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Part XXXVII Once again, I must protest . . .

November 18, 1999

What is it with this place?  The use of the heater is still determined by calendar rather than by temperature!  I understand that heating is expensive, but it is also expensive to treat hypothermic and frostbitten students and teachers!!  I saw my breath INSIDE today.  But, the heaters will NOT be turned on until December 1.  That's real smart.  Real *%&!ing smart.

Not that I am bitter or anything.

So anyway, on the menu today we have my parents and Korea.  I have more, but my recent exciting adventures in teaching will have to wait until next time.  Let's begin.

In the middle of October (hey, I've _almost_ caught up to this month), my loving parents came to Japan for two weeks.  I only got to see them for about five of those days, but that was plenty.  Actually, the visit went extraordinarily well, and the only drawback was that I had planned so many interesting and fun activities we were pretty worn out by the end.  The first thing we did was go to the oldest university in Japan as well as a really cool pottery museum with my friend and student Elvis.  He really is alive, and apparently he lives in Japan.

(Allow me to explain: on Monday nights I teach an English conversation class to adults, and Elvis is one of the students.  His real name is Yuichi Saito, he is retired, and English is his hobby.  He also sings a fantastic Elvis on karaoke, so the name actually fits very well.)

Anyway, that night we had an enkai (drinking party) with my board of education, about which I was a bit nervous.  Everyone was really nice, though, and the big boss (same guy who took me out for expensive fugu fish) took us to a small karaoke bar afterwards.  This was the first time for my parents to try karaoke, and they loved it (if you believe them).  Actually, I think their favorite part (at least, my father's favorite part) was when the Japanese guys sang Beatles songs.  I've been here too long -- I'd forgotten how truly strange that is.  Not that they didn't do a good job, of course; it's just a very memorable sight.
"Obra-di, obra-da, rifu goes on, braaaaaa!"

We saw many cool things, but I'll spare you the rest of it.  Suffice it to say that a good time was had by all, and that since they were footing the bill it was best I have eaten since I came to Japan.  Anybody else wanna come?

Less than a week after my parents left, I went to Korea with my friends Jeff and Jeff and Jeff and Jeff -- oh, wait, there were only two of them.  Actually, it was very convenient for me -- no matter now drunk I got, there was no way I could call one of them the wrong name by accident.  Not, of course, that I touched any alcohol while in Korea.  I mean, $0.45 for a one-liter beer!  Who could afford it at those prices?!? (It was cheaper than COCA-COLA!!)

One of the main reasons we went to Korea was to buy stuff.  Stuff in Korea is cheap, especially tailored stuff like suits and shirts.  Jeff supposedly knew a guy from whom he had bought a suit the last time he was in Korea, but since he couldn't find his guy we ended up wandering down the streets of Itaewon, the shopping district, looking for a likely shop.  Fortunately, we tripped over Mr. Lee (almost literally -- he jumped out of his chair at the sight of us and almost ran into us shouting "custom made suit?").

Mr. Lee was awesome.  He never bickered over price, he gave us time to make decisions in our own time, offered timely (and good) advice, and accepted cash or credit.  He also gave me two 150-weave (= good), 20% silk, custom made suits in 48 hours, for $200 each.  And two custom made shirts for $25 each.  I should have bought ten.  Jeff and Jeff each bought one suit, although Jeff also ordered a beautiful 100% cashmere suit, which I will order as well as soon as I get my next paycheck (but don't worry, we won't wear them on the same day).  Now that he has my measurements I can just call or fax in an order, and heíll ship me the suit in about a week.

I also bought a genuine imitation Rolex.  According to the printing on the watch, it is "Offically Certifide" to be a Rolex.  How did they manage to spell BOTH words wrong?  Regardless, it looks almost exactly like the $4,000 Rolex (Submariner model) that I saw in Tokyo, and we paid almost exactly 1% of that price.  I donít care if it is fake -- it is a beautiful watch, and it cost $40.  Iíll just be careful not to get it wet.

The highlight of the trip, at least for me, was the DMZ, or De-Militarized Zone.  This is, in fact, the most heavily defended border in the world, but fortunately there is a 4 km wide weapons-free zone between the two countries (except handguns -- I guess those aren't dangerous enough to count).  It's about a one hour bus trip from downtown Seoul to Camp Boniface, which is the Allied base closest to the DMZ.  Seoulís proximity to North Korea is one reason why the border is so heavily defended.  No one wants to lose their capital on the first day of battle. (In contrast, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is pretty far from the border.)

I'm not going to recount the history of the Korean War here, but suffice it to say that it started as a simple invasion of the South by the North in 1950, and ended up an ideological battle between Communism and Capitalism.  The war stopped in 1953 with a cease-fire agreement and the establishment of the DMZ, but peace talks, also called reunification talks, still occur to this day in Panmunjom, a former village smack in the center of the DMZ.  We were actually allowed to enter the building where these talks take place, which is very cool.  The table is placed exactly on the border, so that the North Koreans are sitting in North Korea, and the South Koreans are sitting in South Korea (are we xenophobic, boys and girls?).  Since we were allowed to walk around the table, Jeff, Jeff and I can truthfully say that we have been inside North Korea.  About 10 feet inside North Korea.

I have a pretty good idea of what happens in this room.  I mean, what could there left to say after nearly 50 years of "peace" talks?

(Enter North Korea, South Korea)
NK:  "You gonna give us South Korea?"
SK:  "No.  You gonna give us North Korea?"
NK:  "Nope."
SK:   "Well, that's it then."
NK:   "Yup."
SK:   "Same time tomorrow?"
NK    "Yup."

And then there was Jooho Bang.  You may think that I made up that name, but I did not.  About a week before leaving for Korea, I was doing random internet searches just to see what I could find out about Seoul.  In the process, I stumbled across several homestay families in Seoul who have put up their own websites.  One of these people is Jooho Bang, who is a retired banker living with his wife, 23 year old daughter, and 20 year old son (both students).  I emailed him,and he seemed very nice, so we decided to stay at his place for the first two nights of our visit.  We were a bit apprehensive, but that part of the trip turned out far better than any of us expected.

First of all, he picked us up at the airport and drove us directly to his house (10-15 minutes away) where we immediately sat down to eat the second best meal of our whole trip.  The best meal was the one they served us the second night.   Jooho's wife, in tradtional Korean style, did not eat with us.  This made me a little bit uncomfortable, but there was really nothing we could do, so we made sure to thank her profusely every time she poured our water or spooned more food onto our plates.  Unlike Jooho, she didnít speak much English, but she is one of the most cheerful people I have ever met.  Not only was the food magnificent, but the rooms were very modern and clean, and we had our own bathroom to use.

I haven't gotten to the best part yet.  Jooho has maps of all of the interesting areas of Seoul on his computer, in Korean and English.  Whenever I mentioned some places where we wanted to go he just busted out the appropriate map and told us exactly how to get there.  It made the rest of the trip as easy as falling off a log.  Whenever we had to take a taxi, all we had to do was flip out one of those maps and point at the destination.

The trip was definitely a success.  Iíll just leave you with this piece of advice: if you ever go to Seoul, do yourself a favor and drop Jooho an email to see whether they are busy.  I can't imagine a more comfortable way to ease into a foreign country.  You can check out his website (the same one that I found) at <http://myhome.hananet.net/~jooho/>.  Check out the guestbook -- our picture will be there soon.