Last night I found myself in a largely abandoned bar, sitting next to an English teacher whose face was weighed down with an intricate set of piercings, and who was resolutely losing money in a Korean card game that she didn't appear to know the rules to. I ordered a beer and tried to suss out how the game was played, but since the player closest to me appeared to be equally in the dark as I was, the only rules that I could see involved her taking out her wallet after every hand and forking over a few bucks to one of the bartenders.
I was going to hurry through my beer and leave when another bartender, sensing my boredom and imminent departure, walked over to me. She, a tall, attractive Korean with an easy smile, waved her fist at me and rather solemnly intoned ka-yi, ba-yi, bo! I had enough Korean friends in high school to recognize those three words -- scissors, rock, paper -- and to know that a challenge was being laid down.
We sparred a few times -- it took a second for me to catch on that Koreans throw on three, rather than just after it -- at which point she explained that Koreans, through a long history of either intense boredom or an ongoing need to make equitable decisions on the fly, have developed a number of surprisingly complicated variations on the otherwise childs-play-esque rock-paper-scissors.
She explained the first game to me -- you throw (every throw is invariably accompanied by a chanted ka-yi, ba-yi, bo! with the throw coming on the bo!). Whoever wins pauses for two seconds or so, and then when the other guy isn't suspecting it, you shout "mok!" and change whatever it is that you originally threw to another sign of your choosing; if, when you shout mok! the other guy ends up with the same sign as you, it seems that he loses. There are a few other things you can shout in Korean, but as I am not a speaker of Korean and wasn't carrying a notebook, they've been lost to history.
In short: I did not, and still do not, understand how this sort of rock-paper-scissors is played. The fact that I failed to grasp a children's game is not lost on me.
She called over another bartender, and they played for a few minutes to show me how it was done -- she consistently winning, barking out mok! and him slowly backing away from her while losing every hand. She was a semi-professional. I still couldn't get the rules.
Noting that I was a moron, she moved forward to the next variation.
Each player uses both hands simultaneously, counting out ka-yi, ba-yi, bo! and throwing down either rock, paper or scissors with one hand and a simultaneous different throw with the other hand. The initial throw is followed immediately by the invocation "gop-be-gi!" at which point the players each select one of their hands to push forward. You are, in essence, playing two-handed RPS, setting out a buffet line of choices that you and your opponent will each choose from, and then making the final decision at the very end.
Whomever loses has to put one hand down on the table and play with only one throw in the next round, putting them at a massive disadvantage. When they lose again, they put their hand on top of the hand that's already down, to be slapped by the winner -- and not lightly, either; Koreans play for keeps.
We played briefly, but it was clear that I was thinking too hard -- Korean rock-paper-scissors is dominated by speed, a fact that I didn't fully grasp. She again called over the other bartender, and they went at it. I was dazzled by the speed of their throws; they could go through five rounds in as many seconds, barking out ka-yi, ba-yi, bo! Gop-be-gi! over and over and over again. It was impressive, and the male bartender continued to lose hand after hand to the female, who wasn't exactly cutting him any slack on the hand slapping.
By this point the English teachers had entirely lost interest in playing cards and were intent on rock paper scissors. The current game was expanded handily to include five people, a feat I didn't realize possible for a one-on-one game, but the Koreans have thought all of this through and it worked just fine. Sort of. I still found it blisteringly complicated, but by that point I was firmly established in the mind of the bartender as a mook anyways, so it didn't really matter.
The English teacher then introduced variation three, which she claims she plays with her students and which would land any American teacher squarely in litigation-ville with a squadron of lawyers screaming for blood.
The two players hold hands loosely in the standard hand shake position. The other hand is used to throw (while shouting, of course, ka-yi, ba-yi, bo!), and the winner then goes on to slap -- quite hard -- the loser's hand. The loser, however, can use his free hand to defend the hand that's being held, so that it becomes a contest of speed to see who can register fastest that they've won or lost and either slap or get into the protection position. This game is also breakneck, about a throw a second, and it only took about twenty seconds for the bartender to have the English teacher mingling obscenities with her very vocal ow's.
Shortly thereafter, I finished my beer and the English teachers declared themselves out of money, so that was it for my evening of lighthearted, playground-style violence. I feel like there are dozens more variations on this game waiting to be taught to me, but they're probably going to go undiscovered unless I move to Korea or start hanging out in the Korean-dominated parts of Beijing.
Posted by Dakota on 4:40 AM link |
Last night I was wandering the mean streets when I passed a guy with a deep fryer mounted on a push cart. He was shoving hotdogs on to chopsticks, and then dunking them in a thick batter before rolling them in panko, Japanese-style breadcrumbs. He dropped the end result into the aforementioned deep fryer, and three minutes later out came a Korean corn dog.
It goes without saying that I immediately purchased one, waving off the proffered ketchup and mustard. I dunked it in kojujang, a bright red Korean-style hot sauce made from roasted peppers and sesame and to which I'm completely addicted to, and enjoyed the hell out of it on my way back to my hotel.
Today I was again wandering the streets when I saw a different vendor doing the same thing. After he rolled the dog in the breadcrumbs, though, he was going back for a second dunk in the corn batter, and then rolling the entire conglomeration in French fries that were then fried into the outside of the corn dog, so the entire meal -- main dish, side dish -- were all part of the same fried chunket-on-a-stick. This variation on a theme of corndog makes me feel that Koreans are living in the future.
Posted by Dakota on 3:32 AM link |
Of all the Asian tourism campaign slogans, my favorite by far is Malaysia: Truly Asia! which has a sort of paranoid, defensive ring to it, even though it would take some truly aggressive cartography to attribute Malaysia to any other continent.
Much less compelling than Malaysia is Korea's slogan -- The SEOUL of Asia! which is the sort of pun that even I, a pun-loving fool, think is too easy. A more convincing tagline would've been Seoul: An hour and a half flight and a hundred bucks roundtrip from Beijing*, which is ultimately why I got on a plane yesterday to come here for the weekend.
Here's what I didn't really realize about Korea: you step off the plane, and BAM -- you're in the heart of the first world.
I am enraptured with Korea. It started with the custom's declaration form, on which the first question is "Are you bringing into Korea: firearms, knives, crossbows or other weapons?" (I suppose with several thousand US soldiers running around, you need to take every precaution you can against projectile weapons from the middle ages). Then you land in the uber-modern airport and hop on the train only to discover that seats on the train are HEATED, a luxury I thought confined only to high-end Volvos; the trains run every twelve minutes and there's no need to question if they'll be on time; you can tell from the pristine station, the complex but user-friendly ticket machine and the perfect signage that it's going to be on time: of course it will.
And there's also the Korean language, with its exciting division of consonants -- rigidly unaspirated and heavily aspirated and excitingly stressed! -- as well as it's bright, crisp vowels, and its single, shapeshifting combined r/l liquid, all of which have me enchanted. I could listen to it all day, which is good, because there's an awful lot of Korean being spoken in Korea. And the snacks. The snacks! Korea is FILLING UP with deliciousness, and it's not going to eat itself, people!
It's eye blistering cold, though, that's for damn sure.
*Ok, technically the ticket was a hundred bucks but the taxes add another hundred and twenty that I don't think is worth mentioning. It was a hundred bucks roundtrip, and damn the man.
Posted by Dakota on 8:13 AM link |
My beloved bicycle (218 kuai, or just over 25 dollars and a rickety deathtrap that I love) ceased to function, the pedals inexplicably locked. On more or less every corner there's an enterprising guy (always a gentleman, never a female) with a "Bicycle Repair" sign, and having nothing to lose I walked my bike to the corner nearest my apartment.
The gentleman there looked it over, played with the pedals with his hand, felt the chain, and then stepped away. He went to his toolbox, grabbed a hammer (two steps below a sledge hammer, but still massive), and proceeded to pound on the bicycle, on the pedals, the gears, the frame, over and over and over. After about fifteen solid thwacks, he stopped, and lifting the back tire, turned the pedal. The tires moved. He declared it fixed.
I tested it out; it worked.
As I rummaged in my wallet for the quarter he'd asked me for to pay for his services, I asked him -- so, what was wrong?
Unclear, he replied.
Posted by Dakota on 10:15 AM link |
Osteosarcoma: cancer of the leg that normally starts at the knee and spreads quickly; cause unknown. Treatment, in the late 70s, started with amputation above the knee and moved forward from there.
Terry Fox: a Canadian diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 1977; leg amputated that same year. Three years later he began: filled a bottle with water from the Atlantic to carry to the Pacific, dipped his left toe into the ocean and started running west at a pace of 26.2 miles per day, an Atlantic-to-Pacific run split into a marathon every twenty four hours, run on a prosthetic right leg. He called it the Marathon of Hope.
Terry Fox did not make it to the Pacific Ocean. He stopped running 143 days later, just north of Thunder Bay in Ontario, 3,339 miles into his run: golf ball sized tumor in one lung, lemon-sized tumor in the other. A year later it was over: funeral broadcast on national television, buried in his hometown of Port Coquitlam, on the outskirts of Vancouver. He was twenty-two.
Terry Fox was running to raise money for cancer research; the net gains from his high-profile run and the subsequent celebrity telethon shortly after he stopped raised millions of dollars for cancer research. I had never heard of Terry Fox until I moved to Pakistan and the Canadian Embassy started organizing a run, but Canadians consider him to a be a national hero, and voted him to number two on the list of Greatest Canadians, ahead of Alexander Graham Bell and Wayne Gretsky but behind Tommy Douglas, the founder of the Canadian medicare system.
The run in Pakistan was later cancelled in the wake of the earthquake, deemed inappropriate to raise money for another cause when the fundraising for Kashmir was ongoing. But the Terry Fox run is an international non-competitive event held annually in memorial of the original run, the single largest one-day fundraising event for cancer in the world. It's held simultaneously in over 400 cities every year, with additional international stragglers in the weeks that follow.
Beijing's Terry Fox Run was a few months ago. It was poorly advertised, held in the park just outside my apartment building on a cold morning marked with a steady drizzle that turned into sleet. I had told our DCM (the second in command of the Embassy) about the event previously, and he'd dug further and emailed me a few extra tidbits: Run starts at 8 in Chaoyang Park. Free entry, donations accepted. Starting gun to be fired by Canada's own Da Shan.
The DCM no-showed on the run, but I was there with a few other loyal embassy compatriots, shivering in the sleet and waiting for the interminable speeches in incomprehensible loudspeaker mandarin to finish up. I was pretty excited for a number of reasons:
1. It was drizzling on a freezing morning, which means the turnout was terrible. They say the run is non-competitive, but it was a sparsely attended 8 kilometer race -- the 8k is my favorite distance -- and the lack of attendees in the drizzle meant that I, for the first time ever, had a shot at a winning a race, albeit one that they claim isn't a competition.
2. The starting gunman was Da Shan. Da Shan is the Mandarin-speaking Canadian wunderkind previously quoted as excited to be a member of Team Canada for the Olympics, as it will make the Chinese think -- hey, Canadians are our friends! Unlike those Americans! Poor turnout in a small venue meant that I would have a shot at actually meeting Da Shan and telling him exactly how I felt about his comments.
Speech after speech after speech. At one point I looked up and was shocked to see a white guy at the podium, and then was annoyed that I too was impressed at how fluent Da Shan's Chinese is: he sounds like he's from Liaoning province. More speeches. I stop paying attention. Five people on the stage shout in unison -- the marathon of hope begins NOW! and all five raise their starter pistols and fire. The 200 or so runners move towards the starting gate when one of the people on the stage grabs the mike and starts shouting -- not yet! Don't start running! Wait wait wait!
They start announcing groups -- runners from the Canadian International School -- go! Runners from Central Middle School Number 7 -- go! I wait about 45 seconds, but it's freezing and I've still got it in my head that I can win this race (at which there are no runners and no one cares about winning), so I finally duck off and start running.
8k is five miles and I'm pacing at under 8 minutes per thinking I can hold it easily over 5 and maybe kick it hard on the last mile. By the end of the first mile, there are only two people in front of me and I'm feeling strong. By the end of the second mile the two people in front of me are long gone but I'm in a solid third with no one in sight behind me; I pass a spectator who shouts -- the first foreigner!
At 2.2 miles, about 3 and half kilometers into the race, I round the corner into the empty starting area. I have run for just under 17 minutes, at 7:42 per mile. There is no one in the starting area except the two people who finished in front of me and a few people milling around the stage looking bored. I jog to the other runners and ask -- are we supposed to do it twice? They don't know. I ask one of the organizers; she doesn't know. I start to run towards the starting gate again, and they wave me back -- no, you've finished. That's it.
So -- I placed third. Probably the closest I'll ever come to winning a race, although referring to the Terry Fox run as a "race" really stretches the bounds of the definition of athletic competition. I will cling to this, nonetheless: third place. (I will also maintain, steadfastly, that if I had known it was only a two mile race, I could've easily knocked a minute off my mile time and perhaps come in first; but no one likes post-race sour grapes, so I keep that thought to myself).
The rest of my buddies finish shortly after me. One tells me -- hey Dakota, I finished right behind your favorite person in China. And he points, and there, a few feet ahead of me is Da Shan.
Da Shan. The moment had come.
I jogged to him and called out -- Da Shan! Hey Da Shan! He greeted me, and I wasted no time before leaping into the matter at hand.
I said: Hey, Da Shan -- listen, I saw your remarks in the China Daily about being on Team Canada, and how it's all about friendship, how you want the Chinese to see you on the team and think, hey, that's Da Shan! And his our friend, and team Canada is our friend too! Unlike those Americans. And, as a fellow Canadian*, I really thought that those remarks were unprofessional and quite frankly very unsportsmanlike.
His reply was instantaneous: Oh, that, that was a misquote! That was originally quoted in the Toronto Star, and then it was all taken out of context, and that's not what I originally said at all. I mean, I don't have a problem with Americans -- I have American friends! -- and I really do think the Olympics is all about friendship, but there are some people, some Americans out there who don't think that way, and that's what I was talking about. Some people don't think that the Olympics are a friendship kind of thing -- and I guess I'm one of them now, according to the press.
This was the most enjoyable moment of my entire life: Da Shan, backpedaling like a madman.
My friends were following out of earshot but within watching distance, and they described Da Shan as "visibly uncomfortable." He apparently was moving at a diagonal the whole time, taking steps to move away from me. When our conversation was over, he disappeared into a taxi at near light speed. I'm pretty sure this wasn't a revelatory moment in the life of Da Shan. I don't think he lost a lot of sleep over my comments. But I'm guessing that it DID give him pause for a brief moment, and I'm sure he told his friends about it, and that, THAT is all I was hoping for.
Score board: Da Shan zero, team America one.
*Yes, I claimed to be a Canadian. Yes, that was a dirty lie, but it was a NECESSARY dirty lie -- if I had said I was anything else, I would've just looked like another whiny American with an irrational axe to grind, upset at having been slighted and, by extension, perhaps a little bit jealous that my country failed to produce a Mandarin wunderkind like the Shan-ster himself. But please believe me when I say that I'm not in any way jealous of Da Shan, and that my ire at his comments goes well beyond nationalistic irritation into the realm of full on homicidal hatred.
Posted by Dakota on 10:38 PM link |