Wow. It would appear that an unknown benefactor has paid for me to be ad-free. This was totally unexpected. Thanks so much to whoever it was – please email me!

I literally don’t know what to say. That rarely happens to me. Thanks again. And thanks too for doing what I should have done months ago – give Ev some money. I promise to try to make this thing worth reading.
Khamsa habnida…

North Korea

Update to the North Korea commentary a couple of days ago : the Bush will be in Korea next month for his third meeting with Kim Dae Jung, which will be his first one in Korea. During the meetings, President Kim will ask Bush to ‘be nice to North Korea’. “Seoul’s request will be part of a package […] in order to allow Pyongyang to save face and come to the negotiating table,” is the description of the request from a government official.
It is interesting (to me, at least) to note that my comments recently, to the effect that America’s refusal to play a positive role in negotiation between the two Koreas is politically and financially motivated and not based upon any rational or realistic estimation of the ‘threats’ involved, are confirmed to a degree by this article in the Washington Post, which states, among other things, that:

“Some consumers of intelligence within the government say the shifting forecasts of the ballistic missile threat are a case study of how an ostensibly objective intelligence process can be buffeted by conflicting political pressures, from home and abroad.
“Nobody believes the CIA estimates,” said a longtime counter-proliferation expert from another government department. Another analyst said that “nuances” tend to get taken out of the estimates as they proceed up the bureaucratic ladder. “The job of the CIA is to warn, but they never back down from previous warnings,” the analyst said. “

An argument could be made (and I can hear it on Metafilter already) that it’s in America’s larger interests to behave in the way it has, and that Americans need only be concerned with what’s in the best interests of America. That’s fine, but tell that to the two million people who’ve starved to death in North Korea over the past few years. Better yet, tell that to those who’ve managed to survive while family members died. Even better, have a representative few of the fat, burger-inhaling, obnoxious drunken louts that pass themselves off as ‘American soldiers’ in this country do it, with a beer in one hand, a fried chicken in the other, and a prostitute hanging around their neck.
Sorry – I got off on a rant there.
Crikey. I’m turning into a ranting, bizarro-world Steven Den Beste, here. Time to post some more silliness, toute de suite!
It’s all about face…

I was thinking this morning

I was thinking this morning about asking one of my friends to translate this into Korean, and making a few hundred cards:

“Spitting on the street spreads colds, flu and diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis. Korea has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis infection in the world. Stepping in spittle on the street brings germs and viruses into the home. Every day, Korean children and elderly people die, because you and others like you feel an irresistable need to spit on every horizontal surface you see. If Korea is ever to enter a community of modern, civilized nations as a true equal, behaviour like this has got to stop. Please, think of the children!

and handing a card to every guy I see horking an oyster on the pavement or platform or stairs or any other public thoroughfare. The thing is, I suspect that would push me over the edge from amused, sardonic observer into raving crank. I also suspect that I’d go through a few hundred cards over the course of any given weekend.
I do like the way I’ve managed to work in a Metafilter injoke though. Almost makes it worthwhile.

President Chimp

This is old news, by the way. Just on my mind.
Ah, President Chimp. Always willing to take time out from Defending the Free World, snorting cocaine off the bellies of teenage hookers (Note : this is an unsubstantiated statement. I have no proof. Honest. None.) and passing out after swilling too much beer choking on pretzels to wave a finger and lay waste to nearly five years of slow, careful diplomacy. A Korea Herald Op/Ed piece today lays it out in some detail :

“Unfortunately, inter-Korean relations began to wind down from the elation of the Kim-Kim summit talks in June 2000 when Bush was sworn in as U.S. president with a conservative mandate in January 2001. Pyongyang’s ties with Washington also began to become frigid after Bush voiced strong suspicions about Kim Jong-il in his later talks with President Kim in Washington.
After several months of reviewing U.S. relations with North Korea, the Bush administration offered to have a comprehensive dialogue with Pyongyang, pledging to hold discussions “any time, any place, without preconditions.” But when Pyongyang was weighing the offer, terrorists with Islamic fanaticism attacked the United States on Sept. 11, which dampened the prospects of an early resumption of dialogue.
The United States is saying that despite the terrorist attacks, the offer of unconditional dialogue is still valid. In a move that makes it difficult for Pyongyang to accept the offer, Washington is also claiming that North Korea poses a potential threat to U.S. security both as what it calls a “rogue state” supporting terrorists and as a producer of weapons of mass destruction. “

I was living in Australia when President Kim Dae Jung visited North Korea. I watched on TV as he shook hands with Kim Jong-il, and sentimental bastard that I am, I misted up. The dangerous halfwit that is ostensibly at the American helm has perpetrated all manner of outrage on the world since his inauguration, and no doubt will continue to do so, and perhaps this particular arrogance is low on the scale of importance. And I will grant that it is true that the regime in North Korea cannot be trusted, and occasionally appear, if not completely whacked out, at least to have a very tenous grasp on reality.
But, while the Americans continue to play their games, another million children might die of starvation in the North when the next famine hits. Sure, it’s the fault of Kim Il Sung and his cartoonish son and the government they created. But if there were an opportunity to hasten its demise, or at least soften its hardline, and prevent those deaths, and it were so clearly within their power, don’t you think the Americans could at least give it a shot? No, of course not. Foolish of me to think that, dreamer that I am.
A brief summary : with the blessings of the previous US Administration, Kim Dae Jung (who I repeat, for the benefit of those who have started following all this recently, has been referred to as the “Asian Nelson Mandela” and has received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his ‘sunshine policy’ in attempting to end the 50-year war between North and South Korea) embarked on a mission over the first 4 years of his presidency to open a dialogue with North Korea. Almost immediately after Bush was sworn in, he made it clear that, Peace Prize or no Peace Prize, there was no way that he’d support further efforts toward ending hostilities on the peninsula.
It is, of course, no coincidence that there are 44,000 US troops here, and peace, let alone reunification, would leave them without much to do.
Several months after Bush’s initial meeting with Kim Dae Jung, the American administration offered to meet with North Korea unconditionally out of one side of its mouth, while proclaiming out of the other that they pose a threat to U.S. security as a “rogue state”. This virtually guarantees that North Korea, historically hypersensitive to hyperbole like this, will not participate in any talks, let alone propose them. A fait accompli.
Quiz : The corner that the Bush regime now has South Korea, their ally, backed into, is a minor miracle of :
a) Diplomatic sleight-of-hand
b) realpolitik
c) clear thinking
d) cheese, glorious cheese
Vote now, vote often!
Update : Sorry, when I posted this last night, I forgot to add option (e) Pure, unmitigated evil. Thanks for playing.


Feh. I’ve been thinking about why I’m doing this lately, and I’m not sure if it’s worth continuing. It’s all a wank at the end of the day, isn’t it?
Ah well. In the meantime, I’ll note that the signs in all the subway stations (at least out here in the boondocks) that said “Seoul Thorough” (which I mentioned in passing a while ago) have all been taken down and fixed or replaced. They now say “Seoul”. Score one for the anti-Konglish brigades! The world is slightly less amusing, perhaps, but also slightly less annoying. That’s not a bad thing.

Dr. Dogmeat to the rescue!

Dr. Dogmeat to the rescue! I love it. Since the Japanese occupation, Korea’s constantly believed deep in its collective heart that it is unworthy, that its traditions and culture have no real value, while showing the public face of that kind of pathology : blustering declarations, vociferous but shallow, about the glory of the march into the future and the glory of the Korean nation. In ’88, the government ‘passed a law’ with fingers crossed behind its back, ‘outlawing’ the consumption of boshintang, while the only real change on the streets was that more obvious restaurants joined their back alley kin in the shadows.
This is a much better approach, and perhaps a sign that South Korea is finally overcoming the self-loathing brought on by a century that included the Japanese occupation, the agony of the Korean War, and the indignities of being an American lapdog (thanks to the understood need for the 44,000 American troops stationed here in Korea). The nation was (re)built in the last 50 years, and this tiny little dot on the map has the 11th biggest economy on the planet now. (Happy voice) Mad props, you guys! (Serious voice) What a heartbreaking price you’ve had to pay, though.
Maybe it’s a step forward to be able to stand up and say (in Korean) “f–k you, mate. We’ll eat dog if we want. And you can kiss our hairy asses if you don’t like it!”.
Perhaps the collective averting of Korean faces from the recent past is almost over. Koreans have collectively turned a blind eye, and it has resulted in a nation so ravaged by lack of civic pride, by runaway industrialization and it’s concommitant cancers, by a blind forced march into an unclear future, and so completely unable to fruitfully connect threads of its cultural heritage to the realities of the present that I fear for its survival.
I chronicle the symptoms of the crisis here, couched in the rhetoric of an annoyed bystander, padded with attempts at humour, but it’s real, and it’s coming. Maybe Dr Dogmeat is a step towards Korea coming to terms with its own identity, and understanding that there are other strengths than the merely monetary.
Or maybe I’m just talking sh-t. Hard to tell sometimes.
(via Metafilter, and though it hasn’t started as I write this, the discussion there is probably where you want to head next, if you’re interested.)

Object lesson in cultural differences

Object lesson in cultural differences : on the subway today, I attempted to give up my seat to a woman who appeared to be more or less in my age bracket, plus perhaps five or ten years. She gave me an incredibly sour look of annoyance, and waved me back down, while casting quick glances left and right to check whether anyone had noticed our little interaction. I was confused, a bit, as I frequently am, and wrote it off to some kind of weird manifestation of xenophobia, which I usually do.
Turns out that I had offended her. It seems that in this strictly Confucian society, one gets up to offer one’s seat to the elderly. Only. In other places I’ve lived, I have pretty much always had a habit of mock-chivalrously doing the same for women, of whatever age, as that’s the way I was brought up. That’s not the way it works if you’re brought up in Korea, though, and by offering this woman who may have been 40 to 45 years old, I had implied that she was, or at least that she looked, an old biddy.
Ooops. Another success for international relations, courtesy of the wonderchicken.
Get outta my seat…

After reading the mewlings

After reading the mewlings of at least half the participants in a discussion at Fark (a site where I consciously don’t bother with reading the discussions, as they are too often dominated by flailing adolescents and bumptious booby-seeking yahoos for my taste, and it just pisses me off) about the link I propagated below, I got to thinking a bit about how utterly different matters of gender are here, compared to the West.
An example : the over-riding desire for male children, particularly as a first born, coupled with a focus on children, a cult of reproduction, so fervent that women are often addressed not by their given name but as “Mother-of-child’s name” after they’ve squeezed out their first progeny, has created the necessity for some fairly unique legislation.
In the mid-80’s, as mass-produced ultrasound machines became freely available, doctors would naturally inform expectant mothers of the gender of the fetus, once it became distinguishable. This led to a fairly common, but not-discussed, practice of aborting female fetuses, particularly if they were to be the first-born, and ‘trying again’. This led in turn to the government decreeing that, by law, doctors would not be allowed to disclose the gender of a fetus. Many still do, of course, and the number of male births in Korea has outnumbered those of female by considerably more than the natural 106/100 ratio. This will have deep consequences when these boys come of age over the next decade or two.
Those in power would do well to learn from history:

“During the 19th century, the Chinese province of Huai-Pei suffered devastating natural disasters including floods, droughts, famines, and locust invasions nearly every three or four years. The peasants in this province, who were dependent on the land and the crops, did the only thing they could think of to survive under these conditions–they killed their female babies.
Male babies were valued as potential food providers and contributors to the family income while females were another mouth to feed and could only be married off at great expense to the family. In this time of desperation, reducing liabilities, such as female children, was seen as a viable survival technique. As a result, during this century there was an average of 129 men for every 100 women in Huai-Pei.
This skewed sex ratio became a problem when the men were ready to marry. Because of the lack of females, many men had no hope of marrying, raising a family, or supporting themselves; consequently, they grouped together and began small-scale banditry throughout the province to steal and provide for their families. Eventually, nearly 100,000 of these men, known as the Nian, led a rebellion on the Chinese emperor from 1851 to 1863 that contributed to the fall of the empire.”

A mainstream media article

A mainstream media article about Korea, this time talking about ‘booking clubs’. More or less accurate, except for the utterly ridiculous translations of quotes into Amurrican slang. “How’s it going, bro?” reads one such message sent to Mr. Park on a Monday night. “Come quick. It’s a complete girls’ bathtub tonight. Hurry and make your pick.”
This is meant to be an SMS message from a waiter at a club to a patron? Not a chance in hell.
Interesting phenomenon, though.
Book me, big boy…

A 'Paris Baguette' bakery franchise

A ‘Paris Baguette’ bakery franchise opened up in our determinedly-crappy-but-slowly-upscaling neighbourhood today. As is the tradition* in Korea, there was a trio of young women out front, gyrating to painfully loud disco music. It is bitterly cold today, so the artificial grins that they are required to wear were perhaps a little more forced than is usual. These girls must dance, non-stop, for anywhere up to 10 hours or so, while exhorting patrons to come and enjoy whatever wares the newly opened shop is flogging. They come from an agency of some kind. Mr. Kim, the proud owner of a new boshintang restaurant, will ring up and say “Yeah, I need three girls tomorrow. No, dancing girls, you idiot. Yeah, all day. Thanks”, and they magically appear with their uberdisco sound system the next day, rain or shine.
The really amusing thing (there’s always more than one amusing thing in my World of Anecdotes, sucka!) though, was they didn’t have a single f–king baguette in the place. At least we got a free bread knife.
*tradition being anything that’s been done for five years or more. ‘Or more’ may extend to a couple of thousand years, but who can tell?

As promised

As promised : I was in the toilet, from whence many of my best thoughts seem to emanate, and the phrase ‘cultural cargo cult‘ sprang, fully formed, into my mind. It was early in the morning, and I see no real connection with my dream about the Irish Monk who required that I bring him the largest lettuce leaf I could in order for him to fashion a cloak from it, for me. The leaf I managed somehow to unwrap from a perfectly normal head of lettuce was not only purple, but approximately the size of a bedsheet. After fastening it to a headpiece made from a piece of furry animal hide, I went to meet my destiny, which, it was understood, due to the enormous size of that lettuce leaf, was necessarily regal.
What was I talking about?
I’ve been struggling for months to come up with a way to describe the way that Korea, and to a much lesser extent these days, Japan, hijack those elements of western (tangentially, in other words, adolescent-targetted) popular culture, twist them just the amount that seems appropriate, and amplify to the point of parody, but with a straight face and boundless enthusiasm. At the same time, they either negligently or deliberately strip the imagery, sounds and ritual of any of the meaning, the historicity from which they originally sprang. It is a ‘cultural cargo cult’, where it is assumed that, for example, with the correct combination of haircut, clothing and sampled guitar riffs, a song so saccharine that Anne Murray would gag is transformed into an anthem bristling with street credibility.
Of course, you can’t blame the entertainment factories here. When manufactured entertainment like The Backstreet Boys or The Spice Girls or the latest soulless piece of cinematic sh-t by Jerry Bruckheimer sweeps the planet and takes the trailer parks by storm, dollarsigns sparkle in the eyes of greedy morons the world over. Korea is no different. The product is tailored to make the most money.
Perhaps it’s just that with examples like the three I mention above, I feel sure they know that what they’re doing is pointless, all-about-the-dollars pap, and that there is such a thing as pop-culture art, or at least authentic feeling and experience filtered though the lens of popular culture relics. Here, I can sense no such subtext. The latest Korean boy-group seems to be uncomplicatedly serious about their fame, and everyone takes them seriously. Art? Not even an issue. ‘They’re cute, they’re personable, they’re guaranteed drug-free, they sing well enough once you add enough digital processing in, that’s enough’
But they never seem to have made a deal with the devil, or feel that they’ve given up their integrity to sing cheesy pop songs to 13 year old girls, and no one seems to have considered that there might have been another path, a path that isn’t a ‘sell-out’. Integrity isn’t on the agenda, nor is (in this case) music’s role as catharsis.
And the thing that weirds me out is that Korean pop groups absolutely rule China and Japan and Taiwan. There are schools that teach Beijing hopefuls how to dance like Koreans! It’s puzzling, and a little depressing.
Am I being an elitist? Perhaps I need to think about this some more. There are some (very few) real rock groups here : The Yoon Do Hyun Band, for example.
As always, I welcome your comments. I’m trying to sort this out in my mind a bit….
What do you think?

Schoolgirl Howl Machines

After you get over the initial fear, loathing and ‘stop poking at my ego-balloon’ sensivity of the first few months of culture shock, it’s amazing how many little things you begin to take in stride, things that friends or family would pick up on instantly if they were to come and visit.
One that struck me as we were lazing around watching one of the infinitude of ‘variety’ shows on Korean TV last night (all of the major networks stream on the net live or on demand, by the way, if you’re curious and have a fast net connection : the big three : MBC, KBS, SBS. Even without being able to read Korean, you should be able to find the streams pretty easily…) is the ‘schoolgirl howl’.
This is a sound, that, whiskey-ravaged as I am, I cannot for the life of me reproduce. It is reminiscent of the kind of pre-orgasmic squeals that teenyboppers in the early 60’s would emit when faced with the Beatles, or Elvis, and I suppose, in a deliberately more chaste fashion, that’s what it’s modelled on. It sounds a bit like a very high-pitched : ‘ooo-WOOOO-OOoo!”. The thing is, though, that it’s delivered with clockwork regularity every 10 or 15 seconds, when anyone does or says anything even remotely interesting.
“Oh my goodness I am uncontrollably excited in a non-sexual fashion by the fact that that dog just jumped through a hoop!” is the message, it would seem.
To add an extra layer of weirdness (which I almost never notice these days, having become accustomed to it), this schoolgirl howl is also omnipresent on prerecorded segments! It would seem that they have invented, parallel to the cretinous laughtrack machines in the West, Schoolgirl Howl Machines here (good name for a band!). I imagine the guy in the booth, bored look on his face, cigarette dangling from his lip, pushing the lever for another howl, and twiddling a knob if it needs an extra bit of oomph because the current howl-ee is a member of g.o.d or something.
Practice your schoolgirl howls here…

Lengthy hangover?

Lengthy hangover? Run down like the foreign dog that he is by a sleep-deprived taxidriver? Felled cedarlike by an especially nasty virus? Composing word by word the ultimate post that will drive women and wonderchicken-loving men to previously unreached heights of lexically-ecstatic mental fibrillations?
Nah. Fightin’ with the Mrs.

Meta New Year

This is a post that’s explicitly about me, rather than my take on something, which I try to avoid here. Apologies. Ignore it if you wish.
So here it is. Another arbitrary milestone, but sucker that I am, I find it hard to ignore those little markers beside the road, arbitrary or not. For me, 2001 was one of those years of reinventing myself, ones that seem to come in more or less three-year cycles. I decided that, for the moment at least, the IT industry was not where I wanted to be, even if Australia was.
Throwing heart and soul into a project that I believed deeply in and having it sh-tcanned because of arbitrary, ego-driven political bullsh-t (I will never forget it, Mr. Bastard, and when you least expect it I will leap from the cover of darkness and rip your f–king black heart out and feed it to you, still pulsing) gave me pause, and triggered some re-evaluation of what I need as core in my livelihood, to keep my sanity. I’ve always needed friendships (if at arms length, perhaps, and on my terms, arrogant control-freak that I am) to sustain me, coupled with plenty of time to sit alone and think and drink. The first was possible in Sydney, the second, not.
Serendipitously, this university teaching job came to my attention at almost precisely the same time that I was re-evaluating how rewarding (in any but a monetary sense) the IT work and my role at was to me, and precisely how much sh-t I’d have to eat to fit in with the new corporate regime. I’ve been called naive, and foolish, and perhaps I am, but teaching has always seemed to me to be a noble calling. In the right situation, a teacher, a good one, can see how they have done some measurable good in the world. It’s a lot harder to see that result in the software biz, particularly when the results of a year’s labour is a piece of ‘groupware’ which ends up getting shelved, anyway.
Happily, since I’m nothing if not skilled in uprooting myself and flinging my sorry ass halfway across the planet at the drop of a hat (and happily, since SK is cool with that), the move back to Korea wasn’t the potentially shattering thing it could have been. I made (and renewed) some good friends in Australia, and I hope we’ll go back, sometime. I took a 60% cut in my gross salary, and that is a price that I gladly pay to be free from feeling coerced to lick corporate ass, to have the time to write, and read, and think, and drink, to teach again, and have my efforts appreciated, and to give the woman I love a chance to live in her own country again. I’ve made (and renewed) some friendships here, and as ever, all my friends that I can keep in touch with through this amazing InTArWeb thing sustain me, every day.
2001 was a stressful year, as my Years of Reinvention always are, but I think there is a chance that I’ll be a better man because of the hard decisions I made. And at the end of the day, at the close of another year, that’s all I can really strive for.
Peace, friends.
Call me a fool for love…

It's New Year's Eve

It’s New Year’s Eve, and we are off to the Opera. That sounds mind-wobblingly odd to me, but such is life. Cho Su Mi, who is apparently Korea’s most famous diva, will be singing. Joining her on stage will be a friend/student, Chung Ho Yoon, who is Korea’s most promising up-and-coming young male tenor. It will be interesting, and a novel experience for me.
Gives me an excuse to wear that ridiculously expensive suit I bought last summer, too.
Since this will be my last post of the year, before we head into the first palindromic year of the millenium, I wish all who have visited and all who will visit my meagre efforts here a most happy, fulfilling and peaceful New Year (even the guy who crapped all over the comment thread from yesterday) .
Wish me a Happy New Year, or curse me, as you wish…