Monday, November 30, 2009

Personal regrets and the diversity of humanity

My facebook followers will know it, I have nearly finished my thesis now. Writing a thesis is not a good thing for your social life, I tell you. Writing TWO theses in one year is very bad.

I, with my protestant work ethic have written from morning to evening on these pieces nearly every day in these few months. In New Zealand I stayed at the university from morning to 10pm. Here in Thailand, I stayed at home all day, because there is no way you can work efficiently with Thai friends around. You will end up going to eat, going to SevenEleven, going to buy coffee, gossiping and so on...

So I stayed home. This nearly drove me crazy and my contacts with other people have been limited to chatting and telling each other that we should meet soon. I am a bit sad about that. Now, I am suddenly realising that there are about a dozen people whom I could have made really good friends with, but I just missed the chance.

I hope some of these people are patient and accept my apologies. I have always been too tied up with either the thesis, or my boyfriend that I was just simply too negligent of other parts of life.

I will stop moaning now and take this as a lesson....Our social environment is very important, and the family, boyfriend and a few best friends will not do. We need more than that. I'll try harder in my next destination and hope to come back to Bangkok sometime to catch up on what I missed.

In the meantime, I want to share a link with you. I am a great fan of world politics and also personally like photography a lot. I came across this portfolio of world leaders taken by a British photographer taken during the UN General Assembly.

In total, the photographer publishes 50 portraits and gives a short audi-commentary to every picture. Have a look at this site and find your own leader or your favourite.

Usually, we only hear about leader's policies, but in this case, we can hear a photographer talk about these world leaders' facial features and personal character for once. Interesting.

Maybe without realising it, the photographer has created a celebration of different looks and features of humanity. In my opinion, these looks do not represent power at all but the diversity of humanity.

Here are some highlights:

You can not beat Italian charm and elegance. Silvio Berlusconi.

This man, Rupiah Banda from Zambia has an amazing face, so many crevices and lines.

Lee Myung Bak from Korea. The small eyes with the outer end of the eyelid folded over the eye are so typically Korean.

This is a really beautiful face. Evo Morales from Bolivia. Extremely wide and symmetrical features.

Brian Cowen from Ireland. I'd love to have a beer with this man.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories with a great friend

It was not meant to be but today suddenly became a big "good-bye" day.

Earlier this morning the news reached my that my best friend Kawadjan's daddy in the Philippines had passed away. It was shocking news and has deeply saddened me.

Since he would be travelling back home as soon as possible (that being tomorrow), tonight was the last time I saw Kawadjan for many months.

Originally, Kawadjan and I planned to go to Rama XIII bridge near his home, have dinner there and walk around a little bit enjoying the lights and the river. I wanted to see the river again before leaving BKK and this was to be the last time...

But we ended up in Silom with two other Filipino friends (one of them is actually Swiss AND Filipino, so I could even speak some Swiss German). But that is not the point.

The point is that tonight was the last time I saw my friend Kawadjan here in Bangkok. Not forevereverever, but for the last time while I am living here in Bangkok.

I got to know Kawadjan very soon after arriving in Bangkok. We actually met for the first time on April 5 2008 at Saphan Taksin. I think pretty immediately we got along well and had great discussions, even though I talked way to much about myself.

mhmmmm beer lao, my one and only love:)

From then on we shared many great moments, he introduced me to his lovely friends. In the beginning we used to go out to Silom all the time. We'd just get a table in Soi 4, drink beer all night long and bitch and bitch and bitch about everything and everyone. That was sooo much fun.

And then the shopping.....gosh we shopped our asses off. It was JJ market every weekend until we got so bored with it. Then we changed over to Lumpini Night Bazaar until we got bored of that etc....If anyone out there wants to know something about clothes shopping in Bangkok, ask us two, we know for sure!!!

Lately we have been more into the Khao San scene. I'd catch a taxi to Kawadjan's place, we'd get ready and walk to Khao San, eat something at the Khao Gaeng (Rice Curry) place and then hit the Burmese makeshift bar on Rambuttri Street and we drank and giggled and bitched and choz-ed.

My favourite times though were when, sometimes after a night at Khao San, we would grab a beer at the 7eleven (just past the arrogant but divinely cute tea seller) and sit down on Kawadjan's rooftop.

These were among my best moments in Bangkok. The quietness, the lights of the city, the neighbourhood and the cool wind. These were also the moments when we talked a lot about our feelings, ideas, fears or anything else.

The craziest songteaw ride forevaaa

We also went on three trips together: To Sukhothai/Tak, to Sam Roi Yot in Prachuap Khiri Kan province and to the South of Laos last August. All the three trips were extremely memorable. We had great fun together and were a good travel couple I think.

In Tak province, we werent quite sure what to do so we just caught a songteaw to Umphang, which is like the last village in Thailand before Burma starts. That trip took four hours each way and will forever be the most memorable songteaw ride.

There were frogs next to me feet, vomiting ladies next to Kawadjan, little boys sleeping on my lap and a Karen lady who could make it to Paris fashion show with ease...

In Sam Roi Yot, I convinced Kawadjan to rent a motorcycle, and we both had great fun with it. I will never forget the beautiful sunlight when we drove back from the mountain we climbed.

In the South of Laos, we couldnt stop looking at the hot young Laotian boys showering right in front of us in the river. We also biked virtually to Cambodia and slept under a romantic mosquito net.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on. We really had so many great moments and discussions together. and...I nearly forgot it, he also introduced me to blogging. Were it not for him, bangkokbitch would have never been born...

A night at the Burmese

G, I am really grateful for all of this. You have been an awesome friend and I hope we can still spend lots of time together at a later stage in life...

Dont forget to smize and keep posing fiercely with an elongated neck that shows your jaw line!!! Choz!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My geography of bliss and happiness

Im back in Thailand for 4 days only and have already been offered a boyfriend - by a noodle seller...

After badminton, I always get something to eat from the market just next to the court. Usually, it's dry yellow noodles with dumplings and red pork. Delicious. This time, when I got my noodles, the seller said that I should take the person behind me as my boyfriend. Just like that.

Now I was not sure who he meant, but early I spotted a cute face selling desserts. Still not sure whom I was offered as my new boyfriend, I walked past the cute face. It looked absent, but as I passed, it was suddenly wearing a knowing and little smile.

This is Thailand. In Korea I was offered a girl but in Thailand, people have better sensors to gayness...

In this post, I want to write about a book I read while I was in Korea. It's called "Geography of Bliss" and is written by Eric Weiner, an American journalist who used to be the foreign correspondant for the National Public Radio in India, Japan and Israel.

Anyhow, first I need to really thank Kawadjan for recommending this book to me. He is my most reliable source for interesting book ideas!!! Thanks buddy:) He also wrote a short review of the book in this post here.

The book is basically about the author travelling to 10 different countries on a mission to find out about the people's happiness. Can it be measured? Can we find universal factors which make people happy? Does money make us happy? etc...

The countries the author travelled to are: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, United States.

Not all chapters are equally interesting, but in all chapters, we can learn something about human nature, happiness and about ourselves, and how we might relate to this particular country.

For me, this book has actually been a great eye-opener. I learnt a lot about myself and my home country, Switzerland. It is hardly believable, but Switzerland is one of the happiest countries in the world (behind Costa Rica, Iceland and Denmark).

Why is that surprising? Well, when I lived there and when I travel there, I remember how grumpy the people are, how sensitive to the weather they can be, how Swiss people really do have the worst humour in the world, if any....

But, this rich country in the middle of Europe nearly tops the worldwide list of happiness, which is compiled annually in a worldwide survey of all states of the world. (read more about it and see the rankings here)

The author, who shares my initial thoughts on Switzerland, is also puzzled. But when he travels to Switzerland, he finds out why the people are actually very content with their lives. He doesnt coins a new term for the Swiss people's happiness, CONJOYMENT. Something between enjoyment and content.

In the Swiss chapter, the author describes Switzerland as a country guided by invisible rules which people conform to and thus create a healthy and balanced social environment. I agree. One of the most important rules is that creating envy is a "nono". Because the Swiss know this, they do everything not to create envy.

I once read that in Germany, bigger cars with smaller engines are sold frequently while in Switzerland small cars with expensive engines and interior are sold more often. This does not surprise me.

Part of the rule of not creating envy is that Swiss people NEVER talk about money. Ask a Swiss how much he earns and he'll stop talking to you. Monetary imbalances create envy and are therefore simply not discussed.

Another thing which the author is writing about is the peace the Swiss people can find in themselves and nature. I guess it might be called boredom but the Swiss are exceptional at calmly doing something and letting time pass. In Switzerland, there are countless "Wanderwege" (hiking routes) and dotted along these routes are wooden benches.

Sometimes they are in scenic places, sometimes surprisingly not at all. Often, you can find people just sitting there and looking out into the scenery. This is what the author calls living with the slow process of nature.

I personally am not a calm person. I am emotional, can change moods quickly and sometimes very impatient. But in the right moment, especially when I am in nature, I can become a typical Swiss too and just sit at a spot and enjoy calmly.

The other chapters of the book are also interesting, but the Thai chapter is a bit of a letdown. The author basically spends a few days with a sexpat friend of his in Bangkok and sees Bangkok, and indeed the whole of Thailand through this lens .

Not enough I think. There isnt much about Thailand apart from the usual cliches of "mai pen rai", the Thai smile and the "jai yen" ...yes I cant think about much more.

There are still some valid points the he makes. To think in Thailand is to be unhappy, and to worry is a recipe for disaster. Inconvenient truths and issues are simply not discussed and avoided at all times. Conflicts are therefore solved as indirectly as possible.

Interestingly, there are big similarities between Switzerland in Thailand, especially in the way social interactions take place. In Switzerland, it is virtually forbidden to cause envy whereas in Thailand it is forbidden to cause someone to loose face. In both countries, people really go far to not cause either.

In the survey however, Switzerland is a far happier place than Thailand. Why could this be?

As we find out throughout the book, very important factors in determining the people's happiness can (but dont necessarily have to) be the social fabric of the society and the personal environment, the level of trust between people, any type of security, someone's own expectations, hope, etc...

Interestingly, monetary wealth and the warm weather have hardly anything to do with our general happiness as a people. Neither the thought of "the richer the happier" nor the concept of the "noble and happy savage" holds up. And the hot Thai weather generally doesnt make Thais happier people either.

Personally, I do think money plays a role indirectly. If we have monetary worries, it can seriously impact our feeling of security and social relations with other people. Even more extremely, if we dont have money to buy food, how could we be happy?

In the case of Thailand, I think people are not happy because they are unsure about the future of their country, adverse to the politics in the country and also distrust each other deeply. Thai society in fact, is very unhealthy.

Developing countries in general do face a difficult task of how to not only advance a country's wealth but also the social fabric of a country. Most developing countries do not succeed and that's why we see fights between the old elites, the new elites, the poor, the middle class and all sorts of other groups.

Switzerland has none of these problems. I wouldnt call it a classless society, but in general, people have enough wealth so that there is no need to worry. This actually results in a certain smugness.

I have some of this too I know. The Swiss are so secure in their status as a wealthy and prosperous nation that they become oblivious to the fact that other countries might perhaps do a few things better than the Swiss themselves. This smugness is probably one of the main reasons why it always takes the Swiss so long to become part of international organisations. (the UN for example, and the EU to come later...)

There are some general things that I learned from this book, apart from some rediscoveries of my own Swissness.

On Eric Weiner's tour of the world through 10 very different countries, I realised that the world is just so amazing. We are all human and, we dont necessarily "strive" for happiness, but we certainly all enjoy being happy. But, our paths to happiness are very different.

There is the Bhutanese national policy which focuses on Gross National Happiness, there are the Thai way of "not thinking", the Swiss way of not creating envy and thus creating harmony, the Indian spirituality, the Icelandic embrace of failure, darkness and national pride, the Qatari status symbols and shopping tours for imported art etc etc.

Every country seems to have a way of trying to achieve happiness and it is nice to read about all these different ways, and perhaps reflect on our own way.

For myself, I have learned that I should not judge people so easily. True, that sounds like a simple truth indeed. But here goes the thought: How could we know about people's happiness just by seeing them quickly.

Maybe they drive a big car, have a beautiful boyfriend, earn a lot of money, travel to exotic places, seem in a harmonious relationship, smile a lot....whatever we might think of people in that moment, we might become jealous.

But this jealousy is nonsense, because how can we even know whether someone is truly happy just by judging them because of a possession or a moment in which we see them.

I often get bothered by other people openly displaying apparent happiness, but I am now learning that I shouldnt. I should rather look at myself and think my own path to happiness.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An affair with Seoul

I am back in Bangkok. We arrived late last night after we apparently had strong headwinds. It was more like three Thai passengers who arrived late for our departure in Seoul...but never mind.

The taxi boy at Suvarnabhumi thought he got himself a gold mine and he excitedly told his friend that he's now going to Saphan Kwai with the farang. But the farang surprised him by speaking Thai and he suddenly lost his cheekiness and got very courteous.

Welcome back to Bangkok. I used to feel the heat and excitement as soon as I left the Terminal. This time, none of both was there. It's wintry cold now and I am not so happy to be back in Bangkok.

Lets see if my mood picks up again when I meet my friends. For now, I am married to my thesis for another week.

For the last two weeks, I had an affair with Seoul. You all know I am a great Bangkok lover and I dont know how it happened but there I was in Seoul all feeling comfy, homely and happy in this monstrous city of 30 million people.

Seoul is a giant metropolis, no doubt about that. There are literally thousands of apartment blocks lining as far as your eye can see. And there isnt just Seoul. You can ride on the metro for over an hour, and what do you see? You guessed it, apartment blocks.

But these apartment blocks are born out of necessity rather than out of enthusiasm. Korea is a tiny country with nearly 50 million inhabitants. Most of the country is hilly and mountainous so where things are flat, high-density building takes place.

But Seoul is not as soul-less as it might sound. Look beyond the facades of the white monstrous apartment buildings and you will find a lot of character.

The old lady with the red coat in the picture is tending to her garden, in the middle of Seoul. There's a moment of serenity in this patch of green just next to the walls of the Seoul of the old dynasties.

In fact, Seoul is blessed with a lot of green. I used to live on the 14th floor of an apartment in Bangkok and all I saw is grey and the sparkling lights of the illuminated bridges over the Chao Phraya river.

In Seoul, there are trees everywhere, and even more importantly, mountains. I am Swiss and you can never ever separate a Swiss from mountains. We love it where the mountains are and I have this innate feeling of needing to go up a mountain to see the view when I see one.

Then, there is the changing of the seasons. Well, we have 25 degrees in Bangkok now but the change is minimal to what Korea experiences each year. During my two-week stay there, the day temperature changed from 20C to just above 0C. From autumn to winter in a few days.

It's really a marvellous thing to see and many a European or North American in Bangkok will probably miss the feeling of seasonal changes.

One of the more surprising things I found out about Korea this time was its abundance of good fruits. Of course, there are no local mangoes, pineapples and guavas there, but the pears, the apples, the mandarins - and most surprisingly the persimmons are very good.

The persimmon is a fruit which was a delicacy when I grew up. In Switzerland, we used to get them from Italy and mum made persimmon cream by mixing the flesh of the fruit with cream once in a blue moon.

This curious fruit, seen here in the middle of the picture apparently becomes ripe when the weather approaches winter...a very late-comer, this curious fruit. All the leaves are gone, but the orange fruit is left.

One other thing which became obvious during this trip is that Seoul has a bustling arts and design scene, which has grown quickly over the last few years. When we walked through this neighbourhood in the centre of the city, we suddenly found a group of contemporary dancers practicing for their show in the open.

This same neighbourhood (located around Hyehwa station) boasts over 100 theatres alone and is a place where cute cafes, bookshops and second hand clothes shops are abundant.

Sadly however, the large majority of cultural happenings are entirely in Korean. This reflects on the one hand that Korea has become a not only proud (which it always was) but also confident and culturally adventurous country.

On the other hand, Korea is still very much a mono-racial society. As a Swiss with a history in Oceania visiting Korea I was an odd appearance. Most Westerners in Korea are American English teachers.

Some apparently become very lonely. There was Mark, a middle-aged guy from Nebraska who just came up to me in the subway and shook my hand and introduced himself. I was shocked.

First, I thought that I am in a movie or something. This man had such a typical American accent and behaviour it was almost comical. But it was true. Mark was looking for someone to talk to, even though I know have absolutely nothing in common with him except that we can both speak English, we are both men and we are both Caucasians.

I actually do have an American friend. She is from New Hampshire, but calls herself Lithuanian, because her grandparents were from Lithuania. We met in New Zealand when I studied there and later on, she taught English in Southern Korea for a year.

She is back in New Hampshire now, but misses Korea. I remember though that at the time, she complained very much about Korea. It was hard for her. She is quite a big girl, so the Koreans made fun of her. She took offense when people hit her on the street with their elbows (something you just have to get used to in Korea) and she didnt like the food.

I have to admit. Korea is a rough place. I cant pinpoint why I love the place either. It's not particularly pretty in the cities (apartment blocks again), the landscape is nice and even quaint but not stunning, the people are nice but they dont even come close to the natural sweetness of Thais.

As a foreigner, you absolutely must learn the Korean language. Otherwise you will just be excluded. You will not be served by some people and ignored by others. The bf's family talked admirably about the Nepalese workers, who are abundant in their neighbourhood. They said that within a year, these Nepalis can apparently speak Korean fluently.

So, within a few decades, Korea has grown from a dirt-poor farming country to an economic and cultural powerhouse. It apparently attracts migrants and visitors from all over Asia. People are crazy over its pop culture (just ask a few Thai teenies).

I dont know how they did it, but I admire it.

As I said above somewhere, there is a price to pay though. Koreans work very hard. You can see it in people's faces that they are tired. People walk quickly and if you are in their way, they will push you away.

Personal freedom in Korea is minimal. The apartments are tiny and the grip of most families on their children is iron. Additionally, most Korean men must serve in the military for 2 years.

The most obvious signs for the lack of personal freedom are the abundant (Love-)Motels. They are literally everywhere. These motels are not just used by men and women for a little fun besides the marriage but mostly, it seems for couples who do not have a place for love-making to enjoy a bit of company. Besides, they are cheap and comfortable too!

Two men kissing in this ad. This has nothing to do with gay by the way.

Just like the love-making in motels, gay life in Korea seems quite subdued. Do not expect anyone to flirt with you on the street. And do not make the mistake of taking every effeminate guy as a potential target.

I am still confused, but when young men looked at me in Korea, I wasnt sure if they thought I was an alien and they wanted to kick me in the butt or if they wanted to do something else with my butt ;)

But all this is changing. The boyfriend and I went to the gay clubbing area of Itaewon on our last night. He was amazed and excited because he never expected to find an entire street populated by gays in his country of birth.

I was a little bit underwhelmed because for such a huge city, this little strip of bars was minuscule. Most of gay life in Seoul is probably not taking place in bars, but rather on the internet or among friends or perhaps even at public baths.

I dont know but this was no Silom. Nevertheless, I loved that little strip of bars. It was much more friendly and lovable than the market that is Silom. There were genuine people of all races which seemed to enjoy themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

So again, what is it that makes me love this place? I dont know. Perhaps it's the familiarity. I have known my boyfriend for over 4 years, and in this time, I learned so much about Korean food, language and culture that I was never really foreign to the country.

Now, I have moved onto a different level in my relationship with Seoul. Koreans may seem distant but when you become part of a group or family or society, you will be 100% part of the group. They are extremely generous people.

In my boyfriend's family I have found such a group of people who welcomed me with open arms. I am not sure how many of the people I met know that I am not just a chummy mate of my boyfriend, but much more. I suspect it was most people actually.

The dad, I am now sure, knows that we are a couple. When we walked down the street to the airport bus, the boyfriend said: "I think dad really likes you". Just after he said that, the dad came around the corner with a very sad face and said good bye to me. I thought he was going to cry and I nearly cried too.

So...lets see if this affair with Seoul will become more one day. I certainly hope so.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Korean mountains

Before I am heading back to Bangkok tomorrow, we decided to go on another trip within Korea. Since, as a Swiss, I am eternally bound to mountains and the sea, the choice was easy.

We boarded a bus to the East coast town of Sokcho, from where we could access the supposedly most scenic mountains in South Korea: the Seoraksan range.

It doesnt require a lot of description I think, the pictures do the talking. The mountains, even though of course not as high as Swiss mountains, or even the Himalayas, are beautiful. All the more beautiful because from the top, the sea and Sokcho itself are visible too!

Thai people visited the Seoraksan area too and wrote many messages on plates. I didnt actually really see many Thai people around but they might not be so interested in going up the mountain, as we did. Who knows....but they must have been cold for sure!

One thing I like the most about Korea right now is the soft, organgey winter light. Somehow, I have the feeling the sun is going to set any moment from about 2pm. Because the sun is so low and setting slowly, it casts spectacularly long shadows for several hours.

The sunsets are slow and even though the sun seems weak and not very bright, it still provides for some warmth. Winter hasnt quite arrived yet in Korea, but I surely like the weather now!

The is the sunset in Sokcho city. The city is surprisingly pretty. It sits on a lagoon and has a large harbour, which is still intensively used for fishing. The city centre's main artery is a neat and cute road with many lights and a surprisingly large amount of women's fashion.

Surprising because I didnt really see many people shopping at all...but then again it is really low season at the moment. Apparently most people come here during the summer months (it's only a 2.5 hour ride away from Seoul) and around the festive season at the end of the year.

On our last night, we also went to this cute harbour, which serves Korean sashimi. We had some but I wasnt impressed. The fish seemed all tasteless and chewy. Apparently this is how it should be though...

In general I really love Korean cuisine. A lot of vegetables, which are always included in the meal and dont just sit on a plate idly like a piece of broccoli in Western cuisine. Plus, I cant get enough of the Kimchi (fermented cabbage with chilli). To end the day, we had stuffed Octopus. Yummy!

Today, we are off to some souvenir hunting. My Thai friends all love Korea, so I suppose I need to bring them something besides all the creams they ordered me to buy here. (Korean brands in Thailand are extremely expensive whereas here they appeal to the mass market and are a lot cheaper)

Later on we might even have a look at the gay clubbing scene. I am not sure if that's a good thing, judging from how good-looking Korean guys have proven to be so far. I hope I can still find "mine" among all these guys and that the boyfriend still has a heart for this "average farang" as opposed to all these handsome Koreans.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scenic Seoul

Immediately after we got back from the countryside, dad took us on a ferry on the Han river. Traditionally, Seoul was not built on the river but rather next to the river. I dont know when or how the city developed along the river, but now the Han river is somewhat in the centre of Seoul.

On both flanks of the river, multi-lane highways go a long way, to make this otherwise dull river even uglier. But this is about to change. the government has started the "Hangang Renaissance" project with the aim to convert the large majority of the riverbanks into parks.

And these things really happen. Not like in Bangkok, where creating a new park would be akin to a new world wonder.

The ferry ride was actually really interesting, as we could see various areas of redevelopment, the different style of apartment buildings, and occasionally catch a glimpse of the gorgeous mountains around which Seoul is built.

Towards the end of the ride, we arrived at Yeouido Island, where my favourite building in Seoul stands, the 63-building. I am still debating whether the shape and surface of the building make it look retro-cool or just plain cool but I love it. Rarely can you see a building from a few decades ago keep such a graceful and modern aura.

Then we took the bus up Namsan, the mountain just to the south of the ancient Seoul. This is the view towards the Northeast. Apartments as far as the eye can see. It's really impressive.

Recently, Namsan has also become a romantic hotspot. In a country of couples (is it just me or does really every gorgeous man in this country have a girlfriend?) and TV-drama induced kitschy romance, this means something. Just have a look at the thousands of locks with romantic messages chained to the fence.

Some actually had cute messages, while others were just pathetic (I will love you forever and ever and you are the man of my life (after 3 months marriage)). Good luck to these couples...I would like all to know how many of these locks have been "unlocked" already.... (e.g. the couples are not together anymore)

Of course, being on top of Namsan is gorgeous and the view around 360 degrees is great.

It was actually an interesting spot to be. Up there, we saw Japanese high school kids in their uniform. Why would they wear their uniform overseas??? And we also saw gay Thais. Two TV presenters wore just about every single colour that exists and nearly made me vomit with their style of dress and looks. I wanted to go tell them but then I saw that they were filmed for some TV show, so I was lucky I didnt say anything.

There was also an Uzbek ex-flight attendant who made friends with a Japanese couple. He was obviously gay and oddly looked very much like my boyfriend. It was a bit spooky, but I am now thinking the Central Asian guys could be a new fashion soon!!! For my part, it made me think that if every gay Uzbek would look like him I would like to visit sometime...

Back to the roots in the Korean countryside

Before travelling to Korea, I made up a plan that I would like to visit mainly the countryside, since I had been to Seoul before. I thought, about 3 days Seoul and then off to the countryside, perhaps even touring around the whole of Korea (this country is about as a bit as Isan so this should be possible)

Such things however hardly go according to plans. We were somewhat stuck to Seoul in the first few days because it's an interesting and exciting metropolis where you can visit countless neighbourhoods and discover new areas, museums and not to mention the thousands and thousands of restaurants in every street.

Since we included the bf's dad more and more in our plans, he began to enjoy our company too and started taking us to all sorts of places. Suddenly, it became a family affair and this culminated in the visit to dad's home city over the weekend.

Dad's family hails from a proud dynasty of previously Chinese confucian scholars and is very rooted in his hometown. The town is very provincial and situated in the middle of Korea.

Here you can see a picture of Goesan (괴산), on this nice sunny winter day.

I was curious how the countryside would compare to the glitzy Seoul. Korea as a country is not as rich as its neighbour Japan, and nowhere near as rich as the main Western European countries. That doesnt show in Seoul, but it shows on the countryside.

The bus terminal had not been renovated in a few decades and in the shops, old people were heating up the room with an old-style oven, on which they brewed hot water for tea and coffee. It is not a charming place, but hardly anything is in Korea anyway.

I however am a countryside boy too and enjoy a bit of grittiness. It gives this place a real feeling. Nothing is pretended. Even though Goesan seems to be underdeveloped compared to Seoul, the enormous changes that have come to this countryside town in the last few decades illustrate the rapid development Korea has gone through.

The dad told us how they had no continuous power in his house until he was in middle school (about 40 years ago) and how there were no asphalt roads until a few years ago. His grandma was apparently brought to Goesan from the neighbouring village to marry the grandad on tiny dirt roads.

Now, the old house has been renovated and has a modern feel to it, included with a nice warm floor heating system, which is common in all Korean houses. There is cable TV and anything you could wish for.

But the family still own some rice and chili fields in the area. Anyway, the region is heavily agricultural, especially focused on chili, ginseng and cabbage, of which tons area needed for the famous Kimchi (conserved cabbage with chili), which is eaten to EVERY meal in Korean cuisine.

Everything Chili: Bus stops and taxis!

As the three of us arrived in Goesan, dad immediately said that there is nothing to see here and we'd better get on a bus to see the national park, 30 minutes up the mountain. After eating the local speciality (River Snail Soup, Olgaengi guk), we got on a bus to an even smaller town.

If Goesan was something like the capital of a very rural region, we were now in a small town of a very rural region. People in Korea, who normally do not care about Westerners were now surprised to see me and some local men even asked whether my boyfriend is a girl or a boy (he really doesnt look girly, just has a soft face).

The man said that these days in Korea, you'd have to strip people naked to see if they are a girl or a boy. How fitting, looking at the ads of ultra-femme boys in pink clothes smiling at us constantly.

We then proceeded to Songnisan National Park, which was gorgeous. The dad also showed us an ancient palace area, which was apparently where their distant ancestors lived. It was also freezing cold, so we didnt stay for long.

We then went back to the family house, which is usually empty most of the year. This weekend however, other people were there too, so 7 people shared a two-room house. This is easily done in Korea, where just before going to bed, people unfold a portable mattress, and just go to sleep.

These mattresses seem comfortable at first, but not not protect you much from the hardness of the floor. I am looking forward to the Thai massages in Bangkok to get my back sorted again:)

In the morning we woke up to a powdered white landscape and freezing temperatures. See the view here:

We then took the car for a short ride to the cemetery of my bf's grandad (and a range of other ancestors, seemingly). Family cemeteries in Korea are on peaceful hills, which is actually really beautiful I think.

On the back of the grave, my bf's name was engraved in the stone. This astonished him and he said: "I am surprised to see so many traces of me so far away." It made me happy because it was nice to see that he is rediscovering his family in a place he hadnt been to for many years.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On to the countryside

The last few days were very busy. Only a week has passed since I have been here but I already cant remember on which day we did what.

In these last few days, we walked through an artsy district where there are at least 50 theatres close to each other, and where we saw an impromptu performance of a contemporary dance group. The setting was so beautiful. The winter sun shone on the stage and the shiny yellow of the ginkgo tree leaves gave the scene a very yellowy, orangey, warm feeling.

We also went for more shopping to the Dongdaemun area. This is the Jatujak market of Seoul, where you can find everything - mass-produced sadly. We did find about four shops however with cute clothes and bought a lot there, since Dongdaemun prices are decidedly below other areas.

The boyfriend and I also met an old friend from Switzerland. We used to play volleyball in the same team when we were teenagers. The boyfriend asked what kind of player I was. My friend said I was difficult to play with and the bf suggested I was probably a drama queen player.

We had seafood stew (reader JR will enjoy if I put the Korean word up: 해물탕)

ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ (This is the Korean version of the Thai: 5555555+)

(5 in Thai is pronounced HA, so 55555 becomes hahahahaha)

The visit is also getting much more family-oriented. We planned to go on a countryside trip two days ago, but yesterday was the boyfriend's grandad's death anniversary. That is a big event in a family, where some people come together and celebrate a little ritual.

The family was extremely friendly and it was really nice to see the boyfriend rediscovering his family, and me being welcomed so openly. I was introduced by the dad as "best mate"...whatever that means...:)

In a moment, we should be off to the family home upcountry. I wonder if I am going to be reminded of the Thai countryside or if the urban jungle of Korea has even reached the backwaters, where the boyfriend's family is originally from. to follow when I have more time...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The image of Korea: unfriendly people and TV dramas?

In Thailand, Korean people are not seen as very friendly or warm. Korea is also seen as a country with no history to speak of. Instead, Korea's image is tinged into a rosy coloured fluffy world. This is the world of dramas and boy bands.

For all those of you who dont know, Korea is THE Asian leader in producing popular culture. It used to be Japan, but now it's Korea. They do two things very well:

1.producing TV dramas that capture the Asian masses from Manila to Jakarta, Bangkok to Beijing and Taipei to Hanoi. 2.producing boybands with the cutest and most handsome singers of all Asia and market them extremely well to the masses of (see above...)

Korea is doing something what America has done for a long time. Make the people like your country via popular culture. This is a very powerful tool and I can see what crazy thing it does to my Thai (girl)friends' minds. They think Korea is some kind of heaven where cute boy band members are just waiting to be married.

Anyhow, needless to say that the image is wrong. Just like the image of Europe that Asians have (castles, old buildings, lifestyle etc) is somewhat wrong.

Korea is developing extremely quickly, perhaps most visibly seen in the thousands of apartments that have sprung up in the last few years. Development comes at a price though. And as usual, not all people manage to catch up. Old people are forced to take on development, as attendants on the subway are no more. You can not buy a ticket from a person anymore in the subway, it's just machines there.

The dear old people seem to cope pretty well though and I have seen old people help other old people use the machines. I have also seen that people are actually extremely friendly to help with anything. This has surprised me a bit, since Korean people are often seen as brash and loud. However, I do remember when I was here alone, I did struggle a bit with the people. As long as you can speak Korean, it's fine but if you dont, expect people to turn away from you.

Another thing which was pointed out to me by my boyfriend is the people's personal freedom. Society here is very Confucian, so essentially organised in a similar way as in China, or even among Chinese Thais. Family means everything and age and status counts a lot.

Yesterday, when I met my bf's auntie, she immediately asked my age. I thought she perhaps wanted to say that I look younger or older, but it was just to know my age, nothing to do with my looks.

Another interesting story to tell happened two days ago. The boyfriend's dad invited us to come to a shop where a friend of his sells ropes. We arrived there and were told to sit down and have a drink. We were served Korean wine, which tasted like marshmallows mixed with cidre and told to have some pig's trotter and kimchi. Great, I thought. We get invited in a real Korean way.

Then the men started to introduce themselves and shake our hands. A few moments later, I noticed that something was a bit off, when the business owner started to talk about his daughter and my bf's family. Then, I overheard him talk about a party at his house and by then I remembered that the boyfriend told me that his dad is suggesting that he should meet this girl he used to know for a drink.

Ahhhh, now the pieces came together. My boyfriend, still unmarried, was to meet this man's daughter at a party so they could get to know each other. The boyfriend got very uneasy about it all and wanted to leave quickly. Outside, he told off his dad for taking us to the man and told him he will never meet this girl.

It's not all as dramatic. His dad was not the main player in it all, it was the business owner who organised it. I was also to meet his other daughter (I didnt understand that in the conversation earlier on) on the countryside in their house somewhere. It did not sound intriguing to us...

The boyfriend's dad officially does not know that we are a couple. He knows me for years though. In New Zealand I often took the phone when my boyfriend was away. I learned how to say that my boyfriend is at work and when he will come back in Korean. Now we got to finally meet.

It's all good and there are no problems. We can not communicate so much though but that doesnt matter so much. The dad is very friendly and an active person. We bring him some food home every day and he loves it. It's probably even obvious to him that we are a couple.

But, it's not easy for parents to accept our identity. The first step, to somehow realise that their son is different and is not so interested in getting married to a girl and have kids is probably quite easy. Parents feel quickly when something is happening to their children. The second step, to really accept the fate that the son will fall in love with other men is probably quite difficult.

The boyfriend's mum has passed step number two a while ago. Last night, we met her at her apartment, which is not quite in the centre of town. She lives in a small studio above her sister's BBQ restaurant, but we went to each Kamja Tang (Potato soup) together.

I used to think the soup is quite spicy and tasty but since I am used to Thai food, I would say it's quite herby. The main ingredients are potatoes, pork bones (with some delicious meat of course), leaves, rice cake, mushrooms and other vegetables. It's delicious. The soup is boiled in a big pot and everyone eats directly from it.

In Korean restaurants, such food is eating on a very low table. This would be a horror for Thais, because your feet are constantly pointing at people and your bags and jackets are put on the floor next to you. The floor is wooden and warm but also hard and I lost any feeling in my right leg by the time we were finished...

Later, the bf's mum bought us giant Peppero sticks. Today is Peppero day and girls have to buy their boyfriends peppero sticks. (Peppero is the Korean equivalent for Pocky, a wafer stick with chocolate around in different variations). Then, the boyfriend showed me his old school and old apartment building where he grew up until 10 (when they moved to New Zealand).

It was very nice to see the surrounding and imagine a cute little primary school boy, who will later become my boyfriend, run around the neighbourhood.

Then, we went back to the mum's apartment and watched Korean dramas. I heard about them so many times but never actually watched one. And now I know why people can get hooked to them. So much happens in one show. Something like the husband of a woman goes through plastic surgery to take revenge for an affair. Then the nurse falls in love with him. The guy suddenly has a brother turning up who is having an affair with the wife.'s all.....well....drama.

So, my experience reinforces what commentator JR said two posts ago. Koreans are very welcoming and we are welcomed as a member of family very quickly.

The temperature is dropping and it was only about 5 degrees last night. Today I better wear my new ultra-warm jacket!

Impressions from Korea

We played this game trying to win a cute alarm clock. You have 20 seconds time and one try to position the white probe. We failed...:(

No hugging allowed in this cinema! And dont even think of making out with your boyfriend.

This was a very interesting exhibition with paintings from a former North Korean propaganda painter. It featured Kim Jong-Il as a femme fat dancer and other interesting paintings...loved it. The painter's alias is Sun Mu. He will not tell us his real name otherwise his family in North Korea has a problem.

On a more lighthearted note. THE DONKEY SHOW. In Korean it says something about a romantic play but I dont see any romance in this....just hot Korean men...! I dont know what the donkey refers to either....

Monday, November 9, 2009

Arrived in Seoul

The area where we are staying

Well, what I can tell you so far from staying there for two days is that there are plenty of them around. In fact, they are EVERYWHERE! The boyfriend and me attract quite a bit of curiosity from gays. They are quite curious about this farang-korean couple it seems. And they are actually quite open about it too. This is a bit surprising to me. When I was alone the last two times, I did not attract any interest.

Either I looked ugly then, or I didnt go to the right places, or I was not obviously a gay person. Now however I am and the interest is there. One more thing about Korean men: they are simply gorgeous. Someone should have told me before I moved to Thailand, but I am sorry I prefer the Seoulites...They have clearer and sharper faces, and are a bit on the taller and broader side than the Thais. And....they have style.

This is another thing I didnt notice the last time. In fact I was disappointed. But dressing up is really in fashion here. A very popular style is a black casual jacket with a buttoned shirt and jeans. niiiiiice. plenty of variety too. And there are now a lot more fashion stores too. I love the winter fashion here. Sadly, it's all a little expensive....and it slightly pisses me off to see people younger than me shopping casually in expensive shops.

One more thing about Korean men. I am afraid but my gaydar is sometimes really failing me here. It's blinking too much, when it should not. In fact, I am not sure....because I can not believe how feminine Korean guys act sometimes. There are ads with handsome men wearing pink clothes, jumping around waving their hands. It's just so.....GAY! But no, they have a girlfriend, and even carry her handbag! Today, I spotted one checking his hair throughly in the mirror while the girl was shopping for clothes.

Now who knows what this all means. Perhaps there is a little repressed girl in "oh-so-many" straight guys in the West too, or maybe some of these Korean men are in the closet and get totally dominated by their woman. We do not know, but i'll try to observe more.

Lotte World inside

Today, the boyfriend and I went to Lotte World. That's a theme park, similar to Disney World. Most is under a giant glass roof and I really can not believe how many rides and other things they can fit under a roof! I must admit I am not big on theme parks, but the boyfriend loves them. I did tell myself not to disappoint him and go on some quick rides. The first one was a balloon ride around the whole territory just under the roof. Nice!

Then, we chose the fastest ride next. I twas called "French Revolution", who knows why....It didnt look so quick. BUT IT WAS!!! It started off relatively easy, but then suddenly we went down 180 degrees....and left and right and around and upside down and gosh, my hair must have looked terrible! My head was spinning from then on and relaxed only hours later. But it was fun! The theme park was kind of odd, because all the rides and buildings had some sort of European ancient theme, where they deliberately mixed stone age, baroque, middle ages and who knows what. As long as it's a bit European. The rest was a weird mix of Egyptian and Arab design, with some monkeys eating bananas and playing the drums and some black man with huge eyeballs playing the trumpet (not real, just for show). It was on the border of racism sometimes.

Lotte World Outside

One thing I really loved about Lotte World was the "waving policy" for the employees. There was no bowing and wai-ing, there was only waving. Buying a ticket? Gamsahamnida (Thank you) Wavewavewave. You are going on the ride? Gamsahamnida. Wavewavewave. It was really cute. A wave with all the movement coming from the wrist....Again, it looked really gay actually. I did have a feeling most of these attendants were gay, because after all, smiling the whole day, waving and helping people is what we are good at, right?