Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Korean Stuff (page 1 of 6)

Lights out in North Korea

This photograph has gone viral, at least here in Korea, making the rounds on most K-Blogs since it first appeared. North Korea is literally a sea of darkness. Yes, the Norks are going to go ahead and light up the sky with their rocket in about two weeks, but to quote The Bard himself, “out, out, brief candle” because it’ll be back to the darkness again.

Where are the Police?

You know, for as long as I have lived in Daejeon, (going on five years) I have yet to see the police pulling over someone for speeding, running a red light, or any number of other traffic violations.

I’m sure it happens all the time; maybe I just miss seeing it when it does happen.

I have seen a lot of squad cars cruising the streets with their lights flashing but not engaged in some high-speed pursuit of a felon or speedster (once I asked a Korean friend about this; he told me it was to show people they were on the job).

About the only folks in a hurry with their lights a flashing and sirens screaming are the tow trucks racing to the scene of an accident.

Korean Health Care

As it turns out, after visiting the doctor again today (the third time in less than a week) I am not only suffering from Acute Bronchitis (I’ve never coughed as much in my life as I have this past week; I’ve never coughed so hard that it made my back hurt) but also Chronic Sinusitis.

I only had about two hours to get ready for school (prepare some notes for my lecture) after I had taken my wife Aon and our son, Jeremy Aaron to Incheon International Airport, but with an hour to spare, I thought it would be a good idea to stop in at my doctor’s office and let him know I was still ill.

In Korea, you can walk into any clinic, hand over National Health Insurance card, and wait to see the doctor. Waiting rooms are usually packed after lunch, so when I got to the clinic I have been going to for the past couple of years, I thought it was going to be a long wait. It wasn’t.

I told the doctor I was still suffering from a very bad cough and that for three days I had either a migraine or some sinus-type headache. I was making good time when I saw that I had 45 minutes to get to school for my 2:30 class.

The doctor shook his head and told me he thought there was a more serious problem and wanted me to have some X-rays taken.

Three X-rays later, the doctor told me that I was also suffering from Chronic Sinusitis and that he would put me on four weeks of meds.

And the cost of all this?

Doctor’s visit and X-rays:  9,000 won (about $8.00)

Pharmacy:  13,000 won (about $11.00)

I got to school with 10 minutes to spare.

And now that I’ve got your attention, please head on over to Lulu and check out some of the books I have written, especially my Korean War novel War Remains as well as my short collection of fiction, Damaged Goods.

You really know it’s summer in Korea when…

all the newspapers run pretty much the same photo of a crowded Haeundae Beach near Pusan. Check back here in my blog that past couple of years and you’ll see similar photos.

August 2009 — Looked much crowded a year ago

August 2007 — And very crowded again two years ago

July 2006 — And Oh My God, look at the same beach four years ago! Yikes!

Doesn’t seem like much room, judging from this photo, for frolicking in the sea and on the beach. Seems to me that are more people standing around wondering what to do now that they’ve gotten to this crowded beach. Where’s the fun in that, huh?

Head over Hills

Head over Hills

You know, that Tears for Fears song right?

[pausing, for the punch line and the explanation]

Now before you rush to correct my spelling, that is what I saw written on a T-shirt some college student was wearing.

I was walking behind him and wondered, “what the heck was this weird English going on here?”

Head over Hills. That’s some freaky, esoteric, surreal gibberish.

Then I read the next line:

By Tears for Fears.

It took me a good 20 seconds (maybe I’ve been in Korea too long) before I figured it out.

Heels.

Head over Heels.

That’s the Tear for Fears’ song.

Of course I know what happened. It’s a short/long vowel thing going on here. It’s a common mistake that many English language learners make in Korea. Getting the long “ee” sound confused with “i” – pill, sometimes comes out peel; ship, sometimes comes out sheep and heel comes out hill.

Make a mistake like that and the next thing you know you’ve got a couple thousand people running around head over heels with their head over hills T-shirts.

Head over Hills.

Classic.

I wouldn’t want to be a dog in Korea

It was in early December 1990 when I got together one afternoon with Dick Verucchi (he had been the drummer of Buckacre and The Jerks two very popular bands in the Illinois Valley and still played out with local musicians) for lunch.

It had been just a little over a year since we had last seen each other and it would probably be awhile before we would see each other again because I was leaving for Korea in a few days. (As it turned out, it would be sixteen years before we saw each other again.) We had lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and then went to Vallero’s Bakery (a family-owned bakery that went out of business a few years ago) in Dalzell, Illinois to pick up some Italian bread for his family’s restaurant in Spring Valley.

(If you are ever traveling across North-Central Illinois on I-80 and get an inkling for some home-style Italian cooking, get off at the Spring Valley exit and follow the signs. Without question, Verucchi’s Ristorante has some of the best Italian eats in the Illinois Valley and the prices won’t empty your wallet. Their Sunday Brunch is a local favorite and definitely worth the detour if you just so happen to be traveling across this part of the state—or anywhere within a 100-mile radius—on a Sunday.)

“So, you’re off to Korea in a few days?” Dick asked as he waited for one of the bakers at Vallero’s to prepare the order.

“That’s right,” I said.

“You know they eat dog over there?”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard.”

Actually, I hadn’t heard anything about Koreans eating dog. However, there would be a lot of things that I would quickly find out about Korea in the days, weeks, and months to come.

And some Korean’s penchant for eating dog would be one of them.

For the record—and as much as this pains me to say this—yes, I have tried “dog meat” but only in the pursuit of journalistic truth. It was back in 2002, the year of the World Cup in Korea and Japan and there had been a number of unfavorable letters to the editor about Korea’s penchant for eating dog as well as one from Bridget Bardot an outspoken animal rights activist.

(The same thing had happened in 1988 prior to the Seoul Olympics when there was a similar uproar, especially in terms of how “barbaric” it was the way some dogs were killed. Some dog restaurants were told to close during the Olympics as not to cause any more international outcry.)

Well, far be it for me not to seize a journalistic opportunity and especially when the newspaper I was writing for was competing with two other English-language dailies. Likewise, the Korea Times had been selected as the “official” English-language paper of the World Cup, so I had the green light as it were to write anything related to the sporting event even Korean culture—even when it came to eating dog.

My editor agreed. He thought it would be a great story and all the more so because even though I had been in Korea at this point for 12 years, I had never had dog before. If I was out to write about the “truth” of what it was really like to eat dog, I would be able to do so without any bias or prejudice.

Or so, I thought.

My editor arranged for myself and a few cronies from the newspaper to have lunch at one of the more famous dog restaurants in Seoul as well as have a photographer come along to document the event. You would think we were some celebrities the way the owner of this establishment; a 60-year old Korean Ajumoni (pronounced ah-joo-mone-ni, literally the word means aunt, but it is used to refer to any woman in her 30s or older) treated us as soon as we arrived by having us dine in a private room. And of course, being the only foreigner in the place added to the special treatment.

Now let me explain that there are two kinds of dog meat (sometimes my students say they like to eat “dog food” and I have to immediately correct them on that as not to have this mental image of one of my students eating a can of Alpo) that are consumed here. First there is Bo-shin-tang which is a kind of a stew and Gay-soo-yook—boiled dog which can be in a soup stock or the meat eaten alone with lettuce leaves and red pepper paste.

It was going to take every ounce of courage I had to try some of the dog that was brought to our table—courage in that I just could not get the images of Lassie, Benji, and my Mom’s dog out of my mind as I saw this meat on the table. As much as I had jumped at the opportunity to write about eating dog and showing up the other newspapers, I wasn’t too crazy about finally eating dog. In fact, I was starting to feel a little queasy when I saw the boiled meat piled on the plate.

Lassie.

Benji.

My Mom’s cute and adorable Bichon Frieze.

Out, out damn Spot.

I nibbled at a few pieces and really wanted to spit it out if I had had the chance. I chewed and chewed and it took every bit of stamina I had to swallow that morsel of dog.

I thought the meat was tough and sinewy. I didn’t think it had much taste either. This is one thing that does not taste like chicken. Maybe seeing that ajumoni stripping the meat off the bones when I had walked into the restaurant was too much for me to put aside any biases I might have had with eating dog as well as when she offered me—what could have been part of a Fear Factor episode—the cooked dog penis to eat.

“No thanks,” I said, trying to be as diplomatic as I could as not to offend the editor and the other Koreans seated at the table. I wondered if passing up a dog’s penis would be a major cultural faux pas.

It wasn’t.

No sooner had I turned down her offer for the dog’s penis when one of the cronies from the newspaper said he wanted it and shoved it into his mouth.

Later, I would write my story as best I could about how it was “okay” and that eating dog was after all, a culture thing.

As for myself, well I am going to stick with my hot dogs and Corn dogs.

Now, there are many myths, reasons, and a few urban legends why eating dog is good for you. Some Oriental doctors claim Boshintang for example has some curative qualities for patients recovering from surgery. On the other hand, some Korean men eat dog because it is supposed to increase a male’s sexual drive (maybe that explains why that crony from the paper wanted that dog penis so quickly—kind of a twist on that old adage “hair of the dog”).

Well, if one really wants to increase their sex drive, do a dog a favor and pop a couple of Viagras.

Sadly, this idea about increasing one’s sex drive or stamina is quite disturbing when it comes to how some dogs are killed. (There are special “dog ranches” –I guess that’s what you could call them where dogs are raised and slaughtered for human consumption.) To be sure, there are cases (and I am sure you could find the graphic videos on You Tube) of dogs being hung up and beaten to death. This is supposed to increase the production of adrenalin in the dogs, which is supposed to make the meat more nutritious—for those who believe that eating dog will increase their stamina. Yes, that sounds very, very barbaric but I am not sure how much this still occurs.

And no, people do not eat their pet dogs (but sometimes mistakes are made—like the drunken Korean who ate his landlady’s pet dog earlier this year and in the process accidentally set the boarding house on fire).

Many Koreans will argue that eating dog has been part of Korean culture for over 5,000 years (you hear that a lot here about this 5,000-year-old culture whenever you disagree with a Korean about something) and no matter how much you disagree about eating dog, you’re better off to keep your doggone opinions to yourself as not to offend anyone.

From time to time, the topic of eating dog comes up in class, especially when students are practicing “Have you ever…” questions in university and adult conversation classes. Usually some male students will boast how they “have eaten dog” many times and upon hearing this some female students will giggle and blush. This one time though, one student got very, very quiet when one of his classmates asked him if he had ever eaten dog.

Yes, he said. Yes, he had eaten dog when he was young but did not like to eat dog now. He proceeded to tell his classmates how his brother and he had this dog when he was in middle school and how he couldn’t wait to come home from school every day to play with it.

“The dog would always wait for me outside of our house,” he began. “Well, one day when I came home the dog was not there. I asked my mom if she had seen it and she said she had not.

“One day passed, two days, three days…no dog. It never came back home. Later that week, my mom cooked us dog meat and I know it was my dog because we had never had dog meat before.”

Now I should point out that not everyone eats dog in Korea and as Bob Dylan once sang (not about eating dog mind you) the “times they are a-changin’” and so has Korean’s penchant for eating man’s best friend. However, if a pooch is spared from the dinner plate, it might not fare too well as being man’s best friend here, especially the way that some pet owners treat their pet dogs.

Some pet owners like to dye their smaller, toy-variety white doggies pink, green, blue, yellow—especially the ears. Others treat them like a stuffed doll putting some inside their jackets in winter or carrying them everywhere they go as if they are Paris Hilton or something.

That’s got to kind of suck to be a dog and have someone dye your ears pink or yellow.

I know, I know it’s probably no different than some pet owners back in the States and elsewhere, including here in Korea who “dress up their dogs.” However, if you really want to split hairs here, making your toy poodle wear little red booties is one thing; dyeing its ears pink or yellow is another. At least the dog can kick off those little red booties if it doesn’t like them. Not much a dog can do about pink or yellow ears.

There are even “dog restaurants” and “dog cafes” —no not the kind where you eat dog, but where you bring your dog to hang out with other dogs. At least there were some in Seoul a couple of years ago. Hopefully those pink and yellow-eared dogs can escape from the dog eat world outside and find refuge inside with other dogs suffering from the same dumb owners malady.

However, I think one of the saddest and cruelest things a pet owner can do to man’s best friend here in Korea is take away some of their fun—in this case, cutting off their tails. Just today I saw this adorable Cocker Spaniel down the street from where I live. It was jumping up and down and seemed so happy (or so it seemed) and as I got closer I was shocked to discover that its tail had been cut off and it was wagging, well not exactly wagging, more like wiggling a tail stub.

Now can anyone tell me if this tailing cutting happens elsewhere? Is there any good reason medical or aesthetic why a dog’s tail (and cats don’t fare too well here either; I’ve seen a few with tail stubs) should be cut? Shucks, wagging their tails is part of a dog’s daily routine. It’s their birthright. It’s something they are good at. It’s their livelihood. It’s what dogs dream about doing all day when they are waiting for their owners to come home. Neutering your pet is one thing, (that’s got to suck, too) but cutting off its tail is another. It’s a sad form of dog hobbling, albeit tail cutting.

When I saw that poor Cocker Spaniel wiggling its stub I felt so sad. It really broke my heart. It must be really tough being a dog in Korea.

The Race is On (with apologies to George Jones)

It’s 10:45am and I’ve got my class of ten beginning language learners doing a speaking activity in pairs. It’s a dialogue between two people asking what they like to do in their free time; the students, once they’ve read through the dialogue are supposed to substitute various “free time” activities like “listening to music” “reading books” and “watching TV” in the appropriate place in the dialogue. In ESL terms, it’s commonly known as a “substitution” drill.

For my students though, it is a race to finish all the substitutions.

One pair gets through all the substitutions in near record time and announces, “finish.”

Another pair, not far behind the first with their substitution mastery finishes next.

“Finished.”

And another pair, feeling the heat and wanting to come in third is next.

Fin-ee-shee.”

(Many Korean language learners have a problem pronouncing the final “sh” sound on words like “finish,” “wash,” and “Bush.” In Korean, or Hangu-mal there is no final “sh” sound; however, there is a final “shi” sound. So, many beginning language students will say “finish-ee,” “wash-ee,” and “Bush-ee.” Now, I know teachers are not supposed to laugh when a student mispronounces a word, but when some students say, “Your President Bush-ee” I am sorry, that is just funny.)

I have been teaching English in Korea for 17 years now and one of the things (and believe me there are many) that has never ceased to amaze me is this notion of having to “finish” first in English class. Here are these students in an conversation class, learning a new language (or attempting to learn a new language) and what matters most to some students is not the fact that you are in a class-and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) one at that-where practicing as much as you can is everything (or at least should be everything), but that what is most important is finishing an activity first.

And announcing to the teacher and everyone in the class, “fin-ee-shee.”

I think a lot has to do with this “ppalli-ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mindset in Korea that is just as prevalent in society now as it was when I first came here. It’s hurry this and hurry that. It’s the way some people will dart across the street running between cars because they don’t want to wait a few minutes at the pedestrian crosswalk, the way some people will slurp down a bowl of ramen in record time, the way some people will walk out of a restaurant still putting on their shoes or the way students will race through an exercise to finish first.

Sometimes I just want to tell my students to slow down. There is plenty of English to learn; you don’t have to learn it all in class today.

Then again, maybe they are “finished” for the day-which sort of reminds me of this Gary Larson Far Side cartoon where a pudgy, bespectacled boy sitting in a class raises his hand and asks the teacher if he can be excused because “his brain is full.”

“Kit Kat” Copy Cat

Kic Ker

Imitation might be the cheapest form of flattery unless a little logo borrowing is involved.

The other day I was in this Mom and Pop shop (kagae in Korean) in the mood for some chocolate when I espied what I thought was a bag of Kit Kat candy bars. At least from a distance and in the dim light of the shop it appeared—judging from the bright white “K’s” that they were this popular candy bar.

Wrong.

As I got closer and picked up the bag, it wasn’t Kit Kat. Instead, the folks at Crown came up with their own version of Kit Kat called “Kic Ker.” Nothing like a little logo copying with those big “K’s” to throw you off your path to chocolate nirvana. I guess if you can’t have your Kit Kat you can always have your Kic Ker.

I am not too surprised, though. For years there has been another candy bar rip off here with “Crunky” which tries to pass for a Nestle’s Crunch.

To paraphrase comedian Arsenio Hall, it’s another one of those things in Korea that makes you go “Hmm….”

And the taste (yes, I did buy a bag)—well to paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s dig at Dan Quayle in a VP debate back in the late 80s when he told Quayle “I knew Jack Kennedy and Senator you’re no Jack Kennedy”—I know the taste of a Kit Kat and this is no Kit Kat.

The folks at Hershey’s have nothing to worry about.

The accidental journalist — Part 1

From 2000-2006 I was a feature writer for The Korea Times, the oldest English-language newspaper in Korea.  

Starting out with book reviews, I moved on to feature articles, interviews, travel, culture, and the occasional news story. In that time, I had the chance to interview everyone from Korean War veterans and celebrities like Johnny Grant (honorary mayor of Hollywood) to military leaders, ambassadors and even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter when he was in Korea for Habitat for Humanity.  

I got to do a lot of things that most people would envy like fly in an F-16, fly into Panmunjom in a helicopter (with CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Ji-ae), or get to travel around Korea carte blanche and see things that most foreigners (and sometimes Koreans) might not have the chance to.  

It was a lot of fun, sometimes frustrating (when having to deal with editors who spoke little English), but always interesting. It also helped me to get through one of the more difficult periods of my life after my wife passed away in September 2001. 

It all started with a book at the Kyobo Bookstore in downtown Seoul.

One cold, February winter day in 2000, I was browsing the bookshelves in the English Books Section at Kyobo when I came across a book, which would change my life. It was an anthology of short stories and poetry—Retrieving Bones—written by Korean War veterans. As soon as I spotted the book and pulled it off the shelf, I stood there holding it in my hands.  I knew right then and there what I was going to do. I was going to read it and review it for the Korea Times. 

I had been submitting one or two submissions a month for the newspaper’s “Thoughts of the Times” column for about a year. It was nothing out of ordinary or anything really special. A lot of expats made contributions to that column (and at a time when there were no blogs it was one way to comment about life in Korea and other topics). 

However, when I held that book in my hand I knew what I wanted to do. Little did I know just how much that book would be my ticket for a very interesting, fascinating and inspirational five-year journalistic journey. 

When I approached the editor of the newspaper, he seemed pretty keen on allowing me to review books for the paper. I explained to him that I wanted to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War and thought it would be interesting to review whatever new books on the conflict had been published. He liked the idea. 

However, when I went back to the Kyobo Bookstore I was saddened and shocked to discover that there were hardly any books on the Korean War. I was even more surprised that there were hardly any books (in English) about current affairs in Korea. If I was going to review one or two books a month (soon it would be one a week) I was going to have to order books on my own. 

And that is exactly what I did. Thank God for Amazon.  

First, it was two book reviews a month, but when the books started coming in (and when I also started to finally receive reviewer’s copies) I was reviewing a book a week. 

Looking back on those reviews, I have to confess that they were really not “reviews” but more like a “book report.” However, what I think I really achieved was learning more about the Korean War and sharing this information with readers. In my own small way, I was commemorating the anniversary of the conflict as well as informing readers what books were available. Personally, it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn much about the conflict in the books that I read. 

My first big break, as far as branching out and writing more feature stories, was when I had the opportunity to interview Korean Gen. Paik Yun-sup after reading his memoirs of the Korean War. Paik is perhaps best known for his valiant stand at Tabu-dong during fierce fighting along the “Pusan Perimeter” in the summer of 1950. Having been pushed back advancing North Korean troops, Paik told his troops they had nowhere to go; they had to stand and fight. “If I run,” Paik is claimed to have said, “you can shoot me.” Paik’s remarks inspired his troops and they stood their ground and helped to turn the tide of the battle. 

I was surprised how easy it was for me to set up an interview with Paik. It just took a few phone calls from the Korea Times and a few days later, I was sitting in Paik’s office in Seoul’s War Memorial Museum having my first interview. Perhaps, his staff was surprised that someone wanted to interview him even though he had written a book. (Interestingly, I was the only foreign reporter to interview him prior to the fiftieth anniversary commemoration.) 

He was very gracious and appreciated me wanting to interview him. The article that I would write (to accompany my book review) was by no means one of my better ones. Most of it was just a transcription of the interview. However, it opened the door a little wider for me to write more feature articles. 

Around this time, someone suggested that I might want to interview Horace Underwood (his grandfather had founded Yonsei University) who had served in the Navy during the Korean War and along with his brother was an interpreter at Panmunjom during the Armistice talks. Again, all it took was just a phone call and Dr. Underwood was more than happy to grant me an interview (perhaps being an instructor at Yonsei helped a little). 

The day I interviewed him was the day before the historic summit in Pyongyang with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. It was also pretty historic occasion for me, not to mention an honor to have the chance to sit down with Dr. Underwood. I thought the interview went well (though I was still honing my interview skills about what kinds of questions I should ask) as Dr. Underwood shared some of his recollections of the Korean War. 

Those two interviews as well as the books on the Korean War that I had reviewed between February and early June 2000 had opened the door for me as a feature writer for the Korea Times 

I have to admit that I have always tried to be humble when talking about my journalistic pursuits. I just felt lucky that I could write for the paper. Sure, a lot of people have been critical of the English-language newspapers in Korea (including myself) for shoddy journalism, but I honestly believed that I was making some valuable contributions.  To be sure, on the day the Underwood article came out in the paper, I was off on my first assignment to write a special feature article on the Korean War. It was just the beginning.     

Happy Feet

232232551.jpg It might have been the coldest day of the year, but Spring is in the air. 

“Customers at a Nine West store in Myeong-dong, Seoul, look forward to spring’s colorful fashions, such as these enamel shoes released by the brand yesterday. Bright enamel shoes are expected to attract many customers with the change of season.” 

Be that as it may, what gives with this spring-like wear on what was one of the coldest days of the year? I guess you might say they are getting a leg (or four) up on spring. 

Pic and quoted text ripped from the Joong Ang Daily

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