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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New Address

South Korea has been in the process of reforming its street address system since before I arrived, and everything is finally going into effect in 2011. Thus, if you plan on sending me any postcards, letters, donations, or vegan goodies in the future, please address them to:

Mike Roy
South Korea
Daegu Gwangyeok-si Buk-gu
Gonghang-no 84, Bldg 105 Apt 1308
(Bokhyeon-dong, Bokhyeon Woobang Town)

마이크 로이
대구광역시 북구
공항로 84, 105동 1308호
(복현동, 복현우방타운)

FYI, I live in "Daegu Metropolitan City(/Megalopolis), North District, Airport Road 84"

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wisdom #10

Am I allowed to deem myself wise? Here's something I wrote for Daegu Green Living (my eco-pyramid scheme)'s page on Vegetarianism. I was quite pleased.


Anyone who's spent any time here is familiar with Korea's seemingly endless varieties of meat cuisine. Kalbi, Bulgogi, Samgyeopsal, Makch'ang, Bosintang, Ch'obap, Sannakji, Spam. Land-based, sea-based, air-based, dirt-based, can-based. Ribs, spines, wings, drumsticks, fat, intestines, organs, wombs, whole. Grilled, stir-fried, steamed, battered, skewered, marinated, raw, still squirming. On a mountain, on the street, on the floor, on a stick, in a chair, in a tube, in a paper cup, at a buffet. Innumerable animals, along with most of their parts, prepared in various ways, eaten in various settings requiring diverse prepositions; avoiding meat in Korea may seem like an impossible task. There's good news though: going (or staying) vegetarian is easier than you think.

I can't believe how little I've posted about Kimchi: Practice

Now that I've covered why people traditionally made Kimchi and why I'm interested, here's how it's done.

1) Plant some cabbage (probably around September, after you've finished your summer harvest).

(Actually, this is a different kind of cabbage, but it's closest thing I have a picture of.)

2) Pick said cabbage, probably around mid-December.

3) Recruit some friends and experts to help you work.

4) Chop the cabbage in half or quarters (along the vertical axis) to increase surface area.

5) Leave the cabbage in saltwater overnight. This softens it up, opens the pores (for maximum spice absorption), and probably also kills some bacteria.

6) Using several different bowls, rinse the saltwater off of the cabbage. Stack it all up and leave it to drain for 12 hours or so. I suppose if you apply the spices while it's too wet, it'll be runny and less tasty.

7) While it's draining, mix up the jang (spice paste). Lots of anchovy paste, garlic, and red pepper paste and powder. Definitely wear gloves. Definitely don't breathe in.

8) When everything is ready, divide into slatherers (to apply the jang to the cabbage, one leaf at a time) and gophers (take away slathered cabbages [wow! my own soggy effigy...], refill emptied jang tubs, deliver other cabbages, scratch itchy places). My friends and I were slatherers.

9) Sit around and chat while you work work work. Try not to look at the pile.

10) Put it all in huge tupperware containers. Divvy it up. Go out for dinner. Sleep on a heated floor. Go mountain climbing. Get hugged by a tree.

All in all, it was a really cool weekend. There were 4 generations present! The woman (elder sister) who invited me is actually a grandmother. The great-grandmother (in the picture with the big cabbage pile) was there, probably 70-something, healthy and cheerful and working harder than any of us. The daughter, a few years older than me, was also helping out, but mostly tending to Yun-jin (I think that was her name), the great-grand-toddler.

I mentioned in my previous post that our understanding of jam, indeed, of almost all food, has changed profoundly over the past few generations. That understanding ha probably changed more in the last seventy years than in the seven thousand before it. I had a little chat with elder sister about just this topic. She learned to make Kimchi by helping her mother to make it, but as she went to school and became a professional (she's a nurse, but that's just incidental), she understandably got into the habit of buying her food rather than making it. Thus, for a good 40 years, including the time during which her own daughter was growing up, she didn't make any Kimchi. The daughter, then, had no direct experience with Kimchi as a non-industrial product, related to certain times and seasons and rythms. Nor would the grand-daughter, had elder sister not started making her own again about 5 years ago.

I see this as an instance of valuable knowledge - about our relationship to nature, about how to produce what we need, about how to remain independent and self-sufficient and secure - coming to the brink of disappearing before being reclaimed. If you know how to make what you eat, then you will have an alternative when you realize that one of the most important foods you eat, produced as it is by on large scale by large corporations, results in environmental degradation as well as low-quality, hardly-nutritious food. Yun-jin (the fourth generation), who will probably have to deal with the mess left behind by preceding generations, is lucky to have a family smart (and yes, also comfortable and wealthy) enough to take an active interest in such matters. For every family like this, though, there are hundreds or thousands more that let that knowledge slip away, leaving their fate in the hands of others. The evidence is mounting that this is a risky, if not downright reckless move.

I can't believe how little I've posted about Kimchi: THEORY

First, a poem.

"Bacterial Mayhem in the Land of Morning Calm."

Banch'an means side dish.
In Korea there are many.
But more than the others,
Kimchi has famey.

Kimchi is Korea's
National Dish.
You make it with cabbage,
spices, and fish.

There are special fridges
For Kimchi alone.
What other pickle
has its own realm?

Kimchi is spicy,
slimy, juicy and crisp.
Eat it with ricy,
veg sticks, and soybean dip.

Kimchi is patient:
Waits months or years to be eaten.
It doesn't discriminate.
A food for all seasons!

Loads of bacteria
Thrive on the surface.
Unlike the moon,
More like the Earth-us.

It unites us
through the kimjang process.
Those unmoved
must surely be heartless.

Kimchi is nice.
Unless it's too sour.
Eat some every day.
Be good to your bowels.

I could probably go on more or less endlessly and inanely, but I'll stop.* Why? To tell you about the weekend Suze and Beth and I spent doing kimjang (making Kimchi) with the same elder brother and sister who hosted me for my first WWOOFing experience and gave me a load of figs and a thigh massage last fall.

I've been wanting to try making Kimchi for a long time, actually. One of the main reasons I decided to start eating vegetarian was because I wanted to be the sort of person who thinks about his food even more than he thinks about his trash. As far back as I can remember, I was always into reducing waste and recycling and the like; eventually, I learned that it was possible to expand my range of concern and that, if you look for the connections, eating is every bit as much a moral act and a statement of priorities as buying and disposing are. Perhaps even more so, if you agree that eating is a more fundamental activity than commerce.

Other than rice, there's probably no food I've eaten more frequently than Kimchi over the last four years. Actually, scratch that. Kimchi is king. Nearly every meal here has Kimchi, even if you're out for spaghetti or curry. Thus, there's no food in my diet more worth understanding. If I want to know about the ingredients, the time, the processes, and the labor that I'm treating myself to every time I sit down to dine, Kimchi is probably the place to start.

Kimchi comes in several varieties. When my parents and I stumbled upon the Kimchi museum in Seoul, we found that there's hardly any vegetable that wasn't used for Kimchi at some time in the past. I already knew about cabbage, sesame leaf, radish, cucumber, and chive Kimchi, but they even made it with eggplants and carrots and other plants whose names I don't know.

How can all of these dishes share one name? Because Kimchi is an ambiguous term, kind of like "pickle." It's the name of a process, but there's also a standard-bearer that usurps the term in popular usage. There are other variations, too, based not on the vegetable in question but on the spices and age. Soups and stirfries should be made with sin-(pronounced "sheen") Kimchi, which is old and sour. In the summer, there's water kimchi, which Koreans will no doubt tell you is extremely refreshing. For the spice-intolerant, there's white kimchi, which is either pickled without red pepper or rinsed free of it before being eaten.

I always wondered why people bothered making pickles. I found them nasty and stinky and figured, why not just eat a cucumber? I think I always sort of took it for granted that food was easy to come by, that it was normal for food to come in packages and be stored in fridges, that there was nothing odd about long lists of odd ingredients with undisclosed functions. This misapprehension may have something to do with the fact that I spent my school months in suburban Virginia, with no significant connection to agriculture, and my summers in California, where the fields were always full of lettuce and broccoli and my friends' back yard seemed to always have more apples, apricots, peaches, plums, strawberries, and boysenberries than we knew what to do with. I suppose I never really spent a full year in any one place**; how could I have known what would become of the fields when I went back to school in September?

However, I don't think it's right to blame that misapprehension primarily on the individual circumstances of my upbringing, because most Americans (and most Koreans, too) think about food in much the same way. We consider it a right to eat what we want, when we want, with minimal effort; or, at the very least, if we don't consider it a right, we don't think there's anything wrong with it, either. This mindset is encouraged, if not directly created, by the processed food industry, which makes money by taking advantage of economies of scale and doing all the work for us. Unfortunately, this also means it's doing most of our thinking for us.

This is why, until I was 25 or so, I never really gave serious consideration to the fact that the food we eat is all alive, or at least is a part part of a living being, until we pluck it. Just like the flowers in our gardens (assuming we don't outsource the knowledge and labor that goes into raising them, too), these plants live in cycles, bear fruits at certain times, and then die or hibernate for the winter. This process is largely obscured by the presence of refrigerators and Lunchables (TM), but in the days of yore, people had no choice but to acknowledge and deal with it.

Figs come off the tree in October here. If you like figs, October is a great month. Of course, August sucks because all you can do is sit and wait and watch them grow and think of ways to outsmart the birds this season. (Actually, August doesn't suck, because Watermelons are ready then, but that's another story). In November, you may have some stragglers, and in early December, some runts. You're done long before Christmas. No fresh figs in your stockings. Anything that you picked but didn't eat has rotted away. Anything that you left on the tree (why'd you do that?) has shrivelled up and dried out. Unless you had the foresight to make jam. Have you ever thought about jam as an innovation? I don't know when it was - it may have been this very moment - when I realized that jam wasn't just made by Smuckers to keep my Skippy and Wonderbread from getting lonely. Jam is a technology. It extends the life of fruit so that we can enjoy sweetness long after the sweet things have all died. Jam is functional and adaptive and clever. It's also contextual and cyclical. There was a time when there was a time in human life for jam, when opening a jar of it meant something other than "I think I'll have a PBJ." Our grandparents all remember those days, and maybe some of our parents do, but I think most of us just have a very faint, factual sort of knowledge that such a situation once existed.***

That was a long way of saying that Kimchi is essentially cabbage jam. Except, since cabbage is all stringy and crisp and has no sugars, it can't be made into jam. It has to be preserved in some other way, so that people have something to chow down on even when there's not a single leaf or fruit or sprout to be seen. Maybe you knew that already. Two years ago, I probably thought I knew it. But I think I know it differently now.

Next time, the promised process.

*Actually, I just put two more stanzas in the middle. Sorry.

**Come to think of it, maybe I still haven't.

***I think functional ignorance of these sort of basic details about our relationships, not just to food, but to everything we use and consume, is the fundamental reason why the environment is screwed and the third world is a mess and the second world is a mess and the first world is a mess and so many of us, even the rich ones, are dissatisfied.****

**** This should probably not be a footnote. I beg you to read Derreck Jensen's Endgame.

Friday, December 17, 2010

I can't believe how little I've posted about WWOOFing

You wouldn't know it from the blog, but I've been to visit farmers in Busan four times, in Miryang thrice (I think), in Geoch'ang twice, and in Hwaseong once. I posted the picture pretty soon after the fact, but I've yet to write much about the experiences, mostly because I don't know how to make them interesting.

About a month ago, though, Jade, who works at the Korean WWOOF headquarters in Seoul, sent out an email asking WWOOFers to submit short letters about their WWOOF experiences so that she could combine them into a book. I wrote one. It's a little schmaltzy and I don't entirely like it, but I'll let you have a look anyway:


Wake-up calls at dawn. Vicious ant attacks by day, mosquito swarms arising from the rice paddies by night. Plodding around knee-deep in mud and rotten watermelons. Soybean paste soup with anchovy heads bobbing about. Suffocating dust clouds inside sweltering triple-layered plastic houses. Though a good deal of foreign teachers in Korea choose to spend their vacations at Haeundae [Korea's most popular beach] or in Phuket [the ultimate Korean package tour destination], soaking up the sun, people-watching, sipping cold drinks, and unwinding after several months of hard work, I chose instead to pursue even more of it by visiting Changwon and spend a week at Sweet Persimmon Village. But even if I try to conjure up the most painful-sounding memories I can – perhaps the worst of all was being surrounded by hundreds of trees, tens of thousands of low-hanging persimmons, all of them far too green and bitter to eat – I can’t help but admit that each of them is infused with pleasure and meaning and worth far beyond what I would have found had I just taken it easy.

It seems to me that the people who deserve vacations most are also the ones who are least likely to get them. We all know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that farmers labor year-round, tilling and irrigating, planting at just the right time, weeding and spraying and maintaining throughout the season, waiting for the perfect moment to pick, and then starting again, spring, summer, winter and fall. Even century-old fruit trees require regular, scientific pruning and coercion in order to produce what they’re really capable of – a fact I didn’t know before, but learned in my 10 days working with Mr. Gang and the others at Sweet Persimmon Village. All of this effort is directed towards feeding us, the city-dwellers and travelers and guests of the land, who have an indirect and generally underappreciated relationship with that which sustains us.

I look at WWOOFing as an opportunity to explore and reclaim this relationship, to learn about what I unknowingly require of the Earth, and what the Earth quietly, patiently asks of me in return. I wanted to learn how to listen to the ground, how to give back to it, and how to support the plants and bugs and microorganisms and myriad other lifeforms and systems that make my life possible. It turns out, it’s a lot of work, requiring study, planning, practice, creativity, diligence, dedication, [and] discipline, in addition to incessant bending, stooping, lifting, reaching, and sweating. Thankfully, though, the truth is that the best friendships are forged through work and effort directed at a common goal; even something as mundane weeding under the late afternoon sun, or as filthy as tearing apart a soggy watermelon patch at the end of the season, can bring people of different ages, vocations, skin colors, and nationalities together. Actually, it sort of makes sense - what could unite people better than the work that nobody, no being, can avoid: feeding him- or herself?

That’s not to say that there wasn’t leisure time – on the contrary, when the rains came, when the temperature topped 90 degrees before 10AM, or and [another typo!] when the sun set, we welcomed the opportunity to enjoy a long, slow meal, talk about the environment, about farming, about our homes and our travels, about upcoming events, and about nothing at all in particular. There was no shortage of fresh watermelon (the ones that had successfully dodged our boots) or cold Hite [Korean bear] (our most conspicuous “import”). We spent hours honing our archery skills and teaching each other tidbits of Enlish, Polish, French, and Korean, each release of the bow string and each repetition of a new word helping to build relationships that endure to this very day and now stretch across several continents.

Thank you, WWOOF, for creating the opportunity. And thank you, staff and residents of Sweet Persimmon Village, for opening your fields and homes and tool sheds to visitors from all around the world.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Have I Mastered the World's Hardest Language?

It's been one of those mornings where I just sit around on the computer and let Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia lead me wherever they want.

Facebook: Laura mentions speaking Swahili.

Wikipedia: Swahili looks pretty interesting. Only 5 vowel sounds, and no diphthongs? 22 noun classes, which we would call genders if the language were French or Spanish or German? Verb affixes and noun-class concord? Fascinating stuff!

Google: World's hardest language? Not because I expect a decent answer, but just because I want to see what people say. Proposed candidates: Icelandic, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hungarian, English, Hindi, Tamil.

My take: I don't doubt that these languages are tough, but they are almost all wide-spread and widely spoken. Surely, though, out of the world's 6000 languages, in terms of pure probability, the odds are that the hardest language is one most of us haven't even heard of. Furthermore, if perhaps counter-intuitively, languages become easier as they mix with others and spread and are acquired by non-natives; this is why English has lost so many of its noun classes and so many of its inflectional rules. Thus, the most difficult language is probably one that's been isolated for generations and generations, learned only by little magic-brained-and-malleable-tongued babies capable of internalizing ridiculous grammatical systems and learning to manipulate their uvulae with precision.

Wikipedia: a search for Hardest Language proves interesting. It first debunks the possibility of an objective definition of "Hardest Language," given that so much depends on which one the learner speaks natively. And it becomes even more complicated if we take in non-lexical/grammatical obstacles like, say, whether or not there are books published in the language, whether or not its speakers have spread around the world, and whether or not there are opportunities to enter the speech community and learn by immersion.

What brought me to this post, though, was the following (still from the Wikipedia entry):

"The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean". The Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be the most difficult of this group.[3]"

Wowsa. If you consider that I did two one-year contracts between late 2006 and 2008, and that I was away for three weeks in Europe, one week in Thailand, and one week in Japan during that period, I don't think it's unfair to say that I achieved proficiency in speaking and reading in less than 100 weeks (52*2 - 3 - 1 -1 = 99), without the help of a US DOD-designed curriculum or intensive training. On the contrary, I did it with absolutely no help from (professional) teachers, and with very little help from native speakers of English - just books and sentences and friends and time and lots of annoying, annoying questions.

Because of this, I really doubt that Korean is one of the hardest languages to learn. That said, it's far from easy. In case you're interested, then, here are some tough things about it, of course from the perspective of an English-speaker:

1) Vocab - With Italian, when we see a word like, say "vomitare," [to vomit] we can more or less guess its meaning without much trouble. And, if you're strong on your Latin roots or GRE vocab, you might even recognize a word like "temere" [to fear]. Thus, actually, the more Italian you learn, the easier it is to pick up vocab, since the advanced words tends to look and sound similar to their English counterparts. In Korean, there's no chance of this. The only way to get good at decoding new Korean words is to...learn Chinese roots, which is of course no help, since that's another foreign language. No hints, no shortcuts.

2) Word order - English is, generally, SVO (Subject, Verb, Object). "I eat the bread." Korean is SOV. "I bread eat." This is manageable at the start, but as it goes on, it gets more complicated. "I bread buy to store to going be." "I tasty bread buy to store to going be." "I sister wanting tasty bread buy for to store to going be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go think be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go not hesitating middle be" Can you decode that last one?*

3) Implied subjects and objects - Often, Koreans will just leave out topics and subjects and expect that the meaning of the sentence will be clear from context. Something like "Downtown go think is" is relatively clear - someone is thinking about going downtown, and it's probably the person speaking. I saw a sentence the other day though, in reference to the TV show Dexter: "Quinn kill." My English mind, expecting the first word to be the subject, translated it as "Quinn kills..." (Korean doesn't bother conjugating its verbs to agree with their subjects) I assumed that the missing object was Dexter, because who else would Quinn kill? Actually, though, the real meaning was "(Dexter) Quinn Kill;" where I thought an object was missing at the end, the truth was that the subject was missing from the beginning. The Korean friend I was watching it with said that, somehow, the context made it clear to her. I kind of see her point, knowing what I know about the show and the characters and t the plot, but...it's a stretch.

4) Formality - Korean has four levels: plain, informal, polite, and formal. Many of the levels have different endings for declarative, interrogative, suggestive, and command forms. For instance, there are: 4 ways to say "He's going."; 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Where's he going?"; 2 ways (actually, more) to say "Let's go."; and 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Go." You can speak plain and informal levels to people who are younger than or the same age as you, or who are a little older but who you're on close terms with, or with members of your immediate family; you speak polite to people you don't know well, or with whom you have a professional relationship, or with someone who's a fair deal older than you; you speak formal when you're wearing a suit and schmoozing. Of course, if you want, you can speak formal in an informal situation just as a joke or as to emphasize something, and you can speak low level to your boss if you want to get fired. I often go back and forth between speaking informal and polite forms to my students - they're younger than me, and I want them to feel like they're able to approach me, but on the other hand, our relationship exists inside of a certain set of rules and roles and power dynamics that they need to understand and respect. And what do I do if there are fifteen 18-year olds and one 50-year old in my class? Do I have to speak politely to the whole class just because of that one lady?

5) Titles - The most awkward of all. For people who are younger, you can use names or say "no," which means "you." For people who are older but still close, you can usually use "brother" or "sister," though the words are different depending on whether you're a male or a female. People who aren't so close, maybe you call "aunt" or "uncle" or by their title. This results in extreme awkwardness, because, as with the speech levels, you kind of have to specify exactly how close you think are to someone when you address them. But what if you think you're closer then they think, or what if they think you're close and you address them distantly? People are also often identified by their title at work, such as "owner," "manager," "teacher," "professor," but I don't even know the difference between a chief and a deputy and a vice-whatever in English; how can I possibly remember in Korean?

6) Connections - Korean seems to have finer distinctions than English when it comes to expressing how two or more actions are related, whether in terms of space or time or causality. There are probably about 10 ways to say "because." "-nikka" is used in spoken language, but not generally while writing; "-so" seems a little weaker; "-neurago" is compatible only with actions (not with descriptions) and is used to make an excuse for failing to do something; "-baram" is also usually used with some action that has negative effects; "-godeun" is often a kind of defensive response; "-ddaemun" seems kind of factual and formal; "-deoni" means that you have first-hand knowledge about the cause; and there are probably more that I just don't know or which aren't coming to mind. Not to mention that several of these have other, non-causal uses: "-so" and "-nikka" can also be temporal, and "godeun" can be used when you want to stick your tongue out at someone and shoot spittle at them.

7) Other distinctions we don't make or make differently - Korean often uses suffixes to express what we Englishers would use separate words or intonation for. For instance, we'd say "Wow, that car is fast!" If we put the sentence stress on "fast" - say it to yourself out loud - we mean we are surprised at how fast the car is. In Korean, you'd put the suffix "ne" on the end of the word for "fast" to express this. If we put the stress on "is," then we mean that we had some doubt about the speed of the car, maybe because it looked slow, but that the doubt has been vanquished by recent evidence. For this, Koreans would put "goon" on the end of the word "fast." [And then maybe another ending depending on whether it's your little sister or grandmother who's listening to you.] This is the sort of thing you might not even be aware of until you learn a language that does it differently.

On the other hand, here are some things that are, not as tough as one might expect

1) Spelling - Unlike Chinese and Japanese, the writing system - an alphabet just like ours, but better thought ought - is unbelievably simple: 10 basic consonants (ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅㅁㄴㅇㄹㅎ) and 6 basic vowels (ㅏㅗㅓㅜㅡㅣ). There are some strong consonants (ㅍㅊㅌㅋ), as well as some double consonants (ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ), as well as some iotized vowels (with a y sound in front) (ㅑㅛㅕㅠ) and some diphthongs (vowel combos) (ㅐㅙㅔㅞㅚㅟㅢ) and some iotized diphthongs (ㅒㅖ), but all of these latter things are clearly just slight modifications of the basic ones. I know it looks like a lot of new stuff, but it's all quite systematic and consistent and can be learned quickly.

2) Pronunciation - The characters look funny and foreign, but in fact, they are super easy. First of all, most Korean sounds are present in English, even if we don't quite know it. No clicks, no tones, few weird tongue contortions necessary. Second of all, 99% of the time, letters correspond to only one sound. No worries about soft C's (cereal, car) and G's (gate / garage), long and short E's (be / bet), or silent K's (knight) . Furthermore, all sound correspond to one and only one letter. Bernard Shaw once wrote that "GHOTI" could be pronounced "Fish," if you think about the sounds in "cough," "women," and "application." There's no way this could happen in Korean. PLUS, there are sounds in Enlglish that can't be represented by any of our letters; it takes us two letters to make the sound at the beginning of "cheese," despite that fact that it is just one sound, and has nothing to do with the standard sounds of the letters C or H themselves. Nor is there a way to look at the letters "th" and know what sound they make. The "th" in "think" and "that," may look the same, but they don't sound it. Korean does of course have some odd pronunciation rules, but they are much more systematic than English ones, which at times seem wholly arbitrary.

3) Honorifics / Humilifics - Admittedly, they seem weird at first. But the basics of it are that you throw a "she" sound into the middle of your verb when talking to someone to whom you'd like to show respect (this is an honorific). You can also use a humilific form of "I" ("cho" rather than the informal "na"). There are a few other things, like using a special words for "sleep" and "give" and "eat," but these are the exceptions rather than the rules.

4) Helping verbs
- are maybe the hardest thing about English grammar. Why the hell do we need "do" in questions and negative sentences, but not in plain ones? Why is the opposite of "I go" "I do not go" rather than "I not go."? What does the "do" do that the "not" doesn't? And why do we have to say "Do I go?" rather than just "I go?", when in either case we use rising intonation to express the question? Why does tense in positive sentences get expressed by changing the main verb - "I walk / I walked" - but in other sentences by changing the helping verb - "I didn't walk / Did I walk?"? Wouldn't "I not walked" be OK? And why does the same word act as both a helping verb and a lexical verb sometimes? What do you do? How do you do? What do you have? How long have you had it? This Friday, will you have had it for four days, or won't you have? Will you will yourself to make it to the end of this post? Well, will you?

5) Tenses
- Tenses are generally more straight forward in Korean than in English. We have all this strong and weak verb stuff, where some verbs get "ed" (the pronunciation of which varies, by the way; think of "called" and "walked") and others get a vowel change in the middle (sing, sang, sung, never singed). Korean verbs just put a double s on the end of the verb stem (there are often pronunciation issues here, but they follow rules). Furthermore, we mix up helping verbs to create difficult tenses, like "As of tomorrow, I will have been living in Korea for four years and 3 weeks" or something. Three helping verbs, one verb with meaning. This sentence is hard to replicate in Korean.

I could go on and on. There are a million simplifications above, places when I could have gone on about an example or counterexample or exception or revaluation of some statement. But I think I'll let you off the hook for now.

According to the most recent TOPIK test I took, I am higher than level 4 (intermediate) but not quite up to level 5 (low-advanced). Can you believe I know all this stuff and I've still got two levels to go? If I'm not up to level six (the max) by the end of year five, I think I'll have to go home for a while.

*Translation: I'm hesitating about whether or not going to the store tomorrow to buy the delicious bread that my sister asked for.

** To answer the title question: No. I highly doubt it.

*** This is all one of the primary reasons I love living abroad. I get to think about this crap all day every day. Languages are easily the most interesting things on the planet.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some things that have been happening

Despite my not having posted for about two weeks, I think it's fair to say that 2010 has been a productive year, both for my blog and for my self. I believe this post is number 84, so means my chances of ever achieving ultimate blog symmetry, to which I came so close in 2009, are nil. But it also means that I've been up to a lot of stuff and had a lot on my mind.

I am tempted to say that I feel like a lot of what I've been doing - the gardening, the movie screenings, the other website, the WWOOFing, the biking, all these things that are tied up with one another in mind but feel so disparate in practice, and especially when juxtaposed with my work - is paying off, but that's not quite the right expression. The activities were and are all worth it on their own terms and I've been reaping their benefits since I started.

But nowadays things have sort of been coming together. For instance:

Thanks to my more-sociable-than-me friend Suze, who I met in Sadhana and cajoled into coming out to work at Yeungjin, I had a fantastic vegan thanksgiving potluck party (I made chili, others made indian, salads, soups, potatoes, tofurkey, gravy, a nut loaf, and more) and increased my number of vegetarian friends in Daegu from 1.5 to about 10. One of the girls I met works at a Montessori school, and she says they may need some help in the winter. I sense a chance to investigate the realm of alternative education a bit more directly...

Speaking of which, through an acquaintance of a friend I met while WWOOFing, I got offered a position at an eco-kids camp. I haven't met the staff yet, but I think I am going to be helping kids make campfires and roast sweet potatoes, and I'll also be translating for a local fisherman as he explains to the kids the significance of the wetlands and where they're headed. This will be in mid-January, and I'll be sure to write a little something about it.

Then, shortly after I agreed to do that camp, I got a call from an elder sister (Korean woman older than me) who I met at Sadhana. After 5 years of traveling, she came back to Korea a few months ago. Now she's going back on the road, this time as part of a "travel" school, taking some students with her. She asked me to come along - I suppose as a translator, mentor, and chaperone - and said that she and the kids and whatever organization she's with will pay for my flight, room, board, and other expenses for a few weeks if I accompany them to Thailand.

I also showed my fifth environmental documentary downtown - about fifteen people came. There is a core group of five or six that have come to several films, including my neighbor Mathan and some of his other friends from Tamil Nadu who are working at KNU, the big university nearby. There were some new faces as well, several of whom thanked me, asked me questions, and promised to come again. There's still a long way to go, but I think the early days of despair about Daegu Green Living are over.

In the process of distributing fliers for my movie - I never remember if it's "flier" or "flyer," but in either case, they don't really do much good - I finally stopped by 어색하지 않은 창고 (The Un-Awkward Warehouse, a name which can't be translated into English unawkwardly), a little hang-out I didn't know much about, last week. How I found out about the place is a long story, but in any case, when I got there, I found out that the owner is close with the people who organize the Ecobike rallies (which I posted about here) and that she had heard about me and was wondering when I'd stop by. Apparently I have managed to cultivate some sort of reputation - people in various local environmental circles seem to know who I am, which feels really nice. Not because I want the recognition, but because I don't want to be alone in doing what I'm doing.

A few people had gathered at the Warehouse to study and discuss Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society," which I haven't read but which I think probably fits in with a lot of the stuff I've been reading lately, Derrick Jensen and Jules Henry in particular. One of the people at the study group, it turns out, was in Sadhana about a year ago and is taking some "travel school" students on a trip to India (and even Auroville, and maybe Sadhana) in just a few days. He's also interested in alternative education, and invited me to a lecture last night given by a philosophy teacher who returned to the countryside about 20 years ago and has run various alternative schools, many of them based around farming, since then.

Also, the Warehouse does a weekly vegetarian dinner. I went this week and, surprise, there was a TV crew, so I did a brief interview that will sooner or later be put on the local channels here. I think I made a mess of it (I recently took the TOPIK exam [Test Of Proficiency In Korean] and destroyed the mid-level test, which put me at level 4, so a bit more studying and I can probably get level 5 if I take the advanced test. A 5 means you're qualified to take university courses; 6 is the max.), but in any case, it's cool to have received a bit of coverage.

The people at the veg dinner weren't full-time vegetarians, so I got the usual "What do you eat?" question. I suppose my response - something along the lines of "I don't know, Italian pastas and Indian curries and salads and sandwiches and soups and porridges and stir-fries and other stuff I just make up as I go along" - tickled their fancy, because they all looked around the table with that "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" look, asked me to cook for them next week, and then started clapping until I accepted. I'm a bit nervous about it, but am also confident that a meal of baguettes and sliced veggies, Hummus, salad with lots of pumpkin seeds, and lentil soup will go over well.

Lastly, this morning I got an email from a fellow who works, I believe, for Ch'eonan City (not too far from here), and who translates a lot of about food and the environment from English to Korean. Someone had tipped him off about my movies and he said he was thoroughly surprised to find out that it was a foreigner behind them. He thanked me for my work and noted that it must be hard to do all this while having a completely unrelated day job, which I suppose is true. I think there is some collaboration in the cards, if time allows.

I'm not sure if there's anything else. It's hard for me to believe that this has all sort of come together over the last two weeks or so, but actually, the timing is pretty good, as I finished grading my exams today (I'll post some excerpts later), and just have one week of office hours left before I'm off for two months. I hope the news of all this exciting business will help you to forgive me if Christmas cards arrive late, or not at all. I promise, though, that anyone who reminds me of their address via email will be handsomely rewarded with something at some time this winter.

Friday, December 03, 2010

A New Favorite Blog

I've recently been reading a lot of this blog called "Casaubon's Book." The author, Sharon Astyk, "writes about dark things - our long history of demographic and ecological crisis, and how they may play out again. " In an attempt to establish "a way of life with a future, using a fair share of the world's resources,"she and her husband moved to upstate New York, where "now she's up to her knees in chickens and laundry, milking goats, making jam and splitting wood, while also writing books and this blog about food, energy, climate change and whatever else strikes her fancy."

Sounds pretty great, right? It's always a good day when she posts something new. It's even better, though, when she does a year-in-review post and links to her 10 or so best articles, all of which were new to me. I'll pass on a few of the ones most relevant to me and my issues:

"Should Americans Cut and Run?" is about the dilemma faced by Americans - or anyone else, for that matter - who are frustrated with or terrified of the path their country is heading along: stay where you are and try to make it work, or head somewhere where things are already better? I'm often occupied with thoughts of this sort; should I stay in Korea and find a farm? Go back to the States? Head to India or China? I've also been asked, both in India and in Korea, both rudely and politely, why I didn't stay in my own country to do my good. Astky decided to stay put; the article explains why.

Fairness, Personal Action and Al Gore's House" gives her take on why it's important to make small changes (small in terms of the size of the problem, not in terms of the effort or sacrifice required). I'm often asked why I bother eating vegan and riding my bike when, in the grand scheme of things, I'm pretty insignificant. I often ask myself, too. Her answer is fairly compelling.

"Blood on Our Hands: Dealing Ethically With the Problems of Husbandry," on why she and her family choose to raise and slaughter animals on their farm. Also convincing. If I were an apprentice at her farm, I don't think I'd stay vegan.

"Why I Hate Earth Day," concerning...uh...why she hates Earth day. Sounds weird coming from an environmentalist, but it's true. I hate it too.

If that's not enough, there's a sequel: "Why I Hate Earth Day II: The Road to Hell in Baby Steps"

I like to think she's a lot like me, except smarter, and she writes better, and she has more followers, and she lives on a farm. I suppose that's what a role model is??? So, if you like my blog, you will probably like hers more. And if you don't like mine, well, maybe you'll like hers more, because it's better. Or maybe, for that same reason, you'll like it less. I don't know. Have a look.

Unauthorized Guest Post 크는 먹걸리 만들었댕

My future round-the-world-bike-trip accomplice has just done a most awesome thing: made his own Makkeoli (a kind of traditional Milky rice wine). I immediately felt that, thanks to its themes of food independence and deliciousness and such, it would fit in very well in my Mat-nan Masticatables section, which is kind of hurting for content.

Follow the link to the original, or just read on.

막걸리 만들기!!!! Making Makgeolli!!!!

I finally made the attempt, and I'm happy to report that not only am I not blind, but I just finished off my first cup of cool, refreshing, 내가 직접 만든 makgeolli! Actually they sell commercially produced makgeolli here at the grocery store, but it's not refrigerated, and has been imported, so I guess it's gone through some sort of pasteurization process or something, resulting in flat, nasty makgeolli. Now the nitty gritty of how to make yummy makgeolli goodness in your own home. Oh and if you'd like to look at the Korean wesbsite where I got the recipe, well click on 'recipe'.


  • 광목천-straining cloth. I used regular old cheesecloth, layered a few times for a finer mesh.
  • A glass jar(s) big enough to hold how much ever makgeolli you want to make
  • A big pot to boil water for sterilizing your glass jars, as well as for steaming your rice
  • Some kind of steaming apparatus for your pot (I just used one of those flower petal-shaped steamers that you put inside a regular pot, but you could use something different)
  • A big plastic or glass bowl for mixing your rice and yeast, as well as for straining your final product
  • Tongs, a big wooden spoon, maybe even a spreading spatula would be nice
  • Glass or plastic bottles/jars to hold your finished product


  • 1 part rice. I'm sure Koreans would insist that you use Korean rice, but I used short-grained Japanese sushi rice, because that's what's readily available here. Same same.
  • 1.5 parts water. All the water that goes into your makgeolli needs to be purified in some way, either boil it or use distilled water.
  • 0.007 parts yeast. Regular baking yeast.
  • 0.02 parts 누룩 (nuruk). Nuruk is malted wheat, which is probably only available at strictly Korean grocers. I ended up using the Japanese equivalent, koji, and it seems to have worked well. If I can get my hands on some nuruk, I'll try that next time.

I started with 1.25 cups of rice, not quite 2 cups of water, a quarter package or so of yeast, and a couple teaspoons of koji, and it turned out fine, so I guess precise measurements aren't super important.

Step 1:
Soak your rice for 2~3 hours.

Step 2:
Drain your rice for 1 hour.

Step 3:
Wrap your rice in the cheesecloth, place it in your steamer, and steam for an hour, then let it sit for about 20 minutes. (make sure there is enough water in the steamer)

Step 4:
Remove the rice rice from the steamer (but not the cheese cloth) and spread it out on a flat surface to cool. Mix in your nuruk with a wooden spoon/spatula until it is evenly distributed.

Step 5:
Dissolve your yeast into a very small amount of water.

Step 6:
Put the rice/nuruk mixture, water, and yeast/water mixture into your big glass jar/container, give it a good stir, and seal the lid tightly.

Step 7:
Keep it at room temperature for two days, stirring once or twice a day.

Step 8:
Keeping it at room temperature, remove the lid, replace it with dense cheesecloth rubber-banded to your container's opening. Leave it this way for 5 more days, making sure to stir it a couple times every day.

Step 9:
About now it should be smelling like alcohol, and there should be a layer of alcohol on top and the sediment on the bottom. Your makgeolli may ferment slower or faster, so you may have to experiment with time. If you think it's ready, get your big bowl out, as well as a big sheet of cheesecloth, and pour your little fermentation babies onto the cheesecloth (which is laid out over the bowl). Pour out just enough so that you can wrap the cheesecloth around it and strain out the liquid into the bowl. There shouldn't be much left of the rice, but if your cheesecloth gets clogged, rinse it out under tap water, wring it out, and repeat until you've strained all your makgeolli. Transfer the strained makgeolli into your jars/bottles, refrigerate, and enjoy! Actually the blog I linked to said to let it mature for a few days before drinking, but I didn't notice any difference with mine, but hey whatever you want to do.

Unfortunately, I only remembered to take one photo of my makgeolli, which I will upload shortly.

Monday, November 29, 2010

regnagelppod gnimalf

Some time ago, I quit watching TV because I thought it was too passive. I had great difficulty trying to find any enjoyment in just sitting around for a few hours being enter- or even info-tained. Granted, worthwhile shows and programs and channels exist; but they are few and far between, and even then, are often so filled with commercials that I wonder if, on balance, they do anyone any good.

Nowadays this video-antipathy has spread even to movies, through no conscious decision of my own. Pirated Korean classics and a digital stack of Bergman are filling up my hard drive, but I just get antsy and twitchy when I think about watching them. I can't imagine sitting still for two hours while a bunch of stuff is beamed at my head. There's something about the idea of diversion that makes me uncomfortable; what am I being diverted from and why do I want to be diverted from it? What effect would it have on society if everyone in my position - relatively well-off, well-educated, independent, young - sought the same sort of diversion? Or rather, what effect does it have, given that most do?

This line of thought leads me to prefer doing something "productive" or "educational" or "active" or "self-directed;" anything with a purpose I can be somewhat sure of, even if that purpose is just to get me thinking a little bit. This is one reason why I've been reading a lot lately, so much that I've almost stopped doing my Korean and Chinese flashcards. The other day, though, I ran across a passage - actually, just a pair of words - while reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated that gave me quite a shock.

The words were: "soggy effigy."

I remember that in Donnie Darko, someone claims that "cellar door" is purpoted to be the most beautiful pair of words in English. If that's true, "soggy effigy" has to be the most awkward. Whether it's because of the I'm-not-quite-sure-if-this-is-a-contradiction quality of the phrase (what good is an effigy if you can't burn it?) or if it's because there are not too many English words ending in -gy (search for them all here) and even fewer that you can but back-to-back, or because of something in the stress patterns, the uncanniness of the phrase stopped me in my tracks. I closed the book in mid-sentence to ponder whether or not that combination of words had ever been said before. I was betting it hadn't. What a feat!

A Google search turns up a measly 8 results, 13 if you keep it from filtering out repeats. Out of these eight, one is the version of Everything Is Illuminated on Googlebooks; two are people perhaps very much like me quoting Safran; one is a guy commenting on someone's blog, first saying that he'll urinate on the other's effigy, and then, eventually that he's kicking the soggy (that is, urine-soaked) effigy around [this post comes up twice]; two are from the index of a fairly quacko-looking book called Heart of the Living God by Michael G. Manness, LLC; and one is from some sort of random word generator. As the quack book was published in 2004, the urine comments in 2007, and E.I.I. in 2003, I'd say it's not crazy to conjecture that it might just be possible that that was the first time those two words had ever been put together.

I mentioned all that TV stuff above because, despite my contention that reading was a relatively cerebral, conscious activity, the way the soggy effigy hit me (what sound would that make??) made me realize that, hey, I was reading. Of course, in a banal sense, when reading, one always knows that one is reading. Even when I was sucked in to The Brothers Karamazov and read it twice during one winter back in 2003 or so, I still knew I was turning pages and spending the whole day in my room and probably not getting enough sunlight. But this felt different. I had to stop and reflect for a few moments on the way words were entering my mind, giving rise to thoughts and images and even sensations. On how Foer was nudging me towards anneurysm from across time and space. On how hard it must be to write so that the reader forgets he or she is reading; and yet, at the same time, how hard it is to write so that the reader remembers that he or she is reading, but in the right way. Though these are things that one knows, at some level, it is quite a different thing to feel them, to be schocked back into remembering them, if even for a few minutes. I must say, what I experienced in that moment was nothing other than a truly snazzy epiphany.

I'm very curious: have any of you had similar experiences? Has a pair or trio of words ever kicked you in the face? I'm not talking about an entire thought being superbly, beautifully and poetically expressed*; nor am I talking about an aphorism or one-liner full of wit and wisdom that you still have it memorized**. I'm talking about some incomplete description, just some little hunk of letters, that completely stupefied you for a minute or two, making you think about what's possible, and therefore impossible, in language and in thought.

Quotations from Ogden Nash need not be reported.

*The line I most recall of this sort is from Flaubert's Madame Bovary - "Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers."
**Nietzsche: "Is man merely a mistake of God's? Or God merely a mistake of man's?”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Several Anniversaries in One

I love to count stuff for no reason other than the sheer joy of it. What pleasure in knowing that I spent ninety-seven dollars and twenty three cents on fried rice in 2007, that I save 990 won every time I ride my bike rather than take the bus somewhere, that 22.5 km/h is a good pace on the bike, that it took David 10 months to get through a 2.06 pound container of garlic salt, and that Jamal still owes me $9.37 from college! I'm still disappointed that I haven't used google maps to figure out how far I travelled in Southeast Asia in 2008/2009.

It is thus with many elations that I report the following (pretend it's November 20th):
- Tolstoy died one hundred years ago today and I have still yet to read his "Confessions." I doubt I'll ever read "War and Peace," and I don't even really aspire to.
- I committed myself to vegetarianism precisely one year and six months ago.
- I committed myself to veganism sometime close to one year ago. No exact records were kept.
And, the big one: from the point of view of the present moment,
- I came to Korea 4 years ago, yesterday.
Also, a big event that for a while I thought would be important but which I guess I missed:
- Sometime in over this summer, the amount of time that's passed since I (and a few of you) finished school elapsed the amount of time spent in school. Is there a name for said milestone?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Either there's been a strange confluence of events or I'm determind to seek out the hypocrisy in everything

A few days ago, Anna of Madison in June (link on the left) passed on a link to this post, entitled "Of Minds and Bodies...the Final Frontier from the blog "The John Brown Party." It was the first time I had heard of the blog, and despite the slightly apocalyptabastic title that for some reason reminds me of a screamo song*, the post/essay really resonated with me.

The post contrasts First Worlders' near-unanimous opposition to the practice of "clitoridectomy (knicking or cutting of the clitoris) and infibulation (surgical closure of the labia majora)" with our apparent acceptance of 400,000 breast augmentation procedures, 350,000 liposuctions, 150,000 nose jobs, and 2.5 million Botox injections in 2008 in the USA alone, and also mentions the increase in other varieties of "vaginal rejuvenation surgeries." It's easy to argue that the two are completely different - after all, the Kenyan women we see on the news are likely to be being dragged kicking and screaming into a ramshackle tent, whereas our neighbor drove her- or himself to the clinic in her/his own car and is paying with his/her own (well, maybe borrowed) money. Since we generally believe that one has the right to decorate or mutilate one's own body as he or she sees fit, but not to cause harm to another, we clearly have some grounds to criticize what's going on in those dark and distant lands.

But, as the post points out and as I agree, this requires a less-than-nuanced understanding of what it means to "see fit," or, in better words, to want something in our (or perhaps any) culture. (Is it wrong of me to invoke Schopenhauer here? "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot control what it is that he wants.") Of course, in the case of cosmetic procedures, the patient chooses the surgery. But does the patient freely choose the emotions, or perhaps the complexes, that make him feel the procedure is necessary? Who would freely choose be dissatisfied with her own body? Would you choose to feel that the best way to spend your hard-earned money would be to drop several hundred or thousand dollars shifting fat from one part of your body to another, shaving off a few millimeters here and there, having some plastic buried under your skin, or having bones broken and reset, in an effort to get others to think of you differently? Or to help you think of yourself differently?

We need to acknowledge the massive amount of psychic pain and secret self-loathing that make such actions as above seem desirable. And what can be the source of this pain except those that benefit from it - celebrities and athletes and shoe companies and movie studios and fashion magazines and, in some cases, physicians themselves?** If we are committed to a sort of liberal utilitarianism - which seems to me to be the philosophy underlying the "do everything you can to please yourself, but stop short of harming others" attitude that deems clitoridectomy evil and vaginoplasty reasonable - shouldn't we be as, if not more, angry at those who instill in boys and girls and adults and children these deep senses of shame, of ugliness, and of imperfection, as we are at the barbaric tribesmen (and women) we condemn for perpetuating a vile tradition?

In case you don't believe that such psychic pain exists, the post provides a few numbers, including the following: "Perhaps most striking is how early in life these values are formed, as 51 percent of girls aged nine and ten (that’s fourth grade, people!) reported liking themselves more when they were on a diet, and perhaps most striking, 42 percent of first-third grade girls reported wanting to be thinner." I don't know the source for this data, but it meshes with my daily experience: I hardly know any unmarried women who don't either profess to be on a diet or feel guilty for not being on one. Nor do I know many men (though of course the pressure on men is nowhere near as strong as the pressure on women) who don't wish they worked out more, who are proud of being a little flabby, or who honestly lift weights in order to improve their health. Nor am I exempting myself - I can't remember the last time I went a day without flexing my abs and trying to find a six-pack in the mirror.*** I'm too ashamed - whether of my body or of my vanity I can't quite tell - to tell you what's there.

The point of this is not at all to demonize people who elect to have cosmetic surgery, who are most likely, whether they acknowledge it or not, already suffering from self-esteem issues. Nor is it to pardon those who force painful and debilitating procedures on unwilling women. The point is that everything that we complain about when we complain about forced clitoridectomy is present right here, right now, in front of our own faces, in every skinny blonde on a box of Special K, in every commercial where a soccer star walks around showing off his body, in every diet book, in every fashion magazine, on every episode of Jersey Shore (which I haven't ever seen, but yes, I'm comfortable making the assertion), in every bottle of Coke Zero, Taylor Swift song, and perhaps most insidious of all, the way we speak to and interact with one another. In fact, I can hardly think of a place where it isn't.

What keeps us from seeing the situation for what it is? If I were anything other than a little pipsqueak wannabe psychologist who thinks he knows what's going on because he once read a lot of Nietzsche, I might venture a guess: It's easier to get angry at things that are far away, because we are not responsible for changing them, because it's not possible for us to change them, except by maybe sending a check to someone who makes a promise. It's easier to get angry at people far away, who can't explain themselves to us, who can't ask us what makes us so blameless, who can't point out that we've been duped. It's easier to be incensed by something that can fit into a TV screen or a photograph, like a distressed girl and a rusty blade, than by something whose violence is hidden beneath lipstick and lab coats and locked doors. And it's easier to condemn specific violations of individual rights than systematic ones, because how the hell do you stop a system, particularly without stopping the parts of it that (you believe) serve you, that provide you with what (you think) you need?

Of course, what we think we need is the problem. Who benefits when we think we need to spend hours in gyms to look good, to buy vitamins and supplements to be healthy, to buy cosmetics or clothes to be desired? Certainly not us, who get stuck in the cycle of work-buy-sleep-work-buy-sleep, who have to bear the burden of not being wanted, of not living up to some distant model. Rather, it's those who earn a profit by making the products, manufacturing desire for them, hiding the truths about them, and shipping them all around the world.

What I'm suggesting is that, rather than get angry at a bunch of people who will never see us or care what we think, we can take a look at the products we buy, the procedures we undergo, the corporations and institutions we thereby support, and the way we interact with other adults and children. Nearly everything we do, if followed honestly, will probably lead us back towards some truth we'd rather not have known. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt to send a few bucks to a charity if you're so inclined, though, as the John Brown post says, it's more sensible to spend money on mosquito nets. But sending money is the easiest part, and that's why it's most appealing. It's possible to send 10, 100, or 1000 dollars and then stay the course. It's not possible, I don't think, to take an objective look at the meanings and effects of what we do without deciding that we ought to be doing something different.

I haven't made the "confluence" in the post's title clear yet. I think all this stuff about African clitoridectomies illustrates the point that we are often on the look-out for acts violence that we can't do anything about while at the same time ignoring the acts of violence that we can. Recently I've run into more evidence of this. A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers found a kitten while walking to work. It was bleeding, having apparently fallen off of a building or been nicked by a car. He brought it in to the office, kept it there through his class, then took it to a vet afterwards. My other coworkers were visibly, understandably, justifiably**** upset about the the kitten. What crazy asshole driver would be so terrible as to run over the sweet little thing? And who would just leave it on the street to die?

All very noble sentiments, but - how many people chose to forego the pork come lunchtime?

I'm not trying to call my friends (or readers) hypocrites; I'm trying to show that we often have a tendency to latch on to the outliers rather than the mainstream, the random rather than the predictable, the senseless rather than matter-of-course. The Matter-of-Course, in fact, requires this tendency if it is to continue. If we weren't able to trick ourselves, or let ourselves be tricked, into dividing animals into those who deserve our sympathy and those who don't, we would have to face up to the cognitive dissonance entailed by the great amount of unpleasantness in our daily habits. What would happen to the profits of the those who raise and process and advertise and distribute pork, who deal in the daily slaughter of living, feeling beings? And if it weren't so easy for us to find pretexts for differentiating between the physical and emotional trauma of forced clitoridectomy and the profound psychological discomfort and insecurity that make elective surgery possible, where would all the magazines and models go?

Which brings me around to what (I thought) I really wanted to talk about: North Korea's recent artillery attack on the island of Yeonpyeongdo in North Korea. 4 people dead, 16 injured, 200 or more evacuated, many more with ruined businesses or damaged property, and lots of scared schoolchildren and 18 year old boys in the military who were supposed to be on vacation this week, but wound up on red alert instead. Yes, Kim Jong-Il is an evil, crazy bastard. He's unpredictable, and savage, and dangerous. He and the government/army he leads are responsible for the murders and slow deaths of uncountable innocents, most of them probably citizens of the country whose interests he purports to be acting in. These pieces of knowledge are not new; they have been confirmed day-in and day-out for decades (see this 36-page list of all of North Korea's aggressive actions since the 1950). Everyone is right to be angry.

So we think, reasonably,"someone's got to stop this guy." Of course, we can't. We as individuals can't do anything to effect a change of his heart, to alter his capabilities, to empower his citizens, or anything like that. So we feel hopeless and enraged and stifled and maybe a little useless. But then, I realize, by stating it the way we have, by putting a name and a face on the problem (which I think is all tied up with the tendencies I talked about above), we've in a certain sense already taken a step away from solving it. The important thing is not stopping him, per se, but stopping the evil and suffering he's responsible for. And once you are thinking in terms of stopping evil and suffering, well, even if you can't have any influence on Dear Leader, you can have a fair amount closer to home. There may not be an individual that you can shake a stick at and call an evil bastard, but there's plenty of suffering around, which means plenty of opportunities to cause a little less (if you can stare down the cognitive dissonance) or even to remedy some.

I don't think I need to elaborate here on which kinds of suffering I think it's easiest to stop. Nor do I want to presume that what's easy for me is easy for anyone else, or that other should be contributing in the same ways I try to. But there are enough problems that almost anyone can channel one of their proclivities into something useful and beneficial and kind. In all likelihood, many of you probably already are, and even more than me.

I'm not exactly sure what I'm hoping everyone will take away from this behemoth of a post. I hope it hasn't come across as preachy or judgemental or anything like that. It just frustrates me that people so often display the best intentions, but are kept from fully realizing them. I suppose it has been one of my goals for a while now to actually work towards that, to try to replace armchair outrage with useful acts.

You are all excellent people.

*Ah, it's Thrice - Of Dust and Nations, which is pretty much like Ecclisiastes turned into a rock opera.

** Part of Premise 4 of Derrick Jensen's Endgame: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized.

***With all likelihood, it was my probably my last day in Sadhana, since there were very only three mirrors there, none of them body-length. I was not alone in feeling a great sense of relief after realizing I had spent 3 or 4 days without thinking about or caring what I looked like.

****Did you know that justifiedly is not a word?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Confession: I hardly know what I'm doing or how or why.

On Saturday night I hosted my fourth "Eco-film Night" at my friend Sandy's used book store/health food cafe'/craft-and-flea market headquarters/drum circle loft/local theater setting/vegan cookie haven. The movie I chose was Our Daily Bread [official site here, my advertisement here], a commentary/narration-free walk through some of the places and processes that bring us plants, animals, and minerals to eat.

I had shown three films before: What A Way to Go, about peak oil and its ramifications for the American dream; FRESH, about a few farmers in the USA working to improve the health of people, communities, and soil through organic and sustainable agriculture; and Baraka, another wordless film composed of time-lapse shots of nature juxtaposed with ones of cities, with intermittent footage of religious ceremonies and traditions that, the implication is, may be nearing extinction.

I don't usually watch the films in advance, both because I want to share in the experience of learning with the audience and because I can't stand watching movies alone. {For one, exactly to avoid this kind of slothtertainment, I chose not to purchase a couch or recliner, so it's hard to just lounge around and watch; for two, I could be reading, writing, or studying Chinese or Korean, or, come to think of it, napping; for three, I can never pick which documentary or Korean film is most important and most deserving of my attention at any given moment.} Just for safety's sake, though, I watch a minute or two here and there in order to make sure the file works properly and that there's nothing that will embarrass me in front of my viewers.

Thus, I didn't give Our Daily Bread a full screening before distributing flyers, inviting friends and strangers, and unleashing it upon all those kind enough to trust me to pick some images and information to stick into their heads. The photo gallery on the website primarily shows farmers and crops, probably to pre-empt the "it's just another whacko PETA flick" response, which, I must admit, I also try not to engender. I did peruse the film briefly, noting that there was one scene of a cow being skinned (major goosebumps) and a few more of chicken coops (which I already knew were nasty), but, trusting that an award-winning, legitimate, big-release European film wouldn't be too gory, I didn't do much more.

What a surprise come movie night! Pig('s carcasse)s, cloven in half, hung on a conveyor belt being vacuumed; chicks in baskets and on conveyor belts and in machines with indiscernible functions; bovine coitus interruptus; two men removing a (dead? it was hard to tell) calf from a hole in its mother's abdomen with bare hands; piglet castration; pig-gutting machines gutting pigs and the ensuing tumbling and sorting of various viscera; a fish-slicing contraption straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie; prodding pigs with electric wands; putting cows down with a tazer, bleeding them out, and cleaning up afterwards.

None of the scenes were exceedingly gruesome, particularly when compared to something like candid PETA videos, and there was no scary mood music or narrator to remind you how terrible it all is. Just the sounds. Of the tubes. Of the hoses. Of the belts and gears and planes and sprayers, the pigs and chicks and the wind and the knives. Nobody wants to work there. Nobody wants to be there. Nobody even wants to see other people being there, to be forced to know that people are there. That the animals were there, and will be there again once the belts are turned on in the morning. Which, of course, is now, somewhere.

Well, maybe not nobody, but at least a few people. In other words, a couple audience members walked off from or out of the screening, one overcome (a friend of his later told me) by the images and one (this is my intuition speaking) somewhat defiantly refusing to be forced to confront them. Many others closed their eyes, or lowered their heads, or took extended bathroom breaks. All of which left me feeling very...odd.

I often wish that people knew these things, or that they would accept their knowledge of them. But how can one present them without coming across as offensive, judgemental, righteous, or smug?
And how personally should one take those charges when leveled against them? I get so frustrated at my and others' ability to dissociate - I had an argument with a colleague a while back who was angry at one of his students for pulling the legs off of a butterfly. Cruel and unnecessary, for sure. But worse, more deserving of scorn and ridicule, than trading a few bucks for something to grill? Why is it so easy for us to focus on small, specific abuses and ignore the systematic ones?

If I knew that, maybe I could answer some other questions, like: what should I do in a situation like that? How can I encourage someone to extend his butterfly-sympathy to cover other animals, too? Should I trust in the power of argument and logic straightforward syllogisms? (Has that always worked me? Does it now?) How careful should I be not to vilify and threaten? Should I stay silent, tacitly valuing my friend's comfort and my easygoing relationship with him over the undeniable, physical, unimaginable, easily reducible frustration and pain of an animal in captivity? Hope that my influence may somehow rub off (as others' has rubbed off on me), that my aura may bleed into his? Along similar lines, what kind of movies should I show? The ones that get good reviews, that make people feel good, that nobody walks out from, that don't seem to change a thing? Or the ones that make people uncomfortable, that make a little less likely to come back, that make me feel like the bad guy, the harbinger of unpleasant truths?

Thankfully, more people have thanked me after the film than walked out in its midst. One Korean told her friends (who later told me) that she had never understood why someone would want to be a vegetarian, but that she understood better after watching. Another, my Indian neighbor, who grew up in villages where animals were almost like family members and crops were tended by hand, told me that he and his friends had learned a lot, and wouldn't allow me to apologize for subjecting them to the unpleasant scenes.

So, yes, that is the state of things. My head is all jumbled up with pride and regret and shame and gratitude and who knows what and it feels like I can barely put a coherent sentence together.

Thank you for your kind attention. Please come to my next screening.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Post Transfer 2 of 2: Report on the State of My Garden in Late October

I returned to the field the other day, dismayed to see that the cold had taken its toll on the sesame leaves and basil. All was wilted, and most was eaten by bugs. There were a few pleasant surprises though.

For instance, here we see that as late as late October, cherry tomatoes are still growing.

Being a novice, I didn't realize how much staking and stringing the little guys need, so most of the fruits had fallen to the ground. Nonetheless, it looks like one made it to fruition while on the vine. Success! Even the big tomato plant, which only bore one or two tomatoes throughout the summer, had some big, green fist-sized ones on the vines.

Hrm, something is amiss:

Who is that lurking in "my" garden?

A real live rabbit, enjoying some rotten sesame leaves and my neighbor's fairly healthy-looking pepper plants. I found it odd that the little critter preferred the peppers to my carrots. A true Korean rabbit, I suppose.

Yours truly, hard at work. Speaking of carrots:

I didn't weigh them, but I'm guessing it came out to about 4 kilos. Pretty good for one inexpertly-planted row. Enough for 2 weeks of carrot and cilantro soup!

The weather is cold enough that nothing else will grow - the mint, basil, sesame leaves, green onions, chives, tomatoes, and pumpkins are all on their last legs. Plus, I wasn't motivated enough in the early autumn to plant any winter greens or radishes. Thus, there's nothing left to be done at the Teot-bat until sometime next spring. Rabbit friends, you have my permission to eat any and everything; all I ask is some fertilizer in return.

Post Transfer 1 of 2: Report on the State of My Garden in September

After several months of ceaseful, effortless cultivation, the beloved Teot-bat has finally delivered. Of course, I had snagged a cherry tomato or two and a few fistfuls of mint leaves and basil in the past, but now, apparently, the combination of the late-August rains and the cooler weather of September has led to some truly monstrous growth.

Basil and Sesame leaves, each about a meter high. Some nice green onions on the left, too.

Some truly beautiful Cilantro/Coriander, Chocolate Mint, and Thyme:


Better pick that Okra, too:

(Actually, it was already too late for the Okra. Mathan, my excellent Indian neighbor, tells me I should have picked them when they were still soft.)

Chives and Green Onions:

Harvested: Green Onions, a sickle, and 1/3 of a shoe.

Also harvested: basil, a carrot, and 2 ziploc bags
Align Center

Daegu NoksaekSari Organic CSA Distribution Complex:


A pumpkin, chive, and green onion pancake.

Thank you, Teotbat.

After the Fairy Tale Bike Trip

It occurs to me that I didn't exactly explain why, on that fateful Wednesday a few weeks back when my coworkers stayed home and watched movies and played video games and went out for rice wine and pancakes, that I chose to punish myself by biking for what I thought would be about 110k.

Reason 1) Finding the "real" Korea. One of the great things about biking around is that you notice a bunch of stuff you wouldn't otherwise see or pay attention to. This is true even in your hometown, but truer the farther you go. And exponentially true when you get lost.

Here, for example, is a gem: the bus stop near Cheongdo where I took my first fruit-n-nut break about 45k from my home. Pretty hard not to note the giant plastic persimmon on top, eh?

More than I remember back home, cities here tend to advertise themselves through identification with certain foods, generally fruits*. You see these ads on TV, on the subway, on fliers, and even within the cities themselves. I guess every city, wanting a slice of the famous pie, has to find a way to make itself special. Apparently this works very well - when I tell someone I went to Mungyeong, they say "Wow, did you bring back any apples?" And when I say I went down to Miryang, they ask about peaches and persimmons. I hope you didn't miss the bibimbap in Jeonju.

I don't remember this being so true in the US. The only example I can think of, where we associate a place with a food, is Georgia peaches. But, even then, Georgia is probably twice the size of Korea, and I don't recall seeing billboards and ads for peaches while passing through.

Of course, it's not all golden persimmons. Often, what backpacker-types (myself included) mean when they say the want to see the "real" __________ (insert place name here) is that they want to get away from the factories and malls and modernity (and hostels and bars and all the stuff that backpacking itself has brought about**) and see what the place was like back when it was different from the rest of the globalized world. But there are other things, less pretty things, that are perhaps less elusive and yet are equally "real" - actually, in my view, more real, if you consider that they constitute the essence of our society and indicate the direction it's moving in.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures. But what I'm referring to is all the factories, warehouses, animal feedlots (actually not so bad here compared to US CAFO's), regional distribution centers, junkyards, and dried-out rivers that lie just outside the peripheral vision of most city-dwellers. We all know, subconsciously, that these dirty, noisy, polluted, polluting, despondent places exist, but the people who sell you the end product, be it a fruit or a shirt or a PDA or a Kia, have an interest in helping us to forget. I say "helping" because I believe we too are complicit in wanting to forget, in not wanting to realize what the things we want require, whether in terms of infrastructure, destruction, human life and labor, inputs, byproducts, or anything else. If we knew - if it were even possible to know - our consciences might pressure us into becoming informed (and thus, ideally, considerate and compassionate) consumers.

Of course, I didn't enter any factories, talk to any workers or anything like that. I just passed by. But you don't have to interview a dog on a dog farm, chained to its mini-house, eating a shitting and sleeping within about a 5 foot radius for most of its life, to know that it's miserable. When the factory is several hundred meters from the road and the smell and smog hit you anyway, you know it must not be pleasant to work inside***. When a new building goes up in the city, usually it's replacing an old building, or maybe it's being built on an empty lot, itself surrounded by other buildings. This makes it easy to ignore the environmental toll - the unavoidable fact that huge buildings and deep foundations require us to chop down trees and then often flatten the mountain they were growing on. There's no way to ignore this when you see the HomePlus/TESCO/Samsung distribution sitting in an empty space where the mountain used to be. The dirt that used to be mountain, and which is now, I guess, just in the way, is piled in cones all around, nowhere to go, noway to be used. I doubt anyone wants to live near or work in these places. Certainly, nobody wants to spend their vacation there, basking in the "reality." I hardly even want to admit they exist, and that in many ways, I need them.

End of analysis / diatribe. Enjoy a few more photos!

Having a rest at the border with the next province. 65k or so.

Substantiating at least one of my claims.

The figs that were waiting for me.

And a few more of the many reasons why I love Honorable Older Brother and Honorable Older Sister's house:

And perhaps the coolest flower photo I've ever taken:
(No special effects, unless you count the use of the digital camera itself, which I suppose would be fair enough.)

*Many cities do the same with inedible products and services - Seoul advertises itself as a business and cultural hub, Daegu as a textile giant, Pohang for steel, etc, none of which comes off as quite so quaint or cheesy or charming.

** See this post of yesteryear for a great David Foster Wallace quotation to this effect.

*** Or, if it does happen to be pleasant inside, that means they must be pumping all the nasty stuff out. Not exactly a great alternative.