Monday, December 28, 2009

Episode 46: In Which DFM Makes A Gold Coin, And Jesus Glows In The Dark

On Saturday I did something I haven't done since April - sight seeing.

First stop was the Bank of Korea Museum (above). I didn't even know this place existed, and neither did most of my Korean friends when I told them about it, but it's definitely one of those "hidden gems" (hiding on a major street, in down town Seoul, right beside the Bank of Korea).

The Bank of Korea is not actually a place where you can store your money. Rather, like the Bank of Canada, its main function is to control inflation by adjusting the interest rate. The Bank of Korea Museum, though, is designed to educate visitors about the history of the Bank of Korea, how money is created and protected from counterfeiting, as well as showcasing the evolution of money throughout history, and exhibiting various examples of currency from around the world.

The most interesting educational exhibit showcased what happens to bills once they are no longer usable.

(Stage 1: 100% cotton Korean banknotes are printed at the Bank of Korea.)

(Stage 2: Banknotes are used.)

(Stage 3: Banknotes become damaged and unusable.)

(Stage 4: Banknotes are shredded.)

(Stage 5: Shredded banknotes are pressed into rolls.)

(Stage 6: Banknotes turned into compressed flooring or sound insulation for cars. The floor panel on the left weighs about 4.8 kg, and consists of roughly $43 000 worth of destroyed Korean banknotes.)

(Here we have the official scale used by the Bank of Korea to weigh gold. The last time this was used was as recently as 1997, when the Bank of Korea bought gold from citizens in an attempt to stimulate the economy after many Asian markets crashed.)

(This is a working press used to make coins.)

(For a nominal fee one can buy a gold plated tin sheet and insert it into the press.)

(I assume that the real press would have punched this coin out, but here I am with a nice imprint of a yeop jeon "leaf coin.")

(A copy of the first banknote ever printed, in China.)

(Speaking of money from China, here we have horse hoof-shaped silver coins. I can't believe these didn't catch on.)

(Korea has had its own silly money too. This is a silver vase supposedly shaped like the Korean peninsula.)

(The shortest lived banknote design in Korea's history. 24 days after it was created, the design was changed. Additionally, if you look closely, and can read hangeul, you'll notice that the bill doesn't say 100 won. It's actually 100 hwan, which was the name of the currency in Korea for a short period between 1953 and 1962. 100 hwan would have equalled 1000 won at the time, which in turn would have amounted to anywhere from 1 2/3 USD to 8 cents, depending on which year this bill was printed - inflation devalued the hwan 2083% between 1953 and 1962.)

(During times of emergency, central banks are allowed to change the value on bills simply by stamping them, rather than have to take the taking the time and money to reprint them. Central banks are even allowed to use/change foreign currency into local currency in this manner if required.)

(A North Korean 1 won bill. I assume this is priceless, as in worth $0.)

(The Bank of Korea has samples of money from every country in the world. Switzerland has, by far, the best looking money of any country, although I must say that even judging impartially, the new Canadian bills compare quite favourably.)

* * * * *

After leaving the Bank of Korea I headed over to the Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art (SeMA). Already having visited the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art during my first visit to Seoul, I should have quit while I was ahead. Despite the promising name, the Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art was notably underwhelming.

For a mere $0.65 I was allowed to view the "Against the Sculpture: Three Dimensions of Uncertainty" exhibit on the main floor. This was one of those modern, "strange art" exhibits, where nothing inside actually looks like art, but you are told it represents something and that you should admire it because the artist, by virtue of being an artist, clearly knows better than you what makes something "art." I tried to keep an open mind, but generally consider putting the best piece of art first a bad business move, and that's what happened here.

After the amazing display of charcoal suspended from string to form four different water droplets in various stages of "free fall"/destruction, things took a turn for the worse (sorry for the lack of images, but I wasn't allowed to take any pictures).

The next exhibit consisted of some pyramidal shapes attached to a wall, and then I saw a Roman pillar on a metal track being pulled slowly back and forth by a motor. Apparently this was supposed to symbolize... actually I can't remember, but I assure you that it did not make any sense.

Unfortunately, the slow moving pillar was like bungee jumping compared to the plain, A4 white paper "building" that someone built. It may have been interesting if it had some doors or windows drawn on, or even any features at all. However, it was just the shape of a building made out of regular, unfolded, taped together A4 paper. It seriously looked like someone's Junior High art class project that he/she didn't finish.

The award for worst stereotype of a useless artist though, definitely goes to whoever made the display of tools (screw driver, hammer, etc.) hung on a wall. Fortunately I was then put out of my misery, as this was the last exhibit in the gallery. However, as I now felt rather disappointed (it may have been only $0.65, but that was an hour I'll never get back), I tried to salvage the thirty minute walk over by shelling out the $12 extra needed to see the two floor Andy Warhol exhibit.

Even though the majority of Andy Warhol's works seemed to be of either Campbell's soup cans, or pictures of famous figures he then painted, they weren't boring. That said, more or less nothing in the exhibit looked like it took any talent at all, but merely took the gall to call it art. Andy Warhol openly admits this though, and that's why I didn't feel like my intelligence was being insulted. "Art is anything you can get away with," and "An artist is someone who produces things that people don't need to have but he - for some reason - feels it would be a good idea to give them," were just two of Warhol's quotes painted on the walls around the galleries. The exhibit culminated in a black lit tent full of many glowing Jesuses, all drawn with Andy Warhol's urine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Episode 45: In Which DFM Gets 8 Beds, And Then Protests Christmas

After a full and busy week, I decided to take a day off on Christmas. I barely ate anything other than a few tangerines, because I didn't want to help support a culture of working on Christmas by eating at a restaurant or buying anything or taking any form of public transportation. In fact to protest Christmas (er... I mean the "war on Christmas"), I didn't leave the house at all.

I did figure it was time to take some pictures of my new hostel though. The hostel at which I am now staying is run by a Mr. Lee, and he is helped out by his mother, younger brother, and to a lesser extent father. It's incredibly clean, and everything is brand new, so it all works. The location is almost right dead in the centre of Seoul, so it's very convenient too. Looks like I got lucky on this one.

Unbeknownst to me, when I moved to my new place it was the first day the hostel had been open. I was the hostels second customer ever, and so not surprisingly I was the only person in my room.

(I was told that I could use all eight of the eight beds in my room, but I was "nice" enough to just use two.)

(The clean and inviting common room, where free breakfast is served every day and where there's free cable, internet, DVD player access, plus a suitcase full of DVDs.)

(The patio just after I arrived. Yes, it's raining.)

(The patio later that night, after a "heavy" snow that forced many Koreans to put chains on their tires... unfortunately that wasn't a joke.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Episode 44: In Which DFM Becomes A Victim, Helps A Victim, And Eats A Coincidence

On Tuesday I was told that I needed to vacate my former premises by Thursday (just two days later, for those of you doing the maths). As a result I was forced to spend most of Wednesday cleaning up the pigsty that used to be my room.

Over the course of the last four months I had managed to amass a rather large amount of excess supplies that would not fit in my suitcase. During my last stay in Korea the same thing happened to me, as well, but I was actually able to cram everything into my suitcase. However, the consequence of my efficient packing was that I was charged an extra $100 at the airport for a suitcase that tipped the scale 20 kg over the limit. Looking to avoid a similar blow to my wallet, I took some advice from a friend and decided to send a package home ahead of time through the mail.

As seems to be the norm with government sites in Korea, the Korea Post website is awful. Oh sure, there are lots of colourful boxes, and buttons to press, but very little real information is given, and as usual there seems to be no way to actually find out how to get to any one of the buildings for which the website was designed.

Again I had to use independent websites to find the location of a government building in Seoul (in this case, my neighbourhood's post office) and set off to find it. Once I found the post office, I got set packing all of my things into the largest of the boxes you can buy there for a nominal fee, with the intention of sending it to my house in Canada via the ultra slow, but relatively cheap "surface mail." However, since I lacked the necessary Korean language capability to request what is probably a rarely requested service, I was charged over $100 to send it through the air (AKA the money I was hoping to avoid spending by going to the post office in the first place).

* * * * *

Later that night I went to Hongdae to meet Scarlett and her friend (not Liz, the other one, I feel horrible that I keep forgetting her name). When I reached the station I tried to find the exit at which she told me to meet, but it didn't seem to exist. After a few phone calls, and a game of hide and seek, it became apparent that in all the stress and confusion of the last few days I had forgotten that she changed our meeting place last night, and so I was at the wrong station.

Eventually we met up in Sillim (I think I know the streets of Sillim better than my own neighbourhood I've been there so often), and Scarlett decided to take me out for naengmyeon. I was pretty excited because at that time, I had been asked about a dozen times if I had tried naengmyeon, and I would finally be able to say yes.

When I got my bowl, I was expecting something really spicy. Everything in Korea is hot and spicy it seems, and I kind of like that now. Much to my surprise though, naengmyeon is a bowl of buckwheat noodles in a tangy soup that has a bunch of ice floating around in it, but it's definitely not spicy.

I still can't believe it, but up until that point I had just thought it an ironic coincidence that the word for refriderator is 냉장고 - "naeng-jang-go." I had wondered on more than one occasion why something designed to keep food cold, would sound so similar to a hot, spicy Korean dish, but as soon as I saw the ice in the bowl I felt kind of stupid. ("naeng" - mean cold.)

* * * * *

On the way home I had my first experience with a subway drunkard. This particular man had spread himself out on the bench occupying two seats for himself. A third and fourth seat were occupied by a combination of alcohol bottles, a bag, the sugared candies that used to be in the bag, and a bag of kimchi that the man had been eating with his hands. I'm not exactly sure what he had been drinking (and still drinking), but it had an incredibly strong camphorous scent, and the eyes of the poor guy sitting beside him were watering pretty badly.

As well as breaking the law, the drunkard was obviously breaking a strict sociatal code of ethics, or so I gathered from the looks of disgust and distain most of the older Koreans were throwing his way. He couldn't be bothered with that though, and so chose to try and pick a fight with theth the only guy kind enough to sit by him and put up with his state.

I'm not sure what was said, but the drunkard first started talking to the guy next to him, who was listening to music on his headphones and reading a book at that time. When the man couldn't hear him, the drunkard starting yelling at him, until he noticed the drunkard's voice and looked up. He was quite patient for some time in listening to and responding to whatever the drunkard was asking, and one would think the drunkard would have appreciated the man's kindness. Apparently that's not how drunkards think though, for he then started to get beligirent with the kind man. This especially offended a gentleman in his mid-sixties, sitting on the other side of the kind victim, who then became quite stern with the drunkard for his lack of manners. However this only served to spur the drunkard on more, and he once again directed more of his annoying behaviour towards the unfortunate young man literally caught in the middle.

At this moment, what I had been waiting to happen finally did happen, and the kimchi covered hand that the drunkard had been waving around started coming closer and closer to the young man's white shirt. Finally the young man's patience had worn too thin, and he stood up in disgust. The older man told him he should call the police, but the younger man said it was alright, although it was plain to see that he was rather upset. I smiled at him and asked him if everything was all right, which I like to think helped distract him enough so that he could calm down.

And with the show over just in time for me to get off at my station, I headed home to try and get some sleep before my big move the next day.

Episode 43: In Which DFM Hears Wooden Bells, And Drinks $9 Tea

Today (Tuesday the 22nd) was my last day of work in Korea. As I mentioned in a previous post too, today was also the Christmas "song festival" at my school all all of the students and teachers have been busy preparing the last couple of weeks.

Here you can see all of the teachers dressed up as "Santa grandmother," as they get ready to play a fantastic rendition of "Silent Night" on the wooden "noise makers" they have in their hands. Each "bell" makes a different tone, based on how long it is. I'm not sure what they're called, but they sure were a complicated way to make music.

After I was finished for the day, the principal gave me a nice pair of gloves and announced over the intercom that all the teachers should leave their classes to come say good-bye to me. It was all rather touching, and almost makes me wish I wasn't finished... almost.

After work I went to meet Hyenii and some other friends from MEC. Hyenii told me that she would not be able to come to the fair well party MEC was holding for me next Tuesday, so she wanted one last opportunity to say good-bye.

I'm not sure why, but we went to some area in Seoul called Sinsa-dong. The area is famous for its many fashion stores, which in turn attract many women. In the summer, the street cafes are apparently filled with women, and the streets themselves filled with men driving expensive cars back and forth trying to impress those women.

Part of the problem with areas that fashion themselves on being "European," is that they bring with them European prices. The Korean restaurant we went to was still as cheap as any other, but the cafes were another story.

After our meal we decided to sit down and talk over a cup of tea or coffee, but at the cafe Hyenii chose, the tea cost $8-$9, and the water was more than $10! I assume being from Norway gives it an extra molecule of oxygen (but not hydrogen, that would make it hydrogen peroxide).

While initially reluctant to hand over my $9, I was later relieved when I receive an actual pot of tea, not just a cup. Even better, the tea was delicious and I received a refill of hot water for my tea leaves. That said, $9 is a ridiculous price to pay for something that probably cost 10 cents.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Episode 42: In Which DFM Watches Cooks Fight, And Stays Up All Night

While last Thursday was just a final day to get pictures of everyone at that school, Friday really was my last day at my other school.

I haven't really talked much about this "other" school or shown many pictures of the children, but since I figure one or two of my readers may be interested I'll show a few pictures.

Here (above) is the class from hell. I have a class of four year olds who are possibly worse, but at least they are easily entertained. This class is two years older, and if they aren't instantly gratified with the most exciting games or songs, they rebel. The boys in the third row (second from the back) are absolute monsters and at times they made their Korean teacher leave the room and cry (I saw it). The girl in that same row, with the striped sweater trying to look sweet, spent a few years in Australia and can speak English fairly fluently. However, instead of using her power for good (like translating for me), she prefers to announce "this is boring, I'm not going to do it," even before I start my lessons. All that said, for half an hour, two days a week, they're my monsters and so I still love them and already miss them.

Here's Min-ji. This is one of the most independent children I've ever seen. She typically sits at a table by herself, and is usually the first person done any assignment. One time the Korean teacher who helps me out tried to draw a picture for her and she started bawling.

Some time ago I wrote about Seon-gyu. Here he is (on the left) in his Taekwondo uniform, as usual, with his partner in crime In-young (on the right). He looks sweet, doesn't he?

(Wham! You just got lulled in to a false sense of security and now you're going to pay.)

(Wham! You just got it again! By the way, did anyone notice how all the students in the background are working hard while Seon-gyu is posing for all of these pictures?)

And that brings us to Jae-hyeun. Jae-hyeun is a year younger than Seong-gyu, but they're both in my "special art class" that I teach in the afternoon. I believe they're both in the same Taekwondo club, and Jae-hyeun seems to think that this makes Seong-gyu and him friends. Seon-gyu seems to think otherwise though, and views Jae-hyeun as an annoying little brother who needs to be beaten up regularly.)

(Merry Christmas!)

* * * * *

This day I also found myself back in Myeong-dong, for the second time in 24 hours.

My friend Hyeun-a was disappointed that she wasn't able to get me a present when I left Korean back in May. She told me at that time, that if I ever came back she would take me out to one of Korea's finest performing arts productions, Nanta.

First shown in 1997, Nanta is the longest running stage show in the history of Korean theatre, and it has also drawn the largest number of paying customers of any Korean stage production over its 12 year run. It won the best performance award at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has been playing on Broadway since 2004. But what is Nanta?

Nanta is essentially a show about some cooks at a restaurant who have to make a lot of food really fast for a wedding. There are some conflicts between the characters that prompt said characters to engage in "cooking battles" involving a lot of banging in an interesting rhythmical fashion.

As boring as I made it sound, it is every bit as good as it was billed, and was probably one of the most entertaining things I've seen in Korea. Was it unbelievably good? No, but it was much better than I expected, and surprisingly funny.

In conclusion, I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at Nanta, so I feel comfortable giving Nanta the coveted "high five" award from DFM (the highest honour a person, performance, etc., can receive). It's so good that if you come to Seoul and you can only do one thing, make sure it's watching Nanta.

* * * * *

After Nanta, I went to the MEC Christmas Party that had already started earlier in the evening. Since the subway closes at about midnight, there was no way for me to get back to my house afterwards (I didn't even know where I was, since I got picked up from a subway station). As a result, I decided to stay up all night and catch the morning train back home, but what I saw on the ride shocked me.

At 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday, in most cities, I would expect the subways to be pretty empty (I've not been to many large cities), but not in Seoul. The notorious Line 2 was again standing room only, and even more surprisingly a good number of the people riding the train were middle school students going to Saturday school.

I remembered reading that Korean children go to a half-day of school on Saturday, but I thought they wouldn't have to start until 10 AM. Actually seeing the poor kids freezing on a Saturday morning when everyone (including myself) should have been home sleeping, really shocked me. Though, it's better than having them hang out at the mall I suppose.

Episode 41: In Which DFM Get's Dong-shimed, And Sees A Man Climbing A Building

On Thursday I thought I'd try to get a few last pictures in with the children before I have to say good-bye. While technically my last day is this upcoming Tuesday, I wasn't sure if there'd be time to take any pictures after today, since there is apparently a singing "festival" planned (everything's a festival at this school). So, without further ado, let's see how some of the Korean Cop regulars are doing, and also some new faces.

(MandDFM once told me that he's never seen kids look more happy to be at school than the kids at this one. I'm inclined to agree.)

(Poor Denny has his "V" the wrong way. I hope he hasn't unwittingly given me a rude gesture.)

(Daisy: always in good spirits.)

(Here's Yu-jeong and Ji-hee, from Monday. Thanks to the new reflective strips on the PE uniforms, if there's ever a car driving around inside the school these two will be okay.)

(A new student, Yu-jin - pronounced Eugene. Sweet girl, but she may want to change that name if she comes to Canada.)

(Min-seo, on the left, and Ji-hee again.)

(I used to wonder why the teachers were constantly tucking all the kids' shirts in... now I know. Thomas, how are you ever going to be able to work 12 hours a day for a top Korean company looking like that? Solid "V" though. You should go teach Denny how it's done.)

(So-yoon: A wolf in sheep's clothing if I ever saw one. She looks sweet enough, but if you turn your back for a second she'll try to "dong-shim" you with her head! She also once pulled my ear so hard she tore it open.)

(As dangerous to my personal safety as she may be, So-yoon sure is a great drawer, and she's super smart. Take a closer look at this picture - by clicking on it - and consider that she's only five years old. The princess is even winking!)

(Speaking of smart five year olds, here's Se-eun showing off her colouring. While it may not seem like much, she managed to write "kick" all by herself. I've known five year olds in Canada who can't write their own names.)

(Balance Boy is looking a little blurry, but happy as ever - I turned the flash off, so the image stabilizer on my camera had to work overtime under the dim fluorescent lights.)

(Seo-hyeun and Deborah working on a birthday card for Sticker Girl. Deborah isn't a made up "English name." Her parents were following a recent trend of legally giving their Korean child an English name to give her an "advantage." Supposedly top Korean companies will be more likely to hire her when she's older now, because they will think she can speak English more fluently than another applicant with a Korean name.)

(You thought I'd forgotten about Louis, hadn't you? Nope, he's still just as fond of getting his picture taken as ever, whether I'm trying to take a picture of him or not. Here he popped his head in front of my camera just as I was about to take a picture of the other children singing.)

(Time to say good bye. While I'm still anxiously awaiting my destiny to reveal itself, at least I don't have to wait for my mom any more like Se-eun.)

* * * * *

After school, Elise and I went to Myeong-dong. Myeung-dong is billed as a tourist point of interest, but I never had much interest to visit there before now. I wish I had. On this day Elise had to buy some shoes there, but I decided to tag along because I wanted to find a special t-shirt.

When I first planned to come to Seoul, I expected a modern city full of bright lights and shiny looking apartment buildings (something like what I imagine Tokyo to be). However, as I've mentioned periodically in the past, Seoul is just a collection of grey buildings built in the '60s (the decade where architecture goes to die). Myeong-dong is the small pocket of "modern Seoul" I thought I'd be surrounded by before I came here.

Myeong-dong is essentially a large shopping district. It has some of the most expensive rent prices in the world, and so essentially the only stores you see here are popular brand name stores.

One of advantage of only having expensive name brand stores here is interesting architecture. The most impressive store I found (although I'm sure others existed) was the Adidas Store. At night, this black store, with windows that look white from the interior lighting, stands out rather impressively. On the front of the store is a giant video screen about 10 metres tall that runs Adidas ads.

While I didn't get a picture of the Adidas Store, I ran across quite a site that I did manage to capture. Below, you can see The North Face store.

(Seems harmless enough until you see that, woah, there's a giant man climbing on the side of the building!)

(Take an even closer look and you'll that he's actually part of a fairly clever advertisement.)

As I mentioned earlier though, I didn't just come here to look at buildings. I really came to find a BANC store. I wrote in another post that I found one of these elusive stores in Hongdae, but when I went there last week to meet Scarlett it had closed. The search is over now though, as Elise finally helped me find a location still open.

(Look at the tiny sign, dwarfed by the sign for the store above it. Even when you find the store they want to try and hide it from you, which is probably why the stores are going out of business.)

BANC is a Korean clothing brand that caught my notice some time ago when I saw Seong-mok's friend Woojin wearing a t-shirt with an interesting looking Lego man type character on the front (Seong-mok, as I've recently been informed, is the actual name of the man I've been calling Seong-bok all this time). This is BANC's trademark, and they refer to him as a "block man." Typically the character will be a funny, original design, like a hipster character or a basketball player, but my favourite shirts are those that feature more famous block-men designs.

(Plagarism in Korea is rampant, so I wouldn't be surprised if BANC had not purchased the rights to the images of these characters.)

In case your wondering, yes I did buy two, usually overpriced shirts, but there was a large sale on and I ended up essentially getting both of them for less than the price of one normal shirt. DFM scores again.