Saturday, December 30, 2006

North Korea, Thanksgiving and Seoul much more!

Annyeong Haseyo!

It has been a while since I last wrote, I've been very busy this last
month with work and socialising with friends and workmates (my center
is now dubbed "the gayest Berlitz centre in the world" due to the high
number of gay people working there (now and in the past). However, the
students and local Korean staff have no idea, and it is kept secret
since Koreans can be quite prejudiced conservative people. Though with
some of the shenanigans my colleagues get up to, I'm surprised no one
suspects anything... )

Some examples of "English" names my students have made for themselves include:
-Daisy (for a guy)
-June (also for a guy)
-Ring Ding (could you take a Chinese prosecutor with a name like that
-Tom Cruise
-Yeerik (what are we - Norwegen?)
-Hans (or German, Ja?)

I've also experienced my first Thanksgiving dinner at a friends house,
complete with 30 pound turkey (ordered from the US army base), ham,
sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and, since there were Koreans invited,
kimbap (which is Korean sushi) and soju (korean vodka). A bit of east
meets west, and probably the strangest and most energetic Thanksgiving
to date (according to my American friends). What's Thanksgiving about,
I'm not quite sure, something about thanking the American Natives for
saving the founders of the modern US from starvation, and turkeys
being a native bird in the US. Whatever it means, as long as there is
good plentiful food, I am happy.

Christmas day was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, no clouds in
the sky, and it was quite warm. Which was exactly what I didn't want!
I wanted miserable, cloudly, cold winter with lots of lots of snow!!
This is my third Christmas on the other side of the world where it is
cold (one in England, the other in Germany), and still no White
Christmas, no snow! Even the snow from the week before had completely
melted away!

Anyway, Christmas was a spread out smaller affair, starting with a
Christmas Eve buffet lunch at the Grand Hyatt hotel (it was expensive,
but hey its 1) Christmas, and 2) The Hyatt!), followed by Christmas
day spent with a smaller turkey, ham and DVDs with friends, ending
with a night in with - that's right - Sammy, over a bottle of wine at
my house. Christmas, sadly enough, is not a grandious affair in Korea.
Koreans generally spend Christmas by going to church (if they are
Christian), eating Christmas cake, and - if you are in a couple -
spending time with your loved one..


I thought it was about time to go visit a place I've always been
curious to see after I first heard about it. This is the DMZ
(DeMilitarized Zone), which is the front line between North and South
Korea, who are technically still at war. In fact, small fights and
deaths occur frequently, to the point that no one really reads or
hears about it except through Koreans who have undergone compulsory
2year military service. Anyway, the interesting thing about this
place is that even though it is a DMZ, an 4km wide area where no
weapons are allowed, it is probably the most fortified area in perhaps
the world, but so cleverly concealed you can't tell. Also, because no
one really sets foot in the place (except ironically, the military),
it has also become a beautiful nature preserve, where rare and exotic
animals and plants florish without human intervention.

Anyway, tourists are not allowed to visit the DMZ except in one place,
which is called JSA (Joint Security Area). This area is where the DMZ
shrinks to a point where the border is, allowing both North and South
Korea to build a town (called Pammujemun) together with the UN, that
both countries protect and control. This town is used for diplomatic
and political meetings. The border goes right through the center of
the town. It was also the scene of a brutal axe murder of a South
Korean officer by a gang of North Korean soldiers which led to the
most expensive tree cutting operation in the world (more on that

To visit the place, you must be a foreigner, and you can only go as a
tour group. So, one cold early morning, I went to the US army base
with some friends to join the tours they conduct of the area.

The tour started with a briefing on the history of DMZ, JSA, and the
stories that have come from it. The Axe Murder Incident was due to
the layout of the town, which featured several guard posts belonging
to either North or South Korea. The location of these guard posts were
scattered around in each other's country (North has more guard posts
in South Korea territory than vice versa). The view from from one such
isolated South Korean guard post in North Korean soil to another North
Korean guard post was obsured by a huge oak tree. Thus it was
necessary to lop the branches off so SK guardpost can see the NK
guardpost. (the NK guardpost had no problems seeing the SK one).

So one day, a SK captain, 1 SK soldier and an SK tree surgeon went up
to the tree to perform the tree pruning. All of a sudden, about 20NK
soldiers ran up to them in a planned ambushed and hacked them to
pieces with their axes. It is unclear why they decided to do this, but
the result was the closest NK and SK have been to the brink of war
since the ceasefire. The next day, huge battalions of soldiers, tanks
and helicopters converged onto the JSA, to observe the cutting down of
the huge oak tree and as a display of force - the tension must have
been incredible for the poor tree cutter. And it is because of this
incident that NK and SK soldiers are not allowed to cross the border

Anyway, we were driven from the US Army base to the JSA. We were
warned we were not allowed to take photos of certain places for
military reasons, and that we had to have our passports checked to
make sure we were foreigners and not spies or South Koreans.

One interesting thing I noted was the wire fences along the border
that contained white stones in the fencing. This is because it is a
cheap and easy way to tell if there is a breach or interference in the
border fencing, since the stones will drop out it the fence is
tampered with. (Though I didn't dare point out that the intruder could
just simply replace the stones, rendering their idea useless).

We also passed the Rapid Response Unit Camp which is about 1km away
from JSA. Apparently these highly trained soldiers, in event of
emergency, could be dressed, equipped in full battle gear, and reach
JSA in a jeep in 38 seconds!! Very impressive!

The first thing you notice upon entering the JSA is the stance adopted
by both NK and SK soldiers. The NK soldiers were brown uniforms and
stand to attention as normal. The SK soldiers however take an
aggressive stance. Wearing blue uniforms, helmets, and big dark
sunglasses to appear aggressive, the SK soldiers stand legs spread
like an A frame, and the arms sticking out along them. It looks like
they are about to do star jumps. Also, they don't stand directly
exposed to the North Korea side, but half exposed, the other half
hidden behind a building or obstacle. This is to prevent snipers from
trying to shoot them.

You can also see the border, which is a thick line of concrete running
across the town. Since the Axe Murder Incident, NK and SK soldiers
cannot cross this border (in the past they were allowed to. Our guide
joked that a stray dog running back and forth across this line is a
dog that is continually defecting.) However, there is a UN building
that tourists are allowed to go in, which is built with half of it in
NK and the other in SK. Meaning effectively you can cross the border
into North Korea here.

It's sad, but I was a little excited to have the chance to step into
the other side of the room and technically enter North Korea. It
didn't really feel any different. I was told sometimes the NK
soldiers would come down and look through the windows at us. They
would also make throat cutting actions to any SK soldiers inside,
which the SK soldiers consider hilarious, if they were allowed to
smile or talk that is.

We were also shown the two opposing towns across from each other near
the border. Freedom Village (SK), and Propaganda Village (NK), named
because of the way they would play propaganda on loud speakers
encouraging SK people to defect to NK. The two villages also have huge
flag masts proudly flying their nations flag. NK naturally had to have
one almost twice the size of SK's one. At 170m high and supporting a
30m large flag, the NK flag is the biggest flag in the world!

We also had a look at one of the many tunnels that NK had tried to dig
through to SK, so in an event of war, NK could invade SK straight to
Seoul through them. These tunnels were found by accident (NK denying
that it's a tunnel, claiming its a coal mine instead - not a smart
move considering there is no coal within), and it is speculated that
there is one more tunnel that already reaches Seoul, but has not been
found yet, and no proof to accuse NK of it.

At the conclusion of the trip, we went to an observatory overlooking
the pristine conditions of the DMZ. Here we were told no photographs
due to snipers picking us out. We were also told we could see a huge
golden statue of the NK president from here, though visibility due to
mist was poor.

I also heard stories from the trip (and from my students -most who
have done the compulsory military service) of many NK people defecting
in the night. Even NK soldiers would defect, crossing with all their
weapons etc. One student recounted a scary moment, where, late at
night, he and his officer were filling in paperwork in their guard
post when they heard a voice behind them saying "I want to defect to
SK". They turned around to see a NK soldier with a rifle. If the NK
soldier was there for anything else than defecting, my student would
not be here today!

As the festive season ends, it is worth nothing that Koreans are the
biggest alcoholics in the world, where it is customary for them to get
completely sloshed on a night out, mixing all kinds of alcohol in
great abundance at at least three different places. Generally this is
how Koreans build friendships and consolidate busines relationships,
because they believe being drunk helps people become more intimate
with each other. Which kinda makes sense considering that most Koreans
are shy and conservative people on the outside.

Anyway, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!~ ^^

Monday, December 11, 2006

Seouly Moley!



"A wife like a fox is better than a wife like a bear". Huh?

"The smell of 'jun-uh' (type of fish) makes even the daughter-in-law
come back home". What the?!

The love of son-in-law is mother-in-law." Sounds disturbing to me...


Well, winter has finally arrived in the Korean Peninsula (actually,
more like assaulted since it happened all of a sudden). It's bitterly
cold, and we're not even in the coldest months! If North Korea nukes
us at least we'd be warm (though we won't be around long enough to
appreciate it). I find it hard to comprehend how with the temperature
and weather extremes from hot and humid to dry and freezing, Korean
people still manage look so youthful and vibrant, and have such good
skin. There must be a secret they're are hiding from me and the

Not much has been happening of late, except that i'm working pretty
much every day now (although by choice - and what a dumb choice that
was). I'm also doing a language exchange with a Korean girl I call
Caroline, who for helping her with her English, I get to practise and
learn Korean in return. With this and learning Korean through the
computer, I've learnt quite a lot so far (ku goshi che yonpilul
anissoyo - that is not my pencil!)

I have also done some sightseeing, and have plans to visit North
Korean territory next week when I head off to visit the DMZ
(Demilitarised Zone), which is the most heavily fortified front line
in the world between two countries at war (and yet also happens to be
a tourist attraction - go figure).

Anyway, one place I visited was Inwangsan mountain, which is just to
the north of the city center. Yep, it's surprising, but you can
actually go up to wilderness even in the middle of the city!
Inwangsan mountain is famous for this shamanistic shrines and buddhist
temples, where buddhisim and shamanism is still practised today. If
you're lucky you would see worshippers performing drumming and singing
ceremonies complete with traditional garments, food offerings and
dancing - rituals that have not changed from when it was first
created. Inwangsan also offers some lovely hiking trails where you can
see a Salvador Dali-esque landscape of naturally sculpted rocks - some
with uncanny resemblences to human forms - and views of the city and
ancient original city walls below amongst the mountain foliage. Oh,
and this is probably the only tourist sight in the world that involves
entering via walking through a massive construction site where you
have to dodge huge cranes and bulldozers operating around you and
workers playing with water hoses.

Seosomum prison is a disturbing place. It was a concentration camp
used by the Japanese to torture and murder Koreans fighting for their
independance during the Japanese occupation. The Koreans are very
bitter against the Japanese for this, and is evident in the depiction
of them in tacky dioramas complete with awkward mechanical puppets,
badly recorded sound effects and flashing lights which are great for
inducing seizures. There's even a torture room where you can witness
first hand what they went through. In all, I was quite deeply moved
(and 'tortured' - ha ha!) by what I learnt in the place.

Finally, the War museum, which is absolutely marvellous and definitely
a must see if you are into seeing big tanks, war planes, missiles,
missile launchers and submarines. The grounds of the war museum looks
like some giant kid had left out all their army toys scattered on the
grass and walked off!

But what puts the war museum on top of my list of things to see in
Korea is the military perfomances they put on every Friday afternoon.
Here you can witness the military rifle twirling (performed by hot
girls in short skirts), sword and spear fighting (performed by not so
hot guys in traditional war uniforms), traditional and modern day
drumming, and all other kinds of entertainment - and it's all free!


Yay!~ ^^ The Koreans - ever creative - have come up with a way to
celebrate the fact that the 11th of November (i.e 11/11) looks like
peperon, a type of cylindrical wafer biscuit stick with one end dipped
in chocolates and nuts. So on this joyous day, friends and family go
around giving each other this delectable type of candy!

Just when I thought Koreans couldn't be any more inventive, I learn
about their own "scary" creatures that go bump in the night.

My favorite has to be the hwanjangshil gwinsin, or toilet ghost. This
ghost is actually a red hand that comes out of the traditional
hole-in-the-ground toilets when one reaches for the toilet paper, and
asks you "do you want red toilet paper, or blue toilet paper." If you
answer, you die instantly! Apparently you could get away with saying
"I don't use toilet paper, I use a bidet"!

Also running rampant in the ghostly realm are the Chenyeo gwinsin, or
virgin ghost. This is usually the spirit of a girl who died before
getting married, and is not happy about it. Described with having long
white hair, a pale white face, and a drop of blood on one side of
mouth. Her counterpart is the Mongal gwinsin, or male bachelor ghost.
This ghost has no face. Blamed for bad circumstances and events
occuring after their deaths, the only way to
be rid of them is to perform a ghost wedding ceremony so that they can
finally get married and find peace (Find peace?! And I thought that
getting married was the cause of more discontent! )

Finally, the Gumiho, which is a fox with nine tails that can
transform into a beautiful girl. This "foxy lady" (pardon the pun)
then lures young men in the mountains to bed where she then eats their
livers. Everytime she eats a liver she becomes closer to her goal of
eventually becoming human!


There is not much else that compares to the thrills and hazards of
catching a Korean bus. Often seen careening down the street at
breakneck speed - yet somehow managing to fly through narrow gaps of
traffic that had opened for a split second, and avoid accidents,
scratches, dents or pulverised vehicles (or people) - buses develop
your sense of balance: They are also a good workout for your muscles
as you brace yourself lest your arm joints be wrenched off at the
sudden change of direction from forwards to sideways.
Yet it seems that no one seems to mind, even old people take it in
their stride (forced that is, since they are litterally flung to the
back of the bus after having just entered it).
However, despite these shortcomings, buses are very reliable,
frequent, and although fearing impending disaster whenever you enter
these metal boxes of doom, you somehow arrive safely at your
destination (albeit with bruises and dislocated limbs, that is).


Ajummas are a type of old Korean woman, often the victim of
stereotyping. They are usually stereotyped as old, ill manned, short
unattractive married women, over the age of 30, with badly permed hair
and bad dress sense, and that their function in life is only to serve
their husband and family. They are usually considered rude and
uncaring of the world around them. Ajummas are generally seen running
and serving at "ma/pa shops" (small grocery shops), or street food
stalls. These street food stalls can range from a small setup serving
basic street fare, to the "portable restaurant" street stall complete
with several plastic tables and chairs all contained in a clear
plastic tent to keep out the elements which takes up the whole