Thursday, January 29, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
Australian Open Coverage
PS -- I don't know how long this link will last. Catch it while you can.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Use Korean Holidays to Track Your Family Ranking
Within my first year in this country, I found out that the two biggest holidays were Chuseok and Seollal. I knew that the dates for both of these holidays depended on the Lunar Calendar, with Chuseok happening in either September or October, and Seollal in January or February.
But since I had not grown up with these events as part of my culture, they had to be explained to me in a context I understood – American holidays.
“Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving,” many foreigners and some Koreans told me. I suppose it is similar in that families gather together to offer thanks; the comparison breaks down after that, though, because Chuseok celebrants tend to eat five-10 pounds of less turkey per person, and there’s a distinct lack of Dallas Cowboys on TV.
“Seollal is the Korean New Year’s Day,” I was told. It does bear a basic similarity to New Year’s Eve, in that family members and friends wish each other well in the year ahead. Seollal is not, however, a time in which people make futile resolutions to lose five pounds (not counting the seven they’ve gained since the holiday meals began), and there’s a highly palpable lack of events involving Dick Clark.
The foreigner with no familial ties to Korea is prone to seeing the event as a little more than a few days off from his/her teaching job. In order to really grasp what Chuseok or Seollal is about, you need a Korean spouse, or at least spouse-to-be. Once you have one, you can see the true meaning of the holidays: seeing where you rank in the family.
At the summit of the Korean family is the oldest living relative. In America, the oldest living relative’s role during holidays often consists of sitting in their favorite chair and looking serene, but in the Korean language, this person has an actual title, one that translates into “Big Father” or “Big Mother”*. Furthermore, they have the authority to require their younger relatives to navigate Korea’s brutal holiday traffic and arrive at their house on time for the Chuseok/Seollal meal.
Once they’ve arrived, the women of all ages work together to prepare the holiday meal, while the men perform their chief holiday duty of sitting on the couch, chatting and watching TV (I found that custom easiest to adapt to, for some reason). Once the food is prepared, the Patriarch or Matriarch leads the younger family members in paying honor to the relatives who’ve already passed.
The different family members choose which food item they would live to “give” to their deceased ancestors, then they bow. Yeah, it seems an odd holiday ritual at first, but once you’ve taken part in it a couple of times it makes at least as much sense as waiting for a brightly-lit ball to drop or searching madly for decorated eggs.
After that comes the bowing to living relatives, as the younger family members pay honor to those who are at least a generation older. The older members wish them good luck for the year ahead and, if they bowing person is a child, can require them to sing a song. In return for being the complete center of embarrassing attention for a couple of minutes, the child receives money.
Last year, as Catherine, my wife-to-be and I made preparations for our wedding, the Korean holidays were an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I could pay homage as well as anyone from a less individualistic society. After bowing to our older family members, they would wish us a successful marriage.
This year we were no longer the focal point during the holidays, as a new year brought a new wave of younger people preparing for their own weddings. My wife’s cousin made the rounds at our family get-togethers with her husband-to-be, who is actually a year older than me, but since his wife-to-be is a year younger than Catherine, he had to call me “Big Brother.”
I don’t know why it works that way, but I have no complaints.
Also, since this was our first year together as a married couple, our niece was instructed to bow to Catherine and I. After that, we gave her some money, told her to study hard and requested that she sing a song. It’s a feeling of privilege, and maybe by next year I’ll have thought of a number other than “Yellow Submarine.”
This year was unusual in that most of these events took place on or around Jan. 1. At the time I felt rather inconvenienced by the traveling and the bowing, especially since Seollal was to take place at the end of the month.
“Aren’t we just going to have to do this all again on the 25th?” I remember griping in a distinctly American accent. Actually, I found out later, we wouldn’t. The family elected to undertake its usual festivities on the Western New Year this time around, meaning that Seollal would pass with my wife and I not attending any family functions. It was more convenient, but it meant no one would be bowing in my presence or have to sing a song for me.
And I thought I was just figuring out what goes on around here.
* My wife has asked me what would we’d call this person in English, and it’s be very entertaining to listen to her try to pronounce “patriarch” and “matriarch” ever since, as has watching her try to remember which gender these words correspond with.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
A Ring of Inquiry
No matter how awkward it feels, though, I’m happy to have for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s round, and as such slides easily onto and off of my finger. The last model my mother-in-law bestowed was oval-shaped and fit so tightly that it required a committee meeting every time I needed it removed. This was fine before and after the family get-togethers in which my mother-in-law most desired I wear it, but I didn’t use it anywhere else since it would’ve been awkward when I needed to take it off at the gym.
I’m also glad to have because it should result in few questions of a certain type. The manner of question seems to be asked by nearly all Korean people after meeting someone, but is probably best expressed by Korean children, who don’t yet know that they’re supposed to conceal what they apparently think of a person in their late-20s who is unmarried.
The question is, “Are you married?” which the child will probably ask in just the same manner that their elders often do. The difference is that if the person is a foreigner and a late-twenty-something who answers says, “No, I’m not,” the child will ask more questions, of a more pointed variety.
“And you’re how old?” might be the next one. It might be followed by, “And you’re not married yet?”
Starting a few months ago, I was finally granted the privilege of being able to answer that question in the affirmative. Strangely enough, however, no one asks it anymore.
Instead, I have coworkers of mine asking questions that certainly seem unrelated at first, such as “Did you go to lunch yet?”
“No, my wife packed one for me,” I state, setting up another inquisitive reply.
Another type of question comes at other junctures, such as when I’m fumbling through my wallet, trying to find which of the numerous, yet entirely necessary credit/membership/identification cards is appropriate for that situation. During my rummaging, a picture of my significant other and I in the clear central fold stands out, obvious to those nearby. This prompts a single word, put into question form through an upward change in vocal pitch: “Girlfriend?”
“That’s my wife,” I reply.
(A very similar situation takes place sometimes when I turn on my computer at work, to reveal a picture of us on my desktop background. They say the same word in the same inquisitive form, even though I’m wearing a tuxedo in that picture and she’s wearing a white dress. I don’t tell onlookers what such garments ought to signify, though I imagine it is suggested in the downward pitch in my voice.)
Occasionally, I wonder aloud to friends and spouses as to why it now seems that the people I meet are assuming that I’m not married. They’ve suggested a few things, which I will address in ascending order of plausibility:
* “You look young.” – It’s highly flattering to think so, but didn’t I look that way before the wedding, when certain children with very little hope of a future in the diplomatic profession suggested that I ought to be married already?
* “Korean people enjoy asking questions and looking surprised by the answer.” – Granted, all who’ve suggested this are also foreigners like myself, but it makes some sense. Every time I have responded by telling them that the person in the picture is, in fact, a person who has legally committed herself to me for life, they have puckered their lips in the same manner and said “Ohhhhhh!” Even so, I still find it rather hard to believe that any nationality, especially one this educated, would enjoy the feeling of not being very perceptive.
* “You don’t wear a wedding ring.” – Now this makes the most sense: During the time in which the only accessory my ring finger was afforded was an oval-shaped instrument of torture designed to make me think fondly of amputation, I generally left it unadorned.
“A man should only wear jewelry if he has a comfortable wedding ring or has been a member of an organization that’s won the Super Bowl,” was my unofficial motto.
Now that I have one that fits with something that may one day be described as comfort, hopefully those questions will give way to another kind. Perhaps it will be, “How do you enjoy being married?” or “How is your wife?”
Then again, maybe it will be, “When are you going to have children that ask undiplomatic questions to people they don’t know very well?”
The answer, should they ask it, is “Probably very soon.”
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Tennis: Talkin' 'Bout This Generation
Now, making intergenerational comparisons is, almost invariably, asking for trouble. This is true in any sport, but especially tennis, since new rackets and training methods have made possible shots and strategies that the older generations could scarcely contemplate. Of course, many of the past champions would jump at the chance to have had that tech and that training at their disposal when they were in their primes.
The proliferation of racket technology and changes in surface have also caused segregations in today’s game that didn’t exist before, between clay court aficionados, hard court specialists and fast-court giants. In order to make comparisons that really teach us about the Grand Slam winners of this decade, let’s set some ground rules:
Number 1: The players must have had similar qualifications.
It’s best if they won a similar amount of majors, but if even if one player put up flashes of the brilliance another exhibited regularly, it may still merit comparison. Even so, Jimmy Connors and Lleyton Hewitt, for example, had many similarities in playing style and attitude, but there’s a wide divergence in their results that makes their comparison an inadequate one.
Number 2: The players must have had similar styles of play.
This is inexact, as some types of player, like the pure net rusher, are practically extinct today, and the big server is out of fashion. Still, there should be a considerable resemblance in their playing style: Rafael Nadal and Stefan Edberg are currently very similar in their number of majors won, but don’t serve anything close to a similar role in their respective eras. It is not required, but is helpful if the players also have similar personality traits.
Number 3: The players should be judged on their comparative results in the most neutral of conditions.
Imagine that one player’s strongest results were on grass, while another won multiple Roland Garros titles, but both have a single U.S. Open to their credit. In this case, imagining them playing one another on any other surface but the U.S. Open would be unfair.
Number 4: The players must have never met in a sanctioned tour match.
It inhibits one’s imagination to if the players have given us a glimpse of how they would match up. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, for example, already met in Wimbledon 2001, so we have a pretty good idea of how they would play one another. This is especially true since it was nearly equal footing: Federer was spry but inexperienced while Sampras was a veteran who’d started to lose a step. A match between the two in their primes would be more of the same, only a bit better; we should ask harder questions.
Number 5: The result should reflect who had the better career and why.
With all the other ingredients in place, imagine that today’s players are matching up with the past greats, and playing a single match to determine whose career will be regarded more highly and why. The score of the match should reflect that, and will help us determine how great a roster we have active today.
Let’s get started …
You're Good … But I'm Magic: Roger Federer vs. John McEnroe
Why: Roger Federer is most often compared to Pete Sampras; a comparison that captures the stoicism, explosive power and lithe grace that both possess. However, there’s another side of Federer that’s not exposed by any comparison to the Pistol: the magician.
There were few mysteries about how Sampras would play: He would use his booming serve to stay ahead, his touch volleys to put away what volleys came back, and then hit enough of those game-changing running forehands to break the match open. John McEnroe was different in the sense that he hit shots, found angles and tried tactics no one else did because no one else could even imagine exploring them. This is a trait Federer shares.
Parallels abound between Federer’s 2005 and Johnny Mac’s 1984 season: McEnroe’s singles record was 82-3, while Fed was 81-4, with both men winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, plus making a serious run at Roland Garros.
The biggest differences between the two: McEnroe played the part of the tortured brat throughout his career, while Federer overcome his early tendency toward outburst and became a serene presence on court. Furthermore, McEnroe was finished winning singles majors after ’84, while most of Federer’s were still to come after ’05.
Neutral Ground: Both men have known the bulk of their success at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Both men have also known limited success on clay, as both are Roland Garros finalists, so practically any surface would constitute "neutral ground." However, let's put them on Wimbledon center court, circa the mid-1980s. Why? Because the faster the surface, the better McEnroe's chances, and the better the match.
The Outcome: If Johnny Mac has a day like he did in the 1984 Wimbledon final, when he thrashed Jimmy Connors, who knows? However, if he doesn't come out playing lights-out tennis (and maybe even if he does) eventually Federer's superior returning and heavier groundstrokes eventually win the day. Yes, both men have their magic, but in this case Federer's superior muscle breaks the tie.
Federer d. McEnroe – 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-1
Federer represents a near-perfect amalgamation of McEnroe's genius and Sampras' power and focus. That's why future generations of players and critics will rank his achievements higher than either of the other two.
The Brawl in Britain: Rafael Nadal vs. Jimmy Connors
Why: Thanks to his oppressive domination of Roland Garros, Nadal is usually compared to Bjorn Borg. Both were utterly dominant there for a long stretch of time, and both are pioneers in baseline play. The trouble is, while Nadal is no one-surface wonder, his achievements on all types of surfaces can’t approach those of Borg, who also won five straight Wimbledons.
In an excellent blog posting at Tennis.com last year, Peter Bodo spelled compared and contrasted Rafa with another accomplished baseliner: Jimmy Connors. Both are left-handed but enjoy no serving advantage because of their awkward service motions, both are fiery competitors and both are trend-setters in terms of their groundstrokes – even if Jimbo’s are totally flat and Rafa’s utilize heavy spin.
Plus, Rafa has a greater chance of matching Jimbo’s achievements on court than he does Borg’s. In 2008, he exceeded the record of another great baseliner in Jim Courier, pulled within two of Mats Wilander and three from the power baselining triumvirate of Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. Some think he may win three more majors in Paris alone.
Neutral Ground: Connors was a five-time champion at the U.S. Open, a venue where Nadal has thus far failed to advance past the semis. The mirror opposite occurs on French clay, where Connors knew some success and Nadal is thus-far undefeated. Both men were comfortable moving on grass, even though the speeds of the British courts were very different in their respective eras. Let's say that it takes place on the modern, slower courts of Wimbledon, where I suspect Connors, the proto-power baseliner would make an easier transition than Nadal would to the lightening-fast courts of the '70s and '80s.
The Outcome: The troubled with calling this match is that, while Connors's legacy is establish, the full extent of Nadal's is as of yet uncertain. Connors won two Wimbledons (10 years apart), one Australian Open, and five U.S. Opens (played on hard, clay and grass courts). Nadal has yet to achieve that level of diversity or longevity, but he has dominated one surface to a degree Connors never did. Due to his taxing style of play, almost no one expects Nadal to be winning majors six years from now, but there's little indication that he's finished winning them yet.
Connors defeats Nadal – 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6
Nadal has not yet matched Connors achievements, but it’s within his potential to one day surpass them. For now, Connors is the winner, but a rematch may be pending.
The Djoker vs. The Jester: Novak Djokovic vs. Ilie Nastase
Why: Even more than for his natural talent, or his U.S. Open and French Open wins, Ilie Nastase was known for entertaining antics on court. Fans were interested, but his reputation for gamesmanship often didn’t amuse other players, who shunned him in locker rooms for a time.
In this respect, his natural successor appears to be Serbian Novak Djokovic, whose impressions of other players during 2007 made him an internet sensation, though his reputation for injury timeouts continues has made him a lightening rod for criticism.
For both men, the controversy and the laughs take the focus off of their all-around talent; both are among the most complete players and naturally gifted athletes to ever play.
Neutral Ground: These guys have similar attributes as players – great groundies, superb movement and strong serves. Their volleys are not weak, per se, but are the least developed parts of their game. Therefore, both are strong on all surfaces. Nastase won at the USO in '72 and RG in '73. Nastase was twice a runner-up at Wimbledon but never won it. Djokovic's lone slam (so far) is at the AO, while he's a finalist at the USO and semifinalist at the RG and Wimbledon.
Let's put this match on French clay, if for no other reason than because it's the only one in this series to take place there.
The Outcome: This should be a very entertaining contest in terms of quality of play and personality. While Nastase has more major titles so far, Djokovic looks certain to add to his total in the future.
Djokovic d. Nastase – 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4
While both men like to have fun, Nastase turned his matches into carnivals, and many experts have speculated that his determination to entertain cost him greater success. Meanwhile, Djoker is all-business on court. He saves his levity for after the match, and that's why his career achievements will one day exceed Nasty's, and he may merit comparisons with someone far more accomplished.
The Power Pack: Marat Safin vs. Boris Becker
Why: Boris Becker and Marat Safin both struck at young ages, using their huge frames and booming shots to leave opponents as afraid for their safety as they were of losing the match. Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon triumph signified the onset of the huge-serving net rusher, while Safin’s domination of Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open signaled the net rusher’s demise.
Both men went through befuddling mid-career ruts before returning to win Australian Open titles. At their worst, both were champions of self-loathing, also, as Becker’s on-court castigations in German often dragged down his level of play, whereas Safin has left a trail of shattered rackets stretching across multiple continents.
Neutral Ground: Becker's strongest surface was, of course, the grass of Wimbledon, having won three titles and four times been runner-up. Safin has struggled on grass, saying it hinders his movement. On clay, both men are Roland Garros semifinalists, but Becker never won a clay court title, while Safin has won a pair.
Both have won a single U.S. Open title, while Safin has one Australian Open title and two runner-up appearances. Becker has two AO victories. The two men are probably most comfortable on European indoor carpet, however, so let's put the match there.
The Outcome: The trouble with calling this match is that there's no doubt that Becker had a more distinguished career, but Safin had more game and more talent. He is the guy who humbled Sampras in 2000 (and Sampras was a better version of Becker) and dueled Federer down to the wire in 2005, after all.
In fairness to Becker's greater consistency and dedication, we're going to make this a matchup between Becker at his best (the 1996 indoor season) against Safin at a pretty good state (his 2002 indoor season), as opposed to Safin at his summit (late 2000, early 2005) or his nadir (almost all of 2003 or 2007). Had they been contemporaries who played 10 times, Becker would likely have only faced invincible Safin once or twice.
Even if the Russian isn’t at his peak, this matchup would be a barnburner with a great contrast in styles, but it's easier to see Safin blinking at the end.
Becker d. Safin – 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3
Had Safin's talent been matched by his work ethic, it's Becker who might've considered it an honor to be compared to him. In the end, though, it's the German's drive that earns him a greater measure of respect. The Russian goes down here, and down in the record books as this decade’s greatest disappointment.
It's How Good You Are AND How Bad You Want It: Lleyton Hewitt vs. Thomas Muster
Why: The similarities between Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and Thomas Muster are fascinating: All three were baseliners with a relentless desire to win, which brought with it a confrontational attitude that made them far more respected than liked.
Connors, with his pioneering power baseliner approach, had a far more decorated career than the other two, but a three-way comparison would make a good case study someday. For now, let’s focus on comparing the junior members of the Brash Basher Club. Both Muster and Hewitt compensated for the lack of a real weapon through their intensity, great defense and fitness.
Who knows how long a match between them on equal footing would last, but it most definitely would feature some really long points.
Neutral Ground: At Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, this match is no contest: Hewitt won his two majors there, while Muster never got past the quarters in New York and won not a single match at the All-England club. On clay, the situation is similar, as Hewitt reached a few quarterfinals in Paris, but Muster utterly dominated the surface for a period in the mid-'90s.
Middle ground in this case would be a surface where neither man quite broke through: Australian DecoTurf. Though it's Hewitt's home soil, don't look for this to be an advantage: Hewitt has never relished the pressure of playing at home and Muster never seemed bothered by playing the bad guy.
The Outcome: Hewitt's best result on DecoTurf was a hard-earned finals appearance in 2005, while Muster reached the semis in 1997. Muster was blown off the court by Sampras in straight sets, while Hewitt took a set from Safin before being similarly overpowered.
You know the expression, "It's not how good you are; it's how bad you want it?" Well, both of these guys want victory with every sinew of their bodies. Muster's stamina and consistency are pretty much without equal since Bjorn Borg's retirement, but Hewitt is quicker, has a better serve, and can take the ball earlier than the Austrian.
Hewitt d. Muster – 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6
Since both men want it equally, the fact that Hewitt is better breaks the tie.
One is the Loneliest Number: Andy Roddick vs. Michael Stich
Why: Dominant players like Federer, Sampras and Borg help to define their eras. Almost as important in judging a time period is the kind of player who wasn’t able to win consistently. Almost every decade has known its share of one-slam wonders, but not all OSWs are created equal.
Andy Roddick and Michael Stich each scored a major relatively early in their career, sandwiched between periods of dominance: Stich won Wimbledon in between Becker’s dominance there and Sampras’ ownership, while Roddick won the U.S. Open after Sampras retired and before Federer took over the game. Both reached additional majors on more than one surface later in their careers, but never got back to that summit. The centers of both men’s games were certainly their huge first and second serves.
Both men also struggled with the pressure of living up to the expectations of fans in their home country. Stich was expected to fill Becker’s sizable Lotte sneakers, while Roddick faced the discouraging task of filling the void left by Sampras and Agassi, not to mention Jim Courier and Michael Chang.
Neutral Ground: Roddick won the U.S. Open, where Stich was a finalist in 1994. Stich won on the fast courts of Wimbledon, where Roddick was a semifinalist in 2003 (before the courts had really been slowed down). On clay, Stich was clearly more comfortable.
Again, Aussie Deco-Turf provides neutral ground, as Stich and Roddick have both been semifinalists there.
The Outcome: Like Safin vs. Becker, this is a tricky one to call because Roddick is the more accomplished singles player: He won more titles, had more runners-up appearances, more Grand Slam finals appearances, led his country to a Davis Cup victory, finished the year No. 1 in 2003, and has finished in the top 10 seven years in a row.
Stich, however, was a more complete player, with a smooth but powerful service motion, better volleys and beautiful one-handed backhand. In Sampras' halcyon mid-'90s, Stich was widely regarded as the second-most gifted player on tour.
Roddick d. Stich – 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6
Sorry Stich, but you were a one-slam wonder because you couldn't handle the pressure of being Becker's successor. Roddick has a much more valid reason for having only one slam to his name: Roger Federer.
Imagine McEnroe, Connors, Nastase, Becker, Muster and Stich, all active on tour in the same decade, winning or threatening to win majors. How entertaining would that be? Together, that crew won 25 Grand Slam titles.
Their counterparts in today’s game, however, have already won 24 in this decade with one year to go. Andy Murray cannot yet join this list because his first major, which nearly everyone thinks is coming, hasn’t arrived yet.
Today the game is more global than ever, which has opened the door to newer, more exciting possibilities. Whether this is the greatest active generation of tennis players ever is quantifiable, but it matches up well with any other generation so far produced.
Keep this in mind as you watch the AO … we are blessed to be watching this group play.
Pregnant in Korea
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I mean, c'mon, Iran? At least it's not Angola. Eat our dust, Idaho!
Seeing Housework Through Male Eyes
1) The person you assign should not be pregnant.
During the first trimester of pregnancy, for example, my wife spent virtually all of her time sleeping, working and lying on the couch complaining of morning sickness. Things have changed for the second trimester, however, in that she now spends all of her time working, sleeping and lying on the couch complaining of back pain.
But pregnancy is a hard time for the husband too, and the worst part is not the financial responsibility that’s coming, nor the emotional responsibility that’s already arrived: It’s the housework.
From the moment my wife’s stomach turned against her – both inside and out – I noticed a particular tend every Friday, the first day of my weekend. On those days, at a time when so many budgets are now in the red, the currencies of dirty dishes, unwashed laundry and plastic bottles were turning surpluses. These situations couldn’t be addressed before Friday, because I always come home from work late and because my wife is to busy a) lying on the couch and b) groaning.
There are many duties to be performed on Fridays, when I’m home and she’s not, but what she always asks Thursday night is for me to vacuum the floor. It’s not that this is a more important task than the laundry or taking out the trash, it’s just the one I’m least likely to do without her asking.
Vacuuming has long been my least favorite chore, not because it’s the hardest, but because I find the least benefit in doing it. Some have attributed this to a condition called Male Eyes, in which men can’t see the individual specks of dirt on a carpet. This is a fallacy, however: Male Eyes doesn’t inhibit us from seeing them, but it does prevent us from seeing their significance. As far as we’re concerned, if we have no guests coming over, a few extra specks give the floor flavor.
In order for me to actually care about a foreign substance on the carpet, it would need to be a) a few inches in diameter and b) bright yellow or purple, in which case vacuuming would do no good.
Still, I do eventually manage to muster the energy required to overcome my apathy, and set the vacuum to work. After testing it to make sure it’s actually picking stuff up, I give every inch of the kitchen, bedroom and living room floor a thorough sweep, making sure to have picked up every visible shred of dirt, paper or plastic. After looking over my handiwork, I put the vacuum away, and only then do I unfailing notice some now clearly visible specks of foreign substance in an area I’m rather positive I vacuumed.
Apparently, these specks are utilizing some manner of high-tech cloaking device which they don’t turn off until I’ve put the vacuum away. I’d bring it back out again, but I feel their ingenuity should be rewarded.
Next comes taking out the trash. In Korea, recycling is more than a platitude everyone appreciates but most feel inconvenienced by. Here, it’s a law that everyone appreciates but most feel painfully inconvenienced by. In our home, there are three separate bins: One for paper products, of which there are a lot; one for cans, of which there are a few; and one for plastic things, of which there are so many that it more than compensates for any deficiency in cans.
My task is to carry all three boxes to the elevator, hope it isn’t crowded, go to the first floor and leave them in the appropriate bins. The three boxes are not large, but while carrying all three the plastic bottles, content in their present form and opposed to being recycled, have been known to attempt escape.
“How do just two people ever acquire so many bottles in one week?” I ponder aloud. Soon, the combined effort of lifting the garbage and such contemplation leaves me very thirsty. “I sure could go for a whitish liquid that’s high in calcium and has a convenient, unscrewable plastic top,” I state aloud.
No closer to answering my original query, I begin the laundry. Since Korean households regard drying machines a luxury nearly equivalent to owning one’s own MLB franchise, most of us hang our clothes on a rack to dry. The first part of this task – carrying whatever washed load has been sitting in the laundry machine (probably since last weekend) – is the hardest part.
After that, one need only put more of them (after separating by colors, if one feels particularly vigorous) in the machine and turn it on. Soon, you’re well on your way to having more clean clothes.
Well, maybe. Recently, my wife, while commending my efforts at washing, hanging and folding our garments, pointed out that many of them were now covered with tiny specks of tissue paper. This coincided with the Korean winter, which isn’t that cold compared to, say, Neptune, but does prompt a surge in the sales of pocket-sized tissue packets.
“Next time, can you search your pockets before you do laundry?” she asks. I suppose I should feel chastened, but I can only reflect on the times before my married life began, when I was always forgetting that my dirty pants had ink pens in them.
That, I suppose, is progress brought on by experience.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
A Book of Revelations
As previously stated, my goal in 2008 was to read the entire Bible from front to back in the space of a year. Having read the New Living Translation last year, I'm starting over for 2009, this time reading Oxford World's Classics edition of the King James Version. But, for the New Testament, I'm trying something a little different.
Not long ago I caught a glimpse of The Five Books of Moses in a Seoul bookstore. The book's author, Robert Alter, is a scholar with a background in English literature and Hebrew Studies. The purpose of Five Books is to tell the story of Genesis through Deuteronomy as a "powerful, cohesive work of literature," as opposed to a simplified version of the story that some translations become. Having read Genesis and Exodus many times, this seemed a useful tool for revealing new insights.
Furthermore, you probably don't need me to tell you that the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are among the hardest to become engaged in. Once, when I expressed this concern to a pastor friend of mine well-versed in original Hebrew, he lamented that I could not see the "poetic structure" of those books in their original text. I had hoped that Alter's book would prove useful in revealing such subtleties.
Well, I'm not through Genesis yet, and the book has already paid numerous dividends. There are numerous linguistic nuances in the original Hebrew that Alter explains, plus he reveals how the first words or actions of a Biblical figure tend to reveal their destiny. For example, when he meets the servant of Abraham questing to find a wife for Isaac, the first thing Laban notices is the gold the servant gives to Rebekah, hinting at the greed he will later show in dealing with Jacob.
Also, the first words out of Rachel's mouth, in Gen. 30, express desire to have sons lest she die. Alter notes that she demands multiple sons, not one, rather ironic considering that she will die giving birth to her second.
But for me, the most revelatory passage of the book so concerns his note on Gen. 12:5, which in the KJV reads: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan ..."
The word "souls" is translated as "folk" in Alter's version, and explicitly defined in his footnotes as "slaves." The concept of slavery in the Bible is a troubling one, which non-believers have often used as evidence of the Bible's injustice and believers have struggled to reconcile.
Here's Alter's explanation: "Slavery was a common institution throughout the ancient Near East. As subsequent stories in Genesis make clear, this was not the sort of chattel slavery later practiced in North America. These slaves had certain limited rights, could be given great responsibility, and were not thought to lose their personhood."
Of course, we tend to see things written in ancient times through modern lenses, where the word "slavery" automatically conjures images of white men whipping black people, separating them from their families and taking their lives without hesitation. This is not the case, evidently; later Biblical passages do make it clear that the Hebrew people were to take slave from the peoples neighboring the Israelites -- they were a people "set apart" for a reason -- but even those slaves of other societies were not to be abused, degraded or killed without cause.
It certainly wasn't an enviable line work, and wouldn't be accepted in our society -- at least not explicitly -- but how many workers today are paid no more than what can meet their basic needs, sometimes less?
I don't claim that this revelation -- nor my explanation, inspired by my limited understanding -- ends the debate, but it does makes the argument that the Bible is unjust specifically because of slavery an incomplete one.
Friday, January 09, 2009
17 Weeks and Counting
Today Catherine and I went to the hospital for yet another checkup on our baby's growth.
We're now about 17 weeks into childbirth, so there was a possibility of us being able to tell the gender. That was not to be today, though, as the baby's position was not revealing.
We did learn that everything appears healthy, including the heartbeat. Catherine took a blood test to be certain, though, and we should see the results of that in a couple weeks.
The best part of our trip to the hospital today was definitely the pictures I got, in this case of the legs.
And here, of the face. It's exciting to look at, even if it isn't new information.
She probably doesn't really want me to show you this picture, but in case you were wondering how it's done over here...
Until next time...
Thursday, January 08, 2009
An Amendment to Previous
The Graveyard Book
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Resolved, This Body Will...
Last year, as a textbook editor with an easier schedule, I still narrowed my focus: I was engaged and enrolled in Korean classes by then, so resolutions in those areas seemed unnecessary. Instead, I vowed only to read the whole Bible in a year, and I succeeded.
I know a lot more Korean than I used to, and I'm married now, but I still have a couple of goals.
1) Get my wife to read the Bible more. She will read along with me before going to sleep, but I want her to get in the habit of reading by herself, especially on days when I can't be with her.
2) Find a form of exercise that doesn't hurt. After a year in which I injured my shoulder lifting weights, hurt my knees running and severely injured my ankle playing tennis, I'm still looking for something to do regularly. Lots of people say swimming is good, but that's really not practical for me.
That's all I really have for now. There are still writing projects I hope to finish and Korean to be learned, but saying any more than this may just be embarrassing later ...
Monday, January 05, 2009
The Great Conversation Escape
To be more accurate, if there are 100 people using the train on a given night or morning, 99 of them may be content to sit quietly or occupy themselves in some other way. However, it only takes one person who really, really wants to have an unplanned conversation and one other person who is too polite to make him/her go away.
Even if they make up 1 percent of the train-using population, there are still quite a few people in Korea who crave conversation with fellow passengers. Maybe it’s because of my height, the distinctly not-black color of my hair, or the some other indication of my foreignness, but the person on the other end of their conversation almost always turns out to be me.
The bright side is that these experiences have offered some clear insights into their personalities and how to deal with them. Wherever you are reading this right now, I’m sure you can learn from it. The first kind is:
The Person Who Enjoys Conversing with Strangers: In Korea, this takes the form of The Korean Who Wants English Practice. Unlike in America, where high school students have the option of studying Spanish, French or some other foreign language they don’t have to actually learn, all Korean students are required to study English without not actually learn it.
Therefore, many of those who can speak English are very shy, to the extent that it would probably require enhanced interrogation techniques for them to say a complete sentence (other than “Nice to meet you”) to a stranger.
The rare Korean who not only speaks English competently, but also won’t hesitate to talk to non-Koreans is the type most train-riding expats encounter. If the expat has very little to say to people he or she has just met, well, that’s no obstacle at all, because The Korean Who Wants English Practice has a lifetime’s worth of events to share!
This person won’t just ask questions about where the foreigner comes from, whether or not he or she is married, and whether he or she loves Korea or merely likes it. He or she has numerous statements of his or her own to make, about their profession, the National Assembly member that they once met at a wedding, plus pictures of their children and/or their trip to Japan.
Occasionally, the overly conversant person user of this type turns out to be a pleasant individual; some have even offered to assist me in my studies of the Korean language. So, one should at least give them a chance. If The Person Who Enjoys Conversing with Strangers is saying nothing of import to you, your best bet is to look tired: Start yawning repeatedly, volume growing each time. If necessary, feign the onset of sleep.
The Person who’s Had/Having Too Much to Drink: I first encountered this type before I got married, when I was traveling to and from Chuncheon on weekends. Many go to the Chuncheon area for hiking, bringing not only hiking gear, but also large quantities of mekju (beer) with them.
Occasionally on their way back, the more inebriated of their ranks will spot a foreigner on the train and attempt to make conversation. They may know a very minute quantity of English, and the foreigner a similar amount of Korean, but through their alcohol tinged lenses the language barrier seems much smaller than it really is.
Also do to these lenses, the activity the foreigner is undertaking – be it reading, writing, talking on the phone with an acquaintance who has one minute to live – all seems less interesting than having a conversation with The Korean Whose Had/Having Too Much to Drink. He (and trust me, that is the appropriate pronoun) will not be deterred by your appearance of busyness. Drunk people have low attention spans, however, and after long periods of no response may move on.
However, the Korean sense of hospitality is not dimmed by drunkenness, so the foreigner may get a free beer out of the experience. Even if you, like myself, don’t drink, it’ll make a good souvenir, along with the eight extra sets of handkerchiefs your Korean colleagues have gifted you with on every major holiday since you arrived.
The Lonely Person: Many people crave conversation wherever they can get it. Now, there exists a stereotype that those who come to Korea to work do so because they can’t find jobs in their own country. This is not true; I’ve met practicing doctors, lawyers and accountants here, plus successful journalists and educators who came here for the sense of adventure it would bring. Every now and then, though, one meets a fellow expat and gets the suspicion that they’re in Korea because people in their native country can’t stand them.
They’ll come to you while you’re sitting on the train engrossed in whatever task you’re undertaking to pass the time. If you happen to look up, sensing a sudden concentration of caucasianness in your vicinity, you give The Lonely Foreigner the invite into your world, apparently for the rest of your trip.
TLF: So where do you live?
You: In (insert city).
TLF: Are you teaching there?
You: I used to but I work at a (insert profession name).
TLF: I’ve been teaching in Cheongpyeong for the past six months. I like it, but the kids can be little monsters sometime. It’s the kind of work I enjoy though, so I’ll definitely stay for another year.
TLF: I used to do that kind of stuff at home in (insert country), but I was denied tenure and so I had to look into another option. I don’t know if I like Korean food but I sure do like a lot of other things you can find out here, especially the bars …
By now, their insistence on conversation should be clear, leaving you with only one course of action: Tell The Lonely Person you have to go to the bathroom. Wait there as long as possible. Peak out now and then to make sure they’re not waiting for you to come back.
It’s true wherever you go: When faced with unwanted conversation, you need to be rude. You just need an exit.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
It's So Hard
"This year, the Korean won has lost nearly 40 percent of its value, making Koreans very hard to travel abroad."
Yes, they liked traveling abroad before, but now their desire has apparently reached erotic levels.
As an interesting postscript, I informed my wife and her brother of this sentence that night. Since her English is better than his, she proceeded to explain to him in Korean as to why it's incorrect when, as Koreans are prone to doing, say that a situation has made them "very difficult" or worse, "hard."
After that, he asked me: "So, 'hard' has a sexual meaning?"
To which I replied: "Yes. Male."
To which he rejoined: "Oh ... I get it!"
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