Monday, August 25, 2008

Travelogue #49: Olympic Fever / The Living-in-Korea Photologues April-August 2008

wanted to write about how Olympic fever has swept over Korea, but to be honest, I've lost the desire to produce a full-length essay about this fever with the Games complete. Still, I won't forget the morning when I let my SAT class rowdily watch America's Michael Phelps out-swim Korea's Park Tae Hwan. We watched the race on one student's digital dictionary/microtelevision, a suspenseful event in and of itself, for the image on the screen kept pausing at crucial moments of the race, leading my students to manically tug at the antenna and exclaim come-on-alreadys. An administrator's voice then bellowed through the intercom, announcing to our school that Park Tae Hwan had just won the silver medal! Woots rolled through the classrooms. With Phelps the gold-medal-man, I subtly shook my fist and said, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

I also won't forget the constant gatherings by the windows of the Bundang storefronts, all to watch some young Korean woman do her country proud in archery or weight-lifting. Delivery drivers, businessmen, and families would stand side-by-side, together checking out the matches. (Jang Mi-ran broke the world record for female weightlifting, and all my students have memorized her name. Even the boys proudly mime her lifting stance. )

So Korea had Olympic fever, and for much of the past two weeks, the national positivity rubbed off on me. Work-wise, "busy season" has ended and the brutal summer has finally cooled.

Thank you, God.

So, now I thought it'd be a good time to reflect on that long summer (and the spring before it) in pictures (and captions). (SORRY PICTURE LINKS ARE DEAD. WORKING ON GETTING THEM BACK UP. PLEASE GO ONTO Travelogue #50: Getting a Shave from a Barber in a Room Full of Naked Korean Dudes )

Mom and Dad's Korean Vacation Part 1

Mom and Dad's Korean Vacation Part 2

April and May in Korea

Hot Sweaty Korean Summer

The Summer Continues....


Friday, August 15, 2008

Travelogue #48: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 2

<---Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1

inutes later, we were led onto base and into a multipurpose sanctuary. Tonight it'd be used for a Jewish service; perhaps on Sunday it would be used for a Christian one. This dual spirituality came to light through one of the members of our congregation: a priest by the name of Father O'Neill. "Great to see you, Rabbi," he told Chaplain Avi Weiss in a rosy baritone of a voice. "Thank you for joining us, Father," responded Rabbi Weiss.

As the service began, additional visitors came into the chapel. I was struck by one particular moment when a soldier in full military garb walked into the sanctuary, peeled off his beret, and replaced it with a yarmulke. I smiled at the symbolic switch: before a soldier, and now a Jew.

The attendees on this Friday night could be reduced to no statistic or stereotype. In the second row sat a well-dressed man with the silver-haired stature of a CIA character from The Bourne movies. No wonder, this guy was the real thing: he works for the U.S. Department of Defense. In another pew sat a Korean teenager wearing skinny jeans. Behind me sat a black general from West Virgina, the rabbi's commander in the military order. "Thank you for letting me pray with ya'll," said the general. "I am humbled." Beside me Jovan flipped through the Hebrew Bible, catching on quickly to the whole pages-turn-backwards element of the exercise. Rabbi Weiss conducted the service more like a class than a lecture, asking us to read passages and answer questions. As I hummed along to the Shabbat hymns, I felt at once reconnected to my Jewish identity and, strangely, reminded of my distance from it.

My knowledge of biblical history is at best scattershot, and I long ago forgot the Hebrew I learned for my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. To me, Judaism is about family and loved ones. Singing those Friday night songs in a sanctuary largely full of strangers, I felt the presence of memories oceans and years away. I felt the shadows of a once-upon-a-time girlfriend and a Rosh Hashana afternoon in a South Carolina synagogue. I felt shadows of my mom and my dad, humming prayers and patting me lightly on the shoulder, knowing my eleven-year-old mind was mulling more the Chicago Bulls than Deuteronomy. I felt the presence of these shadows, and I felt far, far away from home.

"Who says there's no Jews in the South?" said Father O'Neill, grinning like St. Nick. The service had just ended, and we were walking towards the dining room to bless the bread and ceremoniously nosh on it. When I told Father O'Neill that my home was Memphis, Tennessee, he told me with great relish that, several years ago, he had seen a terrific PBS special on the Southern Jews of the United States. "Fascinating," he said in conclusion, "absolutely fascinating." I nodded good-naturedly, thinking this was a unique moment in my Korea experience: someone was tailoring his conversation towards my Jewishness, rather than my status as a waygook (foreigner) or a megook (American). Shabbat Shalom, Father.

After the blessings over the bread and the wine, I casually tried to introduce Jovan to gefilte fish, a squiggly gelatin-like treat that tastes pleasantly gooey but is not particularly gorgeous. She declined it, but remained positively open-minded in much of her first Shabbat encounter. After hearing that the Rabbi's wife had just visited a daughter in Israel and that said daughter had recently given birth to twins, Jovan almost said, "Mazel Tov!" Almost.

"Does that mean 'congratulations'?" she asked me later. "Yeah," I said, "you should have said it! That would have been cool."
"I wasn't sure if it was right," Jovan remarked, "I mean, I only saw people say that on TV."

After the meal, Mo returned to walk us off the base. I told him how I read that only one hundred Jews lived in South Korea, and did he think the real number was more or fewer? "I think it's more than that," Mo said, "There's the Israeli embassy in Seoul. Lots of Israelis there. But they have their own Shabbat thing. They don't come to the base." Mo also told us how, in April, a Chabad chapter opened in Itaewon, and its director is keen on expanding. "They run things from a small apartment now, but he's on a mission," Mo chuckled. "He's on a mission."

I don't think I'll be part of that mission, for I'll return to the United States in late October. But I still wish the Jewish hundred (+) in Korea a hearty good luck, and in the words of the Korean man in the Yankees hat after Friday's service, a "Good Shabbos."

<---Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1


Monday, August 11, 2008

Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1

<---Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008
--->Travelogue #48: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 2

ore than forty-eight million people live in South Korea, an East Asian peninsula roughly the size of Indiana.

Of these crowded millions, many go to church; just look at the nighttime sky of Seoul, illuminated by dozens of giant neon crosses promising Sunday salvation. Korea also has a large population of Buddhists and a pervasive sense of Confucianism: you are expected to obey your elders, engage in ritualized politeness,and aspire for "social harmony," no matter what your religious upbringing. Finally, a Muslim minority thrives across the peninsula, numbering anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000, depending on the source. More than five mosques have opened here; that doesn't match the twenty-one in Indiana, but an Islamic presence has nevertheless made a mark.

What's not as evident in the public eye is the existence of a different faith in Korea, one that gives new meaning to the word "minority": Judaism. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute estimates that one hundred Jews live in South Korea. One hundred Jews. That's not many, but it's not bupkes either. Jews in Korea represent a cross-section of foreign businessmen, teachers, and U.S. military personnel. There is no designated synagogue in the country, but there are venues that provide Shabbat services, the most prominent one being the Yongsan Garrison U.S. Army Base in Seoul. Last Friday night, I went to Yongsan to observe Shabbat for the first time since I arrived in Korea last October. What I experienced was a Jewish community unlike any I've ever seen in my life.

By conventional definitions, I'm not a particularly observant Jew. I don't keep kosher, I don't fast on Yom Kippur, and though I eat matzoh during Passover, I also indulge in bread. In January 2007, I went to Israel for ten days; I slipped a note into the the crevices of the Western Wall and felt awed by its spiritual tug. However, when it came time later to write about my Israeli experience, I was more compelled to chronicle the country's pop culture influences and not its sacred monuments. Instead of writing about Jerusalem's Old City, I wrote about an Israeli soldier's affinity for gentile comedian Conan O'Brien.

Last year, I took a job in Korea knowing it not to be a bastion of Jewish life. After all, hagwons are open on Friday nights and Saturday mornings; you can't bless challah when you're on the clock. As the months passed, I couldn't help but feel a hint of sadness at the sight of Jewish holidays unfolding only on a calendar and not in my community. Though I hadn't always strictly honored those holidays in the past, I still found myself feeling their absence in a land where "Shalom" isn't in the vocabulary. It was only a rare hagwon vacation that afforded me a free Friday and a visit to Yongsan. Joining me was Jovan, my Texas-bred friend and co-worker, who was curious about Judaism. She had never before been to a Jewish service, much less one in Korea. I'd be experiencing this night through both my eyes and hers.

"I'm Moshe," said a barrel-chested man with a prominent and crinkled forehead. He shook my hand firmly. "But that's my Jewish name. You can just call me Mo."

Mo would be our escort onto the military base. Because Jovan and I were civilians, we'd need to be accompanied by him, even though we were just there for the service. Already this was portending to be a different kind of Shabbat; I'd never before had to flash my passport and pass through a barbed-wire entrance to christen a night of Torah and gefilte fish.

A crowd of six or seven began to gather outside the base's entrance, and aside from the appearance of one curly-haired Woody Allen lookalike, this Jewish congregation looked overwhelmingly Korean. "Many of them are here to learn," Mo told us, "They're not going to convert, but they like what the Talmud says about how parents should relate to children." Mo then nodded to one older Korean outfitted in a yarmulke, an Argentina soccer jersey, and black pants strung with a gartel. "He did convert," Mo said. "He studied very hard, and it took him a long time."

I was reminded of Larry Milder's jangly tune, "Wherever You Go, There's Always Someone Jewish." Milder sings humorously that, "some Jews wear hats, and some Jews wear sombreros." I think he forgot to add the line, "and some Jews are Korean and wear Argentina soccer jerseys."

<---Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008
Related Post:
American Jewish Life May-June 2007 "Shalom, Snoop"


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008

<---Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"
--->Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1

I sing Korean pop songs to my students. My fans gasp in oh-my-God recognition and say, "very good, teacher," while my foes cover their ears and call me "uhm-chee", the word for bad singer. Sometimes I pretend my class is an adoring audience, one that shows its fanhood more by being confused than by shouting "Encore!"

Only when my students are too quiet do I pipe up with a verse of mispronounced words sung with absolute conviction. If nothing more, it's an attention-getter. The tunes I've butchered over the past nine months have given me a window into the 2008 Korean pop scene. I've mocked some songs, and I've bopped my head to others.

Join me now for a quick look and listen at a few inescapable hits that you'll hear every time you walk down a street in Seoul. The cell phone vendors and coffee shops aren't playing the "I Kissed a Girl" song, they're playing this:

SG Wannabe "Lalala"

I would be lying if I said I hadn't chanted this one many times: " la la!" The lyrics basically say, "I love you," in multiple variations. I didn't know this fact, so when I sang this to ten-year-old Sally in one of my lower level classes, I could have been asking for a lawsuit.

Epik High "One"

I have a strange relationship with this song. The first time I heard it was in the GS25 convenience store in my apartment building: I was microwaving some spaghetti when suddenly I heard-


I thought I was having an epileptic seizure. This music was EAR-BRUISINGLY LOUD. But, for some reason, the song faded out after the first verse. Weird, I thought. I turned back to my spaghetti and -


I jumped. What the hell was going on? The song again faded after the first verse, lulling me into a false sense of security -


The cashier was not fazed by this sudden start and stop and restart of the same goddamn song and the same goddamn verse. Was I losing my cheerios? Or was I getting Punk'D? I kept waiting for the Korean Ashton Kutcher to tackle me into a shelf of ramen, but he never arrived.

I heard this song later, and was surprised to find I kind of liked it, as long as I wasn't made to listen to it under GS25's Clockwork Orange conditions.

The Wonder Girls "So Hot"

And finally....The Wonder Girls. I'm not a fan. "I'm so hot...I have charm...everybody's watching me." That's the rough translation of the lyrics, as seen in the above subtitled video. This "song" makes me wants to download Rhianna's "Umbrella" for pop music with more steak and sizzle. Did I just endorse Rhianna on this blog? Hey, I'd take her over The Wonder Girls or Girls Generation. When it comes to bubblegum songstresses, I have to give it up for the Yanks. My apologies, Korea.

One more time -


<---Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"
--->Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1