Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

29 May, 2006

Enter the Dragon Lady

By Aaron
29 May, 2006

Someone call Wes Craven and tell him I've found the ogress for his next horror film. She's my landlady, she's altogether unhinged and she's become my arch nemesis. I've recently had visions of her being carried off to parts unknown by a troupe of dwarves, which I realize is overly optimistic on my part, but hey, everyone has dreams. I only hope she forks over my damn money before the wee devils cart her away.

[enter EXPLANATION, stage right]

The Korean real estate system is a serpentine system of trap doors for your money. And behind each door is a person waiting to separate you from that money. When renting a house or apartment, you'll usually have two choices on the money front. First, there's weolsae ('monthly payment'), wherein the renter pays a large deposit and thereafter coughs up monthly rent. When you move out at the end of the lease, you get the original deposit back, or at least that's the way it works in theory. Alternately, you could opt for cheonsae, in which you pay a huge initial deposit ('key money'), thereby avoiding monthly rent. The latter system basically amounts to a loan to the landlord, which they can then invest for a set period, at the end of which they return the original amount to the tenant.

Last June, I put down a US$5,000 deposit (practically nothing by Korean standards) on a fetching little pigsty here in Seoul and have been paying monthly rent ever since. With a wedding on the horizon, the time has come for me to move, which according to the contract, means my landlady will soon owe me about five grand. My rental contract states as much and you'd be forgiven for thinking that's all I need.

Problem is, old Koreans like my landlady (and small number of young ones) view contracts as an inconvenience when it comes time to actually honor them. Agreements are often made based on what's convenient at the moment, without consideration of what it will take to deliver on one's promises.

As such, the She-Devil upstairs has been trying to weasel out of paying by saying she ain't got no money. I don't particularly care what she did with the money (though I suspect she blew it on the latest Thunder Down Under show in Seoul), nor whether she has to beg, borrow or steal to repay my key money, just as long as she gets it. She's tried to goad me into a few confrontations over the money, but I just smiled and pointed to the calendar and the day I'll be moving (when I expect the money), all the while making veiled references to cement shoes and my previous convictions for rackateering.

Yesterday had the woman stating that she'd be paying up this week, her voice laden with self-pity as she told of how she'd have to take a loan to repay me. In my corner, the small violins began to play. Now I'm the heartless foreigner, accused of playing dirty and not 'understanding' (a favorite phrase in Korea) her situation. Apparently, expecting someone to honor a contract makes me a cruel fiend in my own right. Well, Mr. Craven, you can have me for your next movie, too.

image by Richard Lindner

20 May, 2006

Nekkid in Seoul.

By Aaron
20 May, 2006

Asia has no shortage of fine places to shed your clothes, but apparently the folks at Time magazine thought they could narrow it down to the continent's best. Korea - not stereotypically a country of nudist hot spots - has surprisingly made the list and I'm happy to report that I have, in fact, been naked in that hottest of spots (actually, it was me, three Thai ladyboys, a live chicken, a weedeater and some peach preserves, but that's beside the point).

When you do it for the first time, you stand there for mere seconds, thinking "I can't believe this," before scurrying for the cover of your fashionably minimalist bedroom. The second time, you force yourself to linger a little longer and at least take in the view. But well before your stay at the Park Hyatt is over, you have accustomed yourself to standing naked in a bathroom that comprises nothing but glass on three sides, situated above one of the busiest intersections of one of the busiest cities of the busiest continent on earth. Sustaining it all is the questionably held faith that the thin panes in front of you really are reflective.

Attaining the physical and aesthetic heights required of statement buildings, and lapped by vast tides of Gangnam district traffic below, the Park Hyatt occupies one of the choicest sites of the South Korean capital. It is the work of fashionable Japanese design house Super Potato, and the firm's brightest bolts of inspiration were surely the Park suite bathrooms—translucent aeries that lord it over the unknowing populace. As you gaze upon the deskbound data slaves of office towers opposite, or down at the drones in buses, you feel both vulnerable and decadent in a way that is deliciously addictive. Handsome or horrible, fit or fat, just strip off, climb in and shout "Hello Seoul!"

For the record, I need to make two things clear. First, those windows are not 100% reflective. I pass the Park Hyatt every morning on my way to work and, suffice it to say, I've been privy to the stretch and yawn of more than one guest. And second, clothed or not, I never shouted "Hello Seoul!" or anything close to it while staying at this hotel.

19 May, 2006


By Aaron
19 May, 2006

15 May, 2006

Seeds of Destruction

By Aaron
15 May, 2006

Showing friends around the Seoul neighborhood where I now live, I always make a point of taking them to the local supermarket, where I pause at the doorway and make the only necessary comment,

"Prepare for the worst shopping experience of your life."

And it is that. One Mart, as it's called, is a true testament to human ingenuity, in that it was bad when I first moved to the area, just shy of a year ago, and the owners somehow found a way to force the place further down the crapper.

One Mart offers free home grocery delivery, so for some reason a person who's perfectly willing to walk to the store won't have to carry his/her purchases home. But I know groceries for a family are heavy and this isn't a good area for cars, so that's not what bothers me. The problem is that the delivery guys use those pestilent mopeds, which are always parked at the entrance of the store, blocking my path in and out. Further impeding progress are the scores of grocery baskets - filled, ready for delivery and fully covering the stairs leading into the store.

Assuming you don't end up face down in a basket of Mrs. Kim's dried squid and can actually make your way into the store, you'll need a hard hat. There's crap stacked everywhere - on the floors, on the shelves, in the freezer cases, and on customers if they stand still for more than four seconds - all of it ready to fall all over you, the valued customer. So disorganized is it that, in eleven months, I've only managed to find the following items: cereal, milk, yogurt, beer. I rely on the Red Cross for everything else.

All of this was bad enough and irritated me for a good eight months. Recently, though, the nincompoops in charge installed a loudspeaker system and hired a couple fellows - one each for the produce and meat departments - for the sole (Seoul?) purpose of shouting into it, with the volume at bloody-ear level. The two barkers vie for the customers' attention, usually with at least one of them also eating whatever it is he's selling. Take a look around while shopping and you'll realize you're not the only one trying to balance a box of corn flakes and a six pack while at the same time plugging your ears.

It's a miserable place, I tell you, but unfortunately, it's all this neighorhood's got.

Back in 1942, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter proposed his theory of creative destruction, wherein a new business model destroys the less efficient ones that preceded it (see: Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Google). Well, Joe, you ought to pay a visit to Nakseongdae.

I used to fancy myself quite the lover of so-called mom-and-pop stores. Keep the money in the neighborhood, support your local gunfighter, fight the big guys. Etcetera, right? But let's just say I've come to a realization over the past few months: Carrefour, E-Mart, Wal-Mart and all those other big box stores make grocery shopping about as enjoyable as it can be in Korea (Sunday afternoons notwithstanding). One Mart makes it about as pleasant as vivisection. No wonder these kind of stores are slowly going the way of Kirby Puckett. One Mart relies on being the only convenient shopping choice, rather than actually improving their operations and for this they deserve to fail.

I'm moving out of this area soon (not soon enough, but soon), so my relationship with One Mart is a finite one. But don't you fret, Nakseongdae, you'll get an E-Mart someday. For now, just keep your fingers in your ears and don't let 'em stack too many radishes on your head.