Archive for September, 2007

Spiffy!

Posted in Expat life, Film & TV, Korea, PIFF on September 29, 2007 by Elephant Talk

Now that Chuseok is over, the first topic of conversation in any social situation these days — for both Koreans and foreigners — is “Are you going to PIFF?”

The Pusan International Film Festival is a huge deal in this city. It’s the one time of the year when Busan is the hub of Asia, as filmmakers from all over this side of the globe show their works. We even get visits from a few adventurous Hollywood stars. We’ve got the red carpet press row and everything.

I’ve been lucky enough to score a guest pass, which gives me access to opening/closing ceremonies, official parties, seminars, and four screenings per day. Pretty damn sweet. I plan to put on my best duds and go to some parties, meet some people, hang out with friends, and see a few good movies.

I’ll be sure to post updates once it begins Oct. 4. And now that the Lumix is back from the dead, maybe I’ll post some paparazzi.

The next dumb adventure

Posted in News, Politics, USA on September 27, 2007 by Elephant Talk

So wait, we’re going to war with Iran now?

When we can’t even afford the wars we’re still fighting?

Dong Dong Journey

Posted in Expat life, Images, Korea, Outdoors, Personal, Travel on September 25, 2007 by Elephant Talk

It’s Chusok week. This is the holiday equivalent of Thanksgiving in the U.S. in every way. It is the family holiday. From Saturday through Wednesday there is a mass exodus in all directions as Koreans go to feast and spend time with relatives. Many businesses and restaurants are closed and people are dressed in their nicest clothes, carrying packages of cakes and other sweets on their way home.

We kicked things off here with a night out gorging on food and drink with friends. Soju, makali, maekju, tequila, beef intenstines, bul-go-gi… a bit of everything.

While foreigners are in some ways left out of the Chusok festivities, there are a couple nice benefits for us waygooks. On the one hand, it’s one of the few times that hard-working English teachers get some extended time off; at the same time, places like temples and parks are completely deserted. The guitarist in my band invited me to join him and some other foreigners to visit Jirisan National Park. One of my Korean colleagues had offered to have me come spend the time with his family in Jeju-do, but flights were impossible. So I had no plans and agreed to go. I’m glad I did.

There’s a joke here in our little corner of Busan. We call the three kilometer or so radius around our university “The Shire.” It’s safe, comfortable, familiar, and of course, teeming with hobbits. If our uni is The Shire, Jirisan is Rivendell, plain and simple. It’s an impossibly magical, beautiful place, the kind of thing you imagine when you think of mystical, ancient Asia.

I woke up early and took the subway to the bus station leading out of Busan. I met a couple of people there and we booked a ticket to Hadong, the transfer point for Jirisan. When we arrived in Hadong, we saw a couple of foreigner girls I’d never met. We invited them to join us. Because of the traffic, we arrived in Jirisan late, around 2 pm or so. The drive was beautiful, with green rolling hills feathered with whisps of low clouds. Eventually we entered a vast valley cut by a wide river. The bus dropped us off at a random grocery store and we walked on foot up a hill leading to some guest houses.

We dropped off our things at our guest house and then walked one kilometer or so to Ssanggyesa temple. I’ve been to about four or five temple complexes since I’ve been in Korea, and I thought nothing could top Beomosa, but this one did easily. Like Beomosa, it’s nestled in with the surrounding hills. But here, the natural environment and the temple buildings seemed to form a perfect synergy, as if the buildings were the product of nature itself. Maybe it’s that it’s older, maybe it had something to do with the river running through it, I’m not quite sure. Something also with the colors – the pinks, greens, blues and grays of the temple buildings seemed to be an extension of the flora around them.

We met two other foreigners there, bringing our party to seven total (strangely enough, all Americans). We wandered around mostly in silence, having the temple almost entirely to ourselves, except for a couple of random Koreans. Koreans love to take their families to temples and they usually arrive in droves, so experiencing peace and quiet in a setting like this is a rare thing. Adding to the atmosphere, it was raining almost continuously but only in sparse drops, as if the whole day was one long aftermath of what was once a big rain storm.

At the back of the temple grounds, we found a trail heading up alongside another river on the right. We passed through tall pink and white flowers up to a roaring, rock-covered cascade. There were a few well-tilled farms the monks maintain and some stellar views of the surrounding hills. It was getting toward dusk and the temple was closing up so we made our way back down.

The “town” is nothing more than a small village, with a couple of restaurants, tea shops, ceramics shops, and grocery stores. We ate bi-bim-bap, fried sardines, potato pajon, vegetable soup, and various banchan, and drank the thickest dong-dong-ju I’ve ever had. After dinner, we loaded up with beer and headed back to our guest house.

Back at the guest house, we met four other foreigners who had made their journey by motorcycle. This meant there were now 11 total sharing 4 rooms. The party divided into two camps: the “dudes” playing poker, and the more, eh, sensitive conversational types who spent the night talking about life. (I was in the second group.) We sat out on the patio talking against the backdrop of a hillside dotted with tiny lights – quite an atmosphere. Around midnight half the party, including me, crashed out on the floor. I never think I’m going to be able to sleep Korean-style, but for some reason I’m always able to get a good rest on a hardwood floor.

The next morning everyone pitched in to cook a massive American-style breakfast of potatoes, eggs, bacon, fruit, cheese, and good Seattle coffee. For most of the morning it rained hard, so we sat and waited it out, some playing chess, some playing guitar, others reading books, others talking. Eventually the sky opened up, so around 1 pm we made our way toward the trailhead going to Buril Pokpo waterfall, roughly a three-hour round trip. The trail extends out the back and left side of the temple complex. It’s a steep journey up stone steps. I came to the realization that any time you decide to hike to a waterfall, chances are that at various points along the way you actually are climbing a waterfall, or at least similar terrain. It was exhausting, but well worth the trip.

About two-thirds of the way up, we saw a genuine hermit. He lives up there in a simple home with a covered patio. He sells sodas and candy, plays relaxing music, has a hammock to rest in, a natural spring for filling water bottles, and a remarkable collection of stone towers that were built by someone who clearly has a huge amount of time on his hands.

From this point on the path got very steep, occasionally muddy, and slippery. At the apex of the trail, there was a side path that led to a fantastic single-building temple. A monk walked past me when I entered and I bowed. I looked back and the view was breathtaking.

Just two tenths of a kilometer later I arrived at the waterfall. It was modest in size, probably 40 meters tall, and the surrounding rocks and foliage created a nice atmosphere. We stayed for a while, but it was getting late. I wanted to be in time for the 5 o’clock bus so I said my goodbyes there. They were all staying an extra night or two, but I needed to head back. I arrived back in the village, had some bi-bim-bap, bought a ticket, got on an empty bus, put on my iPod (Kings of Convenience, mostly), watched out the window as the sun went down in the valley, and eventually fell asleep.

From Seoul to Busan, the long way

Posted in Academics, Expat life, Images, Personal, Travel on September 18, 2007 by Elephant Talk

There were three or four major reasons behind my decision to come live in Korea. One of them was the opportunity to travel. So far, in 6+ months of being here, my only trips have been to Fukuoka, Japan and back home to the U.S.

But this winter is shaping up to be one long adventure. It’s looking like I’ll be in motion nonstop from mid-December through the end of February. First up is a trip to Germany to present at an academic conference. That was the spark. The rest was driven by simple inertia. My cousin lives in Brussels, so I can’t pass up a chance to visit him for the Christmas holiday. And I’ve always wanted to visit Prague, so I plan to be there for New Years. From there, I’m not sure, but I bought a ticket flying out of Rome 3 1/2 weeks after arriving in Germany, so I’ll probably make my way to Venice, Florence, and then Rome.

But my flight isn’t coming back to Busan. Instead, I’m heading to Singapore. I want to spend the next 4 or 5 weeks making my way casually overland back home. I’ll cross through Malaysia, relax on a beach in Thailand, spend a few days in Bangkok, go to Ankor Wat, Vietnam, China, and then find a ferry or flight from Shanghai to Busan.

It might all be a bit much, but that’s the plan. If I get tired of moving so much, I’ll get a flight from Bangkok to Korea. But I like the idea of spending 10 weeks or so visiting the world. Who knows when I’ll get another chance for an epic trip like this?

It’s also born somewhat of necessity. I can’t go back to the U.S. until June due to tax reasons, so I have to do something with myself. Rather than twiddle my thumbs in my apartment, I could go see what’s out there.

Anything but easy

Posted in Academics, Expat life, Images, Korea, Music, Personal on September 17, 2007 by Elephant Talk

I’m beginning to suspect that my Korean language classes are some sort of cosmic vengeance. When teaching my classes, I stand there and subject them to a wall of American English while half the students look back, dazed and confused. Now I’m the confused one, totally lost in this strange language.

The problem is the class is in Korean. I mean… it’s a Korean language class, but there’s no English spoken at all. Sort of the beat-you-over-the-head form of learning, I suppose, much like what I dish out on a regular basis. Today I was totally lost. Two hours a day, four days a week. I’m starting to wonder if it’s worth my time.

In other news, I’ve joined a cool new band. The talent is very high and it’s a challenge. We’re playing a lot of swing, old shuffle blues, some Meters, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock… a great mix of stuff I wouldn’t normally do. There are a couple of real gems in there too. I’ve forgotten what a kick ass song “Easy” by the Commodores is. So I’ll leave you with that…

Or, if you prefer, the irreverence of Faith No More. The band sounds like utter shit in this, but Mike Patton… damn, if I could sing like that…

Fair ball

Posted in Sports on September 14, 2007 by Elephant Talk

Which is the bigger form of cheating? A player using drugs to enhance his natural abilities? Or coaches surreptitiously videotaping the other team’s practice sessions?

To me, the first is a little tough to quantify. But the second one, there’s no question: that’s cheating.

I’m not saying this simply because the Pats beat the Steelers in so many big games. I actually like the Patriots, what I still believe to be a class organization.

But this quote in the above linked article really stood out for me:

“On the other hand … the negative reaction to this is just completely overblown (as King Kaufman pointed out in Salon.com today). The Patriots were breaking rules because they are obsessed with getting every minor strategic advantage, but that doesn’t change the fact the strategic advantage is minor. The idea that suddenly all three Super Bowl championships are tainted is ridiculous.”

Now, I’m not one to make apologies for Barry Bonds, but why doesn’t the same standard apply toward him? Steroids didn’t give him his home runs, they gave him a slight edge. So why, when Bonds’ name is mentioned, is it like he’s the devil incarnate? When they talk about Belichick, people instead call it a dumb mistake. There’s a subtle but distinct difference there.

It makes me wonder if the real reason Bonds is demonized is because he’s an asshole. And the more I think more about it, it may even be because he’s an African American asshole.

Northwest airlines is evil… pure, perfect evil

Posted in Expat life, Travel on September 12, 2007 by Elephant Talk

One more bitch session about NWA and then I’m done, promise.  It’s just so absurd, I can’t resist.

Here’s the thing: I’m trying to redeem $1400 in unused flight credit. When I check the price for a flight to Germany, it comes up $1680. But, when I try to redeem my credit, the flight cost jumps to an absurd $4,200. (This is a one-way flight.) Same flight, exact same itinerary. The price only leaps after I try to cash in my credit. Absurd.

After a string of emails got us nowhere on this, I decided to Skype-call them and try to work it out over the phone. I first got an extremely temperamental woman who tried to tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. When I proved to her that yes, in fact, I do, she backtracked, stammered, then shuttled me off to the “international department.”

This woman was much more mild mannered. Her problem was a failure to acknowledge logic. I told her the problem: exact same flight, but a huge leap when I try to cash in my credit. She didn’t seem to see the problem. I said “How can you not see a problem? The flight is $1600 for the average Joe. When I actually redeem my unused ticket value, I wind up paying double. This is after it’s been redeemed! I cash in my credit and the flight is more expensive than when I don’t. What’s the use of having unused credit?”

She was extremely mild-mannered and pleasant, but she wouldn’t budge. Even when faced with simple  common-sense, there was just zero acknowledgment. Finally, I just wanted empathy. “Can you understand how silly this is? I want you to say that you at least empathize with the absurdity at work here.”

No luck there either. This woman was a marvel of programming. She must have been developed in a laboratory somewhere, because she was a perfect machine.  And then, my desperate, final attack. I had to pull out the pin on the hand grenade: “I’m an American citizen living in Korea and I travel all over Europe, Asia, and America. You’ll lose a very valuable customer.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she replied.

And that was it. My association with Northwest ended just like that. Thank goodness for Singapore Airlines.