Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stay Positive

Top Ten Best Songs About Crushing Incessant Boredom, In No Particular Order:

1. "I'm Bored" by Iggy Pop
2. "Dull" by Samiam
3. "I Wanna Be Sedated"/"I Just Wanna Have Something to Do" by the Ramones (tie)
5. "Bleach Boys" by the Dead Milkmen
6. "Longview" by Green Day
7. "Lurker II: Dark Son of Night" by Jawbreaker
8. "Bored to Death" by Government Issue
9. "Bored" by the Deftones
10. Meh, who cares anyway...

Twelve weeks and change to go. (Not counting the two weeks I'll be in Thailand, of course.) Ugh. I am so ready to get on a fucking plane and get out of here. Except I'm scared shitless about what I'm going to run into once I get home. I'll need to get a new job. I'll need to find a new place. I'll need to spend a bunch of the money I've been working so hard to save here. I'll need to make my résumé look like it's coming from someone employable. I'll probably need to stay with my parents in the Rust Belt for a little while, at the age of thirty-five. And I'll need to give up the only steady job I've had in twelve- or fifteen-odd years that was actually engaging and meaningful. That's probably the part that bothers me the most. Of course I could always come back if this all turns out to be some flight of whimsy and I'm destined to stay here (assuming the EPIK program is still around, that is). I am making sure to go out on good terms and not burn any bridges. Or burn the boats, if I may be so bold as to allude to a positive and negative conflagrant metaphor for the same situation. (Fire is cool. Huh-huh.) At times like this it seems like it'd be nice if life was completely cut-and-dry, and pursuing one opportunity never came at the cost of another. But in this case, I think it's time to risk the comfortable situation for the big money and the fabulous prizes behind door number two. Or in other words, as the great philosopher Randal Graves once stated, more succinctly and with some slightly greater degree of vulgarity, I need to shit or get off the pot.

But it's definitely time to go. It's a mistake to stay here too long. I've seen it too many times. People get into a negative space in their heads, every little thing about being here starts to drive them nuts, and they end up pushing an annoying ajusshi in front of a train or something. It's not pretty. There's nothing wrong with Korea per se, but being here can wear on you. Or at least it wears on a lot of people, myself included at this point. It's been a great experience overall, but as The Bard apparently did not say, all good things must come to an end. The unfortunate thing is, what's happening now is exactly what I said I did not want to happen months ago when I was contemplating my final year in Korea. (I thought I wrote a blog post about this at some point, but I can't seem to find it now.) The last thing I've been wanting to happen this year is for me to spending my final months counting the days until I can go home - which, incidentally, as I write this, currently number about ninety-two, give or take a few. Or seventy-eight if you discount the Thailand trip from the total. An experience like this is too unique to squander by counting the pages left to rip off the calendar every day. On the other hand, winter is not the most exciting time to be in Korea. The holidays and festivals are pretty much over until the end of February, it's freezing cold outside and often just as cold inside. (I'm not sure why Koreans still choose to eschew central heating - some sort of fear of duct work? - and I definitely don't understand the rationale behind their habit of routinely leaving windows open in winter because WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE, IT'S FUCKING COLD OUTSIDE.) Also, as I mentioned in my last post, the oddities of the Korean school year mean that I may have nothing constructive to do at school from approximately next week Monday until the day I leave, depending on winter camps. Still, there has to be a better use of the time than simply counting backwards to zero.

I've been trying to nurture some constructive hobbies this year to prepare for exactly this eventuality, but I'm at a bit of a loss at times to fully embrace any of them for various reasons. The list of shortcomings: they're too expensive (scuba diving, travel), dependent on better weather (hiking), too frustrating (guitar), too unhealthy (drinking), too infrequent (movies), pointless (Korean lessons), kind of boring (reading), require an activity partner (dating, rampant indiscriminate copulation), or I've grown out of them (video games). I have an NFL Game Pass subscription I'm splitting with another teacher, but otherwise there's not much to fill the evenings and even less to do at work in between classes. It's a little too early to start seriously looking for work (nobody hires between Thanksgiving and Christmas anyway) and I'm not in quite the right creative state of mind to carry through with my threat to write a screenplay right now. Ho hum.

I did recently cross one last item off of my Korean travel list - I finally went to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea. Now that was a trip, in more ways than one. It's easy to forget when you live here that you're mere kilometers away from one of the most heavily-armed borders in the world, but there's no avoiding that fact when you're right there at the thirty-eighth parallel inches from the insanity. On the day that I visited, we weren't actually able to go into one of the blue buildings in the JSA (as seen in the movie JSA!), where you can take a few furtive steps into the North, because they were being painted. But we did get to see some of the soldiers who stand on the border at all hours in strategic positions so as to not get shot if suddenly somebody begins firing on them for no reason. (The guides at the JSA made it sound like kind of a shit detail, although those soldiers who are standing there are some of the ROK Army's finest.) We also got to see the monument where two members of the US Army were axe-murdered while trimming a tree (true story), the "Bridge of No Return" where former President "Wild" Bill Clinton almost got shot by North Korean guards (also a true story), and one of the secret North Korean invasion tunnels discovered by the South, which is now partially open for tours but still has a large dump tank attached to it so that it can be flooded at a moment's notice (presumably not necessarily before the tourists can evacuate) if the North suddenly decides to use it to try to invade. There's also a "train to nowhere" rail connection that was built during the "Sunshine Policy" period but was subsequently blown up on the North Korean side when things went sour, which now only travels back and forth between two stations on the South Korean side. I believe I saw a grand total of one North Korean - on guard at the JSA - during the whole tour, although who knows how many snipers were hidden in those woods...

On the southern side - the only side we were able to visit, of course - most of the media presented about the DMZ, excluding historical accounts of arboreal axe-murder insanity and defector fire-fights, is either about DMZ's status as a de facto protected - albeit heavily mined - natural wilderness ("The miracle of the DMZ!" exclaimed a poorly-translated video presented at the invasion tunnel, in reference to nothing specific) or a lot of incredibly optimistic and perky talk of eventual reunification. I think most Westerners who haven't been here don't really understand the relationship between North and South. Most Westerners (Americans, at least, in my experience) essentially see the conflict as one of two eternal enemies, one of which would invariably wipe out the other if given the chance. In actuality, the two countries are more like an old married couple with irreconcilable differences who have separated but refuse to carry through with the divorce, expecting the other spouse to crawl home and admit that they were the one who was wrong about everything at any moment. Koreans don't even really acknowledge that they live in two separate countries. In all my time here I've never seen a map of Korea that showed the South without the North, and they don't always bother to highlight that inconvenient line at the 38th parallel either. Koreans in South Korea almost never refer to "South Korea," or anything as "South Korean" - North Korea is "북한," literally "North Korea," but otherwise it's all simply Korean things in Korea. (Or "Corea," if you want to get ultra-nationalistic about it, but I'm not even going to get into that anti-Japanese silliness right now.) Unfortunately, I don't see how this attitude allows for any future in which the two Koreas could separately co-exist as peaceful equals, if, for example, the North suddenly stopped being run by insane people and running its economy into the ground through gross mismanagement and sanctions brought upon themselves due to their militarization and their nuclear program. Then again, stranger things have happened. On the other hand, I do really admire the patience of the South Korean people when it comes to how they deal with their crazy cousins to the North. Since I've been here, North Korea has torpedoed a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island - and those actions pale in comparison to some of the other skirmishes between the two Koreas since the armistice - and yet the two countries still exist right next to each other in relative peace, all things considered. It's hard for me to imagine the United States not bombing the crap out of any sovereign state that attacked a US warship or shelled US territory, especially after the last roughly thirteen years. But as much as North Korea is famous for its isolation and the DMZ seems like an intraversable boundary to normal relations, the country isn't nearly as cut off from the world as you might think. In fact, there's still even a road and a checkpoint linking the two countries, so that managers and commerce can still travel to the Kaesong Industrial Complex operating across the border from the South. (I'm not sure if the checkpoint was staffed when I saw it, and I definitely didn't see any vehicles cross, but the crossing was definitely in a passable state.) Part of the lack of even more hostility between North and South is clearly born from pure necessity - even the rosiest projections of a war between North and South involve a lot of civilian casualties, as Seoul is well within shelling distance of the North and more than half of South Korea's population lives in the metro area - but I think another big part of it comes from the natural abhorrence of the Korean people towards another war among brothers, like what happened in the Korean War. Things definitely didn't go so well the last time, after all. And technically, that war isn't even over yet...

Still, two things above and beyond all this were most shocking about the DMZ to me. The first is the thought that, just north of this imaginary - albeit heavily mined - line on the map, amid the bizarreness of the world's largest flagpole and flag rising from up from a completely false city built entirely for the benefit of binoculars on the southern side, hundreds of thousands or millions of people are starving, and it's all for no reason other than bad government. You could argue that it takes two sides in a conflict to create and enforce sanctions, but when it comes down to it, left to a state of nature (and barring warlords or some other governing party) the North Koreans would probably at least have rice to eat instead of having to subsist on grass and field mice while they sell heroin so they can build faulty rockets. The second is the question, "Wait, what are we doing here?" Don't get me wrong, I'm proud that the support of the US has allowed the Republic of Korea to blossom into a stalwart, thriving democracy and a center of new technology with an advanced economy. (There was some direct or tacit support of some fairly sketchy dictators along the way during that process, but hey, you can't make an omelette without occasionally purging a few hundred bad eggs.) At the same time, having reached the end of the bad ol' days when silly spats between capitalism and communism tore apart the world, it's hard for me to see our place in what's essentially a silly spat between Koreans and Koreans. To be honest our tour guides from the US Army didn't seem too excited about being at the DMZ, "miracle" notwithstanding, though they do serve proudly and bravely alongside the ROK Army nonetheless. But it's stuff like this and - to a much milder extent - silliness like the Dokdo thing between Korea and Japan that makes me wonder how it is that governments always seem to get embroiled in destructive pissing contests and hurting their own people when they're supposed to be helping people live together in better ways. Well, clearly that's a mystery I'm probably not going to work out on my own any time soon. Perhaps I'll have to leave those questions to roam free at the 38th parallel, not unlike all that ostensibly protected wildlife, unanswered. Watch out for mines...

So yeah, the final episodes of this long-running series of adventures seem like they're mostly going to be focused on me trying to keep myself entertained and constructively occupied while trying not to drive myself crazy with homesickness. Or me attempting not to waste all my money and destroy all my brain cells partying with other teachers who are also tired of being here, or looking for a few more good times before they leave, or who just plain like to party. I wasn't planning to go out this weekend, but then another teacher in town had a friend from back home visiting, and then the next night I ended up at an after-the-fact Thanksgiving celebration. Usually there's a married couple from the US here that organizes a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone in town, but they had to go back to the States at the last minute to handle a family emergency, so for most of the week I didn't think I was going to have much of a Turkey Day at all. On Thanksgiving night I managed to get together with a couple of the other Yanks in town, along with some teachers of other nationalities, and we split a couple pizzas, so before last night's celebration I thought that was going to be the extent of this year's Thanksgiving celebration. But I guess it's not so bad to miss a Thanksgiving here and there. Besides, in only ninety-two days I can finally come home...


Postscript: You know what? All this time I've been afraid of counting the days until I leave for fear of driving myself crazy with the waiting. But I've been thinking about it all wrong. I am going to count the days. But not so that I can imagine myself into a future time when I'm back on American soil. I'm going to count the days so that I can remind myself to make every last one of them worth it. I'm gonna download some calendar pages and get a big fat red marker and everything. Only ninety-two days left in Korea! Let's make it count, everyone!

[Addendum, 1/9/13: I mentioned in this post that, at the time of my visit to the DMZ, I had to wonder why the US is still so deeply involved in what I tend to see as a strictly Korean conflict. Well, a few weeks ago the DPRK was kind enough to remind me why we're still camped out in the Korean peninsula. The recent rocket launch appears to have been harmless in and of itself (personally I'm mostly just disappointed that they beat the South into space), but it was definitely a reminder that, in the modern age, regional conflicts can easily become global, and, like it or not, in many of these conflicts it will be the US Army that remains the cop that's there when we need them for years to come.]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

밥 목하세요?

Hey there. So I've been threatening for some time to write some posts to summarize what I've learned in my nearly three years in Korea, as if that gives me some kind of vital perspective on living here. Then again, in EPIK terms, three years is a dog's age. Plus, the local office of education must think the time counts for something since they asked me to make a presentation for the other foreign teachers in town about my lessons today. It went okay overall, other than the fact that it was about twice as long as it was supposed to be - I basically just yanked all the games out of my PowerPoint presentations and showed them to people. You can never have too many games at your disposal as an ESL primary school teacher. Anyway, I thought I'd start with the easiest and least likely to be controversial topic: how to feed yourself in Korea. Read on!

While you may have anticipated a lot of ways that moving to a foreign country could be difficult, finding something to eat in a modern, industrialized country like South Korea might not have been one of them. After all, it's not like it's difficult to find food here. On the other hand, getting food out of a store or restaurant, into an edible form and into your stomach in a reasonable time frame is another issue entirely. Don't be surprised if there's some sort of heavily disorienting, deeply disheartening hour-long trip to the grocery store in your first weeks here. But have no fear! It happens to everyone, you'll get over it soon enough. But let the experiences of one who has gone before you be your guide to cushion the blow...

To start you on the path to enlightenment, let's start by identify what you don't know - what sort of essential culinary items you probably won't be able to find in Korea:
  • English. This one you probably anticipated, but you may not have anticipated how profoundly it can affect your ability to buy groceries in a timely manner in your first weeks. You may assume that you can identify enough grocery items by sight that not being able to read the labels and signs in the aisles won't be a big issue, but you'd be surprised. For example, when I first arrived in Korea I couldn't find rice at the grocery store. This seems like it would be akin to not being able to find a hooker in Bangkok, but in Korea buying rice isn't nearly as easy as going to the rice aisle and choosing white, brown or Uncle Ben's. First off, you might not recognize it. Most of the rice in Korea is short-grain rice, so sometimes it looks more like coarse salt than than long-grain rice that's most common in North America. Most grocery stores also sell a bunch of shit that combines dry rice with other grains and seeds that looks more like something you would find in the birdseed section than something you would boil and eat yourself. On top of that, there's more types of rice here than white and brown (and almost no one here regularly eats brown rice, by the way). Ever heard of 참쌀, greenhorn? That's glutinous rice. It's mostly used for things like desserts and rice cake. If you're buying it with the expectation of dumping a serving of stir-fry on top of it, your in for a sticky, sweet surprise. Also, since Koreans eat white rice at literally every meal (at lunch I often see my co-teachers eat all their rice and throw away half the food, while I normally eat all the food and throw away half the rice - who the hell eats rice and spaghetti at the same time, anyway?) you often can't find white rice in anything smaller than a five kilo bag. Watch out for rice weevils if you're buying that much at one time for just yourself. (By the way, a blogger once advised me that you can sift rice weevils out of dry rice with a coarse colander, as long as you catch them before you soak the rice. Supposedly almost all rice has unhatched weevil eggs in it, so sifting out the weevils instead of throwing away the rice doesn't really make a big difference. Then again, not going back to the store for more rice may have mattered a lot more to this blogger.)

    Another issue with the lack of English is that not every item in the grocery store has a description of what it is written biggest on the label. Sadly, we do not live in the world of Repo Man or Lost where every product has a generic label. Even if you have a Korean dictionary or a phone with a translation program handy, what's on the label may not readily translate to the name you know something by back home. I encountered this problem in a big way trying to buy dry beans. Ever heard of fermented black soybeans? They're found in some Chinese dishes. They're also nearly impossible to distinguish visually from what anyone who lives in the US and eats Mexican food knows as black beans. If you buy one when you're trying to buy the other, however, you're going to end up with some very strange fusion cuisine. Unfortunately, if you feed "black beans" into Google Translate or a similar program, you'll most likely to get the Korean word for "black" and a list of terms for "beans" with no indication of what type of bean the Korean word actually refers to, and if you ask a Korean to help you find "black beans" they probably won't understand which type you mean since the only Mexican food you usually find here is "Mexican" fried chicken (which, as far as I can tell, is just fried chicken).

    By the way, through research and some trial and error I eventually figured out that "콩" refers only  to soybeans, and "흑태" and "서리태" both seemed to be passably similar to the black beans I used to get back home. (I know the level of detail in some of these remarks may seem tedious, but I'm hoping that some of the tidbits in this blog may be of help some day to some confused and desperate English teacher searching Google for clues as to how to survive here. I can't tell you, for example, how grateful I am to the blogger who posted an image of a translated Korean washing machine on his blog. Seriously, I could bear hug that guy.)
  • If only...
  • Ovens. If you have a full-size oven in your apartment, you're either very rich or very, very lucky. For the most part, you're probably going to be doing all your cooking with a microwave, a rice cooker and a two-burner gas range. You may be able to find an electric toaster oven or convection oven, or a gas range with a small oven built into it, but they'll probably be tiny, expensive or both.
  • Convenience Foods. Hey, remember those freezer aisles at the supermarket back home that just seemed to stretch to the horizon? The frozen pizzas, the pre-mixed stir-fry vegetables, the TV dinners, the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches, the Steak-ums, the crappy, gooey store-brand panini, the Banquet pot pies with two tiny chunks of meat mixed in with all that gravy? Forget about it. Likewise, say goodbye to canned soups and chili, Hamburger Helper, Rice-a-Roni and just about anything other good staple of the lazy bachelor kitchen. The only things you'll find here that could be described as "instant" are ramen noodles and some crappy bland curry mixes. And speaking of convenience...
  • A Korean Wife or Mother: Koreans are still very attached to the idea of the nuclear family, and it's still women who are expected to stay home and do most of the cooking. In my humble opinion, that's probably why so much Korean food is so labor-intensive. Your male co-teachers at school may not understand how you're able to survive at all without starving as the single head of a household, and occasionally ask quizzically, "In your home, what do you eat?" (They'll also be very amused if you tell them you eat cereal for breakfast. I guess cereal is something that's only for children and exhausted housewives on diets here.)

    By no means should you read the above as advising against getting a Korean wife (or mother), even if only for the sake of convenience. In fact, if you do start dating a Korean woman and she likes you, you may find that she begins arranging a wedding for you, possibly without bothering to consult with you or inform you beforehand.

    Also, if it makes you feel better the next time you're cutting carrots into matchsticks to make bibimbap or shredding green onions to make pajeon, remember that a lot of Korean wives are still expected to not only provide a main dish, but also freshly prepare half a dozen side dishes to go with the meal. These days a lot of homemakers are buying side dishes pre-made from the grocery store, but I hear there's a significant number of husbands out there who insist on having things the old-fashioned way. (Also, if you are making pajeon, don't buy the small green onions and try cutting them all in half one at a time. Buy a big green onion and get one of those fork-looking things to shred it. I certainly learned that the hard way.)
  • Basically Any Foodstuff Not Involved in Korean or American Cooking. This may be the welcoming kick-to-the-nards for many of you who come from a country or region with an internationally diverse selection of cuisines. Koreans, for the most part, eat Korean food and not much else. The dishes that Koreans consider foreign, like "Chinese" black noodles (jjajangmyeon), will probably be unrecognizable to you. Of course, due to the global ubiquity of American food and a large amount of food aid during the Korean war (resulting in some marvelous fusion dishes like budae jjigae, better known as "hot dog soup"), you'll find a fair number of American classics with a Korean twist, such as pizza, spaghetti, and hamburgers, are widely available. On the other hand, you may be somewhat less likely to find, I don't know, for example, whatever it is that British people eat. What do British people eat, besides tea and biscuits? Do they have special English hamburgers or something? Like, do they use an English muffin for the bun, maybe?

    This also applies to other Asian cuisines, including Chinese and Japanese food. Don't assume that just because Korea is right next to these major influential world powers that you'll be able to get bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, edamame or other specialty ingredients found in other East Asian countries.
  • Limes. Korea is known to have fairly restrictive agricultural tariffs due to the politically powerful farmers' unions, and rumor has it that by coincidence Korea doesn't import produce from any country that grows limes. Try to make do with lemons. If you can find them that is, because another thing you'll have trouble finding is...
  • Any Produce that's Not in Season. Almost all the produce you'll find in Korea, especially if you live in a rural area, is grown in Korea. The good news is, if you're used to buying produce that's been picked green and shipped a thousand miles before it's artificially ripened, the produce in Korea is way more fresh and delicious than what you're getting back home. The bad news is, just because the grocery store has tomatoes or lemons or celery one week doesn't mean they'll still have it next week. A lot of fruits and vegetables can be grown in greenhouses out of season, so there's not as much variation with some items, but other things that you're used to getting flown in from South America or South Africa (or wherever South Africans get stuff from in the Northern Hemisphere) may not be available at all when they're not available from local growers.
  • And Also This Stuff. Almost any spice other than hot pepper, black pepper, turmeric, and Schezwan pepper; any fresh herbs; lamb and mutton; Worcestershire sauce; Balsamic vinegar; any type of green beans or fresh peas; cauliflower; asparagus; Brussels sprouts; artichokes; okra... You get the idea.
And as if that wasn't enough, here's a bunch of stuff that's not easy to find:
  • Meat in Cuts that You're Used to Working With. Know how to debone chicken? Or clean a fish? Or humanely kill a live fish? Time to study up on that. Also, you'll find that chicken is often chopped up in ways you won't be accustomed to, and beef and pork often come pre-sliced into thin strips meant for bulgogi or samgyeopsal, which may seriously screw with your plan to enjoy a nice thick, onion-smothered pork chop.
  • Cheese. Cheese that doesn't suck, at any rate. Same goes for other specialty dairy products like heavy cream or sour cream.
  • Decent Beer. All knowledgeable sources agree that Korean beer sucks. Also, apparently the major breweries have conspired to make microbreweries illegal. Not that it matters since all forms of alcohol are more or less a means to an end here rather than something to be savored and enjoyed.
  • Decent Wine. The Korean palate is not acclimated so much to wine as it is to grape juice spiked with soju.
  • Specialty Bread. Buns, rolls, etc. Oh, and try finding a baguette that's not stale, I dare you.
  • Peanut Butter. And if you do find it, you're gonna pay an arm and a leg for it.
  • Coffee. Koreans adore coffee. You can't walk two blocks in Korea in any decent-sized town without stumbling across a coffee shop. Unfortunately, Koreans don't generally make coffee at home. Automatic drip coffee makers are virtually unheard of. Unless you're ready to pay three bucks a cup for an espresso drink or buy it whole bean from the coffee shop, grind it and use a coffee press or hand-drip filter to prepare it, you're going to have to put up with the little individual tubes of the freeze-dried stuff. I'm not going to guarantee that the local grocery store has black tea, either.
So as you may have guessed, you're in for some adjustments here unless you already know how to prepare a lot of Korean food. But enough with the bad news. Here's some good news about what you can find:
  • Costco! That list of stuff it's hard to find in Korea? That's pretty much my Costco shopping list. Costco in Korea is awesome - it's basically America in a big box. Every time I walk into Costco I feel like I've come home for a few hours. Ground beef? Gorgonzola? Tortillas and salsa? Parmesan cheese in the shaker bottle? Hamburger buns? Actual bacon? A quart of sour cream? Electronics that aren't made by Samsung or LG? Real actual sour dill pickles in a gallon jar? All at Costco. Plus, they have hot dogs and real, non-crazy pizza in the cafe! You may have to travel a ways to get to a major urban center with a Costco, but pretty much every major urban center in Korea has one. Make friends with someone with a membership and a car as soon as you can. Also, make sure you have cash; Costco in Korea only accepts the special Costco credit cards issued by Samsung (yes, Samsung and Hyundai do issue credit cards in Korea) and when I tried to apply for one they told me that only foreigners on record with the tax office (which generally means you've lived in Korea for at least two years) can apply for one.

    When you get home, you'll probably want to divide up a lot of the stuff you just bought into portions the right size for two to four meals and then freeze all of it that you're not using right away. This rule, however, does not work for sour cream. I learned that lesson the hard way as well...
    Heaven... I'm in heaven...
  • Homeplus (Tesco) and E-Mart. For those of you not in the know: Tesco is the British version of Wal-Mart, Homeplus is the Korean affiliate of Tesco, and E-Mart is the Korean version of Homeplus. There's one or both of these discount stores in just about every good-sized urban center in Korean, and E-Mart and Homeplus (Homeplus especially, since it's owned by a European corporation) usually have a good number of hard-to-find foreign foods and beverages, such as imported beer, real wine, chicken bouillon, and a limited supply of baking goods and dairy products. Tesco also has one of my personal favorite products, those Asian Home Gourmet spice packets from Singapore that let you quickly and easily make things like Indian curry that actually tastes like Indian curry by adding meat and a few other simple ingredients.

    (Side note: Yesterday on my most recent trip to Homeplus, I tragically could not find any Asian Home Gourmet spice paste packets in stock. They did, however, have asparagus is the produce department, which was a minor miracle. Also, Tesco Corn Flakes were two giant boxes for W6,500. Yes, these are the things that are noteworthy and exciting when you teach in a small town.)

    If you can't find something at Homeplus or E-Mart, you could also try one of Korea's upscale department stores like Lotte or Shinsegae, which usually have a foreign foods section tucked away somewhere in the grocery section with "exotic" foreign goods like oregano, canned tomatoes and peanut butter. Be prepared to pay Gucci prices for this stuff if you buy it at a department store, though.
    Lotte Department Store - Home of the $8 Jar of Peanut Butter
  • Specialty Shops and Websites. You wouldn't believe how happy I was when I stumbled across this blog with a piece about the specialty baking store in Daegu, just around the corner from Daegu Station. This place has everything - vanilla extract, balsamic vinegar, you name it.

    If you hunt around, there's also for specialty foreign foods shops around Korea that will ship items to you. I had been a big fan of The Underground Grocers in Gwangju (mostly because they were the only source I could find for corn tortillas in Korea) but apparently they've closed up shop and rolled the business into a restaurant called The First Alleyway. (I haven't bought any corn tortillas since Underground Grocers closed - my freezer is full of enough wheat tortillas from Costco to last for an extra contract - but this website also apparently has them. I can't vouch for it personally because I haven't used it, though.)

    Another source for hard-to-get foreign goods can be shops catering to guest factory workers and laborers in Korea. For example, if you go to the Bukbu bus terminal in Daegu you'll find several shops offering South Asian, Southeast Asian and South American goods. There's also a really kick-ass Pakistani restaurant there if you're craving a good curry. If you're looking for something specific, try to figure out what that item is called in Peru or Pakistan before you go in case the name is different where you're from.

    There's one more type of "specialty shop" you can try if you're really having difficulty finding something - the black market. Just because you can't get something imported here doesn't mean someone hasn't figured out how to avoid a couple import regulations and get their hands on it. I've never actually tried this method personally, but if you Google "Daegu black market" you get some pretty explicit instructions as to how to find them in Daegu.
  • US Armed Forces. Make friends with someone at the local military installation and you can get just about any foodstuff from the US at a reasonable price. If you're not friendly with anyone on post, you may be able to find some goods that have been smuggled off-base available on the black market.
  • Your Suitcase. If there's some spices you're certain that you'll miss from home - especially things like cumin, cilantro, basil and paprika, which are hard to get and/or expensive here - pack a bottle or two before you leave. I've brought several sealed bottles of spices here in my luggage and it's never presented a problem. I'm not sure how the TSA would feel about this stuff being in carry-on luggage, so consider sticking it in your checked baggage.

    If there's any fresh herbs that you think you might want, like cilantro or basil, consider bringing a packet of seeds with you and growing it yourself. Korea has strict import bans on meats, seedlings and a lot of other fresh food products, but as far as I know spices and seeds are okay. (Admittedly, when I brought cilantro seeds with me from the US, I slid them into the lining of my suitcase and didn't mention them to the customs officials.)
  • Affordable Korean Food. Can't cook? Too busy for the grocery store? Luckily, you can get a relatively healthy hot meal in Korea pretty easily for less than 5,000 won. Then again, this option depends heavily on how much kimbap and ramen you can stand to eat in a week.
And while we're on the subject, let's talk about some foodstuffs that you can find all over in Korea, many of which are definitely worth trying while you're here (and some of which are good substitutes for stuff you can't find):
  • Compressed Meat Products. Like I said, Korea received a lot of food aid from the United States during and after the Korean War, and I'm guessing this food aid included a lot of tinned meat, judging by Korea's continuing adoration of Spam. I haven't actually indulged in too much Spam since I've been here (just because it's popular doesn't mean it isn't still Spam), it's pretty tasty when it's prepared as jeon, a Korean dish where items like sliced Spam, zucchini and young pumpkin are dipped in an egg and flour batter and fried in oil.

    In addition to Spam and all the various versions of it produced by Korean food manufacturers (some of it with clever brand names like 런천밋 - transliterated as "Luncheon Meat") you'll find many varieties of chopped pressed ham, hot dogs and sausages. Korean hot dogs and sausages really run the gamut in quality - I once bought a package of about twenty skinny franks for less than $2, but couldn't get rid of them fast enough as they all tasted like sawdust encased in plastic. There's some decent sausages out there, though, including some fairly good varieties of andouille and these sausage four packs that include some pretty good spicy green and neon-orange sausages and a couple of those curly Italian sausages.

    Another type of compressed meat product you can buy here is fish paste. It's the key ingredient in odeng (오뎅), those wiggly strips of white stuff you see impaled on skewers and available in a hot water bath at snack stands around Korea. I wouldn't exactly say it's a must-try delicacy or anything, but in a pinch you can use it as a substitute in Chinese recipes that call for sheets of compressed bean curd, assuming you're not too choosy about duplicating the flavor (the similarity is mostly in the texture) and you're not a vegetarian.
  • Lotus Root. Lotus root is available either whole or pre-cut and soaked in water. It's white with a honeycomb appearance when it's pre-sliced, and the texture is crunchy and slightly starchy. Most of the time in Korea I only see it in a kimchi side dish where it's been soaked in soy sauce and sesame oil (or something like that), but if you boil it quickly in a little vinegared water it makes a reasonable substitute for water chestnuts in Chinese recipes. Oh, and speaking of...
  • Sesame Oil. If you've been doing stir-fry at home and been wondering why it doesn't seem as good as the stuff from the takeout place around the corner, this may be what you're missing. Use it sparingly in Chinese recipes, and feel free to dump in a whole tablespoon if you're doing something Korean like japchae.
  • Daikon Radish. I don't think you can eat a meal in Korea without finding some daikon radish in it somewhere. Daikon radish is bitter and a little starchy, but gets sweeter when you cook it. I have a recipe for a chicken and daikon radish stew that I really enjoy (mujorim, 무조림), although I don't think I've seen the same dish served in any restaurants here, so I don't know how authentic it is.
  • Garlic Stems. Also sometimes referred to as "young garlic" or "fresh garlic," these are the stalks of garlic plants before they mature. They can be a bit tough it they're harvested late, but they're fairly tender when boiled and good for adding something green and garlicky to a recipe when such a thing would be called for. I've also used them as a substitute for green beans occasionally, although I don't suggest doing this unless you really love garlic. (I really, really love garlic.)
  • Young Pumpkin. This is essentially a long, light green variety of squash, similar in shape and size to a zucchini or a cucumber. I think they may actually grow these by taking a standard pumpkin and putting it into a tight tube of plastic when it's young, so that it grows long and thin instead of round. It's a bit like a cross between a pumpkin and a zucchini or a yellow squash. As I said above, they're quite delicious when they're prepared as jeon (specifically, hobak jeon), and I substitute them into any recipe that calls for yellow squash, which I've never seen here.
  • Sweet Potato. This is another foodstuff that you probably won't be able to aviod here, even if you try. Korean sweet potatoes are smaller than American yams, with a white or purple color and a texture closer to a standard potato. In fall, if you're lucky, you'll find people roasting and eating them whole. You'll also find sweet potato paste in everything from pizza crusts to sweet potato latte. (Yes, I'm not kidding, sweet potato latte.) Feel free to throw them into any recipe that calls for regular sweet potatoes or yams - I've had some pretty mean Korean sweet potato casserole around Thanksgiving here.
  • Pizza. Okay, admittedly, this is not a food unique to Korea, and a lot of foreigners really hate what they do to pizza here, but I'm sure at some point when I'm back in the US I'll be ordering a pizza from Papa John's and thinking, "Man, I wish I could get a pizza here with green tea in the crust, a ring of sweet potato paste on the outside, corn, potatoes and bacon (or squid, shrimp, and clams!) as the toppings, and those lines of brown, yellow and white sauce that I think are probably teriyaki, honey mustard and either alfredo or mayonnaise criss-crossing the top, with a packet of hot sauce and a cup of sweet pickles on the side." (If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, Costco has normal pizza available by the slice and by the pie.)
  • Mushrooms. I've gone through large portions of my life believing that I don't like mushrooms, but since coming to Korea I've discovered that a lot of that has to do with the type of mushroom, how fresh it is, and how it's prepared. Westerners are kind of behind-the-times when it comes to mushrooms. For example, did you realize that most of those fancy-schmantzy mushrooms that you buy at the grocery store are actually all varieties of the same mushroom? It's true. Moonlight mushrooms, brown mushrooms? Same mushroom, different color. Portobello mushrooms? Same mushroom, different maturity. Crimini mushrooms, champignon mushrooms? Same damn mushroom, different fancy foreign name. Wild mushrooms? Very possibly the same damn mushroom with different marketing. You provincial saps have been paying good money for the same fucking mushrooms under different names. And you thought you were cultured.

    Korea, on the other hand, actually has mushrooms other than the white and brown mushrooms that are pretty much the only variety widely available in the US. You're probably familiar with shiitake mushrooms (pyogo in Korean) from their use in Chinese and Japanese cooking. You may have also run into black mushrooms, also variously known as black fungus, wood ear mushrooms, cloud ear mushrooms, or, hilariously, according to one of my Korean cookbooks, Jew's ear mushrooms, in Chinese food - they're mogi in Korean. While you're in Korea, though, you should definitely try some of the varieties of mushrooms that you might not find fresh back home, like white, thin, thread-like enokitake mushrooms (paengi in Korean), button-like shimeji mushrooms (mattari in Korean), or - well, I don't think there's a proper description of them other than phallic - oyster mushrooms (saesongi in Korean). I find them all a little meatier than the standard Western mushroom, plus they don't get all mushy and slimy as quickly if you accidentally overcook them a little. All three are excellent on the grill with some bulgogi, by the way.

    (If you're familiar with Japanese, you may have noticed that most of those mushroooms are known by their Japanese names in the West. You'll find that's true for a lot of foodstuffs here. Be prepared, however, for Koreans to come up with some sort of crazy English name (like "laver") when you're talking about something that you know by the Japanese name (like nori dried seaweed - it's kim in Korea) and to look at you queerly with a vague air of insult if you insist on using the Japanese names for these things. "You call dubu 'tofu'? But my phone's dictionary says it's 'bean curd'! And you call ramyeon "ramen"? Ha ha ha, what a crazy, mixed-up world you Japan-loving round-eyes come from!")
Above all, my advice to you, when you first come to Korea, is the same advice offered by the front cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - "Don't Panic." Your first foray into the grocery store in Korea may be a confusing and alienating journey ending in hunger and despair, but eventually you'll find ways to get around missing ingredients and kitchen implements and find something to eat, even if you're not much of a cook.

To help cushion the transition, though, it's not a bad idea to consider familiarizing yourself with Korean cooking and see if you can learn a couple simple recipes before you get here. Before I got here I picked up Quick and Easy Korean Cooking for Everyone at a national chain bookstore in LA, but I was disappointed to realize when I arrived in Korea that the book uses a lot of Japanese ingredients and names for ingredients because the publishing company and the Korean-born author are both from Japan. My co-workers also turned up their noses at the idea of a Korean cookbook being from Japan, even if the author was born in Seoul. Nevertheless, I actually prefer some of the recipes in the book, since I enjoy the taste of a little wine in many of these dishes, and many recipes in the book incorporate a few spoonfuls of rice wine, which is not a common ingredient in Korean cooking. For more authentic recipes, a friend here recommended Lee Wade's Korean Cookery, which I would also recommend. (Sadly, that book seems to be out of print now, so you may have to hunt around for a used copy or find a different book.) The main difficulty you may find with Korean cooking is how labor-intensive it can be - most recipes involve a lot of chopping and shredding, which is all very time-consuming when you're coming home after a day at work and want to get dinner on the table as soon as possible. One pro tip I've found that will speed up a lot of Korean recipes: if a recipe calls for you to fry several ingredients separately, just fry the meat first and then throw all the vegetables in together second. A lot of Korean recipes do suffer tremendously if they're overcooked or prepared carelessly, but if you're just looking for sustenance you probably won't notice if one or two vegetables in your dish are a little over- or underdone.

I also brought a Chinese cookbook here - Chinese Cuisine from the Wei-Chuan's Cookbook series, alas, also possibly out of print - but that choice proved to be a little less fruitful. As I mentioned, a lot of ingredients common to Chinese recipes aren't available in Korea, or it's very difficult to figure out what the Korean equivalent to an ingredient is or what it's called. Still, you'll find that Chinese cooking methods and ingredients are similar enough to Korean ones to allow for a fairly simple translation of many Chinese recipes to the Korean kitchen, and there's a wide variety of recipes in this book. Parts of the book may seem a little dated, occasionally there's a confusing instruction (Three pieces of tofu? When was tofu sold in uniform pieces in the US?) and you may want to skip the recipes that call for ketchup, but you should get the hang of how to do a basic stir-fry after trying a couple of the simpler recipes.

Given some time and patience, you'll find yourself adapting more recipes that you know and discover to your new home-away-from-home in Korea. If I could summarize my experience learning to cook here, I would do it this way: 1) meat and vegetables; 2) fry, boil, nuke and stew. If you can do a recipe with only those ingredients and those cooking methods, it's probably doable in Korea. Start scanning your cookbook for anything that calls for a saute or a simmer and you should stay fairly well-fed here.

To give you some ideas to get started, I want to share a few of my favorite dishes to prepare at home. I'm not going to post entire recipes here, but hopefully some of these suggestions might give you some ideas of how to add some variety to your kitchen if you're living here. Bon appetit!
  • Ramen: Fight the urge to get lazy and eat it every day if you care about your sodium intake, but if you drop a lightly beaten egg and a few dumplings into the hot water with the noodles and the soup base, you can make a fairly filling meal out of it.
  • Stir-fry: Not sure what to eat tonight? Make some rice, toss some meat in a frying pan, brown it, and add chopped kimchi and green onion - bam! Instant kimchi bokkum. Kimchi is also good for spicing up a batch of fried rice if you're in the mood. If you've never done stir-fry, you can't go wrong with this basic guide: Chop your meat and add equal parts water and corn starch, with some soy sauce. You can pre-fry the meat after this step if you're feeling fancy. Fry up some finely chopped garlic, green onion, ginger root, Lee Kum Kee hot pepper sauce or what have you for less than a minute ("until fragrant" is how my cookbook likes to put it). Throw in the meat, and when the meat is about done throw in your favorite fresh vegetables. Don't overdo frying the veggies. If you want to get crazy, stir in some more soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wine, sugar and/or sesame oil with some water and corn starch at the end.
  • Italian Food: You're probably not going to be able to pull of a lasagna here, but any dish that involves sauteing meat and vegetables and dumping it on pasta should be manageable. Here's some examples:

    Spaghetti: You should find the noodles and the sauce here just about everywhere, although it'll probably be a little more expensive than it was back home. If you want to add some extra sustenance, fry up some vegetables to add to the sauce, like some yellow onion or, if you want to adapt a popular Korean addition to the recipe, some kimchi. Sausage is also a good complement, and it's not too difficult to make meatballs if you've got the spices - you can find bread crumbs with the flour in the grocery store, they're used for breading deep-fried foods here.

    Shrimp Scampi: Costco has cleaned frozen shrimp at a very reasonable price, but if you're cheap and lazy like me you can just use seafood flakes (also known as mock crab, or sometimes "razor clam" in Korea) instead. My favorite recipe has shallots, which you can't get here, so I use a large green onion and throw away most of the green part which is too onion-y for this recipe. Mix equal parts olive oil and melted butter, throw in whatever white wine or rice wine you can find, fry up the onion, seafood flakes and lots of chopped or crushed garlic, add some ground hot pepper to give it a little kick, top it with Parmesan cheese from Homeplus or Costco and serve it over rice or spaghetti.

    Pasta Primavera: Take advantage of all those fresh vegetables in your grocery store in spring and summer and saute some onions, sweet peppers, zucchini and young pumpkin in olive oil, and serve over your favorite pasta tossed with a little more olive oil.

    Chicken Parmesan: If you can find boneless chicken breasts somewhere, you can get the spaghetti sauce, flour, eggs and bread crumbs at any grocery store, and most grocery stores will have shredded "pizza cheese" available in the dairy section. Homeplus and Costco have grated Parmesan. "But how do I make chicken parm without an oven?" you ask. Easy - find a recipe that calls for deep-frying the chicken in oil. Add the oil-fried chicken to a frying pan with a little sauce in the bottom. Smother the breasts with the cheese, add the rest of the sauce, slap a lid on it and simmer until the cheese melts. Voila!
  • Jambilaya: The trickiest part of this recipe is finding chicken bouillon to use to make chicken stock. Unless, of course, you actually know how to make stock from scratch, in which case you are definitely one or two rungs above me on the cooking ladder. Fry up some andouille sausage with chicken or ham cubes, garlic, onion, and maybe a little celery if you can find it. Add chicken stock, white rice, ground hot pepper and canned tomatoes (try Homeplus or Costco for those). Simmer it until the rice is cooked. When you've got about seven or eight minutes of cooking left, you can throw in a little white wine and some chopped green pepper. Don't throw in the green pepper at the beginning or they'll disintegrate by the time the rice is done. See if your local grocery store has some cayenne hot pepper sauce if you want to add a little kick to it.
  • Goulash: I'm talking about the Hungarian meat stew here, not the Middle America hamburger, cheese and pasta casserole of the same name. No oven, remember? Paprika costs a fucking fortune here, if you can find it, so you might want to bring a bag or a couple bottles from home. The recipe I have also calls for marjoram, which you can't get here, so I usually do a very white trash thing and use oregano instead. Also, small red and yellow sweet peppers are called "paprika" in Korean for some reason, even though they're completely unrelated to the pepper that paprika is made out of, so if you ask for paprika at the grocery store you may confuse the shit out of everyone. The key to a good goulash, as any Czech worth their salt will tell you, is to eschew red wine and pour a bottle of Pilsner Urquel or Budvar (proudly sold at Homeplus!) into that mess before you put it to simmer. I can't find egg noodles here and I'm too lazy to make dumplings so I usually serve it over buttered macaroni instead.
  • Mexican Food: Korean hot peppers are actually very close to what we call an Anaheim pepper in the United States. (Interesting fact: most of the hot peppers in Asia were originally brought from the New World by Portuguese traders. How's that for globalization?) Thus, Korean hot peppers and Korean hot pepper powder are passable substitutes for the hot peppers and chili powder in many Mexican recipes. Your main obstacles in doing anything Mexican are going to be getting cheese, beans and tortillas. Also, tomatoes are somewhat seasonal here and as I said earlier you'll never, ever encounter a lime. I know, that sounds like I pretty much just wrote off most of the key ingredients in popular Mexican cooking. You can, however, get most of these ingredients with a little work. Costco has flour tortillas in stock regularly, and see the link in the "Specialty Shops and Websites" section above for a website that advertises corn tortillas, along with canned refried beans and jalapenos. Costco also routinely has salsa, canned crushed tomatoes, canned kidney beans and big blocks of yummy, delicious cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. So once you've stocked up on that stuff, here's some Mexican stuff you can do:

    Chili: Too easy. Easy as pie. Easier than pie, actually. Much easier. Have you ever tried to make a pie? It's really difficult. But chili is super easy. Brown a pound of ground beef with a chopped onion, a chopped sweet pepper and a couple chopped hot peppers if you want it to have a bit of a kick. Add a can and a half of chopped tomatoes, followed by some cumin and ground red pepper powder. Dump in two cans of kidney beans. (1 1/2 to 2 cups of dried beans, soaked overnight and boiled for two hours, will do if you  can't get them canned.) Let it simmer for a little bit until the tomatoes are wilted and the beans are heated through. Sprinkle some cheddar cheese on top if it's too healthy for you.

    : For the sauce, brown some flour in oil, mix in a couple tablespoons of ground hot pepper, slowly stir in some water, add garlic and reduce it to the right consistency. Mix fried ground beef or stewed shredded chicken with some fresh chopped onion, roll it in a flour tortilla with some cheese, nuke it until the cheese melts and cover it with shredded lettuce. Personally, I prefer to do a stacked enchilada - quickly fry a corn tortilla, cover it in meat, onions, cheese and sauce, repeat with a second layer and cap it with another tortilla, cheese and sauce.

    Huevos Rancheros: You can buy refried beans by the can, or you can soak some black beans overnight, boil the shit out of them with a little oil for at least two hours and then mash them into a paste. For the sauce, fry some onion, garlic and chopped hot peppers, add some chopped tomatoes (I highly recommend using fresh tomatoes), cook them until they wilt, mix in some cumin, cilantro or oregano, and ground hot pepper to taste, and simmer it for another five or so minutes. Fry a corn tortilla or two, add beans, cheese and a fried egg, and top the whole mess with the sauce.

    Fajitas: Here's a fun way to do a fajita stir-fry - Brown strips of chicken or beef, add thinly slice sweet pepper, onions and hot peppers if you feel like giving it a kick, and just before you pull it out of the pan, throw in a shot of lemon juice mixed with ground red pepper, cumin and a little corn starch and stir it up until everything's coated.

    Calabacitas: This is a simplified version of a Mexican recipe I ran into while I was looking for a side dish to go with the fajitas. One chopped onion, one chopped sweet pepper, one chopped tomato, two finely chopped hot peppers, one large can of corn, one smallish zucchini, chili powder, cumin; mix and saute until cooked through.
In addition to keeping well-fed and healthy, learning to cook at home will also help you while away the hours without resorting to silliness like taekwondo lessons or heavy drinking if you live in a small town. So anyway, I hope some of this information is useful to you and I didn't just waste too much of the Internet's valuable bandwidth by committing all this to binary. Got comments? Or recipes you want to share? Please, feel free to leave some! I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what's possible in a confused foreigner's Korean kitchen. Like I never touched on the popular subject of alternate uses for your rice cooker...

So as I was saying, I intend to post some more summary thoughts on life in Korea working for EPIK before I flee the country, including (in no particular order, with the assumption that I'll come back and put links here later) advice for aspiring EPIK teachers, my thoughts on what EPIK is doing right and what could be improved (I was going to make this an open letter, but I later realized that an open letter might be a bit presumptuous), and my top five favorite and least favorite things about living in Korea. So I hope you'll enjoy hearing my thoughts, and I hope none of them will get me fired before I can collect my pension reimbursement. Cheers!

Friday, October 5, 2012

She Sells Sanctuary

Time flies like an arrow, as they're fond of staying here. Have I used that line already? I can't remember. It flies especially quickly when you know you're leaving. The other day I was sharing my thoughts about things running out and breaking and me not wanting to replace them with the new foreign English teacher at my school. Real nice guy, by the way - English this time, after two South Africans in a row - and definitely more fun for a wild night in Daegu than the last foreign teacher at my school (no disrespect, dear departed friend). Anyway, he suggested that maybe I would know it was the right time to leave on the day when everything runs out at once. A few days later, I was out of dental floss, opening a new tube of toothpaste, had just opened a new stick of deodorant and needed to replenish my laundry detergent, and I thought to myself, is this the day? Am I overstaying my welcome now?

Before I bought more laundry soap I actually counted out the weeks that I would still be here. Nineteen. Somehow the grocery store had the perfect package, too - thirty-eight loads for nineteen weeks (not counting the two weeks I'll be on vacation in Thailand and Cambodia). It certainly seems a lot shorter. The break for the Chuseok fall harvest festival just ended here and my school is now in the dreaded week before midterms. After that, there's only about seven or eight more weeks of regular classes for me to teach before the next exam and those two odd, vestigial weeks of school after final exams that I always fill with PG-13-rated Hollywood nonsense. I may get asked to do winter camps for two or three weeks in January (this is the first year I haven't avoided it by asking for vacation time during the most likely dates for camp - whoops, just showed my hand there, huh) but other than that, the bulk of my teacherly duties should be done after about seven or eight more weeks of real work. Three years away from home, and that's it - seven or eight weeks of work, a week of self-study, and then two weeks of watching "X2" four times a day, forty-five minutes at a time. Sigh.

Oh, and then, like I said, I'll be in Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks. So there's that.

So in my last post I teased you with the promise that I would tell you the story of how I almost joined a cult. Well, at the time the situation was still developing, so I couldn't say too much about it, but now I feel like I've got a slightly better handle on the situation, so sit back and listen well as I spin my yarn of betrayal and woe...

So earlier this year I decided that I should look for a language exchange partner to help me with my Korean. (Incidentally, I had also heard that this was a good way to meet women.) I had taken lessons at the YMCA in the past and had heard that they had a board for meeting language exchange partners, so I posted my name and contact info, took down some names and numbers, and hoped for the best. Out of laziness and perpetual fear of strangers I failed to get in touch with any of the people on my list. (Also I can't really tell the gender of Korean names, so that put a big damper on my secondary objective.) Eventually, however, I was contacted by someone looking for a language exchange partner and we agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Daegu. (By the way, this story will not include any names, including the name of the religious group and the name of the volunteer group in question. There's not much information about this topic available out there on the Internet and in the interest of the feelings of everyone involved, I don't want this to be the first thing that pops up in Google regarding the subject.) At the end of our meeting, my newly found exchange partner mentioned that he (damn!) was heading to a meeting for a volunteer group in Daegu that was sponsoring free language classes. This sounded to me like a good opportunity to find some more possible partners to help me with my nearly nonexistent Korean conversation skills, plus as the resident of a small town it's not easy for me to meet other English speakers on a regular basis. So I went along.

I liked the group. I began regularly attending language classes, trips to local Korean restaurants and the occasional service or public awareness event sponsored by the volunteer organization. As it turns out, I also already knew some Westerners who were helping the group organize events. I think all of us who encountered the group were really genuinely grateful to meet some Koreans who cared about foreigners enough to actually want to get to know them and help them with some of the parts of life in Korea that are difficult to navigate, like learning the language. I always assumed that the Korean members of the group were mostly motivated by a general desire to be diligent and helpful, along with the usual Korean pride in all things Korean and a desire to share Korean culture with others. Occasionally one of the Korean members of the group would mention something about their "leader" (I assumed this meant the president of the volunteer association) and his philosophy regarding community service. There was this spiel about the moon and stars and trees and victory and light and how the Earth gives us air for free so we should give good things to others for free, or something, but I never thought much of it. It just sounded like some feel-goody humanist sloganeering to promote the volunteer group and its mission. I mean, every group needs a catchy slogan, right?

So things were going well, aside from a few minor things. My language exchange partner got busy with organizing some sports clubs the group had put together, so we weren't able to meet very often anymore, and the free language lessons were repeating a lot of stuff I had already done at the YMCA with professional teachers so I wasn't all that satisfied with the Korean lesson aspect of the group. But there was a sports festival in the summer that was nominally for charity where everybody got wet and danced to "Gangnam Style," and there was a free trip to Gumi for a Korean Liberation Day celebration, so I was having fun. I have to say that events like the sports festival were really cool because they were an opportunity for all sorts of foreigners living in Korea to get together and meet and mingle. I meet other English teachers on a fairly regular basis here, but usually I don't have the opportunity to hang out with US service members, or foreign students at Korean universities, or guest laborers from South and Southeast Asia, and all those groups of people were represented at the volunteer group's events. It's funny that Korea is generally known for being extremely homogeneous and relatively indifferent to foreign influence, yet it hosts an extremely diverse community of foreigners who rarely get the chance to interact with each other. I thought that what the volunteer group was doing for foreigners, even if some of their service and awareness events seemed kind of lame or pointless, was a really amazing service for everyone involved. As I said before, it was really refreshing to meet a group of Koreans who really seemed to care about foreign people, even if a lot of it was done nominally for the sake of exposing foreigners to Korean culture. When you live so far outside the predominant culture in a country, it's easy to start to get the sense that no one cares about you, and these people really cared. Or at least, they seemed to care.

Now let me make it clear that I was suspicious almost from the moment that I got involved with the group that it could be a cult. I even think I joked about it with some people before I knew the truth. I became aware that the group really was somehow connected to an unorthodox religious sect of some sort pretty early on, as well. I don't know when I started hearing rumors about it, or from who, but the fact was generally known, or at least whispered about, by many of the foreigners involved with the group, that the volunteer organization was supported by or somehow connected with what would be commonly known as a "cult" in standard parlance. However, in short, at the time none of us really cared. I'm a naturally suspicious person (hey, I lived in New York City for a while, it's a survival instinct) and I'm fairly agnostic about religion these days so personally I wasn't too worried about being brainwashed by these guys or anything. I waited for them to start asking for donations or something, but that time never came. In fact, it seemed like a lot of stuff was happening for free, like bus trips, that seemed like it should cost something. So I figured I wouldn't worry about it until the day the other shoe dropped - and that day never came.

I want to make it really clear that no one in the volunteer organization ever pressured me to join their religion, or attend any meetings that explicitly related to their religion, or asked for any offerings or donations, or tried to group-marry me or anything else like that. In fact, nothing bad ever happened at all in the volunteer group. That is, nothing bad happened until people started asking questions about the religious sect behind the curtain.

The downfall started when a foreigner who's been living in Korea for some time and was more familiar than most of us with the ins and outs of Korean cults placed a post on a Facebook page that the volunteer organization had been frequently posting to (some would say spamming, perhaps) with notices for events. In short, the original post stated, "You guys know this volunteer organization is the front for a cult, right?" The subsequent conversation that happened in this Facebook thread made the relationship between the volunteer organization and the religious sect explicit, and pointed out a lot of similarities between the activities of this sect and its volunteer association and other cults active in Korea like the Unification Church (a.k.a. the Moonies). Personally I haven't seen a lot of evidence of cult activity here, other than the time I was handed a Moonie pamphlet outside the Seoul National Museum. Also, I once ran into some missionaries for some "goddess" cult here, but I just told them that I worship Slayer and kept walking. But in a nutshell, it's a classic cult strategy to start "secular" front groups performing genuinely valuable community services to lend a sense of legitimacy to the core organization, and perhaps even do some recruiting while they're at it. On top of that, foreigners, especially Westerners, as much as we're not exactly embraced enthusiastically in Korea, carry a certain caché in Korea by virtue of our foreignness and Western-ness. For example, every festival in Korea goes to great pains to show a large group of Westerners front and center in their advertisements as if to say, "No, really, this is an INTERNATONAL festival. Just look at all these foreigners!" (I'll never forget the time that the provincial office of education declared that all foreign teachers MUST attend some two-bit festival in my town, clearly just so they could take some photos of us. I was the only teacher dumb enough to actually show. When I got there, no one could tell me where to go or what I was supposed to do there. Plus it was raining. I'd really like to find whatever bigwig at the POE made that proclamation from behind his desk, without following through on it at all from his end, and relieve myself in his Sanka.) But back to the cult stuff! As I was saying, it's a classic cult strategy to start innocuous front organizations to help make the cult look legitimate. The Unification Church, for example, is famous for doing things like inviting US politicians to an awards ceremony for the "Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace" and then duping an Illinois representative into crowning the Rev. Sun Myung Moon as "humanity's savior [and] messiah." So basically, the Facebook post was a gentle reminder to all the foreigners involved with the service organization that, even if an organization looks legitimate from the outside, nobody wants to be the one stuck holding the crown when things suddenly get all messianic.

I actually have very little information about the cult involved in all this nonsense. Most of what's available in English about the religious sect has either been extensively pruned and cleaned up by the sect, or it's coming from mainstream Korean Christians who consider the group heretical - not exactly what I would consider unbiased sources in either case. I haven't heard anything too bad about the group, other than it clearly has some sort of messianic and apocalyptic elements to its beliefs, mostly based around a cult of personality encompassing the founder and his wife. (Oh, and get this - the founder and his wife both have taken on names that mean "light," and together parts of their names make up the name of the volunteer organization - sure makes all that stuff in the volunteer organization's official slogan about "light" seem a little suspect now, doesn't it?)

The Facebook thread that started the whole thing actually started while I was in Japan on my summer vacation, so all the really fun stuff went down when I was completely out of the loop. To summarize, a bunch of people got freaked out and abandoned or distanced themselves from the group. The volunteer group, after way too much time had passed, issued a press release explaining their (official) relationship with the religious sect, but not much else. In the meantime, a lot of people's feelings got hurt. I think the main reason a lot of foreigners I know chose to distance themselves from the volunteer group is because they felt the volunteer group was never very forthcoming about their relationship with the religious sect. Unfortunately Westerners and Koreans have very different cultural standards regarding what information is appropriate to share publicly, so sometimes it's difficult to tell when or why someone is being purposefully evasive, but in general in a Western country, if people feel like an organization isn't being transparent about something, people will believe that something funny must be going on behind the scenes, which is what people did. Basically, even before the walls came down, all the trust among the members of the group was destroyed. The foreigners no longer trusted the Korean organizers because they were suspicious of the religious sect's role behind the scene, and my impression is that the Korean organizers stopped trusting any foreigners who started asking too many questions because they felt like they had betrayed some part of their unspoken relationship. Trust is like a spider web - it's extremely delicate, and nearly impossible to rebuild once it's been snagged by a sticky situation. Add a layer of cultural misunderstanding to the situation, and you can see how things went very wrong very quickly.

I still have very mixed feelings about what went down, personally. On one hand, I have some serious questions about the religious organization standing behind the volunteer organization. Maybe part of it has to do with the recent death of Sun Myung Moon and all the details I read about the Moonies while I was trying to figure out how to handle this mess with the volunteer organization - I couldn't help but think that it seemed like, to paraphrase the greatest movie of all time, this sect had got the Unification Church playbook and they were running it step by step. Some of the parallels were uncanny. On the other hand, I personally know some of the Western organizers working with the volunteer group and I know that they were (and still are, in some cases) doing good work that has nothing to do with the cult behind the scenes. I think many of the Korean organizers in the group also had nothing to do with the cult and just genuinely wanted to help foreigners, although I've learned from reliable sources that some of the Korean organizers are members of the cult. I have no idea who is or isn't in the cult, though. In their press statement, the volunteer group said that its members were uncomfortable with being asked to publicly state their religious affiliations, comparing it to asking a Westerner to be forced to publicly declare their sexual orientation. I have no idea how much of that was a convenient contrivance and how much is genuine to the Korean concept of their public face, but I'm willing to respect their wishes to remain anonymous.

When the whole thing was going down and we were all trying to work out how we felt about the cult issue, some of us tried to draw a parallel between the volunteer organization and the YMCA, which also offers Korean lessons to foreigners in Daegu. On one hand, we know that the YMCA's primary mission in the modern day isn't to be an organization for proselytizing - Christians simply felt that the values of their religion compelled them to help people, regardless of those people's personal religious beliefs. On the other hand, "Christian Association" is right there in the name of the group - they're not trying to hide anything behind a secular veneer.

Since all this went down, I haven't been to any meetings or events sponsored by the group. (In all honesty I was planning to quit the Korean study group anyway - I'm not sure if it was doing me a lot of good and since I'm leaving in another nineteen or twenty-one weeks I'm not quite as motivated as I was before to learn Korean.) I've only talked to one member of the volunteer association extensively at any point since everything went down, and I didn't say much to her (via online chat) other than that I felt like a lot of foreigners, myself included, were put off by the lack of transparency in the relationship between the religious sect and the volunteer group. I have a feeling that at some point since this mess started I've been identified as some sort of "disharmonious" or "unmutual" element since I don't seem to be receiving invitations to events anymore. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to a large event for the volunteer group in Seoul that was co-sponsored by the cult (another factor that put a lot of people off the volunteer group) I suddenly started seeing people I had never seen at any events for the volunteer group trying to recruit new members around Daegu's main shopping district. Man, I hope the volunteer group didn't have a quota to fill or something. Not the best way to not make your organization look cult-like, though...

Honestly, as much as I'd like to give some of the people in the group a second chance as individuals, I don't think I can comfortably have any involvement with the organization anymore. After all, I'm pretty confident that I can remain independent of any sort of weirdness before they start passing out the Kool-Aid, but what if I want to bring a friend to meet the group, for example? I did introduce a friend to the group once, inadvertently - we had gone out for coffee (it was our first time meeting and we found each other on a dating site, so I guess technically it may have been a date) and as we were parting ways we ran into the members of my Korean study group. One of the leaders of the group introduced himself to my friend/date, talked to her about the group and offered to take her information down so that she could be informed of events. (Here's the funny thing, though - being a fairly staunch atheist, she asked him if it was a religious group, and he said no. How's that for transparency?) Later on, after all the cult talk started, I felt compelled to email her and warn her that I may have inadvertently introduced her to a cult. It was awkward, to say the least. (I haven't seen here in a while anyway. The date went well, actually, and we had another good meeting/date later on, but then she was really busy, and then I was kind of busy, and she lives in a different city... Honestly, I get the impression that maybe neither one of us was really that interested in going through the whole dating process, independent of how we felt about each other. Or maybe that's just my justification for being lazy and a dick. Yeah, sorry, I've been a dick. If you're reading this, I promise I'll be in touch again. One of these days. And no cults this time.)

I think what bothers me the most about the whole thing is how disappointed I am that, after finally meeting some people who really cared about foreigners in Korea, it turns out that they may have only been interested in us as a front for their cult. There's just no way to continue a friendship when every day you're looking over your shoulder wondering, "Are you being nice to me because you genuinely care about me, or is it because I make your cult look legitimate?" It's a real slap to the face to even consider the possibility. And, worse yet, as far as I know, they didn't even try to recruit any foreigners into the cult! How cold is that - good enough to make you look good, but not good enough to be a part of your apocalypse club? No thank you.

Yeah, so you though a story that started with, "So this one time I accidentally joined a cult..." would be giggles all around, didn't you? Nope. Complete tragedy. Hurt feelings all around. Lost a lot of friends, trust in people is shattered, nothing to do but be hurt and bitter now. Feel-bad story of the year. Well, at least I didn't have to spend my savings to send my cultist friend to California so that I wouldn't have to tell him that his Star Trek spec script was terrible or anything. At any rate, I'm going to try to put it behind me and focus on making the most of the rest of my time here, because Jon Lord knows I don't want to focus on the future beyond Korea right now. I finally finished "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and I feel like, as much as it gave me some valuable advice for finding a new job when I get home, all the self-discovery stuff really confused me about what I want to do when I get home. I kind of rushed into the whole accounting certificate thing in a panic, and now that I feel like I might have some other options and I'm considering how my personality would match up with that type of work environment, I'm not sure if that was the right choice. (If only somebody had given me the damn book BEFORE I paid all that tuition money...) Of course, the thing about the self-discovery exercises is that they all told me more or less that I should do the same type of thing I was doing in LA when I was out of work, broke and miserable. Let's face it, nobody wants to pay creative people to be creative; they want to pay greedy people to be greedy, but with their money (which is really not the type of thing I'm good at.) Right now I'm looking for something that might combine my interest in finance, organization and statistics with my entertainment experience, but this teaching job has really opened my eyes to the type of unusual opportunities that are out there if you hunt for them. Like, for example, I've been doing some more diving with Sea World Busan and one of the guys I met there came here to teach English, eventually bought into a private language academy, trained to be a divemaster in the meantime, and just left to run dives in Honduras. I mean, whose high school guidance counselor looks at them and says, "Hey, maybe you should teach English for a while and they go to school to be a scuba instructor in Honduras"? None of them. Because they don't know! People only tell you about the shitty job opportunities. They keep all the interesting stuff and the valuable stuff to themselves, and they only throw you the crumbs. But if you think outside the lines...

The only thing I know for sure is that I want to come home and give the USA another shot first. Or see if it gives me another shot. Either way, I know I'm not staying here. The ticket's been bought. I'm coming home February 26th. Hope you'll be glad to see me.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Japan (It's pretty new. You've probably never heard of it.)

Hey ho and what have you. So I just got back from my summer vacation in Japan, which was pretty great. Guess I should give you the blow-by-blow, huh? Here goes...

To get to Osaka, I took the Panstar ferry service from Busan. The main reason I went with the ferry instead of a flight was cost, although I've been told I should have checked out Air Busan before I opted for the ferry ticket. Either way, I don't regret taking the ferry. I got to see a lot more of the country by sea, traveling past  Tsushima island and through the Seto Inland Sea, than I would have by air. Japan is a fascinating country to see from the water. There's large amounts of fishing and commercial boat traffic on the water and several large suspension bridges (including the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Kobe, the longest suspension bridge in the world), plus it's just fascinating to see how a country has managed to crowd 127 million people onto a collection of very mountainous islands. (Japan doesn't always look very big on a map, but the distance from Kyushu to Hokkaido is roughly equivalent the distance from Boston to Jacksonville. So Japan is pretty much like taking the east coast of the United States, moving in about 15 million more people, putting the Appalachians in the middle of everything and then making it a separate country.)

While I was waiting to board the boat in Busan, I ran into another American passenger, who, in the interest of keeping this blog consistent as pertaining to the use of pseudonyms instead of real names, I will call Reggie. Reggie was a fellow former Los Angelean who had been working in Seoul as an English teacher and needed to go somewhere to renew his tourist visa while he waited to hear about a possible new teaching job in Busan. Once I got on the boat, I also met Sal (again, not his real name, just for the sake of consistency), who was another ex-Angeleno and an English teacher in Osaka. As three of the only English-speaking passengers on the ferry, we got to know each other pretty well over the course of the overnight trip, and Sal was nice enough when we landed to help Reggie and I get oriented in the city. Once we got oriented, Reggie decided to stick with me, since he came to Osaka without any real travel plans other than a lifelong desire to see Kyoto. So, much like Doctor Who, I suddenly found myself with a traveling companion.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm really glad I ran into Sal and Reggie on the boat, but after two and a half years in Korea with a rotating cast of compatriots who don't always share the same sightseeing aspirations as me, I've gotten kind of used to traveling alone. Of course, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that there's several disadvantages to traveling alone, with not having anyone to talk to or hang out with being primary among them. On the other hand, once I found out that Reggie, a guy who I had just met, was going to be tagging along with me, it was a bit difficult to snap out my usual "Loner, lone gunman, get it?" attitude and be grateful for the company, especially since I only had about five days (less, actually, since I had half a ferry trip on each end of that schedule) to see as much of the Kansai region as I could. Traveling alone does have its advantages, the greatest one being that you never have to coordinate or argue with anyone when time gets tight.

At any rate, I did manage to find my hostel and still make it to Osaka Castle before closing time on the first day with Reggie in tow. I didn't make it back to JR Osaka station in time to buy my rail pass before they closed (well, technically they closed at 8 PM and I made it there at about 7:57, but they wouldn't sell it to me at that point - you know how that goes) but while we were there we took the time to check out the view from the sky garden at the Umeda Sky building. Osaka's famed nightlife would have to wait for the return trip, but at least I had gotten a taste of the city on day one.

On day two, it was time to head for Kyoto. Kyoto was a capital of Japan before it moved to Tokyo, so the city is full of palaces, temples and other vestiges of Japan's storied past. Day one in Kyoto started a bit late as I had to buy my rail pass and we had to get oriented in the city, and we lost some time in the mid-afternoon due to a sudden rain storm, but I did get to see the quite stunning Zen gardens at Daitokuji temple and still manage to make it to the famed Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. (Reggie and I agreed that, as beautiful as the Golden Pavilion was, it seemed a bit ostentatious compared to the Zen gardens at Daitokuji.)

By the way, if you ever find yourself traveling to Osaka and the surrounding region, you may wonder whether the Kansai Thru Pass, which allows you to use any bus, subway or train in the region other than the Japan Rail (JR) lines for one price, is worth the money. The answer is a resounding "it depends," based on my personal experience and the opinions of just about everyone I asked about it. Trains, buses and subways in Japan are relatively expensive, and the trains can be confusing since many of the lines are run by separate private entities, with some rail lines even running parallel to each other and making almost the same stops. On the other hand, almost every city in the region has all-day passes for the bus and subway systems (but not both for the same price, unfortunately) that are comparable or lower in price than a day's worth of travel on the Kansai Thru Pass. The good news is that, if you've invested in the Kansai Thru Pass and you have large amounts of travel scheduled on non- consecutive days, you can choose two or three non-consecutive days on which you want to use the pass with no penalties - the pass is basically good for two or three 24-hour periods, and doesn't become activated for the day until you use it at least once on a day. And having the pass is extremely convenient, if you don't mind possibly paying a premium for that convenience. On the other hand, if you're looking to save money, you might be better off simply paying as you go and buying day passes, or saving the pass for the days when you know you're going to be doing an inter-city train ride and a lot of bus or subway travel when you arrive.

Reggie couldn't get a reservation at my hostel so we split up in the evening so he could look for lodging. After dinner and a quick shower, I decided to head out to Kyoto's fabled Gion district to see a little of what the geisha thing is all about. I already knew there was no way in hell that I could afford to hire out a geisha for a performance, since apparently having a classically-trained performer pour tea for you is something that only the very rich and powerful can afford (which I'm sure is a big part of the appeal). But I figured I could at least enjoy the old-style architecture and maybe try to snap a few pictures of geisha on their way to work, which apparently annoys the geisha but amuses Western tourists to no end. Nothing I had read or heard about Gion had prepared me for the reality, though. The vibe in Gion at night is just indescribable, although the first word I would use to try would definitely be "heavy." First, all the geisha clubs have doormen with radios, so you feel like you're walking past CIA headquarters or something as you walk down the streets and alleys. The clientele mostly show up to Gion in Kyoto's fancy black cabs, and the drivers hover around the borders as groups of suited businessmen saunter or stagger to the clubs and steakhouses - sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes with fully-costumed geisha, sometimes with at least one not-to-be-fucked-with security guard, but never with any female companions who aren't performing. There's also some clubs in Gion that are decidedly less traditional, with girls in sassy schoolgirl costumes or cat ears standing outside to promote what's inside. (As far as I know, I don't think there's any actual prostitution in Gion - every source I've read insists that geisha don't perform sex acts of any kind, and the prices posted outside the other joints indicated that they were probably strip clubs rather than sex clubs. Either that or I missed out on some fantastically cheap opportunities to pay for sex.) [Yes, Mom, Dad, and all my female friends, that last bit was a joke.] Either way, it's impossible to take an evening stroll there without feeling like there's something very, very secretive and heavily guarded going on behind every door, even if it's only a Japanese woman in white face paint and a kimono singing for some drunk business executives.

Day two in Kyoto was both astounding and a little bit frustrating. In short, Reggie and I had somewhat incompatible travel preferences. Since I had a very limited amount of time to travel, I wanted to travel to as many of the big-name spots on Kyoto's east side as I possibly could, snap as many photos as possible, and collapse in a heap when I got back to the hostel. Reggie, on the other hand, was much more interested in taking it easy, spending ample time at each site we visited and stopping for coffee breaks. I tried my best to be accommodating but Reggie could probably tell that I was chomping at the bit in some places. I really didn't want to be a dick about things, especially since I know I can tend to be a bit anti-social and I'm trying to change that for the better, and I really did appreciate his company for most of the trip. But like I said, I'm a bit of a lone wolf at heart, especially when I'm traveling and trying to see the sites. Our first stop that day was Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, a shrine (maybe a Shinto shrine? I don't know how clear the distinctions are between Buddhist and Shinto shrines in Japan) famous for its mountain paths covered by hundreds of red-orange torii gates, in long rows like dominoes. Scattered throughout the mountain paths are pockets of shrines with altars and statues of stone foxes, all gathered in seemingly disorganized mobs, especially when contrasted with the orderly rows of torii gates spanning the paths. It was all pretty overwhelming (especially in the mid-thirties heat and high humidity). From Fushimi-Inari-Taisha we walked to Tofukuji Temple, which wasn't on my itinerary but had been recommended to Reggie as a good Zen temple to visit. I learned something important about Kyoto at Tofukuji - it's not a city that you can see in only one or two days. For every temple that you read about in your guidebook that's listed as a must-see but turns out to be a chaotic mess when you arrive there, there's another that you're likely to skip past that will blow your mind. Maybe some people aren't as impressed by Tofukuji's white-and-brown Zen simplicity, but I was stunned by the immensity of the buildings there and the beauty of its natural setting. I'd say it's a can't-miss if you're coming to Kyoto (especially if Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is on your itinerary) but there's just so many can't-misses in Kyoto that it's impossible for me to label almost any one site taken individually that way.

Reggie and I stuck together in Kyoto as far as Kiyomizu-dera Temple, typically considered one of the definite must-see sites for all visitors to Kyoto. We had already agreed by that point that he would probably break away to take a rest after Kiyomizu-dera while I continued on to other sightseeing destinations on the east side of the city. Unfortunately, we got separated by the crowd halfway through Kiyomizu-dera and had no way to get back in touch with each other since neither of us had a working phone. Kiyomizu-dera was impressive, but it was extremely crowded and at least one of the major buildings was covered for repairs. (This is another major headache in visiting Kyoto, and Japan in general - since almost all the classic buildings are made of wood, it's almost certain that part of some major site you want to see will be closed, or have only limited access, for renovations.) I wandered out of the temple and into the side streets of the picturesque neighborhood nearby, and determined to make the best of the time I had left before sites started closing for the evening. The good thing about Kyoto is, no matter where you go, especially on the east side of the city, there's almost always something to see. I mean yeah, I think I walked right by a couple temples I wanted to see but couldn't find, I found out Chion-in Temple was under major renovations when I got there, and I may have accidentally left an incense offering for Japan's dead soldiers from World War II at another temple. Sorry, they handed the incense to me as I walked in and I didn't read the whole brochure. And there was a really big Buddha statue there! Also, I think they had a monument to all the unknown soldiers of World War II from all sides at that temple, so at least they were trying to be accommodating. It's the thought that counts, right?

Even though it was after 4 PM by the time I found a bus stop, I still tried to make it to the northeast edge of the city to see Ginkakuji Temple, another one of the city's widely-regarded must-see sites, before it closed at 5 PM. As you may have guessed, I made it there at 5:05, and the guard at the door had no sympathy for either me or the two French tourists who arrived at that time. Really, when it comes down to it, two days is not enough time to see Kyoto. I don't really have too many regrets about what I did see, though. I only wish that I had more time to see more of the city. It would be easy to spend a week exploring Kyoto, if you had that kind of time. Oh well. Maybe I can come back some day...

When I got back to my hostel, I tried to email Reggie to talk to him about the next day's plan to go to Nara. I really wanted to leave as soon as possible in the morning so that I could maximize my time there and still have time in the evening to see more of Osaka. I didn't get a definite response from Reggie until the next morning, but when he swung by the hostel at 7 AM he said that he was too tired to join me that day. I hate to admit it but I was secretly hoping he would make that decision. (Loner, lone gunman, get it? I like the lifestyle, the image.) Again, I had nothing against him personally, actually he was a really nice guy. Plus I'm not gonna say anything bad about the guy here because I'll probably be sending him a Facebook friend request some time soon and there'll be a link to this blog post on my account. But like I said, as much as I'm trying to teach myself not to run in fear from all forms of interpersonal relationships, I do prefer to travel alone, and I was on a very tight schedule. So off I went to Nara on my own, going down the only road I've ever known. Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone...

Nara was incredible. First, there's the deer. Nara is famous for its deer, which are protected by law and fed by all the tourists, so they've become completely tame. Seriously, you can stand nose-to-nose with an eight-point buck in Nara and most of the time he'll only sniff you for food. It's like another world there, where deer and man are somehow equals. Don't you just love Buddhists? Second, there's Todaiji Temple. Todaiji Temple is huge. Yeah, there's lots of huge temples in Japan, but Todaiji Temple also has Japan's largest bronze Buddha statue, which is just plain ol' HUGE. (And it's indoors, so you know that's a big ol' temple right there.) Third, the main tourist area in Nara is very walkable and surrounded by undeveloped hills, forest and grassland, and there's some very nice gardens in the area that take full advantage of that natural beauty. Here's the shot of Isuien Garden that I posted to Facebook to make my friends jealous:

This is the crappy iPhone version of this shot. The good Fujicolor 100 shot isn't back from the photo lab yet. (I kick it old school.)

It's fairly easy to see the main sites in Nara in about half a day, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the Nara National Museum, which has quite a nice collection of Buddhist statues and other artworks from the Kansai region, and still get back to Osaka at a reasonable hour. Yes, I appreciate the irony that I ended up ditching Reggie so I could leave early for Nara, and then it turned out that I spent a leisurely day there with time to spare. Whatever, these things happen.

Back in Osaka, I had heard that Den-Den Town, the city's discount electronics district, might have some camera shops with old manual 35mm equipment, so I headed there in the evening. I didn't find any camera shops, but I did find out that Den-Den Town is also apparently Osaka's otaku (roughly translated, "fanboy") district, so I did pass a wide variety of interesting record shops, toy stores, video stores and "maid coffee" establishments. "Maid coffee" is apparently a popular form of entertainment in Japan in which you go to a coffee shop where young girls dress like maids and you can play board games with them. Personally I don't understand this Japanese fascination with infantilized, subservient young girls and women. Why not a cafe with girls who can wear whatever they want and rub it in your face when they school you at checkers? Oh wait, you don't have to pay for that, that's what friends are for...

I had enough time left to check out at least one of southern Osaka's entertainment districts - maybe two if I was lucky. The main places to go for entertainment in Osaka are America-mura, which is mostly known as an area for trendy retail shops, Dotombori, which is known as the main place to party, and Shin-Sekai, which is known as a run-down shell of its former self that's now full of pachinko parlors. I, of course, headed straight to Shin-Sekai. What can I say, I love a good dive. Actually, I attempted to head straight there but got lost in some covered arcade south of Shin-Sekai that was home to some really, truly divey places. Ever seen someone doing karaoke loudly for a completely empty bar? It's not pretty. I did eventually find Shin-Sekai and get a couple shots of neon-clad Tsuten-kaku tower for the effort, but it didn't seem like the most fun place for a solo traveler. I suppose the right kind of group of travelers could have fun enjoying the Jersey shore (the boardwalk, not the TV series) type vibe there, but I wasn't going to find much to do there by myself. ("Hey," you're thinking right now, "maybe you would have enjoyed the nightlife in Osaka more if you hadn't ditched Reggie." Well, it's possible, but Reggie didn't drink, so I had kind of figured I would have to leave him behind for this portion of the trip anyway.) I did manage to get to Dotombori before the last train back to my hostel, and got some photos of the famous neon "Running Man" by the river, and got propositioned outside a hotel, which I think completes the Dotombori experience. So all in all I feel like I got to see the Osaka nightlife experience, even if I didn't fully participate in it.

I had to get back on the ferry on Friday, my final day, and they only thing I had time to do was check out the Osaka Aquarium. The Osaka Aquarium is allegedly the biggest in the world, and it's quite impressive. The entire aquarium focuses on animals from various locales around the Pacific ring of fire, and it's designed in a big spiral, so you start at the top with surface-dwelling creatures (including some aquatic birds and mammals) and as you continue farther into the aquarium you move to lower levels of the various tanks, so you can see the animals that typically dwell in much deeper parts of the ocean. The whale shark is the star of the show, although the otters, sea lions, dolphins and penguins do their best to steal the crowd's attention while they're still in the surface areas.

The first thing I noticed on the ferry ride back was that I seemed to be one of the only Westerners over the age of eighteen on the trip. Were I the type of person to see justice or a larger plan in the universe (which I don't), I might guess that this was some sort of karmic retribution for ditching Reggie in Kyoto. But since the universe is clearly a series of random, unconnected incidents, I spend the trip catching up on my favorite podcasts and catching up on sleep. Eat that, karma.

Hmm... is it worth including a closing paragraph to compare Japan to Korea? I could definitely see, while traveling in Japan, which country was the colonized and which was the colonizer. As grand as the temples and palaces were in Japan, it was hard not to retain some sense of the social injustices perpetrated on both the Japanese peasantry and, later, Japan's colonial conquests to build and maintain all that splendor. But really, I could say that about almost any world imperial capital. Why do so many truly great things in life seem to have to be erected on the backs of the less fortunate? I don't know. I do know that, when I got back on the cruise ship and got in line for dinner, and got pushed out of the way repeatedly by older Koreans, that I missed the Japanese sense of politeness and desire for social harmony. I definitely heard the Japanese phrase for "excuse me" more often than I hear its Korean equivalent here. But I think making comparisons is a fairly futile exercise. One has to accept every culture for what it is, both good and bad. Cultures do change over time, but not generally due to anything we can do about them. It's better to try to accept what we don't like about them, and try to remember to celebrate what we do like.

Well, the fall semester at work starts tomorrow morning, and it promises to be an interesting semester, if anything. They'll be some new teachers to meet, and some newly departed teachers to miss. (The current teacher at my middle school is vacating her apartment upstairs as we speak.) I don't think I'm going back to Korean class in Daegu, since at this point I'm pretty sure that twelve more weeks of lessons is not going to help my Korean to an appreciable degree before I leave. Also, I found out that the volunteer group that was helping me learn Korean might be a front for a cult. I mean, yeah, I knew they had some vague connections to a cult for a long time, but some recent information I've come across makes me more wary of spending time with them. (I'm sure there'll be a lot more about that in my next post.) I've been delving deeper into the book that's supposed to be helping me transition successfully into a new career when I leave this job, and all it's done so far is make me more confused about what I want to do and have more doubts about my employability in general. Clearly I have a lot more soul-searching to do in the next six months. And of course I still have to teach school and do a good job of it for the kids. Well, this chapter of the story may be winding down, but it's certainly not over. Let's see what twists and turns await before I can close the cover and start the next volume of this story.