Monthly Archives: February 2009

Pretty phones make me weak in the knees

I love gizmos and gadgets, and they can’t be avoided here. Korea, home to electronics giants Samsung and LG, wants to continue improving its electronics so it can compete with its Japanese counterparts. Cell phones, mp3 players and personal media players (sometimes all combined into one) are only the tip of the technological iceberg, and every Korean and his mother are tinkering with one or all of those things on the subway, bus or even while walking.

One of my fatal flaws is that I can’t resist shiny new toys. I got rid of most of what I owned to come to Korea to save money to pay off some bills. The whole minimalism/aescetic mindset is a little harder for me to achieve with the electronic temptations here. During the previous six months, I’ve accumulated a small speaker system, a 22″ external LCD monitor, a DSLR camera (with a handful of lenses) and most recently, a cell phone.

None of these are necessities (even though I’ve managed to rationalize every single decision into a quasi-necessity), and they’ve made a little (read: big) dent into my savings plans. The only thing that will leave the country with me when I do is the DSLR. Everything else is pretty much just a really expensive rental. They can easily be sold to someone else who has the same affinity for gizmos as I do.

These spending tendencies are a stark contrast to my backpacking habits. I’ll eat as much street food as possible (although that may be linked more to my palette’s preferences) and sleep in the cheapest hostels I can find. I’ll haggle over what ends up being 30 U.S. cents. In normal life, though, when I’m bored I’ll tend to do one of two things: eat and/or spend money.

At this point, I can’t imagine making any more large technological purchases. I have everything (and more) than I could ever need, even for a traveler: iPod, MacBook, Canon 40D, fancy mobile phone and Nintendo DS. I suppose that pushes me toward the realm of flashpacking, but I still need to do a little more traveling before I can wear that badge.

Note to self: travel more. Duly noted.

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Angry people make me angry

We’re wrapping up the first week of my staycation here in Seoul, and I haven’t made as much progress in the things I had planned for the week. I’ve still had a good week, though. While I wouldn’t mind traveling some exotic country, it’s nice not constantly having to catch buses and taxis and generally running around a new place cluelessly. Sometimes normal is fine by me.

Tuesday included a trip to Yeouido, an island in the Han River and home to the Korean Stock Exchange and TV/radio broadcasting conglomerate MBC, which earns it the occasional nickname “Seoul’s Manhattan.” I spent most of Wednesday cleaning and organizing my stuff in preparation for moving out of my apartment and ended the evening with a couple drinks. Thursday’s rather impulsive plan included buying a new phone from Yongsan and a long night of debauchery — one that had me arriving home a half hour before the girlfriend had to wake up for work.

It’s been pretty much a ho-hum week, but one event from last night reminded me why American G.I.s have such a terrible reputation here. We were our in Itaewon, which is essentially ex-pat and G.I. central since the neighborhood is literally around the corner from the U.S. army base. At the club, one of my friends — who is half-Chinese, half-Korean, wholly-Canadian and quite single — began chatting with a girl, one who had previously been schmoozing with a G.I. The army man took exception to my friend’s drawing the girl’s attention away from him and delivered an alcohol-fueled diatribe that included calling my friend a “kimchi-eating motherfucker” and boasting about how much the U.S. army has done for his “people.” For goodness’ sake, he’s stationed in South Korea, which is a cakewalk compared to the desert where the forecast is hot with a chance of raining mortars.

Other than the meathead mindset that leads to his solving problems with fights, the G.I.’s ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance is the number one reason people — Koreans and foreigners alike — dislike G.I.s. There are even bars that deny admittance to G.I.s because trouble often follows them in the door. I understand it’s completely unfair to paint all soldiers with the same brush, but I’ve seen so many situations where the soldiers expect things to fall in their favor simply because they serve in the U.S. military — like when the idiot at the club decided that we should be the ones to leave as if he and his boys owned the place.

The U.S. military as an entity already gets plenty of bad press from the likes of Guantanamo, Lynndie England, and a couple of wars in the Middle East, so the singular actions of these testosterone-driven brutes are just adding to America’s negative image. It’s a sad situation of a few ruining it for everyone, but it’s especially true for a conservative (and — truth be told — judgmental) nation like Korea.

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I’m not complaining

After coming back from Vietnam, I returned to my normal post as English teacher at my elementary school. “Normal,” though, isn’t the proper word to describe the last two weeks of the school year. The kids had been on winter vacation for six weeks before being forced to return to wrap up the school year. I had spent the same six weeks bouncing between Thailand, Winter Camp and Vietnam. None of us were ready to be in school.

The students, suffering from mental lag from the break, had no inclinations for paying attention — especially the sixth graders who had already checked out before break. I was out of significant lessons to teach, and all that was left were games. The two weeks (including two full days with not a single class for me and a full week of half-days) passed rather innocuously, and here I am on vacation again. This time it’s their “spring vacation,” despite what the 23-degree (I still work in Fahrenheit) weather says.

I’ll be spending this week organizing my stuff to move into a new apartment — one that I still have to find. I plan on doing some local sightseeing (i.e. playing with the camera) as well, but this weather might be a deterrent. Next week, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be touring around Korea, seeing what this country has to offer. It’ll be me (and someone else, in theory) and Lonely Planet Korea.

After this little spurt, it will have been 10 weeks or so since I’ve taught a serious class, but even the first week back won’t be a return to normalcy since it’s the first week of the new school year. I’ll be adjusting to new students, new co-teachers (teachers change positions every year and school every five years) and new class rules. I’m excited to see how these new classes turn out, but I’m slightly nervous about having to learn my co-teachers’ tendencies all over again. I was starting to get used to my last set of co-teachers.

I don’t see how all this commotion can be good for the educational system, but I’m sure the students and teachers are all conditioned to the change. I suppose I should be, too, since I’ve already experienced a few too many unexpected changes. They always turn out okay, though, and I expect nothing else from this school year.

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NPotW: Vietnam

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

It had been almost 10 years since I last set foot in Vietnam, so I was long overdue for a return. The only other time I had visited the country was a month-long family trip to Ho Chi Minh City — known locally as Saigon — when I was only 14. Consequently, my travels consisted of being dragged from one previously unknown relative’s house to another.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

This time around, I’m 10 years older (but not necessarily that much wiser) and able to gallivant the country on my own accord, and gallivant I did. In a fortnight, I visited six cities (and one bay), but it never seemed as frenetic as my tour of Thailand. After landing in Hanoi, the itinerary looked like this: Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, and back to Saigon to catch my plane home. I made entire trip (other than the venture into Ha Long Bay) via bus; by my rough estimate, I spent nearly 70 hours on the road during my trip — an average of 5 hours per day[1]. On this trip alone, I saw more of the country than my Vietnam-born parents have.

I did manage to fit in a little bit of sightseeing between the bus rides. Because each of the cities had its own distinct charm, it’s hard to put any of the cities as my favorite over the others. Saigon is the business capital of the country and clearly the busiest. Hoi An is quaint reminder of the many cultures that have passed through the country — and only four kilometers from the beach. Hue gets its points just for being my mom’s hometown. Nha Trang, a growing city with a population of more than 300,000, exudes the air of tourist beach town — something Mui Ne epitomizes. Hanoi is the political capital, but its history is its signature; it’s the Chiang Mai to Saigon’s Bangkok.

Despite their quirks, none of the cities really had an exclamation point landmark (except maybe Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter) that symbolized it. They all felt like…Vietnam. It’s hard to explain, but I think it was harder for me to differentiate the cities than I would in other countries. Like my trip to Thailand, the trip’s most interesting points came from the people I met, but this time instead of meeting other tourists, I was able to meet the locals. Growing up in a Vietnamese household allowed me to overcome the usual language barrier and talk to everyone I met.

The Vietnamese people seemed to be generally very friendly, but they might’ve bumped it up a notch for a Việt Kiều — a Vietnamese person who resides in another country. Most of whom I met seemed simply intrigued by an outsider who spoke fluent-ish Vietnamese. Instead of past travel tales, I heard the voices of the cities — insight into how Vietnam really ticks. The locals pointed me in the right directions and gave me tips they wouldn’t normally be able to communicate to a foreigner; many times I even got a discount for being Vietnamese.

Being able to speak the local language made this experience completely different from my time in Thailand and in Korea. While I find each of the latter places quite interesting, I never felt as comfortable as I did in Vietnam (for obvious reasons). Maybe it’s because I’ve been gone for so long, but at points I felt even more at home there than I did in the States.

Vietnam (read: Saigon) is definitely a place I can see myself living for a short while. The traveler in me wants delve deeper into more sights of this country, but the Vietnamese in me wants to take in Vietnam and really understand its culture, and subsequently my background, better. Even though it’s much different than 20 — even just 10 — years ago, Vietnam still has a lot to teach me about myself.

[1] The number is a bit skewed by the supposed 20-hour bus ride from Hoi An to Saigon. It ended up taking 25 hours. I was not happy with this development, and I’m sure my aunt wasn’t either since I had no way to tell her we were going to be five hours late. [back]

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