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Photos of North Korea

December 19, 2011

Since everyone’s thinking about North Korea right now because of Kim Jong-Il’s death, it’s worth taking a look at these photographs.  Some of them are incredible:



Eating Live Octopus

December 8, 2011

Live octopus (sannakji) and dog meat soup (boshintang) are the two Korean foods that foreigners are most squeamish about.  They’re both novelty/health foods for Koreans, not everyday fare.  One of my friends really likes sannakji, and insisted that I go try some with her.  I was a bit nervous, but I agreed to do it.

You have to go to a fish market to eat sannakji.  Fish markets in Korea usually have small restaurants inside, so that you can pick your fish, have it killed, and cut up and served to you immediately, sashimi style.  My friend said that in order to get good, fresh live octopus, we’d have to travel outside of Seoul.  If you get sannakji in one of the fish markets in Seoul, it might have been in the tank for a long time, and it might be weak.  Some of the Seoul fish markets might even mix in some previously killed octopus.

To ensure we would not get cheated out of real live octopus, we went to 소래포구 (soraepogu), a fish market on the West coast.


It’ was fun to walk around the fish market on a Sunday afternoon.  There were lots of people out, and the variety of seafood you could buy was astounding.  Koreans approach variety in food with gusto, which I really admire.



The kind of octopus you eat for sannakiji is pretty small.  I had used the word 물어 (muleo) to describe what we were going to eat, which made my friend laugh since 물어 apparently only refers to big octopi.  Eating live muleo would be quite a fight.  I think that there are a couple of other Korean words for octopus as well.  Eskimos apparently have lots of words for snow, and Koreans have lots of words for octopus.

My friend and I picked out one of the vendors serving live octopus.  The woman held up each one for our inspection and approval before putting it in a colander.

My friend and I sat down at a table while the vendor cut up the octopi.  By my reckoning, at this point they are now dead.  However, there’s still a lot of post-mortem spasming going on.  The whole plate was writhing when it was served to us.  The woman had put some sesame seeds on top, but that’s all in terms of preparation.  Since the effect can’t really be captured in a photo, I made a really short video:



I took my chopsticks, picked up one of the smallest leg pieces, dipped it in sesame oil, and put it in my mouth.  It was really chewy.  The flavor wasn’t very strong, but it reminded me a lot of raw oysters back in North Carolina.  It was kind of good.

Now feeling more bold, I tried to pick up one of the bigger leg pieces.  However, it was holding on to the plate, so I had to hold the plate down with one hand to pry the leg off.  My friend said, “Look how strong it is. It must be very fresh.”  When I tried to eat it, it held onto my chopsticks.  Since this one was bigger, I could feel it moving around in my mouth.  It stuck itself to the roof of my mouth before I could chew it, which was a really strange feeling.  It’s really important to chew up live octopus completely, because it can be dangerous if it is capable of sticking to your throat.

We finished the sannakji without any problems, and I thought it was actually good.  It did, indeed, taste very fresh.  My friend said that I am now half-Korean, which is, of course, ridiculously untrue.  While eating, there was one piece of octopus leg that fell off my chopsticks into my chili sauce.  I suddenly felt very sad, seeing a sort-of-living creature rolling around in sauce.  But other than that, eating live octopus caused no gastronomical or moral discomfort.

The “manly” way to eat live octopus is whole, and actually living.  You pick up the whole octopus out of the water, wrap it around your chopsticks, and eat it in one bite.  I do not want to do this.

Traditional ideas about the health benefits of food tend to come from thinking that you will obtain the physical qualities of the food you’re consuming.  Europeans used to think that walnuts made you smarter because they kind of look like brains, for example.  Homeopathic medicine usually operates under the same logic.  It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  However, the reason why there’s a “manly” way to eat live octopus, is because Koreans think it’s “good for man’s energy.”  It’s not too difficult to imagine why people would traditionally think this.  My friend said, “Many men do not even like the taste of sannakji, but they eat it because they think it is good for man.”

People are endlessly amusing.




Occupy Seoul KORUS FTA Protests

December 4, 2011

Last Saturday, a few thousand people gathered in central Seoul to protest the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement that the Korean Assembly recently passed.  Occupy Seoul organized the rallies.

I went to the protest with a Korean friend who was really upset about the FTA.  The protest was originally supposed to be in Gwanghwamun Square, but it was already occupied.

gwanghwamun square


My Korean friend (henceforth, KF) asked someone where the protests were being moved to, and he pointed us towards some stairs that he said speakers were going to use.  However, we found that the stairs were blocked off as well.


Some people started making speeches on the ground level.  One older Korean started yelling angrily about the FTA, and about the Korean President, Lee Myung-Bak.  I accidentally made eye contact with him, and he yelled 미국 사람 이에요? (miguk saram i-e-yo? / Are you American?).  I didn’t really respond, except by backing away, which caused KF to laugh really hard.  Mentally, I prepared a much more eloquent defense for any future confrontations (캐나다 사람 이에요 / Canada saram i-e-yo / I am Canandian).

Since the stairs were blocked off, eventually a leader stood up and told the group to move towards City Hall.  I moved with the group, but soon the marchers were blocked by another police wall.


At this point, people started chanting.  The most popular chants were (translated by KF): “The Hanmi FTA is invalid!” and “Lee Myung-Bak, resign!”.  In Korean, Korea is Hanguk, and the US is Miguk, hence Hanmi FTA.  After standing here for a while, I was approached by some college students with a video camera.  They handed me a piece of paper with a few English questions on it: “Why you foreigner come here to this place?” and “What do you think Korea-US FTA?”.  I explained to them (and the camera) that I was here with a friend who was a protester, but that I was not a protester.  I did not think it was really within my rights and responsibilities as a foreigner to protest the actions of the Korean government.  However, I was definitely interested in learning about why many Koreans were protesting the FTA, and I wanted to learn more about their specific concerns.  I also said that I knew that FTA agreements with the US usually hurt the agricultural sector of the other country, since food from the US can usually be imported for less money, and that I thought that was a legitimate concern for Korean farmers.

Since we were now in  a cramped space, a protester stood on a fence and told everyone to move across the street to the plaza in front of a bookstore.  By the time we were across the street, the number of protesters had grown much larger.  People started bringing out megaphones for the chants.


Police made a barrier around the protesters in the new space to prevent them from spilling out into the street.  We were standing here for a long time, until some of the protesters somehow pushed through the police line, and started marching in the street.  Before I really knew what was going on, I was swept up in the crowd, and found myself out on the street.

We marched towards Cheongyecheon, and eventually a protester told everyone to sit down in the street, since there were going to be speeches.  KF and I were right in front.  As I looked around at the protesters, I was amazed by the age diversity of the crowd.  It definitely wasn’t just college kids.  There were people from twelve to eighty years old, pretty evenly distributed.  I also noticed at this point that I was definitely the only foreigner around.

Most of the speeches were about how the FTA was designed to favor US interests, and about how Lee Myung-Bak was a coward.  One girl who looked like she was probably in middle school gave a speech, saying that her government had sold out her future.

An old man walked through the crowd towards the speeches, and everyone cleared the way for him so that he could sit in front.  He was clearly very respected by the protesters.  KF told me that he was Baek Gi-Wan, a famous politician.  He had run for President a while ago, but he was too far to the left to be taken seriously by most Koreans.


Here is a shaky video I took during one of the speeches.  At the beginning, you can hear people chanting for Lee Myung-Bak to resign, and then booing when the police tell the crowd to disperse.


So, it is worth considering: what exactly are the protesters angry about?

Many Koreans think that a Free Trade Agreement with the US isn’t an inherently bad idea, but that there were a few fatal flaws with this deal.  The deal was rushed through the Assembly by the conservative ruling party, the Grand National Party, a few days before the vote was actually scheduled to occur (which is why the opposition politician tried to disrupt it with tear gas).  It was technically within their rights to have this rush vote, since they have enough of a majority in the assembly, but to many Koreans it came across as rash, imprudent, and immature.

The protesters also think that the KORUS FTA favors the US heavily.  This FTA has been worked on for the past few years, and the protesters said that Lee Myung-Bak caved on pretty much every contentious issue.  The most important one being the Investor-State Dispute settlement clause, which gives US investors considerable power in deciding Korean policy when dealing with a business operating in Korea that Americans have invested money in.  People think that the Korean government should have fought to eliminate this clause from the agreement, since weakens Korean national sovereignty.

Also, many of the protesters are concerned for the livlihoods of Korean farmers, since most of them will now be dealing with the unprecedented competition of cheaper US food imports.  Many people also fear that small business owners would not be able to survive the changes under the FTA.  KF says that Korea is being reshaped to suit the interests of US investors, which would eventually lead to small business owners being unable to compete with larger businesses backed by US investors.

There is another protest scheduled for next Saturday.  It should be interesting to observe the effects of these protests over the next few weeks.  Already, a group of judges have come out in opposition to the FTA, saying that it is invalid because it infringes on Korea’s judicial sovereignty due to the ISD clause.




K-pop and Korean-Japanese Relations

November 27, 2011

Korean pop music is, above all else, expertly marketed.  Korean pop culture is extremely popular in the rest of East Asia and Southeast Asia right now.  And in Korea, the omnipresence of the most popular Kpop groups in advertising means that I went from knowing nothing about K-pop to being able to name six of the nine members of Girls’ Generation off the top of my head (Sooyoung, Jessica, Sunny, Taehyon, Yuri, Seohyun), just from seeing their pictures in advertisements all over Seoul.  The people who run this show (SM Entertainment) know how to make money.

seeing sooyoung everywhere isn't too terrible

sooyoung sweetly wants you to buy some sweet banana milk

I think that the key to making Kpop make a little bit more sense to a Western consumer is learning where it comes from.  Since Korea’s pop culture developed relatively late, Koreans borrowed ideas from their two biggest cultural influences: Japan and the United States.  Sometimes a K-pop song is clearly operating in the Japanese mode or the American mode.  See if you can guess which of these videos was influenced by Japan’s pop culture, and which was influenced by US pop culture.  It shouldn’t be too difficult.

The 2NE1 video is obviously in the American hip-hop pop brag rap genre.  I would like the song a lot more if it didn’t have the annoying “oh my god” part in it, because that synth line is pretty fun.

The Super Junior video is very “aegyo,” Korean for affected cuteness.  In K-pop, male and female stars often behave like children, using baby talk and overemoting.  It seems really strange to me for adults to behave this way, but they do.  Aegyo is definitely used in the behavior of real Koreans too.  One of my students made the same crying motion that the Super Junior member makes at 1:54 in the video the other day when I told her we had a vocabulary test.

Korea’s obsession with cuteness comes directly from Japan.  It was a specifically Japanese phenomenon, but Koreans absorbed it.   Korea’s cultural and political relationship with Japan is extremely complex, to say the least.  Since Korea was a Japanese colony in the early 20th Century, lots of Japanese culture was forced on Koreans. Koreans were forced to change their Korean names to Japanese names, and far worse, Korean women were used as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.  Understandably, many more conservative Koreans hold a long standing grudge against Japan, and want Korean culture to be free of Japanese influence.  Perhaps, most symbolic of the ongoing cultural and political competition for dominance between the two countries is the ongoing Dokdo/Takeshima controversy.  A Korean has also told me that it is very upsetting that the rest of the world refers to the water between Japan and Korea as “The Sea of Japan” when Koreans call it “The East Sea.”  I thought about pointing out that it was only the East Sea from the reference point of Korea, and that neither term was neutral, but I wisely refrained.

So there’s a lot of conflict and animosity between the more conservative members of both nations.  Despite all of this, it is obvious that modern Japan has influenced modern Korean culture and pop culture.  And, from a Western perspective, it’s obvious that Japan was more culturally dominant in the late 20th century.  Which one is more familiar to you, Western reader: sushi or kimbap? manga or manhwa? Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) or….the Koreans who animate the Simpsons?

However, I think that the massive success of K-pop and of Korean pop culture in the rest of Asia are currently subverting Japan’s cultural dominance, especially since Japan is one of the major places where Korean pop culture is regarded as cool.  In the last few years, many Kpop bands have started to record Japanese versions of their songs, and they frequently top the Japanese charts.  Japanese tourists come to Korea to see where their favorite Korean TV shows were filmed.  In the past five years the power dynamic of the cultural flow between Japan and Korea has begun to reverse.

It’s not that Korean pop culture has shed it’s Japanese and American influences.  K-pop creators are just using those influences to create pop culture that  currently has more appeal than the Japanese and American pop cultures that it was derived from.  At least in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Which means that it doesn’t seem unlikely that in the relatively near future, Korean culture may be as familiar as Japanese culture to the average Westerner.  아싸!

Girls' Generation is taking over the world

South Korea – US Free Trade Agreement

November 23, 2011

The South Korea and US Free Trade agreement passed yesterday in the National Assembly, with the majority GNP party voting in favor.  It’s an understatement to call the FTA a divisive issue in Korea.  The main opposition party refused to vote in the Assembly as a protest, and one Assemblyman from a third party tried to disrupt the proceedings of the majority GNP with tear gas.  Photos here:



Seoul Lantern Festival 2011 at Cheonggyecheon

November 10, 2011

The Seoul Lantern Festival is going on right now at Cheonggyecheon in downtown Seoul.  The paths along the stream are very crowded at night, but it’s worth a visit.  The festival will continue until November 20th, and the lanterns stay lit until 11pm.  If you are in Seoul, you should check it out.

The theme this year is “Stories of Seoul’s past,” so there are lanterns representing Joseon-era peasants, soldiers, and musicians.  There are also lanterns representing Korean folk tales, and some lanterns representing other countries “recycled” from last year’s World Heritage Festival.

A replica of the South Gate of Seoul, Namdaemun

Shim Chung, Korean folk hero who commits suicide so that her blind father can see again (I'm not sure exactly how that works)

Lantern representing Japan

another Japanese lantern

It’s easiest to get to Cheonggyecheon from either Gwanghwamun Station on Line 5 or City Hall Station on Lines 1 and 2 of the subway.


Is the Korean hagwon system completely insane?

November 9, 2011

a few hagwon students (not mine) get a little rest

The Korean hagwon system is the only aspect of Korean culture that I have the right to have an opinion about, since I’ve worked in one for a decent amount of time now.  (I thought about writing a post about the relative lack of irony in Korean culture when compared to the US since many Koreans thought this silly commercial for a Korean pizza chain was insulting to the national character, but then I realized that I probably had no idea what I was talking about.)*

I teach younger students, so I get to leave my hagwon at 8 pm, but as I’m leaving, middle school students are pouring in.  They will be in the school until 10pm, and then they can go home and do homework.  It is normal for a Korean student to be in some kind of school for more than 12 hours in a day.  English hagwon, math hagwon, piano hagwon, and more.

At first, I did think that this was all completely insane.  Don’t children need free, unorganized play time to be able to develop into well-adjusted adults who enjoy their lives?  Whenever my students weren’t able to pay attention, I thought, “Of course this kid can’t pay attention.  He’s been in school for 10 hours already today.”

My hagwon has a reputation for being very challenging.  The students, even the youngest ones, are tested everyday, and they memorize huge vocabulary lists.  I was frustrated by how much our school expected young kids to study, but then I realized it actually works.  A few of my 3rd grade students who have been at the hagwon for three years are fluent in English.  Fluent.  Their vocabularies aren’t huge, but neither are most American third graders.  I can have completely natural conversations with them, without having to slow down my speech, or think about the fact that they aren’t native speakers.  I think that their writing skills in English are only slightly below most American third graders.  They seem exceptionally smart, but their success in becoming fluent in a foreign language before the age of twelve is mostly due to lots of hard work.  After taking Spanish for a couple years in middle school, all of high school, and a few semesters of college, I’d say my Spanish proficiency level is somewhere between incompetent and embarrassing.

It’s always good to realize that when a different group of people does something that you find bizarre, or unsettling (such as East Asians spending up to 50% of their income to send their kids to school for 12 hours a day), they probably do it for reasons that make sense to them.  It is not because they are callous or stupid, or completely insane.  People generally know what they are doing.

Koreans send their kids to hagwons because education is really, really important to Koreans.  For the lazy cultural critic, there is an easy way to explain all of the things that seem incomprehensible to a Western person about Korea: Confucianism.

Q: Why do Koreans put so much time, effort, and money into education?

A: Confucianism.

Q: Why is there such a big gender disparity in Korea?

A: Confucianism.

Q: Why are there seven different levels of politeness and respect imbedded in Korean verb conjugation?

A: To infuriate foreigners trying to learn Korean Confucianism.

And so on.  In Confucian thought, education is not principally about learning something that you will have to use for a job later.   It’s about making yourself more disciplined, challenging yourself, making yourself a better person.  That’s why almost all of my kids also go to some kind of music hagwon.  It’s not because their parents think that they will all become professional pianists. The act of studying is inherently good, it builds character and perseverance.  (For a much more detailed and knowledgeable explanation of Confucianism and Korea, read The Korean’s series on it).  Usually, if our school gets complaints from parents, it’s about playing too many games in class, or drawing too many pictures.  The parents pay money to our hagwon because they want their kids to be studying.

So, education is really important to Korean parents.  But, are the kids miserable?  Recently, I was told that one of the students in one of my 2nd grade classes was dropping out.  She is a swimmer, and has to spend a lot of time in the pool, and her mother decided that our English hagwon was too difficult and taking up too much time.  Her mother decided to move her to another English hagwon that was less challenging, so that she would have more time to swim.  The next week, the student had reappeared in my class.  Apparently, she cried and cried after her mother moved her to an easier hagwon, and so her mother decided to reenroll her in ours.  Why did my student cry after being given less school work to do?  I doubt it’s because she’s so Confucian that she sees education as means to self-creation.  The student wanted to come back to our hagwon for the same reason that kids have always endured school: because that’s where their friends are.

If the Korean kids weren’t in hagwons, I don’t think most of them would really spend most of their extra time playing outside and using their imaginations with their friends.  One of the Korean teachers at my school said, “If they weren’t here, they would be playing computer games or watching TV.”  I know that this is true, because I have to do “phone teaching,” in which I call my students at their houses and have a five minute English conversation with them.  I usually ask, “What are you doing now?”  The answer is almost always watching TV or playing a computer game.  I imagine that if more of their time was unstructured, more of it would be used playing computer games.  They are more child-like (being goofy, laughing, playing) when they are with their friends in school than when they are completely absorbed in a computer game.

One of my students is stressed out by her homework assignment

When I was a kid, I played a lot of video games.  A whole lot.  If I could go back in time, and convert half of those video game hours into piano practicing time, or time studying a foreign language, I definitely would, because I would still have the benefits of that hard work.  I could be a really good piano player, or be fluent in Spanish, instead of a guy who once beat a Zelda game in one 24 hour marathon.  (When I apply for future jobs, should I keep that on my resume, or take it off?  Discuss.)

Korean kids do get to do other things besides go to school.  When I ask the kids what they like to do, they say that the like to go to parks, play soccer, play badminton (why do Korean kids love badminton so much?), and draw pictures.  They apparently have some time to do all of these things at some point, despite their busy schedules.

When Korean students get into high school, the hagwon system does seem to go overboard in preparing students for the University Entrance Exam. Students have to be constantly working on all of their subjects to stand a chance at doing well on the exam, which turns most Korean high schoolers into sleep-deprived zombies, who are usually at school from 7am until 11pm.    There are three top schools in Korea that every Korean parent wants their kid to go to, and a degree from any other school in Korea isn’t nearly as valuable.  If a student stays within the Korean education system through college, the trajectory of their entire life is pretty much determined by one test. Which is why many Korean parents want their kids to skip out of the Korean higher education system altogether and go to an American college, which is why they get them to start studying English in difficult hagwons when they are seven years old.  People generally aren’t completely insane.

*I should also note that the only Korean pizza I’ve had had almost no tomato sauce, was topped with corn and had a sweet potato and walnut filled crust.  How far Italians and Americans have wandered from the original.