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

27 March, 2008

Twits on Parade

By Aaron
27 March, 2008

It is nigh impossible for a man - or a woman, come to that - to appear dignified while riding a donkey, wearing a beanie, or line dancing. Engage in any of these activities and, by the next afternoon, a man from the Highfalutin' Society - creed: no riding or behaving like a jackass - will show up at your door and revoke your membership.

"Have you no shame?" he'll sniff.

That beanies, burros and Billy Ray Cyrus have never really found a foothold here in Korea should indicate that the folks in these parts have their sense of self-respect fully intact, if only for lack of opportunity. In fact, on these limited criteria, Koreans should qualify for platinum membership in the Highfalutin' Society.


Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity, especially when it comes to making a fool of oneself in public.

Last night after work, as I waited for my train in Dogok Station, I was distracted from my newspaper by some fool and his drunken caterwauling. This man stood about twenty meters down the platform from me, leaning against a safety barrier near the tracks, moaning the full-throated, liquored-up blues.

"Aaaaaaaeeeeeish," he wailed, and then, in case we'd misunderstood him, added "Aaaaaaaeeeeeish."

A Spinach Boy1 stood nervously a couple meters behind the man, ready to grab him if he stumbled toward the tracks. Where he stumbled, however, was toward the wall, where he proceeded to bend over and vomit on the platform as the train rumbled into the station. Just as the train doors started to close, this local sot raised himself up, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and tottered onto the train. The train jolted as it pulled out of the station, causing the man to stumble and, finally, to just sit down in the middle of the aisle and resume his wailing.


And then there was the Thrown Heel of a few weeks ago. On my way to the Guro library to return some books, I happened into the middle of a marital spat taking place on the sidewalk - right outside a wedding hall of all places where, no doubt, some dewy-eyed couple was at just that moment promising to love, honor and cherish.

Or at least, as Hemingway would have asked, isn't it pretty to think so?

It was at about the time I heard the woman screaming that one of her high heels went whizzing past my head, straight out into the road where it landed between lanes of traffic. The woman, screaming like a damned demon, then hobbled on one shoe toward her man and laid into him with her fists.

Korea is hardly a stranger to domestic violence, so in these situations, I usually hang back a bit to make sure the woman isn't in any physical danger. This time, though, I was more concerned for the man, as his companion still had one more shoe in her arsenal and showed no signs of cooling down. I couldn't imagine what this fellow had done to enrage her thus, but given her state, I had to imagine that it involved barnyard acts with her mother and sister.

It occurred to me that I should try to pry them apart, not for their safety but because someone needed to tell them what fools they were making of themselves.

"Have you no shame?" I meant to sniff.

Public drunkenness and fighting in public - and, especially, fighting in public while drunk - are two surefire ways to disgrace oneself, and yet I witness scenes of both on a weekly basis here in Seoul. For a country as consumed by image and appearances as Korea there sure isn't a shortage of people willing to humiliate themselves in terribly public places. And I suppose it's none of my business if some folks choose to carry on like ninnies for all to see, but goodness, it's almost embarrassing to watch.


1 A young Korean male, clad in an all-green uniform, doing his mandatory military service by patrolling subway platforms. In case you didn't know.

24 March, 2008

Mock Not, Foul Outsiders

By Aaron
24 March, 2008

On separate occasions over the past year, I showed the following videos (see below) to my wife and a couple of Korean friends. Their respective first reactions were always the same:

"Are they making fun of Korea?"

Always ready to defend the honor of the Motherland, their guard was instantly up, because heaven forbid anyone should poke fun at Korea, however good-natured it may be. In fact, the first collective inclination in Korea, when seeing international mentions of the place, seems to be to assume that Korea's good name has been in some way besmirched. That neither of these videos degrades Korea doesn't really matter.

"Foreigners are talking about us and that's evidence enough that they're mocking us."

Better paranoid than wrong and the virtue of the homeland must be defended at all costs.

But, all that said, we should be honest: it is hard not to make fun of a place that takes itself this seriously. The sense of national earnestness around here can be a bit much and, at times, it's all one can do to not go down to the street corner and yell, at the top of the lungs, "lighten the fuck up, for chrissakes."

And so, Korea, a nickel's worth of free advice for you: provided the humor in question is not derogatory or racist, you're allowed - no, encouraged - to laugh at yourself from time to time. It would do you good. There's nothing sacred or inviolate about this peninsula and keeping the national face all puckered up in priggish offense at every mention of it will only cause wrinkles.

And that would just be one more thing for people to ridicule.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
He's Singin' In Korean
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23 March, 2008

Change of Tune

By Aaron
23 March, 2008

Notes on The Commanding Heights
What's the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans...That's the Hayek legacy."

Lawrence Summers
As quoted in The Commanding Heights

Overlooking my desk, there hangs one of my favorite images - a promotional photograph for Louis Vuitton, of all things. Taken by Annie Liebowitz, it shows Mikhail Gorbachev as he rides past the remains of the Berlin Wall, one of Vuitton's bags at his side (above). I was born in the late 1970s, which makes me fairly young in glacial terms but nonetheless old enough to remember the Soviet Union and the fall of The Wall in 1989. Seeing Mikhail Gorbachev pitching luxury goods is therefore something I never would have predicted twenty years ago, but if any image portrays the changes that have colored our world in the past fifty years, this is it.

It is this transformation that Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw chronicle in The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the Global Economy, their history of the world economy as it progressed through decades of central planning, through the free market reforms of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, and into the turbulence of the 1990s. In the book, Yergin and Stanislaw serve up an historical overview of the battle of ideas, particularly those of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, that have shaped our modern economy and their impact on countries ranging from France to India to the Tiger economies of East Asia in the 1990s.

If this all sounds sprawling and overly-ambitious, well, that's because it is. Though the writing is simple and clear, it often borders on simplistic and superficial. As a result, Commanding Heights is often a mile wide and an inch deep, leading Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute to note that the book tends to read like a 400-page newspaper article.

Despite framing the book as a battle of the ideas put forth by Keynes and Hayek - truly one of the great intellectual rivalries of the modern world - the authors devote surprisingly little time to these two men and their core philosophies. Sure, their names pop up here and there throughout the book, and their influence looms large - though often unmentioned - throughout, but given the way Keynes and Hayek shaped our world I expected to see a few more pages spent on them.

Which is not to go too far in disparaging the book. Yergin and Stanislaw have clearly done a tremendous amount of research, and the list of those interviewed for Commanding Heights is a heady one indeed: Gorbachev, Milton Friedman, Vicente Fox, Gary Becker, Narayana Murthy, Robert Rubin, Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher, to name only a few. Of course, the book is so poorly-endnoted that the reader is often left guessing just where a given piece of information may have come from, though one could do a lot worse for a reading list than the fifteen-page bibliography offered in the back of the book.

In 2002, Commanding Heights was adapted into a six-hour documentary, which you can view online at the PBS website. Both the book and the documentary have nettled a variety of political groups opposed to open markets and aspects of globalization, especially Marxists and Socialists. The first edition of the book, published in 1998, also received criticism for not anticipating the various financial crises of that time, the scandals involving the likes of Enron and Worldcom, and the attacks of September 11.

To be fair, Yergin and Stanislaw have attempted to tackle these matters in the updated edition of Commanding Heights, published in 2002. Problem is, the newly-added chapters are little more than forty pages of platitudes that could just as easily have come from any number of the "leadership" books on the market today: "The high rise pyramids of hierarchical corporate structures are being transformed into the low-rise of the flatter organization - less bureaucracy, more teamwork, and greater dispersion of responsibility, information, and decision-making." (407) Sounds like someone's been playing tennis with Thomas Friedman.

As the global economy slides deeper into infirmity, we seem poised to debate anew the merits of government regulation and just how free we want our free markets to be. At some point in that discussion, however, we would do well to stand back and realize that despite our current travails we live in a time of incredible affluence, with more people in the developing world joining the prosperous ranks by the day. Whatever the faults of their book, Yergin and Stanislaw at least got it right on this account.

13 March, 2008

Penthouse Pauper

By Aaron
13 March, 2008

I got a friend lived in a Mercedes-Benz
Then a '55 Chrysler where the trunk never ends
And the plates say Kalamazoo

He had a steady job and he watched what he spent
He'd say I don't believe in payin' no goddamn rent
I'll squirrel away every goddamn cent
And buy my own damn house in Kalamazoo

-Les Claypool (Primus)

It was with a sigh of relief that I learned this week, courtesy of the International Herald Tribune, that "if nature is left to its own devices, about 7.59 billion years from now Earth will be dragged from its orbit by an engorged red Sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death."

Well, that's a load off my mind, I thought.

This news salved my soul, not so much because I'm hankering for a scorching end to my life, but rather because, in the event, I at least wouldn't have to hunt for apartments in Seoul anymore.

As much love as Guro1 and I have shared, it's just about time for me and the missus to sally out of the district and do the house-move boogie. Our lease in this apartment is ending soon; Na Young wants to study at Korea University, in the opposite corner of Seoul; I want to live closer to Kim Jong-il. Trouble is, moving to a different apartment involves, first, finding an apartment into which you can move and, second, rummaging through your pockets to find enough money to pay for what, in all likelihood, is little more than a ramshackle hut - with indoor plumbing if you're lucky.

Were it not for our looming grad school tuition, we'd probably just buy a house, settle down, and start knitting doilies for the sideboard. But as it turns out, putting two people through school at the same time ain't the cheapest proposition and keeping a bit of liquidity under the mattress seems the better notion right now. And besides, we don't have a sideboard.

My biggest concern in renting an apartment on the key money (전세) system - beyond landing in an unkempt hovel - is that we'll end up with another Dragon Lady situation on our hands where the landlord is concerned. My days of wrestling with doddering old women is over, or should be, though one never knows what will happen when renting apartments in Korea.

But maybe we'll get lucky and the sun will come to our rescue.

1 See: here, here and here.

12 March, 2008

Mystics & Men

By Aaron
12 March, 2008

There is an abject melancholy - an abiding disappointment - that comes with seeing one's heroes deflated, finding one's gods reduced to puttering irrelevance.

Enter, then, Ken Kesey, whose early novels - particularly One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and especially Sometimes a Great Notion - are surefire masterpieces of American literature, showcasing the brawny, roughneck elegance of Kesey's prose at its peak. To this day, in fact, Sometimes a Great Notion remains, in its rugged individualism, my favorite novel, challenged in that preeminence only by Orwell's 1984 and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. That I, like Kesey, happen to be from Oregon doesn't enter into it. I could be from Neptune and his work would still be bang-up, ace-high superb.

I spent most of my childhood in Western Oregon, between the Cascades and the Coast Range, but before reading Kesey I never really saw the place, never really appreciated its history and culture of loggers and cougars and fishermen and elk and ornery outcasts such as Hank Stamper and Randle McMurphy. Before Kesey, there was no Oregon for me.

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal range...come look: the hysterical crashing of the tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River...

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting...forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce - the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir - the actual river falls five hundred feet...and look: opens out upon the fields.

Metallic at first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to its lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain. Flat as a rain-textured street even during flood season because of a channel so deep and a bed so smooth: no shallows to set up buckwater rapids, no rocks to rile the surface...nothing to indicate movement except the swirling clots of yellow foam skimming seaward with the wind, and thrusting groves of threaded bam, bent taut and trembling by the pull of silent, dark momentum.

A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.1

Looking for something else a few days ago, I came across the following profile of Kesey, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and showing Kesey in his twilight years on his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, near Eugene.

Imagine my chagrin to see this video of Kesey dipping video cassette boxes into vats of paint and applying to them stickers of cartoonish fish as part of a mail-order business he operated, in which he peddled videos of the Merry Pranksters in their Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test heyday. Sure, Kesey was still writing at the time of this OPB piece, but mostly he seemed to be trading on past Prankster glory, not consciously perhaps but nonetheless. Then again, as anyone who's been to Eugene can confirm, he was hardly alone in this - Eugene is a time capsule on a municipal scale. I'm not sure what a person could reasonably be expected to do after writing a gem like Sometimes, but dipping video boxes in paint? Really?

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Ken Kesey at the 1999 Oregon Book Awards, a conversation which consisted mostly of Kesey rhapsodizing on the wonders of digital video and the ways in which it stood to revolutionize storytelling. It was a sentiment he echoed in the OPB profile:

[Video] has changed the length of my sentences, to where it comes across to the viewer as quickly as possible. That's why I don't think it will be just long, long drawn-out novels, 'cause you don't need to describe her bedroom if you can show a picture up there. And so much of the writer's effort has gone into decorating a place, to setting the scene, to getting the lighting just right, to putting the sofa over there so it frames that one area of the room, and a lot of what we think of as storytelling is just window-dressing. And I see it changing very fast and for a very positive reason.

Perhaps I'm nostalgic beyond recall, or maybe I just fetishize books to an unhealthy degree, but I'd like to think that - as incisive and profound as, say, The Sopranos or The Wire might be - nothing could ever replace the beauty of the written English word on a piece of paper. I, for one, want to read that description of her bedroom, of how the sofa frames the room. I come to Hemingway and Gauguin and Paul Thomas Anderson for different reasons.

And besides, I've seen some of Kesey's Merry Pranksters videos and, believe me, they could never approach, in grace or in skill, the opening lines of Sometimes a Great Notion.


1 The opening lines of Sometimes a Great Notion