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.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gomushin Girl's Apartment

Vacation is a lovely thing. You pack, you go visit a far away place (this time, my stateside hometown) and when you come back you're theoretically refreshed and ready to face the demands of real life and blogging again.
Unless, of course, while you were gone the entire roach population of Korea decided to shack up at your place.
I got back the other night to find that while I had won the battle, the Great Roach War was still underway. The 장마 had once again made mi casa their casa, and they weren't going to give up their new real estate without a fight. The final death toll isn't in yet, but it's likely to be high. Unwilling to let it drag on, I took the moral low ground and launched my bio-weapons. Chemical warfare ensued. I am guilty of genocide, and I don't feel bad about it at all.
The downside is that getting happy with the roach spray has turned my apartment into a chemical death zone. I'm not sure any creature, myself included, can live long in this toxic environment. I sprayed just about every nook and cranny in the place. I'm going to have to do about four loads of laundry to detox my luggage - unfortunately one of the bastards decided to use my not-yet-unpacked suitcase for cover, but he underestimated my own ruthless nature.
A possibly innocent victim in all of this was the strange, cricket-like creature huddling in terror behind my washer, but he looked like the enemy from afar. Collateral damage happens in these sad times. Besides, I'm not too fond of crickets, either.*
I'm still mulling the gecko solution, but it'll be a few days before my apartment is anywhere near habitable by carbon-based life forms again.
I feel bad. I had so wanted to come back from vacation with some wonderful and intellectual posting about social issues and politics and art and everything. I mean, The Grand Narrative put me on his blogroll, and I feel like I need to do something to be worthy of that. But no, my poor jet-lagged mind is stuck on germ warfare against insects.

*This other notable exception to my generally accepting attitude towards the creepy-crawlies of the animal kingdom stems from an unfortunate incident during my childhood. I had a pet skink that needed to be fed live crickets. I bought about 100 crickets at a time and kept them in a small wire cage. Since the cage was small, it was easier to bring the crickets to the skink and dump a few directly into the aquarium than try to fish one out. Unfortunately, one night I wasn't very careful, and sat the flimsy wire cage on the edge of my desk. Of course I then bumped the desk and sent the cage crashing to the floor, springing the cage door open and releasing a hundred freshly bought crickets into the freedom of my bedroom. You don't know torture until you've tried to scramble around scooping up live crickets out of shag carpet. I never did catch them all, and there was chirping in my room for weeks after.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Selling Sex

Prof. Lankov has another wonderful column (doesn't he always?) in the Korea Times, which you can read here, talking about the direction of the international sex industry in Korea during the colonial period. It may not have been so much lusty Japanese men exploiting poor Korean maidens as much as some Yangban having their paid way with Japanese girls brought in to establish brothels.
However, I'm a bit suspicious of his contentions that "in old times* only the rich and famous could afford to buy expensive sexual services from gisaeng girls, while the ``low orders'' usually had no access to commercial sex whatsoever." I just can't see that Korea (or any nation) would have an economy where prostitution and the exchange of goods, services, and money for sex were restricted to the upper classes. If he's only counting established and recognized gisaeng houses then yes, I suppose he can successfully and accurately argue that the Japanese were running the biggest game in town, but can we really honestly accept only gisaeng as prostitutes?
Putting aside for now the equation of gisaeng with prostitution (I think it would be a bit of an uphill slog to make a very direct x=y argument there), can we really see anyplace without an informal economy involving prostitution? Even if Lankov just meant established, formal, recognized brothels I can't believe it. I'll have to take a look at the research on the subject before I say too much, but heck, I simply cannot imagine a place historically without some kind of sexualized economic trade. Will post more on this when I have more solid information about the sex trade in pre-modern Korea.
*what exactly does this mean? In old times? I'm assuming that Lankov means it like most Koreans seem to use it in the folkloric sense - some undefined time in the Joseon-era. If people mean 고려 they usually say that, same as with the 신라시대 or other specific historical periods. Even if the 조선 isn't what they really mean, it's what they're picturing in their heads.

Friday, July 4, 2008


I'm so used to the noise of traffic in Seoul that I hardly notice it anymore, and it certainly doesn't interfere with sleep. Aren't humans wonderfully adaptable creatures? When I was in college there were train tracks that ran right in front of our campus and by my dormitory, and the train noises ceased to bother me after the first week or so, no matter what time they ran by.
This morning, my first at "home" in America in over a year, my sleep was broken by the complete lack of traffic noise. We have birds, we have coyotes, and . . . oh, wait! That's a tractor I hear now! Thank God for motorized vehicles.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I would say something, but . . .

Korean men, you're on notice!
I'd comment, but . . .yeah. What to say, what to say?
At this very moment, the top three articles at the 조선일보 (English version) are the aforementioned article on Korean men and, uh, performance anxiety, shall we call it? Closely followed by this article on Korean marital worries (possibly related to performance anxieties?) and this one about how Koreans have the highest suicide rate in the world. I don't want to connect the dots here.

So THAT'S why I can never find the temples!

Did 2MB deliberately sink the Buddhists? Is there a Christian transportation plot? Or are temples just being bitchy?
Read all about it!
the gist of it is that when the metro site was last revamped and updated, they loaded all the information on how to find different churches, and they show up on the metro maps. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, were left off (nobody mentions whether the scant few mosques or synagogues are on the map.)
I doubt it's 2MB (although he does have a long and controversial history of pretty open and blatant support of Christian causes - witness the once-controversial Christmas light displays at city hall and chongyecheon) because frankly, the man seems to have his hands full. I am naturally suspicious of conspiracy theories, and I don't think there was a concerted effort to exclude Buddhists . . . and yet I won't discount the idea that an over-zealous Christian (a flourishing species) conveniently "forgot" to put the information back up.
There's actually a fairly long and somewhat disturbing history of violence and discrimination against Buddhists by Korean Christians, including arson and destruction of temple properties. Not to neglect the fine history of Buddist vs. Buddhist violence (let's not forget that fun postwar game of having different sects recruit gangsters to go beat up the monks of whatever other sect was occupying the temple they likes - one of the reasons for the current prominence of celibate orders. They laid the smack down on married monks and took their temples.) This seems kind of silly, and it looks easily corrected, but it is part of a traceable history of discrimination. I'll have to spend some time exploring the site and checking to see if the problem gets fixed.
Or you can check it out here (Korean only.)