Weekend in Kanghwa-do

Spent the weekend in Kanghwa-do with a friend. I have never been one for the usual tourist destinations so many of the highlights of the island listed in tourist brochures went unseen. The highlight for me was the hike on the first day through some hills on a small country road in the south of the island, through some farmers’ fields and along the southern coast of the island to a popular beach. Since the island is so close to North Korea, the coastline was actually a military restricted area but we walked unmolested along most of it. A man on a bicycle passing by told us it was restricted but we learned from soldiers at the next checkpoint that he was a high ranking officer out on a bike ride. When we told the biker/officer we were trying to walk along the coast to the beach, he let the soldiers further down the path know that we were harmless and to let us through. The many empty checkpoints and observation boxes along the coast had human shaped plastic scarecrows that could be set up to look like people were manning the positions.

We ended up not climbing any of the hills on the island, which in any case average around 350 meters. I’m actually glad, the hordes of other climbers, all clad in standard Korean hiking uniforms and equipment reminded me of climbing on Halla-san in Cheju-do where we essentially stood in line to get up the mountain behind hundreds of people (including groups of women sweating through their heavy make-up). Much more enjoyable was the wonderful and quiet stroll along forested country roads we got on Saturday afternoon when a local told us how to get through the hills to the coast the fastest way by an older road not marked on many maps. I recommend these country strolls in Korea as a wonderful alternative to the industrial tourist staircase that is so much hiking in Korea. You can often find yourself behind so many mountaineers you might have guessed you were on a subway stairway at rush hour if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is wielding useless metal poles and carrying plastic mats to keep the rear of their expensive and fashionable hiking pants from getting any dirt on them when they sit down.

A few places that got saved on my GPS from the weekend:

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Trip to Cheju-do

I haven’t had a chance to blog much about it but I made a trip of almost a week to Cheju-do. The original purpose was for a Fulbright researcher conference where all the junior researchers presented on the progress of their research but I went early with one of my fellow researchers because the conference was only a few days after April 3rd. This year is the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the April 3rd, 1948 uprising on Cheju island. We went early to participate in various memorial events, visit the Cheju 4.3 peace park, and the huge museum just opened in the park, and I was also able to attend an international conference on the uprising. I may blog more about Cheju 4.3 over at Frog in a Well – Korea but in the meantime, here is a quick google map mashup of places visited, something I was able to create quickly since I saved various locations on my GPS reader.

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The Dangers of a Sample Size of One

I spent a few hours in the Shandong provincial library here in Jinan this morning to pass the time while I waited for an appointment with a professor at Shandong University. After spending less than ten minutes to get a one year library card for 15RMB (Using my Chinese name 林蜀道, American passport, writing down Harvard as my 单位, my parents’ Oklahoma address for my home address, and my Korean cellphone for my cellphone—it is so incredibly refreshing to be in a place where I can do this kind of thing without a citizen registration number or even a local address. Note: if you want to check out books you have leave them a 100RMB deposit.) I poked around the various reading rooms in order to see whether this might be a useful place to visit more often when I move to Shandong later this year.

In order to enter the “Shandong local materials” room on the fifth floor I had to sign in at the door. I like the fact that people I have met in China over the years are not often surprised to see that I can write Chinese characters, in stark contrast to the amazement this frequently generates if I write in the simple Korean writing system in Korea or the mix of writing systems used in Japan. However, around two thirds of the time, when Chinese people notice that I’m writing with my left hand they will express their surprise by telling me, “You write with your left hand!” I usually just smile, agree, nod, and keep writing instead of adding that, unlike many of my fellow lefties in places like China, I was not subject to abuse throughout my childhood that forced me to use my right hand.

Today however, there was an interesting addition to this common exchange when a cleaning lady who had come over to watch me sign in added her own observation.

Librarian: 你是用左手的! You use your left hand!
Me: 对. Yup.
Cleaning Lady (with confidence): 对,他们都是用左手的! Ya, they all use their left hand!

New Personal Homepage

This weekend, I started a complete rewrite of my personal homepage, which is long overdue. I designed the last one back in 2000 and some of the text there still reflects this. Also, for a long time now, my homepage at konrad.lawson.net has not been showing up in the Google database at all, and I have confirmed that it is the host which is the problem.

Thus, together with a redesign of the webpage, I am moving it here to Muninn. Now if you go to Muninn.net top level page you will find my personal homepage and this blog can be found linked via the “Projects” page of the new homepage along with other online sites I have created. I will eventually forward konrad.lawson.net to the new home here at Muninn and phase that older site out.

The new site is a work in progress, but so was the last one—which it remained after seven years.

2007 – Year in Review

On my way back to Seoul after two weeks or so in the United States I looked through the past year’s worth of pictures, calendar events, diary entries, blog postings, audio recordings, and emails—the historical archive of my life in the year 2007. What kind of narrative can be constructed from the mountain of fragments of so recent a past? What failures and tragedies omitted? What triumphs will be glorified? What distortions will my own reflections produce?

The first five months of the year find me in Cambridge, MA for the Spring semester of the third year of my PhD program in history. I lived in an apartment some fifteen minutes walk from the university campus together with one of my best friends and fellow historians Fabian who, in addition to filling my dinners and evenings with the joys of wonderful and highly educational conversations, introduced me to the wonders that are balsamic vinegar and hummus. Not to be laughed at, these two new additions to my heavily bread-based diet provide me with two possible replacements for cheese when the environment (e.g. the USA and Korea) has little worthy of the name to offer.

The year opens with a bang as my fellow third year PhD students and I desperately assemble that prophetic document: the Dissertation Prospectus. The process of making third year students assemble a dissertation prospectus, as I came to understand it at the time, is designed to measure three important skills of the Academicus Novitius in the three following tasks.

  • The first is the bread and butter of the institution: to demonstrate a mastery of the literature and expansive knowledge about a field which one has yet to master and has, as yet, little knowledge about. For this, the process of preparing for one’s oral examinations in the second year has provided ample training.
  • Second, to ask an interesting and broad question related to one’s topic and explain in some detail what fascinating answers and claims such a question might lead to. The trick with this second task, apparently, is not to seem to know the answer already – since one has yet to begin one’s research into the question such a presumption would be deeply problematic – but also one must not seem like one has no answer to the question because this leaves open the terrifying dual possibility that either a) the answer is unattainable or at least beyond the reach of a humble graduate student or b) the answer is completely uninteresting.
  • Finally, the prospectus is designed to measure the basic oracular proficiency of the graduate student. This is closely linked with the second task. The prospectus is essentially a prophetic document, wherein one predicts which books and archives will be found useful, what methodology will be found effective, and what structure and argument the as yet unwritten and un-researched dissertation will ultimately take. Unfortunately, one is not permitted to present the prospectus in Delphic riddles, which is a shame, since the preparation would probably be much more fun. I believe the entire ritual ought best be concluded with a ceremonial burying of the prospectus in a time capsule, perhaps under the floor of the history department’s lower library, where the prospectus conference is held. This might be combined with the digging up of the prospectuses of PhD candidates who have just submitted their dissertation. Those who wrote a dissertation remotely resembling their prospectus could get an award, perhaps the “Order of Delphi,” and the third year students could all look on in admiration.

Continue reading 2007 – Year in Review

Small Expectations

While descending some stairs into the Shinchon subway station here in Seoul, Korea this evening, I was stopped by a boy perhaps five or six years old. Blocking my path, he smiled brightly and said, “안녕하세요” (a Korean greeting). I waved to the kid and replied with the same, “안녕하세요.”

Hearing my reply, the boy suddenly assumed a scornful expression, widened his stance slightly and put his arms on his hips. I was then asked in an angry tone, without, I might add, any of the linguistic deference the Korean language usually dictates in the case of a child addressing someone of my age, “Why didn’t you say it in English?”

Taken aback, I realized I had completely failed to live up to my responsibilities as a blonde white foreigner in Korea, and quickly repented. I bowed deeply and gave him a very exaggerated English, “Hello!”

This appeared to satisfy the pretentious little punk. He gave me a very condescending nod of the head, accompanied with an audibly dismissive, “Hmmph,” before allowing me to pass and continuing his way up the stairs.

Though it made no difference to me, I hope that, as my young friend ages, someone will get the chance to tell him that English is not necessarily the default language of choice for all Caucasions in the world.

I must say though that, for some reason, this short exchange made my evening.


Ølberg I was well on my way to spending a lazy Saturday reading on the couch but the wonderful weather outside convinced me I should hop on my uncle’s bicycle and go for an afternoon ride. I have blogged a little bit about some of these delightful afternoon rides that I took to Mosterøy and Rennesøy last summer. Today I rode along the western coast, passed the airport and Sola beach to the area known as Ølberg, now perhaps best known as the location of a small beach, harbor, cafe, and a few recreational cabins.

My hometown, Stavanger, is on a peninsula, north of which are to be found countless islands and the thousand meter tall cliffs that hang over the deep fjords such as Lysefjorden. To its south until one reaches the town of Egersund there is a stretch of land known as Jæren. The land south of Ølberg already resembles the larger region of Jæren and the terrain, which is mostly farmland up this point, is dominated by rolling hills and very rocky grassland, dotted with the occasional grazing grounds for sheep. The coastline is also very rocky, and one can occasionally find fascinating layered rock formations there.

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After basking in the sun on the rocks near Ølberg, I rode a few kilometers south to the village of Tjelta before turning back towards Stavanger. Tjelta is a strange place and along the coast there I found a number of huge houses that I could only describe as decadent. Apparently some rich construction magnate lives here. He may have been the old man I saw driving an antique automobile back and forth along the road I passed. He may have been related to the child I passed who was driving a full-sized golf cart down the hill towards another house (the kid could not have been more than eight or nine years old, his head barely reached over the golf cart’s steering wheel. I almost fell off my bike staring at him in wonder).

Bunker at Tjelta One thing I thought about as I rode was how the landscape of Norway’s coastline still bears the scars of World War II. I must have passed at least half a dozen German bunkers on ride today. The thing which stands out the most at the small harbar at Ølberg is the bunker on top of the hill. Throughout Stavanger and the entire region (probably most of the more strategically important coastline of Norway) the empty shells of these bunkers can be found along the beaches, coastal cliffs, and embedded in the hills near the coast. Some of them have been filled in by local farmers, others serve as hangouts for local youths and gangs and are filled with graffiti and trash. Bunker at ØlbergThe remains of the bunker at Ølberg was somewhat more elaborate than most, as a number of passageways and the concrete base of what may have once mounted a coastal cannon or other structure also remains (some more pictures here, here, and here) They are a constant reminder of the fact that German forces once occupied the country and peered across the water on the lookout for any potential British invasion force.

I’m sure these bunker remains and other similar sites are to be found in many places around Europe and these visual reminders of the war must invoke complex memories for many. For children, however, these sites are often just exciting or mysterious locations to play games or engage in mischief. In my own case, the German bunker in my grandmother’s neighborhood where I played every summer as a child (on the hillside less than 60 meters from where I now type this blog entry) was filled in by a local farmer. That didn’t stop me and another childhood friend from trying to pry loose a large rusted piece of something (it was a long tube of some kind) from the rocks in the bunker. We imagined it was part of some wartime weapon. As I lifted the piece and my friend tried to remove some of the rocks under it. However, I lost my grip and the rough edge of the rusted metal badly tore the skin from the back of my friend’s hand as he tried to remove it. I took it at the time as a sign that such things are best left undisturbed.

A Japanese Company Man’s First Norwegian Encounter

I spent a few hours napping in a departure lounge of Frankfurt airport this afternoon waiting for my Oslo flight. Sitting behind me was a middle aged Japanese man, an engineer of some kind who works on those traffic computers found in cars. He is off to Oslo on a business trip and it is apparently his first time to Scandinavia.

I learnt all of this because I overheard his conversation with a young bespectacled Norwegian girl who is on her way back from spending five weeks in Nagoya and Nara on a Lion’s Club exchange program. She is from Trondheim and school is starting again tomorrow. She might have to spend the night at the airport though because her flight arrives late and she may miss the last bus back to her hometown, some forty five minutes away. I couldn’t help wondering if she was from a town near my own mother’s hometown which is also a bit of a drive into the country from both Trondheim and its airport.

I heard large chunks of the conversation as I dozed in and out of sleep and concluded that the whole thing must have been quite a shock for the poor Japanese man. They spoke in English to each other but he had great difficulty expressing himself in the language. He had problems on all fronts; pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. I don’t think he understood everything she said either, since the woman had to repeat herself often and his answers often seem to be in response to questions other than those she had asked. Other times he seemed to just be at a loss for words.

The woman did 95% of the talking and she had quite a bit to tell her new friend about what she thought about Japan and what Norway was like. She told him that she had visited a factory in Nagoya belonging to the company he worked for and she said they made many “clever” things. She also said she visited a factory where miso was made, and her disgust at this process put an immediate and permanent end to her miso consumption.

She told him she was worried about how he would react when he got to Norway and discovered how short he really was. “You are so short. Japanese are all so very short. I thought I was short since my boyfriend is 185 but you are really short. Why are you all so short?” I heard only a long “Uhhhhh…” in response before she continued with more of her observations.

The next time I focused in on their discussion I think they were discussing her home-stay situation in Japan. I suddenly heard her say, “You know in Norway we share….you know women and men….we all share. My boyfriend—he likes to cook. He cooks all the time. And the clothes, he loves to wash the clothes. You see we share in Norway, not like you.”

I’ll have to ask my mother how normal it is for men around Trondheim to be such dedicated fans of cooking and laundry. If it is true, I think we should make these northern domestics into our national mascot. At any rate, I think this business man has received a sufficient warmup for his journey to the north where he no doubt believes that no question is too direct, no physical feature spared comment, and no gender inequality goes unpunished.

Today’s Code-Switch Spotting

Today at a rice porridge restaurant near my apartment Sayaka and I overheard some interesting code-switching going on at the table next to us. A woman was struggling to feed her three children, two of which were being less than cooperative. Sometimes she would speak full sentences in Chinese, but with an accent that at first made me think she was a non-native speaker. I later concluded she was just speaking a dialect close enough to standard Mandarin for us to understand but not of the variety I was most familiar with. She seemed to slur her words in an interesting way and pronounced some syllables differently.

As the meal progressed she began code-switching with her children. One child was significantly older than the others and the mother seemed to speak to her mostly in Korean. However, a number of things such as her pronunciation and the occasional and almost random use of honorifics when speaking to her children indicated that she was less than native in Korean. With her two younger children she freely mixed Chinese and Korean, sometimes speaking several sentences in a row in Korean, then switching to Chinese, especially when barking frustrated commands to her restless children (why didn’t the father join them for their Sunday lunch? She sure could have used the help with the kids). She also freely mixed both languages in the same sentence, such as when she tried to convince her youngest that the spoonful of smoking rice porridge headed for his mouth was not hot, “不热了,먹어요, 不热了,먹어!” The youngest child always responded in Chinese, but perhaps due to his young age struggled with some of the initial consonants, turning Chinese initial consonants like c-, zh-, ch-, q- into t-, d-, t-, t-, respectfully, in a most adorable manner.

One possible background story for this family is that the mother is married to a Korean husband, learning Korean after coming here and starting a family with her new husband. Their marriage would be one of the many “invisible” international marriages in a country which has a fast growing number of Korean males marrying foreigners, especially Chinese and Vietnamese women. As I have mentioned in early postings, given my own background, I feel an intense feeling of identification with these children, no matter what their own unique mix of languages and identities might be. I hope the kids I saw today will be able to keep their Chinese as they grow up in Korea and that the social and educational environment for my young fellow hybrids will allow them to develop to their full potential.