, this book looks to be worth the effort of reading through academic Korean. Plus, I can always ask the author to explain bits I don't get^^ She's also invited me to come to some of her weekly film showings for people in our 연구소 AND loan me dvd's of any film she has on hand (AT LAST! All those films from the 60's, 70's, 80's . . . I've been longing to see so many of them, and at last they're within reach!) AND take me with her if she's ever invited to a premier where my beloved 신하균 will appear! She's like the bestest friend ever!

*ok, yes, there are bazillions of 만화방 all over the place, but even comics take me a bit of time to slog through and I shudder at the late fees. I might as well buy the darned thing. Then I can mark in it or draw devil horns and mustaches on the characters if I want.

**well, sort of . . . more like I painstakingly translated kanji until I couldn't take it anymore, and begged my Japanese friends to read it to me and explain it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cinema Craptastica: Mummy 3

Way back when, for my friends' entertainment I used to intentionally seek out the world's worst movies and review them. Welcome, friends, to CINEMA CRAPTASTICA!
I must confess to having an inordinate amount of affection for the Mummy series. Back when I was teaching, the only thing that saved me from mutiny in my ill-fated "American Cinema Appreciation" class was showing the "Scorpion King" (oh, and Janet Leigh in her underwear at the beginning of Psycho - for some reason the class captain was captivated by that 50's brassier.)
Let's get the plot, such as it is, out of the way . . . umm . . . .hmm. There was something about Rick and Evelyn O'Connell having a son who magically sprang straight from the birth canal into adulthood to uncover Jet Li and his play-doh army, which is being guarded by Michele Yeoh's immortal love child. No, really. There are repeated chases for mystical objects that will prevent or promote Li's mummified conquest of China and the rest of the world.. At least, I think that's what it's about.
But let's face it, if you are in the theater viewing Mummy 3, you are not looking for a plot. If you are looking for a plot, please direct yourself to the next theater over. If he was smart, the director would have just asked Noland if he could borrow a few plot twists from Dark Knight - it would have made both movies better. But if you are there to see lots of things explode and watch mummies run amok, well, you're in for a treat. That's basically all that happens. There's some yeti that show up and wreck havoc, a chariot chase through the streets of old Shanghai, and a big dustup at the great wall. It is a big, glorious mash up of second-rate special effects and bad acting on sets leftover from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
If I have to admit to any problem with the film, it is the dork they have playing Frasier's kid. I mean, they even got away with switching the actresses who played his wife, but this was too much. I do not watch the mummy movies for fresh-faced "talent" or to see young men dash about trying to look dashing. I watch to see Brendan Frasier fight mummies. If I can't have Brendan Frasier looking dorky, I want to see the Rock looking bronzed and buff. Don't bore me with anybody else.

Random thoughts:
Does Michele Yeoh age? I'm beginning to think that the whole "shangri la" stuff they had going on in this film might well be true, and Yeoh really IS the guardian.
I can't even start talking about Jet Li. I'll hyperventilate. He's also responsible for one of the least believeable parts of the movie. Not to ruin it with spoilers or anything, but does anybody really believe Brendan Frasier could kick Lee's ass? I didn't believe it of Mel Gibson, and I certainly don't believe it about George of the Jungle.
Brendan Frasier . . . I'm so confused! You're such a big dorky lug of an actor. Here you're doing exactly what you always do, and God bless you for it. I'm still trying to figure out how you managed to be the most compelling figure in that awful dreck that was "The Air I Breathe" (which deserves it's own wholly separate entry into Cinema Craptastica)

In the end, I have only this to say though:
It is a HOOT!
In a way, this film is almost perfect. It delivers EXACTLY what it promises. Jet Li, Michele Yeoh, and Brendan Frasier run around with some other pretty people and fight and blow things up. It doesn't try to bore you with little things like complex interwoven human stories and quiet moments of beauty. It knows its purpose, and brings you souped up mummy fights with cheesy FX. It not only groks itself, it revels and exults itself to ever increasing cheesiness. And after all the ponderous darkness of Dark Knight, it's a grand and marvelous thing to have a film that is pure popcorn.

Friday, August 8, 2008


I'm trying to figure out how to type this review up without unintentionally allowing for some really bad Two-face puns. You see, I'm of two minds about The Dark Knight.
Shall we get the unhappy half out of the way first?
This film has some problems: The plot is way, way too cluttered. There's a lot of elements that show up for only tangential reasons, and do little to actually advance the story. They're really just Nolan and co. showing off how very clever they are. But really, five minutes after you step out of the theater you'll be hard pressed to remember exactly what they were or why they happened or how they were supposedly important to the plot. On the other hand, important bits of information are not only off-screen, but almost totally unexplained. I suppose some of that was to heighten our sense of surprise when the events came to light, but in my mind it really cheapened things - how can I fully admire an evil genius when I don't know how those evil deeds were set up? I like knowing the little details of how things were accomplished, even if it's well after the fact, and this movie cheats. Often. Perhaps they thought that with all the stuff going on on screen that an audience wouldn't have the patience or ability to follow, but really, it is a cheap and lazy way of film making. I think a little more careful editing, or another once-over of the script could have pushed this film into a higher class. I put all the blame for this on Nolan, who can be elegant and complex and masterful, but I don't think has reached the level of control where he can maintain it throughout an entire film. He exercised the most control over Memento (in my mind, still his best film) but has gotten a little slipshod and careless since The Prestige (which I found beautiful, wonderful, and ultimately unsatisfying.) I'd like him to start making his plots a bit more spare, which I think would make him control these elements better. It's not as deep or meaningful as they're pretending, and I wish they'd either rewritten it to make is what it promised to be, or relaxed a little and let it flow a little more . . .It seems like they're still relying on the tricks he used in Memento and The Prestige, but they're not always appropriate or necessary here. Ultimately, all this does is make everything seem less urgent, immediate, and emotionally involving (with a very important caveat.)
Fight scenes are horrible, horrible, horribly - muddy, poorly shot, and muddled. I felt nauseous during a few of them from all the jerky camera movement. I know this sort of footage is very much in vogue, but it is time to cut it out. It had origins in the need to portray how a fight actually feels to the participants (Rocky does an admirable job of doing just this) but since we're not really being asked to identify with our protagonists in this very intimate way, it's just annoying. Even in the still images of the comic book, you're often given some sense of the choreography of the fight. You know who punches and how and in what direction and to what effect. Dark Knight has nothing but jerky camera movement and blur and the faint need to upchuck. Just the other week had a marvelous slide show about just that problem. . .
I hate to say this, but I'm getting more and more disappointed in Bale's Batman. As Bruce Wayne, he's not too shabby - debonair and frightfully handsome. But I don't think the Bruce/Bat balance is quite right. Honestly (looks left, looks right, dodges tomatoes) I really thought that Keaton's performance did a better job in connecting those two personalities while making it believable that other people around him couldn't. I wish they'd left this Batman just a tad more Lamont Cranston-ish in his Bruce, it would fit better with this incarnation of Batman. As for him as Batman . . . well, I find the faux bass growl they use for him distracting and wooden. I'd rather have a mute Batman. Can't they find something less artificial? I snickered every time he said more than two words together. Met has posted a wonderful bit of youtube fun about that here.
Eckhart is a bit weak in his role, but I blame a lot of that on the cluttered script not devoting enough time to his story arch. It should be at the very heart of the film, but it really gets shunted to the side a little too often to really work the way it ought. He really isn't given as much to do with his character and role as he needed. I'm torn here, because the end of his story arch should have much, much more impact than it does. But in all fairness, it's not really his fault . . .
What to say about Gyllanhaal? I adore her, and she's such an amazing step up from that nothing actress Holmes that of course I want to embrace her moxie laden performance that turns Dawes into something more than a doe-eyed do-gooder. But she's so wasted in this role! The actress is worthy, but there's nothing for her to do with all of it. The script for Dawes is just as bland and boring that Holmes actually suited the role better. Gyllanhaal just has too much umph for her. Actually, she's got too much umph for Bruce or Dent in this little triangle,but little chemistry with either. I hardly cared who she chose to be with, she was too good for either.
Oldman is just what he ought be for Gordon, and Caine and Freedman are, as usual, magnificent. Really, I don't need Batman . . . I could just sit around and listen to Alfred and Fox sit around and plot things on Batman's behalf all day long. Even when their dialog is pretentious and over the top you swallow every word they say because they are the masters of this kind of thing. I would, without question, believe anything Freedman told me as Lucius Fox, including tri-weave titanium dipped diapers. And if Alfred is warning you about something? That's as close as gospel as you're going to get. They're both such delights!
But what really, really makes this movie?
Good God. Heath Ledger scared me witless. When he's on screen, it's like watching an entirely different movie. He owns this film, and every second he's not on screen is a second wasted. Audiences were justifiably horrified by his Joker. And not once during the movie will you think the least bit of the divergences from the comic book, nor fleetingly remember Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 film. This Joker appears to emerge whole and entire, a living, breathing thing of such utter evil . . . well, I just don't have the superlatives to describe his work here. He's also wickedly, terrifyingly funny. You'll feel evil laughing along with it, but laugh you will - even at silly, throwaway lines that have nothing funny about them. Ledger gets a big laugh out of just saying, "yeah" at one point. But as soon as the Joker exits the film, so does audience interest. Dent, Gordon, Batman . . . they're all so frightfully dull compared to the Joker! Without this manic, incredible villain, the film just goes slack. I know I'm not saying anything here that anybody else hasn't said, but it's a big revelation. After years of seeing tepid, boring, pretty boy stuff from Ledger, I'd thought that his performance in Brokeback Mountain was a fluke. It wasn't. This man had some serious craft.
So go see Dark Knight. Spend the 10,000원 to see it in IMAX (the action scenes filmed in this format, unlike the fight scenes, are marvelous - some as crisp and clean as the film format itself) and try not to close your eyes too much while Ledger is on screen.

In a somewhat related side story . . . it's so embarrassing to go see American-made films here sometimes. I'm always laughing at jokes that nobody else in the theater seems to realize are there. My laugh is loud enough to attract attention, and distinctive enough for people who know me to figure out where I am. Once I was sent into hysterics by a line in Ratatouille ("We hate to be rude, but after all, we are French!") only to find that I was the only person in the theater laughing at all. This time it was even more embarrassing, because not only was I the only person laughing, the things I laughed at were the same things that at first sight are pretty damn horrifying. The "disappearing pencil trick" is monstrous the first time, but funny the second. Well, my second viewing was most people's first, so I looked like a homicidal maniac.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Holy Legislation, Batman!

Old news, but amusing: Senator Leahy was the old coot who is threatened with a Glasgow Smile by the Joker in the new Batman movie. Funny, I don't know why, but I would have pegged the democrats more as Marvel Comics types . . .

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kisses Sweeter than Whine?

"I can't complain, but sometimes I still do." ~ Joe Walsh

Roboseyo and Ask a Korean have set the expat blogsphere into a tizzy over their take on if/why foreigners in Korean complain so much, and if/why Koreans seem to take it so badly. People are falling all over themselves as they deeply explore why the hell they bitch so much. Or if they do. Or if they think they don't but everybody else does.

"When any fit of gloominess, or perversion of mind, lays hold upon you, make it a rule not to publish it by complaints." ~Samuel Johnson

I think the question should rather be: Does being in Korea make expats more prone to complaining than they would be if they were a) in their home country b) in a third country. But the problem with examining b is that the answer is different for each person and each country which they could be randomly placed in. If Jae-in Do were to magically be transported to Goa she might find it heaven on earth and have fewer complaints than while living at home. But if magically she were scooped up from Goa and planted in Düsseldorf, then she may well find herself miserable. Or she could be moderately happy in either. Or miserable in both. Maybe she was miserable in her home country, too.

"The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks." ~Randall Jarrell

It would be an interesting experiment to try to measure this. I would start by doing a small scale collection of case-studies by finding individuals from America (my motherland, but feel free to substitute the motherland of your choice) who intend to travel to East Asia (possibly just restricting to Japan and Korea? yes, let's do that!) Do some initial interviews, surveys, and observations to get a sense of how prone to complain someone is. Billy Aiken may bitch about everything while Viola Fussing thinks all is fabulous. Then, repeat the interviews, surveys, and observations every three months over the course of a year. Taking into account the baselines established back in the states, try to see if individual informants started to complain more. Did individuals in Japan tend to increase their level of complaints compared to those in Korea? Other way around? Did people become happier and find less to moan about? If that sort of information gathering works, expand it, have colleagues in other countries begin similar experiments, and see if people just like to complain more away from home!
If you'd like to fund my idea, please feel free ^^

"The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects." ~Lord Jeffrey

Even without data or research in front of me, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that yes, people probably complain more while living overseas because people are naturally more stressed outside their home environment. Now, do I believe expats in Korea complain more than expats other places? Eh, I'm not convinced, but I'll go ahead and say "maybe" for at least North Americans, because by and large people who come here are less prepared for the lifestyle changes they'll encounter than if they'd gone to, say, Japan. Why? Information and images of China and Japan and England and France and lots of nations are much more familiar to most Americans, and that makes for more mental preparation beforehand. This doesn't mean that they don't experience culture shock or mismatches between perceptions and the reality of their lives in their new homes, but they still have more of a background to work from. Going to South America ? Same thing - there have been movies, books, tv shows and lots of media that incorporate images and information about those places, even when it's inaccurate. Somebody going to Korea for the first time is going to be starting with far fewer building blocks of information. But I don't think it likely that first time expats in Korea complain so much more than somebody who went to, say, the Turkic regions of China (no knocks on Xinjiang! I'm just saying that it's less familiar to many Americans than Brasilia or Beijing or Tokyo or London or Paris.)

"The world is so dreadfully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain." ~Ronald Firbank

Of course, it's harder for me to judge than many of the people who are talking about this issue. I'm the only foreigner in my office (and possibly in my entire institute) and communicate with my bilingual coworkers mostly in Korean. Still, they're all perfectly fluent in English (more so than I am in Korean) so we can switch back and forth as needed. Our Center is primarily to promote and support Korean studies internationally, and my colleagues are necessarily excellent at communicating domestic issues and concerns for a wider, non-Korean audience, as well as used to dealing with people who already have significant knowledge of Korean studies. We're a bunch of academics sitting around talking with other academics in the same general area. In other words, most of the little things that end up driving foreigners batty don't really touch me. I am insulated from the kinds of contract problems, schedule changes, and daily irritations of working at a 학원 or school. And what's more, I pretty much always have been. I first came as an undergraduate exchange student. Then I was on a grant that had me teaching, but under the most protected circumstances imaginable - unlike most English teachers, I had extensive institutional support, a large network of fellow grantees, and a school that had to compete to get me to come and keep me happy to ensure their future eligibility. Part of why I haven't taught English here since is I know I'll never have a position so cushy again in my life. But I've almost always come for some academic purpose, which changes Koreans' reactions to me.*

"Oh, wouldn't the world seem dull and flat with nothing whatever to grumble at?" ~W.S. Gilbert

My position has also put me at a distance with how I see Korean responses. None of my friends or colleagues are automatically defensive about criticism of Korean cultures. I've usually only encountered this from people I don't know well. But those unsatisfying dismissals and explanations that so upset some expats I think are a product of a) language barriers and b) a tension between the need to give personal, reasoned explanations vs. the need to give generalized, representative explanations. When I step back and think about my own representations of, say, American foreign policy to Koreans I too simplify arguments and represent opinions not my own simply because they are the current popular ones in American society. When I have time and ability and inclination, I go into details and personal opinions. But if I have a five minute taxi ride? C'mon. I have had deeply satisfying debates and discussions with Korean people about contemporary and historical issues. There's an astonishing range of opinion, and a great deal of deep thinking going on and when circumstances are right we can participate. When Koreans are dismissive or overly simplifying things or getting mad it is usually because they are trying to shut down the debate, not open it. Yeah, this sucks, but it happens to everyone everywhere sometime or other, and it's happened to me in America as often as here. But when I start things off by speaking Korean and mentioning I have a degree in Korean studies, the debate starts off at a very different place than if I speak English and don't mention my background. Likewise, I would treat the complaints of criticisms of a random Korean person I met on the bus in Portland a little differently than I would take that of an American studies scholar who'd lived there for years and spoke fluent English.

"Untold suffering seldom is." ~Franklin P. Jones

One thing I like to try myself sometimes, and think everybody should do as an exercise in flexible thinking is to take a common issue that they talk about with their Korean friends and reverse it so that they have to argue the "Korean" line. Amazing how much logic you can find behind things when you have to defend them. . . I'm not saying this makes certain interpretations right, but it does make you think about them from another perspective. It certainly has helped me deepen my own understanding of a lot of issues.

"I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain." ~Jane Wagner

In the end though, I think expats everywhere have complaints, and there's nothing particularly noteworthy about either the whining of the foreigners or the defensiveness of the locals. Some whines are legitimate social criticisms of their host countries. Some are just bitching to fit in with all the other miserable people. Some are whining about things that happen at home and blaming them on the country they're in. Some people have forgotten about the annoying stuff at home because there's new and fascinating annoyances here. Some Koreans are filled with nationalism that no amount of rationality will penetrate. So are some expats. Some Koreans understand that expats are just blowing off steam, and other's get in a huff because it seems like rude behavior for a guest to complain about accommodations (and both parties should take into account whether the guest is being put up in the Hilton, Comfort Inn, or Bates Motel.)

"Sweat silently. Let's have no squawking about a little expenditure of energy" ~Martin H. Fischer

*It's not fair, but English teachers who "don't get no respect" can take solace in knowing that I earn far, far, far less money. Respect and pay are not commiserate.

Bejezus! All that and I still don't think I've gotten very far in looking the myriad interactions I suspect play into this. I simply don't have the patience or intellectual gumption of the Met or Grand Narrative or Popular Gusts. Lazy, lazy, lazy!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Let's Make Fun of Olympic Mascots!

All mascots are created equal, but some are more equal than others!
While surf- er, researching today, I found the official Olympic listing of all former mascots, via this pro-Fuwa article. Let me tell you, some countries are much better at this mascot thing than others. Witness this monstrosity:

Seriously, would you want your kids playing with Vuchko, the wolf from Sarajevo? He's not even cute - these real wolves look cuter! Instead, he looks more like one of those harassed canines in the zoo who put up with annoying kids yelling and throwing stuff at the cage and all the while they long desperately to tear their tender little heads off and consume them in a bloody, vicious massacre. Sadly, he knows he can't and this has made him grumpy and crotchety. Poor Vuchko, I'm not going to play with you.

The Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992 proved to us exactly why human shaped mascots are wrong, wrong, wrong. This is supposed to be a star-shaped person, and it is. But it doesn't evoketwinkling stars or any person I want to know. It looks fat and squishy and not like anything I'd think of when I think of the Olympics. This star dude is no athlete. Look, it's even wearing a dunce cap, and that can't be a good sign.

Cobi, the Barcelona Summer Olympic mascot is pretty awful also. He's a dog - can you tell? I couldn't. He looks like a businessman with a large wen on the side of his face to me.* I thought,that I would learn to find it cute since it has a vague Wallace and Grommit-esque vibe to it but I've never gotten over the fact that this looks like something an artsy-fartsy witty person trying to be cute would draw. No kid is begging to have this. It's not as overtly frightening as poor Vuchko, but he's disturbing in a move vague, unformed way. Supposedly his creator was stoned at the time of his conception. That explains a lot.

Hodori isn't half bad as far as Olympic mascots go. On the plus side his species something about the location where the games were held, and most importantly does not creep me out. There's nothing sinister or weird about him. I don't have nightmares about Hodori coming to life and chasing me through my apartment with a stiletto. My only complaints are that it's a little too busy with the hat and the medals, and more importantly that while the tiger itself represents Korea, the design doesn't. It's a pretty generic cartoon tiger that could have come from anywhere. On the other hand, while I know lots of people hate it, check out how distinctively Korean the new Seoul thingamabob looks.

On the other hand, my love for Waldi is complete and total. The Munich native I think hits exactly the right note: colorful and charming and simple. Oh, and immediately identifiable. No one needs to ask what kind of animal Waldi is, or even what breed. That there be a dachshund! It's cute without being cutesy, so adults won't feel ridiculous toting this thing around with them. He's kind of like an Ikea product in the good sense that he's clean, simple, and adorable (but needs no assembly, praise God!) I really, really, really want to have this plush doll. Plus, it reminds me of Balla's "Dynamism on a Dog Leash" which is a pretty cool thing to visually reference.

No talk of Olympic mascots could be complete without mentioning the very worst mascot of all: Izzy. The first computer-designed mascot, he's supposed to be an "amorphous abstract fantasy figure" and hence the name, derived from "What is it?" I think he's the graphic representation of pure evil. This is the end result of American ingenuity? A blue sperm-like figure wearing sneakers? I say we blame him for everything that went wrong in that particular Olympics.

Of course, I'm skipping many a mascot: The graphically pleasing but unidentifiable Algonquin beaver Amik from Montreal, the so-American-it-hurts "Sam the Eagle" (the real Sam should sue for defamation, but I guess he's too busy as the mascot for the American Mens' Soccer Team), the Gibli-esque cutesy-creepy Nagano snowlets, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's bastard child from Innsbruck . . . you can find them all at the official Olympic site (where I stole all these wonderful pictures.)

And this year's mascots, the Fuwa? I love them! First, they're very well designed - bright and graphic and easily recognizable. They're also pretty damn Chinese looking. They're cute, but not so much I want to gag (I'm looking at you, Calgary!) and with five, kids have more chances to fight over who gets the red one and who gets stuck with the fish. Also, there's something extra fun about cursed mascots, don't you think? Not to diminish the tragedies in China this year, but hey! at least they have something cute and fuzzy to take the blame! People outside of China though have really taken to them, and started using them in new and hilarious ways. These are the ultimate mascots! I am waiting with baited breath for them to become more and more subversive, too - I hope the Tibetan independence movement steals Yingying for their own, and has him use his horns to gorge and slash his way to freedom.

And for the complete geeks among us, I strongly recommend taking a look at the Olympic pictograms. It's an absolutely fascinating collection.

*when I was in elementary school I read a folktale in which a Japanese woodcutter with a huge wen dances with a bunch of demons who like his dancing so much they decide keep his wen as collateral so he'll come back and do it again the next night. He tricked his evil neighbor into going in his stead, who got stuck with the wen. Query: Why are there so many woodcutters running around in folktales? Query: Why isn't the considered the evil one for tricking his neighbor? I think the story said that the neighbor was greedy or some such, but really, is that any excuse for sending a fellow village person to get danced around by demons and then given a facial deformity?

Surviving Seoul Singly

I am the last person on earth who should be giving this kind of advice (after all, I am the girl who just the other day nearly reduced a taxi driver to tears over a . . . well, that's another post) but what the heck! It's my blog and I'll advise if I want to^^

Gomushin Girl's Guide to Surviving Singles Seoul

Tip Number 1: Learn Korean. Other than the obvious fact that this will help you by making your life easier in just about every way . . . now you will be able to communicate with those hot boys on the street.
In learning any language, there's always that awkward stage where you know just enough to start speaking, but not enough to be practically perfect at it in every particular. Your grammar is iffy, your pronunciation off, and you often forget or confuse words. Congratulations! This is the point in your language learning where you will be most attractive to the natives - you have entered the stage where your Korean will be considered "cute" and men (and women, and just about everyone except small children, who will just be confused or skeptical) will coo over your adorable little mistakes. Please note that in Korea the bar for this stage is set extremely low, and the ability to say "thanks" will be enough sometimes.
Now, you may reach a point when either your Korean is too good to be properly precocious (or that people have simply known you long enough for the charm to wear off.) That's alright, because now you can play new tricks with your language skills. Try this one: meet somebody who obviously wants to show off their English. Agree to coffee or dinner or cow tipping and let them do most of the talking. Then, when the waiter or friends or cowherd shows up, let the Korean rip! The shock of hearing you suddenly burst into decent Korean will either impress the pants off your date, or send him into cardiac arrest (and isn't that almost as much fun?)
Really, in all seriousness, learn Korean. It will make your life here so much more enjoyable, and open up new friendships and avenues to you that are simply not there if you can't speak the language. Living your life here in English-only filters out opportunities like smog filters sunlight.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I have a new toy!

Nikon D60 with 55-200mm Nikkor lens, Sigma 10-20mm lens, flash . . .now you know what to steal if you break into my apartment.
Just remember, it's guarded by fey folk.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

부대찌개 BS

One of my current research interests (don't laugh) is a cultural history of 부대찌개. Why? Well, I think that the current folklore about the origins of it are interesting, but I don't for a minute believe that it's true.
The usual narrative about 부대찌개 is that it developed in the postwar period among the poor, who scavenged spam, sausage, and other leftovers from the trash heaps outside US military bases, which is what earned it the name "army stew" or "Johnson soup" (존손탕 after Lydon Johnson.) Uijeongbu, with its strong association with the US military, is the most famous location for the stew. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable story. Certainly in the postwar period lots of people were very poor, and the soup is made from ingredients that are definitely not appearing in the latest issues of Gourmet Magazine. (ZenKimchi's food journal includes an alternate tale - link may no longer be working- in which the dish was created off-base to appeal to American soldiers by incorporating tastes of home. This story is cute, but I am 100% certain apocryphal. Do we seriously believe that any Korean would think a stew with kimchi and hot peppers and tofu would appeal to homesick soldiers? Korean skepticism for the ability of the American palate to handle spicy food is strong.)
The ingredients used vary slightly from place to place, restaurant to restaurant, but there's still a pretty uniform set of ingredients:
spam or processed ham, hot dogs or sausage, canned beans (in tomato sauce), "american" (processed) cheese, ground beef or pork, 파 (green or spring onion), 미나리 (dropwart), 김치(kimchi), 고추장 (red pepper paste or 고추가루 (red pepper powder) or both, 마늘 (garlic), 두부 (tofu), 양파 (onion), instant ramen noodles (or sometimes now 쫄면 or other kinds of noodles), 호박 (zucchini), 떡(rice cakes) . . .really, lots of common ingredients in the Korean kitchen, mixed in with some surplus "American" foods. Seems feasible so far, but . . .
The first problem I have is with the timing for the introduction of some of the ingredients. Instant ramen noodles are one of the big constants, no matter which restaurant you go to. I've never, ever seen a place that didn't either include them automatically, or have them as the most prominent "add in". But instant noodles weren't even invented until 1958, and while they were certainly available and popularized in the 60's and 70's that's a little late to the party. It's possible of course that instant noodles were a later adaptation, and regular 국수 or other noodles were used, or it started without noodles. Certainly there was a big push to use foods made from wheat flour in the postwar period because of the forms of US food aid, but it's still a little suspicious. I'm looking for more information on exactly when instant noodles a) entered and became popular in Korea b) their relative costliness c) when they became an intrinsic part of the soup.
떡 is another odd ingredient to show up . . . from interviews and discussions I've done before, 떡 seems to have been a special treat before the economy really took off in the late 70's. My host mother can recall specific days and events where she was able to eat 떡, so for the generation that supposedly grew up with 부대찌개 it sure is strange to be using a special ingredient like that. Once again, that doesn't mean it was always part of the stew (even now, I know lots of places that don't include it. At least, not for free as a standard item) but it does make me wonder.
Another thing that should be making everyone wonder is the appearance of American packaged foods. This is the bit that lends a special poignancy to the food, after all - eating leftovers thrown out by the US army. Except that it's seeming less and less likely that these items were being discarded. I haven't been able to interview anyone with firsthand knowledge, but conversations I've had with Americans with US military experience (including my odd extended "family" of other military brats) seem to indicate that those foods wouldn't have been thrown away. First of all, the point of spam at least is that it has a shelf life of just about forever. There wouldn't be a need to throw away some of it. Second, how accessible were those trash piles to Koreans anyway? The people going through the trash for discarded foodstuffs would probably have been Koreans employed on base, in which case their income was probably enough that scrounging like that wouldn't have been necessary or attractive - except for resale on the black market. This is where things start to get much more interesting. If these foods were showing up in the Korean food system anywhere, it seems most likely that they were being exchanged on the black market, sold by Koreans working on base, or by American GI's. Korea still has a thriving underground trade in items off the bases, but if current control methods are anything to go by, the US military's upper echelons are doing their darnedest to stop it. Back then this probably would have meant keeping control over refuse as well as commissary access, once again making those supposed piles of American throwaways unlikely. It seems much more likely that GI's and Koreans with base access were selling off unwanted rations to the local black markets. After all, why would soldiers and workers be throwing away something that offered income? The black market was even larger and more important then, and so there would have been even more opportunity and motivation to take that can of spam out and trade it for currency, services, or goods. Secondhand accounts strongly support this. Those foods were black market goods, not trash.
The plans now are to a) locate veterans or other military personnel who would have been in Korea in the immediate postwar period, stretching into the 60's and 70's and ask them about their eating habits at the time, perceived Korean eating habits, and the black market b) interviews with older Koreans about their first experiences with 부대찌개 to pinpoint when it was really popularized and what was in it c) research some of the major chains like 놀부 as well as check out smaller local restaurants and the "original" ones in Uijeongbu d)get to know both the black market and overall economy of Korea in the postwar period, especially pertaining to food costs and availability.
If I had to take a guess now, I'd say that 부대찌개 in some form emerged in the 60's, became more elaborate over the 70's and 80's (the only 부대찌개 place whose opening date I know for sure was in the early 80's) and then I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the dish probably became REALLY popular in the during the IMF crisis. When I lived in Andong, I was a little surprised that some of the older people I knew did not share my reverence for 안동찜닭, partially because they consider it "IMF food" - something that could be made cheaply and thus lacked prestige (these folks usually tried to point me towards 간거등어, 안동식혜, and especially 헛제사밥.) In both cases I'm sure the dish predates the IMF period, but in the financial crunch became more attractive foods, especially for restaurants (which brings up another point - I have never, ever heard of a Korean making this dish at home. All the homemade accounts I've heard are from 교포, and I think it's probably rare to make at home here.)
Now, just because I think the tale is false doesn't mean it's not important. If I'm right about the actual development of 부대찌개 then the substitution of poor people gathering from US garbage for people buying US goods on the black market is very, very important. Once again, I'd bet that that particular permutation of the story really came into vogue during either the affluent period of the 80's when people were eager to distance themselves from the poverty of the postwar period by picking up on a tale of woe turned delicious triumph, or during the IMF as a comforting story of innovation during tough times. Hopefully I'll be able to find out.
Of course, if there is anybody out there reading this (hahahahah!) who would like to talk about their experiences of 부대찌개, black markets, or Korea anytime from the 50's - 90's, I would love to hear from you!

The Power of Christ Compels You - OUT!

I think I need to have a 굿. Or an exorcist. Clearly, in my absence my apartment was taken over by fairies. Little people. Brownies. Sprites. Evil Spirits. Something.
Since I got home I have been invaded by cockroaches (clearly the physical manifestation the fey have chosen), the light in my bathroom exploded, my washer broke, hot water has vanished, and my fan will only spin if you wind the blades by hand while chanting incantations to Belphagor. My landlady has vanished. The rice I ordered from the local 농협 went astray I know not where. Single socks have vanished, and some of my t-shirts seem to have shifted colors. The region on my computer's DVD player was reset without my knowledge. Things are getting creepy.
Actually, I'm half-considering trying a 굿. There are at least four 무당/만신 in my immediate neighborhood, and I've heard drums and singing on at least two occasions since I moved in. Shamanism is under the radar of many Koreans, but beneath it all the scene is flourishing. There are shamans by phone, over the internet (the NYT has an interesting but basic article about that here) . . . kind of like all the "psychics" in the west, but with the respectable veneer of history and custom. Laurel Kendall, whose research and works are part of what prompted me to study Korea, has written a number of excellent books on the subject of shamanism in Korea, and from her research it looks like there's still a substantive number of people, especially women, who consult 무당 and commission ceremonies, but I know of only two large-scale public 굿 yearly that are easily accessible to foreigners. Ever year for 단오 in 강능 there is a large 굿, and perhaps less known but just as colorful is the one held on the main grounds of the Andong Mask Dance Festival (안동국제탈춤페스티벌) in downtown. That one is especially interesting because the 무당 for the past few years at least is a man - which makes some of the cross-dressing even more interesting. At any rate, the 굿 in Andong is for me one of the best reasons to visit the festival.
Heck, even the Fulbright Foundation here sponsored one! But the question is: How much does it cost? Can I comparison shop?

ack! I had intended to post one of my own pictures of the Andong 굿 but I've mislaid my old photos . . .drat.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Implicit Associations

I'm a bit batty for personality tests, although skeptical of a lot of them. I am having great fun though with Haaaaaaaaavahd's implicit association tests. By having people sort words into predefined categories it seeks to evaluate things like how how strong your preference for collective over individual is, or whether you think positively about society. Go take some time out and try.