Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I recently had the esteemed honor of attending the Korea Institute of Finance's (KIF) Annual Symposium. This year's Symposium marked the KIFs 15 year anniversary. Like any other arbitrarily assigned anniversary celebration, this conference was a big deal. I guess 15 is a good 'round' number - but it's definitely no 25. The KIF pulled out all the stops. From the grand reception to the luncheon to the superstar international celebrities to the neat little 3-ring binders, no expense was spared. They even had those cool translator channel radio tuners and earpieces like you see in news footage of the UN. Among the eminent dignataries and VIPs were the IMF's Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Stijn Claessens, the world's foremost expert on financial services sector corporate governance reform. Sounds utterly scintillating, right? Of course, wtih this kind of star power, the paparazzi devoted countless photogs (1), dispatched innumerable video cameras (2) and assigned dozens (5) reporters from international (local) news networks. For me, the highlights of the event were the hotel luncheon (formal Western meal) and the reception (open bar). Oh, and the deeply insightful presentations on financial sector reform and the future of economic growth in Korea blah, blah, blah.

The luncheon was particularly enjoyable due to the fact it was one of the few meals of recent memory where, relative to my tablemates, I knew what the hell I was doing.
I had a good mind to use the opportunity to extol the virtues of the formal place settings and Western table ettiquette and traditions,
but when folks grabbed forks on their right and looked
quizzically at the tiny knife just north of their plate and eschewed to them what seemed to be extraneous silverware, I decided to just keep quiet and enjoy the free meal.

Now, I've been to enough meetings, conferences, receptions in my day to know how these things work. And the KIF "15th Anniversary Symposium on Finance and Economic Growth in Korea" was pretty standard. There were, as would be expected, a few uniquely Korean variations.
Most prominently, perhaps, the open bar served only Jack, scotch and wine. Not so open, after all. The Empire never made it to this peninsula, so don't expect to find any gin over here. Another notable difference was the showmanship. The organizers of the event were not content to have a KIF executive or staffer serve as the master of ceremonies. No, the KIF contracted with a corporate event announcer - a professional emcee. Now, I'm sure this exists in the occident as well as the orient, but it was totally new to me. In any case, I was mesmerized by his voice. His smooth tone and well-inflected delivery suggested a failed career in radio broadcasting. Can't you just imagine him starting out as a promising college radio dj, getting hired by the top station in Seoul, then being involved in some scandal, probably a result of an on-air gaffe and getting relegated to piddly corporate events work, introducing total strangers at receptions and awards banquests, barely eeking out a meager living, biding his time until he can make that one last run toward radio fame?
I just don't suppose this job is the ultimate career for aspiring vocal talent. But hell, for all I know this guy is Korea's answer to Billy Crystal. Really, though, he had some great pipes.
The majority of you readers, I suspect, have just returned to work (or school) from a short-but-welcomed Thanksgiving Day vacation. Judged by most retailers as the start to the Christmas Season, America' s Thanksgiving holiday kicks-off an extended period where we reflect on the relationships which most affect our lives – be they personal relationships, familial relationships, your relationship to your job, your contributions to or assistance from the community, your relationship with spirituality, mysticism, religion or God or the gods. Then, depending upon whether you are haunted by the guilt of having taken too much or are possessed with the superiority and condescension of your self-serving altruism, you exorcise the particular demons by consuming – holiday food, buying gifts for loved ones, splurging on yourself, donating money to your charity of choice, etc. The season culminates with New Year's Eve/Day, where we all make a bunch of promises (usually unkept) to improve ourselves. Hopefully, like we here at seoulitaryconfinement, most of you feel terrible for being such jerks all year and try like hell to make up for it in these last 37 or so days. Atonement aside, Thanksgiving celebrations require a few simple-but-necessary ingredients. Should you fail to incorporate these particulars with as little variation as possible, well, then, you shall fail to celebrate Thanksgiving, which is about as lame as failing to chew without biting yourself.


1. Turkey, replete with Tryptophan - a holiday bird and its chemicals are necessary for contracting the "Itis" (see #10 below).
2. Starchy Sides - potatoes (sweet or idaho) prepared to your liking, corn, bread-crumb stuffing/dressing (depends on whether or not it is in or out of the bird).
3. Bread - usually in the form of dinner rolls
4. Macaroni & Cheese - best if made in a crock pot.
5. Anything Made in a Crock Pot
6. French's Onion Green Bean Casserole
7. Vegetables
8. Pie - usually pumpkin, but any pie shall suffice.
9. Booze - just keep it legal, also helps to induce the proper stasis...
10. The "Itis" - a natural defense mechanism against gorging, it is the condition where upon nearing critical food mass you loose consciousness despite sensory overload.

Of course, American expatriates get special dispensation from these otherwise stringent requirements. For example, if you are an American in Seoul, finding a turkey on Thanksgiving Day may be difficult. The upscale hoteliers offered both take-out and dine-in Thanksgiving meals. The take-out price for the smallest turkey and sides was approximately $162 (serves 4). Given the cost-prohibitive nature of keeping a traditional Thanksgiving, dinner at an American franchise was a servicable alternative. The spirit of the Thanksgiving season is not totally unknown here in Seoul. For example, they put up their Christmas/New Years decorations way too god-damned early - just like home. I mean, sure, Advent already started, but c'mon...

Also, Koreans do celebrate a Thanksgiving-like holiday which shares many attributes with America's holiday. Chusok is Korea's harvest holiday. Celebrating the promise of a bountiful harvest, Koreans travel home to gather with extended family and feast. Some families take the opportunity to perform ancient Confucian ceremonies honoring the deceased.As the holiday celebration coincides with the harvest moon (15th day of the 8th lunar month or Oct. 6, 2006),Koreans may offer prayers to the moon wishing good-health, happiness and prosperity to friends and family. This year, seoulitaryconfinement was honored by Korean friends with an invitation to a traditional Chusok breakfast. This experience well makes up for any subsequent Thanksgiving celebration malfunctions. Of course, even in Korea, the Thanksgiving celebration is incomplete without the "Itis".Thanks Hans!!!

Friday, November 17, 2006

In America, the third Saturday in October is Sweetest Day. Did you celebrate on 10/21/2006? As the name implies, I'm pretty sure a proper Sweetest Day observance requires nothing more than purchasing and distributing readily available, cellophane wrapped, pre-packaged confections. Functionally, Sweetest Day is most similar to October's other sugar-driven holiday, Halloween. Cynics might argue that Sweetest Day is a brilliantly conceived marketing ploy to sell even more candy in October. However, sincere folks like you associate Sweetest Day with Valentine's Day and recognize it as a day in which to honor love, the institution. Yet, while Valentine's Day has a long, traceable history, religious affiliation and world-wide participation granting it some semblance of credibility, Sweetest day is admittedly a corporate creation, perhaps the chintziest of the "Hallmark Holidays". I mean, "who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?!" Korea is not immune to its own corporate, confection-pushin' conceptions. It may be argued that Korea is actually MORE prone to such commercially oriented events. But the point is this: 11/11 is Korea's Pepero Day (빼빼로) - a day in which to buy and distribute Pepero to your sweetheart. Pepero are chocolate-dipped, extra-thin breadsticks/pretzelsticks. The origin of this day is uncertain, but it likely stems from the date. When written, November 11th (11/11) resembles 4 Pepero sticks. Other explanations recall a period in 1994 when middle-school aged girls in Busan, Korea, in a display of twisted social perceptions, bestowed Pepero sticks to each other with the kind wishes that they would all grow up to be tall and thin like Pepero. Sounds totally sane, right? The true origins of this holiday become clear, to the cynics, when you realize that Pepero is not a generic name for the treat, but, in fact, a brand name cookie from the Lotte Corporation. Imagine a Twix Day in North America/UK, consider the benefits to Mars Inc. and you start to get a sense of Pepero Day. Look at how advanced the cross-marketing techniques are here in Seoul. You want Pepero for your lover? You wanna have a few beers to set the mood? Well, you can get them both, taped together for your convenience.
As I started to organize my thoughts on Pepero day and its conspiratorial, commercial nature, it became clear my opinions were not unique or original. Of course, others had reached the same conclusions, right? Yes. Linda Yoon at The Wall Street Journal (syndicated subscription free in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) offered a thoughtful and well researched expose. The e-news version of a local Korean paper "The Joongang Daily", highlighting a list of expatriate blogs, detailed the Pepero phenomenon with all the witty cynicism you would otherwise find here at seoulitaryconfinement.
It was Joongang's reference to the most popular" expatriate blog, TheDailyKimchi, which gave me pause. As some of you know, we at seoulitaryconfinement are quick to loathe and despise anything that is too popular. Well received movies or music. Fashionable clothing trends. Voting. Basically, if too many people like it or do it, something must be wrong. The same goes for opinions. Realizing that my comments were very similar, too similar, to TheDailyKimchi, I had to distance myself from their vapid, trite pabulum. What follows is the result of several minutes of deep research into the Korean culture's collective psyche; the true meanings of Pepero Day explained here!

Leaving behind the pathetic slights to Korea's commercial culture, I embarked on a thorough, academic inquiry of this cultural event, replete with reference book citations and in-depth, primary source, first-person interviews.

According to the Korean-English dictionary software on my PC:

빼빼 (PePe)
thin; rawboned; skinny; hag-gard; gaunt; emaciated.
┈┈• ∼ 마른 사람 a bag of bones; a living skele-ton
┈┈• ∼ 여위다 be worn to a shadow.

This illuminating definition underscores the deep insufficiency and hypocrisy of existing Pepero Day explanations. On the one hand, we have the story of school-girls who value the tall and thin body type, by definition, to the point of being gaunt, emaciated. These very same girls celebrate by giving each other chocolate cookies. Hmmmm, seems like a pretty underhanded way to wish your girlfriend a happy, slender post-pubescence. Maybe 11/11 is the one day a year they allowed themselves to cheat on their rigid diets?

I followed up this groundbreaking definitional discovery with an equally groundbreaking one-on-one interview with a primary source...a real, actual Korean. No shit. A coworker passed my cubicle and witnessed me viewing pictures of Pepero (many of which are posted here); he wanted to explain everything to me. Like Newton under the apple tree, these are the types of galactic coincidences which, when coupled with extremely hard work and dedication, separate the truly brilliant academics from the rest. Like the curds rising above the whey, I had distinguished myself from the rest of the blogosphere. The conclusions from this lengthy, minutes-long Socratic dialogue are thus: An old Korean superstition holds that the number 11, especially when encountered in calendars or clocks is a reminder of two people, standing side by side. It is at these moments one should think of his or her most significant partner and 11/11 is the most important of these moments.

Eureka!! Clearly, the testimony of this one Korean is to be taken as Gospel. He was born here. He lives here. He knows what he is talking about.

Having elucidated the inconsistency of the school-girl Pepero Day explanation, destroying it using a mere dictionary definition, my serious academic inquiry delivers the expatriate blogosphere from medieval feudalism to the high renaissance. Huzzah!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Strangely, I’m not dead.

As a dear friend and fellow patriot, R. Fitzgerald, eloquently and insightfully notes:

I’m surprised that so many people vote on election day given that: 1) the voting population is sufficiently large as to render the probability that an individual’s vote will have a meaningful impact on the election effectively zero; and 2) the incremental value attached to the election of one candidate rather than another is open to question and probably small. However, so long as point (1) holds, it is still irrational to vote even if the outcome of the election determined whether one lives or dies, given that one’s behavior does not have a statistically significant chance of affecting the outcome.

This is why it makes sense to participate in a vote among five people with respect to where to go dinner, and why it doesn’t make sense to vote for president in a country with hundreds of millions of eligible voters, assuming one’s objective is solely to have an impact on the outcome of the election. Which is to say that it is not irrational to vote in a situation in which point (1) holds, so long as there is another objective in mind, e.g., extracting value from the exercise of a perceived civic duty. But I would even hazard a critique of this objective on the grounds that voting, to be precise, is a right rather than a duty.

I post his thoughts here with the utmost, wholehearted approbation. We vote to make heard our voices.
In national Congressional elections, when we share an agenda with a political candidate, casting a vote in her favor is the crux of our democratic process. When you have no vested interest in either competing platform, when you are economically or emotionally indifferent to the election outcome, when you despise both alternatives on the ballot before you, there is no greater statement to make, no greater way to show your support for our system of government than simply not to vote. To abstain from a vote is not un-American. Exercising your right not to vote does not mean you are politically uninformed or lazy. Not voting means not advocating inferior personnel or bad ideas.

Not voting shows your faith in the American system to continue despite unqualified politicians and bad policy – that the system transcends the people involved. Not voting is a tool for the disenfranchised, disillusioned, and disappointed. At sufficiently low levels of voter participation, political parties are forced to change or risk ceding power to new, better parties. Nothing would shake more greatly the foundations of our two-party system than if the Republicans/Democrats could no longer take their respective “bases” for granted.

Certainly a tricky task, knowing when your vote will legitimately affect the election outcome is not impossible. In the most recent mid-term elections, American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate estimates 40.4% of voting-age Americans made it to the polls. Historically, this turnout is significantly high, though not record setting. In Virginia and Ohio, turnout rates were even better, 43.7% and 44.6% respectively. Because this mid-term election presented an opportunity for only a few races to determine the majority rule in Congress, it is no surprise that voter turnout was higher than normal. As it turns out, Virginia’s Senator will determine the balance of power in that chamber and in a race where the outcome holds such importance, people made their voices heard. To the electorate, the Democrats and Republicans championed the critical importance these mid-term outcomes and the people who place a high value on majority control turned out in near-record numbers. For me, this confirms the intuition that if your vote really can affect noticeable change, you will cast it. However, as R. Fitzgerald would probably agree, to our lives the relevance of Congressional majority power is miniscule and relatively unimportant. Thank you to those who Rocked The Vote! To those brave souls who abstained - HOLLA! and RIP.

A contextual note: I vehemently object to the direct election of Senators. Blame for this Constitutional bastardization, the 17th Amendment, should be placed squarely with the Progressive Era and WR Hearst’s profit-motivated muckraking. The Federal Government should first and foremost afford representation to the State Governments.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


All Hallows' eve has come and gone. Like every year, I went ahead and carved myself a pumpkin. Can you recognize the symbol I etched into the gourd?

Halloween is primarily an American event. Though it traces it's roots to Europe's pagan peoples, the commercialized, candy-laden, apple-bobbin', gaudy costumed event we know today is pure Americana. I hold Halloween in pretty high esteem; something about the inherent youthful joys of mystery and surprise, the brisk fall nights, trying-too-hard-to-scare-yourself-on-purpose and a late-night sugar rush. I also have an somewhat heretical affinity for the occult (Spates Catalog. Tobin's Spirit Guide. The Edge of Hell.). Though, I don't really believe in any of that stuff. Thanks to dedicated shills like myself, this holiday is a major cultural export.

I tried to excite the office with a with a few festive decorations and the offer (read: bribe) of free candy. If it works on American children, it must be worth a try here in Seoul.

Well, needless to say I was once again dancing to the beat of my own drum. While the candy was a welcome treat for my coworkers, nobody was familiar the traditions or meanings of All Hallows' Eve. Though, if they didn't know about Halloween before, they know now.

On Halloween, it's very important no matter where you are, that you be wary of the standard spooks, spirits, incantations, hexes, etc. First among these threats, I'd wager, is the black cat. Woe is the man who crosses paths with one of these ominous felines. Nonetheless, I find it best to face your fears and dismiss the superstition. Some folks will tell you they are not cat people. Me? I'm definitely a cat person.