Saturday, May 30, 2009

Back to the War

Been following the news from North Korea lately? If I wanted to sleep better at night I should probably stop. Actually at this point I’ve mostly decided to ignore it although it has lead to several rather unpleasant thoughts lately.

If it’s a shooting war stay or go?

How do I get my money out? Better, can I get my money out?

If it gets really ugly Philippines, China, or Japan?


Why all the questions you might ask? Well essentially North Korea officially stated yesterday that it will no longer abide by the 1953 armistice because South Korea has agreed to join a particular non-proliferation agreement that had originally been pushed under BushCo. Essentially the agreement says that if there are ships that are suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction or components in territorial waters than the country responsible for the water can stop, board, search, and seize any such materials.

The North threatened to stop abiding by the armistice treaty if South Korea got on board. South Korea got on board. North Korea is threatening serious military response if South Korea boards a ship.

Now what does it mean for those on the ground? Korea, as usual, is just Korea. I go to work, I do my job, we laugh about pop singers, talk about boys who wear pink shirts, and generally ignore what is going on in North K. It means there will be less GI presence in my local bars for a while. It also probably means NK and SK are going to sink a couple of ships at each other.

Here is the thing, this has all happened before (and it will happen again for you BG fans). I was here in 2002 when South Korea and North Korean had a spat of ship sinking. Politicians were angry, there were some shots fired on both sides. Everyone pulled them out and put them on the table. A year later we had talks and general disarmament until 2006. In 2006 North did it again. More talks. More business and usual. So North Korea has a history of this. It gets it’s panties in a wad and holds the world hostage mostly to get food aid, money and assurances that it is being respected. In a lot of ways North Korea is like that megalomaniac bully you knew in school, the short one with the bad attitude who didn’t actually beat anybody up but had two troglodytic body guards that would snap two and kick the shit out of you at one word. Yeah, North Korea is that kid.

Granted there is a serious problem here. Remember back in April when North K sent up it’s satellite cum long range missile test? And, did you catch in the news that two days ago Iran is saying that it now has a long range missile that would be capable of hitting all kinds of targets. Coincidence?That’s the problem with this situation, while NK may well be playing king of the hill and playing it up for the drama points, at the end of the day they are in their own special way making the world a slightly less safe place to be.

At the moment it is totally possible that North Korea could really lose it and actually move on the ground. They have during one or the other of the recent uprising in the last six years threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of flame. For those of us south of Seoul worse case scenario the best thing to do is sit on ones hands and wait it out. In the meantime though work, school, drinking, and debauchery as scheduled.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Non-tourism: Tiakong Road Art and Silver Market

In word this is exactly the kind of thing I would normally spend a day off doing so as part of the master plan it worked out beautifully. A cab dropped me off at destination of Greek restaurant but I discovered sadly there was no Greek restaurant, so I got into another cab, hoped destination two was not to far away, and settled for Moroccan.

The ambiance of the place was beautiful, white stucco on blue. Not Greek, but I'll take the medi-middle eastern feel. I had a lunch of couscous and vegetables in sauces in a blend of saffron, cinnamon and ginger. I arrived at the restaurant just before lunch so it was empty but for me. I read my book for a bit enjoying the quiet and the music and as I was pulling out my map to plot my next destination a Chinese business man comes in with a business partner, the latter obviously Moroccan. He sits down at a table not far from me and breathes deep and exclaims "I'm home!" I sympathize with the feeling.

Before leaving I asked the waiter if he could tell me where I was on the map and he helped me find it. I marked it off and then asked which way I should turn when I walked out the door to head in the proper direction for the next location. He told me to turn right and so I did. I walked through this section of Shanghai which on my map was marked as the essentially Middle Eastern, Mediterranean district. On the streets I passed Turkish men eating kebabs on the street, I could smell the heady scents of spices in the air all about. I walked in silence enjoying the change as I went further down the street until finally I came to where I needed to turn. The roads were conveniently marked for with directions like N S or W E. Sadly however my map failed to contain a compass so I was not sure which way I was supposed to turn. Finally I stopped a Chinese couple walking down the street who I was fairly confident was going in the direction I wanted to go.

I showed them the map, I pointed at the street sign, and the map and said in Korean and English "Here." We are here. Here. This is us. This is not an existential question. I can place us quite clearly on the map and this is where we are. I pointed to where I was going, essentially straight down the main road in one or the other direction. I pointed again to the street and then left and right and made the universal sign for "which way do I go, George?" The looked at the map and argued in Korean and finally said to me "No English."

"Okay, but the map is in Chinese." I pointed to the Chinese words over the place I was going. A man bicycling past stopped to listen to the conversation and came over to see if he could help. The young couple was fluster, the older man confident, and between them I learned I should go left or right. Helpful.

Finally after further discussion and examination they all agreed I should turn right and so I did. I started walking again and about an hour after leaving the restaurant I found the road I was looking for. I was starting to feel disappointed as there were a few art galleries but very little else. I remembered from reading the description to look for an alley so I started walking looking for an alley. I was excited when I came upon the first alley and ducked down it only to come out to a dead end.

I walked on a little further and stumbled upon a little art shop and went in to watch as an artist flung painting at a canvass to create a landscape. Lined against the wall were Warhol like renditions of Marylin Monroe, Chairman Mao, and Barrack Obama. Something tells me Warhol would laugh himself into a tissy were he alive to see it.

Losing hope I walked on a bit further and found a second alley which looked much more promising, and indeed, turned out to be the place I was going. The alley was packed lined at the beginning with art gallery after art gallery. I ducked in and out looking at contemporary Chinese work from various artists. I walked past a shop whose main attraction seemed to be naked dolls for drawing on. There were several silver shops and eventually I spent too much money on jewelry. I kept walking there were streets and alleys connecting inside the alley and shop after shop, cafe, restauraunt, bar, and a hundred or so ex-pats out for the afternoon. I walked until I was lost and turned around half a dozen times. Lost in a little world of eclectic traditional Shanghai and throbbing market district. A little hold lady opens her freezer in her dark home. Chinese lanterns are strung above us blowing in the wind. Bikes are piled together all along the streets.

I catch a bride who has come for a candid photo shoot. In the bustle of the market her non-moving posses seem oddly out of place. I walk until the sun falls down behind the sky and the lanterns blaze overhead and I feel myself being hungry. I wander a dozen times trying to find something to eat at a reasonable price, but being in ex-pat longing-ville there is nothing reasonable. Finally I pack myself into a cab, point to a random place in my menu book and hope to find something to eat. My feet are sore by the time I get back to my room, but I have found good food and have a head full of sights and sounds and satisfaction to keep me happy until I fall into dreams and sleep.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Creation of a Masterful Plan

As to traveling about in Shanghai I will honestly have to say I was there mostly on business. But I did have a few days off. With the days off I had to figure out what to do. Being that I really didn't want to do touristy things at all I tried to figure out how I could do something with myself that wasn't strictly shopping.

This is the thing. I like shopping but I was on a tight budget to go to Shanghai in the first place and could not spend more then seven hundred US on food and sundries during the eight day total stay. Now when you live in a place full time not spending that much is easy. But when you are traveling; having to stick to that kind of budget is a gigantic pain in the ass. It means sitting in the hotel hating life in a massive and interesting city. Being that I didn't want to do that either I did some research on-line at the hotel for things I might enjoy that were not strictly tourist.

I pulled up some winning sounding interesting ideas the top two being a local art and silver market and a road that advertised having sort of a junk shop feeling. Score! I also considered going to a bar for drinks that was highly recommended for sundown celebration (traditionally happy hour began as the sun started to slide down) but that would depend on the budget.

With addresses in mind I then moved to stage two. I needed a map. Being that I was trying to conserve I did not buy some gigantic guidebook. I know better. More often then not when traveling you can get free maps at information booths in the airport or the hotel. And sure enough as I was coming in from work on day one I was able to pick up two maps. Having now everything that I needed to do the work I needed to do I began with task three, finding the places I wanted to go on the map.

This proved more difficult because for the life of my I could not find my hotel on the map. In the end I stopped looking for the hotel and just looked for the two destinations I had in mind. After five minutes I began to realize that the reason I was having trouble with the map was because the map was exclusively in Chinese. Since I read no Chinese at all this was not helpful. I checked free map number two and was happy to discover it was in English. I continued to plot out the locations of where I wanted to go until finally I had managed to locate both places. This took about three hours as I had no frame of reference other than two cross streets for either location.

Now knowing where I am going is great, I still wasn't sure where I was starting. And there was point number four, food! In the really large Chinese cities it's pretty easy to go without eating anything even remotely Chinese. Since I live in South Korea and pine daily for a taste of the West, particularly Mexican and Greek food, I decided that my starting point for reaching either destination would be food.

To this end I was armed with a menu book. This was handed to me the first night upon arriving. Apparently there are several services in Shanghai that hire couriers for the express purpose of picking up food from restaurants and delivering. The restaurants decide which couriers companies they would like to work with, advertise in the menu books, and food can be ordered and delivered to most locations in forty-five minutes. Considering that without this service most places in Shanghai don't deliver this is actually pretty smart. However being that I was traveling anyway I thought it was kind of silly to sit in my room ordering food. So I would use the menu book as my stop one. The plan broke down as follows: take menu book into cab, point to address in menu book, get out, eat, walk to destination on map.

I figured that by doing all of this I could manage to avoid too much tourism, get to see a lot of stuff, get plenty of exercise, and get some great food to boot. I would not feel guilty about the eating with the walking. And walking is always a good time for me. As a game plan it felt masterful. I set out to the lobby and made a small pit stop. I handed the map to the hotel and asked if they could show me where they were on the map. I circled and noted this location then grabbed the map, menu book and headed out the door to execute my plan, beginning with Greek food!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ah North Korea, Never Dull

I have not yet finished telling my stories about China which means I should get on that soon. But I've been distracted for the moment by North Korea and all their foolishness.
Stupid nuclear bombs.

It’s been nutty. There is all sorts of speculation on what is going on in Dear Leaders regime. Granted mostly in South Korea life goes on as usual and few are even thinking about it. I actually gave it little notice until last night when I got a letter from the American Embassy. That’s a first.

In 2006 they launched a bunch of missiles into the ocean between Korean and Japan. Those were good times. Later, in October, they tested their first nuclear missile underground. I stocked up on water and Ramen. My co-teachers thought I was crazy. Turns out they were right. There was really nothing to worry about.

This was followed by two years of supposed disarmament.

And suddenly, earlier this year North Korea went batshit again. We had the April missile launch and now a nuclear test. So everyone is asking why.

The theory I’m going with and the one that seems the most likely is that Kim Jong Il is on the way out and there is not direct line of succession. During a North Korean election a few months ago his son was running for the parliament. It’s pretty much a lock seat as anyone that is supposed to be elected will be elected to a seat. This is not a democracy in North Korea. However Kim’s son was not one of the ones to be elected. Which means his life in politics is effectively over.

Worst case scenario is that a puppet Kim has been paraded around since mid-2007. I say puppet as, if you like conspiracy theories, there is a possibility they could have a Kim body double standing in for him in the few rare public appearances that have been made in the last few months. Should that be the case it means the general’s are running North Korea.

When I think about that I can’t help but to think about General Jack D. Ripper saying:

(quoting Clemenceau) He said “war was too important to be left to the generals.” When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

Thinking about that, does not make me comfortable.

From the Embassy I’ve got little but cold comfort as well. The short email, barely managing to be three paragraphs can be boiled down to the following: Update your evacuation plans and be prepared.

The joys of living abroad.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

So You're a Tourist in Asia

Having been over seas for a rather long time I find tourism to be painful. Being a tourist in any part of China is even worse as it seems that part of the expected thing for anyone who is not Chinese is to visit one of the loud and densely packed markets of fake goods. I was staying in a room near People's Square in what is loosely termed downtown Shanghai; loosely because as far as I can tell downtown Shanghai is roughly the size of Daegu.

Whenever I left my room to venture out on the streets I would be immediately mobbed by several touts who were only to happy to drag me off.

"Hey nice, lady, you want bag?"

"I'm not that nice."

"Hey lady, you want some sunglasses, I have some sunglasses."

"I'm wearing sunglasses."

"Hey, lady, come, come, it's very close." This ended with making the mistake of grabbing my arm. Granted I know better than to punch anyone in Asia so I preformed my best look to kill and walked on after extracting my arm.

I walked with my erstwhile manager through the square the second night in Shanghai.

"They always bug me, I just can't get them to stop."

"Stop smiling." I told her. She's pretty, short, blond, and always happy. She's a pushy touts dream.

"Okay, we are going to a restaurant I want to take you to."

"Do you know where it is?"

"Somewhere around here." A gentleman starts walking towards us. "Oh crap, I made eye contact," she says. He and three others surround us and follow for a minute before finally I stopped.

"We aren't buying, go away." They looked at me for a second. "Go...away." At that they actually managed to leave. My manager looked at me like I had preformed some kind of magic trick.

"That would never work for me."

"It's all about the attitude," I responded. We kept walking and I projected the best I've-been-teaching-for-eleven-years look. This is a surprisingly effective look, scares the hell out of six year olds, hajumas, and teenagers making out in the playground. And it actually and chased more than a few people off who might otherwise have harassed us.

I walked by one female tout and apparently my attitude was so domineering that it earned me a "bitch." What can I say, I'm good.

We walked on through the entire square; the lights sparkled in the evening and the dust. The dust was thick coming off the desert and after only a few minutes of walking my throat felt scratchy. I noticed a clump of Chinese gathering suddenly on the street and was curious as to why they were stopping. I looked up overhead and realized they were stopping for the Saxophonist on a balcony. I grabbed the Blond manager and pulled her aside.


"Look,” I pointed up. And just as I pointed he broke into a saxophone rendition of “fly me to the moon.” The streets were throbbing full of people but still there were a few dozen who stopped to watch the show. When there are seventeen million a few dozen is hardly a crowd, but it was interesting to see so many people so enraptured by a single moment. Even with my hard-assed attitude I was pulled in by the charm of it. The Chinese flags flapped in time to the music and it was a second where suddenly it felt perfectly okay to be a tourist.

As with all moments this one too passed quickly. "So where's dinner," I asked.

"I think the restaurant closed. We walked by the empty building about five minutes ago." Ah, blonds. We scouted into the night to try and find a way to get to a vegetarian place in Shanghai. The city continued to throb around us as daylight fell away to cold clear night.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First Up, the Cabbies want you to die!

I found myself for the last week or so in Shanghai on business. I have to say I like the thought of being on business trips in other cities. Indeed I'd like to move towards a future where I get to spend a lot of time having business trips in other cities. For now I was having a nice business trip in Shanghai. Most expenses were paid and the work was very pleasant.

My only real experience with China at this point has been Beijing. Beijing is an odd, huge, massive sprawling city. I spent much of the time there running around with people who already lived in Beijing and found most of my needs were taken care of. In Shanghai I was mostly running myself around in the free time I had between sessions.

The first day after the first session I pile into a cab. Now here is a problem. I haven't the foggiest idea how to tell cab driver where I am going. I do have a business card. I give him the business card to the hotel.

He reads the card and looks back at me.

"Something in Chinese."

"Card. Card...Map? Over?" I start making hand motions to turn the card over.

He asks again "Something Something taset taset something something." Taset rings a bell. And then I realize. I know Chinese numbers. I know them because they are used in Korea all the time. He's asking me if the number is 55. It is 55. I know this much.

"Yea, yea, taset taset, card card." I'm really helping this guy figure things out. He finally flips the card over to see where I am going, puts the card on the dash and starts driving away.

He does not speak to me. He does not make friendly conversation. He doesn't ask me any questions in English. He drives. I stare at the advertisment on the back of the seat. He drives. It's so wholly different from the Korean cab experience where it seems like every cabbie I've every run into knows the same questions in English: Where are you from? Are you married? How much do you weigh? Want a boyfriend? Can you teach me English?

Here the cabbie is uninterested in making any kind of conversation. Oddly this unnerves me. I feel like I should be having a conversation. All the best Korean I know I learned in cabs. But I am silent, and he drives, and I try to think if there is any other Chinese I know by way of Korea.

Eventually I have nothing to do but to watch him drive. This was a mistake. The last thing I want to be doing is watching the cabbie drive. What I want to be doing is focusing very intently on the advertisement. To be whistling, to be reading a book. I do not want to be watching the cab driver drive in Shanghai. In Beijing I wasn't really that bothered in the cabs. Seemed fairly normal.

Shanghai is a different story. Rule number one, cabbies really don't care who you are or where you are going. Rule number two, cabbies don't care if you live or die. Rule number three, cabbies don't really care if you get to your destination, when they stop you pay.

I'm watching the cabbie drive. He swerves into traffic, runs a red light, cuts of an old lady on a bike, pulls a left turn into another lane in front of a bus. My stomach is churning. Finally I see the hotel coming up on the left. I'm so happy. Never have I been so happy to see my hotel. The driver pulls into the left lane. This makes sense since he has to turn left to get into the hotel lot. However he pulls into the left hand lane about sixty feet from the hotel. And there is not left hand turn lane, just the left hand lane where the other traffic is coming straight for us.

Indeed a big black car is coming straight for us. The cabbies speeds up. Guy in the big black car speeds up too. They are playing chicken all of the sudden in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the road in Shanghai. I am in the middle of the back seat praying silently to whichever merry gods might be listening that I live to see future cab rides.

The cab driver pulls an insanely sharp left hand turn into the hotel lot, the car that was coming towards us stomps the brakes so hard you can smell the tires on the street, he missed the bumper of the cab by inches. I screamed, couldn't be help. When the ride finally stopped moving the driver just starts laughing at me while he points at the meter.

Your not dead, pay up.

One way or the other it's a win win for the cabbie. You live he gets paid, everyone dies he doesn't have to worry about driving in the city anymore.

I hadn't even been in Shanghai fifteen hours.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pre-Movie Theater

Setting: In a bar with a pool table. Me and small group hanging out before seeing a movie.
Characters: The Irish, Me (we will call me the Devil) the Girl (object of amusement) extra (mostly just watching the action she was).

The Devil: Yes, well the last time I ran into my ex-girlfriend it was very uncomfortable. I mean, I ended up making out with her for like an hour.

The Irish: Yes. I can see how that was a problem.

The Devil: It was a problem.

The Irish (to the Girl): She was totally flirting with me too.

The Devil: Who?

The Irish: Your Ex.

The Devil: She was not!

The Irish: She was too.

The Devil: As I recall she spent most of the time you were there with her tongue down my throat. Maybe I missed something and the nature of flirting has changed recently to two girls making out in which case (to the Girl), let's go.

The Irish: (chokes on his beer laughing until he turns red. Others worried he might die.)

The Girl: (looks at me incredulously and finally smiles with awkwardness.)

The Devil (to the girl): (Cheshire, making out with girls, Grin.)


Monday, May 04, 2009

At the Movies

The Irish called me up in the middle of the afternoon. Alas I was in class so I sent him to voice mail and phoned on my dying battery when I was free to see what was up.

“Want to go to a movie?”


“Guy I was supposed to go with backed out.”

“Where and when you want to meet?”

Happiness I returned to class and teaching for the rest of the day a little excited that now I was going to get to see Wolverine. The details I had were sparse but some sort of special screening deal. The ticket were a birthday present and I had no problems whatsoever with being back-up company to see the flick.

We met up downtown around seven and walked over to the theater. Standing in line with this special tickets as we got closer to the booth the young lady started yelling garbled things in to the microphone at us. We were at least two spots back from whoever was buying so at first we didn't realize she was talking to us. “Gukbon, gukbon.” I kept staring at her. I know what those words mean but they don't make any sense. Finally I get to the window and she, exasperated by our silly waygookness, looks at us and says, “Gukbon. Nine floor go.” Ah, okay, I translate unnecessarily but force of habit that she wants us just to go up to the ninth floor. Apparently the tickets are for some sort of special VIP show. Granted had either of us managed to figure that out we could have saved ourselves five minutes of waiting. We hit an elevator and headed up to the appropriate area where popcorn was acquired.

The Irish was pulled away by a friendly Korean chap for chatting and finally returned to say that this was someone for whom he had been on occasion hired to do magic tricks for. The long conversation included questions about whether or not the Irish would be performing. I suppose this should have struck one of us as odd but being run into by people who know me and ask me if I'm presenting is common enough that I just let it pass. I sat and guarded popcorn while the tickets were exchanged for actual seats to the movie. Afterwards we watched as people piled in and lined up and gossiped mercilessly about our jobs.

Finally people stopped lining up and stared filing in so we joined the crowd and headed down to the most perfect seats one can hope to get. Center theater, not to close and not to far from the screen. Yee and Ha.

“Good seats.” I said.

“Yep. I got to pick them.” Obviously I'm not the only person out tonight who knows how to watch a movie. Finally we get all settled and the theater keeps filling in. Movie time comes and goes and I'm thinking now would be a nice time for previews. But instead a microphone is front and center and the Koreans who were checking tickets and asking about magic shows are now down front and starting announcements. My Korean, mixed with the small amount of English they were tossing about, was enough to help figure out that what was about to happen was some kind of gift give away. Tickets were would be called and used as raffle numbers and the prizes included dinner vouchers, a nintendo Wii and other odd things.

The Koreans, of course, start oohing and aahhing and clapping. I'm given the responsibility of listening for the numbers of our tickets since I'm the one who knows Korean numbers well enough to figure that out.

“I'm not going to win. I never win anything.”

“Could happen.” I say back to the Irish.

“Nah, I should win, it's my birthday. But I won't.”

I start to listen for numbers and watch the crowd. The Koreans are amusing, all sitting on the edge of their seats. The announcer says the row number and everyone in the row starts to squeal and jump forward until he follows with the number. Listening to the letters was a fair about of amusing as I found it more difficult to figure out the difference between G and J then the numbers he was saying. At one point a gentleman runs down the isle and a quick conversation in Korean occurs.

“I won but I wasn't here.”

“Yes, you won, but sorry sir, you were not here, we gave your prize away to someone else.”

“But I won.”

“Yes, but you were not here, I'm sorry.”

Brandishing ticket. “I won.”

Quick discussion results in given the absent winner one of whatever it is they were handing out at that point, I think it was a gift certificate for dinner. He takes his prize and smugly wanders but up the stairs. Ah Korea, I think, even when you lose you win anyway. Prizes continued to go out which included a free night in one of the nicer hotels downtown, a cell phone, the Wii, dinner tickets, and some vouchers for odds and ends. Turns out the whole thing was sponsored by the hotel and a cable service. While gentlemen who was not present managed to get some kind of prize no one complained when the Korean chick in my row got her number called twice. I noticed it so surely someone else did, but who am I to complain. Finally the signs came down the show excited stage left and the movie was able to begin only about a half hour after it was supposed to have started. VIP somehow translates here as annoying pre-game show.

I lean over to the Irish to get in some last words before being condemned to the special hell.

“I would have preferred previews.”