Monday, September 29, 2008

Andong Mask Dance Festival, Scenery, and Really Really, Ridiculously Good Food

So I heard about this thing called the Andong Mask Dance Festival, one of those Korean culture touchstones and all. Girlfriendoseyo explained to me that Andong is the heartland of Korea's confucian heritage -- the guy whose face is on the 1000 won bill lived there, and his house made it onto the money, too.
So something cool is definitely cooking in Andong, and we both needed, badly, to get out of dodge, anyway.
What is the meaning of this picture?  Keep reading...

So Andong it was. Rattling around in the train, starting at Chongyangni in standing room only, and moving into seats after the first hour, we got out of the city, and began to wonder as the city dwindled away.

The countryside is checkered with rice-fields shaped both regular and irregular, on average, about this size:

A really overbearingly beautiful sky kept us looking out the window.
Rickety old train stations
Instead of the fancy new ones with radar motion detector sirens to whistle if you step over the yellow line: this.
Finally, we arrived in Andong, at about 1pm.

Lunch time. 

Now, possibly my favourite Korean food is JjimDalk -- a special kind of chicken dish with sweet and sour soy-based spicy sauce, clear chewy noodles, and some veggies (most notably onions, carrots and potatoes) tossed in for balance.  Good eatin' dear readers.  If you can't make it to Andong (though you really should), the best place I've found in Seoul so far is right next to Boshingak Bell by Jongno Station. . . but I'll write more about that place another time.

On Saturday, we went to Jjim Dalk street, where about a dozen restaurants serve the famous dish, and the ridonculously harsh competition, plus the reputation of the town, plus the reputation of the street, has refined each place to the point where no place outside of "Chicken Street" can come within the same flippin' ORBIT as these places.

The Jjim Dalk (찜닭), and dear readers, I believe I have eaten enough of it to be able to say, was perfect.  In every way.  The freshness of the meat and vegetables, the balance of the sweet honey tang with the dark soy, the spiciness just enough to bring the other flavours out on a now-sensitive tongue, and the portion was...uh...a lot.  Seriously, by the end of the meal, I was counting bones trying to figure out if they'd secretly given us more than one chicken.  "Two necks I tell you!  And thrEEEE legs!  They gave us at least one and a half birds!  Those over-feeding fiends!"  It might have just been one chicken in there, but it felt like seven by the end of the meal, and it looked like two for sure:
So we did what any sensible pair of epicures would do, given a portion of perfect food large enough to fill us up twice over...
Tried to eat it all anyway.  That was as far as we got. . . pretty respectable, though.  I managed to maw down a few more noodles after we took this picture, but it had reached the point where my mind and my throat were holding negotiations each time I tried to swallow, so we had to leave some behind.

Here's Girlfriendoseyo, looking as full as a . . . really full thing.

(A little more here:)

Girlfriendoseyo found a really nice guest house that was originally built 600 years ago by a writer.  

We slept in buildings like this.
And this.

Which were heated like this:
The old way, with a fire burning under the floor.

In the morning, we ate this:

some of which was probably taken out of these:
Pots for storing pickled side-dishes like kimchi.

The mask festival, then.  

It was cool.  Dancing, lots of people, the city put its best foot forward.  We didn't have time to catch TOO much of the mask dancing, what with everything else going on, and the weather and scenery being so splendid. . . but the mask stuff was cool, too.

Traveling to and from places was actually one of the highlights, as the scenery in Gyungsan province reminded me of the BC Interior, kind up up Okanagan Valley way, with the mountains a little lower and the land a little more domesticated with beautiful rice paddies.

The rice plants were nearly yellow, which means they're almost ready for harvest, and the heads were bowed almost right over.

Taken around Hahoe Folk Village, as the sun got low in the sky:Hahoe Village was in fine form itself: this might be one of the better pictures I've ever taken...
More of the Hahoe Folk Village countryside and sunset (with special guest Jumping Fish at 2:05):

People actually live in this village.  You can even stay there--a few of the places put up guests.

The sunset was amazing, from start to finish.

This was the performance spot where the musicians set up during the fireworks show. This is another of the better pictures I've taken in my life.
But the possible highlight (if you HAVE to choose between the countryside, the jjim dalk, and this) was the fireworks:

Now I'm sure I've spelled this wrong in Korean (feel free to correct me in the comments), but over at the folk village, they do this thing called 선유줄불놀이 Seonyu Julbulnori: 

Traditional Korean fireworks.

I'd explain the whole thing... but just watch the video.  It's worth it.  These things were so beautiful.

These fireworks were different than others -- usually the aim of a fireworks show is spectacle.  Big, loud, amazing, people say "WOW!" and small children scream in fright.  These ones were so mellow and peaceful -- like bright flower-petals floating to the ground, and it created an ethereal atmosphere that was gentle and lovely, instead of the usual, expected thrills that fireworks bring.  Maybe the cognitive dissonance: "This isn't what fireworks are supposed to be like!" heightened the experience, or the fact Girlfriendoseyo and I TOTALLY did not expect this experience... but I got blindsided by beauty this weekend, dear readers.  Gobsmacked around a bit.
Video: Fireworks.  Hang on for a surprise at the end.

(photo from Ohmynews)

Here's a great picture of the 줄불놀이 - Julbulnori - from this site.

and a few other places, where people with better cameras than mine took better pictures than mine, of the fireworks.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

When English Teachers Don't Get The Support They Need. . .

My heart sinks every time I read a post like this.  From "I, Foreigner."

Yeah, getting native speaking teachers in every school would help Korea speak English better. . . but there's more to it than just sheer numbers.

My new philosophy is “Do as little as possible”.

If a student asks for help then I will help. If they don’t, then I won’t. I will teach the students who care and claim there wasn’t enough time to give everyone individual attention. The end result will be the same, so why should I stress myself out in a system that cares more about making everyone look good than about what the students learn?

I'm sure Korea's not the only place this happens. . . but wherever it happens, how dispiriting.

Sigh. Hang in there, Otto.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Happy Birthday K-Rok

A blogger whose blog I follow recently celebrated her 38th birthday (congrats), and dropped this hilarious line:

And if one more 23-year-old told me “age is just a number,” he was going to get kicked in the nads. And then he was going to get told: “pain is only in your head!” Of course age doesn’t matter when you’re 23, schmuck!
Congrats on your birthday, and woe to the next 23-year-old who rubs it in.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Oh crap! I'm in trouble with blogger!

I just got a message from Blogger (which apparently EVERY OTHER BLOGGER received about six months ago) stating that my blogger account would be canceled, and my entire blog deleted, unless I reach the minimum quota of posts referencing the upcoming US election.

So anyway, I was thinking about the upcoming US election, and I saw this.

But then after thinking about that for a while, I also noticed this.

Fortunately, reading this helped me sort out my thoughts on the topic.

Is that enough, Blogger?  Pretty please?  Can I keep my blog now?

Update: Garrison Keillor, an American (there you go, Brian) has two abilities:
1. to pull a column out of his arse, say absolutely nothing, but say nothing so beautifully that you read the column twice more, just because you feel like something important happened, but you must have missed it somewhere in the link he somehow made between the sound of snow underfoot while walking to church and corruption in Zimbabwe or uncertainty about the housing market. However, when he DOES have an actual topic, his second ability is (drumroll please)
2. to hit the nail on the goldurn head with grace and wit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcome, Korea Herald Readers

Hi there. If you're a Korea Herald reader who decided to check out my page after reading the "Expat Living" article, "Why Do Koreans Get So Defensive?", welcome!

While what I wrote there (if that link doesn't work, try this one) is a pretty good summary, it is certainly not all that has been said about the topic, either here or elsewhere, and of course, it should also be remembered that I am not the final expert about anything: I'm mostly glad that people are talking about this now, instead of feeling afraid to say anything, for fear of offending someone.

The series of essays The Korean and I wrote, with Gord Sellar's help (more later on him) about complaining expats and defensive Koreans are here, and they've started a very interesting conversation online, which I've tried to document with links and summaries.  If you haven't seen this online yet, I recommend you start with these:

Second question:
Why do Koreans take Criticism about Korea so Poorly?
My thoughts. The Korean's thoughts.

some other responses from other pages

If this topic really interests you, also take some time to read the worthy Gord Sellar's views on the topic:
"Who's Complaining In Korea"
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I also talked about this on the Seoul Podcast, here, during the first half of the podcast (before the whole thing devolved into a bunch of dirty bum jokes.)

And if you have something you want to say about it, go ahead and put it online, and send me the address where I can find it. Or e-mail your thoughts to me at roboseyo [at] gmail [dot] com or write them in the comment board to this page. If you're going to criticize me. . . go ahead, but try to have your ducks in a row, and check the rest of the conversation, to see that you aren't repeating something another person's already said.  I'm really glad if this discussion continues -- I think it's worthwhile for us to take a self-critical look in the mirror from time to time, and this is something that everyone bumps into after a fairly short time in Korea.

For posterity, then, or in case you haven't read them, or would like a fairly good summary of the discussion so far, and don't really care to do all the reading following all those links would entail: here are The Korean's Herald article (from the wonderful site, "Ask A Korean!") and my article in the Herald.  

PS: Thanks also to Matt Lammers, the editor of Korea Herald's Expat Living page, for giving us a soapbox excuse to draw attention to ourselves venue!

UPDATE: Gord Sellar's essay went up today, and it, too, is worth a read.  At the KH site, here, or here, kept on my blog, again for posterity.

Where I'm going this weekend...

The Andong Mask Festival, in Kyungsan Province, is pretty famous, and if you need to get out of Seoul, wouldn't be a bad idea.

Korea has a long tradition of Mask Dancing, and you can see some of it, and hear all the old traditional instruments.

And get out of the city, eh?

If you're not Korean, you can even set your goal to be this guy:

And possibly be featured on Arirang TV or Chosun Online (who love following white people around with cameras).

More information here.

More Roboseyo far and wide. . .

If you go to the "Special" sidebar of the Korea Herald Online, you will see the latest manifestation of the "Why Do Expats Complain?" meme The Korean and I started back in the Summer. Tomorrow, in the same place, you will find my write-up on "Why do Koreans Get so Defensive" and on Thursday, Gord Sellar will be there with "What Makes a Happy Expat?"
In other news, I was invited by Joe of Zenkimchi to a ridiculously good meal at "Star Chef," a wonderful fusion restaurant in Maebong, south of Kangnam. FatManSeoul was also there (her writeup here), and Zenkimchi Food Journal even edited together quite a nice video of the whole thing.
This is fusion food as it ought to be -- rather than the UN-creative stylings of replacing the usual shredded cabbage with a bit of spaghetti, throwing honey mustard sauce on the Korean fried rice, and putting Kimchi on a toasted ham sandwich (which is the usual dull way of Korean "fusion" restaurants), this guy is actually mixing flavours of different cultures in ways that are interesting and new and really intriguing. As well as jaw-droppingly delicious.
Yanni presided over the affair, with his video, his jazz shoulder, and his moustache setting the tone for the night, on widescreen TV.

You'll catch me a few times on this video, which presents the food well enough that it remains interesting all the way through, even though it's only about food. That's just how good the food was. Joe and Jen are much better at talking about food than I am, but you'll here a few lame roboseyo jokes here and there and some of my semi-drunken braying, if you pay attention.
This is the space where I will put the great photo Jen took of me, which she promised to send me, but hasn't yet...and I hope she will, and that she's not mad at me for teasing her a bit in my video (next).

(oh there you are, Peter!  Thanks, Jennifer!)

and here is my video (not nearly as good as Joe's, but shorter) with mostly pictures of food, and a bit of Jennifer loving on her camera (she bought a new lens that day). Watching the two food bloggers take pictures of the food ("Food Porn" -- an apt description) was fun as heck. (For the best of the food porn, check out FatManSeoul and ZenKimchi's posts on the place. But gee golly wow, it was good eatin'!)

And Yanni was pleased, and smiled down upon us all.

Amazing photos of North Korea

HT to Schwim

Big pictures, but amazing ones, compiled or taken by Eric Lafforgue, a photojournalist who attended the Pyongyang mass games this September, and seems to have done other work in North Korea during the year.

The North Korean Arirang Mass Games are amazing and terrifying at the same time: getting 60000 performers to move in unison is incredible, but if you think about the methods they probably used to train them . . . yurg.

You can see some of North Korea's natural beauty, but also note, with one glaring exception, the amount of suspicion in the eyes of North Koreans when they look at this foreign photographer. Two of my favourite from the series:

See the whole series here.

Eric Laffrogue's Flickr photostream: more here.

Video from the 2007 North Korean Mass Games: given their limited resources, this is miles more impressive than the Beijing Opening Ceremonies. Imagine what North Korea would do with an unlimited budget.
And those are people holding cards in the background.

those are all kids, by the way.

video of preparations for the games.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

To all the guys who declined my housewarming party invitation last weekend...

Ya sure missed out. Jeez, boys, what's the matter with youse?

A few fellas showed up. . . but they were sorely outnumbered.

Gender ratio aside, a good time was had by all; I love having an apartment big enough to host people, and a kitchen big enough to cook.

For the rest. . . don't worry, all. This won't be the last time I have a house party. 'Till then, be well.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

This has NEVER happened before in Korea...

Never happened before, I say. NEVER!

Does that bubble song remind you of anything? Say, Canadian singer Feist (who was way cooler before she sold out. No lie: here's Mushaboom.)

This is the FIRST TIME I've EVER heard of something like this.

Needless to say, I'm shocked, SHOCKED, and disappointed. (HT to Brian for this one)

Friday, September 19, 2008

This will never stop being funny:

The headline on the Yahoo News item:

"Schwarzenegger, Top Legislators Reach Budget Deal."
(story here)

The thumbnail picture beside the headline on Yahoo News (blown up a bit for blogger):

(no sign of the picture in the actual story)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Joe Mondello Shows us How Its Done: K-Blogger of The Month for September

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but this post finally pushed me over the edge.

Remember back in April, I tagged Brian from Jeollanam-Do my April Blogger Of The Month for his stuff about the Coreana Nazi ads, which eventually got the attention of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and coverage on international news outlets.

Well, I've been thinking about featuring a kind of K-Blogger of the month every month, and doing a brief write-up about one of the Korea Bloggers on my blogroll (see sidebar). Today, Joe's latest post, has finally prompted me to do it.

Without further ado, to give credit where it is due, here is September's K-Blogger Of The Month.

Joe Mondello has been in Korea a way long time, and speaks Korean really well, as well as playing a respectable mandolin.

Joe is one of the expats who has lived in Korea for a long time, and still manages, on his blog, to try to walk a mile in Korean shoes, tries to offer up the benefit of the doubt wherever he can. You can see in his writing that he certainly does have things he likes and dislikes about Korea, but those things do not seem to cause him to lapse into bitterness or unabashed judgementalness. Meanwhile, he has a wry sense of humour that takes a while to spot, but that is consistently refreshing and occasionally hilarious, once you know when he is talking out the side of his mouth. (Writing out the side of his keyboard?)

He is very perceptive, and subtle, and prefers to tell stories (he calls them slices of life) over making proclamations. I think this is a very good approach to living in a different culture. I respect him a lot for it.

Anyway, Joe also has decided that, when he sees Koreans acting like "ugly Koreans" (you know what I mean) rather than confronting and pushing about, he will shame them into remorse for their inexcusable behaviour with his own class and politeness. Taking the high road like this, when one is being constantly watched anyway, the way we paleskin bignoses are, is probably the best way to go anyway. That we could all do the same.

Well, here is an anecdote Joe shared about being a good guy in the face of all the peer pressure to litter and spit in the street, and buddy, I admire the heck out of him for reacting to this situation with so much grace, given that he has probably spotted this exact situation five hundred times. Here. Read his story.

Here's to you, Joe. Well done, sir: I raise my glass to you and your "good foreigner" directive. May we all be as generous and gracious on our bad days as well as our good.

Monday, September 15, 2008

So, Roboseyo, what is a 제사?

Warning to my family: be ready for this one. It's about Mom/Jane.

Soundtrack: Bach, BWV 1068: "Air" 

OK. So here's the thing. Last Monday, September 8th, was the three year anniversary of my mother's death.

All week, I'd been in a bit of a funk; especially this weekend: between eating the heavy, tomatoey, beefy leftovers from the housewarming party (more on that later), sitting around instead of doing stuff for Chusok vacation, and it being the three year anniversary of my mother's passing. . . I felt a bit blue: this was sticking in my brain, and I didn't know what to do about it: we Canucks don't really have a ritual that handles this particular situation, and sorry, dear readers, but a whiny blog post just doesn't do my mom justice.  

Fortunately, I mentioned this to Girlfriendoseyo, and even MORE fortunately, her culture DOES have something precisely for those times when, no matter how long it is past the loss of a loved one, you still CAN do something about it.  It's called Jesa - 제사 and it's basically a tribute to the dead.  (It's not the same one people do for Chusok and New Years, but it's there, in the handbook of Korean rituals and rites for the ancestors.)

Now don't anybody think I've switched out and decided to become an ancestor-worshipper or anything -- I've spent the entire week leading up to Chusok explaining to my students that the Chusok rites for the ancestors aren't really so much worship as paying respect to the dead, and yes, I DO think there's a difference.
Even then, I would argue that this jesa was a different beast again than what Koreans do on the anniversaries of their loved ones, not least because Mom wouldn't feel comfortable with me going the whole nine yards and scouring the city to find her exact favourite foods, the way one ought to for a proper Jesa.  Sorry, but Dutch bakeries are few and far between in Korea, even in Seoul, and I think she'd let that slide; however, I also think that she'd be comfortable with me performing a mini-jesa, for the sake of giving release to these weird pangs that have been bugging me this week.

So no, I'm not repudiating Jesus' blood, or blaspheming Allah, or pissing on the rituals the good Buddha and Confucius have left behind for us,  nor am I declaring loyalty and devotion to Mom, as if she were the one who could speed my way through purgatory and lead me on the path to enlightenment.  It's my mom, a human being, like the others; settle down there.
I'm just finding a way to say goodbye, even though it's long after we westerners (mistakenly) figure that one ought to have moved on, even though some goodbyes never actually end -- 'cause you know, Mom's not gonna be at my wedding, period.  And dammit, I should be allowed to feel bad about that from time to time, and if Korea has a ritual designed specifically for this kind of thing. . . sweetums!

So, I bought a tray and a candle and a bowl -- of the bowls in the shop, I intentionally chose the one Mom would probably have bought (no almond rings. . . but I'll at least do that much).

What I bought:

I boiled up some spaghetti noodles, and put on Bach's "Air on a G-String" -- funny name, but an important meaning in our family.  If you hit play up at the top, you're listening to it now.

I got together a few pictures of Mom that I like, and set up the incense, the candle, and the pictures by the window.  Why the window?  Just seemed like the right place:
If any of you know how a real Jesa goes, and what I did wrong, I'll kindly ask you to stay out of it.  This was something I had to do, and its meaning for me and how I feel about my departed mother has nothing to with whether the tray was oriented in the right compass direction, or whatever else I got wrong.

One thing I know: Koreans stand their chopsticks up in their rice when they honour their ancestors.  It's harder to get a fork and spoon (no knife: see that, dad?) to stand up in a bowl of spaghetti -- but I at least got one picture of it before I set them down.
I lit the candle, set the music on "repeat" and sat.
(camera flash: then I turned off the light)
I sat on the floor and missed my mom for a while, and it was exactly what I needed to do.

I'm not going to go into an extended breakdown of all the wonderful things my mother was (though she was); I also won't go into an extended explanation of the wonderful women who have been good-hearted enough to fill in the vacancy as surrogate-mothers (Raema and Kelly aka Mom Schneider and Mom Finlayson) and step-mother (Mary-Anna), even though they are all wonderful. 

Instead, I'll just leave it at this: I feel better now, and however I go about doing it, Mom deserves to be missed from time to time.  I'm sure she has much better things to do than check whether the spaghetti I set out for her was leftover or fresh -- I mean, if heaven's so boring its inhabitants could be bothered to check how their descendants are honouring them back on earth, why the heck are we being good, trying to get there?  And yeah, I've probably butchered the ritual about as badly as can be, but I don't give a rip, because I feel better now.

Love you Mom.  Hope you're having a great time over heavenwards, but you're still missed here on planet Roboseyo.

(Mom's Eulogy here)