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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hello, Latvians!

A quick check of my blog stats reveals that this week my blog has been visited by 215 people in Korea, 140some in the US, and 43 in...Latvia? Next is Canada with 4.

Latvia's all time visit count: 57. Something weird is going on, but I can't say I don't like it. I do have one Latvian acquaintance, with whom I speak Italian from time to time.

Romans, l'hai fatto tu? Grazie mille.


(mission statement and foundation history flow chart)

Ever since the way old days when I found myself writing about corndogs and fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet red bean paste, I have considered it one of my Universe-given missions to disseminate all sorts of information about the goodness of Korean food. As my thoughts about food deepened, and as my convictions strengthened, the sense of duty became so strong that I even made a new label on my blog: 맛난Masticatables. Having just clicked on it, though, I can report that I am unarguably a giant failure*. All the recent posts deal with shoddy airplane food, amazing group dinners that are nonetheless atypical, or impromptu posts of whatever I just made for lunch. I did have a good run of breakfast posts, and recently wrote an article about Perilla for my other blog. I believe I also had a total grand-slam of a post on my trip to make Kimchi last winter. My guess is, though, that you're all still....hungry for more?!

I hope you don't mind if I mix my metaphors, because a food marathon is on its way. Yes, I am proud to report that some friends and I have been chosen to participate in the 1st KOREAN FOOD TOUR FOR FOREIGN FOODIES. Hansik Foundation, charged with the task of "propelling the diffusion of Korean culinary culture, nurturing the Korean food industry, and effecting the globalization of Korean cuisine." I think you'll agree that I was born for this job, and working hard at it before it even existed.

The contest will look a little something like this: over the five weekends in October, five teams of five foreign bloggers will each head to a different region and execute a homemade plan meant to showcase all the wonderful qualities of Korean food. My team - consisting of myself, my friend Greg (also known as SandfordWrites for those of you who monitor the comments section), his wife Sarah (I'm pretty sure it's with an h), and two other people they know - has selected Northern Jeolla province, renowned as the home of Bibimbap (rice and julienned vegetables all mixed up with sauce**) and Jeongsik (rice and a billion different side dishes**). We'll spend the final Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of October letting Hansik (which means "Korean Food," by the way) shuttle us around to the restaurants, markets, and farms of our choosing; film us as we eat and experience; put us up in hotels; and give us time to write about it all. We'll be blogging daily during the contest as well as intensely for ten days afterwards. We're also supposed to use Facebook, Twitter, and other newfangled stuff to spread the goodness. The team that does the best job gets a cash prize, though, to be honest, I'm more interested in having some pressure to kick me into high-blogging gear.

A word on how excited I am about this contest: extremely. I haven't looked up the competition (though I do have access to a list of other teams, including their names and their websites), nor do I know exactly how the "best" team will be determined, but I do know that very few people take their food as seriously as Greg and I do. We both think, talk, read, and write about food incessantly (I'm currently reading Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture), we've both spend precious summer vacation time weeding endlessly at WWOOF farms, and we both pretty much believe that nothing is as important for the health of individuals and societies as their relationship with the land that sustains them.

I'll stop putting words into Greg's mouth, since he has his own blog space, Electric Kimchi, and just concentrate on what I personally want to get out of this project. I see Korean food as a powerful antidote to the prominent Industrial Food Culture that has overtaken much of the first world over the past half-century. I grew up only wanting to eat fast food. I mean PURE fast food, as in I would throw a tantrum if there was a single slice of iceberg lettuce on my burger. Despite spending summer in a town where thousands of illegal immigrants slaved under the hot sun picking broccoli, I had no idea that everything I ate started in the dirt and passed through someone else's hands before reaching my plate. Nor did I know why rice and beans went together. And even though my closest friends had fruit trees in their back yard - so many that we had to play hopscotch over downed plums and apricots while chasing each other around - I never understood that jam is actually a technology. The fact is, the foods and the cooking methods we grow up with generally go as unquestioned as the language we're born into. Not because you're afraid to ask questions, or because someone tells you not to; just because you don't realize there's anything to ask anything about.

When you learn a new language, though, you question absolutely everything. Why do they put their last names first and first names last? Why do they put verbs at the end? Why don't they say "a" and "the" all the time? Why do they use different sets of numbers to count money and people? Likewise, when you run into new foods: Why in the world do they eat like this? Why are they obsessed with burying stuff in the ground and letting it rot for months on end? How come I can't find a decent block of Cheddar anywhere except Costco? Where did all the forks go?

Something slipped under my radar for the first 25 years of my life: there are reasons that people eat the way they do. Of course I understood that poor people ate little, and plain, while the rich ate more and prettier. But it took immersing myself in another culture**** before I finally took in the point that our diets are products of place, tradition, and even worldview, embodiments of wisdom handed down from generations past. To be honest, if the world isn't taken over by Korean food, it will probably be a good thing; after all, we should really all be eating primarily things that grow well wherever we live. However, if we continue to ignore the value of foods and processing methods that have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, if we ignore the complex web of relationships between food, people, and culture, then we do so at our own risk and to our own detriment.

Korean food is exotic enough to get people to open their eyes, and delicious enough to get them to open their...upper esophageal sphincters. In order that it may open some closed minds, too, my friends and I are intending to milk all the meaning we can out of our three days together, to give ourselves as much opportunity as possible to expound on that which powers us. Vegetarian buffets, bibimbap specialists, multi-course extravaganzas, organic farms, homemade meals, and, of course, some rice wine and pancakes to top it all off. I plan to gain 10k, work off a third of it on the farm, a third of it through blogging, and a third of it by hiring a new personal trainer with my prize money.

So, check back often! And if you have friends who are interested in this stuff, or who might become so with a little pressure, help me out! I'll be monitoring the number of hits each post gets so that I can report back to Hansik on how hard I've been slaving for them.

In Korean, right before you eat, you're supposed to tell the cook (or whoever is buying for you), "잘 먹겠습니다," which means more or less "I will enjoy this meal." I predict I'll be using this phrase a lot in the weeks to come.

Thanks to Hansik for giving us this awesome opportunity!


*Actually, let me give myself a little credit: I taught several friends and relatives a Korean dish or two on my most recent trip, and my mother cooks her own Korean food weekly now.

**Clearly I'll have to work on my descriptions.

***This is a polite way of saying that I had to learn Korean before I could see how f***ed up English is.

****Actually, it took me immersing myself in two different cultures; my first six months in Italy apparently didn't do much to wake me up on this front.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Assa v2

An English friend was out getting her hair cut and called me for some interpretation assistance.

Hairdresser: Hello?
Me: Hi, just tell me what you need to and I'll tell my friend.
Hairdresser: Well...
Me: But please give me an easy explanation.
Hairdresser: Huh?
Me: I mean, don't use hard words. Speak slowly.
Hairdresser: Why? You're Korean.
Me: Nope, American.

Will I ever get tired of posts like this?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You Are What You Read

I can't remember a time when I wasn't a bookworm. Perhaps, with a writer for a mother and a lawyer/avocationalhistorian-cum-theologian-cum-renaissance man for a father, it was inevitable. I am pretty sure I was reading Steven King in elementary school and Michael Crichton by middle school, and, in high school, under the influence of some friends and a list of the 20th century's best books, developed the ridiculous idea that to be a worthwhile person I probably had to read all of them. That feeling stayed with me through college and just about all the way up until I read Michael Pollan and Derrick Jensen and went mental for the environment.

It's only fitting, then, that I recently became a book, with the help of HUMAN Library. I'll let it speak for itself:

What is the Human Library?

The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.The main characteristics of the project are to be found in its simplicity and positive approach.

In its initial form the Human Library is a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to a Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with “people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background.

The Human Library enables groups to break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner. It is a concrete, easily transferable and affordable way of promoting tolerance and understanding.

It is a “keep it simple”, “no-nonsense” contribution to social cohesion in multicultural societies.

(end quote).

My friend Sunny, pictured on the left here, encountered the Human Library at some point during his travels (he also spent some time in Sadhana, though not while I was there) and, last spring, brought it back to Kyungpook National University, just a short walk away from my apartment. He, like so many Koreans in their mid-twenties, is frustrated by the rigidity of Korean life: your first eighteen years are spent prepping for college entrance exams, and then which school you attend essentially determines your station in life. After graduation, you try to get a job with one of the big companies (Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, LG...), which will require you to work sixty-or-more hour weeks at a job that most likely is unsatisfying and almost certainly isn't good for the planet. There seem to be few people voicing alternatives, or even openly talking about the pointlessness of such a system. Sunny decided to try to open up a space for such discussion, and he asked me to help.

The way the Human Library works is this: people who have something they want to share volunteer to be "books," and give themselves a title indicating what they want to talk about. People who want to listen sign up to be "readers." A maximum of two or three readers sits down with one book, and the book starts. And continues for about thirty or forty minutes, free of interruption. At the end of the alloted time, there are a few minutes for questions, then, after a short break, the second round starts. Some books may receive a new group of readers, while others may become readers themselves. The listening and talking go on for a few rounds until the readers have absorbed enough for one night, or until the books have talked themselves hoarse. Then the afterparty!

As awkward as it sounds, the project is actually really nifty . First of all, there's the obvious aspect of people being given the time and space to freely discuss experiences and ideas that matter to them. Such topics are hard to broach at work, at dinner, or at a bar, and we should probably all have more time in our lives set aside for serious reflection on matter of political, social, and moral importance.

More interesting than the content, though, is the way that the format enhances it; all of the unusual limits on the (non)conversation serve to make it much more satisfying, because designating a time, place, topic, speaker, and group eliminates a lot of the normal barriers to deep communication. For all the good that back-and-forth dialectic can bring about, it also limits our ability to communicate, since speaker and listener so frequently interrupt each other, ask questions, and steer the conversation one way or another depending on what they want to get out of it. Further, we're accustomed to trying be impressive, entertaining, or interesting, and thus often tailor what we say, and how we say it, to what we know about the listener. Thus, often, both parties are left having been unable to say what they really wanted (though we're so used to this that we may not notice it).

The format of the Human Library effectively removes all of these obstacles. All of the roles and topics are set in advance; the book has promised to give, and the reader, to accept. At the end of it, both are changed. The book, having finally been guaranteed a listener, has now experienced really being listened to, has had his whole story accepted unconditionally. He has been given a real chance to make himself understood, and, interestingly enough, in the process of doing so, has also come to a better understanding of his own feelings and experiences. Constantly forced to decide on his own what is worth bringing up, what is worth elaborating on, and what needs emphasis, he finds out almost accidentally which submerged meanings are begging to be allowed to rise up on their own.

The reader, symetrically, having promised to accept whatever the book wanted to give him, has had a chance to experience real listening. We are so full of our own ideas, objections, prejudices, interests, and enthusiasms, that we often fail to acknowledge that others exist in their own right, not just to satisfy or entertain us, that they have their own inner worlds as rich and complicated as our own. This failure prevents us from knowing and understanding them, and keeps us sealed up in our own little thought bubbles. The reader, having momentarily been able to step out of his, may see certain aspects of the world or of himself in a new light, or may realize that other may perceive him and his actions in ways he hadn't anticipated.

At the end of it, the giver has received and the receiver has given, and it's almost impossible to say who has given or gained more; what's clear is that giving and taking doesn't always have to be a zero-sum game. Having come to this realization through the same process, a powerful feeling of mutual gratitude binds both parties.
This free exchange of experience, understanding, acceptance, and sympathy generates confidence, strength, solidarity, and hope.

At the risk of deflating all that rhetoric a little (actually, it's all making me very uncomfortable), here's a list of some book topics from the two events I've participated in.

"What I learned from my travels," "College life and human rights," "Tiny things can change your life," and mine, "In Sadhana Forest." (What I actually talked about will have to wait for another post.) Not pictured: "College students and the green consumers' alliance" and "A country boy's experience in the Auroville community."

Ever seen such happy books?

PS I've been meaning to write this entry since I did my first Human Library event in April! I just did my second one last night. I guess that tipped the scales. Check out the difference in ponytail length...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Steve Jobs

There's something funny about how being absent from my blog for an extended period makes it harder and harder to return, as if there were some sort of pressure mounting for a comeback post.  There are a bunch of things I've been wanting to write about, particularly after having received much unanticipated blog-support from friends and family back home, but I've been, as always, pressed for time due to classes and events and traveling and all.  But where to start?  Something light, meant to help everyone forget the fact that I've been slacking on my blogligations?  Something heavy, to show that I take the blog itself seriously and am not concerned by a month gap here and there?  Or a long preface, which I am finding more and more difficult to continue justifying?  

On with it!  Today's topic: Steve Jobs.  I realize it's ridiculous for me to sit around and point out what's wrong with a guy as talented, creative, and successful as Jobs was, and I'm wary of furthering my own image as "the guy who is never happy and is determined to ruin everything for everyone else" (henceforth, to be abbreviated to "curmudgeon.").  But I really wish the whole world (by which I mean, everyone on Facebook and everyone writing articles about Jobs) would step back from its Jobs-reverence and think about the meaning of this reverence itself.  What does it say about us, our culture, and our values, that more mourned the death of Jobs than of Wangari Matthai? [Disclaimer: I hardly know anything about this woman and even had to look up her name.  I am far from unaffected by all the developments I'm about to gripe about.]

Most of the praise for Jobs concentrates on his entrepreneurial qualities.  He was a college dropout, got replaced for being a little too wild, then came back to replace his replacement and create one of the most successful companies of modern times - indeed, a company so strong that it has, so far, weathered America's recession/depression better than just about any other.  He blended aesthetics and pragmatics, creating computers and devices with more options, functions, and power than had been thought possible.   He mastered marketing to such an extent that many people know they want they next iPhone without even knowing what it will be capable of.  [Personal aside:] I don't know what it's like in America, but I have one (Korean) friend here who's been waiting for the iPod 5 for months or a year or whatever, and is now worried that its release might be delayed.  I suggest she just buy a 4, to which she replied, "then all of my waiting will have been in vain."  It's impossible to doubt the genius of someone who inculcated this sort of brand loyalty in so many. 

And yet, in many ways, he was a follower, and is a sign of our own readiness to follow.  He played into and capitalized on the absolute worst, most destructive aspects of our culture: our need for constant entertainment, and constant upgrades; our addiction to size, speed, and sleek; our superficiality, and our willingness to turn a blind eye. 

Jobs mounted an attack on immediacy, and continuously virtualized more and more of our world: no matter where we are, who we're with, we can choose to be somewhere else.  Given the number of alternative sights and sounds available to us at any given moment, what are the odds that our real, physical surroundings are the most interesting?  My students, sitting five feet away from me in class, fiddle with their smartphones under their desks, talking to friends in the next building about what they did this morning or what they'll do tonight.  People don't move to let me out of the subway, because, ears full of music, they can't hear me say "excuse me."  Pedestrians cause accidents on the sidewalk because they can't hear cyclists' bells; cyclists cause accidents on the road because they can't hear drivers' horns; and drivers cause accidents because they're watching sports and soap operas rather than the road.  I quit going to the Daegu Language Exchange because one guy kept pulling out his iPad every four seconds GoogleMap some place someone had mentioned to find some pictures of it on Facebook.  He had forgotten that the point of the language exchange was...well...to talk to one another. 

Of course, most of the above can be classified as annoyances, all of which existed in some guise before Jobs and before Apple, even if some of them do cost people limbs and lives.  But there are more serious consequences, too.  As "The Dark Side of Steve Job's Dream" points out, Jobs may have been the brains behind every iPad, iMac, iPhone, and iPod, but he certainly wasn't the brawn that stood on the factory line for ten hours a day putting them together for a pittance.  Nor will he be the one to dig through the next shipment of year-old, already outdated electronic junk that hits the 3rd world's shores in search of a few ounces of reclaimable metal.  He will, of course, be one of the ones that has to deal with more plastic particles in his water and more poisons in his air, but then again, so will everyone else.   Only he became a billionaire, rich enough to isolate himself from most of the damage he was complicit in.  Where are the tweets of distress for all of those can't escape the consequences quite so easily?  And for those who won't be able to?

Of course, Jobs is not alone in all of this.  Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Creative...any company dealing in electronics is equally implicated and equally guilty*.  This is precisely why I called Jobs a follower.  He was a leader, sure, but at the front of a pack that's long been driving us right off of a cliff.  As the author of the article "Steve Jobs Was Not God" points out, we should save our praise for those who make a real contribution to the present welfare of the unfortunate or to the long-term welfare of mankind, not to those who make life just a little bit easier or snazzier for those who already have it pretty good.  Jobs did a great deal to destroy the environment, and perhaps a greater deal destroy our ability to care. 

In order to solve ethical, political, and environmental dilemmas, what we need is a sense of connection to the people and the places that are affected by our decisions.  I can't help but feel that iGadgets, for the most part, both symbolize our near-complete failure on this front, and help push our chances of success even further away.


*Ever seen The Story of Stuff?