Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I've been working in visual effects for eight years. That can either be seen as a long amount of time or a rather short amount of time. For me, since I'm 29, it's a long time. It's more than a quarter of my life that I've spent doing this work.

In the eight years that I've been working, I've met a lot of female producers. Not many female supervisors. I suppose that this means women tend to be left-brained, whereas men are more right-brained (with exceptions, of course). Which is why I was so happy when "Kung Fu Panda 2" did so very well when it premiered- it was directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is not only a woman, she's a Korean-American woman. She came from Korea when she was four, I came when I was three. She grew up in the town right next to the town where I grew up. She grew up in Lakewood, she went to college in Long Beach, and I imagine that if it weren't for our age difference (10 years), she and I might have crossed paths at some point.

It amazed me to read that "Kung Fu Panda 2" is now the highest grossing film that's been directed by a woman. I am so proud (I really think Korean-Americans are my people, even if I also think that Koreans are my people and Americans are my people- they are not my people the way Korean-Americans are), just because this achievement shows me (and all the younger kids that are the way that I was) that it's possible, that we can do great things, and that dreams are not meant just for sleep.

I don't know what my real goals are. I don't have a five-year plan. I do know that the sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that I have after finishing a film is something that I love. I also know, though, that I'm getting tired of the politics and backstabbing and favoritism that is prevalent in this business.

For now, I am content in Korea, though my job is ever-changing and my co-workers are still confused by me (it's been almost two months, people, adapt already). I feel a little more comfortable here now, though I can see that my behavior is a little different (more about that in another post).

I'm looking forward to the weekend and some rest and buying some groceries- I have no vegetables other than half a cucumber and an onion- and perhaps taking some real pictures with my real camera. Please let the weather be clear!

This is my 500th blog post! Some posts have been completely useless, but still. It's a milestone. I'm celebrating by working a few extra weeks in Korea, yippee.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Seoul Explorations

I can honestly say now that I am adapting to Korea. Maybe not all of Korea, but definitely the subway system, which I have grown to love dearly. (Seriously, why can't LA have a subway like Korea??) I might actually be happy to not have a car (!), and that's saying a lot for someone from LA.

It used to seem ludicrous to me that I needed to take the subway for about an hour (give or take) to go to Seoul (depending on where in Seoul I was trying to go), but now that I've made the trip a few times, it's not bad at all.

The subways here are air-conditioned to the point of frigidity and they are generally quiet, unless they're stuffed like tins of sardines (I've only experienced that once). Even inside the sardine tin, it's not nearly as loud as it could be. (God save me if I ever go to New York and have to get on one of their notoriously rank and noisy subways.)

I can usually find a seat, put in my ear buds, listen to music, read a book on my iPhone, play games, or even watch TV on my Korean phone (more about that later). The time passes by really quickly, to the point that I've never impatiently checked the clock while sitting on a subway.

This past weekend, I went to Seoul to wander around and to look at camera lenses (I got the one I wanted- I've been eyeballing that lens for years!). I saw some interesting things, trekked over a pretty large area, and never even worried about getting lost. Suddenly, Seoul does not seem as big as I had previously though. I'm counting that as a sign of adaptation to my surroundings.

There was an underground mall between the Hoehyeon (회현) and Myeong-Dong (명동) subway stations (Line 4). It was mostly closed by the time I was walking through it, but I had fun anyway. There are so many weird little shops- the ever-present nail salons and cosmetic road shops, but also a surprisingly large number of currency stores (you can buy currency from other countries) and hiking shops (literally to buy hiking supplies- Koreans are crazy about hiking).

There were also records all over the place. The interesting thing was, they didn't bother to lock up their records or anything. They were on shelves that lined entire outer walls (not even inside shops), just sitting out in the open. I love the idea of records, even if I've never owned a record player, so I took a few snaps on my phone.

째즈 is the phonetic Korean spelling for "jazz." There were random labels all over the place- some by genre, some by the Korean alphabet, some by the American alphabet. I love the way vinyl looks in its big cardboard sleeve, all lined up on shelves.
An Edith Piaf record that certainly looked original- the thing was banged up and the sleeve was yellowing, but I really liked the artwork. The woman manages to look like Edith Piaf without being a caricature; she looks rather depressed, which I think is true of Piaf and her melancholy eyebrows.
The picture above is, perhaps, a fantastic representation of my childhood. My mother, the pianist, introduced me to Tchaikovsky quite early. My father, the guitarist and drummer, had me singing Beatles songs before I ever knew what the phrase "twist and shout" might possibly mean. I love that these records were just sprawled out like this (I didn't touch any of them, lest the shopkeepers think I was going to buy something), two mismatching records that together, mean something to me.
This is the staircase up and out of the subway station. I like that natural stripes of stone were used, instead of smoothing over any trace of perfectly imperfect nature. Subway stations in Korea vary wildly, from the somewhat posh, like this one, and then the very 70s style, with orange and subway tile and kitsch. I like them all.
Shinsegae (신세계) is a famous department store in Korea. I went and picked up a few things from Shu Uemura (they don't have any Shu Uemera counters in LA, I always had to order online), admired the polish and shine of the place, and then left before I could spend any more money.
This is an interesting display at Chungmuro (충무로) Station, where I switch from Line 4 to Line 3 (my house is off Line 3). I guess it has something to do with movies? There was nothing to explain why this was inside a subway station. Perhaps they're just trying to make the stations more interesting.
I've never seen this before- see the back of the car? There are no seats. I don't know what that area is for, and nobody stood there or anything while I was on this subway car. Maybe it's for people with lots of luggage? People in wheelchairs? I have no idea.
TV on my phone- it's not just because I have a fancy phone (it's a Samsung Galaxy SII), everyone seems to get streaming TV on their phones. I see people with flip phones watching TV. The white thing coming out of the phone is the jack for my ear buds. The metal thing protruding from the phone above the headphone jack is the antennae, which pulls out quite a lot from the body of the phone. I marvel at how light my phone is when it packs such a long antennae in it (seriously, iPhone, your screen is smaller and you weigh at least twice a much, and you don't even stream TV- if it wasn't for your superior camera, I would chuck you).

The above is the browsing screen, where I can scroll though the channels (right) and a preview pops up (upper left) so I can check what's on which channels. There is no stutter, no lag, no playback issue, no sync issues between picture and sound. Back home, I couldn't even get YouTube to play a 20-second video on my phone without problems. How is streaming TV possible and even successful in Korea?
Full screen mode (I was watching "I Am A Singer (나는 가수다)" and the lighting was intentionally crazy green, it's not a weird problem with my phone. It really is like watching a portable TV. I was underground, for crying out loud, on a moving subway, and the TV never even hiccuped. American wireless technology, please get with it.

I actually spent the majority of my time in Seoul at Namdaemun Market (남대문), which is essentially like a giant, organized flea market. The shoe stores and stalls are all together, the (knock-off) purses and luggage shops are all together, the herbal medicine vendors are all together, etc. I wandered around and around and around, but I still don't think I saw the whole thing. I did manage to find a few camera places, which is where I found my lens (I really need to start taking some real pictures). I didn't take any snaps because, frankly, Namdaemun is ugly. Think flea market or swap meet, and you're pretty much there.

While I've been in Korea (almost two months!), I have realized that I am capable of things that I would never have thought to do before. I haggled down the price of my camera lens, I ask random strangers questions, I go into shops to ask for directions, I take subways alone- all things that I have never really done before. Though I may come across as assertive, I'm not really a pushy Asian woman. I've always had my sister to be pushy for both our sakes, so I was spared having to deal with strangers. My sister never had a problem going up to people and saying whatever she had to say, whereas I was always terrified of strangers.

I'm not going to lie, I'm still a little scared of strangers. Especially the pushier Korean strangers that seem to have been raised by parents with incredibly sharply pointed elbows. But I'm getting better, and I credit Korea for that- I am forced to do things that I don't like to do.

Hopefully, I don't turn into an outright Korean ajumma. Shudder.

Almost 9 p.m. and I'm still at work (!). We have a big meeting tomorrow. I'm tired just thinking about it. 


Friday, August 26, 2011

Korea's Next Top Model

I mentioned in passing previously that I have been watching "Korea's Next Top Model" lately, and after my last (very long) post, I decided that I would lighten up and write about this TV show. (Warning: this is going to be a rather harsh review of "Korea's Next Top Model" ... I tend to be hard on these types of 'reality' shows.)

This show is much like "America's Next Top Model," a reality show competition that pits a group of thin, generally high-strung girls against one another in order to win a contract, a spot with a modeling agency, and other random prizes.

The main differences between ANTM and KNTM are the hostess and the culture. To compare the hostesses:

ANTM is, of course, the brainchild of one Miss Tyra Banks. I've always thought that Tyra was striking, with those big eyes and all those teeth. She was a great Victoria's Secret model because she had the body and the sass.

As a reality show MC, I don't know. The first few seasons of ANTM, she was a little bit awkward, obviously not that comfortable. She found her footing as the seasons wore on (and on and on and ON), but she also became sort of the bridezilla version of an MC. She did strange things (remember that season during which she only wore jumpsuits?), she came up with weird concepts, and she stomped around the show like she was the star. I thought a reality show was about the contestants, the hostess is supposed to facilitate (for the record, I really liked Heidi as the hostess of "Project Runway," which I am currently NOT watching because I still have a thorn in my side about the awfulness of Gretchen's win).

In the end, between Tyra's growing oddness and my growing disinterest, I stopped watching ANTM. It's been a few years since I've watched (or maybe just a couple years, who can tell with this show, there's a new cycle seemingly every couple months), so maybe things have gotten better lately (doubtful).
Then I came to Korea and watched "Korea's Top Model," with Jang Yoon-Ju (장윤주) as its MC.

Bizarrely, I recognized her from a Korean TV show broadcast that I had watched in LA not too long before my departure for Korea. She was on a talk show (I think it was 놀러와) with a bunch of Korean indie groups. She sang a song with one of the musicians, and she was quite good- a great voice for soft indie music. I remember being impressed with how genial she was, and how great she was with people. She was actually really funny, and put all the awe-struck men at ease.

Then I came to Korea and realized that dude, she's a model. She hosts the show with much more of a quiet command than Tyra. When Yoon-Ju interacts with the models, she is helpful but never aggressive. She seems like a girl that I would want to be friends with, like a girl that would be super fun if you met in a bar one night.

I obviously prefer Yoon-Ju. I just don't like Tyra's hosting style. Honestly, I'd rather see pictures of Tyra than watch her on my TV.

The cultural differences are huge, of course, and lend for completely different types of model-filled houses.

I think these are the models that are left (the ones that blended into the background have all been eliminated- thank goodness, because I was confused for a few weeks, who's that girl? has she always been there?):
Park Seul-Ki  (박슬기). She seems to be one of the more mature girls. I like her, and actually want her to do well.
Song Hae-Na (송해나). She seriously irritated me during the makeover show, because they chopped her hair off and dyed it blond and she was leaking tears like a faulty faucet. She's a little petty sometimes, but I like her- she tends to be bubbly and seems sweet (and sometimes a little dumb).
Lee Jenny (이제니). She's foreign, though I never pay enough attention to the show to hear where she's from. Maybe the States? She speaks English, I'm pretty sure. Her Korean's not great, but it's passable. I question whether or not she's from the States because her Korean accent is not very American. I think I like her, but she's hard to read, since she doesn't talk much, owing to her language barrier.
Lee Sun-Young (이선영). What's the Korean word for "ditz"? Because it's this girl right here. I think she's adorable, but then she opens her mouth and it all goes down the drain. Her photos are either fantastic or awful.
Lee Song-Yi (이송이). She's got that awkward, shy, model-y thing going on, but sometimes, her photos are actually just awkward, instead of awkward-chic. She doesn't talk much and is very quiet, so I have no strong opinions about her. I have a very strong aversion to the horrifying haircut that they gave her, though.
Um Yoo-Jung (엄유정). WHINER. She complains about everything, gets depressed at the drop of a hat, and is generally just a dark cloud over the entire show. She makes me sad, and while she's striking, I don't think she's very photogenic.
Jin Jung-Sun (진정선). Ugh. I can't even begin to describe how annoying this kid is. I believe she's the youngest (17); she certainly acts like it. She's always overly confident, obnoxious, and says the most grating things. DISLIKE. I do concede that she takes some amazing photos- her pictures look much better than her snippets of "reality," that's for sure.

So I think those are the girls. As much as I dislike Jung-Sun, I have a feeling that she'll be going far, as she generally has good photographs and can actually walk on the runway (unlike some of the other poor girls who clomp up and down like they're in cement shoes).

A few differences between ANTM and KNTM:

- Cat-fights:
On ANTM, the girls are thrown into a house together ... and then they fight. There's always some sort of screaming fit, someone throws something, someone pours someone else's Red Bull down the drain, and someone always cries. On KNTM, not so much. Koreans have much more of a pack mentality than Americans, I think, and when someone tries to "lead" the other girls (generally the oldest, as Korea ranks people by age much more than America), the other usually follow along. Complaints aren't as frequent on KNTM- at least, not until some of the girls become good friends and whine to each other.

- Confessionals:
I admit, I kind of love the confessionals, where the girls are filmed talking to the camera about the other girls. I still remember Elyse talking smack about every single girl on the show, and how hilarious I found her (she's one of my favorite ANTM contestants). Korean girls? They talk about how good the other girls are, and how they're worried. After a few weeks, when cliques formed and discontent started coming to the surface, they would say things like "I don't know, is she going to be my rival?" or "I really want to beat all the other girls"- nothing nearly as mean-spirited (and therefore entertaining) as the ANTM girls. The one exception is, of course, hateful Jung-Sun, who says things like "I doubt she has that many friends," and "I can't believe she would come on this show when she can't even walk." Mean-spirited, sharp-tongued, and vindictive, that one.

(Side note- Korea's got a singing competition show called "I Am A Singer (나는 가수다)" which pits all kinds of singers (old, young, professional, amateur, men, women) against each other. These singers, when watching the others perform, only have nice things to say about each other. They never say mean things or belittle each other. It was so bizarre the first time I watched the show, because wow. That is not American at all.)

- Housekeeping:
The ANTM house, at the beginning of the cycle, is usually an unbelievable mess. Totally gross, with trash all over the place, disgusting bathrooms and kitchens, and unmade beds. The KNTM house is pretty dang clean. The "buckle down and clean" mentality is very strong here in Korea, and it shows. There's a little drama about who's going to do what, but not nearly as much as on ANTM. The house is in pretty good order, from what the cameras show, and it's a smaller house than the one that the American girls usually get.

- Relationships with the creative director and photographers:
The ANTM girls listen to Mr. and Miss J, though sometimes grudgingly. And in America, talking back to them or to the photographers isn't as rude and disrespectful as it is in Korea. Because of the casual and formal speech differences in Korea, I think the distinctions are clearer. Talking back to the (totally gay and fabulous) creative director or the photographers is considered to be absolutely disrespectful and something that just is. not. done. There are good and bad elements to this, of course- the good being, the photoshoots tend to have less drama. The bad being, there's less drama.

On the whole, I really prefer KNTM. ANTM just seemed so angsty and overly theatrical, like they were purposefully going out and trying to find insane girls to pump up the (already overmuch) drama. KNTM seems more real, and the girls seem more normal. I mean, do you actually know anyone that's like the craziest ANTM girls?

I miss American TV, of course (they have the weirdest selection of American TV shows here, which is so confusing- I mean, the new "Night Rider"? Really?) but Korean TV is doing nicely to fill the void and give me a source of white noise.

It's Saturday and I'm at work! Shouldn't be here long- I really do want to try to make it to Namdaemun today.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Asian Women and Marriage

(엄마, 아빠, 오늘 드디어 우체국 갔어! 편지가 곧 도착하겠지?)

Twitter can be quite useful on occasion. I follow a few news organizations (BBC and CNN, for instance), which gives me the day's news in small bites, with the option to view the full article should I choose to. I like that I can skim Twitter and pretty much know what's going on (earthquake on the east coast of America, Steve Jobs quitting (!) as Apple's CEO, Amy Winehouse's toxicology report coming back clean, etc.).

The other day, I saw a tweet that caught my eye. It was from The Economist, about Asian marriage- and more specifically, about Asian women. Here's the full article. The tweet said, "Asians are marrying later, and less, than in the past. This has profound implications for women."

Now, Twitter always makes message come across as terse- 140 characters is not much space, and leaves no room for eloquence. But the words "profound implications" really gave me the willies and made me feel like it was going to be a damning article about how Asian women are ruining Asia, or something to that effect. (What? Lots of Asian men actually think that.)

The article isn't very long, but I did find it to be though-provoking. I agreed with it, mostly, and I understand where the concern (and hence the "profound implications") comes from. There is another article linked to the first one, about the flight from marriage, here.

Now, I'm of a certain age (29 in the States, 30 in Korea), the age where people give me sideways looks and wonder aloud when I'm going to get married, not bothering to whisper. I'm not morally opposed to marriage, and I think that a life partner would be fantastic. However, I'm morally opposed to a co-inhabitant that I happen to be married to. I think finding an actual partner, with whom one could actually share a life, a bank account, and children, is one of the hardest things in the world. I'm not husband hunting, I'm not renouncing marriage, I'm just letting things unfold as they will. 

TWENTY years ago a debate erupted about whether there were specific “Asian values”. Most attention focused on dubious claims by autocrats that democracy was not among them. But a more intriguing, if less noticed, argument was that traditional family values were stronger in Asia than in America and Europe, and that this partly accounted for Asia’s economic success. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore and a keen advocate of Asian values, the Chinese family encouraged “scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain”.

On the face of it his claim appears persuasive still. In most of Asia, marriage is widespread and illegitimacy almost unknown. In contrast, half of marriages in some Western countries end in divorce, and half of all children are born outside wedlock. The recent riots across Britain, whose origins many believe lie in an absence of either parental guidance or filial respect, seem to underline a profound difference between East and West.

Yet marriage is changing fast in East, South-East and South Asia, even though each region has different traditions. The changes are different from those that took place in the West in the second half of the 20th century. Divorce, though rising in some countries, remains comparatively rare. What’s happening in Asia is a flight from marriage.
I agree with the above. The values between East and West are distinct and different- what is merging between East and West are aesthetics, and those aesthetics are giving the impression that the world is getting smaller. It isn't really, because underneath the make-up, clothes, and dance moves are roots and values that differ hugely.
Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched. Marriage ages have risen all over the world, but the increase is particularly marked in Asia. People there now marry even later than they do in the West. The mean age of marriage in the richest places—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%. So far, the trend has not affected Asia’s two giants, China and India. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60m more men of marriageable age than women in China and India.


Can marriage be revived in Asia? Maybe, if expectations of those roles of both sexes change; but shifting traditional attitudes is hard. Governments cannot legislate away popular prejudices. They can, though, encourage change. Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old.

Asian governments have long taken the view that the superiority of their family life was one of their big advantages over the West. That confidence is no longer warranted. They need to wake up to the huge social changes happening in their countries and think about how to cope with the consequences.
Case in point. Because of the stigma that is still attached to divorce (it's a SCANDAL when any of the Koreans that my family knows decides to get a divorce), I feel like Asians would prefer not getting married at all rather than marrying for the sake of marriage and then regretting it ... so they just stay in the dysfunctional marriage because they don't want the humiliation of divorce. (Those statistics above are staggering, by the way. 60 million more men than women in 2050 in China and India?!)
Women are retreating from marriage as they go into the workplace. That’s partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Women there are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and, often, for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. This is true elsewhere in the world, but the burden that Asian women carry is particularly heavy. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours. And Asian women who give up work to look after children find it hard to return when the offspring are grown. Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. According to a survey carried out this year, many fewer Japanese women felt positive about their marriage than did Japanese men, or American women or men.

At the same time as employment makes marriage tougher for women, it offers them an alternative. More women are financially independent, so more of them can pursue a single life that may appeal more than the drudgery of a traditional marriage. More education has also contributed to the decline of marriage, because Asian women with the most education have always been the most reluctant to wed—and there are now many more highly educated women.
TRUTH. Though I do not agree with the usage of "retreat." Women aren't retreating from marriage; retreat is for the losers of wars and back-alley fights. Women are embracing their careers, they are running towards something rather than running away from something. I was told by one of my co-workers (in the U.S., not in Korea) that I should marry a sweet guy who wanted to be a house-husband. I was, truthfully, a little insulted. I've always had the expectation that I would work until I was married and pregnant, then stay home and raise my kids. Nobody ever forced this thought on me- it's just an assumption that I always had.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I was short-sighted. What if I really do end up with a guy that's a great cook and housekeeper? Better than me? I love working; I love my career. Would it be easy for me to give up my career? I always joke that I'm dating my career, but it's not really a joke. I've been dating my career for eight years, and I'm in love. If (or when) the time comes, could I forgo my first love for a screaming baby and a husband?

That kind of thinking always gets me into trouble, because then I get preemptively tired, thinking about staying up all night with a newborn and cleaning the house daily, only to have to clean it again the next day ... for all eternity. Then I just think that it would be easiest to live by myself, with no one to take care of or worry about but me. I would imagine that these are similar thoughts to those of all these single Asian women.
The flight from marriage in Asia is thus the result of the greater freedom that women enjoy these days, which is to be celebrated. But it is also creating social problems. Compared with the West, Asian countries have invested less in pensions and other forms of social protection, on the assumption that the family will look after ageing or ill relatives. That can no longer be taken for granted. The decline of marriage is also contributing to the collapse in the birth rate. Fertility in East Asia has fallen from 5.3 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 now. In countries with the lowest marriage rates, the fertility rate is nearer 1.0. That is beginning to cause huge demographic problems, as populations age with startling speed. And there are other, less obvious issues. Marriage socialises men: it is associated with lower levels of testosterone and less criminal behaviour. Less marriage might mean more crime.
I'm conflicted about the paragraph above. On one hand, women are sources of life. On the other hand, because we're sources of life, we're to be blamed for decreasing fertility and, obliquely, increasing crime. What the eff. What a burden to put on my entire gender. And how unfair. Men are no longer expected to be the sole breadwinner or sole protector of the household, but women are still expected to do everything they always did and then some. I know, logically, that OF COURSE women's roles cannot change THAT much- men cannot have babies, after all. Still, that doesn't mean that I don't find it a little unjust.
Conservatives in the West are fond of saying that the traditional family is the bedrock of society. That view is held even more widely in Asia. The family is the focus of Confucian ethics, which holds that a basic moral principle, xiushen (self-improvement), can be pursued only within the confines of the family.


In a book written in 1995 with a Japanese politician, Shintaro Ishihara, Dr Mahathir [Mohamad] contrasted Asians’ respect for marriage with “the breakdown of established institutions and diminished respect for marriage, family values, elders, and important customs” in the West. “Western societies”, Dr Mahathir claimed, “are riddled with single-parent families… with homosexuality, with cohabitation.” He might well have concluded that the absence of traditional family virtues from the streets of London recently showed the continued superiority of Asia.
What a pompous ass. Superiority is all relative, isn't it? Being a "superior" culture depends upon what you value. I didn't quote this bit to call out these men for being short-sighted (though they are), I wanted to talk about the homosexuality portion.

It's true that being gay in Asia is a stigma, almost akin to the racism in the U.S. just a generation ago. I know there are gay people in Korea, but nobody that I meet is going to tell me that they're gay during our first conversation. In LA, a gay person wouldn't think twice to tell me that they're gay (unless they're still in the closet, of course). Gay culture in the States (hello, WeHo) is prominent, proud, and distinct. Not so much here in Korea, and that makes me a little woeful.

I know that if I (or my sister) were gay, my parents would have a hard time with that. I firmly believe, though, that my parents would come to terms with it and still love their children. They know that I have gay friends, and they have no issues with my gays. I absolutely know for a fact, though, that there would be no coming out to grandparents or, possibly, even aunts, uncles, and cousins. The stigma is deep-rooted and difficult to overcome, so much so that I would think that a lot of Asian gays would have self-loathing issues.

Just the differences between the American and Korean gay culture show how vastly different the two countries still are, in terms of society and mindset.
In South Asia and China marriage remains near-universal, with 98% of men and women tying the knot. In contrast, in some Western countries, a quarter of people in their 30s are cohabiting or have never been married, while half of new marriages end in divorce. Marriage continues to be the almost universal setting for child-bearing in Asia: only about 2% of births took place outside wedlock in Japan in 2007. Contrast that with Europe: in Sweden in 2008 55% of births were to unmarried women, while in Iceland the share was 66%.

Most East and South-East Asian countries report little or no cohabitation. The exception is Japan where, among women born in the 1970s, about 20% say they have cohabited with a sexual partner. For Japan, that is a big change. In surveys between 1987 and 2002, just 1-7% of single women said they had lived with a partner. But it is not much compared with America where, according to a 2002 Gallup poll, over half of married Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 lived together before their wedding day. In many Western societies, more cohabitation has offset a trend towards later marriage or higher rates of divorce. That has not happened in Asia.

Traditional attitudes live on in other ways. Compared with Westerners, Asians are more likely to agree that “women’s happiness lies in marriage”. They are more likely to say women should give up work when they get married or have children, and more likely to disapprove of pre-marital sex. Surveys by Pew Global Research, a social-research outfit in Washington, DC, show that Muslims in South and South-East Asia are more likely than Muslims elsewhere to say that families should choose a woman’s husband for her.
Dude. Being Muslim in South and South-East Asia must be rough. Being Korean-American's hard enough, I can't imagine having the social pressures and also having the religious rules to follow. Yikes.

This is the part where I show my Korean side: I would never live with a boyfriend. I don't know why, but I've always felt like living with someone should be saved for marriage. I know that there will probably be habits that are discovered after the honeymoon, but I still would rather have those surprises after marrying the guy. I even surprise myself with my random un-Americanness.
Asia is changing. Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce. The changes in the West may be more dramatic. But both East and West are seeing big changes in the role of women and traditional family life.

[One] change is that people are getting married later, often much later. In the richest parts—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—the mean age of wedlock is now 29-30 for women, 31-33 for men. That is past the point at which women were traditionally required to marry in many Asian societies. It is also older than in the West. In America, women marry at about 26, men at 28. If you take account of the cohabitation that routinely precedes Western marriage (but not Asian), the gap between East and West is even larger. The mean age of marriage has risen by five years in some East Asian countries in three decades, which is a lot.

The Asian avoidance of marriage is new, and striking. Only 30 years ago, just 2% of women were single in most Asian countries. The share of unmarried women in their 30s in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong has risen 20 points or more (see chart below), “a very sharp change in a relatively short period”, says Gavin Jones of the National University of Singapore. In Thailand, the number of women entering their 40s without being married increased from 7% in 1980 to 12% in 2000. In some cities, rates of non-marriage are higher: 20% among women aged 40-44 in Bangkok; 27% among 30-34-year-olds in Hong Kong. In South Korea, young men complain that women are on “marriage strike”.
Maybe, South Korean men, you should make it worthwhile for your female counterparts to give up their careers and marry you. I'll save my rant about Korean men for another post, this one's already way too long, but men aren't exactly making women eagerly anticipate marriage (not all men, obviously). It disturbs me when I meet Korean men in their early 20s- they seem like they should be at least 15 years younger than me, they tend to be so immature and ... thoughtless.
What is remarkable about the Asian experience is not that women are unmarried in their 30s—that happens in the West, too—but that they have never been married and have rarely cohabited. In Sweden, the proportion of women in their late 30s who are single is higher than in Asia, at 41%. But that is because marriage is disappearing as a norm. Swedish women are still setting up homes and having children, just outside wedlock. Not in Asia. Avoiding both illegitimacy and cohabitation, Asian women appear to be living a more celibate life than their Western sisters (admittedly, they could also be under-reporting rates of cohabitation and pre-marital sex). The conclusion is that East Asia’s growing cohorts of unmarried women reflect less the breakdown of marriage than the fact that they are avoiding it.

But marriages are breaking down, too. In Hong Kong and Japan, the general divorce rate—the number of divorces per 1,000 people aged 15 or more—was about 2.5 in the mid-2000s, according to Mr Jones’s calculations. In Asia as a whole, the rate is about 2 per 1,000. That compares with 3.7 in America, 3.4 in Britain, 3.1 in France and 2.8 in Germany. Only in one or two Asian countries is divorce as widespread as in the West. The South Korean rate, for example, is 3.5. Because divorce has been common in the West for decades, more couples there have split up. The rise in Asia has been recent: China’s divorce rate took off in the early 2000s. In the 1980s the Asian rate was 1 per 1,000 people; now it is 2. If that rise continues, Asian divorce could one day be as common as in Europe.
This seems to be true. Of all the Korean people I know (here and back home), it's the younger generation (in their 20s and 30s) that seems to divorce more readily. People that are a generation (or even half a generation) older than me are still old school and believe in staying in bad marriages over getting divorced. I know plenty of people in their 40s and 50s that are in unhappy marriages, but wouldn't dream of splitting up.
The main function of marriage in most traditional societies is to bring up children (romantic love rarely has much to do with it). Not surprisingly, changes in child-bearing have gone along with changes in marriage. The number of children the average East Asian woman can expect to have during her lifetime—the fertility rate—has fallen from 5.3 in the late 1960s to below 1.6 now, an enormous drop. But old-fashioned attitudes persist, and these require couples to start having children soon after marriage. In these circumstances, women choose to reduce child-bearing by delaying it—and that means delaying marriage, too.

Changing marriage patterns are also the result of improvements in women’s education and income, and the failure of women’s status to keep pace. The salient characteristic of many traditional marriage systems is that women—especially young women—have little independence. In South Asia, brides are taken into the groom’s family almost as soon as they move into puberty. They are tied to their husband’s family. Sometimes women may not inherit property or perform funeral rites (this is especially important in China). In parts of South Asia, wives may not even take their children to hospital without getting their husband’s permission.
In English, the phrase is "to get married". In Korean, there are two phrases (one per gender):

For women: 시집 간다: 시집 is "husband's home" and 간다 is the verb "to go"
For men: 장가 간다: 장가 is "marry" and 간다 is the same verb, "to go"

Koreans think of marriage as a departure from their families. From the parents' perspective:

For daughters: 시집 보낸다: 보내 is the verb "to send"
For sons: 장가 보낸다

Parents send their children. Away from their childhood home, into a new married life. I think that's a distinctive difference. Americans think of marriage as a merging of families, whereas Koreans, especially the families with daughters, think of marriage as a loss of one of their family members.

Parents "lose" their daughters because, generally, on holidays and important days, their married daughters go to their in-laws. 시집 is such an interesting word to me. While 장가, the male version, has no roots in Chinese, 시집 does. Literally, 시 means 'husband' and 집 means 'home'. Women, from the point of marriage, are considered part of their husband's family, no longer part of their blood family.

Now, the one thing in Korea that completely boggles my mind is the fact that married women do not change their family names. They keep their own family names for all eternity. Doesn't that seem so progressive? And yet the old traditions still (co-)exist? Such a strange dichotomy.
Two forces are giving women more autonomy: education and jobs. Women’s education in East Asia has improved dramatically over the past 30 years, and has almost erased the literacy gap with men. Girls stay at school for as many years as boys, and illiteracy rates for 15-24-year-olds are the same for the two sexes (this is not true of South Asia). In South Korea now, women earn half of all master’s degrees.

Education changes women’s expectations. Among Thai women who left school at 18, one-eighth were still single in their 40s; but among university graduates, the share was a fifth. A survey in Beijing in 2003 found that half of women with a monthly income of 5,000-15,000 yuan (roughly $600-1,800, an indicator of university education) were not married. Half said they did not need to be, because they were financially independent. South Koreans call such people “golden misses”. “Why should I have to settle down to a life of preparing tofu soup, like my mother?” asks one.
I think that marriage, like any other occupation, should be regarded as a choice. (Yes, I see marriage as an occupation- it occupies your time and life.) Some people are suited for marriage. I see girls and women here that are obviously just working for the sake of working- they don't have real careers and they don't care to try and achieve anything in their workplace. They're just working until their "real lives" begin, once they're married and have kids. Granted, most of these women don't regard marriage as a choice, but the really obstinate women are working hard, getting their careers in motion, damning their critics.

It's not to say that the career-less women are necessarily going to be great wives or mothers. They may not be. But because of their circumstances (maybe their parents raised them that way, maybe they don't have a high level of education, whatever the case), they don't try to get ahead in the workplace. With that sort of stagnancy, it must not be much of a sacrifice to quit their jobs and raise their kids. For the driven, career-oriented women, giving up their careers really is a sacrifice and one that cannot be made easily. The golden misses should do as they do, only stopping to prepare tofu soup if and when they have a hankering.
Rates of non-marriage rise at every stage of education. Women with less than secondary education are the most likely to marry, followed by those with secondary education, with university graduates least likely. This pattern is the opposite of the one in America and Europe, where marriage is more common among college graduates than among those with just a secondary education.

There are two reasons why education’s spread reduces women’s propensity to marry. First, non-marriage has always been more prevalent among women with more education. Now that there are more women in these higher-education groups, there are fewer marriages. Marriage rates are also lower in cities. Since education is likely to go on improving, and urbanisation to go on rising, more women will join the ranks of graduates or city folk who are least likely to marry.

Second, more education leaves the best-educated women with fewer potential partners. In most Asian countries, women have always been permitted—even encouraged—to “marry up”, ie, marry a man of higher income or education. Marrying up was necessary in the past when women could not get an education and female literacy was low. But now that many women are doing as well or better than men at school, those at the top—like the “golden misses”—find the marriage market unwelcoming. Either there are fewer men of higher education for them to marry, or lower-income men feel intimidated by their earning power (as well as their brain power). As Singapore’s Mr Lee once said: “The Asian man…preferred to have a wife with less education than himself.” In Singapore, non-marriage rates among female university graduates are stratospheric: a third of 30-34-year-old university graduates are single.

Better education also makes possible the other main trend changing marriage: female employment. Asia’s economic miracle has caused—and been caused by—a surge of women into the formal workforce. In East Asia two-thirds of women have jobs, an unusually high rate. In South-East Asia the figure is 59%. In South Korea the employment rate of women in their 20s (59.2%) recently overtook that of twenty-something men (58.5%). This surge has been accompanied by the collapse of the lifetime-employment systems in Japanese and South Korean firms, which used to ensure that a single (male) worker’s income could support a middle-class family. Now the wife’s earnings are needed, too.
This makes me rather sad. Not the part about lifetime-employment, I think that's stupid (and it does still exist in Korea, just to a lesser extent than in the past). The part about both partners needing to work in order to support a middle-class family.

One of my co-workers here has a really adorable three-year-old son. I asked him if they were going to have a second child before their son gets too much older, and he said that they couldn't afford it. Both he and his wife work. He barely sees his son, as he works long hours, and yet they are just getting by with the two salaries in their household. Living seems to be hard, even residing in one of the Four Asian Tigers.
All things being equal, having a job increases a woman’s autonomy. She has more options, and these options include not having a husband. But it is clear from Western societies that women will not necessarily choose a job over marriage. Rather, they will struggle to balance the conflicting demands of work and family.

What is unusual about Asia is that women seem to bear an unusually large share of the burden of marriage, reducing the attractiveness of family life compared with work. Certainly, this is what Asian women themselves think. Surveys about attitudes to marriage are patchy and subject to a lot of reservations. But for what it is worth, in a survey from 2011 of Japan’s three largest cities, only two-thirds of wives said they felt positive about their marriage, much less than their husbands; in America, both husbands and wives usually report higher and similar levels of satisfaction. In a survey from 2000, satisfaction levels in Japan were only half those in America. This may be because the readier availability of divorce in America has left fewer people trapped in loveless marriages. Or there may be something in the Japanese caricature of the salaryman husband working long hours and socialising all night and at weekends, while his neglected, fretful wife struggles to bring up the children at home.
The burden that Asian women feel towards marriage is, yes, perpetuated by their societies. However, they also have very high expectations of themselves, possibly higher than could be reasonably achieved. Koreans are xenophobic, to a degree, and can be very conformist, but within that conformity is a lot of competition, more so than in American society. Competing to get the biggest house, the best car, to get their kids into the best schools, the most coveted universities- it's cutthroat and stressful.
Whatever the problem, it is not confined to Japan. Illyqueen, a popular Taiwanese blogger, recently ranted about “Mama’s boys” in their 30s who have had “no hardships, no housework, [and who] …have lost the ability to keep promises (like marriage).” If some Asian women do indeed have an unusually negative view of marriage, it might make them more likely to choose a job over a husband, or to put off marriage while they pursue a career.

Moreover, public attitudes and expectations are lagging far behind changes in women’s lives in Asia, making it even harder to strike a balance between life and work. Despite higher incomes and education, “women have lower socioeconomic status than men,” argues Heeran Chun, a South Korean sociologist. “Their lives are markedly restricted by the cultural values associated with Confucianism.” They are expected to give up work—sometimes on marriage, often after childbirth—and many do not return to the job market until their children are grown. This forces upon women an unwelcome choice between career and family. It may also help to explain the unusually low marriage rates among the best-educated and best-paid women, for whom the opportunity cost of giving up a career to have children is greatest.
This is a huge problem. Even in my workplace, I can see it. There is a lot of change in Korea, constant change, but perhaps it's so speedy that people can't keep up. Korea really is remarkable in its transformation from a war torn, occupied countryside to a thriving nation with bustling metropolises. It happened so quickly, though, within a generation. My grandparents were born before World War II and lived in Korea while it was occupied by the Japanese. My mother was born just a couple months after the armistice was signed to end the Korean War. My father was born a year before her, during the war. They now live with high speed internet, a landline, a cell phone, an internet phone, a fax machine, and cable TV.

Perhaps part of the problem, at least in Korea, is that change is not meant to be quite this fast. Evolution should take longer than a single generation.
On top of this, many Asian couples face enormous pressure to ensure their children succeed in schools with cut-throat competition for places—pressure that falls mostly on the mother. Private child care is exorbitantly expensive. There are few state-subsidised crèches (324,000 children are on waiting lists in Seoul alone). And setting up a home is expensive because of high house prices. All this means it is harder to strike a satisfying balance between job and family in Asia than in the West.

Not every Asian country is affected by these trends equally. South Korea, for example, has lower rates of non-marriage, and a lower age of marriage, than its neighbours. But the big exceptions are Asia’s giants. At the moment, marriage is still the norm in China and arranged marriage the norm in India. As long as that continues to be true, a majority of Asians will live in traditional families. But how long will it continue? Signs of change are everywhere.
Crèches are day-care centers (sometimes colloquially called "after school" by Korean-Americans). Korea may have lower rates of non-marriage, but there is a lot of competition for the schooling and education of their offspring. I cannot believe how much it costs to have a child here, and to educate that child so he or she can compete with their peers.

Korean children have intense education from infanthood right up through college, with their parents (usually their mothers) driving them to be the best. Yes, the children suffer and are stressed out, but I would think that being a mother to these Korean children is no cakewalk, either.
The big question remains: how much is this a problem? And if it is, why? Arguably, the most important thing is that women who do not want to marry are no longer being forced to. And that must be a benefit: to them, to men spared an unhappy marriage; perhaps to society as a whole.

Against that, there are several reasons for worry, some of them extremely disturbing. Social attitudes in Asia change slowly, and many people think it wrong to remain unmarried. “Parasite singles” is the unflattering term in Japan. The reluctance to marry seems to have unleashed spiteful hostility, an attitude that makes the decision not to wed a tough one.

Contraception is a particular problem. Several Asian countries restrict state-provided family planning to married couples. A few even demand to see the wedding certificate before dispensing condoms (that has happened in Europe, too). This is not a sensible policy when so many men and women will remain unmarried throughout their 20s and 30s.

Then there are the educational and social aspects of changing marriage patterns. Because women tend to marry up—that is, marry men in an income or educational group above them—any problems of non-marriage are not dispersed throughout society but concentrated in two groups with dim wedding prospects: men with no education and women with a lot.
Marrying up is a dying concept in Korea, I think. There are still matchmakers here, true, but less than there were twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. Women are moving on up in the world, and that means some men are now marrying up. The trend of younger men marrying older women has gotten more widespread lately, and that used to be taboo (though I can't imagine why).
Almost every East Asian country is worried about the decline of marriage among its best-educated daughters. In Singapore the government even set up an online-dating service,, to boost marriage rates among graduates. The problem is no less acute among poor or ill-educated men. South Korean women seem to be no longer interested in marrying peasant farmers, for instance.

China has coined new terms to describe the two groups: sheng-nu (left-over women) and guang gun (bare branches, or men who will not add to the family tree). “Bare branches” is most commonly used in China to refer to men who will be unable to marry because of sex-selective abortion. And that encapsulates the biggest worry about Asia’s flight from marriage. If (when?) it spreads to China and India, it will combine with the surplus of bachelors to cause unheard-of strains. Prostitution could rise; brides could be traded like commodities, or women forced to “marry” several men; wives could be kept in purdah by jealous, fearful husbands.

This may sound alarmist. But the reluctance of women to marry, together with men’s continuing desire for a wife, is already producing a surge of cross-border brides. According to “Asian Cross Border Marriage Migration”, a book edited by Melody Lu and Wen-Shan Yang (Amsterdam University Press), 27% of Taiwanese marriages in 2002 involved foreign women; one in eight births that year was to a “mixed” family. Many girls are illiterate teenagers sold (in practice) by their families to older, richer foreigners. Back in their home villages, therefore, young men’s marriage chances are lower. Arranged marriages with foreigners fell in Taiwan after the government cracked down on them, but they continue to rise elsewhere. In South Korea, one-seventh of marriages in 2005 were to “Kosians” (Korean-Asians). In rural areas, the share is higher: 44% of farmers in South Jeolla province who married in 2009 took a foreign bride. If China or India were ever to import brides on this scale, it would spread sexual catastrophe throughout Asia. As it is, that catastrophe may be hard to avoid.
There is an historical precedent for falling and low marriage rates. It happened in Ireland in the late 19th century and in America and much of Europe in the 1930s. American and European marriage rates bounced back between 1945 and 1970. But Europe and America were different: marriage rates fell during an economic crisis and recovered as the economy did. The Asian peculiarity is that marriage rates have been eroding during a long boom. And as Asia gets richer, traditional marriage patterns are only likely to unravel further.
There are tons of mixed marriages in Korea now. Not as common as in the U.S., of course, but for Koreans, it's a big step. Because Korean women are less likely now to marry those farmers out there in the country, the farmers are marrying women from lower-income Asian countries (Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, etc.) in order to extend their families.

I see a couple problems with this:

First, the women that are agreeing to even talk to marriage brokers are probably not that desirable in their home countries. They're probably not very well educated. While Koreans think farmers are "country", I think there's a big difference between the Korean "country" and the South-East Asian "country". Literacy in Korea is almost 100%, and not going to college is considered "uneducated". Because of those types of differences, along with the obvious cultural differences, I would think that a marriage between a Korean farmer and a South-East Asian bride would be difficult at best, impossible at worst.

Second, Koreans are racist. Everyone's racist, let's please admit it right off the bat, but Koreans have their own brand of racism. Americans, Canadians, and anyone from the UK? Friends! South-East Asians, other dark-complected people who don't speak English? Not so much. Koreans tend to look down on South-East Asians, believing them to be inferior because of their lack of education and their perceived unsophistication. A nervous (or frightened) bride from South-East Asia won't be greeted by a smiling welcome party when she meets the villagers. She'll likely be harassed, her children teased.

Marriage is such a complicated, personal decision. I have nothing against mixed race marriages (Diana and Amanda, for example, seem to be in great marriages), but it does complicate life to some extent. Language barriers, cultural differences, and Korean in-laws do not an easy life make. Again, it's a personal choice that cannot (and should not) be made by anyone other than the bride and groom.

I didn't expect this post to become this bloated. I didn't think I would end up quoting almost all of the two articles I read; I don't know what happened. I guess when I have opinions, I just really feel the urge to write and rant and vent.

Exactly why I would be a terrible wife for a Korean man.

I KID. I would be a fantastic Korean wife, I'm great with Korean parents (no, really, I am).

I can't help but wonder how I'll feel about this post in a few years. Maybe I'll turn into one of those husband hunting women once I'm in my thirties. Maybe I'll become a golden miss and turn up my nose at the idea of matrimony. Who can tell? I'll report back in a few years. I read this post, which I wrote two and a half years ago, and I feel like I'm largely the same person. Maybe I've grown into my brain now and won't change much. Maybe I'll have a sudden growth spurt. I don't know yet, and the not knowing is what makes life fun.

Frivolity and giggles to follow. This post has exhausted my grey matter!


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Random Things

Life is tripping along, as it does. I've been working more hours than usual, but it's a good thing- I feel like I'm getting things done, and I feel useful. Because of the hours I work, though, I haven't been doing a thing once I get home. Hence my lazy post today. At least there are pictures?

This is the view from work. We're on the eighth floor in an area of office buildings, all very tall (as you can see). There are wee parks all over the place and tons of coffee shops. From this view, Western Dom would be just to the right, beyond the buildings. The weather's been fickle lately, sunny and clear in the mornings and then cloudy and sprinkling in the afternoons, but I managed to get this picture when the sun was still out.
The ingenuous way that Koreans transport large items to tall buildings. People move this way, too, their luggage going out the big veranda windows that most apartments have. I rather love this- it's so much more practical than people with dollies running in and out of elevators, as they do in the States.
I went on a skincare spree because I've finally run out of some of the things that I brought with me. From the photo above, I only bought nine items. There are at least seventeen bits and bobs! Korean beauty shops, especially road shops, are all about samples and "service" items (free gifts). I should probably review some of this stuff (I really like the Innisfree toner and scrub, supposedly made with something or other from a volcano in Jeju Island).
My hair grows pretty fast, which means it's already grown out into a shaggy bob (rather than a short pixie cut), which means that my cowlicks are back. I have rather severe cowlicks (inherited from my father) and somewhat wavy hair (inherited from my mother). I keep both of those traits in check by keeping my hair short or tying it back, but it's at that in-between stage where I can't do anything with it. So I whipped out my straight iron, intending to tame the worst of it ... but then I plugged it in and smelled smoke a couple minutes later.
Yup. Destroyed my straight iron. I threw it out and gave up. I suppose I should go get a straight iron here and give it to someone when I leave. I probably will, when my hair grows out even more and I can't take it anymore. For now, I don't care enough to do anything about my hair.
What would a random blog post be without a secret subway photo? This guy was just epic- mushroom hair cut, drop-crotch pants, and shower slippers? How could I not take his picture? I think this was on the subway when I went to do my whole alien registration thing. I don't even remember anymore, all my subway jaunts are a blur.

Hopefully, the weather holds up this weekend so I can go check out some camera lenses in Seoul (my cameras have been feeling very neglected lately because I haven't used them at all since I've been in Korea). I do want to take some pictures of Ilsan while I'm here- I'll be the weird Korean with the giant DSLR camera, snapping random photos.

Quite a few things are happening at work lately, but I'm hoping that I still find the time to blog. I want to retain a record of what I did and what I said while I was in Korea.

That's all the randomness I can think of- for now, at least!

(By the way, this is my 497th post on this blog. It's insane to think that I'll be at 500 soon!)


Monday, August 22, 2011

Korean-Japanese Food, Western Dom

I've been working here in Korea since July 11 (over a month ago!) and had lunch out pretty much every single workday. There is only one (one!) time that I've been to lunch at a restaurant that I had already been to. Yes. Over a month of going to a new restaurant every day. There are a LOT of restaurants right around my work because I work (and live) in the busiest part of Ilsan (일산). There's not much just outside this area- which is to say, there's not much outside of Western Dom (웨스턴돔) and LaFesta (라페스타), two large, outdoor shopping areas (sorry, neither of their websites have English versions).

Western Dom (no 'e', I promise), in particular, is literally right next to work. I've been out to lunch in Western Dom more than anywhere else. There are tons of restaurants and tons of coffee places (including a newly opened one, called Beans & Berries, which is pretty cute).

One of the types of food we eat quite a bit is Korean-Japanese. Much like Korean-Chinese food, there is (usually) a Korean twist to the Japanese food here. I couldn't say for sure, as I've never explored Japan or China, but it seems to me that Korean-Japanese is a lot more authentic than Korean-Chinese. From what I've experienced in the U.S. and here in Korea, Korean-Chinese food is quite a departure from "real" Chinese food, whereas Korean-Japanese is passably Japanese (other than the fact that Koreans like spicy more than Japanese do).

I've been trying to remember to take pictures of things (very difficult sometimes, as I'm distracted by all kinds of things in this rather hectic city), and what better to take pictures of than food? Who doesn't love food? (I don't want to know if you don't love food, that's just wrong.)

So, a couple photos of recent Korean-Japanese lunches.

Curry (Koreans distinguish between Japanese-style curry (카레) and Indian-style curry (커리) with slightly different pronunciations) at Abiko (아비꼬, あびこ), on the second floor of Western Dom.
Donburi (Koreans call this 덥밥, which translates to "covered rice") at Millefueille (밀피유), also on the second floor of Western Dom.

Yes, I've been eating a lot of donkatsu (돈까스) lately (Japanese-style fried pork cutlet). The donburi was actually really very good, with runny eggs covering the whole thing. I don't like donkatsu in donburi, and I've always known it, but I always get it anyway. I like my donkatsu to be crisp and crunchy, and when it's covered with cooked soft eggs, the crisp and crunch disappear.

I bought Western fast food for the very first time today (Burger King) because I had to run home for lunch (I left my access card at home) and I had left really late (around 1:30). Burger King is on the first floor of my building, so I dashed in, dashed out, went upstairs to my house, inhaled my food, then dashed back to work. Burger King is, not surprisingly, better in Korea than in its home country. Sigh.

This past weekend was my first really social experience in Korea. I belong to a Facebook group for people in Ilsan (apparently, we're called Ilsanites?)- specifically, foreigners and expatriates. Since I'm mostly foreign and somewhat of an expat, I joined the group. Saturday night was a pub crawl fundraiser in Ilsan, right near my house, so I decided (with only a little bit of trepidation) to meet some English speakers and check out the bar scene here.

The fundraiser, by the way, was for a little girl named Hannah Warren, who has a rare condition that requires that she get a tracheal transplant. See her story and donate here- the fundraiser ends on October 22. She's really adorable, it's impossible to see her little face and not donate.

Drinking, meeting new people, and doing it all for a good cause? It seemed like a great idea, and it was (for the most part). One thing I've realized is that having a pub crawl in Korea, while a fantastic idea, is really difficult, especially when the crawl only includes Western bars.

Pub crawls are easiest if all the locations are right next to each other (i.e. downtown Culver City, or Abbott Kinney for First Fridays). This Korean pub crawl had four locations (all bars- Intos, Whiskey Weasel, LePub, and Old Rock) that were in something like a four-block radius (city blocks). But because addresses are non-existent in Korea and none of the bars were on the ground floor, they were a bit hard to find.

A group of four of us got lost on the way to LePub and wandered around Ilsan late at night (we eventually found the place). I wasn't going to judge the bars during this pub crawl because it was a biggish event, and I knew the bars wouldn't be their typical selves, with their regular vibe. They were okay, as far as bars go, and I didn't dislike any of them. My favorites were LePub (lots and lots of cocktails, if that's any incentive) and Old Rock (good atmosphere- the wall behind the bar is stacked with records (vinyl!) rather than bottles of booze).

The hundred or so people that convened for this fundraiser were all English teachers and their significant others. I was literally the only person (of all the people I met, anyway) that didn't teach English. Also, they were all really young. I mean, that's logical- when you're thinking about what you want to do with your life and decide to go teach English in a foreign country for a year, you're generally young, trying to find yourself, and/or trying to travel when you have no money. New college graduates, kids that haven't started a "real" career yet, etc.

I don't know if I was just in that sort of group, but I only met two Americans! The vast majority of the people I talked to were Canadian (with a couple Brits and an Irishman sprinkled in), mostly from around Toronto (I think). I've never been so happy to meet Americans before, by the way- it was a strange sensation and I pounced on my two countrymen (a Texan and a San Diegan).

Despite the fact that I felt old and suddenly very Korean in the group of young Westerners, it was a good experience. I got home past 4 a.m. and only slept a few hours before suddenly jolting awake (I don't sleep much if I drink, I find). I was exhausted yesterday (Sunday) and didn't really get to enjoy the lovely weather. The weather today was very nice and clear, sunny without any clouds, but then the thunder just started about half an hour ago and there are little bursts of rain. I didn't bring an umbrella today, so here's hoping that I don't get drenched on the way home.

Oh- the best part of this pub crawl? I walked home and it only took about ten minutes. I really do enjoy being in a walking city.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mindless Dribble

Back home in the States, I think I tended to watch lots of procedural television shows, like "House" and "Law and Order." For story-related programming, I liked shows with action or drama, like "True Blood," "Boardwalk Empire," "Nikita," and the like. (I'm racking my brain to think of shows right now, and those were all the ones that popped up. I'm tired.)

Here in Korea, possibly because of the language barrier (dramatic shows tend to be harder to understand, since they have ridiculous plots that involve suing conglomerates, children switched at birth, and all sorts of legal entanglements), I like comedies, reality shows, talk shows, and romantic comedies. They are easier to understand, for me, and they have the added bonus of pop-ups. Koreans love them some pop-ups.

One of the shows that I watched even in LA (my parents watch Korean TV) was "Infinite Challenge (무한도전)." It's amusing because it's a reality show about six hapless guys that are put to various challenges (they aren't really naturally good at anything- they're mostly comedians, and mostly comic relief). I've seen them try to learn to ride a bobsled, walk on a rope hung over muddy water, race F1 cars, and so on. For the past several months, they've been learning to row, to compete in a regatta that takes place in Korea between different international universities. It was the longest challenge that they're ever tried (five months of training, I think?), and the guys really worked hard (though whining all the while). Fun and totally different from the typical American reality show.

This show is somewhat easier to understand because it prominently and constantly uses pop-ups. To make points, to push the story along, to exaggerate emotions, all kinds of reasons.

Some pop-ups are informational, like above. Basically, a synopsis of what's going on. I like seeing these, as they help with my spelling (seriously, Korean spelling is sometimes super difficult for me).
The above is a mock news piece, used to exaggerate emotion. There's a lot going on with very little screen space, I realize, but it adds to the frenetic, funny feeling of the show. Why don't America shows use more pop-ups??
Comic book style pop-ups are used, too- to make a point, to give the eye somewhere to go, to be funny- it all works. Because it's a reality show, several cameramen just follow the guys around, shooting willy-nilly. Framing, cinematography, it all goes down the drain, as the guys usually behave like five-year-olds that are in desperate need of naps. The pop-ups help with all those typical reality-show issues.

(The rowing challenge ended, by the way, last weekend. They lost the regatta (really badly), but they did well and really seemed to have learned a lot. It was heartening to watch.)

There are a couple romantic comedies that I've been watching while I've been here, and they've both ended recently. I'm totally bummed, because I see no viable replacements yet. I don't warm up to dramas very quickly, so I usually need a few episodes before I'm fully on board. I also find that in Korean dramas, the first few episodes are BORING. Character establishment, plot development- writers, PLEASE. You use trite cliches all the time, we know all of them already!

- "I Need Romance (로맨스가 필요해)"- TVN- (terrible title) a cute romantic comedy that was Korea's answer to Carrie Bradshaw. Not nearly as risque as "Sex and the City," but pretty scandalous for Korean TV standards. Its main character reminded me of Carrie in that, like Carrie, I was annoyed by her. They both tend to be whiny and self-centered, though they mean well. They love their friends but somehow make all their friends' problems about them. Not as irritating as Carrie, but almost. The subplots, the girlfriends, and the boys that came in and out of their lives- very cute and easy to watch.
I liked that the show was fast-paced, without the lengthy drawing-out of idiotic plot points. I did not at all like that the main character (girl with the Minnie Mouse bow on her head, above) worked in a hotel. Korean dramas, PLEASE stop writing your heroines as hoteliers. We're all over it. There are a lot of other, more interesting careers to depict. (Really, since there's been a drama actually titled "Hotelier," isn't time to move on?)
These three girls are best friends, and very different. In the picture above, the girl on the left is Samantha, with Miranda mixed in. The girl on the right is Carrie. And the girl in the middle is Charlotte, with a dash of Piglet (from Winnie the Pooh) thrown in for good measure (she's scared of everything, dumb about men, and the comic relief for the group).

One of the things that made InYoung (Carrie- "inyoung," by the way, is "doll" in Korean) less annoying than Carrie was that her narration actually made her a better character. Carrie's narrations always made me wonder how self-centered a person could get.
Unlike "Sex and the City," with (crazy) Pat Field and their (insane) wardrobe budget, this show didn't mind putting their characters in some zany get-ups. Their pajama parties, for instance, usually had the girls in ridiculous pajamas with either masks on their faces or wax strips on their legs.
It was a sweet little show (I think I arrived in Korea around the middle of the show, episode 8 or so, so I caught up on the first episodes online) and somewhat less fantastical than most other Korean dramas (wherein a rich and handsome prince whisks off a penniless but beautiful maid, or some other similar dribble). Not that this show didn't have its moments- the guy that's standing in the picture above was one of those rich and handsome prince types (heir of the owner of the hotel, I think).

(By the way, the show that replaced this one is about a woman golfer. Lame. I refuse to watch.)

- "Heartstrings (넌 내게 반했어)"- MBC- a cute little romantic comedy just ended this week. This one's about college students, so the scale of the drama is quite small- the biggest problems that they have are little issues, like a mean classmate, or their musical getting canceled. In the scheme of life, not a big deal. Because their problems are small (though they milk the melodrama to death), it makes for easy viewing. I'm not a fan of the overly dramatic Korean shows that are all about melodrama, with no comedy for relief.
The characters and plot are all predictable, but the actors are adorable enough to forgive their inability to act and to just watch. It's amusing, but because of the bad acting and the inane plot, I found that I wasn't able to solely focus on the show- I had to be doing something else while watching, like reading or washing dishes or brushing my teeth.
This show used the rather stupid and over-used devices of disapproving parents / grandparent and scheming mother. I did not enjoy those scenes at all, as they were forced, silly, and just filler. But I do enjoy the picture above, I think it's adorable. I love Volkswagen vans, and I love orange. And I admire men that aren't adverse to putting on white jeans.
The hero (the dude above, obviously) is in some sort of boy band (C.N. Blue? what a stupid name), so he constantly plays the guitar and sings in the show. The problem is, he has a thin, wispy little voice and isn't actually a great singer or guitar player.

The heroine (the dudette above, obviously) sang in a previous drama ("You're Beautiful," which I did not see, as the girl played twins (brother and sister), and the sister character cross dresses to replace her ailing brother in his band. Yeah. No way was I even giving that a chance.) and her voice is passable, but still not chills-down-the-arms good.

Still, despite the fact that I seem to be full of complaints, I didn't hate the show. It didn't perturb me if I missed an episode here or there, and I didn't catch up on the episodes that I didn't watch, but it was just amusing enough ... though I admit that I did channel-surf while I watched.

One of the most annoying things about Korean dramas is their tendency to use the same song (sometimes, if I'm lucky, it's two or three songs rather than just one) over and over and over and OVER again. I have these songs stuck in my head the next day because they just. won't. stop. playing. them. It's maddening! It's called a soundtrack, people, and there should be a variety of songs on it. Please, please, please stop with the incessant repetition of the theme song.

The most promising show that I've seen lately is "Scent of a Woman (여인의 향기)," not at all based on the Al Pacino movie from 1992. This drama's about a woman in her 30s (an old maid, by Korean standards) who is told that she only has six months to live. She's trying to really live life in the short time that she has.

Kim Sun-Ah (김선아), of "My Name Is Kim Sam-Soon (내 이름은 김삼순)" fame, plays the doomed heroine, and does so well. She's not the problem. I'm having trouble with the (rich, well-connected, well-born) boss, played by Lee Dong-Wook (이동욱). His character (or the actor) is so wooden and so heavy-lidded that I feel like the guy is always asleep, even when he's "angry." I watch the show occasionally, but don't remember what days it airs and don't really care. Maybe it'll pick up, since it's nearing the middle of its run (I find that I don't care about the shorter dramas (16 - 20 episodes) until about episode 8 or 9, which is usually when the plots (finally) picks up).
I tried out "Spy Myung-Wol (스파이 명월)," but the main character (Myung-Wol, a female North Korean spy) is played by Han Yeh-Seul (한예슬), who is so annoying that I can't take it. Plus, she looks like an alien and seems to be constantly wall-eyed. Google her, she has giant bugged-out eyes like an alien! (Apparently, there is some sort of furor right now because she quit the show (incidentally, who quits a show that only airs for a couple months?!) and the production company's going to sue her or something.) It's just not that interesting of a story, either- a North Korean spy trying to seduce a South Korean pop star? Meh. If they had written it from a more comedic bent, maybe, but they're going with more of a serious vibe, which just seems overly theatrical and silly.

I know that I'm not the target audience for Korean shows. I also don't know when shows air, and I don't care enough to look up times. I don't investigate what's airing, I just watch whatever catches my fancy (currently, lots of "Cold Case," which I had never watched before I came to Korea). There's also a few channels that constantly play movies, mostly American movies, which I tend to gravitate towards. After a day of working with Korean people, exercising the Korean part of my brain (it's a tiny, itty-bitty sliver of brain matter), it's nice to leave on some white noise that I understand without having to make an effort. TV is really just white noise, to me, because I don't really sit there and watch intently. There are other things that take more concentration, after all.

There are plenty of other shows that are airing, and that I watch, but those will have to wait for another post. (I need to mention "Korea's Top Model" at some point, because that is one crazy group of girls- and the hostess is WORLDS better than Tyra.)

For now, I'm trying to survive work, meet people, and soak in the motherland. (Yesterday, there was an episode of a beauty show that focused on pores. For the entire hour.) Oh, Korea, how you charm and repel me.