Donnerstag, 23. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXIV - Korea: Couples, Kitsch and Concrete Dicks

This might well be the most entertaining post in my whole blog. It is the product of my visist to Jeju Island, and it will wipe away some of the drearyness my last post might have created. It's subject matter will call for many corny one-liners. You have been warned.

Jeju welcomes foreign visitors.

Jeju Island is Korea's southmost landmass, an hour flight into the Chinese Sea. Within the country, it is heralded as Korea's tropical paradise, which is why it is the prime destination for newlywed couples on honeymoon. It is famed for its tangerines and chocolate, although I wasn't very impressed by either of them. Maybe it is the fact that they are Korean tangerines and chocolate that makes the difference.
As a major tourist destination, Jeju jas a lot to offer, and parks, activities and obscure museums litter the roadside. Most of them fulfil the seemingly limitless Korean desire for cutesy kitschness and light physical entertainment (40 meters of horseriding anyone?). Striving for true cultural immersion, I took lovely Miss Yates under my arm and we began our fearless journey into the heart of pinkness. Follow us on a journey through Korean lovelife. I shall pick two, more mundane adventures can be found on facebook, as usual.

The Glass Castle

Koreans celebrate the bonding of souls and assets much more passionately than our more cynical Western world. Couples will not only cover every single Korean romance movie's filming location to relive their favourite cinematic moments, they will also wear matching outfits...and underwear. 

Matching shirts and cardigans....
...and matching underwear

Once the official frolicking is over, couples retreat to the hundreds of love hotels that cover the whole island. Some of them are quite elaborate and were built to look like European castles or imperial mansions. As they are the cheapest form of accomodation in Korea, I often find myself unloading my backpack in a room covered in red light and fake rose petals. But I disgress. 

Lovehotels shine at night
 Featuring various objects made from glass, the aptly named Glass Castle is as Korean honeymoon destination as it could be: hearts and rhinestones abound, and various disney-coloured landscapes frame your perfect memory to show to mum when you get back home. It's a true kitsch heaven, and if you never grew out of Cinderella, you will love this place.

Cutesy fairies point the way
A lot of the exhibits are created for fotoshooting
Despite appearance, the kids value of the park is relatively low.
The theme must be...
...everything tacky.... one place.
I admit, we skipped it. It was too much to handle.
All made of glass! So pretty!
It's like 'Cinderella' meets 'Taxi Driver'.

Jeju Loveland & The Museum of Sex and Health

If you read my last blog post, you have heard that traditional Korean society puts more emphasis on propriety and status of the family then the happiness of the individual. Arranged marriages and widespread sexual segregation did not necessarily help the individual discover the joys of physical love. When Korea became more liberal, Jeju Loveland and its museum was created to bring some sexual education (and ideas) to the usually anxious couples. The result is a somewhat comical, strangely akward theme park of random art bits, with the odd helpful explanation thrown in. If you ever wanted to hang out with Korean grannies giggling at gigantic stone phalluses, this is the place to go. I shall leave you now, the pictures will do the talking.

No cutesy fairies here.

I like tall, but there's limits. Especially with Yoga.
The mascot of Jeju, allegedly an old man, is just another dick.
Loveland offers many hands-on interactive art experiences...
...and the amount of pictue value is endless.
Some sculptures are more...abstract.
Me watching the 'Vagina Monologues'

And I have yet to see an enshrined vagina.

Mermen, on the other hand, are now ticked off the list.
Believe it or not, copulation between animals and women was a recurring theme.
It's not only a four star difficulty position, it is also politically questionable (outside Korea).

This picture is in the "learn about fetishes" corner and features a stoned Britpopper in a tracksuit having a crossdressing obsession. If they were aware of the subtleties of that setup?

No comment.
It's an traditional style drawing of a German prince having sex in rollerskates. Of course.
There are also commercials.
Ambiguous signage stands throughout the park.
Souvenirs made by local artists can be bought in the giftshop.

The two grandmas just took a picture with it. Stonefaced.
Miss Yates put in maximum effort to get me good pictures.
Now this is my best holiday picture ever.

Mittwoch, 22. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXIII - Korea: Confucianism and a Suspicious Death

I'm sure you've heard of a man named Confucius before, but have you heard about any of his teachings? Before you switch off, don't worry, I will not expound its manifold and complicated details. I will merely brush it a little, just barely enough to help you understand why Korea is as it is today. Because Korea is Confucianism incarnate.

(Students of Confucian doctrine might bear with me and forgive the lose handling of the subject matter, it is for the sake of rapid understanding only) 

Some Confucian Basics

Good old master Kongzi (his Chinese name) was born into a time of trouble and woe, and much of his thinking was geared around achieving stability, both in public and personal life. Like all great men, he never wrote a book about his own thoughts, and all of his surviving ideas are the mishmash of his disciples and other random philosophers who passed off their stuff as his. Confucian thought teaches a strictly vertical society, fulfiment of private and public obligations to the letter and very strict gender roles. When it became a state doctrine, its ideas of morally just personal life were applied to the state, resulting in a stable but stagnant society that cumulated in the British domination of the once proud Chinese empire. As a client kingdom, most of Koreas high culture was essentially Chinese: script, state organization, religion and rituals were imported, and with it came Confucian ideas and values. Unlike China, where political winds swept away large parts of the old order, Korea never lost its touch with old Master Kong, and his (or his descendants) school of thought still runs deep in Korean society.  Why I'm telling you this? Because it helps you understand some of the following oddities you might encounter in Korea:

Unconditional Respect for the Old

While it sounds like a very pleasant cultural aspect (one that many lament we have lost), "unconditional" is what causes the problem here. In a perfect Confucian world, old people would have acquired superior wisdom and composure and their enlightened guidance would earn them the admiration of the younger generation. While in a medieval world with very limited and little changing surroundings, that might have been true to some extent. As the modern world sees a role reversal, with the younger generation being much more knowledgeable in the ways of the world, respect for the  experiences and achievements starts to wane. Whether they are aware of that or not, Korea's elders certainly expect their surroundings to be as subservient as possible, and are not afraid to demand it. Many Koreans are still stuck in this way of thinking, even if they know better, and will frequently give in to the demands or advice of older superiors and family members despite better knowledge. The same is required of you as a foreigner, and if you frequently find old men or women push or bully you, then it is mainly because you have failed to be attentive to their wishes. Some of them are so fond of the social power gained by advanced age that they might just boss you around to annoy you. You will also find that there is a lot of tolerance for elderly (male) alcoholics prowling the streets, which you may encounter at night or in broad daylight.

Role of Women

Many Westerners adore the supercutesy girlie style of Korean (and Japanese) girls. Through anime culture a lot of girls in Europe and the USA have started adopting it in various varieties, wearing Hello Kitty shirts and frilly skirts. What most of them don't know is that, back over here, being cutesy is not a choice, but your only option.
The status of women in patriarchical Confucian society is low, with her only aspiration being to produce a son and serve her husband, and this sentiment still prevails in modern Korean society, although you might not notice at first glance. If you are here for a while, you will see it happening in the subtle things: people will always talk to the man (even if the girl is the Korean speaker!) in a couple, for example. Seeing a man slapping his wife in public and her not fighting back is a frequent sight. Domestic violence is accepted enough that there is still no public funding for victims of abuse, and a law instituted in 2007 that forced police to follow up cases of reported domestic violence has yielded little results. Violence is often seen as a deserved response to disobedience, and a 'good' woman would never have to suffer such.
Sexuality works pretty much the same way, so being outgoing (towards the other sex) or even sexually aggressive is the domain of men, and the few women who try to break out of these conventions face (public) abuse and disdain. Women are not expected to enjoy sex, in fact are discouraged from it, and proper conduct demands that they resist to show they are virtuous. If you are not at work, you might try looking up some Korean (or Japanese) porn, and you will understand. My friends in Korea aptly call it the "Crying Starfish Position".
The only option other than looking cutesy (read: obedient and pleasing) is the business look, complete with austere costume and determined look. You might end up very lonely, though, as many of the successful Korean businesswomen seem to have trouble finding (Korean) partners.

Social Pressure and Family Values

The family is the most important unit in Confucian philosophy, and consequently occupies a large part of the life of all Koreans. No big deal, you might say, so it does in mine. The difference lies in the rigidity and the amount of pressure put upon family members to further the status of the clan. Firstly, still today many parents make decisions on what career path their children should take, whom they should marry (often through matchmakers) or what hobbies to pick. State confucianism selected its officials from the survivors of torturous academic exams, for which families would each prepare a candidate if they could afford it, in hopes he would elevate the family to a higher status. The system has ceased, but the mindset persisted, and many young Koreans are geared to supercede their parents and beat all competition. Filial piety, obedience to one's parents, is still a nagging part of reality for those young Koreans who would like to have more freedom in their lives. A devious device is that children have license to do anything they please and are pampered like little kings and queens, until they come of school age, when affection becomes suddenly tied to achievement. Repercussions are so severe that many foreign teachers hand out only A's and B's in fear their students might get hurt if they perform less desirably.
This pressure to achieve only outstandingly, which means many long hours in school and additional activities well into the night, makes Korean teenage life rarely pleasant and leaves little room for self-development. The fact that Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world is a sad reminder of the fruits such stress yields. There is no room for cats in a tiger state.

Fan death

In relation to that, let me tell you about Fan Death. Fan Death is the belief that sleeping inside a closed room with a fan on will lead to your death. Explanations vary from vacuums being created by the fan sucking out all air of the room to an interesting cold fusion theory that claims fans chop oxygen out of air molecules. You will find warnings on fans you buy in the supermarket, and the government still tells you about its dangers and victims every summer. How an industrialized nation with world-class scientific research can believe in such bullshit? Because it is convenient. It helps families keeping face when a family member commits suicide.


Failure is not an option in this society that aims to excel at every single aspect of life, and will often be denied or covered up with elaborate effort. Such is the value of family excellence that up to today, there are no serious programs for mentally disabled people, so as not to even admit accidental genetic failure. This continues to a nation level, where flaws and underperformance are frequently glossed over or simply communally ignored. Whether its Korea's historic plight as a sandwich state, being dominated interchangeably by China and Japan, or its relatively small size, Korea is hellbent on showing the world how great it is at everything. While Korea's achievements are many, and its products and technology have gained worldwide renown, its national pride is hammered home so much it settles somewhere between the annoying and the bizarre. No matter what museum you come across, you will be told that either Korea is the largest/fastest/most advanced/generally superior producer/inventor/researcher/country in whatever aspect of life the museum refers to. When such a thing cannot be claimed, you will hear that your country (audio guides seem to get no change to the English text for foreigners) is currently in the process or at least in hope to be the bleeding edge of whatever you are looking at in no time. Even concepts which Korea has not invented will often be claimed anyway, such as Chinese medicine or iron-clad ships.

There's not much flag-waving, however. Just like the Japanese, Koreans live in the silent assumption that their country simply is the greatest nation on earth, and that their culture and way of life is superior without the need to show off their national pride. That the era of nationalism and cultural superiority is over has not reached Korea yet though, so many Koreans are openly racist and dismissive of other cultural influences, even if they have actually wholeheartedly adopted them. Black teachers can expect to get paid less, for example, and mixed (Korean-Something Else) couples may encounter abuse. Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on earth, and people feel that makes them something special as a people. Well, they styled it the Hermit Kingdom for a reason.

After all, though:

Before that all sounds horrible, remember that this doesn't keep people from being nice, and Koreans are indeed very pleasant and helpful. Most of their plight is carried by them, and you will rarely be affected by it. That changes very much when you date a Korean, so I hear, when all the aforementioned issues suddenly become yours. To a certain degree they are shared by Japanese and Chinese as well, which I believe is one of the reasons they are so reluctant to forge personal bonds with Westerners: their whole social culture is forged by a myriad of age-old traditions, which they would never expect you to comprehend. That unfortunately also means you'll never be part of the high-culture party, and will always be somewhat looked down upon, even if people like you. Just smile and nod, and bear it with some Confucian grace. After all, you still have a face to lose.

Samstag, 18. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXII - Korea: The Mystery Meat Tour (Unexpectedly) Continues


I love Korean food. Its crisp, strong flavours. It's bubbly hotness and its cold pickles. And Korean barbeque is simply amazing. So with all my expectations of great food I threw myself into culinary Korean adventures...and found that Minahasan cuisine should not be my last encounter with obscure foodstuffs. But let me water your mouth first with some Korean staples.

Most Korean food, no matter what you order, comes with a selection of small side dishes, mostly pickles. The most important of these is chili-pickled cabbage, Kimchi, which is not only a foodstuff, but an icon of national pride and identification. Households were (and sometimes still are) judged by the quality of their Kimchi, and no Korean meal can do without it. Along with it, a variety of pickles are served, some hot and spicy, others sweet and sour and some of them of indescribable taste: radish, morning glory, mushrooms and seaweed being the most common, you'll also find seafood, potatoes, tofu and grape leaves.

Korean mains seem like a perfect mixture of Japanese and Chinese cuisine: strong and distinct tastes, but without obscuring the natural flavour. Whether it's Kimbap (Korea's version of Sushi), Bibimbap (a rice stew with lots of meats and vegetables, comes still bubbling in an earthen pot), Pajeon (leek pancakes) or the expertly marinated barbeque beef (gets rolled into salad leaves), it's just amazingly delicious. If you haven't been to a Korean restaurant, I command you to do so now.


Now that you have an idea of my predisposition, let me tell you about my fish market visit.

Armed with all my culinary excitement I went to Busan's Jagalchi fish market. The second-biggest town in South Korea, Busan is famed for its seafood, and Jagalchi is the place to go if you want the best the ocean has to offer.

As I wander along the countless stalls with their goods on display, among the staple fare of fish, squid and shrimp, I encounter some strange specimen of marine creatures offered up for food: giant orange snails, blood-red winding worms, yellow anemones resembling hearts and writhing penis maggots.

After initial curioisty, I turn my attention to one of the many seafood restaurants, eager to delectate myself on a multitude of freshly caught marine produce. When I am offered an "assorted seafood platter", my palate wets with dreams of grilled snappers and barbequed lobsters, and I decide to splash and spent 20 pounds to order.
First, a collection of side dishes arrives, most of it well known to me, apart from that the shrimps came with little underwater snails. Observing my quizzical look, the waitress shows me how to pluck them out of their little houses by help of a toothpick and gives me an encouraging smile. I decide to go for the shrimps first. When I have had a bit of everything on the table, my eyes start wandering to the collection of little mollusces that lie beside the shrimps. I take a deep breath. The french eat them, I tell myself, albeit fried and in garlic sauce, and yet they all live. Besides, I am an adventurous traveler, my personal pride and the social value of the experience demand that I try them. So I take the toothpick and heroically lance it into the curly shell to forcefully evict its deceased inhabitant. I look at it briefly, then shove it in my mouth before I get second thoughts about its appearance.

Snail on a toothpick

To my surprise, the taste is relatively pleasant: slightly nutty, with the texture of squid. Not great, but acceptable. Proud of my culinary bravery, I try another one. Acquiring new tastes, not being snobby, that's what you travel for, right? Unfortunately,  this one is awful. Squishy with a hint of intestine, leaving some gravely residue on my tongue. Well, they can't all be good, I console myself.. I wait for the next course. Wait for some grilled mackerel in soy sauce. Chili stew with prawns. Hell, I would happy with fried noodles with mussels and squid. Instead, the waitress brings me this:

Let me introduce you to what I call the "Wriggle Plate". Everything you see on there is still alive, which makes it wriggle. And because everything on it wriggles, it will make you wriggle. And not with excitement. While I try to not meet the waitress' happy look with an equal amount of despair in mine, my mind says goodbye to grilled fish and lobster. This is the main dish, and it has everything on it I thought was alien in all the little streetside basins before.
I turn my attention to the octopus, being the most familiar. It shifts around on its little salad leaf, trying to make a final escape, before the waitress hacks it to little pieces on the spot. Unfortunately, that does not stop it from moving. I look at its grey tentacle bits wobble aimlessly, fueled by their owner's last wish to ever see the open sea again. Nausea rises in my throat like adrenaline in a championship contender. I braved the snail, and up went the difficulty level. Using the same tactics as before, I snatch a writhing tentacle with my chopsticks and stick it in my mouth, to swallow it as quickly as I can. But the octopus' undead remains do not give up without a fight. It's suckers find grip between my cheek and my maulers, refusing attempts to swallow it whole, forcing me to catch a sucker with my tongue and maneuver it so it is chewable. I bite on it several times, until I'm sure it's dead. Is it better than cooked octopus? No, but it sure makes me a hell lot  more uncomfortable.
Torn between disgust and curiousity, I look at the other contents of my plate. Abalone, I've heard of them. Supposed to be good, and has stopped moving. I pick it up and dip it into a clear sesame sauce. It doesn't like that, and its survival instinct revives as it spurts darkish liquid into the sauce, turning it into an unhealthy looking flaky grey oil. Once again I feel nausea rise, and I put it back on the plate, in hopes it will stop moving. It doesn't and instead tries to make its way back into the nice mother-of-pearl shell it came from. I can't blame it, being thrown into sesame sauce is probably a horrible experience. I cannot help but sympathize, I really want to go home, too. I skip the tiny blood-red eels that by now have scattered themselves accros the remaining food. I cast one last glance at the penis worms and the sea cucumber before I leave some money and sneakily head out of the restaurant. I buy myself a Coca Cola, in hopes to insure that everything I ate would indeed be dead and not return at night to plague my dreams. With the realization that I don't have to try everything I return home, looking for a burger joint.

Jagalchi mascots

Dried fish vendor

Fish vendors are always women

Dried fish for side dishes or sprinkling over dishes

Anchored fishing fleet

Don't ask me what they are, I call them penis worms