Sunday, November 11, 2007

More Korea

selling a $3 acorn cracker/eating tool on the subway

I finally figured out how to pop out of the subway station in the right place. Who would have known that the entrances are labeled? It doesn't seem like coming out of a different exit at the right station would make a difference, but you might find yourself a long ways out of your way on the other side of a street that you can't cross. Turns out to be pretty simple - just follow the circled numbers on the signs. My exit, Samgakji, has 12.

I just got back from running errands at E-mart. It's a large mall-ish, department store kind of thing that has a huge grocery store, I-max theater, and restaurants inside. The department store section had 9 stories that housed many separate vendors selling the same thing. If I recall correctly the 3rd floor was all Cameras, lenses, and MP3 players. One floor had laptops, another cell phones, the next - home appliances. Pretty strange.

I also stumbled upon - Carl, get ready - an e-Sports Stadium on the 9th floor of E-mart. It was locked, but appears to be a competitive video gaming arena. I need someone to read the schedule to verify.

More unique things about Korea:

1. Motorcycles are something else here. I think I'll start an album just on the interesting ones. They seem to be protected like pedestrians. In fact, if a cyclist decides not to run a red light, he'll often become a pedestrian and ride on the sidewalk before returning to the street. I'm still looking for pictures of the motorcycle work vehicles - they carry around so much crap. What are those gloves?

2. Protests are common. I already mentioned that they're a national pastime. I've heard that they protest the minor issues - ie, right turns on reds. At first it seems intimidating. Buses of riot police, the single booming response echoing after the megaphone, the cameras. Then you come back an hour later when the cameras are off and see large numbers of retired age men and women sitting on the ground eating - hardly a public disturbance.

3. Girls wearing miniskirts and boots baffles me. I didn't notice this until recently, and I'm told they wait for the winter. In one particular incident I was outside scurrying to a heated building, bundled up in pants and a jacket - and I don't get cold easily, and a girl walks by me with the shortest imaginable skirt and heels. She had a jacket on, but still...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

High profile DV speaker

You'd think we were at the airport. MPs thoroughly metal detectored us. My co-worker was asked to leave a Gerber outside and the Colonel had to leave his backpack outside - unheard of. I had no idea this was going to be such a high profile event.

You've gotta love the military. The speach began at 1600, so they rolled it back to telling us to be seated by 1530, so we rolled back our arrival to 1500 - and we got there early. An hour before the event would start most of the 800 seats were filled. By a half hour early, it was standing room only. As 1605 rolled around, the Major I was with was bitching about man-hours of productivity. The Colonel responded that "we have a tradition of this" - the little wood choppers were missing hours of productivity waiting for General Washington to bring morale to their little hearts in Lexington.

Admiral Mullen got right down to business. He apologized for being 15 minutes late - he had been on a VTC with el presidente. They, he, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense, were traveling through East Asia meeting with their high level defense counterparts. His speech was a fascinating half hour. He kept re-emphasisng his three pronged priorities and switching his focus between transformation and leadership. He then opened it up to a half hour Q & A. Questions came from the gambit, very low rank to very senior. All were well formulated, most very good pointed questions. There were a few that you could only shake your head at - one was about his response to a specific conspiracy theory question about 9-11. He answered all of the questions very well. The ones that were less relevant led into supporting points about what he mentioned earlier. Afterward my co-worker mentioned that at the last similar event a very senior military spokesperson was asked by a female servicemember (in formal terms) if the military was investigating devices that would allow females to go to the bathroom upright. You've got to be kidding! I have no idea how I would smooth over a question like that on international tv.

Afterward they wisked the Admiral off - flashing sirens, motorcade, and all. An MP was directing traffic. No, she wasn't directing, she was controlling it with steadfast intention. If I wasn't with a group in such heavy traffic I would have stopped to watch. There was never a question as to who should be stopped and who should be moving. She would direct multiple streams at a time like a stoplight. Some cars would be turning left, some going straight, and pedestrian control - all based on the number of people waiting. With all the Generals and Admirals she had to pop to and salute several times in the middle of the traffic direction. It was amazing.

I need to be more ready on my camera. I saw the funniest thing on road so far. it was a motorcycle that had a huge, maybe 10 foot tall trailer behind it. The trailer had garbage and the many recycleables, brooms, rakes, etc. It also had a passenger standing way up high in the air. That doesn't sound like much, but a pic will leave you rolling.

Early Thanksgiving at the USO

It never fails - babies and puppies are timeless chick magnets. Today was no exception. We were introducing members of the Sookmyong Womens college debate team to Thanksgiving, American style. The new food was popular, but not nearly so much as the young man and dog.

Members of our command - probably their wives, cooked Thanksgiving style food. The Koreans brought various traditional local dishes. The event was an interesting chance to experience each other's culture.

Really not much to say about the meal. We sat around, ate, and talked. I did get a chance to meet others that work with me. Most of the girls were pretty shy. These are the ones that our family dry cleaner of 20 years instructed me to marry. I'm looking forward to the next event. We'll probably go on campus to have lunch with them.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


An electronic voice in a "Limousine Bus" (bus) welcomes me to Japan, then reminds us that "cell phones are prohibited as they annoy neighbors". We're on an hour and a half journey to Tokyo from the Tokyo airport, humm? My spontaneous idea to reroute through Narita instead of SFO after visiting Lord doesn't seem so brilliant anymore. Or does it? Perhaps there will be opportunity yet. We've passed 4 nice hotels within a few minutes of the airport. The fact that we'll need to catch a bus for our 8AM international flight tomorrow remains daunting.

I feel sorry for a group of high school exchange students. One girl's comment, "oh how cute, she looks like she's wearing a girl scout uniform - and she's an adult" caught my attention and made me laugh. I looked over to see a petite Japanese woman in a red uniform - a customs officer. The girl had a Southern California accent, but turned out to be North Carolina. Once the group realized that I lived where they were headed they had a battery of questions. "What country is best?", "Will I like the food - I don't do spicy?", and others, to which I could only laugh. The barrage of questions came right when we were stripping down for the x-ray machine.

The United line to get our bus voucher and hotel reservation wasn't bad. It was a little strange looking at the "departures" screen and reading, UA883 - "Not leaving today". WHAT!?!? There were no answers, only customs and immigration lines. Once I found a long United line I knew I was in the right place.

The flight to Japan had been surprisingly easy. The seat next to me was empty so I could creatively lay, stretch, or curl. Some limb would inevitably fall asleep, but no big deal - that was the price of getting some sleep. We were told that a strong head wind would delay our arrival by an hour. I slept most of the 11 hours, which was much shorter than I remember flying in '96.

I woke up for both "lunches". Neither were any good. They made me wish that I'd stuck with the original plan with Korean Air by Delta. They always gave you 2 choices, "chicken" or "beef". One with rice, the other "American style". I was always going for the Asian one, but never got it. I've been duped 3 times now in 2 flights. I felt like I was on some kind of a sick game show.

My Japanese neighbor in the isle seat was great. He never made a move to raise his armrest for a stake in the available center seat; it was all mine!

Long Beach

I hadn't seen my buddy Lord since I punched him in the jaw in Charleston. Don't think he didn't get me back with a furry of shots. We both miss that Mui Thai class and our friends from there.

Lord's a good dude - yep, I get to brag about you here! Being a studly football player and track athlete at the Academy wasn't enough, nor was being a bona fide war hero saving countless lives in Iraq. And who's ever heard of turning down a Harvard scholarship? It didn't surprise me to hear you exercise your PHD program option in Aerospace Engineering at UCLA. I know you'll kick butt there - don't think I can't still take you on the wrestling mat, though ;)

We ended up walking around Long Beach. The weather was nice - what a beautiful place! Palm trees, the beach, and a growing skyline. We stopped at a sushi place for appetizers, then decided on passing up PF Changs in favor of a Hibachi grill. I had no idea that my friend had never experienced one. Afterward we exchanged war stories over ciders at a local brewery. Not much more to say than that. Lord's lovin' life as a grad student and I was happy to see him.

The Conference

The Navy Information Professional Symposium was a success! The three day event was loaded with top notch guest speakers and good information about my Navy community. I had the opportunity to meet the senior brass, my detailer whom I've spoken with extensively over the phone, and the senior Navy IP in Korea who has been sending me emails. The real value lay in mingling during social events, lunches, and breaks. Lots of familiar faces from earlier training classes.

The big event was the many San Diego wildfires, which I hear are worse than 2003. Many local attendees were either evacuating their families or assisting their friends. I wanted to volunteer for help, but it wasn't practical. Aside from laying a little ash on my upgraded 2007 rental Nissan Maxima, the fires didn't affect me much. I did feel silly turning in the car with 40 miles after four days, but I did my part by staying off the roads.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On my way to San Diego

Getting to the airport was a challenge - I made it so. I waited for the bus for what seemed like a lifetime (maybe a few minutes) in front of my apartment. I was 20 minutes earlier than my friend said the airport bus would arrive. It would provide perfect timing given the hour long ride and 2 hours to check into my flight. I was getting nervous as different colored city buses came and left. I asked a local about the airport bus and she pointed me to a map indicating that it would go the other direction to Seoul Station and would require a line change. I'd later find out that bus does run that way first, then go back to the airport. I don't know why I freaked out, but I found myself running with my luggage to the subway station. A half hour of running, scrambling, and riding the subway put me at Seoul Station, even more confused about the airport bus, and slightly behind. At this point even if I knew where to go, waiting for the bus could be a problem. I flagged down the first taxi I saw at Seoul Station and was on my way.

Korean taxi drivers are a funny bunch. "Adashi", we call them. You'd never guess that it was the polite term for "Uncle". I most often hear Americans yelling that as a cab driver cuts them off or stops in the middle of the road. The thing is, they'll break every law in the book to pick you up, then slam on the breaks for every yellow with a running meter. Adashi was playing that game with me at first. A few glances down at my watch and the occasional one at him (hopefully not too dirty a look) and he got the idea. He put 2 and 2 together and drove like the taxi drivers I've come to know and love here. This included driving fast between ticket radar cameras, making "questionable" lights, and doing a little weaving. I arrived at the airport with time to spare. Naturally, I was obligated to break Korean custom and give him a good tip.

Hopefully I find the 601 bus on the way home.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bad dudes at work and getting settled at home

On my way to work LT A passed me. I was walking down the sidewalk and he was on his bicycle. He cautiously rode around another pedestrian ahead of me, then rode out of my sight. He's practically a fixture in my 10 minute commute (bed to desk). He always has his helmet and construction style orange reflective jacket over his uniform. He's a mellow guy in his late 30s - he was the one that gave me an in safety brief.

I caught up with him and greeted him as he locked our gate. He says, "good morning" back and casually asks if I saw him fall? "Oh no, I was pretty far behind you", I explained. He mentioned that he was crossing the green pedestrian crosswalk and I thought he said that a car almost hit him. He said that his heart was still beating really fast, but he appeared almost bored. It wasn't until he pulled out his dinged up steel coffee cup that I really started paying attention. He was explaining what happened to the Sargent Major who had recently joined us. A car was making a right hand turn on a red, didn't look at the pedestrians crossing and knocked over LT A on his bike. He curled up out of the way. The car ended up running over his front tire. He said he was OK and shook it off - I guess it pays to be a Navy SEAL. I didn't think to ask whether the driver stopped.

The driving around here still amazes me. My coworker and I took a break from our normal workouts, thank God, to pick up his car and run errands. It's common to see full size buses squeeze through merging cars with less than 3" on each side - only to advance 40 feet and stop behind another car at a light. Before that someone decided to do business with a guy in a van in the middle of the street. I wish I had my camera with me. I saw a motorcycle that had boxes strapped on that went a few feet higher than the riders head! My buddy says that's not unusual. The amount of swerving, merging, honking, and otherwise illegal driving astounds me.

Getting back to the home front...

1. This is the gym that my co-worker and I have been using after work. I didn't realize that volunteering to work out with him meant joining him at least four days a week for heavy lifting of specific muscle sets for over an hour. Everything's sore now except shoulders and triceps since I weaseled my way out of that today - we'll make it up tomorrow, I'm sure.

I've been playing racquetball a few days a week over lunch with other coworkers. I really need to make running a priority to prepare for airborne school. They just came back from a jump today out of airplanes and it sounded awesome! Other jumps are scheduled out of blimps and Chinook helicopters. So getting in shape should pay off big!

2. They recycle everything here! Downstairs in the garbage (recycling) area there's a place for paper, plastic, vinyl, card board, I donno - about 5 other bins. I didn't see any metals, but there are several in front that are only labeled in Korean. Like old blankets, shoes, etc. There's only one small area for what we would consider to be garbage - and they have specific bags that you have to use. Somehow the "food scraps", which looks terrible and smells worse, doesn't stink up the area - they must empty it frequently. They "recycle" that by heating and compacting it then feeding it to their animals. Maybe that's why the super cheap Bulgogi burgers are so nasty! Very cool how efficient they are here. It's a totally different mindset. For example, there are 2 garbage men that ride on the back of each garbage truck to do sorting - shredding documents is probably much more important here. Another example, on the busy tollway there were Koreans standing at the automated machines to grab a ticket and hand it to the driver. You couldn't argue that it didn't speed up the flow at all, but the concept is foreign to me. We would NEVER pay a person to operate the automated system that's there to replace him!

3. House quirks. I still have a few things to figure out - like how to open my dishwasher. Yeah, that's embarrassing. I'll have to put it on my list of "Sally" questions. YOU probably would have a hard time turning on the faucet! Another one is that I kept noticing a mild but fishy smell in my laundry room that would sometimes drift to the kitchen. I tracked it down to a pipe that seems to be venting into my laundry room from within the building outside my apartment. Humm.

3a. The weirdest thing to get used to will be my washing machine. It's brand new and high tech, with lots of buttons and such. It's actually a combo washer/dryer, which is how they come around here. The dryer doesn't really "dry" your clothes. Instead of using lots of energy to heat the air it mists hot water. The result, somewhat damp but mostly dry clothes. What surprises me the most is that it actually takes 4 hours to do this - that's what the fancy LCDs on front predict. It seems to do lots of relatively quick cycles and beep a lot in between. My laundry room includes this drop down clothes hanger rack thing. I'll have to invest in some clothes pins. I'll probably end up taking towels/blankets/sheets to the laundromat on base.

3b. Another building quirk. I've alluded to this a number of times already. The security here is insane! They have their own little mini secret service with earpieces and all! I rarely see the same guard twice - there must be hundreds, and they don't play around! A few co-workers live in another nearby highrise that's pretty nice. They only have a few security guards. Rumor has it that there's something that the ministry of defense maintains as you go upward. I guess that makes sense. Ask me in person if it doesn't.
(RFID Sliding glass door)

Update for the curious - her name was So-Hyun, pronounced "So Young" - not "Too Young", must have been my imagination. I went back and said, "Hi" last night. Hopefully there will be more to follow on this one. Oh yeah, and Austin wants to take me to the "real" clubs here. He's from LA. I'm trying to imagine how packed it must be to meet his approval.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Moving in!

Getting my stuff moved in was surprisingly easy. It took about 2 hours start to finish. I had enough time afterward to walk into work to return my boss's cell phone and bump into my coworker. It's 7:30 - I just got back from an hour long workout with him in my downstairs gym. He kicked my butt and wants to work out a different muscle set tomorrow!

Once again I got rid of too much, this time to long term storage - some of which I will need. I only shipped 850 lbs of the at least 4000 that I was allotted, 425 of which was my motorcycle. I'm glad that I decided to ship as much as I did, particularly of the kitchen items.

Moving into my building proved to be a challenge, but I've come to learn that professional movers are machines - even the Korean variety! My building security guards were all over the movers from the get go. They wouldn't let them park the trucks at the nearest curb - that's saying a lot in Korea. Here your emergency signals either: a) make you invisible or b) say, "I'm so sorry, prease excuse a me".

So they piled all the boxes on the curb and we took a few trips up the elevator. The picture to the right is part of one trip! The security guards posted a perimeter around the activity and stayed there. I left my motorcycle idling for the first 15 minute trip up and didn't think a thing of it.

I bumped into Doe's wife and grandmother walking their twins. I wish I would have caught a picture - maybe next time. Sally was also wandering about. She offered to help, but I don't think there was anything that the movers couldn't handle.

We inventoried all the boxes and they unpacked everything. They were really fast! Then they cleared out all the boxes and packing material - that's a load of empty boxes/filler to the left.

The manager gave me his card and expects me to invite him over sometime - I probably will.

I'm off to wander downstairs for dinner. I now have a lot of condiments and spices, but I held off on the perishables. I'll be traveling to San Diego for a conference next week for five days. My cookware, utensils, place settings, etc are all here but need to be washed. Very few things are in boxes, but I still have a lot of organizing ahead of me!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My first home cooked meal

This is the treat that I'm enjoying as I type. In fact, it's my second one! I bought a 45c plastic bowel and a one piece table setting. Not your ideal equipment for PBJ, but it doesn't get much more American than that! My household goods shipment is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. It'll be nice to be one with my motorcycle again.

My real first home cooked meal was last night at Do's party. We started eating at about 9:30 and didn't stop for 2 hours. He had about 12 guests but cooked for 30. All I have to say is that Pho better start worrying if Do comes to town! Soon as we finished a plate they brought out another heaping one - I think the king crab legs was the only single item that we finished. We had those clear plastic looking rice paper rolls that Jan makes. In the center was all the usual Vietnamese veggies including cilantro and those peppers that look hot but taste like green peppers. Do gave me a little red one that burned my poor foreign mouth. The mussels were seasoned similarly to the ones that Chris and I had at the Italian restaurant in Chicago. The rib eye was marinated like the sweet Korean BBQ that we're used to. His pork had a very tasty flavor. Everything was spectacular, although I went light on the pork since I was reminded of a different recent pork episode. I was the only one who didn't speak Vietnamese, and Do was really the only other one that spoke fluent English. It didn't matter, though. We all had a great time!

After dinner they brought out mango slices and cake. It was recently Dos birthday and one of the girls. After forcing that down, they brought bananas and grapes. Ughh...too much.

We then sat down to play cards. They had a blackjack variant that was pretty entertaining. At about 2:30 I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was down about $15, which is pretty sad on $1 games, but whatever. Do said that they would probably go until about 5. It would be his friends responsibility to whip up another meal of similar magnitude from his refrigerators. I was too tired to try to call his bluff. He explained that they stay up late because the guys had just got off work and that they "only" get together once a week. They rotate between about 5 households and eat on a similar magnitude every time, although the "style of food" differs.

Too Young

It's Friday night. I'm sitting inside a posh bar at the base of my building. My new Korean friend John J, who lived in Australia since he was 5, just excused himself and his coworker to get a private booth. The fact that he moved literally ten feet over from the bar to a table meant nothing to me. To his boss who would arrive shortly this signified respect. "I'm sorry, it's the Korean culture", explained JJ. The PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting manager was doing what was expected of him by purchasing a $100 bottle of wine and entertaining his boss.

In front of me might have been the best chicken fingers and fries I'd ever had. Minutes ago my new friend James, who plays for the Army band, escorted me two doors down and placed the order to be delivered to the bar. James has been in Korea a year and a half, but can sling the 'Gul with the best of 'em. He's very white but once you hear the Korean come out of his mouth you'd swear he was a local. Even John couldn't believe it. But James is a special case - like the Japanese language geek, Wayne (Nathan) from my freshman dorm. James began with 2 semesters of Korean here, had several tutors, and consistently studies vocabulary 3-4 times every week for at least an hour. He explained to me that tipping isn't part of their culture and it's often considered to be rude. The thing to do is thank them a lot for thanking you for thanking them and give/accept everything with both hands, one supporting the other - it's a sort of submissive/humble gesture.

I was sitting in front of the real reason I wandered into the bar. The bartender was cute and eager to converse. She spoke a little English but Korean was more fun. I ran upstairs to my apartment to bring my Survival Korean phrasebook and she helped me pronounce things. I'm not positive about this, but I swear she said her name was, "Tu Yung". The next natural question revealed that she was in fact 20. Good times - I'll have to check up on Tu sometime ;-)

I forgot to mention that James married a Korean girl. He and his friends hyped up various (non-Itaewon) areas. John agreed - in fact, he said that he's been around: New York, LA, UK, and Australia and he claims Korea's where it's at!

John's wife was expecting him home so he helped me get a taxi. He instructed the driver to send me to Shin Chon, which was a couple of miles away. I wandered around for about an before heading back. I think it's next to a college district because there were lots of youngins around - not nearly as many foreigners (Americans) as Itaewon. I'm interested in going back with someone who knows their way around.