Sunday, March 29, 2009


Acquire the Taste

Sometimes one must step out of his comfort zone to learn important truths about himself. By going to a place far from home, he may come across life-changing discoveries, such as “I have a gift for leadership,” “I love seeing new things and meeting new people,” or “I am highly prone to sinus infections.”

The latter of these revelations may escape the native Tennessean while he lives in the relatively clean, agrarian-based economy of his home state. It may be introduced with vivid clarity, however, when he arrives in a nation like Korea, where air pollution is not a threat to future generations or a leftist interest group’s talking points, but rather an annual event coinciding with the onset of spring.

This Tennessean may not have devoted a special degree of thought to how to solve his sinus problems while in his home state, merely dismissing his annual difficulties in breathing through his nose as caused by the arrival of winter; something that will pass after a really long nap. While in Korea, however, these disruptions may metastasize into an event that takes place three times annually and requires special means to be counteracted.

Because of Korea’s geographical location, its occupants are likely to suggest traditional herbal medicine (which I shall henceforth refer to as Oriental medicine) as a solution. Now, for an indication of what you’re getting into when you try Oriental medicine, you may need to consult your handy medical dictionary, which defines it as being “like Western medicine, but tasting unfathomably worse.”

This is not merely the perspective of the Westerner; as soon as they advise taking this traditional remedy, Koreans will tell you that it tastes bad. They would be remiss if they didn’t; the qualities of its flavor are as integral as its brownish-green hue (come to think of it, those two qualities are probably related).

The problem is that words such as “It tastes bad” are just that, words, and scarcely an indicator of the ordeal that this subjects the taste buds to.

Oriental medicine comes in small plastic packets and should be warmed up before one ingests it. Once heated to the desirable temperature it may be placed in a coffee mug, of which it only takes up about three-fifths. This relatively small quantity does little to help the experience become more bearable, though; to say that you drink “only” three-fifths of a cup of Oriental medicine is like saying that childbirth “only” takes up the better part of a day.

When preparing Oriental medicine, it’s critical to heat it to just the point that it is warm, and thus can be swallowed in one quick sequence of gulps. If too cold, you will be subjecting yourself to the anti-flavor for naught; if too hot, you will make it impossible to take in all at once, thus prolonging the suffering of your taste indicators.

One Oriental medicine packet ought to be taken after awakening and another at night before sleeping. If you can remember this schedule and maintain it, then your Oriental medicine experience may be complete in no more than a month and a half.

Thus far, I have provided only abstract indications of how strongly this traditional remedy affects one’s sense of taste. You must surely be thinking that I exaggerate in describing its unpleasant qualities.

Well, if you want a more concrete sense of what occurs when you tip the mug back and send the brownish-green liquid flooding into your oral cavity, first imagine the most delicious food or drink you’ve ever consumed. Now, imagine believing that you would have to eat/drink that particular dish/potable just to return your sense of taste to a state of neutrality.

Then try imagining that this most delicious of entrees is not available to you, and all you have to access is water, which you must employ in attempting to wash the brownish-green liquid away.

While you’re at it, imagine being handed a Polaroid of Joe Theismann’s leg after Lawrence Taylor delivered his career-ending tackle on Monday Night Football in 1985. Picture yourself being catching a glimpse of this photo of the great quarterback’s compound fracture at precisely the same time you bite into a mouthful of lemon. After drinking Oriental medicine, you’ll have an expression similar to this on your face for much of the morning.

Having described its less-desirable qualities, you may now be asking whether or not it works. The answer is yes, taking Oriental medicine boosts the immune system of the sinus-infection-prone individual, reducing the occurrences of sinusitis from three times a year to no more than two. If may also reduce the severity of its occurrences, thus preventing the need for other Eastern medical practices, such as having needles stuck into his various pressure points and left there for 15 minutes.

Well, assuming that sounds worse than the taste I just described. That’s up to you.

Thursday, March 26, 2009



Click here for my review of Philip Roth's Indignation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Some Inventive Ideas

The Obama administration is devoting a considerable amount of funds toward the development of new sources of renewable energy. Supposedly, this is to prevent catastrophic climate change while bailing us out of our current financial woes.

I don’t have any needs of that magnitude, but hey, as long as they’re spending all that money, there are a few other new inventions I’d like to see developed. Some of them are:

The Thoughtfulness Detector – Specially designed for the male significant other, this device would ring (or vibrate, depending on his preference) and give detailed instructions every time he has an opportunity to do something his female significant other would find really thoughtful.

If he happened to walk past a clothing store, it would ring and on screen would appear the words, “She enjoys that color scheme. Ask for it in a size 2; that’s too small but she’ll like the fact that you think it’s her size.”

The product is necessary because, in case you haven’t noticed, most of us can’t spot these opportunities on our own. If one of these devices could alert us to, say, seven opportunities to do something really selfless on a given day, even those of us with really full schedules should be able to do no less than three.

The Thoughtfulness Reminder – This would complement the above item, but would be meant for the above male customer’s other half. It would ring (or vibrate, depending on her preference) and give detailed descriptions of past selfless deeds he has done.

Preferably, it would be triggered every time the male has done something not so thoughtful and she’s giving him that look – you know, The Look – leaving them locked in a long period of uncomfortable silence. This product is necessary because pretty much every man has at one point experienced The Look, sought to change his behavior to avoid it in the future, and found that such efforts were to no avail.

Ideally, this product would allow her to weigh his past thoughtful deeds against his more current thoughtless one(s); whatever the outcome, it ought to at least break the standoff.

Intelligent Elevators –
When a handful of people are taking an elevator from the fourth floor to the basement, few things are more irritating than the guy – the one who has nothing that even the most bleeding-heart leftwing interest group would call a “handicap” – who gets on at floor 3 and off at floor 2.

Intelligent Elevators would be designed to instruct this person (through electric shocks, if necessary) that both the stairs and his legs are functioning perfectly well, and that he ought to employ them in conjunction.

The Project Potential Measuring Device –
There are any number of hobbies that a person can take up in their lifetime, uncertain of their outcome but hopeful they’ll be really good at it one day; who knows, maybe even good enough that it won’t just be a hobby.

The Project Potential Measuring Device would inform us of just what odds we face in beginning those hobbies; maybe it would relieve us of the pressure, but it might also cause us to redouble our efforts.

“If you bowl twice a week, you can dominate your Kiwanis club charity tournament, but anything else is unrealistic,” would be a sobering piece of advice for a 30-something upstanding member of the community.

“You can one day have a song featured on future edition of Guitar Hero, but only if you practice for eight hours a day for the next 10 years,” would be an illuminating reply to a teenager thinking of purchasing a Fender.

Automated Hate Mail Response – Those of us who write for publications would dearly love to reply personally to everyone who takes the time to belittle our ideas, our written proficiency and even our hereditary lineage. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy writing for publications to do so.

This program would depend on an advanced form of artificial intelligence we’ll call Artificial Wittiness (A.W.). With A.W, the Automated Hate Mail Response program would be able to seize upon key sentences or phrases and dispense pithy responses so that we don’t have to take the time to do so.

For example, in reply to the sentence, “No one cares what you have to say!” A.W. would send the automated reply of, “Except you, evidently.” If the hate mail contains a pointed query such as “How can you be so arrogant?” A.W. would respond “Probably because so many people think that my writing, love it or hate it, is worth sending an email over.”

A.W. would not, however, be able to reply to a sentences such as “You cant right to save you’re life!” And how could it? Even real wit fails.

The Presidential Policy Simulator –
This device would accurately simulate the long-term effects should Congress enact all of President Obama’s policy ideas. It’d be very useful for us, but I doubt he or any other president will authorize funding for it; it couldn’t be good for their career plans.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Dressing Down Foreign Insecurities

It would be extraordinarily difficult to quantify the difference it makes in one’s life to have lived abroad. What statistic can possibly capture the wealth of new experiences, the different set of challenges faced and the new perspectives gained?
Well, here’s one:

Number of coworkers seen naked in America: 2
Number of coworkers seen naked in Korea: 11 (give or take a couple)

There are at least a pair of variables explaining this disparity. The first of them we’ll explore is the more individualistic nature of Americans, particularly those who find themselves working in the same place. Employees of a particular location, be it one of the city’s many fast food restaurants or that area’s daily newspaper, often bond with one another strictly through the shared experiences of their job.

The other reason why it rarely occurs is a factor that can best be (and certainly has been) expressed in the words of a Western male between the ages of 15-70: “I don’t need to see that.” This has been the decisive factor in many situations, from high school gym class to work retreats, where such sightings may be possible. Many times it is never stated as such, but instead expressed through a wince and sudden rapt attention to a random ceiling tile.

Those who grew up in such an environment may have quite the transition to make when living abroad in a nation where a) their language isn’t widely spoken and b) attitudes toward same-gender nudity are much more open.

The language aspect is a factor in this decision because, as foreigners are gathered to work in the same place, they must increasingly rely on the more experienced of their lot to find things, for instance exercise facilities, that they would struggle to locate on their own. It is therefore not uncommon for foreigners who work together to frequent the same locations during their non-working hours.

Differing attitudes toward seeing a member of the same gender in a state of undress are an even bigger cause for adjustment. While most American showering facilities outside of those used in high school athletic leagues are sectioned off by stall, room, or sometimes area code, the showers in Korean exercise facilities often have nothing separating them save minute panels of glass.

Native Koreans of all ages, shapes and sizes frequent these places, showing little to none of the concern that foreigners feel, especially regarding their own or their neighbor’s lack of wardrobe, or how close they’re standing to one another.

Among the wide world of sights the foreign male is certain to encounter in such places is that his fellow foreign workers, who also use the facilities near their mutual workplace. They may exchange pleasantries such as “How are you?” and “I see you’ve been working out a lot lately.” At least, they may eventually; the foreign males who are new to this experience typically have very little to say, and tend to hurry through the clothes-changing process.

If it’s rare in an individualistic society like America, for one person (especially male) to ask one another, “Can I go to the same gym as you?,” it’s much, much rarer for one (especially male) to ask another, “Would you like to go to a place where we can bathe together?” (Come to think of it, this is probably the rarest of questions one American might ask another, though “Where’s the best site for downloading Jonas Brothers songs?” is definitely close.)

Those living in Korea who get to know their neighbors are almost certain to be asked that question sooner or later, however. There are saunas all over Korea that people enjoy frequenting, after separating by gender into rooms where they can enjoy the relaxing, purifying atmosphere of warm water and steam rooms where they can sweat out their impurities. These are among the first experiences Koreans like to share with their foreign friends.

Said foreign friends, however, tend to find the relaxing qualities of hot water and steam offset by the sheer number of undressed people of the same gender gathered in the same area. If more than one foreigner is part of the group, statements such as “You are one of the very, very few I’ve shared something like this with” are quite common. The usual response to this statement is, “I’m not sure I feel privileged.”

Among the joys of living in Korea for many years is the gradual shedding of inhibitions that comes from repeated exposure to such circumstances. Over time, even foreign males of an individualistic, fully clothed society come to see the virtues of a place where they can gather together, free of restraint or pretense. It is among the first experiences we share with the new foreign workers who come here.

For their sake, it’s important that they become accustomed to the openness, comfort and community that those residing in this country share.

For our sake, watching them squirm is fun.


Veteran's Benefits

Jon Stewart's status as an ideologue is doubtful, considering that he criticizes the Obama administration's plans to cut veteran's benefits.

Joe Scarborough can suck it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


'Obama Lauds Korea’s Education of Children'

The above is a headline that probably only a Korean would write, and it gives you a pretty good idea about the state of Korea's education system. Although the majority of its residents are not fluent English speakers, nearly all of them know English words, and often sentences, because they've memorized grammar and writing for years without ever having to take part in a single English conversation.

Don't tell that to President Obama, who in this piece seems to be latching onto the first example he can find as evidence for whatever soon-to-be failed education drive he's pushing.

Now, Korean newspapers are usually loathe to publish information that depicts their country poorly, but even this Korea Times article calls his logic into question:

"Obama's remarks came as a surprise to many South Koreans as the country's education system has been under constant public criticism due to its lack of creativity and heavy dependence on private tutoring."

It's no insult to the Korean people that their education system is mess; those who can speak English fluently will tell you so themselves; they'll also tell you that their abilities came from another source of knowledge, usually a private institute, or hagwon. For every useful hagwon, though, there are dozens more that their parents are requiring them to attend, pretty much simultaneously, sometimes until 2 a.m.

Their children are taught to memorize useless facts for the College Entrance Exam, and for the most part they do it well. Whenever you attempt to make conversation with a student in his/her teens, even one who can speak English, you get nowhere, though; students here have nothing to talk about because their lives are built around "education."

I'm honestly not sure if this statement by our current president reflects more ignorance than our previous one's comparison of the U.S.-Iraq alliance to the one the U.S. has with South Korea. I guess I'll give Obama the benefit of the doubt; his statement may mask a plan that will ruin a few lives, but not necessarily end them outright.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Evangelical Collapse

This is a very interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which suggests that the evangelical movement is set to fail, as:

"Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith."

Coming the day after the USA Today piece reporting that faith, as a whole is declining across America. In the piece, though, there's reason to be hopeful for people of faith.

"The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a "godly society." That doesn't mean they'll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of 'empire subversion' will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement."

For those who value the separation of church and state this should be a welcome development, even for those of us who do believe. These establishment churches have given non-believers everywhere a false impression of what our faith is about.

Monday, March 09, 2009


Cramer vs. Stewart

Jim Cramer, who as you probably know by now, was slammed by Jon Stewart last week, is fighting back.

Yeah, he also tackles Frank Rich and the Obama administration, but I'm sure it's not their criticism that's got him on the defensive.

In this battle of wits, Cramer is soooooo toast.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


"I Like Weather!": The Accidental Wit of the Bilingual Couple

During our honeymoon on the tropical paradise that is Jeju Island in early September, the weather was warm but it seemed a daily rain shower kept it from becoming excessively hot or bright. As we went out on a boat ride together on a breezy, pleasant evening, I thought to offer my assessment of the day’s conditions using my new wife’s native tongue.

“Nalssi-ga johahyo,” I said, choosing to directly translate exactly what I’d say in English: “The weather’s good.” I had even made a point to include the “ga” suffix that used for Korean nouns which end in a vowel; a suffix oft-forgotten by students of the language.

My attempt to show appreciation for my wife’s upbringing was met … with a smirk.

“Really?” she asked. “Do you like weather?”

Too late, I realized that this is what my sentence sounded like without the word “ee” at the beginning, specifying that “this” weather was the type I was so enjoying, and not atmospheric states in general. More than a year after I began studying the language, this was yet another reminder to me that direct translations between languages often don’t result in the desired effect.

There is, after all, no telling how many times I’ve used Korean words to effect and exact representation of what I’d say in my own language, such as “I’d like to be alone” or “I’m hot-blooded” only to have a Korean native say, “That’s sounds weird.”

For my wife, this instance was payback for the two years she’d spent as a perfectly competent English speaker romantically involved with an English perfectionist. Almost since the day we met, my wife and I have been asked, both by her friends and mine, if communication between us ever causes problems.

The short answer is “No”: If she hadn’t been able to communicate the meanings of her words consistently while consistently understanding mine, this relationship never would have gotten off the ground.

The longer answer is “Yes, there are problems, but only of the amusing kind.”

How many times has she said, “I’m going to visit my friend’s couple” to my initial confusion? Then, realizing what she means, I explain to her that, actually, it’s “my friend and her husband” that she’s going to see. It is customary in Korean to identify a man and wife by the person you know, then adding bubu, the word for married couple, after their name.

“Why?” she asks me. “Why not ‘my friend’s couple?’”

Then there are the times in which she’s said something to the effect of: “My friend just had a baby and it makes her very difficult.” As Koreans seem to use the syntactical equivalent to this phrase regularly, I oftentimes just let it go; why bother trying to fight something that engrained?

Every now and then, when I’m feeling the urge to give myself a migraine, I will explain to her that it’s her friend’s situation, and not actually her that is difficult. In response, she asks me:

“Why? Why isn’t she difficult?”

That I can’t answer. I don’t know why our English adjectives insist on range; I don’t know why it can’t be more like Korean, which uses the same adjective to say “It is very interesting” and “I am very interested” and is none-too-bothered by it. I can promise, though, that if I’m ever allowed to invent another language, simpler adjectival agreement is something I’ll definitely look into.

Maybe, while I’m at it, I can calculate how often we, in Western culture, actually say a person’s name when we’re not seeking to correct their behavior. Think about it; how often do you call your best friend or your significant other by his/her name unless you’re mad, disappointed or otherwise perplexed by their actions?

It was something I never thought about until my wife began calling me by my name every time she wanted my attention. The first few times I heard a sudden, stark “Rob!” coming from another room, I was instantly reminded of familial situations in America, in which my name was used to alert me to something erroneous in my conduct.

“Rob,” she would as she was in the living room and I in the kitchen, the site of many an instance in which my family brought a misdeed to my attention.

“Huh? What!?” I’d reply, wondering what the problem may be.

“I was going to ask you if you could get a glass of water while you’re there,” she’d say. “Is something wrong?”

“That was what I was about to ask you,” I’d reply.

I would say that she has just as many stories of my misapplied or misunderstood Korean, but I’m actually rather sure she doesn’t. The mistakes I make are not the kind that cause her and other Koreans to laugh; instead, they furrow their brows and say, “What?” For every “I like weather!” there are probably a half-dozen instances of me saying “I need to operate the broom” or “I’m sick so I should go to the talpihos.”

And that’s why my Korean studies continue, and I vow to achieve, at minimum, the kind of fluency that causes funnier mistakes. I owe it to my wife; after two and a half years with me she deserves her turn at being entertained.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Daniel James York

To the right is Daniel James York, the next addition to our family. Thanks to this shot we were able to determine conclusively his status and begin making plans for what clothes to buy. On the left side of the picture you can see all the evidence (both pieces of evidence, if you know what I mean) we needed. Below are more pictures of his heartbeat, his face, his stomach, and his mother, who's still more embarrassed than she needs to be by the proportions of her stomach.

Only three and a half months to go ...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Grade Up!


In Gratitude

The most unusual things are written for Korean newspapers:

Representing his piers, Cote d'Ivoire Ambassador and Vice Dean of the Diplomatic Corps E. Abeni Koffi gives a plague of appreciation to Indonesian Ambassador Jakob Tobing for his role in promoting ties not only with Korea but with other countries in the corps.

I suppose there are a lot of those in Africa and in Asia; perhaps they wanted to swap for a day.


North Korean Relations: From Panic to ... Less Panic

August 1994

Tonight on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings I saw a segment on the troubles between North and South Korea. Supposedly the communist North is working to acquire nuclear weapons and they have a much bigger military than the South. Recently, they threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

I’m sure glad I don’t live anywhere near there. I wouldn’t want to be there should the situation change for the worse.

July 2002

At the university radio station where I work part-time I heard about the protest against American troops in South Korea. Apparently two young girls were struck and killed by a military vehicle, and they interviewed a Korean woman who said, “Yankee go home!”

It certainly is a tragedy, but can’t they see they need us there to face the North Korean threat?

May 2005

Well, it’s official: I’ve been hired as a teacher by the Samyook Language School in South Korea. I dropped by my friend’s office to tell him the news and one of his redneck coworkers said to me, “Ain’t they go nucular weapons over there? They drop a bomb on you, don’t say we din’t warn ya.”

I can’t wait to get out of here. It seems like attitudes around here never change.

September 2005

Today was the 15th, and it was my first time hearing the warning sirens that the South Koreans test on this day every month to ensure that they’re prepared for a North Korean invasion. I didn’t know it was just a test when I heard it start blaring, but no worries; I expect my resting heart rate to return to normal no later than the 21st.

My first clue that it wasn’t an emergency was all the people walking outside just like normal. People here seem far less likely to believe an attack from North Korea is pending than your average Peter Jennings-watching American. I suppose that it’s because they’ve been living with it for more than 50 years now, and it must seem to them that nothing ever changes.

It still makes me nervous at times, but at least I’m teaching at Samyook’s Suncheon institute, almost as far from the Northern border as I can get. Besides, if relations deteriorated around here I could just leave. It’s not like I’m married to anyone around here or anything.

October 2006

I took a nap in between the classes I teach at Samyook’s Chuncheon institute, and when I woke up I found out that North Korea had indeed tested a nuclear device like the threatened to. Even my students betray some concern over the situation during conversation practice … but then they returned to talking about how hard their university courses are and how their searches for jobs are going.

I’m in awe of how calm they can be, and I wish I could feel the same. Ever since Catherine and I started dating a couple of months ago I honestly haven’t known what I’d do if we were in danger. My mom sent me an email the other day recommending that I put Catherine in a suitcase and come home if I need to.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

June 2007

The North and South Korean heads of state are planning a summit meeting this year. Trains are set to travel the Seoul-Pyongyang railway again. Meanwhile, North Korea supposedly has missiles that can reach the United States.

I’m reminded of my friend’s redneck coworker a couple of years ago; the one who felt I should be afraid of the North’s “nucular” capacity. Seems to me that I’m safer here than he is there!

July 2008

A South Korean tourist was shot and killed while visiting the Mt. Geumgang resort, one of the only places in the North where Southerners are allowed to visit. The North refuses to apologize even though one of its soldiers did the shooting. It boggles the mind, but they seem to be saying the South owes them an apology over the incident.

Actually, tensions have been pretty high here ever since the South elected a new right-leaning president in the spring. He’s withholding aid to the North until they denuclearize, and for that the North has cut off dialogue and labeled him a “traitor.”

Catherine and I are getting married Aug. 31, and all I can think about is, “I hope the North doesn’t invade on Aug. 30.”

February 2009

The North is said to be planning to test-fire a missile, though they claim it’s a satellite. They’ve renounced prior treaties with the South and threatened to turn Seoul into “debris.” Now, a story in The Korea Herald today says they’re expanding their Special Forces division which would be used the infiltrate and inflict damage on the South.

(Yawn) Doesn’t anything ever change around here?

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