Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Election Day

Today is Election Day and I get the day off. Voters are electing mayors, city council members, and provincial legislators.

For the past couple of weeks the main roads in this city have been decorated with big campaign banners featuring a portrait of the candidate, the candidate's name, and often a slogan (along the lines of "Clean Politics!" or "Strong Growth for Mapo-gu!"). And there have been the little trucks - trucks with posters with beautiful portraits of the candidate, slogans, and photos with the candidate posing with more famous politicians (usually Park Geun-hye if the candidate is GNP). And there are the songs - many of these trucks blast out music where the candidate's name is repeated endlessly. There are often squads of people in identical T-shirts bowing in unison to passers-by on the candidate's behalf. And the candidates themselves often make an appearance, wearing a sash with their name, and chatting with pedestrians (though I've seen candidates directing pedestrian traffic at cross-walks.)

There is a candidate in my neighborhood with the unfortunate name of Kim Jeong-il. A few days ago I could hear a song about him from my sixth-floor apartment. I could close my eyes and pretend I was living in North Korea.

Walking through Gongdeok Market yesterday I saw a brightly colored parked truck selling king shrimp - Wang Saeu. For a moment I thought it was a campaign truck that belonged to a candidate names Wang Sae-woo. And the picture of shrimp was some sort of pun based on his name.

The general belief is that this election is going to leave President Roh Moo-hyun unhappy and strengthen the position of the Hannara Dang, or Grand National Party, or GNP. This has seemed even more likely since the incident a week and a half ago, when GNP leader Park Geun-hye was attacked by a man with a box cutter and spent a week in the hospital recovering. It's still not clear whether he actually intended to kill her or not, but the public outrage - and sympathy - because of the attack seems to be helping the GNP. The Western District Public Prosecutor's Office, where the case against the assailant is being assembled, lies between my apartment and Gondeok subway station. Whenever I pass it now I see demonstrators holding signs in support of Park Geun-hye. Something of an exciting development in my neighborhood.

People are already talking about Park Geun-hye as her party's candidate for President in 2007. My friends have opinions that range from "I don't like Park Geun-hye" to "I don't want Park Geun-hye to be President." I know little about her, besides who her father was. I can't think of a single elected female national leader in Asia whose father hadn't been an important person (actually, I think Golda Mier's an exception). Park's father probably still stands as the most prominent individual in South Korean political history - and he is remembered quite negatively by most younger Koreans, who remember him as an oppressive dictator.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

4 day weekend coming up

I have a four-day weekend early next month. I am considering using it to travel by train to visit other parts of the country - probably either Gwangju or Busan. Just crash in a cheap hotel room and then explore the city with a guidebook.

Makes me wish I'd gotten myself a digital camera back in the States, where I've figured out they are a bit less expensive. When I do get one, I plan to use it to decorate this blog space... themes like Modern Sculptures! (Seoul is full of modernistic outdoor sculpture of the sort that you generally find in office parks in the United States.) Or churches. Seoul has many breathtakingly ugly churches - which if I take many photos of churches I will include a few of just for comparative purposes - but also some fairly attractive modernistic churches.

But if I do head out alone for the provinces, it's OK if I don't take a camera. Feeling a need to take pictures is distracting, anyway.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Seoul on a beautiful Sunday morning

Beautiful weather today. I walked from my apartment to E-dae station, just to show myself that I could. (Is the proper English spelling E-dae or I-dae? I guess it should properly be I-dae, but that looks weird. The Seoul city government resolves the problem by translating it into English in full: Ewha Woman's University. But nobody says the full name; people just say E-dae.)

I walked down the full length of the semi-famous E-dae Shopping Street, whose primary purpose is to provide stores for women to go shopping for wedding dresses and other wedding supplies. I made the interesting discovery that one end of this street is anchored by a small cluster of establishments that are obviously brothels. I don't know what conclusions to draw from that.

Downtown, Cheonggyecheon was as popular as ever on a beautiful Sunday morning. Cheonggyecheon was a stream that meandered through downtown Seoul once, before the pressures of development and industrialization resulted in it being covered with roads and an elevated highway. In the past couple of years the city government has torn down the elevated highway and uncovered the stream. The stream went dry years ago, so the city pumps in water; there is something slightly unnatural about a stream that can be turned off, but it makes for what is basically a very long, very narrow landscaped park that extends through the center of downtown Seoul. The Seoul city goverment has been promoting Cheonggyecheon as a symbol of modern Seoul urban renewal. Judging from many government posters I see in the subway, the next big project is the establishment of a forested area in Ttukseom, in eastern Seoul, around where Cheonggyecheon finally flows into the Han River. People say that this area is currently just saplings, but apparently the aim is to introduce a deer population within 10 years.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I put my tiny stub of a kitchen to use and tried making fried rice with pork, pepper, onion and basil today. No recipe followed. It came out pretty well, although I remain the only person I can cook for - anything that matches my taste probably won't match anybody else's. Cooking for other people is something I'll need to learn from a book or a class or something.

Now if I can remember how to make scrambled eggs come out right, and also try making kimchi jjigae (the archtypical food of Korean bachelors who can't cook) then I'll be in business.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Symbols of Korea?

Korea Searches for Unifying Symbol

I can understand why Korea wants some sort of symbol so badly. Some countries have physical symbols that everyone recognizes - Big Ben. The Eiffel Tower. The Taj Majal. The Great Wall. St. Basil's Cathedral. Other countries - Germany and Japan and Spain, for instance - don't have the same kind of universally famous architectural symbols, but they have a well-known history and culture that makes them stand out in peoples' minds.

Korea doesn't have anything to match this. There's no archtectural symbol that signifies Korea to people in other countries. And what do people in other countries think of when they think of Korean culture? Kim Jeong-il making trouble? Kimchi? Dog soup?

I think if any kind of internationally known symbol for Korea appears then it's going to have to arise organically. Not because the Korean government decides it would be cool to promote overseas. Hangeul in particular does not seem like a particularly good choice. You can talk all you want about the uniqueness of the Korean alphabet, and you may be right, but at the end of the day every national language in the world has a writing system, and promoting Korea's as a symbol of the country will just seem really geeky.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Yesterday I finally left this city for the first time since I came here at the end of February. I got invited along with a group of people - all Korean - making a visit to Musangsa temple in Chungcheongnamdo - South Chungcheong Province - with food and hiking included.

Musangsa is known as a place where foreign monks come to study Korean Buddhism, and at the temple I listened to an American monk give a sermon in near-perfect Korean that I understood maybe 50 percent of. Something about the progress of science, and figures like Einstein and Newton, and I could understand quite a bit on a sentence to sentence level - like my friend told me afterwards, the monk used perhaps more simple Korean than a native Korean speaker would have, and the bulk of the words he used I had no trouble understanding - but my brain was way too sluggish in putting his sentences together into a coherent whole. Anyone who speaks a language at an intermediate-but-not-fluent level probably understands what I mean.

After the sermon came lunch - vegetarian Korean food that I could only wish I could find in downtown Seoul. Bibimbap, seaweed soup, and some interesting veggie side dishes. I was assured that everything was made at the temple and was all totally natural.

After lunch was meditation instruction. I have never been very good at meditation - I tend to fall asleep or get distracted - and the posture somehow causes half of my left foot to fall alseep while the other half stays wide awake. After listening to the American monk speak some more in perfect Korean, we had a British monk who confessed his Korean was not very good speak to us through an interpreter about proper body posture and how to clear your mind (eg, thinking, "What am I?"). Our 15 minutes of meditation was indeed pretty relaxing for us despite the two little kids right in front of me who insisted on making faces at each other.

After meditation we went hiking (this was the Gyeryongsan, or 계룡산, area, which rates a mention in Lonely Planet even though Musangsa itself, as well as the town of Gyeryong nearby, are not deemed worthy enough). The weather was not clear but still it was a beautiful day, and the hike was pleasant enough. Apparently the hills have some special meaning to those who believe in geomancy, and we saw some people praying (to what, exactly, I'm not enough of a theologician to say). We passed a couple of shacks surrounding a medicinal spring, where the people offered travelers makkeoli - made from the spring water? I guess.

On the road back we stopped for a non-vegetarian dinner in Daejeon, the biggest city in the province, which Lonely Planet Korea seems to feel is a very boring place. Just from driving around the city, Daejeon looks like a less crowded, less dense version of Seoul. We stopped at my favorite kind of Korean restaurant - the kind housed in a building that looks like it could be completely dismantled in under half an hour, decorates the walls with news clippings that talk favorably about the place, and where people generally eat in groups of 10 to 20 and individuals get no say as to what they want to eat. These are not good places for picky eaters, and the dongdongju - alcohol served out of Pepsi bottles - might just freak some foreigners out. Great fun.