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This is how we roll in Vancouver.

This is how we roll in Vancouver.

A few years ago, my wife’s mother and father were visiting from Korea. During their visit, something happened that is a perfect illustration of what I think is the best thing about Vancouver’s West End – the incredible sense of freedom it provides.

We were at a noodle shop on Robson Street. The in-laws were facing the street. KJ and I were facing the kitchen. About midway through the meal, KJ’s mom suddenly started to exclaim something in Korean. I looked up and her eyes were wide with surprise.

KJ’s dad looked up to see what she was so startled by. His eyes went wide too, and then he also started speaking Korean excitedly.

KJ looked over her right shoulder towards the street, I looked over my left, we both saw about a hundred naked people riding bikes, and then we promptly turned our attention back to our noodles. We had both been living in the West End for years by the time this happened. Nothing shocked us any longer.

Our blasé attitude towards mass public nudity shocked KJ’s parents even more than that year’s edition of the Naked Bike Ride. This just isn’t done in Korea.

You’ll notice most of the naked bike riders are wearing helmets. That’s because it’s the law.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the West End is the only place in the world where folks feel free to ride their bikes naked. It’s called the World Naked Bike Ride, after all, and something like 70 cities took part last week. But I bet it takes a bit more courage to participate in most of those cities than it does in Vancouver.

As the naked bike riders rode past Ian and I along Denman Street, nobody said anything much about it. A bunch of folks watched, amused. A greater number of folks, though, just kept on walking as if nothing was happening. No insults hurled or anything like that. It was all very live-and-let-live, which sums up the West End quite nicely.

As long as you’re not hurting anybody, you can pretty much do whatever you like. You could probably walk naked down the street any day of the week if you wanted to. In fact, I once saw a dominatrix taking her “slave” out for a walk on Davie Street. She was wearing leather. He wasn’t wearing much of anything at all, except for some contraption around his willy – to which a leash was attached so his mistress could lead him around. As I recall, nobody said anything about that either.

The West End has to be one of the most tolerant and free places on Earth. I love it, and I couldn’t be happier to live here again after so many years away. A lot has changed in Vancouver, but the West End still seems to be as tolerant and free as ever.

Sure hope they put on some sunscreen.

No bike left behind.

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For the past week, we have been in Ohrid, Macedonia. For a week before that, we were in Sofia, Bulgaria. Both cities are in the Balkans and both spent decades under Communism. However, that’s about all these two places have in common. Whereas Ohrid is dynamic and thriving, Sofia gives every indication of needing a Prozac.

Sofia is a positively gloomy place. Many of the buildings are crumbling. You look at some of them and see rebar showing from the bottoms of balconies – not a place you’d want to be in an earthquake. Many of the roads are rutted and potholed. And the sidewalks! Dear God, pushing Ian in his buggy in Sofia was pretty difficult in a lot of places. It also seemed pretty unfair for him to be jostled about so much, so we often just carried him instead.

Typical Sofia sidewalk. Pretty tough to push a baby buggy on one of these!

Typical Sofia sidewalk. Pretty tough to push a baby buggy on one of these!

If Sofia had a lot of interesting places to see or really vibrant people, none of this would have mattered. Unfortunately, Sofia does not have a lot of attractions and most of the people seem sad. You can see all the sights in about three days, and the gloominess of the place makes you want to leave before that.

No shock that drinking is a bit of an issue in Sofia. Really cheap beer and hard liquor is available everywhere. Walk about twenty metres in any direction, and you’ll find a bottle of vodka just waiting for you to take it home or to the park – a popular drinking place. I remember seeing a granddad out at the park with his granddaughter at nine one morning sitting on a bench. Cute scene, except for the liter bottle of beer the old man was working on.

In Sofia, you get the sense that people have either given up or don’t know how to even begin improving their lot. Many times, I saw locals sitting deep in thought, looking depressed – as though they had only one or two bad options in life and were thinking really hard in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, they had somehow overlooked one good option.

Typical crumbling building in Sofia.

Typical crumbling building in Sofia.

Ohrid, by contrast, is a vibrant and happy place with lots of friendly people. I guess it’s easy to be happy here – big, beautiful lake, mountains, gorgeous old town and a thriving tourist industry. But the thriving tourist industry is not something that happened by accident. They had to plan it and work hard at it. They also have to work hard at maintaining their city’s infrastructure and buildings – and at planning the city so that it is an appealing place to visit and to live.

Ian playing in a park by Ohrid's lakefront.

Ian playing in a park by Ohrid's lakefront.

There seems to be something about the people in Ohrid that makes them more resilient than the folks in Sofia. Sure they’re pretty poor by Western standards, as are Sofians, but they don’t seem to let that get them down. They don’t seem like they’re busy resenting their lot in life. They do seem pretty busy improving it, though, and I guess that’s one of the main reasons that Ohrid wins over Sofia hands down. We can’t wait to come to Ohrid again, but we will never visit Sofia again.

Ian and I at one of the beautiful old churches in Ohrid's Old Town. Nice pasty white legs I'm sporting, eh?

Ian and I at one of the beautiful old churches in Ohrid's Old Town. Nice pasty white legs I'm sporting, eh?

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Imagine an election campaign where you are phoned only once, where nobody knocks on your door and there are no attack ads on TV. A lot of people in the West would think, “Sounds great.” Well, not so fast. South Korean politicians have other ways of making sure folks know they’re running for office. And in the leadup to the provincial and municipal elections held here on Wednesday, they made darn sure voters did not forget them.          

Perhaps the main means of accomplishing this was through the use of what I call speechmobiles – something I’ve never seen before. The best way to describe them is with a thousand words worth of picture, so here you go:           

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

 

 These little things were absolutely everywhere in Yangsan and Busan during the election. And you definitely knew when they were in your neighborhood, because they had loudspeakers mounted on them – and they were turned all the way up to 11.          

Often, a candidate’s speechmobile would drive around with nobody in the back. However, it would blast out bits of his or her stump speech, as well as campaign songs praising either the candidate or the party.          

I was quite amused by the fact that one of the campaign songs was set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, while another was set to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People. A lot of other campaign tunes were set to old Korean pop songs that the older – more likely to vote – people would remember. Frequently, the speechmobile would have a few ajumas in the back, too, waving at all the folks as they drove by.          

Every now and then – and with greater frequency as Election Day neared – the candidate would be in the back of the speechmobile giving a rousing oration.          

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

 

The candidates were also out and about at all the various community events and festivals, just like back home. They would also hang out around churches on Sunday morning to greet worshippers as they filed in.          

The candidates were not the only ones working hard, however. The ajumas were out in force, too.          

Every time I entered or exited a subway station over the past several weeks, I would see a big group of ajumas all wearing their campaign uniforms and bowing to the riders. They would say something about how So-and-so was going to work hard for them. Usually, one of the ajumas was holding a portrait of their candidate.          

It was also common to see these ajuma armies standing at busy intersections and doing choreographed dance routines while singing their candidate’s song. Another popular campaigning spot for ajumas was in shopping malls.          

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

 

 In addition to the speechmobiles and the armies of ajumas, I was also interested in the fact that Election Day is a holiday in South Korea. To encourage turnout, everybody gets the day off work. Of course, human nature being what it is, many people simply take advantage of this bit of free time to sleep in and head out of town to do something fun instead of voting.          

For example, my younger sister-in-law and her husband took KJ, me, Ian and their son to a dinosaur theme park in Masan. Turnout on Election Day was about 56 per cent.          

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

 

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Evangelical Protestants around the world have a well-earned reputation for working hard to win converts to their faith. Evangelical Protestants in Korea, however, put all the others to shame with their industriousness and marketing savvy.    

South Korea is enthusiastically capitalistic and intensely competitive. Just handing out a pamphlet and hoping people will come check out your church won’t cut it here. You need to generate some goodwill and build brand awareness, too, so the little groups that seem to be everywhere in this country also give out a variety of goodies.    

Candies are an item they hand out quite frequently – much to the delight of Ian and his future dentist. Another popular promo are little packets of tissues. But my all-time favorite is this packet of mineral salt:    

There are a wide range of uses for this mineral salt.

There are a wide range of uses for this mineral salt.

 

I received this quite randomly. One sunny afternoon, I popped out of the house for a cigarette. My customary smoking spot is right by my father-in-law’s garden and he happened to be there, tilling the soil and what not. Due to the intricate rules regarding age in South Korea, I had to go somewhere else to get my nicotine fix, so I went to the street in front of the house – which is really more like a lane, to be honest.    

Anyway, I’m quite glad I took this particular smoke break there, because after a couple of minutes a middle-aged guy and two ajumas came walking down the hill. The man was wearing a golden sash with a red cross at the top and a bunch of Korean writing. It was pretty obvious they were out spreading the Good News. Ever friendly, I gave a little bow and said “Ahnyoung hasayo” when they got near me.    

Naturally, they thought perhaps I spoke Korean and one of the ajumas said something to me. After I shrugged sheepishly and said “Mienhamnida”, the formal version of “I’m sorry”, they quickly realized this was not the case. The ajuma who spoke to me was kind enough to give me the packet of mineral salt, though, and I said “Kamasamnida”, which means “Thank you.” They carried on their way after that, which was pretty lucky for me, because I had nearly exhausted my Korean vocabulary by this point.    

As I finished my cigarette, I marvelled at the cleverness of this little promo. What a nice spin on that “salt of the earth” scripture, I thought. Then I went inside to find KJ so she could give me a translation.    

KJ told me that the front of the packet said the mineral salt inside was of the highest quality and had been featured on KBS1, a Korean network, as well as CBS. It also said that this top-notch mineral salt can be eaten, used as a facial scrub, or for a woman’s “special cleansing”.    

Versatile stuff.    

Having gone to church once or twice a week growing up, I was able to puzzle out the message on the back of the packet myself.    

Are you on the right road?

Are you on the right road?

 

What you see on the back is the standard stuff about two roads, one leading to the good place and the other leading to the bad place. There is a picture of the bad place, and it looks quite nasty. Everyone is all singed white and looking scared as the flames of hell rage out of control. The good place, I must say, looks a far sight better. Everyone there is dressed up nice and cheering as Jesus looks on benignly, serenaded by angels. The way to the good place is through prayer and faith – and going to church, of course.    

Oh, did I forget to mention that the front of the packet also says when you run out of this mineral salt, you can go to their church to get more? Now that’s marketing, people! 

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When I used to teach ESL back in Vancouver, my South Korean students were fond of telling me there are three types of people in their country: men, women and ajumas. 

Ajuma literally means “married woman”, but my students were really talking about a specific subset of this group between roughly 45 and 65 years of age. The young people in Korean society are cowed by these women who seem able to do pretty much whatever they want. 

You wouldn't want to mess with this ajuma.

You wouldn't want to mess with this ajuma.

 

Stories abound of how an ajuma getting on a subway train will throw her purse on an empty seat before rushing over to grab it. Some poor young kid who has been standing for fifteen minutes and was about to sit down can do nothing about this due to the importance of age in South Korea

Ajumas are also notorious for cutting to the front of long lines, using any and all means to get to the last item of a product on sale, and loudly discussing the bodies of young Korean women at the public baths. 

Ajumas are also incredibly fast. The first time I was in Korea, my wife and I had to take a long ride on the subway in Seoul. After I had been standing for about thirty minutes in the very crowded train, a young student who was sitting right in front of me got up to make his way to the door. I couldn’t wait to take a load off, but just as I began to turn around to take the newly vacant seat, some tiny little ajuma magically appeared from nowhere and took it! She was quick as lightning, and while I was irritated that I had to keep standing, I couldn’t help but be impressed. My students had told me about “ajuma power” many times, and now I knew concretely what they were talking about. 

In addition to their mighty power, ajumas also have a distinctive style of dress. Floral prints mixed with pastels or else a dark track suit are the two main looks. A perm is de rigueur. It starts off as a wave perm for women in the pre-ajuma power stage, gets tighter around 45 and finally progresses to a poodle-like coif later. To cap it all off, so to speak, almost all ajumas wear a visor, preferably one with a dark shade that covers almost their entire face to prevent their skin from freckling in the sun. 

An ajuma with full visor works out.

An ajuma with full visor works out.

 

Young women put up with a lot in Korea. Growing up, they often take a backseat to their brothers – especially the eldest brother, who is basically the parents’ retirement plan. Smoking on the street is taboo for young women but not for young men. Their curfews are stricter typically. And if a Korean woman marries a first-born son, she will usually live with his family and be under her mother-in-law’s thumb. 

Given all this, I can understand why a woman in South Korea would let loose once she reaches a point where she is older than most and finally has some power. After basically being a second class citizen for her entire life, why not enjoy the perks once they come? This is why I don’t believe the women of my wife’s generation when they tell me they won’t behave like today’s ajumas. Power corrupts. Ajuma power corrupts absolutely. 

Ajuma visors come in many colors - but all black is best for intimidating the young.

Ajuma visors come in many colors - but all black is best for intimidating the young.

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Do you remember how important age was in elementary school? If you were even a year older than another kid, you were the boss. And kids two or three years older were viewed with a certain awe. It’s kind of like that in Korea, except the obsession with age continues all the way through until death.

Praise or blame Confucius for this, because it’s his system of philosophy that places such importance on age. And nowhere does Confucianism hold such sway as in Korea.

Confucius teaches that there are five basic relationships: king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother (or old-young), and friend-friend. In his teaching, only one of these relationships is egalitarian – friend-friend. The rest are hierarchical, with the subservient party owing a duty of deference and the dominant party owing a duty of care, basically.

This duty of care manifests as a freewheeling propensity for top dogs to dispense advice (wanted or not) and give orders – as well as to pick up the tab at dinner, which makes the previous aspects at least somewhat bearable. Since the dominant party is very typically older, age is held to be very important.

Whereas Westerners will ask someone they’ve just met things like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”, Koreans very quickly get down to the business of figuring out who is the oldest. “When were you born?” is a question that gets asked fairly shortly after two or more Koreans meet for the first time.

If the gap in age is small, say one or two (maybe three) years, everybody can relax a bit. The potential for a friend-friend relationship exists. If the age gap is bigger, however, most Koreans will not feel that friendship is possible. They can be friendly but not friends. Instead, they will adopt the elder sibling-younger sibling relationship. In cases where the gap in age is very large, the older party is almost like a king or queen. Lots of deep bows and attentiveness from the juniors.

So here’s where we are so far: Older outranks younger.

Simple, right? Well, no, this is Korea and they don’t do simple. Just to make things fun for foreigners trying to figure out the culture, the system of age hierarchy has at least one interesting wrinkle. I’ll explain.

Back in 2003, I visited Korea for the first time. I taught ESL in Vancouver then and had lots of Korean students, so I knew a fair bit about the culture before I left to meet KJ’s family and get their blessing for us to get married. I knew how important age was.

In the first three weeks of our visit, I learned the myriad ways age affects everyday life. Smoking in front of elders was a big no-no. Hold your glass with two hands when a senior pours alcohol for you and hold the bottle with both hands when you pour alcohol for a senior. Use two hands and turn away from your senior when drinking alcohol at the table. Never use an older person’s name. It goes on and on.

Finally, Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) arrived. Well, I was very excited, because KJ’s cousins and nieces and nephews were coming. Finally, I’d have more than just KJ’s two sisters to outrank in age.

Not so fast, outlander! What nobody told me is that since I was marrying into KJ’s family, I got demoted in terms of age – taking KJ’s age and losing five years in the process. This meant that KJ’s older sister (who is younger than me) and her youngest cousin (who is younger than me) are older than me.

If I were Korean, then KJ would move up the age hierarchy in my family by taking my age. She would, therefore, be older than my sister – despite the fact that my sister is older than she is.

Confused? I’m glad, because that means I’ve done a decent job of giving you some idea of what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea – a land overflowing with unknown unknowns, where the obsession with who’s older than whom continues far beyond elementary school and never ever ends.

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Gu In Jung Sa Temple Spring Ritual

Monks play instruments and chant during ritual to ask local god's protection of the town.

There are about a million Buddhist temples in Korea, and it seems like almost every little mountain in the country has at least one. Yesterday the father-in-law thought I might like to go over to the temple nearest the house to watch a ceremony they were holding.    

So off we went to Gu In Jungsa Temple, taking a shortcut past the cow pen and through the tiny hay-field of the miniature farm out behind the in-laws’ house. Then we went up the road a spell until we came to the small temple. Judging by the noise, the ritual was well under way.    

Two old men were sitting on chairs just outside the gate. My father-in-law said something to them and gestured towards me. I gave a good deep bow and said, “Ahn yong hasayo,” which is the formal way of saying hello to strangers and those older than you. It is one of the very, very few Korean phrases I have mastered and I enjoy deploying it at pretty much every opportunity.    

Having astounded the locals with my virtuosity in their own language, we entered the courtyard of the temple, where the ritual was being performed. I learned later the purpose was to ask the god of the mountain to protect the town.    

Sungmoo

A monk performs sungmoo, the dance to ask the local god to protect the town.

At first, it all seemed to be a pretty standard and straight-ahead Buddhist ceremony. There were drums, cymbals, moktaks (a hollow wooden percussion instrument) and chanting. There was a table loaded with offerings to the local deity at the front, the monks were to the left and the congregants were either sitting or bowing to the table or to the monks.    

Then I noticed something that surprised me: a big dead pig right beside the offering table. I’m no scholar when it comes to Buddhism, but I’m pretty sure there is something in there about not killing animals and the importance of being a vegetarian. I can understand that the rank and file might not follow this teaching, but shouldn’t the monks of a temple?    

Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the pig had envelopes stuffed in his mouth. Then I saw some folks put 10,000 won notes in his ears (worth about $10). I knew what I would be asking KJ after we got home.    

Some pig

Jaymul pig with money offerings stuffed in his mouth and ears.

According to KJ, Korean Buddhism has been influenced by the animist traditions that preceded it in this country. The envelopes in the pig’s mouth contained money and were put there by believers so that their prayers would be answered. Same thing with the money stuffed into his ears.    

 These pigs are pretty important in Korea, apparently. When someone opens a business, they may buy a pig to help bring good luck. Usually it’s just the head, though. The value of these jaymul pigs (offering pigs) is determined by how big its smile is. The bigger the smile, the bigger the luck – and, naturally, the bigger the price.    

How sacrificing a pig for use in a Buddhist rite gets reconciled with the teaching of the Buddha and the sages who followed him is something I do not yet know. All I know right now is I’m looking forward to the opportunity to find out.

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