Archive for February, 2008

China and the Good Ol’ Boy Olympics

WITH THE OPENING CEREMONIES in Beijing drawing ever closer, I have increasingly struggled with whether China deserves the all the flak it’s getting. Especially as a resident of a nation that has a rather shameful track record as of late, I wonder, “Who are we to point a finger?” Beijing has continually fallen back on just that idea, using it to rail against environmental restrictions, political pressures regarding Burma and Darfur, and the politicization of its beloved Olympic games.

Part of me just wants to give it to them. I mean, they have come a pretty long way, right? But then shit like this happens, and like a flood it occurs to me that behind Beijing’s weakening excuses are mountains of injustice – from an editorial in the South China Morning Post, via China Digital Times:

Can the propaganda masters in Beijing get a grip on their horses and stop the kind of silly stunts like the one being conducted in Shanghai? Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News reported last week that the government was looking for 40 young women between the ages of 18 and 24 and 168cm to 178cm tall to help present medals at the Games. According to the report, they must meet at least 15 requirements including such physical attributes as bones in every part of the body being well proportioned and symmetrical, muscles elastic enough to display a healthy, beautiful body – full-figured, not fat and cumbersome, and so on.

While the officials’ intention is to show the world the utmost attention they pay to every salient detail of the Games, this has come off as incredibly sexist and offensive to many people, including this writer. For heaven’s sake, you are looking for young women to present the medals and they should not be treated to a process as strict as that used by emperors to choose their wives.

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Everyone Wants a ‘Canal’

I GUESS IT’S NO surprise that in Dubai, a land of overflowing wealth and man-made islands, that local developers are looking to create a 75 km canal in the middle of the desert. While that not might sound as ludicrous as, say, trying to build a canal that stretches the length of a nation – it still sounds pretty crazy to me.

The above picture is taken from the blog of Kang Hun Sang, a Yonhap foreign correspondent in Dubai, and shows an artist’s fanciful rendering of what the waterway – creatively named “The Arabian Canal” – could look like.

To those who might see it as providing a viable alternative for transportation of goods into the city, Kang points out a major caveat: the “canal” is only going to be six meters deep. That means despite all the hype about this being the next Suez Canal, it’s really just another playground.

This Land

IT WAS AN UNEXPECTED TWIST of language. I was explaining to Hanju (in Korean) my concerns about Barack Obama, whom I’d recently seen at a rally, when I used the term uri nara – our country – in reference to the United States.

That might not seem at all strange, except that uri nara is a phrase that is only ever used to talk about Korea. The words are almost symbolic, an expression of solidarity and collectivism, two things rarely if ever associated with American culture. Yet at a time when our nation’s communities seem irreparably disconnected, that was the exact feeling I sought to evoke.

As I stumbled through a politial dialogue in my adopted language, I learned a few new words. Hanju learned a new one as well: rhetoric – by one definition, the art of making persuasive speech. The night before, Obama had spoken about the importance of young people reinvesting in their communities. In his words there were echoes of Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” These ideas resonate with me as I’ve long felt that what ails this country is growing apathy and a general disinterest in our fellow man.

But amid Obama’s talk about changing the culture I was forced to wonder, is it just rhetoric? Uri nara is faced with so many problems, I said to Hanju, that we can’t afford four years of pretty words.

I talk a lot on this blog about wanderlust, about my desire to pick up and get lost in the big world, yet I have to admit to my affection for this land. As travelers it’s easy to lose touch with the romance and wonder of our own nation – to get bogged down by our misanthropic foreign and domestic policies. But every now and then something comes along to remind us of what we have here, and what we lose when we stop caring. How strange that my heart’s ties to the homeland were made plain while speaking the syllables of another tongue.

Photo: sunset over a wheatfield, by jfhatesmustard. eastern washington state.

Dining Alone in the International District

IN THE SUMMER OF 2003, my friends and I often took jaunts up to Seattle’s International District – it was a colorful escape from the humdrum suburb where we grew up, and had an indefineable grittiness that I was fascinated by. Walking the streets brought a range of unfamiliar sights: Roasted ducks hanging by their necks in restaurant windows. A shop selling candy and cigarettes – nothing else. Leering elderly Chinese men. A bamboo garden, perched atop a hill on the edge of the neighborhood, where we would sit and while away the afternoon in the sun.

The area has captured the affection of many Seattlites, and the way to their hearts has often been through their stomachs. In a recent article for The Stranger, Angela Garbes tells of her romance with the neighborhood and its eateries, including cockroaches and all. While I can’t necessarily vouch for her restaurant picks (she covers a lot of territory I left unexplored), her story of dining solo in the ID is definitely worth a read.

Photo: international district at night, by P.J.S.

Korea’s #1 National Treasure Burns

SOUTH KOREA’S GREAT SOUTH GATE, a 600-year-old landmark that had weathered invasions and war to become the icon of the nation’s capital, burned to its foundation last night.

The gate, known commonly as Namdaemun but officially named Sungnyemun, was at the center of a bustling commercial district and near one of Seoul’s most famous open-air markets. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, though the Korean media most recently reported that authorities are focusing on the possibility of arson. Two lighters were found on the scene.

News sources and bloggers in Korea report that the feeling in Seoul is one of deep loss and outrage – the word “heartsick” has come up more than once. Having seen and been awed by Namdaemun many times during my stay in Korea, I feel pangs of sadness myself.

Echoing the words of The Marmot, who has posted a beautiful photo memorial to Sungnyemun, though the gate may be rebuilt, the face of Seoul has been forever profoundly changed.

An article by Choe Sang-Hun for the IHT tells more about the fire and the gate’s historical significance, and a photoset by pwalk offers stunning images from the scene.

UPDATE: Yonhap news reports that police have arrested and are investigating 70-year-old Chae Mo as the sole arson suspect. Eyewitnesses have said that a man around age 60 matching Chae’s appearance climbed a ladder up into the gate moments before the fire started. Authorities suspect that if the cause of the Namdaemun fire was indeed arson, whoever is responsible was also behind the arson incident at Ch’anggyeong palace two years ago. (Link, in Korean)

UPDATE: Via The Marmot, Chae has apparently admitted to setting Sungnyemun alight – saying it was motivated by a personal land dispute issue – and has apologized to both the Korean people and his family. Words fail me.

Photo: the face of Korea collapses, by hojusaram.

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