Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's Your Beef? Evil American Cows, Or: Korean Randomness of the Week Part Two

It's strange that I've lived here for six months and I am only just starting to get to know my neighbourhood. I think it's because A) work keeps me pretty busy, and B) my apartment building is on the main thoroughfare and it just didn't occur to me to go off the beaten path and discover what might be around.

Since I've gotten back from Christmas, though, I've done a bit of rambling, some of it by myself, some with others, and I've realized that I actually live in a pretty cool little bourgh. The area in behind Homeplus is crammed with little restaurants, shops, coffeehouses, and bars -- there's even a gelato place.

So this morning I took the opportunity to amble around and see if I could find any material for today's installment of my randomness series. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to find anything since my neighbourhood is probably one of the most Westernized places I've ever encountered in Korea. However, I ran across two gems!

Miguk mad cows
Beware the Beef!

1. This was posted in the window of the local health food store. In 2003, Korean officials banned American beef due to concerns about mad cow disease. So far as I know, no Koreans ever got sick from eating tainted meat, but when the government reversed the decision last year, Koreans were furious, inciting violent protests in Seoul and a backlash of anti-American sentiment. Restaurants posted signs to let customers know the origin of their beef (the school cafeteria still does this) and Koreans hissed and spat at the mere mention of American beef.

Media attention given to the issue was short on facts and long on hostility. To me it seemed to be more about Korean nationalism than it was about any legitimate health concern. In my experience, Korean nationalism is often based on blatantly xenophobic attitudes towards Korea's competitors, an opinion confirmed in this article:

"South Korea has built the world's 13th largest economy largely through exports. Still, in a country that has been invaded by bigger neighbors throughout its history, people harbor a deep suspicion about big powers, even allies like the United States.

Koreans in their 40s remember a childhood song handed down from their fathers and grandfathers: "Don't be cheated by the Soviets. Don't trust the Americans. Or the Japanese will rise again." Koreans still chafe at the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into the Communist North and the pro-U.S. South after liberating it from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II."

One of my coworkers once remarked, "I don't understand how Korea can have such an inferiority complex and a superiority complex at the same time," with which I agree wholeheartedly. On the one hand, Koreans are very enamoured with all things American, but on the other, there is a lot of resentment towards the States for a variety of reasons, such as the steady encroachment of American culture on the traditional Korean way of life, or the ubiquitous nature of the English language globally. The American beef issue is an outlet for Koreans to express this resentment.

American beef is back on Korean supermarket shelves, and according to my coworkers, is about two thirds of the price of its domestic and Australian competitors. Being vegetarian, I had sort of forgotten about it until I saw this sign. Apparently it will be a hot topic for some time.

While we're on the subject of food, that brings me to my next picture: squid!

It's Squid for Supper Tonight!

In Korea, it is extremely common for restaurants to advertise their fare by displaying a smiling, happy cartoon version of the type of animal that you will consume inside. I have seen countless grinning pigs and winking cows during my two years here. I like this squid because he looks like he's under pressure, as if he's saying, "I'll keep this smile on my face even though you're about to come in here and eat me!" He's resisting. Fight on, Squid.

My other favourite thing about this sign: unlike North America, where a business usually needs to be at least twenty or thirty years old before it can legitimately merit such a display of age, Korean business have no compunction about proudly displaying that they have been operating "since 2008" or "since 2007." What amuses me most about these signs is that businesses come and go overnight, so rapidly that it's actually pretty hard to find a business that's been in operation "since 2006".

Does that mean that there aren't businesses that have been in operation for many years? There certainly are...but strangely enough, in those cases, the owner usually tells you directly instead of putting it on a sign.

Well, I think that's it for this week's installment. Next week, I will have to put it on hold because I am spending a week vacationing in THAILAND! Pictures of Thai waterfalls, food, and elephants are forthcoming.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Korean Randomness of the Week -- Part One in a New Series!

Although there are a lot of neighbourhoods in Seoul that attract foreigners, the most well-known is probably Itaewon. It's a bit skeevy at the best of times. If Itaewon was a beach, it would be the scummy beach where all the weird fishes wash up, the ones the fishermen look at in bewilderment before tossing them back to the sea and praying their boats won't be cursed.

When I went today, though, the skeev factor was pumped up by at least 10. Maybe because it's the first time in a while that I've gone by myself. Despite the sketchiness of Itaewon, I usually do look forward to going there when I'm with friends. No matter how anybody might feel about it, it's a useful place. There's a foreign food market that sells granola, Western spices, and beans (all hard to get in Korea), an excellent English bookstore, plus-sized clothing shops, and a terribly named restaurant called Foreign Restaurant that has a fantastic Indian buffet (with halvah for dessert!). There's also my favourite Thai restaurant in all the world, where they give you a private dining room on your birthday. Not to mention art stores and antique shops. It can be a fun place.

That was not the case today. It started before I even got to Itaewon. I was on my way to a play in Hyehwa and thought I'd nip in to pick up some pre-made pizza crusts for homemade pizza. As soon as I got on the orange line of the Seoul Metro, I noticed that this foreign guy sitting further down the subway car was staring at me in the perviest way. Every few seconds I would look back at him to see if he was still staring...and yep, he always was. When the train stopped I wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could, and the guy followed me through the station to the concourse that switches to the brown line. When we got to the escalator I took the stairs instead. I flew down them and by a miracle of good timing, there was a train already at the platform. I managed to squeeze in just as the doors were closing. The guy ended up being stuck on the platform. My relief was palpable.

So I was already a bit unsettled by the time I actually got to Itaewon. I went to the market, and no pizza crusts, but they had Indian flatbreads that would do just as well. I bought them and strode back down the street back to the subway line, when this OTHER pervy guy, even pervier than the last, stepped into my path. With a smile that would grease rubber, he looked at me and said, "Good afternoon, ma'am."

I just shoved past him and kept walking. Fortunately Itaewon is always crowded so it was easy to lose him. I was really happy to get back on the subway and out of there. I think from now on, if I'm by myself, it would be better to go to the foreign food market in Hannam, which is on the same street as a bunch of churches and has a highly reduced sketch factor.


On another, unrelated note, it would seem that my New Year's Resolution to write in this blog weekly has fizzled. I have decided that, to motivate myself to write more often, I should start a new feature. It will be entitled "Korean Randomness of the Week." This will be a good way for me to show you all of the things that I love about Korea, as well as give you a sense of just how random this place is. Doing this feature will require me to act partly as a journalist and partly as a cultural anthropologist. Every week I will locate an example of the absolute randomness that is Korean culture. Then I will attempt to explain things about it that, by all logic, defy explanation.

My first contribution comes from my students. As an assignment for their Communication Arts class, I had my ninth and tenth graders write and perform their own commercials. In the class blogs I have them keep, many of my students provided links to their own favourite commercials. Since I don't have cable in Korea, I haven't seen most of them, so I checked them all out.

The first commercial is an ad for SK Telecom's broadband service. I did not include because it deserves the "Randomness Award of the Week," but because it deserves the "AWESOMENESS Award of the Week." It is just a really cool commercial. I can't embed it, but you can watch it by clicking here.

The second commercial, however, is in a class by itself. It is a cell phone commercial that is currently very popular in Korea right now. It features none other than K-Pop sensation Big Bang!

Her skirt is, by far, the greatest thing ever!

This commercial makes me proud to own a Cyon cell phone. I was also proud of myself for understanding the first few song lyrics. They go like this:

"Give me an ice cream, please! Give me two ice creams, please!"

I'm glad that my efforts to learn Korean have allowed me to pick up these subtle nuances.