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

dean

(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)

14425449_10154132704474125_816657815530945265_o

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.

14481757_10154132729469125_5150040331281109638_o

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?

14409902_10154132658729125_3769064055126912808_o

(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

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-08-21-19-13-49_38

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.

 

 

Neon Seoul

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-08-21-19-14-08_43

The first thing that I’m always struck by when I first come back to Korea from the States are the neon signs. Before coming back I always look forward to the food, the public transportation, certain spots in the city, the experience, but I never think about the lights that signal Seoul’s insomnia; that point out, “the days not over yet”. Most of these signs are for suljibs (bars), or hofs (pubs) or noraebangs (Karaoke rooms). In the picture above you can also see illuminated store front signs with vertical scrolls advertising certain soups and foods. In the foreground you can see a Cass beer poster, the Budweiser of Korea, describing the enlivening experience of a sip from it’s can. These are the fuel for Korea’s sleeplessness: alcohol, food and karaoke (not to mention 24-hour PC gaming rooms). Karoake itself comes in many forms, from simply rooms to sing in, to rooms with women to join. Hong Sang Soo’s 1998 film The Power of Gangwon Province includes a memorable scene where the two lonely friends spend a drunken night singing songs together and fooling around with 2 naked women in a karaoke bar in the Northeastern province of Gangwondo. So, the signs symbolise energy, life, insomnia, vice. They’re the light that keep the misadventures, conflicts, and doldrums alive at night . But there’s something also beautiful and magical to these old neon signs. Something I don’t think is only particular to me but to many, as evidenced by Vegas. Not to mention, for Westerners, the lights have become, through popular culture, a symbol of East Asia.

Before I first came to Asia, I remember watching Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and marveling at the images of a multi-colored, multi-faceted Tokyo; the arcades, the fashion, the flashing lights and neon signs, the Karaoke room floating above the busy streets below, the chaotic and loud Pachinko parlors. At the time, all these sights were foreign to me, and Tokyo and Asia still held, in my mind and heart, a place of mystery and fascination. It’s all these images of a futuristic yet retro Asia, symbolized by this pulsing sea of lights, that I’d held in my mind for so long. This picture I took when walking through the streets reminded me of that Asia. The Asia I don’t think about so often anymore. The Asia of Blade Runner and Akira.

I was walking around Myeondong, a cultural and arts area of Seoul during the Japanese occupation, when I took this shot. Myeongdong is now a symbol of consumer culture and one of the largest shopping and tourism districts in Seoul. To my surprise, I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. When I first came to Korea, I hated Myeongdong. It felt, when I first visited, like the Asia I’d seen in the movies, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I expected I would. I was right in the center of the madness. Hoards of people squeezed together in dense streets, smells from food carts wafting through the air, lights in every direction and music blared from all corners. As I walked through, I remember hearing the young Korean women standing in front of cosmetic stores advertising in loud, high pitched voices for special deals. I remember looking across the sea of faces and bobbing heads and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It was too much for me and I was turned off by the lack of any real traditional culture.  So, my surprise comes from the fact that I’ve come to enjoy Myeondong. I enjoy it for the food, the energy, the busyness – all the things at first I couldn’t stand. Maybe that means I’ve gotten used to the frenzy and chaos of Seoul? Or maybe I simply am looking for different things? The practical explanation is I happen to be in this area a lot lately, between attending a private school here for Korean and attending a new gym nearby.

Between the proximity to Myeondong and the heat of the day, I’ve spent a lot of my nights after class and after workouts getting bites in the area and taking strolls. It’s been so incredibly hot that I haven’t wanted to spend too much time outside during the day. In turn, the nights have been my time to get some air and simply enjoy a walk. The other night, as I passed by this street, I was reminded of that feeling of returning to Seoul and feeling at home again, at home in the glow of the neon lights. So, in contrast to my home back in the states, marked by it’s stillness and quiet at night, broken occasionally by the sound of a passing car and punctuated by the creek of crickets in the dark, the neon signs of Seoul are what grab me first to say “you’re back”. Now, rather than being overwhelmed, I find the sight of the signs and their colors, despite whatever type of drama or vices they might be hiding, to be comforting.

Hoe in Sindang Jungang Market (신당중앙 시장, 회)

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-08-21-17-35-19_90

(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.

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-08-21-17-35-22_70

(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.

Hongje Stream (홍제천)

13662073_10153974122709125_295829633790521705_o

Hongje Stream flows through the western side of Seoul, notably past World Cup Park (the site of the 2002 World FIFA World Cup) and Peace Park. Since I first came to Seoul, the stream’s been a regular place I return to to walk and take some time for myself, to breathe and unwind. On a sunny, clear day it’s a gorgeous. Each side of the stream is lined with greens, flowing over into the walking paths and the stream below. Every so often along the trail are stones set in the water allowing you to pass, the classic Korean stream bridge. On the weekends when the weather’s warm, the walking path is full of bikers, kids on scooters, roller bladers, and couples taking strolls. And despite the weather, there’s always older Korean men riding their bikes, classic trot (the oldest form of Korean pop music) from the 60s and 70s blaring from speakers on their side.  It’s a place, like other streams scattered throughout the city, to get a taste of nature and reconnect with the surroundings…A good place for a bottle of makgeolli (korean rice wine) with friends, or a stroll at night for a couple.

I remember distinctly, during a run  there back in Seoul in 2013, running past a group of elderly Koreans..a large group, both men and women, sitting alongside the stream…Trot music was blaring from a boombox while the older women (probably in their 70’s-80’s) danced passionately without shame, as the men sat around watching sharing drinks. I remember being surprised at the time to see people that old behaving just like kids…But that’s something I’ve come to find true of the older generation here…A while back I asked a friend why that is and she said, “I think in Korea, when you’re young, you have no time to just be a kid and have fun like Americans…So, once people get old, they celebrate their wild 20s then”. Whatever the reason, it’s an admirable sight…A reminder to stay active and and to keep having fun. For me, Hongje stream is one of those places…Where I can just unwind, relax, and connect back to the earth. Today was a bit cloudy and muggy, and my best camera was at home charging, but it was a nice walk nonetheless.