Wednesday, August 27, 2014

my yearly trip into the maw

Every year, I descend into the labyrinthine depths of Korean bureaucracy as I visit the Immigration Office to get my visa renewed. Tomorrow morning, I rise early and make the trip over to the local branch of the South Korean government to register my presence, pay proper homage, and make all the appropriate ritual sacrifices (expect all the usual elephant parades, incense, and incantations). If all my documents are in order, the process ought to be as quick and painless as being swiftly beheaded by a samurai. If, however, my documents are found not to be in order, then all the elephants and incense in the world will not be enough to help me.

It's always best to hit Immigration early. I'm waking up at 6:30AM.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Namsan: lessons learned and relearned

I've been doing nightly hikes up Namsan, disdaining the stairs and instead heading up the small mountain along one of the bus routes (there are two such routes: one for buses going up, the other for buses going down). The first time I did the bus route, which was during the day, I walked faster than everyone else on the path. The past two times, however, I've walked at night, and have rediscovered that, even though nighttime walks mean fewer hikers and tourists, they also mean that the serious walkers and runners are out, so I've had my ass handed to me by everyone from young, lanky, single girls to old couples, all of whom are in more of a hurry to get up the mountain than I am. Runners are, it goes without saying, in a different class altogether, and I have no intention of measuring myself against them. I don't see myself ever running up Namsan from the bottom.

By switching to walking at night, I've relearned that this is, by far, the better time of day to hike up the mountain. Although I still end up dripping with sweat, I enjoy the cooler temperatures and pleasant breezes that caress the mountainside. Memories of Namsan hikes during my time at Sookmyung Women's University are returning to me; I'm eagerly awaiting winter, when I'll have the mountain almost all to myself except for the most dedicated of hikers and runners. Namsan has an eerie beauty at night (when it's not serving as a cozy little Lovers' Lane, that is). During the day, it's little more than a crass tourist trap.

And about those tourists: I've learned that the Chinese have well and thoroughly taken over Korea. Chinese folks are everywhere, all over the mountain, and the unpleasantly twanging, yowling phonemes of the Chinese language assault my ears at the crowded summit. It's easy to see why Koreans feel the need to learn more Chinese these days: China casts a significant shadow over the peninsula. The Middle Kingdom is already South Korea's largest trading partner, and it's my understanding that Jejudo, which used to be a fairly unknown, fairly pristine island back in the 1980s, is now just as rife with Chinese as Namsan is—not just tourists, but also property owners. The situation in Korea may be somewhat analogous to the Japanese invasion of America during the 1980s. On Namsan, I've noticed that many of the cashiers at many of the shops and restaurants can speak to tourists in Korean, English, and Chinese. I suppose that's only necessary.

My walk up Namsan takes me from my neighborhood, about twelve minutes away from the university, onto the campus, then over to Trailhead 8 and eventually to the bus route, which is a much longer hike than the path I used to walk when I lived across the street from Sookmyung. Back then, from 2005 to 2008, a walk up Namsan took less than 50 minutes, one way. Now, the walk is over an hour. But it's all good: I need the exercise. And there are different sights to see along this route. Here, for example, is the Buddha that stands in Dongguk's main quad. This is the same Buddha that had been defiled by some Christians (or by people looking to make Christians look bad) who spray-painted "Only Jesus!" onto the statue's pedestal.

The ascending bus route that I now walk wasn't originally familiar to me. It's a better route, in many ways, than the descending bus route that I used to walk, not least because a hiker will pass by more stone walls that remind him that Namsan used to serve a military purpose. I've also seen curious-looking stairways leading away from the road; one of these days, I'll have to explore those, too.

This is my final week of vacation before I start teaching again, but it's going to be busy: on Wednesday, I'm at the Golden Goose all day; on Thursday, I have to jaunt over to Immigration to renew my E-1 visa; on Friday, I've got an all-day orientation at Dongguk (I'll probably skip the dinner at the end since that's optional). Classes begin on Monday, if I'm not mistaken, and we get our first break not long after: the national holiday of Chuseok comes early this year and runs from September 7 to 9. The 8th and the 9th are Monday and Tuesday, so I'll be able to enjoy a long weekend. Somehow, I'll figure out a way to sneak the hiking in. Now that I've started Namsan-ing again, it'd be a shame not to keep it up.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Lone Survivor and "Lone Survivor": review

I've never tried simultaneously reviewing both a movie and the book it's based on, so here goes nothing. Things could get a little confusing. Per my normal stylistic conventions, I'll use italics to indicate the book Lone Survivor and quotation marks to indicate the movie "Lone Survivor."*

"Lone Survivor," the movie

The movie "Lone Survivor" was directed by hit-and-miss action director Peter Berg (whom you may remember acting in TV shows and movies like "Chicago Hope," "Cop Land" with Sylvester Stallone, and "Smokin' Aces"). It's one of his better directorial efforts, perhaps because Berg was crafting a hagiography, of sorts, for the fallen Navy SEALs whose lives he chronicles. "Lone Survivor" stars Mark Wahlberg as SEAL Team 10 sniper Marcus Luttrell, the titular "lone survivor," with Taylor Kitsch as team leader Michael "Mikey" Murphy, Emile Hirsch as comm specialist Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster rounding out the team as Matthew "Axe" Axelson, the team's other sniper.

The basic story revolves around an operation gone bad: Operation Red Wings,** which took place in the badlands of the Afghan portion of the Hindu Kush, a forbidding mountain range stretching 500 miles from Afghanistan to Pakistan, just south of the Himalayas. The mission objective was to capture and bring to justice a particular insurgent leader, named Ahmad Shah*** in the movie (but given a pseudonym, Ben Sharmak, in the book), who was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty US Marines and numerous local innocents. A four-man team would be dropped in the mountains to reconnoiter, and the mission would proceed from there.

In a morbid comedy of errors, the mission goes bad from the start. Communication problems prevent the team from regularly updating their position, and worst of all, the team is accidentally discovered by a small cluster of Afghan tribesmen. The tribesmen are captured, and a few crucial minutes of the film are spent as the SEAL team members debate the fate of their captives. Conscience eventually wins out: Luttrell's fear of what the American media will do if the SEALs should kill these men in cold blood leads to the release of the prisoners, at least one of whom immediately speeds back downhill to warn the nearby village of the Americans' presence. The Americans can do little but try to seek higher ground in the hopes of using their faulty comm equipment to request extraction.

The fighters who surround the team prove to be frighteningly quick at navigating the terrain, and sooner than expected, the SEALs find themselves in an intense firefight. Superior training and excellent marksmanship help the SEALs bring down dozens of insurgents, but dozens more come to replace them, and the SEALs don't leave the conflict unscathed. Having failed to reach higher ground, the Americans have little choice but to make a rapid descent—several times. Berg's sound editing at this point isn't subtle: we hear every crunch and crack as the SEALs literally tumble down the mountainside in hopes of reaching a better, more tenable position.

One by one, the SEALs are whittled down despite their ferocity and bravery. Soon enough, only Luttrell is left (this isn't exactly a spoiler: the movie begins by showing us that Luttrell is the only survivor), and he does what he can to hide from the insurgents. Wounded and barely able to move, the soldier is found by some Pashtun tribesmen who have no loyalty to the Taliban and who practice the ancient custom of pashtunwali (spelled "Pashtunwalai" in the book), a strict code of conduct that commands the welcome of any guest and enjoins the host to protect his guest with his life from any enemy. The apparent head of this group of tribesmen is Muhammad Gulab who, despite not knowing much English, manages to communicate his benevolent intentions to Luttrell; the latter tentatively accepts his care. Ultimately, Luttrell is rescued after the tribal elder makes the long trek to the nearest American base, bringing with him a note written by Luttrell. The Americans arrive at the village where Luttrell is being held, just in time to save their comrade from a Taliban attack, as the Taliban had been hoping to take Luttrell by force from his Afghan protectors, who had refused to hand the American over because of the pashtunwali code. Luttrell is taken, barely alive, back to Bagram.

"Lone Survivor" is a simple story, simply told. I sometimes wished, while watching the movie, that the story had been placed in more capable hands, but Peter Berg does a decent job as director. As I soon found out from reading Luttrell's book, the movie version of events diverged significantly from reality, but the movie got the most important points right: (1) the SEALs were accidentally discovered; (2) the decision to release the Afghan captives had to do with fear of American media reaction; (3) the SEALs were surrounded before they had a chance to reach higher ground; (4) an attempted extraction of the SEALs resulted in the shooting-down of a US helicopter; (5) a gravely wounded Luttrell was taken in by Pashtun tribesmen.

The movie sometimes veered into action-movie caricature, and at one moment even played a serious scene for its comedic value. I found this off-putting and inappropriate, but in the end, the lapse in tonal consistency wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Those critiques aside, the movie kept up the intensity and gave us a good idea of what a serious firefight in the mountains would look like. Special praise should go to Ben Foster as Axe; his soulful face spoke volumes, even when he had to play scenes with one eye closed because of injury. (Axe's death is, in my opinion, the most tragic of the lot.) CGI effects were kept, thankfully, to a minimum, which made the action believable. In all, I felt tired after watching "Lone Survivor," but to me, it wasn't as intense of an experience as was "Platoon." Your own mileage may vary.

Lone Survivor, the book

Let me say from the outset that Marcus Luttrell isn't the most articulate writer. He actually co-wrote Lone Survivor with the help of military-fiction writer Patrick Robinson, who could have done more to smooth out the many kinks in Luttrell's prose. So let's just get that critique out of the way and be charitable to Luttrell who, despite lacking a writerly voice, had a story to tell and who felt he had to do his part to honor his fallen comrades. I salute him in that regard. He carried out his personal mission to the best of his ability—which is actually one of the central points he makes about what it means to be a US Navy SEAL: everything you do in life, you do to the very best of your ability.

Luttrell's story actually fulfills several purposes. First, Luttrell is at pains to explain the source of SEAL pride, which is the direct result of the grueling training that all SEALs must go through. The SEALs enroll the best of the best, then they whittle those numbers down by about two-thirds. The remaining men who make it through SEAL training have been annealed by trials known only to a very elite group of people in the entire world.

Second, Luttrell—perhaps in spite of himself—shows how that pride changed and deepened when it was brought up against the harsh reality of fighting mountain insurgents who were not confused and incompetent. Luttrell, in his book, expresses frank astonishment at the native fighters' ability to move as quickly as they do, and to adapt to American military tactics in a swift and sure manner.

Third, Luttrell wishes to express thanks not only to his fallen teammates, but to the huge contingent in Texas, composed of relatives and friends, who held vigil when news of the failed Operation Redwing first got out. The Luttrell ranch was besieged by a friendly crowd of over three hundred people—like the Spartans at Thermopylae—who camped out and formed, for a brief while, a close-knit little community of faith and hope as they all waited for news of Marcus's safe return from the mission. "A SEAL isn't dead until you see the body," was the constant refrain of SEALs who stayed at the ranch, all in an effort to comfort Marcus's mother. Luttrell also has a twin brother, and he writes that his twin firmly stated that he was "in contact" with Marcus, so he couldn't be dead.

Fourth, Luttrell writes, with tenderness and respect, about the Pashtun tribespeople who took him in. He admits he understood little to nothing about Pashtunwalai, the code of honor, until he was returned to Bagram and had a chance to speak with some experts who understood regional customs and lore.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Luttrell rails against "the liberals" and "the liberal media," who he felt had tied, and still do tie, the hands of soldiers who simply want to carry out their government's policy without unreasonable constraint. It's obvious that Luttrell feels guilt for his comrades' deaths since he played such an important part in deciding to let the captured tribesmen go. He just as obviously chafes against the military's ROE, rules of engagement, which Luttrell feels have been crafted in part as a response to fear about public reaction to the inherent and unavoidable horrors and injustices of war (see my earlier post).

Much of Lone Survivor, then, is devoted to a detailed explanation of SEAL training, after which the story switches back and forth between the lonely fight in the Afghan mountains and the growing vigil in Texas. Because I had seen the movie first, the differing details in the book often made me think, "Hey—the movie wasn't like this!" Of course, the book came first. Most striking, to me, was that the movie and the book have very different treatments of how Luttrell's comrades die. In the movie, Murphy, Axe, and Danny all die alone, making it impossible for Luttrell to have witnessed their deaths. In the book, though, Luttrell is there, tragically, for the death of each of his teammates. It's enough to make me wonder how differently the movie would have played out had it been more faithful to the book.

Luttrell sustained severe injuries during that firefight in the mountains, including damage to several vertebrae. He never fully recovered from the physical trauma—nor, he admits, from the psychological trauma of witnessing his friends' and comrades' deaths. In the book, he confesses to having recurring nightmares. But he continues to participate in SEAL operations.

I mentioned earlier that Luttrell's pride changed and deepened once he'd had this vicious dose of reality. By the end of Lone Survivor, we see that he's still proud to be a Navy SEAL, but one also gets the impression that he has gained a far greater respect for the enemy who, despite lacking his training, showed grim determination and was capable of amazing physical feats. In a sense, then, Luttrell the narrator has gone through his own character arc. His sense of martial pride went from something blind and callow to something tempered by experience.

If you're a stickler for articulate prose, you might not enjoy Lone Survivor. It really could stand several rounds of serious editing for style and tone. But I think the book is organized well, and I think Luttrell was right to spend as much time as he did showing us why SEALs are the proud group of fighters that they are. I also think Luttrell's sense of duty to the dead comes through clearly, which is one reason why I had trouble putting the book down. So despite my reservations on a stylistic, tonal level, I recommend Lone Survivor as one man's tribute to the others who were there to support him: to his fallen teammates, to the US military, to his family and friends in Texas, and to those tough Pashtun tribesmen and their strict code of honor.

*I'm fully aware that movie titles are better italicized—the normal rule is that you italicize the titles of self-complete works and use quotes for parts (chapters, etc.) of those works—but a very strong case can be made, based on multiple journalistic style sheets, that movie titles can legitimately be enclosed in quotation marks, as I've long done on this blog. I do occasionally resort to italics for movie titles, but when I do so, it's generally in the interest of clarity (e.g., when a movie title is inside a larger quote), as I recently did in my Korean joke post.

**Was this "Operation Redwing" or "Operation Red Wings"? Wikipedia claims the latter term is the correct one, but Luttrell uses "Redwing" throughout his book.

***This is his actual name. In the book, Luttrell uses a pseudonym. Wikipedia notes that Shah was not actually Taliban himself, but was a Taliban sympathizer; his men might best be described as anti-coalition insurgents. He was eventually killed by Pakistani police at a checkpoint. Luttrell focuses much of his narrative on the doings of the Taliban, which potentially leaves the reader with the impression that he and his team actually fought Taliban forces. I'm not sure that's the case, even though Luttrell describes Ben Sharmak (Ahmad Shah) as "a leader of a serious Taliban force."


"cheaper at Daiso"

"Just buy the same thing cheaper at Daiso," my friend Tom said to me the other day. I had been trying to find out the price of a stainless-steel shower caddy being sold at a local shop (see here). The lady running the shop was a forgetful sort, but she did eventually get back to me with a price. After having insisted, over several days, that the caddy she had in stock was under W10,000 (even though she didn't know the exact price), she told me the actual price was W14,000, which struck me as a bit steep for a simple caddy.

So I took Tom's advice and visited the Daiso in Jongno, across and slightly askew from the famous old YMCA building. For those not familiar with it, Daiso is a Japanese chain store that bills itself as something of a "dollar store," i.e., many of its products sell for about W1,000, and the remaining products generally sell for under W10,000. Everyone at my previous place of work in Hayang told me about the local Daiso, and sure enough, it was the place to go for almost all of my household needs. This new Daiso (new to me, anyway) in Jongno also had what I was looking for, and I ended up buying a perfectly serviceable plastic shower caddy for only W5,000, which means I saved myself from overspending W9,000.

So thanks, Tom.



Weighed myself this morning. 121.4 kilograms (267.7 pounds), my lowest weight yet on my current downward trend. I might or might not actually walk Namsan again today... but if I do, I'll likely wait until late evening, when it'll be substantially cooler and there'll be fewer tourists. Can't wait for fall and winter: not only will the weather be cooler, but all these damn "fair-weather hikers" will have vamoosed. Namsan in the winter is quite a sight to see, as is Namsan in the early spring, when the snow is melting and creating torrential runoffs. The only people on the mountain during the off-season are oldsters, and I tip my hat to them for their gutsiness.

It's going to be hard to believe it when I reach 265 pounds. I'll be ten pounds over my 2006 weight. Granted, 255 pounds is still 55 pounds overweight for me, but that'll nevertheless be a hell of an improvement over 303 pounds (137.4 kg) back in 2012.


a toilet-stall plea

I've seen many, many signs in public-toilet stalls enjoining the user to throw his used toilet tissue into the adjacent trash bin instead of into the toilet. What I have never seen, though, is a message that invokes the cleaning lady as a way of guilt-tripping the user into throwing his poop-saturated tissue into the proper receptacle. That changed last Wednesday, when I found myself inside a stall in the building where the Golden Goose is located. Behold:

Very roughly, the message says:

If you feel sorry for the toilet-cleaning lady because the toilet paper often blocks up the toilet, it would be nice if you threw your tissue into the wastebasket.



Sunday, August 24, 2014

summiting Namsan

Namsan is more hill than mountain, but for the out-of-shape, it's still a chore to hike. Today, I went to Trailhead 8, which starts right in the midst of Dongguk University's campus, and stared hard at the map at the trailhead. Last time around, when I did the Namsan hike with Sean and Jeff, I found the beautiful path that swings placidly eastward around the mountain but suddenly ends in a brutal sequence of steps all the way to the top. Not daring to challenge the stairs again yet wanting to be able to say that I'd made it to the top without stopping, I saw on the map that, were I to turn left and west at the first fork, I'd find myself close to the National Theater, which is where one can hike up toward the summit along the route taken by the tour buses—a route with no stairs at all.

So I broke left at the fork, walked a bit, and did indeed find myself on the bus path. After that, it was a steady upward hike to the top, and a good workout for the heart and lungs without being overly strenuous. I walked faster than all of the other people making their way upward, and I met quite a few people who were coming down. The final two hundred meters were the worst, worse than I remembered them: the slope suddenly steepened, and the tour-bus crowds made their appearance, slowing everyone down to a near crawl. I pushed my way through the jam-packed crowd and reached the top, where another, larger crowd had gathered to watch some Joseon-era ceremonies, including a traditional dance and a long-spear drill. I rested a while at the top, ate an overpriced lunch, then started back down the mountain along the same route I'd taken up. I had indeed made the summit without stopping.

The most startling thing about today's hike was how badly I had overestimated the number of steps it would take. I had originally thought that reaching the top would take 10,000 steps, which meant a round trip would be 20K steps. Not true: as it turned out, a round trip was a mere 13.5K steps, which is about the distance I would walk around the campus of my previous employer. If we don't include the forty-minute break I took at the top, I'd estimate the round trip took about 2.5 hours, which is about the time I'd expect for a 14K-step hike.

As I did in 2005, I'll start off by taking this "easier" route up the mountain until I feel aerobically fit enough to attempt the stairs. The stairs are more explicitly about strength training; they tire you more quickly if your muscles are weak and unused to the strain, as mine are. Eventually, I see myself taking the stairs routinely, but that won't be for several months. Baby steps, as they say. Baby steps.


a joke in Korean

Saw this joke on my cousin's KakaoStory profile. My rough line-by-line translation follows. I'm pretty sure I've heard this joke in English before, but it's still kinda' funny.

아빠가 거짓말 탐지기를 샀어요.
Dad bought a lie detector.

이 거짓말탐지기는 거짓말을 하는 사람을 때리는 기계예요.
This lie detector was a machine that would hit the person who lied.

아빠는 아들에게 이 기계를 테스트해보기로 했어요.
Dad decided to test the machine out on his son.

"너 어제 어디 있었니? " "도서관에 있었어요"
로봇이 아들을 때렸어요. "네, 친구집에 있었어요."
"Where were you yesterday?" "At the library."
The robot hit the son. "Yeah, I was at my friend's house."

"뭐했는데?"하고 아빠가 물어봤어요."토이스토리(애니메이션 영화)를 봤어요"
로봇이 아들을 때렸어요 "네, 포르노를 봤어요!" 아들이 소리쳤어요.
"What'd you do?" asked Dad. "I watched Toy Story (animated film)."
The robot hit the son. "Okay, I watched pornos!" the son shouted.

아빠가 화를 내며 말했어요 "뭐라고? 내가 너 나이에는 포르노를 알지도 못했어!" 로봇이 아빠를 때렸어요.
Dad got angry and said, "What? I didn't even know about pornos at your age!"*
And the robot hit Dad.

엄마가 웃으면서 말했어요. "역시 당신 아들이예요!"
Mom, laughing, said, "And he's your son, too!"

로봇이 엄마를 때렸어요
The robot hit Mom.

*For shits and giggles, I just ran this line through Google Translate. The result: "I did not even know you have older porn!" Never trust Google Translate.


a peek around the neighborhood

I've been actively exploring my new neighborhood, which is a strange, liminal demimonde in the mysterious beating heart of Seoul, hovering at the civilizational edge where white-collar and blue-collar realities interact. Within a hundred-meter radius of my yeogwan, it's all blue collar: gearhead shops devoted to motorcycles coexist with print shops of all shapes and capacities. The syncopated chunk-chunk-chunk of printing presses during the day defines the rhythm of my new chosen existence. Beyond that ambit, though, the transition to white-collar life is almost startling. Fifteen minutes of walking along one axis, and I find myself in the Jongno/Gwanghwamun/Myeongdong area. Fifteen minutes along another axis, and I find myself staring at the new, UFO-shaped Dongdaemun Design Plaza—also just a stroll away. I'm incredibly well-placed, it would seem: some of the best parts of Seoul are accessible to me through that most primitive means of travel: my own two feet.

Below, a picture of Jinheung Used Furniture—the store, not 500 meters from where I live, where I bought my large and small bookshelves and Tom bought his two huge cabinets.

Next is a picture of a mun-gu, ostensibly a stationery store, but more of an "everything" store, really. The lady whom I've seen in that store is very nice, but a bit forgetful. I had asked her this past Thursday about the price of a shower caddy I'd seen in her stock; she didn't know it but had promised to check. When I came to her store on Friday, I asked her again about the shower caddy, and the best she could do was to give me an apologetic look and promise, again, to get back to me the following day. "Just buy the same thing cheaper at Daiso," Tom quipped. There's apparently a Daiso around Jongno 2-ga, roughly across from the YMCA building. I just might have to take Tom's advice.

Below, a picture of the cathedral-like Joongbu Shijang (shijang = market). I'm captivated by the scaffolding and hope it never comes down. It lends the market character, in my opinion. Joongbu is the place to go to get dried seafood. I'm tempted to buy the huge one-kilogram packages of juipo I've seen on sale there, but I'm worried about what might happen if I decided to grill the juipo inside my yeogwan room: things would get smoky pretty quickly, and I'm not sure whether my room has a fire alarm. I'd hate to be the asshole who forced everyone to evacuate the building.

Below, a picture of one of the entrances to Joongbu Shijang. The other entrance has the same sort of sign.

Below, a wide shot of Jinheung Used Furniture.

When you come out of Joongbu Shijang, you find yourself across the street from Bangsan Shijang, the market devoted to printed products, boxes, bags, etc. My buddy Tom visits this market about once a month to procure printed bags that he uses for distributing courtesy items to people—souvenirs and such. Don't ask: Tom's a natural marketer, is all I can say, and he's got his fingers in many different pies, which is one reason why I don't write his last name here.

This final photo, below, shows Joongbu Shijang at night when it's a lot emptier. Most of the market is closed by about 8PM, the merchants having worked there all day long, starting from very early in the morning. I think the market's a good place to go for dried seafood, but I'm not so sure I'd buy the fresh seafood sold here. The fresh seafood doesn't strike me as all that fresh. No pun intended, but there's something fishy about it.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Arti: avoid

There's a small faux-Japanese restaurant called Arti that's just up the street from where I live. I'd first caught sight of it several days ago and was intrigued by the menu standing out front. When I went over to the restaurant the next day, however, I saw that it was closed. It was a weekday, and dinnertime, so this seemed odd (and should have been the first sign of trouble, in retrospect). I saw the restaurant was in operation yesterday, when I was doing a walkabout with Tom, so I gambled that it would be open today. Sure enough, it was, and I sat myself down for a meal at 6:30PM—squarely in the middle of the dinner rush.

Tellingly, I was the only customer there. The tables were absolutely bare—no napkins, no sujeo (spoons and chopsticks), no nothing. I was given a single, dinky cup of water for starters; I downed it in two swallows. I ordered a curry donggaseu; it arrived quickly, and even though the sujeo came out with the meal, no napkins were given. The pork cutlet itself was embarrassingly small—small and thin. Side dishes were little more than tiny-cubed ggakdugi and a couple sad slices of danmuji.

The lady who sat me down (apparently, it was just her, one other guy, and a lone cook managing the place) lamely offered me a free cup of coffee; I told her I don't drink coffee, then I paid and left as quickly as I could. What a disappointment. I can't recommend Arti to anyone: a bad first impression, poor service, and awful food. The fact that no one visits the place at dinnertime means that word has gotten around, and unless Arti buckles down and cleans up its act soon, it's going to go under within a year.


humble yeogwan, August 17

A quick tour of my yeogwan, which is very humble indeed:

As you see above, that's my bathroom. The ball-shrinking pinkness of it will take some getting used to. Tom saw it and joked that I should go deeper and do the bathroom up with a Hello Kitty theme.

Below, you can see the masses of boxes that I had brought into the yeogwan. This was before I had bought my bookshelves and unpacked nearly everything.

Below, another photo of masses of boxes:

I found a menu in the lobby of our building (my yeogwan actually occupies the third, fourth, and fifth floors of it; a printing house is on the second floor, and I'm still not sure what's on the first floor): order-out bento from a place called Bento-rang (benddorang). It wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. I got a donggaseu with the trimmings, and the place delivered it in the weird, bucket-shaped form you see below. While this form is compact, the plastic seal over the top means that fried food goes soft because of the steam: bad packaging. Korean fried-chicken places normally know better, which is why they deliver their food in ventilated boxes. I now need to find out about the local fried-chicken delivery scene.

Finally, a selfie:


Tom and Tom's Cafe, August 17

Below: a pic from about six days ago, taken while sitting at the Tom and Tom's Coffee located about 150 meters from where I now live. I Kakao'ed the image to my brother David, who remarked, "Wow—a decent-sized cola!" David is the "whitest" of the three brothers, and the most jaundiced about Korea and Korean culture. His experience in Korea left him, I think, with something of a bad taste in his mouth and little desire to return to the peninsula (David, feel free to correct me, but that's the impression I have).*

You probably get the impression that I eat nothing but Western food. That would not be correct. I suppose I take more pictures of Western food, but I eat plenty of local fare. Today, for example, I ate at Seorae, the galmaegisal-jip in Jongno 2-ga, with Tom. Seorae got Sean's seal of approval; I had taken him and Jeff there. Sean noted how Atkins-friendly the Seorae meal was: plenty of animal protein and leafy greens, very little in the way of carbs.

It just goes to show that a blog, however personal and confessional it might seem, inevitably distorts reality.

*David writes with displeasure that I'm being "presumptuous," and that he greatly enjoyed his trips to Korea. "Why wouldn't I like Korea?" he challenges. I told him I'd make a correction to preserve what I hope is the truth-telling nature of this blog, but I'm not totally convinced that David's attitude toward Korea is entirely positive. Would he want to live here? Would he long tolerate, without complaint, the way Korean society moves? Without even living in the society, he's complained before about cheaply made Korean products, about the rushed "It's OK, it's OK" mentality that leads to sloppy workmanship, etc. So—doubtful on both counts.

Let me put that in perspective, though: I don't really give a damn what his attitude toward Korea is. He's not going to hell if he doesn't like it enough to want to live here, or if he sees flaws in Korean society that I also see (and also complain about—yes, I have many of the same complaints). I'm not a blind admirer of this country, and David can love or hate or be indifferent toward Korea as much as he wants to. I don't observe his attitude with even a hint of disapproval. He's free to think and feel whatever he wants. And if he's truly sincere about not having anything against Korea, despite his complaints, then that's fine, too.

He's still the "whitest" of the three brothers, though.


Seoul sights, August 15

Coming out of Jogyae-sa, we saw tons of police just... sitting there. Waiting.

I asked some of the young police guys what they were waiting for. Was all this for the pope? No, they said: this was simply because it was a national holiday.

Evening crept up on us as we strolled along a section of the Cheonggyae-cheon. Here's a shot as we approached the western end of the stream:

As we neared the Lotte Hotel, we encountered this modernist replica of the Cheomseongdae observatory that had been commissioned in the early days of the Shilla Dynasty by Queen Seondeok (by "early" I mean pre-Unified Shilla).

The last photo, below, shows a sign in the lobby of the Lotte Hotel in the Myeongdong district, downtown Seoul, welcoming Pope Francis to South Korea. The lobby wasn't actually as dark as it appears in the photo; I guess my phone was having trouble handling the light contrast (I may have left it set on "night" mode after I had taken the Cheomseongdae picture).

Our day ended not long after that. Sean and Jeff retired to Itaewon to get ready for the trip to Cambodia; I went back to my temporary apartment in Karak-dong, then met the two guys the following day, accompanying them to the airport in a taxi. The cost of the taxi ride was W46,000, but when spread over three people, the per-person cost was about the same as a limousine-bus ride would have cost us (W15,000 or W16,000 per ticket). In all, I thought our mega-stroll on August 15 went well, and both Sean and Jeff pronounced Jongno their favorite part of town, in agreement with my own sentiments.


Friday, August 22, 2014


My lowest weight yet in my current downward trend: 122.3 kilograms, or 269.7 pounds (for reference: 1 kg = approx. 2.205 lbs.). This puts me, at long last, in the 260s, although it's doubtful I'll remain there if I eat a celebratory meal. I have yet to scale Namsan again, but very soon I'll be doing just that at the end of each work day, and at that point I expect my weight to drop through the 260s and into the 250s. In the meantime, I'm maintaining a daily average, this month, of over 11,000 steps. As I noted earlier, Seoul encourages one to walk, so that's what I do: I walk everywhere.

And I've made some local discoveries, too. There's a market near my neighborhood: Joongbu Shijang (shijang = market). It's a fascinating, vaulted, cathedral-like space filled with metal scaffolding. Walking through it at night, when it's dark and nearly empty, is a delightfully creepy experience: I can imagine ninjas poised in the upper reaches of the scaffolding, silently tracking my movements and waiting for the opportune moment to leap quietly to the ground, encircling me with swords drawn. After Joongbu Shijang, just across the street, is another market: Bangsan Shijang. Whereas Joongbu specializes in fried fish, Bangsan seems to be more about printing, packaging, and box-making. My buddy Tom says he goes there about once a month ("To buy tampons for the wife?" I joked) to get a raft of printed products. If you keep on walking out the ass-end of Bangsan Shijang, you find yourself at Lee Myeong-bak's stream, the Cheonggyae-cheon, and staring across the flowing water at Gwangjang Shijang—the market by Jongno 5-ga. Essentially, then, you realize that the Jongno district is walking distance from where you live. I've walked all the way from my neighborhood near Dongguk University to the Lotte Hotel in the Myeongdong district, which is a good way to understand how close together many of the major sights in Seoul are. In theory, I could walk all the way from Namsan to the Lotte Hotel. It'd be a hell of a long walk, but it's doable.

So despite the moaning and groaning of the previous blog post, there are advantages to being where I am now. I'm in a grungy blue-collar sector, but it's a brief stroll to the white-collar part of town, and well worth the exercise. And as I relearned the other night, walking is a good way to get the guts churning: I had started my walk to Jongno with the intention of reaching the Burger King that sits at the edge of Jongno 2-ga and 3-ga and chowing down on a huge meal, but my intestines declared otherwise: by the time I had gotten close to the Cheonggyae-cheon, I was feeling the need to take a ferocious dump. I decided to tough it out and walk all the way to the Lotte Hotel, where a download could proceed dans le luxe. That added another 1.5 miles to my walk, but as I mentally calculated the rising graph of my ass-pressure, I decided I could make the trek without exploding messily on the street. Sure enough, I did make it, but only just. I had barely sat down upon the porcelain throne in the Lotte Hotel's lobby-level restroom when a rhinoceros-sized devil leaped out of my ass and plunged straight into the toilet bowl. The walk back to my new home was, as you can imagine, much more comfortable. And I ended up eating no dinner at all.

Ah, yes: another reason for the weight loss may very well be the reintroduction of Metamucil into my diet. Tom came through for me: he had a huge plastic can of Metamucil, entirely unused, that he wanted to fob off to someone else. So he gave it to me, and I'm pretty sure that that miraculous psyllium fiber has been crucial in leaving my intestines cleaner and emptier than they've been in over a year. Sometimes, when I weigh myself and see I'm a pound or two over where I want to be, I think it's because there's a heavy lump of foulness in my colon that's throwing the results off. With Metamucil, there's no more dead weight. Instead, I experience what Christian theologians call kenosis, or self-emptying.

So on that level, things seem to be coming together. I'm walking as much as I'd walked while in Daegu; I've got Metamucil; I'm living within range of some hilly terrain, and I'm slowly but surely mapping out my surroundings. Meanwhile, the weight keeps dropping, although I'd still say there's no visible change. Maybe by the time I reach my Sookmyung-era weight of 255 pounds, I'll see some thinning in the face. Time will tell.


lack of autonomy

At my previous uni job, people who were senior to me liked to talk on occasion about the amount of "autonomy" we had as teachers. Over the course of a year, I was, frankly, hard pressed to find that autonomy. I tried to design an improved version of the department-sanctioned midterm and was told no. I wanted to add quizzes to the list of graded activities; I was given only a grudging yes and was allowed to assign a value of only 2.5% to the average of three quizzes. (In other words, a student could fail all three quizzes and would lose only, at most, 2.5 percentage points off his or her final grade.) I had two Chinese students who deserved to fail for their poor performance; I was not allowed to fail them (in fact, I was asked to give them "C"s, which I found preposterous). The textbooks were assigned to us; we were even told which chapters in the textbook had to be taught. This wasn't autonomy at all.

Dongguk University appears to be a very similar animal. I just discovered, thanks to a text-message conversation with our department's lead office assistant, that there's no need for me to write up a course syllabus: one has been written for me. Let that sink in for a moment, boys and girls: I don't have the freedom to plan out my own classes. This is completely new to me, and not even my previous job, despite its constrictive atmosphere, went so far as to dictate, day by day, what I should be teaching. I imagine I'll adapt, but I'm still getting over my shock.

We have a new-faculty orientation coming up on Friday, August 29, followed by a general-faculty workshop that same day, fifty minutes of which will be devoted to sitting in groups and designing evaluation formats for the midterm and final exams of the classes we are to teach. This also strikes me as strange. At my previous job, the formats of the midterm and final were sanctioned by the department (as I said: no autonomy there), which I suppose made a certain amount of sense because it held all of our students to similar standards. This time around, though, it seems that, if we're divided into seven groups of about six each, we're going to come up with seven exam templates, implying there will be no across-the-board departmental standard, but that there will be a sort of parochial standard that will apply not to all forty-one faculty members but to only six of us.

This is a strange no-man's-land to find myself in. I normally think in extremes: there are either across-the-board standards or absolutely no standards. Personally, I'm on the fence about having standards at all; part of me thinks they're a good idea, especially if your language curriculum involves any sort of leveling: you need to have some way to determine how students move from level to level, and the hurdles placed in the students' paths need to be consistent in nature. Another part of me thinks standards can be stultifying, and they encourage teachers to "teach toward the test" instead of engaging the students more creatively. But a "standard for six" is downright strange. Why not a "standard for forty-one" or no standards at all? Perhaps the people leading this bizarre workshop activity think we'll all converge on roughly the same sorts of exam formats, which is entirely possible. The best way to kill diversity and breed mediocrity, after all, is to do things by committee. Everything gets watered down into a banal, depressing sameness after everyone's opinions have been considered. My plan, during the workshop, is just to shrug and go with the flow. Basically: fuck it. Once I'm in my actual classrooms, actually teaching, I'll do what I can to individualize my instruction, despite the suffocating lack of breathing room. And who knows? Perhaps I'm wrong about how all of this is supposed to go down. Perhaps I've misunderstood the policies and goals. I'm open to being wrong; in fact, I'm dearly hoping that I am wrong.

Dongguk's rather thick manual of policies and procedures also seems obsessively focused on performance evaluations: there are two student evals per semester (which I've come to expect at every university), but there's also an evaluation done by the head profs and the bosses. This latter evaluation involves a tallying-up of one's sins over a four-month period: was the prof late to class? Did the prof fail to attend faculty events? Is the prof working outside of the university? Etc., etc. I can't stand going to faculty events unless they're explicitly about professional development, i.e., learning new techniques that aid my teaching. Parties, gatherings, dinners, and other supposedly "fun" activities are just not my cup of tea, but it now seems that, if I'm to receive a high performance evaluation from Dongguk, I have to attend these events. So for at least a year, I'm going to be spending time holding back my vomit. Of course, it may be that my fellow faculty members truly are as cool as the office assistant insists they are, but being forced into a situation where I have to meet and greet them is not how I'd prefer to get to know people: I prefer to get to know people more, you know, naturally. On my own.

Some of this can't be helped. This is Korea, after all, and the stilted, self-conscious, over-earnest Korean manner of socializing involves the creation of artificial social situations—contrived opportunities to meet and generate faux conviviality. For Koreans, this works well because the culture is already group-oriented. For individualist Westerners, it's just a pain in the ass. At such get-togethers and events, I always find myself thinking that I could be off doing something more enjoyable instead of enduring this bullshit.

But again, we'll see. I'm just getting my moaning and groaning out of the way now; it may very well be that my time at Dongguk will be fantabulously enjoyable. But my inner realist is shaking his head no. That manual of policies and procedures is a bad omen.


my Internet connection

My yeogwan has an old, dusty CAT-5 cable that allows me to connect physically to the Internet. The problem is that the connection itself is so tenuous, so unstable, that it's a pain in the ass to connect that way. Someone in the vicinity has an unsecured iptime Wi-Fi connection, though, so for the moment I'm siphoning off that—at least until it dries up and blows away. The connection isn't fast enough or strong enough for me to watch videos with any sort of smoothness (e.g., the Amazon Prime videos in my library), but it seems strong enough for me to blog with.

Dongguk University, meanwhile, has amazingly fast Wi-Fi, allowing for data-streaming at torrentially diarrhetic speeds. I imagine I'll be doing a lot more blogging while on campus, but the problem with Dongguk is that I have yet to find a decent place where I can blog (1) in peace (2) while basking in air conditioning. Such a place may exist on campus, but I have yet to find it. Perhaps the library...?


Thursday, August 21, 2014

helping or harming? ajeossis and predators

Let's go back in time one day, from August 15 to August 14. On the night of August 14, I was walking by myself along Jongno 3-ga when I saw an old man on his back, a look of pain on his face. He was obviously drunk, and his nearly-as-drunk companion was vainly trying to pull him to his feet. I initially just walked by this scene, but as I heard the standing old man yelling at the fallen old man, I sighed, turned around, and decided to offer what help I could. I wrapped an arm around the oldster's torso and lifted him to his feet while his friend looked on in watery-eyed approval. I asked my charge where he was going; he said he wanted a taxi. Carefully, I walked him to the street.

A car pulled up that was definitely not a taxi. The driver rolled down his window and asked the drunken ajeossi where he was going. The ajeossi told him, and the guy said, "I'll take you there for W30,000." I thought this was shameless and outrageous—a brazen attempt at extorting money from a drunk and helpless old man. Who the fuck pays $30 for a short ride anywhere in the city, right? The driver and the old drunk batted dialogue back and forth for a while; I periodically tried steering the old man away from this predator, saying "Let's wait for a taxi, okay?" several times. To no avail: the ajeossi was convinced that this asshole was his ride, and like a pet that I couldn't quite control, the old fart pushed his way over to the younger man's car and slowly got in. His inebriated friend got in with him, so I can only hope the W30,000 charge was reduced to W15,000 per person at that point. The driver saw I was about to walk away, and he asked me what relationship I had with the old man. "None," I said truthfully. The driver seemed relieved, which put me on my guard. But by then, the car was on its way.

So did I help or did I harm? I began to realize that the driver belonged to a class of predators who prowl the streets looking for drunken old men to exploit. I texted Tom about what I had done; Tom scolded: "You should know better," i.e., you should know better than to get involved with drunk people. "Had to help him," I texted back. I can only imagine what that old man is going to think when he sobers up and finds himself W30,000 poorer.

Personally, I'm easily disgusted by drunken conduct. It's a control thing for me, I suppose, and when I see someone who's so drunk he can no longer stand, I find myself completely unable to relate to that person's worldview. This is what you call fun? Getting plastered? Dulling your intellect and your senses (especially your common sense)? Sorry, but as a teetotaler, I just don't see the charm.

I've improved, though, since my high-school days. Back when I was a temperamental teen, I would flare up with righteous fury whenever I saw a classmate drunk. I'm not sure I even understood why I would get so angry. Now, I can find the humor in such situations, and even manage to dig up a nugget or two of compassion, which is what happened in this instance.

Anyway, here are pictures of the drunk guys and the predatory driver. Sorry for the blurriness. Hover your cursor over the images to see their captions. I hope the old guys didn't end up raped and left naked in a park somewhere.


Jogyae-sa, August 15

A few shots of our time at the downtown temple on August 15 (hover your cursor over each image to see its caption):


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Insa-dong, August 15

Our last hurrah before Sean and Jeff were to move on to Cambodia (Sean, who is now in Cambodia, reports that the Southeast Asian country is very hot and humid). Here are some pics of our time in Insa-dong, Seoul's now overly touristy art district. Hover your cursor over each image to see its caption.

I'm pretty sure that Insa-dong was where Sean and Jeff did most of their shopping. As I'd mentioned before, Jeff is into collecting masks from around the world, so he had to get a Korean tal or two. Jeff also ended up buying some jang-seung totems; the shop we went to was being run by the jang-seung artisan's wife at the time; she was understandably proud of her husband's work.

I bought some of that filament candy whose Korean name I don't know. It turned out to be more annoying than anything: the super-thin strands break off and float onto your shirt, and when you try to wipe them away, they instantly disintegrate into white streaks reminiscent of confectioner's sugar, making you look a bit like an unhinged coke addict, standing there with your shirt covered in white powder.

Next up: Jogyae-sa, the head temple of the Jogyae sect of Korean Buddhism.


more oksang-cheung pictures

Here are some more pictures of the humble circumstances I found myself in while staying on the top floor of Third Ajumma's Karak-dong apartment building (hover your cursor over each image to see its caption):


Ave, Gord!

Gord Sellar, an online acquaintance of mine, has alerted us to a reposting of a fascinating piece of cultural commentary he had written some years back titled "The Mudang's Dance." As a Westerner's overview of where Korea has been and where it's going, the article makes for fascinating and insightful reading. I recommend it.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

another grueling morning

This morning, I met my buddy Tom and we had ourselves a day of sweat. We went to a used-furniture shop not far from my new digs and bought ourselves some shelving. Tom got two huge cabinets; I got one super-large bookshelf and another, smaller companion bookshelf. For me, the shelving is supposed to help with storage and free up some floor space; for Tom, the cabinets—which are lockable—will serve as a pantry that will be hard for his one-and-a-half-year-old kid to access. We negotiated with the furniture ajeossi and got a humble W20,000 discount off a W220,000 total purchase (that's Tom's and my stuff together).

The yongdal ajeossi—the guy who would drive the flatbed truck and help us unload the cabinets—came to the store and helped us load everything onto his truck. We all piled into the front of the truck and I guided the ajeossi back to my place, not 500 meters away. There, Tom and I got my giant bookshelf off the truck and struggled sweatily up the stairs... where we discovered, much to our dismay, that the bookshelf was simply too large to fit into my room. We had no choice but to wrestle the damn thing back downstairs and take it back to the used-furniture ajeossi. I traded in the shelf, which was old and which cost W50,000, for a newer, smaller shelf that cost W60,000. I paid the W10,000 difference and offered the truck-driving ajeossi another W10,000 to compensate for the extra trouble. Tom and I successfully wrestled the newer shelf into my room, then we three sped off across town to Tom's place, where the yongdal ajeossi helped offload Tom's two gigantic cabinets, and I helped Tom heave those bastards up to his fourth-floor apartment (again, no fucking elevator... what is this Korean aversion to elevators?!). The driver took off and left us to our devices. Tom and I finished our herculean task in time for a sweat-drenched-yet-tasty lunch at a local branch of Nolbu Budae-jjigae. After that, Tom and I went our separate ways.

Tonight, I have to put the bookshelves in their proper places, stuff the shelves with my possessions, then collapse and throw out almost all the cardboard boxes (with two or three exceptions—e.g., the printer box and the oven box). I still need another shelf or two, but having two bookshelves for space-management purposes is a good start, and I now know where the furniture district is.

As Tom pointed out, today's work would have been a lot harder had we not thought to buy those "ajeossi gloves," the gloves made of a cheap white cotton weave and dipped in some sort of red rubber to provide friction for gripping boxes, furniture, and the like. I'd normally have had a much harder time managing those bookshelves and cabinets; because I'm so sweaty, my grip tends to get slick, and I sometimes drop heavy objects as a result. Thanks to those miraculous gloves, which cost only W1,000 a pair, no such mistakes occurred today.

So my muscles are screaming. Not two days ago, I had pushed myself almost to the limit of my endurance by going up and down flights of stairs about eighteen times. Today was all about manhandling sizable pieces of furniture. By tonight, I ought to be mostly sorted out in terms of room neatness: most of my possessions ought to find themselves in some niche or other. For the moment, though, I'm enjoying an afternoon break before I get down to business.

Tomorrow, I start my side job in the offices of the Golden Goose. On Friday, I mail to the States a package containing Sean and Jeff's purchases in Korea. Meanwhile, I need to keep studying up on Dongguk University's policies and procedures, and I'll also have to start formulating syllabi and lesson plans. Wunderbar. Vacation hasn't really been much of a vacation, but that's what happens when your life is in a state of major transition. I can't wait for the bank account to start piling up once I start accruing dough in earnest.


is Dos Tacos going downhill?

A visit (and yes, another violation of the one-kimbap-a-day rule) to Dos Tacos by the Cheonggyae-cheon yesterday led me to think that the restaurant, which seemed so awesome last year, is no longer what it was. I ordered the same chimichanga I'd had last year; it cost me W8,500 this time around and was distinctly smaller that it had been. Tasty, but small. The side of guacamole was now W2,000, and the other sides—a tub of sour cream and a tub of green salsa—were W500 each. Add a W2,000 refillable Coke to all that, and my bill came to W13,500 for what was essentially a single chimi and a drink.

That's a lot of money for very little food. I almost get the impression that Dos Tacos has fallen on hard times. It still gets a steady stream of Korean and expat customers, but maybe the ingredients are expensive or something. It's too bad, really; I like the restaurant's ambiance and generally enjoy the food, but we may have reached a tipping point where the price is going up, the quantity of food per serving is going down, and the experience is no longer worthwhile. So Dos Tacos is now on my list of "go there only if you're really jonesing for Tex-Mex" places.


after the supermoon

I took the following picture from my apartment's window on the night of August 11, just after the most recent supermoon was at its brightest. As you see, the moon was still incredibly bright. During a previous supermoon while I was living in Front Royal, I went for a spin on Skyline Drive without any headlights. That's how bright the moon was that night.


apartment grunge

The oksang-cheung (rooftop) apartment that I stayed in for several days wasn't exactly sparkling new. Third Ajumma's building is one of the older buildings in Seoul, and the building's age shows. Poorly lit, lacking fresh paint, largely un-renovated, and severely moldy in places, the building could best be described as a fixer-upper. Here are two photos that highlight some of the worst problems of the apartment I was in:

Had I stayed longer, I might have attempted to clean the wallpaper, but I think it was too far gone—beyond repair. I hope Third Ajumma and Third Ajeossi strip that crap off and replace it before the next tenant shows up.

By the way, that big black thing in the corner, in the second photo, is a plastic bag that's been stuffed into a circular hole in the wall. I imagine it keeps out the cold in the winter and insects at other times of the year. It doesn't keep out the mold, though; the place needs an A/C and a dehumidifier, as well as tightly sealable windows, to get rid of the humidity problem.


Monday, August 18, 2014


My yeogwan room comes with free Internet, which is nice, but the Internet connection is highly unstable, which sucks. This may or may not affect the frequency of my posts.

Off, soon, to the Euljiro district to hunt for aeng-geuls. And maybe bookshelves.


Sunday, August 17, 2014


The move I just made, from Third Ajumma's rooftop apartment in the southeastern periphery of Seoul to my new, humble yeogwan digs close to Dongguk University's campus in the geographic center of town, had to have been one of the most draining, exhausting experiences of my adult life. In Third Ajumma's apartment in Karak-dong, I lived on the fifth floor—the oksang-cheung, i.e., the rooftop. Calling it a "penthouse" ought to produce a snicker; the apartment was small and moldy and unkempt, but it was a decent roof over my head despite the lack of air conditioning. I had to run almost seventeen parcels downstairs from that apartment; I occasionally stacked two boxes and ran both down together, but in most cases I was dealing with boxes that, while not particularly heavy, were rather bulky. The truck-driving ajeossi showed up early and grudgingly helped out by taking down two or three of the lightest boxes. We heaved and slid everything onto the ajeossi's flatbed; the ajeossi covered my possessions with a tarp to protect them from the light rain that fell Sunday morning. In all, I must have gone up and down those four flights of stairs about ten times. I was dripping with sweat by the time I got into the truck and headed into the center of town. My goodbyes to my relatives were brief; they were on their way to church.

On the way, I saw that the ajeossi had a dashboard GPS. Since I had the yeogwan's address on my phone thanks to a KakaoTalk dialogue I'd had with the yeogwan ajumma, I suggested punching the address into the GPS and navigating that way. (The other, more old-school method would have been for us to call the yeogwan ajumma and ask her to relay us directions to her place.) The ajeossi shrugged and told me flatly that he had no idea how to use the GPS, which immediately produced a Then why the fuck do you HAVE it? response in my mind. So it was up to me to figure the GPS out in Korean. It wasn't too hard; I'd used dashboard-GPS technology in the States (I used to own a beautiful Garmin Nüvi setup), and the logic-tree that the Korean GPS followed was very similar. I eventually got the machine to give us turn-by-turn guidance, and the path it chose ended up—according to the ajeossi, at least—making sense.

We arrived at the yeogwan, and then it was a matter of unloading all the boxes and bags. Once that was done, I paid the ajeossi his W50,000, and he drove off, probably looking forward to his next drink. I stood there for a moment, staring forlornly at my huge pile of possessions, which I now had to lug up, by myself, to the fourth floor of this new place. After standing for a minute or two, psyching myself up while the rain whispered around me (the yeogwan had a large awning under which I'd placed all my boxes and bags, so they were protected), I grabbed a large box and grunted my way up the long flights of stairs. The yeogwan ajumma and ajeossi were taken by surprise: I had arrived around 9:15AM, which was phenomenally early for any yeogwan guest. The ajumma barked at the ajeossi to go prepare my room (i.e., change out the bed linens and do whatever cursory cleaning was necessary to get the room ready for a guest). He then did the unexpected and helped me carry several boxes upstairs. I probably made eight or nine trips up the yeogwan's long flights of stairs, but eventually the job was done. The yeogwan ajumma commented about how sweaty I was; I smiled grimly and told her I had just done the up-and-down thing at the apartment in Karak-dong.

I'll say this for my new place, grungy though it be: it's got a good fan and decent air conditioning, both of which a sweaty guy will crave in the aftermath of great effort. Once the yeogwan ajeossi had departed and I had said my final thanks to him, I closed my door and sat heavily on the yeogwan's bed, staring stupidly into space while the fan and the A/C worked to dry me off. Eventually, I mustered the strength to shower and change clothes. I ended up taking a very long afternoon nap, old man that I am, and ordered out for dinner.

The true work of settling in begins on Monday. In theory, I'll be meeting up with my buddy Tom to go shopping for an aeng-geul, which sounds like Konglish for "angle," but which is actually Konglish for do-it-yourself metal-frame shelving. Charles's wife Hyunjin had told me about it before; it's a cheap, customizable way to set up storage space. You tell the hardware-shop ajeossi what size shelving you're looking for, and he cuts the metal pieces and provides the nuts and bolts for you to put the thing together. The plan is to order the aeng-geul on Monday, pick it up on Tuesday, and have all my possessions unboxed and placed on shelves by the end of the week. I'll feel much more at home once all of that has been done.

So here I sit, surrounded by boxes. It's 1994 all over again: I'm right back where I started twenty years ago, as if my life hasn't progressed at all. Of course, that's not strictly true: with my new job and my side jobs, I'm now poised to earn a lot more money, and in about a year, I ought to have saved enough to move into a better place. At that point, I can concentrate on paying down major debts. While I'm no longer sure I can be debt-free by age fifty, I'm going to give that goal a college try. So as with the film I just saw on the train up to Seoul, I'm ready to begin again.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

déménagement bis

Saw my brother and his buddy Jeff off today. I admit I envy those guys: they flew to Korea in business class on Asiana, and they'll be flying in business class back to America after they're done traipsing through Cambodia, Vietnam, and China.* At the airport today, Jeff went to the Asiana desk to ask about an upgrade for the Korea-to-Cambodia leg of the trip. The lady at the desk accidentally canceled his and Sean's reservation for the 7:20PM departing flight, so Jeff had to go back to the desk to get the reservation reinstated. This could have been a freak-out moment, but Jeff handled the glitch with efficiency and aplomb.

So I said goodbye to Jeff and my brother, wishing them a safe trip and asking them to send me tons of pics and emails. (Sean's a terrible email correspondent; getting him to reply to my emails in a timely manner—i.e., in under 48 hours—is like pulling teeth. Sean is more likely not to reply at all unless I prompt him a second time.) Here's a quick summary of what the guys saw and did over the few days they were in Seoul:

1. Monday: arrive Incheon International Airport. Dinner at Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon.
2. Tuesday: Dongguk University campus; Namsan; Apgujeong; Kangnam.
3. Wednesday: Namdaemun Market and Myeongdong. Dinner with relatives.
4. Thursday: DMZ tour—Panmunjeom, tunnels, etc.
5. Friday: Jongno stroll, including Gwangjang Market, Jogyae-sa, Tapgol Park, Insa-dong, and a sit-down at Seorae, the galmaegisal-jip that my buddy Tom had introduced me to. Also, a stroll along the Cheonggyae-cheon and a brief peek at the Myeongdong Lotte Hotel.

Three surprises: first, Sean and Jeff said they preferred Gwangjang Market to Namdaemun Market, perhaps because the former is smaller and more organized despite its over-emphasis on cloth and clothing. Second, I was surprised that Sean and Jeff both agreed with me when I told them that Jongno was my favorite part of town: it lacks the self-conscious pretentiousness of Kangnam and is an interesting combination of old and new. They felt the same way, as it turned out: Kangnam was definitely bumpin', but Jongno was more their speed. I'm not sure what it is about that part of Seoul, but it possesses its own weird charm. Third, we were all surprised to see how the Apgujeong district has been totally taken over by plastic-surgery clinics. I had been expecting to see the ritz and glitz of the Apgujeong of the past: the Lexus dealerships, the vulgarly expensive boutiques, the high-end restaurants—things of that nature. We saw little to nothing of the sort in our walk that began at Hyundai Department Store. We did, however, marvel at the extensive bakery in Hyundai's B1 level.

A few regrets: I wish we'd all had time to visit Gyeongju. Jeff said there was a national park he'd have liked to see. It would have been cool to fly over to Jeju Island, to see Sorak-san National Park, to visit some mountain temples, some palaces, some museums—to travel out to Yeosu and Busan and Pohang and do a million other things. But Sean and Jeff at least had the chance to get a small taste of Seoul, and they're already discussing the possibility of a return visit next year.

I, meanwhile, had to go home after seeing the guys off. I took a limousine bus to the Jamshil area, then caught a cab to take me the rest of the way back to Third Ajumma's building. Tonight, I get the first of five workouts: I have to pack up most of my stuff and take it all from the fifth floor, where I am now, to the second floor, so that it'll be easier for me to get the sixteen boxes and bags into the drunken-asshole ajeossi's truck early tomorrow morning.

Second workout: tomorrow morning around 8AM, I have to take the boxes and bags from the second floor to the ground level. The ajeossi will be there with his truck around 8:30AM.

Third workout: move everything onto the ajeossi's flatbed.

Fourth workout: drive to my yeogwan downtown and unload my possessions at the ground floor. I'm assuming the ajeossi will be sober enough to drive; he actually stopped by my apartment this evening, eyes watering and breath stinking of drink, to confirm that we were still on for 8:30AM tomorrow.

Fifth workout: take all my boxes and bags up to my fourth-floor room. During all this time, I can't expect the ajeossi to help me: he's pleading rotator-cuff problems, so it'll be up to me to do all the lifting. Tom offered to help, but since he can't help before 1PM tomorrow, it'll be too late: by 1PM, I'll be all done, doubtless nursing my screaming knees and quadriceps after a dozen trips up four flights of stairs.

So! An intense day in store me. By Monday, I'll have ripped open my boxes, sorted most of my stuff, and settled into my new, humble, slightly scuzzy digs (my yeogwan's tasteless pink porcelain sink can only be described as fabulous, baby). All in the name of saving up some cash so I can move once again next year—preferably into someplace more civilized. And larger.

*Both Jeff and Sean work back-breaking schedules, though, and this is the first true vacation that either has enjoyed in a long time. So as I told Sean today at the airport, "You have every right to feel spendy."


a tale of two clafoutis

Elisson fired the first salvo with this post about clafoutis. Jasmine, la Québecoise, fired the next salvo with this post about an unconventional "Black Forest"-style chocolate clafoutis. I'll let you decide which one you like better. I'll take both, thanks.


Friday, August 15, 2014

a new low

I'm now down to 123 kilograms, which is about 271 pounds. While I still have man-boobs and lady-butt, I'm happy to find myself nearing the 260s in poundage. At my "peak" while teaching at Sookmyung, I was down to 255 pounds (115.6 kg); that no longer seems so out of reach. And now that I know the path up Namsan from my campus, there's no reason for me not to take that path every day, and eventually get back to the point where I can do the entire mountain without stopping even once. Can't say that I've adhered faithfully to the "one roll of kimbap a day" rule, but I've definitely been eating less while continuing to walk the same amount. Progress, then—slow but steady.

And now: I'm off to Jongno to meet Sean and Jeff. Much strolling to do. And probably much eating as well. Have a good Liberation Day if you're in Korea, and have a mindful Feast of the Assumption if you're Catholic.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

briefly rich

I'm back from a trip down to Hayang, where I visited the on-campus Daegu Bank and made one final wire transfer of money to the US courtesy of the Catholic University of Daegu. Today was the last payment I would receive from my now-former place of work, and although Daegu Bank does have a few (very few) scattered branches in Seoul, I went down to Hayang because those bank staffers already know the monthly drill. Had I tried to do my transfer in Seoul, the process would have taken a million years, as I'd have had to start from scratch.

So: a final 2 million or so won, plus the W500,000 I'd received from Imo yesterday. For one glorious moment, I felt almost rich. Then the moment was over: I sent a million—half my net salary—to the States, then transferred 1.3 of the remaining 1.5 million won to my old Shinhan Bank account, which I'll be using to collect my salary from Dongguk University. Once I got back to Seoul, I went to Jongno, found a Shinhan ATM, and sent W450,000 to my buddy Tom to finish repaying him for a longstanding debt plus a more recent debt: Tom had paid my plane ticket to Seoul last year, which allowed me to go job-hunting. I'd been paying him back, bit by bit, over the course of the past year, and had W400,000 (about $400, US) to go. Thanks to Imo's generous gift, I was able to finish paying Tom off for that debt, as well as for the W50,000 that he had plunked down as a placeholder deposit on my yeogwan.

Something strange happened at the Daegu Bank in Hayang: someone walked out of the bank with my umbrella. I had placed it in the "rain bucket" that many Korean businesses use whenever it rains: the idea is to park your soaking umbrella in the bucket (along with other customers' umbrellas) and to retrieve it on your way out. This obviously relies on the honor system, but the honor system is subject to human error: in this case, I doubt anyone seriously intended to steal my umbrella, but someone definitely grabbed the wrong one on his or her way out of the bank. I mentioned this to the bank staffers; a cursory search was performed, then one of the staffers shrugged and told me I could take one of the remaining umbrellas in the rain bucket. So I went from sleek black to plaid. Life is weird like that.

And now I'm back. Today, Sean and Jeff were on a DMZ tour that they had booked online before even coming to Korea. A bus picked them up from their hotel and took them to wherever the tour started. Tomorrow, when I see them, I'll ask them what they thought of Panmunjeom and the tunnels, which were apparently part of the tour package.

Tomorrow will be, I suppose, Sean and Jeff's last hurrah before they move on: they're leaving this coming Saturday morning. They clarified that they're heading to Cambodia next, then Vietnam, then finally China. So tomorrow, which also happens to be Liberation Day in Korea (Gwangbok-jeol, a national holiday) as well as the Feast of the Assumption for Catholics (and the pope is in town), will be a great day for milling about with the crowds. Jongno Street is going to be blocked off—more for the pope than for Liberation Day, apparently. That'll make that neighborhood into one huge pedestrian zone, which is perfect for our plans.

Sean and Jeff want to visit at least one temple, and although it's a lame one, we'll be visiting Jogyae-sa, the head temple of the Jogyae Order of Buddhism. The guys also want to visit Insa-dong, the art district; Jeff apparently collects traditional masks from all over the world, so he'd like to add some Korean tal to his stash. We're also going to hit a royal residence; Third Ajeossi said that the palaces will all be open to the public at no charge tomorrow, so we might hit either Gyeongbok Palace or Jangdeok Palace. I also want Sean and Jeff to breathe in the ridiculously overblown ambience of the nearby Lotte Hotel, and might take them over to the gigantic Kyobo Bookstore, if they're willing.

Saturday morning, I imagine I'll accompany Sean and Jeff to the airport and see them off. Right after I get back to Karak-dong, I'll need to pack up all my stuff, because I'm moving out of my place a day sooner than expected: the drunken ajeossi who's going to be trucking my stuff over to my new digs (I met him the other night; he's a bit of an asshole) is impatient to get the whole thing over with. He's also pleading rotator-cuff problems, so it's going to be up to me to ferry all fifteen of my parcels from my fifth-floor apartment to the second floor of Ajumma's building on Saturday, from the second floor to the ajeossi's truck on Sunday, and from the truck to my fourth-floor yeogwan room near Dongguk, not even an hour later. That'll be an easy W50,000 for the lazy drunkard. And plenty of exercise for me.


"Begin Again": one-paragraph review

You couldn't ask for lighter fare than "Begin Again," a milquetoasty romantic dramedy starring Mark Ruffalo as Dan, a down-on-his-luck recording-studio exec, and Keira Knightley as Gretta (yes, with two "t"s, as in "regrettable"), a musician-songwriter who has just broken up with her rising-star singer boyfriend when the story begins. The story takes place in New York, and is, in part, a paean to the city—its lives and loves and dreams. The plot and characters often fall into cliché, but the overall story is warmhearted and well-intended. This is a film about broken people pulling themselves out of their nosedives and making something new of their lives. Dan and Gretta meet when Dan, an alcoholic, finds himself in an East Village club where Gretta is playing. Dan is inspired by Gretta's soulful music, and even though he's just been booted by the record label that he'd co-founded, he pitches Gretta with a plan to produce an album of her music. Dan is also separated from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and has a tenuous relationship with his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), but as the plot progresses, the various unraveled cords of our principals' lives begin to re-ravel. "Begin Again" manages to keep the romantic tension between Dan and Gretta unpredictable, and the movie avoids going the overly emo route. I can't say that I enjoyed the indie-trash songs that much, but the acting was good and the overall message of hope was one that only bitter cynics would scoff at. CeeLo Green steals every scene he's in; the man is a great comic actor, and I hope to see him in more movies. I was forced to watch "Begin Again" on the KTX from East Daegu Station to Seoul Station; the credits began rolling just as we pulled into Seoul, and passengers actually hung around through the ending credits to watch the extra mid-credits scenes, which elaborate slightly on the main story. Obviously, my fellow passengers found "Begin Again" engaging, and if Metacritic is any judge, most American movie critics liked the movie, too. I found it forgettable and not very profound, but it went down easy.



I've been reading Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor, having first seen the Peter Berg-directed movie of the same name. Luttrell co-wrote the book with an author of military fiction, and while the prose is disappointingly clunky and awkward, the one thing that is exceedingly clear is that Luttrell blames "the liberal media" for the deaths of his SEAL comrades in arms. Here's a choice quote:

Look at me, right now in my story. Helpless, tortured, shot, blown up, my best buddies all dead, and all because we were afraid of the liberals back home, afraid to do what was necessary to save our own lives. Afraid of American civilian lawyers. I have only one piece of advice for what it’s worth: if you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.

Above, Luttrell references "the liberals," but almost everywhere else he writes angrily about "the liberal media."

I'll be writing a fuller review of the book later, once I've finished it.


en famille

With no father to relate to and no mother to hug anymore, I have very little family left. Normally, when I think about who's left, my thoughts turn to my brothers. Tonight, though, I was reminded that I have more family than just my two brothers. I went out with Third Ajeossi and Third Ajumma, as well as with an unfamiliar woman who told us she was Mom's cousin and who asked us to call her "Imo," the same designation I use for Mom's big sister, who lives in Texas along with the rest of the Komerican side of my family.

We all had dinner at a very nice riverside restaurant in the Gwangnaru neighborhood called Ga-on, which served high-quality, traditional Korean food. We ordered the jeong-shik (a little bit of everything), and the food just kept coming and coming. There was wang-mandu (king-sized meat dumplings), dotorimuk-muchim (spicy acorn-jelly salad), saengseon-jeon and hobak-jeon (egg-batter fish and zucchini), suyuk (boiled beef, which we ate with green onions and perilla leaves), gomtang-kalguksu (white-broth beef soup with knife-cut noodles) and ugeoji-guk (a yukgaejang-style spicy red-broth soup with vegetables and beef).

Talk tended too often toward my fatness (this is the price you pay for being fat in Korea), especially since Sean is now so thin (Sean and I used to look so similar that people often mistook us for each other). Poor Jeff, who isn't family and who doesn't speak a lick of Korean, may have been a bit marginalized from the flow of the conversation; I felt guilty about that, but did my best to interpret when I could.

I had thought we would be meeting with more of the family, but in a way I'm glad it was only just us folks. This is the branch of the family I like best, anyway (Sean tells me that Third Ajumma has always been his favorite ajumma), and conversation was relaxed and good-humored. Third Ajeossi told me that his younger brother, the youngest of the four brothers, is back in Japan with his wife and son; the son (another of my cousins) is working at a Japanese company. That branch of the family has a bit of a black-sheep-ish taint about it: it's the only branch that's explicitly Buddhist (both Second and Third Ajeossis are Christian), and it's the only branch that both speaks fluent Japanese and is completely conversant with Japanese culture. In any event, that branch of the family couldn't make it for obvious reasons. I never found out why the two older brothers and their families couldn't come; at a guess, the dinner date was just too sudden, and everyone already had a crowded schedule. Can't say that I missed the other relatives.

That said, it was good to be reminded of the relatives who care for us three American boys. Imo gave us an emotional speech about how she had grown up with Mom, and how she had met us all years ago, when we were much younger, and how she had watched us grow up from afar. She gave me and Sean a pair of white envelopes filled with money—her gesture of care. I apologized for not having brought anything to her, but she waved my apology away. I didn't dare open the envelope until I got back to my place in Karak-dong; when I did, I saw that Imo had placed $500 inside. She had spent $1000 on the two of us. In my current situation, $500 will disappear quickly down my gaping debt hole, but it's still a huge help.

So that was tonight's dinner and small family gathering.