Sunday, August 31, 2014


Today, I turn 45. I'm told, on occasion, that I look young for my age. You decide:

If I do look young, it's doubtless thanks to the fat that fills out any potential wrinkles.

To celebrate my birthday, I just ordered a pizza/fried chicken combo set from the local pizzeria/chickeria—a place called, humorously and nonsensically enough, Pizza Land, Chicken Princess. This sounds like a play on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to me, but really, I can't make heads or tails of what the name is supposed to mean, or how it's supposed to combine the ideas of pizza and chicken. The restaurateurs may as well have called the place Pizza and Chicken to convey the brute reality of what they do.

When I was first practicing ordering pizza on the phone and in Korean, years ago, I stumblingly requested a pepperoni pizza. Proud of myself, I waited for my prize to arrive, but when it did, I discovered to my horror and fury that the Korean notion of pepperoni pizza—at the time, anyway—meant that you got a pizza with pepperoni, ham, and onions. I fucking HATE onions on pizza (and on burgers, and pretty much everywhere else in Western food, with only a few exceptions). So today, after ordering the pizza/chicken set, I called the restaurant back and asked whether the pepperoni pizza would have onions in it. Thankfully, the dude said no. So I'm looking forward to chowing down on some bird and 'zza while I finalize my lesson plans for the coming week.

Forty-five doesn't feel any different from forty-four. Yet. It was in 2011, back when I was forty-two, that I began to notice the gray hairs arriving in earnest. I have no plans to color my hair, of course; coloring is for pussies with vanity issues.

Ah—my meal arrived while I was writing this, and I've delayed posting this entry so that I could chow down. Here are some pics of the food:

The chicken was surprisingly good. I loved the crusty, crunchy skin, which didn't look that impressive at first blush, but which proved to be quite addictive. The pizza was just OK, but it was still edible, especially after I'd spruced it up with a splash of hot sauce. The entire meal, drink and all, set me back W18,900, which isn't too horrible of a deal: a full load of chicken normally costs around W14,000, and so does a typical "large" (which is to say not so large) Korean pizza. So since the Pepsi cost me W1,000 (very cheap for 1.5 liters), each component of the meal—chicken and pizza—cost only W9,000. Truly not bad, if you'll pardon my modest litote. I'll very likely be ordering this unhealthy combo again, though not anytime soon, as I'm on a strict budget for the next few weeks.


how Korean chicks text

Here's a text-message exchange between me and a female friend of mine. My words are in yellow. I highlight this conversation because the friend in question has always been a bit daffy, and as is normal for us whenever we text, the conversation contains a hint of the strange. I also think this brief conversation provides a good example of feminine SMS discourse. I've "mosaicked" out my friend's name to protect the innocent.

My friend is in her thirties, so what you're seeing, above, is fairly restrained in the universe of estrogen-driven texting in Korea. Younger girls pile on even cutesier forms of Internet Korean, including a new and horrifying syllable I only recently learned: "Ggyang!!" ("꺙!!")—which, as near as I can figure it, is the Korean-cutesy equivalent of "Tee-hee," uttered in a shrill, girlish tone with one's shoulders in a high shrug, a single index fingertip placed very lightly on the lower lip, and a cocaine-powered smile upon one's face.

But note the elements of feminine discourse above. Double and triple (and quadruple) question marks and exclamation points are a sure sign of femininity, as is the classically East Asian ^^ emoticon, which represents the eyes, closed tight because one's smile is so intense. Note, too, the use of Kakao emoticons—the weeping dog, in this case. In the context of this conversation, the dog is weeping for joy because my friend hasn't yet missed my birthday.

Not able to follow the Korean? Here's a rough translation of our exchange.

FRIEND: Kevin!! Today's the end of August!! When was your birthday??

[NB: I had written a Kakao status update noting that my birthday was at the end of August. August has 31 days, so I assumed most normal people would take that to mean August 31st, as I intended.]

ME: But the end of August is tomorrow...

FRIEND: How is Dongguk University??^^ There's a famous pet shop in that neighborhood.^^

FRIEND: Oh!!!! Your birthday is tomorrow???

ME: The ambiance is good at Dongguk, but there's no instructional freedom. Still, I've heard tell that the students are really good. Yes, tomorrow I turn 45 in solar years.

FRIEND: I'm glad (weepicon). It [the date] hasn't passed yet.

FRIEND: I'll say congratulations to you tomorrow.^^ Hee hee hee~

ME: Thank you.

Weird enough for you? So my friend wanted to send birthday wishes on the wrong day, having perhaps forgotten that August has thirty-one days. (More charitably: she interpreted my Korean phrase, "end of August," to mean simply the last days of August instead of literally August 31st.) She tells me, apropos of nothing, about a famous pet store (famous pet store? really? they'd better have some pretty fucking awesome pets), then promises to contact me again with birthday wishes. Strange brew, indeed. But what's life without a little strangeness thrown into the mix, eh? Better to have daffy, loopy friends than to have no friends at all.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

frank talk

Good gentles, I may need to be more cautious as to what I write on this
ol' blog regarding my new job, so for the most prudential of reasons,
blogging on that topic, especially if it involves frank talk, will now
always be found, uh, elsewhere on the blog. You might have to
check around a bit in order to find it, but it'll be there, and you'll
know when you stumble upon it. It's not that I have no desire to keep
farting my fetid prose in public; it's just that I don't want the wrong
individuals to be poking and prodding, mining evidence to get my ass
fired. Hence the removal of certain posts from their original spots on
the timeline (to borrow a Twitter term). My new place of work has an
exceedingly strange fixation on teacher performance evaluations, so that
even the appearance of disloyalty will result in the docking of much-
needed ratings points.

You may be wondering where I'll be posting my frankest thoughts, then;
even the least interested among you may be at least a little curious.
And I don't blame you. But as you must realize, I can't spell out the
real location of these posts—not without alerting the wrong parties.
So I'm relying on you, Dear Reader, to use your brains to figure this
itchy little puzzle out. It shouldn't be too hard; I trust that my
not-so-numerous readers are generally people of intelligence and wit;
muddling through this problem shouldn't be overly difficult.
Yet this makes me nervous because if the manner in which I've hidden
a hint as to where the "frank talk" posts are located is too obvious,
repercussions—sinister repercussions—will follow. So I hope the
caballeros who might be most interested in digging up dirt will
have too many other things to do to concentrate on snooping around
in places where they shouldn't be. Besides, what I say about this
very interesting new job is written in a spirit of compassionate critique—
even the truly harsh stuff. And I'll never target specific people
so much as I'll be critiquing systems. So there we are.

and now the good news

The good news, which I also heard during yesterday's orientation, is that Dongguk students tend to be smart, energetic, and motivated. Thank Christ. That'll be a welcome change from the students at my previous job, very few of whom showed any spark of life or intelligence. Mostly, it was just a depressing cavalcade of laziness, distraction, cell-phone addiction, and general torpor. My intermediate students showed a glimmer of potential, but the beginners... Jesus, the beginners were simply awful.

So despite all the reasons for griping, I'm actually looking forward to meeting my new charges. I teach no beginners at all this semester: the kids are all intermediate to advanced level. If the students are willing to work with me, and are inspired when I push them and ask them to rise to my expectations, well, that's really all I can ask for.

Today, I'm off to campus to type up intro activities over the next few hours, then I'm up Namsan once again. Lunch—a late lunch—will be kimbap.


Friday, August 29, 2014

and now the bad news

My financial picture looks a little less rosy since I got the bad news during orientation today: one of my classes has been canceled because of low enrollment. I'd originally had fifteen class hours plus two unpaid clinic/zone hours, but that now drops to twelve class hours (the class I lost would have been three hours a week). Twelve hours is the minimum sanctioned amount that I'm contractually obligated to teach; anything above that amount counts as overtime, compensated at the somewhat miserly rate of W22,000 per hour (less than what I'd earned at YB, two jobs ago). So originally, with fifteen hours a week, that would have been three hours a week of overtime, times four weeks. W22,000 times twelve equals W264,000, times 0.8 for the net figure, equals W211,200 for take-home pay. So that's money I'll be missing.

As I hide little to nothing on this blog, let me lay out my financial picture now that I'm at a new place of work and also working at the Golden Goose:

Gross monthly pay from Dongguk = W2,900,000
Gross monthly pay from Golden Goose = W1,000,000
Monthly gross, subtotal = W3,900,000
Monthly net (x 0.8) = W3,120,000

Amount going to housing fund = W1,000,000 (ten months = W10 million)

Amount going to yeogwan rent = W400,000

Amount going to US to service debt = W1,300,000

Remainder = W420,000

Of that remainder, most is spoken for: phone bill, food, and transportation will whittle that figure down to under W100,000 unless I adhere religiously to the kimbap diet (which I haven't done up to now). So if I go kimbap, I might have between W100,000 and W200,000 to play with per month, and much of that will have to go to paying off personal debts. Since I need only ten months' work to accumulate W10 million, I'm thinking I might sacrifice the first W2 million I receive from the Golden Goose to pay off a raft of personal debts that have been dogging me—some for years. It'll be nice to get those out of the way.

The wild card in all this is KMA, which might give me a Saturday gig or two. Such gigs have been few and far between, and as much as I love working at KMA, it's painful not to get more gigs on a more frequent basis. Let's assume one gig per three months. Depending on how many students I have per class, my hourly pay can vary between W50,000/hour and W70,000/hour (I had originally been quoted an "ideal" figure of W75,000, but I've never been paid at that rate). So for a seven-hour course, I could earn anywhere from W350,000 to W490,000, gross, or W280,000 to W392,000, net. Spread over three months, that comes to anywhere from W93,333/month to W130,667/month. Not nearly the same as overtime pay from Dongguk would have been, but still something. Alas, I'm not sure I should even figure KMA into my budget, given the scarcity of gigs.

In any event, a single cancelled class at Dongguk puts a serious dent in my monthly budget and leaves me with very little disposable income. It's astounding to me how the money disappears. So for the first two months, I might not bother to save money for housing at all: instead, I'll use the extra million won a month to pay off personal debts and to have some cash in reserve so I can live like a proper human being. At least for a while.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

la bureaucratie m'encule

Today's trip to Immigration felt like a waste of time. I got to the office at 9AM, but that's not early enough: my ticket number was 65, and it took two hours to get to me. When I finally got to sit down with a staffer, he told me I needed to go across the hall to the other room, where they apparently dealt exclusively with E-1 visa matters. He reassured me, though, that the wait wouldn't be long, and he was right: I was helped within three minutes.

But I got bad news: I was, in that most classic of bureaucratic scenarios, missing a document. My papers were not in order, ja? There's apparently a document called an ijeok-dongeui-seo that my previous employer was supposed to issue to me. Ijeok means "transfer"; dongeui means "agreement"; seo means, in this context, "document." So this document was essentially written permission from my previous university to transfer over on the same E-1 visa to my new university. I never got it because I didn't know I was supposed to get it, and no one at my previous job had said anything about it, either.

What's frustrating is that, when I called the 1345 Immigration hotline number, the lady told me I needed to bring a whole raft of documents—about nine—but she never once mentioned the ijeok-dongeui-seo. So I blame her for this fuckup. I asked the immigration staffer, before I left his desk, whether there were any other documents I might need to bring, or was this the only one? He responded like a politician, saying, "This seems to be the only one." Christ, that was frustrating. Seems?

So the plan is now to go back to Immigration next Wednesday. Classes will have started by then, and I'm normally scheduled to work at the Golden Goose on Wednesdays, but I've got little choice but to make Immigration a priority. I had wanted to resolve everything by today, before my previous employer's contract ends, but it looks as though I have no choice but to do the visa renewal/extension after my new contract kicks in.

My brother David texted me to ask what I would be doing for my birthday, which is this coming Sunday, August 31, the day before classes begin. "No money, so not much," I texted back. "Probably walking up Namsan!" And that's very likely how I'm going to mark turning 45. A few days after that milestone, I'll be legal in this country once again.


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 for the book Lone Survivor and quotation marks for 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 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 local 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: his fallen teammates, the US military, his family and friends in Texas, and those tough Pashtun tribesmen with 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.


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.