Friday, July 31, 2009


Not that they really mattered in the grand scheme of life, but we had midterms at school this week. There was more tension in the air than usual in the hallways -- I saw a lot of people furiously cramming information into their heads before and in between periods. Even I was a little nervous at first. But that passed soon after the writing section when I realized the exams wouldn't be as difficult as I'd thought. Good thing, because I hadn't studied much.

I have had a distinct advantage over much of my class this semester because of the inherited knowledge of Korean I have from my family. I've had to accept this with both a little pride and embarrassment (yes, it's good to understand what the teacher's saying most of the time but then, why did I get placed in the lowest level?) Class has been great, though, especially for learning proper grammar and new vocabulary words. I used to have this very foggy idea of how to construct sentences which has been cleared up quite a bit. Plus, I can now conjugate verbs into the past, present, and future tense, which is pretty helpful.

But the second I walk out of that classroom, most of that knowledge slips away. Thinking at a desk and thinking on your feet are two wholly different animals. I still find myself stumbling over questions at the supermarket and misunderstanding what store clerks are asking me. It's so easy to take for granted a simple thing like being able to communicate what you're thinking -- without having to think about it. Not here, though.

I've found the thing I miss the most is being able to read. Walking through our neighborhood department store, brand names and store signs that are in English seem to psychically call out to me. I don't need to sound out letters or piece together words to find a meaning -- the phrase "Hyundai Department Store" just speaks to me in all its literal glory, with all its intended meanings, in the split second it takes the words to hit my eyes. I go to the New York Times website and see eight different headlines at once, get a general sense of all of them and drag my pointer to the one that piques my interest -- all within a matter of seconds.

Slogging through Hangul, though, is like having tunnel vision. I see one letter at a time, then a syllable, then a word. I sound it out in my head and hope for some semblance of meaning. Trying to read newspapers and books remains a pretty futile exercise. I can maybe get through a paragraph and understand one out of every five words. Navigating through a Korean website, therefore, is like working a maze -- a deep, dark, confusing maze. My methodology has been to start out by picking a random path that looks promising and plow ahead. Usually I hit a dead end and have to start over. And over. And over... I'm guessing this eventually gets easier. It's just going to have to take getting lost a few thousand more times.

Monday, July 20, 2009

American Breakdown

I think I had my first food craving breakdown yesterday. For most of the last... how long has it been now, six weeks?... I've been doing pretty well eating mostly Korean meals at home and around town. I've even acquired a taste for eating lettuce rice wraps, called 쌈, for dinner. But something got to me yesterday. Maybe it's the oppressive heat and humidity. I'd been bugging Nissa to go with me to the local Costco so we could see what kind of foods they had to offer. I'd never been to a Costco, which is in my mind, right up there with Wal-Mart and McDonald's on my list of full-on, American-blooded ventures into the insatiable hunger of man, as well as the vastness of his pocketbook. In other words, it was my duty to visit one.

We wandered around an area of Seoul just south of the Han River for about an hour, trying to track down this elusive Korean Costco. After asking a sweaty man for directions and consulting a large map (on which Nissa spotted the Hangul letters that spelled out "Cos-tuh-co") we found the red, blue and beige warehouse. It was swimming with people, cars parked literally around the block. We walked around to the front and entered the building through the sliding glass doors with what seemed like a swarm of Koreans. The inside was complete madness. This was actually a two-story Costco, with household-type goods on the first floor and groceries in the basement. We weaved through the crowd of families and shopping carts, watching the hordes collecting mega-sized boxes of cookies, clamoring for free samples of sausage and candy, and digging through piles of marked-down clothing.

It was all a bit too much to handle.

Before this visit, I had imagined Costco to be a kind of American grocery utopia. Piles of fresh ground beef, aisle upon aisle of cereal and condiments, wide-open lanes. Instead we found a shopping zoo. We got back on the subway to head home, but I still had a hankering for a hamburger -- a good old-fashioned, 1/3 pound patty with lettuce, tomato, and onions on a fluffy, yellow roll, slathered in ketchup, served alongside a batch of hot, greasy french fries. Maybe even with a miniature American flag stuck on top with a toothpick. So we headed to Itaewon, a.k.a. the foreigners area of Seoul. I'd never been there before either.

One transfer and seven stops later, we exited the subway and came across a Canadian bar. It was rustic lodge-themed on the inside, with Gwen Stefani playing on the stereo and a neon marker board with things like "Wii night" scrawled on it. My hopes lifted. We ordered a couple burgers and waited... Ten minutes later, we were greeted by a pair of thin and flat patties, each served on a hard ciabatta roll with a too-ripe tomato, a slice of onion, and Korean-tasting ketchup, mustard, and mayo squirted on the bottom bun. To top it all off, chips. Not fries. I grudgingly ate the bastard while vowing to make my own hamburgers from now on. Then I ate Nissa's last chip.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I'm an internationally published writer!

The JoongAng Daily published my first article today. It's a book review of "The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li. Enjoy!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Campus Life

Ewha Womans University and Yonsei University in Sinchon, Seoul.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Exploring Seoul: Samcheong-dong

In just four days I will start work as a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune's Korean partner, the JoongAng Daily. I'm super excited to make my professional debut in print journalism and can't wait to return to the newsroom. But going back to work means I will have a lot less free time to explore Seoul.

So I decided to take advantage of the good weather yesterday and explore the Samcheong-dong area of Seoul. Right off the Anguk station on Line 3 (we live at the Ewha Woman's Univ. stop on Line 2, for reference), this neighborhood is full of art galleries, trendy coffee shops, and tiny museums.

I wanted to see the neighborhood's Jeongdok Public Library, which is supposed to have beautiful gardens, but sadly it was closed. So I let my feet be my guide, and ended up halfway up a mountain at the Silk Road Museum. This three-story museum was the size of a house -- in fact, I'm pretty sure someone was living on the fourth floor. Something about the display of the objects and the smell of the place made everything seem more real than in your average museum. Fur-covered trunks and stone carvings sat out unprotected, and burial icons were laid out on sand. Perhaps it was the mountain air, but I felt an almost mystical transcendence getting lost amongst the muskets and guardian deities.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Month as a Korean Bootlegger, Part Two

I think I realized things weren't right when Anderson left. Or maybe when Tasha did. Or was it Terry? In the four weeks I worked at (redacted), I witnessed about half of the meager 15 person staff turnover. Which means we had goodbye cake and other sweets about seven times while I was there. No complaints about that. But I barely had a chance to learn people's names before someone new was sitting at their desk. After about two weeks of this, I stopped the charade of introducing myself to the newcomers. I knew I was leaving soon, too.

On my first day at work I met Ken, the office's equivalent of an HR person. Over the course of the month, Ken started taking a few minutes out of his day to teach me the Korean I wouldn't be learning in class. Nothing vulgar or anything like that -- usually -- but just the everyday kind of talk and slang that might help me pass as a native. He also made a routine of pulling me away from my desk every couple hours to take a break and go catch some fresh air with him, which he usually liked to take in with a fresh cigarette. If anything, Ken taught me work doesn't have to be a prison. As he told me, "A hard worker is a sad worker."

But on that first day, work felt like a prison and he was my guard. I had agreed with the head of the company that I would receive a one-month contract to write his textbook, as a sort of tryout, and during that time I would have the freedom to work both in the office and at home. Sometime over the weekend, though, the deal had changed without my knowing. The laissez-faire terms had suddenly turned into strict working hours and my pay had been incidentally cut because of taxes and a health plan I hadn't agreed to. Not only that, but I could no longer deal directly with the boss anymore, I had to go through Ken, which meant I would have to clarify and negotiate the terms of the contract through him, after which he would check with the boss and get back to me. These mediated negotiations happened over the course of my first four hours at work, and after three or four rounds of getting nowhere, I finally convinced Ken to let me see the guy in charge.

Something about my boss's broad smile never quite sat right with me. It seemed to ingratiate and somehow also insult you at the same time, the way a fascist dictator might look upon his populace. I later learned I wasn't alone in feeling this way. The reason many, if not most, people were leaving the company was because they couldn't stand him. After some debate and essentially threatening to walk out, I got most of what I originally wanted in my contract, but the owner insisted on one thing: I work all my hours at the office. I hate working in offices.

Thankfully, my last day there was on Friday. A few minutes before I was about the leave, my boss ran into me in the hallway and asked that I stay for some cake and sweets in my honor. That was OK, I said, I have plans with a friend. We shook hands, bowed, and he thanked me for my work. An hour later, Ken and a few other co-workers met me at a restaurant a few blocks away, where we talked and laughed over some grilled pork and 소맥, a sweet mixture of beer and soju I had for the first time. Ken told me he hadn't bought any cake that day, for one, because he was sick of buying cake. This was better anyway, he said. I wasn't getting a goodbye party. I was getting a welcome one.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Things You Won't Miss in Korea #5

Starbucks. There are a ton of Starbucks here, but independent and/or French-themed coffee shops far out number them. Most of the Starbucks look exactly like the ones at home. This one near City Hall, however, caught my eye. Mimicking the traditional tiled roof on most houses here and prominently labeled "Korea" (no doubt in case you forget where you are), I can't help but think this Starbucks is a tourist trap. Unsurprisingly, several of those skyscrapers you can see behind the Starbucks are large Western hotels.

Now this one is not in the U.S.! Star Beer Coffee is a few blocks away from our apartment and I've been dying to go there ever since I saw it. Unfortunately, as we soon discovered, it's out of business. I wonder if its resemblance to another cafe had anything to do with that.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Month as a Korean Bootlegger

(Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ignore Intellectual Property Rights)

Part One

My first job ever in Seoul was as a textbook writer at an English teaching company that catered to business people. I had originally gone up to the fourth story office (marked with the letter "F" in the elevator for superstitious reasons) to interview for a teaching position. I walked into a small, empty lobby with a colorful coffee bar that looked like it had once been intended as a hip, gathering place but, out of necessity or simple neglect, had become a storage space for the odd printer and file drawer.

I heard some voices coming out of the first small office alongside the wall and sheepishly poked my head in the doorway. There were two men in the room, one behind a desk, the other in a short chair. They stopped talking upon seeing me. 'Hi, my name is Michael, I'm looking for a recruiter named "Terry".'

Now, little did I know the man behind the desk was the owner of this teaching company, nor was I aware that the majority of the time I spent working for him, I would rarely see his face or even be permitted to speak directly to him like this again. But on this day, he couldn't have seemed more happy to meet me. Something piqued his curiosity, I'm still not sure what -- at a later meeting he joked about how you could smell the American on me, I was so fresh off the plane.

I sat down in his office and noticed his shirt and tie first. The top button was undone and the tie loosened off his neck. His suit jacket was hanging in the corner. In his tiny, windowless office, he leaned forward and asked me where I was from, what my background was, what my parents did, why I came to Korea... His shoes were off and I could see him wiggling his toes through his black socks. He was obviously impressed. I wasn't going to see Terry today. In fact, Terry was called in to bring a copy of my resume for the boss to look at.

The man had a vast, scatterbrained vision for his company -- not only did he want it to be a school but an English language empire. He was already making textbooks for his students, or more accurately, pamphlets, and these were included in the admission price but he had a plan to eventually start selling them, and not just to his students but all over the country. He also (surprise) had a web site. He showed me the burgeoning site on his computer and I could see the beginnings (or remains) of a news site for English language learners -- a great idea in theory, which is pretty much all there was at this point. Then there was his plan for a newspaper. One that would compete right up there with the three biggest papers in Korea. Beat them at their online game. And all he needed was a repor-- hey, I was a reporter!

I spent about a half hour negotiating a work contract with him, repeatedly emphasizing that I was only looking for a part-time job and could only do so much to help him build his media conglomerate. Talking an egotist off the ledge while still getting him to give you a job is walking quite the tightrope. Eventually, we agreed that I would write the next edition of his textbook for him over the next month -- one that didn't look like it had been cobbled together by a first-year ESL student.

Friday, July 10, 2009

장마 Season

It's jangma (monsoon) season here, as you can see from Mike's pictures below. Rainstorms in Chicago did not prepare us at all for the amount of rain we'd see here. The closest Midwest comparison I can think of is snow blizzards.

So far we've been experimenting with different ways to keep dry during the rain storms. Our plastic umbrellas do little to keep off the pounding rain. And wearing shorts and sandals means that your legs are drenched and your feet keep sliding out of your flip-flops. After the first downpour nearly ruined our textbooks, we've taken to keeping everything in a plastic bag inside our backpacks. Still, it's embarrassing to show up for a meeting or class drenched to the bone.

Amazingly the locals seem to keep dry in the rain. No one wears raincoats, and most don't have expensive golf umbrellas or rain boots. My current theory is that the rain just shows up more on my blonde hair than their black hair. But that doesn't explain why Mike gets soaked every time it rains too. Maybe we'll learn their secret before jangma season ends in a couple weeks. In the meantime, we're buying ponchos.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cats and Dogs

The walk home from school...


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Weekend America

For this 4th of July weekend, Nissa and I did all things American. We ate pizza, read, took naps, and watched the last Harry Potter movie on my laptop (in nerdy preparation for the next). In fact, the last couple weekends in our new apartment have been spent pretty lazily -- for me, at least. I've been able to watch TV shows like The Office and King of Queens online, listen to my music, and keep up on all my favorite blogs, comics, and news sites -- all, of course, in English.

Holing up on the weekends, though, as relaxing as it can be, has its price, and that is forgetting where you really are. Last Saturday, for example, I didn't leave the apartment all day until the late evening, when Nissa and I decided to go and take a walk around the neighborhood. After a day full of thoughts in English, my mind had to readjust to the sounds of people speaking Korean on the elevator, and to all the neon signs out on the street in Hangul. "Oh right," I realized, "I'm in Seoul."

But things have been getting busier for us since school started. Between class, work and studying, there just isn't much time to chill out during the week. We have gone out for ice cream a couple times (and had something that should be renamed the "garbage sundae). We've also hit up the batting cages across the street. And discovered, to my arteries' dismay, that the fried chicken place on the first floor of our building is pretty damn good. But we haven't done so much as far as sightseeing goes lately. I'm starting to realize how people live in a place for so long and never get to all that sort of stuff. Life just takes over sometimes.