A New House and A Walk In The Woods

I learned an important lesson about living in Korea today, and I learned it at the point of a gun, which may just make it stick for a while, for a change.
Most people who come to Korea to teach, whether at a hakwon (the catch-all term for the private-study schools that can be found literally 10 to a city block, catering to the monomania not for quality but quantity of education here in Korea, many of which specialize in English and employ most of the short-termers in Korea), or a university or foreign school, or in-house at a company, or somewhere else entirely… most of them are provided with housing.
This is, few actually realize, mandated by the legislation controlling E-2 (English Teacher) visas. Which is not to say that this legislation is universally obeyed (‘rule of law’ not being a concept that has caught on to any great extent in Korea thus far), of course, but it goes some way to explaining why the feared-and-loathed, almost invariably dishonest and money-grubbing hakwon owners actually do something that does not financially reward them in any tangible way. That is, provide housing for their English Monkeys.
There are some decent private schools around, and a fair number of goodish universities, at least in terms of working conditions, and they do occasionally provide their foreign employees with reasonable accommodation. Some very few go one better, and provide housing that is very comfortable indeed. This is the exception, rather than the rule, naturally.
Back when I was a bachelor in the mighty metropolis of Busan†, I lived for nearly two years — although I was working for one of the better schools — in a 3 metre by 4 metre closet in which there was room for a bed, desk, fridge, (and a few dozen empty bottles, of course), located right beside a textile factory. By right beside, I mean that my one window looked directly into a window on the factory floor, about 18 inches away. Right beside.
[†I liked it better when Busan was romanized as Pusan, and pronounced Poosan by foreigners, ‘san’ being the Chinese character meaning ‘mountain’, and I could thus refer to the city as ‘Poo Mountain’ and actually be able to explain why without being quite as longwinded as I am right now. ‘Boo Mountain’ just doesn’t have the same sophomoric poop-humour ring to it.]
The chatter of hundreds of sewing machines didn’t actually bother me much, as I was too regularly and fully inebriated at that point in my life to care, and rarely at ‘home’ other than to sleep, anyway. Life was good, in a dissipated and decadent, perpetually-sozzled sort of way. It was the last gasp of a bachelorhood that was becoming less amusing, rapidly.
The last couple of years, though, have seen my wife (who I met as I was leaving behind that rocket-fueled lifestyle) in the lap of relative luxury, in Australia, and after our return to Korea, in the two large, brand-new apartments which were provided by the university where I worked until recently.
The other reason for schools to offer accommodation when you take a job with them — the one that people usually assume to be the primary one — is that it is effectively impossible to find your own, as a non-Korean. This is in part a manifestation of the blithe racism that informs much of mercantile Korea’s dealings with us hairy barbarians, and in part a reasonable response to the infamous behaviour exhibited by most GIs and many young, inebriate, wacked-out English teachers (of which I was once one, with a vengeance). Stereotypes exist for a reason, after all. Not what you’d call most-favoured tenant types, most non-executive expats in Korea. If you’re married to a Korean, yes, but alone : nuh-uh, unless you want to rent a room in one of the ubiquitous yogwan f–k-hotels on a monthly basis, which many single guys do.
I’ve known some of them, guys who were capable of ignoring the nasty omnipresent fug of stale semen and cut-rate detergent, the dim green and pink lighting (creating that ambience of a festive abbatoir that just screams romance) and the weekend puddles of pinkish kimchi vomit in the hallway, the drunken screams and shouts from 11 pm to perhaps 3 or 4 am each and every night from the short-timers. Better than we deserve, though, I’m sure.
So when my contract wasn’t up for renewal (for reasons that boiled down to my lack of over-demonstrative lovin’ for the baby jesus™, basically) last month, it was a particularly stressful time, as I was forced not only to look for other work, which would then allow me to get a visa, but to do so before the beginning of September, in order for us to actually have somewhere to live (and put our worryingly large collection of furniture).
The right job didn’t materialize, and in between our chicken-little panic-stricken thoughts of bailing to Canada, or Mexico, or Thailand, or anywhere, really, we decided the cheapest and wisest option was just for me to do a visa run to Japan (Canadians get 6 month tourist visas here, on entry) and come back, and to rent our own house. That sounds blindingly obvious to the good people out there in Normal, Illinois, I know, but being locked into the mindset of job=visa=house, it really hadn’t occurred to us. Plus, I was kind of keen on hitting the beach somewhere, somewhere other than Korea. She Who Must Be Obeyed had predictable thoughts on that idea, unfortunately, and the plan was dismissed out of hand.
So we wandered hither and thither and even over yon a bit, looking for places to live, even as I was going to first and second interviews with likely employers and finding them all wanting, in one aspect or another. Seoul, for those of you who might wonder, is not small. Hither is about 3 hours from yon, and thither is another couple of hours beyond that.
Anyone who’s been reading the ‘bottle for any length of time knows how much I loathed the industrial nightmare of an area where we used to live, nuts deep in garbage and banana-peel-slipping-around on the constellations of comedy throat oysters horked up by the denizens of Gunpo City, south of Seoul, near Suwon. It was true that most of the other places around the city and its skirts that we looked were somewhat nicer, but mostly only in degree. Unpleasant, of course, but less so. Not precisely enticing, particularly when I had been thinking along the lines of Koh Samui or Whistler or Zihuatanejo.
Until we found the area we’re living now. I’m telling you, angels descended and blew their tinny trumpets in my ears (not unlike the appearance of the choir invisible when I first used an electronic bumrocket bidet machine in Japan on my subsequent visa run) when we started looking around here. It is the first place — anywhere in Korea — that I’ve seen that shows evidence of actual urban planning, where things are built on an almost-human scale, neither crowded together like barnacles nor consisting of massive slabs of concrete looming over massive courtyards of concrete, brutalist Pyongyang penile-surrogate stylee. No, this area was clearly designed for cyclists and walkers as well as cars, and isn’t outright antagonistic to its residents, unlike most other places in Seoul I’ve been.
Seoul is a city (like every other urban environment in Korea) that hates its residents.
I could tell this suburb was different, though, as soon as we’d walked around a bit. About as far to the west of downtown as we were to the south in Gunpo, I saw the full bike-racks beside the subway station (something I’d never seen before in Korea, as there are few cyclists in most places, it being simply too dangerous and heavily trafficked to bother) and tree-lined paths winding through each block, expressly for pedestrians. Trees everywhere, in fact, not just on top of the fortunate stubs of mountains that hadn’t yet been leveled to feed into grinders and rise again as the vast human beehives where 70% of the population of the country live. Wide, straight roads. And, astonishingly, people who didn’t perform the ‘oh-my-god-he’s-not-Korean‘ doubletake that had left me so unwilling to dare set foot outside our apartment for the last couple of years.
Even my wife, who’s spent almost her entire 31 years in Korea, said she didn’t know there were places like this here.
So we found an apartment, in one of the newer style buildings that have started springing up all over Korea, geared to singles and young couples, called ‘Officetels’ in Konglish. Basically — and completely unlike the standard, cookie-cutter ‘apart’ concrete beehive family apartment buildings that rise everywhere out the earth like buboes on a plague victim — they’re like western-style apartment buildings, down to the gardens on the roof, the hot-water-on-demand, and the emphasis on sky-light, and air, and brightly lit cleanliness.
We found a small loft, with west-facing 4 metre windows taking up one entire wall, and rather than sucking car-exhaust from the perpetually-roaring highway that was behind our first apartment, or looking straight into the baby-factory slum windows over which our second apartment had a glorious low-rise, low-rent panorama, I can watch the sun go down out over towards the West Sea. I honestly never thought we’d live in such a lovely place, here in Korea. I hadn’t thought they existed, except for the rich in downtown Seoul, and on TV. We gave our huge fridge and washing machine to the wife’s bachelor brother, and left some furniture in the apartment for the new (cheaper and more malleable, more bible-thumping) university hire to use (rather than just chuck it all), and moved on up. To the top. To a deluxe apartment. In the sky-eye-eye.
It’s no Sydney, or Vancouver — hell it’s not even Toronto — but it’s pretty nice.
One of the only good points of our previous university-supplied place, other than the fact that we were first to live there and thus didn’t need to deal with filth, was the proximity of a small mountain ridge, up and along which we (and thousands of others, it seemed) could walk, escaping the apocalyptic vision, if not the all-pervasive noise, of the concrete wasteland that is Gunpo. That was pleasant, and walking there in unaccustomed green along the trail that wound its way a few kilometres along the ridge was enough to recharge my batteries, at least when there weren’t too many shrieking, pudgy children up there too, dragged away from their computers and compelled to exercise by their parents.
The new area, Songnae, has a few wooded mini-mountains within walking distance as well, and I resolved today, after failing to find my way through a military base to a likely trail at another nearby mountain to the west, last week, to attempt to find my way up the even closer megahillock to the south. The wife begged off, and I headed out, with my usual lack of preparation. I crossed the subway tracks – on the surface, this far from downtown – and wandered around for a good hour before I found a trail that led upwards.
The weather has been flawless for a good week after a miserable summer – unsmoggy blue skies, dotted with fluffy cumuli, hot sun cool shade. It was gorgeous today; the sun spattered through the leaves as the wide trail wound its way up to higher heights, at a much steeper grade than our old daily walk in Gunpo. I got past the thundering-heart first ten minutes, and fell into the euphoric groove that exercise almost always brings, when I’m out in nature, senses heightened, brain clear. There were only a couple of people around, trudging down as I headed up. Past small plots of vegetables the trail rose, and soon became almost alpine, studded with those massive, rounded rocks protruding from that tightly-packed, cafe latte-coloured dirt that always make me think of Korea and Japan. The perfume of pines baking in sunlight. I was happier than I have been in a while, and it was good.
I reached the first summit, and there were a number of smaller trails heading off from the glade atop the ridge, wandering off to various points of the compass. Thinking one might lead to a vantage point unscreened by greenery, where I could get a good look at the geography of our new home, I struck out along one of the paths, towards the sinking sun. I realize now that that military base I’d been unable to find my way around last week was to the west, too. You know, the direction I was walking.
After about 5 minutes of blissed-out traipsing along the trail, all Homer-in-Chocolate-Land, and before I quite knew what was happening, there were shouts in Korean, and as I abruptly came back to earth, I noticed in quick succession that: the clearing ahead of me had a tall chicken- and barbed-wire fence along it, that there various dishes and antennae and stuff behind that, and that the half dozen camo-clad Korean men approaching at a trot were all carrying weapons that I could only presume were automatic.
My crappy command of Korean being what it is, I had no idea what they were saying, but from their tone I could infer that they weren’t asking me in for a cup of tea. They were young, of course — just the age of many of my university students, and no doubt doing their two years of compulsory military service and quite happy to have pulled light duty sitting on top of a mountain somewhere. Nonetheless, their excitement coupled with their tendency to gesticulate with their guns was making me a wee bit nervous, I have to admit. In response to what I thought was an inquiry as to precisely what the f–k I was doing, I shrugged, and made the two-fingers-walking gesture, which in conjunction with a goofy grin and vacant swinging of the head, as if communing with butterflies, was what I hope was the universal sign-language for ‘just, you know, wandering around, being a nature-boy doofus’.
They peppered me with more questions in Korean, none of which I understood sufficiently to make any attempt at answering, in sign-language or otherwise, and eventually the eldest, who couldn’t have been more than 25 or so, said “OK” quite clearly, waved the back of his hand in the general direction of the trail along which I’d been walking, and said something in Korean which, near as I could tell translated roughly to “Get the f–k outta here, and you’re lucky we don’t arrest your ass. Sir.”
I got the f–k out, and continued my walk, no worse for wear, up into the almost-alpine and the green, blue and white, being extra-careful to stick to the main trail.
And so, my lesson for the day, one that all Koreans seem to learn at some point: stray from the well-trodden path at your own peril, smart boy. A lesson that came complete with a moderately-sized brown spot in my boxers, for punctuation.

DMZ Release

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VISITORS DECLARATION
(UNC REG 551-1)
VISITORS TO THE JOINT SECURITY AREA ARE REQUIRED TO READ AND SIGN THE FOLLOWING:

1. The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. The Joint Security Area is a neutral but divided area guarded by United Nations Command military personnel on the one side (South), and Korean People’s Army personnel on the other (North). Guests of the United Nations Command are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the portion of the Joint Security Area under control of the Korean People’s Army. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the even of a hostile enemy act.
2. Visitors must comply with the following instructions:

a) UNC military personnel will wear appropriate military uniform prescribed by their service for off-duty wear. Other visitors will be dressed in appropriate civilian attire so as to maintain the dignity of the United Nations Command.
b) Prior to entering the Joint Security Area, each visitor (including military personnel) will receive a laminated guest badge which identifies him/her as an authorized guest of the United Nations Command. Guest badges must be worn on the upper left side of the outermost garment. Guest badges must be turned in prior to departure from Camp Bonifas.
c) Fraternization, including speaking or any association with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV) side is strictly prohibited. Personnel from the KPA/CPV side are identified as follows :

(1) Military Personnel – Brown or olive drab North Korean uniforms with red arm bands for guards with weapons and yellow arm bands for Military Armistice Commission personnel.
(2) Press personnel – Green arm bands.
(3) Visitors – Green pieces of cloth at upper pocket.

d) Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command.
e) Visitors will remain in a group from the beginning to the end of the tour and will follow all instructions from their tour guide. Any complaints will be registered after returning to Camp Bonifas.
f) Firearms, knives, or weapons of any type will not be taken into the JSA.
g) The area and buildings (tan colored) under the military control of the Communist side will not be entered for any reason. Permission of the tour guide must be obtained prior to entry into the UNC buildings (blue colored) in the JSA.
h) At no time will visitors stand inthe way of or interfere with military formations. Facilities and equipment inside the conference room will not be handled. Photography is permitted in the JSA but is prohibited enroute between Checkpoint A (the entrance to Camp Bonifas) and Checkpoint B (the entrance to the JSA).
i) If any incidents should occur, remain calm, and follow instructions issued by the security personnel.

3) Any questions concerning the above information should be brought to the attention fo the tour guide.

DECLARATION

I have read, understand, and will comply with these instructions. If I am accompanied by minor dependants, minors for whom I am responsible for the purpose of this tour, my signature constitutes acceptance of the terms of these instructions on their behalf.

SIGNATURE: __________________ DATE: _______________
Edition of 1 May 85 will be used until exhausted

UNC FORM 12EK
1 APR 95

Where you at?

I’m aware that the past week has been the longest unannounced hiatus I’ve taken from posting since this site started. Apologies to those who are left feeling out of sorts and mildly irregular in the absence of regular doses of wonderchicken. Life is happening, which is often a good thing.
Off to the DMZ this morning. My plan to moon the North Koreans on the other side of the Joint Security Area would have my companions a bit worried, if they were aware of it. I will maintain a tight security cordon.
Let’s hope the Bouffant-boy Brigades don’t pick today to march southwards for glory, conquest, and decent food (not to mention loose shoes and a warm toilet seat).

What do you do?

You ended up working for people you hated, and you found the massive inflow of cash thrilling but completely unrewarding. You felt like you had pissed away years of your life building some inconsequential piece of software that would never see the light of day anyway. You felt an urge to actually do things for people, to do something that might leave a mark of some kind on someone. On anyone. Something that felt real, or at least realer than the corporate office-politics circle jerk that had turned your sense of work as play into a daily grind as your friends quit, or were made redundant, or just gave up and waited for the foundering ship to finally sink. Endurance counts the most, Bukowski always said, but you were just too damn tired of spinning your wheels 80 hours a week, and getting shunted to the sidelines by incompetent technocrats who felt threatened by you. So you left your freakishly high-paying job, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. People thought you had taken leave of your senses.
And you went back to a place you had publicly reviled, a place you’d spent hours (days? weeks? months?) complaining about, a place in which the swarming multitude of infuriating details that assaulted your senses on a daily basis had driven you to drink for all the wrong reasons, a place where in weaker moments you felt sure that you’d had some of the life drained out of you, unrecoverable, into the smoggy night. But to a job teaching again, chasing the noble dream again, at a university, poorly-paid, yes, but where you could make a difference, you thought, where you might see in the eyes of your students that your labours were appreciated, that you would, at least by a few, be remembered. Where much of your time would be your own, and you could stretch out, grow your mind, cultivate your soul.
Dreamer. Pretty soon, predictably, you grew weary of that, too, and wondered what the hell would ever make you content.
And now, there’s an offer on the table to go back, reverse the clock, and join the racing rats once again. You’re sorely tempted, and you are annoyed with yourself for being so easily led. And afraid that if you don’t grab the ring again, don’t say yes each and every time to the possibilities life offers you, that life will stop offering you those chances, fold closed the kimono, and it will all be over.
And you realize, in your confusion and doubt, that all you really want is to go back to that bamboo hut – the one in Fiji, or the one on Flores, or the one on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, or the one you have kept in your mind like a mantra manifested since you first hurled yourself out on the road – the one on the new-moon arc of powdery sand, beneath the coconut palms, the one you’ve dreamed about over and over again. You can almost picture yourself sitting there again, deeply tanned, drinking a beer, the good hot smell of your own baked-off sweat, the dried-seawater tautness of your skin, natty dread, nothing going through your mind other than the colour blue, a deep and throbbing hum, and a set of gentle animal hungers. In the moment.
And then the phone rings.

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Between The Lines

Death of an English teacher

On April 19, Matthew Sellers, an English teacher in Seoul, was scheduled to fly home to Birmingham, Alabama. At 35, Mr. Sellers had been teaching in Korea for 10 years. He was, by many accounts, free-spirited, happy-go-lucky and fond of the young children he frequently taught. Though he seemed to relish Korea, on April 10 he bought a one-way ticket back to the United States, vowing not to return to the peninsula.
Mr. Sellers never made it home.
[more…]

What really happened to this man will no doubt remain a mystery. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d venture (judging by what’s said in that report) that it sounds like he was deep in amphetamine psychosis – “… the officer gave Mr. Sellers a piece of paper so that he could write his name, which Mr. Sellers did in a quivering hand, and in fact, ended up writing an entire personal history” – but hell, who knows? He was disturbed, it’s clear, which is odd in someone who is claimed by everyone involved to have been level-headed. Regardless, how did he get to that point? It might be a story worth telling, if one could unravel it. One assumes that whatever else may have happened, though, he died as a result of bungling. And so it goes.
Of this I’m sure : every expat living here in Seoul who reads this sad and unsurprising story comes away with an entirely different picture of the realities of what happened to this guy than someone who has never lived here. Little tidbits like “Mr. Shin, who speaks English, at first glance took Mr. Sellers for a homeless man” ring so false as to be laughable. There aren’t any non-Korean ‘homeless men’ in Korea, as any policeman would know. Stories fly off from offhand sentences in the linked article like fleas from an electrocuted dog. Chasing them down would be more trouble than it’s worth, for me at least, but every second or third line in there rings a J Arthur Rank gong in my brain, and sets me to imagining in technicolor.
But it also makes me think about how difficult, how doomed from the outset is any attempt to tell anything like a true story, ever. How locked into the bone cages of our own skulls we are in the end, and how far from reality even the most carefully worded tale-telling leaves us.
And it makes me think about how many of us will probably die : anonymous, shoeless, babbling, gripped by rage and despair, surrounded by people who can’t understand what we are saying to them.
Which is as it should be, perhaps, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the sooner we can start having some goddamned fun.
Hopefully Matthew had a little fun before he died.
Edit : This thread at the ESLCafe Korea Forums, with posts from some of Sellers’ friends and family and a whole lot of speculation from everyone else, is worth reading, if you are interested.

Cesspool

Yeah, this isn’t much of a surprise, but it does steel my reserve to get the hell out of this cesspool of a city as soon as possible. Seoul was recently found to have the worst air quality of any OECD city. I shudder to think of the crap that must be circling around my bag of blood.

In a study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, in collaboration with the Environmental Working Group and Commonweal, researchers at two major laboratories found an average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants, and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers, with a total of 167 chemicals found in the group. Like most of us, the people tested do not work with chemicals on the job and do not live near an industrial facility.
Scientists refer to this contamination as a person’s body burden. Of the 167 chemicals found, 76 cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development. The dangers of exposure to these chemicals in combination has never been studied.
[more…]

[via Mefi]

OhMyNews? Bah.

So Tom asked me about OhMyNews.com, which has been popping up recently around blogistan and generating some buzz.
(Just as a trivia-question aside : the ejaculation ‘Oh my god!’ is one that you hear almost constantly here in Korea. It was the tagline of a popular comedian a while back, and even young Koreans who don’t speak any English other than the always-useful ‘OK!’ and perennial favorite ‘Do you like kimchi?’ know it and use it with grating regularity. I assume the URL is a reference to that, although I might well be wrong. It happens.)
Well, OhMyNews is pretty neat, sure, and apparently did have some influence in the election of Noh Moo Hyun recently (which is a whole other story), but I don’t think it’s either quite as democratic or as elegant as it’s being chalked up to be. The basic gist of the Korean boilerplate at the site (according to my wife) states that you can send them an article anywhere up to ten ‘pages’, for which you are held personally (and legally) responsible in terms of veracity. If it’s acceptable, they edit it and pay you for it. Discussions are hung off the individual pieces that make it to the site. It doesn’t seem as if there is any reputation system or moderation beyond once-off editorial filtering and smoothing of language.
So not quite as groundbreaking as has been suggested, perhaps. More like a less-sophisticated kuro5hin.org for the Korean non-geeknoscenti, in my humble. Interesting, but more as a concept than a reality. And the concept is a pretty cool one.
We – the few, the involuted, the snarky! – at Metafilter got all hot and bothered about the idea few months back, and spent a good while trying to figure out how to build our own and entirely too much time talking about what to call the thing. Even so, prototypes were made, discussions were held (since disappeared from the server where they were hosted, sadly), thoughts were thunk, a corner of the MeFi Wiki was reserved, and then the two (much beloved, but nonetheless daunting) 800-pound gorillas in our metamidst, Rusty from kuro5hin.org and Matt from Mefi itself revealed that they were planning to build their own version of a collaborative journalism site, and in spite of their exhortations to us to carry on without their direct involvement and just keep bashing away at our plans, the enthusiasm of our little ad-hocracy kinda dissipated. After all, if there are two people out there who have the experience and know-how in the granular details of building and finely balancing the vagaries and conflicting tidal pulls of large online communities, it’s them.
[/brownnose]
Matt recently mentioned in an unrelated thread in Metatalk that they were hoping to have something to show the world by July 1st. I hope this is not a premature outing, and that I’m not pissing him off too much by talking about it now, but I really want to see this thing, and the comments he and rusty have made about it are a matter of public record, so you heard it here first, folks.
Unless you read Metatalk, of course. Then you heard it here second.
Ohmynews? Bah. I’m waiting to see the real thing.

Hangul Part One

This is the action-packed Part One of my long-promised review of Hangul, the Korean writing system. Even with the liberal lashings of foul language and obscene anecdotes, it may bore the tits off you – if so, feel free to either skip it entirely or send me the bill for the mammary reattachment procedure. (It will help to have Asian fonts installed, as explained here, but is not essential. My next post in the series will require them, though…)
Chinese writing in its various historical manifestations has been known and used in Korea for more than 2 millennia, dating back to the time of the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century CE, the Koreans were starting to write in Classical Chinese – the earliest known example of this dates from 414 CE, and by the 7th century, educated Koreans were speaking Korean and writing in Chinese. Later, three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters were created and adopted to various degrees : Hyangchal, Gugyeol and Idu.
The Hyangchal (향찰) system used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Korean, and was used mainly to write poetry. (A similar system in use in Japan at about the same time, known as man’yogana, eventually evolved into hiragana, one of the syllabaries used to write modern Japanese. Man’yogana was developed under the supervision of Koreans in the Japanese court.) The Idu(이두) system, created in the 8th century by scholars of the Shilla Dynasty, used a combination of Chinese characters and special symbols to indicate Korean verb endings and other grammatical markers, and was used in official and private documents for centuries thereafter. Gugyeol (구결) was introduced in the 13th century, and was basically a simplification of some Chinese characters in an attempt to remove some ambiguity arising from the use of some Chinese characters for their sounds and others for their meanings.
China has always been the great civilization next door in Asia, a very big brother sometimes benevolent and more often not, the source of cultural borrowings for all of its smaller neighbours, including the Koreans, and for much of Korean history the language used for learned, official purposes in Korea was Chinese, in somewhat the same way as medieval Europeans used Latin.
By the 15th century, though, it was time for Korea to find a way of writing their own language that was more appropriate to its own sounds and grammar. It could be argued that Koreans had limited need to write their language down up to this time and for a some time afterwards, and when they did, it was sufficient to use Chinese writing to spell it out, but Chinese and Korean were and are very different languages. Korean is a subject-object-verb language, for example, and has a rich system of postpositional case markers. Chinese, a subject-verb-object language, does not. Korean has a complicated system of honorifics, part of which is expressed as verb endings. Chinese does not, and doesn’t have any characters to represent these verb-ending morphemes.
The Korean writing system 한굴 (hangul) was finally created in 1440s, through the patronage of King Sejong, the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty, who ruled from 1418-1450. The new script was easy to learn – a matter of hours in many cases. (Hell, I even developed basic reading skills years ago after a couple of beer-fueled sessions at my favorite bar!) It was elegant, scientific, rooted in philosophy and study of the phonemes of spoken Korean, and is truly a thing of beauty. At the time, it was called 훈민ì •ê¸ˆ(hunmin jeongeum, or ‘proper sounds to instruct the people’). According to King Sejong’s preface to the book in which it first appeared in 1446, the invention of the script was nationalistic in intent, devised to enable the Korean people to write their own language without the use of Chinese characters. He states, in immodest Kingly (but surprisingly egalitarian) fashion :

“Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have invented a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

possibly starting as a side-effect the long and treasured tradition of Korean men taking credit for the hard work of their underlings.
Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, though, most Koreans who could write continued to write either in Classical Chinese or in Korean using the Gukyeol or Idu systems – the new script was seen to be the province of people of low status : women, children, and peasants, those who did not receive the necessary years of education required to learn to write Chinese.
Reading and writing weren’t the only political issues with regard to the language at the time, of course – spoken Korean at the time was basically a vernacular, used mostly for more homely means. Chinese was still mainly the language of power, of art, of loftier pursuits. With the similar (and certainly more despised) position of Japanese as the language of power during the brutal occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century coming hard on the heels of the collapse of the Choseon Dynasty, the idea that Korean (both written and spoken) should be the common language of all levels of society is still a relatively new one. Ideas like universal literacy and egalitarianism weren’t exactly popular ones in the society of that time (nor were they for the 5 and a half centuries after King Sejong, for that matter).
When Korean was written in the newly devised hangul script, it did still make sense for Chinese loan words, of which there were and are a multitude, to be written in their original Chinese. During the 19th and 20th centuries a mixed writing system combining Chinese characters and Hangul became increasingly popular, and literacy rates rose precipitously (as much as a consequence of changes in society as anything else, of course), until today, when the literacy rate in Korea is amongst the world’s highest. Although it has been fading since 1945 (and was outlawed in North Korea in 1949) the use of Chinese characters still persists today – the front page of many South Korean newpapers today are littered with Chinese characters, although to a lesser degree than they were even 10 years ago.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming as soon as I bloody well feel like it, which in addition to details about the writing system itself, will include naked pictures and senseless violence! Or not. I haven’t decided yet. Please feel free to point out any factual inaccuracies – I am well aware that there are many folks around with more knowledge of this subject than I could possibly lay claim to.

This Is A Test Of Korean

한국 말?

Edit : Woot! It worked for me, at least, on IE6. That was my very first MT-hack, and I’m pleased as hell that it seems to have worked. If you don’t see some Korean up there (or, come to think of it, even if you do), please let me know which browser/version you’re using.
Crap, now I have to worry about spelling in two languages, at least one of which I don’t speak worth a damn.
Edit again : If you can’t see the Korean characters above, can you also not see the Korean, Chinese and Japanese characters in this post at glome.org (from whence I have borrowed the UTF-8 encoding tricks to try and make this work)? Can you see them in one or the other, or both, or neither? Thanks for the help!
(Edit : I found this today, coincidentally – “an open community of bloggers who post in one or more languages about material discovered in one or more other languages.”)

Ignorance Bought And Paid For

Language Hat points to this strangely timely article in the New York Times, which not only mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but mentions it in the context of East Asian languages. How interesting, thinks I to myself, as I follow the link, hoping it will be germane to all the fascinating and erudite discussion in the neighbourhood that’s sprung up around and taken off in a multitude of interesting directions from my brain dump last week.
In it are described the ideas of a certain William C. Hannas, “a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service,” author of a newly released book which claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems.
Not to get off on a rant here, but : in and of itself, this seems to me to be the most vile form of egregiously wrongheaded bullsh-t, and I suspect Mr Hannas is precisely the sort of person that I’d take great pleasure in pummelling until he whimpered like a frightened infant (a reaction that may reveal to some extent why I left academia many years ago, having dipped no more than a toe in its calm waters). But that’s not the thing that bothered me.
The article states, presumably parrotting Mr Dipsh-t, that “Western specialists are better informed today […and] now recognize that the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are “syllabaries,” in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.”
Now, I can’t speak for written Japanese (for which I think this may in part be true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses – Jonathon may be the better person in the immediate neighbourhood to address that), and I’m only semi-certain it is true as far as my knowledge goes for Chinese, but this is completely and laughably wrong in the case of Korean.
I’ve been promising for over a year now to write a piece about the Korean language and alphabet, and this may have me riled enough to actually do it.
“Mr. Hannas’s logic goes like this: because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity,” says the New York Times.
Replies the wonderchicken : Mr Hannas should take his head out of his ass, because having one’s cranium so firmly lodged up one’s rectum can hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for actually making some f–king sense.
A googlesearch takes literally about 5 seconds to find a multitude of sites that describe hangul, the Korean alphabet, and make Mr Hannas look like the idiot (or at the very most gracious, ‘mind-bogglingly poor researcher’) he would seem to be.
What is also distressing to me is that Sapir-Whorf (to the weak formulation of which, as I’ve mentioned, I have a degree of sympathy) is being talked about in connection with such worthless, badly thought-out crypto-racist twaddle.
Here’s a rude bit of English, sloppily and phonetically rendered into the Hangul alphabet in 5 letters and two syllables for Mr Hannas, sounding something like ‘puhk kyu!’. Wonder if he’d be able to read it…

f--k you!

[Gah! I thought I had all my ranting out of my system for the week. Ah well.]

Linguistic Relativism and Korean

[Warning : this is long.]
An email exchange with Kevin Marks a few weeks ago got me thinking more about one of the theories of linguistics that I’ve always taken for granted as a given. Only now as I am about to begin graduate level work in the subject am I realizing the degree to which various researchers in the field disagree about it. Of course, as is undoubtedly the case in most academic fields, there is disagreement about pretty much everything.
The following is probably of little interest to those not interested in linguistics (although may be of some small interest to those curious about the Korean language), and may best be skipped entirely. I am, however, keen to hear what people think, if they are interested in this field at all, so rather than keep my response restricted to email, I’ve decided to post it here. I suspect that it doesn’t even answer the question that Kevin put to me, which was ‘I’d like to hear a cogent argument for (the validity of linguistic relativism),’ if I understood it correctly. More of a wee survey for my own interest. Ah, well.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is variously referred to as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis,’ ‘linguistic relativism,’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ (a description of the strong formulation meant by implication to be a bad thing, I think) concerns the relationship between language and thought, and suggests in its strongest form that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language perceive and understand the external world. This formulation is generally understood by many to be untenable, but the hypothesis also exists in a weaker form : that language structure and content does not determine a view of the world, but that it shapes thought to some degree, and is therefore a powerful impetus in influencing speakers of a given language to adopt a certain world-view.
A possible opposite claim, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that the thought (and thus culture) of a linguistic group is mirrored in the structure and content of their language, that because they behave and understand things in a certain way, their language reflects those behaviours and understandings – the idea that language is molded, if not determined, by culture.
Two quotes from the linguists whose names are most closely associated with this idea, the first from Edward Sapir (Language, 1929b, p. 207) :

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of excpression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsiously built up on the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.(Sapir, E. Language, 1929b, p. 207)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, who was a student of Sapir, went further than the ‘predisposition’ suggested by his teacher, and proposed that the relationship was a more deterministic one :

the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions that has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way, an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
(Whorf, Benjamin, (1956). In J, Carroll (Ed.), Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Whorf does not go so far as to say that language structure totally determines the world-view of a speaker here. He does add, though :

This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a lingusit familiar with very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all obcervers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are simialr, or can in some way be calibrated.

This last is where the argument runs off the rails for me, at least the argument in which I have any interest. It is also the portion of the idea upon which most critics focus, and which was fueled by the Great Eskimo Snow Silliness set off in great part by this :

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.
(Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and linguistics, Technology Review (MIT) 42, 6 (April))

and which has been discussed at length in many places, including, cogently here, for example.
To most people, particularly those with little knowledge of Hardcore Linguistics, including myself, the weaker form of Sapir-Whorf seems self-evident. Of course the words we use, the words we know, have some influence on the way we think! The very fabric of our cognition is language, it might well be claimed (but of course that would be a claim that would meet great opposition as well). There is, predictably, great argument about what constitutes ‘mentalese,’ the native language of our minds, as it were). Do words determine the shape of our thoughts? Well, it seems equally clear that that’s nonsense, and though it may and can be argued, it must be said most people don’t bother to try.
Steven Pinker, who was the entry point to the brief exchange between Kevin and I a few weeks ago, calls the idea ‘linguistic determinism,’ and argues as most do that the strong version is nonsense. A student of Noam Chomsky, he works from Chomsky’s idea of ‘Cartesian linguistics,’ that the brain has a ‘hard-wired’ built-in language acquisition device with an understanding of ‘universal grammar’, and suggests that language acquisition is an instinct. If we accept that language is an instinct, as Pinker and his mentor Unca Noam argue, it seems as if we must reject the proposition that language shapes thought. Some consequences of this :

Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old … is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum[…]
[…] Once you begin to look at language not as the ineffable essence of human uniqueness but as a biological adaptation to communicate information, it is no longer tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought, and, we shall see, it is not.
(Pinker, S (1994). The Language Instinct New York: William Morrow and Company Inc.)

In this, Pinker seems to be arguing not only against the idea that culture shapes language, but also the against idea that language shapes culture (by shaping thought). The use of the pejorative ‘insidious’ is a little unnecessary, but I’m not one who should poke people with sticks for using flowery language.
In his discussion of the idea, Pinker suggests three possibilities for interpretation:
(a) identicality: that language determines thought precisely, word-for-word;
(b) concept determinism: language determines (to an unspecified degree) what we
can think (doubleplus ungood!);
(c) linguistic relativity: that the form of our language (merely) influences what we tend to believe.
In Chapter 12 of The Language Instinct (quoted to me by Kevin), it seems that Pinker does concede the weak form :

Language surely does affect our thoughts, rather than just labelling them for the sake of labelling them. Most obviously, language is the conduit through which people share their thoughts and intentions and thereby acquire the knowledge customs and values of those around them.

Some commentators apparently do not take this as evidence that Pinker is admitting the weak formulation (c, above) of Sapir-Whorf. As I do not have access to a copy of The Language Instinct (no English language libraries and no damn money!), I’ll have to take their word for it.

The amount of time and energy that’s been expended on arguing about how vocabulary effects cognition surprises me, frankly. I think there’s a much more interesting discussion about grammar and deeper structures here that often seems ignored, at least in what reading I’ve managed to do.
The effect of such things on language users seems to me to be more pervasive and more subtle than simple differences in richness or breadth of vocabulary, on which most work and thought has seemed to focus.
One reason I believe this to be so is as a result of some of the fundamental differences in language structure between Korean and English (and to a great extent, the other European languages with which I have some familiarity). Please note that I neither claim to be a expert in Korean language (more of a lazy amateur), nor have I conducted any experiments or formal observations. First, some background. There are three ideas with some circulation about the earliest genetic relationship of Korean with other language families : 1) the traditional view that Korean is an Altaic language, sharing its origins with Manchu, Mongolian, and Turkish, amongst others; 2) the proposition that Korean has its origin in two language families, Altaic and Polynesian; and 3) the view that because of insufficient evidence to support a definitive relationship with other languages, Korean is a language isolate.
Regardless of its origins, Korean does share a number of features common to Altaic languages : words are built by agglutinating affixes, vowels within words follow certain rules of harmony, and articles, relative pronouns, explicit gender markers, and auxiliaries are not found.
Although Korean is not related to Chinese, as a result of history and geography more than 50 percent of the words in the Korean dictionary are of Chinese origin. Most legal, political, scientific, religious and academic vocabularies, as well as Korean surnames, and increasingly at present given names, are based on Chinese borrowings and can be written with Chinese characters, although meanings and pronuciations have often shifted as they have been adopted.
Although some basic words for body parts, clothing and agriculture are shared between Korean and Japanese, and other similarities exist, including grammatical structures similar enough that word-for-word translations between the languages is relatively easy, it is still uncertain whether the similarities are genetic or come as a result of historical borrowing between the two. Many features of Korean separate it from English and other Indo-European languages. Some of the most important of these (for my discussion here, at least) are the use of honorifics, relationship words, and different levels of speech (others include articles, plural markers, pronouns, adjectives, verb forms, demonstratives and so on).
Honorifics are markings for nouns and verbs that express the speaker’s attitude toward the addressee and the person who is being spoken of. Relationship words are blanket nouns denoting relationships between people that are commonly used in informal conversation between people, rather than given names – older brother, younger sister, uncle, auntie, grandmother and so on. (In the slummy, thin-walled building I used to live in in Busan, it was de rigeur on Saturday nights to hear sounds of passion and female cries of ‘Opa! Oh, opa! (older brother)’ from the playboy-next-door’s apartment.) These extend to the common practice of referring to a woman as ‘so-and-so’s mother,’ rather than using her given name.
There are four main levels of speech – polite-formal, polite-informal, plain, and intimate style – from which a speaker chooses, generally unconsciously, in everyday speech. The rules which determine the appropriate choice in conversation derive from the arcane art of knowing the ins and outs of the complex sociocultural fabric of Korean. It is equally inappropriate (in general) to address an older non-relative informally as it is to address a child with the polite-formal style, and mistakes like this may constitute a social breach (although it is generally understood that non-native speakers might make such mistakes). Depending on the relative status of the speaker, the person spoken to, and the person or thing that may be spoken about, the speaker can choose different words and forms to express intended meaning. For many basic verbs like eat, sleep, or give, at least two Korean words are available, each reflecting a different status of the subject or object of the verb. Each verb in Korean is further altered by a choice of grammatical affixes, adding not only grammatical information (such as tense), but carrying different levels of respect, deference, or politeness. Many nouns that refer to kinship or the household alsohave plain and honorific versions, the latter of which are used speak of another’s house or relatives, and the former of one’s own.
How does all of this relate to my earlier discussion of Sapir-Whorf, and considerations of how much and in what manner language may shape thought, and whether culture (loosely) determines language stucture, or vice versa? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Korea is widely acknowledged to be the most Confucian nation in the world technically neo-Confucian, but there’s no need to split that particular hair here). Confucius focused on the need to maintain social order though willing or unwilling submission to the five primary relationships :
1) Ruler and subject
2) Parent and child (teacher and student)
3) Husband and wife
4) Older and younger person
5) Friend and friend
All of these relationships are explicity hierarchical, excepting, significantly perhaps, the last, although friendship of a Confucian bent is a considerably more meaningful proposition, it may be argued, than ‘buddies’ in North America might be.
Appropriate behaviour is expected for participants in each of these relationships, and the language used must be similarly hierarchical :

…a son should be reverential; a younger person respectful; a wife submissive;a subject loyal. And reciprocally, a father should be strict and loving; an older person wise and gentle; a husband good and understanding; a ruler righteous and benevolent; and friends trusting and trustworthy. In other words, one is never alone when one acts, since every action affects someone else.

Although as in many nations, the strength of these traditional beliefs is fading, Confucian tenets still underly a great deal of the conscious and unconscious expectations of social behaviour, and deeply influence the relationships between the sexes and the generations.
The question that interests me, then, is this : do structures and forms like these in the Korea language shape the way in which Koreans think, particularly in terms of their relationships not so much to the world but to the people in it, to such a degree that we can say that language has given them a world-view substantially different than, for example, my own, as an English native speaker? It certainly seems so, to me.
Language is a tool for communication, a social construct, and it seems somewhat pointless to argue about what nouns one uses, and whether the presence or absence of a given bit of vocabulary in one language or another either permits and limits one’s ability to think about it. This may be so, but I don’t think it’s very interesting, except in the abstract.
More interesting to me is the idea that the structures of a language – in this case Korean – may expand or limit the way in which one thinks about something much more important than snow (for example) : how one fits into society, and how one interacts with other humans. That Koreans really do think differently about these things, and that this may spring (entirely, partially, as much or less so?) from their language.
Is this a valid argument for a weak form of lingustic relativism? Is it even something that comes under the Sapir-Whorf rubric? I’m not sure. An opposite, equally important question is this : is it the case that the language has come to have the form it does as result of culture and belief, rather than the opposite? Confucius was Chinese, after all, and from an entirely different language group!
Again, I’m not sure. The correct answer is usually ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’, I know. Like I said, though, I’m an amateur who hasn’t taken a single course in this stuff (yet!). So I’m curious about what you might think, dear reader, whether you’re a full-fledged linguist (like languagehat) or just, like me, an enthusiastic dabbler.

Recent Korean History

A reasonable summary at Mother Jones of the events leading to the current situation on the Korean peninsula. Two things are notable, at first read, by their absence, though.
1) “(from 1994) …for three years the Clinton administration stalled on implementing the agreement, hoping that the highly militarized North Korean regime, its people suffering from starvation, would simply collapse.”
This is true, and it’s also true that more than 2 million Koreans died in the meantime. How inconvenient!
2) “In June 2000, the president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung, acting on his own initiative and without consulting the United States, undertook a historic journey of reconciliation to Pyongyang, in an effort to eradicate the last vestiges of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula. His visit produced a breakthrough, and won him the Nobel Peace Prize.”
His visit and ‘breakthrough’ came, in typical Korean fashion, as a result of a bribe of several hundred million US dollars paid by chaebol Hyundai to the DPRK regime. Not all that deserving of accolade, perhaps.
This conclusion, near the end of the piece, is one about which I am very uncertain, to put it mildly :

If President Roh were to ask American troops to leave South Korea altogether, with perhaps only a treaty promising an American “nuclear umbrella” in case the North ever did use nuclear weapons, I believe a reconciliation between the two Koreas might come very speedily.

If the Americans leave entirely, I’m on the next plane out, too. Whether or not I think they ought to be here, they need to be here, at least until Kim Jong Il and his regime has collapsed, as it inevitably will.

The Winner and Still Cham-peen

Yay! We win! Seoul has the worst air quality amongst all cities in OECD countries. Yes, it’s worse than Rome, worse than Mexico city even.

Seoul’s air pollution is the worst among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Environment Ministry said yesterday.
The capital’s particulate matter (PM), which can cause various respiratory problems, was measured at 71 micrograms per cubic meter at the end of 2001, the ministry said.
The figure is the highest among OECD countries, surpassing the 60 micrograms reported in Rome, Italy, and 53 micrograms for Mexico City – cities that are both notorious for severe urban air pollution.
Moscow recorded the lowest pollution level in terms of PM with 10 micrograms, with cities such as Paris and Auckland also significantly lower than Seoul with 24 and 25 micrograms, respectively.
The density of nitrogen dioxide in Seoul was 0.037 ppm (parts per million), ranking third after Moscow with 0.058 ppm and Bratislava, Slovakia, with 0.047 ppm. Excessive exposure to nitrogen dioxide can exacerbate pneumonia and bronchitis.
[more…]

The prize? Well, let’s just say Korean can-do spirit extends to cancer, too. I sometimes wonder why I bothered to quit smoking three years ago (except for my occasional cocktail-time cigar). Now I can relax in the knowledge that any tumors that develop will be Someone Else’s Fault. Comforting, that.

Pee

From the three years or so I recently lived in Sydney Australia, my primary olfactory memory is of stale pee. At least twice a block, on my daily walk downtown from my apartment in Surrey Hills to my job at Town Hall, my tender nostrils would be assaulted by a cloud of piss-reek so terrifying, so staggering in its ability to claw its way up into your sinuses and perch giggling behind your eyeballs… well, let’s just say it was pretty damn whiffy. This stink would taunt me, mock me, appear and disappear willo-the-piss, then turn a corner and pow! there it would be again.
The odd thing, though, was that although there was an almost constant smell of downtown pee, I almost never saw anyone actually, well, doing it. A city of ghost-whizzers.
Here in Seoul, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street in the evening, particularly on a Friday or Saturday, without spotting two or three teetering drunks fumbling at their little weiners and tinkling on a wall or car or doorway or small child too slow to escape. One particularly enthusiastic gent a while back was on the subway platform at about 5 pm, canted at a 60 degree angle or so, pants around his knees, squeezing out a sadly unimpressive stream toward the opposite platform, where I was standing. It was difficult to tell for sure, but I was under the impression he was trying to hit me, and was frustrated that he was falling short by a good 50 feet or so.
But for all the determined urban micturation here, I almost never smell pee. It’s odd.
I have concluded as a result of this painstaking scientific study that the urine of Korean men does not smell. Your mileage may, as they say, vary.

Deeply Weird

The Samsung ladyphone : just one of those occasional excrescences of Korean weirdness into English, not just cognitive dissonance-inducing mistranslation, but a brief glimpse into the whirling void of cluelessness that yawns at the core of this nation of loveable doozers.
There’s more than just those 32 chips of cubic zirconia (wow, that’s class!) and a built in make-up mirror. Much, much more! Check out these just-for-her features!

Features for Women
– Biorhythm
– Fatness Index
– Calorie Calculator
– Pink Schedule
– Menstruation

Excellent! A phone with Menstruation and a Fatness Index! I don’t know what a Pink Schedule is, but I want one! I’m in gadget heaven, and I’m not even a woman!
Yikes.

Frolicking at Mt Paektu

Kim Jong Il’s livejournal [via El Filtro] is just what I needed this morning, as the Land Of The Morning Calm chaos gets all in my face once again. People are dying over in Iraq, I know, I know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a chuckle at the expense of a funny looking Korean despot, right?

3:39 am Dear diary. Bush still doesn’t ‘get it.’ I tried making my feelings clear but he’s too busy ignoring me, he is such a jerk. Everything in his life is just Saddam, Saddam, Saddam and I am sick of it.
On the plus side, I think my hair looked pretty good today. Also I went frolicking at Paektu Mountain and the rainbow came out again. After dinner some of my subjects sang me a song because I invented Outer Space.
[more…]

Also, I am victorious!

New Digs

As you must have guessed, our apartment move was a success, and all the essential systems are hooked up once again. We’re still trying to figure out how to gracefully shoehorn all our aquired crap (which is really a lot less than most couples I know) into the considerably smaller digs, but we’ll manage. The new house is closer to the university, and brand new (we’re the first people to move in to the building, a low-rise with 10 apartments), and it’s much quieter. The perpetually-busy highway 50 metres from our old place is rapidly-fading bad memory. The new neighbourhood couldn’t be described as upscale, but it’s nicer than the Land Of The Lost we’ve been in for the last 18 months, and has all the amenities steps from our door, including a supermarket that delivers beer (…er, and food, too).
Some observations on moving house in Korea : moving companies do everything. They showed up, packed everything, emptied and cleaned the fridge, cleaned the house, moved everything to the new place, cleaned the new place, unpacked everything, loaded up the fridge and closets, and went away. I don’t know if this is what happens in North America (I’ve never used movers before), but I suspect it’s not quite as easy. All I had to do was stand around, drink coffee, and point. It cost a bomb, but the university footed the bill, as I had to move at their request. Very low stress, indeed.
The DSL connection is the same 4Mb pipe I had before (She Who Must Be Obeyed ignored my wheedling and nixed the monster broadband), but thanks to the new wiring, I guess, feels snappier. I compare the process to Australia, where it took literally months to get someone to come and install the service after I’d ordered it, and approximately 4 hours onsite to get it working : here, it took 4 hours from calling Korea Telecom for a guy to show up, and after 15 minutes in the house, he bowed and bailed, and I had my connection back. Amazing.
Renting an apartment works differently here than it does anywhere else I’ve ever been. The university provides my accommodation, but I was involved in securing a place (they’ve sold the apartment I lived in before), to make sure that they found something acceptable. Most people do not pay monthly rent – what they do is give the landlord a massive deposit, and pay either nothing or very little on a monthly basis. The university had to pay the equivalent of about C$100,000 to secure this small 3-bedroom place, and there is no rent to pay.
Needless to say, it’s difficult indeed for young people in particular to live apart from their parents, and still quite rare. Whether that’s because of the way apartments are rented, or whether apartments are rented that way in part to discourage young people moving out, I don’t know.
Anyway. I’m back to work at the University on Monday, after about 10 weeks of holiday, and looking forward to it. I really do love my job.

[this is funny]

Representatives of The Irish Government’s Department of Education and The INTO (Irish Teachers Organization) have advised its qualified teachers to “exercise extreme caution” when accepting a teaching contract in South Korea. It goes on on to state that “due to the overwhelming number of complaints routinely received by various Irish government departments from Irish teachers in connection with their experiences in this country, we feel unable to recommend it to our citizens as a safe or viable career option and furthermore impossible to resist the conclusion that the current Hagwon system in South Korea is endemically corrupt”.
Endemically corrupt, indeed. Nicely spotted.
(‘hagwons’ are private schools (primarily for English), by the way, of which there are literally tens of thousands in the ROK)