Saturday, 28 September 2013

Korea - The Final Word in Basketball Diplomacy

As I'm blogging about a new place, I like to keep an eye on the news coming from that country - generally, things are pretty quiet and it makes you realise that, political hot-spots apart, not much happens in other parts of the world that would catch the attention of the international media. Not so with Korea, especially North Korea - which has been constantly in the news in the past few weeks. 

Whether it's the 60th anniversary celebrations, the wrangling over the Kaesong Industrial zone, or the South Koreans shooting dead a man trying to cross the border to enter the North - Korea is one of those places that easily makes the news headlines. 

Basketball coaching in Pyongyang by Scot Byrd
One of the weirdest news stories I've read about North Korea in the past few weeks, involves the US basketball player Dennis Rodman who has, quite famously, made two trips to North Korea this year - he is believed to be the first American to meet North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un and, being interviewed at the airport in Beijing, declared that 'He [Kim Jong-un] is my friend for life - I don't care what you guys think about him'

Rodman has quite a reputation for (what people in England would call) eccentricity, back in the States - he's probably just as famous for his piercings and ever-changing hair colour, as he is for his basketball legacy and awards, not to mention dating Madonna and appearing naked with basketballs on the cover of his autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be

I can see what's in it for Rodman - perhaps a genuine desire to do something useful, backed up with the need for continued celebrity, now that his heyday as a basketball player is over.  But what's in it for Kim?  Does he even realise (or care) how all of this is perceived in the West? 

North Korean kids playing basketball by Scot Byrd
I'm also wondering why sport is increasingly seen as a major political arena for the big issues of 21st century life?  Sure, sport can bring people together, despite its competitiveness, it's something that's enjoyed the world over - the Olympic games, the FIFA World Cup, ping pong, cricket, even basketball can create wonderful opportunities for cultural exchange.  But sport can also be divisive - North Korea boycotted the Seoul Olympics in 1988, a real missed opportunity for both Koreas to welcome the world and celebrate the Olympic games together.

But does sport really have all the answers?  To homophobia in Russia?  To racism on the football fields?  To nuclear weapons in Pyongyang?  And is someone like Dennis Rodman really the best person to manage diplomacy with an erratic regime like Kim Jong-un's?  Will his attempts to bring NBA players to North Korea really bring Americans and North Koreans closer together, or will it backfire, when Kim Jong-un realises what a circus this whole thing is?  Who knows - but it'll be interesting to see what happens next in the Rodman/North Korean story!

Image credits:

I found these wonderful images by Scot Byrd (aka byrdsiz) of young North Koreans playing basketball on Flickr and they have been shared with us using the Creative Commons license.  It looks as though Scot travelled to North Korea with a basketball initiative known as Project uNKnown - which looks like a genuinely ground-breaking initiative to use basketball as a way of overcoming cultural boundaries and getting to 'know' each other.   Thanks Scot for sharing these images with us. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Korea - Tools for research: the Movies

I've watched a lot of Korean movies in the last couple of months - I should say South Korean, as I haven't yet come across any North Korean movies that are easily accessible.  I'm sure North Korea has a movie industry - it's well known that Kim Jong-Il was a massive fan of the movies - but there are very few North Korean movies available in the West. 

By contrast, South Korean movies are, like Japanese movies, becoming increasingly popular in the West. I watched Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003) long before I started researching Korea for this blog.  We seem to like Japanese horrors and Korean thrillers.  Western directors are even making Hollywood versions of East Asian blockbusters, although they're rarely as good as the originals.

One thing I noticed about Korean cinema is how violent Korean movies are!  Almost every movie I watched had high levels of violence, often against women and I found it a little bit disturbing.  I'm beginning to wonder whether or not this reflects a high level of violence in Korean society?

So, here are the movies I watched, in the order that I watched them:

You only need to watch one movie to learn everything you need to know about Korean culture and that is The Host (2006) dir. Bong Joon-ho.  I really enjoyed this movie, with its scaly-green river creature, iconic shots of the Nam River and a very funny performance by Song Kang-ho - it's an incredibly political movie and has a lot to say about the presence of the US army in South Korea.  It's the highest-grossing Korean movie of all time, having sold 13 million tickets at the box office. 

I wasn't quite as keen on A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) dir. Kim Ji-woon - based on a well-known Korean folk tale, I found the plot very confusing and wasn't quite sure what was going on for most of the movie.  I guess knowing Korean culture better might have helped.

I absolutely loved Joint Security Area (JSA) (2000) dir. Park Chan-wook - it's an incredibly sweet story - despite the action-movie-sounding name - and I'd highly recommend it, as a 'feel good' movie that shows how people are just people, regardless of which side of a political border they live on.  I think this movie, more than any other, brought South Korean cinema to the world's attention.

Although, mostly set in the US, I thought it would also be important to watch The Manchurian Candidate (1962) dir. John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and (bizarrely) a stunning performance from Angela Lansbury - I didn't realise Angela Lansbury did proper movies, as I mostly associate her with the TV series, Murder, She Wrote.  The movie is partly set during the Korean War and has a fantastically complicated plot involving Communist brain-washing!

Park Chan-wook made Oldboy as part of a trilogy of films and I watched the other two movies in the trilogy - Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) - I guess Park Chan-wook is mostly responsible for my impression that all Korean movies are violent and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was particularly violent with an interesting vigilante justice element that made me scream at the big screen - 'No, no, don't do it!'  I noticed with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and other Korean movies, a peculiar obsession with heroes (or anti-heroes) who are disabled - the main character in this movie, Ryu (played by Shin Ha-kyun) is deaf/mute and Chan-wook cleverly plays around with sound, to give us an idea of life in Ryu's world.

Also featuring a main character who doesn't speak during the entire movie, I really loved 3-Iron (2004) dir. Kim Ki-duk.  With Joint Security Area, this was my favourite of all the movies I watched.  It's a pity about the title though, which gives the wrong impression in English - I much prefer the Korean title,  which means 'Empty Houses'.  It's a beautiful story and oddly romantic. 

I was a bit bored by Natural City (2003) dir. Min Byeong-cheon - the first Korean Sci-Fi I've ever watched.  I'm a fan of Sci-Fi, so I was a bit disappointed, as the plot wasn't really up to much and, like A Tale of Two Sisters, I wasn't always 100% sure of what was going on.  An interesting thing about futuristic/science fiction movies is that they seem to recreate the past, when trying to imagine the future and I felt with this movie, quite ironically, that I was getting an insight into what life was like in Korea in the Joseon dynasty - apart from the flying saucers and computers that is!

Although I'd seen South Korea's most famous LGBT film before, I wanted to re-watch No Regret (2006) dir. Leesong Hee-il (South Korea's only openly gay film director) with a greater awareness of Korean culture this time.  It's a great movie and cautiously optimistic, although it shows how difficult life can be for gay men in South Korea (I can't even imagine how hard life is for gay men in North Korea).  It has a strong storyline and is tender, violent, passionate and dispassionate in equal measure. 

Last, but not least, I watched The Housemaid (2010) dir. Im Sang-soo - this was a great movie, about the exploitation of a maid in a modern Korean household.  The Housemaid was nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and I would highly recommend it.  Im Sang-soo is an interesting director and I would like to watch more of his movies. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Korea - Tools for research: The Books

I think I went overboard this time, with the number of books I read and movies I watched related to Korea!  So much so, that I have to separate the books and movies into two blog posts, otherwise it would be a very long list for you to read, all in one go!

I've also spent two months on Korea, which is a long time - although this did include my summer vacation and other real-life travel. 

The Books

I read way too many books about Korea - although I finished most of them, I had to stop myself in the end, otherwise I could have spent another few weeks reading and writing about Korea!  If you're interested in finding out more about Korea, I would recommend all of the following:

Korea: Insight Guides (2003) - ed. Tom Le Bas - I always find the Insight guides really useful, to give me an overview of the history and culture of the place that I'm blogging about.  I don't usually buy the most up-to-date versions, as they cost a lot of money, but I get older versions for a penny (literally!) online. This guidebook mostly covers South Korea, but I'd recommend it nevertheless.

Korea: Culture Smart! (2012) - James HoareCulture Smart! is another great little series of books and I always really enjoy reading them - the edition on Korea is particularly good and James Hoare is an ex-British diplomat who has written quite a few books on East Asia, including a book on the conflict in Korea that he co-wrote with his wife, Susan Pares.  I did buy the newest edition of this book, as I've got quite a nice collection of these cultural guides building up on my bookshelf!

Nothing to Envy (2010) - Barbara Demick - this is a great book and I really got a lot out of it.  Barbara focuses on the stories of refugees from Chonjin, in the far north of North Korea and tries to piece together a picture of what life must be like for North Korea's 25 million inhabitants.  I blogged about this in my post Something to Envy?

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (2012) - Victor Cha - it really pains me that I didn't have time to finish this book, but I discovered it quite late into my blogging experience and, at more than 400 pages long, I just didn't have time to read the whole thing.  In the 100 or so pages that I did read, I found Cha's writing incredibly engaging and interesting.  Ah well, perhaps I will be able to return to it at a later date!  I'd definitely recommend this book, if you are interested in learning more about North Korea.

Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution (2001) - Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.  This is a brilliant book and really made me question man's relationship with dogs.  The Coppingers are champion sled dog racers and passionate advocates of a greater, more scientific understanding of dogs than we currently have.  It's a bit heavy-going at times, but worth the brain power, if you want to understand the evolution of dogs and dog psychology.

My Sister Bongsoon (2005) - Ji-young Gong - somewhere in the midst of all this research, I even managed to read a Korean novel (in translation, of course!).  It was really interesting and covered a lot of social issues related to the treatment of maids and class differences in Korean society.

Literature from the Axis of Evil (2006) - a Words without Borders anthology, which includes writing from North Korea, but also Iran, Iraq and 'other enemy nations'.  This is a great collection and I read all of the North Korean texts - the first time I've ever read literature of this kind.  According to the editors, only 3% of books in the English-speaking world are in translation, which is pretty shocking and makes me wonder how much great literature we're missing out on, because it isn't translated into English?  I'm a passionate believer in discovering the literature of other countries and this book embodies the spirit of discovery and understanding that I think is so important in our increasingly globalised (and anglicised era)

The Food and Cooking of Japan and Korea (2010) - Emi Kazuko and Young-jin Song - last, but definitely not least, I discovered this wonderful book of Japanese and Korean recipes.  Having initially borrowed a copy from my local library, I felt the need to buy my own copy, in the end, as it's probably one of the best recipe books I've ever come across.  Not only does it give you lots of great recipes, with plenty of pictures and easy explanations, but there are also extensive sections on the Japanese and Korean kitchens - everything you might expect to find there, as well as detailed descriptions of the ingredients used in Korean and Japanese food. It's a book that I'm sure I will treasure for a long time to come!

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Happy Blogday! Four years on!!

I can't believe that I've been writing this blog for four years already - the average lifespan of some of the world's most popular blogs is about 18 months so, 213 blog posts later, I'm quite proud to have exceeded that almost three times over! 

With a full time job and the amount of real-life travelling (as opposed to armchair travelling) that I do, it's difficult to keep the blog going at times, but I get so much out of the experience and it's a great record of my learning journey about this world of ours! 

At this stage, I can't say I remember the detail of everything that I've blogged about, but I'd like to think that I'm building a residual knowledge of the world and experiencing patterns in the way that people in different parts of the world react to the human experience and our societies that have developed in different historical contexts.

A word on the process

Recently, I've been remembering the origin of this blog, which was to record the results of a learning journey that existed before the blog began.  I feel that, increasingly, the blog has become the experience and I'd like go back to a time when the experience was the primary objective and the blog was a record of the experience. 

For that reason, I'm trying to keep my blog posts simpler and less comprehensive - I learn so much when I'm blogging about any particular place that it would be tedious (for you the reader) to put it all in blog posts - what I'm trying to do now is blog about the most interesting aspects of my learning experience and provide pointers to readers interested in exploring the themes in more detail.

Some stats

I've now blogged about 31 places around the world - only 6 of these were in the last year though, so it does feel like I'm slowing down a bit.  According to the stats on my blog - there have been more than 30,000 page views of my blog since the very beginning. 

Visitor numbers

Last year I started Google Analytics on my blog and it shows that there have been 4,027 unique visitors to my blog since last September which, added to previous stats makes about 15,000 visitors in total over the period of four years.

In the past year, there have been almost 11,000 page views, which seems to have increased a lot (ie. individual visitors are now reading more) and this is a third of the total page views over a four-year period. 

Only 19% of visitors are returning visitors - which is quite low, but hardly surprising, as I don't have a lot of time to publicise my blog or build up a regular readership.  Still, I sense that the number of returning visitors is slowly increasing each year! 

Which countries

According to - the blog has had visits from 146 different countries - the newest country being Uruguay in August 2013.

The top twenty countries in terms of visitors in the past year have been:

1. United States
2. United Kingdom
3. Australia
4. India
5. Canada
6. Germany
7. France
8. Ireland
9. Saudi Arabia
10. Netherlands
11. Belgium
12. Italy
13. Malaysia
14. Russia
15. Sweden
16. Barbados
17. New Zealand
18. United Arab Emirates
19. Spain
20. Fiji

It's interesting to compare this to the same data as last year  - according to my third blogday post!

Most popular posts

The ten most popular posts in the past four years have been:

1. Togo - Chicken Groundnut Soup with Fufu
2. Yemen - How I made Saltah
3. Barbados - Cromwell, Red Legs and the ethnic cleansing of Ireland
4. Saudi Arabia - Birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad
5. Rajasthan - Gayatri Devi, the Last Maharani of Jaipur
6. Wisconsin - Bucky Badger and the World's most fearless animal
7. Saudi Arabia - Chicken Kabsa
8. Zanzibar - How I cooked Octopus!
9. Urals Federal District - Dr Zhivago
10. Zanzibar - Gurnah's Paradise

Least popular pages

Some of the least popular posts were the ones written in the early days, as I didn't know how to promote the blog then (eg. on Facebook or Twitter) - if you'd like to help me boost my stats a bit, why not check out the following (older) blog posts :-)

1. Kiribati - Part 2 (it might seem hard to believe now, but in the beginning it wasn't obvious to me that blog posts should have a proper title!)
2. Lesotho - The Ampleforth Connection
3. Mongolia - Education and Ethnicity in Western Mongolia
4. Netherlands - Een Hart van Steen - A Gothic tale from Haarlem
5. Oklahoma - Route 66

Tools for research

In the past year, as part of my research I have blogged about Fiji, Guangdong, Honduras, Indiana, Jersey and Korea

I have read around 25 books, watched 25 movies and listened to all kinds of music, from the Jackson 5 (Indiana) to Black Rose (Fiji) to Leslie Cheung (Guangdong).  Not to mention, culinary experiments with Palusami, Jersey Wonders, Enchiladas and Naengmyun

It's been a wonderful experience and here's to another year of learning about the world!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Korea - Ten random facts

It's almost time for my research on Korea to come to an end.  It's been a fantastic learning experience and I find myself browsing flights from London to Seoul - I am indeed very tempted to see Korea for myself, at least South Korea, as a more accessible (and cheaper) option!

A change to the process

In a departure from my blogging tradition, I've decided to split my final post about Korea into three installments.  This time, in particular, I have gathered a lot of information and I'm afraid that putting it all in one blog post would be overwhelming for you, dear Reader!

The areas I usually cover in my final blog post are:

1. Dinner party trivia: some random facts about the country, which you can use to impress people at dinner parties!)

2. Tools for research: a list of all of the movies I've watched, books I've read and music I've listened to, as part of my research on whichever place I'm blogging about.

3. The Final Word: Usually a smaller bite-sized topic - generally on a topic that I didn't have time to research fully, but one that interested me nonetheless.

Traditional Korea by Smulan77
In this blog post, I'll give you the dinner party trivia - although I've learned so many interesting things about Korea that I've decided to limit this to the ten most interesting things. 

Ten random facts about Korea

1. I was fascinated to learn about the Rangoon bombing of October 1983 - this was an assassination attempt on the life of Chun Doo-hwan, the fifth President of South Korea.  I'd never heard about this before and find it bizarre that the North Koreans could carry out an attack like this, in the territory of a third country, Burma/Myanmar!  21 people were killed in the attack, including 4 Burmese citizens - however, the President survived unscathed, as his motorcade got stuck in traffic and he arrived late for his official appointment at the Martyr's Mausoleum.

2. Two of Korea's most famous brand names are not family names (as I'd previously thought), but are based on concepts.  Hyundai 현대 means 'modern', Samsung, 삼성 (or more obviously in Korean hanja 三星) means 'three stars'.

3. By all accounts, dealing in foreign currency in North Korea is a crime which is punishable by death.  North Korea is one of only five countries in the world that still carry out public executions.  As I was researching for this blog post, it was reported that Hyon Song Wol, a North Korean singer and Kim Jong Un's ex-girlfriend was executed by firing squad, along with 11 other entertainers accused of making pornographic films.

Seoul by Smulan77
4. The US government considered South Korea under President Park in the 1970's to be somewhat of a 'rogue state' which was covertly trying to develop nuclear weapons, against the wishes of the international community!

5. Like most people, I was vaguely aware of the North Korean dynasty and its Presidents, however, I had no idea that South Korea has just elected its first female President, Park Geun-Hye (in February of this year).  She is the daughter of the Park Chung-Hee, who was President of South Korea from 1963 until 1979.  Park Geun-Hye lost both of her parents to the bullets of assassins (her mother was killed in an assassination attempt on her father in 1974.  Her father was assassinated in 1979)

6. The British attempted to establish a colony in Korea in the 1880's via the short-lived settlement, a small group of islands with the main base at Port Hamilton - the islands are now known by their Korean name, 거문도 Geomun-do

Traditional costumes by Smulan77
7. Koreans are sometimes called the Irish of the Orient because of their love of drinking and singing - especially melancholy songs!

8. Perhaps more so than any modern country, Korean culture is defined by Confucian values - these permeate traditional ceremonies, such as ancestor worship, but also business practices and how people relate to each other socially.

9. Many Koreans are superstitious when it comes to the number 4 - this is because it sounds a lot like the word for 'dead'.  Tetraphobia - fear of the number 4 - is quite common in East Asian societies. 

10. Our spelling of Seoul - with its unusual combination of vowels, comes from the French spelling of the name of the South Korean capital.  In the 19th century, Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom, because of its refusal to engage with, namely, European traders.  The only Europeans who penetrated this cultural blockade were the French missionaries based in China.  A handful of French missionary priests were executed by the Joseon dynasty in 1865, prompting the French to invade Korea a year later!

Image credits:

For the purposes of this blog post, I want to highlight the photography of Flickr member Smulan77 - Smulan77 has a whole series of photos of South Korea, which you can see on his photostream.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Korea - Is Man a Dog's Best Friend?

When I was researching for my blog post on Korea - the Google Instant Test, I noticed a lot of interest from Western readers, as to whether or not Koreans eat dog meat.  It got me thinking, in a much broader sense about the human-dog relationship, probably one of the most important inter-species relationships/partnerships on our planet and how this key relationship matters to us, even when we are assessing our relationship with humans from another culture. 

My experience of dogs

I've always liked dogs.  Being Irish, I grew up in a society where dogs were everywhere.  We had a Jack Russell for many years and she produced several litters of pups, some of which became household pets.  I now live in England, where people seem to be obsessed with dogs.  People allow dogs to sleep in the same bed as them - people take their dogs to groomers, costing up to £50 a session!  Just take a walk through an English park in early summer and you'll begin to understand the important place dogs occupy in English society.

When I was growing up in Ireland, dogs were mostly kept outside, as yard pets.  This now seems to be changing and I sense a general evolution in people's attitude towards dogs - they are no longer animals, but part of the family, companions, man's best friend . . . Dogs may be a man's best friend, but I'm beginning to wonder whether the opposite statement is also true - ie. Is Man a Dog's best friend?

Just another consumer product?

Dalmatian on Cable Beach, WA
In a way, dogs are evolving, or being shaped, to meet the demands of human consumerism - we're breeding them smaller and cuter into all kinds of freaky shapes and sizes, some of which are physically debilitating, even unnatural.  It's as though dogs are replacing a human need for control that has long since been blurred by the fast pace of modern living.  They've become another symbol of our desire to be a master over the natural world - to see unconditional love reflected in the eyes of another creature.

A new way of thinking about dogs

One of the things I love about doing this blog is that I read things and learn things which change my perspective on the world.  Like many people reading this post, I've previously just accepted man's relationship with dogs and never really had a reason to question it.  Now, just as many people wonder why Koreans would want to eat dog - I'm beginning to wonder why people would want to own a dog, to keep it in their house, feed it, groom it, entertain it, exercise it and pay expensive veterinary bills when the dog gets ill?

As part of my research, I've read an eye-opening book called Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution (The University of Chicago Press, 2002) by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.  For anyone interested in dog behaviour and the origin of dogs as a species (and they are a relatively new species), then I would highly recommend getting a copy of this book (although I had to order it from the United States).  Raymond and Lorna are biologists and champion sled-dog trainers and I think their explanation of the role dogs play in human society makes a lot of sense. 

Dawn of the Dog

The Gamekeeper by Richard Ansdell
One of the main arguments they make is that man didn't somehow tame wolves and therefore produce dogs.  Wolves are wild animals and are not tameable - even after several generations, they are genetically programmed to behave in a certain way.  It's more likely that dogs tamed themselves, by modifying their behaviour and, ultimately, losing their fear of the human race.  Modern dogs are descendants of wild dogs (or perhaps wolves) who saw an opportunity in the new ecological niche that was created when humans first changed their nomadic lifestyles, turning to agricultural and settling in small villages based on clans. 

With agriculture and the first human settlements came food surplus and the first village dumps.  The Coppingers argue that the ancestors of dogs were scavengers at these village dumps (not only dogs, but also rats, domestic cats and other animals).  They became attracted to the constant source of food at these 'new' settlements and evolved their behaviour in a way that brought them ever closer to the ultimate source of food, humankind!  Over the years, dogs have become man's true companions and, as a species, they are flourishing with an estimated 400 million dogs worldwide, compared to 400 thousand wolves. 

Ways of interpreting the human-dog relationship

We've taught dogs to care for other animals, to guard our properties, guide blind people, rescue human beings trapped in the snow, pull sleds . . . you name it!  But what is the true relationship between humans and dogs?  The Coppingers' posit several different ways of understanding this relationship:

Dogs learn to respond to human needs from an early age
Commensualism: ie. where one species benefits (dogs), but the other doesn't (humans).  This would fit the mould for dogs scavenging at the village dump.  Whilst, in the West, we tend to think of dogs as pets, the reality is that most of the world's dogs are village dogs, belonging to no-one in particular and scavenging off the leftovers of human meals. 

Mutualism: ie. where both species benefit from each other.  Most people would assume that this is the proper interpretation of the human-pet dog relationship - ie. we feed them, they love us!

Parasitism: ie. where one species benefits at the expense of the other.  This is probably a truer reflection of the human-pet dog relationship.  In Western society, pet dogs cost a lot of money, giving us, arguably, very little in return.  The reality is that pet dogs are needy, expensive to feed and live short lives, often beset with health problems because we've bred them into unnatural forms!

Dogs as modern-day slaves?

Think about how we treat dogs - is it really love, care and loyalty?  Or consumerism, degradation and enslavement?  The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that man is not dog's best friend, but that we are somehow locked in a parasitic relationship that is degrading to both species! 

Dogs have evolved because of changes in the way humans live - they are a species that mostly owe their existence to us - if humans suddenly disappeared off the planet, most household dogs wouldn't survive.  Conversely, humans would survive without dogs, although I imagine the loss of dogs would have a great impact on our collective cultural psyche

I find the human-dog relationship endlessly fascinating and I'm sure I'll come back to it in future blog posts!

Image credits:

Both photos were taken by me - the first in Australia, the second in Russia. 

The painting is by Richard Ansdell and depicts a typical scene from the human-dog relationship.  It's in the public domain and therefore copyright-free.