Book Review: “King Sejong the Great,” Joe Menosky

I’m abandoning this book at page 100 because I have plenty more books I’d like to read and not only is this book not that interesting, the editing makes it unbearable to read.

Not only are there multiple spelling errors and missed periods, the sentences don’t flow at all, leaving the reader to be jerked back-and-forth trying to simply understand what they’re reading. This also leads to quite a number of sentences that are not even proper sentences.

“His joints ached from yesterday’s all-day and all-night event. Which he hid as best he could. Lest any hint of discomfort let alone infirmity prompt a nagging lecture from the eunuch.” (The sentences should have been combined.)

“The face was a mask of carved wood–staring eyes, gaping mouth, rosy cheeks–worn by a female shaman–a Mudang. As she gyrated in a small spiral across the dirt floor, reciting an off-kilter chant. As Sejong’s eyes…” (“As she gyrated” has no follow-up action.)

I worried that this would be a self-serving book, something hastily written and produced for an audience that would hopefully overlook the editing mistakes for the lackluster imagined story of King Sejong, and unfortunately, I seem to have been right.

Kpop Music Monday #33: Red Velvet, “Psycho”

Another girl group that epitomizes the “girl crush” concept is Red Velvet. Red Velvet is a hit both with Korean and international audiences–once when I was playing a Kpop channel at work, someone squealed, “Oh my god, it’s Red Velvet–I love them!”

Red Velvet takes risks as a group, notably with fashion, but also in music, shying away from the softer melodies and more “manufactured” sounds and styles of other groups. They all have killer pipes and there is no lead vocal within the group because they’re all just that good. (Check out those high notes!)

Member Wendy had an unfortunate accident during a rehearsal back in December of 2019 and broke her pelvis among other injuries she sustained. She was only able to return to the stage in late August of 2020. Apparently, a set of steps were not where they should have been, and she fell off of the platform.

I chose “Psycho” simply because it’s their best work–a little dark, a little edgy, but with all the lace and sparkling diamonds that their entertainment company could afford. I will give “Peek-a-Boo” an honorable mention because who doesn’t love a tortured pizza delivery man in their Kpop videos?

Book Review: “If I Had Your Face,” Frances Cha

“I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.”

Nestled in the beginning of this debut novel is the line from which the title was drawn, and it asks some impossible questions from its characters.

The first time I started reading this, I couldn’t tell the characters apart, and every time I started to figure out just who was talking, the chapter (and perspective) would change. It took me living in Korea for almost a year for things to click. This book is doing very well on the market, so I’m not sure if this initial unfamiliarity with the culture was a hindrance to others, or just me.

There’s a lot, living here in Korea, that is accurately represented in the book. My facebook feed is filled with sponsored ads for discount tummy tucks and facial botox. The pressure to look a certain way, have a certain face, seems embedded in the younger culture to the point where a kindergarten student of mine had his mom ask us to remove his glasses and apply double eyelid tape before any yearbook pictures were taken. He’s 7.

So for these girls, going through what they’re going through in the book… Yeah, it’s definitely believable. You can feel it, even if you can’t fully understand their intentions. It can be a bit jarring, bouncing back and forth between perspectives, but Cha manages to pull it off rather effortlessly (or so the reader thinks; us writers know better).

One of my favorite lines in the novel is: “But she makes a lot of money and saves a lot of it too, unlike other room salon girls apparently—or anyone our age for that matter—and it’s hard not to respect her for that. Kyuri doesn’t drink Starbucks.” Ouch. I felt that.

All in all, Cha is an extremely promising writer who has managed to take the lives of several Korean women and paint them with all their imperfections and flaws. My only qualm about the novel is how it ended with loose threads–I wanted something more. One can say that’s almost part of the point: that these individual women are still in the midst of living their lives and we know no more than they do what the next day will hold, but I wonder what the stories could have been if it had, instead, been individual short stories that were interwoven, rather than a novel. (A la “Winesburg, Ohio.”) I look forward to seeing what else Cha has up her sleeve.

If I Had Your Face: Auditioning for My Own Novel’s Audiobook

Kpop Music Monday #32: Hyuna, “I’m Not Cool”

The soloist Hyuna debuted back in 2006 with a short stint in the Wonder Girls before moving to the girl-crush group 4Minute, which sadly disbanded back in 2016. Her solo tracks have been really popular and she hasn’t shied away from expressing her sexuality and showing off her body, something that has scandalized the more conservative Korean culture.

In 2018, however, she went on to scandalize even further: admitting to being in a two-year relationship with E’Dawn, a boy-group member (Pentagon) and her co-member in the trio Triple H. Her entertainment company was none too pleased and both members were basically forced to leave the company.

“I’m Not Cool” is her first extended play with her new label, P Nation, headed by none other than Psy. (You know, the Gangnam Style guy.) In the song, she sings, “I love early mornings, Dawn, Dawn, Dawn; I’m not solo, that’s the way I like it,” clearly referencing her now-renamed partner who also signed with P Nation (and you can view his latest video here, and check out his “Bubble Pop Senorita” line, referencing one of Hyuna’s other solos from back in 2011).

We stan a confident queen who makes the best of what life hands her.

Café Review: Coffee Class

Where does a barista go for good coffee? Well, technically I go to Starbucks by my work most mornings and get a grande iced blonde roast latte with an extra shot (whew!) unless there’s an interesting seasonal drink. It’s not my fault, really: café culture here tends to start at 11am and end pretty late, much different than the 7am starts and 7pm closes I’m accustomed to!

On the weekends, you can find me at Coffee Class, a bright and inviting coffee shop not too far from where I live. They have your usual fare: lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, green tea lattes, and they also have manual hand drip (pour-over) coffee.

I have enjoyed their Costa Rican Asoporaaa Valverde Abarca Natural (notes of dark chocolate and lime), a Nicaragua whose information I didn’t catch but tasted of milk chocolate and raspberry, and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Lalissa Natural GI that was like a green grape explosion in my mouth. My only issue is that they do their pour-overs a little differently than how I was trained, and stir the coffee after it blooms. The average coffee drinker is not going to notice the difference, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t either.

Today I had their tiramisu and it was lovely. They offer waffles and some other light fare and pastries which they bake in-house. The aesthetic is bright and airy with fun cat silhouette pillows and in the center of the café are several small round tables on small pebbles, almost giving it a café-on-the-beach vibe.

They get bonus points for always having beautiful latte art.

They are open 12pm to 9pm.

Follow them on Instagram: coffee_class2

Address: 경기 의정부시 평화로562번길 8 (의정부동)

Nari Park 양주나리공원

Back in October (my gosh, has it been that long??), my friend Ola and I visited Nari Park in Yangju (양주나리공원). It’s a little off the beaten path (don’t plan on being able to pop into any cafes or restaurants in the area) but absolutely worth it for the amazing views of fields full of flowers. When we went in the mid-morning there weren’t too many people there yet, so everyone was able to maintain a safe distance from others. I can’t say much else so here’s the photos.

Kpop Music Monday #31: f(x), “Electric Shock”

SM girl group f(x) was the definition of the “girl crush” concept in Kpop: girls so cool, you wanted to be their best friends. f(x) is also the definition of a group condemned to the dungeon of their entertainment industry, having been created in 2009 and gone inactive in 2016.

While the group never officially disbanded, all but one of the remaining members have gone on not to renew their contract with SM while continuing to make music. Unfortunately, one of the members (and the first to officially leave the group in 2015), Sulli, took her own life October 14th, 2019.

One of the first things you might notice about the group is the “tomboy” member, Amber, who breaks the stereotypical kpop girl group member mold: short hair instead of long, “masculine” clothing instead of skirts and skin-tight clothing. Sulli also broke the mold by being outspoken about such topics as feminism, Korean comfort women, and even the “no bra” movement. Unfortunately, she was met with intense cyberbullying that continued even after her death.

f(x) remains a group that popularized the “girl crush” concept and continues to be influential. It’s sad that they were unable to continue making music.

School Lunch

While explaining a lesson that involved the story of two students running for class president, one only having a motto and the other having actual policies, I asked my students to think of policies that they would want to implement in their schools. I gave the example of free lunch.

“Isn’t lunch free in the US?”

It’s in these moments that I realize how backwards my lovely home country can be. What’s even worse is how we view stories of good samaritans paying off school lunch debt as “proof that there’s still some kindess in the world” instead of “proof that our country isn’t doing enough to provide for its children.”

At the hagwon where I teach, lunch is served each day for the kindergarten students. It’s a separate lunch to the teachers’, which usually features some spicy things. The lunch is provided by a catering business but we make our own rice and food for snack. When I taught English to Tibetan refugees in India, we had simple lunches that usually featured a Tibetan bread called tingmo, and dinner was almost always rice and dal. Fruit was provided once a week and if you happened to get to lunch late, you were left trying to find the least rotten piece of fruit. As to be expected, the lunches served at my school in Korea are much different.

Tibetan college food pictures below, left to right: a bowl of steamed green vegetables and two pieces of tingmo; a bowl of rice and dal with some spinach and tomato; the special Losar (Tibetan New Year) breakfast of a large circular slice of Tibetan bread, a hardboiled egg, and a mug of traditional butter tea (with added tsampa I had).

Below are some photos of the school lunch here in Korea. In the first picture, there’s tofu and mushroom soup, white rice, chicken nuggets, bean sprout salad, macaroni, lotus root, and spicy slaw. In the other photos, there’s various foods such as steamed green vegetables, sliced potato, spicy pork belly, acorn jelly, burdock root, anchovies, cubed radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, omelet, fish with tartar sauce, spicy cucumber, tuna salad, apple salad, fried wonton, and tteokbokki.

Here is an example of what the kids eat for lunch. They each have their own lunch tray with chopsticks and a spoon, and this kid has a chopstick training kit (which she’s now graduated from yay). There’s rice and some bulgogi with cabbage, bean sprout salad, not-spicy cabbage kimchi, and quail eggs.

I give lunch twice a week, which entails putting food in their tray, helping them pray (a very unbiased “pray, pray, thank you for the food”) for all the food, watching over them while they eat, and scraping leftovers into the empty soup bowl to be disposed of by the kitchen teacher. Usually I will take my tray to the kitchen to get spicy kimchi and anything that was delivered just for the teachers, such as spicy beef or fish filet.

Below is a view of our kitchen at school. In the first picture is the lunch set-up for teachers. If the kids ask for more food and we run out in the class, we send them to the kitchen to see if there’s any leftover. Usually it’s sausage, meat or seaweed. Once a student came into the teachers’ room to ask if anyone had any leftover sausage because the kitchen had run out!

Our kitchen is equipped with a stove, microwave, kettle, and a large rice cooker. There is a kitchen teacher in the kitchen getting everything ready and washing the empty teachers’ plates and the containers; the kids pack up their lunch trays when they’re done and take them home for their parents to wash.

Once a month, we have a birthday party for any students whose birthdays fall in that month. In this day, we have a special lunch, which includes several types of fried chicken, pizza, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.

Sometimes a student’s parent will order us food, such as a couple of pizzas. We also have leftover chicken from Class of the Month chicken parties. We also get pastries, and sometimes iced americanos.

What’s your favorite school lunch?

Coronavirus in Korea, Part Two

 I am obviously not an expert on Covid-19 (and neither are you) but thought I’d give some more information on how Korea continues to handle the novel Coronavirus.

Image description: the floor of a Starbucks with tables and chairs spaced apart

The first wave of the deadly virus hit the southeastern city of Daegu first, in February. The outbreak was linked to a “secretive church sect” that packs worshippers “like bean sprouts” in the church.

I arrived in Korea on the 21st of February and my school was on a week-long break because of the heightened virus cases.

The second wave occurred in May, and was linked to club-goers in the Itaewon and Hongdae areas of Seoul. There was a minor ripple in the expat communities I belong to saying that Koreans were going to be blaming “the gay foreigners” for the outbreak, as it was rumored that the cluster outbreak was connected to a gay club.

The third wave occurred in August and was connected to an anti-government rally held by a church based in Seoul.

Our school closed for three days at the end of August, and were forced to close by the government the weeks of August 31st and September 7th. We reopened September 14th. We were closed because we were under a level 2.5 out of a 3-point system.

Under a 2.5, all chain cafes must do take-out only, and restaurants and bars must close after 9pm. I didn’t wander around Uijeongbu past 9pm during the 2.5, but I imagine downtown was completely empty. For the most part, people stayed home during the semi-lockdown and ordered take-away or only ventured out to buy groceries. (I was the former. I prefer calling it “supporting the local economy” not “sheer laziness.”)

Image description: all of the tables and chairs on the floor of this Starbucks have been pushed into the corner

Some examples of more permanent changes include checking your temperature whenever you enter a building and either writing down your name and phone number or checking in with a QR code connected to your KaKaoTalk account. KaKaoTalk is a messaging app, first and foremost, but functions like an all-in-one app for almost everything else. This level of contact tracing would be fought against by your average American, but I will gladly give up my information because, let’s be real, my phone is already tracking my movement and at least this kind of tracing is for the greater good.

Image description: a table with an ipad, hand sanitizer, and papers on a clipboard for scanning in your QR code or manually writing down your name and phone number for contact tracing

There are also hand sanitizers everywhere. Including ziptied to a tree along a nature trail and to a lamp pole, as seen below.

Image description: a bottle of hand sanitizer ziptied to a medium-thickness tree
Image description: a bottle of hand sanitizer ziptied to a lightpole. I wouldn’t have noticed it except the person in front of me actually used it.

Starting Friday, November 13th, the government implemented a fine for non-mask compliance in public spaces and on public transportation. Prior to the fine, you could be turned away from buses without a mask and if you were on a subway not wearing a mask, you would be told to wear a mask. There were some cases of older men refusing to wear a mask on the subway and the ensuing fistfights, but for the most part, everyone is wearing a mask.

Several weeks ago, my school closed for two days because a child was a confirmed case that had Taekwondo with two of our students. Everyone at the Taekwondo academy tested negative, but we closed out of an abundance of caution, and the two students are quarantining for two weeks and not attending classes. We were sitting at a level 2 in the greater Seoul region, but with strict measures implemented: for example, no cafes (including small mom-and-pop) are allowing dine-in and all restaurants and bars must close at 9pm.

And now, as I write this on the 17th of December, we have been without work since the 8th. We are at a level 2.5 with rumors that we may eventually hit level 3, as cases have been creeping up on 1,000 new cases each day. We will hopefully go back to school on December 29th, but if they raise the level to 3, then we may be out of work even longer. Going online is not an option; only two parents have requested it, while a number have confessed that they would be unable to have their students be taught online, so our hagwon loses less money just closing rather than trying to figure out a new system for virtual learning.

For the most part, people here are wearing masks and taking precautions. I feel safe, which I can’t guarantee I’d feel back in the States. Wear your masks, people. Stay at home as much as possible. Don’t be stupid.

More information can be found here.

Kpop Music Monday #30: KAACHI, “Your Turn”

What is K-pop?

Is it as simple as pop music created by Koreans? (How would you reconcile this idea with the knowledge that many Korean pop songs were originally written by non-Koreans and then purchased and tailored for a Korean audience?)

Is it as simple as pop music that has been tailored for a Korean audience and sung in Korean? (How would you reconcile this with BTS’ latest track, “Dynamite,” a song written entirely in English?)

Is it as simple as pop music sung by Koreans? (How would you reconcile this with the fact that many K-pop groups feature members who are non-Korean, but almost always Asian, e.g. Thai, Japanese, Chinese?)

It’s time we talk about KAACHI.

KAACHI labels itself as the “UK’s first Kpop group” but only one member is Korean. This was their debut song.

The quality is pretty poor. The vocals are lacking, the dancing is lackluster, and it’s all just a bit too cringey for my taste.

All is not lost, however, as a YouTube creator by the name of Johnny reworked the song and made it sound much better.

And the girls weren’t upset, because they went on to give him a cameo in their comeback single, as seen below:

So… is KAACHI K-pop? I don’t think so. K-pop is a machine, and they’ve not been through the trials and tribulations that K-pop trainees go through that produces idols. It isn’t about singing in Korean, or having a Korean in the group, or making upbeat pop music, or wearing Korean brands–it’s about being part of the soul-eating machine that makes a group “K-pop.”

As someone who doesn’t like the fact that the music she’s been listening to for over ten years is produced on the backs of young teenagers and is known to break them down and eat them alive, maybe, just maybe, K-pop can learn from KAACHI to be a little more easy-going; to let their idols live a little more instead of always fighting tooth and nail for YouTube views and award show wins. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be flawed. We love our idols because they’re flawed, one of the most ironic things of all.

What do you guys think? What makes K-pop… K-pop?