Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Mirror Images, or The State of English Language Journalism In Korea

I am intrigued by the way these two articles came across my feed around the same time. Because they are the mirror images of each other.

Hey everyone! Foreigners are all like this!

(that was part two. Part one of Hey everyone! Foreigners are all like this! is here:

And then:

Hey everyone! Koreans are all like this!

I'd love to lock the two authors in a room together, although I have to give the author of the first article more of a break than the second, because living in the country one was raised in, and not seeking out the company of people with different backgrounds than oneself is much more forgivable than moving overseas and doing the same. And frankly, his take on his own culture is about as clumsy. Responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the Korea Times editor here.

Bottom line: these are both blog posts that are not worthy of publication in places purporting to be media outlets. I'm fine with "Koreans are all rude" on a blog post. Lots of people agree with the sentiment, and that's allowed. But it's not news. There was no investigation going on (unless chatting up the disgruntled corner of expat bars counts as journalistic research now), and the article was so all over the place, nothing useful can be made of it anyway, except catharsis. Jumping from language to parking to subway pushing to sidewalk blocking to thoughtless comments to enforcement of public smoking laws places this in blog rant turf, not op/ed page territory. And that the author wouldn't even put her full name to it again, suggests it belongs on an anonymous tumblr or something, where I would happily ignore it, instead of holding it up to the standard from the site's "about page" -- "The Korea Observer is an online newspaper founded in February 2013 with the support of the Seoul City government by award-winning investigative journalist Lee Tae-hoon with the motto, “Be the voice for the voiceless.”" Anonymity in journalism is OK with me. When you're criticising the president and people with earpieces are hanging around in the park across your street and your writing partner was already arrested this month. But anonymity for "Koreans are rude y'all!" makes it into a mockery.

Complaining that koreans are rude is not giving voice to the voiceless. I've been hearing that voice bouncing around the online expat echo chamber for a decade now, and this piece conveniently gathers every gripe into one place, but has added nothing new other than that. White gripes about Korea are not the voiceless that need outlets like Korea Observer. Get your shit together, Award-winning investigative journalist Lee Tae-hoon!

Both articles are great examples of why it's important to talk with, and listen to the views and opinions of the subjects of one's writing: "Laura" would have found most Koreans are just as offended as she is by the breaches of etiquette she writes about, and Mr. Choi would have been quickly disabused of his stereotyped views of Korea if he'd been listening to the foreigners he met, or meeting more than just a handful who'd "drunk the Korea Kool-aid" (which happens).

So... while we could come up with a mirror image list to go with my "Five signs the author of the article you're reading doesn't know much about Korea" to use for articles like "Differences Between Koreans and Foreigners," (wouldn't be hard, and both lists boil down to this: look for evidence that the author has actually consulted with a variety of people in the group they're writing about, and respects them as humans) for now, let me just mention that e-mailing Mr. Choi with angry rants, or bugging him online, is extremely unlikely to disabuse him of his stereotyped views of foreigners, and perhaps will only succeed in replacing his clumsy stereotypes of foreigners with negative ones, and for people like "Laura" ... I regularly say that it's incredibly unhelpful to say "If you don't like it, go home"... but there are in fact times when, if Korea really does make a person as unhappy as all this, the exit option IS probably the best. Either that, or it's time to go soak in a jimjilbang, climb a mountain, eat some great Korean food, and hang out with people who don't complain. They exist. Or start a complainey blog. That's what blogs are for.

Anyway, see you all again in 14 months, the next time two equally dumb articles from opposite sides are published close to each other, and we can go around this hamster wheel again.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Kingsman, the Preposterawesome Scale, and The Welcome Return of Cufflink Lasers

I just watched Kingsman: The Secret Service, the film responsible for the surge in popularity of double-breasted suits in Korea (it was HUGE here).

I enjoyed it a lot. It's everything you want a silly escapist spy film to be (though with more F-words than the 007 franchise led us to expect). A movie like this will always have a chance of doing well, because as James Bond, and every major male film star of the last century except Bruce Willis shows us, people look awesome when they do awesome things in formal wear. (Clickbait list: the 30 best suits in film).

Kingsman is also a great demonstration of what I call the preposterawesome scale.

The principle of the preposterawesome scale is similar to How I Met Your Mother's "Hot/Crazy Scale," as explained by Barney Stinson in his send-up of an incorrigible ladies' man.

Basically, the positive quality of "hot" must outweigh the negative quality of "crazy" when Barney calculates if he wants to date someone. Disclaimer: Barney is a satire, and also a character in a sitcom, and I don't recommend actually thinking of dating prospects in such a dehumanizing, reductive way (sorry, THIS GUY, you're doing it wrong).

But in evaluating an action movie that is being consumed for entertainment, it's a little more OK to be reductive. And my own theory about silly and unbelievable things in movies is the preposterawesome line. Basically, the more preposterous a thing is, the more awesome it has to be, for viewers to forgive the silliness.

Star Wars's laser swords and the idea of monks with telekinetic powers defending the galaxy from villains who build moon-sized ships with planet destructo-beams is forgivable, because light sabers are awesome and so are Jedis and space ship dogfights.

We (or at least, enough of us) forgive the ridiculous idea of giant robots from space that transform into vehicles and then transform back into giant robots carrying huge laser cannons... but who still prefer to beat the hell out of each other with fists and blades and grappling holds, because because giant robots grappling and punching and swordfighting is awesome! 

And of course the best way to steal expensive goods is with a fleet of supercars going at high speed. We went to seven movies about that, and counting (I think the Fast Furious brand might be the next James Bond -- if they manage the brand right, the well might never run dry) because car chases are awesome! Lightsabers are awesome. Neo dodging bullets is awesome, and the Agents are awesome, too. Liam Neeson romping through Europe killing people is awesome. Everything is awesome!

James Bond spent four decades -- from the 60s to the 90s, above the preposterawesome threshold. There are simple reasons for that. Take 18-35 year old men, whose tastes marketers care about more than any other, for some reason, and ask them to brainstorm all the awesome stuff they want to see in a movie, and you'd come out with the elements of a James Bond film. "Uh... spy stuff. Yeah. Spy tech is cool." "Yeah. And like, sweet sweet cars with like, lasers and missiles in them" "Oh yeah. That's awesome. And exotic places." "Yeah. Exotic places FULL of hot women." "Easy hot women." "I thought that went without saying. Hurr durr." So... when Q introduced the newest Aston Martin that turned into a spy satellite and cooked omelettes and washed your cat in the back seat while jetting out oil slicks at baddie cars, and was invisible and also actually an airplane, we loved it, because that's just plain awesome.

The preposterawesome scale is also why Austin Powers almost killed the James Bond franchise -- by doing the loving satire they did, they also sharply underlined just how preposterous James Bond films were from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, and at the same time digital effects sucked a lot of wonder out of special effects, because instead of going "Wow! An invisible car!" We went, "meh. It's all digital these days." The preposterous rating went up, the awesome rating went down, and suddenly Pearce Brosnan style 007 films were below the preposterawesome line. Jason Bourne showed them a way out of the woods: finding the awesome in believability and good writing and visceral action and good acting rather than cool cars and exploding pencaps, but without that, Austin Powers would have been the satire that killed the franchise.

And since Jason Bourne, the preposterous end of the preposterawesome scale was dominated by superhero films and the occasional Mission Impossible sequel. Which is great if you like tights.
and who doesn't?
But as MacGuffins in superhero movies (I'm looking at you, Marvel) keep getting loopier and loopier  (gems that make The One Ring look like a paper airplane have been the power items driving the plots of Thor 2, Avengers 1, and Guardians of the Galaxy. This is what they're building up to. This.

Expect the remaining Infinity Gems to appear in future Marvel universe films, before Thanos, who looks like this, tries to collect them all in future Avengers sequels and end-credit teasers. Credit to Marvel for pushing back the line of what is too ridiculous for live action films slowly enough that nobody noticed that suddenly power scepters and infinity gems were part of a superhero's day's work.

Whether or not superheroes are your taste though, it's fun to see Kingsman, where the evil megalomaniac is regular old human being, with a regular old doomsday device that isn't a jewel that comes from comic books, eventually to be wielded by a twelve foot tall alien with grey skin. It has been long enough since Austin Powers that we are allowed to make silly spy films again without people saying "Oh, come on!" and I'm glad about that, as much as I enjoyed Daniel Craig's 007.

Kingsman delivers, and that's the best thing I can say about it. It is highly preposterous, but also highly awesome, and I am glad to have double breasted suits and battle umbrellas and cufflink lasers and microchips and secret underground fortresses full of henchmen and recipes for martinis back on the preposterous end of the preposterawesome scale again, rather than just charismatic actors wearing silly hats. So... watch Kingsman. It's fun.

Side note: in keeping with the preposterawesome line, I suppose you could also create the funnyffensive line for jokes -- people are a lot more forgiving of offensive jokes if they're actually funny (and if the comedian shows they're not on the side of the assholes). You are welcome to leave a comment and suggest other areas where thresholds like the preposterawesome and the crazy/hot line exist.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Sewol Disaster One Year Later: Still Waiting

It's a year after the Sewol Ferry disaster. Later today I'll walk around a few of the mourning and commemoration sites. Perhaps I will post photos if I deem it fit to take photos. Chances are good that I won't, because people deserve privacy for their grief. [Update: yeah. No photos.]

I wrote this last year, in the original aftermath, after visiting the memorial outside City Hall, which was there all the way from April until December, when they finally took it down to build the outdoor skating rink.

images from my previous Sewol article
Socially and culturally, it's been long enough to fairly assess some of the effects of the disaster here in Korea, and while some would say the one year anniversary is a crass time to do so, because of the families, others would say there isn't a better one. Put bluntly, the Sewol disaster chucked a pipe bomb into the national psyche, and everybody's been scrambling to return to normal, or re-assert the status quo. The status quo has been re-asserted, but those who like to kick back against the status quo are a little larger in number, and their grievance is a little closer to the surface, than it was before.

Here are some of the things that have happened since the disaster. This here is a good rundown as well. This one is a little more strident. Deservedly.

  • The boat has not been raised.
(Hopefully Arirang won't get indicted for defaming the president.) In fact, given the way things have gone lately for critics of the president, I'd better take a moment to say I also think it's a great idea for President Park to leave the country on the one-year anniversary of the disaster that was the biggest embarrassment for the administration so far. (And that's despite the best efforts of everybody taking bribes. You know things are bad when you have to narrow your search terms down so much just to get a news link: Here are the results for "Korea president corruption scandal April 2015." To differentiate from the other corruption scandals.) Buggering off out of country is another in a long line of politically pragmatic or astute moves and/or/mostly non-moves. Really! It's a great idea, so that she won't be around and remind people how long it took for her to show up, and then how much longer to show leadership, and then how quickly before she and hers started shirking responsibility by burying their accusers under rhetorical, political and legal obstacles or rabbit trails again, after the original disaster. This is clearly a politically savvy move to get people looking forward to Korea's next president. Way to inspire hope and faith in Korean democracy, President Park! I hope she and her team get all the rewards they deserve!

  • Investigations into the disaster have been mired in political and legal wrangling repeatedly, particularly when someone wanted to increase the scope of the investigation to anything broader than "let's pin as much blame as we can onto the people who are already in jail, and make sure to avoid any investigation that might discover that rabid deregulation of entire industries was the thing that allowed the Sewol to get so dangerously overloaded, or allowed it on the seas at all. Instead, the ruling party is trying to discredit the families of victims
  • Korea's progressive party badly misplayed the hand it had been dealt, attempting to channel rage and anger over the Sewol ferry into success in the 2014 by-elections, but forgetting to attach a coherent vision and policy goals and, you know, have a platform other than "We're mad as hell, and we're not gonna take it anymore!" leading to a humiliating failure that's a black mark on the records of every progressive leader involved. Since that defeat, the Korean political left has returned to its usual habit of eating itself.
  • This is just an eye test sort of judgment, but shit hasn't changed. Public safety crackdowns, if they happen, are pretty much headline bait, and not sustained enough to actually cause changes in behavior. Like using a flashlight to get rid of cockroaches instead of pesticide. The frequency of news stories about death or injury due to sheer negligence or disregard remains about the same. The leaders you'd expect to effect this kind of change seem mostly to be interested in covering their own asses. And buses run red lights and crosswalks, and people forget to put on their seat belts, and motorbikes go up on sidewalks of dive through traffic at about the same frequency as ever. It'd be nice to at least see leaders going through the motions of acting as if they were going to try to improve public safety, at least. Before the new showcase tower in Jamsil falls over or something. Korea is third in the OECD in work-related deaths. Traffic statistics are equally dismaying.
  • The captain of the ferry was prosecuted, and they're seeking the freakin' death penalty for him, as if this is the thing that will expiate all the grief. You know, rather than tangible evidence of a deeper and more energetic regard for safety over speed and profit starting at the policy level and enforced right down to the rank and file. Which would take time... but again, it'd be nice to see our leaders going after that, rather than mostly just interfering with the investigation as if they have something to hide. (read the last half of this article for a description of what I mean). Now, I have more to say about the death penalty, but even all that aside, I think the death penalty is an embarrassing overreach and an example of populism in one of the very, very, absolute last places it belongs.

There's more, but what started as a messy failure at multiple levels leading to a needless, needless loss of lives, has resulted in a messy political mess that hasn't really accomplished much at all, other than undermining the faith of another generation in its elders to provide wise and long-seeing leadership. I would be happy if our young folks got angry instead of just discouraged, but we'll see how long that lasts. I'm surprised to hear just how jaded I am about this, because normally, in terms of social progress and the arc of history, I am very much an optimist. I do believe that even a messy situation that brings ugly things to light often ends up as a net good, because once ugly things are brought to light, people can start doing things about them. But that's not what I see this time, and it's fucking depressing.

If I were melodramatic, I'd say that every day, every year, every presidential term that goes by when we don't clean things up, root out the corruption and the complacent "it's OK" "just get it done" or "not my problem" attitudes that contributed to this, or at least advance another step in the process of doing so, we're killing these kids again, burying another class of school kids in a watery grave, or another dozen migrant workers under I-beams in an industrial accident, or poisoning another roomful of electronics company employees with industrial chemicals. It's not often that the cost of those kinds of attitudes gets highlighted so starkly, but as I wrote in my last Sewol elegy, we're still waiting for a miracle.

And it hasn't come yet.

Rest in peace, once again, children of the Sewol. May the heroes who push against the complacency and corruption yet arise, and may it take shorter than I fear it will, as the remnants of Grimy Old Korea die off, before proponents of Safe New Korea have their day.

Here are the closing words of my elegy for the Sewol, written (a little less than) a year ago. This is the promise we are waiting for those in power to make good on.

Maybe this tragedy, after so many ignored warnings, will finally be the violent turning of a new leaf. Maybe the shame on one side, and rage on the other, will finally stop settling for band-aid solutions and transmute into real change, real accountability, until Grimy Old Korea is a closed chapter, and public safety is no longer a luxury for the moneyed. That would be a different kind of miracle than we started off hoping for.
There was a promise implicitly made in Grimy Old Korea's heyday, that the nation under construction would be worth the work. That sacrifice and strain would mean future generations enjoy a better nation than the parents inherited. That was the deal. There is a yearning for Korea to be prosperous, but to round that out by also being compassionate, not just toward shareholders, but toward the strangers who live and die, grieve and starve, and still check nervously for Grimy Old Korea barreling toward them at every crosswalk.
I wish that the next generation of leaders, contractors and entrepreneurs would see their neighbors, and moreover their customers, tenants and passengers, as part of the great "We," not just during times of crisis and joy, but all the time. The delivery that we want right now is not the one that buzzed by on a sidewalk motorbike, with a metal takeout box that nearly clipped my son. We'd rather have those in power deliver on that promise made in the 60s and 70s, that one day we will be able to enjoy, in peace and safety, the fruit of the sacrifices and griefs we have been asked to bear for too too long. We've worked so hard and lost so much: why are we still so unhappy? Why do these things still happen?
The takeout delivery always arrives on time, but the delivery that really matters, has been delayed again and again. And with our yellow ribbons waving in the downtown, maybe that is the miracle we are still waiting for.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Pictures From The Old Camera

As I clear out the dropbox photo upload folder, and the iPhoto photo album (which is a pain in the ass to clean up), I come across many photos I took, planning to share on the blog, and then failed to share.

So, in order to empty out my pockets and finally delete the durn things, here we go... apologies if any are repeats.

A jaunty mannequin I like:

Taken this year: I can't believe people are still doing window cleaning and building work on these things. One of those cases where a method developed for a city with buildings that were four stories high just got carried over until buildings were way higher than the method was built for.

In case 치멕 (chimek -- short for chicken and mekju, or chicken and beer) wasn't a horrifying enough portmanteau, let's add "피멕" - Pimek (or Pi-mac) - short for pizza and chicken.

While we're at it, let's all look for menus featuring "NaMek" (Nachos and mekju), "Wimek" (Wings and Mekju) and... ugh. I have to stop.

Unfortunate name for a skin lotion:

From a christmas event. I got nothing.

Heck of a spelling for Cinderella.

Spotted on a mountain trail.

The projector that is supposed to project mysterious and mesmerizing patterns on the sidewalk of a plaza near Cheonggyecheon had some technical problems.

Something I love about Korea:
(spotted at the Daegu KTX station)

The best "rock & roll" pun in a restaurant name I've ever seen.

This made the 13-year-old in me giggle.

because it looks like a penis.

Proper subway behavior PSA. From years ago. Have things improved?

A few years old. The Hangul museum presumed anybody who'd walk by were Korean. But wrote the sign in English. Despite all the talk of global promotion, sometimes the people making signs and writing brochures accidentally tip their hands. Sigh.

This old man is the best.

Tee hee.

(Insert joke about firecrotch here)

This banana has clearly had enough.

Give a silly man a baby bjorn and this is what happens.

Give a silly man a prop-up baby chair and this is what happens.

My (now second) favorite bilingual restaurant name pun ever. It's "Maek-ju-nal-deu" which is one syllable different from the Korean spelling of MacDonalds ("Maek-do-nal-deu").
However, it is no longer my favorite restaurant name pun because I found a sausage and pork restaurant in Seodaemun named "Seo-dwae-ji and the boys" 서돼지 and the boys" -- SeoTaeJi is perhaps the most important Korean music star in K-pop history, and Dwae-ji is the Korean word for pig.

The very beginning of what would become my favorite coffee shop in the world.

Sorting the coffee beans so customers only get the best ones.

Storing the beans on the wall.

 Still run by this man, who is a hand-drip artist. I am so glad the place is doing really well.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Six "It's the __ of Korea" that drive me crazy.

This is the essence of a list I presented on TBS Main Street, on TBS English Radio, where I do a weekly countdown at 10:30 every Thursday morning. It's fun, and this is a topic I love to rant about.

You’ve probably heard, at some point, the phrase “Korea’s Something” or “The Something of Korea” —for example calling Apgujeong “Korea’s Beverly Hills," which basically fits. Rich people. Italian cars. Plastic surgery. OK. There are definitely some apt comparisons out there. But there are also some that don't fit, or that seem to force the puzzle piece.

Hey, did you hear Quentin Tarantino compared Bong Joon-ho to Steven Spielberg? Well now we have to call him the Korean Spielberg. And I sigh inside with a deep sad sigh. Hyorin does a cover of "Halo" so now she has to be Korea's Beyonce. You know, until Ailee throws her hat in the ring. And then you get places specifically named after more famous places in other parts of the world.

And you start feeling like you're watching this video.

I was once told this mostly happens when Koreans are trying to describe korean stuff to foreigners who might not know about them, by someone who got defensive as I complained too much about this tendency. As I do. But for whatever it's worth, here are the "Korea's X" that have caused the biggest head-shakes, facepalms and jaw-drops for me.

1. Korea’s Madonna.

MTV Awards, Like A Virgin - 1984.

This one goes all the way back to 1987, when Kim Wan Sun pretty clearly referenced Madonna's performance for this performance, also at an awards show.

Um Jung-hwa has also been called Korea's Madonna. Her dancing and outfits raised eyebrows the way Madonna played her sex appeal in the 80s and 90s, and she also went from singing to acting, and managed her public image very skilfully.

Lee Hyori and S.E.S.'s Bada have also been called Korea's Madonna, and Ask A Korean! makes a plausible case for JYP being Korea's Madonna in terms of his impact on pop music.

But here's what you have to do to earn a comparison with Madonna:

1. Have Jo Yong-pil or Kim Geon-mo level popularity and success.
2. Be a fashion icon.
3. Be sexy as hell, and push boundaries for what a woman is allowed to do on stage, in terms of using her sex appeal, and push them again and again and again, without ever going too far.
4. Keep doing that for 15 years.
5. Have half a dozen completely unforgettable moments and/or performances, even after your relevance as a popstar is mostly faded.
6. Age into a mentor for younger performers.

Has there been a Korean artist who pushed the line on sex appeal, who was a fashion leader, who managed her image with superhuman savvy, and became a mentor for younger artists, while also being one of the most popular artists of her time for an entire generation? Lee Hyori wasn't controversial enough. Uhm Jung hwa wasn't controversial for long enough, and too much of her legacy is in her acting, which really isn't Madonna. Kim Wan sun didn't have the staying power. How much of Bada's cultural impact came from her solo career, and was she ever controversial?

Ladies and gentlemen there is no Korean Madonna, and it does the aforementioned artists a disservice to compare them to Madonna. There is also no Korean Beyonce. Just simmer down now.

2. Korea’s Opera: Pansori

Just listen to this.

Now listen to this.

Pansori was called Korean opera during a campaign to establish that Korean culture was just as refined and awesome as the best "high culture" of the west (Opera). There’s a certain type of person who believes that because Western countries were powerful at a certain time, the way to establish non-European cultures as worthwhile or world-class is by comparing them to Western culture. These people like using the word “advanced” and they don’t realise that by insisting on comparing Korean arts and sciences to western standards, they’re automatically putting the West in the superior position.

This means at a certain time in Korea’s nation building project, people were spending a lot of energy showing that before being colonized, Korea was on its way to developing a European style market economy, emphasising that Koreans invented the movable type printing press, and so forth, and these people shoved Pansori forward as Korea’s opera. I guess because both include performances that can be long, both sometimes retell old folk tales, both require vocal training, and kids these days don't listen to much of either.

But, seriously, go listen to those clips again. The comparison makes no sense to anyone with ears. I’m in total awe of the way Pansori singers can do anything they want with their voices. But Opera it ain’t. That doesn’t diminish Korea’s cultural heritage in any way.

Korean opera exists. It does. But it's being performed by Jo Sumi, not by Ahn Suk Seon.

3. Korea’s Olivia Hussey

Olivia Hussey is an Argentenian actress who was a real beauty in the 60s and 70s. She is best known for starring as Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a film made in 1968.

She was gorgeous in the day.

Here in Korea, beauty Han Ga-in, the actor/model (or model/actor), had a breakout role in the film "Once Upon A Time in High School" (말죽거리 잔혹사)-- a 2004 film set in 1978 (back when Olivia Hussey was a big deal). A character compliments Han Ga-in's character by telling her she resembles Olivia Hussey. Fair enough. It fit the time period.

Resemblance? I'll let the reader decide.

But it fails as a comparison. Because almost nobody knows who Olivia Hussey is anymore. The first time I'd ever heard her name was when I asked some students which Korean actors I should know about, and one identified Han Ga-in as Korea's Olivia Hussey, and I looked Olivia Hussey up.

So... if you told me that Taylor Swift is America's Lee Nan-young, it wouldn't mean anything to me until I looked up Lee Nan-young, or you explained it to me. And any comparison that obscures rather than enlightening has missed its point, in conversations like this.

(Lee Nan-young was a big deal in her day as well)

4. Korea’s Manhattan

Now, to call something Korea’s manhattan, here’s what I want: I want it to be the beating heart of the city. I want it to be the place where most of a city’s culture, art, commerce, and tourism happen. I want it to be the place where you can find the must-see places, attend the events, and also where all the really meaningful history happened. If an island met all those conditions, I’d think about calling it Mexico’s Manhattan, or Greece’s Manhattan, or Japan’s Manhattan.

Korea’s manhattan, of course, is Yeouido. While it does hold Korea’s national assembly, one of the city’s most famous buildings (the 63 Building), and a few TV stations, I have a big problem with calling it Korea’s Manhattan. Because here is what it looked like as recently as 1952: (source -courtesy of Popular Gusts)

Here is Manhattan Island in 1952: (source)

Yeouido didn't have a bridge to it until 1970. Manhattan Island had bridges to it before the Revolutionary War. If you can't be bothered to even build a bridge to it until 1970, Yeouido is clearly not the beating heart of Seoul. In fact, according to wikipedia, the name Yeouido means “Useless” and it was used as nothing but a pasture for sheep and goats until an airport was built on it in 1924.

I like Yeouido well enough. The IFC mall is a good place to go see a movie, and the park is nice when it’s not crowded to the gills. But if there’s an area that’s the beating heart of Seoul, it’s Jongno/Myeongdong/Gwanghwamun/City Hall — THAT’s where the culture, the history, the shopping and the political power all converge, if anywhere. Yeouido is sometimes called Korea’s Wall Street, which might be closer to the mark, but Korea’s Manhattan, it just really ain’t. So stop pissing on my leg and telling me it's raining.

5. Korean Pizza

In what world is this:
and this:

in any way at all similar to this:
It isn't, that's what. A few shared ingredients (like flour) and a flat disc-shape is it for similarities. The recipe, the preparation method, the way of consuming it, the toppings and sides, are all utterly different. This stands beside "Korean Opera" as one of the biggest misnomers, and one of the worst bits of expectation management out there, for introducing Korean culture. If you have to compare it to a western food, my favorite description of Jeon is "a savory pancake" (with green onion and sometimes seafood in it) -- which sets a diner's expectations about where they should be. But calling it Korean pizza... it's just inaccurate and misleading. And dumb. So stop!

6. Korea’s Machu Piccu

Of all the Something’s of Korea on the list, Korea’s Machu Piccu has got to be the biggest reach of them all.

Taegukdo or Gamcheon-dong, in Busan, is a pretty hillside village of colorful houses. It was founded by a group of religious refugees during the Korean war. Since then, blank walls have been painted with murals, and empty houses have been converted to cafes and galleries. It has a nice view of Busan Harbor, according to the write-up. Here is a picture.
Can you believe it's even prettier at night?
from flickr

It looks like a lovely place to wander around and get lost in winding back alleys, which is one of my favorite things to do, so I'd actually really like to go there!

But it’s been described as The Korean Machu Piccu on the official Korean tourism website. (They also describe it as Korea's Santorini, which is at least closer to the mark.) It's not just the official tourism website, either.

Now, here is Machu Piccu: (source)

The only. fucking. thing. the two have in common are walls, and slopes. That's bloody it. Whatever they were smoking when they came up with Gamcheon-dong as Korea's Machu Piccu, I would very much like to try some!

Machu Piccu is abandoned, it was built in the 1400s, and is 2400 meters above sea level (triple the height of Bukhansan's peak). Machu Piccu is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Wonder Of The World, and a relic of the very peak achievements of a lost civilization. Gamcheondong is a pretty hillside that had a good idea for how to stave off the redeveloper's bulldozer, but still probably doesn't even appear in most visitors' top five lists of "things to do while visiting Busan" (unless it was recently featured in one of those comedy shows where famous people tour local attractions.) I wish the citizens of Gamcheondong good luck, and I actually do hope to visit there some day, but I haven't come across a single "Korea's X" comparison more misleading than this one.

And that’s the problem with every one of these comparisons: by making a comparison, I immediately start thinking about ways that the Korean version isn’t as good, is smaller or less impressive, or just plain different, than the original, and that sets the Korean one up for failure. It’s the very worst kind of expectation management, because it makes me expect that the thing I’m going to see will be better than it actually is, and it’s an unfair burden to put on a charming place like Gamcheondong, a perfectly nice business district like Yeouido, or an artist like Uhm Junghwa, who’s perfectly respectable in her own right. We don't need to call Song Gang-ho Korea's Tom Hanks, or Baekdusan Korea's Everest, for them to be awesome. In fact, it makes them less awesome when we do!

For more on Korea's X, I always go back to this Dokdo Is Ours bit... and a thingy from Brian in Jeollanam-do that seems to have been removed from public access, unfortunately.

So, readers: in the comments, what are your favorite/least favorite "___ of Korea"?

Please share!

PS: from somebody's facebook comment:

Update 2: Commenters mentioned the most disappointing comparison of all: that Jeju Island is Korea's Hawaii. I like Jeju Island, don't get me wrong. And in that people go there on vacation, and it's an island, they have... two points of similarity. But... no. No no no no no. Every person who's mentioned going to Jeju Island after being told it's Korea's Hawaii has also reported it being a bitter disappointment.