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Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Gangbuk Style with Daniel Tudor

daniel tudorIn Seoul’s Hongdae district, Colin Marshall talks with Daniel Tudor, former Economist correspondent in Korea, co-founder of craft beer pizza pub chain The Booth, author of the books Korea: The Impossible CountryA Geek in Korea, and (with James Pearson) North Korea Confidential. They discuss the difference between Gangnam and Gangbuk style; the recently emerging trend toward Korean nostalgia, and what happens when you pull out an two-year-old mobile phone; what he discovered in Korea during the time of the 2002 World Cup; his time among the “studying machines” that constitute Korean youth, and why so few want to break from that hard-driving mode; education, especially abroad, as a means of “jumping the queue” back in Korea; the progressivism he’s found among Koreans who’ve never left the country; why it matters when a foreigner voices the same criticism of Korea that Koreans think; whether he felt any fear of legal action when he publicly stated that Korean beer sucks; why Korean beer has continued to suck for so long; what it takes to get decent beer into Korea today; the “emotionalism” of Korean conversational style, and whether it plays in the wider world; to what extent Korea may westernize, given the presence of a certain “spineless love of all things American”; whether Korea’s narrative of weakness can accommodate the country’s new strength; what it was like writing for The Economist, a magazine newspaper given to short sentences, cynical humor, and an interest in “North Korea, North Korea, and sometimes North Korea”; where he still feels the presence of Park Chung-hee, and the backlash to his “developmentalist” mindset that seems to have begun; the possibility of “de-Seoulification”; what he experiences on train trips that tells him too much has concentrated in Seoul; the parallels between Park Chung-hee and Margaret Thatcher; Korea’s nature not as a conservative country, but as a country with a conservative veneer; the “natural socialism” that coexists in Korea with extreme capitalism; why Koreans believe their food too spicy for any foreigner to handle; why he hates even to hear the Korean term for “foreigner”; whether Korea can afford to continue burning so much energy on purely internal competition; the parallels between the chaebol system and North Korea; how soon a Pyongyang branch of The Booth would open after reunification; and what the English could learn from the attitudes of the Koreans.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Finding the Korea in California and the California in Korea


A few minutes’ walk from the apartment I rented on my first trip to Seoul, I happened upon a branch of the Novel Cafe, a restaurant I know well from my life in Los Angeles (though the ones back home don’t advertise “California Cuisine since 1999″). Then, a few blocks later, came a shop called Who A.U. California Dream, selling clothes and accessories emblazoned with names and images of places such as Yosemite, the “Surf City” of Huntington Beach, and simply “California Farm Country.” Although it is an international brand, Who A.U. rode a particularly high wave of popularity across South Korea in the summer of 2014. Even in the biggest American cities, you hear the media agonizing over fashion trends long before you notice those trends in real life (if indeed you ever do).

In Seoul, however, the latest trends confront you right there on the street, immediately and constantly. On the sidewalks, in cafés, and riding the subway, the youth of South Korea presented me with constant invocations of my own current hometown: of USC and UCLA, of the Lakers and the “Dodgers Baseball Club,” of “Homiés South Central” and “Berkeley California 1968,” of Venice Beach and the LAX Theme Building, of the “California Road Trip,” and of Los Angeles itself accompanied by the inexplicably chosen zip code 90185. Young people the world over have dreamed of California for decades, but the sheer number and variety of California clichés invoked on the streets of Seoul reached a whole other level.

The mystery as to why deepened the closer I looked. Late one night during that trip, after the customary first round of drinks and food—and the equally customary second round of dinner and drinks after that—I found myself sharing a dimly lit booth at a bar with my Korean-born girlfriend’s cousins, two sisters in their twenties. We’d drunk halfway through our hefty copper pot of greenishmakgeolli, a fermented rice wine long written off as a poor farmer’s drink that is now enjoying a well-deserved renaissance, when the older cousin’s boyfriend turned up to help finish it off. He wore a bright, white polo shirt decorated with the words “SAN DIEGO IN CALIF.” Looking quite literally for common ground, I asked him, as best I could in my still-shaky Korean, when he’d spent time in San Diego. He explained, with what I’ve come to think of as a characteristically Korean mixture of pride and embarrassment, that he’d never left his homeland. The California dream burns particularly bright, it seems, within those who’ve never come near the state.

On a group bike ride through Changwon, a suburb of Busan (South Korea’s second-largest city), I struck up a conversation with a woman a few years out of college and employed at a local department store. When I told her I’d come from Los Angeles, she let me in on her own California dream. “I want to live there,” she explained. “I want a big house—and a dog.” She longed for the idea of a traditionally Californian lifestyle somehow as alien to me, someone born and resident in the state, as any lifestyle I saw in South Korea. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, at least as far as I can see in Los Angeles, the dream of the “big house,” and indeed its viability, has entered a slow but inexorable downward slide. (The market for dogs, on the other hand, does look strong.)

Read the whole thing at Boom: A Journal of California.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: One Long Bike Party with Coby Zeifman

coby zeifmanIn Changwon, “Environmental Capital of South Korea,” Colin Marshall talks with Coby Zeifman, former outreach coordinator for Nubija, the city’s bike share system. They discuss what makes Changwon a cool town; why a feature like Nubija, despite its impressiveness, needed the kind of outreach he has tried his utmost to provide; Changwon’s history as a manufacturing town for the conglomerate LG; what makes it a “Young City,” including its plan modeled after Canberra; how the city expanded, and how Nubija expanded along with it; how he got to Korea in the first place, on nothing more than the advice of two friends who already lived there; how “livable” he found Changwon even at first; what makes Nubija inconvenient for foreigners; why so many services in Korea require a Korean cellphone; how Changwon’s Nubija compares to Daejeon’s Tashu; when he started to get the sense that he could not use Nubija, but contribute to it; how he began Changwon Bike Party (by “Tyler Durdening it”); where he’s gone with the Bike Party he might not have gone otherwise; the scrutiny he underwent before Nubija let him help out; his experience learning bicycle repair, a subject he didn’t know well, in Korean, a language he didn’t know well; what Nubija’s “smart” information technology architecture does for the system; whether Seattle, where he came from, has got ready to become a 21st century; the glories of the T-Money card; the assumption that certain public conveniences “wouldn’t work in America”; Mia Birk‘s theory of shining a light and scattering the cockroaches; what we can learn from New York City’s solution to graffiti in subway cars; his imminent return to the United States, and the reverse culture shock for which he has prepared himself; his hopes for sustained carless “freedom and happiness” in America, and the multimodalism that still requires; how Korea’s cycleability ranks overall; and what it takes to complete the country’s Four Rivers Tour and receive the best souvenir of all of his time in Korea.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: ¿Por Qué Corea? with Sofía Ferrero Cárrega

sofia ferrero carregaAt a coffee house somewhere in Busan, Colin talks with Sofía Ferrero Cárrega, film critic and enthusiast of Korean cinema. They discuss whether she’d recommend other movie-lovers move to Busan; how the Busan International Film Festival attracted her to the city (and the importance of its parties); why, in Busan, “everybody says yes”; the state of Korean film criticism in Spanish; how she first encountered Korean cinema, and how its auteurs got her to know Korea; the bad first impression Korean culture can sometimes give on film; what happens when you mention kimchi in Argentina; why her move to Korea became inevitable; her experience of understanding nothing in Korea even after having studied the language for years before arriving; what makes the dialogue in Hong Sangsoo movies easier to understand than the dialogue in other movies (and why Korea struck her as a real-life Hong Sangsoo movie when she arrived); whether she feels a kinship with Isabelle Huppert’s character in In Another Country; the shock of finding out that, in Korea, she’s white; the understanding she gets by standing outside society, and the “healthy jealousy” she feels for those inside; the difference between Korean conception of history and the Argentine conception of history; how Korea’s heavily advertised matchmaking services speak to the cultural importance of marriage; why to learn about a culture from its independent films, not his mainstream one; how Korean social life “flows” from one place to the next; the role of the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival; what happened in the world of Korean film festivals in the wake of the Sewol disaster, and how all the elements aligned to match the national mood; what it felt like to live in a silent Korea; the strong identification within Korean generations; her critical interest in connecting Korean film to the conditions in Korean society; why she waited on reading about Korea until she’d lived here a while, then picked up Michael Breen‘s The Koreans; the difficulty of explaining Korean food and drink to friends and family back in Argentina; the Korean penchant for “crowded” food and “crowded” web sites; how the culture has turned her “no”s into “ne”s; and what hour she (as well as the Argentine ambassador) woke up to watch the World Cup.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006)

Southland Tales has endured many accusations, but never of playing it safe. By turns a satire, farce, polemic, zeitgeist movie, musical, and apocalypse narrative, Richard Kelly’s rich and paranoid follow-up to Donnie Darko also grounds itself in Los Angeles cinema. It tells an even more Philip K. Dickian tale than Blade Runner and ties itself to such equally “insane” Los Angeles predecessors as Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man, and Mulholland Drive. It remains, almost a decade after its release, in an essentially unfinished state, but perhaps an ambitious and incomplete movie suits an ambitious an incomplete city.

The video essays of “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: The Biggest Small Town with Jeff Liebsch

jeff liebschNear Busan’s Kyungsung University, Colin talks with Jeff Liebsch, managing editor and partner at the magazine Busan Haps. They discuss what makes Korean baseball games more fun than baseball games in the West; the Toronto-Detroit sports divide in his hometown of Windsor; why a disproportionate number of the Westerners in Korea seem to have come from Canada; the difficulty of understanding Busan, and of leaving it; the traces of “country people” Busan’s population has retained, even as it has supposedly turned international; the funniest Korean-film subtitle he’s ever seen; how he learned to speak Korean without studying; how Busan Haps got started, and how he got involved; some of the strategies the magazine has used to attain prominence in the English-language media in Korea and abroad; how he observes people he spots reading the magazine; the importance of “beautiful pictures of food” to their Korean readership; the changing coffee situation in Busan, and what else has evolved since he arrived; the time when bars closed at midnight, and what it illustrated about how Koreans find away to get around everything; the mystery of how Busan once had seven beaches and no outdoor seating anywhere; what happens in Korean when someone gets a good idea for a business; the changes he now observes in the Korean beer scene (in all settings but the baseball stadium); Korean sports teams’ ties to corporations, not cities; the reputation of the Lotte fan; his experience in Korea during the 2002 World Cup, when he first saw the Koreans “let loose”; how he felt during the “IMF” economic crisis, and what he thought when he saw Koreans turn in their own personal gold to save the country’s economy; the Korean sense of collectivism versus the Western sense of collectivism; why Psyworld couldn’t go international, and what its problems represent to him about Korea’s “lack of a global vision” in some respects; what happens during the Busan International Film Festival, his favorite time of the year; the push to transform Busan into Korea’s film center; the film events that go on in Busan even apart from the BIFF; the way people living in Busan tend to stick to ten percent of the city, and visitors tend not to see the “real” parts of it; how he makes sure to get the feeling of “actually being in a different country”; his experience working in Detroit, and whether it felt like a city with a future or a city without one; how he pronounces “process”; and what he likes about observing North America from a distance.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Midnight Riding with Chad Kirton

chad kirton 2Colin sits down at Busan’s eFM with broadcaster, teacher, rapper, and television star Chad Kirton, also known as Fusion. They discuss whether the setting gets him into Korean or English mode; how he came up with his show segment “Don’t Trust the Dictionary”; what a “bunnyhug” is; how the Korean desire for perfection affects their acquisition of foreign languages; the danger of agreeing in Korean when you have no idea what people are saying; what he seeks out in Busan when he goes on television; what powers burnt eel can supposedly give you; why many Koreans seem to forget Busan exists; the perpetually educational nature of Korean media; how he travels for hardworking Koreans live vicariously through television; what constitutes his 16-hour workday; when he first came to Korea, studying tae kwon do in Pohang; how Korea sometimes brings out in the Westerner the desires they might not have let out at home; how bilingual broadcasting became his speciality, beginning with the English-learning show for which he phonetically memorized his Korean lines; his first night as The Midnight Rider; how his version of “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” works; the diversity of age he’s discovered among his listenership; how he began rapping — in Korea, freestyle, on the air; how he keeps learning Korean when many long-term expatriates plateau; his first home in Korea, with frozen pipes and above a river of raw sewage; the way that Koreans seem able to feel each other’s feelings; what it meant to him when he first experienced Busan’s T.G.I. Friday’s; what counts as Canadian food; how he answers questions about how Canadians do things; what he tells people who want to come to Korea and teach English; how you still have to start at the bottom in Korea, but why the bottom isn’t so bad; the need to understand how to “think like a Korean”; his encounter with Koreans who lived in, of all places, Medicine Hat; how much time to spend in a foreign country to really internalize the culture; the similarities and differences between his radio, television, rapping, and teaching personalities; and the difficulty of avoiding all forbidden words (in both the English and Korean “swearing Rolodex”) while freestyling on the radio.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Scott Timberg

On the latest Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, I talk with Scott Timberg, editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, an examination of the damages to our cultural landscape wrought by recent technological and economic shifts and an argument for a more equitable and navigable future.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

My Guardian Cities adventure in search of the urban planning of the Las Vegas Strip

The Las Vegas Strip isn’t in Las Vegas. You’ve got to understand that before you can understand anything else about this glittering, 4.2-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard described by William L Fox as “the most aggressively branded and promoted concatenation of adult theme parks in the world”. It is also among the most visited places on Earth, having surpassed Mecca back in 1999.

The Strip was created in Paradise, an idyllically named township of Nevada’s Clark County formed by hotel builders who had already built strategically outside city limits as a means of minimising taxes, dodging regulations and avoiding utility disputes with the city proper. Since Paradise’s founding in 1950, the unabashedly capitalistic and hedonistic Strip has seen an astonishing buildup, especially during its two most notable boom times: the mob-run 1960s and the corporatised 1990s.

But what kind of an urban experience has resulted? To a first-time visitor (myself included), the Strip can look and feel like the concretisation of unplanned chaos – with its waves of pulsing lights and scrolling video screens; its “riot” of clashing, garish architectural styles; the wide central river of frequently gridlocked traffic; and the swarms of tourists, all dressed with aggressive casualness and milling blindly every which way. But does it make any sense at all to apply the term “urban planning” to the Strip? Or is this simply what happens when money dictates every aspect of a built environment?

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull

james turnbullIn Busan’s Daeyeon-dong, Colin talks with James Turnbull, author of The Grand Narrative, a blog on Korean feminism, sexuality, and popular culture. They discuss what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.