A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween In: Avoiding the Party

You heard there was a happening Halloween party going on, but for some reason you just don't want to go.  Maybe you didn't buy a costume.  Maybe you hate people.  Either way, it's cool.  Stay at home and enjoy the experience of having droves of children ringing your doorbell, waiting for that candy they didn't work for. If you're in a really good "shut-in" mood, you should definitely give them some!  But while you're waiting, why don't you spend your time doing something constructive... or not, like watch a movie, play a game, or read a book!

Here are some suggestions on ways you can entertain yourself this Halloween while staying in your house and lobbing candy at children, like the ravenous zombies they are...


Probably the easiest way to spend Halloween is to stare at a screen, jaw hanging slack, drool glistening down your chin.  It'll be like every other night...but spoooookier.  You could even make an event of it.  Invite a couple of equally misanthropic friends over, or a fine lady...or gentleman, whatever's cool.  But, you're going to need some fun, horror-themed movies.

There are always the good generic choices, John Carpenter's The Thing, the Evil Dead trilogy, Shaun of the Dead, or Halloween.  But it might be nice to pick something ain't nobody seen yet.  One that's not a horrible piece of junk that ain't nobody seen yet.  While I'm sure my ideas are far from "underground", maybe you haven't seen Near Dark by the director of the Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker!  It is nothing like The Hurt Locker.  It's a tale of trailer-trash vampires and love.  Alternatively, if you don't mind a little body-horror with some "less-than-subtle" social commentary, try Society.

Now if you're really tied to the whole "hermit" thing, you could stand to watch some classics, ones that a room full of fun-loving jerks wouldn't appreciate.  I'd start with The Innocents, a beautiful adaption of the Henry James novella Turn of the Screw.  It's a ghost story with some fantastic child acting, and it truly is an under-appreciated gem.  You could also watch the original Dracula movie, Nosferatu, if you have the patience for silent film.  If you need something with color, few are creepier or more disturbing than Lars von Trier's Antichrist.  But I should warn you ahead of time, that film has misogyny, nudity, and some of the most uncomfortable gore you could possibly imagine.

There are some ideas, but you don't really want to watch a movie.  You want to get up and do something, like...

Video Games!!!

Sit back down!  You don't actually have to get up to do something in the futuristic 21st century, so open a bag of candy corn and pop in a horror game.  Now you could play something that we all know and love, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but let's forget those stagnant, old franchises and play something more interesting.

The end all be all of terrifying horror games is Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Now, I haven't played it.  I'm a little, wussy boy and hate walking down dark tunnels alone, especially when I know something at the end of said tunnels is wont to eat me, but we can probably trust hundreds of youtube reaction videos people have made while playing this game.  It's scary.  Let's watch some now...

If you haven't played video games since the SNES and find polygons unnerving then you could play Lone Survivor, a side-scrolling, horror game with an art style reminiscent of the 16-bit era that still manages to be effectively scary.  However if you're low on cash and/or time, you could play a very short, free game called The Staircase.  And if you enjoy abstract, psychedelic horror, you could buy The 4th Wall for an extremely low price.

After recovering from the seizure The 4th Wall more than likely threw you into, you probably want to do something to relax, so why not...


Oh yes, literature.  When I say "book," I use the term loosely.  Not everyone reads a thousand words per second, and we can't all tackle a novel in a night.  We can probably skip classics like Frankenstein or Dracula.  If you have the tolerance to read the literary equivalent of ambien then you could use some H. P. Lovecraft.  Or if you like to enjoy your books, why not open up Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  

That's not the only mildly-horror-ish work Wilde wrote.  You could also track down a copy of his short story, The Canterville Ghost.  It probably won't "scare" you.  It's romantic-comedy with a ghost.  Now, if you don't like laughing or happiness then you could read The Yellow Wallpaper, which is by far one of the most disturbing short stories you could ever pick up.  It's a good example of how mood and narrative can construct something more unnerving than the typical "scary monster" can alone.

To end on a classy note, I'd like to recommend my favorite poem, My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, the scariest poem ever.

Hopefully now, you'll go on to enjoy Halloween without the tiring alcoholism and skimpy costumes that fetishize this children's holiday.

And if all else fails, there's still the best Halloween special ever...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ulleungdo Part IV: Brunch in the Basin

On my second and final day in Ulleungdo, Mr. K invited me to go with him and his friend to Nari Basin.  It was on the other side of the island and we would have to travel by bus along the coastline to get there.  That sounded like a fairly long trip, and there was no direct route through the middle of the island.  None that a bus could take.  From a ship, as one gets closer and closer to an island, the bigger and bigger it obviously becomes, but that size is an illusion.  Even traveling the long way, an island like Ulleungdo is in fact very small.  And it turned into a very short, enjoyable trip.

Mr. K's friend was a geologist and her English was mostly limited to the language of science.  At one point, I made the terrible mistake of asking her what her college thesis paper had been on, since it was connected to the island and probably what got her her job there.  She asked me if I knew about what X or Y or Z.  Despite them being all English terms, they were outside my realm of knowledge.  She could barely speak English and I could barely speak geology.

When we arrived at Nari Basin, I discovered Mr. K's true, sinister motive for inviting me along.  The basin was a massive crater created by the volcanic activity that had birthed the island.  Now, long after the volcano had gone into a deep sleep, it was a healthy farmland surrounded by wooded mountains.  From the basin one could hike to the highest point on the island and beyond, but that was not our goal.

We went to a local restaurant for brunch.  The woman there welcomed us with delight and brought Mr. K a large notebook and pencil.  With an influx in foreign visitors, this woman of an eighth-grade education and successful small business owner felt she needed help in communicating with them.  So we were going to write some simple English for greeting, ordering, and come up with English names for her dishes.

I was happy to help and because she was going to need to show us certain foods, we would be well fed and for free.  The first dish was a Korean pancake, which is far different from American pancakes and is frequently served as an appetizer.  But it was introduced to me as a Korean pancake, so I couldn't think of a better name to give it, especially since if any foreigners were aware of it, they might be familiar with this name than anything I could invent.

The charm and trouble with this task was coming up with appropriate names for things to make them sound appealing to English-speaking customers, while trying to keep in mind they probably already had English names I was unaware of.  The foods I knew I could tell them.  Others I titled simple descriptions.  So when presented with a liquor made from a local herb found in the mountains, I insisted on calling it an herb wine.  I didn't know the English name for the plant, so it was just an herb, and its usually safe to refer to a drink made from a fermented plant as a wine, so this was a wine.  Each dish was about like that.  They were all terrific and we ate until we were stuffed, everything had been written down in English and Hangul, and we could think of nothing else.  Then we left smiling and bowing.

Before leaving the island entirely, we stopped off at Hyangmok, known as one of the most beautiful places in all of Korea and it was.  But most wonderful to me was spotting a colossal jellyfish floating among the rocks there.  Bright orange and red and so alien to the world of vertebrae, I was fascinated.  I would have climbed down to it if not for my companions.

Oh, I should have.  I love jellyfish.  And I love Ulleungdo.  It is one of those places, so beautiful and precious, that the heart wrestles the mind as you board the boat home.  "Stay," it say.  "This is right."  Oh, I should have.  And that longing makes it all the more lovely.  But as always, we must go, until that day we forget ourselves and stay.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ulleungdo Part III: The Mysterious Mr. K

On Happiness

"You should do what you think will make you happy," Mr. K inelegantly quoted the Dalai Lama.  "So, I think traveling with you will make me happy."

Oh, the pressure.  Of all the horrors in the world, I place responsibility for the happiness of others toward the top.

Mr. K was a balding, middle aged man who had been working in Dodong as a translator for only three weeks at the time of our meeting, and he hadn't explored much of the island (though certainly much more than I had).  He had guided me to a nice motel, thanks to the recommendation of a french couple.  Then we walked to Dodong's Mineral Spring.

Mineral Spring
The water of this spring was supposedly thought to have a medicinal purpose of some kind, at least it was at one time.  Before I had tasted it, Mr. K warned me to not swallow the water.  Obviously by having it in my mouth, I would take in a little, but I should spit out the majority.  I just needed to coat my teeth to experience it.  It was a fair warning.  The taste was somewhere between acidic and metallic and wholly unappealing.

It was after this, while my stomach was empty and my mouth was trying to cope with the terrible flavor of the Mineral Spring's water, he sprung his concept of happiness and drew out a copy of the Dalai Lama's signature book, "The Art of Happiness."

With a little pause for thought, I agreed, partially out of an increasing fear of disappointment.  If I rejected his suggestion, I would cruelly leave Mr. K with a feeling similar to the obnoxious taste experienced by my mouth at the moment and I would be returning his helpfulness with rudeness.  Nothing could be further from my Mid-Western upbringing.  But, I also thought it would be nice to have an English speaking companion on the brief trip around the island.  However, there now lurked the terrible expectation of providing another with happiness.  A challenge that could leave all involved miserable.

On Religion

We walked downhill to a Buddhist monastery, and Mr. K showed me around one of the main buildings.  I asked ignorantly if we could go in and he replied, "Of course!  What is a monastery for?"  And I didn't really know.  Growing up in a predominantly protestant culture, monasteries seemed like a foreign, "European" thing, where nuns and monks paced about, sequestering themselves from the sinful world beyond the walls and living humble lives of self-denial.  That sounded like a monastery...and it didn't seem like a kind of place welcoming to outsiders.

Monastery from above
This building, however, was warmly decorated in red and gold with statues, photographs, and paintings strewn about.  Mr. K tossed a mat on the floor and demonstrated a bow.  Each time his nose touched the ground represented a single prayer.  We then walked around the building as he explained each of the murals that lined its walls.  This one showed the Buddha's miraculous birth.  This one showed his attempt to tame a cow.  This one showed his death and how the imprints of his feet came through the coffin as a symbol of his continuous teachings even after he died.

Mr. K asked if I had a religion and I said no.  He responded, much to my surprise, that neither did he.  But, it was obvious he observed some amount of superstition and spirituality.  Perhaps, he was just interested in history and old customs.  Perhaps, he was lying.

On Progress

Next, we took a bus to Bongnae Waterfall.  During the hike from the bus stop to the falls, Mr. K reflected on the changing terrain of Ulleungdo, and this is when I learned the origin of its title, "The Mysterious Island."  It was a slight error in translation.  The intent was to attract foreign tourists with a promise of an untouched gem, an unexplored island or, more realistically, a well-preserved island.  Of all the names it could have been given, "The Mysterious Island" was probably the best for attracting outsiders, creating a happy accident, though it definitely caused me some confusion to see the word mysterious paired with squid and pumpkin mascots.

But, that desire to bring tourism came with the unfortunate side effect of construction.  Mr. K bemoaned the construction crews who worked endlessly right outside his apartment window, waking him up early in the morning and hampering relaxation on his days off work.  There seemed to be a bit of construction everywhere, slowing strangling the unexplored (and mysterious) nature of the island.  As we reached the waterfall, we were greeted by a crane among rubble, waiting for us with promises of ruining a perfectly gorgeous view.

Bongnae Waterfall, complete with crane
On Japanese Bread

Returning to the bus stop, Dodong and dinner bound, something in our conversation lead to the topic of Japan.  Japan somehow sits in the back of the mind of everyone I meet in Korea just waiting to find a way into discussions.  And again came a bread metaphor, similar but different from what I had heard from the monk on my way to Haesindang.

Hopefully, I can replicate it accurately enough:
Japan, as a nation, is like a hungry man.  Everyone has a piece of bread, and for many, a little bread is enough to satisfy their hunger.  But Japan is not happy with its bread.  It sees other nations' breads and decides that the portion it has is not enough.  It wants theirs too.  So Japan takes it.
This metaphor made more sense than the monk's version, which may have been due to levels of fluency in the speaker.  While both arguments are clearly anti-Japanese in their logic, they come from a long history of conflict with Japan that continues to this day, and aren't particularly aimed at individuals as much as the idea of Japan (a problem within itself).  Ignoring current problems with Japan (to be addressed a little later), a lot of the Koreans' imagined version of Japan comes from World War II era imperialism.

Many Americans hold Germany as the great evil of World War II and their opinions of Germany are still somehow influenced by that today, even though it is obviously a dated perspective.  Those Americans might only see Japan as a lesser, subservient evil or something.  Korean, Chinese, and Filipino people tend to look at Japan as the great evil of that time period.   Germany to them was a far less serious threat, and is not taken as seriously today.

But what really bothered me about the metaphors was the use of bread.  What connection does Korea have to bread?  Bread is not a typical side to any Korean dishes.  It's not a staple food for their culture.  It's a luxury at best, and a disturbing mockery at worst.  Oh, the horrors I've witnessed.  Returning home from Paris Baguette with a loaf of beautiful Italian bread, soft and smelling so sweet, only to find it pumped full of cream filling.  Only monsters would do such a thing! ...anyway...  The metaphor would be better served with an Eastern dietary staple - rice, for example.  Though, it is entirely possible that since the metaphors were being told to a Western audience (me!), that bread was used so that audience could better relate.

And it can be hard to relate the concept of Japan as anywhere near villainous.  Japan?!  That happy-go-lucky curator of Pokemon, anime, and bizarre, borderline-creepy fashion.  Samurai couldn't be bad... Th-Their so cool!  Our version of Japan sits in stark contrast to Koreans', who are still entrenched in conflicts with Japan to this day.

My understanding of Japan... and fear...
In Dodong sits the Dokdo Museum, built to educate people on the islands' (Dokdo's) importance and connection to Korean history.  Both Korea and Japan claim these islands as their own (the Koreans call them Dokdo, the Japanese call them Takeshima, and we call them the Liancourt Rocks!), despite them being almost entirely uninhabited.  To us, what looks like a petty dispute over fishing territory is an important battle to Korea for national identity, freedom, and an end to the dark days where they were forced into subjugation.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ulleungdo Part II: The Seaside Walk

My ferry pulled into Jeodong Harbor and as I climbed out I noticed a funny sign hanging above the ticket office.  It was a picture of two anthropomorphic creatures, one a squid and the other a pumpkin, and they were riding a surf board.  Very few places have actual mascots, but Ulleungdo is one of them.  These two creatures sat on a plethora of signs across the island.  Mascots are notoriously gaudy symbols, and they can be very strange, but not strange in the way I was seeking.  My mind was on the “mysterious,” the strange and beautiful.  So I wanted to see the Haengnam Seaside Walkway.

The Seaside Walkway began at Jeodong Harbor.  All one has to do is walk from the ferry port to the far end of the harbor walls, where giant rocks and cliffs meld with it.  There sits a doorway with no door, carved into the wall.  Looking through from the port side, it looks like a drop off into the sea, but once you pass through you can see the winding road built into the side of the cliffs.  Most of the walk is paths carved into the cliff-face, but what make it appear so beautiful and strange are the arched bridges over gaps and massive spiral staircase leading up into a forest.

At the top of the stairs, I came to what was probably not a fork in the road.  On one side, leading downward was a large trail with our friendly squid mascot pointing the way.  On the other was a thin, dirt path going up into the forest.  This was obviously the right way to go.  I spent a few minutes climbing up the steep, dirty path as it wound through the forest, always up, until I came to a rocky break among the trees.  The trail seemed to lead into to the rocks, so I had no choice but to climb.  There I found a dangerous drop, where if a person took too many brave steps forward, he would go rolling down hill, off the side of the cliff, and into the rocky shores below.  But there was a beautiful view of Jeodong Harbor one could see through the trees.  It would have been a lovely place for a break, if I had remembered to bring water or some food.

The climb back down was much more dangerous than going up.  I’ve heard that it is always easier going down a mountain than coming up one.  All you have to do is jump.  I am terribly good at testing this theory, because I am terribly bad at traveling downhill.  I start walking and before I know it, I am running and leaping like a goat, ricocheting off of every tree to keep from flying off the path.

I continued downward at the fork that probably was not there, and until I came to another split in the trail.  I could either head to Dodong or the Dodong Lighthouse.  I was dying for water at this point and feeling like a complete idiot.  My bag was heavy with useless junk, and I was suffering from simultaneously packing too much and too little.  Water should be the first thing you bring hiking.  I knew there would be water at Dodong, but I didn’t want to skip the Lighthouse, so with sheer stupidity guiding my weakening footfalls, I began to head uphill again.

I walked up the forested cliff, taking pause each time I entered a break in the trees and could see the ocean sprawling endlessly below me.  Then I came to a very different area.  To my left were the usual trees riding up the steep, hilly ground, but to my right was a slowly descending field of tall grass.  For a moment, it was filled with a rustling.  I paused…raptors…  Then there it was again.  The brush moved and I ducked down.  They were all around me.  Along with the water, I had failed to bring my gun or machete.

The noises stopped and I began to walk along the path again, this time slowly, watching the brush.  The rustling returned and I dropped to my stomach.  There was a flash of movement in the tall grass.  Crouching I moved to look where it was going, and in a thin, clear spot a small, brown pheasant fearfully ducked down.  It saw me watching it and slipped back into hiding.  Aside from the rats and magpies, I don’t think I’ve seen many wild animals in Korea.  I was pleasantly surprised to see one, and it was a pheasant.  I’ve adored pheasants ever since a failed attempt to raise them.

At the peak of the cliff was the lighthouse, or rather, a couple large buildings.  I couldn’t see the lighthouse, but I did notice a drinking fountain.  Clear as day, it sat in an open courtyard.  I ran to it and nearly breaking off the handle, flung it on and shoved my face into the glistening, cool liquid.  Content and thoroughly drenched, I looked around and saw a middle-aged Korean couple giving me the stink eye.  With upturned noses, they spun around and went up a wooden staircase.  “Maybe the lighthouse is that way,” I thought and followed after them like an unwelcomed, but relentlessly friendly stray.

They couple had found a bench to sit at beside a bizarre dolphin statue.  Beyond that spot was a dead end where one could go to view Jeodong Harbor.  Turning around at this place I could see the lighthouse perched atop one of the large buildings.  I went in and started up the stairwell.  Before reaching the roof where the lighthouse was hidden I discovered an exhibit hall, which probably told tourists about the history of the island, but nothing was written in English, and I probably wasn’t supposed to be there.  The equipment for a video presentation was off…actually...all the lights were off.  I circled miniatures of the island and left the room.  My next stop was the roof of the build where the surprisingly small lighthouse sat.  I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be allowed inside.  The door to the roof was open, but the door to the lighthouse was closed.  Figuring this would be my only time there, I gave it a good pull, but I guess the lighthouse was off limits.

I got one more drink of water and began the hike to Dodong.  The trip began as a mostly downhill walk, from the lighthouse to a fork where one could either walk through a tunnel carved in the bamboo or go up and around it.  I barely spotted a small, black form moving along the highroad, just passing out of sight, and I didn’t want to bump into any unfriendly dogs (and the low road was aesthetically unique), so I cut through the bamboo.  The little, black creature had circled round to meet me, and turned out to be a goat.

The hills were littered with tiny farms, occupied with sheds and traditional houses where people’s clothes hung across the porches.  The goat obviously belonged to one of these farmers, but it was a slow day, as many Ulleungdo days seemed to be.  The goat roamed free and the people didn’t seem too concerned about it eating straight from the crops.  I would find out later that one of the cultural curiosities of Ulleungdo was their lackadaisical attitude.  It stands as a stark contrast to the majority of Korea’s bali bali lifestyle, but islanders can always afford to be laidback.

When I reached the shore again, I was met with another winding road cut into the cliff edge.  It was often steep goings-up, but the ways down were usually stepped.  The path would sometimes go through the cliffs, where it was probably unsafe or impossible to build around them.  Some areas were marked with falling rock signs, and others parts were not marked with signs, but with railings that had been ripped out of their places.  I imagine the walkway didn't usually look like this.  A typhoon had come through only a week ago, and probably had been responsible for the damage.

Once again, I became painfully thirsty and couldn’t find a reliable source of water.  Then I met a little cave in the cliffs.  There, water poured down through the rocks and someone had set out a large, orange tub to capture it.  A plastic ladle floated inside of it.  After watching a middle-aged, Korean hiker fill her bottle with the water I had no doubts about drinking it myself, and it was a wonderfully refreshing spring water that carried me the rest of the way to Dodong.

Dodong is a port town, slightly larger than Jeodong.  My first course of action was to find a place to throw my excess baggage, that way I could hike more freely.  As I walked up the hilly streets of the city, looking for a good, cheap motel, I noticed another bizarre sign featuring the pumpkin and squid mascots with the words “Welcome to the Mysterious Island” under them.  “How does the name ‘Mysterious Island’ become associated with cartoon characters,” I thought to myself.  As I began to walk again, an unusually friendly man with tiny glasses and a comb-over waved me down.

“Hello!  How are you?” he greeted me.  “Where are you going?”

“Good.  I’m looking for a hotel.”

“Do you mind sleeping on the floor?”

And that is how I was introduced to the mysterious Mr. K…