May 31, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: Dinner Plans

K-girl: I have a dinner plan.

Me: With me?

K-girl: No.... uh.... umm..... with my family?

May 28, 2013

In Hostile Territory

Me: She looks a little Chinese, even though she is Korean.

Korean guy: Yes, so I don't like her.

Me: Chinese girls are also nice.

Korean guy: Japanese better but they exposed to radioactivity.

Me: I thought you had a Chinese girlfriend before.

Korean guy: Nope, I just had Chinese homemate but she had stinky foreign boyfriend.

Me: A big hairy oaf?

Korean guy: Oaf?

Me: For example "That was my foot you just stepped on, you bumbling oaf".

Korean guy (after looking up the definition of oaf in an electronic dictionary): "Why give publicity to this self-indulgent, adolescent oaf?"

Me: Yes, exactly. For instance, that guy talking to the Chinese-looking girl appears to be an oaf.

Korean guy: That I agree. He looks oaf so normal girls don't have any hostility.

Me: Yup, they let their defences down but when they see a dangerous Prince of Persia they have their shields up.

Korean guy: Yes, that's fact so it's not your fault. Their reaction is natural.

Me: Hostility is a good word.

Korean guy: Why? It's bad word, isn't it?

Me: I mean it's a good word to describe the situation.

Korean guy: Aha~

May 25, 2013

Escape from Trash Mountain - Nanjido

Take a low lying island located on a river in Seoul, add two decades worth of garbage generated during a period of rapid modernization never before seen in human history, and what are you left with? A 100 meter high mountain of trash, reeking so badly that people could smell it from the other side of the Han River. The dump site of Nanjido grew to cover an area of almost 3 million square meters, dwarfing the pyramids of Giza in scale.

Nanjido became a dangerous eyesore that oozed methane which frequently ignited, causing 1300 fires over the life span of the landfill. Millions of tons of industrial and household waste had piled up like the credit card debt of a Korean beauty's boyfriend. After one big blaze in 1984, the last of the inhabitants of the isle were relocated.

Seoul was selected as a host of the 2002 World Cup. The city's soccer stadium was located a corner kick away from this festering heap of rubbish, so the government decided to do something about the situation. They transformed the dump into a large green space, replete with parks, sculptures, trails, golf courses, and dazzling views of Seoul.

Ironically, there are barely any garbage cans on a mountain that once served as the city's wastebasket. Every time I came up on what looked to be a garbage can, it turned out to be a container for fire extinguishers. The extinguishers are a nice safety precaution, but perhaps a bit underpowered to put out a fire on a blazing mountain of methane. Smoking is prohibited on top of the park for this reason, as it could lead to spontaneous combustion. Despite the potential safety hazards, a visit to 'Trash Mountain' is certainly not a waste of time.


People say I'm extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage? ~ Imelda Marcos 

May 22, 2013

Celebrating Buddha's Birthday

Buddhism is the leading belief system in South Korea (if you consider Protestantism and Catholicism as distinct religions), so the birth of Buddha is celebrated with great pomp and pageantry every year. A Chinese friend of mine was in Seoul for a business trip, and he joined me for the day as we participated in the festive activities on offer throughout the city.

Our first stop was the Jogyesa Temple, a large complex located in the heart of old Seoul. The principal temple of the Jogye Order and the centre of Zen Buddhism in Korea, its roots can be traced back over five hundred years. A colourful hive of activity, Jogyesa is not the kind of place to visit for a serene meditative experience. However, it does provide a good introduction into the world of Korean Buddhism.

When we first entered the complex, we were ushered into a movie theatre. A highly entertaining documentary was shown explaining how Korea was the greatest nation on Earth. One infographic compared the total number of inventions made in Korea with the sum total of every invention made by all other countries in the world in a year. It was a tight race, but Korea came out on top. It also highlighted the fact that Korea has the best alphabet system ever concocted. Hanguel is a highly elegant system that replaced the traditional Chinese characters that were previously used by Koreans.

After the film concluded it was time for us to make some traditional paper lanterns. Volunteers guided us as we crafted a masterpiece out of coloured paper and adhesive. We explored the temple grounds for a while and ate a vegetarian meal, consisting predominantly of sticky rice.

We were given instructions to go to Tapgol Park as some VIP seating was reserved for foreigners. We had front row seats to view the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade being held to commemorate Buddha's birthday. As the parade neared its conclusion, we were pulled in to the procession to add a multicultural flavour to the festivities. We held our handcrafted lotus lanterns high and waved to the adoring crowds as we passed by.

May 20, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: English No

Me: Do you know any English?

K-girl: English no.

Me: 'English know' or 'English no'?

K-girl: English NO!

May 13, 2013

Hoi An

Picturesque and quaint, Hoi An is a delightful Vietnamese town located at about the midway point of the nation longitudinally. Although they share the same letters in their English spelling, Hoi An and Hanoi are totally unrelated. The small town was once a prominent port in Southeast Asia during a bygone era of ceramics and spice trading. Forgotten by the world for a couple of centuries, the World Heritage site retains much of its traditional architecture and charm.

Hoi An was the place to be for merchants and traders from across Europe and Asia from the 15th to 18th centuries, before falling into obscurity. Touristy yet quiet, the streets of Hoi An are eminently navigable. They are dotted with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and the requisite tailor shops where Western backpackers can buy affordable custom made suits that they can wear when attending interviews for lowly paid internship positions once they return home.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I made a quick stop at Danang to visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture. When the French set up camp in nearby Da Nang and established it as one of their strongholds in Indochina, the glory days of Hoi An came to a quick end. On the taxi ride from Da Nang to Hoi An I saw massive construction projects of luxury villas and golf resorts taking place along the whole stretch of the coastline, so I was relieved to find the actual ancient town still well preserved.

May 08, 2013

Chuncheon - Mimes, Fireballs, Waterfights, and Dakgalbi

Chuncheon hosts an international mime festival each year. Foreigners in Korea who do not fluently speak the local tongue soon become accomplished mimes themselves, so I was interested in seeing the abilities of some of my peers. The mime portion of the festival was rather boring though, with only a few moderately skilled performers on hand. The scene stealer was a spectacular set piece that dangled in the skies. A fireball was lifted above the crowds by a crane, held in place by a barely visible cable that did not hinder the effect of the great ball of fire.

What was supposed to be a mime festival broke out into a full fledged water fight on Chuncheon's main thoroughfare. Buckets of water were provided and the citizens let loose with much gusto. It was a welcome change from the stiff necked formality of Seoulites. One courageous little boy gingerly edged towards me, aimed his water pistol in my direction, gently squeezed the trigger, and ran away. His aim was true, as I had to wipe my glasses dry to regain my vision after his strike.

I grew hungry and headed for Myeongdong Dakgalbi Street, where a row of specialty restaurants awaited me. Chuncheon's claim to Korean fame is its delicious dakgalbi, a chicken dish mixed with vegetables, rice cakes, and occasionally cheese. It is cooked on the dining table on a large iron pan or directly over charcoal. Like a hot glance from a shy K-girl on a crowded subway, eating dakgalbi is a tantalizing experience that lingers on in one's memories for many days after.

May 03, 2013

Bragging Rights

Me: This paragraph so easy to understand.

Korean girl: Nooooooo. Don't say that! English is not our mother tongue.

Me: It's not mine either.

Korean girl: Really? Oh.. it's Indian?

Me: Yes, first I learnt Bengali and then English. Also some French in school, and some Hindi in India, some Chinese, and some Korean. So Korean is actually the sixth language I understand a bit of.

Korean girl: Stop bragging!!

Me: I also look good both with and without a beard.

Korean girl: Aiyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.