Monday, March 30, 2009


There are a couple of different words for "teacher" in Korean. Seonsaengnim is what my students always call me, and is probably the most common term. Gyosa is what was printed below my name on my name tag at the teacher's seminar we had when the big boss of Reading Town, Dr. Song Sun-Ho, came to town. Its meaning is virtually indistinguishable from the first term.

But there's another word for teacher that I know of. It is seuseung (스승). It's probably the hardest of the three to pronounce; that particular Korean vowel sound that makes up both syllables has no common counterpart in English, and is accomplished by making an "oo" sound without making an "o" out of your lips. The resultant sound is something akin to the one Lucille Ball made on I Love Lucy whenever she got caught in the middle of a supreme goof-up.

That aside, seuseung is a somber and weighty word, not to be taken lightly. It's hardly ever used anymore in conversational Korean. It is an ancient term, originating from the Joseon Dynasty, the height of the country's cultural and political accomplishments. During the span of its 500 years, the dynasty consolidated its absolute rule over all of Korea. Confucian ideals were cemented into Korean culture. Sejong the Great, one of Korea's most esteemed kings, invented Hangeul ("great script"), the Korean alphabet. Heroic Admiral Yi Sun-Shin led his unbeatable navy of turtle ships to victory against repeated Japanese encroachments. (One decisive battle took place not a stone's throw from where I am, in the harbor of the town of Okpo, the next town over from my bailiwick here in Gohyeon). Scientific advancement and architectural accomplishment flourished.

In those days, teachers were not the whipping boys of parents and principals and superintendents, chivvied into teaching bland, standardized, unimaginative sludge to bored, hyperactive, spoiled or punky children for wages not fit for a high school dropout. (I'm not for a minute suggesting that my job here in Korea in any way resembles the above; I'll grant you that the parents have more say than we'd like, the material's a bit too standardized sometimes and the children can be more than a little punky on occasion, but the salary's excellent and you can't beat the location nor the actual work in essence.)

No, those days were different. Teachers were venerated. Anyone who had proven themselves a master of academic, philosophical and epistemological matters was held in the highest esteem, on the same level as parents and kings. That is typical of Confucian values, nowhere more fiercely adopted than in Korea, as I should explain before I go on. There is a strict hierarchy at work in the social fabric. As a member of society, you are required to know, at all times, who is above you and who is beneath you on the ladder of status and experience. Seniority is everything. Jacob, the director of my hagwon, is the undisputed leader; if he requests that you do something, work overtime, put in extra hours, take on a difficult assignment, come in early, you do it. (As a courtesy to the cultural differences between East and West, we foreign teachers are not expected to comply with these subtle norms and mores we know next to nothing about; but we still feel like heels for not doing so.)

In Western society it's acceptable to decline requests of this nature, depending on how good an excuse you manage to come up with. Here it's different. Even if the option is verbally given to you, you are tacitly expected to put your head down, keep your mouth shut, and pull the extra weight. That's Confucianist society. It is a two-way street, however. If you do this, and never do anything that would cause your superiors or your boss to lose face, he will always pay for food and drinks. We've been taken out to eat half a dozen times since I've worked at Reading Town, and always Jacob has picked up the tab. And always I notice the Korean teachers putting in those extra hours. The work ethic is really quite amazing.

This Confucianist hierarchy manifests itself in more ways than this, however. The complex system of Korean honorifics and labels is proof of that. Older brothers are called hyeong by their younger brothers. It's typical of any male friend to address his older male friend by that name, too (or, if he does not know him that well, it is polite to call him seonsaengnim). Younger sisters call their older brothers something else...just as younger brothers call their older sisters something different, as do younger sisters calling their older sisters. Wowzer, it nearly discouraged me from learning Korean. (If you think that's bad, you should see how many different counting systems there are. I'll have to speak about that some other time.)

Younger siblings are all called by one single name: dongsaeng. When you pour a drink for someone else in Korea (and you usually do; it's bad form to pour your own, so everybody keeps an eye out for everybody else's drink), you must use two hands to hold the bottle if the person holding the glass is older. If the person holding the glass is older, they need only hold that glass with one hand. Same deal when they pour for you: they need only use one hand to hold the bottle, while you must hold your glass with two hands. Likewise, when you offer something to someone older than you are (be it a cup of coffee, or a interdepartmental memo, or a dead fish) you do it with two hands, or with one hand supporting your offering arm. You also accept things from an older person with two hands.

The list goes on. Hardly anybody is on the same level you are. If you're someone's elder, or have worked at a job for longer than they have, or have simply more notches in your belt...then you're higher up. My barber, a short and dignified old man with flyaway gray hair and the most unbelievably soft hands, who runs a little one-room, two-chair shop just down the street from me, always bows at the waist and accepts my 10,000 won with two hands. Customer-proprietor relationship, I suppose it to be. As might be expected, your parents are extremely important, and must be afforded the utmost respect. Children have it tough in Korea. They are expected to submit completely to their parents' demands, and nowadays those demands are pretty uniform: get up, eat your breakfast, go to school, go to your English academy (and then your science academy, and your piano academy, et cetera), come home, eat dinner, go to your room, study for a few hours, go to sleep, then wake up and do it all over again, six days a week. Disobedience is severely punished. Parents are kings. Grandparents are gods. During the Korean holidays of Chuseok and Seolnar (roughly analagous to Thanksgiving and New Year, respectively), Korean children visit their grandparents, bow so low their head touches the carpet (as do their parents), and then if their grandparents are magnanimous types, the children receive money which they can then blow on whatever their little hearts desire. It's a pity nobody's figured out how to bottle free time yet.

What with all this emphasis on status afforded by social rank and experience, it's not surprising that kings, parents, and teachers would wind up being virtually equal. There are no kings in Korea now, and hardly any seuseung-deul-eun, but back then there were plenty. Seuseung is a hard term to encompass in less than a paragraph. It is, as I've told you, a venerable title. It meant one who was a great master, an intellectual, a guide, a genius at many arts, knower of arcane wisdom and giver of knowledge. But it was more than that, too. This person had traveled, had seen much, had experienced hardships, had walked many different roads of life to reach the point where they were now. (Thus their respect, unlike some kings and even some parents, was usually well-deserved.) But even beyond that, seuseung is a deeply personal term. It means one who is like a second father to you. He takes you in hand, he is firm at some points and gentle at others in his handling of you, but at all times he helps you and teaches you and guides you and looks out for you. It's a powerful word. There's a lot of profound meaning wrapped up in those two little hard-to-pronounce syllables.

Why am I telling you this? Well, aside from the fact that it's darned interesting on its own, I happen to know a seuseung. He'll disagree, of course (he's incurably modest), but after hearing his definition of the word, and mulling it over in my mind, I don't think there's anybody who deserves it more than him, not in modern-day Korea. He's a bit young for the title, maybe. When I think back to the seuseung-deul-eun of the Joseon era all I can envision are little, wizened old men with long white hair and beards and sideburns wearing baggy pants and strange hats who sit in smoky halls and randomly spew out answers to life's questions. But the main I'm thinking of passes muster on all of the qualities I've described above.

His name is Charles, and he's the head teacher at my hagwon. He's not in any way wizened or hairy. Nor does he wear anything baggy. He's 39 and he's in the shape of his life, in fact; Sundays playing soccer (excuse me, Adam; football) down at the elementary school with his buddies keep him pretty fit. Nor does he hold back; I saw him block two shots in quick succession by leaping in front of the ball and hunkering down so they bounced off his back. Yeeowch. I find it hard to describe him, somehow. He's shorter than I am, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Korean who isn't. He wears glasses, black, thick, and square-rimmed after the popular fashion. His clothes are trendy but not overtly so, avoiding flamboyance. He speaks English quite well, without as pronounced an accent as other Koreans.

His hometown is Changwon, directly north of this island, on the southern coast. Before coming to work at Reading Town he was living and teaching there (Changwon is Masan's new partner, or suburb, depending on how you want to look at it). He lived for a while on Geoje before, however, and is familiar with the island. He was born and bred in this, Gyeongsangnam-do Province, and has the gruff Korean accent to prove it, something Esther (a native of Seoul, herself) constantly teases him about.

He has a girlfriend, Anne, whom he met I know not how long ago, who lives in Okpo and also teaches English. They recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the north end of town, an arrangement previously thought scandalous by the Korean public and still not encouraged. (He requested I keep it under my hat; if the boss should find out there could be problems.) He can drink his weight in soju or mekju and absolutely loves the species of samgyupsal known as hangjeongsal, slightly less fatty but subsequently less flavorful.

Charles did a lot of things before he came to work at Reading Town. He was born in a Korea inconceivable to me and anyone else who wasn't around to witness it personally. In the wake of the war, Korea had no infrastructure, no paved roads, no cars or telephone lines, hardly any of the Western conveniences that you and I have become so accustomed to. It was nearly impossible to get around except the old-fashioned way: walking. Corporal punishment is still commonplace in Korean schools, but when Charles was coming up he was beaten on his backside with a mop handle by his teachers. The bruises, he recalls, made it difficult to sit down. The rest of his life I am only gradually coming to know. I still have none of it in the correct order, but somewhere along the line Charles started up his own hagwon (it failed after a few months due to some financial technicality); owned a bar; served in the military (he drove a supply truck, but got high scores for his marksmanship); worked as a designer and engineer for several food companies, including one that manufactured specially-tailored kimchi refrigerators; and even lived in Torrance, California for several months.

As a result, Charles has an intrinsic knowledge of Korean history (he placed extremely high on all his exams in college, and made the penultimate round in a national intelligence and knowledge contest), particularly anything related to food or its preparation. His English is, as I glossed over previously, practically flawless. He can also drink me under the table, he loves going out on the town, he can drive and load well, and is just an all-around knowledgeable and worldly person. More than that, however, he is kind, friendly, and modest. I've never had a more patient teacher. Even when I don't do my homework (which is fairly often), he never seriously scolds me, let alone break out the mop handles. I goof up frequently both in written and spoken Korean, and he gently corrects me. He never hesitates to offer help, and is always willing to do something fun; say, meet up at the pub for a drink after work or cook up a mess of bulgogi (his secret recipe was an unqualified masterpiece, divinely delicious). I thank him endlessly for his help and he laughs and says, "That's okay." I compliment him every so often, and he never toots his own horn. Irrespective of cultural norms that dictate he shrug off praise, I know he'd still do so. No matter how busy he is, if there's something you need assistance with or something he might look up for you, he'll drop what he's doing and do it, or get it done as quickly as possible.

This has happened more times than I can relate: I needed a Korean mailing address, or I needed information on language downloads for my computer, or I needed to order Korean textbooks. Charles is the head teacher at Reading Town, and a decidedly busy man. He teaches classes and handles a boatload of administrative duties. But he still takes half an hour out of his early afternoons to teach me, a bumbling weguk, the Korean language. He tells me jokes, makes small talk, asks me questions, is thoughtful as they come, and relates proverbs and folk tales from Korea's past (at my behest; the one about the old border man's horse was particularly good, and will be dealt with later).

Charles is knowledgeable, genteel, tactful, patient, friendly, approachable, versatile, hardworking, worldly, generous, helpful, wise, and intelligent.

That is why I call him seuseung.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

raw fish overdose

I knew Friday night was going to be exceptional right off the bat because that's how Fridays are. To begin with, I had two free periods, which allowed me to get some tests graded and also just let me unwind a little bit after a long week. My allergies have been kicking in something fierce these past couple of days, too, and I had been sniffling and sneezing and coughing the whole day. Things were extra-exceptional, however.

Debate class came off pretty well, for starters. Did I tell you about debate class? It's really neat. As a new thing this semester my hagwon saw fit to start up a debate class. Adam and I are teaching it jointly, there's about ten kids and they're all astoundingly fluent middle-schoolers. That's fine enough as it is, but we actually get to teach them the fine art of debate: how to construct an argument, put it forth decisively, listen attentively to the opposition's statements, and how to intelligently and coherently rebut them. It's tricky, and some of the kids aren't quite understanding what they're supposed to do yet, but they're getting it little by little, and it's really rewarding to see.

On Friday night we debated whether traditional buildings ought to be preserved or pulled down and replaced with modern ones. Sam, Tom and Sunny were particularly good at listening to the other side's arguments and putting together a cohesive counter-argument. That was neato-keen. What was also neato-keen was that I had ddeokbokki for dinner. There's a little food stand just across the road from Reading Town. The couple who own it are apparently famous: people have been coming from all around the island to taste their ddeokbokki and ojingeo since they set up shop a couple months back. They do serve some wicked snacks. Ddeokbokki is mashisseoyo (delicious). It's made with ddeok, which is rice smashed into paste, and then rolled into small cylindrical chunks. Mate that and some fish patties to some red, spicy, peppery sauce, and you have ddeokbokki. I didn't care much for it the first time I tried it, but like most Korean food (and every music CD I've ever bought, for example) it's grown on me.

(pronounced oh-jing-UH) is just the Korean word for squid. This squid that they serve at this food stand is deep-fried, so it's covered in a delicious Long-John-Silver-esque battered crust. Not only do you get squid, but also gimbap (sort of like sushi, but with ham and egg instead of raw fish), sweet potato cakes, and dumplings, similarly deep-fried. (These fried food snacks are called twigim.)

I got both ddeokbokki and twigim and chowed down after work. Better still, the place I chowed down wasn't my sometimes-lonely studio apartment! It was my good friends Adam and Elaine's apartment up by the P.O.W. camp. They invited me and our Canuck friend Jeff over for cards. Adam and I ate, we put on some tunes, set up the Tripoley board (their kitchen table, with slips of paper labels marking the pots) and played, sang and drank until four o'clock in the morning. That was completely awesome. The neighbors banged on the wall, we were so rambunctious. Good tunes, good food, good beer...what Adam calls "a crackin' night." We went through five pitchers and three bottles of soju, and tried something new: Jeff had heard somewhere about dropping some sour gummy worms into a shot of soju and shooting the lot. Adam and Jeff both stepped up to the plate. Man, I thought their faces were going to fold in on themselves. They puckered up the same way my brother's cat does when he smells the inside of my shoes.

We did all this in full understanding of the fact that we had to be in front of Top Mart, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at 10:30 the following day, to arrive on time at the Geoje Spring Flower and Gray Mullet Festival. Drunk as I was when I arrived home that night, I remembered everything. I bought a bottle of water on the way home (to fill up my bota bag), set some batteries to charge (for my camera), and set my alarm for 9:00 the next morning (to give me enough time to recover from the inevitable hangover).

My alarm failed to wake me up. I rolled over, groaning like a beached whale, to look at my watch. Subsequently I observed, with some obfuscation, that it was 10:18. Somehow I managed to get out of bed in the next ten seconds, and get completely ready and arrive at the appointed rendezvous within the next seven-hundred and ten. I remembered everything except a handkerchief. Bilbo Baggins, eat your heart out. Temples should be erected in my honor. Managing to force my moldy mind and creaky body to put on clothes, assemble necessary equipment (a pot for cooking noodles, important documents, camera), pour a liter of water into my bota bag without the aid of a funnel, and slope down to the corner store, period, let alone in twelve measly minutes, is a feat that will live forever in the unwritten annals of the Hangover Hall of Fame.

Charles and his girlfriend Anne were waiting for me in Charles's green, three-cylinder Daewoo Matiz. This handy-dandy little driving machine seats five sardines and fits into any lady's purse without folding or bending. At least I wouldn't have to drive. Adam and Elaine waltzed sprightly down from their apartment a short while later. Well, Adam waltzed. He'd been up since nine-thirty; he had a louder alarm clock. He'd had to spend about forty-five minutes of his extra Hangover Recovery Time peeling Elaine off the bed, however. She and I commiserated while I sucked down some meat-on-a-stick (exactly what it sounds like; goes for the equivalent of sixty cents at any supermarket) and some sugary, creamy coffee from the vending machine. Adam got some cash, we loaded the equipment in the car, squeezed ourselves in and went.

On the way, we drove through a little campsite located halfway up an unknown mountain halfway between us and the beach. Judging from my tourist map it was either Seonjasan or Nojasan. It was pretty, however. Charles mentioned that he had come there before and camped, and that the sounds of rushing water were very relaxing. There was indeed a waterfall and a stream, trickling over large rocks and tumbling down the mountainside. There were some wooden platforms for tents, but also bungalows! You get your choice of camping styles in Korea. We made a note to go back there.

Somewhere along our route (and I missed it because I was too hung over to care) was the Geoje Natural Forest of Recreation, which is on my list of things to see on this island. I'm gratified to know it's so close and on the main road.

Then we were at the beach. I unfolded myself in gratitude. We left the gear in the car as we made our way to the tent to sign in. The meat-on-a-stick and coffee were having a minimal effect on my system: my brain and body still felt like they were in separate countries. After signing in we went back to the car, got our gear, set it up on a picnic table, and cooked up some noodles. They were a Chinese variety I'd never heard of before, jjajangmyeon. They were indistinguishable from ordinary ramen to my eyes, but coated in a thick black sauce made from soybeans. The end result was delicious and satisfying.

It was just the thing for a hangover, standing on a pebble beach on a 55-degree spring day in your shorts eating hot noodles. (Indeed, I later found out that it was Charles's preferred hangover cure.) I was reviving slowly. Then Adam and I went and had a look at the opposition as we waited for Jeff to arrive. We'd clued him in about the festival two days previously, but he would have to take the bus, as it was impossible to get another sardine into Charles's car. The opposition looked fierce, even if not to great in number. A shallow trench had been hacked into the beach, and layered with some blue tarps. Soon after we arrived men had climbed out of a tanker truck and begun ferrying fish to this temporary pond. Here's how it looked:

That thing there in the last picture is a seungeo (SOONG-uh), Korean for grey mullet. Some of those suckers were huge. I was looking forward to this.

Presently Jeff arrived. He'd taken a taxi due to the bus for Hakdong leaving only every three hours. We assembled down by the pond. The administrators let us go in in groups of 30; probably around 200 people had signed up. None of us were in the first group. Jeff, number 87, was in the third; myself, Elaine, Adam, Charles, and Anne (numbers 117-121 respectively) would all be in the one after him. The first group went and caught their fill. There were some real bare-handed experts down there. One particular burly Korean teen was snatching them right and left. Good thing the limit was three or else he might've gotten 'em all. Jeff's group went in. Competition was fierce. Try as he might, Jeff got occluded from a few catches in the mad rush that followed the start of the round. Soon, however, his eye and arm poised, he made a few precise lunges and nabbed two mullet.

He was modest in his glory. I was waiting on the edge of the trench, camera poised, for him to raise a huge, flailing fish-monster triumphantly above his head, his teeth reflecting the golden sunlight in a grin of self-satisfaction. No such luck. He bagged his catch and waded to the side, and we got to inspect them up-close.

Then, good man that he is, Jeff toweled off as quickly as possible and took charge of our belongings, including my camera, as we rushed to get into line to receive our own equipment. Having three foreigners in this round the announcer, a man in a suit who spoke some English, decided it was time for some fun. He had us go into the water first. That was fine and dandy. But then he asked us to dance. With a tremendous shout of "Goooooooooo WHITEY!!!"

Well, we were embarrassed and all, but who gave a turkey? It was a party. That wasn't all, though. After that was over he let some other people in after us and asked them to dance with us.

Here are our reactions:

And here's the result:

I got my revenge, however. I have hearing like a charging rhinoceros. I thought I heard the signal to go, so I went. Turns out I jumped the gun. But the announcer didn't know how to say "STOP!" in English, so he just went ahead and let everybody else in. Ha!

It was bedlam. People were rushing here and there, herding the fish that way and this way, but in reality the fish were pretty easy to catch. The smaller ones were spry, but the bigger ones were sluggish. Whether gray mullet are naturally so, or whether they were lethargic from all that time in the tank in the back of the truck, or whether they'd had their fins clipped...I wasn't sure. All I know is that Adam was shark-like in his ferocity. He was everywhere at once, leaping, snatching, diving, parrying, dodging and ducking. Elaine was right after him. They'd devised a system: she held the bag and he did the fishing, and with two hands free he was a dynamo. He nabbed his limit pretty quickly, despite my interfering with his quarries a few times. For that I can only apologize. My mind was gone. I saw a big fish and I went after it, heedless of anyone around me. I got three almost instantaneously...

...and then the bag ripped.

ARGH! Only one of my precious seungeo remained captive. The other two had gotten away. Quickly I snatched one up, one of the sluggish large ones, before he could make good his escape. The other was lost to me forever. I could only hope he'd be writhing in someone's stomach acid before the day was out.

After five seconds, the five minutes were up and we were climbing out of the trench. Soaked and thrilled, we got some pictures with our catch, turned them in at the appropriate tent to be made into hoe (pronounced "hweh"), or raw fish, served with sauce and vegetables. Then spread our towels on the round pebbles of the beach, warmed from the sun, and rested from our labors. Soon the hoe arrived, and it was delicious:

In the big tub there is a thin, almost sweet sauce; there was also ssamjang, which is a thick, spicy, multi-purpose meat sauce. In the bag are lettuce and mustard leaves, as well as peppers and garlic slices. Wrap that and the fish all up together and you have one delightful taste sensation. The green bottle, of course, is the ubiquitous soju.

Thus fortified, we rested contentedly once again. By and by, Charles mentioned the need to return home. He and his girlfriend Anne, visible in some of these pictures, were moving to a new apartment and I had volunteered to help them out. Adam, Elaine and Jeff caught a cab home while I rode with Charles in his Matiz. I had an hour to freshen up (I was grateful for this; I had fish blood on my shorts from trying to end a poor mullet's suffering by braining him on the pebbles of the beach, and was still nursing a sense of guilt, not to mention being dog-tired into the bargain). I changed clothes and sacked out on my bed in a half-doze.

At the appointed time, I helped Charles move his things in two trips from his apartment (a stone's throw from mine) into a new and bigger three-bedroom one-bath on the northern side of Gohyeon. No two people were more surprised than he and I when we managed to fit his titanic Samsung washing machine into his Matiz without doing anything more than folding the seats down. We were even able to close the rear hatch!

After moving, Charles and Anne generously took me out to eat. We went for gamjatang, which is a spicy soup with pig vertebrae in it. Don't give me that look. It's superb. The vertebrae still have bits of rib stuck to them, and also lots of meat and fat. The dish itself is a lot of work. You have to pull the bones out of the soup onto a plate to work with them there, so you can avoid splashing your dinner-mates. But then you can dig and suck and rip and tear to your heart's content. I'm glad; some of the bits of meat were darned hard to get off.

The real disappointment came after I had finished the meat. All that was left was spicy broth. I'll grant you it was delicious, but there just wasn't that much to it. Moreover there was nothing to temper it with but cold water. Our side dishes (banchan) were all spicy too: kimchi and green peppers and spicy ssamjang. Nonetheless I enjoyed myself and thanked Charles heartily at the end (he's a good man; he thanked me for helping him move). So, I strolled home and had a restful night...after I consumed the last box of hoe. If you want to know the reason why I named this entry raw fish overdose, you are answered. I must've easily eaten a pound of the stuff that day. Lucky it wasn't too filling or I might've ruptured something.

I'll be brief with Sunday. At three o'clock I journeyed to Adam and Elaine's place, clutching a plastic pitcher of Black Beer Stout, to keep our appointment for movie night. This is how it works: we each pick a movie and then we draw straws for sequence (or play rock, scissors, paper, which is insanely popular in Korea...even the policemen make decisions with it). Then we watch 'em back-to-back.

We drank some beer, then we sat down and watched Adam's pick, Trainspotting. It's a film based on a book of the same name by Irvine Welsh. I'll have to read that one. The movie version's got Ewan MacGregor in it and is do I put this...rather graphic delving into the filthy, desperate, soul-mangling world of heroin addiction in bleak urban Scotland. There are a lot of dark social themes being covered in that film. It ain't for the faint of heart.

After that we broke for dinner. I left off trying to cut up an onion with Adam's infuriatingly dull kitchen knives and boorishly went down to Top Mart to buy a whetstone for 15,000 won. I left poor Adam hanging there with uncut onions and food on the stove. I get rather shortsighted and obsessive like that when I'm trying to catch gray mullet with my bare hands, for example. I apologize a second time.

While the food cooked I worked at it, sharpening those damn knives. I got two done and was about to start on the smaller paring knife when dinner was ready and it was time for the second movie. Dinner was a delectable mixture of chicken, corn, onions, peppers, and other vegetables all fried up together with sauce. (Adam is a master at taking whatever ingredients are on hand, chopping them all up and cooking them with some kind of improvised sauce and turning out a comestible masterpiece. Must've come of living in Spain.)

The second movie was The Warriors, the 1979 cult classic about a gang in New York that finds itself stranded far from home and has to fight its way back to its turf. One of my favorites and my pick for the evening.

The third movie was Elaine's choice, a movie I had never seen but had been rather anxious to, given that everybody else on the planet and their brother had: The Godfather. The hype was through the roof. Overall, I was pleased, even though there was so much to absorb that I still can't formulate an opinion on it one way or the other. Good film, graphic deaths, excellent casting and acting...and the thing just sucks you in somehow. You get really involved. That's about as eloquent as I can be on the subject at the moment.

The last film ended about eleven o'clock, and I strolled home, wrote a bit, read a bit, then hit the hay. The next day was Monday. That was the only bad thing about that weekend.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

N'Seoul Tower

The next day, refreshed and ready for a full day in Seoul (boy, little did I realize), I strode out boldly bound for Myeongdong. That was almost back where I'd started, just a few stops north of Seoul Station. I found myself in a much different neighborhood than Jamsil: narrower streets (but still wide; this was near the city center after all), not as many tall buildings, and a great deal fewer coffee shops.

I was slightly concerned. Though we'd agreed to meet at Myeongdong Station, we'd been unaware of how massive it was. The station itself must have had entrances and exits on at least six city streets for blocks around; on the street where I'd surfaced, there were no less than eight. Fortunately, though, after a bit of walking back and forth and craning my neck, I managed to find Jeff, and his friend Bryan, who'd flown in yesterday from Canada. Bryan was a bear of a guy with long curly hair. We exchanged introductions and pleasantries. Soon enough Adam and Elaine happened up (they'd been in contact with Jeff via cell phone, and knew where to find us) and we got into a cab for a quick ride to the cable car station at the foot of Namsan Mountain, visible from our vantage point outside the subway station. The sun was shining down, but the air and breeze were chilly: a perfect day, in my opinion.

We purchased our tickets in the sunny office and then sat down to wait for the bell to ring, signaling the return of a cable car. We weren't waiting long, and managed to snag an ideal spot in the queue. I was squished into the front-left corner of the car: perfect. From there, I managed to get a mind-blowing view of Seoul on that winter's morning, and a few pictures that didn't turn out so hot but will be suitable for memory stimulation (see Jamsil jamboree). And then we were ascending the wide wooden staircase to the summit of the mountain and the entrance to the tower. It was an imposing sight:

I must admit to giggling like a little kid and running ahead of the others past the trees, gazebos and vistas that populated the top of the mountain to the entrance of the tower.

We all made it inside and went to the top, where we were greeted (after a seems we were the only ones there, and there was some confusion as to whether the place, N'Grill by name, was actually open) and seated. After a minute or two of looking at the menu, the restaurant started revolving.

V. . . . . . e . . . . . . . r. . . . . . . y . . . . . . s . . . . . . l . . . . . . o . . . . . w . . . . . l . . . . . . y.

I think we were there for nearly three hours and we progressed through only 270 points of the compass. We started out at roughly north-northwest, and hardly made it to the northeast before we strode out of the place.

(I don't know where my craving for speed on this trip was issuing from but it plagued me the whole time we were in Seoul. First the bullet train didn't go fast enough and now the rotating restaurant didn't rotate properly. I wasn't asking for a carousel or anything like that, I just wanted to see the whole panorama once or twice instead of 0.75 times.)

As for the meal itself, though it was delicious and didn't break the bank (as we were in a group and we ordered as many group specials as possible), the meal portions were disappointing. I've never found a filet mignon the size of a Post-It note to be all that satisfying. I did get to eat a little lobster tail, though, and there was enough pasta to go around.

We sat and conversed and r............o................t...............a..................t.................e.............d, and then settled up. We hopped down one flight of stairs and found ourselves on the observation deck, equipped with a paltry gift shop and a better snack bar. I got a cookie to assuage our recent meal's inadequacy (which sure beat gnawing on a lobster shell, which I'd been doing) and we gazed out at Seoul. Or what we could see of it; a snowstorm moved in as we stood there and visibility rapidly disintegrated. Eventually all we could see was the ground, and only then the patch that was closest to the tower. I can't tell you what a weird feeling it is to be looking out of a massive plate glass window at the ground hundreds of feet below and see snow blowing by BENEATH you.

Your intrepid correspondent. This was taken before the aforementioned snow started blowing but it demonstrates the perspective I was speaking about in the previous paragraph.
Also, on that level there was a small booth set up where you could sign a piece of paper with your name, make a wish, and tack it to a bulletin board. The point of this was simple: every Seolnar the powers-that-be in the city send aloft a balloon with all these wishes tied to it, the theory being that they will all come true as a result. I couldn't resist, and wished to have no hangover in the morning. Bryan and Adam and Jeff went in for it too.

Then we rode the cable car back down, and trudged the rest of the way down the mountain in that furious snowstorm. It wasn't windy, there was just a lot of big, wet flakes coming down. It was actually quite charming, and I rejoiced that got a chance to feel some snow on my head (and catch some snowflakes on my tongue) that winter. We'd gotten only two small flurries on Geoje Island, temperate island that it is. Up in Seoul it was truly winter.

We didn't split up. Piqued by my glowing reports of COEX, the others decided to hitch a subway ride with me back to Jamsil and see for themselves. I did my best to show them around on the same route I'd walked the previous day, but I didn't have much luck, and I'm sure they were disappointed. We were still there three hours though. We did a more thorough sweep of Bandi & Luni's (here's another couple of pictures)...

...and had some fun at the arcade. Adam and I had a go at The Lost World and I got to lasso a few more African animals on Jambo! Safari. Unfortunately the line for House of the Dead 4 was still really long. That, or the deadpan youth standing in front of it and calmly blasting undead abominations was actually a staff member and was busily demonstrating for the crowd. Whatever the case he was standing there both times I went to COEX, for as long as I'd been there. He must've had quite the insoles in his shoes to let him do that. We checked out some of the cooler shops, too. I got a compact for my mother at a particular Korean curio boutique.

Thence we adjourned to Sinchon, Adam and Elaine's stomping grounds, for a night on the town. We hit a few bars, drank a few beers, and just wandered.

In our wanderings we discovered something never equalled or even approached before or since in our Korean sojourn: Mr. Wow. Outside one bar there was a vendor set up who was selling what looked for all the world like enormous bratwursts on a bun with mustard and ketchup. On my friends' recommendation (they'd tried them before and had been favorably impressed, even if the brats were unexpectedly spicy) I bought one and chomped on it as we marched along to the next bar. It was 25% spicy and 100% delicious, and one of the primary reasons I want to see Seoul again before I leave. (Although we do now have it on good authority that Mr. Wow has scions in Busan...)

Much later that night, after many more pints of liquor apiece, we wound up in a noraebang. I believe I explained in Korean nightlife that a noraebang is a "singing room," otherwise known as karaoke. Only they do it right in Korea. You get a private room to yourself, snacks and booze, TV screens, disco balls, tambourines, and can just go at it for hours. This we did. I don't even remember what tunes we put on; last thing I truly remember is trying to equal Steve Tyler on "Sweet Emotion," while reaching for my beer and missing by a couple inches. We stayed until closing time, which was remarkable, as those places don't close until the wee hours of the morning ain't so wee anymore. Somehow I grabbed a taxi outside and paid the enormous fee to get back to Jamsil. I was completely gone. I undressed and tumbled into bed, and hovered somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness.

Don't miss part four, THE HAN RIVER AND OLYMPIC PARK...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

writing updates, 3/22/2009

I have, to date, submitted a grand total of two articles for publication since my graduation from college in December 2007 (and none before that): a 1,500-word list of handy tips to know when you move to South Korea to live for an extended length of time, to Transitions Abroad; and a short essay about Geoje Island, to the newly-formed publication Verge Magazine.

I've got one article half-finished, about Geoje's unknown attractions (thus far it's turned out disgustingly like a travel brochure) and one article drafted about that rabbit I found. Oh, didn't I tell you about that? Well, I'll have to...sometime. I've got about five or so other articles finished or drafted; most of them concern traveling, and one of them's an extremely condensed version of this Seoul holiday that I'm in the midst of telling you about.

I'm a coward. That's my problem. I'm afraid to submit things because I'm afraid of failure. If I could just...get...accepted...once...then I'd be okay. I'd know what I was doing wrong, I'd know how to improve, I'd know what it feels like to get published, and I could just relax and get on with it. But I don't know, and it's killing me. I wish I could just buckle down, write a bunch of stuff, and fearlessly submit it. But I seem to be getting in my own way. Oh, I've drafted an article for today, I can stop there... Darn, it's so hard to find publications that accept the kind of material I've got socked away... Well, I think I'll leave this one until I get a tourist map for reference...

I'll get back to you as soon as I get some sense into my head. No matter how many pep talks I get from my friends or my family I just can't seem to bestir myself to action. I find it baffling and frustrating. On a lighter note, my umpteenth and thus far most successful attempt at writing a novel is going well! Just started the seventh chapter last week. I'm over the shoal water now; the introductory chapters were unexpectedly difficult, and looking back at them now I believe they're pretty crappy, but unlike the 59 other attempts before this one, I'm not compelled to delete or rip up what I've got so far. Things are getting easier, but they're still difficult. I've managed to establish the setting pretty well and introduce the antagonists, but I'm having some problems with the action. The first part of the book's damnably slow. Half of Act I, if not more, is just dialogue. There's not enough action, not enough intrigue, not enough punch. I'm just now getting to the action bits (and Lordie, it's going to be glorious), but I've got to do something about the doldrums that precede them. Oh well. I'm just happy this current attempt is proceeding at all. This is going to get a lot more fun once I finish fleshing out the protagonists and introduce all the important secondary characters I've got in mind...but I intend to keep plugging away at it with all I've got.

Now if I could just translate that fervor over to the professional side of my writing...

Korean nightlife

Last night (Friday night over here), I was treated to a marvelous night out on the town, Korean-style.

Brown Eyed Girls, a K-pop group. Not my photo.

First, our boss treated the entire staff to dinner. It's customary for the director to pay for everybody's meals, but he isn't required to take us out to eat. Our boss is a nice one; he takes us out a lot. We went to Chaban, a Korean "fusion restaurant" combining elements of Western and Eastern dining, as I suppose the name to mean. Ergo, you sit on a cushion on the floor and eat Korean food that you cook up at the table like any other Korean restaurant, but there's also a salad and ice-cream bar. Hmm.

Anyway, the meal was delicious. It was hangjeongsal, similar to what I ate with Charles (see a Korean folktale). I think the optimum mix of ingredients out of the myriad to choose from is as follows. A large leaf of lettuce, crisp and fresh; a bite-sized piece or three of meat, piping hot and dipped in salted sesame oil and/or ssamjang, spicy meat sauce; blackened garlic and fried kimchi, also fresh from the grill; and some greens and onions steeped in soy sauce. Wrap the whole affair up into as elegant a bundle as your clumsy, untested foreigner fingers will permit, and chomp on it. I'm drooling as I write this, and I just polished off a boxful of Korean fried chicken. (There's this one particular fried chicken place I've been wanting to try since I got here, just down the street from me on the main drag. NeNe Chicken, it's called. I had the chicken with bulgogi sauce, the non-spicy variety. In my opinion, it's not as good as BBQ Chicken, a similar place in the other direction towards Adam and Elaine's, past Ganiyeok. You get more side dishes, true: in addition to the standard pickled radish cubes, you also get sweet pickles and pasta salad. But the quality of the chicken, especially the sauce, is substandard in my book.)

I had some beer (maekju) and soju, and when that ran out I drank a little cider. I should clarify here and state that Korean cider is not what Americans or British folk are used to. As an American, I define cider as a slightly tangier version of apple juice, something you drink around Thanksgiving time. Say "cider" to Adam or Elaine, my Geordie coworkers, and they think hard cider. In Korea, cider is lemon-lime soda. The taste of the main brand, Chilsung, is similar to Sierra Mist (although some have compared it to Sprite, or even 7-Up), but sweeter. It's pleasant if you're in the mood for it or if you're mixing up a Rum Cooler, but not much use for anything else.

After the meal was over, Jacob and Lily (the boss and his wife) went home, but not before giving us teachers a wad of cash and telling us to spend it how we would. (Like I said, he is very generous, Jacob is. And I will not tarnish that fact by suggesting that its cause is the current bout of thunderous prosperity that Reading Town is enjoying, to the extent that Jacob plans to open a new hagwon in the neighboring and only slightly smaller town of Okpo.)

On Adam's recommendation, Charles, Gaia, Erica, Julia (all Korean teachers), Adam, Elaine, and I (the foreign ones) headed for a bar that we foreigners had frequented before. Jazz Bar it was (and still is) named. It's a Western-themed bar, with portraits of American movie stars on the walls, 1950s kitsch, California license plates and the like. It's also got a pretty good dartboard and an unusually up-to-date music selection, albeit mostly insufferable pop tunes. All the same, it's always a good time there. We bumped into some other expat friends of ours, South Africans working for a rival hagwon. I had a Long Island Iced Tea and a

--> Piña Colada and shot some darts with the gang.

After this we went to another bar we were acquainted with, Geogi (pronounced guh-GI, literally meaning "that place" in Korean). We had more beer, and Adam had somaek, the Korean term for a soju bomb (dropping a shot of soju into the beer). Somek is the Korean words soju and maekju run together. And we had snacks. This is another thing I love about Korea: whenever you go to drink somewhere you don't just drink. You eat and drink. I'm used to just getting peanuts or pretzels in bars back in the States. At Geogi that night we were first served a soup of sprouts, rich in acids I can't pronounce which would work subtle magic on our stomachs and lessen hangovers in the morning; salad with Thousand Island, and corn salad; then an eggy soup (protein, also helpful for the morning after); and finally a heaping plate of different kinds of French fries with ketchup. At some bars, particularly the German-themed ones, you get heaping plates of seafood (insanely cheap here) and meat. When I say "meat," I mean good meat. Barbecued chicken with mustard and sauce. Yeah. That's what I'm talking about. Nothing beats sucking down a frothy beer and nibbling on chicken strips and fries. Fancy stuff like that costs extra, but not what we ate at Geogi that night; that all came with the beer. Nobody better try to tell me Korea is not a great country.

After Geogi we headed back out into the night. Julia and Charles headed home; the rest of us singles (well, Adam and Elaine are engaged, but they still know how to party) stayed out and headed for Arabian Nights, literally the only nightclub in Gohyeon, and possibly all of Geoje. The joint was still hopping at three in the morning. It took a while for me to get worked up into the mood, but after a couple more beers the rhythm finally got into my legs and I was out on the floor. I must've been in fine form, too: a couple of homosexual Koreans, one in a suit and the other in a Samsung dock worker's uniform, prepositioned me on the dance floor. I turned them down as politely as I could, drunk as I was and still attempting to dance. I suppose I ought to feel flattered. Back at the table to rest, I drank more beer and nibbled on an enormous plate of nuts and sliced fruit provided courtesy of the kitchens. Yep, you eat well at the clubs, too. At five in the morning we bugged out and I fell into bed back home, drenched in sweat and feeling that I'd done a very thorough job taking advantage of a Friday night (and Saturday morning).

These are the cardinal aspects of Korean nightlife: the dining (which in itself frequently involves drinking), the drinking (in the bars) and the clubbing (which is infrequent out here in the boondocks, but more common in the big cities like Busan and Seoul). And I had experienced all of them in a single night. It really gave one a feel for the celebratory atmosphere of a Friday evening. The Korean people really put their heart and soul into having fun, once they've set their mind to it. The Samsung workers in particular march on the bars every Friday night, indeed, even most weekday nights. I've seen gaggles of 'em, hard men with weathered faces, sitting around tables in restaurants with as many as six or eight empty soju bottles on the table between them. I don't know how they do it, having to be at work at seven the next day and all.

The only thing I didn't experience that night (though I have tried it before), itself innately Korean, was the noraebang. It literally means, "singing room." It's the Korean take on karaoke. You go to a singing room, pay a fee, and you get a private room to yourself with as much booze and snacks as you want, TV screens, surround sound, even tambourines for accompaniment. You can belt out as many tunes as lustily as you like and the soundproofed walls will protect you from embarrassment. I've done this before, both sober and drunk, and it's a lot of fun. It's rough on the vocal chords and even rougher on the ears (depending on your companions) but it's a heckuva goofy good time. Even in this small town they have a decent selection of Western tunes in English that a weguk (WAY-gook, the Korean word for "foreigner") can comprehend and sing. I'd like to suggest that you try something similar if you ever come here. If you run the entire Korean-nightlife cultural gamut all in one night (dining, drinking, singing and clubbing, in no particular order) you won't soon forget it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jamsil jamboree

Phases 1-5 of the grand plan had been completed. We boarded the KTX, quivering with excitement. I'd never ridden a train quite like it before. It was streamlined, sleek, and imposing; the interior resembled a jumbo jet more than a passenger train (a similarity I would rue a few hours later). I even had a window seat. The windows were huge, and commanded a thorough view of the surrounding countryside (not that it mattered). I sat down, arrayed my possessions comfortably about me, and prepared for the ride of my life.

...which ultimately failed to materialize. Maybe I've been desensitized to speed (real or imagined) by action and sci-fi movies, but 300 kilometers an hour just didn't seem like it. First off, we were only going that fast for about 20 minutes out of the whole rotten three-hour ride. The distance between Busan and our first stop, Gupo, was so small that it wasn't feasible to power up and rocket down the line to get there. Meanwhile, there's me, sitting with my face glued to the window, impatiently waiting for the countryside to turn into a mammoth motion blur, silently urging the engineers to hit the juice. Nothing doing. Heck, between Gupo and Daejeon we only hit 250 kilometers, and I started to get an idea of what a disappointment I was in for. If this is 250 kilometers, I thought as I watched the small towns and rolling hills and mountains and forests pass by a non-blurry fashion, 300 kilometers isn't going to be anything special.

I was right. After Daejeon, our speed finally increased (very, very gradually) to 300 kilometers per hour. First I knew of it was when I looked up at the TV monitors embedded in the ceiling of the car and saw the little speed readout in the upper corner of one of them ticking off our rate of travel. Looking out the window I wouldn't have known. One hundred and eighty-six miles per hour over the ground seemed, as I looked out at the countryside going by, no faster than freeway travel.

I managed to stop being disappointed for the snow that appeared as we neared the northern end of the country, blanketing the countryside with a soft veneer of white I'd already subconsciously resigned myself to missing down on the islands.

Adam, Elaine, Jeff and I had deliberately left Phase Seven (traverse the Seoul subway system) out of our group plan, because our individual plans diverged at that point. Adam and Elaine were off to Sinchon, in the northerly part of Seoul not far from the city center, to sample the nightlife. Jeff was headed to the Insadong airport to pick up his friend Bryan, flying in from Ottawa; thence they'd head to north Seoul and kick around.

I was destined for Jamsil, south-southeast Seoul, across the Han River. It was the fun district, whence lay Olympic Park, the Sports Complex, and the gigantic COEX Mall. It seemed like an interesting place to spend a few days, so I'd picked out my hotel, and with (literally) no reservations, I said my goodbyes to the others, promised to meet up with them the next day at Myeongdong for lunch atop N'Seoul Tower, and boarded a subway train.

The ride was long. I had to go 12 stops, including my destination, Cheongdam, a little north of Jamsil proper but still in the neighborhood. I emerged from the station and got my first look at my Seoul district of choice.

I found my hotel, the Tiffany, with a little difficulty, despite the fact that it was staring me in the face. (It's just fifty yards down the sidewalk to the right in the above picture; you could see the sign from the subway station.) I checked in, first having to make a down payment on my room. This hotel had been described in my guidebook thus: "Like an old pickup truck, this hotel doesn't look pretty but it gets the job done." This was true. It wasn't much to look at from the outside, much less the inside. But the rooms were clean and bright and suitable.

Without much ado, pausing only to wash some travel grime from my face, take off an underlayer, and re-equip myself with a camera and some water, I sallied forth into the chilly winter's day (it was much colder in Seoul than it was on Geoje, thank goodness; I'd begun to feel as though I'd miss out on winter weather entirely). My destination was the nearest Jamsil attraction to my hotel: the COEX Mall.

The outside view was pretty stunning to a boy raised in the 'burbs like myself. The mall was underground but the skyscraper above it was full of corporate offices and meeting rooms.

Reputedly the largest underground mall in Asia, COEX sports an unbelievable array of diversions: an aquarium, a massive bookstore, an arcade, a duty-free shop, and enough stores, boutiques, shops, restaurants, and snack bars to choke a 20-mule team. I spent five hours wandering around the place, almost never retracing my steps, and I still didn't see everything.

I commenced at the aquarium. It was overpriced, something in the neighborhood of 30,000 won, but I didn't care. The thought of going to an aquarium in a shopping mall rather overwhelmed my sense of prudence and frugality. It started slow but became impressive by degrees: I saw Eurasian beavers, fruit bats, sharks, sea turtles, penguins, and seals. Some of the exhibits were unimaginative, some of them oddly so (one was composed of a perfectly ordinary bed, sticking out from the wall, with a pillow and covers; only instead of a headboard there was a fish tank set into the wall).

Overall, I was pleased when I emerged from the gift shop and turned a quick left to check out the duty-free shop. This was a high priority, even higher than the Kimchi Museum, I'm saddened to admit (which I never got around to seeing). The possibility of cheap booze, unburdened by import tariffs, was now having fairly good try at overwhelming my already-overwhelmed sense of prudence and frugality. Fortunately for my pocketbook, the shop contained nothing but designer handbags, cosmetics and shoes. Chanel and Calvin Klein had got to COEX first. Disillusioned and let down, I wandered back out into the maze and wandered for a time. I stopped into the arcade and was treated to a wave of nostalgia as I beheld many of the same games I'd played in a dozen arcades and fun parks in my youth, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jambo! Safari among them. I spent a few thousand won lassoing African animals and then wandered back outside again. I stopped by Bandi & Luni's, the mammoth bookstore somewhere near the center of the mall. I mean mammoth when I say mammoth. It was at least half as big again as your standard one-story Barnes & Noble or Borders, which made sense given the fact that they sold thousands of books in both Korean and English but also had, inexplicably, a toy section to boot. I snooped about and snapped a few candid pictures (using a trick I'd picked up from a travel photographer, holding the camera at stomach height and looking down at it as though you're fiddling with the buttons on top when you're really snapping candid pictures of what's in directly in front). I did this just in case the management had some problems with pictures. I've been in a few shopping malls where they have, you see. Don't give me that look! I'm not going to blackmail anybody. I'm just deathly afraid I'll get Alzheimer's disease here someday and then I won't remember that I've done any of this cool stuff. So I take lots of pictures. If I wasn't so lazy I'd put some more into this blog.

Okay, fine, here:

That's one of the best candids I got. It was pretty crowded in there. Lots of studious Koreans reading up; I was proud to see it. By this time I'd assayed the phalanx of eateries present; they were for the most part fast food joints, but there were a few genuine restaurants mixed in. I selected one, the Uno Pizzeria (of Chicago fame), and made a reservation. To kill the 30-minute wait I wandered about a little more, but saw nothing of overtly compelling interest. My meal was delicious, pepper steak with a baked potato, soup, salad and breadsticks. I ate every last crumb. Full of food and eminently satisfied at what I'd scouted out, rehearsing the glowing reports I'd give to the others upon the morrow, I finally departed COEX Mall and waddled back to my hotel. I channel-surfed for a bit, then shut out the lights and slept contentedly.

Here ends part two...part three,
N'SEOUL TOWER, coming soon...