The End of this Blog

This marks my seventy-fifth and final post in this blog. As much as I’d like to put a positive spin on my quitting, honestly, I’m just tired of it. There’s still plenty left to analyze in Korean culture, but I think I’ve just about hit the limit on all the broad topics. I’ll need better Korean skills to discuss anything else very competently, and that’s still some time off. By then, the title of this blog will be even more inaccurate than it already is. I’m already not teaching English as a Second Language, and when I return to Korea next year, I likely won’t be returning to Gyeongju.

Meanwhile there’s other more useful ways I think I can be using my time. I’d like to write at least one movie review a week for Han Cinema, as well as study Korean better. My skills are just at the point now that I can read Korean comics- which are omnipresent on the Korean internet. Part of this is because the Korean internet still makes heavy use of portal sites, which use comics as headliners to keep their users.

At a deeper level I’m sure this is all quite fascinating, but I’m no longer willing to commit guesswork as to the cause for the creation and continuation of these quirks. So until the time comes when I can discuss these matters in better detail, that’s it for me. If anyone, for whatever reason, wants to know how I’m doing or what my take is on this-or-that Korean phenomenon, just e-mail me. I like engaging in written correspondence and whatever questions you have can be better answered there than in blog form.

That’s all then. Good night (or whatever time it is where you are)

William Schwartz

(e-mail: just add teacher@hanmail.net to my last name)

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Writing In General

Yesterday I was finally able to finish the novel I was writing. I’d like edit it at least once to take into account the full narrative direction, and then send it out for feedback a few places. But after that I’m probably done with it. While I enjoyed writing it and have a reasonably high confidence in its quality, particularly by the end I was reminded why I had stopped writing fiction in the first place. Taking this kind of thing to the next level requires publication. There’s two ways this can be accomplished.

First, I can try to lobby someone in the industry to publish my work, either a publishing house or, more likely, an agent. Working against me- in the first place, my novel lacks a clearly and easily described high concept, and is a rather dark satire. Satire simply isn’t published much these days, mostly because people literally do not know what satire is (if you think Family Guy is satire you are one of those people). In the second place, I live in Gyeongju in South Korea. In the very unlikely event that any sort of writing convention were held here, it would be in Seoul, on the other side of the country, and trying to travel that distance to sell a book is frankly more effort than I’m willing to make.

Third, even if I disregarded these setbacks and set about my goal bold-faced, I lack a sense of self-promotion. Truthfully, I find the way modern American culture has mandated self-promotional attitudes in all manner of daily life rather sickening. It is, incidentally and ironically, a major theme in the novel itself. Given these three strikes against me, I feel for the moment it’s best to quit while I’m ahead.

However, in spite of all this, I do still enjoy writing and have managed to at least reach a reasonably sized audience with information they can’t easily obtain by themselves. I’m not referring to this blog, of course- I’m not sure anyone reads it save for those who know me personally. Rather, I’ve corresponded with the webmaster of hancinema.net, and we’ve agreed that I will join the site as a movie reviewer, of Korean movies past and present, but principally those that have been released in the last ten years. I’ve watched enough Korean movies and taken in enough of Korean culture that I have a very good idea how the basic rhythm flows. I believe I can write about the very human messages in Korean film- something I feel is absent in most Korean film reviews that I read, which either treat them as pure art or pure entertainment. American film, for what it’s worth, has these messages, too- and I really hate analyzing them like this because more often than not they’re distressingly discouraging ones.

Of course, Korean film reviews aren’t really that big of a thing, even online. I’ll maybe be looking at several hundred views per article- but it will be from people unrelated to me who traffic to the Han Cinema website precisely because these are the sorts of the perspectives of the industry they want to read. It’s one of the sites that’s established enough that you can pop in information on Google and it comes up as a main hit. For a relatively obscure subject, but still it’s something. And for me, it’s enough.

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Writing Assignments

Some time ago we were given notebooks with about a dozen or so prompts in them, and had to write essays describing those prompts. They’re just simple questions like “where do you like to go on weekends?” or “what’s your favorite hobby?” but I really appreciate the introspective opportunities they offer. It’s been a long time since I really thought about the reasons why I do or prefer certain activities. And it’s even more interesting to try and parse out these justifications in my limited Korean.

It’s nice to be able to write down, for example, why I’m so pleased that there’s so much live music available. This is the second straight week at Dongguk University that there’s been a constant stream of performances by musical groups. Now, obviously, I wrote about this on the blog here as well. To do so again in Korean is a marked challenge because my English writing style used a great deal of unusual diction. I find that I have to utilize new forms of grammar almost as soon as I learn them or else I have to a give a truncated (and probably inaccurate) impression of my feelings. I’ve quickly learned to write sentences that are several lines long. My grammar isn’t perfect- my final writing exam for Level Two was fifteen points lower than the midtermn, probably because I’ve been trying to write above my competency level lately.

The important part, though, is that I’m trying. Normally there isn’t any utilitarian reason for me to write my thoughts down, so I don’t bother. But having to write in Korean forces me think more carefully and considerately about the thoughts that make up my identity. It’s a serious question whether I should use a conjunction I understand better or one that’s more abstractly appropriate, because I can’t be as sure which one is conveying the appropriate meaning.

I found out today that I almost certainly take Korean essay writing much more seriously than the other students in my class. We had to do an in-class writing topic today, the minimum requirement being four hundred characters. I finished the whole page, and probably could have gone on a lot longer because even though the question seemed simple enough (What skill does a friend have which you wish you can learn?), thinking about what it is that I really want to learn and especially comparing it to what I need or feel comfortable doing, there was always plenty more to write. Other students, struggling to hit the minimum, were surprised when I showed them an already finished page which I had enough time left to correct.

Another big appeal of these assignments is that the questions we have to answer are often a lot more personal than what I could ever expect in an American school setting. Once, for example, we had to write about what would make an ideal boy / girlfriend. Everyone has their own ideas on what this hypothetical person would be like- but we only rarely consider what’s really important, and realize that what we think matters a lot (such as physical attractiveness) suddenly comes off as really shallow and short-sighted, especially when you have to write a whole page about it.

The general environment is another important part of this- even in just general speaking, the teacher will ask questions on these prompts and they often make for good class humor. It felt awkward at first, to be sure, but it’s all good fun. Besides the point, it is, again, stuff we’re already thinking about, we just don’t talk about it. And even if we don’t we can role-play and be good sports. There’s a trainee nun in our class (trainees don’t normally go to university, but this one is Czech and she needs the Korean lessons) who has no trouble answering and laughing about other people’s answers to questions.

Writing assignments overall are one of the ways I feel Korean class has benefitted me even if I have doubts about how much I’m actually learning. It reminds me very little of my university classes (where professors always opted to treat us as adults rather than human beings), but more of high school, where there was more of a common rapport and off-topic conversation was not considered inherently brusque. I also like that I’m able to write pretty freely without having to agonize over the formatting. It’s helped loosen me up, which goes a long way for trying to write a complete novel in a single month.

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Live Music

Last weekend I went to a classical music concert at the Gyeongju Performing Arts Center. This one was performed by a youth orchestra, though the conductor did grace us with a trumpet solo as well. This is only the most recent musical performance I’ve attended. In the past, at various places in and around Gyeongju, I’ve attended quite a few over the last year. There’s the traditional Korean music performances, from pansori to traditional Korean drums to traditional Korean orchestra, with lots of overlap between the different specific types in the same performance. In the realm of classical piano, I’ve seen both a world-renowned Russian pianist as well as a woman who plays piano music with only four fingers. There was a series of special Christmas concerts in August that played various pieces of holiday music, both Western and Korean. Two Swedish a capella groups toured through Gyeongju about a month or so ago- I bought their CD, mainly because they’re the only group I can recall that sold any.

At Dongguk University specifically, there are multiple musical groups which have been putting out a lot of performances lately. There was the cover dance group, the freestyling group, and most recently…I’m not sure what kind of music it’s called, but it involves lot of string instruments, and they set the stage by decorating it as a coffee shop. So, the sort of music you might hear in a coffee shop. Emphasis on string guitar and vocals. There’s going to be another one playing tonight, Baramil, though I won’t know what music they’ll be playing until I get there.

There are, naturally, multiple events I’m probably forgetting. Sometimes they cost money, but at least half of them I’d say were free of charge, and the rest had a rather modest entrance fee, no more than ten or twenty dollars.They were entertaining enough for me to want to go, though not really significant enough otherwise to be worth writing up a blog post. I am, however, sure of one definite fact: Korean culture had a much greater appreciation for live music than anything I’ve ever found in the United States.

It’s an easy enough fact for most people to overlook, I think. The face of Korean music right now is Gangnam Style- which, while definitely different from usual K-Pop fare, still follows the same basic model of catchy tune plus entertaining music video that makes it easy for a mass audience to digest. The curious part about Gangnam Style, though, is that in Korean media lately there’s been a running story about where Psy (the man who made Gangnam Style) is currently going on tour and playing concerts. The answer is pretty much everywhere- obviously he’s done a lot more songs than just the one, so he has enough to do a whole revue.

This is expected of him, and pretty much most Korean singers, of any type. You play music by going around everywhere. American bands starting out, of course, do the exact same thing, though once they reach a certain level of fame and royalty checks they usually stop unless they want to make a big headline event. Korean musicians, of all types and all levels, never stop. I think to some extent it might even be subsidized- I can’t think of any other reason why I have so much access to free live music.

Although it’s not just access, but awareness. Posters are a regular occurence around town announcing the date and time of performances, and they’re also much easier to find nearer to performance venues. I was actually irritated to discover on Saturday that, several hours prior to the classical concert, a high school group had performed some sort of play or musical event or what-have-you in the same location. This isn’t information I could ever reasonably expect to have access to in the United States- high school plays are never publicized outside of high schools. Indeed, there may be plenty of live music in the United States- but unless someone specifically tells me where the music is it’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever find it. The Progressive, a venue in Ames, Iowa, I’d heard plenty of times by name, but I never had any idea where it was physically until someone showed it to me. It’s located in a large set of buildings equidistant from four different roads with no clear identifying signs, and is almost completely abandoned unless something is happening inside. It’s a rather far cry from Gyeongju’s commanding Performing Arts Center, which pretty much everyone has seen even if they don’t know what it is.

It also brings me back to my childhood in the United States, when the California Center for the Performing Arts was being built. People always complained that it was a waste of tax dollars, especially when Escondido didn’t have a movie theater at the time. Escondido has a smaller population than Gyeongju, though it’s surrounded by suburbs whereas Gyeongju is surrounded by farms. And yet, it seems unlikely, thinking back to it, that the California Center for the Performing Arts really got that much use, at least compared to Gyeongju’s facility. Performances have gone from being monthly a year ago to nearly weekly now, and that’s in addition curiousities such as rotating art exhibits. Live music venues here in Gyeongju very much have a “built it and they will come” mentality attached to them.

And by “they”, I mean everyone. It seems like these events are also a favorite spot for parents to bring their children. Rather than being the stuffy “sit in your seat and be quiet”

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Writing A Novel

This month is National Novel Writing Month. I normally don’t engage in these kind of activities- my problem has never really been coming up with ideas to write about so much as it is finding a place that would ever willingly display them. But I’ve been kicking around this story in my head for the past several months, and the November-long deadline is the perfect excuse for me to go at it, regardless of whether anything comes from it in the future.

The story is influenced in large part by my time in Korea, but not in a direct way. At large, it’s a social satire of a lot of the problems I see with modern American culture that made me want to get away from it in the first place. In addition to being overconfident about my ability to finish it (I have over 16,000 words, thought I had to skip the last couple of days to study for a test), I also think I’m writing it up in rather decent quality, given that I’m not even editing it yet.

Click here to see how I’m doing so far. If this sort of thing doesn’t interest you, eh, no harm. I’ll find something else to write about here next week. This is just what I’m doing personally in my life right now.

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Tae-Kwon-Do

Over last week and into this one, Gyeongju played host to the Seventh International Tae-Kwon-Do open. Tae-Kwon-Do is, I think, probably the one element of Korean culture most likely to be known by people outside Korea’s border, mostly because it’s a martial art and that’s the main cultural facet of east Asian culture that most people are familiar with. The Open was my opportunity to figure out what exactly Tae-Kwon-Do was outside of this generality.

Oddly, the immediate comparison I kept making as I watched matches was not to other martial arts, but rather fencing. Scoring in Tae-Kwon-Do is decided by the amount of force applied either to the commbatants’ chest sensors (one point), or their head (three points). The reason for the increased point value for head shots is because they’re more difficult- paradoxically, however, provided you can aim that high points are actually easier to receive than body shots. This is because the amount of force required to score points on the head is much lower than what is necessary for the body. Often in the tournament, a competitor would seem to land a very powerful blow on an opponent’s torso- sometimes enough to even knock them down. But no points would be added to the scoreboard. This is apparently a recent rule change. I spoke to an Australian coach about it, and he made sure to point out that this was not a change that was met with universal approval among worldwide Tae-Kwon-Do schools.

Normally scoring is achieved by kicks, but I suspect this is mainly because legs are normally the only part of the body strong enough to set off the body sensors. Every so often, when a competitor had a near perfect shot, they would aim a strong fist at the body and this was scored as normal. I never saw anyone aim for the head with their fists- I don’t know whether this is actually forbidden by the rules or whether some quirk of the combat style (like how their hands are always by their waist as they lightly bounce) renders it impractical.

As far as the actual competition venue, I quickly realized something fun about actually being at these tournaments (rather than, say, watching them on television). A lot of stuff is going on at once. So, if one match is boring, I could always either look around for another one and, if it was really getting intense, change my seat entirely. The venue was relatively empty save for actual teams, though there were television cameras everywhere, especially in the last days of competition. I’ve found some of it online, but most of it is probably with Korean sources that I’ve no idea how to locate.

It’s fortunate that this option was available to me, as unfortunately, most of the matches were fairly boring. A certain kind of frantic energy is needed to make a contest genuinely entertaining to uninvolved spectators, and this only really showed up in some of the matches. I took special note when a competitor had enough skill to hit nearly every time they made an attack (even if they only rarely attacked in the first place). Especially at first, it was also quite surprising whenever someone goes for a high head shot, and misses. Not only does that require excellent kicking technique, the other combatant must have very good instincts in order to dodge the blow just in time. Likewise, when a kick failed to connect, I was always surprised when the person who missed landed back on their feet. They always look like they’re about to fall down, but they only very rarely do so unless their opponent is running some kind of interference.

Even better than these, though, is when a competitor truly knows exactly what they’re doing and never wastes a move. These are the ones who know exactly when and where to kick in order to score a point, and only perform moves of more dubious value when it aids in blocking. Some were even so skilled that they could perform these moves regularly on the body.

However, the scores never got too high. Matches normally are three rounds with ninety seconds per round. There was a mercy rule at some point if one side was winning by far too many points. There was also a fourth round of sudden death overtime, where the first person to score any hit at all was the winner. Should this final round end after ninety seconds with no hits being scored, the winner is decided by judges based on who “was the most aggressive”. The matches I saw that went into overtime were always a treat, as competitors always went at it with everything they had.

Both men and women were represented at the tournament, and in terms of general entertainment, they all did about as well. There were more entertaining matches between men than between women, but I think there may have been more men overall. And all “entertaining” matches were about the same quality, so the determing factor was definitely more the enthusiasm than any physical traits. While men and heavier competitors did have more points on average, regardless of skill level, when I consider only the very best competitions I saw technique and energy were far more important considerations to victory than general build. The person with the best aim at the tournament was a middleweight woman, and she played relatively defensively. However, she was also incredibly reactive, and even though she didn’t go on the attack, it was obvious that her mind was completely focused on the immediate task before her.

There was lots of general cheering at the tournmant as teams pushed their fellows to succeed. I couldn’t understand most of it, as it was usually spoken in native languages rather than English or Korean, and I also had no idea who the cheers were meant for. On the last day at the finals, though, there were a couple of English groups. One Australian man, Kyle (they kept saying his name), was down for most of his match, but thanks to his own determination and his unflailing teammates, he pushed hard right until the end scoring a narrow victory against his clearly exhausted Korean who had been expecting him to give up much sooner.

Another more dubious example was an American woman who competed that day. The American team did their cheering all wrong. They only shouted the utterly obnoxious “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant, and rarely her name, and usually only when the referees were deliberating. Speaking as a former referee, we generally don’t care if you cheer while the game’s going on. But loudly chanting while we’re trying to deliberate is incredibly annoying and likely to bias us against you even if we try not to. The American woman did quite well, tying the match near the end with a spinning kick (apparently four points instead of three), but lost by judge’s decision in a hard fought overtime where both she and her Thai opponent seemed constantly at each others’ throats but always just disciplined enough to keep from getting scored on.

The referees in general marked another interesting trend I’d never seen before. Around a third of them were women. The profession of referee is overwhelmingly dominated by men, at least in most well-known American sports, so it was nice to see them represented here. Most of them were Korean, with a few international ones scattered about. So the Tae-Kwon-Do associations are, at all levels I think, fairly gender equitable.

A few more tangiential points. First, I only got a very good look at sparring Tae-Kwon-Do. Though there were synchronized form competitions, they were only held during one of my visits, and unfortunately, I did not pay as much attention to them at the time as I should have in retrospect. Also, while I use “man” and “woman” for convenience, a significant part of the competition (especially at lower weight classes) were clearly children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any paperwork that went into any detail about the individual competitors (only the general apparatus of the tournament), so there’s far too many details about which I’d like to know more, but don’t really know how to go about it. It’s one small black mark I have against them- the people organizing the tournament really didn’t seem to know what to do with anyone who was not directly affiliated with the teams. Regardless, it was a worthwhile experience and I hope I have the opportunity to see another such tournament some time in the future.

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Everything About My Wife

Lately I’ve been submitting the occasional article to hancinema.net. Han Cinema is an aggregator website that republishes articles relating to Korean culture, both traditional and the modern pop variety. I often read it in the odd bored moment, and have found it offers one of the better broad views of Korean culture, and the kinds of issues that are important in Korean entertainment media. Most interestingly, some articles offer quite negative takes on certain trends and individuals- in a social justice vein rather than a tabloid one. About as often as inappropriate behavior is reported, there will also be an article wherein said figure offers a very serious apology.

Anyway, I typed up this review a couple of weeks ago for the summer romantic blockbuster Everything About My Wife, which was briefly discussed in a previous blog post, “Portrayals of Intimacy”, and is partially based on that article. No special reason- I guess I was just really in the mood for writing a review that day. It’s reproduced below, along with a direct web link, since it’s my writing about Korea and that’s what this blog is supposed to be for:

“Everything about my Wife”. is about Doo-Hyun (Lee Seon-gyoon), a man who wants to divorce his wife, Jung-In (Im Soo-jeong) who he feels has become overbearing. However, he doesn’t have the courage to do it himself, so he gets a local Casanova, Sung-Ki (Ryoo Seung-yong) to try and seduce her so that she’ll want to divorce him. “Everything about my Wife” features three major actors as its leads and has done very well at the local box office. It has all the right basic elements for a crowd-pleaser- three popular lead actors and a very zany plot that gives them a chance to mug for the camera. As far as laughs go, it does not disappoint.

What really makes this movie worth watching, though, is that the actors exude a very real intimacy with each other. I never felt like I was watching mere actors pretending at married life, or even that they genuinely disliked each other on any level. Wait- doesn’t that ruin the premise? Not exactly. It’s quite clear why Doo-Hyun thinks his marriage isn’t worth saving, and that he believes Jung-In is making his life a wreck. At the same time, it’s equally clear that Jung-In, though agitated and outspoken, is ultimately just trying to do nice things for her husband and is getting ambivalent results because she’s way too stressed out.

Enter Sung-Ki, perhaps the most compelling Casanova I have ever seen on screen. Normally, this character type is little more than a desirable insertion for men in the audience who think “if only I could sexually attract women this easily!” Sung-Ki is not that kind of man. His very presence oozes sensuality- with mixed results. Unlike most Casanovas who flick a switch and suddenly become irresistable, Sung-Ki can’t turn his sexual magnetism off. In his very first scene, Sung-Ki is actually trying to break up with an attractive woman, but his Italian is so salacious and heart-pounding she can’t keep her hands off him even in that moment. This is the inevitable outcome of every personal interraction he has, even if it’s with men or animals. And yes, seeing him do this on-screen is every bit as funny as it sounds.

These concepts are both very strong, and even individually could have made for very good movies. By pushing these concepts together, though, we get a surprisingly broad glimpse of what we’re really looking for in relationships. When you got married, were you expecting that times would always be good? Is your love defined by the surface actions, the ones that might annoy you the most in the moment, or the really emotionally deep moments of serious intimacy, where you say things you would never have the courage to say to anyone else in the world? And what if your relationships were nothing but good times? What happens if you get bored, since for all your orgasms you’re still seeing the same basic surface layer of every woman you meet?

Of course, whether you want to read that much into the story is entirely up to you. The jokes are still extremely funny, and the movie is constantly finding new situations for the actors to demonstrate excellent comic timing and overreaction, to the point that the script is nearly an afterthought. It’s great stuff both in the romantic and comedy genres- and it’s so often rare to find movies that excel in both of these categories without really letting up in the other. The only complaint I can offer is that the ending resolution is relatively abrupt- but since it’s pretty much what I was expecting anyway, I can’t begrudge the movie too much for making a clean break instead of stretching it out.

* This movie is a remake of the 2008 Argentinian Film “Un Novio Para Mi Mujer”. They are similar mainly in concept, however, and have very different executions.

http://www.hancinema.net/guest-review-everything-about-my-wife-49092.html

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Visit to Geoje Island

I had the opportunity last weekend to visit Geoje Island (거제도) last weekend. The first part I noticed, oddly enough, was the limitations of using English letters in place of the Korean alphabet. “Geoje” is not pronounced “je-oh-juh” (the way I first saw it even though I know the pronunciation conventions) but “guh-jay”. That’s the only way I could write it that didn’t feel completely ridiculous.

Anyway, as to the actual city. Geoje Island is a large island in the southern part of Korea, close to Busan. It’s connected to the mainland by bridge. There are numerous tourist sites and attractions in the area, but our tour was mandated by a church-group that lives in the area, and they showed us the parts of Geoje they considered special. Which, by and large, consisted of amazing vistas of the ocean.

I’m looking at the blog post right now trying to think of a better way to describe it. I have ample experience with beaches. I grew up next to San Diego beaches, some of the most popular in the world. My grandmother lives next to a popular tourist beach which I often visited when I was younger. Even in Korea, Gyeongju has a beach that I’ve been to multiple times. There’s also Pungdo Island, though that beach attracted my attention mainly because no one visited it at all (except for the goats).

What makes Geoje’s view of the ocean so unique is that there’s so much of it, that the angle and view changes constantly. No two parts look a like at all. Sometimes there’s a sandy beach. Sometimes there’s small penninsulas, which may or may not be made of rocks. Sometimes there’s a beach that just consists of giant rocks everywhere that you can walk on top of. There are islands. Sometimes very many islands. They can be small, tall, rocky, green, or completely bare. I spent a fair portion of the trip in Tongyeong (통영), and was even able to get a chance to see Geoje Island itself in the backdrop of the ocean. Gigantic, though not overpoweringly so.

The most touristy place that I saw was a cable car that took us up to a mountain hiking trail, where we then proceeded to hike up the mountain. But even this location was strongly framed by the ocean. The main lookout point near the top offers a complete tactical view of a harbor area where a major battle took place in a war with Japan several hundred years ago. And I very much mean tactical- every part of the nearby islands were placed at such odd angles in the ocean and created such strange passes that just looking at it is more than enough to put a person in a tactical state of mind.

The odd geographical configuration is, I think to a large extent, emblematic of the strange contradiction of Korean geography as a whole. Though the country is on a peninsula, mountains are everywhere. There’s relatively few places that are only just above sea level, so even on an island coast there’s an inordinate amount of vertical variation. It was a strong reminder that no matter how well I think I might understand something, there are almost certainly countless other possible points of view that I have yet to consider, indeed, am not really fully capable of grasping because I’m used to looking at matters in a very specific way.

There was more than just scenery, though. Geoje has an extensive port, and we also visited a boat museum- that is, a museum that is just a refurbished boat. Though from what I could tell, some students were also taking university classes there. An odd enough place for classes of any sort (it smelled terrible), but appealing at least for the novelty, I think. Strangely, even at this industrial coastline, I could see fish near the top of the water, as well as seagulls either fighting or courting (really hard to tell which).

Overall, a very productive trip. Our hosts insisted that we have to come back sometime- you need at least two trips to see everything on the island, and they also insisted that it was even more beautiful in the wintertime. How a coastline, of all things, could look better in wintertime I have no idea. Nonetheless, I relish the thought that I may one day find out.

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Ingrown Hair

About a month ago I tried to shave using shaving cream. This turned out to be a bad idea. How exactly I managed it I don’t know, but my entire upper lip seems to be covered in ingrown hair. No matter how much I shave, from any appreciable distance it looks like I have a weak moustache. It’s completely wrecked the way I look at myself. I’ve seen two barbers about getting rid of it. The first one simply refused to do any more than a basic shave, insisting that it would hurt for him to pull the hairs out. The barber who works at a public bath was more cooperative- unfortunately, he did not understand my specific complaint until after he finished the shave. I need to see him again in a couple of days, when the hairs have grown out again, so he can apply some other method of removing them.

I’ve fretted about this a lot for the past several days, when I finally realized why this apparent facial hair wouldn’t go away and that I couldn’t solve the problem by myself. This experience has been demoralizing to the point that I’ve been thinking about laser surgery just to remove the damn things- I can afford it now, but even then it seems extreme. Maybe at some point I’ll actually want a moustache- all I know for sure is that right now I don’t.

The irony of all this is that I doubt anyone at school has noticed or particularly cared about this. To them this is just how I look all the time. This has reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this year with a teacher at Jung Chul. She told me, quite openly, that she wanted a nose job. And I, naturally, thought this was ridiculous. Her face was perfectly pretty the way it already was and I told her so. The way she phrased her desire, though, stuck with me. While one normally thinks of someone wanting plastic surgery in order to be attractive, she framed her desire purely in terms of feeling better about herself. She didn’t even offer so much as a euphemism to the effect of “it increases my confidence” (for what, you might wonder), but rather just related it to her own personal self-image.

South Korea has received some criticism, much of it internal, for the popularity of plastic surgery. Certainly some of this is justified- I don’t like the concept much myself. But the culture here in regards to such issues is markedly different than what is common in the United States. In the United States, asking someone if they have had or are considering plastic surgery is considered an unbelievably rude question. The greatest accolade you can grant a plastic surgeon is that the work is undetectable. In South Korea, plastic surgery is a common matter that people discuss in their daily lives. The problems relating to this kind of body imaging still exist, but they’re actually visible. Consequently, they’re much easier to scrutinize. I don’t think more plastic surgery per capita is necessarily a negative if it involves more introspection.

Statistics can also be deceptive. South Korea is a relatively urban, cosmopolitan country. Roughly half the population is concentrated in greater Seoul, and great national pride is taken in entertainment industries and fashion. I’d expect a high plastic surgery rate with these kinds of demographics. By contrast, most of the United States doesn’t fit this demographic at all. States like California, New York, and Florida are going to have much higher rates than so-called “flyover country”- which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Some Western Progressive will bemoan South Korea’s plastic surgery ranking while ignoring that America’s is artifically lowered by red state communities which, in any other social issue, would be considered a declining influence on the country at large.

I tend to get in introspective moods when I start considering these issues from ambiguous angles. Just like with my ingrown hair. I’m sure that at some point, somewhere, my current irrational predilection against apparent moustaches is socially inspired. But does that actually matter in the here and now? It’s not like I think I’m going to get more dates without it or anything. I just really would rather not have it there. I think this is an important distinction to make when considering how cosmetic surgery reflects body issues. I don’t know if it necessarily justifies it, but it at least warrants consideration. If my barber can’t remove the hair through traditional methods- well, let’s just say that’s an impasse I’d rather not find myself at.

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Clubfest

A few days ago I attended Dongguk Univerity’s club festival. It was pretty impossible to miss. For six hours, in addition to a dozen odd club tables, there was a fully set-up stage, complete with comedy, musical, and magical sketches that played throughout the day. Punctuating these events was a heavy set, gaudily dressed emcee. He was very loud, which is to be expected given that he was trying to draw attention to everyone. What surprised me a bit more was that he was also observant. When I first walked past the display he said several random English sentences. It took me a moment to realize that he was addressing me. When I responded in loud Korean, he solemnly thanked me and moved on to the next set.

The club experience as a whole is similarly intense. In all the years I’ve spent in American colleges, it’s been my experience that student clubs don’t really do that much. It’s such a tremendous challenge to get everyone to just show up at the same time every week that there’s really not much left to do save socialize under the banner of whatever common interest everyone has. Outside of room reservation, the university doesn’t really factor into it.

At Dongguk University clubs take on much more importance. Every club that I investigated actually produced something- oftentimes, proucts that I never saw or would have even expected to see back at American universities. Bands, for example. There are several posters around campus advertising for positions in bands, and these bands had tables at the club festival. They also had collections of posters for their performances, some dating back several years. I’m not sure how permanent any of thesebands are, but before the semester’s out I’ll probably have seen all of them perform at least once. This is significant to me, given that I don’t think I ever saw or even had the opportunity to see a student band in the United States. I’m sure they existed, but as to their names and where and when they performed I have no idea.

Other products of some substance are produced by clubs. There’s a comic-producing group on campus that has been producing art for at lest twenty-eight issues. Thy’re not in-depth stories or anything- I picked up a copy of their last issue. I’m still working on translating it, but for the most part there’s a few simple multi-page stories and lots and lots of pages of fan art. Great fan art, don’t get me wrong- I don’t understand the references, but the pictures are still pretty. There’s great caricatures of Pokemon, Pirate Power Rangers, and Stalin in those pages, all with markedly different styles.

Most curious of all, though, are the sports clubs. One in particular really caught my eye- American football. There’s a club league for American football in this province, consisting of ten teams, and even more throughout the rest of the country. They compete with all the uniforms and proper gear, and anyone can join. The club currently as sixteen members- enough to play (you only need eleven), but far fewer than any tackle football team I’ve ever heard of before. What makes this especially peculiar to me is that, even though tackle football was an unavoidable presence in my life for several years, I never had the opportunity to play it except at a highly organized level- and at college even that was off limits. Unless you’re playing for the semi-professional school team (which is so intensive it’s more of a job than a game), it was just non-contact flag football. An intramural tackle league probably would have been quite popular- but in between the equipment needs and injury rates it would have been too expensive. How this team manages it I don’t know- though in the future, I’m going to have to try and find out.

It’s not all work, though. Another club, Party Bugs, has the dubious distinction of being a party planning club. They plan raves, complete with beer. It’s not a professional outfit, to be sure, but as Gyeongju has no nightclubs, they took it on themelves to fill in the gap. I’m still not sure which is stranger- the notion that students would try to solve a problem like this themselves instead of just complaining about it, or that the school would let them with official sanction.

Although it’s not all quite that surprising when I remember that there was free canned beer in large supply at the event, which took place in the afternoon. Where this beer came from I don’t know- it wasn’t a major brand, and was likely an independent level. Honestly, though, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was produced by a brewing club that also does their own canning. There’s definitely not as many clubs as there were in American schools, but these seem to be a lot more serious than what I’m used to, and much more proactive about increasing membership. Which I suppose makes sense- if it’s just a social group people want, they can make it themselves without the school’s help.

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