Saturday, November 26, 2011

Post 1100: You Are Awesome

Here's the first post I put up when I started Roboseyo (other than the useless "here's my new blog" one that I disappeared while ago). Since then, I've seen family and friends start blogs, been to a bunch of places in Korea and around Asia, made a bunch of friends, and lost some to repatriation. And somewhere in there, I got hitched and had a baby with wifeoseyo. My blog statistics say I've hit 1100 posts, and that's a lot.

So how did I hang on so long? Because I've been cited and published in some places, I've been invited to some events and things? And been approached by people and organizations looking to reach out to others? Because I even met some famous people? No. That's cool, I guess, but if you said to me "Hey Rob. If you spend 3000 hours writing random thoughts about Korea for free, you'll get to shake Lee Myung-bak's hand." I'd say no. Even if it was Lee Hyori's hand, I'd say no. Or the nine left thighs of Girls' Generation. Tom Waits (his hand, not his thigh)? Even then, probably not. Still not worth the amount of time. And fame? Being Korea's most famous K-blogger is like being Denmark's best lasso twirler. I know that.

Outside of Scandanavian lasso-twirling circles... not... well... known.

And I'm not the most famous English Korea blogger, anyway. That's Burndog, now that The Stallion, Mr. Wonderful has retired. I'm New Zealand's fourth most popular folk-parody duo. At best. Not the first.

But here's why I've hung on so long - here's what's in it for me:

1. I have met some seriously, seriously awesome people, whom I'm happy, and even proud, to have in my circle of friends and acquaintances. Good for a beer, or a hike, or a walk, or a fantastic facebook chat or e-mail conversation. Especially in Korea, where people keep going home, that's really important. The people I've met have been smart, talented, thoughtful, funny, intriguing, entertaining, challenging, and even (from time to time) really, really, ridiculously good looking. They're also invested enough in Korea I can count on most of them regularly gravitating back here, so that I get to keep in touch, rather than drifting apart when they leave Korea for good.

2. I have learned so friggin' much from my commenters, from other bloggers, from the people who disagree with me, and from the people who point me towards sources for better information than I have yet.

3. Because what popularity my blog has found lets me imagine that my writing, and the information or thoughts I share here, have helped to enrich the Korea experiences of a bunch of people. I mean... maybe I'm wrong, and you read Roboseyo to scoff at a fool dressing in smart-people clothes (I know I frequent a few blogs for that reason.) But perhaps I flatter myself to think that's not why most of you visit.

So a little reader appreciation today:

For the entire life of my blog, near the top of the page, I've had these words from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame IT, blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place." (from "Letters to a Young Poet" translated by Stephen Mitchell)  I still passionately believe that a person's experience of Korea, or anywhere, depends more on what one brings to it, than what's already there: that's why two people can live in the same neighborhood, and one will find their life endlessly fascinating, and the other will find it dull as flour paste. And by looking around for things to report back to you, my readers, you have helped me to call forth Korea's riches, and love my life here, rather than getting caught in a rut of apartment blocks, class bells and Itaewon piss-ups. Thank you for giving me a reason to dig deeper.

There are more blogs in Korea than ever before, which makes me all the more grateful to the readers I have: that somehow you found this blog in the noise, and found something here worth coming back for.

So readers: you are awesome! Here's possibly the favorite video I've ever posted at Roboseyo, introduced to me by my friend Tamie. Watch it. Because you are awesome, too.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mini-Rant on the Radio: Multiculturalism: You're doing it wrong

Well, Roboseyo's back on the radio...

I'm doing a piece called "Blog Buzz" on TBS Efm, where I get to highlight different pieces that are on the blogs, and talk about the issues they raise, and what the expat bloggers are saying about Korea.

Last week I talked about EatYourKimchi's piece, "Are you a fat and ugly foreigner"

and this week - tomorrow at 8:15 AM - I'll be talking about this piece, which as prompted an interesting conversation so far:

Asian Correspondent reports on a piece about Seoul opening the first high school for mixed race students...

and I'm a bit bugged by that. Because taking the multicultural kids OUT of regular Korean schools won't make Korea a multicultural society -- teaching multicultural kids' classmates what it means to have a multicultural classmate, and that they're no different than the rest of them, will. In my opinion.

So far, Korean policy-makers seem to have a lot of problems understanding what multiculturalism actually is.


What do you think about this multicultural high school, and other such efforts?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Response to Chris in SK on Embracing Un-Koreanness

**Please note the Update added to this post, in response to comments**
**Update 2: "Adventures in the 4077th" offers a bit of advice to Chris in their post "Un-Koreanness and White Whine"**
Update 3: Scroozle adds his two bits.

So Chris in South Korea put a piece on his blog called "Embracing My Un-Korean-ness"

And I disagree with it. I wish nothing but the best to Chris himself... but I disagree with him from time to time. Like now.

His article starts off saying that he's not Korean... and follows that statement with the assertion that "Not after...even a lifetime of living in Korea will this country fully accept me." He shares examples of ways that various Koreans have given him "the foreigner treatment:" shouting "hello" out of car windows or using him as a walking dictionary. From there, here are a few of the juiciest tidbits:
Even if you’ve spent 40 years in Korea, married to a local, speak perfect Korean, don’t be too surprised when some ajosshi goes out of his way to shoulder-bump you as you come up the subway steps. It DOES NOT MATTER....In the minds of many native Koreans, even a gyopo isn’t a full-fledged Korean....As a source of relief we find our fellow foreigner. We meet up at [expat] bars... and read [expat] magazines... both of which separate us from the natives....
If there is one fair indictment of foreigners, it’s that learning-Korean part. A few noble exceptions notwithstanding, not too many waygooks pick up any more Korean than necessary. Why bother? ...At best, we’re patronized; at worst, we’re excluded from the rest of the story.
....It is quite possible, however, to live in Korea on your terms, learn about the culture, and embrace a new lifestyle. Just don’t expect the ‘open-arms’ treatment from the locals.
Now, the main problem I have with this article is very simple: It seems like Chris wants to have his cake and eat it too. He seems to want to be welcomed to Korea with open arms (or wants us to feel his pain and disappointment that he is not) while wanting to "do Korea" on his own terms... without learning the language ("why bother,") and without even letting go of the numerous stereotypes of Koreans he trots out in the course of the article (ajumma elbows, rude ajosshis, kids shouting hello, people asking inane questions, vomit-stained doorways). Do those stereotypes exist for a reason? Sure. That's always the first line of defens(iveness spoken). Are my chances of finding a real connection with a member of ANY group going to improve, if I hold onto the stereotypes of that group? Nope. And if I'm not even willing to meet them somewhere in the middle -- if it has to be on my terms? Strong nope.

Perhaps if Chris tried to meet Korea somewhere in the middle, and offered up more of the benefit of the doubt, he'd discover, as I'd venture some of us have, that Korea contains all types, including bigoted jerks who shove people on the stairs because they're foreigners, run-of-the-mill jerks who shove people on the stairs because they're in the way, people who say excuse me, people who don't want a non-Korean for an in-law, and people who would become a loyal friend (and buddy, Koreans are loyal to their friends until death), and even people who would happily become an in-law, to the right non-Korean. Perhaps Chris has discovered that (let's hope so!), but it didn't fit to say so in this article.

And finally... when he says "Not after...even a lifetime of living in Korea will this country fully accept me," I think Chris's attitude is a little defeatist - deciding not to meet Korea in the middle, or on its own terms, and then feeling alienated because Koreans don't accept one, therefore hunkering down and leaning into the expat enclave, is kind of a chicken-egg vicious cycle. I also think his expectations are a little unreasonable... especially in a country whose leaders used a one-blood myth to get the nation on board during the economic growth of the 60s and 70s, that didn't see a significant incursion of non-Koreans (other than GIs) until the English teaching boom of the 1990s and 2000s... and a country that's made tons of effort (not always in the right direction, but...) to accomodate the expats living here, since I came in 2003.

I don't know exactly what Chris means when he asks Korea to welcome him with open arms... though many Koreans might think that approaching him and asking him if he can eat spicy food, where he's from, and if he likes Korea (sorry, "rikes Korea" - because Koreans talk like Scooby Doo) does qualify as welcoming him -- contrast an approach, a smile, and some inane and utterly expected questions with refusing him service, abusing him on the bus, and ushering him out of the dance club if he approaches a Korean woman... which sometimes happens to expats in Korea, if they're brown. Not if they're white. *Update* Enough less, if they're white, that I'd be embarrassed to complain about the way Koreans treat me, in front of a South-Asian migrant worker. Go read the second last paragraph of this article by Bonojit Hussain. *End Update* 

In my opinion, Chris doesn't fully account for how much learning Korean improves the Korea experience, and it appears his experience here has suffered because of it. My Korean's no great shakes, but the responses I get for trying to speak Korean are way better than when I tried to "waygook" my way through situations, and I'm having more fun, too. My friend who's fluent in Korean? She gets so much love from the Koreans around her it's not even funny. Every Korean in her neighborhood seems to know her name sometimes. You wanna bet she's enjoying living there more than Chris is enjoying living in his neighborhood?

I don't ask Korea, as a nation in its entirety, to accept me. I don't know what that would look like, anyway, and my house isn't big enough for 50 million Christmas cards, and I don't need every Korean to shake my hand... I don't want every Korean to shake my hand. I'd settle for an open-arms welcome from my wife and her family, from enough friends to busy my Friday nights and give me quality company, from my boss and colleagues, and then for a continuation of efforts by policy makers and businesses to become more accommodating to expats and multicultural families, and their needs and their funny ID numbers and non-conventional documentation, and then for the rest of Korea to be OK enough with expats living in Korea that they leave me alone, and don't have a problem with their kids playing with my kid, don't have a problem with me living my own life in Korea. I'm not sure how much more would be fair to ask of a country.

So... that's my beef with Chris's post. I also agree with much of what Bobster says in his comment.
Hope he doesn't mind my response.

Some other issues were raised - particularly in the comments of Chris's post - about otherness, and about the way "other" often gathers into enclaves... but I'll deal with that in another post.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Handful of Links

1. Most important first:
Down in Gyeongsan Province (around Busan) there's someone who needs a liver transplant, as well as O negative blood (kinda rare).

Brian in Jeollanamdo has more, including links to, and information about giving blood in Korea.

2. There are a handful of other great blog posts on the Suneung, Korea's high school exam.
The Korean has translated part of it, so that you can test yourself.
The test was easier this year, reports The Seoul Patch. More on that from Seoul Patch.
Bathhouse Ballads writes about the Suneung.
Stupid Ugly Foreigner Weighs In

3. This is a year old, but it deserves to be brought up again: It's a cartoon series on Flickr called "The Successful Life" drawn (if I remember correctly) by an actual Korean student, about how the Korean hagwon (rearranged into "Nowgah" in the article) turns kids into drones.

4. And from Youtube: a very cute shot in the arm for the test-writers, from 2AM and 2PM, two of K-pop's top boy bands.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Defense of The 수능 (Sunneung) the Korean College Entrance Exam, and other Really Hard Tests

The 수능 happened last Thursday: Korea's much-maligned College Entrance Exam. Flight paths were diverted, parents stuck toffee on the gates of schools... and students, politicians and officials, and University presidents talked about how much they hate the test... yet it carries on.

BBC had this to say about Korea's big test. The always-worth-reading Tom Coyner wrote this about Korea's hyper-competitive atmosphere.

And on blogs, and around bar tables, the expats who teach love to rip on Korea's test culture. Heard around the echo chamber:
1. All the smart peepuhl isn't good at do the test.
2. Multiple choice questions test memorization, not umberstanding.
3. Teaching toward the test makes a education the one-dimensional.
4. Students focused on test scores and rankings don't develop teh creativitys
blah blah blah.

As for the social implications:
1. Tests make teh suicide because pressure, bad score, and TEST, you know, right?
2. Studying all the tests wastes years of Korea's young people's time, robbing society of other contributions they could be making.
3. It makes Korea at hyper-competitive! Hurr durr.
4. It are make the advantage to the wealthy, who can afford to send their kids to private schools.
5. Its because credential society, man! Eberybody's just want the statuses and the prestiges!
6. They don't want to be happy! Just to make their mom get all teh bragging rights.
7. Korean moms is psycho, man. My kid Jaehee? His mom? Let me tell you...

Yes, I'm making fun of these memes. Not because they aren't partially true, but because they're been bled right to death on the blogosphere (my own blog included), and around every foreigner bar table in Korea.

Koreans know the system isn't perfect: even the President is talking about how we need to stop discriminating against non-college graduates. Success is too narrowly defined here. Everybody agrees that it should become socially acceptable to be a plumber or a welder or a mason or a sushi chef...

But for now, when people say that, what they mean is it should totally be OK for somebody else's kid to be a welder or a mason or a sushi chef. My own kid? Well, he has lots of options, too: a doctor from SNU... or a lawyer from SNU... or a doctor from Korea University. Or a lawyer from Korea U. Or a doctor from Yonsei University. Or a lawyer from Yonsei. As you can see, the possibilities are multivariate!

And that seems to be where we're stuck right now.

Further reading: (Korea Herald series on "Credential Society") -Education-elitism  -Need for equal opportunities. -Privatize universities? -I honestly found these essays dissatisfying, but they'll familiarize you with the "credentialism" territory.

What's the Sunneung's role in this? (Warning: broad brushes ahead. I'm not an idiot, you're not an idiot, your mileage may vary, and all the usual qualifiers here. Reread paragraph five. Duh.)

Well, The Joshing Gnome, one of my favorite no-longer-publishing bloggers, wrote this a while ago about the tests.

Here are the most relevant paragraphs:
The Korean preoccupation with testing to me seems to serve one function first and foremost, before even its stated function of enabling meritocracy. The test serves as a (theoretically) objective measuring stick by which people can gauge one another’s worth. The system must necessarily be open.... Korean students spend the bulk of their educational career through high school studying for the suneung. The test is designed in such a way that its fairness is as unquestionable as possible. Needless to say that expensive private lessons are necessary to make top scores on the exam, although there is the potential for anyone, even the poorest student, to perform as well as their talent and studies permit them. Thus the exam is accepted as ‘fair’ on some level by the bulk of society. 
Multiple choice exams (though it's not all multiple choice now, is it?) have this going for them: you can run it through a scantron and no human needs to make a judgement call (which is then open to being disputed or questioned) at any point. That makes it "fair" insofar as it can be objectively proven that X correct answers is better than X correct answers minus one. And if everybody takes the test, and if everybody agrees on its importance and fairness, we can use it to rank people from highest to lowest.

(Side note: the multiple choice exam I took this spring for my MacroEconomics course has left me assured that a multiple choice question can be as hard as, even harder than, an essay question. Y'all who think multiple choice is necessarily only memorization have simply never come across a really devious multiple-choice question artist. Some multiple choice exams are purely memorizing... but they certainly don't have to be.)

More Joshing Gnome:
After the suneung is over the grades come out. ...the vast majority of students score what they expected to score. These scores determine what universities the students will be accepted to, which determines much of the rest of their lives. Most of these students, even those who are disappointed with their scores, will admit that they are primarily to blame for their scores. They didn’t study enough, or well enough, or the right things. Maybe they’ll blame their family’s financial circumstances to a certain degree, but there will always be some fishing village boy with a widowed mother who ends up at Seoul National because of his outstanding suneung score to prove that the test is not the problem, you are.
For the most part, working harder will result in a better score, and greater raw intelligence, amplified by more hard work, will result in a better score: the students going to Seoul National University are many of the smartest kids in Korea. I used to forget that during my mad rants. Some intelligences are harder to measure with a scantron than others, yes; some kids fall through the cracks (I probably would have)... but the scantron does measure intelligence plus diligence, and those who score well do deserve to go to a good university. Meanwhile, universities are adjusting their admission and recruiting criteria to reflect the fact tests aren't the only way to measure talent.
Yet the test sticks around, and others like it: the Korean Bar Exam, the Korean Civil Service Exam, and Public School Teacher Exam are other tests that feature incredibly low success rates, but continue to attract staggering numbers of applicants. They're once-a-year tests and people dedicate entire years of their lives studying for them, only to once again not be the one in forty-five, or sixty-five, or ninety, who passes.

So why haven't these tests been abolished? Couldn't we just do that?

Korea has a very long tradition of Very Important Tests that might determine your entire future, but I'm not accepting sheer inertia for why they keep them around. Not in a country that has totally, cataclysmically reinvented itself about five times since 1890. Not in the country where people donated ten tons of personal possessions made of gold, in two fucking days, to help pay down its IMF debt. Not in the country that butted its way into the world's top fifteen economies after being a third world shithole as recently as 1960. If this country, with these people, decided they'd had enough of the tests, buddy, they'd be gone. I really believe that. So why are people keeping them around?

They must serve a purpose.

Here's my theory as to that purpose:

The tests are part of the system that enables Korean society to be rigidly hierarchical, yet egalitarian, at the same time. And it's important to be both in South Korea - Korea's hierarchical: from verb endings to drinking culture, from the first five questions people ask when they meet someone, to who pays for lunch, to who lights their cigarette first at the table, to the brands of handbag, shoe, and phone you have, from top to bottom Korean life is cluttered with big and small negotiations for, and deferences to, status.

Yet because (South) Korea's a democracy now, it must have equal opportunities (or at least the appearance of equal opportunities) for people to determine their own place on the ladder of who pulls rank on whom. And if people get locked into an icky rung of society, the fact it's rigid, yet also egalitarian, means that people will allow the system to perpetuate, hoping on the off-chance that their kid will make good, and swing the upward mobility they themselves never managed, and get pegged in a rigid high circle, rather than a rigid low circle (at which point the parents' status improves by association). Without at least the illusion of upward mobility, without that teasing hope that their kid just might do well enough on the sunneung to qualify for SNU's Law School, there'd be another revolution. WITH the hope their kid will be the one who games the system, people are willing to tolerate the system.

The Korean, of Ask A Korean! writes about the sheer viciousness of competitive society in Korea -- the ruthless dogfight for success. But that success becomes harder to measure if there aren't absolute, universally recognized signifiers of success, and the test helps to set those benchmarks of status.

A ferrari is better than a porsche, which is better than a mercedes, which is better than a BMW, which is better than an Equus, which is better than a Chairman, which is better than an Audi, which is better than a KIA. Ask any Korean to name Korea's top three universities. Or top ten. Or seven best jobs. Or seven best restaurant chains. Ask ten Canadians, "What's a better job? Dental hygienist or flight attendant?" and you might get six of one, four of the other. Ask ten Koreans, you'll find a lot less variation. "What's a better job? Electrician or bank teller?"

If there is debate about what comes above and below what else, it becomes harder to flaunt my success. Or to brag about my kid's success, and lord my kids' success over my friends.

How bad is this jockeying for status? Did you know some Korean companies have been asking for applicants parents' jobs, to get a better grip of how to rank the person against other applicants? (Or perhaps to open the door for further nepotism and cronyism?)

Doctor, Lawyer, Professor, Diplomat.
are better than
Civil Servant, Public School Teacher, Chaebol employee, perhaps banker, Business owner
are better than
Medium or small sized company employee, small business owner
are better than
you get the picture...

These tests, and the status conferred by holding elite jobs that can only be procured through these impossibly hard tests, helps strengthen the matrix of status in which everyone fits somewhere.

But the genius of these tests is this:

because they're tests, anybody can take them, and anybody could be the one who passes. We don't talk about that a lot in the expat bars, but that's good.

The wealthy have more opportunity to take a year off and just study, but if you can find me a society where the wealthy don't have an advantage, I'll eat my hat. The test comes as close as you can get to eliminating the advantage the wealthy have in every other area, because even Chaebol Jr. has to take the test, sitting next to a Hayseed... or a Riceseed, I guess, from the rice paddy in Buttfuck Jeollado. And Riceseed might even beat out Chaebol Jr. -- the test is probably the only arena where those two are ever even remotely on a level playing field.

Chaebol Jr. could get streamlined into a sweet Chaebol gig, while young Riceseed's school, family, and connections would find him cut, but there's still prestige and honor to be had, if he can kick ass on a test.

(image source) No space on here for "do you know who my father is?"

If civil servant positions were chosen by interview and reference, I fear hiring practices would start resembling other sectors - 4:1 men to women being hired. But women are passing that test in equal, or higher numbers, than men. By sheer force of numbers, eventually that's going to change things in this country. Same with entry-level positions at law firms, where the bar exam, being gender-blind, gives women a fighting chance, and women are vastly outnumbering men on public school teaching jobs, which are nearly impossible to lose once you have one. Becoming a civil servant or public school teacher is one of the only careers a woman can have, where maternity leave is actually generous in Korea. And those jobs are highly respected in society. So if the Chaebol's still only hiring well-connected, handsome (did I mention the mandatory photo on job applications yet?) men who went to prestigious schools... to the study room!

The test ain't easy... but it creates a meritocracy, or at least the illusion of upward mobility, that there's a corner of Korean society where the rich and privileged can't change the rules to suit themselves and their heirs (at least not completely).

And that matters.

So the hierarchy stays in place, enabled by the supposed egalitarianism of the test system, so that everyone knows the rules to the system, so that Korean moms can compare everybody more easily, and so that even if I didn't achieve that upward mobility myself... I can dream that my kid might, and then I get to lord it over everybody in my sewing/screen golf circle. But I can only use those bragging privileges if the rigid hierarchy is in place, so they can't pull the rug on me by saying, "yeah, it's nice that your kid's an office drone in a world-class company... but have you seen the beautiful cabinets my son builds? I bet your son couldn't do that."

This is my hypothesis for now... it's untested, and in large part anecdotal - armchair anthropology at (its) best... so I'm looking forward to reading what people have to say in response to it. Tell me I'm wrong, but give me reasons I can think about.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Seoul/Korea: Pluses and Minuses

I've got a longer post on the Sunneung in the works... that would have been timely the day I started it, but, you know, baby.

In the meantime, here's a great post "If I Had A Minute To Spare" wrote, asking if Seoul belongs on the list of "best Asian cities for expats." The article looks at the good and bad, and, in my opinion, is worth your time, as is the blog.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Mosquitoes: In Case You Forgot the World Sucks Sometimes


Heres' the face Babyseyo made today when I kissed him on the cheek.
Photo on 2011-11-09 at 19.50

and you thought my blog would get cuter now that I had a baby.

But here's the reason for the title of this post: See those red dots?

No, he's not getting acne 13 years early. Those are mosquito bites, on my little baby's face. Wifeoseyo was muttering about  나쁜 모기 all morning that day. Mosquitoes are evil, friends. I am convinced that they were the first thing to come out of Pandora's box, that the first mosquito eggs dropped into a bit of stagnant water after Eve ate the forbidden fruit. And while it's wrong and cruel to kill some, perhaps many critters, I am convinced that mosquitoes exist outside of karma, and you're allowed to kill them without coming back as one in your next life.

The Dalai Lama told me so in a text message.

After spending a morning chasing a mosquito like Bill Murray and his gopher in Caddyshack, here's what I did:

I went to the old-style market nearest my house, and found the most cluttered-looking houseware shop -- the kind of place where you can buy dozens of containers and lids that don't match with any other container in your whole house.

Drew a picture of it, and got one of these.

Since then, I've been chasing mosquitoes around the house, swinging my magic battery operated bug zapper like Rafael Nadal, plus murder, and killing mosquitoes has never been so easy, or so fun. That electric crack when you know you got one? So, so, so satisfying.

4000 won without batteries. 6000 won with, and hours of useful fun.

Turns out burnt mosquitoes smell like burnt hair. Who knew.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Links here and there... and gross.

The discussion on sexism in the blogs was really interesting... I'll have more to say about it in another post -- I actually learned (or at least realized) some stuff from it.

Here are a few other links I've come by this week, and liked.

Once again, Stupid Ugly Foreigner has written a great post, this time about turning from a fresh-faced expat to a grizzled long-termer. How did I go so long before I found this blog?

The Diplomat on North Korea's Clumsy Assassins: They sure don't make Nork assassins like they used to.

Which is a great excuse to post this old propaganda video of North Korean army training. I've got to say, I love the clipped accents and cadences of North Koreans speaking English.

After Ms. Lee to Be's post about Konglish, and how English buzzwords get mangled into Korean business speak, because it sounds awesome sand, Yujin Is Huge has this post about the overdone bombast that is often the other way Korean self-important people (who might understand English, but don't understand how English is used) express themselves... in a way that uses our language, but into which we don't actually figure at all. Title: A world-class provider of world-leading pioneer technology that will remain competitive through fundamental adaptation to the paradigm shift.

And...  (warning: the following paragraphs contain opinion. If you are constitutionally opposed to the occasional gut reaction, do not read on. Look at this instead. Whoa.)

I went to Costco twice this week, once to get stuff, and once to return some of it... and I came across something that, honestly, grossed me out... as much as anything I've seen in my time in Korea.

As much as pigeons pecking at street pizza, as much as old men hocking loogies in the street... as much as middle-school girls hocking loogies in the street... I hadn't paid enough attention to notice it the last times I went to Costco, because I usually don't use the Costco restaurant, but on Monday I learned of the Costco Salad Bar.

What is the Costco Salad Bar?

Leave your dignity in your shopping cart.
Take a paper plate.
Go to the condiment table.
Grind the free onions into a small mountain in the middle of the plate.
Squirt a whole bunch of mustard on top of the onions.
Squirt between a little and a whole bunch of ketchup on there, too.
If you really feel fancy, squirt some of the sugar syrup meant for the coffee drinks on there, too.
If you ordered a hot dog, squeeze the pickle relish package in there, too.
Mix until it looks like chunky baby poop.
With fork, eat alongside whatever else you ordered.
Discard the uneaten 2/3, creating a disgusting mountain of wasted onions and mustard in the bottom of the compost can.
Ignore Costco employees watching you and performing facepalm after facepalm.
Leave dining area.
Collect dignity from shopping cart.
Resume ordinary life.

Image stolen from Zenkimchi.

Zenkimchi writes about it here: turns out this is not an isolated thing here in Korea. At the Costco I went to, about 30-55% of the tables had a Costco salad on one of the plates.

Normally, I just avoid the stuff I don't like or think is gross. I won't tell people not to eat this or that animal, or salad swimming in dressing, or the shredded cabbage/ketchup/mayonnaise gunk that was a side dish to the fantastic spit-roasted chicken at this place I used to go to. Avert the eyes, don't eat it, no sweat. but at least it was clear that's how you're supposed to eat the mayonnaise ketchup stuff, where Costco Salad reeks of "Hey! Free stuff!" (see also the equally classy Salad Bar Tower) -- both expressions of the same impulse that leads old ladies to bring ziplock bags to buffets, and stuff free plastic forks in their purse, and bend and twist the intended uses of things, just to maximize their exploitation of somebody's generosity in providing it for free.

Zenkimchi even posits an explanation, and manages to applaud the creativity -- fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Koreans gotta have banchan, and will find a way, you know. Intellectually, I acknowledge this, but it was still just too much for me. Next time I need a Costco hotdog, I'm bringing a blindfold.

Maybe because it looked like the baby poo that's become a major part of my life rhythm? Anyway, I'm willing to look for the reason and sense behind most things, to seek out a perspective and a context. But this one just grossed me out, still does, and I'll be setting up a mental block instead. Yech.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Pick one: Healthy or Foreign. A Korean Food Lament


not long ago, to my dismay, a product began to vanish from my ken. It's not a big deal, cosmically speaking, but it had brought a lot of happiness to me.

Soy ice cream. Of the Purely Decadent kind. (image from linked page)
First it was available at a health food store near my old home by Anguk Station. Then I found it at Lotte Department Store, and for a few glorious years, I could get it at Family Mart, but recently it's vanished from all three places.

Why was this a loss? Because I'm allergic to milk, so I can't eat regular ice cream... unless I want to be very unpopular, in a Pumbaa sort of way.

And this has gotten me thinking: one of the funny puzzles of living, and eating in Korea, is the Korean attitude toward healthy, and foreign, food... as if the two were mutually exclusive. Wherever it came from, and exactly how overblown this attitude is, is up for debate, but there's a funny thing that happens when non-Korean foods come to Korea.

Paragraph 5:
And just to assure any readers that I'm not a ranting furriner making wild and unsupported generalizations... I'm well aware these are generalizations, they are not true in every case, or of every Korean, and it is certainly, certainly true, that the attitudes/paradoxes I discuss here are much less universal, and/or much less extreme than they used to be. So un-jerk that kneejerk. I'm not trying to be a straight hater, but now that I've made my qualifications, please take this paragraph and apply it to the whole article: the hedging and qualifying statements get tiresome. So if you get upset about generalizations, kindly substitute "some Koreans" or "many Koreans" wherever I say "Koreans" (or name any other group) and settle down.

Koreans like to take a lot of pride in how healthy Korean food is. We all know this: my first year in Korea, it became a running joke among me and my friends that every Korean food was either "healthy" or "good for man" because my boss in particular, and also a whole bunch of other proud Korea promoters made those claims, again and again and again.

And perhaps the "Korean food is healthy" boast is kind of like "Korea has four seasons," in that all thinking Koreans realize that Korean is not the only cuisine in the world with healthful properties (or the whole world would either eat it, or have slowly died out/succumbed to the healthier, stronger Korean/Korean food-eating invaders, at some point in history), it just seems like Koreans think Korean is the only healthy Korean food, because they haven't really been instructed on the health benefits of other cuisines, have no reason to talk about that with foreigners anyway (let's not forget that many of the conversations Anglophones have with Koreans are colored, at least a little, by an intent to represent Korean culture positively to the non-Koreans), and have reinforced images of other cuisines formed by focusing on the least healthful aspects of those cuisines (in order to contrast with Korean food and make Korean food look better). I've heard so many times from my Korean friends and colleagues that Chinese food is too greasy, and it is... if you choose to focus on the greasy Chinese foods. If you focus on grilled meat, barbeque chicken and pig skins, Korean food comes across pretty greasy too.

Pig skin. Lookin' healthy.

Japanese is bland, sez some Koreans. You know what else is bland? Juk. And nurungji. If you contrast ssamjjang with sushi, yeah, Japanese is bland. If you contrast teriyaki or yakitori with clam jjuk, Korean food sure is bland, isn't it?

So let's just acknowledge that every cuisine in the world can be healthy or unhealthy, greasy or plain, savory or bland, depending on your choices. Green salads and sandwiches made with whole grain breads? American food is healthy. Big Mac sets and deep dish pizza? American food is unhealthy. Soups, bibimbaps, seasonal fruits and vegetables? Korean food is healthy. Barbequed and/or deep-fried animal parts with soju and a side of ddeokbokki ramen? Korean food is unhealthy. Let's not be simple-minded.

One of the things that's puzzled me the most about Korean preferences in food is, for a country and a people so interested and concerned about the healthful properties of their native cuisine, how unhealthy, and sometimes just awful their taste in foreign foods are. And not only are the tastes in non-Korean food awful and quite unhealthy, the real baffler is that there often seems to be little to no interest in even knowing about the healthier alternatives. (go reread paragraph 5)

For example: my soy ice cream. It's hella good stuff. In fact, it's almost as good as real ice cream... but it tastes only a little less rich, while having waaaay less fat and fewer calories. For a country where I've watched people pay eighty dollars for a medium sized box of mushrooms because they're the healthiest kind, for a country where one of the most famous duty free must-buy items is boxes of super-expensive red ginseng, famed for its health properties, you'd think soy ice cream would be a no-brainer to catch on!

But it's disappeared instead.

For another one: what about soy milk in coffee drinks? (tipping my milk allergy bias here) It's less fatty, has fewer calories, and (if you use the right kind of soy milk), doesn't make the drink taste like beans (warning: don't try using any old supermarket soy milk in your macchiato. Some of them make for weird tasting lattes). But especially in Asia, where there are a lot of lactose intolerant people, it seems really odd that Starbucks is the only chain I've found that offers soy as a substitute in milkish drinks.

This post was prompted by my disappointing visit to coldstone creamery, which used to have raspberry and lemon sorbets among the flavor choices: two things I could eat, and now they are off the menu. Argue that it's the simple realities of supply and demand, but that simply reiterates the vital question: why is the demand so low?

In the country where your mother-in-law will nearly force-feed you foul tasting side dishes because they're healthy, and pay sky-high prices for ingredients or medicines that are healthy...

(Songi mushrooms: can be costly)

Why aren't really good (more healthful) breads more popular in Korea? I mean, they're more popular now than ever before, and it's miles better than 2003 when I got here, when the choices were wonderbread, wonderbread, and imitation wonderbread, but Korean sandwich places like Joe Sandwich  and Isaac Toast still don't even offer a whole grain option, and you'd think that healthy option would go over well here.

Why aren't low-fat drinks, ice creams and soy substitutes more popular, and more available, in a country that gives so very many damns about looking good, and where being thin is so important?

My theory? When Koreans are looking for healthy food, they go Korean. And because Korean is always the go-to healthy choice, notKorean is what people go for when they're not interested in healthy - perhaps to treat themselves, or try something exotic, or to get a stopgap snack between real meals. And if you're looking to get through to dinnertime, or to sample strange flavors, or to feel a little luxurious, the healthy option is moot.

And that's too bad, simply because a good sandwich on a real substantial bread, for example, is a real treat, and once Koreans get a taste for it, I think it'll catch on (as is happening now). What's available in Itaewon now is better than has ever been before, and what's available outside of Itaewon is better than ever before.

What it means is we have our little "chicken-and-egg" vicious cycle, though, where (as in music) the foreign foods that catch on here are almost invariably the sweetest, least healthy ones (belgian waffles, anyone? Abba?)... and then just to make sure everybody's clear it's "Western" food, any possible healthful aspect of the food is removed -- how many brunch places in Seoul have whole wheat, or multigrain pancakes? Or how many of the "brunch" places have museli on the menu (which was on almost every breakfast menu when I traveled around china: even some of the smaller towns), but Museli is far too healthy to convince people they're living it up like the sex and the city girls. So people develop that image of Western food in their minds, and then only go for Western food when that's what they want -- meaning the market only demands it, so providers only provide it, so that image of Western food further crystalizes.

(Museli picture source)

And that's where sweet garlic bread comes from, boys and girls (either that, or it came free with the original pizza, I guess). And innocent-looking bread products stuffed with whipping cream.

And will Koreans ever turn their noses up to things like sweet garlic bread, sandwiches with shredded cabbage on them, and truly unexpected pizza toppings? Perhaps. Given the fondness here for foreign cars, clothes, handbags, and everything other than products that directly compete with Samsung, it's a reasonable prediction that the trend will continue, for more authentic, or just better quality, foreign products to keep growing in popularity (see: vast improvements in the breads, beers, coffees, cheeses, organic foods and home cooking materials available here) -- and even that eventually, people will develop a nose for quality, and not just look at the price tag (whiskey). If Korea can go from coffee straws to hand-drips from 2006 to 2011, I won't put it past Korea to move beyond sugar garlic bread, Isaac Toast, and Joe Sandwich as well.

And you know what? As long as I can get a good sandwich on real bread, I don't really care if other people like their Joe Sandwich and their sugar garlic bread -- it doesn't take long to figure out which restaurants and shops are serving the real deal and which aren't.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

My Halloween Costume

It was a laid back Halloween this year for me.

Having a new baby will do that. Other than seeing a kid dressed up as a cow, and, during a trip around town, seeing about 4000 young people dressed as K-pop stars (though that might have just been their ordinary daily dress), I celebrated Halloween at home with my family.

Babyseyo and I dressed up as each other.


My babyseyo mask didn't fit all that well, and babyseyo had trouble drinking from a bottle through the Roboseyo mask, so he didn't wear it for very long. But still...

It was awesome.