Thursday, 31 May 2012

North Korea is Changing: USBs & K-Pop

Image Source
I have for a very long time believed that reunification between North Korea and South Korea is very unlikely and growing increasingly improbable as time goes by. My chief reason for thinking so is because the two countries have hardly any cross-pollination, causing them to drift further and further apart culturally. The results is that although North Koreans and South Koreans share genetics, otherwise they are becoming increasingly different. In only the number of years I have lived in South Korea I can see a difference in how Korea was in 2006 (the first time I came to Korea) and now six years later. If a culture can change so much in half a decade, imagine how much it can change in six decades, and just as South Korea has evolved in one direction, North Korea has evolved in a completely different direction.

The big difference between the separation of East Germany and West Germany with North Korea and South Korea, is that while Germany was split physically, there wasn't a complete cultural split. The East Germans were still able to receive radio and television broadcasts from West Germany, so that the East Germans were keeping up with the cultural development of their neighbours. The same is not the case for the Koreas. The North Korea regime blasts its airwaves with scrambling signals that prevents the North Korean citizens from receiving broadcasts from South Korea. So over the six decades North Koreans have had very little exposure to what is happening in South Korea. For a long time all that most of them knew about South Korea is the propaganda lies they received from the North Korean dictatorship.

Things are changing and the thing that is causing the change is USB-drives. The small data-sticks that are smuggled in from China are used to share South Korea pop-culture: K-pop, movies and dramas. If ever North Koreans thought that the South is an impoverished puppet of America, then K-pop and South Korean television are the cure. The American influence (in the form of hip-hop and other fashions) is undeniable, but if there is one thing that these South Korean mass media do not depict is that South Korea is an impoverished country. Far from it. The cars, the clothes, the technology, the recreations in South Korean mass media are dripping with affluences and excess.

And so I believe change in North Korea is inevitable. While millions of North Koreans go hungry, go cold, and are oppressed, they are becoming increasingly aware that their Southern neighbours are living the good life. (Many homeless and poor South Koreans may disagree, but that is besides the point.) The North Korean regime is based on the lies that the whole world is out to get them and that the South is a poor puppet state controlled by the American Imperialists. What the North Korean populace is slowly realising is that most of the world don't even think about North Korea, and that South Koreans are clearly better off, what ever else they may think about democracy and imperialism. And let's not for a moment forget the terrible power of greed and and lust for hedonistic decadence, that is so part of the human psyche. For North Korean men watching South Korean music videos, it must be like watching porn! K-pop videos just ooze sex and decadence.

Change is coming. If actual reunification will ever occur, I don't know. I still believe it is quite unlikely. But nevertheless, change is coming to North Korea—of that I have little doubt. It may not reunify, but the Hermit Kingdom will open up.

An Actual Assignment from a Student

The image above is a photo of an actual assignment a student handed in. The worksheet contains eight questions about Raymond Carver's short story "A Small Good Thing" with same space provided for answers. I can literally not discern where one answer ends and the next begins. The sentences are so disjointed and written so haphazardly that I can barely make out one complete sentence. Then there are arrows and circles and underlined-parts, and the use of triangular brackets, ink blotches and and diagonal "connection" lines, which all have such a disorienting effect that I'm left exhausted even after only a few seconds of attempting to understand it.

This paper is not much different from this poor girl's mind. When I have a conversation with her, she literally speaks the same as she writes. Her sentences are disjointed, with random thoughts, extreme jumps in logic, and constant self-corrections, additions and detours.

I advised her once that she should not be studying English Literature, but should do art instead. Afterwards she once showed me some illustrations she had done and my suspicions about her mind were confirmed. Her illustrations are intricately complex and wonderfully beautiful. Unfortunately she has not taken my suggestion serious enough to change her major. I don't know how she will pass this class (or any other class for that matter), or how she was able to come as far as she had come already. She is a couple of years into her studies.

I spoke to my Department Chair to ask him about her. He confirmed that she is mentally different (the latter is my euphemism, he described it differently), but asked that I be patient and accommodating and to try and get her to at least pass the class with minimum grade. The gouvernment requires each department to take in a certain number of students per semester with special needs. She is one such a case.

When I showed him the above worksheet he suggested I ask her to my office and allow her to answer the questions verbally. As I said already, a verbal conversation is not much different from the above answer sheet. It may actually take equally long to listen to all eight her answers than to try and decipher the puzzle above. I think I'm going to ask her to draw pictures instead -- to draw me the answers as a series of pictures with some captions just to contextualize the drawings.

What exactly the government is trying to achieve with this incentive, I'm not too sure. Even if I were to artificially find her just enough grades to pass the class, I cannot honestly say that she has the skills that this class attempts to instil in students. One main purpose is to give clear, focussed, motivated arguments for one's opinions. She is incapable of "clear" and "focussed" and her motivations seem to be highly haphazard.

I must say the student reminds me a bit of Bjork. However, Bjork is much more focussed than this student is. I imagine that this student may also be similarly focussed when she is in the "flow" of art. I truly hope she finds that something in her life that will bring together the uniqueness of her mind into exquisite art, or whatever else it is she may excel in. I know what it means to be "different". As a child I was always the weird artistic boy that never quite fitted in. I remember once saying to somebody that people always treat us creatives differently. The response was: "That's because you are!" Lucky for me I have been able to tone my peculiarities down to socially acceptable levels and have been able to hone my "weirdness" into art, particularly poetry. For someone like this student who walks on the edges of "normality", life can be very difficult. I'm really sad for her . . . she knows she is different, and she really tries hard to do what needs to be done. She often comes to see me after class for guidance and reassurance. I try to guide in the right direction (right here, of course, being the goals for this particular class). Unfortunately my guidance is often hijacked by the many random thoughts firing in the fireworks extravaganza going on in her head!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Modelling Brothers

This past week both my brother and I found ourselves in front of the cameras.

My brother, posing on the left

He posed for a juice ad. In the photo above his standing in swimming trunks, with juice in hand, funky shades on, showing off his calves. The advert was part of a project made by students at the film school where he studies in Cape Town, South Africa.

A Korean professional taekwondo athlete (left) and
me (right) during a photo shoot. 
My modelling was of quite another kind. On Thursday I partook in an art project that will be part of the permanent collection of the History of the Olympic Games Museum to be launched in London for the 2012 Olympic Games. Read more on my martial art blog: Soo Shim Kwan

Friday, 25 May 2012

Hyundais Going Mad

There has been a number of cases of Hyundai cars suddenly accelerating like crazy, and the accelerators seemingly getting stuck. Maybe it is a case of dokebi -- Korean imps -- that don't like Hyundai. Hyundai means "modernity", and I can only imagine that ancient Oriental spirits like dokebi cannot be to impressed with that. Humour aside, it is actually quite serious as the videos below show.

As if Korean drivers by themselves are not scary enough, now we have to be concerned about possessed cars too!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

To Be an Introvert

You couldn't tell, but I'm an introvert. It is common to think that introverts are shy folk, who do not easily get along with others and hide from people. If you know me in person, or even from my confessions on this blog, you wouldn't think that I'm an introvert at all. I'm not shy, I don't hide from people, nor do I really avoid social encounters. In fact, I'm out and about almost every evening of the week. I give lectures and seminars, I host workshops, and organize events.

Another definition for an introvert is somebody who recharges alone, away from other people. (Conversely, an extrovert gets his or her energy from being around other people.) Applying this definition, I'm very much an introvert.

I need time alone to find myself, to centre myself, to re-cooperate. And while I am not shy and actually like the company of other people, I definitely prefer smaller groups, one, two, three people, rather than hanging out with a crowd. I enjoy the intimacy of one-on-one encounters much more than the buzz of a big party.

Once a year I visit South Africa to catch up with family and friends. One of the most difficult things of this annual trip is that I seldom have time for myself. To get some alone time I would sometimes go take a shower or bath (again), just to be by myself for a while. Or I'd look forward to those hours at night when everybody has gone to bed and I can open a book, or just enjoy my private thoughts. It is not that I don't enjoy the time with my family and friends -- the annual trip is for this very purpose, to spend time with them; it is just that I need some time by myself too.


At the same time, like Charlie McDonnell, I like meeting people. I have surprisingly many great friends around the world. For instance tonight I met up with a friend from America (she returning to the States again in a few days), earlier this afternoon I had a conversation over Skype with a friend in Italy, and portions of yesterday I corresponded with at least three or four other friends.

One thing about introverts is that they often work quite well alone. Putting them in a group for "group work" is not necessarily the best use of their talents. I can do it, I get along with people pretty well, but working alone I tend to get more things done quicker, than navigating the politics of a group.

I guess that is why I also prefer lone sports rather than team sports. I like martial arts, mountain biking, parkour, and such activities. These activities are fundamentally lone activities. You may do them with other people, but you don't do them as a group; also your opponent (even in the martial arts) is ultimately yourself, rather than someone else. You compete against your own goals and limitations.

Considering that I'm a university lecturer, a martial art instructor, a Meetup-organizer, and many other things that causes me to be in constant interaction with other people, it indeed sounds strange that I would call myself an introvert (maybe I'm an ambivert). Yet, it is not that strange at all. While I enjoy these interactions with people, I'm all too happy to just come home and write a blog post instead.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Mmm . . .

"Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don't stop it. Is it not yet come? Don't stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods." -- Epictetus

Amandier's Brownies

Amandier's brownies are the best I have ever had. It has two layers of bitter caramel to foil the sweetness that makes you want to make love with it.

Amandier in Seoul is opposite Exit 6, Anguk Station, Line 3, close to Insadong.

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Sunday, 20 May 2012

Chuncheon Dalkgalbi

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Saturday, 19 May 2012

My New Glasses

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Teacher's Day Appreciation

I just had a quick meeting with some students of mine that had graduated a while back. To my surprise they had prepared this beautiful and very tasty chocolate and cream cake with glazed fruit, and also a gift. It was for Treacher's Day, they said, which was this past Tuesday. Since it has already past I didn't expect them to do anything of the sort. The personal card they provided is also quite touching.

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Friday, 18 May 2012

I'm in a Nostalgic Sheryl Crow Mood

I've never been there, but I will also "always remember three days in Rome".

My Chiropractor Had a Serious Talk With Me Today

"Your upper back muscles and neck muscles are unusually tense," said my chiropractor on Tuesday and added with admonition: "this is due to stress." He did not stop there. "Also, some spinal disks are compressed due to bad posture, particularly slouching while sitting." He then went on to demonstrate to me how I sit -- I immediately recognised myself in his demonstration: legs flung out in front of me and my weight baring on the tail-bone, instead of the bottom of my buttocks, in a lazy recline, rather than an actual sit.

"This is how I sit when I'm tired," I said.

He looked anything but impressed. "The nerves are compressed, and it may in the future affect your legs." And I remembered how he mentioned long ago that if I do not fix the problem now that I may one day, years from now, have to get spinal disk related surgery.

"When I'm tired, I slouch. I'm quite tired these days."

"Then you should exercise more," he retorted.

"Exercise more!" My exclamation is so much a lamentation at the idea of extra exercise, as it is at the distress of adding yet more to my schedule. I should cut down on things, not add things to it. He has a point, however. The more you exercise, the greater the number of mitochondria in your cells, which in turn makes you feel more energetic.

But when?! I already sleep too little as it is, and the only time I have to exercise more would be in the morning, if I get up earlier. He doesn't know of my sleeping problem. Had he known, the scolding would have been greater.

So here is the issue: I have too much stress and I'm overtired, both of which affects my posture and musculature negatively, either directly or indirectly, which in turn affects the rest of my constitution.

He noticed on Tuesday, for instance, that the area around my right kidney is tensed and sensitive. The problem is posture or stress (tension) related, not kidney related, but because of the close proximity it can affect the organ. Then we all know how stress can affect your heart, your mind, and what not else. All parts of one's body are sympathetic to rest. Distress in one area causes ailment in another; disease in one organ manifests as symptoms elsewhere. Eliminating the causes are always better than treating the symptoms.

My chiropractor had to have a serious talk to me today about these things because if I do not find the causes and solutions to them now, they will manifest in serious ways later in life. I'm single, I do not have parents, and my closest friends are on the other side of the world. There are none of these intimate people to talk into my life, to remind me to take better care of myself, to reprimand me when my priorities are skewed, so God sends me my chiropractor, at $50 an hour, to do so.

I really need a sabbatical to take inventory of my life; re-establish my long-, mid- and short term goals; and re-prioritize the things that occupy my time and thoughts. Just a month and a half then I can go on vacation.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Critical Reading Template

One of the students in my department came to my office the other day. He is part of a study group. The group takes articles from English magazines like Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and so on, and then as a group read and discuss the article. The student confided in me that they don't really know how to go about this and wondered if I could help them. I told the student that I unfortunately do not have the time to devote to the supervision of such a group, but will see if I can come up with a template of questions that they could use. Following are the questions I came up with:

Critical Reading Template

1.       What is the topic of the article? Is the topic focused or is there more than one main topic?

2.       Consider the title of the article:

a.       How does the title relate to the topic of the article?
b.      Is the title clear or unclear?
c.       Does the title have a double-meaning or deeper meaning?

3.       Look at each paragraph. What is its main idea?

4.       Usually writing can be separated into an introduction section, a body section, and a conclusion section. Is it possible to identify these three sections? (Each section may have more than one paragraph.)

5.       In long articles the body section is often divided into subsections. Does this article have subsections? What are the main ideas for each subsection?

6.       Summarize the article in a few sentences (one paragraph). Now, summarize the article in one sentence.

7.       Think about the author’s intentions:
a.       What is the author’s purpose with the article? Is he or she just providing information (explaining something), or is he or she trying to convince you / persuade you of something?
b.      Is the article opinionated? In other words, is it subjective?
c.       How does the author support his or her ideas?
                                                               i.      Does he or she use logical explanations? Are there any scientific or statistical proofs?
                                                             ii.      Are there any emotional language? How does the author feel about the topic? Is the author positive or negative, supportive or critical about the topic?
                                                            iii.      Do you think the author has something personally to gain from the topic?

8.       How does the conclusion of the article make you feel? Do you agree with the conclusion in particular or the article in general?

9.       What do you think the article is missing? Are there any extra details that you would have wanted to have?  Do you have any questions for the author?

10.   How does the article (opinions, information, etc.) affect your context? (How does it apply to your life, your work, your country, and so on?)

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Shaun Tan's "The Arrival"

On Friday I went to see the theatre adaptation of multi-award winning Shaun Tan's graphic novel The Arrival. The story is about a man going to the "New World" to start a new life for his family, but as a foreigner everything is weird and wonderful and even somewhat scary. The strangeness of the new world is also strange to the audience so that the reader shares the "outsider" experience with the main character.

The book is a wondrously surreal fantasy trip in which the reader joins the main character in his journey as he is overwhelmed by the foreignness of his new environment. We share his experiences of slowly settling into the new country as an immigrant, making new friends (including a tadpole-like dog), hears the often sad stories of other immigrants and the reasons they fled their respective countries of origin, and preparing for the anticipated arrival of his wife and daughter, which he had to leave behind in his dangerous home country.

I think that as an expatriate that had experienced the strangeness of a new country before, the book especially resonated with me. But I'm confident that the weirdness of Tan's images can evoke the same feelings of "otherness" in even those that have not experienced a foreign country before.

The graphic novel was adapted for theatre by New Zealand's Red Leap Theatre troupe. The adaptation had won them numerous awards in New Zealand and now with their international tour I'm sure international awards are to follow for this spectacular stage production. They have definitely succeeded in bringing the magic of Tan's book into a 3D space that keeps the audience upright in their seeds with enthralment.


I highly recommend the book and if the opportunity to see the stage production arises, do not miss out. It is worth every dollar. It has definitely been a highlight of my year so far.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Thomas Tallis

Recently I have been exploring the polyphonic melodies of Thomas Tallis. What a magnificent composer this man was, and what an interesting individual. He lived during the Tudor Dynasty and composed music under four monarchs. First there was King Henry VIII who ought to be called King Henry the Promiscuous, for his many affairs and six marriages. It was he that broke away with the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church primarily because the Church would not sanction his divorce from his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, who did not bare him a male heir. Secondly, Tallis composed during the reign of King Edward VI, who comfortably could be known as Edward the Young -- he was but nine years old when he was crowned king, so most of his short reign was done by regents. Then Thomas Tallis served under Queen Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary, for her zeal of re-establishing the Catholic Church and suppressing the Protestant movement. During the Marian Persecutions nearly three hundred protestants were burned at the stake and who knows how many else had suffered under her rule. Finally, Tallis served under my favourite English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, aka Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen. Queen Elizabeth I was a stable force in England and probably one of the first monarchs to approach freedom of religion -- she was definitely much more religiously tolerant than her predecessors and also provided a stable environment for the arts to flourish. William Shakespeare lived in her reign. During this tumultuous time in the Church, Thomas Tallis kept working on his church music seemingly completely unaffected and oblivious to the religious turmoil around him. Apparently one can hear the Catholic-Protestant conflict in his work, as the work changes from one monarch to the next: Henry VIII was Catholic, Edward VI was Protestant, Mary I was Catholic, and Queen Elisabeth I was Protestant. I haven't listened to the music long enough for me to be able to detect the period differences clearly. In other words, I cannot from just hearing a piece say under which monarch that piece was supposedly composed. However, it seems to me, of what I've listened so far, that Tallis used these periods as creative opportunities, rather than have the conflicts disturb his creative genius. Even though he was in an ever changing church environment, Tallis seemed unaffected. He had a ministry, a divine calling, and was going to perform it regardless of internal church politics or external secular politics.


Friday, 4 May 2012


Ek het 'n storie. Oor 'n kunstenaar. Oor mishandeling. Oor oudword. Oor herontdekking. Oor vredemaak met die self. Wat ek kort is tyd. Herprioritisering. 

Dis nie skrywersblok as jy nie daarby uitkom nie. Dis skrywersontkenning. As jy regtig 'n skrywer is en nie skryf nie, is jy besig met selfontkenning. Om nie eg te wees met wie en wat jy is nie is oneerlik. Jy is besig met konformering. Verandering, vervorming, verknogting tot iets sielsvreemd -- en as jy nie eg is aan jou siel nie, hoe kan jy gelukkig wees op die langtermyn?

Liewe Kunstenaar-Ek,
Ek vra onverskoning. My werk het die oorhand gekry. Daar is soveel dinge wat baklei vir prioriteit en ek weet ek het jou afgeskeep die laaste ruk. 'n Lang ruk. Die sporadiese gediggies is nie genoeg nie, ek weet. Ek is jammer. Ek kan nie belowe dat ek onmiddelik gaan opmaak vir die tyd waartydens ek jou afgeskeep het nie. Ek belowe wel dat ek inventaris gaan neem; dat ek gaan tyd maak om te besin oor wat vir my belangrik is. Wees verseker dat jy is wel vir my belangrik, daaroor het ek nie twyfel nie. Ek mis jou ook. 

Mmm . . .

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. -- Andre Gide