Tuesday, December 16, 2014

AAK! Music: 90s Icon by Seo Taiji

Because when Seo Taiji puts out a song like this, it deserves to be introduced to the wider audience.

90s Icon
90s Icon

나이가 들수록 늘어 가는 변명들
The excuses grow as I age
세월이 흘러가도 망설임 따위 뿐인걸
Nothing but mere hesitancy as the time passes
내 기타에 스미던 둔해진 내 감성
My senses that used to soak my guitar are dulled
하지만 난 아직도 멈추지 못할 뿐
But still I simply cannot stop

한물간 90s icon
A washed up 90s icon
물러갈 마지막 기회가 언제일까 망설이네
Hesitating to find the last opportunity to disappear
질퍽한 망상 끝을 낼까
Should I finish this wet delusion

낡아빠진 액자에 갇혀버린 환영들
The phantasms trapped in decrepit photo frames
내 바람과 망상들로 내 방을 채워가네
Filling my room with my desire and delusion
덧없이 변해간 나는 카멜레온
I am a chameleon, changing haplessly
내 피부가 짓물러도 조용히 감출 뿐
Even as my skin rots, all I can do is to quietly hide

한물간 90s icon
A washed up 90s icon
화려한 재기의 기회가 언제일까 망설이네
Hesitating to find the opportunity for a spectacular comeback
질퍽한 이 망상 끝을 낼까
Should I finish this wet delusion

난 꿈을 꾸죠 은밀한 비장함 따위는 아니예요
I dream, but nothing like a secret resolve
전쟁도 끝났죠 나의...
The war of mine is over

눈감은 순간 흩어지는 바람에 밀려 버려지는
The scattering wind sweeps away in a blink of an eye
당신의 삶과 같이한 너와 나의 쓸쓸한 이야기
The lonely story of you and me who were with your lives

해답이 없는 고민
A dilemma without an answer
하지만 밤이 온다면 나의 별도 잔잔히 빛나겠죠
But when the night falls, my star will calmly shine

Briefly about Seo Taiji:  Easily one of the top three most significant K-pop artist in history. Everything about the modern day K-pop is traceable to his brilliant mind.

About This Song:  90s Icon is from Seo Taiji's 2014 album, Quiet Night. 

Translation Note:  As is typical with Korean lyrics, many sentences lack a subject, leaving poetic ambiguity as to the precise identity of the person who thinks and feels. Seo Taiji, in particular, is a master of such lyrical construction.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Is That Salt in Your Teeth?

Dear Korean,

My friend recently came back to New York after living in Korea for a year. She now swears by bamboo salt toothpaste. She says that bamboo salt is commonly used in Korean medicine and is much healthier that anything available in the US. What exactly is bamboo salt? 

Kristin K.

Short answer first: bamboo salt, called juk-yeom [죽염] in Korea, is a type of basked salt. One can manufacture bamboo salt by packing salt into a bamboo tube, and baking the tube in an oven multiple times. 

Bamboo salt baking

So that is the salt part. But how do we go from salt to toothpaste?

Before toothpaste became common in Korea, Koreans used to brush teeth with either salt or salt water. This worked just fine, as salt is a natural disinfectant. (In fact, brushing with salt may promote gum health.) When TK was younger, public baths in Korea would commonly place a large bowl salt, as older folks preferred using salt to brush their teeth.

Seizing upon this opportunity, Korea's toothpaste makers came up with various types of toothpaste based on bamboo salt. Although Koreans were certainly transitioning to toothpastes, the idea of brushing teeth with salt was still in people's mind. And not just any salt--salt baked nine times in a bamboo tube! Sure it had to be healthier, right?

Advertisement for a bamboo salt toothpaste

Makers of the bamboo salt toothpaste love claiming that their product prevents gum disease, and is a healthier alternative to other toothpaste. But much to TKParents' dismay, TK is not a dentist, so he is in no position to say if the bamboo salt toothpaste is actually healthier. He did use this type of product for about a decade, with no result that was significantly more positive or more negative than the one you may expect from an ordinary toothpaste, so there is that.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! This year, TK is thankful for his first roasted turkey, a forward progress in his day job and his hobbies, renewed sense of faith, another year of wonderful marriage and another year of loyal readers for the AAK!

Meet Joseph Gobbles, TK's first attempt at roasted turkey. Joseph was delicious.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ask a Korean! News: Assassination Attempt on Kim Jong-un, reported by Joo Seong-Ha

[Cross-posted on Sino-NK]

Mr. Joo Seong-ha deserves to be a personal UNESCO heritage site. The journalist has the most incredible life story: he was a professor at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea, Then, realizing the tyranny of the North Korean regime, he escaped to China--and was captured, sent back to North Korea and survived the prison camp. On his second try, he succeeded in escaping North Korea for good and seeking asylum in South Korea. Now, as a reporter for one of the most prominent newspapers in South Korea, Joo utilizes his elite North Korea connection to give reports on the country like no one else can. TK has long been a fan of Mr. Joo: a complete list of Joo's articles, translated by TK, is available here.

Recently, Joo broke a story that was never known outside of a handful of North Korean elites: two years ago, there was an attempt at Kim Jong-un's life. Below is the story.

*               *              *

Two years ago, on November 3, 2012, there was an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. That day, Kim was scheduled to visit Munsu Street in Pyongyang. There, he was set to go to Ryugyeongwon, a health club; People’s Outdoor Skating Rink; and a rollerskating rink. These facilities were only several tens of meters away from one another, with a street in between them.

On the morning of that day, a loaded machine gun was discovered cleverly hidden under a low-growing juniper tree near Ryugyeongwon. The gun was immediately reported to the Ministry of State Security. It was clearly an attempt on Kim Jong-un’s life. The assassins were apparently aiming for Kim Jong-un’s visit to the area. Even so, Kim Jong-un summoned enough courage to visit as scheduled.

The North Korean regime never found who was responsible. But the predominant speculation is that a high-ranking person must have been behind it. Kim Jong-un’s line of movement is top secret, with few knowing where he is planned to be. Also, it had to be someone who could smuggle a machine gun in from abroad, as firearms are strictly controlled in North Korea.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Shin Hae-cheol's Quotes

Shin Hae-cheol was perhaps the freest talker in all of K-pop history. His fame was built on his ability to speak critically and incisively, as much as it was built on his innovative music. Here is a selection of his quotes that showed the manner of Shin Hae-cheol's speech.
  • "The world will self-destruct if young people were never negative or cynical. The world needs the younger generation to look down on the older generation."

  • "It's easy to think that achieving your dreams is the be-all, end-all. But I hope everyone remembers that there are things that you must not lose in the course of achieving your dreams, that the dreams do not necessarily lead to happiness. God does not care what dream you achieve; but he does enormously care whether you are happy."

  • "I think talking about the society or the politics is all part of music. When you start thinking that politics and society have nothing to do with music, that's when music starts getting strange."

  • "Some of the music by Rain and DBSK received a rating that says it is harmful for the youth. But right now, what's happening at the National Assembly is hardly instructive for the youth. The National Assembly should be designated as a harmful location for the youth; it should be rated R, and should not be shown on television, including the news, to protect the children."

  • (To his wife) "Before I was married, I had such strong suicidal tendencies that I received therapy for it. Since we had children, I was naturally cured because I was so happy. Even in the next life, I want to be your husband. In the next life, let me be your son, your mother, your brother, your dog--anything to keep us tied."

  • "We should not take revenge. We may not be able to forgive. In between those two, we can reconcile."

  • "Not being embarrassed that you're worried, taking anxiety as a natural part of life--that, I think, is the first step toward resolving that anxiety. It's not as if your life gets truly better if that anxiety goes away.  . . .  But the worst thing is to lie to yourself, that you're not worried."

  • "There is a lot of criticism toward the young generation, about how they are not willing to work hard. But there is a difference between working in a situation in which one can dream, and working in a situation in which one cannot see anything. Labor without future is not the answer. The young people are standing in darkness; they cannot tell if a cliff is just a foot away. It's not the case that they do not move because they are too tired; they cannot move because they cannot see ahead."
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Shin Hae-cheol, the K-Pop Icon

Fate can be cruelly ironic. Only a few days after TK covered him in this space, with hopes to cover him more going forward, Shin Hae-cheol passed away from cardiac arrest on October 27, 2014. He was only 46 years old.

As TK explained previously, Shin is K-pop’s greatest rock icon of the 1990s. Through his outspoken activism and direct communication with his loyal listeners, his influence extended well into the 2000s, and well beyond the consumers of pop culture. No one in the history of K-pop left a footprint quite like Shin’s. Though his life was tragically cut short, it deserves to be known to a wider audience who appreciates K-pop, and wishes to understand where it came from, where it has been.

*                *                *

K-pop nearly died in 1975. The Park Chung-hee dictatorship saw pop culture, especially rock music, as a threat to public order and ultimately its regime. When Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], the greatest rocker of the time, refused to write a song praising the dictatorship, the government banned his music and arrested him on trumped-up drug charges. Numerous K-pop artists met the same fate.

Korean pop music, which stood near the forefront of global pop music trends in the 1970s, took a massive step back. Only the inoffensive, melodramatic soft rock could survive for the next decade, as the next dictator Chun Doo-hwan--whose rule ended in 1987--was hardly a fan of rock music either.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that an upstart band, calling themselves the Infinite Track [무한궤도], came onto the stage as the last contestant of the MBC College Pop Music Festival in 1988, a year after Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship was toppled. The College Festival, which began in 1977, became the new path to stardom after the dictatorship decimated the existing pop music scene. But for a long time, the college bands that performed on the Festival mimicked the larger trend. Their music was soft and meek, tear-jerking without being daring.

That is, until the Infinite Track took the stage. The Infinite Track seemed to be an unlikely band to challenge the status quo--its members were the classic definition of elites, as they were students of Seoul National, Yonsei and Sogang. When the baby-faced lead singer and guitarist Shin Hae-cheol gave the pre-performance interview, few expected what was coming next.

Then the song began, with blaring fanfare. A rush of synthesizer followed. The drums crashed harder than they did all night. The lights of the freshly constructed Olympic stadium--which just finished serving its purpose in the Seoul Olympics--blinkered wildly to the beat. The song, called To You [그대에게], instantly owned the crowd. (It would continue to own the crowd for the next thirty years, as it is one of the favorite songs for Korea’s cheering sports fans today.) When the Infinite Track finished performing, there was no doubt about who won the 1988 College Pop Music Festival.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

History Behind Seo Taiji's Sogyeokdong

[Cross-posted on Dramabeans]

Dear Korean,

Recently, Seo Taiji released a song called Sogyeokdong. From the music video and my limited Korean skills, I gathered that Sogyeodong must be a historical place. What exactly transpired there and what is the significance of the setting for Seo Taiji's music video? 

Curious person with poor Korean skills :(

Here is a simple rule for AAK!:  if you ask something about the new Seo Taiji song, your question will be published. First, let's listen to the music in question.


나 그대와 둘이 걷던 그 좁은 골목계단을 홀로 걸어요
I walk alone, on that narrow alley stairs that the two of us used to walk
그 옛날의 짙은 향기가 내 옆을 스치죠
The thick scent of the past sweeps by me

널 떠나는 날 사실 난...
On the way I left, actually I...

등 밑 처마 고드름과 참새소리 예쁜 이 마을에 살 거예요
I will live in this pretty village, with icicles on the roof and sparrows chirping
소격동을 기억하나요 지금도 그대로 있죠
Do you remember Sogyeokdong? It still remains the same

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

어느 날 갑자기 그 많던 냇물이 말라갔죠
The stream that used to be so big suddenly dried up
내 어린 마음도 그 시냇물처럼 그렇게 말랐겠죠
My young heart, like that stream, must have dried up too

너의 모든 걸 두 눈에 담고 있었죠
In my two eyes, I carried everything about you
소소한 하루가 넉넉했던 날
The days when the small days were more than enough
그러던 어느 날 세상이 뒤집혔죠
Then one day, the world turned upside down
다들 꼭 잡아요 잠깐 사이에 사라지죠
Everyone hold on tight; it all disappears in a moment

잊고 싶진 않아요 하지만 나에겐
I do not want to forget; but to me
사진 한 장도 남아있지가 않죠
Not even a single photo remained
그저 되뇌면서 되뇌면서 나 그저 애를 쓸 뿐이죠
I can simply try, repeating to myself, repeating to myself

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

*Translation note:  Although TK assigned "it all" and "we" as subjects in this sentence, in the original Korean lyrics it is unclear who is opening his/her eyes, and exactly what is disappearing. Because Korean language does not require a subject in a sentence, this type of poetic ambiguity is common.

*                   *                   *

As the questioner gleaned, Sogyeokdong [소격동, pronounced "soh-kyok-dong"] is an actual place in Seoul. Located within Jongno-gu [종로구], it is in the heart of the old Seoul, abutting the Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] palace on the east side. Together with Samcheong-dong [삼청동], Gahoe-dong [가회동], Jae-dong [재동], Gye-dong [계동], etc., it is a part of the neighborhood called Bukchon [북촌]. Because of its quaint narrow alleyways and well-preserved traditional Korean houses, Bukchon today is a popular tourist destination. 

Due to its central location, Sogyeokdong has been at the forefront of Korea's turbulent modern history. However, Seo Taiji did not choose to sing about Sogyeokdong simply for the sake of history. He actually grew up in the neighborhood, having attended the nearby Jaedong Elementary School (which is Korea's oldest elementary school, established in 1895.) In an interview, Seo said that he simply wanted to sing about his childhood, but doing so would have been impossible without touching upon the history he had seen. The result, in TK's estimation, is a more elegant expression of the sinister sense of fear and loss that permeated the experience of Korean children at the time.

Seo Taiji was born in 1972, which means he experienced his Sogyeokdong childhood in the early to mid-1980s. What was going on in Korea in the 1980s?

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Korea's Labor Productivity, and How to Interpret Data About Korea

An article titled Seven Reasons Why Korea Has the Worst Productivity in the OECD, from March 2014, has been recently making rounds in TK's Facebook feed again. It was a dumb article at the time of the publication, and it remains dumb today. Regardless, the article continues to receive approving reactions--which merits pointing out exactly what is dumb about this article.

First, the article itself. The author Michael Kocken, writing for Business Korea magazine, begins with this:
Korea was recently named the worst place for worker productivity in the OECD, which was featured in a recent article by this magazine. This news is not surprising for any professional previously or currently working in Korea, as the notorious overtime hours coupled with years of low growth have been a widely-discussed issue over the past few years.
Then the article makes the familiar, banal complaints about Korea's corporate culture:  Korea's corporate structure is too rigid and hierarchical; there is no honest and direct communication; worker distraction from the Internet and smartphones; hungover workers, valuing form over substance, new workers who are poorly equipped, and the need to put in useless "face time."

Typical office scene in Korea. Is this the home of low productivity?

What's dumb about this article?

First, the article's starting premise is flatly untrue. Korea's labor productivity was not the worst in the OECD. Korea's labor productivity per worker in 2012 (which was the most recent data available as of the article's writing) was at 23rd place among the 34 OECD member states. Sure, 23 out of 34 is still in the lower range. But it is a far cry from being at the worst place.

But let's be generous and make an ample allowance between the bottom third and the rock bottom. After all, it would be good for Korea to aspire to be on the above-average side of the OECD. However, even this allowance cannot save this article. The main problem with the article is that the author does not seem to understand what "labor productivity" means. This is apparent from the second sentence of the article's opening paragraph, which refers to Korea's long overtime hours. Even setting aside the factual inaccuracy that TK noted earlier, this is a strange statement.

Why is it strange? Because OECD measures labor productivity by, essentially, dividing "output" by number of hours worked. (The precise methodology is somewhat more complicated, especially on how one defines "output." If you are interested in the actual methodology, you can find it here.) This necessarily means that the longer one works, the lower the labor productivity, because if you increase the denominator while holding the numerator at the same level, the result is always a smaller number. In other words, Korea's labor productivity is low because of long overtime hours, not despite the overtime, as Kocken appears to imply.

This leads us to the most important lesson:  what OECD means by "labor productivity" is not what an ordinary person would think. When OECD states Korea has low labor productivity, the word "productivity" is not being used in the same manner in which regular people talk about being "productive at work." But the latter is exactly how the author Michael Kocken uses the term "productivity." Then the article simply runs with the incorrect understanding of the term, and make the trite, stereotypical complaints about Korea's corporate culture.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Korea and the Great War

Dear Korean,

Since the centennial anniversary of the First World War (1914-2014) is upon us, it would be worthwhile to ask: (1) How did the First World War affect Korea? (2) Is the "War to End All Wars" studied in any detail by Korean students today?


For the centennial anniversary of World War I, TK recommends everyone to visit Kansas City, Missouri, a deeply underrated city in his opinion. There, after having some of the world's finest barbecue, visit the National World War I Museum, which houses a relatively small but all-around-awesome collection related to the Great War. Fans of history and military equipment can easily spend an entire day there. TK had a wonderful time visiting.

National World War I Museum at Kansas City

But enough gratuitous plugging. How did the First World War affect Korea? Short answer:  it didn't. Speaking of World War I is a bit like speaking of the World Series--we all know what the terms are trying to say, but they do not really mean what they say. The supposed "World" War barely grazed East Asia. Sure, Australia and New Zealand engaged in some land battles in the then-German Samoa, and the Japanese laid siege to the German base in Tsingtao, China. (Fortunately, the Germans stuck around just long enough to teach the locals how to make proper beer.) But in East Asia, World War I was never an all-out war that affected the daily lives of most people. This was true in Korea as well.

The aftermath of World War I, however, did play a significant role in Korea. On January 8,1918, toward the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson gave the famous Fourteen Points speech, in which he advocated for (among other things) national self-determination, i.e. the right of the colonized people to free themselves from imperialism and form their own national government. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, October 06, 2014

50 Most Influential K-pop Artists: 9. Shin Hae-cheol

[Series Index]

9. Shin Hae-cheol [신해철]

Also known as:  Shin Hae-chul; Crom

Years of Activity: 1989-present 


As vocal/keyboard of Muhan'gwedo [무한궤도]
When Our Lives Come to End [우리의 삶이 끝나갈 때] (1989)

As a solo artist
Shin Hae-cheol [신해철 1집] (1990)
Myself (1991)
Crom's Techno Works (1998)
Monocrom (1999)
The Songs for the One (2007)
Reboot Myself Part 1 (2014)

As vocal/keyboard of N.Ex.T
Home (1992)
The Return of N.Ex.T Part 1: The Being (1994)
The Return of N.Ex.T Part 2 (1996)
Lazenca: a Space Rock Opera (1997)
The Return of N.Ex. T Part III (2004)
Re:Game (2006)
666 Trilogy Part 1 (2008)

As a member of NoDance
Golden Hits (1996)

As a member of Wittgenstein
Theatre Wittgenstein (2000)

Representative Song:  To You [그대에게] from When Our Lives Come to End

To You

숨가쁘게 살아가는 순간 속에도
Even in the hectic living moments
우린 서로 이렇게 아쉬워하는 걸
We still want each other more
아직 내게 남아있는 많은 날들을
The many days that I still have left
그대와 둘이서 나누고 싶어요
I wish to share them with you

내가 사랑한 그 모든 것을 다 잃는다 해도
Even if I lose everything I have loved
그대를 포기할 수 없어요
I cannot let you go
이 세상 어느 곳에서도
No matter where in the world
나는 그대 숨결을 느낄 수 있어요
I can feel your breath
내 삶이 끝나는 날까지
Until the day my life ends
나는 언제나 그대 곁에 있겠어요
I will always be by your side

Translation notes:  "숨가쁘게 살아가는 순간" is weirdly difficult.

In 15 words or less:  The most significant Korean rock musician of the 1990s.

Maybe he should should be ranked higher because...  Both in terms of music and in terms of social participation, how many K-pop artists tried more different things than Shin did?

Maybe he should be ranked lower because...  How much direct influence did Shin have? How much in the current K-pop scene can be definitively traced back to Shin Hae-cheol, like the way in which one can definitively trace Korean hip hop back to Drunken Tiger?

Why is this artist important?
As we climb higher into the rarefied heights of Korean pop music history, a concise statement of an artist's importance is approaching ever closer to impossible. One could easily write a book about Shin Hae-cheol's career; unfortunately, we can only spare a few paragraphs here.

From the beginning, Shin Hae-cheol's musical career portended a daring, experimental musical vision. Shin debuted with his band Muhan'gwedo ("Infinite Track") on the Campus Song Festival, the scene-defining audition show at the time. The crackdown from Korea's dictatorship (which ended only a year before Shin Hae-cheol's debut) has neutered K-pop, making the saccharine and brain-dead soft rock (locally referred to as "ballads") the mainstream genre. But Muhan'gwedo would have none of it. Reversing the conventional pop progression that gradually built up to a climax, To You opens with a dramatic, synthesizer-induced flair and rushes full speed toward the finish line.

Shin Hae-cheol then debuted as a solo artist, engaging in a brief (and embarrassing-in-hindsight) stint of idol pop at the insistence of his record company. Then Shin finally found his musical homeland by forming N.Ex.T. (pronounced "next",) the most significant Korean rock band of the 1990s. Looking at the current K-pop scene in which idol pop has overrun the market, it is difficult to believe that a rock band like N.Ex.T. used to top the K-pop charts. But it is true. Led by Shin Hae-cheol, N.Ex.T stood firm on the foundation of progressive rock yet struck in all directions: heavy metal, thrash rock, electronica and Korean traditional music. Shin also put project albums as an individual (taking on a separate stage name of "Crom",) trying ever more daring sound and demanding the audience to simply get used to it.

But Shin Hae-cheol's musical achievement is only half of his story, as Shin is arguably one of the most socially active pop musician in K-pop history. Perhaps betraying his elite education (Shin attended Sogang University, one of Korea's top five colleges,) Shin maintained a sharp tongue that relentlessly criticized the Korean society's irrationality and hypocrisy as a proper rocker should. Shin Hae-cheol led the charge in the movement to repeal the Korean law that prohibited two people with the same last name from getting married. Shin was also the leader of the now-infamous concert in 2002, in which Psy (of the Gangnam Style fame) performed an anti-American rap number, to express his anger at the death of two young Korean girls who were run over and killed by an USFK armored car.

The best pop artists do not simply influence the artists who come after them; they change the society around them. By that measure, Shin Hae-cheol is about as influential as any in K-pop history.

Interesting trivia:  Shin Hae-cheol is often mistaken as being related to the legendary Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], as the name of Shin Jung-hyeon's oldest son is Shin Dae-cheol, leader of the influential heavy metal band Sinawi. Shin Hae-cheol, however, bears no relation to Shin Jung-hyeon. Shin Hae-cheol is, however, a blood relative to a different K-pop legend: Shin is the second cousin of Seo Taiji. Reportedly, the two are close, often seen together fishing or skiing.

Further Listening:  A.D.D.a. from Reboot Myself Part 1, song recorded entirely as a one-man a capella.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Law and Economics of Korean Street Food

Dear Korean,

I am living in the southern part of South Korea. One of the things I love about Korea is the street vendors selling food. Do these street vendors get a license or do they just set up shop? Also the 'shops' tend to close in the summer. For instance, I love 붕어빵, but they only sell during the winter. Why? Meanwhile in Seoul the street meat people are out all year long, usually at night. Why do they wait to set up at night? Why isn't street meat seasonal?


Long before the American hipsters turned the food truck into a fad, Asians have figured out the romance associated with eating on a mobile platform.

Typical street cart food setup in Korea.

But behind the delicious, delicious hunger-inducing facade, the legality and economics of street vendors in Korea are pretty complex. Conclusion first: technically, one must obtain a license--which comes with regular health inspections--to open up a street cart. But it is fair to say that the law is observed only in select parts of Korean cities. Street carts in areas with huge foot traffic, and those that sell alcohol tend to invite more scrutiny, because of the various potential public hazard (mass-scale food poisoning, drunken brawls) they pose. In areas with regulation, the street cart owners often form an association to conduct their businesses in an orderly manner. There is even a secondary market in which the license-holders buy and sell the government licenses.

Outside of those areas, however, anything goes. This is directly related to the character of street vending as a business. Street vending has very low entry barrier. At the lowest possible end, one only needs a floor mat and some home-made gimbab [김밥] to be a street vendor. Even a more sophisticated street food vendor rarely requires more than a truck carrying a makeshift kitchen which, in the grand scheme of business, is not a huge capital investment. In fact, there are many businesses that rent out the street-vending equipment, and provide the mass-produced, half-cooked food that the street vendors only have to heat up and serve. (Oh come on, don't act all surprised.) This serves to further lower the entry barrier into the street-vending business by lowering the cost, and by eliminating the need to learn whatever technical expertise necessary to cook up the food.

Because the entry barrier is low, street vending is an attractive option for numerous Koreans, many of whom are economically down-and-out. This makes the government reluctant to crack down on them very strongly. The local government will act if a street vendor creates any issue that causes complaints from the residents. But most vendors are wise enough to fly under the radar, and the locals are generally happy to pick up some 붕어빵--a fish-shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling--on the way home from work. (In fact, the people who file the most complaints against street vendors are other street vendors, who frequently use government regulation as another weapon in turf war.)

Why are some types of street food seasonal, and others available year-around? Much of it has to do with the fluctuating demand. The demand for chicken on a stick, for example, remains the same year-around. But certain types of street food--like 붕어빵, roasted chestnuts, roasted sweet potatoes--are strongly associated with autumn and winter. Because there is more demand for such food during a limited time frame, many street vendors jump into selling these cold-weather snacks to make a quick profit, and exit the business when the weather warms up.

A world with little to no regulation, in which entrepreneurs freely enter and exit to precisely meet the dynamic demand of the market? Maybe Korean street cart market is the dream of the laissez-faire capitalist.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Divided Sports Loyalty?

Dear Korean,

I am Chinese American, immigrated at 4 years old. I identify very much as an American and while I want China to do well in competition, I will generally root for the USA over China head to head. A Korean American friend of mine shared this article, which I thought was very interesting. It advocates that Korean immigrants, as immigrants and people assimilating into American culture, have an obligation to not root against their new home country. What do you think?

John L.

Given the recent duel between Team Seoul and Team Chicago in the Little League Word Series, TK figured this would be a good topic to address. As immigrants, where should our sports loyalty lie?

Give it up for the good-lookin' World Champions.
The article that John L. shared outlines a common perspective. An excerpt:
When we as Korean Americans don Korea shirts and wave Korean flags during Korea-USA games, we are not choosing a team, we are choosing a nation. We are very deliberately and purposely choosing to support a foreign nation against the one we call our home and protector. It’s true that issues of identity are more complex – many of us feel just as much at home in Seoul as we do in San Diego or Daegu as in Dallas, but there are times when we cannot conveniently declare that we are “citizens of the world”, or “both Korean and American.” There are hard choices to be made.

It is ironic and inconsistent for us to complain of being seen as “perpetual foreigners” and having to struggle to be accepted as Americans, and then turn and root against America when the choice comes. And we cannot be truthful to ourselves and say that Korea’s games against the US are only sport when we consider Korea’s games against Japan as so much more. Culture plays an enormous role in setting the framework for people’s understanding of the world around them.

During World War II Asian Americans proudly and publicly made efforts to support America, despite the outrageous Executive Order 9066. Many, facing discrimination, wore buttons that read: “I am an American.” Still others, like Colonel Young Oak Kim, wore America’s uniform and served abroad. The Asian American 442nd Infantry continues to be the most highly-decorated military unit in the history of the American armed forces.
Undoubtedly, many people take this view, as many people take sports quite seriously--as does TK. So what does he think about this case of "divided loyalty"?

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakroean@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

50 Most Influential K-pop Artists: 10. Drunken Tiger

[Series Index]

We are finally in the top ten countdown! Because the top ten musicians usually show a huge spectrum of music that is not sufficiently covered by a single "representative song," TK added a "Further Listening" section at the bottom to give additional examples of the artist's work.

10. Drunken Tiger

Years of Activity: 1999-present 

Tiger JK - rap (1999-present)
DJ Shine - rap (1999-2004)
Roscoe Umali - rap (2000-2003)
Micki Eyez - rap (2000-2003)
DJ James Jhig - rap (2000-2003)

Year of the Tiger (1999)
The Great Birth [위대한 탄생] (2000)
The Legend of (2001)
Roots [뿌리] (2003)
One is not a Lonely Word (2004)
1945 Liberation [1945 해방] (2005)
Sky is the Limit (2007)
Feel Ghood Muzik (2009)
Let's Live (The Cure) [살자 (The Cure)] (2013)

Representative Song:  You Think You Know Hip Hop? [너희가 힙합을 아느냐] from Year of the Tiger

(Note:  Lines in blue is in English in the original song.)

너희가 힙합을 아느냐
You Think You Know Hip Hop?

음악 같지 않은 음악을 이젠 모두 다 집어치워 버려야해
Music that is not worth being called "music" has to be all scrapped
우리가 너희들 모두의 귀를 확실하게 바꿔줄께 기다려
We will change all of your ears, just wait

하하 참으로 놀라와 진짜인 우리가 돌아와
Ha ha, truly a surprise, we are real and we have returned
조금씩 너희가 있는 곳에 서서히 올라가
Little by little, we will slowly climb up to where you are
거기 가짜 거기 있어봤자
You there, posers, no point standing there
진짜를 보여줄께 우리가 거기 닿자마자
We will show you what's real as soon as we get there
세상 이상 너무나도 괴상
World is strange, so very weird
너희가 최고라니 그건 너무 환상
You're supposed to be the best? That's too much of a fantasy
우리는 타이거 또한 차원의 차이가 너무 나는 바로 우린
We are Tiger; we are in a different dimension, we are
What! 드렁큰 타이거
What! Drunken Tiger

내 마음에 가득 차있는 나만의 슬픔
The sorrow that completely fills my heart
두 뺨에 타고 흐르는 내 눈물의 의미 너는 알고 있니
Do you know the meaning of my tears, streaming down my cheeks
그렇게 그렇게 힘들고 지쳐 외로워도
Although I'm tired, exhausted and lonely
너희들을 위해 진정한 힙합을 위한 너희들을 위해
For you, for you who stand for true hip hop
나는 꿋꿋이 버텨나가 그렇게 이겨나가
I stand tall, that's how I persevere
한 발 한 발 조금 더 용기를 내 영원한 힙합을 위해서
Step after step, summon a bit more courage for my eternal hip hop
나는 DJ Shine, 영원한 시인 (Number 1 Korean)
I am DJ Shine, the eternal poet (Number 1 Korean)

눈을 감아 들어봐 온몸으로 느껴진 전율
Close your eyes and listen; the chills that travel down your whole body
주는대로 받아 먹는 건 이쯤에서 그만두어야 해
Time to stop feeding off of what is given to you

You and you W-A-C-K who? 
You and you W-A-C-K who?
You and you W-A-C-K who?
Come back home, see me tapping your boo 

하나 같이 꼭두각시
Everyone is a puppet
모두 같은 줄에 매달려서 춤을 추는 슬픈 삐에로
A sad marionette that dances, all hanging on the same strings
이대로 그냥 갈순 없어 슬픈 미래로
We can't just keep marching into this pathetic future
술 취한 호랑이 두 마리 We be coming from ghetto
Two drunken tigers, We be coming from ghetto
진실만 말하는 거리의 시인들
Poets of the streets who only speak the truth
하지만 너의 편견에 빠진 우리 아이들
But our children who is trapped in your bias
인생의 아픔 기쁨 모두 다 들어봐야 해
We gotta listen to all the life's pain and joy
가식으로 엉킨 세상 풀어줘야 해
We gotta untangle the word twisted with hypocrisy

나는 랩퍼 랩퍼
I'm a rapper, rapper
내가 지금까지 살아오고 살아왔던 얘기들을
The stories of how I have lived and lived until now
나는 랩으로 너희들에게 얘기하려 해
I wish to tell you with this rap
이젠 날 지켜주는 건 진정한 힙합의 무대
Now what protects me is the stage of true hip hop
그리고 언제나 밝은 웃음으로 날 반겨주는 사람과 사람들
And the people and the people who always greet me with bright smiles
이제부터 마이크로폰에 나의 영혼을 나의 열정을 남김없이 쏟으리
Now I will give all my soul and passion into the microphone
그리고 진정한 랩퍼가 되리
And I will be a true rapper

Put your hands up 
Put your hands up
All the players in the house put your hands up 
Put your hands up 
Put your hands up
All my Crown-sipping niggas put your hands up
Intoxicated Tiger dropping topics
Hypnotize in illogical melodic sonic, boom up your optic 
Sippin' gin without a tonic, under the disco light I rocked it
Why? It ain't no optical illusion, it's only logic

갑자기 나타나 반짝하고 빛나다가 사라져 버리는 그런 이들과 비교하지마
Don't compare us with some shiny flash that suddenly appears then disappears
우리에게 와 내 앞으로 와
Come to us, get in front of us
힙합을 사랑한다면 다같이 취해봐
If you love hip hop, let's all get drunk

눈을 감아 들어봐 온몸으로 느껴진 전율
Close your eyes and listen; the chills that travel down your whole body
주는대로 받아 먹는 건 이쯤에서 그만두어야 해
Time to stop feeding off of what is given to you
음악 같지 않은 음악을 이젠 모두 다 집어치워 버려야해
Music that is not worth being called "music" has to be all scrapped
우리가 너희들 모두의 귀를 확실하게 바꿔줄께 기다려
We will change all of your ears, just wait

In 15 words or less:  Undisputed king Korean hip hop (they still call him Tiger you fucking haterz)

Maybe they should should be ranked higher because...  Made hip hop a mainstream genre. What more is necessary?

Maybe they should be ranked lower because...  At the end of the day, how big is hip hop (in its purest form) in Korea?

Why is this artist important?
Development of Korean hip hop is a fascinating story that deserves a closer chronicling. It is a modern case study of how an utterly foreign musical genre spread, took root, and eventually integrated itself into an essential part of the local pop music scene. This process, of course, did not happen by itself. Korean hip hop can be considered a forest, with many a skilled hand that planted, tended and lovingly nurtured each tree. And the credit to the tallest, most majestic tree goes to Tiger JK and Drunken Tiger.

The history of hip hop in Korea arguably dates back to 1989, when a mid-major singer named Hong Seo-beom [홍서범] included a rap track in his album. However, it would take a decade before Korean pop musicians to produce any music that the international audience would recognize as hip hop. The hip hop-esque music from the transitional period of 1990s is sometimes referred to as "rap dance," a genre that is still alive and well in Korea. "Rap dance" is chiefly a dance number, of which varying portions are dedicated to rapping. (This format can easily be seen in the contemporary K-pop idol music.) Although rap dance did much to introduce the Korean audience to hip hop, it still had some distance from hiphop proper, characterized by the rhyme and flow of mostly spoken words over rhythmic beats.

Drunken Tiger was the group that bridged that gap. Tiger JK grew up in Miami and Los Angeles; DJ Shine, New York and Los Angeles. Having cut their musical teeth during the hip hop's "golden age," the two Korean American youngsters were eager to flash their authenticity in the music scene that, in their view, peddled dance music with a false label of hip hop. The provocative title song said it all: "You Think You Know Hip Hop" [너희가 힙합을 아느냐].

Sure, the early attempts were often cringe-inducing in their cheesiness. Drunken Tiger's early emulation of American black culture frequently fell flat. It would take years, and many interceding talents such as Verbal Jint and Leessang, for Korean hip hop to completely overcome the language barrier and create a rhyme and flow in the Korean language--a critical development that finally allowed Korean hip hop to convey a new level of authentic emotion. 

But why does any of that matter? For a very long time, Drunken Tiger was the only K-pop hip hop artist who refused to compromise, releasing album after album filled only with rap rather than taking the easy path of rap dance. It is an overstatement to say that Drunken Tiger single-handedly made hip hop mainstream in Korea. But they did raise a forest from what seemed to be a hostile, infertile land--a feat that required no less fearlessness than any of their American counterparts.

Interesting trivia:  Tiger JK comes from a storied musical heritage. Tiger JK's father Seo Byeong-hu [서병후] is considered Korea's first pop music critic. The elder Seo founded Pops Koreana, Korea's first pop music magazine. He was also the Korea correspondent for the Billboard magazine. Tiger JK's mother Kim Seong-ae [김성애] was a leader of a band called the Wild Cats. Tiger JK then married Yoon Mirae [윤미래], the best female rapper in Korea's rap scene.

Further Listening:  Observe Drunken Tiger's evolution into incorporating parallel rhyming with both Korean and English by listening to Die Legend 2, from Feel Ghood Muzik.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

What Makes a Good Korean Restaurant?

TK has been on a vacation for the last week, during which TK and TKWife made a giant circle driving around Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and visited numerous national parks. Overall, it was an amazing experience. What was not amazing, however, was the one Korean restaurant that TKCouple visited, which inspired this Facebook update:
New blog concept: You tell me your favorite Korean restaurant in your town, and I will visit, eat, and tell you everything that's wrong with the food served there.
Inspired by a crappy Korean restaurant in middle America that I'm sitting in. Its walls are covered with awards from local papers, which makes me want to disband those papers.
As TK said in a comment to the update, he won't actually do this. He is a lover, not a fighter, and he certainly knows better than to mess with people's livelihood. However, there is still a teachable moment here. Many people--including many Koreans!--do not really know what separates good Korean restaurants from bad ones. These people simply do not have enough experience to form a frame of reference as to what elements good Korean restaurants have.

Don't just criticize; show the alternative. So TK will give the alternative. Here is a list of things that you should look for in a Korean restaurant in order to tell if it is a good one.

Geographic Location

In U.S.:  Let's be straight. Korean food is not yet at the place where, say, sushi is--that is to say, Korean food is not yet mainstream enough for one to expect a dependable taste for it, outside of the people who grew up eating it constantly. This necessarily means the ceiling for the quality of Korean food sold in areas sparsely populated by Koreans will be rather low. In the U.S., Koreans mostly live in Southern California, New York/North New Jersey and D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia. (The next tier of Korean American population centers are Northern California, Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle, but the drop-off is significant after the top three.) The quality of Korean food tends to track that order.

In Korea:  Korea is surrounded by seas on three sides, with each side producing different types of fish. Korea's terrain also ranges from mountains to fertile and flat fields, each yielding different types of crops. In short, Korean food is highly diverse based on geography. Because everything in Korea tends to eventually flow to Seoul, the restaurants in Seoul tend to maintain a certain level of quality. But for the real deal, look for the restaurants that sell the food that is made from the local ingredients.

Freshly made soft tofu from Sokcho. This ended up in TK's stomach within minutes.

For example, tofu requires sea water to make. (Bet you did not know that.) Thus, the best tofu comes from Korea's eastern seaboard, in which soy beans grow and the sea water is readily available. Port cities, obviously, are the best places to have fish and seafood. Jeju Island is not only known for its seafood, but also for pork from its native black pigs. Since each locality in Korea loudly advertises its specialty food, it is hard to miss the local delicacy.

Two additional points: (1) in the City of Jeonju, every dish is good; (2) in Daegu, every dish is awful. Just trust me on this. Jeonju is the birthplace of bibimbap, one of the most iconic Korean dishes. In Daegu, locals say the best food available is McDonald's.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Eating on a Train

Dear Korean,

Why do Korean eat hard boiled eggs in trains? Every time I took a train with my Korean wife, she always says that we should eat hard boiled eggs. But why? What is it with trains and hard boiled eggs?

Damien G.

Boiled eggs on a train is a tradition of sorts. Korea operated its first train line in 1899, and train has been the dominant mode of long distance travel in Korea all the way until the late 1970s. Trains are extremely popular even today, as the high-speed KTX (traveling at 190 mph) covers Seoul-Busan under three hours. 

Riding a certain mode of transportation for a century would inevitably engender some associated habits. In case of a train, the habit is to have boiled eggs and a soda--either cola or lemon-lime (known in Korea as 사이다 [saida]). Why boiled eggs? Why not? Especially when one considers the early days of train travel, boiled eggs make perfect sense as a snack on a moving train. They are delicious, filling, portable and not overly odorous. Plus, eggs come in their own casing. They are a far sight better than those black protein blocks that certain other train passengers eat.

Re-enactment of a snack vendor on a steam engine train. Boiled eggs are wrapped in red mesh sacks.
Near Seomjin-gang River, a restored steam engine train running on old tracks,
with old school trappings, is now a tourist attraction.
To be sure, boiled eggs are hardly the only popular snacks on a train trip. Gimbab [김밥], a rice roll, is a perennial favorite picnic food and also very popular on a train.

There are other associations of travel and food. The rest stops on Korea's freeways tend to (but does not always) have a uniform look, and the menus tend to be standardized as well. The mainstays of freeway rest stops are udon noodles, "hot bar" (fried fish cake on a stick,) and the walnut cookies (a bite-sized, walnut shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling and bits of walnut.) The rest stops that travel eastward from Seoul to the mountainous Gangwon-do Province also tend to serve pan-fried fingerling potatoes, as Gangwon-do is known for its delicious, chewy potatoes.

When TK took his first long road trip in the U.S.--from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon--he was incredibly disappointed at the West Coast freeway rest stops, which are nothing more than a bathroom in the desert flanked by a few dingy vending machines. The East Coast rest stops are marginally better, but they don't serve udon noodles. Pity, because rest stop udon is fantastic.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.
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