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What do the Starfish Think?

I haven’t made an update here for the last few weeks, and a lot of long-promised (albeit probably not long-expected) posts languish unfinished. People are probably wondering if I went for a swim in the ocean and didn’t come back. Rest assured: I fear the ocean as much as I ever did, and am safe and (mostly) dry… just busy.

The evidence: that’s me–mostly dry–playing “The Job Application Form Crashed My MacBook Again Blues” at a café in the area. But not the good café I mention later. This place was unheated and had mediocre coffee. And no, it’s not the doughnut place. (That was carried in by my sneaky wife.)

That’s the nature of job-hunting, and it’s a bit like writing: lots of sitting at a computer fiddling with details, hoping your intended meaning comes across, sending things off into the void and then waiting for responses… so you send out more things into the void. At least with job hunting, you’re allowed simultaneous submissions. But then again, job hunting in Korea does involve a lot more software interoperability problems unless you’ve got a Virtual Machine with a Korean install of Windows. My MacBook Air’s hard drive is suffering from the digital equivalent of muffin top already, so…

This is supposed to be my latop. It’s not me. Click to see where I got it.

Anyway, I mentioned long-promised, languishing posts: maybe tomorrow, for one of those. For today, I’m going to talk about what seems to have changed in Korea during my two years away. For those people who’ve been here those two years, the changes may not be so apparent, but to me? Impossible not to notice.

Let’s see…

For one thing, that campaign to get people to walk on the right seems to have succeeded. In fact, usually when someone unthinkingly reverts to bolting down the left side of a subway stairwell, it’s me, and I get baffled looks from old Korean men who wonder, “Doesn’t he know the rules?” The irony being that it took me years to unlearn passing on the right. The shift is contextual, of course: people follow it on subway stairwells, but not so much on sidewalks. But, yeah, that’s still a change.

On the subway train TVs, there’s also a fair amount of what you could call “sensitivity training” or, I suppose, it’s more like “consideration training”: basically it’s PSAs (Public Service Announcements) about how it’s uncool to shout into your phone, or, say, to blast music from headphones (of the now-rare variety that aren’t sound-blocking earbuds) so loudly that it annoys other people. On some lines at least–yeah, I’m talking about Line 1–things haven’t changed so much in terms of actual practice among passengers, but only so much can be achieved in a given span of time. Maybe PSAs and little campaigns are like the steady dripping of water–wearing away old habits, building new stalactites of, er, considerate behaviour? Okay, that analogy ran away from me, but the point is, the people running the train system seem to be trying slowly to chip away at the annoyances of subway riding, and, well, more power to them. If only the stuff they’re trying to stamp out got featured in some melodrama: that’d be the fastest ticket to overnight awareness, I think.

“Seriously! She was shouting into her phone all the way to Sindorim! And… when she hung up, she started texting. She’d programmed her phone to play percussion instruments with each keystroke! It was like a freaking drum solo! How inconsiderate!” (Actually, a screencap from an SBS television program, which I used in an earlier post.)

The biggest change I’ve seen is in the neighborhood where we’re staying. When we left Korea, “craft beer” (outside of the old-guard, imitate-the-Czechs type) was a tiny niche thing: there were a handful of little brewpubs, one convenience store that doubled as an overpriced bottle shop, and, well, there was a small community of homebrewers. I’d noticed the homebrew community growing online, since I never detached from that crowd, online, but returning to Korea, I was shocked to find how much of a force craft beer had become… at least in the Itaewon/Haebangchon/Kyeongnidan area. Craft beer everywhere; bottled beer all over the place; practically every place on certain stretches of road have at least one thing they’re selling as craft beer. And it’s not all beer made out of pure hops and American sweat, either: we enjoyed a nice chestnut brown ale (brewed, apparently, by “the Table”, whoever that is?) the other night at a place called Four Seasons, and one of the first beers I had was a passable Gose at Magpie. I even managed to find a beer named after the jazz musician I’ve been thinking about most lately:

Apparently some portion of the proceeds went to support “jazz education.” I bought it as easily as I would have a package of kimchi.

That’s not all that’s happened in the area. Churros have apparently become a thing. I don’t quite get the attraction, except for the fact that everyone else is having one: there’s almost always a lineup at Street Churros, there’s churros garbage all over on some days, and places surrounding the place have either gotten used to people walking in with the damned things, or have–like the excellent Chans Bros. Coffee–put up a sign saying “No Churros.” It’s not just churros, though: there’s gelato, now, actual gelato where there used to be nothing memorable. There’s a few pizza joints that serve styles of beer expats would have gnawed off a leg for, a few years ago. There’s decent burritos. There’s pretty good Italian food.

Another oddity is the number of places I’ve been that actually have foreign wait staff. This is something Koreans visiting the area seem to enjoy: having their booze or food served by a non-Korean. The restaurants that come to mind with this as a feature are Vatos Tacos and Il Gattino, but I’ve also seen it in a cafe–Avant Garde, just up the street from Street Churros and on the right.

This is totally not my picture. It’s from A FAT GIRL’S FOOD GUIDE TO EATING IN KOREA. (See her post on the joint here.) Also, this is the only time I’ve seen the place with no massive, enthusiastic lineup stretching around the corner and halfway down the street. Seriously.

And then there’s those Koreans who are enjoying the churros and the pasta at Il Gattino, and the tacos at Vatos. During the week, Itaewon, Kyungnidan, and Haebangchon are pretty similar to what I remember, except with some better shops and restaurants. But on the weekends–all day Saturday and all day Sunday–the area becomes a kind of domestic tourism site. It’s so full of Koreans it doesn’t even feel like a foreigner ghetto during those times. This is, in a way, nice: I mean, who likes ghettoes?

But in other ways, it kind of reminds me of the way people in Rome seemed to dislike the endless flows of tourists who filled the restaurants, who did everything wrong, who couldn’t speak the language, who brought their obnoxious habits with them. In the old days, you could walk into a coffeeshop in Itaewon knowing it wouldn’t be crammed with Korean people talking with what a Westerner would call Outside Voices. These days, it’s much harder to find such a place: The Tourists (as I call the deluge of Koreans who hit the neighborhood every week) fill practically every seat in the place. It really is at the point where Mrs. Jiwaku and I actually prefer to leave the area on weekends, because it’s less crowded and noisy elsewhere.

This is a weekday shot of the main street of Haebangchon. You’ll have to imagine this street full of Korean couples and groups of young women arm in arm, wandering about with eyes dazzled and mumbling questions like, “Is this the artist street? Is this where I can get a craft beer?” (Because I’m not going out there to photograph it for you.)

Not that I think it’s a completely bad thing. Partly it seems to be part of the whole digestion process involved in Korea starting to face the inescapable realities of demographic shift. South Korea’s greying at heart-stopping rate, and is going to become overloaded with its own elderly soon if it doesn’t accept inbound immigration; plus there’s the saturation of the Korean airwaves over the last couple of years with “foreigners” who actually speak Korean (and even foreigners who don’t) and who have clued folks in to the fact that, yeah, sometimes we understand what they’re saying at the next table, and sometimes we can talk back.

But it does make the neighborhood get a little crowded sometimes, and while I’m not that deeply invested in the neighborhood myself–it’s always just been a place I’ve visited, not someplace I’ve actually lived–I’m curious what the starfish think of the sea change… the ones who aren’t those many expats here involved in the local businesses that are profiting like crazy off it, I mean. Then again, there’s so much turnover in the expat population that maybe the bulk of the starfish in the area who aren’t profiting off the change, arrived when it had already happened or started to happen? I don’t know, but I am curious.

A picture I took on a trip to the beach years ago. No actual starfish were harmed during this outing.

On the bright side, it also seems to have rendered busking a decent pastime: I saw a cellist playing a folky-country version of Bach’s cello suites down in the 지하보도–the neighborhood’s underground walkway–and was briefly tempted to try my hand spending an afternoon busking there on my tenor sax, just to have a place to practice. (The apartment we’re renting is both too small for the noise, and too insecure in terms of practicing there being all but an open invitation for someone to come steal my horns while we’re out. I’m trying to hold out till I have a job on a campus someplace, and can go find the music department’s practice rooms…)

In the meantime, we’ve got a little place with good coffee near the place we’re subletting, where the barista is a great guy, fluent in Korean and English and blessed with good taste in music and the skill to make a killer cup of coffee. Right now he’s playing the frigging Köln Concert1:

… and there’s a small group at another table who seem to have taken the cue from the music, that some times and places are just for listening and quietness. Or maybe it’s just his voice: he has this great, gentle baritone that you can tell he could project like a sergeant if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, because there’s a time and a place and this café isn’t either.

Which is as it should be: cities need places like this too, even if they’re just built with deft choices of music, the right coffee beans, and a shop owner who exudes calm, quiet, reflective serenity. And very good brownies delivered twice a week from his baker buddy.

For the three of you reading this who want to go to this place, it’s just a little ways down from Paris Baguette. Here’s a small hint:

Don’t tell your friends, except the quiet ones who appreciate a quiet, lovely café and don’t want it ruined by loudmouths.

Since I have no real news of my own–except the standing-wave non-news of waiting for replies to applications, of interviews scheduled, of paperwork flying back and forth across the ocean to be red-tapified (and begging the saintly friend of a friend to help me get that done), of wondering where I’m going to have to fly to get my next work visa–I’ll leave you with something that’ll make you laugh.

Well, if you’re a musician, and have suffered through even a single bad online music instruction video, it will; if you’re a musician with little patience for mystical blather and shallow nonsense Dave King’s “Rational Funk” video series on Youtube is for you. King’s not only a great drummer in real life (with a bunch of bands, the most famous of which is The Bad Plus), but also a truly hilarious guy. It’s not all comedy with him, mind you: some of what he said in another video recently has got me thinking about ways of upping my game in terms of my fiction writing… though, actually, that video’s hilarious too, when it’s not profound, or sometimes it’s both at once, even.2

Still, anyway, if I were you’d I’d start with Rational Funk, because… er, because that’s how I did. Here’s the first installment, and the most recent. Each one is better than the last, but not one has failed make me laugh my guts out:

  1. You know, the Keith Jarrett CD, and yeah, it’s an endless grooving vamp and pretty melody, but I like it anyway, for its expressiveness and range, for how Jarrett nailed that country-tonk thing I heard later in pianists like Kenny Kirkland–though maybe they got it from the same place? Meh, anyway, I like it also for the kind of searching quality that exists in it, and for its prettiness–even though the more “out” stuff by the “American quartet” stuff always excited me more, because Haden and Motian and Redman were all great on so many of those scratchy library LPs of old. Man, Dewey Redman.

  2. The thing part that got me thinking about writing is from his discussion of his then-new project, The Dave King Trucking Company, which involves jazz musicians, but with everyone working to get away from the now-dominant approach to jazz, which basically is a recursive loop of Head, Solo, Solo, Solo, Solo (…), (Maybe Trading Fours), Head. What if you take people who can play long, complex solos, and then restrict them to mostly just playing something mostly planned out, and not inherently virtuoso, even when they’re capable of doing it? How does marriage of capability and limitation affect how they play? How do the skills or techniques transmute or sublimate when they’re blocked? Here’s most of the pertinent bit, at least the earlier part. But it’s all worth listening, if only for his apt slam on Rogen/Rudd/Apatow. It’s a musically interesting question, of course: I suspect that more interesting happens when you’re in a group where everyone comes from an improvisational background; when you’re the only one, less interesting stuff happens, in my experience anyway. But at the moment, I’m more interested in the question of that transmutability of withheld virtuosity or restrained mastery when it comes to building writing chops: if one of your strengths is character development, what happens when you push that toward the background and make the story stand on other legs?

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