Sunday, April 23, 2006

Magok the Ghost Station

I wrote a while back about how Koreans poured so much more money into public transportation than Americans. Here's another example.

Go out to the vicinity of Balsan station in Gangseo-gu, and you see that beyond the intersection that they build Balsan station under, the city just stops. On one side of the road, there are shops, restaurants, neon signs. On the other side, nothing but wasteland. Way on the other side of the wasteland, the city starts up again - that's the neighborhood of Gimpo airport.

It's just as if Seoul is a SimCity city. The Seoul city govermnet has not clicked on the zoning button and dragged the mouse across that expanse of land yet. And it has been like that at least since January 2003.

There's more. Look at a Seoul subway map, at the western end of line 5, and you see that the station beyond Balsan is empty. The map probably shows a station, but there's no name. That's Magok station. It's finished. It's ready. Take the subway west from Balsan and the train passes through it. It's empty. It's been empty for at least 3 years. If you drive through the wasteland expanse you see a finished subway station along the road. But there are no buildings beside it. It is so creepy.

Evidently this station will come to life when the area around it gets filled in with buildings. I cannot imagine the Washington DC Metro doing anything remotely like this.

A long post

Not too sound like I'm totally weak-minded and impressionable, but I get the feeling that every bit of negative culture shock I felt during my first year in Korea stemmed from taking the Korean message board at Dave's ESL Cafe waaaaaaay too seriously. There are some well-adjusted expats there (and a very small number of actual Korean people), but there are also too many people speaking negatively about Korea and their lives in Korea. Actually, let me rephrase that, as there's probably not an expat in the world who doesn't see any faults with their country of residence. There are too many people on Dave's who can only look at Korean culture and behaviour through a Westerner's mindset, and pounce on any foreigner who tries to bring up the Korean point of view.

Besides, Dave's can be such an unpleasant place sometimes. Someone tries to start a happy discussion about good things about Korea, and less than 20 replies later people are hurling insults at each other. It would be entertaining if it weren't so tragic. I have to set a strict prohibition against reading Dave's (I never, ever post), just so my mind doesn't get sucked into the negative energy vortex.

Once again, there is nothing wrong with discussing faults you see in the country where you live. Galbijim's message board has some far more civilized and intelligent discussions of Korea than most of what you will find on Dave's.

I often feel like people I see on Dave's inhabit a different country than I do. (I don't know many foreigners in person who have terribly negative opinions about the country, which bolsters this feeling. Maybe Dave's posters are highly advanced AIs?) But it's probably 90% mental. Foreigners say Korea is dirty and the streets are full of garbage; I see that as exaggeration, and from what I've heard Korean cities, even the messier sections of Korean cities, are a fair bit tidier than cities in many other countries that I plan to visit. Foreigners say that Koreans are nationalistic, and very uninformed about the rest of the world outside Korea; I honestly don't see how they're much worse than people in other countries in those areas. Korean nationalism especially strikes me as the product of a smaller country that needs to constantly prove itself to get much international recognition.

But there's one area where my experience differs markedly from anyone on Dave's, and there is no way it could be attributed to a different mental outlook. Dave's is full of threads where people try to talk foreigners out of learning to speak Korean because (a) Koreans are so nationalistic/arrogant/close-minded/ignorant/stupid that they don't understand a foreigner could ever speak Korean, and so they willfully don't understand any foreigner who tries to speak in Korean, or because (b) Korean is such a horribly difficult language that you could study it full-time for years and not get to a level of speaking proficiency where Koreans would understand you, and besides where are you going to speak it besides one small country?

Well, my Korean still stinks, and I am very unhappy with my accent/pronounciation, but to be honest, even if I am talking to a totally new person and I say something unexpected, they usually understand me. (This does not count Itaewon, the foreigner-heavy neighborhood close to the American military base in Yongsan, where the two official languages are English and Japanese and any attempt to communicate in Korean will be met with disdain or incomprehension. You have about the same chance of success practicing your Korean with a shopkeeper in Ohio as with a shopkeeper in Itaewon.)

I would say that, when dealing with counter clerks in various Starbucks in Seoul, 80% of the time I have a hassle-free transaction that is entirely in Korean, and 20% of the time I have a hassle-free transaction where the employee understands my Korean perfectly well but insists on practicing English on the blue-eyed foreigner. (Bear in mind that I consider sentences such as 탈 사이즈요 and 머그 주세요 to be Korean sentences, though.) And I never have much trouble communicating with the women who run small Korean 분식 restaurants with no English menu. Granted I'm not discussing philosophy with them, but they understand me, and I have a hard time believing my Korean is all that much better than the people who post on Dave's saying stuff like "I've been studying Korean diligently for 2 years and Koreans just laugh at me or pretend they don't understand so I quit!" I guess I do inhabit a different universe.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hot Wings

On the other hand, who wants to think about healthy food all the time? Galbijim (see the link on the right?) recently featured Shwing, a hot wings restaurant in Apgujeong, as its Featured Article. I have not yet been there. Galbijim's administrator describes the wings thusly:
"Krazy Korean is their stupid-hot flavor. For foreigners who love spicy
food and are tired of Koreans wondering if they should water down the buldak for you, because they're worried that foreigners are not used to that kind of potency, you'll like this. When I ordered 10 Krazy Korean wings, she told me that they were
'dangerous'. I brushed this off as the usual, "are you sure that you can handle
that kind of heat? Remember, you're a foreigner." After getting through the 5th
one, I realized that I just got my ass kicked by some wings. My buddy had to go
for a walk to get over eating 2. Despite Korea being renowned for its spicy
food, the Krazy Korean wings are, without a doubt, the most potent things that
I've ever eaten in Korea".


I wonder if I will have to rethink my assumption that regular old Korean diner food - 분식 - is basically healthy. I had a student tell me that he tries to stay away from little Korean restaurants because he feels the MSG and the artificial ingredients are not good for him. Now, I'm pretty certain that my current diet is heavy with MSG - but based on the (very little) reading I have done on the matter, it seems that MSG is bad for people who are sensitive to it, but not especially unhealthy for people who are not sensitive to it (and I don't seem to be).

The artificial ingredients part does kind of worry me. I mean, I was never under the illusion that the food I eat in little Korean 분식 places comes direct from the hearty farms and soils of Korea to my lunch table. But it seems to be just so heavy with vegetables and white rice, that I wonder exactly where the factory-made artificial ingredients could enter the picture. Kimbap seems more prone to have factory-assembled ingredients (I am somewhat suspicious of its seaweed wrapping) but could ordinary sanchae bibimbap, or sundubu, possibly be all that unhealthy?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

For the benefit of those at home.

I work in this neighborhood. You can't see my workplace in this picture, but the road in front of my building looks pretty much like this.

As you might imagine, stepping out after work finishes at 9:00pm on a Friday night is an awe-inspiring transition.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Growing City

When I first came to live in Korea, I lived in Hwagok, a neighborhood on the southwest side of Seoul. I thought it was everything Asian urbanity should be: lots of small restaurants and bars (and houses behind high gates) lining the small side streets, and the main road of Hwagok-ro a smorgasboard of glittery neon signs. And seafood restaurants with octopuses and squid and fish swimming around the big aquarium tanks out front as they await their turn to be eaten. Great fun for me to explore. Then after a month of this, I got moved into a new neighborhood, nothing but concrete apartment blocks for as far as the eye could see. So of course I kept coming back to Hwagok. Sure, there are dozens of neighborhoods like it in this city of 11 million people, but Hwagok was the first one I ever explored.

Yesterday I went back to Hwagok for the first time since the spring of 2004. Koreans love to build, tear down, and build some more. The only neighborhoods I visited often both then and now are Jongno and Itaewon, both of which have seen some major new construction in the past 2 years. So I was prepared for Hwagok to be more or less unrecognizable... and to some extent, it was. I visited a friend who lived in the apartment complex behind the 88 Gymnasium - in 2004 those buildings were empty, scary-looking hulks, but now it's actually a nice little residential neighborhood (though it's one that is made up of 20 story buildings). Then I walked the entire 2-3 kilometers from the 88 Gymnasium to Hwagok subway station. And, for a while on the glitziest, most neon-sign-lit-up section of Hwagok-ro, I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. There were no familiar buildings. At last I saw the Gangseo-gu main office (Gangseo-gu is the subdivision of Seoul I was in, with 500,000 people) and Gangseo-gu central police station on my left, so I knew I was in the right place. But next door were two 30 story buildings I had never seen before.

When I reached the immediate area around Hwagok subway, things looked exactly like I remembered them. Which in itself was somewhat shocking - I expected the main intersection to be surrounded by 40-story buildings.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Kraze Burger

I met a friend for lunch on Thursday at a place called Kraze Burger. Now, burgers and fries are not the kind of food I want to eat much in Korea - I have resolved never to eat at a McDonald's or Burger King here if I can help it - but Kraze Burger is a somewhat more classy place, catering to the lunching office worker crowd. And a popular place, too - we had to wait for a table.

Kraze Burger serves upscale burgers and fries, as well as some other dishes (eg, spaghetti, salads) and complimentary cold tea. It seemed like it could concievably be a multinational chain, but a visit to its Web site confirms that Kraze is only in Korea. I must admit that in my Western-centric way I am now a bit more respectful of Korea's ability to do Western hamburgers well - my burger with bacon and hot sauce was about the best I have ever had in this country.

Right now my main indulgence when it comes to food that is slightly less healthy than Korean food, is various kinds of Indian snacks (the kind they call "Mixture"). Think of an Indian version of American party mix - though I need to eat this stuff with a spoon or my fingers get all sticky. I bet it's healthier than eating Kraze Burger every day.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Gobi Desert, Meet My Lungs

London has fog, Los Angeles has smog (well, OK, Seoul has smog too), but neither of them has the product of Chinese desertification drifting through their atmosphere every spring.

I swear the air quality in Seoul was the worst I have ever seen it today. Granted I still managed to be productive (did a lesson, went shopping at E-Mart and attended Korean class) but walking outside was a miserable experience and it got worse as the day wore on. Tomorrow I hope to be out and about with a friend. I may have to invest in a surgical mask first.

Racism Lifting

Washington Post: Steelers MVP Gives S. Korea a Most Valuable Perspective

Not being a football fan, I'll admit I didn't even know the name Hines Ward until this past week. (Nor did many Koreans, I bet - American football never caught on over here.) But in the last few days, pictures of Ward and President Roh tossing a football around have been on the front pages of most of the daily papers here.

I'll admit that, when I first saw pictures of Ward and President Roh together, I did not quite appreciate that Ward is half Korean. He doesn't really look Korean, to me.

As a white person, I know that there really is a lot of racism in this country that is quite invisible to me. Not only black people but also South Asians and Southeast Asians often have stories of discrimination that lie outside my experience. Of course, as the article says, things are changing. One social phenomenon that has recieved some attention is brides being imported from Southeast Asia to marry Korean farmers (since the male-to-female ratio is somewhat skewed here). I personally have come across little advertisement cards left in subway cars, promoting Vietnamese brides for lonely Korean men.

It will be interesting to see if and how Korean society changes in the next few decades.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

My illegal activities

Yesterday, for the first time since I arrived back in Korea a month ago, I went south of the Han River. I'd spent the previous month living a full but somewhat geographically limited existence north of the river, shuttling back and forth between my home neighborhood in Ahyeon and my work neighborhood in Jongno. Yesterday I finally crossed the river again. And I forgot something.

After spending weeks using the subway to crisscross the neighborhoods north of Seoul, it slipped my mind that I might need to pay more money to travel longer distances. And I arrived at Samseong station with only a 900 won ticket rather than the 1000 won ticket I needed, and the turnstiles would not let me pass. The Washington DC Metro has "Exitfare" machines for people in my situation, but Seoul does not. Many stations have windows inside the turnstiles where you can get help from an employee, but Samseong does not. And I thought that the turnstiles rejecting my ticket might bring a subway employee running, but it did not. Anyone who has been to Samseong on a weekend (it's the station that services the whole COEX area) knows that it's as crowded with people as any Seoul subway station, ever.

So with no other convenient option, I made like a 14-year-old criminal and ducked under the turnstile. Nobody seemed to care. I approached the ticket windows ready to pay the difference on my ticket, but they were being mobbed by people and I was beginning to feel kind of silly. So I went on my way, 100 won richer than I would have been (that's about a dime in American money).

Except I still have a painful bump on my knee from ducking under the turnstile. Payback by the universe for depriving the Metro Authority of 100 won, I suppose.