Monday, June 29, 2009

Pros and Cons

Now that I've spent a couple weeks in Korea, I feel secure in judging all aspects of Korean culture that I've encountered. In fact, I'll take it a step further and just go ahead and judge all aspects of Korean culture whether I encountered it, generalized it from the actions of an isolated individual or just completely made it up. With this in mind, I present a brief list of positive and negative aspects of living in Korea.

+ The Korean Coffee Education Society. The other day while I stood in line for my copy americano (there is no 'f' sound in Korean. This receives neutral ranking in my book) I noticed a certificate proclaiming the girl making my coffee to be a level 2 barista as certified by the Korean Coffee Education Society. I can only assume that this certificate is akin to a B.A. in Liberal Arts in the states and commend Korea for going ahead and calling a spade a spade.

- Maids. Oh sure, it sounds like nice idea to have someone come and clean your room everyday. Except when your room is a small dorm room and you don't really have anything in there anyway and all they apparently do is make the bed. Not that I really object to the bed being made. Whatever. The problem is that they also insist on opening the window and letting hordes of mosquitoes in the room. I have no idea why they open the window, it's god awful hot and humid outside. And the screens, which they generally do leave closed have a bunch of holes lining them (not old and falling apart, the holes are cut into the metal frame), thus defeating the purpose of a screen.

+ Chicken and Hof. I'm not really sure why chicken and hof (seems to classify drinking places that offer a small selection of food as opposed to straight up bars or restaurants) is better than wing places back in the states, but it is. Chicken and Hof will ensure I don't lose weight in Korea.

- Long pants. I suppose as far as dress codes go, just requiring long pants isn't the worst thing in worl. But, as mentioned above, it's freaking hot and humid here. And while there is air conditioning inside, it seems to struggle with overcoming the heat produced by the 5 to 1 ratio of large electronics to people in my office. Oh, and I only brought 2 pairs of pants. 1 being dressy and reserved for such necessary occasions, the other being a pair of jeans that apparently have begun to disintegrate. Both knees are totally gone and holes are forming in low stress along my thigh and other low stress locations. The jeans are falling apart enough that I feel retarded wearing them (more b/c I'm afraid people will think I'm trying to be stylish than b/c I care that you can see my boxers, but whatever), otherwise this would've been a perfect opportunity to try and break my personal record of 1 month in 1 unwashed pair of pants set back in May.

+ Traditional Markets. Undoubtedly much to the relief of my family, I have purchased new pants since being here. Two pair for under $30 thanks to haggling at the market. I thought I entirely loathed shopping. Turns out, I just hate malls and department stores. If you set your clothes on a table in the street right next to a guy selling mutilated pig parts, I'm all about it.

- No drinks at meals. I'm working on making my peace with spicy food. I don't know that I'll ever enjoy it, but I have a feeling I'll tolerate it by the time I'm out of here. That said, I don't think I'll ever understand the 'not having anything to drink while you eat spicy food' idea. This mostly applies to the cafeteria, since I think all the restaurants have provided water, but it's still strange. On the way out of the cafeteria is a pile of cups and water faucets. It's weird.

+ Healthy food. Actually, I don't really buy it all, but it seems like the whole country has collectively decided that everything they eat is healthy. Kimchi makes you immune to Sars and the Swine flue (though they still were checking all temperatures exiting the plane and quarantining people w/ symptoms). Chicken Ginseng soup has been studied by Korean ancestors to raise the dead or something. And this isn't an isolated, quirky thing. Many times, by many people, random crap is recommended under the guise of health. Last night I was offered some bark shavings b/c it was 'good for health'. Awesome.

- Urinals. For some reason urinals don't like me here. They just keep flushing. Like 3 or 4 times while I'm standing there. This doesn't seem to happen to other people. It is the greatest mystery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


As previously chronicled, after a long first week I was in need of a solid weekend to salvage my second impression of Korea. As luck would have it, Cannytrophic coworker Zoz was also in Seoul, allowing us to continue our search for the ideal location for Cannytrophic's pending Asia branch.

The global intern posse had a scheduled trip into Seoul to explore the modern parts. Despite Friday night's liberation celebration, I was on the bus at 8:40, feeling only slightly worse for the wear. Our first stop was the Coex mall, an underground tribute to consumerism and Korea's 17th century victory* over the mole people who originally inhabited the peninsula. Not particularly exciting, but I did eat at a Pizza Hut and the pizza did have sweet potato around the outside and can now definitively state that sweet potato does not belong on pizza.

After that we went somewhere with upscale shopping, then to some other market. But again, nice places with many shops that I recognized, not the cool places with questionable goods and socks with Korean celebrities on them.

Lastly, the intern posse headed to Itaewon to check out Seoul's gaijin (there is a Korean word for this, but I forgot it and kinda like gaijin anyway) outpost. The intern posse headed back for Suwon and I remained in Itaewon to meet up w/ Zoz and his expat associates.

Thunder, a former MITer now in his 4th year in Korea, was our guide through Itaewon which ranges from quite nice to quite seedy in a pretty small area. Also, while I certainly don't want to denigrate the entire expat community, I can understand why Korean's have a negative few of the 'dirty foreigners'. Let's just say, if I wind up 50 and hitting on young girls in Itaewon, I won't be impressed. Still, I'd take Itaewon over Roppongi in a heartbeat. Highlights included an interesting bar filled with swings and sand to dinner overlooking a tranny cafe. To which I note, from a distance they are frighteningly convincing, closer up, just kind of frightening.

But the real scene stealer from the night in Itaewon was Champ. Late in the night, we stopped at one of the small food stands that line the streets. Basically it's a grill with tables and bench seats on 3 sides of it. The rain had stopped and it seemed a nice, cheap place to wrap up the night. Our group of 5 was split with 3 on the front bench and myself and 'Sarah' sitting on a smaller side bench. All is going fine when up staggers Champ and plops down next to me.

Champ orders a beer, announces that he is Korean and then rambles in Korean. We stare at him. Our puzzled stares and English replies do not dissuade Champ. He reiterates that he is Korean, apparently expecting this to give us the ability to understand him. This repeats several times, often with Champ reaching over me to shake/try to kiss 'Sarah''s hand. Sarah is not a fan. But, Champ is not dissuaded. No, he is Korean and he is a champ.

Thunder points out that we were rude not to introduce ourselves to Champ. We do so, which Champ understands well enough to show us an ID w/ his name on it. It is at this point that I inform Champ that his English name will henceforth be Champ. I write it on a scrap of paper and he puts it in his wallet with his ID. He then lapses back into rambling Korean and creeping out Sarah.

I decide that since Champ has no problem with carrying on a one way conversation, I will return the favor and begin discussing the new Transformers movie with Champ. There is a brief moment of recognition as Champ seems to have heard of Transformers or at least recognize my high quality sound effects. Champ also recognizes if I let obscenities slip and gets unduly excited. Like, crap, what have I unleashed, excited.

The amusement of this situation begins to wear thin as Champ begins gesture at me and himself in what I can only assume is concern as to whether I regularly check for testicular cancer. He also gets more aggressive in his quest to kiss Sarah's hand. He jokingly(?) hits me in the shoulder, which sobers me up pretty quickly. Not b/c it was particularly threatening (he immediately apologized), but the whole scenario seemed to be trending in the wrong direction.

We decided it was time to go. As we start to get up, Champ hops up and saunters down the street. We sit back down to finish our food/drinks, thinking he was gone. Nope, Champ just had to piss. In the middle of the street. Because he's Champ. Fortunately, when he returned, the lady running the food stand and her son ran him off (though I think Thunder might have offered/been coerced into paying for Champ's beers as part of the bargain).

All in all, it made for an entertaining evening augmented even more by a new appreciation of being free.

*This may not be entirely historically accurate, but I can't imagine why there would be so many underground shopping areas if they were not taken from the mole people.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Unpleasant Week

Let's say you're a company looking to recruit more international employees. Let's also say you've got a batch who've made it through the interview proccess and have agreed to spend the summer as an intern to get a feel for the place and vice/versa. What would be the best way to welcome such a group?

I don't know, but what isn't the best way is to imprison them in a dorm, quarantine their electronic devices and hand out poorly translated rules that are contradictory and/or nonsensical. But what do I know?

I'll admit this seems like a bit of a harsh judment (largely in light of my enjoyable weekend which should be described soon enough), but had I written this around 6PM last Friday, I'd have probably been much more critical.

The biggest problem was that our security badges were not available/active until Wednesday night. Since the dorms are located w/in the secured complex, this meant we couldn't enter without an HR escort, effectively imprisoning us inside the complex. So, fine, we have to stay put. Oh, but wait, external electronics are a security threat, so no personal computers. So no skype, or any phones (we did get cell phones by the end of the week). And on top of the security at the gate checking us, there's additional security at the dorm. Where we have to sign in when we enter. Presumably this additional security is to ensure that we do not 'disturb public moral' and that we're not 'drunken'. Never mind that we were taken out for drinks our first night and warned during orientation that it is common Korean business practice to frequently go out drinking with coworkers and that sometimes this might last past midnight if karaoke gets involved. Also no food in the dorm (there's no kitchen). I haven't been this locked down since I was locked away at the academy in high school. Also there was the rule about being in the dorm by 11pm and that we had to stay until 11pm. Some mistranslated nonsense. Which we signed. In addition to the Korean version that had 4 additional bullet points that they decided we didn't need to know about.

Combine this with the jetlag from only arriving the night before and a week of going 8am-6pm of orientation and just the general adjustment period of being in Asia again and I was sick of being accomodating by Friday and just wanted to be free to go wherever and do whatever (turns out whatever involved tequila).

But enough ranting. I actually feel kind of bad for the HR guy in charge of us. He's clearly stressed about the whole situation and is working to get things resolved (most of which has been done). The dinner Monday night was highly entertaining, complete with drunk/angry guy busting into our private room and throwing a fit. I'm not sure if our dinner hosts or the restaurant staff was more embarrassed, but the profuse apologies all around were as amusing as the guy.

And the most important corrections (the 11pm curfew and 'no staying out overnight' rule) were resolved in time for the weekend. Actually, we were questioned when we rolled in at 4am Friday night/Saturday morning. I gathered that the security guy was concerned that we missed the 11pm curfew, but his lack of English and my utter lack of concern resolved the matter quickly enough. He later approached while I was making the last entry and asked something about if I had had a lot to drink. I said yes and he seemed satisfied.

It still seems that the security guards like to stare at me, but they just bow politely when I look back, so I guess everything's ok.

Either way, I'm optimistic that the work I'll be doing will be interesting and if my first weekend is any indication, Korea should be an entertaining time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Famous Black Hat

It's 4:44 in the morning. The middle of June. I'm writing you now, just to see if you're reading.

Suwon is hot, I don't like where I'm living. There's security down the street all through the evening.

I hear that you're living, your little life, deep in America. You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record. Yes, and they came by with a whiff of free air. They said that I signed it away. That night that I agreed to come here.

Why did I ever come here?

Oh the last time I saw you, it was so much better. Those middling KC Royals were beating the Reds. We'd been in the parking lot since 5:15 and you went home with out saying my name.

And I was subjected, on the flight, to Paul Blart, the Mall Cop. And when it was over, I wanted to gouge out my eyes. Well, I see you there with a beer in your hand. One more cheers, not for me. Well, I see security's awake. He says I must stop.

And what can I tell you, my readers, my followers, what can I possibly say? I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you, I wish you'd stood in my way.

If you ever come by here... for Suwon or for me, well your enemy is sleeping ...but his spirit is free, yeah. and thanks, for the comments you left behind. I read them all, seriously, though I didn't reply.

And they came by with a whiff of free air. They said that I signed it away. That night that I agreed to come here.

B Taylor

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Return to Seoul

A month and a half after my first visit, I'm back in Seoul. Flight was uneventful, if rather long and boring. I unfortunately slept through Paul Blart: Mall Cop or whatever that crappy-looking movie is called.

I'm in a hotel in the Gangnam area. It's a bit more lively around here than where I stayed for the weekend in May.

I was able to make it through the inspection process to weed out dirty foreigners infected with pig flus at the airport and got a solid dose of Seoul traffic on the bus ride in from the airport. It was about 6 when I got checked in and showered. I was starving and went wandering around. Many choices in the area.

Got some Korean bbq. The menu was not english, so I ordered a chunk of pork to eat. The server asked me how many I wanted. Having a limited supply of wons I stuck with 1 order, but was then suspicious as too how much food I would get. A couple times in Japan I had a problem with unwittingly going to a nicer place where you're supposed to order different courses and getting not enough to eat b/c I only order one thing. This was not the case here. In fact, I was barely able to eat all of one order of pork and maybe half the sides. They must have just assumed that as an American, my stomach is a black hole which no amount of food can satiate.

As soon as a bit of food was in my stomach, I was about ready to pass out at the table. I'm back at the rocking business center in my hotel trying to stay awake for a little while long. Seems like 8pm is a bit early for sleep. Actually it sounds kinda like a good idea, I'm just not sure if I'll sleep through the night if I crash now.

Got to be up and around at 7 or so to catch the bus to head off and begin my indoctrination. Not sure how much blogging I'll get done as the complex is discouraging personal computers (and wouldn't let you access the internet with them anyway) for security reasons. So we'll see. Either way, as of now I'm here and alive. So that's a decent start to things.