Tuesday, May 29, 2012

K-Movie Review: I Saw The Devil

Whoa, it's been a long time since I've touched on movies here! Unfortunate, because I set the goal a few years ago to watch one foreign movie a month. As is the case with such life-improving plans, I have really fallen short on that one. The previously-posted Korean Film Archive should help me round that one out.

A while ago I acquired* I Saw The Devil, which is a refreshingly literal translation of 악마를 보았다. Kim Ji-woon directing? Choi Min-sik starring? High expectations, everybody! The big to-do about this one is that Choi Min-sik came out of self-imposed exile to star in it. To him, it had promise.

It clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes, so it's a bit of a haul. It starts off pretty strong: Choi Min-sik as the violent rapist/murderer/psychopath Kyung-chul and Lee Byung-hun as Soo-hyun, the brooding protagonist cop out to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Bring on the popcorn.

The first hour is awesome. Soo-hyun is a cold angel of vengeance, hunting down suspects and beating the hell out of them in awesome and creative ways. The first two are nameless, useless schmucks, but when he comes across Kyung-chul there's a bit of a backstory. Soo-hyun talks to Kyung-chul's parents, posing as some kind of insurance claims investigator. "He looks so scary," Kyung-chul's mother says after Soo-hyun shows her a mugshot. Her husband dismisses Kyung-chul as a selfish piece of garbage who would never spend money on an insurance policy.

Living with Kyung-chul's parents is Kyung-chul's inexplicable son. Who the mother is (or was) never comes up, or why Kyung-chul abandoned him in the first place. Even the question of how "abandoned" the boy is is suspect, because he is able to direct Soo-hyun to Kyung-chul's house.

Kyung-chul isn't at home; Soo-hyun investigates and finds his girlfriend's engagement ring. Shit's about to get real.

Meanwhile, Kyung-chul has abducted one of the students he shuttles in a hagwon bus. He is about to get to the business of sexually assaulting her when Soo-hyun shows up.

But what's this? There's an hour left in the film, but the hero and the villain are already facing off! How was Kim Ji-woon going to handle the next hour?  What was going to happen?

Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul struggle. Soo-hyun eventually incapacitates Kyung-chul, strangling him near to death. While Kyung-chul's passed out, Soo-hyun breaks his wrist and forces a GPS signaling device/microphone down his throat. He also leaves Kyung-chul an envelope full of money.

At this point, Soo-hyun's intentions are clear: he doesn't just want to avenge the death of his (pregnant?) girlfriend, he wants to make the bastard suffer. With this revelation, the movie shifts from a "catch the bad guy before it's too late" style cop thriller to a weird psychological profile of Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul, and that's where I got bored.

Here's what I think was the intention: a morality play about the necessary limits of revenge. Here's what I watched: an excuse for sadistic violence with the occasional titillation. I stopped watching after Soo-hyun sliced out Kyung-chul's Achilles tendon. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to find out the end because I didn't feel like enduring another fifty minutes of there-for-the-sake-of-it sadism. You can read it there if you want to know; I'd prefer to keep this review relatively spoiler-free.

Despite what it may seem, I'm not too terribly squeamish a person. The Boy is a horror movie buff and as a result I've seen (and enjoyed) more than my fair share of really extreme, gory stuff.  I have no inherent objection to violence in movies, but when it seems to serve no other purpose than to just be there, it leaves me cold.

Contrast the above to Oldboy, another revenge-themed movie starring Choi Min-sik. There are scenes in Oldboy that are just as gory and awful as in I Saw The Devil, and yet nothing in Oldboy stirred  the same vague distaste as did the Achilles tendon scene did in I Saw The Devil. Granted, it's been a few years since I last re-watched Oldboy, but the lingering memory is that despite some awful brutality, the violence necessary. It's there to bolster up the pathos of the story. In I Saw The Devil, the story is merely a vehicle for violence: the more sadistic, the better.

I Saw The Devil was screened at an assortment of international film festivals, including Sundance, and racked up a whole assortment of awards: best editing, best director, best film. "Did these people see the same movie I did?" I asked myself.

 Movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes has some interesting statistics: while user reviews pegged it as 85% fresh (that is, good), the top critics rated it only as 55% (enough to qualify as "rotten"). Apparently you have to be erudite and bookish old white guy to dislike it, or something. Well, at least I'm in good company!

If you're a die-hard K-movie/revenge-porn style horror fan, it's great. Otherwise, your time is best spent elsewhere.

*downloaded via BitTorrent

Monday, May 28, 2012

Multimedia Monday: The Korean Film Archive

Not usable in class, but definitely interesting if you are any kind of cinema buff: free classic Korean movies online, with English subtitles at The Korean Film Archive. Tip of the hat to Roboseyo for sharing this one.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Korean Primer

Do you suck at Korean? Do you want to suck less at Korean? Me too.

1. 2000 Essential Words for Korean Beginners

It's not a textbook, it's a pure vocabulary book. I've finished three chapters so far, which hasn't necessarily worked miracles for my Korean, but it does give one that glow of satisfaction and accomplishment. You can find it at Kyobo books (about $10 cheaper than ordering it from that website). It has tables of irregular verb conjugations, it has an index in the back so you can easily look up words you don't know, each word has a sample sentence to demonstrate its usage as well as synonyms and antonyms, there are neat sections that teach Korean through Chinese characters (fascinating for a word nerd like me), and there's a comprehensive appendix with loads of useful tables and extras. My only complaint is that I wish the sample sentences were given English/Chinese/Japanese translations  as well, but I guess that's how you learn. Really worth the price.

2. Talk To Me In Korean

For the grammar and phrases to round out your vocabulary from the above book. Totally free, and available in either podcast form or PDF form.

3. Start Liking K-Pop

One of my favorite things to do, in terms of language acquisition/practice, is to translate song lyrics. If K-Pop isn't your thing, find a K-something. Try out Busker Busker:

Or Neon Bunny (야광토끼):

Or (last one) No Brain:

4. Find A Good Online Dictionary

And bookmark it.

What else do you do to improve your Korean?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not that this would ever happen to me in Korea...

...but I understand the sentiment so well.

(Click the comic to read it on the Cat and Girl homepage.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Multimedia Monday: Korean Hip-hop Edition

This was the last weekend of the International Music Festival up here in Uijeongbu. Because I'm a cheap clueless git, I didn't see any of the performances except the guy playing the piano on an old-timey penny farthing bicycle:

Don't ask me to explain, because I can't.

This past Sunday night was the finale concert at the Uijeongbu Arts Center (a very posh place, by the way). The big deal was that Tiger JK, a Korean-American rapper of some renown, was giving a free concert with his wife Yoon Mirae. Since this was the festival's grand finale concert, it was stupendously well-attended. Not surprising, since Tiger JK was born up here in Uijeongbu and lived here until his family moved to America when he was twelve. Definitely some regional pride involved.

It was a good time; I wasn't blown away musically, but that's to be expected. Hip-hop is a genre I've only recently begun to appreciate. Plus, with rapping, a lot of the enjoyment comes from knowing the language and appreciating turns of phrases and word play. My Korean is just not up to par for that. That said, Yoon Mirae has great stage presence. I loved her.

It was also cool to see a pop concert that was obviously about showcasing talent and not just being a pretty face on a hot bod. Before Tiger JK and his wife took the stage, there were of course some opening acts of a similar ilk, whose talents seemed far more focused on singing and rapping than on choreography. The gorgeous weather and ambiance of the venue was just the cherry on top: not too humid, comfortable temperature, clear skies, families laughing, old guys selling goofy flying light-up toys or ice cream on the outskirts of the audience.

My mind wasn't really properly blown until after the concert, when I looked up Tiger JK on YouTube and found this:  the multicultural hip-hop group "Sun Zoo," featuring Tiger JK, Yoon Mirae, and Roscoe Umali, produced by Illmind. Don't worry if your Korean is as bad as mine, it's in English. It's very NSFW, so plug in your headphones; Mom and Mom-mom should probably just skip this one entirely.

Yoon Mirae has the second verse and Tiger JK has the last verse. I'm going to be listening to this on repeat for the next few days.

What I want to see happen (or what I want to find out about if it has happened) is a K-pop/Korean hip-hop star from Uijeongbu sampling "Suicide is Painless." That would make my life.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Creating Community

One of the local foreigners up here in the 'bu has managed to come in the way of some real estate, a hair salon turned Chinese delivery restaurant turned "community center" (for lack of better word): Don's Open Brain House. I think Don would use the term "hackerspace" himself, but I get the impression that the interest for the 'Bu Crew is much more about games, movies, and language exchanges than it is about techie stuff. At least for now.

This means the book exchanges can now move out of my apartment and into a more official, third-party public space. While I'm sad to see the books go, this change signals an increase of momentum and I'm excited about that. When you create events, you need to hit the Goldilocks zone of investment: enough to get it off the ground, but not so much that it becomes your thing and no one feels comfortable taking it over. I think moving it from my personal space into a neutral, public one is a step in the right direction. The next step will be to get someone else to start creating and running the event—again, much easier with an agreed-upon public location.

I'm really excited about the Open Brain House for a few reasons, not least of which is a chance to socialize and mix with people on a more cerebral level than dinner, drinks, and noraebang. I'm a big fan of those, don't get me wrong, but nights out like that can put a dent in your wallet as well as your life expectancy. Low-key movie and game nights are as essential for me as doing grave musical injustice to Bon Jovi.

This should be an interesting long-term experiment in expat socialization.

If you want to be a creeper, Don captured the whole day on webcam. It streamed live at the time, but you can still see the footage here:

Interesting not only because you get to SEE MY FAT ASS and HEAR MY OBNOXIOUS VOICE (I'm the only fat white girl in the whole thing), but for the two Korean ladies who wandered in and out periodically (I wish I could give you a time stamp to skip right to it). The best was a granny who stopped in not once but twice. The second time was many hours after the first one, and she was surprised that we were still sitting around and shooting the shit. "You're all going to get fat!" she told us in Korean, or maybe what she meant was, "This is why you're all fat!"

She also commented to me that one of the other women there—blonde and slim and very fair-skinned—was "so pretty." I agreed with her, but not without feeling a bit like a dried-up dog turd. Thanks, granny!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Teacher's Day Aftermath

Wow, apparently I've been away! I have no excuse other than a sense of feeling very busy and hectic, though my schedule isn't really any more or less terrible than normal.

Anyway, it was Teacher's Day on Tuesday, and naturally I am obligated to share with you my haul. It is, to be honest, more and nicer than what I was expecting (nothing).

While in high school, Teacher's Day may actually be about thoughtful gestures from the students themselves, with younger ones it seems much more like a parental thing. It's hard to tell, because this is my first Teacher's Day here in Korea (in 2009 I was in Indonesia, remember?).

I have to say, the parents at this school are definitely much more considerate and thoughtful than at either Cassandra or Sherlock; I'd say on a monthly basis food or soy milk juice boxes appear on the table in the teacher's room, from so-and-so's mother, and not for any particular reason that I can discern (Teacher's Day, midterms, etc). They didn't disappoint on Teacher's Day, either: the food fairy left us donuts, grape juice boxes, and these delicious and addictive and void of nutritional content crispy salty rice rolls.

Anyway, I'm sure that the flower and the chocolates (from the same student) are less from a student and more from a parent. Likewise with the orange leopard print silk scarf (though maybe the student picked it out). It's not my normal style but I like the bright color. I'm thinking about switching this with the similar, but much less cheerful, silk scarf I have covering my eyesore of a TV I never use.

I do burn incense on it, though (as you can see in the photo) and I don't like to accidentally ruin gifts. Shit I buy for myself, on the other hand? Fair game!

Also note my ghetto-fab "vase" aka "water bottle with some washi tape." I can't tell if it looks cute, or if I look like a douchebag hipster "upcycled crafting" type.

Just for the lulz, here's some teaching-related stuff on Etsy my fellow teachers may enjoy, appreciate, and/or laugh at.

'Teacher's Day!' by Kokoba

















Thursday, May 10, 2012

Student Profiles: Elline

I'd like to start this one off by saying that my students' English names are very normal, for the most part. I'm not really fond of the whole "English name" idea, or taking a fake $language name while studying a foreign language in general, but that's another post for another day.

So, Elline is one of the stranger names I have, and strange only because of its irregular spelling. (It's pronounced Aileen, if you were curious.)

There's not much to say about her except that she is tiny and adorable and very very funny. I want to put her in my pocket and take her with me. For the first few months she was very quiet in class, and very shy, but she's gotten used to me I guess. The best way to describe old Elline is: Fluttershy.

Shy Fluttershy

Now her personality's come out. She's still quiet and a good student (part of why I like her, not gonna lie), but she laughs a lot more and actually tries to start conversations with me and answers my questions.

"How are you guys today?"
"I'm bad." Elline made a face.
"Today, math academy test."
"Not very good?"

The reason I'm even posting this (aside from popular request) (hi Mom!) is because I had class with her not ten minutes ago. I always play 묵찌빠 (muk-jji-ppa) with this particular class when I finish, it's part of the routine. When I first started teaching, Elline was too bashful to go a round of muk-jji-ppa with me at the end of class. But now?

"Teacher, muk-jji-ppa," Elline demanded after I announced my time was up, her brow furrowed with seriousness. She held out her fist expectantly and I obliged. She lost the first round. Elline wouldn't have any of this and shook her head. "No!"

I played her one more round and she won. She let out a quiet little "yay" and then went about her business.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Interview: South Korea, Indie Gaming, and Video Game Curfews for Children

Allow me to put on my geek hat for a minute, you guys.

One of the geek blogs I follow has a really interesting interview with a three-man South Korean indie game developer, "Turtle Cream," about their new release, Sugar Cube: Bittersweet Factory. It sounds like a fun little platformer that maybe I'll get for The Boy/myself at a later date, but what's interesting even to non-geek readers is this news about Korea's laws about kids and computer games (and, for gamers, thoughts about Korea's indie gaming community). Quoting from the article (NB S.P. is Park Sun, the designer and marketer for Turtle Cream):

Unwinnable: Recently you said that you won’t release your games in Korea or even in the Korean language because of some of your government’s policies. Can you explain the situation for us?

S.P.: The zeal for children’s education in Korea is very high. Many people already know (even Obama knows). Korean parents don’t like anything that interrupts children’s study. Games are the same. Children play games when they must study and that’s what parents don’t like. Grown-ups make the government’s policy. They are parents, or they want to win elections to make parents happy.

Right now, the shutdown policy has started. Children and low-teens can’t play after 12:00 PM midnight. Any kind of game including indie freeware must be rated by the GRB [Game Rating Board]. And now they try to charge big fees from big game developers. And more and more. Too many of them.

Unwinnable: Why do you think these policies go too far?

S.P.: I’m living in South Korea, NOT North Korea. It’s nonsense. In a democratic country, the government prohibits game playing after midnight? It seems to invade human rights.

As I think, it’s all about point of view. Many newspapers and media tend to claim games are [part of the] axis of evil. Games are hazards; games hurt society, so they want to prohibit games like cigarettes and alcohol. Even some members of congress and the big newspapers said that games are another kind of drug.

I’d like to ask you, who are reading this interview: are games really a social evil? Is it bad to seek fun? Everything must be productive?

Unwinnable: Some people say the government is just trying to protect kids from game addiction. What are your thoughts on that?

S.P.: Of course, I don’t protect people who only play games all day – not working at all. If something is a social issue, it must be improved. But prohibition by law is different. Is it a good solution? To minimize the side effect of games, it doesn’t have to be prohibition by law. It could be better to have some filter, rather than policy such as a shield.

Unwinnable: How worried are you about your financial situation if you’re refusing to release Sugar Cube and other future games in your native country?

S.P.: The Korean gaming scene is all dedicated to online gaming. Sometimes users talk about indie gaming in the community, but the indie game market is almost nothing in Korea. Even if we release our game in the Korean language, only a few gamers will enjoy.

As we told you before, our game must be rated by the GRB if we’d like to release our game in Korea. Can we earn enough funds to be rated in Korea? And what about the shutdown? Even our game must have the system to do the shutdown, let younger players stop playing after midnight.

It’s sad that we can’t release our game in Korea, while we are making games in Korea. However it’s not a financial disaster. Anyway, we hope foreign gamers enjoy and play our games more. We are Earthlings, not only Korean.

Unwinnable: Was it difficult to start an indie game studio in Korea?

S.P.: Two big difficulties.

First, there is no market to sell indie games in Korea.

The second is, there are no friends to communicate with.

As you already know, the Korean gaming market is all dedicated to PC online games. I told you already so let’s skip.

The market doesn’t exist, so developers don’t exist. Recently some smartphone games gained good money and fame, so some smaller teams are united. However they are somewhat different from us indies. We are at Galapagos in many ways.

Unwinnable: Many Koreans feel a lot of pressure to study as hard as possible and find work at a Korean conglomerate or chaebol. Did you feel this kind of pressure too? What pushed you to go indie?

S.P.: That’s it. That’s major, so Korean society doesn’t like gaming. Just study hard; just get a job in a big company. So they hate anything that disturbs studying.

Did every worker at a major company have a dream to be a worker in big company? Maybe not. In recent Korean society, we can’t have dreams. It’s like a BIG COMPANY which produces SIMILAR COOKIES. It’s suffocating. But we don’t like to be cookies. We’d like to be Sugar Cubes, even if we are less-tasted than cookies.

Right now, we are small. However we will improve. We can prove life with a dream is possible. With our improvements, Koreans could consider games as better things.

Minecraft is really popular with my students right now. I mentioned before that two of my more advanced students even did their bi-monthly presentation on it. It'll be interesting to see if the growing/sustained interest in Minecraft will inspire more indie programmers like Turtle Cream, because my kids have a very good sense of where Minecraft came from and its humble origins. (Though, they did have a kitten when I told them Notch is Swedish.) Maybe there's not a market or an audience for the small indie guys now, but once my students are old enough to have purchasing power, I think that could change.

Also, to me it sounds like Park is very narrow in his criticism of these new fade-out laws. The Korean government also passed a curfew law for hagwons a few years ago; obviously a midnight curfew for games isn't only about "taking away fun for more studying" but also "get the heck home and get some rest." Or at least I hope it is? I think the issues with the GRB are much more worthy of fuss-making.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Multimedia Monday: Who's on First?

Someone translated Abbot and Costello's immortal "Who's On First?" routine into Korean. Whoever they are, I could kiss them. I'd also ask them to work on some classic Marx brothers bits.

Entirely in Korean:

The original with Korean subtitles:

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The "Microaggressions" Article Everyone Has Been Talking About

Looks like this blog is going to be current for once!

So I have seen people everywhere linking to this article about microaggression and relationships between Japanese and foreigners and saying, "This is my life!" My reactions, in chronological order:
    Japan and foreigner microaggression
  1. "This hasn't been my experience at all. Maybe I just haven't been here long enough."
  2. "I wonder if shit like this would piss me off."
  3. "This guy seems kind of bitter."

"This hasn't been my experience at all."

It just hasn't. It took me fourteen months to get a, "Wow, you use chopsticks really well," from somebody. The first time Jong-min and I had dinner together, he even made fun of my poor use of chopsticks: "It's like watching a deer learn to walk."  Sometimes my students refuse to believe I can eat spicy food until I demonstrate it by chowing down on some Shin Ramen without any water. The only microaggressive comment I ever get consistently is about my Korean, and my Korean accent. I could see years of that getting frustrating. As it is, it already makes me feel super guilty and self-conscious because my Korean is really quite awful (and should be better). For the moment, I just demur and insist that it isn't really. Maybe if I stayed another four years I'd start raging out and flipping tables.

The other difference is maybe it's a "Seoul versus everywhere else" thing. When I lived in Bundang, I got more comments about my Korean (and how great it was) in four months than I did for an entire year in Uijeongbu. People seemed to default to English far more often. My foreign friends who speak decent Korean talk about Koreans who insist on using English even after they've demonstrated their relative fluency in Korean, and those stories almost always seem to happen in Seoul. No one's ever amazed when I pick up chopsticks, dowse my bibimbap in gochujang, or order a drink at a bar.

The last reason I can identify for this is perhaps also related to the Korean company I keep: former Korean co-workers who earn their living working alongside foreigners and thus aren't really surprised by any of the things we can do; and Koreans who speak English with some level of fluency.

In conclusion: I haven't noticed microaggressive behavior in excess of what I consider "normal" or "tolerable." Certainly nothing like the kind of ridiculous nonsense minority groups in the US typically face. (For example, the "Where are you really from?" question.) This may be because of my location, because I haven't been here long enough, or because of the company I keep. I can see why in greater quantities it would be frustrating  and I don't fault anyone for being annoyed with this kind of behavior.

"I wonder if shit like this would piss me off."

Most of the time I would say I'm a mellow person. Yes, I have my blustery table-flipping rage-fueled moments (actually I have a lot) (especially after a bottle of soju), but they're gone as soon as they arrive. It's a rare thing for anger to sit and fester within me. Annakin Skywalker I am not. Something annoys me? I write an entry here, complain to a couple of friends, and then it's like it never happened. 

Honestly, and even though I understand on an intellectual level why they're annoying, these microaggressions that the author mentions seem really petty to me. I'd like to think that they wouldn't piss me off; not in the same way as my cell phone taking a massive dump and ruining my weekend sent me over the edge last Saturday, certainly. Do I have any evidence to believe that I would be able to brush my shoulders off indefinitely? I guess not, but I would honestly be surprised if such things got to me. I mean if I can spend 20-odd years being a fatty without it getting me down, I'm sure I could handle Koreans. But again—different people have different boundaries and different thresholds so I can certainly understand why it would bother someone. Or why it would even bother me eventually. Certainly I am as capable of self-delusion as the next person, if not more so.

"This guy seems kind of bitter."

I didn't drift to this thought until I saw a comment posted on Breda's Facebook after she linked to the article in question:
The guy who wrote that, "Debito Arudou" is a total asshole. He's racist, cynical, and somewhat of a hypocrite. He lives in Japan now, but all he seems to do is talk shit about the culture and wants the culture to be more like the US.
I recognize that this is a textbook ad hominem attack, but it does highlight the need for greater context. First of all, do other foreigners in Japan relate to this experience? Is he describing a typical situation, or is he exaggerating for the sake of making a point? The way foreigners in Korea seem to be reacting is: yes, I've had this experience too; no, it's not exaggerated.

I am not trying to condescend here, or deny that microaggressive behavior exists, or to imply that I am so lofty as to believe myself better than people who are frustrated by this. Microaggression is something that happens every time a mainstream culture encounters a minority culture, and every time it happens it's problematic and needs unpacking. It's good that this idea is entering the conversation. I think this might be a case where if enough A-list K-bloggers pick this up, the Korean netizens who also follow these blogs will take the time to read the article and think about the implications of their most well-meaning questions.

That all being said, I'm moving away from examining microaggression in and of itself and more towards people's reactions towards it and towards their expat lives in general. In the case of Arudou, what is the larger context of his attitude? If, indeed, all of his published writing is talking shit about Japanese culture and bemoaning the fact that it isn't more like the US (or Canada, or England, or wherever), that's kind of important.

I guess here comes the important part, folks. This is the point I want to drive home.

Living in a foreign country for a long time doesn't necessarily make you any more enlightened or sensitive to the culture, though it helps. An expression from one of my CELTA instructors, originally about teaching but really applicable to life in general:

"Some teachers have three years' experience. Other teachers have one year's experience three times over."

Never grow complacent. Never stop growing, asking, learning.

Because if you're expecting Korea to be just like home only with Asian window-dressing, you are going to be disappointed. You can have that expectation fresh off the boat, or you can have that expectation after you acquire linguistic fluency or start dating a Korean or start a family or after whatever milestone you set. It's sneaky like that.

When you start expecting that—when you start thinking Korea should be just like home, that people should magically know to act as if you're Korean, now that you've done X, Y, or Z—you're going to be frustrated. Is it fair? No, not really. But welcome to life. Ask immigrants, refugees, foreign adoptees, or anyone else who looks different from the mainstream back in your country of origin, because they can tell you all about it.

 Is it presumptuous and frustrating when a Korean assumes that because you're a foreigner, you're American? Or that you can't read Hangul? Or that you can't eat spicy food? Yes, of course. But step back and think about Korea's recent history for a minute: a violent civil war and a continued American/mostly white/"Western" military presence that has not always had an easy relationship with the populace (nor the most mature, educated, or responsible of members). You can't take every conversation with Mr. Kim on the street or Mr. Park the cab driver and put it in a vacuum without that context.

(Cab drivers who say they don't pick up people of color because "everyone knows they don't pay their fare" or children who squeal deliriously and shout, "Ugly! Ugly!" at images of African-American entertainers, I should note, are a separate issue entirely and not what I'm talking about here.)

Korea is changing. The more foreigners come to Korea and live and work and establish roots forge a presence, the more the annoying stereotypes about our chopstick prowess, culinary preferences, and countries of origin will change until they're no longer necessary. Every time you have a positive, friendly, and educational exchange with a Korean, that stereotype dies a little bit more; becomes, both for that individual and for the culture, a little less true. This doesn't give Koreans a pass, though. Understanding is a two-way street. Sometimes there'll be assholes who just don't get it, but they are hardly unique to Korea, nor are they in any way the norm or the majority. Remember that, and be a pimp. Brush your shoulders off.

Oh, and happy Children's Day. And Cinco de Mayo. I plan to celebrate both of them by drinking miniature tequila shots after I go to Camarata Music Company's performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah. It's at the Methodist church near City Hall in Seoul at 7:30. You should go, if you can. They're excellent.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bukhansan Walk Number Two

After I got my hair cut on Labor Day, I decided to enjoy the beautiful weather and go for another walk (not quite a hike) in Bukhansan National Park, which is within easy walking distance of my apartment.

Uijeongbu Howon-dong South Korea
Another view on my walk to work. Mountains make me happy.
Last time I went to Hoeryongsa; this time I chose another fork in the road and wandered to parts uncharted. I found some stairs on the side of the paved path and followed them up.

Bukhansan Hiking Path Uijeongbu

Bukhansan hiking path Uijeongbu

Much to my surprise, they led to a secluded, solitary grave site. I have no idea who's buried here. (Those fresh-looking flowers in the vases? Artificial.)

Bukhansan grave site Uijeongbu

It's an incredible view. I felt like I was the only person alive.

Bukhansan grave site hiking Uijeongbu
Surrounded by flowers, to boot.

This wasn't the hermitage, though. After I had a reading-and-snack break, I continued up the side of the mountain. 

Bukhansan hiking trail hermitage Uijeongbu

At this point it got buggy as hell. Gnats materialized out of nowhere to nag at me. No matter how many I killed, it seemed there were always four or five following me around. Someone driving a car down the path thought my futile attempts to swat the bugs away were me waving at him, and waved back.

It was a short walk—only half a kilometer—but it was steep, steeper than it looks like in this picture. But I persevered and made it to my destination!

Bukhansan hermitage Uijeongbu Buddhist temple

The hermitage is a lot more impressive than Hoeryongsa. I felt supremely awkward, though: every step I took on the gravel seemed to echo throughout the entire mountain. I was sure the monks were going to come out of their meditation to yell at me in Korean and chase me away.

It was so serene. Part of me would love to run away and join a Buddhist monastery. Buddhist nunnery? Why wouldn't you want to live here?

Bukhansan hermitage Uijeongbu Buddhist hiking

I explored the grounds a bit, debated going into the tiny little shrine room to meditate (but decided against, for fear of the angry Korean monks), and ultimately contented myself with sitting on a large rock and enjoying the quiet. Eventually I noticed that the sun was getting low and began the walk back to my apartment.

Day well spent.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

My 120% Cool Haircut

20% cooler rainbow dash mlp:fim
It needs to be about twenty
percent cooler.
Now that the weather is turning to summer, it's getting to be time for me to chop my hair off. For years growing up I was terrified of having short hair (traumatic seventh grade haircut), but after college I converted. It's cooler in the summertime, it's easier to wash, and bad hair days aren't as bad if there's half as much there to begin with.

When I worked at Sherlock Academy, I would just trim it myself rather than face the prospect of a haircut in a FOREIGN LANGUAGE.  While I was at Cassandra, I decided to be a grown-up and went with a coworker to a Juno Hair place in Bundang. This time I would be all by myself in Uijeongbu.

I remembered my friend Maddie had a positive experience at 120% Cool Avenue. Conveniently, they just opened a new branch in Uijeongbu's kind of posh new downtown, so I decided it was high time to get rid of my nightmare hair.

I went on May 1, the labor holiday, so it seemed everyone else in town had also decided to get their hair did. 120% Cool Avenue is a salon of the posh variety, with tasteful decorating and complimentary tea and coffee.  The girl informed me it would be an hour wait. I said fine, and I read and sipped my peach tea while I waited.

It seemed that they were waiting for the stylist with the best English, as another woman who came after me was led away to the shampoo station before me, but whatever. I had nothing else planned. A stylist with a slight perm and a pixie cut came over and asked if I wouldn't mind waiting another twenty minutes or so. I said it was fine, really. I had no concept of time as I had been happily lost in my book. Her English was really good and I hoped she would be my stylist.

Not long after that, another girl came and led me to the shampoo station. If I am ever a rich and eccentric old biddy, I will pay someone to shampoo my hair for me the rest of my life. It's just so relaxing to sit back and let someone else wash your hair! Definitely one of the best parts about getting your hair cut. (But when I am a rich and eccentric old biddy, I will still wash myself, I should point out.)

Of course, the wearing-the-ugly-apron-with-your-wet-hair-and-stare-in-the-mirror part is not so nice. I wasn't feeling very attractive after the shampoo girl accompanied to my little station. I took off my glasses to soften the blow and waited for the stylist.

Fortunately for me, it was indeed the English-speaking woman with the wavy pixie 'do. She asked me what I wanted and I explained (bangs trimmed and hair styled back into a bob). She understood right away and got to work, explaining periodically what she was doing and why. Like any good hair dresser she chatted with me a bit, too. She asked where I was from, how long I'd been in Korea, if I was a teacher, if this was my natural hair color, and so forth. She also commented on how wavy my hair is and the streaks of white.

(Aside, I get asked about my natural hair color a lot. I have no idea why, as my hair is really the most typical foreigner hair color ever. Maybe it's because the color doesn't match my very very black eyebrows?)

The end result was perfect and just what I had in mind. The shampoo girl came over to admire her handiwork.

"Wow, you look so young," she said. "Can I ask, how old are you?"

"In Korea? I'm 27. I have a baby face."

The stylist gave a quick translation to the shampoo girl and they both gasped.

"Wow, you really have baby face," my stylist replied. "You look like high school student!"

I laughed and said thanks and took my stylist's card. She actually had ones printed with just her English name (Jennifer) (even in Hangul, the card reads "Jennifer"), and explained that walk-ins are okay but it's probably better to make an appointment.

twenty percent cooler 120% cool avenue haircut uijeongbuI have to echo Maddie's sentiments and recommend 120% Cool Avenue. The number for their downtown location in Uijeongbu is 031-843-8875. Jennifer did a great job with my hair, spoke really good English, and was very communicative throughout the process to make sure I got what I wanted. It's an expensive haircut by Korean standards (W 20,000) but considering what you'd pay at home, totally worth it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Best Pizza in Seoul (Or, Thank You For Sucking, LG)

LG is my cell phone provider and with my most recent phone it seems they've just given up. I'd say about a third of the texts I send Jong-min never get there, and instead he gets a message saying they're from a number no longer in use. And, likewise, some of his texts never get to me.

Neither of us realized this until about 9:30 this past Saturday night, when he finally got a hold of me by actually calling and I found out that no, he hadn't been blowing me off all day (he was supposed to come up to visit me in Uijeongbu, and this was the third in a series of scheduled visits that inevitably had to be put off), my phone had just been fucking me over.

Fortunately I was with a friend of mine with a real apartment and an electric piano so I blew off some of my rage-against-the-machine by beating the shit out of the first few bars of Schubert's Moment Musical No. 5.

Relevant to this, I guess: I took piano lessons for all of my growing-up years and (until the end of high school) took it fairly seriously. I was an orch dork and a bando too, but piano is my first (and best) instrument; this piece is my go-to rage song/musical therapy choice. I played it a lot in high school, because I was a stupid teenager who was pissed off a lot. I've mostly since mellowed out, so the fact that I felt it necessary to abuse poor Schubert says a lot about how I felt at that particular moment in time.

Beating up Schubert did a lot to make me feel better, but on Sunday I still woke up pissed. Determined to make the best of weekend plans ruined, I texted Jong-min and said I was free if he wanted to get dinner in Seoul to make up for our failed outing.

Lest I sound like a desperate creeper: back in my Sherlock days, Jong-min and I would easily see each other once a week, if not twice. Since I've come back, our schedules haven't been nearly as complementary and we're lucky to see each other twice a month. A missed friend-date now stings a bit more than it would otherwise. 

Besides, I figured it was about time I learn where the 3100 (Daejin Uni - Uijeongbu - Gangnam) bus stop is, so we decided to meet at 6:30 at Sinnonhyeon station and grab some eats. 

Our meandering took us to a place a few blocks back from Gangnam-ro with the banal name of New York Pizza. It seemed a lot quieter than the surrounding coffee shops and restaurants (some of which had lines out the door), and the entrance boasted an owner who had gone to New York city to learn how to make New York-style pizza.

After five minutes faffing about and debating whether we should try a nearby Spanish restaurant instead, we went for the pizza. "It's hard to fuck up pizza. Even bad pizza is still good food."

They didn't fuck it up, though. It was amazing.

I'm not the kind of person who gets homesick a lot. The things I do crave, I either do without (whole wheat potato bread) or make myself (pirogi). Pizza isn't really one of those things. I don't have the beef with Korean pizza that some people do. Sure, it's different than home but it's still good enough to eat. There's even an Italian place in Minlak-dong my friends and I frequent that does really tasty Italian-style artisan pizzas.

But American New York style pizza, greasy and thin with a nice dough-y crust and without any renegade corn is not that common here. There is a niche to fill and New York Pizza does it well. So well that I didn't realize I missed it until I had some. Jong-min was equally impressed. 

American pizza in Seoul New York Pizza Gangnam
There are some foreigners who
would kill a man for this.
The owner speaks pretty good English. He even came over to ask me what I thought of the pizza (I guess because as a foreigner/American I was like a litmus test for him?), which I couldn't praise enough. Because holy shit.

I'm pretty sure the place is rather new. I'm not seeing it mentioned online anywhere, nor does it seem to have a web presence (at least one in English).  For all I know, I may have been the first foreign customer to find the place. I really hope it takes off, and I see no reason why it shouldn't, because there are so many American/Canadians homesick for exactly that. The downside is, it's damn expensive pizza (like 27,000 won for a 14" "couple" pizza), but maybe he'll be able to bring the prices down in the future, once business picks up a bit.

They make your pizza to order right behind the counter, which is always a fun time. The interior is nice, too. And either they pay for some kind of Internet radio, or they keep the stereo loaded up with a nice selection of old anglophone top 40 hits, (or they keep it tuned to whatever American military radio station there is?) because this was the first time I've heard The Monkees, Deep Purple, or George Harrison while I've been out and about. That was just as much fun for me as the food. (Jong-min, who is not the most musically literate of people, clearly was not as amused as I was.)

In fact, recounting just how tasty it was has pretty much wiped the memory of my shit phone from my brain, which was my whole reason for posting in the first place. That's how good it is, guys: it's magical memory-wiping pizza. It's like the neuralizer from Men in Black

So, if my phone is so shit, why should I be thanking LG?

Well, if their service hadn't sucked, Jong-min would have come up to Uijeongbu on Saturday. If he had come up to Uijeongbu on Saturday, I wouldn't have felt the need to suggest we get dinner in Gangnam on Sunday. And if we hadn't had dinner in Gangnam on Sunday, then we wouldn't have found New York Pizza. .

New York Pizza is near exit 10 of Gangnam station, set up the hill, a few blocks away from the main road. Because we were just kind of meandering, I didn't keep track of where we were. It'll take you a bit of hunting, but if you're a bit homesick and in need of artery-clogging pizza, head to Gangnam to see if you can find New York Pizza. Absolutely worth it.