Friday, August 22, 2014


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

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

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

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

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


lack of autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


my Internet connection

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

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


Thursday, August 21, 2014

helping or harming? ajeossis and predators

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jogyae-sa, August 15

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


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Insa-dong, August 15

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

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

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

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


more oksang-cheung pictures

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


Ave, Gord!

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


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

another grueling morning

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

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

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

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

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

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


is Dos Tacos going downhill?

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

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


after the supermoon

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


apartment grunge

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

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

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


Monday, August 18, 2014


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

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


Sunday, August 17, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 16, 2014

déménagement bis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


a tale of two clafoutis

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


Friday, August 15, 2014

a new low

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

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


Thursday, August 14, 2014

briefly rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Begin Again": one-paragraph review

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



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

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

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

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


en famille

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

at the summit

Below, a picture of Sean and his friend Jeff at the top of Namsan after an arduous morning walk yesterday, which took us out of Dongguk University campus, then along a series of paths and stairways, up and up until we reached the top. Click on the image to see it full size.


bro redux

Here's a nighttime shot of Sean at the front of his hotel in Itaewon:


yesterday: Dongguk, Namsan, Seoul Station, Kangnam

I had only four hours of sleep last night, so I was tired when I awoke at 7:30 to prep myself and make the long trip over to Itaewon to meet Sean and Jeff. We all met at Itaewon Station and trained over to my new place of work, Dongguk University. We went into the Hyaehwa-gwan, which houses the various foreign-language teaching and learning departments (lots and lots of foreign students, especially Chinese), took the elevator up to the fifth floor, marched into the Dharma College Foreign Language Center, and met some of the office staffers who have been helping me since my arrival in Seoul. I asked J, one of the staffers, about how to reach the Namsan hiking path from her building; she told me.

We strolled across campus and found the path, which was, for me at least, a brutal combination of switchbacks, stairs, and switchbacking stairs. Unlike in my heyday in 2006, I was unable to make the summit of Namsan (which is more hill than mountain, really) without stopping. In fact, I stopped multiple times. At the top, we enjoyed a decent breeze, and I ran over to the water fountains to slake my thirst. An ajumma turned on a fountain close to me, accidentally blasting me with water. She apologized, but I told her that the water felt cool and that she could do it again if she wanted to. So she blasted me again. Another lady, watching the proceedings, scolded her for doing so, and the first ajumma laughed, "But he told me to do it!"

We three blokes elected to take the Namsan cable car down, despite my trepidation: back in the 1990s, that car had fallen once or twice, so I wasn't impressed by its safety record. Once down at the bottom, we cabbed over to Seoul Station so I could buy my Thursday ticket to Hayang; meanwhile, the guys strolled around the station, looking for a place to do lunch (I had assigned them that mission). Once I had purchased my train ticket, we met up again and decided to eat at a Japanese-Korean restaurant that featured such fusion dishes as yukgaejang-udong, the concept of which I found fascinating. I ended up ordering dongkaseu, though; Jeff got himself a good, standard bowl of dolsot-bibimbap, and Sean ended up selecting the yukgaejang-udong. We all thoroughly enjoyed our dishes; this was a bit more explicitly Korean of an experience: the previous night, when Jeff and Sean had just arrived in Seoul, I took them out to Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon, where we enjoyed slightly overpriced, but very tasty, Tex-Mex/Korean fare.

Having done three major activities by lunch—Dongguk, Namsan, and Seoul Station—we elected to go our separate ways. By this point, Sean and Jeff, both of whom are experienced international travelers, had already figured out the user-friendly Seoul subway system, and since the only remaining item on the agenda was a long stroll through Kangnam, my presence was no longer required: Jeff and Sean would head back to Itaewon to shower, change clothes, rest up, and then head out to Kangnam in the evening; I, meanwhile, planned to head back to Karak-dong to catch up on sleep. I gave Sean and Jeff some advice as to what to explore in Kangnam, and we parted company.

By the time I got home, I had walked 18,000 steps; Sean and Jeff, after having strolled through Kangnam, would have racked up more than 20,000. My average number of daily steps for August is over 12,000, which is incredible, not to mention a new record. Today, Sean and Jeff are exploring the wilds of Namdaemun Market, and we're all meeting up in the evening to have dinner with a gathering of my relatives.

Tomorrow, I'm off to Hayang by myself to do one final international transfer of my last salary payment from Catholic University (and to resolve a nettlesome cell-phone billing issue); Sean and Jeff, meanwhile, are already signed up to go on a DMZ tour, which is, I suppose, de rigueur for tourists in Korea. We all might or might not meet up tomorrow night. Friday is Gwangbok-jeol, known in English as Liberation Day (and known to Catholics as the Feast of the Assumption); Pope Francis will be on the peninsula, swanning about elegantly in his robes and funny hat, so this is an auspicious time for my brother and his friend to be here. Without knowing about the pope or thinking about the August 15 national holiday, we had already scheduled Friday as "Jongno day," so our timing turned out to be perfect: on that day, thanks to the national holiday, Jongno Street will be closed to traffic and will become a huge pedestrian zone. Plenty to see and do.

Saturday, sadly, Sean and Jeff will be leaving Korea to go to China. After that, they head to Vietnam and Cambodia. I suppose I've done my part to be a tour guide and interpreter during the Korea leg of their Asia-hopping trip. Can't say I did all that much; both guys have good heads on their shoulders, and both are, as I said, experienced travelers, so there's been little for me to do except fill in some cultural and historical details, and to show off my limited ability to banter with the natives. Today feels almost like a day off for me, since Sean and Jeff are navigating Namdaemun Market by themselves. I had wanted it to be that way, though: I felt they should make their own discoveries. Later this evening, we'll meet up for what will likely be an awkward dinner among relatives. I've set a mental limit of two hours for this: there's only so much relativity that I can endure.

Oh, yes: stay tuned for a few pictures.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014


August: so the month I was born now becomes the month Robin Williams died.

I read the news in an email from my buddy Charles this morning: something had happened to Robin Williams. Because I was busy hiking up Namsan with two companions when I glanced at my smartphone to check email during a short break, I didn't get to read beyond the first sentence of Charles's second paragraph: "I assume you've heard the news about Robin Williams." I hadn't, actually; Charles's missive was the first inkling I'd had that anything had happened. My hiking companions, Sean and his buddy Jeff, had also heard the news this morning right after waking up in their hotel in Itaewon, and they filled me in on what little they knew: Williams had apparently committed suicide after a long depression. Later on, when I had a chance to read both Charles's email and other news articles, I saw that the initial assessment of Williams's death was that it had been by "asphyxia," which sounds, to me, an awful lot as though Williams had hanged himself. Several of the articles I read were coy as to the specifics. I imagine we'll know more later.

Williams was a fixture of my childhood. I've said that about several dead celebrities on this blog, but he was easily one of the most impressive and influential people for me. Barbara Walters famously called Williams "a national treasure"; he was amazingly quick-witted, had an ear for accents and foreign languages, and could do improv like nobody's business. He'd had his share of haters, too, over the years, and I wonder whether their relentless negativity had anything to do with his demise.

In any event, I think the world is a dimmer, grimmer place without Robin Williams to make light of the proceedings. I didn't agree with his politics, but I couldn't help but respect his mental agility and his natural ability to make people laugh. He earned a well-deserved Oscar for his role as therapist Sean Maguire in "Good Will Hunting"; as many have pointed out, his best work came from collaborating with directors who knew how to manage his manic tendencies. As a kid, I watched "Mork and Mindy" faithfully, and I was delighted when Williams transitioned from the small screen to the big screen. His movie career contained both hits and misses, and it's my understanding that four of his movies are still to come out. So—a bit like how Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to live on in movie roles long after his death, we have more doses of Robin Williams ahead of us. How will people see these movies and feel about them now, post mortem?

I wasn't exactly bowled over in shock when I found out Williams had apparently killed himself. The signs had been there for a while: Williams's manic persona pointed to some degree of bipolarity, and every comedian is cursed with an inner approval-seeker. When the plaudits stopped coming, when the accusers said Williams was washed up and repeating old shtick, this must have hurt him deeply ("Family Guy" was especially brutal in its lampooning of Williams). And Williams had always been forthright about his struggles with drugs and alcohol—more evidence that something was very wrong, internally speaking.

It's a shame the man is dead, and if he truly did kill himself, that's an even greater shame. I've written about suicide before (see here and scroll); no need to belabor the point here, but as Jeff sourly noted, Williams leaves behind a wife and several children. And that's a shame, too.

RIP, Mr. Williams. I'll miss your comedy. And I was never one of the haters.

UPDATE: This article, which talks about the uncomfortable level of graphic detail given at a police press conference regarding Robin Williams's suicide, seems to confirm that the cause of death was indeed hanging. Don't click the link if you feel it would be an invasion of the Williams family's privacy to learn more.


Monday, August 11, 2014


My brother Sean is arriving in Korea this evening. I've promised to meet him and his friend Jeff at Incheon International Airport. Their Asiana flight is arriving, in principle, at 6:10PM; I'm guessing that I won't see them until closer to 6:45PM. The plan is to be at the airport with plenty of time to spare, greet the guys, then take them over to a limousine bus that stops in Itaewon, since that's where they'll be staying during the week. Tonight, we'll be hashing out what, specifically, the guys want to do during their stay, and starting tomorrow, I'll be putting on my tour-guide hat and showing off my second home to my little bro and his friend.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

my third armpit

It's a realization that I slowly came to over several months, and it finally coalesced only a few weeks ago, but the time has come for me to share my insight, arrived at after much introspection: I am the not-so-proud owner of a third armpit.

If we loosely define an armpit as a zone on which one must slather armpit deodorant, then I've discovered that my upper body has three such zones: two regular armpits, plus a third armpit, otherwise known as my chest. I had noticed it for a while without ever really thinking hard about it: at the end of the day, my armpits would still be relatively odor-free thanks to the Gillette Clear Gel deodorant that I faithfully apply daily, but there would nevertheless be an unpleasant odor wafting up from somewhere. That somewhere, as it turns out, is my chest, right around the sternum area. I found this out by sniffing different parts of the front of my shirt, pinching the fabric and pulling it close to my nose for a good whiff.

Oh, the horror. The horror.

So I now slather deodorant onto my chest as well as into my pits, in the hopes of minimizing the offending fetor. It's working, but only somewhat: I think the odor zone is larger, much larger, than just my immediate sternum. I feel sorry for my hypothetical girlfriend, whose face I might someday be inclined to press into my chest while attempting an affectionate hug. They say women react strongly to how a man smells (and some guys, alas, have no clue how they smell—I've hung around some truly stank-ass individuals); if that's true, then I should do everything I can to keep from smelling as though I've just returned from the dead.

Having a third armpit means using up my deodorant roughly 1.5 times faster than before. This realization of mine is therefore expensive in literal, monetary terms. But a man must do what a man must do, and if he's doing it for the ladies, perhaps there's a noble, chivalrous component to his actions, a karmic good that compensates for the financial pain.

I also now finally understand that Axe Deodorant commercial in which the skateboarder does his "double pits to chesty" stunt while in mid-flight. See one such video here.


political cartoons done poorly and well

Here's a laughable attempt at an argument:

The above cartoon evokes and parodies the supposed rationale behind George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin. The argument, such as it is, is that the shadow of injustice will always fall on blacks, even (or especially) if, as in the situation depicted by the cartoon, the black shooter uses the same "obviously lame" arguments used in defense of Zimmerman. But what the above cartoon fails to note is that Zimmerman was pinned to the ground and beaten bloody, and Trayvon Martin was no innocent kid just strolling along a neighborhood sidewalk, sipping a coffee like the white man in the cartoon. The point the artist is trying to drive home, with his drawing, is that the dead white man was completely innocent—this is what his coffee represents. The black shooter's rationale, in the cartoon, is a parodic restatement of Zimmerman's alleged feeling that Martin somehow didn't look as though he belonged in the neighborhood he was in. The message: a black shooter could never get away with using Zimmerman's rationale if he shot a perfectly innocent white man.

Note two disanalogies:

1. The cartoon evokes a black/white scenario in its exploration of injustice. George Zimmerman, despite the Aryan name, is most decidedly not white, but racial politicizers conveniently ignore this fact because it doesn't suit their overall narrative, which is one of injustice against blacks perpetrated by whites. You can't evoke awareness of race and then ignore the actual race of one of the people involved in a racially charged incident—not without risking hypocrisy. I challenge the artist to re-draw the murder victim with browner skin and facial features closer to Zimmerman's. Then we'll see how people interpret the cartoon.

2. Trayvon Martin, as stated previously, wasn't an innocent kid, and as he proved when accosted by Zimmerman, he had a towering, uncontrollable temper as well as a murderously violent streak. No one who sees the photos of George Zimmerman's bloody head injuries can deny that Martin fully intended to beat the crap (or the brains) out of Zimmerman. Zimmerman's shooting was justifiable self-defense. End of story. As many others have argued, this case should never have gone to trial.

In all, the above cartoon makes a poor, easily refutable argument (or maybe we should say "argument") that does little but stoke the fires of emotion while dimming any hopes for rational discussion. Situations like the Zimmerman/Martin case are legitimate fodder for a larger, more productive discussion about the state of race relations in America. There are undeniable problems, and blacks aren't wrong to perceive racism as a still-pervasive phenomenon in American culture. There's plenty of room for improvement, and I don't by any means side with the people who dismiss race-talk by claiming, "We've got a black president in the White House, now; how bad can things be?" So in a sense, I don't entirely disagree with the most basic thrust of the cartoon; if the cartoonist's essential point is that racism-fueled injustice still exists, then yes: that's correct. But the implied argument, based on the scenario the cartoonist sets forth in his cartoon, is fallacious to the point of being ludicrous.

Here, by contrast, is a cartoon that makes its point better, mainly because the humor is anchored in actual reality:

The actual reality, of course, is that the elimination of all Jewry is, in fact, an openly stated, codified aim of Hamas—a fact conveniently ignored by apologists for the Palestinians. Hence the humor: John Kerry asks Benyamin Netanyahu whether half a genocide would be an acceptable alternative to total genocide.

This evokes a larger discussion about the respective aims of the Israelis and the Palestinians. There's room here, too, for Palestinian grievances, which I acknowledge. But the Palestinians have done nothing to make their case a sympathetic one in my eyes: if women and children are dying, this is because the Hamas puppet masters are placing those poor people in harm's way, and the adult human shields, at least, seem to be acquiescing to this fate as if it were a legitimate duty.

As Sam Harris recently and forcefully pointed out, Israel does exercise enormous restraint, and the evidence is as plain as day: Israel currently has the ability to kill all seven million Palestinians... yet it withholds. If that's not evidence of restraint, then what is? Harris continues by noting that, if Hamas had Israel's military power, it would go all the way and wipe out every Jew within its reach. That, Harris argues, is the essential moral difference between the two sides.* What a people might choose to do when granted power is indeed a rigorous moral test. Would Hamas show any mercy? Doubtful. Thus immoral.

So—two cartoons, one of which makes its point poorly, the other of which bases its mordant humor on actual reality. There are good and bad ways to make a point; a good cartoonist will do his best to avoid fallacious argument and over-emotionalism... but that may be asking too much of most cartoonists.

*Some will accuse me of sloppily conflating the authorities' actions and attitudes, on both sides, with the citizens'. I disagree. How many Israelis seriously want to kill off all Palestinians? (Here, in fact, is a recent news article about Israelis who are protesting their own government's prosecution of military action against Hamas in Gaza.) I'd say a much larger proportion of the Palestinian citizenry wouldn't shed a tear if all Israeli Jews suddenly disappeared. This is a difference in attitude (and moral worth) that runs from the authoritarian top of each society to its lowest, most powerless echelon. So I think my generalization is justified.

Be sure to read my buddy Mike's take on the Israel/Palestine situation. He and I are more or less on the same page. Read Dr. John Pepple, a self-styled "self-critical leftist," on what the left could have done before Islamism became the huge problem it is today.


Sunday: day of prep

I'm sitting in the lobby lounge of the Foreign Language Education Center,* typing this blog entry while enjoying very speedy Wi-Fi service, having successfully avoided my Ajumma's entreaties to join her at church.** I was, to be honest, surprised to find that this building was open on Sunday, but open it is, and there've been plenty of students coming in and going out of it while I've been sitting here. Are there Sunday classes, or are Dongguk students just nerds who can't stay away from classrooms?

In any case, I'm banging away at my keyboard, thinking out loud in prose. I have many things on my "immediate to-do" list. Here are most them, some of which will get done today:

•Re-walk the route to my yeogwan so I can get the path down straight in my head.
•Study the textbooks that I've received from both Dongguk and the Golden Goose.
•Walk around the Dongguk campus, learning the names and serial designations of the buildings. My schedule for the fall semester lists the buildings by a single letter: Building A, Building K, etc.
•Pick up Sean and Jeff at the airport on Monday; take them to Itaewon and sit down to discuss how they see their week in Korea unfolding.
•On Thursday the 14th, train down to Hayang to do one final international wire transfer to the US. My US account will be in the red by then, and I'll have $72 in overdraft fees to deal with, but that's pretty normal for me.
•Call the KEPCO branch in Hayang and confirm that it received my final payment.
•Collect a bottle of Metamucil from Tom, who offered it to me after I bellyached about not having had any psyllium fiber in nearly a year. Whole giant bottle, unused, according to him.
•Re-pack items to be shipped out to my yeogwan on the 18th.
•Visit that Dongmyo market again and buy a set of bathroom slippers.
•Email my boss at the Golden Goose some of the information he requested re: my mother. He had graciously elected to help me figure out how to get myself on an F4 visa.
•Continue to talk with my brother David about voiceover work for his firm.

That last item is a very recent development, and it might not pan out at all. David said that his PR firm will be looking for voice talent, soon, to do voiceover work for some of the videos his company produces. The work pays an astounding $900 per hour, but the major hitch is that the work is not normally done asynchronously, i.e., I wouldn't be able to record a track, send it, receive a critique later, then re-record even later than that. Normally, the voice talent would be in studio at the same time that the company people would be listening in. Feedback should ideally be instantaneous, as should re-dos. One of my cousins has a recording studio, strangely enough, and I've asked David whether it might be possible for me to record a track, send it quickly, and Skype with his Stateside crew at the same time. No response yet to that proposal, but I'm sure one will be forthcoming once David gets back from camping in the Appalachians with his dog.

*The building I'm in is called the Hyaehwa-gwan in Korean; I don't know what the hanja for "Hyaehwa" are, but I'm pretty sure they're not "foreign-language education."

**Third Ajumma, typical Korean-style Presbyterian that she is, is worried that I've converted to Buddhism. When I said I wouldn't be going to church, she snapped, "You want to go to temple instead?" I smiled and told her I wasn't very churchy or very temple-y, and that I meditated only occasionally. This makes me, I suppose, a poor practitioner of two religions.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

a 19,000-step day

Today, Saturday, I walked all over the damn place with my buddy Tom. I've known Tom since 1994, and he was ecstatic to learn of my return to Seoul. "I finally have someone I can hang out with," he told me. The first third of today was devoted to searching in the Dongguk University neighborhood for a place for me to live. The final two thirds of the day were devoted to making new discoveries in the Dongmyo neighborhood, which sports a sprawling open market as well as a huge enclosed flea market.

I met Tom a little after 11AM at Dongdae-ipgu Station. We took the advice of the ajumma I had spoken with a couple days earlier, and wandered uphill from the subway station to begin our search for my new domicile. The lady was right: there were plenty of apartments and other lodgings. We visited several; some left us with a weird, unwelcome, or creepy vibe, but one place, a "weollum" (one-room), had a very nice, very talkative landlord who gave us the lowdown about my potential apartment's features. It was a slightly bigger studio than the one I had left in Hayang, and the landlord was asking for ten million won down plus over W600,000 rent. I told him I didn't have that sort of money, and we eventually agreed that I should come back when I did, which might be several months to a year later.

Tom told me that having only five million won (about $5,000) as a key deposit, these days, wouldn't get me a respectable residence. This was no longer 2006; times had changed. As I saw it, the only thing to do was to find cheap housing that required no deposit, then spend a few months to a year just earning money like a madman so that, the following year, I could move into more respectable, more human digs. This also meant that I'd have to put off rapidly paying down my debts for another year, but there didn't seem to be any way around this problem. Living in Seoul means paying the piper, one way or another.

So after wandering around for almost two hours, Tom looked across the street and saw a yeogwan. We went over to it, poked around, and didn't like it. Then, out of the blue, we were accosted by a shop ajumma who shouted over to us that we should try a different yeogwan. We shrugged and went over to the one she'd indicated. The lady and gentleman running the place (were they husband and wife? I'm not sure) were very accommodating; they showed me two different rooms on two different floors, and in the end, after conferring with Tom about price, facilities, and all the rest, I decided to go with this place. I won't move in until the 18th, as my brother Sean is going to be visiting Korea from the 11th to the 16th.

Here's a picture of the yeogwan's humble exterior:

I thanked Tom for his inspired help, and committed the rest of my day to accompanying him on an adventure. This began with a quick stop at a local barbershop, close to my new yeogwan, where Tom received a W10,000 haircut from a meticulous old man who initially had no inkling that either of us could speak Korean. We left the barbershop and made our way back uphill to Dongguk's campus, where I took a satisfying dump. That ritual accomplished, Tom suggested that we eat lunch. Since he said he needed to visit a particular flea market, he proposed going to the market and finding a place to eat around there. I cringed inwardly, knowing this would mean spending yet more money (the point of the kimbap diet is to save money), but I acquiesced, grimacing. We ended up taking a taxi to the Dongmyo neighborhood, which has the aforementioned huge, sprawling open market and an enclosed flea market as well.

Tom took me to a restaurant that specialized in kalguksu and wang-dongkaseu. Kalguksu, literally "knife[-cut] noodles," is a hot soup that ideally features rough-cut pasta along with an array of proteins—possibly clams, possibly beef, etc.* I ordered something unfamiliar to me: ongshimi-kalguksu, which looked, according to a poster on the restaurant's wall, as though it contained tiny quail eggs. That turned out not to be the case: the ongshimi itself was ddeok-like dumplings stuffed with bits of meat—decidedly not quail eggs, despite the resemblance (a Google search for the hangeul word for ongshimi leads one here).** Tom, meanwhile, ordered the wang-dongkaseu. Wang, in this context, means "king-size," but when Tom's dish came out, it didn't look all that big to me. I ate Tom's vegetables because Tom is notorious in his vegetable-avoidance. I don't know how he's managed to survive, disease-free, for so many years without ever eating veggies, but I guess Tom knows his own biology best.

The front of the kalguksu-jip, not far from Dongmyo-ap Station:

We walked, we walked, and we walked some more. All over the Dongmyo neighborhood. I can't even begin to describe the labyrinthine complexity of the market in that part of town. Suffice it to say the place is huge and diverse, and a person can find just about everything he needs there. Tom was primarily searching for baseballs, baseball cards, and CDs. He's a huge fan of Korean baseball—has been for years. But his reasons for wanting the CDs remained obscure to me. Perhaps he saw some sort of resale value in them.

Here's Tom in his element:

Below is a shot of the front of the Seoul Folk Flea Market, the enclosed shop with a maze-like interior in which can be found just about everything under the sun, from butterfly knives for gang fights to old audiocassettes to modernist sculpture, baseballs, golf clubs, military surplus, hats, belts, shoes, vitamins, sundry clothes, lamps, trinkets and kitsch, and even massive dildos and rubber vaginas for the sad and lonely.

Tom re-explained to me a lot of the geography of this part of Seoul. He kicked himself for never having visited the Dongmyo-area market before, but he knew his way around all the same. I occasionally called off the number of steps we had tread based on my pedometer; eventually, we bought some soft-serve ice cream injected into J-shaped tubes of crunchy, puffed corn—very popular in places like Insa-dong, the artistic district, but also sold elsewhere in the city. We both joked about how eating the tubes gave rise to a rather blowjob-y vibe. I finished munching my phallic symbol first, and I caught Tom in this intentional double-selfie as he was finally finishing off his J-tube:

By the end of the day, we had walked 19,000 steps which, according to my pedometer, translated to almost nine miles (14.5 km). Tom and I parted company after walking all the way to Jongno 3-ga. I took Line 3 back to Karak-dong, getting off at Police Hospital Station and walking the final couple of thousand steps up to my relatives' building.

Once I was back, I showered and went down to visit Third Ajumma. I told her that Tom and I had found me a place to live for a year, then explained the problem of having to once again taekbae everything over to that part of town. Ajumma sprang up from her seat, collected her smartphone, and called a gentleman that she knew who lived one building over. She said he could gather up all my boxes and take the lot over to my yeogwan, in one fell swoop, for a grand total of W50,000, which would be about half the price I'd have paid to taekbae all thirteen of my boxes. I thanked Ajumma for her kind assistance.

I'm not looking forward to the upcoming move. All thirteen of my boxes will have to be taken up four flights of stairs to my new digs. We might save ourselves a few trips by doubling up the boxes, but that will only make each trip up the stairs twice as tiring. Still, there's no way around this. The ajeossi will doubtless ask me to help him take the boxes up to my new room, most likely because W50,000 is a cheap fee for all that labor, which means he won't be motivated to do all the work himself. I also imagine that this gentleman is an older fellow, which means he'll be wanting a helper.

Saturday was long and tiring, but very educational. More important, it was a chance to hang out with a good buddy. Sunday ought to be a bit more restful, then the excitement begins again on Monday evening, when my brother and his friend arrive in Seoul.

*A less ideal version of kalguksu features pasta that was obviously cut by machine, which seems to miss the entire point of the dish.

**Someone from the Jewish tradition might look at those ongshimi dumplings and see matzoh balls. I wouldn't blame her.