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South Korea
Daejeon and Seoul
October/November 2002

Televisions in subway stations, uncountable apartment complexes and Uncle Tom's Cabin: ten days in South Korea.

With Jane, I travelled to South Korea in November 2002 to check out the World Cyber Games. Our coverage of that is mostly on Game Girl Advance; these are some of the other things we saw in "the land of morning calm."

korea context
South Korea is filled with apartment complexes. It's part of why they have been so easy to wire for broadband.
And not just a few buildings, but hundreds, thousands of identical high-rise housing projects. High-rise building clusters, with dozens of buildings! Buildings in the same complex, numbering more than forty, or fifty. Insane numbers of identical residential housing structures.
In Chicago, where I grew up, housing projects like these became sites of blight and burn-out. But in Korea, it was just standard. New building complexes advertised state of the art furnishings, while older complexes yearned for a paint job.
Here Jane inspects a map in the subway. On the way, a map of the neighborhood shows the similar but different clumps of apartments nearby.
We stayed in Apgujeong, a sort of fashionable neighborhood where well-to-do young Seoulites went out to party. Accordingly, there were a wide range of bars appealing to their tastes - "Mafia," "Chez Cheetos," "The Runway" (a bar and modelling agency, in the same building), and this strange cultural burp, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a country bar, presumedly named after the book?
Korea had clearly gotten quite geared up for the World Cup soccer this year. I mean every large town had a stadium built it seemed, and everywhere in town there were signs posted - "This way to the soccer stadium!" In the train stations and airports, giant stores filled with World Cup 2002 goods. And here in little Daejeon, the flower planters at the train station were shaped like little soccer balls.
How will all this soccer madness look in another year, when the event is an even more distant memory? Probably not much more silly than it did here - a thorough commitment to soccer, as though hosting the World's Cup in soccer might transform a nation. And while I didn't see the spectacle of millions of Koreans united in the streets to enjoy the site of young men running up and down grass somewhere in their country, I couldn't help but pull my overcoat close to my face to fight the cold, and imagine that life just continues here. Except now, there's soccer stuff everywhere, and no one seemed to be buying anymore.
Thanks to our friend Grace, we found a place to stay in a lively neighborhood in Seoul, for less than $65 a night for two people. Our hallway looked like something from Starfleet, at defcon 3 - red lights shone dimly through particle board cut into vaguely techno-sensual shapes. It was an honor to be sleeping in a movie set! Why pay more for bland?
korea will be televised
Cabs in Korea were cheap, compared to the United States and Japan. Starting far was about $1. And a forty minute ride across Seoul cost us less than $10.
The cabs were nice, modern Korean cars. With none of that giant, obtrusive plexiglass security wall that eliminates foot comfort and a view out of the front of the cab in favor of safety for the driver.
Half of the cabs we stepped into were outfitted with small televisions. This cab happened to be playing "Six Days, Seven Nights," a movie about a couple stranded on a remote island. It was hard to tear our eyes off of the small screen, with action adventure in English piped through the car stereo. But the motion of the car, stop and go in rainy traffic, combined with the small screen, it slowly turned our stomachs carsick.
Still, I was inspired by the small TVs. Wouldn't it be great to have a four inch TV, palm sized, and flat-screen, that I could carry around in my bag, and prop up on a table, alongside my laptop when I'm working? Maybe I could run my GameBoy Advance through it, and use the TV as a sort of portable personal video game arcade. When you have a TV about the size of a novel, it just fills the mind with a myriad of life-enriching possibilities.
Here Jane and I contemplate small flat-screen TVs at Yeongsan, the Seoul consumer electronics market. There were so many of these TVs on display! I wondered if mostly cab drivers buy them. But they appeared in many private cars too. And maybe in schoolbags and showers?
The small TVs ran from about $200 to $300. They had one 1/8th inch A/V in jack - how could I get regular yellow/red/white RCA into that? I gave up thinking about it - I have enough crap as it is.
But I was still able to enjoy more television, this time in the Seoul subway. Televisions up in the subways, instead of static ad bulletin boards! This is the future! It's fun to see and fun to watch now. Soon it might be annoying or normal. But this first brush with more constant televisual stimulation was definitely exciting.
And in case we missed the TVs in subway stations, and in the cars, there was this van stacked with TVs playing outside. This van promoted what seemed-to-be a male-dancing strip-club in Daejeon.
food & drink
"Soju" is a kind of rice spirits, sort of the local/national liquor of Kroea. I like it plain, on the rocks, it has a sort of light citrus taste, reminiscent of gin.
Here's an ad for Soju, where the girl looks a bit cockeyed and smiley. Unusual to see someone in an alcohol ad who looks so straightforwardly on their way to drunkenness! Especially at 11 am!
At a restaurant in Daejeon, South Korea, near a "Science Expo Park" we entered a Korean-style restaurant decorated with many crabs out front. They immediately announced apologetically that they didn't have any English menus, and they couldn't speak English. We replied, hey, that's okay. Bring us the house special.
Hmm, he thought for a moment. Is crab okay?
Sure, we replied. That's what we see around us! We eagerly gestured at the cartloads of grilled crab carcasses being removed from other small private dining rooms nearby.
Crab with soy sauce, okay? He asked again.
Sure! Crab with soy sauce!
And that's what he brought us. Crab with soy sauce. They hadn't cooked it much either, maybe not at all.
Jane was the first to take a bite, and well, you can see her reaction.
After I got over the strange texture, straight-up slimy, with the knowledge that I was eating raw bottom-feeder, probably dangerous food, I rather enjoyed the taste, sexy-ocean flavor like sea urchin, and the activity of chewing through the tender thin crab legs that didn't need cracking.
Daejeon boasts about its teas. Rich, dense herbal blends. I felt adventurous - I ordered the first listed, the most expensive, the Samshipjun Daebo Tea.
The waitress took my order, along with Jane's caffe latte. Then she returned - she wanted to confirm with me. Are you sure you want that?
Still confident, but curious, I asked, what is it?
Oh my! I had ordered beetle tea! Well, I felt I should stick by it. And I became rapidly entranced by the thought of a small teapot containing a few still black insects floating in some warm water. What an adventure!
So I nodded eagerly, "Yes! Beetle! Fine!"
She smiled, still unsure, and went away.
She had been saying "bitter," and so it was. Bitter, with nuts and seeds and roots floating in it. Tasted like some specific kind of health!
el dorco
At each hotel we stayed in (three of them, in two different cities), there was always a Dorco brand disposable razor.

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