Category Archives: Seoul

The Confusing Korean Left

Little Boy

These are crazy times. The left wing of Korea is now a proponent of the alt-right’s agenda, specifically with Trump meeting with Kim Jung Un. President Moon Jae-In, in his quest for warmer relations with North Korea have unnecessarily entangled himself with Trump and Kim Jung-Un meeting next week in a summit in Singapore. When it was first cancelled, the extreme right wing in the country was celebrating, calling it a failure of Moon Jae-In. But now that the meeting is back on, it seems that the left is celebrating it as a “win” regardless of the consequences and what the summit exactly means for North Korean propaganda. If you told me that the left wing of Korea would push for a meeting between Trump and Kim Jung-Un two years ago, I would’ve called you insane.

Now I’m not necessarily against western leaders meeting with North Korea. What I am is extremely cynical of these things. First off, Trump agreed to a meeting without even having any concessions. They demanded total abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but there seems to be a disagreement whether North Korea agreed to this. And even if they did, it is very unlikely they would follow through with this, especially with Kim Jung-Un fearing Colonel Gaddafi’s fate after abandoning his nuclear programs.

Second, the Trump administration is not treating this very seriously. I really think they’re just pursuing this and hoping that they would somehow stumble into a peace agreement. Why do I say that? I say that because we’re weeks away from the summit, and we’ve yet to hear any realistic plan to slowly wean North Korea away from their current nuclear trajectory outside of Trump sounding like a genie, “you will be very happy, your people will be very happy, your country will be rich!” And I get very suspicious when clowns start popping in for the summit. There’s word that Dennis Rodman, Sean Hannity, and Sebastian Gorka (a Hungarian Nazi) will be covering the summit for Trump. It’s a damned photo op for conservative “win.”

And again, all of this while Trump makes trade wars with Canada, Mexico, and the EU (and Nikki Haley embarrasses herself in front of the UN).

I like President Moon Jae-In, I really do, but I think he’s got himself caught in a trap. Friendliness with North Korea doesn’t mean the South has to be a wingman for relations with the United States, not at this early stage anyway. It wasn’t too long ago when the North wasn’t too cool with the South. Now he is wedded to the political whims of Donald Trump and Kim Jung-Un. Should either man do anything to mess up the summit or sour relations with each other, Moon Jae-In’s enemies would quickly jump on that and use it to attack him. The promise of warmer relations with North Korea is tenable. The promise of peace with North Korea, while ideal, seems unrealistic under current circumstances. And anything short of peace and total nuclear disarmament (something which Trump initially suggested the North agreed to), Moon Jae-In will be attacked for.

In any case, the left should really step back and see what exactly they are supporting here. They are supporting “wins” for two men who will cynically use the meeting for short term political gains and propaganda. The “wins” for both Trump and the North is simply the summit itself. Both men attend the meeting, they shake hands, take pictures. Done. Nobel Peace Prize for one of the worst US presidents in modern history. Any failing from the follow through could just be waved of as fake news. The “win” for the South would take far longer, and proving it to be a “win” would be more substantive. This is a strange and hard gamble for the left.

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Is that a YOLO?

Infant

I learned this week that partying with kids, while still doable and fun, can ultimately be uncomfortable and sometimes awkward. I’m at a point in my life now when I can finally “feel my age.”

My work got featured in the arts magazine Wake Up Screaming. Thanks to Matt Witt. The edition’s theme is “In My Town” and it features my move from Winnipeg to Seoul, and how my old Winnipeg no longer exists.

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Shaking Hands

Skull

Living in South Korea, I think it would be a bit odd if I didn’t comment about the historic event right now regarding North and South Korea. Honestly, I’m very optimistic about the first steps towards a friendlier relationship with North Korea; however, I really don’t know what that friendly relationship means for the country going forward. But whatever it is, it is still better than the North Korea a few months ago that was testing nuclear missiles and insulting its neighbors.

First off, I worry about John Bolton’s comment that they are going to use the Libya model to denuclearize North Korea. This model has been looked at negatively by the people in power in North Korea, especially since it eventually led to the ouster and death of Colonel Gaddafi. As friendly and as willing North Korea may seem to be with denuclearization now, I’m not sure how far those talks would go and what true denuclearization would lead to. Also, factory jobs and the military are the biggest way out of poverty for many North Koreans. If you don’t have a need for a military, you have millions of men potentially on a crisis to transition to other industries. North Korea needs to maintain a perpetual sense of threat in order to justify its bloated military. Also, without the west to fight against, why would North Koreans need Kim Jung Un to save and protect them? It’s a disconnect in the cult of the Kims’ dogma which I’m not sure if Kim Jung Un would survive politically.

So yeah, shake hands with Kim Jung Un, take photos, and make promises. But remember that the North also just decimated a mountain due to their nuclear tests and that Kim Jung Un has killed relatives in order to save his skin. Optimism with a grain of salt is in order.

A friendlier North Korea would do well for the South Korea. I don’t imagine open borders anytime soon, but as I mentioned in past posts, with South Korea relatively meager and stagnant GDP growth rate, a friendlier North could help companies in the South by opening its population to commerce. It would also ease tensions with China and prevent issues like the THAAD missile crisis from harming companies that do business in China and South Korea.

What annoys me, however, is the extremely partisan atmosphere in the country. Just last weekend, there were street protests from the hard right calling the president a traitor and accusing him of selling the country to North Korea. This is insanity. How does that even work? Last time I checked, South Korea is far richer than its northern neighbor. But the problem is the left can be just as toxic with their tribalism as well. I don’t lean on any Korean political parties nor do I subscribe to any particular Korean publication (which can be terribly partisan). I will read anything and I also read/listen to analysis from foreign publications and commentators.  But the minute I say anything negative or express a bit of concern regarding the current president’s actions, I get accused as being brainwashed by the right. And  sometimes this is my wife accusing me of partisanship!

What’s also annoying is Donald Trump taking credit for any headway into North Korea’s denuclearization. I could forgive him for taking some credit. Despite him name calling and trying to compare nuclear buttons with Kim Jung Un just a few months ago, he is still the leader of the United States and he did send Mike Pompeo to meet Kim Jung Un. I don’t know what they talked about and I suspect Trump only sent Pompeo to the North in order to boost his credibility as a Secretary of State nominee, but he still sent him there to presumably open a dialogue. But what’s annoying is Trump taking 100% of the credit to the current North and South Korean situation. What an annoying gnat! He just dismissed all the work of his allies in the South. What’s worse, I suspect if the talks don’t result in meaningful progress, he would gladly throw South Korea under the bus without even remembering President Moon Jae-In’s name.

As for President Moon Jae-In, he should really calm down with saying “Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” for his work in the inter-Korean talks. I know he’s just trying to be gracious, but Trump will take that graciousness and use it as a cudgel.

I wasn’t in the country during most of the Sunshine Policy of previous administrations, but this feels similar to that attempt to a more peaceful coexistence between the two countries. What’s mostly missing from that previous policy is the North acting in good faith. They were occasionally aggressive during the period and have failed to return much of the goodwill shown to them by the South. I certainly hope things will be better this time around. I personally don’t care so much about nuclear disarmament, especially since North Korea still has thousands of traditional weapons aimed and could destroy Seoul should it ever choose to (I live and work in one of the busiest parts of Seoul), but it would be a great first step at easing tensions in the region. However, I suspect that the song and dance following a true denuclearization, i.e. claims of not following agreements, accusations of hiding nuclear facilities, misleading inspectors, etc., would long be used by political actors to scare each other long after the last rocket has been decommissioned. I’m optimistic, but it will be a long time before people truly no longer see North Korea as a nuclear threat.

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On PTSD

Tentacular

I used to think Canada was better when it comes to mental health, but this report on CBC regarding Lionel Desmond has got me thinking twice. Back in Canada, it was not unusual to talk to a therapist about mental and psychological issues. People wouldn’t bat an eye if they heard that you used to go to a therapist for anxiety or depression, probably because they have firsthand or secondhand experience themselves. But now it seems we’re failing those who have sacrificed so much for what in my opinion are needless conflicts abroad.

I’ve seen people with PTSD before. I talked to soldiers here in South Korea who were suffering from it. I remember being particularly disturbed (and threatened) by one soldier’s behavior in a bar even after he was buying me shots of tequila. Then he tells me that two weeks prior, he was fighting in Afghanistan.  There was just an odd look in his eye. And I just have to let him tell his story, and take it to where it needs to be. (And me not come back to that bar for a while.)

We just have to start taking care of everyone more. We have to start listening to people when they tell us there’s something wrong, even when they’re soldiers who are supposed to be strong and tough. Boys do cry, and some damages you can’t just walk off.

Speaking of not paying attention to mental health issues, a few days ago, a celebrity in Korea committed suicide, and on his note, he mentioned the lack of care he received from mental health professionals in the country. I can relate to the experience. Twice, I found doctors who would just throw medication at me and not give me proper strategies to deal with my issues. I can imagine the same was true to him. It’s quite upsetting that there’s not much care in terms of mental issues in the country, especially with the country having the highest suicide rate in Asia.

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The Beauty of Studio Galleries

Moose_funny

My good friend, Jordan Miller, just aired her woes regarding running a studio gallery. I want to reply with my two cents.

First off, for the holidays, I doubt if many people buy art, especially in a city like Winnipeg in this economy. People do love looking at art… they love looking, but not just Winnipeg in particular, but the whole world in general. For someone to actually buy art, they often have to be invested in the piece or the artist already. That or they just have money to throw around at that moment. So yeah, either you have a fan or you’re lucky enough to come across someone truly compelled to buy your work.

And really this holiday, galleries and all other shops are competing against Amazon and Walmart when it comes to shopping for presents. When it comes to compelling imagery, they’re competing against the whole Internet and the world’s ADHD culture. It’s an uphill battle, and it’s a small miracle and badge on the artist every time someone buys art.

This is where I think a studio gallery has to utilize the artists it has. I think many new artists are under the assumption that once they’re in a gallery, it’s the gallery owner or curator’s responsibility to shepherd new audiences to them. To some extent, this is true. Being in a gallery brings about art enthusiasts as well as other gallery owners. But in a generally static market like Winnipeg, artists cannot expect their audience to grow if they keep on showing their stuff at the same studio gallery. To grow an audience, each artist in a collective should be introducing their friends to other artists in the collective, and thus, growing their community and their audiences. So let’s say there’s an open house, each artist in a studio gallery should at least try to invite friends to come over and see their works as well as the other artists’. “Studio artists tell me they want new people in, not just the people they know.” True. So each artist should bring the people they know and maybe they’ll buy their neighbor’s work and vice versa.

Another way to solve the “new people in, not just the people they know” dilemma is for gallery owners and artists to be sharing information regarding calls for submissions. I was once a part of an art collective in South Korea, and one thing I liked about the community is that people were sharing information and leads regarding opportunities. The organizer would encourage members to take part in shows. This encourages artists to be more productive and be part of the community. It also gives them more experience and hopefully leads them to a much better portfolio. Artists don’t have to be limited to their local community. It’s what the Internet is for. And with several eyeballs scouring the Internet for opportunities and sharing them, that should make the world of artists in a studio gallery a little bit bigger.

My friend mentioned that some artists make deals with buyers and sell work to them privately instead of going through the gallery and losing a commission. Now, there really is no way to work around this unless galleries start forcing artists to sign exclusivity contracts. But really, I think this comes down to the artists themselves. Personally, I feel grateful if a gallery hung my work and happened to find a buyer for me. That’s one person who may have never run into my work and I owe it to the gallery for making the connection. I believe artists should do the right thing and make sales through galleries rather than wait for their work to come down. Buyers wouldn’t normally care if the artist loses on commission or not. And artists, despite finances and all, should really be willing to support galleries who gave them a chance in the first place.

Now, with the two things considered: artists wondering why my gallery owner friend is not shepherding in new audiences for them and artists making private sales, I would assume this comes to either selfishness (and laziness) in the artists’ part or a fundamental opportunity missed by everyone. Perhaps the economy is bad that artists cannot afford to be generous to galleries in return, or perhaps the artists don’t realize how a small studio gallery in a city like Winnipeg could work for them.

So there you have it. If you’re an artist in a studio gallery, take advantage of your community and share resources and opportunities. Be more proactive, if not in your local arts community, then at least over the Internet. Maybe I’m biased because Jordan, the gallery owner, is my best friend, but don’t leave everything to the gallery owner or curator. There’s only so much they can do to help you.

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The Stone Angel

TravelManitoba

I remember being asked to read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence back in high school. It was one of the many wonderful books that our English teacher used to try to infuse some humanity into our young minds. I don’t remember the story much, but I do remember the parallels between the old character in the book and the ultimate fate of Margaret Laurence. It’s like she literally became one of the characters she wrote about. I really should look into the Manawaka series again.

Speaking of Manawaka, my works will be displayed in the town it was based on, Neepawa, Manitoba.  When I used to go camping and hiking with my best friend, I remember visiting there once. Here in Asia, when people think of Canada, the first places that come out of people’s mouths are Toronto and Vancouver. But when they describe Canada, they would often imagine a place much closer to towns like Neepawa.

I love big cities like Vancouver and Ottawa, and even smaller ones like Winnipeg, but it is smaller rural towns cradling close to liberated Canadian wilderness that most people here in Asia often imagine. It is in many ways romantic. I guess like me, that image is mostly from the desire to escape from convoluted concrete jungles like Seoul.

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Foreigners in Local Protests

napoleon

Working in the heart of Seoul where protests usually happen, I’ve seen it so many times, foreigners looking at protests. Now, the protests in Seoul rarely get violent, so it’s a bit of a spectacle for tourists to come and see how protests are in other countries. It makes them seem like they’re seeing an unusual political event aside from the usual touristy fare. Unfortunately, protests here happen at least once a week. They usually interrupt my work on Thursday afternoons.

The recent string of protests that got the president of South Korea impeached however are much larger than regular protests. They’re bigger and are more elaborate affairs, with choreographed light shows and musical entertainment. It can be quite tempting for foreigners to come and see the protests and witness history taking place. But in such cases, there’s a very blurred line between witnessing a government protest and taking part in it.

Several people in Korea have invited me to join them in the protests, and as much a political junkie as I am, it is really not in my place to take part in a protest in a country where I am technically a guest by the government. There’s also some chance of violence erupting, and I’m sure most embassies wouldn’t encourage people to be near the protests. I haven’t heard of anybody being arrested and deported for participating in a government protest, but just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean that it’s okay to do. It also doesn’t mean that the government is not well within their rights to deport any foreign visitors participating in anti-government activities. How would Canada react to foreigners coming in to Canada to protest the government? I would be thinking differently if the issues directly affected foreigners, say Canada decided that all permanent residents (landed immigrants/ non-Canadian residents) must now pay higher taxes than Canadian citizens. But many of the protests I’ve seen where foreigners are wandering into are about issues that don’t really affect them directly.

One of the protests in the past that comes to mind is the mad cow protests several years ago. Koreans didn’t want American beef imports to Korea because of suspected cases of mad cow. Now, this was all just a massive hysteria with a healthy dose of anti-Americanism, but this didn’t stop millions of people protesting in the streets. In these protests, I even saw foreigners participating. Now, I couldn’t tell whether they were Americans or not, but seeing how the country now fully accepts American beef imports with little consequences, not only are the protests a big egg on the face of the Koreans but also to the foreigners who participated. There must be better ways to bond with the locals than joining protests.

The local media however sure loves pointing cameras at visibly foreign faces during news stories. It gives events an international vibe. Perhaps that’s part of the allure. Hey, we might get on TV in Asia!

The thing is foreigners don’t have a dog in the fight, so why go against the country which gave them the privilege to visit? The one time foreigners had an issue to legitimately protest the Korean government was when they made it mandatory for all foreign teachers to pass an AIDS test prior to getting teaching visas in fear of them giving AIDS to school children. That was a horrible piece of racist, xenophobic legislation that didn’t get any protest in the streets, not from locals or foreigners. And to this day, foreign teachers are still taking AIDS tests, some of them believing the lie that it’s for their health insurance.

So what is a foreigner to do? Stay out of it. If you have to be a tourist, take a picture, and spread the story to your friends. Locals love it when their stories reach an audience overseas. Otherwise, know why you’re really here (as a guest) and know why people are protesting (It’s usually not about you).

 

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I don’t Seoul.U

Bear

One thing that irritates me about Seoul, are people’s desire to make the city a major international tourist attraction without A) examining what makes the city unique and B) examining what foreigners are actually interested in. It seems that decisions on creating tourist attractions and campaigns are based more on a committee which have very little to do with the place and the audience.

The city will be repurposing an old overpass near Seoul Station and turning it into the Seoul Skygarden, an elevated park in the middle of a busy city center. They hired international designers to create the park, thus hoping to add some international design accolades on paper. Great, just great. I work near that area. It has extremely heavy traffic and the station itself is popular among homeless people. An elevated park with cafes and restaurants will not only worsen traffic conditions, it will further displace the homeless population. That or they would just gladly hangout at the internationally, designed structure.

It’s like the designers and city planners just thought about modernity and ignored everything else. It’s already been done with the station itself. Seoul Station used to be this old building built during the Japanese occupation. Ugly history aside, it’s still a beautiful and historic building. But the city decided to build a new Seoul Station right next to it, a modern structure that says absolutely nothing. Passersby wouldn’t even be able to make out the shape of the whole structure amongst the menagerie of glass and neighboring shops.

They do this again and again. City Hall is shaped like a wave that is trying to hide behind other more interesting buildings. Dongdaemun Design Plaza replaced the old stadium which displaced many of the people who used to do business in the old structure. Now it’s a pretentious glob right in the middle of a shopping area. It houses high-end fashion shops, replacing old merchants struggling to make ends meet by hawking their wares. Noryangjin Fish Market is being modernized into a soulless department store-looking bland attraction. Fish mongers who’ve done business there for years are being pressured by the city as well as gangsters to move to the newer, modern-looking area. City planners, instead of seeing what works and embracing it, they try to modernize things into attractions that would ultimately look old and dated given five or ten years. Seoul City Hall is not iconic, neither is Dongdaemun Design Plaza. They look like poor stabs at looking modern.

It’s really is a shame, but Koreans are often misguided when it comes to capitalizing on their environment and cultural appeal outside of K-pop. Even their attempts to coming up slogans for the city and the country have been disastrous. “I.Seoul.U” is a confusing mess that would attract no one. If anything, it reflects on the need to sound modern and hip to the detriment of language and communication. As for “Creative Korea,” ironically, it looks like it was plagiarized from “Creative France.” Appropriately, it speaks to the lack of creativity and poor attempts by the Korean tourism authorities. And in both cases, I believe no English-speaking expats, people who have learned to appreciate the country from an outsider’s point of view, have been consulted for the slogans.

Mind you, other cities are not immune to this. As much as I love Winnipeg, I’ve never liked its much-beloved Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I feel for the sentiment and the purpose of the place, but it looks like structure straight out of Mad Max. Also, who would travel to Winnipeg to see a museum on human rights? At least Edmonton had the wisdom to build the West Edmonton Mall. Americans and Canadians alike would drive for hours to visit Edmonton, a city of less than a million people, just to visit the giant mall. This would never be the case with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It’s like city planners are actively targeting the mandatory school field trip crowd. And despite being a structure dedicated to human rights, I remember planners were quick to ignore Aboriginal concerns regarding artifacts and Aboriginal graveyards. Just like Seoul, it’s a modern ugly structure that ignores many of the locals’ concerns and would likely not increase local tourism.

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The Maple House

Maple House

I was ready to do my best Gordon Ramsey and rip the restaurant apart. The fact that the first thing I saw was a promotion for Guinness at the door didn’t do well for first impressions. The last time I checked, Guinness was Irish. I was afraid that the restaurant would be what I often found to be a lazy representation of Canada in food festivals in the Seoul. The last international food festival I went to, the Canadian stall was selling hot dogs, Budweiser, and churros. Pretty disappointing.

In any case, I kept an open mind. At the very least, I was hoping to find Canadian beer, particularly Alley Kat. At the most, I’d be surprised to see if they serve perogies. I’ m sure they will have poutine, as it is basically the go-to food that people here would often answer outside of maple syrup when asked what food comes from Canada.

Vancouver

The entrance was a good touch. Very Vancouver airport. I almost expected to see First Nations bone and soapstone sculptures. Instead of sculptures however, they had frames of Canadian cities and hockey teams.

Winnipeg Jets

The Winnipeg Jets is represented. Unfortunately, it reminded me of the lunacy of having a human rights museum in Downtown Winnipeg. If you want to attract tourists, why would you build a museum with such a depressing theme? “Forget Edmonton Mall! Let’s fly to Winnipeg instead and see the human rights museum!”

Jets losing

Inside on a giant screen, they’re showing a broadcast of the Jets losing to the Senators. This feels very familiar.

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The beer selection is pretty good. They have Alley Kat, which they used to serve in many bars in Seoul but later dropped by everyone. Some of the bars I frequent have been disappointing me lately with the quality of beer they serve. Either the selection of the beer on tap is unimpressive, or it’s not that cold, or they give me a headache. Maybe it’s the cleaning fluid or the nitrogen in the tanks to give it head. I don’t know. So far, from the selection alone, this looks like a good place to have a drink.

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I didn’t know that sriracha was particularly Canadian or that it would work well in a hot dog. Surprisingly, it was pretty good. Impressed.

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They had spinach dip. Again, something you don’t see in many places around Seoul.

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I tried the smoked duck with blueberry. It was pretty good. I would definitely order it again. The duck might be too rare for the locals. Duck in the country is often served on a grill and cooked to a crisp, so I’m not sure if people would like it as much as I did. I was quite surprised at how reasonable the price was considering the part of town we were in.

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They had a fair selection of poutine, but I wasn’t in a poutine mood.

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They had Nanaimo bars which is excellent. The spelling on the ingredients for Beaver Tail might seem like a mistake, but I believe I just found my awesome rap name: Cinammn.

Mail box

The mail box is a nice touch.

The food was impressive and the price was very reasonable. I would come here for the beer, but the food and the price of the food are just icing on the cake. The owner took great lengths to make it feel very Canadian. The hockey on screen is good. It’s just too bad that Canada’s been having a pretty terrible season. I’d definitely come here again to try some of the other items on the menu, I just hope that it doesn’t get too crowded once more people learn about the place.

In a scale of 1 to 5 Body Breaks in terms of Canadianness, I give it four.

Body Break Rating

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My Package Is No Good

zoidberg

Back after the Chuseok break (that’s the Korean Thanksgiving holiday). Didn’t do much art, but I did send art to galleries for future shows. Unfortunately, one Korean postal worker didn’t want to deal with me and just wanted me to go somewhere else. The exchange, which was all in Korean, went like this:

Korean postal lady: You can’t send these.

Me: Why not? I sent packages like these here before.

Korean postal lady: You can’t.

Me: Why not?

Korean postal lady: Go to Gwanghwamun postal office.

Me: Why can’t I send these here?

Korean postal lady: Go to Gwanghwamun postal office.

Me: What’s wrong with these packages?

Korean postal lady: You can’t.

Me: Why?

Korean postal lady: Go to Gwanghwamun postal office.

Me: Good job, lady.

Very helpful. I did go to Gwanghawun postal office. Everything went fine. I explained the earlier exchange and the postal worker there had no idea why the packages were rejected.

Now, I’ve been in South Korea forever. I’m trying to learn the language, but sometimes, even when I speak the language, people don’t have the courtesy to address me like a normal person and explain things to me so I could understand. What’s the point of learning the language if people won’t even talk to you, especially a government employee? Luckily, I know exactly what “gwanghwamoon oocheh cook” means, but could you imagine if I was a foreigner who didn’t speak a lick of Korean? They would be lost, feel dejected, and have this awful story about their racist experience in the post office. And poor Timmy who is waiting for a present from grandpa living in South Korea would never receive his package.

Of course, this was just a minor incident. And just as the lady wasn’t helpful, others more than made up for it with their willingness to assist me. Unfortunately, it’s the negative experiences that often stick to memory more than the positive ones. I remember people cutting in line and not minding other people more than kind, considerate strangers. Just look at this article. I’m still writing about a five-day old incident when other more positive things have happened to me since.

I guess what I’m saying is, forget that lady! She probably doesn’t deserve it, but for the rest of the country, I really wish she go straight to hell. People like her ruin the experience of being in this country with their lack of empathy or sometimes downright xenophobia. The same is true for many countries. Most people are friendly and hospitable, but there’s a few that would ruin the whole experience for people, the asshole minority.

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