Sunday, February 18, 2007

Buildings, Day 2! Happy Year of the Pig!

The Year of the Golden Pig began today. Most stores in Seoul were closed; Koreans tend to celebrate Lunar New Year at home with their families. In many cases they brave packed highways to drive for hours to reach their hometowns. It is not a convenient weekend for domestic travel in Korea. Today I wandered around quiet Seoul.
I hiked down to Hannam-dong from Itaewon. I like this part of the city; I like the hilly topography, I like the relative lack of recent massive urban renewal projects, and I like the relatively large number of foreigners around.
And I like the architecture (not usually Seoul's finest point).
Most countries of the world have their embassies in this part of the city. The exceptions are mostly a couple of big, powerful countries such as the USA, Canada, Britain, Japan, and China.
Now I'm south of the river in Kangnam. I actually very seldom come here myself, but I tend to think of it as the beating heart of the city - it's got the priciest real estate and trendiest areas. Note the avant-garde architecture.
I'm not sure if that's a natural hill on the right or not. A plaque identified it as a 토성, or toseong, or an ancient earth fortification. Southeastern Seoul has several of them, and they are marked on many maps. I'm going to have to read up on them one of these days. Anyway, they built the city around them. I don't think any existed north of the river.
It's a common motif on restaurant signs to have a cartoon picture of the animal consumed within, often wearing a chef's hat. If you think about it logically, that's a profoundly disturbing idea. I wonder how many of his brothers, sisters, and cousins that traitor prepared for human consumption today.
I'm not sure what the facade of that building is supposed to represent, but I won't look too hard for antecedents in traditional Korean architecture.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Korean Food!

Wonderful ZenKimchi post on odd (to Westerners) Korean food.

I've never felt any desire to eat sundae (#10) or gopchang (#4). A little voice in my head says that eating intestines and other internal organs is disgusting. And I don't know how to make that voice shut up.

But I really like dotori muk (#7). And I want to try cheonggukjang (#6). I've never had it, but it just seems like the sort of food I would really enjoy.

Buildings! Nothing but buildings!

Tomorrow is Seollal - Lunar New Year's. Most people in Seoul had the day off today. I decided to walk across the Han River to Yeouido, just for the heck of it.
The KLI 63 Building, third-tallest building in the city, from Mapo Daegyo (one of the major bridges crossing the Han River).
The view towards Yeouido.
I never much cared for Yeouido. It always reminded me of an enormous office park. It was practically deserted today.
Happy New Year!
Korea's Parliament Building, from a distance.


This is an officetel (businesses on the lower floors, apartments above) on my street.
I wonder what "Stay 7 Mapo" means. Mapo is the name of this particular part of Seoul, but the "Stay 7" has me confused. Anybody?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hanja on the subway

I've noticed something about studying Chinese characters in Korea.

When I study Korean or just read something in Korean on the subway, other passengers pay me no attention. Two or three times somebody's asked me about how my Korean was coming along, but honestly, they could well have just been practicing their English on the foreigner and my reading material was just the obvious topic of conversation. In other words, Koreans don't seem to care much.

But lately I've been spending a lot of time learning Chinese characters (hanja) and suddenly, random Koreans on the subway are taking an interest in what I'm reading. Unlike the Japanese, Koreans don't use Chinese characters much in everyday writing - it's generally used in the occasional newspaper headline, store sign, and any writing that tries to look extra-fancy. But it's considered essential knowledge if you want to be considered literate at a high level in Korean, and most educated Koreans can read hundreds of characters (though they tend to be pretty terrible at writing them). I find that studying them is an excellent way to pick up Korean vocabulary - plus I'm moving to Taiwan in a few weeks, and learning hanja will make the task of learning the traditional characters in use down there far easier.

Random Koreans don't care much when I'm reading/studying Korean written in plain old hangeul, but when I'm studying hanja suddenly they're interested. Last week I had four middle school students hovering over me and cheering me on as I practiced a couple dozen characters on Subway Line 5. A few days ago a guy sitting next to me asked in Korean, Can you read that?? I said, A little. The guy said in Korean, I don't know all of those... He got up for his stop and said laughing in English, "You're crazy..."

Well, yeah.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Korean Fried Chicken

I don't eat a lot of fried chicken, but when I do I realize that Korean local brands are far superior to American brands like KFC and Popeye's. I don't know why. Probably something in the spices.

Americans are beginning to realize this. The man behind the ZenKimchi blog (the link is on your right) gets quoted extensively.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Words Written with Petals

This is a translation of a story from a Korean 4th grade elementary school reader. There's no author name listed that I can find. It's the longest translation I've ever done and I had to fudge it in a few parts because I couldn't completely understand the Korean.

As far as I can tell this story takes place in the 1930s or early 1940s. It should be interesting reading for anyone who's noticed how patriotic Koreans can be about their language.


Words Written with Petals

Seung-u and his sisters left home together right after breakfast. The new homeroom teacher, Mr. Tanaka, hated it when students came late. Most students came early so they had enough time to dust off the desks or clean the stinking bathrooms. They didn’t want to be slapped.

Seung-u parted with his sisters just inside the school gate and ran across the sports field. He put his bookbag under the bench just as the morning assembly bell rang. He’d almost been late.

The children were sitting straight in their chairs. When the teacher came in they had to be looking straight ahead at the chalkboard. They heard the sound of footsteps in the hall and the door opened. Mr. Tanaka, wearing the national uniform, walked in with big strides. His head was shaved, and below his dark eyebrows his cold eyes looked at the students.

“Attention! Salute!” yelled Jun-shik, the class leader. The children bowed until their heads almost touched their desks.

“You’re all here. Good,” the teacher said in an unfriendly voice, as he looked around the room. The students shrunk back, their eyes cast down, afraid to meet the teacher’s.

“Children, beginning today we’re going to play a fun game,” said the teacher, sounding friendly all of a sudden. The children looked at each other uneasily.

Morning assembly was usually remarks on how Japan and Korea was one country, and our parents had to do their duty to the nation. However today there was going to be a game… The children’s eyes began to show curiosity.

“Look at this!” It was a tile made of wood, 3 centimeters by 10 centimeters. The teacher held it like a torch.

“Do you know what this is?” The teacher asked this, and the room fell silent.

“Class leader, stand up!” Jun-shik stood up.

“Take it,” said Mr. Tanaka. He tossed the tile to Jun-shik. It made a “plock” sound as it hit Jun-shik’s palm.


The tile said “VIOLATION” on it in Japanese. Jun-shik looked at the letters burned black on the tile like it was some sort of monster. Mr. Tanaka explained the game meticulously:

“The class leader will keep the tile, and during break time he will give it to any student who speaks Korean. The student who receives it will give it to the next student who speaks Korean. At the end of the school day I will see who has the tablet. That student will be slapped on the hand. Watch each other well! Understand?”

The students who had been expecting a fun game were disappointed. They quietly began grumbling.

“Be quiet!” The teacher rapped on his desk with the attendance book. The students quieted down.

The first class ended and break time began. The children were worried. They couldn’t slip up and accidentally speak Korean. The stick that Mr. Tanaka hit students with was thicker and stronger than the other teachers’. Students pretended to have to go to the bathroom so they could leave the classroom. The students who stayed behind put their hands over their mouths or buried their faces in their books. But still, Jun-shil ended up giving the tile to Yun-chil in section 4.

“Kimura Ichiro!” called Jun-shik, using Yun-chil’s Japanese name. Yun-chil’s head jerked up, and he scowled. He and Jun-shik were friends.

“Here”, was all Yun-chil said, as he handed Jun-shik his eraser. Immediately his heart sank. But there was nothing he could do but take the tile.

The break time went like this. The tile that said “VIOLATION” went around the room, and every time it changed hands the student who had to take it seethed.

The day’s classes ended. The teacher went back to the teachers’ room to prepare for closing period. All the students except Ho-chang finally felt relieved. Ho-chang fingered the tile in his hand and began to tear up.

Suddenly Myung-suh in the next row pointed to the window and shouted “Hey, it’s a butterfly!” A yellow butterfly was fluttering outside the window. It was the first butterfly of the new year.

“Thanks!” said Ho-chang as he quickly tossed the tile to Myung-suh. Myung-suh’s fingers closed around the tile and Ho-chang started smiling. Closing period was coming up quickly. Myung-suh tried to listen for Korean from the other students, but nobody said anything. The sound of footsteps came from the hallway outside. Myung-suh suddenly got up from his desk.

Jae-duk screamed “Aaaaayah!” Myung-suh had pinched his hand. Of course Jae-duk screamed in Korean – how could he scream in Japanese if he was surprised? Myung-suh quickly slapped the tile into Jae-duk’s hand.

“That was mean!” said Seung-u, who was Myung-suh’s friend. Jaeduk, who had been about to spring at Myung-suh, hesitated. Then he put the tile into Seung-u’s palm.

The tile had passed through ten hands that day. But when Mr. Tanaka used his stick, it was only Seung-u’s palm that received the bruise.

Seung-u’s mother saw the bruised hand that evening at the dinner table. Mother asked about it curiously. No matter what lies Seung-u told her, Mother did not believe him.

Seung-u finally stammered out the story of the “VIOLATION” tile to Mother and Father, and Mother listened, biting her lip.

“Seung-u!” Seung-u heard his father’s loud voice. The room was silent. Father looked at Seung-u sadly. Seung-u’s sisters stared at the bruise on his hand. Father coughed.

“Today the peach blossoms bloomed. Did you see them? They’re beautiful.”


Father opened a window. Peach blossoms fluttered in.

“Just two months ago that tree had nothing but bare branches. It stood there in the snow and cold wind. As if it were dead… Who could have thought it would bloom again like this?”

Seung-u listened to his father and looked at the lovely peach blossoms.

“But even after a harsh winter, leaves sprout and flowers bloom. Nations and peoples are the same. Seung-u, what do you think is the root of your nation and your people?”


“It’s spirit, language, and writing. You’ve heard people say, ‘You absentminded jerk!’ Those words have real meaning. A person who loses his spirit loses his mind. He’s no longer intact. If we have spirit, language, and writing, no matter how harsh the cold winds are, we will live and flowers will bloom again. Just like these peach blossoms – remember that.”

After this strange talk, Father went into his room. The house was quiet again.

“Come here,” said Mother, beckoning with her hand. Seung-u approached and Mother undid her coat and put Seung-u’s hands on her chest. Seung-u’s hands, which were still smarting, could feel Mother’s heart beating. The bruise began to feel better and the pain went away. Mother stroked Seung-u’s hair and patted his back.

“Seung-u, when you grow up, become a poet. Write poems in our language.”

Seung-u suddenly buried his face in his mother’s chest. He didn’t know the meaning of what his mother had told him. He heard the sound of a tramcar outside.

“Wait a minute.” Mother went out. Before long she came back with some peach blossoms and a white porcelain bowl. She took out the small octagonal table she used when company came over. Then she spelled out words with flower petals on the table.




Mother said these words in a clear voice. Seung-u looked at the words she had written.

When Seung-u said the Japanese words Yama, Sora, or Hoshi, he did not feel anything in particular. But the Korean words San (mountains), Haneul (sky), and Byul (stars) felt alive and he could feel them in his beating heart. He looked at the bright colors in front of him.

San written in petals rose high.

Haneul written in petals was deep blue.

Byul written in petals had a bright clear sound.

The words were beautiful.

Tears came! Two lines of tears appeared on Mother’s cheeks.

Seung-u knelt before the table with the letters written with flowers.