Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rooftop Party

Tonight, I went to a party held on the rooftop of the apartment building of a few friends. It was their goodbye party, and they invited a good seventy people out to join them for drinks, food, and some great company.
Britta and me. She's going backpacking for several months and might not return to Korea afterward... Have a great trip!
Although I've lived in Changwon for about a year now, I still rarely venture downtown in the evenings, and I know only a handful of fellow expats. Tonight, with so many gathered together on the rooftop, I was almost overwhelmed; I don't think I've ever seen more foreigners in one place in this city. What's more, most of them were strangers. But I made some new friends and reconnected with people I hadn't seen in a while, so it was all good.
The view from the roof, fifteen stories up.
My social life in this city is a bit awkward. Since I live up in the norther part of the city, where there are much fewer expats compared to downtown, I don't see people often. Also, last year I spent many weekends out of town visiting my Fulbright friends in other cities. So when I tell "Changwoners" about my lack of experience in the city -- for example, that I've never been to the local Irish pub, O'Briens -- it is always met with mild shock: "Wait, so what do you do for fun?" Haha. Anyway, I did take this opportunity to get out of my isolated bubble, and it was a great evening overall. (I was there for six hours...)
Britta and Thomas; when it got darker, some people lit sparklers!
On a tangential note, I finally got a Nubija pass! Nubija is Changwon's awesome bike share program. I saved money on transportation tonight by biking downtown to the party and back. Yes, it took about two hours round trip, but it was also good exercise, and the buses aren't really that much faster... Actually, biking along the 창원대로 at night is quite fun.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


택견도장에는 회식이다.
Wow, it is 1:30am on Thursday morning, and I have just returned home from a 회식 with members of my 택견 gym. Yes, "company dinners" aren't restricted to companies or workplaces; I was invited to this outing along with the director, the trainer, and the director's old students. Actually, it wasn't really an outing, because we just ordered delivery chicken and liquor and had a mini-picnic on the floor of the 도장. I was about to be worried about spilling greasy meat onto the padded floors, but 관장님 laid out newspapers and otherwise didn't seem to mind. Then we all sat down and feasted!

The evening was all in all pretty fun, taking into account the fact that I only understood about 50% of what anyone was saying and often tuned out. But we played some 족구, talked a lot, drank a lot, and devoured the 치킨 and 족발. I made a few new friends out of 관장님's former students, mostly on account of me being able to speak English. Their introductions went a little like this: "Hi, nice to meet you. How old are you? Oh! We're the same age -- let's be friends! What's the best way to learn English quickly?" Only slight exaggeration intended... But I also got to practice my Korean, talking about rock climbing (암벽등반을 캘리포니아에서 해본적이 있다!), quinoa (베지테리엔이면, 키놔가 완전 단백질이니까 건강에 좋다!), my hobbies, and more.

Around 12:30am, I started to get pretty tired, and I thought about school the following day. In addition, the conversation turned super-serious as some of the adults downed more and more drinks (we had been drinking for three hours by then, and there seemed to be an endless supply of 관장님's favorite 막걸리 brand, 국순당...). At one point two people were having a very heated discussion about taekgyeon, and everyone else became quiet and tense as they listened, but even though I could understand a lot of what they were saying, I still couldn't follow the gist of the issue. 괜찮아...

Anyway, I had a nice, 정-filled evening, and I also appreciated meeting Koreans who are about my age. I hope we can keep in touch! Even if they just want me to be their English tutor, well, at least they can be my Korean tutors in return. Win-win.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Media and North Korea (Part 2)

A continuation from yesterday's post about the bias I saw in Western media reports about North Korea. Admittedly, only one of the three articles I shared yesterday was a decent example. In any case, here are three more links for you all: one interview, one news story, and a website for a documentary, followed by my own commentary.

Sixty Years After the Korean War, the Cold War's Unending Conflict Continues (TIME, 7/7/13)

This article is an interview with a professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin and author of a new book about North Korea. In the interview, Jager lays out an easily-digestible overview of North-South Korean relations since the end of the Korean War. I appreciate that she gives the side-by-side histories of both nations and strives to highlight the lasting cultural significance of the technically still-ongoing conflict.

The reason I'm sharing this article is that I believe it actually presents an unbiased view of how the politics are playing out at this time. Apart from the casual speculating about the North's nuclear arsenal (note that, of course, the interviewer had to end the article with the customary fear-mongering), I think that Jager gave a fair analysis of what's currently at stake for the North Korean regime in the near future. She did not focus on apocalyptic worse-case scenarios or call into question the sanity of the entire population. In fact, one gem in the interview was when she talked about the two Koreas' "legitimacy struggle". Mentioning that North Korea prides itself on the purity of its heritage, having avoided Japanese and American military and cultural influence (or contamination, if you will) over the past sixty years, she makes an unexpectedly valid point that there is not only one standard for determining which side "won" the conflict, if indeed there can be any victor. I know that Koreans from both the South and the North attach the utmost importance to their Korean identity, so I'm interested to see what they would each think of the other's claims to "true Koreanness".

North Korea Grapples with Crystal Meth Epidemic (Wall Street Journal, 8/20/13)

Okay, now this is the article that sent me over the edge. When I first read an article (or blog post?) in the Washington Post that was based on the information in this one, I was actually indignant because I felt that it was poorly-researched, misleading, and, of course, guilty of the same anti-North Korea rhetoric that has become all too common. The original article wasn't much better, as it turns out. According to these two pieces, it seems as if a North Korean province that borders China has seen a dramatic rise in users or addicts of crystal meth. The so-called epidemic began when North Korea's state-run meth labs become poorly regulated enough for common folks to take what they knew and conduct their own drug-fueled science experiments at home. Now, up to 50% (?!) of the residents of that region use crystal meth for recreation and as a home remedy for various illnesses.

When a fellow Fulbrighter shared this story on our Facebook group, I wrote that it sounded like rumor-mongering and that readers should take the articles with a grain of salt. But I should clarify: I am in no way contesting the truth of the article or the report in the North Korea Review upon which it's based. I'm not crying libel, and I'm not trying to defend North Korea.

The thing is, it is of little concern to me whether or not North Korea has a thriving underground meth trade. If it does, there's little chance of it spilling across the border and affecting me here (unlike the drug wars currently being waged in Mexico). If it doesn't, then that's fine, too. As it is, I have no way of knowing what's true or not. Furthermore, I think that the article's authors are also basing a lot of their story on guesswork. It really relies on the shock factor (I mean, look at that title: is that hyperbole or what?) for its substance.

Maybe there is a crystal meth problem, or maybe it's being overblown. But if I'm going to worry about the livelihood of North Koreans, I'm going to worry about their prison camps and starving rural villages first. You see, what concerns me most about this kind of story is how it typifies the way American media seize any potentially sensational headline related to North Korea and use it to fuel our own nation's xenophobia. It's always, "North Korea is going to bomb us!" "North Korea has spies everywhere!" "North Korea might have crashed the Asiana flight maybe possibly!" "North Korea is batshit crazy!" And now, "North Korea is drowning in crystal meth!"

North Korea is no longer a mysterious country. Though the public hardly knows anything more about it than it did years ago, it has come onto the international scene in an interesting way: it is now a half-feared, half-mocked blot on a map from which only bad news emanates. On the news, we never hear anything about its people. We are rarely encouraged to send aid or to help its purportedly starving millions, but North Korea is completely vilified. The journalism I see today seems only to aggravate this problem, because bad news sells.

We Americans are being fed only what we want to hear, and that, if anything, sounds like an addiction problem.

Letters from Pyongyang

Lastly, here is the website of a documentary by a Canadian-Korean filmmaker named Justin Lee who recorded the journey of his family as they tried to reunite with relatives in North Korea. Their trip played out like any other organized and monitored tour to the country, only they actually were able to interact with their North Korean family members (at least on a superficial level).

The trailer was full of pretty shots and boasted many film awards, but I couldn't find the actual film. In fact, I only happened across it from reading a review of it on 8Asians. The reviewer had an interesting take, calling it well-made but lacking depth, due partly to a dearth of original footage and partly to the absence of any real answers to the questions it poses. Perhaps another casualty of North Korea's information blockade -- not letting any secret information out -- and the Western media's entertainment filter -- not letting any relevant information in.

If I get a chance to watch it in the future, I will.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Media and North Korea (Part 1)

Anyone who calls South Korea home can attest that the presence of a nuclear political enemy just a few hours to the north does not, contrary to certain expectations, pose such a great threat to the day-to-day normalcy of life here. No matter what propaganda North Korea sends out from behind its tightly secured doors, people in the South don't pay much attention.

The same can't be said of Americans, who seem to fear North Korea more than is warranted. I think that the American media has a lot to do with this. While I don't obsess over the latest news pieces that address North Korean issues, I have been paying enough attention to notice that there is a strong negative bias against this subject. Not only is there never good news from North Korea, journalists tend to blow up the bad news, making problems out to be worse or more worrisome than they have to be.

I am not comfortable with the image of North Korea that Americans are being fed. To them, North Korea is a backwards country and a dangerous threat, a nation of brainwashed Communists who are all starving but also diligently training to go to war against the US as soon as the order is given from their dictator-king. It's like our own propaganda, supported by classic American xenophobia and the need for us to have an enemy so that we can feel protected from them. The more I read about North Korea on American news sites, the clearer this bias becomes.

Here's what I've been reading (3 links out of 6; the rest I'll post tomorrow):

While the Rest of North Korea Struggles, Pyongyang's Fortunate Few Go Shopping (TIME, 8/19/13)

This article seems to give some insight into the changes that are occurring in the North Korean economy, particularly highlighting the signs of an emerging middle class in the capital city, Pyongyang. However, it seems to be more important to the author to sharply contrast this with the survival struggles of the rest of the country, providing caveats to each sign of growth previously mentioned and ending with a criticism of the DPRK's human rights issues.

Now, I know that news reports must give a balanced view of any situation, and I don't deny that the social and economic problems in North Korea are very real. But I'm curious to know what the point of this article was, if not to contribute to the already well-established trope of North Korea being an incomparably problematic country. Even the headline says nothing new. The title could have been, "North Korea Is Just as Unequal and Scary as It's Ever Been, Or Maybe a Little More So". Breaking news, everyone.

Life Inside North Korea Revealed by College Student (Yahoo! Flickr moment, 6/13)

Benjamin Jakabek's flickr photostream
This short video (along with second one on the site and an accompanying blog post) displays some photographs taken by a college student who visited North Korea on a guided tour. I genuinely enjoyed seeing his photos and the moments he captured of happiness and leisure in Pyongyang. He visited during May Day, one day out of the entire year when people were allowed to "wander around freely without anyone following them." He got to see kids playing and families having picnics in the park.

On the other hand, I'm not as impressed by his attitude. Thanks to him being a Canadian "with no real political agenda," he was able to visit the "mysterious" country he's always been interested in. I wonder if he realizes how much privilege he actually has, as a white male Westerner with the means to travel? Did he ever reflect on how much his experienced depended on this privileged identity? I was a bit rattled by his insistence that things in North Korea looked normal, as well as his comparison of the morning Communist broadcasting to the daily calls to prayer of Muslim countries. It reeks of exotification.

At least he was smart enough to acknowledge that his tour was very tightly choreographed and monitored, but I'm afraid that what he's sharing, as well as the way in which he's sharing it, does exactly what the North Korean regime wants out of its rich Western visitors: paint a purely positive and humanistic portrait of the country.

It's difficult to strike a balance between constant vilification and broad stroke of propaganda; in my opinion, Jakabek's skewed piece falls too far on the end of the spectrum that brushes aside the country's problems in favor of a slick slideshow. It wasn't really a "glimpse of what ordinary life looks like for North Korea's 25 million citizens," especially since 22 million of them live behind the curtain he tried to peek behind but never did.

In 1983, All of Korea was Crying (KoreaBANG, 7/24/13)

Jo Rim-hwan's photography
Speaking of photography, this article from KoreaBANG has some very touching portraits. It also taught me something I definitely did not know: in the mid-1980's, about the time when South Korea's economy was rocketing skyward while North Korea's began to crumble, a South Korea television show called "Reuniting Separated Families" aired. This show aimed to bring families separated either by the 38th parallel or by other factors surrounding the Korean War, including Koreans who grew up outside of the peninsula. During recording sessions of the show, "thousands of people brought posters and signs to the front of the National Assembly, where television cameras would pass by and give them a chance at a nationwide audience." A Korean photographer took some very sad and moving photographs of them in their desire -- or desperation -- to see their families again.

This hope and heartache is one aspect of South Korea that I have hardly seen. Since the cessation of the Sunshine Policy, attitudes toward reunification and North Korea in general have cooled considerably. I hear South Koreans talk about the shift in public opinion somewhat sadly but without any conviction that things will change for the better (whatever that may entail).

- - -

Well, it does seem as if the links I posted went off tangentially from my main point. I do have a few more to share, but I'll post them tomorrow. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at those photos! What do you think about North Korea and the American media?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Word Association

아저씨 at taekgyeon gym: You seem to have gotten much stronger [in the month since we last met]. Did you work out a lot back in California?
Me: Um, no, I didn't exercise much.
아저씨: You didn't carry huge crates of oranges around, or anything like that?
Me: ... No.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Learning Curve for Apartment Living

This doesn't surprise me especially much, but there are a lot of things about solo apartment living that I'm being quickly forced to learn how to do. These are things that I didn't know I didn't know, so each one comes up rather unexpectedly, and taking care of them can be an adventure.

For instance, I have had to learn how to set up automatic bill pay (자동이체) with my bank, so that I can -- get this -- pay the bills. I went to the bank in person today and tried my hardest not to come across as a stupid foreigner, but within thirty seconds I failed to understand the clerk when she asked for my ID card (신분증) and what account I wanted to transfer funds to, so that's that.

I have also had to figure out where to buy the specific trash bags (쓰레기 봉투, not 봉지...) required for regular garbage pickup, how to return a purchased item (반품하다; at first, I asked an employee where I could go to "분팜하다", which is like asking about the powdery palm trees, which makes no sense), and how to get free furniture (hint: it rhymes with "humpster hive"). And as soon as I feel comfortably settled in, I ought to throw a 집들이, or housewarming party. There's not much room for other people in this cozy little 원룸, but I'd like to invite friends over. Only I have no idea what is proper protocol for a 집들이 in Korea! Maybe we'll bake cookies?

Then there's all the stuff that I know how to do but have grown accustomed to not doing thanks to having had a homestay, like washing all the dishes myself, figuring out how to get Internet access, and locating the closest amenities like grocery stores and restaurants for when my fridge is empty (as it is now).

The learning curve is pretty steep, but I've got help in the form of friends, fellow expats and their Facebook group, and the awesome website Changwonderful, which has tons of useful information about my city: advice on how to separate recycling, where to get a bike share pass, etc. I've read it all before without having to worry about it, but now I have to worry about it!

All of this notwithstanding, being fully independent now, in a way that I have never been before in my life, is still very exciting. I'm looking forward to the months to come.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dear Tony,

I decided to take a walk tonight and, since I now live quite close, my feet led me toward the school. Your school. Our school. When the dormitory came into view from behind the new apartment buildings, I realized, to my shock, that it was the first time that I was back since July 12th, the day you died. The day I was supposed to go home with happy goodbyes and see-you-in-Augusts but instead left in hurried confusion and sadness. The day you were supposed to go home but never did.

The buildings looked exactly the same as they always have: grand, silent, with brightly-lit windows. It being Sunday evening, most students had already returned to their dormitory rooms and were probably preparing for the start of classes tomorrow.

I thought about what I would say and do when I arrived on campus in the morning. Ought I to speak openly of the tragedy and let the school community know that I cared, despite having been outright incommunicado for the past month? Ought I to ask my students personally if they were coping healthily? I wondered if I should talk about you at all, even mention your name. I could waltz into class with the same familiar smile and vigor and begin to teach as if nothing had happened. As if real life had no bearing on the classroom environment. It’s been difficult to come to grips with your death, Tony. I haven’t told a single person about you.

If I did, I would say first that you were an exceptional student. That you were almost relentlessly positive, and that the only times you weren’t happy were when you were lost in thought and concentrating very hard on how to formulate a sentence in English properly enough to make your point understood. You volunteered to speak up in class every single week and did so purely from self-motivation, because you were actually paying attention to the discussion and wanted to give your earnest input, even if it wasn’t a popular opinion. Sometimes, you stayed after class to clean the whiteboards without being asked. It gave you an opportunity to chat with me as I packed up, not even because you wanted more English practice but because you simply wanted to chat with me. Tony, you deserved your Class MVP award, and although it was just a piece of paper, it meant so much more than that, at least to me. I actually wish I could impart even more meaning to it now, to shower you with verbal praise, to do anything in my power to affirm your intrinsic value as a human being. But it’s too late.

Do you remember our last conversation? It was over lunch earlier that week. The subject of the Korean educational system came up – yet again – and I went on my usual rant about how stressful and unfair it was for a student’s entire potential to be governed by a few arbitrary exams. You agreed and added that schools were not doing their students any good. Prophetically, you became a victim of the system just a few days later.

Tony, I’m going to miss you in my classes this semester. I still don’t know what I will do when I have to face your peers, or how it will feel. Whatever happens, we must all move on, right? But for me, moving on will not entail forgetting. For you, I’m going to strive to be the best teacher I can be. For you, I’m not going to let a minute go to waste on anyone else. I will let my students talk to me as much as they want, whenever they want, and encourage them always to speak their minds. When they do occasionally say something brilliant, it will remind me of you.

I hope that you are resting in well-deserved and long-awaited peace.

(Teacher) Andrew

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Year 2 시작하자!

Let's start year two of this Fulbright thing! Woohoo!

Some updates: I have not been blogging regularly for the past month because I have been on vacation. I spent four weeks in the US, attended two weddings, did some grad school research, caught up with old friends and made some new ones, and didn't think about Korea at all. (Well, that's not strictly true. I kept up with Korean news and wrote regularly in my Korean blog. But I didn't study Korean or watch any K-dramas, as I had planned to. I also didn't eat any Korean food, plentiful as it is in the Bay Area.)

About three days ago, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane from San Francisco to Seoul. A nice old 아줌마 sitting next to me decided that I would be her conversation partner for the final two hours of the flight. She thought that I was a Korean-American and first asked me where in Korea my parents were from. Later, she talked to me about her life. A Korean teacher in Osh, Kyrgyzstan who hails from Gwangju, she rambled about her experiences during the Gwangju Democratization Movement and the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010, and I understood about 50% of what she was saying. I've gotten good at nodding and smiling at the right times when someone is speaking to me in Korean on the assumption that I know what they are saying. That said, it was an interesting conversation.

From the airport in Incheon, I took a bus to Cheongju and then another bus to Goesan, where the forty second- or third-year Fulbright ETAs joined this academic year's new crop of teachers (numbering eighty, for a total of 120) at the tail end of their six-week Orientation. I got to know a handful of them, although between their packed schedule and my travel fatigue, not much socialization was to be had. However, I did spend a lot of time catching up with ETAs from my year, and we played lots of Bananagrams and Contact. (All of the new ETAs now know me as the guy who loves word games, since I was the answer to one of the questions -- "This second-year ETA loves word games such as Bananagrams and Contact" -- during Quiz Night. I am okay with this.)

After about a day and a half of this bite-sized Orientation, it was time for Departure Day. Everything ran exactly the same as last year's D-Day, only this year it was blazing hot instead of raining buckets. Also, this year I didn't even bother to say too many goodbyes, knowing that it isn't really goodbye, because it's so easy to visit my friends in other cities. I guess the real farewells were for some members of this year's Orientation Committee who are not renewing their contracts. Leslie, Ashlee, and Anthony are going back to the US, and I'll miss them a lot! But for everyone else, it was just, "Hope your apartment's nice, and see you soon!"

Speaking of which, my apartment is really nice! It's small, to be sure, but has basically everything I need. I've got a fridge, a two-burner stove, a desk, a bed, a closet, and a kitchen table in two rooms, plus a bathroom and a laundry room with my own washing machine. Also, my school provided me with a lot of appliances and living essentials, so I don't have to buy very much! I already have utensils, cookware, a rice cooker, hangers, and more toilet paper than I think I'll ever need. They even got me a freaking convection oven! It's so big it takes up more than half of the kitchen table. I know those cookies I baked for everyone last semester had something to do with this exorbitant investment...

I'm really, really thankful that my school has taken such good care of me. They definitely didn't need to buy me an oven! But they do have money, and they apparently like me enough to spend it on me. Rent is 500,000KRW a month, which is about $450. It's a bit above average for a place like this, but I'm not complaining -- my school is taking care of the rent. I'm responsible for utilities -- gas, water, and electricity. There's no Internet, so I'm using my phone as a WiFi hotspot and tethering my laptop to it. I'll have to check to make sure this doesn't cause me to go over my monthly data plan. And lastly, the apartment building is a mere five minutes' walk away from my school.

Good deal all around. I'm fortunate and happy.

So, what's next? I will spend the weekend preparing for my first classes on Monday and catching up with some friends in the city. I also haven't quite finished unpacking, and there are some household items I still have to buy, like a fan and a laundry hamper. And food. Food would be nice. In fact, it's 2:30pm and I haven't even eaten lunch yet. I think I'll do that now. Bye!