Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goin' to the Country

I didn't get a chance to write about our trip down to my cousins' hometown a few weeks ago until now, so here goes... We met Haekgyung and Hyunjun on Friday at the bus station and embarked on a two-and-a-half hour ride southeast, to the town where their mother works as a principal (though I can't remember the name of the town). She picked us up at a small bus station and we swung by the local equivalent of Wal-Mart to pick up some groceries for the weekend. I believe it was an E-Mart, which actually bought up a bunch of Wal-Mart's stores when the American retail giant gave up on its dreams of conquering Korea a few years ago. Take that, Wal-Mart.

My aunt then drove the four of us down toward Seokpo, where my uncle works as a manager at a zinc refinery. But on the way there we made a few stops -- first, at a traditional Korean village where only people with the same family name had resided for generations. The houses had beautiful architecture, and the village sat in a shallow valley, surrounded by lush green hills and rice fields.

We winded our way through the hills some more and stopped in a small village that my aunt said was known for its smoked pork. We had two kinds, one that was lightly seasoned and scented with some pine and another that was thickly marinated in a dark red sauce. Both were amazing. I thought about that pork all the way to my uncle's apartment.

My uncle moved back to Seokpo a few years ago, when the company he worked for ran into some kind of trouble and asked for him to come back to supervise. As we came up to the town after dusk, my cousins started sitting up in their seats and pointing things out through the window. This was the town they had grown up in, and they hadn't been back in over ten years. Compared to Seoul, the streets were very dim -- pale yellow lights illuminated some run down-looking houses and stores to our left, and you could make out the faint reflections of the moonlight sparkling off the river to our right. A slight, metallic odor filled the air. As we drove along, the brightly lit factory came into view, with all its large metal silos and colored walkways standing in clear contrast to the dark hills behind. Soon, the car's headlights beamed upon my uncle, who was standing in the entrance to his apartment's parking lot waiting for us.

Hyunjun was thrilled to see the old place again. It wasn't the exact apartment he had grown up in, but since all the units followed the same layout, it was close enough to the home he once knew. The space was small -- two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and study, all crammed into about four to five-hundred square feet. It was older, too, with the wallpaper rippling off the wall in some places and the rusted plumbing clearly on display in the bathroom. Hyunjun kept saying he remembered it being bigger (the study had once been his bedroom) and he couldn't believe the four of them had at one point lived there together. Nissa and I wouldn't be sleeping here tonight, though. My uncle had rented the modestly furnished apartment upstairs for us to stay in over the weekend, in which a set of towels and toothbrushes were laid out neatly on the refrigerator for us upon arrival. After watching a little TV in my uncle's room, we headed upstairs to turn in for the night.

The next morning we set off for the seaside in a large company van my uncle had borrowed for the weekend. We wound through rolling hills for a couple hours, stopping once or twice to take some pictures. At one point we drove alongside acres and acres of cabbage that looked close to harvest. Apparently this area was known for its cabbage, which all eventually went into kimchi. My relatives said the owners were millionaires -- cabbage millionaires.

Soon the hills cleared and we arrived at Hosan, a beach area along the east coast of Korea, in Gangwon Province. The air was cool, a little humid, and just a little salty. My uncle rented a room for all of us at a motel along the shore, as a sort of base camp for the afternoon, and after changing into our bathing suits we headed out for the water. The waves were incredibly strong, so much so that they could knock you off your feet if you weren't careful. We didn't venture out far, for fear of the undertow, but it was fun battling against the waves nonetheless. We even got a little sunburned.

That evening, on the way back to Seokpo, we stopped in a town called Taebaek. This was a much larger town than Seokpo, we could tell just from the traffic heading in. Even though it only had a population of about 50,000, all the cars and lights from the restaurants and stores made it feel like we were in a metropolis again. As we got out of the car, we could hear a woman's powerful singing echoing down the street. Nissa recognized the song was from Les Miserables. A musical troupe was performing in the town's park -- songs from Grease, Fame...

We closed out the night in Taebaek with a traditional Korean dinner, where you are served about 20 side dishes along with rice that is cooked in a stone pot. On the way back to Seokpo, we could see the stars clearly in the night sky. The air was cool and the hills were quiet. It was going to be hard to go back to Seoul.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Watermelon, Watermelon Everywhere

I woke up on the couch this afternoon -- after what seemed like a one- or two-hour nap -- disoriented, sweaty, and with an overwhelming desire for some watermelon. Ever since we moved to Seoul in June, the weather most days has been disgustingly hot and humid, and on many of these days I've been tempted to take home one of the large, striped-green orbs that sit seductively on fruit stands around just about every corner here. Walking by, I would imagine the wealth of succulent goodness hidden inside each of those giant globes and think about whether this was the day...

But you don't just buy a watermelon on a whim. That kind of food purchase is a serious investment, perhaps along the lines of buying a turkey for Thanksgiving. I've never invested in a turkey before but imagine there are a number of similar things to consider:

1. Size: turkeys come in a variety of sizes, but watermelons tend to come in one -- large. And because of this, you have to decide how bad you want to eat watermelon, because you're going to be eating a lot of it, maybe for several days. There's also the weight consideration, because someone's gotta carry the darn thing home.

2. Quality: like with most fruit, judging the quality of a watermelon from the outside is pure mysticism to me. After arriving at the supermarket today and heading straight for the watermelon display, I did a general look-over of the fruit. All seemed to bear a significant resemblance to their peers. Upon a physical inspection, however, some appeared to be flat in certain areas, or not as round. I slapped a few as well, because I had heard somewhere that you want the watermelon to sound hollow when you hit it. And of course, I picked several up, to gauge their weight. I ended up buying the roundest, heaviest, and hollowest-sounding one I could find, which most likely made no difference whatsoever in the end.

3. Price: the watermelon market in Seoul seems to be as volatile as the stock market. In the last few months, the price of a watermelon has gone from as high as 18,000 won to 8,000, generally speaking. But even today a man tried to sell me a watermelon for 17,000 won, so caveat emptor.

4. Leftovers: since there's only two of us, I knew there were going to be leftovers, and our fridge isn't very large. Things would have to be rearranged. On my walk home, while cradling my prize in both arms, I also thought of all the space-saving ways I could cut up the watermelon so it would fit in our small refrigerator...

After rinsing the baby off and setting it on the counter, I pressed a knife against the watermelon's midpoint and with just the slightest amount of pressure, the blade cracked through the rind and the watermelon just about snapped in two, pink juices splattering on the counter. I reset the knife and finished the cut through to the other side, but being a little inexact, a thin sliver of the fruit's flesh fell off to the side and landed in a small pool of juice. I picked up the piece and popped it in my mouth. This was going to be a good one.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Death of Kim Dae-jung

My assignment for work yesterday was to go to one of the memorial gatherings for former Korean president Kim Dae-jung. As I climbed out of the subway and onto Seoul Plaza, I was struck by how many people had come in the middle of a hot and humid day to pay tribute to the former leader. A very large portrait of Kim was set up next to city hall, surrounded by thousands of flowers. Hundreds of people queued up to stand before this display and bow their heads or kneel in front of it. Many walked away with tears in their eyes.

At least a thousand people must have been there. Huddles of older men and women sat in lawn chairs and on the ground underneath rows of white tents that had been set up in the plaza. It looked like most were there just to spend the afternoon taking in the scene with friends. Some had empty bottles of makgeolli scattered around them. Interestingly, I talked to several people who said they weren't particularly fond of the man, but came to pay respect nonetheless. That in itself, I thought was amazing.

President Kim is probably most known for his reunification efforts with North Korea, which led to highly public and emotional reunions of families that had been separated for decades since the Korean War, but also involved the not-so-public funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars to the North in return for the favor. But that is just a small part of the Sunshine Policy, and Kim's presidency and amazing life story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tokyo part 3

And now for the part you've been waiting for... What would a trip to Japan be without robots!

As part of the bid for the 2016 Olympics, Tokyo built a "life-size" Gundam robot on it's bay. Towering 60 feet tall, this thing was really impressive!

You can see how they built the robot here.

And of course, I couldn't leave Tokyo without getting some robots of our own. Meet Guyzer and Bean, Mike's piperoids:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tokyo part 2

The Mori art museum in Tokyo was having an exhibit of Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei's works. The exhibit was very cool and made me want to learn more about Ai.

Ai collaborated with Herzog and de Meuron in designing the bird's nest for the Beijing Olympics. There were some interesting photos of the construction of the nest in the exhibit.

My favorite pieces in the exhibit were Weiwei's sculptures made out of tea. This one is made up of one cubic meter of Yunnan Province tea, compressed to weigh a ton -- the same weight one cubic meter of water would weigh.

This "teahouse" is made up of 432 cubes and prisms of compressed tea.

Tokyo part 1

Last week I took a two-day trip to Tokyo to get my work visa. Even though it was a super short trip, it was a bit like a mini-vacation. The JoongAng paid for my plane ticket (since it was a work-related expense) and I got to spend most of my time there wandering around the city with Max K. as my guide. Since Max is an architecture grad student there, I got a really cool perspective on the city and even got to see a building I've always been fascinated by.

After meeting at the Korean consulate shortly after my plane landed, we headed towards the Mori art museum in Roppongi Hills. On the 52nd floor of the building there are windows in which you can get a 360 degree view of the city.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First show in Seoul!

Mike played his first show in Seoul yesterday at the "Free Market" near Hongik University. The market is a place where artists (mostly students) sell their handmade crafts and musicians play on an outdoor stage.

Vertigokidd had a good-sized crowd during his set and managed to earn a few thousand won from some fans (see suitcase in third photo).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Korea's love affair with baseball

My first "Feature" article was published in the JoongAng Daily today. It's about how crazy Koreans are for the "all-American" sport of baseball. I talked to Korea's star pitcher and he told me soccer is over-- baseball is now Korea's favorite sport.

This was my first big reporting assignment since coming here, and I felt I grew a lot in the process of writing it. I learned how to navigate the language barrier and find people who spoke English for the article (which is a real challenge here at times). And I pushed myself to cover something that is out of my comfort zone (ie, not wars, refugees, or massacres!).

Mike has also been leaving his comfort zone lately with his reporting and production work on TBS eFM. I hope that this laboratory called Korea will keep giving us opportunities to challenge and expand our abilities as journalists.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wandering Hapjeong

Some pictures from our afternoon wandering around Hongdae, Hapjeong, and our neighborhood today...

The room full of cats is a "pet cafe" we came across called Gio Cat. There are dog ones, too.