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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave his big speech on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II last Friday. There has been a torrent of comment, much of pretty positive. Jennifer Lind made the good points that a speech like this would have been remarkable by almost any other head of state/government, and that no other imperialists in Asia’s past are lining up to apologize (ouch). So, I agree, it is pretty remarkable compared to the usual nationalist bluster we expect from heads of state and government on such occasions (think Putin the thug).
But it still ducked a lot, and it pretty clearly played up the very wrong, very revisionist WWII ‘victim narrative’ in Japan. That is, that Japan was a victim in the war, because of the atom bomb drop, and/or that its people were dragged into the war by a gang of militarists who didn’t represent the nation. Those interpretations are generous to say the least. Pretty hard to square kamikaze raids and ritual suicide with that.
The following comments were originally written for the Nelson Report. I thank Chris for soliciting me.
“Abe didn’t really say anything remarkable. This won’t lead to a regional breakthrough. He was clearly speaking to his domestic audience and Japan’s former opponents simultaneously, which is why the language is so bland and diplomatic, both exculpatory and regretful at the same time.
A few things leapt out at me:
1. The context provided was that Japan’s early imperial efforts were somehow anti-colonial. For example, colonized people everywhere were apparently thrilled that Japan defeated Russia in 1905. That is pretty self-serving, not to mention inaccurate. The idea that Japan’s use of force in the first half of the twentieth century was to prevent Western domination of East Asia has a been a right-wing historiographic trope in Japan for awhile. But it is far more accurate to say that Japan was mimicking what is saw the West doing in places like India and Africa. There was nothing ‘liberatory’ about Japan’s conflicts, especially in Northeast Asia were Western domination was not a real threat. Japan was empire-building, just like Western states a generation earlier, and it would help a lot if Japanese conservatives would simply admit this.
2. Little agency is admitted. Colonialism and the Pacific War just seem to happen. So “Japan took the wrong turn,” which makes it sound like Japanese decision-makers didn’t actually purposefully and extensively plan the imperial venture over decades, complete with blatantly aggressively moves like Pearl Harbor. This is another rightist historiographic chestnut – that war was someone forced on Japan or that it just came about as a natural outcome of international politics.
3. There wasn’t much on the specifics of the Army’s harshness toward the peoples it overran – no mention of Nanjing, Unit 731, the comfort women system (which was empire-wide, not just in Korea), Bataan, and so on. It’s pretty revealing of the gap between Japan and the rest of the world on this that atom bomb drop was mentioned twice, while the most the comfort women got was an oblique: “women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured.” There’s a lot on how Japan suffered in the war, without the obvious admission that Japan brought this on itself or that Japan’s leaders could have stopped the 1945 bombing campaign by surrendering much earlier.
Good grief. All this kinda makes you wonder what the Japanese put in their textbooks…
4. This won’t do regionally. The ROK and China won’t accept it. There’s far too much justification, avoidance, and self-pity. It’s too bad. This is likely the highest profile chance Abe will get to change the regional dynamic on Japan and the Empire, and he blew it. But I guess that’s just who he is. He really believes this stuff, it seems. Given that China and North Korea are not democracies, he won’t face much critical blowback. He can always point to their worse denialism and brutality. But for democratic partners, most obviously South Korea, this statement will do nothing to relieve the moral pressure Japan faces on history. A Park-Abe summit likely won’t happen, and I bet the South Korean reaction tomorrow morning will be tough.
All in all, a mixed effort that will not change anything regionally. A missed opportunity.
Filed under: History, Japan, World War II
“What are you doing here?”
It’s a question a lot of Vietnamese people probably want to ask me (or actually are asking me and I just can’t understand it) as they see me, a twenty-two year old white American female, browsing casually through the grocery store or studying for my LSAT in a cafe. Listening to music, sweating profusely in the heat. And alone. Always, always alone.
Tonight, my new coworker “Pierre,” a French guy masquerading as an American so he can teach English as a native speaker, invited “Curly,” my other coworker, to come with him to check out some local real estate and then grab dinner. I overheard this conversation and decided to invite myself. Figured it’d be nice to get to know my coworkers, and they are certainly a strange pair.
Pierre recently divorced his second wife. He gave her everything and cut off contact with her and his “psychotic” eleven year old child. They have no idea where he is now. He used to own four restaurants, and has been teaching English in Southeast Asia for about five months now. He wears a fuck ton of perfume and has been known to sunbathe in a black speedo at all hours of the day. Makes pedophile jokes, claims to have been a teenage model. I kind of like the guy.
Curly, on the other hand, has never married, although he did purpose to a Vietnamese woman he met in Saigon when he was “younger.” She kept the ring. He learned to speak Vietnamese by getting manicures in the greater Boston area. Why? So he could sell houses to Vietnamese people and get rich. He has visited Vietnam about five times. This time around, he’s been here for eight months. He looks like Big Bird from Seasame Street, and tells lots of PG jokes that are endearing yet not funny at all. He speaks almost fluent Vietnamese, and works as a volunteer at the language center because he does not want to work a lot of hours, and his main focus here is to improve his Vietnamese anyway.
Tonight, when I was hanging out with them at dinner, Pierre asked me the very question that has been hounding me ever since I unboarded the plane–no wait, ever since I left the womb: “What are you doing here?”
I took a sip of my Heineken (served over ice, per usual), and told him the truth “…….UHMMMM DURRR I’M FINDING MYSELF!!”
Just kidding. What I actually told him was my whole backstory situation. Korea, resume, applying to law schools in North Carolina, having a long distance lover, the works.
Annd as it turns out, two single, unlucky-in-love middle-aged men love telling sweet innocent twenty-two year old Nicoles how to live their lives. That it’s never going to work out their long distance boyfriends. That they should walk the Earth alone. And that, even if they did get married, it would all end in shambles.
Uhm, I’d like another Heineken, please?
Yes, my approach to life in Quinhon is certainly different from theirs at this time. I see my time here as a sort of incubation. When I’m not working, I’m spending literally all my free time either foraging for food, studying for the LSAT, or missing my boyfriend. It’s a life of self discipline and self denial. No comfort, no fun, and no intimacy all for what?
Uhm, durr I’m finding myself!!!!! I’m finding out that stress will follow you wherever you go, and that you need to do battle with it. I’m finding out that friendship in all its forms is precious, valuable, and as necessary as food to the soul. I’m finding out that I can, in fact, survive without coffee, cheese, tampons, ice cream, fresh salads, a cell phone, clean bathrooms, craft beer, two blankets on my bed, or the opportunity to converse fluently in my native tongue. I’m finding out that positive enforcement in the classroom is the only type of enforcement there should be, and that young children love violence and minor chords more than most things, but that’s okay. I’m finding out how that when you love someone 7,000 miles away, sometimes it hurts you so bad that your heart implodes, and that people will laugh at your pain. And I’m finding out that everyone has an idea about how your life should be, you should always listen yet never, ever let it change what’s in your heart.
Expats of the ROK, stop if you’ve heard this one: You can’t get “____” in Korea.
“I love Korea,” the imaginary newly-established English teacher from various western countries of the world of yesterday would say to other newly-established English teacher friends at the lone expat-friendly drinking establishment in town, over bottles of Hite because, you can’t get decent beer in Korea, and Hite’s at least better than Cass. “But, you can’t get decent cheese here. You can’t get avocados here. I would kill for some kettle-cooked chips. Powdered coffee is gross, some coffee beans would be nice. What about some toothpaste with fluoride? My teeth are going to rot out of my skull!”
He, or she (or it, let’s just be gender-neutral with our imaginary hero here) pulls back on its cold, dewy brown bottle of brew and makes a face. The beer is getting warm. It hears a rumbly in its tumbly. It is hungry. It needs to feed. While it enjoys Korean food (it is, after all, in Korea), it longs for comfort foods of home: club sandwiches from the diner, cereal that isn’t corn flakes or frosted flakes, and pizza. Especially pizza. Koreans just don’t understand pizza.
Let’s step away from our gender-less protagonist for now. Let’s also assume it must have done its Korean Tour of Duty somewhere not in Seoul, which for a time evolved its international tastes at a rate faster than the rest of this small East Asian nation. But, whether it (or, you, or me) were in the capital, a middle-tier city, or Busan, the second-largest city in the country, there have been a number of items, foods, things in general, that were simply unavailable here.
But, times have definitely changed. Anyone planning on coming to teach has probably pored through blog posts from other teachers in excitement, reading about how things are, how things aren’t. Mainly, how you’ll need to pack this or that before you come, or you should enjoy this or that before you leave your mother country, since you ain’t gonna get it here.
Much of that seems to have become redundant. All the big supermarkets have large varieties of wine and beer–not just sweet wines and standard Korean brews–and even a fair selection of liquors. Besides internationally-known beers, Korea’s Queen’s Ale, 7Brau and Be High, among others, are getting shelf time next to their standard American-adjunct-lager-styled big brothers. All the major convenience store chains today offer many of those beers, as well, often with some kind of “four for 10 (thousand won)” special. Craft beer, which came to Seoul a lot sooner, finally found its footing in Busan in 2013 when Galmegi Brewing Company opened beachside in Gwangan. Their success has resulted in the opening of several other locations, amidst an overall increase in “tap houses” that are serving a variety of both beers brewed in-house and elsewhere in South Korea. Looking through the menu at Owl and Pussycat last night, I noticed there wasn’t a Hite, Cass, OB or Max in sight.
Kettle chips are easy to find these days, whether in the supermarket or convenience store. Home plus sells a number of coffee beans, including store-branded 1 kg bags of Hazelnut and Colombian for 12,000 won (about $10.25. Some of those old blogs probably said the conversion from a won to dollar was pretty even. The good old days). And that’s just at the supermarket. Don’t even get me started on all the coffee in Korea (cheap plug for a concept I kind of abandoned a month ago). Cheeses of a large variety can be easily found in larger supermarkets, some of it a reasonable price. I’ve even seen Arm & Hammer toothpaste!
Avocados have gotten easier to find. I just picked up a few on discount at Top Mart in the middle of the week. Cilantro is still difficult unless you’re near a foreigner market area (like I am in Gimhae, which neighbors Busan to the west) and Mexican/Tex Mex food is still a bit hit or miss (non-existent here, improving in Busan).
Pizza has seemed to be one of the last holdouts. While even a decade ago, you could get mozzarella alongside yellow American cheese, it was waxy, flavorless and cheap. Korean pizza followed the model of places like Domino’s and Pizza Hut and as such most pies, whether from those two imports or home-grown establishments, tended to taste like derivations of Domino’s and Pizza Hut.
And if you were a person of a certain geographical background (I grew up in New Jersey. Tangent, but have you noticed when people are from countries like Australia, New Zealand or England, they’ll almost never say they’re from Sydney, Wellington or London? If you’re American like me, you’ll say you’re from New Jersey, like me. Self-centered assholes), you wished you could find a decent slice of pizza–like a decent beer, decent cheese, decent coffee, or a variety of cereals that weren’t coated in sugar. The slice you could fold, where a little grease dribbled through your fingers, with ingredients that didn’t taste like they only came from a bag, the kind you only seemed to get at home (again, assuming you’re from East Coast USA, and other places where good pizza is common).
Yes, you can get that in Korea now, too.
SOL Slice of Life Pizza is absolutely the pizza I grew up with in New Jersey. Everything I said good pizza (for me, at least) should be is there, including the most important (for the business): I cannot wait to go back. And, yes, I know the Kyungsung University area in Busan is a popular area for businesses to accumulate and doesn’t necessarily reflect the average neighborhood throughout South Korea. But even at that this is the first pizza like this I have ever had in Korea (I understand The Booth is also pretty good in Haeundae, but I’ve never gotten to try it. Actually, are they still even making pizza? Their website only lists their Seoul locations and beer only, nothing about pizza…).
It’s all very good (or bad, for one’s waistline, if such a thing concerns you) for those wanting a taste of home, creature comforts, things like that. But…
When I first came to Jinju, South Korea, in 2005 (the details of which that initial attempt at living a Korean life can be perused in greater detail here), I was a very green world traveler. I had only been overseas once, to the Czech Republic with a group in university. Going to South Korea, to live, was an eye-opening, scary experience (scary enough that I got the hell out of here less than two months later). And all of those creature comforts–cheese that wasn’t wrapped in a plastic sheet, avocados, coffees beans and takeout coffee cups bigger than your head–were nowhere to be seen. “Korean Style” fried chicken was already a thing, but the multitude of options were fewer and of a decidedly-less flashy variety, to be sure.
And everything felt so… different. True, some of that feeling was likely because I was so green, but Korea really has changed a hell of a lot in 10 years, especially in regard to its unrelenting march toward westernization. Newbies I talk to these days for the most part have said the culture shock they expected to face wasn’t nearly as bad, if there was any culture shock at all. I can’t help but wonder if some of the magic has been lost forever.
I guess I’ll just have to stuff my face with delicious pizza to numb that creeping sense of loss.
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.
We had such a great weekend trip together. Sad he’s leaving tomorrow for the States but we will see each other soon. ♡ #memories #happythoughts
There will be a Pride Walk in Hongdae tonight, Saturday August 15, organized through Club DGBG.
The party starts at 10:30 pm with the march at midnight.
Their Facebook event page has all the info, so if you are interested, check it out here.
So today Keykat and I made a bet to see who could get to the fountain at the park the fastest. Of course, I can run much faster than Keykat can (I think), so there's no way she'll win (or is there?). Anyway, I can't wait for Keykat to buy me lunch once I win!
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