November 29, 2012

Conversations with K-girls: Not on the Menu

The conversation with a Korean beauty began normally enough with the questions of where I come from and why do I look the way I do. Things looked promising when she reached for the menu from the bar counter. I thought she was looking for a drink to order, but several minutes passed by uneventfully. I asked what she was looking for, and she replied that she was just reading the menu.

The minute hand on the clock moved several more times. I was unsure of what was happening. Was she pretending to read the menu to avoid further interaction? Or was she just an excruciatingly slow reader since English was not her first language? The answer was made crystal clear when she put down the menu and walked away without even a goodbye.


"Rejection doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough; it means the other person failed to notice what you have to offer." - Mark Amend

November 26, 2012

Sailing to Byzantium

On our first full day in Istanbul a tout sold us a ticket to a Bosphorus cruise, guiding us to the vessel and telling us that it would leave within a few minutes. Over an hour and a half later we were on our way, sailing through the straight that divides one city and unites two continents. On one end of the Bosphorus is the Black Sea, and on the other is the Sea of Marmara. On one side is Europe, and on the other is Asia.

As the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the straight has always played a strategic role in the region. The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires came and went, temporarily centring themselves here while ruling over significant portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Byzantium gave way to Constantinople and then to Istanbul. Through it all the Bosphorus retained its importance, its blue waters beautifying the city materially and spiritually.

As we sailed along the Bosphorus, loud Turkish pop music blared from the ship's speakers. It was momentarily turned off as the muezzins call for prayers echoed through the straight from the many mosques dotting both sides of the Bosphorus. We sailed under a bridge connecting Asia to Europe and vice versa, constructed fifty years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey yet dreamed of since antiquity. Along the banks, groups of fat old men enjoyed a dip in the waters.

Layer upon layer of history and happenstance was visible in the high density neighbourhoods we sailed past. As we drifted further from the centre of Istanbul, we saw many palatial residences adorning the water way. Some residences were restored and opened to tourists. Others had been converted into elaborate wedding halls or luxurious hideaways for the rich and famous.


And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
~ William Butler Yeats

November 23, 2012

Turkish Delights

I had wanted to visit Turkey for a long time, its transcontinental allure appealing to my East-meets-West lifestyle. I landed in Istanbul on a late August night, taking a ten day break from my work in Seoul to make my Turkish dream come true. My parents flew in from Vancouver, and we enjoyed some family time together. The hotel I had reserved in Istanbul was overbooked, so without having set a foot in its lobby we were shuffled onto a black van and dropped off at another pension. 

The next day we enjoyed the life and beauty of Istanbul, before heading off for a few days to see some of the natural and historic wonders of the land - Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia. None of them disappointed. We returned to a flag-covered Istanbul on the Turkish independence day Zafer Bayrami and capped off the trip here several days later. We traveled between towns mostly via overnight buses. The in-bus service was exceptional, with regular snacks and refreshments brought to passengers by the attendant.

As far as negative aspects are concerned, the travel infrastructure was sound but far from spectacular. Signage was poor and maps were hard to come by. The only people happily giving directions were shopkeepers or touts. The English level was surprisingly poor, although not at the cringe worthy levels of China and South Korea. The food, at least in the tourist areas, was nothing special. The tea was lovely though.

Traveling around was not too cheap, as the cost of goods and services leaned more towards the European side of the ledger than to the Asian side. Among the womenfolk there were a few stunners, but Turkey does not boast the across the board talent level of South Korean girls nor the Miss Worlds and Miss Universes found in the upper end of the Indian spectrum. People who have just met me often assume I am a Turkish man, so it is safe to say they are rather good looking. 


"I don't like Turkish type man. They are too agressive with Asian face women." - Taiwanese girl I met in China

November 20, 2012

You Don't Know Girls Still

Some people turn to their friends and family when they need help. Many search the Internet for answers. A few write letters to newspaper columnists. Others approach subject matter experts directly.  In my case this would mean Korean men. I explained my unfortunate situation to them:

"K-girls do not appreciate my jokes. Sarcasm flies over their beautifully sculpted heads. Teasing offends them. Regular conversation bores them. What should I talk to them about?"

The first Korean man I asked provided a weak response, greatly underestimating the brilliant minds to be found within their ravishing frames:

"Talk to them about something simple… like kimchi. Before making a joke, warn them that you are about to tell a joke."

The second Korean man I asked turned the question on its head, revealing his silent strategy for success:

"You don't know about girls still. Just hear what she say and drink a lot. Save your word. Just show your smile and generous emotion. Then she want to lean to you. Girls like to talk everything, so just hear what she say and understand her and hug her and kiss and go to motel. Game end!"


"Challenges are what makes life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful" - J. Marine

November 16, 2012

The Superficial

Korean man: Was it just your opinion?

Me: What was my opinion?

Korean man: That you are best guy in the room.

Me: No, it's a fact... but if you can show me a Korean guy who is my age with 8 years work experience  spread across 4 different countries, who can understand parts of 6 languages, has been to 30 countries, has helped children in India, is technically gifted, a brilliant writer, smart, handsome, funny, responsible, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink much, doesn't visit prostitutes, cooks, doesn't beat girls, and with high earning potential, then you can get back to me.

Korean man: Kekeke*. I already knew that how smart you are, but you always ignore about that style is very important to Korean girls.

Me: They should look at the substance and character of a man.

Korean man: But you are same. At that first meet, you always check girls appearance. That is same.

* The onomatopoeic representation of Korean laughter (ㅋㅋㅋ)

November 14, 2012

DMZ: Joint Security Area

The Joint Security Area (JSA) is a high security area within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. Also referred to as Panmunjeom, it was the spot where the historic armistice agreement between the Communist forces and the United Nations Command  (UNC) was signed in 1953. Negotiations between the two sides of the divided nation take place here. International visitors, but not Korean civilians, can take a tour of the area under the auspices of the USO, a non profit organization that aims to boost the morale of American troops stationed around the globe.

 I had checked in with my passport at the Yongsan Military Base in Seoul and then boarded the tour bus. The American guy sitting beside me turned out to be a startup founder working out of his laptop and also seeing a bit of the world at the same time. The bus rolled into Camp Bonifas in the afternoon after stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan. Outside the bright blue meeting rooms of Panmunjeom, South Korean guards in traditional taekwondo poses stared down their North Korean counterparts.

We watched an informative presentation on the history of the JSA by an American soldier, and heard stories about North Korean axe murderers and defectors. The "Axe Murder Incident" took place when several American soldiers went out to cut down a poplar tree that was blocking the line of sight between a checkpoint and a guard post. The North Koreans objected to this unilateral decision, and attacked the Americans en masse. The camp is named after Arthur Bonifas, one of the two men killed in the skirmish.

We passed by some landmarks within the JSA like the Daeseongdong Freedom Village and the Bridge of No Return. Used for prisoner exchange, the infamous bridge is so named because this is where Korean soldiers had to make an irreversible decision of which side they wanted to go to - the North or the South. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing the two states intersects the bridge. Every once in a while North Korean soldiers try to nab an UNC soldier and drag him over the bridge to the other side.

The residents of the Freedom Village enjoy the highest average earnings in Korea since they are not taxed on the income they generate from farming. The men of the village are also exempt from fulfilling the two years of military duty that is usually mandatory for Korean men. The village men can marry ladies from outside the village, but men are not allowed to marry into the village. Like Korean beauties who live with their parents, the villagers have a strict curfew and their movements are closely monitored.


"At the end of the day, we must go forward with hope and not backward by fear and division." - Jesse Jackson

November 12, 2012

Conversations With K-girls: Not Working

Although more interrogation than conversation due to the language barrier, engaging in dialogue with a Korean beauty is always a memorable experience.

Me: What did you study in university?
K-girl: Mathematics.
Me: Where do you work?
K-girl: I work Monday to Friday. Not tonight.


"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."  - Nelson Mandela

November 11, 2012

DMZ: The Third Tunnel

North Korean troops dug several tunnels to South Korea through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that acts as a buffer between the warring states. Only 44 kilometers away from Seoul, the infamous Third Infiltration Tunnel was discovered in 1978 on information provided by a North Korean defector. It was the third tunnel to be found but there are estimated to be over twenty tunnels crossing the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL was defined to be the land border between the two countries in their armistice agreement signed in 1953.

The tunnel walls are coated with coal although none is naturally present in the area. The North Koreans said they were just building the 1.6 km long tunnel for mining purposes and not as a means for sending thousands of troops into South Korea undetected during a surprise attack on Seoul. A sign in the tunnel mentioned that this was just another example of North Korean double handedness. The pathway is rather steep at a 30 degree angle of incline. The tunnel is high enough to accommodate most North Koreans, but a lot of tourists kept banging their yellow hard hats into the ceiling of the cave. The tunnel has been blocked off before the MDL by several barricades put up by the South Koreans.

After emerging from the tunnel into the bright sunshine, I went to the Dora Observatory overlooking North Korea on the 38th parallel. From here I could see Kijongdong, a movie studio like set of a village depicting the life of perfect harmony and luxury led by residents of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. South Koreans call it the Propaganda Village. A tall mast proudly waved the North Korean flag, built to one up the height of the flag pole constructed on the South Korean side. These are among the tallest flagpoles in the world. The South Korean tour guide asked whether there was any visual difference between the two lands. She indicated that on the North Korean side the mountains had no trees, since they had to use all the wood for heating and eating.

The nearby Kaseong Industrial Complex is a one of its kind unique joint venture between the divided states where around 50,000 North Korean labourers are employed by South Korean companies. Wages are very low, but still much higher than the North Korean norm. Chocolate bars are one of the favourite forms of payment, as they can be bartered in North Korea at an extravagant exchange rate for less delicious goods.

The Dorasan Train Station, completed in 2007, is the final stop on the South Korean side before entering the Hermit Kingdom. A billboard reminded me that it is "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North." No commuter rail service exists today, but the shiny new station has been built in anticipation of the day when an unified Korean becomes a reality.


"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." - Nelson Mandela

November 07, 2012

The Creators Project

The Creators Project is an interactive new media festival sponsored by Intel, which makes stops in a few of the world's signature cities such as New York, Paris, and Beijing. For the Seoul edition of the Creators Project there were art exhibits created using the latest technologies from around the world as well as live music performances by Korean artists. 

The event took place at the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza, an architectural oddity constructed on the former site of a baseball stadium built by the Japanese. While construction was underway, some ancient ruins were uncovered and the plaza design was rejigged to incorporate these historical artifacts.

I checked out the exhibits in between music performances. At the Treachery of Sanctuary installation my angelic wings, undetectable to the naked eye, were reflected on the screen as I gracefully waved my arms. As I moved my arms faster and faster, the sound of the wings flapping rose to a dramatic crescendo. Another exhibit used an iPad tablet to detect the movement of people standing in front, and reacted accordingly.  

My favourite piece of digital art was titled The Day of Perpetual Night. Chinese artist Yang Yong Liang masterfully stitched together the natural scenery often depicted in traditional landscape paintings with the cityscape of a modern day supercity such as Shanghai. Waterfalls were flowing and pedestrians were walking around on screen in seamless harmony in the digital collage.

The roster of musicians was well known in Korea, but I had only heard of the girl group 2NE1. Their performance had the most energy and personality that I have seen of any K-pop group. A hip hop artist known as Tiger JK tried to stir up controversy by cursing at the white audience members who kept asking him to dance like the Gangnam phenom Psy. In a profanity laced tirade, Tiger JK exclaimed that he is not some performing monkey for white boys to laugh at.


"Fu** all yall who think Asians are here to make you laugh" - Tiger JK

November 05, 2012

The Magic Of Lotteria

Pointing at the dishes that other customers are eating or drawing animals on napkins are viable ways to order food in countries where no one speaks a common language with me, but on occasion a relaxing fast food outlet where I can read the menu and know what I am ordering is all I need. In China, Dico's always provided a welcoming spot to grab a quick bite. The South Korean equivalent of China's homegrown answer to McDonald's is Lotteria.

The menu offers Western favourites that are localized as well as some uniquely Korean additions like the crushed ice flake dessert known as patbingsoo. Some of the more interesting items to be found at Lotteria are a burger with a patty made of fried cheese and a meal designed exclusively for calorie conscious ladies. Staff members appear noticeably nervous whenever I approach the counter to order.

Enjoyed by millions of customers for over three sumptuous decades, Lotteria is owned by the Japan based but Korean owned firm Lotte. The conglomerate has its hands in everything from supermarkets to amusement parks. The name Lotteria is a deliriously clever combination of Lotte and cafeteria. Although the first outlet opened in Japan, Lotteria was the brainchild of a South Korean man and is much more popular in the Land of the Morning Calm than it is in the the Land of the Rising Sun. Lotteria's market share in South Korea hovers around 50% in the fast food segment so I never have to wander far before finding an outlet.


"The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end" - quote plastered on Lotteria wall