Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wonju Wife Christmas Party

My coworker Danielle is having a xmas party at her blog, Wonju Wife:

Go there to read more. (Today, the 21st, is my day!)
(direct link)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Korean Really Impresses People Who Don't Speak Korean

"Wow that was amazing. I totally could get none of that."

That's what an acquaintance of mine said after listening to me translate our conversation to our archery teacher. She had talked about a variety of things including personal and professional past and future (planned) events and, in simplified form, I related all of those. He nodded and said something like "Oh I get it."

Another time: "Man your Korean is really good, to me that was just a string of words."

This is what another acquaintance--in fact, the one who introduced me to archery and who speaks adequate Korean (although he stopped studying a few months ago)--said when I related a story in Korean. We had been talking with a man who spoke pretty good English (better English than my Korean, definitely) but he didn't understand the last point. So I simplified and related, in my most current 2d language.

The problem is, Jack--my friend--was not the only one who felt that way. The Korean man said, in perfect English:

"Yes, what was that? I didn't really understand."

That's the problem. People nod to show they are listening, not necessarily that they understand. Generally Koreans react the same way to my long-winded Korean attempts that non-speaking expats do: "That was an amazing series of words that I could get no meaning from."

Misconjugated verbs and gerunds, dropped particles (mark subject and object and often function like our prepositions), poor pronunciation, and sometimes simply made-up words that I have no idea where they came from have been known to regularly emit from my mouth. But in the meantime, I assure you: If you don't speak Korean, I can amaze you with mine.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Korean Wedding Etiquette

Here Comes the Food!
Here Comes the Food!
Give Us Some Money and We Will Feed You!

That pretty much sums it up. K weddings are a big deal, and big business. "Wedding Palaces," "Wedding Towers," and even Wonju's own "Wedding Opera House" (which attempts to look like 95% old castle and 5% Disney product). K weddings get together huge groups, including even casual acquaintances (generally), who then proceed to ignore the ceremony and eat.

No, really.

To be fair, my friend Kim Cheong-rae, who was kind enough to invite me to witness him betrothe a German woman, admitted his wedding would be short on ceremony. "People just come for the food. We're not going to waste their time with much chatter."

You could say the same thing about wedding receptions in the US (that I've seen) but the overtness here is drastic. Drinking during the vows and talking loudly? Okay! Especially if you're an old man. Helping yourself to the buffet and another beer while the bride gives a speech? Fine! Crowding in front of others to take pictures whenever you feel like it, even crowding the betrothed and getting in their way? Cool!

Well, fine so long as you ponied up.

K-weddings do not waste time with registries. Why buy a gift? We'll get it for ourselves. The traditional gift is ... an envelope full of cash! And YES YOU HAVE TO. The men who sit at the table by the entrance (just behind the Groom's mother) have a list of invitees. Only those who give the men envelopes will get tickets for the buffet, and your buffet tickets WILL be checked before you are allowed to graze from the tables in the back room.

To Cheong-rae's credit he personally handed out the tickets (to anyone who bothered to go up and congratulate him) and didn't ask if you'd "given" first. (Although it was rather quickly after I told him that we three foreigners did pitch in that he invited us to the after-BBQ. Hmm. (Kim: Kidding!))

Video NOT of Kim's wedding but for cultural reference:

Picture: Mr. and Mrs. Kim, the best I could capture them from a seated position. (Same last name as 40% of the population here or something like that. Good thing they trace ancestry very carefully but I don't think it's an issue for them.)

Korean War Memorial Visit

"War divides the country" is the more accurate, and less used, way to describe Korea. After all, the uneasy truce that created the Demilitarized Zone, was a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Cessation? Often illusion; numerous attempts on executives' and citizens' lives have been made by the North for the past forty years, and continue today. Seoul didn't always have a top-rated international airport, Jongno Tower, or even the perpetual "armpit" (Lonely Planet) that is Itaewon ... in most of our Parent's lives, it doubled as capital city and wasteland ... a role it's held for hundreds of years. As I type this I sit in a valley between mountains that nearly perfectly geographically divided the country, hence was a strategic target throughout the fighting. The weathered faces that hock radishes in the market have seen more suffering than most care to elucidate.

But the Koreans I've encountered don't use the "proper" terminology to connote threat or fear so much as hope. Everywhere there are cries that the bloodline "will" be reunited. Only once realpolitik takes the forum floor is that hope winded. A massive and determinative war, or even a regime collapse that results in a flood of refugees--neither of these are pretty pictures to those whose mandatory military service reminds them of what life could be like.

Metaphorically also Korea (South) is a divided country. Traditional markets and BMWs, G20 membership and FTAs ... but today I drop the metaphoric for the literal. Oddly enough what brought me to Seoul that weekend was an ATEK meeting, a meeting for those expats who, displeased with foreigner abuse, seek to share information that can be used in the spars of litigation. Having a few hours to burn I visited the War Memorial before the meeting.

Quickly I noticed the conflict between somber rememberance and capitalistic opportunity. There's a wedding hall at the war memorial.

Actually, two.

Let me repeat that:

There are two wedding halls located at the memorial to a war that is still technically ongoing, a war that tore a country in half for forty years and counting.

(Korean wedding etiquette is something deserving of its own post, and I'll get to that in another catch-up post over my vacation.)

But I digress.

Ignoring the Wedding Hall there are numerous displays of arms and maps, ranging from ancient to modern. Most interesting about the War Memorial is that it is not exclusively about the 20th century conflict we know as the "Korean War." It is about war, in Korea, since the time of arrowheads and spears. Since Goguryo was invaded by Baekjae and then Silla and the Mongols crushed Baekjae, and went on to take Goguryo, unifying the three Kingdoms into "Goryeo," which gave Korea its name ... some hundreds of years ago.

I could keep commenting but often the symbolism is obvious and the words are vacant. The flickr photostream is here:

And I would like to thank the Korean government for offering gas-mask use training in English. I walk past the glass cases of emergency equipment every time I take the subway in Seoul, it's only with an odd ease that, like most around me, I assume their use will remain unnecessary for years to come.

Art, Life in Wonju

The following appeared in the Korea Herald on 12/10 and I've been to out of it to even cut and paste. But here you go, a bit about Wonju and art. Can't say I'm entirely happy with every edit that was done (sorry, Matt) but I do understand when page design and deadlines do what they do to my precious if wordy writings. Hope anyone enjoys:

WONJU, Gangwon Province - Su Jeoung sits across from me, arms resting on the table, beret nicely in place, and smiles calmly. "My life is with pizza, coffee, and art," she says. An interesting comparison, to say the least. Su said she has received a lot of inspiration from travelling. "I had many good experiences traveling. There is one purpose - to see art, to enjoy art - the United States, Paris, Norway, Italy, Germany - those created good feelings for my future business."

Su lives in Korea's least populated province - Gangwon-do. Despite, or perhaps because of that, she's a member of FIAC, the Parisian creative consortium, and regularly attends their events. Art is a cornerstone, but not her entire existence. To my surprise, it's the third thing she mentions.

She was a franchisee for 10 years with a large pizza company, but she found the terms unfair. Well-traveled and successful, she followed the well-worn path of creating her own business, but gave it a twist of gourmet and fringe.

"My dream was to be a businesswoman and an artist," she says.

Other things can be more easily numbered: Her gallery-cafe, Acozza, opened in January this year. Since then, eight exhibitions featuring about 30 artists have passed through. The artists are mostly Korean and female, but expats and men are not excluded. More than one creator has had their work grace walls in Paris, London or Chicago, but others have only a show or two to their name.

To our left is the work of Kim Ji-young. From this distance, 15 meters, the cute girly faces and bright colors belong to cartoons, and the bandage on the eye makes one think, "poor thing." It's only after a few steps back that one notices the earring is a chain tethered to another character and the title reads "Domestic Violence." Other pieces, in similar style, draw inspiration from Na-young and the many similar stories that aren't quite as gruesome or public.

Acozza's M.O., however, isn't gloom-and-doom, it's balance; turning back to the wall behind Su, there are colorful and gentle pastels into which it would be difficult for even the most macabre mind to inject subliminal sorrow.

A month prior, computer monitors or screens were placed where paper sits now. "Mix and Media," the first exhibition of its kind in Wonju, featured audio, visual, and still art side-by-side. One false documentary detailed the international clashes that occurred after a bridge was built connecting Europe and Africa, a MacBook contained electronic symphonies, and the heavily saturated, subtly sardonic, work of art coordinator and barista Hanna draped the opposite wall.

My clearest memory of that exhibit, however, was sitting at another table with two friends, enjoying the balsamic reduction sauce on the Pizza alla Ortolana with a Chilean red, and watching Barbie get a feel on the back wall. Another doll carried her up a volcanic hillside and their plastic lips touched. A molded hand slowly slid downward. I tried to make the craning of my neck less than overt but failed; I'd chosen the wrong side of the table at which to sit.

"It's my take on the little mermaid," explained Suq H. Won, "A girl gives up something of herself and discovers sexual pleasure. But it's not so much about the story as the framing and editing." In a way, it's hardly about anything but coincidence; consider how welcome comments on female sexuality are in Confucian societies. Had the artist scheduled to fill that space come through, this piece wouldn't have been shown.

The work that was scheduled to (and did) feature included a brief video in which she both lovingly and savagely mined fruit from a fresh pineapple. The exhibition brochure made references to John the Baptist, but she was willing to further explain in a more universal language:

She had found a small pineapple on the edge of a farm while staying in Hawaii. It was too small to eat - "probably leftover from someone stealing something" - but she took it home and hydroponically "planted" it in a jar of water. A month later, she couldn't take it back to Korea, but she couldn't leave it either. Consumption was her conclusion. Maternal and murderous instinct conflicted, and one, the tastier, if less nurturing, won out. Or it's "cannibalism as an act of loving," as her brochure explains.

She harbors as much affection for her hometown as she did about the fruit. "Wonju is 10 or 20 years behind. If it becomes a media art center, it'll be after I die. I'm only hoping to lay the base, the background." Her attitude is pragmatic.

However, there is a second column of thought to consider when accounting for the growth of an art industry: The business-creative model has been proven successful by others. T.S. Eliot was a banker and publisher in his later years, and Charles Ives sold insurance when he wasn't composing or lying naked on his piano.

Of their ilk, but not lying naked on a pizza, Su sits waiting to trade several pieces of real property to fund a further vision, instead of a golden parachute. By summer 2010, Acozza Gallery, a second space, will have opened. Su's excitement is clear; artists have already agreed to exhibit, and the contemporary metal shell of the building-to-be has already been erected.

There's a new 10-page exhibition program under my arm, as there usually is when I leave. The question of how many sisters it first meets in my desk drawer, as well as the question of whether this seed will germinate in our lifetimes, has yet to be answered.

"Changing thought, changing future," reads Acozza's slogan. Thought clearly has already changed; the issue that remains is how soon the future will follow suit.


By Darren Bean