American in Korea

I usually use this space to document places I’ve visited in Seoul and abroad, but I’d like to start treating it as a journal as well. I miss writing a bit more personally, so I figure I’ll use this post as a way to say a bit more about myself than I usually do. As my friends and other familiar readers know, I graduated from Sogang University’s Korean Language Center here in Seoul a few months back (July), and since then I’ve been teaching English, editing and getting back into shape. I still feel, however, like I’m in between my education here and something else. As much as I enjoy teaching, I’m hoping to move into a different field here in Korea; where I can make use of my Korean and everything I’m learning in a broader way. That’s part of the reason I continue maintaining this blog and shooting photos. I love writing and shooting, and I believe my writing, at least, could be something I bring to my future career, be it as a journalist, blogger, marketer, etc. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot still from teaching and just simply living my life here in Seoul, working on the language, meeting new people and pushing myself in different ways.

It’s strange. People ask me often “When will you go back to America?”. I imagine some day I will, but as of now I’m able to live here doing what I am and I’m building upon the skills I’ve decided I want to work on (photography, writing, exercise, editing). So, regardless of whether I’m in Korea or America, I’ll still be pursuing these things. On top of that, I enjoy it here. I feel energized in Seoul. Despite the frustrations, occasional loneliness and challenges, I receive inspiration from my surroundings to learn more and, in the end of the day, something keeps bringing me back to the culture and language…something inside of me keeps driving me to learn more, even though at times I feel like just throwing my hands up. Note: For anyone who hasn’t learned Korean, it’s tough. Yet, it’s definitely worth all the stress and hard work so long as you’re properly motivated. (I’ll write some posts later about my Korean learning experience/story).

This past year, however, with all the drama of the election season in America, it’s been harder than usual for me to place most of my focus on Korea. I was caught up in and passionately supporting Bernie during his run, and since his loss, despite my disappointment, I’ve continued following the debates and everything else happening. The whole spectacle of this year’s election has been like nothing I’ve seen before and so often resembling a drama more than an actual race, without Bernie’s influence bringing in the real issues as he consistently did in the primary. For me, however, it’s not so much the details of this time period in America that have so transfixed me, but rather the intensity of it. America looks as if it’s undergoing a massive transition, as if this era of American hegemony is beginning it’s decline. From here, I often feel a desire to be back with my people, amongst the familiarity of my culture, during all that’s happening. Yet, on the other hand, I enjoy the distance. It gives me an ability to look in and observe what’s going on more objectively, without all the emotions so present in my surroundings. But all this has brought me back to myself as an American in Korea. When I first came here I dreamed about assimilating, about making my place amongst the people and really blend in to the crowd. There’s a few problems with that. One, I’m a tall white guy. Two, I never will be able to fully assimilate, nor do I wish to. What I failed to realize at first was that while my orientation to Korea would change over the years, through my experience and language learning, Korea wouldn’t. The cultural differences between America and Asia, and particularly America and Korea, are vast. The challenge, in the end of the day, seems to be being able to tolerate always being a bit outside of the culture. To be okay with some of that loneliness or confusion, rather than to attempt to break that divide. The divide’s always going to be there, and I’m learning to embrace it while simultaneously appreciating how far I’ve come in my own way to adjusting and adapting to a culture so different from my own.

So here’s to America, in all it’s current pains and joys, and to my new home, Korea, in all it’s grit and beauty.

Dean – “130 Mood: TRBL” (딘 – “130 무드 투러블”)

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(Album Cover -Dean: “130 Mood: TRBL)

        After eating some Seollangtang (설농탕 – Ox bone soup) in Myeongdong the other day, I stopped into a small record store to see what CD’s were on sale. Since I first came to Korea people have always asked me if I’m into K-Pop. I’d always say no. Both the K-Dramas and K-Pop never appealed to me. It sounded all the same to me and I didn’t sense any creativity in it. My tastes in art and music have always drawn me towards artists outside the mainstream and styles such as jazz, electronic and hip hop. I found the heavily made up, and often plastic surgery “enhanced” faces, of the dancers (or icons) on TV, dancing in perfect unison, to be interesting, but I was never moved or attracted to the music. Yet, as time has passed in Korea, and the more of my surroundings I can understand through the language and culture, the more I’ve become curious about the world of K-pop and K-Drama.

Recently, I’ve been following the famous show “Unpretty Rapstar” (언프리티 랩스타) every Friday night, the female alternative to “Show Me the Money”, an American Idol-style music competition show based around hip hop. Each week the rappers take turns preparing solo performances, battles or freestyles and each week a member or two is voted off. Along with the hosts of the show, each week a celebrity (either a famous Korean rapper or producer) is chosen to participate as a judge. The winner of the week then has the opportunity to make a song with said producer/rapper. Through following these shows I’ve started to learn more about the world of Korean rap, and thanks to the Korean subtitles played along with the raps, can follow a decent amount of what’s going on/being said. While rap is far from the easiest medium to practice my Korean listening skills, it’s still the form of music I’m drawn most to, both in American music, as a big hip hop fan, and here in Korea as well.

Back to my original point, I went to this small music store the other day, looking for a Korean hip hop CD to take home. I asked the woman working at the store if she had any recommendations. She said she doesn’t listen to music the young people are into these days, but prefers slow ballads and classic Korean rock/trot. I asked her, then, if any particular hip hop artist/CD was especially popular lately or selling well. She pointed both to EXO’s new album and Dean’s EP “130 Mood: TRBL”, saying “I’ve sold a lot of these lately”. The name “Dean” came to my mind, but I didn’t know where…then it occurred to me that I’d seen him on “Unpretty Rapstar”…”Ah, right….that guy at the penthouse who had all the girls eyeing and gawking at him…”. A few weeks ago, Dean was introduced as a special guest. Apparently he’s considered pretty hot amongst the female rappers, as they all hunkered around him, flirting and giving cheers while sharing beers together. I looked at the purple-drenched, fuzzy album cover and thought “What the heck?”. First, I asked the woman if I could by chance listen to the album first. She said no. I thought out loud, “Blind buy?”, deciding to go with it since it was relatively cheap. The woman, smiling, offered to give me a poster of Hyeona (현아), a really famous female singer here. The poster was in celebration of her most recent album “Awesome”, and pictured a side shot of her face, looking up at the sky, hair draped across her cheek, her features emphasised by layers of makeup. The woman asked “Can I give you this as well? She’s pretty, right?” I responded, jokingly  “Since she’s pretty, sure”.

As for the album, it’s less rap than R&B. Dean’s style reminds me a bit of Drake, with soft vocals and slow hip hop beats, and a bit of a drawl to his delivery. It’s good though. The album carries a bright, bouncy vibe that’s evokes images for me of clubs and night life, of neon lights and late nights dancing. It’s sound and texture, like the cover is synthetic, but the flowing beats and synths create a spacious, soft tone and feel. Overall, a good listen, and memorable enough to make me want to explore more of what Dean and other Korean rappers have to offer. I guess, this time, the blind buy worked out. I told the woman at the store I’d be back. Maybe next time with a better knowledge of what’s in, what’s new, and what I’m looking for.

Ah, I can do that…

As I mentioned in my last post, the weather in Seoul lately has been HOT…humid, muggy and damp. I live in an oktapbang (roof top apartment), the top floor of a old concrete building built in the 70s. It’s spacious compared to average one room apartments in Seoul, it’s cheap and the location’s great but getting through the hot summers is one challenge everyone who’s lived in an oktapbang can relate to. After getting back to Korea I found out my air conditioner was broken. So, I had to call up the service center for assistance. Simple enough…Right?

Despite being in Korea for a while and having reached a high level in my Korean, I still get nervous when dealing with things like this. I worry there will be a communication breakdown over the phone while I speak in Korean..or that the assistant will ask me repeatedly, “What did you say??”. For a long time, making this type of call in Korean was something I was unable to do. Even as my listening’s improved along with my conversational abilities, the fear and nervousness around putting myself out there and making calls in Korean has remained. Yet, this time, after much deliberation I said “Fuck it, I got this”. I felt a confidence, a part of me that said “Don’t worry. This is how you learn. You make mistakes”. Before making the call, I prepared notes about all the things I expected to be asked about: air conditioner model name, address, phone number, what happened, etc. I prepared any vocab/sentences I needed on a scrap paper and made the call.

Upon answering, I first said “I’m a foreigner, so please speak slowly”. And then we talked. A few minutes later I was told to wait for a call from a technician who would stop by my house this week. That’s it. Done. I felt a wave of pride and satisfaction, giving myself a invisible pat on the back…and I was reminded again, “I can do this….”. Sure, my pronunciation and intonation sometimes are a bit off and I had to ask the customer service agent to repeat herself once, but that’s not to get hung up on the mistakes. The mistakes are part of the process, and I did something that, at one point, wasn’t possible to me.

The lesson of this whole episode was that it’s easy to under-estimate ourselves…fearing the worst, thinking we can’t do something…That’s natural…but eventually, to move forward, you need to act. I usually will ask a Korean friend for help in these situations…but this time, I felt the desire to prove to myself I can handle this on my own. Half the time when you just say “Screw it, I’m doing this”, you’ll do better than you expected. The key towards success in anything is to re-orient from good/bad, win/lose, black and white thinking to a creative approach where the lines between these distinctions are blurred. Life is not clear cut, and we’re not born perfect. We learn through experience, and that includes pain, embarrassment, uncertainty, etc. This time, I felt a clarity in myself, somewhere deep down in my core the words “I’ll make mistakes, and that’s how I’ll learn, this is the way forward” echo up, passing through my mind. This is the way forward.

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

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You might be asking, “what’s that title about?”. To explain it shortly, it’s a Korean mimetic word meant to capture and evoke the feeling of restlessness, particularly around the change from spring to summer. It might be this feeling that brought me back to writing on this blog after such a long hiatus. Whatever it may be, this change of seasons, through spring and the gradual shift into summer has got me thinking of new projects new ambitions…contrasted with the desire to retreat and turning in, so characterised by winter. Short story is, I’ve been in a creative space lately, feeling a renewed sense of energy, as the vegetation around the city, too, wakes up from its long winter slumber.

The picture above was taken in Busan, during a walk in Dongbaek park before sunset. This was my first time down to Busan, a short getaway from Seoul in between school quarters here. Busan wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d heard Seoullites describe Busan as “시골” or “countryside”, and it certainly isn’t that…as Korea’s second largest city, behind Seoul. Nonetheless, while Busan readers might be upset to read this, I understand the joke. Busan’s a beautiful, impressive city, but lacks the energy and intensity of Seoul…It certainly can’t compare in breadth, but struck me as a relaxed place to live, offering more space and quiet than its northern sibling. I like the pace of Seoul..I like the craziness of the city, but the quiet and peace I felt in Busan was a welcome change from the bustle of Seoul. It wasn’t just that there were less people, but the city feels more spread out and the vibe felt more relaxed. While a short trip, it provided a brief respite from Seoul life and a chance to eat some fresh seafood at the same time.

I came back to Seoul feeling rejuvenated, ready to start up a new quarter…and here I am, approaching the end of my final quarter in my school’s language program, entering a new phase of life in Korea and the start of a new, squelching hot Seoul summer, feeling this restless anticipation for new experiences around the corner…More to come!

Dalmaji Park (달맞이 공원)

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Dalmaji Park, located near Oksu Station on Line 3, offers a beautiful expansive view of Seoul’s Han River and a panoramic of Gangnam and Southern Seoul. It’s also a rewarding trek for those not so keen on hiking, being less of a mountain and more of a hill. The hike up took me just around 10 minutes, granted I was scurrying up, more in fashion of a run than a brisk walk. I visited the park this last weekend after parting with a friend, in search of somewhere new in the city to check out. I went during Chuseok weekend, Korea’s thanksgiving…a time of honoring the shift in seasons during the Fall Equinox. The Korean traditional holidays are all based around the Lunar Calendar, and Chuseok lines up with the full moon, symbolic of a completion of the growth cycle during summer and a time of harvest.

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I hadn’t considered the name of the park until I met an older Korean man at the top of the hill. The man saw me and began speaking to me in Korean, asking me where I’m from, what I do, the standard questions. But to my surprise I was really able to follow along with him as he started telling me the history of the park. The Korean name for the park is “Dal” (Moon) and “Maji” (Greeting/meeting)..So when translating, the park’s name is something like “Meeting the moon/connecting with the moon Park”. The man gestured to the sky, making a sign of connection between the sky and himself while explaining this to me. During a time where the moon’s symbolic of a completion cycle and new beginning, was a nice surprise to hear the story behind the park. After the older man complimented my Korean he launched into a description of the history of a lot of the holiday’s in Korea, talking for a good 5 minutes straight. At this point I realized I was struggling to grasp a lot of what he said as I nodded and smiled. We walked down a ways together and parted ways. I continued taking shots, breaking up my time reading a book and taking in the crisp evening breeze.

For a easy hike and slice of quiet in Seoul, Dalmaji Parks a great getaway. Fortunately the sky’s been clear for the past few weeks…providing great views of the city, uncovered from the coming and going hazy veil the city often wears.

뚝배기의 예술 (Ddukbaegi Yesul)

 

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뚝배기 예술 (Ddukbaegi Yesul) is a 20 second walk from my apartment. It’s a small, colorful restaurant specializing in Ddukbaegi dishes. Ddukbaegi is a korean word for a glazed, earthenware pot, used to serve soups and stews. Yesul means art. And I can testify to the food here really being art. It might not be the highest quality ingredients, but it’s absolutely tasty. It’s cheap as well, which doesn’t hurt. Hence the reasons I come by so often. Most importantly, however, is the atmosphere. I feel comfortable here. American baseball is often shown on the tv, the walls are painted a light yellow with illustrations of birds, and the staff are wonderful. I’m now always greeted with smiles and often leave with a handshake from the boss. Recently, I’m even given extra dishes, today watermelon as a post meal refresher in this summer heat.

As much as I like adventure, I also crave familiarity, and I’m a regular at a few restaurants around my apartment. It’s nice now a days because I’ve become familiar with enough people in my area that I’ve developed a sense of community in my pocket of this large metropolis. I’m carving out a sense of home for myself here. Language being one of the most important factors in this.

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Today at lunch, the middle aged woman who usually waits on me invited conversation by asking about my friend. She asked, “is she your girlfriend?” In korean culture many still disbelieve in the possibility of maintaining platonic relationships with the opposite sex, so I had to explain she’s just my friend and my girlfriend’s korean. I promised to invite my girlfriend next time. Rather than stopping here, she began asking more questions, and to my surprise I was able to follow her. She asked how long I will stay in korea, what I’m studying, how I met my girlfriend, when I’ll marry….koreans have no trouble asking very straight forward and direct questions upon first meeting. I had fun with this though, telling her I need time to think but marriage is a possibility in the future. I was able to stretch my language a bit, but it all felt pretty comfortable to me, another pleasant surprise.

After talking, i returned to my dish and speaking with my friend. I had a big bowl of yukgaejang (육개장) to work on. 육개장 is a spicy beef soup with onions and peppers. It’s one of my favorite korean dishes. Here they put a nice twist on it, adding sweet potato noodles with a side of make-it-yourself bibimbap and a plethora of banchan (side dishes). My friend and I fished our meal, paid and the staff said a friendly goodbye. Today I left feeling closer to the woman, having been able to take my language a step further by really engaging in conversation, beyond simple niceties.

For any future visitors, I’ll take you here.