Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #6: Ujangsan

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #6: Ujangsan

Suburbs

Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.

So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.

Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.

Everything old is new again

After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.

First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.

Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.

Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)

Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.

This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.

Building the future

If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.

We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #5: Daemosan

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #5: Daemosan

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.

And so it was on this particular April day, in this particular land, full of fresh flowers, tender crops for sale alongside the trails, birds making melody, when I felt the longing to head out into the mountains and found my way to a far hallow occupied by a Goryeo-era Buddha.

Up the mountain

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Daemosan is one of Seoul’s lesser mountains, only 300 meters or so and nowhere special, with none of the granite outcroppings that decorate the more impressive massifs. But it’s still a mountain covered in forest, it offers impressive views of Gangnam and Jamsil.

And best of all, it’s relatively uncrowded. Get away from Seoul’s top locations where absolutely everyone goes on a Saturday, and you don’t get solitude exactly — the trails were full of picnicking groups of hikers, mostly clusters of retirees — but you can at least escape the oppressive sense of swimming through a sea of people, which can follow you not just in popular market or nightclub areas, but even on the more popular hiking trails at places like Bukhansan.

We decided to head up to Daemosan Peak. As we entered the woods, we delighted in the fresh leaves of spring and the bright flowers everywhere. Soon the trail opened out onto a wide expanse of cemetery plots overlooking rows of low-slug, depressingly uniform apartment blocks: two different kinds of death facing off.

We edged around this spur of civilization, then began our ascent in earnest. If ever we were unsure of which way to go, we just followed the hikers, assuming that anyone in a mountaineering costume was probably headed to the same place we were.

On one of those steep stairways, we found a small bundle of folded cash. We tried calling ahead to the people up the trail, but no one noticed. Soon we passed a couple of young men who had stopped by the side of the trail and asked if it was theirs. “How much was it?” one of them asked, but his friend laughed and gave him a smack on the shoulder, and they admitted it wasn’t theirs. We left it where we found it, hoping either that its owner would come looking for it, or that it would be picked up by someone who needed it more than us. For all I know, it’s still sitting there waiting. Koreans can be spectacularly corrupt at a macro level, but tend to be surprisingly honest about little things like lost wallets.

Misemeonji

The Korean term for fine-dust pollution is the pungent misemeonji, and the air was full of it, obscuring the views from the top of Daemosan.

It was nice to rise above it for a bit.

Up at the top of the mountain, we took a break to eat our kimbap, and I observed a curious ritual involving half-buried tires. Older Koreans seem to feel that the mountain is the place to go to deal with an aching back — you can sometimes see a halmeoni smacking her back rhythmically against a tree — and the tires are a clever innovation. Basically, you just lie down on one to stretch out your back, and then you wave your arms around in circles. The stretch you get is more substantial than you might expect.

Will the real Bulguksa please stand up

_DSC0994On our way to Daemosan’s second, slightly higher peak, we saw a sign for Bulguksa temple and veered off to check it out. The temple, and the trails leading down from it, were decorated with lanterns in preparation for the upcoming Buddha’s Birthday holiday.

htm_201204270553937003710Bulguksa is the name of one of Korea’s most famous temples, way down in Gyeongju, but this was obviously not that Bulguksa. Still, it was a very old temple housing a Buddha that supposedly dates back to the late Goryeo Dynasty, some 600 years ago. Like most old things in Korea, it’s been endlessly repaired, so neither the temple nor the statue in its present form date back that far — the Buddha is covered in layers of plaster — but it was still interesting to sit for a while in the presence of something that’s been the focus of devotion for centuries. A side shrine at the temple was devoted to the mountain god, a good example of the way Buddhism has, over the years, provided something of a safe harbor for Korean shamanism.

From there, rather than heading back up for the second peak, we decided to call it a day and head back down. The trail descended gently through forests rich with flowers — magnolia, cherry blossoms, baby’s breath and more — before emerging into those rows of low apartment blocks and finishing up at Irwon Station.

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Bonus: New York Burger and Bagel

If you live in Seoul and eat food, you should know about A Fat Girl’s Food Guide. For our post-hike dinner, we took her advice on New York Burger and Bagel, on a quiet side street near Gangnam Station.

You know how when you’re looking for a Chinese or an Indian restaurant or whatever, you peek inside to see if there are any actual Chinese or Indian people eating? Well, in Seoul it’s Americans you look for. Not only did New York B&B have a bunch of American patrons, but there was an actual white girl cooking in the kitchen! That’s a rare sight indeed in Seoul. It makes a difference, I think, when the people preparing your food know what it’s supposed to taste like. The owner is a Korean-American who grew up in NYC, and the B&B Special was the best burger I’ve had in Korea — way better than Shake Shack, and without the lines.

 

Pride in Samsung

Pride in Samsung

Sejong was a very great king whose benevolence and personal sacrifice for the good of the people were unparalleled. Koreans work very long hours. The famous bell in Gyeongju is the greatest bell in the world, and Koreans invented astronomy. Bowing is important. We expats are agents of change who must learn to conform and adapt. Learn the language. Go out to dinners with the team. Be nice. Be likeable. Be direct and transparent, but be careful not to say anything to anyone about anything in a meeting. Korean is a high-context language. Find allies. Samsung is the best and also hard for everyone.

Above all, be patient.

These were among the things I learned, often repeatedly, during five long and intense days of global newcomer training at Samsung’s residential facility in Yongin, just outside Seoul.

I was skeptical going in — after six months, how much of a newcomer am I really? — but having completed the course, I’m glad I went. If I had to summarize the course content, I would divide it into three main areas:

  1. Samsung is amazing!
  2. How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong
  3. Typical corporate training stuff

Samsung is amazing!

Every morning we watched hokey corporate-boosterish videos with iffy English about Samsung’s mighty history and many divisions. But the thing is, even if you want to be kind of cynical about it, Samsung really is amazing.

The company made some audacious bets and smart moves through the years that transformed Korea: building color TVs before there was any color broadcasting in Korea and exporting them to Panama, then pouncing on the domestic market once color was finally introduced; going into semiconductors with zero infrastructure and clawing its way to first place; deciding to swing from back-of-the-store junk TV maker to design innovator to leap into first place globally. A bunch of my classmates were from Samsung Biologics, which is doing to pharmaceutical manufacture what Samsung did to TVs and semiconductors and smart phones: taking over, basically. And did you know that Samsung built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? Or that it’s floated the biggest ship hull in the world? I didn’t. (There were also, at times during the course, acknowledgements of failures, as well as of the ways that government and other sources provided support along the way.)

As a survivor of the dot-com boom and seven years at Google, I don’t swallow corporate narratives of glory uncritically. But Samsung, as a leader and driver of Korea, Inc., has really, genuinely done some amazing, audacious stuff.

To see some other sides of Samsung, we spent one afternoon mostly outdoors. First we went to Samsung Guide Dog School, a social responsibility program Samsung introduced into Korea when nothing like it existed. The school breeds labrador retrievers and places the puppies with volunteer families, who socialize them for a year. Then the pups come in for six to eight months of training. Seventy percent wash out and become pets, mostly with their volunteer families. Thirty percent are matched with a vision-impaired person for about ten years of work and companionship. When they retire, they go again to a volunteer family — often the same one as before — and get care for the remainder of their lives. The people who work for the program are dedicated to helping the disabled live full lives, and also to transforming Korea’s relationship with and image around dogs.

From there we headed to the lovely Ho-Am Museum and Hee Won Garden, set up in 1982 by Samsung’s chairman to house his collection of Korean art and reintroduce Korean Confucian garden landscaping to the public at time when little of Korean tradition was publicly celebrated.

How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong

 

I’ve been in professional life long enough to know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well. If colleagues in New York sometimes found me abrasive and aggressive, and if the gentle young Singaporean woman in our training has been called out for being too direct and confrontational, then I must be Bill O’Reilly to the Koreans I work with. It’s not fun to see where you’ve screwed up the social relations that are so important anywhere, but especially in Korea. I realize that I have work to do when I get back to the office on Monday.

But it was also reassuring, in a way, to hear the same experience from everyone — from others in the course, from a panel of expats who’ve re-signed at least once, from an expat success story who’s starting his own spin-off company, from a Korean-American vice president. The Samsung expat narrative is this: I came on too strong, I suffered for it, I learned to be patient and hold back and pick my battles, and I survived.

Beyond that, we had sessions on bowing and etiquette (don’t stick your spoon in your rice bowl!), videos on Korean history, a chance to try on hanbok. A lot of this, for me, was old hat, but I could see that it meant a lot to my colleagues who are new to Korean culture, and I’m sure it will be helpful to them in getting along here.

Typical corporate training stuff

On top of the Korean culture stuff and the Samsung stuff, we also had some typical corporate stuff: a creative brainstorming workshop, a session devoted to setting out our vision for the next year. I think this sort of training is especially valuable for the younger employees, but I was surprised by just how many of the experienced professionals had never done anything like it. It made me realize how lucky I was to get all the training Google gave me: courses on personal branding and managing my energy and accomplishing my dreams, four days of leadership training in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I learned what color I am (orange), workshops on unconscious bias, a regular process of setting and measuring goals.

It’s more of a challenge to get this sort of enrichment at Samsung, at least in Korea, because so much of it is done in Korean. Even if the material was, for me, a bit of a repetition, it was good to see that Samsung is at least making an attempt to bring professional development to its foreign employees.

Samsung is people

The best part of the course, by far, was the people. I met some amazing people from a bunch of parts of the company I never knew existed — Biologics, Bioepis, Fire and Marine Insurance, Global Strategy Group. I met people from India who live in my building, and people from the US, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, Colombia, Iran, Puerto Rico. We ranged from fresh out of college to senior managers with a lot more experience than me. It’s good to have made these new friends. As expats, we can help each other to adjust, stay sane, and understand what’s going on around us.

On Monday I’ll go back to my job and dive right back in, I suppose, but this time with a broader sense of where it fits into the bigger Samsung picture and of what I can do to play my part successfully.

Happy Korea

Happy Korea

The challenge for Koreans is to establish the vision of the happiness of the individual and shake off the old values and habits that stand in the way. That would seal their miracles.

-Michael Breen, The New Koreans

During my week of Samsung training for global newcomers, we were asked to think about big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs, as they’re known). Mine dawned on me on the bus ride home: I want to make Korea happy.

Not happy campers

According to the World Happiness Report, South Korea ranks 56th in national happiness. That’s not so bad out of 155 countries, but you’d think a prosperous democracy with low unemployment would do better than to sit sandwiched between Romania and Moldova. South Korea is also in second place for suicide rate. Young people here call the country Hell Joseon (the name of the last dynasty). Work hours are too long, school hours are too long, no one can afford to get married or take the time to raise kids, conformity is stifling, pressure to succeed and look good is overwhelming. The older generation is dour and haunted by deprivation; the younger generation is frazzled and overworked.

Nor does Korea have much history of individualism, much less hedonism. A close friend once informed me, “Love is sacrifice.” At our Samsung training, we were told how our chairman gave up alcohol and took up fitness because personal transformation was necessary for corporate transformation. We learned that Hyundai’s chairman lived on-site during his company’s construction of the Seoul-to-Busan highway, sleeping in a jeep. We watched a video about King Sejong, who gave up any personal life to rule the nation and slept in a thatched hut for two years because he felt personally responsible for a drought. This is the Korean idea of virtue.

Choosing a new impossibility

On the face of it, South Korea looks like a poor prospect for happiest nation on earth. But if I’d told you in 1960, when GDP per capita was $156, that South Korea would be an economic powerhouse in 30 years, you might have said the same thing. Or if I’d told you in 1980 that South Korea would be a democracy by the end of the decade. Or in 2000 that its food, fashion, TV, movies, and music would be globally popular in less than twenty years. Or that it would lead the world in semiconductors, televisions, smart phones. South Korea has a habit of doing what seems impossible. It would be foolish to underestimate this country.

What counts, I think, is commitment. When Koreans decide, they go, fast and hard.

So the question is, Do South Koreans want to be happy?

My BHAG

I think Koreans do want to be happy. They’re beautifying their cities, talking more about work-life balance and self-actualization. But it’s hard still for them to articulate the idea of personal happiness.

And that’s where maybe I can help. I’ve had a lot of training in happiness. As an American, I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. And maybe the reason I’m here in Korea is to share that understanding — that whole way of thinking — with Koreans.

For now, that will come in small ways: trying to bring that spirit to my work life, sharing it with my friends, working on learning the language and the culture so I can engage more deeply. Further down the road, I want to look at how I can make this bigger. Much bigger.

For that, I’ll need help. If you like what I’m saying — if you believe in your heart that Koreans can be happy, should be happy, will be happy — then let’s talk.

Preferably somewhere fun.

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #4: Sinseol-dong and Seoul Folk Flea Market

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #4: Sinseol-dong and Seoul Folk Flea Market

Old Seoul

Dongdaemun is best known for its fast-fashion discount malls and the futuristic Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, but its markets sprawl in every direction. Head south and west, and you get to Seoul’s Central Asian district, with signs in Cyrillic and restaurants that serve horse meat. Head east, and the new gives way to the old.

From Dongmyo Station to Sinseol-dong Station is a vast district of indoor and outdoor antique shops and secondhand markets selling everything imaginable: old stereos, electric guitars, furniture, statues, piles of discount clothes, real and fake designer handbags, practice butterfly knives with dull blades, LED batons for guiding traffic, a framed portrait of dictator Park Chung-hee, celadon pots, terrible ink-brush paintings, toy cars, Harley Davidson leather vests, shoes with springs for soles, Japanese candy, life-size bronze statues of scantily clad women playing instruments, Southwest-style steer skulls, toy guns, Bowie knives, old Korean post boxes and school desks, stuffed animals, socks, watches, AM radios and hi-fi systems of every vintage, industrial detritus, tents, VHS pornography and a CRT TV to watch it on, Air Supply on LP, bronze bells with dokkaebi faces. For a start.

The patrons, too, are vintage, with a median age hovering around sixty. (In that way — and only in that way — it’s like shopping in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Sinseol-dong isn’t quite Seoul as it once was — there’s an awkward simulation of that on the top floor of the two-story indoor Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물사장), where we started out our day — but it’s more than just a market. Dongmyo is a place to come if you want to surround yourself with the things you remember from when you were young and the people who remember them too. The air of rough-and-tumble nostalgia is a respite from Seoul’s relentless new-and-shiny transformations and trendy upgrades. The going soundtrack is trot, Korea’s bouncy downmarket schmaltz-pop for the poorly educated elderly, and you can pull up a blue plastic stool at an outdoor food stall for some fish cake and a little makgeolli, or let yourself be entertained by the hawkers and hucksters shilling their wares on the street.

And it was packed. You hear that Korea has a demographic bulge of middle-aged people, but you don’t really feel it in Seoul’s more fashionable areas. Here, though, throngs of older Koreans filled the streets and alleyways. There were hardly any foreigners — not even from Asian countries — and only a scattering of young people in search of a vintage come-up. But there were older Koreans by the thousand.

Into the hills

_DSC0937After a few hours of crowds and musty things, we popped out onto Jongno, the main road, and spied a traditional pavilion up a steep hill to the north, in an area I’d never been to before. We started up into one of those precarious Seoul neighborhoods where the streets narrow down into uneven concrete staircases between the old houses. There are oddities tucked away in these areas: we passed a Buddhist temple, and also a hagwon for people who want to learn Hebrew, before emerging into the open space of Sungin Park (숭인공원).

One of the pleasures of Seoul is that you can see it from above, taking in its vast density from the rocky promontories that rise up out of it. It was a misty, dusty day, but we could see south to Namsan Tower, north to Bukhansan, and west to Inwangsan, picking out landmark skyscrapers in the basins far below us.

From the pavilion, the park extended northward and upward to several viewpoints, the highest of which was graced with an open library and a pretty extensive array of weights and gym machines, because that’s what Koreans like to put at the tops of mountains.

We decided to continue on to Daehangno, an art and culture district not too far away to the west. The path took us along a road that neatly divided new and old Seoul: on one side, elegant new apartment towers; on the other, brick buildings clinging to the mountainside, full of makeshift extensions, green plastic-lined roofs and mismatched brown earthenware onggi pots.

We passed Cheongnyongsa Temple (청룡사), then crossed into well-groomed Naksan Park (낙산공원), where a stretch of the old city wall soars over the city far below.

The cutest street in Seoul

We emerged from Naksan Park onto Naksan-gil, which has to be one of the cutest streets in all of Seoul. It’s a steep climb down, lined with galleries and boutiques, and I was delighted to stumble on U-noh Gallery. A few years ago I bought a couple of U-noh’s energetic flower paintings at the Hongdae Free Market for the paltry sum of 70,000 won. He now has a full gallery up above Daehangno, where he also does leather work and makes gorgeous painted handbags. It’s art you can probably afford and one-of-a-kind artisan leatherwork. Go check it out!

We rounded out the day with a tasty meal at Grill Thai Noodle & Steak, where you pick out your own veggies for your pad thai, and a little shopping at Hands Market, where I got bootleg Gentle Monster sunglasses for 14,000 won, plus a very profound hat.

 

Now It Can Be (Re)told

I started blogging in 2003. Back then my blog was called Between the Lines, and then it became Palaverist. Along the way, I had spinoff blogs: UNist, μ (sic), This Is Not a Sentence. In 2013, I finally came around to just using my own name.

It took some work, but I’ve now imported all of these blogs into joshphilipross.com. Importing from Blogger was pretty simple, but my earliest blogs were hosted on Angelfire, which is still around but lacks an export function. I had to copy and paste those blog entries one at a time, but they’re all here now, accessible through the Archive dropdown on the left side of this blog.

Fifteen years of posts

There are 1201 entries. This one will be 1202. That’s about one entry every four days for fifteen years, but of course they’re not evenly distributed like that. I didn’t post anything at all in 2012. My most prolific period was 2004 to 2006, when I was working (or not working) at a terrible marketing job, and then at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the UN, where I had a lot of free time. Also, that was before Facebook and Twitter, so links and one-offs that now land on social media were blog fodder in those days. The internet was a lot more primitive back then: I ran across the blog posts from when I discovered YouTube and Google Calendar, and there was no Wikipedia, no Urban Dictionary, no streaming music services. We bloggers did a lot of hand curating links back then.

A lot of those links are dead now. The old blog posts are a kind of record of what once existed on the web. I did a little cleanup, but not much. If the image is gone or the link is broken, that’s more or less that.

There’s an awful lot in all those posts. Some of what I said kind of embarrasses me now; not every hot take is a smart take. A few posts struck me as still pretty good. I’ll try to repost things to the front page from time to time, when they’re relevant or the mood strikes me. For now, it’s nice just to have it all in one place.

 

 

Smile Day

Smile Day

Today is Smile Day, which is what Samsung likes to call payday, when once a month they encourage us to leave early, though I usually leave around the same time I always do. The weather here has warmed enough that a post-work wander is pleasant, and this evening the concentration of yellow dust in the air fell to manageable levels, so I stopped off for some Indian food (cooked by Koreans).

Life is good these days. There are buds on the trees, work is interesting but relaxed for the moment, and I have a few interesting events coming up.

TOPIK

On Sunday I took the TOPIK I exam, a test of Korean proficiency that will help me get points toward a residency visa, which is the first step toward permanent residency and also means freedom to change jobs or not work for a while, though I plan to do neither of those things in the near future.

I was recovering from a cold, but the test was pretty simple — I was taking TOPIK I — and I’m confident that I got the 140 out of 200 points necessary to get Grade 2 and a corresponding 12 poins toward a visa. The hardest part of the test was probably just registering for it. To take it, they gave us special TOPIK pens that have one end for writing and a blunter end for filling in test sheet bubbles.

Life among the (three) stars

Things are quiet at work these days, outside of a couple of last-minute apps, as we approach the big product announcement. Right now, our team is testing the new devices, looking for English that isn’t quite up to snuff. It’s kind of fun, and also a reminder of why our work actually matters. When we get it right, we make powerful technology — apps, tools, functions — available and usable for millions of people.

Next week our team is taking the afternoon off to see a touring exhibition of Egyptian art from the Brooklyn Museum. Then I’ll be spending the first week of April at Samsung sleepaway camp: a weeklong training for foreign employees that my colleagues tell me involves a great deal of cheerleading for Samsung (whose name, I have learned, literally means “three stars”), and also an opportunity to learn about the company history, feel more a part of it, and meet people from divisions I know nothing about, like shipbuilding and construction and chemical engineering.

At the end of April, I’ll be headed to Sri Lanka a week off during Korea’s string of holidays — May Day, Buddha’s Birthday, and Children’s Day fall out on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday this year. The national election, on May 9, will also be a holiday, and hopefully a moment of celebration for those who hope for a more progressive Korea. At the end of the month is the Seoul Jazz Festival, with a bunch of amazing jazz and non-jazz artists: Jamiraquoi, Tower of Power, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Zion T, 10 CM, Epik High, Cecile McClorin Salvant, Diane Reeves. And May 20 will be the opening of Seoullo 7017, a park on a converted elevated highway that’s designed by the same landscape architects who did New York’s High Line.

Into the groove

I’m enjoying my life here. Getting into a bit of a groove with it. I went to a Purim party in Itaewon where I met someone who was (probably) CIA. I’ve found passable tacos and kebab sandwiches and New York pizza in my neighborhood and even been to the Shake Shack nearby. I’m doing a little home sprucing and redecorating (Coupang is a dangerous addiction), and maybe this weekend I’ll get down to the Yangje Flower Market and buy a mandarin tree for the balcony.

Spring (and a lot of yellow dust from China) is in the air!

 

Six Months, 10 Years, 42.5 Trips Around the Sun

Six Months, 10 Years, 42.5 Trips Around the Sun

Today is March 8, exactly half a year from my birthday, and exactly six months from when I arrived in Korea to stay. I arrived the night before with a work visa, which meant my 42nd birthday was my first full day living in Korea, not just traveling.

I’m still finding my way, at work and in my personal life. I still feel helpless a lot of the time, cut off by a language I feel like I should know better by now. I have friends here, some of them close, but I still feel new and disconnected. I’m an alien, so I suppose it’s not so strange that I feel alienated. It’s also exhilarating sometimes, and much of the time it’s just ordinary. I live here, go to work in an office, come home, sit on the couch, have a snack. Sometimes the very normality still weirds me out. I feel like I still have no idea how to make this work, even though I’m making it work.

3653 days at a time

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Sad Josh, circa 2008.

Today is also my sober anniversary. Ten years. No, I’m not celebrating with a drink.

Ten years ago, my life was a mess. My marriage was coming apart, I was quitting a decades-old pot habit, I was deep in debt to the IRS. I lost most of my friends in the divorce, changed jobs, and moved out to Bay Ridge, where I went to an AA meeting and was told, “Hi, I’m Michael, and this is Ant-knee. You’re gonna meet a lotta Michaels and Ant-knees down here.” The recurring memory I have of that time is walking home from the subway carrying two plastic bags, a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in one and a Subway sandwich in the other, listening to Radiohead sing about “15 steps, then a sheer drop” on my iPod and crying.

Remember iPods?

It was not a good time.

Ten years gone

Ten years later (three of them leap), it’s astonishing how much has changed, mostly for the better. I’m grateful to the help I got along the way from new and old friends, good therapists, loving family, mediocre bosses, twelve-step programs, Landmark Education. I suppose the biggest thing I learned in that time in my life was how to ask for help — how to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know how to do everything already.

Another important lesson was that everyone will leave you eventually no matter what, and you just have to deal with that. That sounds harsh, but it’s how the universe is organized. Even if we stay friends to the end of our days, we’ll part when we die. In accepting change and loss, I found an opening to living in the moment, enjoying the time we have instead of trying to preserve the present for the future.

I also learned to invite everyone to everything, and I still do that, more or less. Just ask a bunch of people what they’re up to this weekend and see who makes time for you. Because those people are your friends. They might not be the people you picked out at first as the most exciting or attractive or whatever, but they care enough about you to show up, which is way more important.

The next ten years

You might have noticed by now that I’m a bit obsessed with the passage of time. What percentage of my life have I spent abroad? How many days has it been since I started at Samsung? I keep track of this sort of thing in spreadsheets.

But all that tracking of the past hasn’t made the future any easier to imagine. I don’t know what the next decade will be like. Will I still be here in Korea? What will my life be like? The only thing the tracking really does is make it clear that ten years is a very long time and remind me that I’m still at the beginning of whatever this is I’m doing with my life now.

 

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #3: Mullae Station

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #3: Mullae Station

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I had been to Mullae once before, on the coldest night of the year, to go to the Mullae Arts Center and see what turned out to be an outstanding performance by drummer Kim So Ra. But I decided not to count that hustle through the darkened neighborhood as a full visit, and on a dusty Sunday I headed back.

_DSC0870Inside the subway station, there’s a spinning wheel — a mulle (물레), a cute little visual pun on the name of the neighborhood.

The most interesting section of Mullae is taken up with row upon row of grungy old machine shops, a kind of Dongdaemun Market for welders. As happens with these kinds of industrial zones, artists have begun to move in, finding cheap space where no one will mind if you’re hammering away at midnight or producing clouds of toxic fumes, because so are your neighbors, except they’re putting together storage racks while you’re making a space dinosaur. The area is still pretty run down and gritty, but punctuated now with hip little cafes and the occasional gallery, not to mention plenty of murals and street sculptures. Sunday afternoon is probably not the best time to go — a lot of places were closed — but we were still able to get sense of the area.

The Mullae Arts Village, which is still very much also the Mullae industrial zone, is actually a pretty small area, hemmed in by a school and a nice new park and a river to the south. Leaving Exit 7 and heading south along the main road, across the street from the park, you know you’re there when you see the Mullae Arts Village sign, the metal horse, and the giant welding mask.

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The scale of the workshops, industrial and artistic, is also small. These are one-story DIY outfits, very different from the soaring and spacious commercial warehouses that artists took over in New York’s SoHo and DUMBO. There are places like this in New York — those strange mashed-up-car zones in Queens are probably the closest approximation — but so far artists haven’t moved into them.  The result, in Mullae, is an area that lacks the visual grandeur of those New York artists’ districts, but that feels surprisingly intimate and handmade, with odd old boarded-up doorways and random openings.

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Because the existing buildings are small and hinky, they’re not likely to get turned into fancy lofts. If the neighborhood goes residential, it’ll do it by tearing everything down and putting up beige apartment blocks. But I hope that doesn’t happen. Seoul should hang on to at least some of its grit and funk.

We lingered long enough for curries at Gyeongseong Curry (decent, sign only in Korean) and coffee at The Warrior Coffee Roasting Lab (tasty).

From there, we crossed the main street and wandered further south, passing one of the more interesting, and larger, buildings in the area, which is covered with murals and has the very appealing-looking Old Mullae brewpub inside.

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From there, we headed back toward the station and a visit to Homeplus.

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Girl with the thumbtack earring.

Home Minus

_DSC0901If you live in Korea, at some point you find yourself at Emart or Homeplus, much as anyone in America eventually winds up at Target or WalMart. The grocery sections of these big-box stores are still thriving, but the housewares are beginning to look a little threadbare. For small conveniences, people go to Daiso now — a branch of the Japanese chain is always nearby — while delivery websites like Coupang have cut into the business for big-ticket and bulky items.

I suppose that Emart and Homeplus have always been exhausting — my ex-wife used to get Emart headaches back in my earlier Korean life in 2001-2o02 — but they seem somehow worse than they once were. On the plus side, though, the girls who hawk candy and canned goods are no longer forced to dance in ridiculous outfits. In any case, my attempt to buy more stylish dishes than the ones Samsung gave me was thwarted by Homeplus’s near total lack of dishes. So I ordered some dishes from Coupang instead.

And thus ended Adventure #3. But for your viewing pleasure, I hereby offer you this stunning masterpiece of ajossi fashion from the subway ride home. Who says Korea’s got no style?

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Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #2: Hakdong Station

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #2: Hakdong Station
Brotherood Kitchen.

For my second Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure, I stayed closer to home — so close, in fact, that I never actually rode the subway. On a holiday Wednesday, my Korean friend and I set out from Gangnam, which is home, and walked over to Brotherhood Kitchen for what they call “American Home Food” and I call soul food.

Now, I’m no expert on either soul food or Southern food, but what they cook up at Brotherhood is at least tasty. We had the fried chicken and waffles, which is salty and sweet and decadent, with a weird gooey cheese sauce on top. But I think I liked the roast chicken with chili and yellow rice better.

Chicken and waffles.
Roast chicken with chili and yellow rice.

Little houses on a hill

We headed up the hill that starts behind Gangnamdae-ro, an area you’d think I’d know pretty well, but I don’t yet. It’s upscale, with stylish cafes, little shops, and here and there actual detached houses that look like they’ve been around for a while.

One of the most interesting of these houses, just past Eonju Station, is the Nonhyeon flagship store of Gentle Monster, whose sunglasses are amazing, and whose stores are more amazing than the sunglasses. The store in Nonhyeon has an actual ship attached to it, and the interior contains an astonishing array of strange art machines. And some sunglasses, including a line in partnership with Tilda Swinton and some glasses they did with Hood By Air, which is pretty impressively hip company to be keeping. I tried on many a pair, but I still haven’t found the Gentle Monster pair that calls to me. Someday, though, I will get a pair. Surprisingly, while they’re not cheap, they don’t cost any more than a pair of Ray Bans or Oakleys.

A little house.
Get it? Flagship? Gentle Monster in Nonhyeon.
Yes, that’s a pencil.

Saddles and chairs

Hakdong Station.

We made our way to Hakdong Station, and from there we followed Hakdong-no to Nonhyeon Station. The whole stretch is full of furniture stores on both sides — not the typical Korean places, but the sorts of places where you can get, say, hideous French-inspired kitsch for $10,000, or a coffee table by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There’s some good stuff in there too, and not all of it at insane prices, but it’s certainly high-end. Still, it’s considerably more stylish and diverse than the sort of stuff you find in the big department stores here.

If I had a lot of money to spend making a very large apartment look like a hip urban hotel, I would come here. Realistically, though, if I’m gonna spend a lot on furniture in Korea, it will probably be on very Korean furniture, like an antique chest of drawers or something. To me, that’s exciting and different. My Korean companion, though, was fascinated by a display that looked like something my Grandma Hannah or my Aunt Belle would’ve gone for, all flower prints and swoopy Victorian curlicues. She grew up in a house full of old Korean furniture, which doesn’t much interest her. What’s exotic, to her, is the sort of Western stuff she wasn’t around very much because no one under 90 decorates that way. She responds to American granny gear the way I respond to weird old statues and tombs here.

Furniture!

Maybe the oddest shop along this stretch is Balio, which is where you go if you want fancy horse-riding gear. Why is it here, in Gangnam? I have no idea, except that people must come here to buy stuff. I wonder if the Choi Soon-sil scandal’s equestrian connection has been bad for business?

Gear for the horsey set.

Fire and rain

With that, we headed back to my neighborhood. By evening, it had started to rain, so we decided to sit by some blazing coals in a neighborhood restaurant that offers unlimited beef barbecue (no more than two hours and a 5000-won charge for leftover meat). The initial course was something like six thin steaks and a big pile of chopped up rib meat, so we never even got around to asking for more. It was smoky and delicious and a fine way to end the day.

Coals for barbecue.
A rainy night in Gangnam.