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.

Shanghai: Old and New (상하이, 현대와 옛)

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I’m back now in Seoul after a short trip to Shanghai last week. It was my first time to China. I’ve been meaning to travel there for a long time, but kept putting it off due to the visa process for Americans. Being in Seoul, I’m just a stones throw away from Shanghai and Beijing. I figured it was about time I get my visa and open the door to explore this vast country. Originally I didn’t have much interest in China. I was turned off by the bad air, the authoritarian government, the bad reputation of Chinese tourists, etc. Yet, as time’s passed for me in Asia I’ve become increasingly curious about the country. China figures predominantly in the current American political narrative and it’s undeniable that China is quickly becoming the strongest country in the world economically. I wanted to get a taste of what it’s all about, so I booked a round-trip flight to Shanghai and spent four days there.

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Now that I’m back, I’m about just as confused as before I went. Shanghai struck me on first impression as an impressive mix of new and old, like Seoul, but on a more exaggerated scale. The modern areas of Nanjing Road, The Bund and Pudong, reminded me of New York , and the European architecture of France. Yet, right around the corner from these spots are small, windy streets and old homes, cluttered, busy neighborhoods where older people can be seen cutting vegetables on the street and aromas from small restaurants and shops permeate the streets. I’ve always seen Seoul as a city, like Shanghai, caught between new and old. Yet, the dichotomy between the two worlds is more profound in Shanghai. Since I came to Korea three years ago, Seoul has changed fast. It’s always changing, both for good and bad. So many neighborhoods have quickly become gentrified, bringing along with the tide new cafe’s, book shops, clothing stores, etc., leaving a lot of old homes and history behind. In it’s move to modernize sometimes it feels in Korea like the governments willing to leave all remnants of history behind. In Shanghai, these two worlds felt a bit more intact, existing side by side, rather than the old fading away rapidly into the new. I wonder if Shanghai will follow along with Seoul and do the same or if the history will be better preserved?

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(Dog I met in the streets of Old Shanghai)

Either way, it was good to get some time away from Korea and see somewhere new, somewhere I imagine I’ll be going back to again. China’s such a large country with so much to offer in terms of history, nature and culture, so as long as I’m here in Korea, I plan more trips back.

 

 

Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Late August

It’s that time of year again in Seoul. War-game season. Since I first came to Seoul, my concerns about a possible escalation of violence on the Korean peninsula have lessened in terms of anxiety around the news. I’ve now been here through countless missile tests (both successful and unsuccessful) from the North, numerous threats of reducing Seoul to a “sea of ash” and at times the talk of an escalated war. I’ve adjusted to this as a normal part of life here. Coming from Vermont, about as safe and peaceful as it gets, I was a bit sensitive to the politically volatile landscape of Seoul at first. Yet, for me, there was always a fascination, albeit depressing, with the whole story and history.

What I have learned, and didn’t take long to learn, was that these threats and chest pumping from the North come routinely. There’s a pattern, as the North is typically using threats and displays of military strength to both boost national pride and cohesion amongst its people and create the right environment for appeasement through financial/economic support. Being the poorer of the two countries, with massive issues of hunger, now facing a sever drought, and next door to the South, with a distant hope of re-unification, the North has relied on military might as it’s main prop to stay economically afloat and safe. There’s a reason and rhyme behind what they do…but that is not to dismiss that a real danger does exist. Most of my Korean friends admit that there is a genuine degree of danger, but it’s so removed from the daily reality in Seoul that it’s out of mind for most people most of the time.

Anyway, I’m reminded again of this cycle as September approaches and the annual US-Korea joint military drills begin. This year they were preceded with NK accusations that the drills were cover for a secret attack. Last year during this time was a long drawn-out conflict involving land mines, K-Pop and other Korean drama audio clips being blared over the border with loudspeakers and tanks lined up alongside the NK border. Since these drills have just started, there’s a good chance for more to come this time around. Living here, the seasons are marked by these escalations. This afternoon was another mock-drill where a siren sounds at loud volume across the city and cars are told to park and the subway shuts down.

I looked outside from my Win’s apartment, up on a high floor of a tower in central Seoul as the siren blared. People below were walking around talking on their phones. The streets looked a bit quieter than usual, but beyond that, it’s like the blaring siren was simply background noise. It’s just another day of life for people here. As a foreigner, we have the privileged position of looking in, without the same concerns of this land being our foundation, our absolute home. Obviously, the longer I’m here, the more that changes. But for now, I still often feel like I’m looking in, not truly understanding what all this uncertainty means to the people around me. It’s part of the package being in this part of the world. There’s probably a lot of change to come in East Asia these next 5-10 years. For the time being, I’ll stay hoping for peace.

 

 

Hoe in Sindang Jungang Market (신당중앙 시장, 회)

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(Flounder sashimi)

When most people think of Sindang, a neighborhood located in central Seoul, they think of tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes the area’s famous for. Yet, there’s more to Sindang. I’d argue even that tteokbokki isn’t the true highlight of the neighborhood, history aside. Jungang Market, right next to Sindang Station Line 2, is home to many small restaurants offering foods ranging from jokbal (pigs feet), to kalguksu (literally “knife noodle soup”, made with wheat flour noodles), to dried fish. However, just exploring the upper level of the market it’d be easy to miss what’s underneath: a large seafood market in the shape of one long hallway, extending the underground length of the market, shops stretching into the distance across from each other.

Walking down the walkway towards the lower level I had to duck my head to avoid hitting the low hanging ceiling. After turning the corner into the lower floor, the dark, low lit atmosphere of the upper/ground level market floor was replaced with stark white light (reminiscent of lighting in large supermarkets). The walls and floor, too, were all white, as is traditional in many Korean fish/seafood markets, and older Korean women and men were sitting around in each restaurant sharing drinks, eating fish, laughing, yelling, all the above. A typical scene at a Korean market.

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(Banchan, including: sea snails, quail eggs, squash, shrimp, tofu, corn and grilled mackerel..)

We went for Hoe (or “sashimi”), cuts of raw fish served with banchan (small side dishes with assorted meats/vegetables). I’ve never really been a huge fan of seafood, particularly fish, but I’ve been wanting to expand my horizons and try a larger variety of Korean food so when Winnie suggested we try Sindang’s raw fish market I was all game. A smiling middle aged woman ushered us into her restaurant where we sat and looked over the menu, deciding on the 40,000 won (around $35 USD) set, which included a platter of raw fish with a variety of banchan, 8 sushi rolls and followed by maeuntang (a spicy seafood stew). I ordered a soju (the ubiquitous (and notorious) green bottled 1 dollar sweet potato vodka Korean’s are known to drink like beer) as I thought it’d complement the meal well. Winnie doesn’t drink so I poured her an empty shot glass of water and we cheered to our meal.

Shortly after it came out, first with the banchan then followed by the large platter of sliced, raw flounder (광어회, gwangeo hoe) served with a soysauce dipping sauce and wasabi (or in this case, died horseradish). After talking and eating our way through the main course, the maeuntang came out (literally “spicy soup”), consisting of a wide variety of vegetables, mostly strong and pungent in flavor, such as hot peppers, chilli peppers, onions, garlic, ginger and mushrooms along with red snapper fish, clams, and shrimp over a pepper sauce based broth. Everything was good, but I wouldn’t call it great. Being someone who’s never been inclined towards seafood, I wasn’t expecting to love it, so I wasn’t surprised. Yet, nonetheless, we both ate well and the experience itself was worth the trip. When going to Sindang, I’d recommend not simply limiting yourself to the famous “Tteokbokki Town”…For two reasons. One, I think there’s much better tteokbokki all across Seoul than what you can find in that area. Two, the market itself and surrounding restaurants have a lot of great food to offer. While I’m not a huge seafood guy, this market’s definitely worth a visit as well as the ground level where you can find lots of tasty street snacks and soup restaurants.

Sanmotoongi (산모퉁이)

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Looking across towards the western ridge of Mt. Bugak, Seoul, from Sanmotongi Cafe.

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Winnie trying out the telescope, looking across towards Mt. Ingwan.

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Balcony seating, offering a panorama of Northern Seoul, nestled amongst the hills.

    I’m back in Korea after a little over a month in the states. My trip home was great, affording enough time to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy far too many burgers, yet it’s good to be back in Seoul. Arriving back in Seoul in mid July, I was suddenly reminded of just how hot it can get here…each day since I’ve been back has been humid and damp. Outside, it feels like a sauna and I’m perpetually sweating. So, while I expected I’d be out exploring every day as soon as I got back, in reality I’ve been taking it pretty easy and enjoying air conditioning whenever and wherever it’s available.

     The day after my arrival was date day with Winnie. We spent it wandering around Buamdong, a quiet neighborhood north of Gyeongbokgung palace and saddled between Mt Bugaksan to the East and Mt Inwangsan to the West. We made our way to Sanmongtoongi (meaning, “corner of the mountain”), a small cafe up on the hills offering views of Seoul, particularly the neighborhoods spread amongst the valley below. The cafe’s famous as a location where a famous drama was shot (forget the name), and for it’s unique location, off the well worn path and described as one of the harder cafe’s to find in Seoul by some. Spent most of the time chatting with Winnie while sharing cups of tea, rather than taking shots, but here’s a few I took. The cafe itself is cozy and welcoming, with a rock wall exterior and wooden floor interior, with wide wall sized windows facing south. Outside was a patio space, where Winnie and I tried the binoculars there…surprised to find we could watch people hiking alongside Inwangsan in the distance as well as people sitting inside there offices through the binocular’s view.

    When there, you might feel like you’re far removed from downtown Seoul, but it’s really only a short bus trip away from Gwanghwamun and the city center. Besides this cafe, Buamdong is full of other cafe’s, restuarants and galleries…all warranting more trips back. Definitely worth a trip to see a quieter, yet sophisticated side of Seoul.

Good Morning Seoul

It’s an early Sunday morning here in Seoul. I’m at Starbucks, eating a simple bagel and cream cheese and coffee breakfast. My eyes opened this morning to a view of a foggy Seoul skyline, but the sun is now peeking through the grey layers and cars are passing by in greater frequency. I’ve got a bit of a long day ahead of me. Tomorrow I leave for a month long trip in America…both an opportunity to see friends and family but also to prepare for next steps in Korea. I’ll be setting up a new visa, allowing myself to continue to study and work here, as I continue looking for work options and improve my Korean. I’m having such a great time in Korea now, that I’m sure I’ll be excited to come back in a months time..Yet, for now, I’m excited about the upcoming trip.

I’ll be heading first to Nevada for a day and a night in Vegas followed by a short road trip to some of the surrounding national parks in Utah and Arizona. After a few days, I’ll then be making the final stretch to Vermont, where I’ll spend most of my time, split up with a short trip to Cape Cod, a special place in my memory, where my family used to spend summer vacations.

These days, I’m increasingly feel more and more comfortable in Korea…the result of my gradually improving language ability, an increased comfort living within this culture and my expanded friendships…While I love living in Asia, and in some ways prefer it to home, I’m always fascinated by my home country. I’ve, since a young age, been drawn to and excited by images of the vast American west…images of native americans living primitively amongst nature, the mammoth canyons that expand beyond the reach of eyes, like a large ocean of sand and earth…I’ve never lost this attraction to the American West…so it’ll great to find myself back there for a few days. Also I’m looking forward to spending time in my country as it processes the social, economic and cultural consequences of all that’s occurring…between an apparent growing renaissance in the civil rights and feminist movements, and the current, dramatic, presidential election cycle. America’s my native home, so I can relate to these events in a more immediate, and passionate way, than I can to the issues affecting Korea. I’m looking forward to being back for a bit and documenting my time while I’m there…

More updates to come…