Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Costco Runs

There are a few theories floating around as to why leaves change their colour in the autumn. Americans would call it changing color in the fall. But I don't like that as much, because Fall sounds a little like fool, and one could easily make a fool of oneself in the ensuing confusion.

Hypothetical conversation
American: "Hey man, do you like, like the Fall?"
Englishman: "May I so inquire as to which 'fall' you are referring? The fall which has fallen, or the fool that has just fallen?"
Australian: "You blokes talk real funny."

Some say it's an unintended consequence of anthocyanin production. A more recent theory suggests that because they're going to lose their leaves anyway, some trees change colour in order to expose camouflaged green aphids to predators. It might be the tree's last laugh at the sap-suckers that have been tormenting them throughout the summer.

My personal theory is that the colour comes from an absence of rainbows. Just as angular momentum is conserved, so too are colours that are nice to be looked at.

Ever seen a lot of colourful trees at the same time as a double rainbow? Me neither. That's because there's only so much paint in the world. 

Anyway, I have no idea how I'm going to smoothly transition this thought process into shopping at Costco. I would suggest cleansing your mind's palate with some imaginary lemon sorbet.

Going to Costco is more than a mere event. It is a sacred journey of consumerism, to be undertaken only when the trade winds of finance are billowing prevalently into the sales of the season.

No other place on the peninsula offers three kg cans of gherkins, a year's supply of dried blueberries or five litres of mustard in a single bottle.

What Costco lacks in carpet, ambient music and marketing, it makes up for in sheer industrial-sized packaging and epic trolley traffic jams.

W2,000 here will get you not just a hot dog, but a hot dog set. Granted, a set is really just an additional Coke, but still, that's unfathomably cheap. Some more conniving places would make their money in such a deal by selling you a rather tiny hot dog, after misleading you with their zoomed in macro shot of the same product. But not Costco. At Costco everything is enormous, including the hotdogs, whose photography probably required a panoramic lens.

If it weren't for all the carcinogenic n-nitroso compounds, I'd most certainly have bought one.

Every few months we do a Costco run, always after payday and often resulting in us purchasing more than we can comfortably carry. This forces me to carry more gross tonnage than I was anatomically designed for. The following day, I often have sore back muscles and tender tendons. These injuries I refer to as CRIs (Costco-Run Injuries).

But it all pays off in the end, for when we return home, a festive spirit erupts as we browse through our winnings and gleefully restock empty shelves.

Occurring only once in a blue moon, a Farrand Costco run is generally less financially regulated than your average weekly trip to the Wondang markets. As such, we find it much easier to convince each other of the need to buy things like six tins of Altoids or two litres of Kikkoman (arguably the world's best soy sauce).

I've learned that Heather likes Perrier mineral water. Coincidentally, so does Kim Jong il. The similarities seem to stop there.

A well stocked fridge makes a grown Farrand happy. One thing I enjoy in the mornings is opening a heavy fridge door with a pleasing amount of gravity. It helps reassure me that even if the North invades the South, I'll have eggs and juice with which to bribe our way out of the capital.

They say you can tell a lot about someone by the contents of their fridge. From ours, I guess you can tell that we still haven't gotten through our bi-monthly supply of Busan mother-in-law's banchan.

Perhaps I should be eating more banchan and less Altoids.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Oktoberfest, Tree Swapping, Artillery Shelling and Lamb

One thing that exports more effectively than BMWs or Gaelic Football is a thinly-veiled excuse to drink. When I was living in smalltown Australia, although only some of us had heard of Mercedes or Hurling before, everyone knew what St Patrik's Day was.

The South River Toastmasters decided to hold an Oktoberfest (spelled with a K for authenticity) last month, for two reasons. Firstly, because it was October, and secondly, because who can say no to beer and sausages?

Certainly not us, it seems.

On the left in this photo is SRTM's very own mother, Jenny Vrontakis, and on the right is our 2009 Wedding co-MC of the year, Chris Lee. We're all one big happy family, except for sometimes when an odd member goes a little nuts.

I was jokemaster of the night, tasked with lightening the mood with a little humour. Finding good clean jokes online can be a huge challenge these days. For a start, they're mostly not good or not clean.

But I managed to find two pretty good ones in the end, which were delivered with a bit of added flavour. They're a little long, but here they are, for your humouring:

Joke 1: A man dies and goes to hell. Upon reaching hell, he is greeted by a rather affable and upbeat Satan. Satan says to him "G'day mate. Welcome to Hell. Because I'm a good bloke, I'm going to let you choose which room you want to spend the rest of eternity in." The man thinks it's not such a bad offer and asks "Can I see the rooms first?"
"Sure," replies Satan. The door to the first room opens. Inside the room is a crowd of people, standing in a pit, up to their chests in raw sewage. The stench is unbearable and everyone looks miserable.
"Okay, that's pretty gross. Let me see the second one" says the man. The door to the second room opens. The situation inside is very similar, with people standing in a pit, but this time, everyone has raw sewage right up to their nostrils, and they can barely breathe.
"I see. Well, show me the last one then" requests the man. The door to the third room opens. The people inside are standing in a pit of sewage, but they are all drinking coffee. Furthermore, the raw sewage is only up to their knees.
"Oh, wow. I'll take this one" exclaims the man. Satan motions for him to enter. The man goes in and is about to grab a cup of coffee, when all of a sudden Satan claps his hands in the air and says "Okay everyone. Coffee break's over. Time to get back on your heads!"

Joke 2: Three women die and go to heaven. On the way, they are greeted by St Peter, who tells them "You can enjoy heaven all you like, but if you step on a duck, you shall be punished for all eternity." The three women think it's a strange rule, but arrive in heaven nonetheless. To their astonishment, there are ducks absolutely everywhere. The first woman takes a couple of awkward steps, before losing her balance and stepping on a duck. St Peter (who never misses anything) pops out of thin air and brings forth an extremely ugly man. "Aha!" says St Peter. "For stepping on a duck, you will be forever bound to this ugly man." St Peter handcuffs the distraught woman to the ugly man and they walk off together. The second woman, having seen the punishment, tries hard to avoid the ducks. But within a few minutes, she too has stepped on one of the many ducks. Instantly, St Peter pops out of thin air with another ugly man, even uglier than the first. "Well, it happens to the best of us" remarks St Peter, before handcuffing the two together. The third woman decides to be very careful. She hardly steps anywhere and moves with the utmost care and certainty. St Peter pops out of the air after three days, although the woman had not yet stepped on a duck. "Admirable effort" quips St Peter. "As your reward, you shall be accompanied by this man." St Peter handcuffs the woman to a very dashing and handsome young gentleman. "Wow!" exclaims the woman. "I wonder what on Earth I did to deserve someone as handsome as you!"
The man replies "Well I don't know about you, but I stepped on a duck."

The Toastmasters audience seemed to enjoy them, and the night overall was quite a lot of fun.

Things are moving slowly and steadily at university. We've got a pretty good view from our lab, over a garden area below. Standing and observing the goings on below from a window someplace high, happens to be one of my favourite pastimes.

It's a hobby that I assume I share with such luminaries as Donald Trump and Mr Burns. 

Now what on Earth are these ajosshis up to (you may quite rightly ask)? *Wasn't quite sure how to punctuate that sentence correctly. Anyhow, what those ajosshis just happened to be up to, was an activity we may like to name Tree Swapping.

Tree Swapping, you may quite rightly ask, is the act of digging up trees and replacing them with different ones. Although Korea has a jaw-dropping total of four seasons, it seems that our endemic campus flora can only handle two of them. As a consequence of such a pickle, every six months a bunch of ajosshis with a crane come and dig up our trees, replacing them with different trees that are better suited to the incoming weather.

While the author of Lee's Korea Blog questions the necessity of such a surely expensive undertaking, he cannot help but ponder the aesthetics of the storage facility where all these trees must be kept.
Two days ago, I peered out of my university lab window to see two fighter jets flying northwest over Seoul. North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing four people and wounding more.
I'm not a North Korea expert, and only ramble on about the insanity of the regime when intoxicated. I think it's quite unlikely that Seoul will ever be under threat, because it's plausible that the North's seemingly erratic behaviour is part of an unsophisticated blackmailing campaign and to refocus internal dissent away from the ludicrous dynastic succession. But any porcine madman and his heir apparent are capable of killing civilians to prove a point, so despite the counter-intuitive restraint exhibited by the South, I think that overall it was the wiser thing to do. However, as an armchair observer with no relation to those who were killed, it is of course, disturbingly convenient to arrive at such a conclusion.

One thing that surprises me is the unbalanced response from the general public here. The nation went absolutely nuts in the middle of the Mad Cow fiasco, where it was claimed on TV that Koreans were more genetically susceptible to getting mad cow disease from US beef. Seoul's biggest protests in 20 years erupted, with police buses set on fire and 80,000 protesters converging on the city centre. Fast food outlets around the nation jumped on the bandwagon, proudly claiming that none of their meat was from the US. All this, despite the fact that no case of mad cow disease in humans has ever been linked to US beef. 

And then there's two (only recently inhabited) islands in the middle of the East Sea / Sea of Japan which have been the centre of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, prompting angry protests, the burning (and eating) of Japanese flags, killing of live pheasants, as well as self-inflicted finger severing and stomach stabbing in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

There are some warranted ill-feelings left over from the brutal occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945. However, I don't see a fundamental distinction between whether it's the Japanese oppressing, enslaving and killing thousands of Koreans, or the Kim Jong Il regime doing the same. North Korea eliminates all meaningful dissent by interning political opposition in labour camps, while its population starves. Japanese killing Koreans in the past and Koreans killing Koreans in the present, should both be viewed with equal discontent.

But as a mere mortal whose opinions are limited to a tiny blog drop in the ocean of cyberspace, this author has long since realised that such ranting is to little overall avail. For better or worse, life goes on relatively undisturbed for the majority of Seoulites.

One thing that seems to be gaining traction here is lamb skewers.
They're quite delicious.

Heather and I recently discovered a lamb skewer hideout near our dwellings. There's a few places open around here and a good one in the Gangnam area. Lamb is not such a popular meat in NE Asia, because it apparently has a strange aroma to those who haven't encountered it before.

And here's my lovely wife, singing unintoxicated, and oblivious to the maddening threat in the North. Sometimes it's better to just sing a song than analyse the world's more pertinent issues.

Always look on the bright side of life, eh?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

From The Readers

This little Korea blog has been contentedly trundling around the backwaters of cyberspace for a few years now. Every once in a while, I get an email with helpful comments or questions (most often about teaching here or lab protocols). Recently I got some links sent by different readers, with requests to share their material. Which is quite flattering really, because it means that I've managed to hold someone's attention span long enough for them to click the About page, decipher my lightly encrypted address and go to the effort of writing me an email.
If you like the blog and you've got something interesting that you want to share, I'm more than happy to post it up, whether it's for entertainment or commercial purposes. Just tell me where you're from and a little background about your material.

The first is a song sent in by Des Todd, from Queensland Australia.

Des says "Have read your blogs a few times and have found them very interesting as I like to try and understand different cultures.

We are songwriters and have produced an endangered animals song and slideshow "Where are we going to go" and uploaded to Youtube.

The idea is to help educate people about the endangered animals world wide.

There are over 100 animals on the slide show with the music in an upbeat tempo.

Lee if you feel the slide show has merit please feel free to use it. We live in Queensland and David my son who wrote the song and is one of the guitarists and vocalist. His partner Chrissy is from Seoul.

Kind regards

Well Des, thanks for the email and hello to David and Chrissy. Preserving biodiversity is an important thing, so it's good that you're trying to promote awareness of it.

The next item is an article written by Jennifer Lynch from the US. It's entitled '20 Smartest Animals in the World', which speaks for itself. I assume she came to this blog after finding my old post on octopuses. Kudos to her for using the correct plural. You can read the article here, as well as find out about US-based online colleges.

Jennifer says "I recently discovered your blog, and I have become a frequent reader. We recently published an article “20 Smartest Animals in the World” that dovetails well with your audience. Perhaps you would be interested in sharing with them?

Thanks again for the great content, and I hope the article I've linked primes your interest."

The article was posted on a website promoting US-based online colleges. I ran through the search a little to see what was going on, and also because I was waiting for my Western Blot in the lab to finish running. A lot of searches came up for the University of Phoenix. While I'll give Jennifer the benefit of the doubt here, a quick search on Wikipedia for the University of Phoenix says:

"The University of Phoenix is frequently cited as the most prominent example of for-profit colleges that operate primarily for the purpose of exploiting the government for educational subsidies.[7] Students of such schools often find their degrees to be not as highly valued by employers as those of traditional universities.[8] Such students may be less likely to find the employment necessary to repay student loans.[citation needed]"

I think that the concept of online education is probably a good thing, but would recommend using one's own intelligence before paying for such an institution. Still, thanks to Jennifer for the well-written article on '20 Smartest Animals in the World' (although you're missing an entry on humans).

The final item is from Philipp von Plato, the German founder of the InterNations website. From what I gather, InterNations is a networking community, with different chapters in cities across the world, bringing people together for meetups. Kind of like a secret society, but without any secrets whatsoever.

Philipp says
"First of all let me congratulate you on your informative website! I liked the way you structured the content in order to give useful tips and interesting background-information about Korea to your visitors! I was personally happy to see your ability to share exciting posts about your adventures!

As I assume many of your visitors are expatriates - If you provide me with a paragraph (and a photo or logo if available) about your website, I will be more than happy to create an entry for you in our Seoul City Guide. This way we can draw our members’ attention to your website!

While browsing through your website, I also noticed that you link to a variety of expat related websites on your homepage. Therefore I would like to kindly ask you if you could consider including a link to our local InterNations website as well: http://www.internations.org/expats/home/south-korea/seoul.
In this way Expatriates in Seoul and South-Korea could find each other with the help of our virtual community.  Placing a link would be great and much appreciated!

Here is some more information about InterNations: InterNations is the biggest global networking site for expats of various nationalities and their family members. At the moment, InterNations unites almost 200,000 members in 235 cities worldwide. On our platform, expatriates and their partners can connect with compatriots, ask for advice on everyday life in their host country, provide other members with useful tips, make new contacts and find information in our City Guides.

The restrictions – membership is invitation-only – are necessary for our community in order to maintain a high level of quality, trust and confidence for our member base. The registration process is easy, safe, free of charge, and it will take you only a few minutes.

Looking forward to your email response and thank you very much for your consideration!"

Well, thanks for your comments Philipp, and InterNations certainly looks interesting. I'll try and make it out to a meetup sometime.

And an even bigger thanks goes out to all of the other readers who have left nice comments over the past four years. If you have things that you want to promote, just ping me an email and I'll collectively post them after a while. 

Have a good weekend everyone!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nike: We Ran Seoul

Half the fun of participating in a company-sponsored foot race is psyching yourself up for the big day. Our ritual includes telling everyone we know that we've signed up, reminding everyone who has already signed up that we're running together, and going shopping to purchase a range of arbitrarily necessary running gear.

The latest event to go under our belts was the 10km Nike: We Run Seoul event held a few weeks ago. Of all the runs we've done in Korea, this one was probably the best. The course was a nice circuit around the Han River, the shirt was intelligently coloured and they didn't send us too much commercial junk in the mail.

A week before the big day, the part of my brain responsible for thrifty acumen reminded me that a fellow SRTM member, Yooshin Lee, works for Nike. So I pitched him an investigatory email to see if the waters were favourable for employee benefits. Yooshin pinged me back shortly thereafter, informing me that he could obtain a store-wide 30% discount for any member of SRTM, just by raising his eyebrows ever so slightly at the store clerk.

So Heather, Sunny, Jieun and I met him at the Myeongdong Nike store and we all bought new shoes and various other discounted goodies. Yooshin accompanied us to the cashier and raised his eyebrows at the clerk. Unfortunately the clerk didn't pick up on the signal. So Yooshin discretely tugged his left ear and wiggled his nose a bit. Seconds later, a whopping -30% came off our grand total.

Thanks Yooshin!

Heather and I both bought the Nike Lunarglide model, which are popular jogging shoes, so says Yooshin. They have excellent arch support, and are extremely light weight and comfortable. They're also the first Nike shoes I've ever owned, after a long stint purchasing running shoes from the $20 bin at ABC Mart (the Korean version of Captain Spendless in Australia). I've run in them a fair bit now, and they're really worth the extra cash. But I know what you're thinking.

Couple shoes. How cute.

We arrived at the venue a little later than expected and only had a few minutes before the race started. This was due in part to a member of the Farrand household who shall remain nameless, insisting that we had plenty of time to make it out to Ddukseom Resort by subway, and that I shouldn't rush her and there was plenty of time to sort out our enormous bundle of recycling first.

But I made it to the starting line before the gun went off, so I guess there's no reason to complain.

Between this photo and the last, was a 10km run. Torn between the urge to photoblog the race and the desire to run a new personal record (sub 50 minutes), I eventually decided to entrust my favourite Canon to the Nike Bagminders.

The run was along the Han river, including two bridges and was fairly flat. But I found it pretty tough, especially towards the end. Usually at around the 5km mark, my thighs start pumping battery acid, and I have to stick it out until the endorphin rush kicks in.

But this time, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, the endorphin fairy wasn't in the mood to visit. I guess she was busy sprinkling dust on all of the other 20,000 runners.  

With the race over, I hastily consumed a complimentary bottle of Powerade before making my way to the Bagminders. One thing I've noticed in Korea is that the race organisers here all seem to suffer from sub-optimal bagminding technique. Time and time again, I've been left waiting for my bag, post-race, long enough for my steaming body to be reduced to a silvery shiver.

But I got my bag in the end, and all was well at Bag End*. We then went off to enjoy one of life's most delectable luxuries, which just happens to be Korean galbi** after a 10km run.

* A reference to the works of J.R.R Tolkien
** Korean bbq ribs

We received our certificates in the mail today, and I'm still feeling the dizzy afterglow of a new personal record (47:41). Heather also did very well, considering she was running for two. 

I also ran faster than Heather's younger brother that day (who politely whipped my buttocks in the Energizer night race), but alas, the victory was bittersweet because he was recovering from a fractured rib that day, incurred during baseball practice.

Hmm, running with fractured galbi? Now there's a tough man.

I'd better keep in shape for the next one.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Dad's Book Launch: A New, Objective, Pro-Objectivity Normative Theory

Since as long as I can remember, my Dad has always been typing away at something. We used to own an Atari, long before computers became cool. It was a pioneer machine, before black and white, with brown coloured text on a black background. And it took real floppy disks, the 5.25 inch ones that you could muck up with a fridge magnet.

All of that typing on ancient computing equipment has cumulatively paid off in the form of a book he has just published, called 'A New, Objective, Pro-Objectivity Normative Theory.'

His field of expertise is objective philosophy, and he's always talked about improving the world. I'm sure the book has quite a few pearls of wisdom contained within, but I haven't finished reading it myself. It's aimed at people with a specific interest in philosophy and I find it to be quite heavy in philosophy jargon. If you're not familiar with the work of Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell or concepts like epistemology, then you'll probably find it a little intellectually challenging. Still, being the good son that I am, I'd like to pimp it for him and tell you all to buy it regardless. I therefore recommend it for all ages, genders, ethnicities and persuasions.

If you don't like it, you can always wrap it up and turn it into a great gift.

Here's a photo of me and my Dad, at my old university in Australia quite a few years ago.

This is his brief description of the contents of the book:  

"A New, Objective, Pro-Objectivity Normative Theory tries to solve fundamental normative moral, social, political, educational, legal, etc. problems. It defends a uniquely evidence-based, objective theory.

The theory argues it has one objective, primary end, and plural a-objective, secondary ends irrelevant to that end. The theory's basis permits great liberty as well as cultural, sexual, artistic, lifestyle, and much other diversity regarding secondary ends. The primary end is a general principle implying non-sexism, non-racism, types of happiness, freedom, education, sympathy, peace, democracy, altruism, flourishing, fairness, and much more. Emotions and various other subjective experiences are considered important.

Part II discusses such specific practical applications at length. Part I mainly explains and defends the theory's foundation and general guidelines. One guideline prescribes applying the theory's rationally-critical approach to the theory, stressing that fallibilism and skepticism may be appropriate regarding some suggested specifics - but that future research can increasingly avoid problems here."

If you think you're up for something that's bound to challenge your comprehension abilities, you can buy his book on Amazon for $21. The link is here.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

That Nanoomi Party

Nanoomi is a community website supported by Tatter & Media. Its purpose is to bridge the English language K-blogging community with Korean readers by providing a focal point where everyone can cross-post their goodies. Some of the articles, like our review of Resilience, can get nominated for translation by some rather nice and mysterious volunteers.

If you haven't been to the site yet, you can hop over there by clicking here.

Last weekend, they held a party, which I'm posting about early. I usually get around to posting things about 2 weeks after they occur, but this one is going up early because parties always sound better when fresh. 

The event was held at Sonofactory, a nice cafe in Hongdae.

Upon entering the venue I saw two popular personalities being interviewed. Martina and Simon are the famous Eat Your Kimchi duo, churning out popular video clips every week. One of my favourite clips is this one, of the Jagalchi Markets in Busan.

While I still haven't figured out all of the intricate workings of Nanoomi, I've already reached a few conclusions. The guts of Nanoomi are kept in perpetual dynamism by two impressive young ladies called Cynthia Bae and Hannah Yoo. These two work in parallel to supply all of the necessary mental nutrition that a K-blogging community needs in order to flourish in a cohesive manner. Such nutrients include encouragement, enthusiasm and lightning quick email responsiveness. How fast, you ask?

It's faster than table tennis.

Getting everyone together  is a good thing, because a lot of the English language bloggers in Korea are saying some pretty thoughtful stuff online. Stuff that is generally more useful than what I post about, which is mainly composed of trivial observations and the occasional witty quip (<< hey, that sounds like a spoonerism).

By bringing all of the voices together, we stand a better chance of getting noticed by a wider audience and get to know each other better in person.

Take for example, my new best friend Roboseyo. Roboseyo and I have exchanged the odd subtle greeting online before, and sent a couple of sideways cyber nods to each other. But after we poured each other makkeoli at the Nanoomi party, it's a whole different ball game. Soon afterwards, Roboseyo explicitly referred to me on his blog, sending quite a few hits this way and perhaps a couple of quality readers.

And that's what the satisfaction of blogging is all about: getting good readers who like what you're doing.

And here's the biggest name in K-blogging, Mr Marmot himself. Both he and Matt from Popular Gusts are extremely interesting to talk to. You don't even need to squeeze them for information. They're literally full to the brim with interesting factoids about Korea in general, and all you have to do is stand around and absorb the overflow.

I consumed as much knowledge as I could, with my makkeoli.

Joe from ZenKimchi was also there, another person I've exchanged cyber-pleasantries with before, but never met in person. Joe made some pretty good bulgogi burritos, directly leading to the ingestion of multiple 'meat kilograms' by the audience. I can't really think of a better unit of consumption.

In the top photo is Paul Ajossi and his companion, who entertained the youngsters with some impromptu magic. I've had the odd trip over to Paul Ajossi's website before, but now I can say I've seen him speak Korean and pull foam balls out of thin air.
The reaction from the young audience was hilarious. At first looking dazed and confused, they eventually figured out the concept of magic and started clapping.

To a toddler, I guess the whole world seems like magic, so it's hard to make the distinction.

This dog's name is Gyodong. I'm sure it means something, as most Korean names do. The thing I like about Gyodong is that his ears are very similar to flannelette napkins.

Which is handy, if you've been eating a lot of juicy bulgogi burritos.

Both Gyodong and the other dog, who I'll just call 소세지, were on floor patrol that evening. Despite my numerous attempts to befriend them, it seemed that the importance of falling food far outweighed any potential meet and greet.

Then Pika came and did a live show. I don't know who Pika is, but the music was ambient and blended with the atmosphere perfectly.

Overall I'd say the Nanoomi function was a roaring success by any measure. The company was interesting, the atmosphere lively and the makkeoli consumed to the last drop. Even the obscure tumeric flavoured one.

It was also nice to see Widhi again, as well as put names to faces: Stafford (Chosun Bimbo), Jennifer (FatManSeoul), Michael (Metropolitician), Dan (Seoul Eats), the KT Lit guy and a friendly Swedish girl from Indieful ROK. For those who I've missed, I look forward to meeting you at the next function.

Keep up the good work Nanoomi!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

David Hwang's Beef Balls

Not more than a few moons ago, I mentioned that Korea was a country void of a certain type of Malaysian shrimp paste called belacan. I've made various other allegations about our little peninsula, some with more truthiness than others. Most of them concern a lack of inspiring ingredients at supermarkets here.
Then a little while ago, a man called David popped up in the comments section, offering to mail me some spices free of charge. So I sent him my address in Korea, thinking 'Sure, why not?'

A few days later a package arrived from California. Not just a package, but a veritable bonanza of herbal goodness. David mailed us some Thai basil and cilantro seeds, star anise, cinnamon bark, cloves and a mystery spice package for making Vietnamese pho. Along with the package came photocopied and handwritten pointers for making Vietnamese soup and beef balls.

David is a person who I know almost nothing about. With no Google profile to forensically analyse, I was limited to ruminating over his email address, from which I surmised that he is a fly-fishing enthusiast. Fly fishing being another thing that I know almost nothing about.

What can I say, but a heartfelt thanks and greatly appreciated, David.

To mark this event with a meme, whenever his beef ball recipe is used in the Farrand household, we'll always refer to them as David Hwang's Beef Balls. With such an auspicious name, I'm sure this tale will inevitably be told at numerous potlucks in the future.

Here's how to make David Hwang's Beef Balls. You can get all of these ingredients in Korea pretty easily.

You need:
1/4 cup of fish sauce
1 and a half tablespoons of potato starch
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
600 grams of trimmed boneless beef hind shank
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon of sesame oil
Vegetable oil for shaping the meat balls
Food processor
Intelligent method of steaming

Mix the fish sauce, potato starch, baking soda, sugar and black pepper in a bowl. Slice the meat into thin strips (2mm or so) and add the meat to the bowl.

Then, if you have a wife handy, politely ask her to mix the condiments while you clean up your mess. If you don't have a wife, you can call upon a friend or family member with reasonable stirring skills as an adequate substitute. Remember to compliment the stirrer on their technique, to boost their self-esteem.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Transfer the meat to the freezer 30 minutes before adding it to the food processor. We didn't actually have a food processor before. One remarkable stroke of luck is that Heather's older sister sent us one in the mail, as a pregnancy gift, approximately four days before we made this recipe. If luck is a limited commodity, I'm sure we've received more than our fair share already.

Blend up the meat in the processor for a good five minutes. Only add small amounts at a time or it will become overloaded. Transfer the paste to a bowl and use oiled hands to craft them into smooth rounded balls.

Then you steam the beef balls for around 5 minutes. When this is done, you can eat them immediately and store the remainder in the freezer for later. This recipe makes around 60 of the little critters.

It is a most excellent idea to refer to them as David Hwang's Beef Balls when making them for yourself at home. That allows you to explain how they got their name when people ask.

If there's one thing I enjoy, it's telling stories while I cook.

I haven't gotten around to making his pho recipe yet, which takes a fair amount of time. In the photo above is a pasta meatball recipe I made instead. You can also eat the meatballs by themselves with Sriracha chili sauce. They taste excellent.

As I mentioned to David in my reply package (on its way David!), it's not often these days that people are lucky enough to receive the generousity of strangers. We'd like to thank him again for his kindness. Mailing a stranger a package is a big deal, and I shall use the spices sparingly.

And David Hwang's delicious Beef Balls to you all.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Resilience: Three Perspectives

Resilience is a documentary film about adoption, focusing on the reunion of a Korean mother and her son. 

Directed by Tammy Chu, and supported by various elements in the Korean adoptee community, it was filmed over a period of four years. Our friend Widhi, my wife and I went to see a screening in Anguk last weekend. Following are our three opinions on the movie, beginning with brief profile backgrounds. 

Lee Farrand (이소하): A 28 year old Korean Australian, adopted to Australian parents at the age of 2. Returned to Korea in 2006 and is currently a PhD student at Seoul National University, studying ovarian cancer. Tried briefly, but was unable to locate birth parents.

Lee: I had intended to see Resilience for quite a while, mainly due to the increasing amount of times it popped up in the adoptee online community. But a busy schedule and a general deprioritising of all things adoption-related for the time being, led to me listing it as a non-urgent matter on my mental list of things to do. Then a couple of weeks ago, Nanoomi, an English K-blogging initiative, mentioned it on it's discussion boards. Before long, I had found myself cyber pinky-swearing to do something that in retrospect I'd rather have let someone else do. Reviewing movies is always fun, but when the topic is adoption, I find myself having difficulties expressing my thoughts with clarity.


And then up flew a poster in our Biomodulation department elevators at university. I took this as a sign to get my act together and go see the film while it was still playing. While I normally enjoy an insulated life on campus, it seemed that Resilience was creating waves from somewhere north of the Han River, and tiny ripples were lapping at my shores.

How does an adoptee put in words, the work of another adoptee that focuses on the topic of adoption? Describing the film in aesthetic or technical terms would, for me, seem to be side-stepping the core issues. These issues are specifically relevant for anyone affected by adoption, but perhaps just a passing curiousity for those who have not.
My initial reaction to Resilience was a mixture of feelings. I felt a little inspired, a little helpless and a little angry. 
The documentary follows the lives of mother Myunja Noh and her son Brent Beesley, separated soon after Brent's birth due to family problems. Brent's Korean father gambled the family's savings away, and ended up leaving. Myungja's family put Brent up for adoption without her consent, and she returned to pick him up one day, only to find that he had been sent away and and her relatives refused to tell her where her baby was. Brent ended up being adopted through an agency, to a family in a small country town in South Dakota.

Brent returns to Korea alone, with two daughters back home, looking for his birth parents, partially out of curiousity and partially for the family's medical history. He and Myungja meet for the first time on a Korean TV show that specialises in reuniting family members. For many adoptees, going on national TV is their last ditch effort in trying to locate their birth parents, when all other options have proven unhelpful. While the utility of this particular show has been remarkably successful, many adoptees including myself would only consider appearing on it after an excruciating amount of consideration. After all, who wants their first meeting with their birth parents to be hijacked by the spectacle of a Korean television show? It's like giving someone's eulogy while dressed up as a clown. 
Before meeting his mother, who is kept behind a curtain, Brent is asked by the show's host to write on a piece of paper whether he 'forgives' her or not. Asking a son to forgive a mother he has never met, for circumstances he has yet to even learn about, is a little ridiculous. After all, no sane person would go to all that effort to appear on public TV for the sole purpose of shaming their birth mother. I guess the TV show executives need to make money, but perhaps the subject matter could be treated with a little more graciousness.

The documentary then focuses on what happens after reunion, which is often a complicated chapter in the lives of both parties. Resilience maintains a fairly neutral perspective, and both Brent and Myungja's natural behaviour and openness about their feelings provide a firm foundation for the film's substance.
Brent talks about his upbringing in a white American family but as a racial minority, a common experience for many transnational adoptees. As an idea lingering in the background during childhood, his reflections describe adoption as being neither a distinctly positive or negative experience, but that he had a good life nonetheless. After meeting with his overwhelmed mother, he is abruptly forced to react and respond to a surreal change in his life's events. These include being smothered with attention and being almost forcibly assimilated into Korean family life. This occurs at an accelerated pace, as if to be making up for lost time. Myungja works in a restaurant and does not have a lot of money, but most determinedly decides to buy gifts for Brent and his family members. These include expensive Korean hanbok, that Brent neither needs or wants, but accepts on occasion for the sole purpose of letting his birth mother know that her expressions of affection are appreciated.

Myungja comes across as a warm hearted and sensible Korean mother, plagued with a seemingly incurable amount of guilt that drives her daily life. She describes her difficulties in expressing her true feelings to Brent without a translator, and her eagerness to build a strong relationship with him. In some ways it seems as if she is a little frustrated that Brent does not behave in a typically Korean way, but this is always swamped and overridden by her inner determination to compensate for time that has been lost.

The documentary itself combines an interesting mix of elements. Filmed over the space of four years, with Brent traveling back and forth between the US and Korea, it uses passive recording of family gatherings, interviews with family members and even self-recorded video blogging to communicate the complex balance of feelings on both sides of the Pacific.

As an adoptee myself, who has been living in Korea for some time now, I felt intricately connected with the unfolding story. Brent's description of his upbringing, from the Bruce Lee references by the kids in his neighbourhood to his family photos surrounded by a white family are highly familiar to both myself and many others. Similarly, upon his return to Korea, the culture shock of the Korean way of life is also something I can strongly relate to. Brent describes Korean families as being 'tribal,' something I find to be both a positive and negative aspect of life in Korea. Western families tend to have more physical and emotional distance between individual members, something that comes with a higher amount of personal freedom. Brent is strongly encouraged to learn Korean (his mother reads him the alphabet), and become 'more Korean.' This is a common theme arising after family reunions, which is an extensive cause of frustration on both sides.

Adoptees who have grown up overseas often have trouble integrating into Korean society, which is not a result of personal desire alone, but because of the irreversible formation of an identity in another country. As such, we often find ourselves having to defend our individual tendencies. This ranges from why we don't study Korean 'with more passion', to why we don't think that age alone is an appropriate reason to respect someone. As a Korean adoptee, I feel neither completely Australian nor completely Korean. I don't like speaking in Korean, and I don't like eating ddeok. Nor am I particularly interested in Korean history. But at times I do appreciate the accelerated closeness of Korean friendships and I admire the fierce aspirations of the Korean people. And I also feel genuinely happy when Korea does well in the World Cup. But the same is true when Australia does well. Being tied to both of our mother countries is an integral part of who we are, and the amount to which we feel closer to one or the other should be left for us alone to decide.

Seeing Resilience, I find it difficult to not talk about my situation, and express some of my own thoughts on Korean adoption. When it comes to the idea of adoption, I don't think anybody has the answers, nor can anybody accurately represent the opinions of all parties involved. For myself, I do have some opinions on how things could be more fair and more logical. Much of this has to do with aspects of Korean society and social norms that are followed here without reasonable analysis or discussion.

Many advocates have long been convinced that a large part of the remedy would be the evolution of women's rights in Korea. This includes everything from healthy public debate about a woman's right to make a conscious choice about maternity, to workplace discrimination and pay differences according to gender (Korea ranks unfortunately lowest in the OECD).
The lack of women in CEO and management positions in Korea is representative of a wider social disparity. The actual ratio for male to female professors at SNU is likely to be abysmal - after 2 years at the university, I've still never met a single female professor in person. Incoming professors in our department are voted in by a special board, made up entirely of older males. There could also be more support for single mothers, including an expansion of maternity leave, and anti-discrimination laws regarding employment. Without massive support from friends and family, and an inadequate system of welfare, a single mother in Korea has little chance of living a successful life. For all its progress in leaps and bounds, Korea still has strong social forces of conservatism that are holding it back.

Filial piety (효), a term barely recognisable in the Western world, refers to the Confucian belief that respect for one's elders and ancestors is a virtue to be held above all else. While questionably reasonable (if one has respectable elders), in Korean family life it is heavily enforced as a necessary path to a virtuous life. In a simple world, such a virtue may seem worthwhile, but in modern Korean society its side-effects include the abuse of power, unfair discrimination and the sidelining of logical debate.

Filial piety encourages the surrender of individual will to a collective conservatism and an unquestioning defense of the status quo. This quenching of respect for the rights of the individual in Korea, for what is disguised as the collective good, often allows elder family members to make extremely important decisions without consulting those who would be most affected by them.  In Resilience, Myungja talks with clear bitterness about how her family members sent her son away while she was looking for work, and refused to tell her what had happened. The decision for the family members must not have been an easy one, and we can conclude that it may have been in everyone's best interests. However, Myungja's acceptance of the unfair, even after all these years, may seem quite unsettling to an outside observer. The drive to endure and persevere 'diligently' in the face of injustice is deeply rooted in the Korean psyche.

People who openly criticise these aspects of Korean society, soon find themselves at odds with blind patriotism and a strong defense of things unreasonably defined as a part of the Korean identity. This is a reaction not unique to Korea, but common in all societies that have an underdeveloped realm of public debate. Korea has come a long way in these past few decades, and a helpful next step may be to grow up from its patriotic origins and focus on facing ethical issues with logical maturity.

After seeing Resilience, it's got me thinking again about my own birth parents. A birth search costs not only time and money, it's psychologically draining and the emotional risks are extremely high. I've been married to a wonderful Korean wife for over a year now and we live in the international dormitories at SNU. My wife is now 10 weeks pregnant, and after she gives birth, we'll be living off my scholarship and my part-time tutoring job. Life is busy and not always easy, but we are both happy. But I realise that right now, before we have our child, is the best time to start looking again. In some ways I dislike feeling rushed to do something that I'm not sure I'm ready for.

In conclusion, Resilience is an impressive piece of work, and its distinct elements make it uniquely recognisable as directed by someone who has an inseparable relationship with, and passion for, the subject matter.

While it doesn't end with any concrete conclusions, it's likely to arouse ripples of thought and discussion among both adoptees and Korean citizens alike, which will hopefully become a catalyst for fair and logical future changes. 

Heather Jung (정가희): Lee's wife, a 30 year old Korean native from Busan. They have been married for over a year. Currently employed at an English language school in Seoul
Heather: I had earlier watched the movie 'Susan Brinks Arirang' in 1991, which describes the life of an adoptee girl, Susan, who had a tough life since she was adopted to Sweden when she was 3 years old. The movie ends with a scene showing Susan meeting her biological parents. It seemed that the Korean audience was moved by such a dramatic story.    
Resilience on the other hand, has a very steady mood until the end of the movie. The movie poster has the most dramatic scene, which has an old photo of a kid, saying I recognized him at first sight.
The movie begins with the reuniting of an adoptee and his mother, which was how Susan Brinks Arirang ended. It was interesting because it didnt completely look like someone elses story, and somehow related to me, because I had heard many stories about adoption and adoptees from my husband. I can only guess how they feel upset when they realized their lives were twisted from the beginning.   
Resilience seems like it is striving to describe the reality of reunion. I liked the scenes showing two people living their normal lives in different places. Noh Myungja is a middle-aged woman, the type you can see everywhere in Korea. Brent, living in a small town in America, is also a normal guy who has 2 daughters. These scenes make me imagine how my husbands biological mother would look like if we ever found her.   
My husband and I agreed that the case in the movie is one of the better-ending stories which may not always happen. However, it is still mixed up with small conflicts between a mother who was missing her son for 30 years and a son who has grown up in a totally different environment, not knowing anything about his biological family. People tend to think that if adoptees find their family, they can fill up the last piece of the puzzle for their lives. But they may feel even more dejected when they discover unexpected gaps between them. 
Both Susan and Brent reunited eventually, but it will take a long time to fill the gap between them and their family members. Because of that, adoption and reunion can be a more difficult story than we first expect.  

Sriyulianti Widhiarini: An international student of aerospace engineering studying at Konkuk University from Bandung, Indonesia. Has a strong interest in the independent music scene in Korea.


 Widhi: It was not the adoption theme that brought me to watch the movie, but I was actually interested to watch the movie because of the band Dear Cloud’s song ‘그럴수만 있다면', that was featured in it. The trailer seemed to be very promising and the music fits very well in it, so I decided to give it a go without any hesitation. It was a very nice opportunity that I got to see it with Lee and his wife Heather. 

It was very interesting to see how a 4-year story was put together in a merely 95 minute movie. The story itself was very interesting and the stories were smoothly delivered scene by scene. The background music was also put at the right scene without making it too dramatic or bland at the same time. It was a little bit emotional for me after the first half of the movie. However, it did not last long since the movie moved very fast and I no longer could hold that particular emotion for a long time.
Adoption has never been a very familiar thing for me. By watching this movie, I see an example of how it is not always about ‘living happy ever after’. There is always a void in the heart of an adoptee when he realizes about his true identity, especially when it comes to international adoption. There is always a question of ‘why’ and the eagerness to find the answer. It might have also been painful for those who later realize about the true reason of why they were adopted. This movie may serve as an example of a happy story, yet I thought of the opposite at the same time. It was merely being emphatic yet I really could not go deeper than that.
Somehow I felt that the movie itself showed merely a balance of happy and sad, while other emotions like anger, confused, curious were rather less apparent. Yet, since a lot of scenes involved talk or conversation, the instrumental music fit very well with each scene and I could feel a glimpse of longing. It was not until the end of the movie that I finally heard the song from Dear Cloud. For me, it closed the movie quite well. I was kind of hoping that the song would come out a little earlier in the movie but I realized that it would have somehow mixed up the story within the scenes.

The title of the song itself ‘그럴수만 있다면’ means ‘If I Could’ and may perfectly portray the desire of the two main characters to know more about their past. It’s related to the movie and does not look back merely at the past but also tries to give more focus on what is coming in the present and future. What becomes the last word of the song ‘끝나지 않는 ’, means the story has yet to finish but it is also an unfinished dream, especially for both of the main characters.

Resilience is now showing in selected Korean cinemas. For more information, please refer to these links: