Tuesday, May 31, 2005

what price beauty

I know Ellie's going to be really pissed at me for posting this picture of her. But for the sake of introducing an important social issue, and because I subscribe to no standards of journalistic integrity, I propose the question: "At what price beauty?"

Yesterday we were at a hair salon outside the campus of Ewha University (literally the college of "plum blossoms") a school notorious for its svelt undergrads. The streets in front of the school are wall-to-wall hair and nail salons, makeup and clothing stores. Around the corner is also an avenue devoted to wedding dress boutiques. Korea is a society preoccupied with appearances. This is a problem. Women especially are first judged by how they look, then by where they went to school, and what sort of family they come from. While most people know that Koreans are leaders in eyelid surgeries, most don't know that they are also world leaders in hymen reconstruction and other weird plastic surgeries (jaw chiseling, leg muscle reduction). All of which I find seriously grotesque. I once met a woman who I was secretly told had her hymen redone seven times. Seven times? Not so secret, huh. Not that America doesn't have it's own freak shows and surgical obsessions but I think Koreans prioritize physical beauty on a much more universal scale. At least in America there's good entertainment value in seeing people get bad boob jobs on TV. They haven't gotten to the point of being able to laugh at themselves here. It is all too serious and socially accepted. Which is scarier. "Stepford Wives" is already the norm and soon "Gattica" will be realized without even so much as a blip on the critical radar. This should strike fear in the hearts of all women if not men. It's no accident that stem-cell research is being pioneered by Korean scientists. Someone really needs to write a book on this. I'd do it but, um, I'm writing my dissertation. And even while I wish to have nothing to do with it, I find myself buying into this beauty myth, have sat in that chair, with an octopus on my head, futilely trying to be better, faster, smarter. Maybe it's even related to wanting to be pinched in the ass, though I can't see the connection yet. And Ellie, if you're listening, you were beautiful before and still beautiful after. The "digital" perm came out lovely. (And um, just for the record Ellie, no one reads this blog so hope you're not too mad about the picture okay?)

lost not found

This weekend, after a night of barbecuing with friends under the stars, I got sufficiently tipsy that I left the following items in a taxi on the way home: five newly purchased books, a sweater, and a jacket. This demanded a recovery operation that I hoped would not be a repeat of my cell phone fiasco. The police directed me to a national website for lost items that disturbingly lists lost children after digital electronic equipment and before domestic pets. Does anyone else see anything creepy about this? I didn't feel so bad about myself after seeing how absent minded other people have been. But there must be a more humane way of recovering lost children. And what's with the kid with the violin? To remind people of what they're missing?! I just can't bring myself to navigate this page looking for my books when other people are looking for their 3 year olds.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Saturday, May 28, 2005

pinch my ass please

This is the subway where I spend at least 25% of my time. When I'm not on the bus which is the other 75%. I still have yet to be felt up on the subway, which has happened to every female that I know who has lived here. I take this as a personal assault on my womanhood and demand that I be squeezed on my ass immediately so that I can proudly consider myself a victimized member of the female population. Some women have even been known to carry pins on them to poke errant hands and fingers. What's wrong with my ass anyway? This is making me terribly insecure. I mean, I think it is fertile ground to be pinched and probed. Shall I start a campaign?

And is her ass any better? I'm sure she's been groped. Life is just not fair!

I bet even this guy gets more subway action than me. It's the pink isn't it?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

in a city far far away

Another beautiful day in Seoul. But alas, an empty beauty. I finally saw the Revenge of the Sith and find myself at an utter loss now that the saga has come to an end. Had I been able to see it with people who actually knew Star Wars, instead of my 14 year old nephew, I may not have had to suffer through these comments as we were leaving the theatre:

"What's the force?"
"Darth Vader's wife is ugly."
"Is Princess Leia still alive? She must be really old."
"When's the next one coming out?"
"They should remake the original movies with newer actors."

By this time my eyes had rolled to the back of my head. Had I a light sabre in hand I would not have been so kind as Ben Kenobi was to Anakin when he cut off all his limbs but let him live. I love my nephew but really, this is cause for expulsion from the family. I generously invited him to the movie on the condition that he had first seen all the Star Wars films. Clearly he deceived me, toying with the dark side he was. Which reminds me. Another unacceptable thing about seeing this in Korea was that Yoda's lines were all fucked up. Besides the fact that I thought Yoda's dialogue was total shite througout the movie, the whole reverse syntax thing doesn't work in Korean. Grammatically, Korean sentences are already in backwards order so that in translation Yoda speaks completely normal. When Yoda says, "Failed I have," in Korean subtitles it sounds like he just says "I've failed". This is an abomination of the highest order. And yet, despite this, and despite the fact that Hayden Christensen's acting was more wooden than a dinghy, I admit I sort of welled up at Natalie Portman's big scene where she tells Anakin he's breaking her heart. Padme, I feel you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

clay oven spectacular

Maybe it was because I was sleep deprived. Maybe it was the plate of blood sausage that I was trying to digest, that I let Hijoo finally convince me to go to a sauna, something I had categorically denied that I would do since I got here. Bathing naked in public places has never really been my thing. Somehow though, I did go, an apprehensive but willing victim, not imagining how truly great an experience it would be. First, let me tell you, saunas have changed. It is no longer about getting naked and jumping into a big tub. This sauna had two floors, the first being the usual naked bathing area where women vigorously wash their private parts more enthusiastically than I myself feel comfortable doing let alone seeing. But the other floor. The other floor. Has a computer room, a cafe, a restaurant, two vast lounging rooms, three saunas at 26°, 145°, 183° Farenheit, and a clay oven kept at an undisclosed temperature that is supposed to be the hottest of them all. All of which have heated floors and are enjoyed coed, barefoot, and dressed in a uniform of white shorts and T-shirt that they hand to you at the door. It looked like a MASH unit in there with sleeping bodies scattered on the floor everywhere. Being a novice, I could barely stand the 145° without passing out so instead I took a nap in a relaxation chamber pictured here. If it weren't for the small children pattering about with their evil little feet, playing games and shrieking at the top of their lungs, I may consider this a true haven from the urban jungle outside. It was midnight by the time we got home with me a cleaner, refreshed, less doubting human being.

Monday, May 23, 2005

you call that kungfu?

Me: Masta, how can I finish my dissertation. It doesn't progress no matter how I try.
Master: Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.
Me: But I'm so tired. I just want to get this bitch done.
Master: If you choose the quick and easy path, you will become an agent of evil.
Me: Why must I finish anyway?
Master: There is no why. Clear your mind of questions. Then understand you will.
Me: Why should I believe you?
Master: You do not believe. That is why you fail.
Me: But who the hell are you?! You little know-it-all.
Master: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you? And well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. You must feel the Force around you.
Me: Master, you make me just want to kick your ass.
Master: Don't give in to hate. That leads to the dark side. Anger, fear, agression. The dark side are they...
Me: Hiya! Ayeee!!!! Whop!

Master: Control, control, you must learn control! This one, a long time have I watched. Always she looked to the future... Never her mind on where she was! What was she doing! Reckless she is.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

operation cell phone

"Hi, I'll take the tire on the second row from the top?"

Here's my overdue update on what happened with my phone for those who have been waiting breathlessly for news. It turns out that my phone was stolen from the bar by a 24 year-old former employee. After depositing my $100, he mailed it to me as promised by overnight delivery which arrived promptly 3 days later. After it was returned, my cousin and friends went to the bar two nights in a row looking to break out some badass kung fu, only to have the owner apologize profusely for what happened and to be told that said culprit didn't work there anymore. After that, there wasn't really anything more that the owner could do. Beyond promising that he "wouldn't be welcome there anymore", their hands were kind of tied. I like to imagine the guy breezily walking in on a Friday night and having the bouncers put him into a headlock at the door and then toss him into the dirty alleyway, smearing his face in used condoms and cigarette butts as he wallows in self-pity and shame. But more likely, his only penalty was having to pay the full cover to get in.

does not compute

Lately, I've been noticing the dizzying number of signs blanketing the cityscape that has been causing me cognitive overload. My brain shuts down and this mishmash of words and symbols dissolve into a blurry canvas of colors and design. The entire surface of the city is a text. Graphically beautiful in some ways, but mostly it is just a huge mental drain. It reminds me of a recent episode of This American Life on NPR about a truck driver who is illiterate and navigates his route by identifying visual markers since he can't read road signs (episode 287). Though the adult literacy level of Korea is an astounding 96-99%, you wonder what the illiterate population must think. Is their sense of disenfranchisement worse than elsewhere? Come to think of it, I'm pretty illiterate. Maybe that's why my head hurts when I ride the bus. Too much, too fast.

Oh God. Apparently we've advanced human civilization far enough that we can now put billboards in space. I hope the US keeps this quiet before Samsung and LG put their logos on the moon.

Friday, May 20, 2005

show me the force!

While fans around the world have already seen the final installment of the Star Wars saga, I'm sadly biding my time until it arrives in Seoul on May 26th. I hope it will live up to my two most memorable experiences. The first was watching it in the theater at the age of five as my feet dangled over the floor, staying up later than normal to see an unimaginable world unfurl before me. The second was in L.A. before opening night of Episode One. We skipped classes to wait for tickets, eating pez out of free Yoda dispensers and watching the hilarious antics of freaks in full costume armed with light sabres. Many battles were lost and won on that sidewalk by the rebel forces before the show even opened. Understandably, my expectations are pretty low. The one comfort is that I hear in Japan it doesn't arrive til July. Mwuhahaha. The empire is crumbling.

my new homies

Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. -Albert Camus

My dad's friend was taking me to lunch the other day and we bumped into a group of his acquaintances. I hope that when I too am old and gray I will have friendships as enduring as these octogenarians share. They meet for their daily constitutional through the underground passageways that dissect Seoul, the only uncongested route that they can safely travel at their age and from where they live. It takes them a couple hours to walk about a mile and then they lunch together above ground before shuffling home. While the underground tunnels seem to be an odd place to exercise, I think it is more about maintaining their unity and brotherhood as reflected in their bolo ties and matching outfits. What a group of sweet gentlemen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

o the tangled web we weave

Night falls. The stars crisscross the sky. No wait. Those aren't stars. They're electric lines. An ugly mess of wires haphazardly strung all the way down this quiet neighborhood. Some things we are better off not knowing. As if I don't already have enough things to worry about. Now I realize there's a jungle hanging over my head just waiting to collapse on me. What have the city planners been doing? Are they out drinking soju instead of regulating this very dangerous public hazard? Or were they drinking soju as they were stringing these lines? And are they connected to the jerk who took my phone which still hasn't arrived yet? So many questions. So few answers.

Monday, May 16, 2005

taken hostage

So when I said earlier that I left my ass on the dance floor, what I really meant was my cell phone. After a long night of drunken revelry, the next morning I woke up sober and phoneless and had to go through the punishing agony of retracing my steps. With no one picking up my phone after 2 days, I was going to accept that it had somehow evaporated. Though my phone wasn't a particularly nice one, in fact it was a really old piece of shit, the company I was renting it from was going to charge me $400 to replace it. So out of desperation, I texted my cell phone offering a 'finder's fee' to the person who had it. Well if that didn't bring the little rodent out of its lair. Twenty plus text messages later, I ended up paying $100 to get my crappy phone back. Apparently this is a very common practice here where stolen phones are either blackmailed or sold to China and the Phillipines in cargo containers. What's happening to this world? My phone's on it's way to me by express post and should arrive today but I also have a backup plan that I will just say involves the police and a couple of 'cousins' in dark suits. I know his identity, his ID number, and have even spoken to his friends. This is just to make sure that this sort of thing doesn't happen again to another unsuspecting dance fiend. Will update further should anything come of this.

PS: It's quite remarkable how many people were about to call the police after not being able to get in touch with me for 2 days. Though I'm touched by the concern I'm wondering, is this a product of people thinking I'm that fragile or has this cell phone society made people too accessible and too connected? At least I know that should I really be kidnapped, a team of rescuers will be out on the hunt immediately to insure my safe return.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

buch'┼Ćnnim oshinnal

The temples were aglow with lanterns this sunday for Buddha's birthday, one of the biggest Buddhist holidays of the year. Each lantern that is hung represents someone's prayers. I wanted to visit a temple to check out all the lights and activity but I ended up spending the evening at the police station where I was filing a different type of prayer. More on that later. How do you think monks shop anyway? Do you think they come with a list or is it just a whimsical spur of the moment thing. Like, "Oooh, that lotus lantern would look great above the Amitahba statue in the meditation room. Should I?"

Saturday, May 14, 2005

the gspot

There are certain benefits to having gay male friends. The first of which may be trite but they really do know the best places to dance. I know you can barely see anything in this photo but there are two half-naked men gyrating on the stage. Big points for that alone. Okay, maybe there are some drawbacks to hanging out with gay men. Like, the fact that all the hot men in the room were gay. And the fact that this reduces the likelihood of any of them going home with me. But I haven't danced my ass off like this in a long while. In fact I think my ass is still there on the dance floor. I have to go back this afternoon and get it back.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

edison's legacy

In this satellite photo, the Korean peninsula is the blob in the center to the left of the brilliantly illuminated Japanese islands on the right. Note the stark contrast between the bright lower half of the south next to the eerily dark upper half that is North Korea. It's a powerful reminder of how capitalism changes the visual landscape simply through the production and consumption of electricity. I wonder though if somehow North Koreans aren't better off in a darkened world where you are not constantly assaulted by the senseless delirium of urban life.

In fact, the later it gets the brighter it becomes. It feels on par with the central strip in Vegas except that Seoul is like this everywhere. On a side note, after I took this picture I turned around to find a group of men huddled directly behind me trying to figure out what the hell I was photographing. They seemed convinced that they were missing out on something very important or extraordinary about this scene. Beauty being in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe they figured me for a North Korean spy. The black dog barks at night.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

history still repeating itself

In 1883, an official Korean embassy was sent for the first time ever to the US as an overture of friendship and to gain insight on American civilization. Though what very few historians write about or even know is that they spent the last days of their trip abroad shopping. Now why does this not surprise me? Their shopping list actually included steamers, agricultural tools and other ho-hum industrial products. But the US market was not really developed at that time. Who knows what would have been on their laundry list if they were visiting France or Italy. French lace panties? Corsets? Gucci must have been in the incipient stages of manufacturing sunglasses around then, no? Taehan minguk manse!

From The New York Times, November 8, 1883.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

intestinal mayhem

There are many fine delicacies in Korea that are not really appreciated elsewhere in the world. But this is not a meal for the faint of heart. What you see being grilled here is a delightful combination of several different parts of the intestine and the darker bits are what I believe may be kidney. Imagine chewing various types of soft flat rubber and some smaller softer rubber hose thrown in for variety all flavored with a rich broth and you have a fairly good idea of what this tastes like. Mixed with a generous helping of garlic and it is the average Korean male's wet dream. Perhaps it is part of some unspoken rite of passage. We were actually the only women in the restaurant. But after washing this down with a few bottles of beer, you feel very primal and unexpectedly satisfied.

Friday, May 06, 2005

in with the old

My advisor took me and other fellow grad students out to lunch yesterday in Insadong, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seoul that is networked by a maze of small alleyways like this one. It can be intimidating to find your way in or out though after a while each alleyway does begin to look different. We topped off the lunch with a visit to a traditional tea house made even more welcoming by the cold wet weather outside.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

i believe the children are our future

May 5th is Children's Day in Korea, a day when all the children are released from the prisons of their schools to enjoy free bus rides, gifts and the pleasure of not having to go to cram school. Even the banks are closed. For a country that takes such pride in raising their children and educating them, it's a wonder that they even need such a day but I think I've finally figured it out. Not only is Korea a strongly adult oriented society, where respect towards your elders is still a prevailing value, but kids just don't get to have that much fun. I mean look at the quality of their "arcade" games. Something like this is inexcusable for a country that is on the cutting edge of electronics industry. You can't tell from this picture but these game consoles only come up to my knees. Though I must admit that I am tempted by the game on the right that is tantalizingly called "The Beastorizer".

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

a train runs through it

There's nothing like the threat of an impending train plowing through the dining area to spice up a meal. This is the end all be all of barbecue places in Hongdae. Simple, delicious, cheap and well, racy. They've done so well that they even expanded to the other side of the tracks. A warm summer night grilling over the railroad ties. Ahh, that's living. Though I don't want to ruin the romanticism of it for you, the train actually no longer runs through here anymore.

Monday, May 02, 2005

a real bummer

These scare me. Some people say that these are more sanitary because you never sit down on anything but still, there's something really distasteful about squatting with your underpants around your ears. And what if you have really bad aim?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

i bus therefore i am

Last night I found myself uncomfortably stuffed into the back seat of a silvery convertible Porsche 911 on a treelined road that hugs the mountainside circling Seoul with my cousin and her fiance. This car was built to seat two people and a small dog. And I can't say that I enjoyed the attention that such a car attracts in Seoul where luxury means the Hyundai "Executive" or at best BMWs. Call me ghetto but my preferred mode of transportation is easily the bus. It is one of the most sophisticated bus systems in, I dare say, the world. All payment is automatic by credit card, cell phones or T-money, including automatic transfers, and best of all are the express lanes. Finely crafted german cars can eat my exhaust.