Category Archives: Korean Sojourns


She’s not my student—she’s my friend—and she attends one of the better middle schools in Beautiful Gyeongju. During our last conversation she revealed that one of her teachers punishes her students by, first, holding her fingers almost like a long-nailed vampire or ghoul, and, second, by raking them against the asscheeks of her disobedient pupils. She whacked one such student several times with a meterstick or a pointer or something, and he was so badly hurt he had to go to the hospital, telling my friend that his behind was covered with black and blue welts.

They’re usually punished, physically, for not doing their homework.

One other teacher at this proverbial good school, who teaches Home Economics, is also remarkable: she apparently comes to class, tells the students she doesn’t feel like teaching them, and then walks out, leaving them to their own devices. On the rare occasion when she does actually stay in the classroom, she spends her time quietly organizing the contents of her purse.


The Story Of Gertrude Berg's Great Grandson...

The Story Of Gertrude Berg’s Great Grandson…

...Living In Korea

…Living In Korea

Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

But I was inspired to return briefly to my defunct website to describe an encounter I just had at a restaurant with my two-year-old son as well as a family of Koreans, who sat down across from us and commenced to parrot everything I said in English while simultaneously commenting, in Korean, on what my son and I were doing. I told my son to have some rice in English, and the boy across from us told his father the same thing in the same language, explaining that it meant 밥 먹어라 in Korean. His father went on to say “habbuh some lie-ssuh” about thirty times to the rest of his family, who were all very much amused by his antics. My son then lifted up a fork to eat the rest of his rice. This is strange in Korea, where people only use steel spoons and chopsticks to eat Korean food, forks and knives being reserved for unhealthy and barbarous western cuisine. When I heard the boy across from us say “pokkuh” with surprise and amusement, I looked up at him and his family—for the first time—and discovered that they were all staring at us and smiling.

I couldn’t resist. I berated them, in Korean, for treating us like zoo animals. I know I conjugated my verbs politely, but the emotion inside of me was so strong that I can barely remember what I said. I can remember seeing those amazing smiles of theirs—those “The Foreigner Is Going To Amuse Us” smiles—fade into extremely awkward and stilted “We Don’t Know What To Do” smiles as I said something like, “Is this funny? Is this funny? If you went to America, and spoke Korean, and heard people speaking Korean around you, you would feel bad. For us, we feel bad. It’s not funny.”

Simplistic it is, and I may not have even gotten that much across. Who knows. But it did shut them up. I addressed all of them, as well, looking mother and father and older brother and younger brother straight in the eyes, and they were so surprised they said nothing back. When I finally glanced down to my son, who was still eating white rice with his fork as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all, they were still smiling at me like mannequins. It was spectacular. I told my son to finish up, and actually started laughing with him. We paid, thanked the restaurant’s owner as politely as we could, and walked out.

Maybe I would have let it go if they had done the same thing to me before yesterday, when I suspect one of my college students pretended to ddong-chim me for the amusement his friends. I only saw him do so out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not even really sure that’s what he was doing to begin with, but I didn’t yell at him for it—I let it go, actually, when I should have flung him out of the classroom, and because I let it go, the anger seethed inside me, twisting in my gut like a knife for the rest of the day, through the night, and all the way into this afternoon. I regretted my restraint, and I will probably wind up yelling at him in the next class we have together.

But as a result of this restraint and subsequent regret I decided to unleash the fury of my silver Korean tongue, my second soul, at the exact moment I encountered a fresh instance of barbarism that was not only directed toward me, but toward my son. Some readers may think I was less than diplomatic, but seriously, they were talking about us as if we were zoo animals—they were insulting us, right in front of us, as if we didn’t care. I mean, who does that? Who goes to a restaurant—which was otherwise empty, by the way—and starts talking about the people sitting right next to them as if they’re an exhibit in a museum? Who does that, and then smiles pleasantly, as if the people on display don’t care—as if those people enjoy being dehumanized? I shouldn’t have said anything, honestly. What I should have done was pull a Klaus Kinski. I should have picked up my bowl of hot soup and flung it at the boy’s father and said HAVE SOME RICE!

On a related note, last night, a boy came up to me while I was trying without much success to remember the passcode required to get inside a massive apartment building, where one of my students was waiting for me. I was several minutes late and feeling extremely frustrated. He walked up to me, and said, in English, “where are you from?” Without looking at him and also without thinking I said “your mom”. He said, “your home?” And I said, “no, your mom.” He stopped talking to me after that. I then remembered the passcode and got inside.

One more slightly related story. Another blogger has recently related a complaint about Korea’s four-thousand-year history. An older Korean in-law came up to him and said, “did you know Korea has a four-thousand-year history?” or something like that, and it made this blogger feel bad. I found this encounter interesting for numerous reasons, one of those being that a friend from Hampshire engaged in a rather epic battle with a Korean nationalist to remove that exact same [ridiculous] claim from wikipedia’s History of Korea page.

I told my (Korean) wife about this encounter, testing her to see if she would make the bogus claim that Korea is the oldest country on Earth, and she had the presence of mind to say “everyone has a four-thousand-year history”, or something to that effect. And for most of my readers, particularly those reading from beyond the half-peninsula’s shores, that is a truism, but inside Korea it really is possible to encounter people who believe that they could go four thousand years back in time and talk with their ancestors in modern Korean about the scientific wonders of Hangul and the spectacular beauty of 우리 나라 Dokdo over a bowl of spicy kimchi stew.

Now, in four years of dwelling in Korea, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who believe these things. One was a random retired schoolteacher. Another was kind of crazy, and introduced himself to me by declaring that an American soldier had killed his grandmother. A third was my mother-in-law, who said that Korean scenery is the most beautiful in the world (my wife corrected her and said that other places are much more beautiful, but why does there even have to be a contest? Parts of Korea are beautiful, parts of the rest of the world are beautiful, everything is wonderful). That’s it. For the rest of the hundreds or even thousands of people I’ve spoken to, these issues have not come up.

But, on the off-chance that someone does come up to you and decides to pick a fight by saying “my country is older than yours” or “my alphabet is prettier than yours”, I recommend fighting them back. I won’t speculate as to why these people act this way, but I do know that by simply nodding and smiling and saying wow, that’s interesting, they aren’t going to stop. That family I berated, for instance, will probably think twice about discussing other foreigners as if they are zoo animals in the future…although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the exact same thing again in the exact same place and got yelled at in the exact same way, only to ask themselves, “why are these foreigners such assholes?”

First, the claim that Korea is four thousand or five thousand years old or whatever is based on a text called the Samguk Yusa which was written seven hundred years ago. This text does say that an ancient Korean dynasty was founded a long way back, but in the same breath as saying that its founder, Dangun, came out of the sky, talked to bears and tigers, and invented medicine. Thus!, telling people that Korea is older than [insert country here] because it was founded by Dangun is really no different from saying that Greece was founded by Zeus or that England was founded by a dragonslayer named Beowulf or that Iraq was founded by Gilgamesh. Ancient civilizations were present in all of these places, just as they were present throughout much of the rest of the world—some were hunting deer, others were building pyramids, why is one better than the other?—and there is some historical basis for these myths, but can we really trace a direct link between our world and theirs? Would anyone from that period of history feel comfortable or at home in ours? Would anyone from our period feel comfortable or at home in theirs? Why do we then claim them as our own? Why, also, do we sometimes associate ourselves with sports teams made up of muscular men who want nothing to do with us? And why do I see colors when I rub my eyes?

Second, the claim that Hangul, the Korean script, is scientific. It is not a myth. People do say this. I’ve asked them what they mean when they do, and they immediately say “I have no idea.” I’m not really sure what they mean by scientific—what hypothesis is the written language testing or proving?—but there is a direct link between certain letters of Hangul as well as certain letters of the Roman alphabet, so if Hangul is scientific, the Roman alphabet is scientific too (even if these letters descended from arbitrary Egyptian hieroglyphics). The letter ㅂ looks and sounds like a B; the letter ㅋ looks and sounds like a K; the letter ㄴ is sometimes pronounced as an L; the letter ㅣ is sometimes pronounced as an i; the letter ㅍ looks and sounds like the Greek equivalent π. Other letters resemble one another: ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄹ are all fairly familiar-looking to Westerners who know nothing about Hangul. So if someone comes up to you and says Hangul is scientific, you can say, hey, great, my alphabet is scientific, too!

A final note. The first paragraph I wrote here implies that I am desperate to leave Korea. And, to tell you the truth, when I find myself walking around the trash-strewn streets of Gyeongju with my son, I can’t help but feel ashamed. I’m like, really, Ian? This is the best you can do? You’re going to raise your son in a place that smells like diarrhea? When your parents raised you around Park Slope and Acadia National Park? Don’t get me wrong. I like Korea. I speak Korean. I’ve married a Korean person. I have a great relationship with her parents. She has a great relationship with mine. My son is half-Korean. I thoroughly enjoy my job at a university in Korea. But when I think of my son walking around these mountains of garbage, bent over multiple-choice exams in a hagwon at twelve in the morning, listening to yet another group of idiots say hello to him in English, I can’t help but consider that a failure. I can’t help but feeling to the depth of my soul that I am capable of more. We’re getting out of here. He’s going to live in a place that treats him like a human being. America has its problems, but jesus christ, as least the kid can go outside. And my insane hope to break free from all of this insanity is to write a book that people actually read. Or to just get a decent job.

I will escape, one day, and you’ll read about it here, when I do. Then these ridiculous stories about zoo animals in restaurants will end forever.

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Rules For The Korean Road

1. Pedal to the metal at all times. Even before you start the engine. Even when you are outside of the car, you should leave a brick on the gas pedal, because speed makes men stronger.
2. If you drive an expensive-looking black car, it’s okay to run over children and old ladies. In fact, the police will fine you if you don’t.
3. Honk like you’re getting paid for it. Install fake police sirens to help convince other ( = lesser) people that you are in charge and know how to deal with every situation far better than they do.
4. Since signaling causes you to lose face by revealing your intentions to your enemies, don’t signal, unless it’s a fake-out.
5. Fill up your tank with paint thinner and then bribe the mechanic to write a fraudulent insurance form once the car inevitably breaks down to win.
6. U-turns should only be attempted when the other side of the road is heavily congested with rapidly-moving traffic and old people pushing carts piled high with cardboard. Honk for safety.
7. Park anywhere except designated parking areas. The corners of busy intersections are the best, as are sidewalks.
8. Roll down your windows and throw compost, feces, and empty soju bottles at the police, since they can’t do anything about it. To ensure their compliance, wear a realistic-looking mask of an old Asian man.
9. If you’re driving a huge tractor trailer, don’t worry about tying anything down in the back, since things will probably be alright, and if they aren’t, you can always fake a serious injury and blame your enemies, especially if they don’t have a camera installed in their car. Also: tie up your dog in the bed of your pickup truck and leave him or her there all day and all night for his or her entire life, and enjoy the fact that no one will ever criticize you for doing so.
10. If you wear a seatbelt, you are a signaling a distrust of your own immense driving prowess to your passengers and the other drivers on the road, who will immediately exploit your weakness.
11. Drive away quickly, swerving and honking, if (when) you run someone over.
12. Cutting off other drivers is okay because you are more important.
13. Destroy all bikers.
14. Stoplights are only for little people (red is the new green).
15. DO drink and drive.
16. Carseats and seatbelts make children uncomfortable, and since their comfort is more important than their lives, don’t worry about using such newfangled foreign contraptions when you drive.
17. There are no colors except black, white, and gray.
18. Turn off your lights at night, roll up your windows inside tunnels, and use a small Jesus / Buddha figurine attached to the dashboard to ensure safety.


George Orwell Sounds A Lot Like A North Korean (In Korean)

그러면 우리는 무엇을 해야 되겠읍니까? 그것은 밤낮 없이 몸과 마음을 다하여 인류의 타도에 힘쓰는 것입니다!


Guh-lu-myon oo-lee-nun moo-oh-sul hay-ya day-ges-soom-nee-ka? Guh-gos-oon bam-nat opshee mome-gwa ma-oom-ul da-ha-yaw il-yoo-ai ta-do-ai heem-suh-nun goshe-im-nee-da!

My literal translation:

So we-the what-the do should? Thing-the nightdayless body-and mind-the all-for humanity-of overthrow-at strength-using thing is!

George Orwell:

What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race!

I can’t find who translated the text into Korean, but this comes from a bilingual edition of Animal Farm published by YBM. I also can’t really justify the claim that he sounds like a North Korean with any direct quotes, since my Korean, sadly, is still far too poor; though the only word I had to look up was “ta-do”, overthrow, it was still somewhat difficult to make sense out of the second sentence without looking at the English original. My impression, however, is that North Koreanese has a lot of 것입니다, goshe-imneeda, though that may just be literary Korean, and a lot of rhetoric about overthrowing people. And since this comes directly from the throathole (목구멍) of Marx / Lenin / Old Major himself, I thought it an appropriate comparison to the propaganda of the North Koreans, who, despite removing the word “communism” from their constitution, and despite being the most extreme example of capitalism in the world—a small rich elite controlling a vast permanent class of powerless slaves—still seem to throw a lot of the old Manifesto-esque language around.

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When The Storm Lay Gyeongju Low

My son and I were wandering the Bronze Age petroglyphs on the far side of the Hyeongsan River and the feeling in the air was already bizarre, as he had just pointed at one of the sheer cliffs and exclaimed “Buddha!”, despite having no apparent knowledge that the area was some kind of sacred fertility precinct thousands of years ago (in Korean it’s called “애기 청소 / Aegee Chungso / Baby-Washing”). The carvings on the rocks are visible if you look closely—I only discovered them after taking a picture, draining the colors, and then fiddling with the contrast—but I find it somewhat eerie that the boy found his own arcane way of sensing their spiritual significance. A nearby sign warns people, only in Korean, not to engage in shamanistic rituals, there are heaped-up graves watched over by broken tombstones carved with Chinese letters crowding the surrounding forests, and another nearby sign claims that all kinds of strange things have been seen here; that it was a retreat for poets as well as anti-Japanese guerrillas.


We made our way up to Geumjangdae, a reconstructed Joseon-style pavilion overlooking the river, and discovered at once that ominous stormclouds were looming over the mountains. They looked like something out of Ghostbusters or Independence Day; the special effects that God chose to employ on that Sunday afternoon were indeed somewhat cheesy and not quite up to the new standard set by Pacific Rim, which I had seen only a few hours before (and which was so awesome I may go to see it again tomorrow (with earplugs))…

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The storm moved fast, with the billowing wind, and I had only a few moments to snap some pictures with my iPhone (while my son had only a few moments to run around screaming and playing with the other children) before we had to rush in under the safety of the pavilion’s jade roof. The darkness covered the city, and rain burst out of the gales.

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There were about two dozen Koreans inside the pavilion, both children and adults, and most of them were flustered by the rain. For whatever reason the people here generally despise getting even slightly wet, and will carry umbrellas around en masse even in the mistiest drizzles, or when there are just lots of harmless clouds in the sky; I hear they do the same thing in Japan to conform to the divine pronouncements of that country’s trustworthy meteorologists; inside the pavilion the adults were yelling at their kids to get away from the rain, yelling into their phones that it was raining, yelling at each other that the rain was coming, yelling as if their voices could drown out the downpour itself, while the children laughed and ran and screamed—my son among them.

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The thunder boomed and cracked, the rain rushed down into the leaves in waterfalls, and my smiling son jumped into my arms and shouted: “Helicopter!” As I rested against one of the red pillars (after snapping about a thousand pictures) to wait out the storm, sensing that it would be over quickly—since that which comes quickly, goes quickly—texting my wife, who was relaxing at home after six straight grueling days of caring for seniors with dementia, to reassure her that we had not been swept away by any tornados, an older Korean man approached me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I worked as an English teacher at — University, and that I could speak Korean because I was married to a Korean woman; his twenty- or thirty-something son then approached me and declared rather quickly, with his hands on his hips, that he was a math professor at Toronto University, while his wife held down the same occupation at Northeastern.

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When the old man asked me where I had graduated, I tried to say that it was no use, since in four years of living here not one Korean I’ve spoken to has ever heard of Hampshire College—which, with its written evaluations, student-directed creative projects, and gradeless testless radical ideas, all set in a wide patch of idyllic farmland, is the absolute antithesis of the multiple-choice exams that plague the cement high-rises of Korea—and then when I finally did tell him, he, of course, didn’t know what I was talking about. His pretty daughter (in-law?), who was like the Asian version of Jim Carrey’s lost love in The Truman Show, then asked me what my major was, and after wondering if I should say history, creative writing, or Greek / Roman / 19th Century European Literature, I settled on “English Literature”, and she nodded, and that was the end of that.

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The rain seemed to be letting up, and I said it was nice meeting them, and then went on my way with my son, walking down the steps past the soaking foliage, to meet my wife, who was walking up toward us in flip-flops with a pair of umbrellas, having driven out in her noble chariot to rescue us from the tempest. My son seized one of these umbrellas, and then on the walk back down to the car my wife slipped and fell in the mud, coating her rear with what looked like fecal matter. This might have amused my son, who has spent every day of the last two years doing the same thing to his own nethers with real fecal matter, but he was too transfixed with the power of the brella, as he calls it, to notice.

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We got back home, and all the swelter and tension in the air had been exploded, torn up, and carried away, by the storm, which was then pouring over the mountains and far away. Cool breezes flowed into the windows from the blue night, and my son fell asleep at 7PM, overcome with excitement, sleeping twelve hours into the next morning, and giving me a chance to finish Salammbo and get started on The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which I soon read—

Immediately he is cloyed with orgiastic excesses, sated with fury of extermination; and a great desire comes upon him to wallow in vileness. For the degradation of that which terrifies men is an outrage inflicted upon their minds—it affords yet one more way to stupefy them; and as nothing is viler than a brute, Anthony goes up upon the table on all fours, and bellows like a bull.

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How To Fight The Hellos

It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.

While living in Australia my Korean wife complained that people addressed her in Chinese or Japanese—never Korean—and though I know that Asians are subject to all sorts of racism back in America (do you know kung-fu? do you eat a lot of rice? / being passed over for promotion / getting good grades because of your tiger mom / rarely appearing in films that take place outside of ancient China / no, where are you from?), the least you can say is that they can usually walk the streets without being concerned about people regularly greeting them in languages other than English, though now that I think about it I bet that happens all the time.

In Korea I can remember the first time a stranger said hello to me. I was getting off a bus in Busan when a young man did it, and I, not knowing that he was trying to throw an insult my way, said hello back in a friendly tone. I even smiled and waved a little, like a perfect bumpkin used to the country life back in Maine, where people say hello to one another even if they’re strangers just to be nice, but here the man didn’t respond—he just laughed as his girlfriend yelped and hit him with her bag. Then they walked away.

This first hello fit into a general pattern. Young male, always in the company of friends, never alone, says hello, and then laughs snidely regardless of your response. If you are with a Korean, however, they will probably hold back from attacking you.

There are plenty of exceptions. Children sometimes say hello out of genuine curiosity, and will shift into Korean if you speak with them—“Are you a foreigner?” “I’m a human, like you.”—and a man once came up out of nowhere and shook my hand with genuine warmth; young women occasionally get in on the action for reasons beyond my comprehension.

For four years I endured the hellos without any retaliation. They always bothered me. I’m so sensitive that they would ruin my mood for hours. A hello would remind me that I am not welcome here, that I am not a part of this culture, that I am not expected to understand anything the people do here in the slightest, that I can never hope to be fully comfortable in this place.

My Korean wife finally demanded that I fight back. The first phrase she suggested was 한국말로 해라, hangook mal-lo hela, say it in Korean. In the case of laughing packs of high school boys, she said I should say: 임마, 왜 웃어? eem-ma, way u-saw, hey asshole, why are you laughing?, with the caveat that in their company one should probably just let it go, as there have been a number of crimes associated with high school kids beating the shit out of old people for perceived slights. So far as I know, foreigners have escaped their wroth, though I usually have to hold back from tearing off my clothes and charging into their ranks, kicking, screaming, spitting, and biting, whenever I see them prowling around the sidewalkless roads.

Another whining complaint is related to the egregious use of the term waygookin or waygook salam, foreigner, which drives me out of my mind. If you happen to feel the urge to comment on this post to remind me that other people don’t care about this shit, don’t bother, because I’m already way ahead of you—I don’t care. But, on the other hand, if you happen to be bothered by this somewhat inappropriate word used virtually whenever a non-Korean person appears on television or really anywhere at all, my indomitable wife, whose skeleton, Wolverine-like, was cast from liquid titanium (or whatever), has a few suggestions for you: when people start talking about you as if you can’t understand them, using the Korean word for foreigner, simply say: 외국인 왜요? 외국인 좋아요? 외국인 나빠요? Way-gook-een way-yo? Way-gook-een jo-ah-yo? Way-gook-een na-pa-yo? Why foreigners? Foreigners are good? Foreigners are bad? That should shut them up, and hopefully get them to think twice about using the term so shamelessly again.

I do think I discovered the source of the hellos. Although daycare is free, ubiquitous, and seemingly relatively decent in Korea—a friend’s awlineecheep even comes with a video camera he can access on the internet any time, to make sure no one is soiling his son’s virtue—most Korean families still insist on having their older and, usually, uneducated relatives take care of their young children every day. I’ve seen multiple old women shouting, swearing, and beating kids in public here, while a couple of weeks ago I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly halmoni who was walking around with a four-year old in a nearby apartment complex, where I was waiting for a special-session-that-must-not-be-named to start.

This crazy woman pointed at me and shouted, to her grandchild, in Korean: “Foreigner! Foreigner! Look! It’s a foreigner! Foreignerrrrrrr!” “Ajumma,” I said, after looking up, looking down, getting angry, and deciding to fight, “That’s rude. How would you feel if you went to a different country, and people started shouting that you were an Asian?”

Although my Korean is shaky at best, I think I got the point across, as she simply nodded and walked away with a frozen smile that said she utterly despised me—how dare you express the fact that you have a soul?!? I had a similar encounter at a nearby Starbucks, said something more or less the same, and actually got an apology from the inane mother who was mouthing off this bullshit in an attempt to entertain her infant spawn.

A lot of the time people aren’t aware that they’re acting like barbarians, or objectifying you; they do so with the warmest smiles, thinking that you enjoy playing the role of the bumbling idiot who stepped off the airplane five minutes ago—even after living here for four years. An ajumma at a decent restaurant I frequent asked me if it was okay for her daughter to say hello to me in English—asked me in Korean—and I told her that Korean was better. She said something like how that was ridiculous, her daughter (young, terrified, cowering behind her legs) was great at English, and then I tried and failed to add that Korean was more welcoming. I still don’t know exactly how to say that, but I think it may be close to 더 환영것같다. This woman has always been nice to me, but I could have added, if this were not the case, that I am not her daughter’s toy—just as my son is not the toy of the legions of young women who ask to get his picture taken almost whenever we venture outside.

A lot of you are going to say that I’m whining about nothing, but I don’t care. This is a big deal to me. When you say hello in Korean, that’s great, I love it, I’m happy to talk with you, regardless of who you are. When you say hello in English, you make me into an Other, you associate me with things that in reality I am only very loosely associated with, you objectify me, you exclude me, you turn me into a tool of your amusement, and in all likelihood you really need to shut the hell up.

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I Was On National TV In Korea For Ten Minutes…

…and, as a result, I’ve shamed all of my ancestors, from Adam on down. You should be able to watch the video here. The segment with my family starts at about 44:00.

For the last two days I was unable to find it, and now that it’s in my possession I’m honestly too disgusted with my appearance to sit through and torture myself for ten minutes by watching it. Both my (beautiful) wife and I were writhing in horror within seconds…this is an existential crisis, this is Camus’ “stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror”, since I think I don’t look or sound like that guy in that video.

So how did this happen?

The KBS crew somehow found pictures of my son on my wife’s blog (which she hasn’t updated in a year), texted her on Sunday, came down on Monday, filmed us in the evening (when I’m in a t-shirt), and then the following afternoon (in the black long-sleeved shirt). They went back to Seoul on Tuesday night, edited the footage on Wednesday, and broadcast it on 7:30AM Thursday morning. The Korean public has a mild interest in shows about “foreigners” who have married into Korean families—though if you speak the language, eat the food, follow the laws, and respect the culture, there is really nothing foreign about you, in my opinion. I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

This crew consisted of two people: the cameraman, who was amazing, in that he shot all three of us for several hours, and was asking us questions about our lives at the same time, without stopping, in a very friendly fashion; and then a woman who played on her phone a lot and periodically gave a new tape to the cameraman. She also distracted my son (who attacks us whenever we stop focusing on him) by letting him watch Pororo on her phone, which has convinced me that his life will be destroyed if we somehow wind up doing this for a living.

During the first day I went completely berserk. I’m not sure why. I challenged Kang Ho-dong, a famous wrestler and talk show host, to a wrestling match; I used some extremely lame Kung Fu moves I learned from a source that is so shameful I dare not mention it here; and then on the next day I sang and played guitar for the first time in my life, which is probably not advisable…I can barely play guitar, and until that morning I hadn’t picked mine up for six months or so. Starting at 5AM I spent three hours practicing to Corey Harris, though I’m not sure it really paid off.

While I haven’t watched the video, I did skim over it, and it looks to me like they cut a lot of my insanity out (even if the segment seems to start with me explaining that Gyeongju’s famous ancient observatory looks like a bakery…). It was impossible, however, for them to cut out the incredible amount of hamminess that I rammed into that camera lens. I did play Go for the first time with my father-in-law, which was really enjoyable for both of us.

Although I am deeply ashamed with what I have done here, I would definitely do it again—if only for the chance of fulfilling my childhood dream of kicking Kang Ho-dong’s ass.

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Nice New Review Of Teakettle Mountain


Teakettle Mountain is a wonderful and humorous portrayal of life in South Korea. The detail is amazing – of the people, the place and the culture, as well as the pace and structure of life – absolutely fascinating. I feel like I’ve boarded a plane and physically visited the country.

Ian James’ grip and use of language is a joy to read. I didn’t curl up with the book, Teakettle Mountain curled up with me, and didn’t let me out of its embrace until I had read the last word. It is so full of wonderfully original descriptions it was difficult to find a favourite, and after much deliberation I’ve chosen: ‘Ms Yoon, who spoke American English as though she were a textbook that had been electrified and, Frankenstein-like, bought to life.’

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all nicey-nicey and touchy-feely – it’s uncomfortable reading at times. Ian James has chosen honesty above political correctness when writing about his experiences and observations and, as a result, I felt like I really was reading about people, rather than characters or. caricatures. He applies the same acerbic honesty to his observations about himself, and this was truly a joy to read – roll on part 2!.

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Where Have All The Korean Ruins Gone?

There isn’t a whole hell of a lot left of the Shilla Dynasty. Aside from two spectacular sets of ruins in Gyeongju—Seokguram and Bulguksa, of course—and a few decent sculptures in the local museum, nearly everything this thousand-year old culture created has been completely destroyed. Part of me suspected that this was due to a lack of artistic fervor, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence: it’s also possible that the last millennium of Korean history was turbulent enough to nearly erase the Shilla from existence.

This is the answer I usually get from Korean people, anyway, if I manage to ask them why there’s so little to see here that’s more than fifty years old. “Korea has been invaded thousands of times!” “The Japanese stole everything worth stealing!”—fair answers to my presumptuous questions, no doubt, but one author (Andrei Lankov, I think), naturally asked why the same dearth isn’t true of a country like Italy, which has been destroyed and invaded and burned to the ground so many times it’s not even worth counting them—and yet when you go there you’re liable to faint from the strength of history, the weight of two millennia pressing down on you from every direction, where Roman Emperors gallop on their horses past the churches of the Renaissance, the old temples and tombs turned to churches and fortresses. I’m fairly certain that the Italians don’t have to make any excuses for the lack of notable historical artifacts in their country.

But at the same time there are outlines in Gyeongju: walls from the Half-Moon Palace have been reduced to hills of grass with trees growing out of them, and wide open fields are full of the imprints and foundations of ancient temples and pagodas. It’s supposedly impossible to build anything here without hauling a sculpture out of the ground, and if you take the trouble to walk around the city you run into rocks, walls, bricks, flagposts, and plinths, all over the place; they’re usually notable enough to have a descriptive sign set up nearby, but there’s one small set just up the street from where I live that seems to be completely unmarked. An old Japanese hospital up the road in another direction has no descriptive sign or commemoration and looks as though it was built twenty years ago—I only discovered its age when I found it in a picture of the city from the colonial period—while traditional Hanok houses that must be at least half a century old are being bulldozed to make way for new apartment buildings (or fields of illegal ajumma gardens!) as I write these words.

My guess is that the answer to the question of—Where Have All The Korean Ruins Gone?—really is that they were lost, stolen, or destroyed. An incredible city like Venice, for example, was never occupied by anyone, while Korea had to deal with the Mongols (who made mincemeat out of the flourishing civilization in Baghdad, building great pyramids of human skulls where cities had been) and all kinds of other nasties. The fact that truly amazing relics built by the Shilla still exist is proof enough that more may have existed at one time, though perhaps that’s not the whole truth: perhaps Koreans really have always been a little too interested in memorizing textbooks (whether they happen to be about the English language, Confucianism, or Buddhism) to bother with erecting shrines to eternity. Only God, who may not even exist, knows.

The local government in Gyeongju has been preoccupying itself, lately, with reconstructing a number of Shilla ruins, and since they’ve been building them mostly out of wood, rather than plastic and cement, these buildings look really good. My only hope is that they continue, so that, perhaps, someday, people can come here without feeling underwhelmed by the woeful lack of antiquities.

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