Monday, June 28, 2010

MBC Marathon

Marathons always sound like a good idea when they're scheduled to happen a few months later. A typical plan would consist of slowly getting back into shape over the generous amount of weeks beforehand, before blitzing the track and setting a few local records at the same time.
But reality always has more realistic ways of doing things. A week before the MBC marathon was scheduled to happen, I finally decided it might be a good idea to go for a practice jog. 

On the morning of the event, we woke up at an inappropriate hour and went to a subway station that was a lengthy distance from our comfortable dwellings in Gwanak-gu. While waiting in the freezing air for the shuttle bus to arrive, I wondered why so many people would willingly sign up for such an ordeal.

I concluded that it was because the act of monetary payment and boasting to friends of involvement is a subconscious way for us to trick ourselves into having to do something that we'd normally make excuses to avoid.

At the venue were a large amount of people who had found themselves a victim of such self-trickery. The ones who really did want to be there were identifiable because they wore specialized running singlets, rather than the complimentary 'Run Yourself Better' shirt.

In the end our times weren't too bad. I only stopped to walk once, and that was because of a hill. And the good thing about the MBC Marathon is that everyone who crosses the finish line gets a medal.

With three sponsor's logos on it.

There were a few thousand participants at the event, and they had booked over a hundred coach buses to transport us from the subway to the location, which was around 5 kilometres away. Next year I'll just run from the subway station to the course and back, thereby saving time and money.

That is, if I choose to endure three days of post-traumatic thigh disorder.

A week passed between the marathon and the time this photo was taken, which was when this particular baby was one day old. It's Heather's newest niece, and technically my niece-in-law. In Korea, they often don't give names to babies until some time after they're born.

Heather has a slightly worrying, endless fascination with babies. I don't mind the things.

Especially when they're sleeping.

I think it would be a very rewarding job to work in a maternity ward. But you would have to like babies a lot, and put up with an unnatural number of halmonis trying to communicate in baby language while tapping on the glass.

It was Heather's second sister's first child and she seemed pretty relaxed about the whole ordeal. We hung around in the recovery ward for a while, and Heather administered one of her famous temple massages.

Heather's parents were happy to have another grandchild. They took us out for barbecue pork and encouraged us to drink copious amounts of soju. After that we went to the noraebang together, which would have been a little odd if I wasn't so tipsy.

Another odd thing that happens when I go to Busan is that I always borrow Heather's dad's old clothes to sleep in.

Heather's mother can speak Japanese. I studied it for a few years in middle school, but I can only remember how to say "I understand a little bit of Japanese."

Heather's parents have planted the lettuce seeds that my dad brought from Australia for them. Dad calls this kind of lettuce 'fancy lettuce'.

What a lovely wife I have. She used to try and hide from the camera when I first started blogging, but these days I think she's beginning to enjoy the publicity. Occasionally we'll be walking somewhere and she'll say "Hey, take a photo of me over here."

We went back to Busan on the Sunday without having time to catch up with friends. I don't mind the odd trip down there, but it's pretty exhausting. Typically we sleep little, drink lots and are enthusiastically fed too much apple, melon and obscure banchan* that only Heather's mother makes. Of particular note is her salt crab dish, which is so salty that raw crabs are perfectly preserved at room temperature for months on end.

*preserved traditional Korean side dishes, the family recipes of which are passed down the generations.

But the good thing is that we often get to choose which homemade banchan we take back to Seoul with us. A treasure chest like this will last us for quite some time. In some ways, banchan is the perfect gift, because it's cheap to buy the ingredients, but takes a lot of care and experience to make. 

Hmm, now there's some food for thought.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Farewell to Jef

Some time ago, Jef came up to Seoul for his last visit before finishing his teaching contract and taking off for Latin-American pastures. We decided to go out to the Shinsa area for our Last Supper. I really like the Shinsa and Apgujeong areas because they have a more comfortable and suburban feeling to them.

Our restaurant of choice after caffeine-stimulated talk was an Italian hideaway called Thira. The name reminds me of a co-teacher we used to know in Busan called Shira. Her middle name starts with a 'B', and we never once found out what it was. Even on her passport, her first names are listed as 'Shira B.'

Apparently it was so bad, no one could even guess it. But she was always so nice, and my nickname for her was 'Mum'.

The food at Thira was good. Not brilliant, but good. I'll spare you the details, except to say that I never was a fan of unpeeled prawns or shells in pasta. It looks nice, but who enjoys peeling a prawn covered in marinara sauce? Luckily it wasn't a first date, or I'd have been dropped like a writhing lobster into a chef's cauldron.

The pizza was interesting and reminded me of the rocket-lettuce pizza you can buy on Rundle Street in Adelaide. I used to dislike rocket intensely, until I turned 12 years old.

We went to a bar called 24/7, which has circular teacup lounges that you take your shoes off for. In the foreground is Jef's blurry head. He is often looking around, in general. Tall people are like mongooses (or is it mongeese?) in that way.

I guess there's more to see when you're further from the ground.

24/7 was a pretty good bar, and they had our favourite Australian wine that cannot be found in Australia - Archangel Shiraz. Perhaps it's only popular as an export, like Fosters Beer.

This is the Shinsa area at night, which has more wine bars than the average university Hof-land. Hongdae and Sinchon are still popular with the university crowd these days.

Kyung-Wan also came out with us that night. He's a funny character who has always been around in some shape or form. Jef met him at a bar in Dongnae called Dove, back in the fall of '06.
We decided to do what Jef likes to do most in Korea, go to a noraebang and sing songs like California Dreaming (Mamas and the Papas), Like a Prayer (Madonna) and Africa (Toto). Jef used to sing in musicals as a kid and is much better than me, who used to sing in the shower*.

*have since stopped due to complaints from the neighbours.

This is a good song, although the first time I ever heard it was here in Korea, sung in a noraebang by Erick Taggart.

Here's me and Mrs F, hanging out and having a good time. Heather likes noraebangs so much, she even goes to them when she's sober.

And here's our dear friend Jef, the last time we saw him before he departed from the Land of Morning Calm. He spent nearly 4 years here and he just left for Argentina to live and work. Jef and I met during training at CDI, and he first appeared on this blog on September 1st, 2006. A lot has happened since then, and he's remained a good friend to both me and Heather. Heather actually pronounces his name 'Jaf', due to her accented vowels, and he has never once complained.

If you're in a foreign country and have made some good friends, be sure to appreciate them deservedly, because one day they might just take off for Argentina...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quote Dump #13

"If you think you're too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito."

"A ship in the harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are for."

"Pain is temporary. Pride is forever."   

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Akami Japanese Restaurant

Wifey and I continue to live in harmony. In the mornings these days I often wake up early and cook breakfast, which can be anything from fried rice to baked beans on toast. After that, I'll often be unable to resist checking my email, while Heather will drink coffee and stare into space.

The unspoken rule is that whoever cooks is exempt from dishwashing duties, although it isn't always followed. One thing I've noticed about Heather is that she likes to have the appropriate washing equipment. One of my more memorable quotes has been "Give me a sponge, and I can wash the house". Heather, on the other hand, has multicolored gloves for washing the dishes, a special toothbrush for cleaning bathroom nooks, and wears an apron while she vacuums.

I have a theory that females are generally more inclined than men toward keeping living spaces clean because it provides a more sanitary environment for children. And I don't really think that's being chauvinist. Natural selection isn't always politically correct.

Akami is a Japanese restaurant near Heather's workplace at the Seoul National University subway station. It's about 75 metres from Exit 6 if you come straight out of the exit and swing around to the left (don't cross the main road).

Heather did what she always does when we go into a restaurant for the first time. First she inspects the tableware, then the surroundings and then the menu. After she has taken two bites of the food, she will announce a verdict, either the restaurant is good, or it isn't. The reputations of restaurants across the globe have soared to gastronomical heights or withered to sundried dust at the whim of her decrees.

Chinese cooking has always appealed to me the most, for its robust flavours and variety of styles. Second on the list would be Italian and then Japanese food. Most Japanese food in Korea, however, leaves a little to be desired if one has had the experience of consuming it in Japan. I guess the same rings true for everywhere in the world, which is that the best place to eat foreign food is in that particular country.

Outback Steakhouse not excluded.

We ordered a set menu for around $35 per head, which started with this plate of sushi. The orchid flower was real and the rice beds were small and well-packed. I read about a study once where some researchers performed MRI scans on sushi rice packed by machines, as well as amateur chefs and master chefs. Not surprisingly, the machines were not very good, but the difference between the other two was that the master chefs create more air bubbles between the rice grains, which gives it a more fluffy texture.

Sting my eyes with kimchi juice for saying so, but I've always thought Japanese sake to be an order of magnitude superior to Korean soju.
Good sake is a golden fluid made from rice with subtle floral hints, but soju is an obnoxious concoction of tapioca peelings, recycled paper and goodness-knows-what. A curious thing is the advertising campaigns that run on the screens in the subway here. Good looking females will drink a glass cup of soju, and then give a cute little grimace as the imaginary shock of turpentine flavour hits their palate.

I'm not sure whether this was mackerel or tuna, but oily omega-3 rich fish fillets have always been a favourite of ours. I'd cook more fish at home, if it were more convenient. Did you know that omega-3 reduces heart disease and has been linked with better moods?

This platter had various UEOs (unidentifiable edible objects) layed out for our perusal, one of which I believe was a large sea snail of some sort. The scallop in the foreground had little black dots on the rim of it's outermost flesh, which are light-sensing devices that are technically simple eyes. Scallops are interesting creatures, their eyes are bright blue when they're alive and can protrude outside the shell. They can also swim through the water by rapidly clapping their shells together.
Higher molluscs such as octopuses evolved from shellfish like scallops, so imagine a shellfish with tentacles that eventually lost the shell. Cuttlefish and squid are the same, although the cuttlefish retained part of its 'shell' as a calcified internal bone that it uses for buoyancy.

The sashimi here was fresh and much better than your usual Dokdo-chamchi franchise, which sell all-you-can-eat frozen tuna.
One of the biggest differences between sashimi in Korea and Japan is that it's often served frozen here. I guess its because there's no access to deep sea fish at the morning markets. Frozen fish is fine, but it just tastes a little bland.

This steamed egg dish came out toward the end, and was light and fluffy, although we were too full to enjoy it a lot. These are fairly easy to make, just beat some eggs in an open bowl and steam for around 5 minutes. You can add chicken stock if you want to.

At the end of the day I was quite pleased with our value for money and the atmostphere at Akami. I thought it was a fairly exceptional restaurant for the Gwanak-gu area.

But most importantly, did the flavours within please the Dark Lord of the Sith?


Monday, June 14, 2010

Wiki Rummage #4: Benefits of Meditation

During the week, I teach company workers at Lundbeck Korea, a Danish pharmaceutical company based at the World Trade Center building in COEX. There are five students in total, and we have 1 on 1 conversational classes focusing on critical thinking and discussion. They're quite enjoyable lessons, and a good way to discuss interesting topics with intelligent 'students' (they're all married and most of them have children, so I feel more like the student). Some of the topics I get from various news sources, and others from Wikipedia.

We're on the 29th floor of the building above, and our lessons take place in a quiet little room with a conspicuous lack of indoor plants. Most weeks I'm fairly busy, so before the classes start, I take an article with me on the subway, and read it while eating dinner in the COEX foodcourt below. A recent one I taught was on meditation, which I thought was helpful enough to share with you all here.

Meditation has always been something I didn't pay much attention to in the past, but I recently read about a study on the benefits of meditation from a scientific point of view. The American Heart Association claims that regular meditation reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke, significantly lowers blood pressure and reduces psychological stress. I started to read more on the topic and found some high-profile studies linking meditation to increased brain health and stronger immune systems.

When I asked myself the question, "Why not try meditation?", my best responses were because I didn't have time and because I didn't want to become a hippy. Now dear readers, a modestly wiser and somewhat more mature author of this blog will attempt to dispel some of your possibly ill-conceived notions about this ancient practice.

First of all, meditation doesn't have to be religious or spiritual at all. You can think of it simply as a way to relax the mind and unwind from a stressful day. Secondly, there is no set way to do it. There are many styles, but you can just do whatever works for you.

The only two things you need are time (15 minutes is good), and an environment without distractions. In today's busy lifestyles, these may not be so easy to come by, but at least they're free of charge. Heather and I started meditating after dinner on weekends, which seems to work well.

Sit in a relaxed position, on the floor or on a seat. You can sit however you want, but lying down isn't advised because you're likely to fall asleep. Sleeping is not meditating, because your mind is unfocused and you lose control of your breathing. And the most important part of meditation is to control your breathing. Close your eyes and focus on keeping your breathing slow, calm and much deeper than normal. You can put your hands on your knees if you like.
Try to clear your mind of stressful thoughts, and keep things simple. Other thoughts will creep into your mind, and don't try to resist them. My strategy is to let them come and go, without paying them too much attention. For example, I might be drifting into a peaceful frame of mind, but then I start to remember some events of the day. I just let these thoughts come and go without giving them too much value. You get better at this with practice (it took a few sessions before I was even able to meditate convincingly), and eventually your distracting thoughts just flow through your mind like sand through your fingers. If you hear noises from around you, just let them come and go.

After fifteen minutes, or when your legs get cramped, just slowly bring your mind back to the present and have a stretch. If you were keeping your breathing deep and regular for the whole time, you'll notice that you're in a considerably more contemplative mood and feeling pretty good in general.

Meditation helps you realise that everything is experienced as a state of mind, and this can improve your daily life. When irritating events happen during the day, you start to view them as a detached observer, instead of getting frustrated. As one article put it "You learn to understand the monkey tricks of your mind."
Practicing the meditative state of mind can really help you to take a step back and look at the deeper picture. A large proportion of the frustrating problems that we come across in our daily lives are not worth agonising over in the long run.

Most importantly, there is no defined way of doing meditation. It can be done in busy elevators or crowded subways, with your eyes open or closed. Just focus on your breathing and let go of the stressful thoughts in your mind. Try it for yourself and see if you notice a difference.

May your meditation bring you inner peace and harmony...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Quote Dump #12

"No matter how intellectually stimulating your topic of conversation might be, no one will take you seriously if you're not wearing pants."

"Before you criticize someone walk a mile in their shoes. So that way, when you criticize them you're a mile away and have their shoes!"

"Be bad while you're young and you can spend the rest of your life improving."

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Funny English #2

For those of you who don't live in Korea, Konglish is the name given to the myriad of endearingly peculiar English occurrences that can be found throughout this country. Most Asian countries have their own take on it, but of particular mention is Singaporean 'Singlish', which was brought to my attention a number of years ago by our old Casuarina chef, Jimmy Lai. He had an old cassette tape that he used to play while driving me home after work, with a band that sang entirely in Singlish. They had such hit songs as "Why you so like dat?" and "Ice, Ice Kachang" (to the tune of Ice, Ice Baby).

Konglish doesn't necessarily refer to the strange pronunciation of English words, but more of their amusing application.
While there's never any consumer backlash in this country, it's amusing to think about what would happen if an Australian pub were named Pretty Beer.

Hypothetical Australian mobile phone conversation (in heavy Australian dialect):
Steven: "G'day Bazza! Didja wanna getta schooner before hittin' the can mate?"
Barry: "Crikey Steve-O! Ah gee, well me sheila's at the footy, so where ya drinkin' mate?"
Steven: "A waterin' hole called, er...  Pretty Beer."

G'day: Colloquial Australian greeting
Schooner: 285 - 415ml of beer, depending on which state of Australia you're in
Hitting the can: Going to sleep
Mate: An associate or friend
Crikey: Exclamation of surprise 
Sheila: A female
Footy: Australian rules football (match)
Watering hole: A place to drink
*Also note the peculiar metamorphosis of names when referring to friends.

The name of this product is 'Dainty Lamb'. It's a bag of deep frozen lamb chops imported from China. Dainty is a quaint little word that unfortunately appears to be disappearing from the teenage lexicon. It means delicately charming, or exquisite.

It won't be long before we have a brand called Delicately Charming Lamb in direct competition with our old Dainty friends.

And if you don't need any Dainty Lamb, how about some Fine People? This is a convenience store in Suwon, and a great location for a group photo.

I snapped this one while in a taxi. Above the exit to the carwash it says 'Wash and Joy'. Considering that they offer both for $10, could it be false advertising?

Well, you never know until you've tried.

And one of the weirdest things I've seen is Mr Pizza's motto: Love for women.

Mr Pizza is a large franchise chain here in Korea. Can anyone fathom the logic behind this one? The general public here don't seem to notice.

These "I'm Your Brownie" biscuits are better than my old favourites, called Binch. "I'm Your... ", is currently collecting consumer confidence as a preposterously popular product prefix. They even have "I'm Your Haemorrhoid Cream" at the local pharmacy.

Just kidding.

On the back of the packet it has a convenient Korean transliteration of I'm Your Brownie into ah-eem-yu-oh-beu-ra-oh-knee. But more interestingly, what's that odd little boxed graphic down the bottom?

That, readers, is the newer form of bar code developed by GS-1, the international authority on bar code standards. You can often see them on airport boarding passes, but they're starting to appear in other places. Alphabets are inefficient methods of communicating numerical information, and while barcodes are better, they only allow single lines of information. GS-1 has developed this series to convey more information to a scanner using less space. As well as product information, they also contain the 'sell-by' date, and are supposed to alert the cashier if customers buy a product that has expired. Looking at the design, I guess that the three outer boxes are for orientation, while the remaining pattern consists of binary information running in two dimensions.

Pretty nifty eh?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Quote Dump #11

"If you loan someone $20, and you never see that person again, it was probably worth it."

"Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration and that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves... Here's Tom with the weather!" - Bill Hicks

"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time." - Steven Wright

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Statistically Probable Thought #2

When referring to a situation in which the original cause out of two likely explanations is unknown, many people like to use the old chestnut:

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

This is an example of metacircularity and is designed to be unanswerable. But the biological answer in terms of evolution is: the chicken.

The reason for this is because the egg is part of the chicken's reproductive strategy. If you traced the chicken's ancestors back in time throughout evolutionary history, you'd find that the eggs were more watery, from the amphibian lineage that we all share. If you went back further still, to simpler and primordial ancestors of the chicken, which were aquatic plankton, you'd find that eventually there was a point where sexual reproduction began. Before this time, the modus operandi of all reproductivity was binary fission ie. one cell dividing into two - in which case, there were no eggs to speak of. Eggs arose after the first organisms developed meiosis, the ability to divide chromosomes between gamete cells.
So the answer to this question is that the chicken came first, although the ancient 'chickens' we are referring to are quite different to the chickens of today.

Lee's Korea Blog: Helping you lose friends since 2006™

( equipping you with wildly inappropriate responses to well-meaning questions)