Saturday, December 29, 2007

Video: Walnut-Paste Snack Machine

Just to tide you over until our Yeoju post is ready, here are some videos of a wacky automated assembly-line-style walnut paste pastry maker we saw at a highway rest stop. Verdict: Pretty tasty! (Much tastier than the black-bean variety, imho.)

Royal Asiatic Society Trip: Yeoju Part 1: Queen Min's Birthplace

The morning of the Royal Asiatic Society trip to Yeoju commenced, thankfully, with us actually finding the correct post office this time (although we did get there forty-five minutes early, just to be safe). We got on the tour bus and arrived a bit over an hour later at our first stop, the birthplace of Queen Min/Empress Myeongsong, queen of Korea at the end of the 19th century and wife of King Kojong, Korea's last king (she received the title of empress posthumously, when King Kojong declared the Daehan Empire).

Traditional Korean architecture is quite attractive, but because most palaces and old residences are displayed without furnishings, it's very difficult to visualize what any of the spaces are used for. Queen Min's birthplace featured little mannequin scenes that helped us picture these mostly-identical open rooms as actual living spaces. For instance, here is a woman doing... well, something. With sticks. Laundry, perhaps?

Okay, so it's not a total success. But it was still a help.

This picture is more helpful: it is a kitchen. But what you don't know is that it's also the heating system:

If somebody asked me for one area where Korea just vastly outclasses the West, I'd say, without even thinking about it, heating. We blogged about our tribulations turning on our ondol floor heating system, but I have to say, once it gets going, that is one sweet, sweet system that I only appreciate more now that I'm back home with forced-air heating. Ondol is under-floor heating. In our modern apartment, it uses hot water pipes, like a radiator that runs under the floor instead of against the wall. In older homes, it meant having a fire dug in under a house to heat the air beneath the floors. In both cases, it beats the heck out of Western contemporary alternatives: in medieval times, the fireplace against the wall that heated about nine square feet of castle, and in modern times, forced-air heating and its uneven room heating from vent placement or blockage, dirty vents and filters, and dried-out air.

To return to the kitchen picture, the engineering of ondol niftily double-uses an existing appliance. In our apartment, we have no furnace - our hot-water heater heats the ondol pipes as well as, say, the shower and the sink. In this picture, the double-duty appliance is the oven. The air heated up to cook in the kitchen is not wasted up a chimney or just to the kitchen ceiling; it is channeled into those under-floor vents to heat up the house. Toasty!

Another highlight of Queen Min's Birthplace was the stellar objective history.

Queen Min was, as I mentioned, queen of Korea in the late nineteenth century. Politically savvy and unusually influential, she played Korea's neighbors against each other to preserve Korean sovereignty. Ultimately, Queen Min was assassinated by a Japanese squad. Or, according to the signpost outside Queen Min's birthplace, she was "murdered by the atrocious Japanese."

Let's give this sign the benefit of the doubt and assume it's a mistranslation of "atrociously murdered." I could accept this. Murder is never particularly nice, and they made things extra tacky by killing her in a section of the palace reserved for women and burning the body.

But I'm not sure how to get out of this one:

From the filmstrip in the Queen Min museum, with a teacher and students:

Female student: "The Japanese are so evil! Why would they want to kill such a nice person?"

This is what we call, in the biz, a "teachable moment." The teacher could respond with, "All Japanese people are not evil," or some other lesson against generalization. But she does not.

And then:

Teacher: And after they killed Queen Min, they burned the body.
Female student: Teacher! Those bastards!

I can't explain that. I really can't.

Bonus: Those voices are recorded in clear American/Canadian English. Clearly, whoever voice-acted that dialogue spoke English. Did it not occur to them to point out that this is a very odd thing for a student to say?

edit by Nana: Oh, yeah. I wrote this one. Justin put up the pictures so it shows up as him.

Monday, December 24, 2007

School of ROK's Top 5 "Insights" about Korea

Well, Nana and I have been back in the States for a little more than a week now, which means three things: 1) Jet lag is wearing off, 2) We've delivered our Korea schtick about 35 times now, and 3) We've found out more people were reading School of ROK than we ever imagined. All of this adds up to a sudden desire to post something coupled with an utter lack of excuses. Hence, this post, and my out-on-a-limb promise to have our Yeoju pictures posted within a few days.

So, without further ado, here are the top five most-popular numbers in our already-getting-old act (in no particular order):

What are Korean schools like? Everyone we've talked to has been fascinated (read: horrified) by the Korean education system, or even moreso by how little sleep our students get. You see, in Korea, the chances of your daytime school grades ever mattering are slightly less than the chances of a Korean student staying awake through an entire class. Which is to say, appallingly low. (Don't worry, though, we've gotten our kids to stay conscious through the entire day.) In the Korean system, all that matters is your score on the next standardized test, which you study for at your nightly cram schools, called "hagwon," six days a week. What's worse is that families have started using the hagwon as a means of conspicuous consumption: Whereas in the States you're apt to hear yuppie dads beaming about their Beamers, in Korea they're bragging about how many cram schools they send their kids to in a day. All of which results in the high and rising cost of raising a child. That's why so many children are still adopted from South Korea, even though it's a very safe, politically and economically stable country: in a situation where dual-income professionals have trouble affording children, young couples and single mothers don't stand a chance.

What does Seoul LOOK like? I've had a few requests to compare Seoul to various other East Asian cities. Does it look like Tokyo? Shanghai? Beijing? Of course, never having been to any of these other places, I'm in no position to compare (though Nana assures me Seoul does not look like Beijing). The pictures don't like: Seoul looks a lot like this, with bits of this and this sprinkled in. In our part of Seoul, everything's new, and most of it is made of concrete. High-rise apartments everywhere. The defining features of Seoul, though, are the Han River and the surrounding mountains: the first cuts a wide swath right through the middle of the city and the second slice deep into the city from its edges. It's a clean town, pretty safe, with many unexpected great views.

Can you speak Korean? Sadly, the answer is no--we start our official Korean lessons in a couple weeks--though we have learned some Hangeul to trot out as a party trick, plus a few key magic words that can get us food, beer, bathrooms, and transportation home.

What's Korean food like? Ahh, Korean food--a bit of a touchy subject. If you want my advice as to whether or not you should go to that Korean bbq across town this weekend, I'd tell you heck yes. But if you wanted to know whether you should eat nowhere but the Korean buffet for three months straight, you'd get a very different answer. There is some really delicious Korean food and some REALLY gross Korean food. In other words, we've had to supplement the local fare with a lot of our own cooking and with pretty frequent trips to the little foreign enclaves downtown. I will say that there are two things you don't realize about American food until you live outside the US: we have an amazing variety of ethnic food to choose from and almost all of it comes with cheese.

This leads us to our final question:

Do Koreans really all look alike?
No, though since it's a fairly homogeneous country as far as ethnicity goes, there are fewer general categories of appearance (ie, you've only got "fat guy" instead of "fat white guy"), fewer hair colors, really only one eye color, and almost no facial hair. But Koreans ARE shorter (possibly because they sleep four hours a night when they're kids). I mean, I feel like a circus midget back here! Though all these growth-spurting cousins certainly don't help.

Anyway, time to go help with our very American Christmas Eve: pickup football followed by piles of food either shot through with sugar or smothered with cheese. Yum!