Friday, October 29, 2010

Serpice-uh center WIN

Here in Korea, they have service centers where, if your Sony phone or if your Samsung phone, or whichever product you happen to have bought from your local friendly multinational conglomerate gives out on you, they'll fix it. I have a Samsung phone and when I recently accidentally locked it I went down to the nearby service center and took a number. I was the only non-Korean there and after sitting in the waiting area about 15 minutes and having nearly reached my number, one of the receptionists came out and told me, in that adorable, halting, it-sounds-like-a-question-but-it's-actually-a-statement-way-that-Asians-speaking-English-as-a-second-language-do "we will help you in under 10 minutes". Fine...thank you! I've waited at DMVs, car-repair shops, and in every manner of office and have very rarely had anyone come out and let me know how much longer I'd be waiting. Actually, if they did that, I'd think they had a bit of a wicked, sadistic sense of humor given how long I've often had to wait for things and I might have punched them, ha ha. Seriously I do wait under 10 minutes for what is, I'm sure, a completely pedestrian conversation simply asking what is wrong with the phone. I'm by myself though, and so the conversation isn't that pedestrian. It turns into a tortured 5 or 6 minute (actually, I don't know how long it was....I felt the walls of the universe creeping in, time was moving so slowly and there was so little exchange of information) summit, neither of us speaking meaningful amounts of the other person's language and consequently relying on dreamt-up, hoped-for, imagined body movements which we might be able to construe as revealing the other person understood what was being said. Honestly, this was another moment when my lack of Korean speaking knowledge really annoyed me. I could understand a few words she said but then couldn't respond....anyway. Finally however, because the lady couldn't help me too much, she gave me to understand that another company representative would take care of my situation.

So in the meantime, I go back to the waiting area and...well.....I won't say that I'd intentionally harm my phone just to go to the service center but they could really start to change the image of waiting rooms if word on how hospitable Samsung's service center is gets out! They had a machine for making your run-of-the-mill Starbucks variety coffee drinks, they had multiple computers at which folks were sipping their coffees and whiling the time away-one lady looking at dresses, a man looking at directions for something. They had six comfortable leather armchairs, a water dispenser, and a wide variety of magazines (which I ALWAYS read for the pictures).

Perhaps I sound like a naïf to you but seeing a waiting room with this array of stuff was pretty impressive to me. It did, as I said, somewhat take the bite out of, you know…waiting. And after only a few minutes surveying the latest baseball scores and seeing what was wrong with the world via the Huffington Post, this associate came to me with my phone unlocked. Again, and this is not to damn the United States by comparison, but personal care, nicely appointed waiting rooms, and prompt service…seriously, if I want some good coffee, I may just have to try and disable my phone this coming week!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hahoe Folk Village

On a recent weekend I went to Hahoe Folk Village. What a place! It’s a UNESCO-protected village founded early during the Joseon dynasty (1592-1910). It’s notable today because a lot of the structures have remained unchanged since their construction. Many of the houses’ roofs, both thatched and slanted, remain in excellent condition. I was down there in order to take advantage of the Andong Mask Festival and see some of the masks which have played a prominent role in Korean culture for many years.

During September in Andong-about a three hour drive south of Seoul-there is a festival centered around the of Korean mask. At the festival, one can sample a variety of Korean foods, can buy traditional Korean gifts, can make one’s own mask, and can also take in some musical and dramatic performances at a large stage in the center of the festival. I didn't stay in Andong too long because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to adequately see Hahoe and that was the main purpose for my trip. For this reason, I soon headed off on the 45 minute shuttle ride to Hahoe. It is quite rural and situated on the Nandong river. There are some spots nearby from which you can get amazing views of the village and the surrounding countryside.

Seeing the old houses and the tree (known as Samsindang) that dates from the time of the founding of the village wa wonderful. The village is, as noted, out in the sticks a bit, which for me was wonderful. I love Seoul but at times the never-ending press of people can be overwhelming and it’s lovely to get away from the hustle and bustle. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to imagine what the village was like 500 years ago because the area hasn’t developed too much. There is a very informative mask museum in Hahoe which has masks from all over the world. The museum is fully captioned in English as well as Korean so non-Koreans can enjoy and learn about the variety of masks and how and why they came to exist. It’s very interesting to learn how and why masks are significant in their cultures.

Walking through the Folk Village of Hahoe is akin to stepping into a time machine. Old walls, tiny lanes, and only the slightest hint of tourism-several road-side stands hawking Andong’s famous soju (Korea’s national alcoholic drink, a grain-based drink which is made stronger in Andong), masks, figurines, and a variety of other traditional Korean gifts. The houses are well-maintained to a large extent. I saw two houses which had fallen into disrepair and I walked most of the village. I don’t know which regulations compel the upkeep of the village other than pride in its history. That would seem to be a pretty compelling force, to the benefit of visitors and to the credit of Korea. The landscaping of some of the properties also only enhances the beauty of the village.

Truly, coming out to rural Korea, seeing how a village would have looked in Korea 500 years ago, and being able to see the mask festival made for a great day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ill communication

Like the Beastie Boys said in 'Root Down', "Like Ma Bell, we got the Ill Communication." Well, my communication here is ill quite a bit of the time, but most of the time it doesn't bother me. Most of the time I just lay back and wait for my cue to talk...then I do my English teacher thing...then I go back into mental hibernation. It's not hard work and it used to annoy me that I couldn't understand anything but when I stopped worrying, work actually went better anyway.

But from time to time, there are moments of serious frustration at my ignorance of the language. One of those times was when I went into a hair salon recently. When I came to Korea, I had decided that getting a hair cut was something about which one couldn't afford to have miscommunication. It was something about which I didn't want any miscommunication and so I set about finding a place where the barber would be able to speak English. I found a place in Itaewon (for those in country-it's on the road which Roofers is on, and from which Hooker Hill turns off) where the barber had been a barber for five years in Britain and so I knew there wouldn't be any fear of having him unexpectedly chopping massive holes in my scalp on the grounds that he thought that was what I wanted. I've gone to this guy steadily for 21 months now. He does a great job and my attitude about most things is "why fix what's not broken?" But it's a little far away and one day I was around my home and thought I could probably communicate adequately what I wanted in a hair cut without making a trip into Seoul.

So I went into a salon near my house and went to the reception desk. The salon itself was quite nice. It was quite spacious, the waiting area had some comfy-looking sofas and there were probably six or seven hair-cutting stations. The lady at the reception desk asked me, I presume, what I wanted. Of course I don't KNOW that's what she said and if I had responded, it would have been in the broken language which I too often have to employ. I guess most of the time this doesn't bother me but being in an unfamiliar environment, I felt a little more stupid than usual and obviously I didn't KNOW what the lady was asking me. I said something like "cut-uh, cut-uh", hoping this was a universally understood term for getting a trim, but instead I got a blank stare. This isn't really surprising because obviously I don't speak Korean well but I was hoping that because I was at a hair salon that it'd be self-evident what I wanted and that I'd be understood. Obviously that didn't happen though and since I really had no follow-up ready in my Konglish arsenal, I felt a little off-balance and awkward. I feebly, very unconvincingly, repeated, "cut-uh, cut-uh" but with less conviction this time.

At this point, the lady probably now thought not only that I was probably crap at Korean, but also that maybe I was trying to take her scissors. So finally I just mumbled something about choesong hamnida (sorry) and stumbled out like Napoleon Dynamite.

Anyway, as I said, most of the time, not knowing Korean too well doesn't annoy me. And all's well that ends well, as I ended up going to a nice salon and chatting to a cute Korean girl and I actually had a little conversation with her in Korean! Ha! So the lesson here is either shave one's head or learn Korean better, ha ha.