Archive for June, 2009

Eight days of music

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Music, PIFF, Politics on June 29, 2009 by Elephant Talk

This sounds fantastic. An eight-day festival of international music.

The festival is set to be staged for eight days in late August at Busan Cultural Center and several other venues, with the city-run philharmonic orchestra performing curtain-raisers in collaboration with world-renowned musicians, he said.

A variety of fringe music events under consideration are a concert at Haeundae Beach, the largest summer resort in Korea; the Moonlight Music Station in Jangsan; a temple music concert at Beomeosa Temple; a Beach Music Festival at Gwangalli Beach; and Classical Music at Chungnyeol Shrine, the official said.

So, kind of a PIFF for music. If they do this right, it could be a real blast. With all their boastings of being a film center, the city organizers actually have been successful in putting Busan on the cinema map. Do the same for music, and Busan could really take off as an arts center in Asia. Everything in Korea is so Seoul-centric. This could help spread things out even more. Back it up with some business support for more studios and facilities and you could start pulling some creative jobs down here. Then everyone wouldn’t have to bolt for Seoul once they graduate college.

Someday I’ll be mayor of this town. My first order of business will be to build a massive underground parking structure in the Kyungdae area, close off all those little alleys to cars, and pave the whole area with bricks. My second order of business will be to take that newly built area kitty-corner from the Megamart in Namcheon, that vast plot of land by the canal there, and support a open-air business park with upper-scale outdoor restaurants. Eat a nice steak, listen to some live jazz, and look out at the lights of the Gwangan Bridge.

I guess that’s all Dayeon-dong. Maybe I’ll start with city council.


How Ginger feels

Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Images, Korea, Personal on June 26, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I just got back from 18 hours in Seoul where I met a friend and former colleage and another friend and former professor. It was time well spent catching up and getting a good poke of inspiration toward a possible new personal project.

The evening out was fun, but it would have been more so had I not been struck by another jolt of insomnia. I met up with a group of four others, all Korean. With the five of us, three spoke perfect English, one servicable English, and the other didn’t say much of anything. Four spoke perfect Korean, with me as the odd one out. I’d say a good two-thirds of the conversation that night was in Korean.

It’s part of life here that I’m occasionally engaged in social interactions where I appear as though I’m involved in the conversation even though the meaning is completely lost on me. When Korean is spoken I watch the person talking, then I watch the person responding. Usually it doesn’t bother me. I’m lucky in a sense that I don’t need to be at the center of things and am far more comfortable observing. I like to watch faces, see reactions, notice dynamic interpersonal shifts, see who’s got the upper hand. But things can get awkward, like when something funny is said and the table bursts out laughing and I’m not—that’s when it’s clear that this guy is not like the others.

People who are considerate—usually those who have spent a lot of time with foreigners—will understand my situation and integrate me into the flow. So things get broken up by an occasional translation for the highlights, and side conversations in English will break off from the main dialog. The times when it sucks are when there’s no break in the flow. That I see as outright rude, not to mention painfully boring. But they’re also rare.

Yes, I know. Learn the language. But that’s much easier said than done. My classes and additional personal study at this stage cover how to ask directions to the bank, what movie we should go see, what I did yesterday, what my favorite food is, do I have a girlfriend. This kind of thing. When conversation shifts to how university professors are becoming increasingly fearful of being blacklisted by an increasingly repressive right-wing political structure, there’s just no chance. I can’t hang. I poke at my food, follow the emotional arcs, look engaged, and wait.

What I hear goes something like this. “Recently, ____ _____ _____ because of the _____ ______. It’s very ______ ______ and ______ _______ which I don’t like. Last week _____ ______ _______ ___ _______. So I _____ ___ ______ _____ ______. Usually _____ ____ _______ ____. But I don’t eat _____ ____ _______.”

I feel like the dog in that Gary Larson cartoon. But I’m getting better. Each week brings a tiny bit more. But it’s painfully, agonizingly slow.

I often wonder why I bother. Given the monumental undertaking that it is, time spent trying to learn Korean might be better spent doing some other kinds of work or research. But everywhere I turn I’m reminded how much certain worlds would open up to me if I had that access. And they’re worlds that I really do want access to.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Sound, USA on June 23, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I was on the subway today, listening to some prog on the iPod, when a group of three young girls sat down in front of me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because the music in my head was too loud. But somehow I knew by watching them that they weren’t speaking Korean. I took out my earbuds and sure enough they were speaking in fluent English. Not just English but American English. There was a slight accent, but the mannerisms, the colloquialisms, the verbal punctuation told me that this wasn’t simply a trio of good students.

They were young, maybe 17. They talked about their teachers, how strict they are. One was saying how she can’t sleep at night because she’s so worried about her classes. On and on and on like this, and there I am, staring at them with no shame.

This shouldn’t be a rare thing, but it is. It’s also, for some strange reason, strange. This only happened to me once before and I stared then too. The first thing I wonder is if they’re Korean. They could be exchange students from China or Taiwan or Japan. (I still can’t distinguish the features of ethnic Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.) The other thing I wonder is why they’re talking in English. They have accents, so they’re not U.S. natives. Are they practicing? Are they each from different parts of the world and English is their common second language? Are they children of wild geese families, recently home for summer vacation?

I spend my daily life meandering through the crowded streets of Busan absorbing language as ambient sound. I can’t decode 95% of it. It is simply sound with various shades of emotional inflection. So when I hear English being spoken, my brain switches sharply into a state of attention. Hearing becomes listening. I understand. Not only that, but I want to become involved, I want to talk too. It has nothing to do with loneliness or nostalgia or anything like that. There’s some compulsory pull at work. I see it in other foreigners as well. If I’m talking with a group of foreigner friends on the subway and there’s another foreigner I don’t know some distance away, I can see him eavesdropping.

But it’s much more weird when it’s a group of Asian girls in Korea, who in that moment usurp the conventions of the audiovisual contract. What I see and what I hear don’t match. There I am on the subway experiencing a real-world aesthetic disconnect.

I hoped those girls were going to get off at my stop, one of the major university hubs in town. I wanted an answer to the mystery, so I was going to ask their story. But alas they kept on, probably off to enjoy this nice, sunny day at the beach.


Posted in Academics, Expat life, Music, Personal, Sound, Travel, USA on June 21, 2009 by Elephant Talk

It’s not necessarily neglect, more lack of followthrough. I started a few posts, as I can see in my drafts page, and then failed to complete them. It was mostly political stuff, with one big personal one. But on both fronts the winds changed and the news — both out there in the world and inside my brain — quickly became outdated.

Junes and Decembers are strange months for me in Korea. At the ends of semesters there’s always a ramp-up of activities and emotions and confusion that seem to magnetize and explode into… events. It’s different every time, but the feelings are eerily consistent. It all leaves me both exhilarated and depressed. So in the come-down stage, where I am now, I hide a little more than I normally would. Lately I’ve been watching a bunch of movies, playing with sound, reading, and spending a lot of time re-writing my textbook. I seem to be constantly tired lately, but I’ve got a nice little inspirational burst going. It feels good to have time, and it feels especially good to be productive.

Summer plans are set, barring any more last-minute drama. I’ll be in the States late July to late August. It’s my third trip back to the U.S. I’m mostly looking forward to family and food. Mexican food, Indian food, Thai food. We’ve got all that here, but it’s done so poorly that I don’t even bother. I will return a fatter man.

The trip will climax with a wedding in Portland. Two friends whom I miss dearly are tying the knot. It’s gonna be a great week. We’re putting the band back together yet again. We’ve hit the stage in Busan, Gimhae, Singapore, and we’re now set to conquer America.

Haeundae, the movie

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Korea on June 9, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Cool, a disaster movie set in Busan. I gotta see this…

Twelve years of hell

Posted in Culture, Korea, News, Politics, USA on June 8, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Here’s how cynical I am. When I read about the two American girls sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea, my first thought was, well at least they’ll get a best-selling memoir out of it.

Actually, my first thought was “holy shit.” But it was a photo finish in my mental superhighway. Now I’m thinking Jesus, those poor girls. And wow, North Korea has balls. It’s looking more and more like they want to go to war.

I’d been following this story a little and I thought the regime would set them free. You know, get everyone worried and then at the end, show their benevolence in a goodwill gesture by letting the girls go free. Follow up the screaming and threats with a little surprise empathy. In the propaganda game, it oughta get the world to see that North Korea are not a nation of demons, but live by the rule of law. You know, kind of a good cop bad cop sort of thing.

I mean, really… North Korea knows how U.S. popular culture works. Does Kim Jong-il really want to release these girls after 12 years and expose the world to their stories of horror?

I guess they don’t care. Or they’re not thinking straight. I don’t know which is worse.


I should probably read entire articles before I link to them. Toward the bottom, a Korean academic essentially said what I just said:

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, had predicted that Pyongyang would probably free the reporters and treat their release as a goodwill gesture that should be reciprocated with a special U.S. envoy visiting the isolated state.

Physical presence

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Travel, USA on June 7, 2009 by Elephant Talk

One of the drawbacks of being an American expat is a very stupid law that dictates how much time a citizen can spend at home. If I want to have tax-exempt status on my foreign income, I have to establish that I am not a resident of the U.S. According to the United States government, I can only be considered a non-resident if I am outside the U.S. for 330 days or more per year. This gives us only 34 days to spend in our home country.

It goes something like this: Even though I have a home and job in Korea, if I go back to the U.S. for 35 days, I am then considered a resident of the United States. Thirty-five out of 365 apparently means I’m living there. This is not only a monumental flaw in common sense, it is unique in the world. The U.S. has the most restrictive length of stay of just about any developed nation in the world. I was talking to a friend from the U.K. the other day who told me that he can be in his country for 6 months and still claim South Korean residency.

What surprises me is that I’ll talk to U.S. friends here who have no knowledge of this law. In fact, I’d say the majority of people I talk to are unaware of it. So university teachers and professors who get summers off spend two months or more in the States and don’t give it a second thought.

Many don’t even file taxes, which you’re still supposed to do every year. You fill out a form (2555-EZ) plus your 1040 and send it off. The 2555 form has two “tests.” The one involving the 330 days is called the “physical presence test.” You have to claim you were out of the U.S. for that period of time and then state the dates you were gone. When I bring this up with foreigners, the first question is always “How are they gonna know?” — as in, how will the government catch you if you lie. What I’ve been told is that if you’re audited by the IRS, they can access passport scans.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that this is the time when people talk about their summer plans. I have a friend’s wedding in late August in Portland that will take up a week of my 34 days. I would love to also visit my sister on the East coast, but there’s simply not enough time. It’s this way every year. It’s also the reason why I spend my winter breaks traveling around Asia or Europe rather than going to the States.

I’m probably being extra paranoid about this stuff, but I look at it this way: One of my original reasons for coming here was the opportunity to save a good chunk of money every year. The amount of money that I manage to save every year is about the same as what I might get taxed in a normal employment situation every year. (Actually, I save more than that, but it’s close.) If I were to cheat, then come back and get audited, I’d have to pay all those back taxes, which would be a lot of money. Collectively, I would owe about the same amount that I’d worked so hard to save. So, as much as I would love to stay in the U.S. for a couple months every summer, it’s not worth the stress. I choose to keep things legit for no other reason than peace of mind.

I should add that I’m no specialist in tax law. This is an extremely convoluted, not to mention totally fucked-up, law. I might have some of the details wrong. But I have had many, many conversations about this. Everytime someone reacts with disbelief and anger I say “Hey, go look it up yourself. If you can find anywhere that I’m wrong I’d like to be the first to know.” But that’s never happened. (You can read about it yourself here.)

So I’ll enjoy my 34 days (actually this year it’s 32), eat a lot of good California Mexican food, see friends and family, and then come back to my home, my real home, in South Korea.