Monday, November 23, 2020

Netflix, Royals, Fiction, and Reality

I realized, this weekend, that there's a royal element to the Netflix programs that DW and I have been watching, recently. And one of these shows, in particular, got me thinking of a royal connection that I wrote about in my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary.

This weekend, DW and I started watching The Queen's Gambit, the story of a young woman chess prodigy, brilliantly played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Whether you love chess or not, the story is quite riveting. We're only four episodes into the series, but we're hooked. We'll likely be finished it by mid-week.

Image: Netflix, via Wikipedia
Another series we just wrapped up watching is The Crown. Season 4 falls during a time in which both DW and I have lived, starting in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister. It was wonderful to see Gillian Anderson, an actress I love, portray a woman so loathed. Anderson is brilliant.

I remembered that as a young teen, I had heard news about the rocky relationship between Prince Charles and Diana, and I remember thinking of the Queen's son as a dull and wretched person, and actor Josh O'Connor leaves the audience detesting Charles.

It was sometimes hard to watch Emma Corrin play Diana and not get lost, imagining her to be the real Princess of Wales. The costumes, the hair, and the makeup really captured Diana.

Watching this season of The Crown, and seeing Lady Diana portrayed on the small screen, DW and I were anticipating the ultimate outcome of this tragic person. It got me thinking of my novel because I devote a chapter to the untimely demise of Diana.

While my novel is largely fiction, there are many episodes within the pages that were taken from my own experiences while I was living in South Korea, from 1997 to 1999. And one of my most vivid memories of my two-year stay in that country was sitting in a friend's house, in Seoul, enjoying a weekend together, when a phone call told us to turn on CNN. Though it was only mid-afternoon in Korea on Sunday, August 31, 1997, it was just after one in the morning, in Paris. We tuned into the news shortly after the crash, when Diana, Dodi Fayed, Henri Paul, and Trevor Rees-Jones were still in the wreckage of the Mercedes.

We stayed glued to the television until shortly after the BBC came on air and announced to Britain that they had lost their princess. On the three-hour bus ride from Seoul to Chonju, DW and I held onto each other and said nothing. We were exhausted and sad.

While The Crown didn't end its fourth season with the demise of Diana, we know what must surely come in Season 5. Though the series is highly fictionalized, the truth lies in there as well. Just as my novel is fiction, with a dose of reality thrown in.

Re-reading Chapter 24 in Songsaengnim stirs up emotions for me, bringing be back to that TV set in Seoul, South Korea on August 31, 1997. I wonder if the same will happen, watching Season 5 of The Crown.

In the meantime, I'll lose myself in The Queen's Gambit.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday Fiction: HanokStay

The following is a draft excerpt from my novel, Gyeosunim. If you haven't read my previous novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, be warned that while there are no spoilers, you may be missing some context.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

I had dozed off on the express bus, shortly after leaving the outer limits of Seoul, and was waking up as I felt the bus slow. I was sitting toward the back, on the driver’s side, and could see a vast apartment complex to the east. We must be passing Taejŏn, about an hour north of Chŏnju. But when the bus turned off the highway and passed through a familiar toll booth, I realized that this was, indeed, my old city. Where I had once been able to see my original apartment in Dongsan-Dong was now its own city of tall, thin apartment buildings. Somewhere, buried in the towering growth, was the old neighbourhood.

We turned at an intersection that I thought I recognized but it appeared as though I was dreaming and hadn’t remembered it correctly. An LG gas station that had been there in 1998 remained but was larger and the intersection had widened, with an underpass that kept main traffic flowing. Near the intersection lay the soccer stadium that had been built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup tournament. Chŏnju had been vying for a venue in 1997, with banners across the city that read World Cup MUST be held in Chŏnju! 

The layout of Dongsan-Dong had changed, including streets, and I soon was unable to recognize where I was. It wasn’t until we reached the industrial district, along Paltal-ro, where I gained some familiarity. But there were more buildings along the route that I only recognized some of the factories. When we turned right, onto a street that was much further north than I was used to turning, the city fell foreign to me. We were travelling in a new development. I no longer felt that we were in Chŏnju. I began to fear that perhaps the bus terminal had moved to a newer part of town, that perhaps Google Maps was out of date.

My fears were alleviated when I caught a glimpse of the old sports stadium and the towering building of Jeonbuk Bank, but I still couldn’t recognize the street on which the express bus travelled. There were new buildings that hid the familiar skyline, but I was sure we were near the bus terminal.

We turned onto another street and then took an immediate right into a large parking area that was full of similar buses, and I knew I was at the bus station, but the circular building had been replaced with a long, rectangular building. I exited the bus, grabbed my suitcase from the storage area, and walked into the terminal. Inside, it seemed like a shopping mall, with various stores and food venues. I saw a Dunkin Donuts logo and several Korean businesses, and wondered which way to go to get out onto the street. There was no exit on this floor so I went upstairs where I saw a small doorway that seemed to lead outside. A ramp led me to the sidewalk, where I felt a strong, hot breeze on my face. Several taxis lined up on the street and I walked to the car at the front of the line.

Chŏnju hanok suh-pah, ka, chuseyo,” I told the driver in very rusty Hangul. He immediately nodded his head and helped me place my suitcase in his trunk. Had he hesitated before acknowledging my destination, I would have known that he didn’t know where we were going. We could have been in for a long and costly ride.

I chose a landmark in the Hanok Village, the Chŏnju Hanock Spa. It was across the street from my rental apartment. I had found the location through Google Maps: the street view showed a large building with lots of cars in its parking lot, and I guessed that it was a popular place. Even as the taxi driver let me out, plenty of cars filled the lot and many people were coming and going on this Sunday afternoon.

The driver had taken me straight down Paltal-ro from the bus terminal, and I was relieved to find that this part of town hadn’t changed. We passed the building where Kwon’s hagwon had once been. The Youngchin Building had been purple brick when I lived in Chŏnju but had been resurfaced and was now a bland grey. I read a sign over the fifth floor, where our office had once been. There was a new hagwon in its place, under a different name. Perhaps I would give it a visit?


My HanokStay, as the apartment sign read, was on the northernmost part of the Hanok Village and by the looks of this block, the houses hadn’t undergone the reformation that the core of this ancient neighbourhood had. The traditional Korean house of wood and plaster, with a sloped, black-tiled roof, was tucked in a narrow alcove and showed the aging that this thousand-year-old neighbourhood had displayed in 1998.

I rang the bell on the gate and entered. A narrow, gardened path took me along the side of the house and into a courtyard, where countless flowers, fountains, and ornaments filled the space. It was obvious that the owner took pride in her garden.

A woman stepped out into the courtyard from a doorway on the opposite end of the yard. She was about my age, and I took a slight intake of breath as I realized the time that had elapsed since I was last in Korea. I would have addressed such a woman as ajuma—aunt—but now I was a contemporary.

Annyong hasseyo,” I said, bowing slightly. I was fairly certain that my hostess spoke no English. We had corresponded through Airbnb messages, and she always responded to me in Hangul, which I had to translate through Google. She had told me, in these correspondences, that her name was Choon-ju, and that she was looking forward to my visit. She had also wished peace and happiness upon me.

Oso-oshipshiyo,” she replied, welcoming me. She was petite, with a smiling face and hair cut short, just above her shoulders. In 1998, the typical hairstyle for a woman her age was a tight curl, but either that trend had faded or she didn’t follow it. Instead, her hair showed faint highlights of auburn, possibly used to hide some strands of grey. She appeared very stately and it was obvious that in her youth she had been very pretty. She was dressed in a bold pink blouse and black polyester slacks. On her feet were white socks inside black sandals.

Jeh illuhm-eun Lollanduh ibnida,” I said, introducing myself. I then extended my open hand outward, gesturing toward the garden. “Areum-dapda.” Beautiful.

Nae, nae, komap-subnida. Junun Choon-ju ibnida. Mannaseyo pangapsubnida.” Yes, yes, thanks. I’m Choon-ju. Pleased to meet you. I could see that I was going to get some practice from my rusty Korean language skills. Choon-ju led me toward the house, which had sliding screen doors that separated the outdoor steps to an inner hallway that looked out into her garden. There were three separate rooms in this inner corridor, and my room was in the middle. Wooden, French-style doors swung out into the corridor and revealed traditional sliding paper screens. The swing-out doors had ornate metal rings on both sides, and one ring was fashioned with a chain and lock. In between these two sets of doors, recessed into the frame that held them, was a set of meshed screen doors, which would be used to keep the mosquitos and other insects out of the room.

The room itself was fairly simple. Rectangular, with papered plaster walls, the wooden frame of the house showed through the ceiling. A simple yo was laid on the floor and occupied most of the space. An end table on the far wall held a medium-sized flat-screen TV and a basket filled with towels of various sizes, each embroidered with the HanokStay name and logo. There was a small stand to hold coats and hats, and wooden pegs jutted from the walls to hold other items. It was clear that my clothes were going to stay in my suitcase, to be removed as required.

An air-conditioning unit was affixed to the wall, high above the TV, and its remote control was attached to a holder, next to a light switch that was beside the doorway into the bathroom. The bathroom itself had a western toilet. A frosted-glass partition separated the shower, which had a modern waterfall head that drained into the tiled floor. The room was simple but perfect for my needs.

Choon-ju explained the room to me as she showed me around, and even though I couldn’t understand most of what she said, her gestures were clear and I was able to nod my understanding to her. At the end of the short tour, she drew my attention to a mini-fridge in the corner, near the entrance, and opened it to reveal various bottles of water, juice, and energy drinks. She retrieved a small energy drink bottle and handed it to me. Her words indicated that she felt I must be tired from my journey, and encouraged me to drink it immediately. It was sweet, with a mild flavour of herbs and fruit. I was able to finish it in one mouthful, and Choon-ju smiled as she took the empty bottle from me. “Mashisseyo,” I said, “kamsa-habnida.” Delicious, thank you.

Our tour over, Choon-ju led me back into the garden and over to a wooden stand where several maps and brochures were displayed. She pulled out a map that showed the entire Hanok Village and, producing a Sharpie marker, circled where we were. She then began pointing out nearby attractions—the palace, Jeondong Church, and P’ungnammun, the old city gate. She also traced the main street through the village, Taejo-ro, named after the first king of the Choson Dynasty. Choon-ju seemed to indicate that there were lots of places to eat.

On the northernmost part of the map, a few blocks away from us, she circled a spot and pointed to it a couple of times. I recognized a couple of words: kongnamul-gukbap, a popular soup made mostly with bean sprouts, which was thought to cure hangovers; and dee-shee, a Korean term for discount, seemingly taken from some English bastardization. I quickly discerned that Choon-ju was explaining that if I dined there and mentioned that I was staying at her HanokStay, I would receive a discount. I nodded and said, “Ahruh-suh,” stating that I got it.

Choon-ju produced a registry and opened it to a page that was held with a pen. I could see mostly Korean guests in the list but one British couple had written that they had a lovely stay, and that they loved Choon-ju’s hospitality and kindness. I wrote my name and indicated that I was coming from North Berwick, Scotland. Though it was too soon for me to provide a review of any sort, I added that the garden was beautiful and that I had received a warm welcome.

No doubt, I was going to find peace and happiness here.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

It's The Small Things

My wife and daughter are the ones who really made a big deal about it.

For years, I've considered getting a device that would crush the aluminum cans that we accumulate, be it the small cans of soda water, tonic, and the occasional pop cans, or the tall boys, the pint cans of beer that I go through on a regular basis.

The reason for getting the can crusher was two-fold: it would limit the amount of space these cans take as they fill up our blue recycle bin and it would save my hands, which sometimes fall at risk of being sliced open as the can tears and exposes jagged edges as I crush the cans by hand.

I wasn't desperate for the can crusher; rather, it was one of hundreds of nice-to-have items that I've stored in my head, planning to buy when the time was right, when my want for the item fell in a time when I was thinking about it and had the time and budget to get it. The time became right as I was reading my Twitter feed and saw that a friend had picked one up, and was taking some pleasure in crushing these columns of light metal that we call cans.

With my smartphone in hand, it was only a few seconds of searching before I found a device that had good reviews and was reasonably priced. A few swipes later, it was ordered.

DW and DD17 were in the kitchen with me, as I ordered the crusher, and I mentioned it as I tapped the Place Order button. They questioned why, after so many years without one, I suddenly felt the need to spend money on what they thought was a frivolous purchase.

I explained that it was something that I had on my mental list for years, that I found one that looked decent, and I added the pleasure that my friend got from using hers.

Both wife and daughter said I was nuts.

A couple of days later, the package arrived on my doorstep. As I opened the box—again, in the kitchen where DW and DD17 were watching TV in the adjoining family room—they exclaimed that I was crazy for buying the can crusher.

"Why are you making a big deal over it?" I asked.

"You're making a big deal over it," they said.

"How am I making a big deal? I merely mentioned that I was ordering it and had wanted one for a while."

"It's just extra, Dad," said DD17.

I rolled my eyes and took the device to our garage, looking for the best place to affix it. There were a couple of places, but I thought the best one was near our blue recycle bin because I could crush a can and simply drop it in the box. I didn't have time, right away, to mount it to the wall, so I set it in our laundry room, which leads into the garage, and left that job to the weekend, when I usually do big chores around the house.

On Saturday, I got out my tool box to retrieve my electric drill. As I was attaching a screw head to the bit, DW asked, "What'cha up to?"

"I'm mounting the can crusher to the wall."

"Oh my God, Dad!" exclaimed DD17.

"And you say that I'm making a big deal about this," I said.

I placed the device against the door frame that leads from the garage to our laundry room. That's where the stud was located, where the crusher wouldn't get in the way of the recycle bin or the extension cord that hangs further above. Four screws, and it was done.

I moved the lever a few times to ensure that the action was smooth and that it didn't strike the door frame. It was perfect. I tried to move the crusher but it was solidly attached to the wall. I put my tools away and went about the rest of my chores.

That evening, as we watched TV, I chose a nice, juicy IPA to enjoy as we relaxed. I filled a glass and then carried the can as I headed toward the garage.

"Are you going to crush the can?" asked DW.

"Yup."

DD17 rolled her eyes. I said nothing.

My friend is right: there's a certain satisfaction in effortlessly, safely reducing a large beer can to a thin mass of twisted metal. The crusher worked perfectly.


I said nothing as I returned to the family room.

"Well?" asked DW.

"Well what?"

"How was it?"

"It works exactly as designed." I focused on the TV program.

DW picked up her empty can of club soda and asked DD17 if she wanted to try the device. Our young daughter declined. DW rushed out to the garage and came back with a smile.

"That was satisfying!"

I declined a comment but inside, I was smiling. Two of my family members had made a big deal about my order, but now one of them was converted. So far, my kid hasn't shown any interest. That's okay.

When I finally made the decision to knock one item off my mental shopping list, I was purely looking at the practical application of the device. Given the amount of cans we consume in a week, given the desire to protect my hands (I'm the only one who crushed cans before throwing them out), it was a good idea. But the small satisfaction that the process of crushing the cans provides, there is an unexpected entertainment value that is added to the purchase.

It's the small things in life that make it worth living.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

It's Going to Be a COVID Christmas

I'm sorry to my local retail businesses, but unless you're online with free delivery, I'm going to be giving you a miss this year.

Photo credit: Huffington Post
I won't be going to any shopping malls or small gift shops this Christmas season. I'm staying home, doing all my holiday shopping online.

And I have to admit, I've been using Amazon like a drunken sailor on shore leave. No muss, no fuss: look for what I need, see the various selections, read the reviews, compare prices, swipe with my phone app, and it's on my doorstep in a day or two.

This is the way I shop these days. And the longer this pandemic goes on, the more I get used to shopping this way, the more chances that this will remain my norm.

I hate shopping as it is. I hated malls and crowded stores.

If I can support local, I will, but it has to be in my mind. I have to think, yes, this is where I used to go to get those kinds of things.

Don't blame me for not going out to my local stores this holiday. Blame the COVidiots who, through their social gathering, failure to wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance. They are the reason that the pandemic is still raging.

Oh yeah, and while you're at it, blame the provincial government for its inaction, for its failure in implementing strong restrictions that could have decimated the virus months ago.

I know, I ranted about this yesterday. But I'm still as angry that we're going nowhere with flattening the curve.

I really miss people.

I don't miss shopping, though, so this online thing is really not so bad. With any luck, I'll have shopped and wrapped my gifts long before the holidays.

It's going to be a COVID Christmas.