Recent Blog Posts
To get to Ark Art Center, go to exit 2 of Hyehwa station on line 4.
Bangkok is many things to many different people. For Kyeonghwa and I, it was at first a scary shithole after someone stole our bags from a Tuk-tuk.
However, after a few days I grew into the city. So much so that I eventually got bored of the place and was glad to leave.
Anyways, here’s an incredibly boring video of Bangkok which even managed to miss out on all the important sites! Enjoy
When two restaurants in South Korea were asked to pay damages for two separate accidents involving children who were dining with their parents, some restaurants and coffee shops in South Korea started banning kids from their establishments. As expected, many parents protested. For them, the ban is nothing but a form of discrimination, not a way for restaurants to avoid mishaps and legal concerns. On the other hand, citizens who support the ban are saying that restaurant owners have the right to make new policies concerning their businesses, because children these days tend to be rowdy and ungovernable even in public places.
A sign that says: “Children under 5 years are not allowed to enter.” (Source: Hankook Ilbo)
A couple of times, I have seen little children running around restaurants while their parents are engrossed in their chitchats with other adults. I am not referring to your typical family diner or a fast food restaurant (like McDonald’s) where the little ones can eat and play. I have seen children turn a fancy restaurant into a playground and the parents did absolutely nothing! I recall that time when my husband and I were having dinner at Lotte Hotel World’s La Seine Buffet. Two boys were racing towards the buffet table and almost bumped into me. If I had not seen them coming, I would have accidentally spilled food on the floor! Another incident happened in a galbi restaurant, the one with the big built-in grill that uses red-hot coals. We had just finished our first order of galbi. A restaurant employee was removing the coal from our grill to replace it with a new one when this child, about 3 or 4, approached our table. I swear, she was just a few inches away from getting scalded by the sweltering coal!
I’ve witnessed this hullabaloo not only in Korea, but also in the Philippines. Once we had a customer in Ra’s who ate with her two naughty children. While the Mom was ordering food, the older kid toyed with our straw dispenser and kept pressing it until a handful of straws fell off the counter. The Mom didn’t tell the kid to stop. Instead, she asked her to get some straws for their drinks. She was an obedient child, I’ll tell you that, because she took half of the straws from the dispenser! I was waiting for the Mom to tell her child to return the straws that they would not use, but she just left without saying a word. She didn’t do anything, too, when her children were running around while eating and when the younger kid threw up, leaving a nasty souvenir on the floor for the other costumers to see (and smell). The janitor’s office was a few steps away from where she was seated. The least she could do if she didn’t want to clean her child’s mess was to alert the janitor, so he could mop the floor, but after asking her toddler if he was okay and wiping his mouth and his vomit-soaked shirt, she returned to her seat as if nothing happened. She didn’t even bother to tell her kids to sit down and eat like children with proper table manners do. I had to ask one of our employees to run to the janitor’s office to have the floor cleaned.
“Kids will be kids”, this is what most parents with misbehaving children say, but what if a child scurrying around a restaurant poses a risk to himself and/or to the servers? Would a parent take responsibility for any accidents that may occur as a result of the child’s recklessness? In the case of the two restaurants in Korea that I have mentioned earlier, it was the staff who got the blame.
According to some restaurant and coffee shop owners, other customers complain when kids make too much noise. A certain Mr. Im, owner of a cafe, shared his thoughts online:
Foreigners also have something to say about the issue. On Dave’s ESL Cafe you will find posts such as:
One thing I have noticed in Korea is that it is very common for parents to take their children with them in places intended for adults. I have seen kids in coffee shops, theaters, and even in bars and hofs. In fact, one of my husband’s friends sometimes takes his two sons with him during drinking sessions with his buddies. Both children are toddlers. Though they rarely misbehave, they toy with chopsticks and spoons, and sometimes spill drinks.
If you frequent coffee shops in Korea, chances are you’d find children in them, too. If you are lucky, you would even see babies, yes, babies in their strollers! Babies in coffee shops won’t probably cause trouble, but wait until they disturb the peace by crying incessantly. Some moms try to pacify them, but some just don’t know what to do.
The first time I went to a theater in Korea, I was surprised to see children as young as 2 0r 3 inside the cinema. I wasn’t going to watch an animation movie, so I wondered why those kids were there. As a matter of fact, the movie was not suitable for young viewers.
I have a nephew and a niece who are very young, and they can be pesky at times. They love to eat out, so we just can’t leave them with a baby-sitter when we have family dates. Before going out, we talk to them and remind them to behave properly or else we won’t take them with us next time. The method always works… but kids can’t be controlled all the time. When they cry or start to make trouble in public places, we just don’t ignore them.
Parents are responsible for the way their children behave. Parents should set limits for their children and not tolerate their misconduct.
According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRC), prohibiting children from entering restaurants is illegal, because it opposes the rights of equality, but don’t restaurant owners also have the right to protect their businesses from troublesome young clienteles?
What is your take on this issue? Should restaurants and coffee shops in South Korea implement the no-kids zone?
From Korea with Love
It has a very hearty flavor to it. Much like the way good tomato soup is on a cold winter day. With grilled cheese sandwiches, of course.
Many people in Korea eat haejang guk the day after a night of boozing. It’s similar to the way we would go for pancakes, eggs, bacon, and toast back home. I don’t know if there’s any real “evidence” of haejang guk actually helping with a hangover as much as the fact that it’s very hearty and soothing when you need it most.
I’m at it again with John Dunphy from the blog JPD Does ROK and a new friend JuKyung.
We scoped out a few different restaurants before we settled for Seoul Kkakdugi, a popular restaurant chain in Korea. I always eat at one of the locations in Nampo-dong and it’s one of my favorite go to places here in Busan.
If you haven’t tried haejang guk yet, definitely give it a go. Don’t worry, you don’t have to have it with the ox blood. Ours actually didn’t have any in it.
The post Eating Korean “Hangover” Soup While Sober (Haejang Guk 해장국) appeared first on Red Dragon Diaries.
ESL, Travel, and Judo!
This is a re-post of a piece I just published at The Diplomat this week. And that picture is Clausewitz. I attended a strategy training seminar this past summer at Columbia (apply for it if you’re in a PhD track; it’s excellent). So this stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. And what would a blog about security be without ostentatiously name-dropping Clausewitz once in awhile so I look smart?
Actually I am kind of skeptical of these big ‘doctrinal’ or ‘grand strategy’ statements. Is it really even possible to burn down the complexities of US foreign policy all over the world into some kind of pithy statement, or a few paragraphs? I doubt that is even possible. I suppose if you are a micro-state like Panama or Tuvalu, these exercises are manageable. But for large states like the US, I think it is easy for such debates to become scholastic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pinhead sorts of things. And frequently, these sprawling, meta-statements fly out the window when events don’t follow the ‘strategic’ guidelines or expectations. This has certainly been the case in dealing with North Korea, where I have repeatedly defended the Obama line of ‘strategic patience’ against the critique that its lacks a ‘strategy.’ Just look at how many big ideas for dealing with North Korea have crashed and burned. It makes one wonder what the point is at all. Keeping deterrence firm and not getting rooked by the Norks is pretty good without elaborate, fanciful power-points on to disarm the KPA in 20 years.
So give Obama break. The most important thing is making the world a little more liberal, a little more democratic, a little more capitalist from presidency to presidency. There is no huge need for some major, complex intellectual edifice for that, because events will often invalidate anything more detailed than that. Just look at how President Bush more from anti-Clintonian realist to uber-Wilsonian democracy promoter overnight. Ultimately, it is US behavior that matters, not some paragraphs in the NSS that only Washington think-tankers read.
Anyway, here’s that essay:
“It is something of a Washington truism that presidents must have a ‘doctrine’ attached to their name. And certainly, as presidents enter their ‘legacy’ years – where Obama is now – pressure grows to find some kind of definitive statement of what the last messy six or seven years were all about. US presidents enjoy enormous autonomy in foreign policy, unlike at home, where they face Congress and long-standing interests groups. So the space for their personal predilections to shape foreign policy are wide.
Nevertheless, it is often hard to figure out what this means – a grand strategy for the whole world and the US’ place in it sounds like herculean metaphysical task, and changing events often dictate large swings in policy. President Carter famously came in determined to focus US foreign policy on human rights, but he morphed into an unexpected hawk due to the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The doctrine that bears his name today sounds nothing like what he says today. Similarly, George W. Bush entered the White House determined to focus on traditional great power politics, but emerged from the 9/11 catastrophe as a global democratic revolutionary.
Strategy is often defined as connecting ends to means. George W Bush may have wanted global democracy in his heart, but this was simply impractical for the United States to achieve. In order to force a level of realism and clarity on presidents’ foreign policy behavior, the US Congress actually mandates a yearly “national security strategy” be published by the White House. But presidents rarely meet that goal, and often the NSS is windy and imprecise. The current one, the only one from this president so far, dates to 2010.
Looking instead at the actions of President Obama, four ‘doctrinal’ elements stand out:
1. Restraint – but not decline
The president genuinely seems wants to husband US resources for long-term challenges like China and a war on terrorism that will not seem to go away. He is wary of the quagmires that beset his predecessor. They were costly blunders – hence the president’s line ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ – which America needs to avoid to contend with emerging powers in the future, most obviously China. This is often understood by conservatives and hawks as ‘embracing decline.’ Obama, they contend, is allowing American ‘leadership’ to slip away, because he will not use force more frequently.
But this implies that Obama’s rhetoric and behavior are somehow causing the relative decline of the US, when in fact, it is the continued, long-term growth and maturity of the former third world. The globe is ‘filling up’ with wealthy functional states outside of the West. As places like the BRICS or G-20 states become wealthier and more politically stable and capable, it will be harder and harder for the US to push its preferences on them. This is not a question of US leadership or national will; it is the long-term structural outcome of globalization, specifically the spread of global capitalism and the management revolution it has brought to previously wasteful, dysfunctional economies like India and China. The US is not in absolute decline; it is not Rome in the 5th century. Instead it is more like Britain after WWII – reasonably strong, but facing a wide, restive, nationalist, and increasingly capable world. As the former third world mobilizes and modernizes, the US will no longer overawe as it did in the 1990s. Obama sees this and is husbanding US resources for what really matters in the future (Asia). Hence his notion that nation-building starts at home.
2. Allied Free-Riding
It is also increasingly clear that Obama sees US ‘leadership’ as an excuse for US allies to duck burden-sharing. This is a well-known problem of course. In an important column recently, Gideon Rachman noted the ‘learned helplessness’ of America’s allies, that the US now accounts for 75% of NATO defense spending, while that figure was 50% during the Cold War. There are similar problem in East Asia and in the Middle East, where allies are happy to push China and ISIS onto the US. But as the ‘Rest’ rises, as the global system fills up with capable states outside the West, US global room to move will naturally diminish. In such a dense environment, it will be impossible for the US alone to continue as post-Cold War globocop without serious overextension.
Obama’s reticence to commit US force is an effort to push locals to do more. In Ukraine, his foot-dragging makes sense given that the EU is the front-line state to the conflict and will eventually own the outcome whether it wants to admit that or not. Similarly, Obama’s reticence on ISIS and Syria is an effort to avoid tying the US to often parochial, reactionary agendas of local players such as Nouri al-Maliki or Saudi Arabia.
This focus was inevitable. As relative decline erodes the ‘unipolar moment,’ the US will need more allies to do more. The unilateralism of the Bush administration backfired badly even back then, before financial crisis and rise of China signaled relative decline.
3. Asia (read: China)
Obama also clearly recognizes the growing importance of Asia. The ‘pivot’ is the closest thing we have had yet to a ‘vision thing’ big idea from this administration. I have actually been fairly skeptical that the US can pull off the ‘rebalance.’ Elsewhere I have argued that US cultural ties with Europe make it hard to escape NATO free-riding, while the theological interest of US evangelicals in both Israel and Islam make it similarly hard to pull out of the Middle East.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the inflow of dedicated US assets, not just in the navy but other branches too, that the US military is ramping up in Asia. Congress may not care for Asia much beyond endless conflicts over trade-rules, but Obama clearly does.
4. The Middle East is a sinkhole of US power
The flip side of that interest in Asia, is Obama’s increasingly obvious desire to stay out of the Middle East. In retrospect, it seems as though he regrets the Afghan surge of his first term. He also seems to have learned from Libya that regime change is a recipe for chaos, even if the dictator is tyrant. Hence the obvious interest in avoiding intervention in Syria and his strong insistence on no ground troops in the coming clash with ISIS. He has also pushed through the Iraq withdrawal and is doing the same in Afghanistan.
Does all this add up to a doctrine, much less a grand strategy? Probably not; it feels more like a collection of post-Bush impulses. If there is a guiding theme, I would say ‘caution and Asia.’ Obama is clearly willing to use force, but he is more concerned about its unintended consequences than much of the Washington establishment. And his restraint is not because he is spineless or a declinist; it is a husbanding of US national power for the real challenge of the future – not Putin, not ISIS, but large, wealthy, nationalist Asia.”
Filed under: Hegemony, United States
When we left home to move to Korea, there was one huge worry on my mind- we were leaving behind England, and with it all the comfort of delicious British food. No more roast dinners, no afternoon teas, no proper English puddings. And to our horror when we arrived, no proper chocolate (apart from the dreaded Hershey’s which, in my opinion, is a poor excuse for chocolate and tastes like it’s a year past its sell-by-date).
So, we were leaving yummy old England to live somewhere which the only foods we knew people ate were rice, one of the most boring foods known to man, and ‘Kimchi’- something which we had never heard of and had only seen described as ‘fermented cabbage’… um, yum?
Not having the greatest expectations, we were pretty happy when we discovered that Korean food is actually pretty delicious. The Koreans have certainly been creative when coming up with new snack ideas and in many ways they’ve succeeded in producing good food. But it isn’t without a weirdness which leaves us Westerners interested, amused… and sometimes disgusted.
So here they are- the top 20 weird, and sometimes wonderful, Korean snacks which we have discovered:
1) Gimbap- The Best
These rolls of heaven are pretty much the same as futomaki sushi rolls- rice and seaweed wrapped around a delicious filling. In Korea, Gimbap is everywhere- it was actually the first thing I ever bought when we arrived in Korea at the airport, overcome with excitement at finding sushi for only 60 p.
The reason it’s so good is the variety of fillings- everything from tuna mayonnaise to spicy beef to ham to tofu. Along with the main ingredient, the rolls are filled with things like spinach, grated carrot, cucumber, egg, yellow radish, the list goes on…
Good as a snack or a lunch, you can buy Gimbap from fast food outlets, street food stalls, or 24 hour convenience stores. The best thing about it? A whole roll can have as few as 300 calories, so it has the added benefit of being healthy!
Best. thing. ever.
2) Sweet Garlic Bread- A Deceptive Loaf
This is one of Korea’s weirder taste combinations- garlic bread sprinkled with sugar (cheese pizza dressed with honey is a similar Korean oddity which I have so far avoided). I was excited for a taste of home when I bought some from a local bakery thinking that it was normal garlic bread. Needless to say I was confused when I bit into it expecting to taste something savoury and instead got a mouthful of sugar. What was this strange thing? Should I have it for dinner, or dessert?
It isn’t completely unpleasant, just more of a shock for unsuspecting Westerners. Still, if you’re the kind of person who likes your garlic with a bit of sweetness, this is the snack for you! If not, I’d avoid it.
3) Novelty Ice Lollies- The Most Imaginative Snack
Whoever thinks up ideas for Korean ice lollies deserves a medal for creativity. Take the watermelon ice lolly – it actually has chocolate pieces inside to look like Watermelon seeds, pretty impressive level of accuracy there. Or the corn ice lolly, made to look exactly like a corn on the cob and filled with cream.
Other designs include: ice lollies moulded like sharks and ice cream sandwiches made to look like fish. Endless fun, and even better- they actually taste good too. Win for Korea!
4) Flavoured Sausage Snack- The Babybel/ Cheese-string Hybrid which no-one asked for
I don’t know how to describe these, apart from as a cross between a Babybel and a Cheese-string. They come in different flavours such as cheese, which isn’t so bad, and fish… which is just too weird and which I wouldn’t advise trying. Ever.
But to make it clear for anyone about to try them, this rubbery, bendy snack doesn’t taste at all like a sausage, so don’t get your hopes up.
5) Sandwiches- The Worst Example of Fusion
Sandwiches aren’t massively popular in Korea- they don’t dominate shelves in the supermarkets or in cafes. But even if they are on the menu, the filling isn’t exactly what we Brits would expect.
No, the Koreans take a normal sandwich: chicken, ham or cheese, and add so many other ingredients that it ends up tasting like there’s a whole buffet of sandwiches in your mouth at once (and that’s not a good thing).
Take the pictured example above, which is a sandwich at our school lunch. We were initially delighted to see sandwiches- but then we took a closer look and saw that it wasn’t your ordinary cheese-and-coleslaw filling… some genius had decided to add jam to the mix. And from the happy faces of students and colleagues alike munching away happily, this is obviously a hit combination in Korea.
I, however, remain unconvinced.
6) Dried Ramen- The Kids Favourite
This one is quite easy to try at home: get a packet of instant ramen, sprinkle on the flavouring, shake it all together in the packet… and eat. No cooking involved. Goodness knows what raw ramen does to your digestive system, but the people here don’t seem to mind.
I have to admit I haven’t tried it, preferring my noodles cooked. But you can try it with a packet of super-noodles and make your own mind up.
7) Spiral Potato Stick (Tornado Potato)- The evolution of the Curly Fry
This street-food snack is pretty similar to curly fries, only more fun to eat. Deep-fried, salty, delicious potato goodness- you can’t really go wrong!
8) Imitation Crisps- Another Creative Snack
Here we see the same pattern as with the imaginative ice lollies: Koreans imitating real foods, only this time in crisp versions. You can find french fry crisps, onion ring crisps, even fried chicken crisps.
Combine a bag of the fried chicken and a packet of the french fries with some vegetable crisps, and you can make an entire meal. Pretty tasty (although probably not the most balanced dinner).
9) Red Bean Bun- The Crowd Divider
This is similar to marmite- most people love or hate red bean. It takes some getting used to, admittedly, a sweet bean paste with a texture similar to peanut butter.
The first time I picked up a red bean bun, I thought it was actually going to be chocolate inside, and similarly to my garlic bread experience was confused when I bit into it. Luckily for me I fall into the ‘love’ category so wasn’t disgusted unlike some people I know who’ve made the same mistake!
And for those who like red bean- it’s much healthier than chocolate, so you can finally have a good excuse to hit the bakery, guilt free. Definite positive!
10) Rice Cakes- A Poor Excuse for Cake
I was quite excited to try Korean cakes… that is until I ate some and realised that they aren’t cakes at all.
It’s quite hard to describe Korean rice cakes- try to imagine chewing on a congealed lump of rice, (sometimes lukewarm, most of the time cold), with little taste and which leaves you with an uncomfortable bloating feeling in your stomach. Sometimes there might be a few raisins or beans in the cake, but that doesn’t make it much better.
Unfortunately Koreans love the things and they are everywhere. They’re also a very popular gift to exchange, especially for national holidays- the equivalent of mince pies or Easter eggs- but sadly without any of the deliciousness.
11) Fish Jerky- The Unexpected Delight
This is the beef jerky equivalent, and a popular snack. It’s tasty and healthy and even more delicious when heated- a good way to do this is to barbecue the fish (pictured) so that it ends up warm and crispy.
This snack is a definite winner for me. Just one piece of advice- skip the dried squid. Not only does it look unpleasant, but chewing on a rubbery tentacle isn’t the most appealing thing, as you can see in the picture below.
12) Jollypong- The Breakfast Cereal Snack
This is basically a bag of sugar puffs (although they do also come in chocolate flavour). If you like dry cereal (which luckily I do), then this is for you. If not, they are at least useful to keep in the house as an emergency cereal back up in case you unexpectedly run out.
13) Cheesecake- Same Name, Very Different
This is another Korean food which shouldn’t fool you by it’s normal name. Because this snack does not in any way resemble Western cheesecake with its lovely biscuit base and sweet, creamy topping.
No, this is literally cheese cake. As in, cake which tastes like cheese. Cheddar cheese in fact.
It’s about the same level in weirdness as Sweet Garlic Bread, but a lower level on taste. You’ve been warned.
14) Bappingsu- The Summertime Favourite
This refreshing treat tastes a whole lot better than it looks. It consists of a pile of ice shavings, topped with different things- milk, ice cream, syrup, fruit, sweets, cereal to name a few. The toppings mix with the ice to make a sweet mixture of yumminess, and it’s mainly ice, so it has to be healthy, right?
Warning- beware red bean. If you are a hater of red bean, make sure you get one with a different topping, as among Koreans the bean paste is probably the most popular flavour.
15) Pepero- The Most Addictive Snack since Pringles
These chocolate sticks of heaven are so good that there is actually a ‘Pepero Day’ in Korea, where you give packets of them to loved ones. Seriously.
They come in different flavours- dark, white, almond, strawberry, cookie, and different sizes- for a special gift you can buy huge Peperos in a special gift box.
The only bad thing about them is that it’s too easy to eat a whole box (or two) without thinking. Oops.
16) Tteokbokki – Korean Comfort Food
Made from rice, these are savoury versions of the previously mentioned rice cakes. Apart from that in this form, they are delicious. Similar to Gnocchi in texture, the rice cakes are served warm and in sauce (usually tomato flavoured and spicy, although it depends what type you buy). You can even buy cheese-filled Tteokbokki, which is just amazing.
Most popular as a street food, Tteokbokki is comforting, wholesome and also incredibly cheap to buy. Pretty much everything you could ever want in a snack.
17) Silkworm Pupae- The One Which even Koreans Hate
If you’ve ever wanted to try boiled silkworm, Korea is the place to come. Not only is this snack served as street food, but you can also buy the silkworm snack in cans at convenience stores- very handy if you have a quick craving!
I can’t honestly say I’ve tried eating this as even Koreans have warned me against it- 99% of those I’ve spoken to don’t like it, but it’s still sold in abundance in food markets so someone must be eating it. As for me, I think I’ll continue to avoid it.
18) Choco Pies- More a cake than a Pie
This is a favourite among adults and children alike. Imagine a more cake-like Wagon Wheel and you’ve got it. Sweet and full of marshmallow, this is one sweet treat which is good in Korea. Just don’t be fooled by the word ‘Pie’- this is a cake, plain and simple.
19) Chocolate Rocks- Smarties from the Stone Age
Chocolates which look like stones? Why not?
Whatever the inventor of these chocolates was thinking, we don’t care- they taste good, which is frankly the only thing we care about when eating chocolate.
20) Seaweed Crisps
Korea was way ahead of the kale crisp trend, with their own Seaweed Crisps. These thin strips of roasted, seasoned seaweed are full of salty, delicious flavour and are a great alternative to potato crisps.
With as few as 20 calories in a pack, Seaweed crisps are a completely guilt-free snack which is packed with antioxidants, and a good source of potassium too.. it would be a crime not to eat!
So there you have it- a select group of Korean snacks, from the delicious to the disgusting. That’s not to say there are many more foods which could be on the list: if you ever fancy a waffle-on-a-stick (a ‘long-ffle’), a rice burger or some chicken feet, Korea is the place to be.
Oh, and when you’ve finished eating your snack, you can clean your teeth with pine-tree flavoured tooth paste… sound good?
© KATHRYN GODFREY
From the very start, the woman who owns the building has been incredibly kind to me. I think she worries about me, since I live alone in a foreign country, without any family nearby. I still remember hurrying to the door, in the middle of unpacking a giant suitcase, to receive a plate of grapes. While it shocked me at the time, little did I know it was only the first of many kind deliveries at odd hours. Homemade kimchi and sikhye, more grapes, pears and even, on one memorable occasion, an extra plate of jajjangmyeon.
Her husband is a bit more intimidating, despite his rather small stature. He speaks with a gruff voice, barking out short statements and scowling, so for a long time I was kind of scared of him. However, as the weeks and months went by and my Korean improved, I realized that was just his style. Every time I left my apartment, he'd ask where I was going, and tell me to go and come back safely. If it was late, he'd tell me to be careful. If I struggled to find my keys in the detritus at the bottom of my purse, he'd get the door open for me.
While our day to day interactions are nice, it's during holidays that their kind and welcoming attitude really shines. I experience this first back in January, during the Lunar New Year. Unlike the new year in the US, this is less a time to go out with friends and more a time to stay home and eat a meal with your family; it's a bit like Christmas in that way.
Anyways, for various soju and videogame related reasons, I'd been up pretty late the night before, so my landlady knocking (more like banging. she's surprisingly strong) on my door around 9 AM woke me from a deep sleep. Assuming it was just a package or possibly more grapes, I stumbled to the door in my pajamas, glasses askew, only to have it slowly sink in that not only was she asking me (in Korean) if I had eaten yet, but she was inviting me upstairs to join her family. I managed to mumble something along the lines of “No I haven’t eaten/just a minute please/thank you”.Considering that even basic English is often a challenge for me within 30 minutes of waking up, I considered even that much Korean to be a serious accomplishment.
Still in a blur, I threw on some halfway decent clothes, slapped on enough makeup to keep me from looking like a zombie, and tried to mentally prepare myself for meeting an unknown amount of people who probably didn’t speak any English. Apparently I didn’t gather myself fast enough, though, because my landlord also came down to invite me up. I guess they were worried I hadn’t understood? Or I thought I’d gone back to sleep?
Fortunately, the family was pretty laid back. When I knocked on the door, they quickly ushered me into the living room and made me sit and eat soup with the older daughter and son-in-law and grandson, Shion. Somehow, the kid was the only one whose name I learned. Fortunately, the son-in-law was pretty good at English, so when my broken Korean fell apart, he was able to help out. The food was delicious: rice cake and dumpling soup, fresh fruit, and various side dishes. I think most of the family had already eaten, because they were lounging around watching TV, while my landlady kept pushing more and more food at me. If I stopped eating for even a moment, she would give me a slice of apple or a strawberry on a tiny fork. I guess grandmothers are the same no matter where you go.
As my natural awkwardness in unfamiliar situations started to fade, I began to feel a bit like I was spending a holiday with my own family. A bit too full of food, sleepy, and vaguely watching television as my landlord puttered away at his craft project and the grandson and son-in-law played silly games on the floor.
|The polaroid camera must have been a Christmas present.|
However, the most surprising moment came when it was time for the family to do the traditional bows and greetings and giving of New Year’s money. I knew what was happening, but as the tenant guest I assumed that I would not be included. I’m not family, and a foreigner besides, so why would I butt in? Wrong! Not only did they push me forward to bow and greet the grandparents (which I managed to do without stammering or falling over), they even gave me some money! I was shocked, and so happy. They sent me home with kimchi and fruit, and a warm feeling of being adopted into yet another family.
|I wasn't able to fit all the food in the picture.|
You know what else was crazy? The amount of food. As you can see, they'd cooked enough to feed an army. Rice cakes, soup, bulgogi, some kind of beef dish, kimchi, various fried vegetables, japchae...I was completely overwhelmed.
Apparently in the months that have passed since new year's everyone forgot that I'm capable of using chopsticks, so I had to undergo the usual volley of questions. Can you eat spicy food? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like kimchi? Yes, yes, and yes. My landlady especially loved the fact that I liked her kimchi. As she explained to me with a laugh, her husband, her son and grand-daughter all don't like kimchi. I managed to get in a bit of a joke there, asking the son if he was Korean, to which his mom replied that he's probably an alien. Apparently my humor is only effective on old people and children. Not entirely sure what that says about me...
After eating more than I thought was possible, we all settled into a comfortable and sated quiet in front of the television, which is when I discovered that my landlord is a minor local celebrity. He makes these amazing sculptures and containers out of folded paper, and the best thing is, the paper he uses is recycled takeout menus, coupon books, and ticket stubs. Apparently this caught the attention of a local tv crew, because suddenly there was my neighborhood on tv, with reporters following my landlord around as he gathered the materials he needed.
|This was my favorite.|
|Want to move in?|
|A small selection of the full collection.|
He must spend most of his time on this hobby, and it's really adorable how proud of his work he is. When he caught me taking some pictures of the collection, he insisted on getting a shot of him sitting in front. He even gave me a small one! I haven't quite decided what to use it for, but I know I'll treasure it.
|Hard at work.|
|Hard to believe it's made from coupons and train tickets!|
I've found a new place to live, but it's not far. It's probably not likely, but I hope I'll be able to stay in touch with this incredibly kind and generous family. I wish it were easier for me to tell them how much I appreciate all they've done for me. I guess it's motivation to get back to work on my Korean studies, huh? A friend suggested I write a letter in Korean, but so much of what I want to say is way above my level. Being so far from family is one of the hard parts about living over here, but if I keep meeting people like this, I know I'll be able to survive.
On July 29th, The International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song and Communications Coordinator Hwang Jeong Eun met with Sunyoung Kim, the chair of the Samsung Electronic Service Union for the Yeongdeungpo District in Seoul of the Korean Metal Workers Union to talk about the union’s struggle and their trailblazing as the first union recognized by Samsung.
Can you give us a brief background to the Samsung Electronic Service Union?
We started the union because of the harsh working conditions. Sometimes, we might work 12 to 13 hours a day, and still not make the minimum wage. You might come to work on Saturday or Sunday from 8 to 6 PM and come out on the minus. Why? Because you didn’t get paid, but you still had to pay for lunch and gas. You even had to pay for your own training from Samsung. In addition, our work is dangerous, whether it is installing air-conditioning, or climbing a wall, or working with live electricity. Despite these dangers, the company doesn’t provide any safety equipment. We have to wear neckties even when working with moving parts. They force us to wear dress shoes even when working on a roof in the rain. Why? For the sake of maintaining a clean and professional image.
How can a person work 12 to 13 hours a day and not even get paid the minimum wage?
It’s a system based on commission. There is no base pay. You are basically a freelancer. You come in to work, and if there is work you work if there is not then you just stay in the office. However, while a real freelancer can decide whether or not to show up to the office, we have a specified clock in and clock out time. When there is work, we just keep working. In the summer, there’s a lot of work: air conditioning, refrigerators. So, we just keep on working until everything is done. Not only is working such long hours exhausting, it is also exhausting doing so in the summer heat. Sometimes you don’t get home until 12 AM and can’t even rest on the weekends. That’s when we make our money that carry us through the fall, winter, spring when there is little work. In these off seasons we might sometimes just get one or two calls in a day and since we get paid by commission, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.
You have to at least pull off 5 or 6 jobs a day to make 1.5 million (about $1,500) a month. And that doesn’t include gas, your tools, your training which you have to pay out of pocket. I’ve worked at Samsung Electronics Service for about 15 years. So, in some ways, I am part of the upper echelons of the workers. I made 50 to 60 million won a year on average. So, the pay was enough. I worked hard and worked until late. I also accumulated a lot of know-how and developed relationships with customers. But, I was part of the minority, maybe I fell within the 15 percent of highly skilled and experienced workers. The rest, they are not in the middle, they are all at the bottom. There is no middle in this system. There are those that make a lot and those that don’t make enough. Those on the lower levels make about 20 million a year. That’s why the conditions are so poor.
The commission system pits us against each other. If I finish my work just a little faster, then I can finish two instead of one. The majority don’t have enough steady work. There’s not much one can do, other then parcel out one or two of my assignments to them. The company is unwilling to take responsibility for these workers.
When you are organizing a union, you have to build worker solidarity, but the system itself creates competition among the workers. Did that make it difficult to organize?
If we look at our system, we can see that it breeds selfishness. In the Yeongdeungpo branch, we originally organized 80 workers. But, it collapsed and only 24 members remain. The owner of the service branch planted the seeds of doubt: “Do you really think you can beat Samsung?” “Just do your work properly.” “I’ll give you more work if you quit the union.” “I’ll give you less work if you don’t.” So, 70% of the union members dropped out. When Choi Jong Beom killed himself, it had a huge impact on us. Before, we were just a Kakaotalk (a smartphone messaging application) union, but after his death those of us that remained began to meet in Seoul. So, while there weren’t many of us left, our union grew stronger. While we might be a fraction of what we were in the beginning, we are stronger now than before.
What are your demands?
At first we were demanding that we be made into Samsung regular workers. Samsung was directing us, training us, so it just made sense that we would be working directly under them. Now our demands are just improved working conditions. Being an engineer, fixing things with my hands, was my childhood dream. But, the company only cares about using us to make money. We want Samsung to appreciate and nurture our skills. That means paying us decently. We are asking for a basic wage in addition to the commission. Ultimately, we want to move towards a fixed monthly wage. Workers get stressed not knowing how much they will make in a particular month. Also, we want people’s skill and experience to be acknowledged. Right now, there is no difference given between a one year or a twenty year worker. They are treated as the same. After the collective bargaining, about 50% of our problems have been solved.
Where is the struggle right now?
When we went back to our service centers after concluding an agreement, the owners of the service centers say they will not recognize the union. They refuse to honor it. Under the agreement, if workers bring their receipts for gas, cell phone usage, for their meals, then the owner needs to reimburse them. The owners refuse to recognize this and just say, “We paid for it already. I’m going to keep paying you as I did before.” So, we are struggling against the branch owners. But ultimately, this isn’t about the branch owners, it’s about Samsung who is directing them.
So right now we have about 1,600 Samsung Electronics Service union members. Previously, we had about 6,000. Many left because they are afraid of what the company will do to them. So our focus will be to organize them. It hasn’t yet sunk in, but people around us tell us we should be proud that we, subcontracted workers, broke Samsung’s 76 year union-free history. I think it is these people that stood in solidarity with us that played a huge part in our victory. Many of them are more experienced union organizers, and we are a new union, so these seniors give us guidance on where we should go, how we should organize workers and the non-unionized centers. On August, we are going to organize the non-unionized centers.
Have things improved?
So according to the collective bargain agreement, the company needs to follow the labor laws. That means that if we work over 40 hours a week, we should get overtime. We are supposed to get paid holidays. And as I mentioned before, the company should refund 100% of the costs of gas, parking, equipment, cell phone, and leased cars. We also won a basic 1.2 million won a month wage. But, the best thing is that the owner can’t unilaterally change work policy: he has to negotiate with the union. They can’t just take us for granted. I mean all this should just be the given.
So what’s still missing?
The first thing is that we don’t yet have a 100% fixed wage. The second one is that the collective bargaining agreement contains vague and difficult to understand wording. We are an inexperienced union and because we rushed the negotiations, there is a lot in the contract that is vague and up for interpretation. That’s what we were struggling for in the 40 day occupation at Seocho and what we are fighting for at the branch level now: a more clear collective bargaining agreement.
How can people in Korea or abroad help?
I learned that there are 10 million irregular workers. In the case of Samsung and LG, they are a world class corporation, but in their pursuit of profit they outsource and sub-contract. This wouldn’t be a problem if they paid decent wages and created a stable system. But that’s not the reality. Companies like Samsung are shiny and nice on the outside, but the inside is different. When I tell people about the working conditions that I face, they ask me, “Are you telling me that there are still companies like that?” I want to tell the world about the conditions we face working in these corporations so that we can stop them guard our rights. I want to be a dignified worker that can proudly wear the company logo on my shirt.
Now because of our struggle, those that install internet for SK, or LG U+ they are also awakening to the injustice of their situation. They are realizing how similar and unjust their work is which does not guarantee a basic wage. I want to let those in Korea and abroad know our conditions so that we can improve them.