Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: "Native Speaker" by Lee Chang Rae

This past summer (which seems eons ago), I read Lee Chang Rae's award-winning debut novel, Native Speaker. I have little confidence in my abilities as any kind of literary critic, so I'll just offer up some impressions and thoughts I have after finishing the book.

The protagonist of the novel is Henry Park, who is a 2nd generation Korean-American who grew up in New York. Like many young Asian Americans who grew up in an immigrant family, he has had difficult relationships with his parents and his heritage. He's married to a White American woman and superficially appears to have integrated himself well into society, but underneath it all, he is still estranged from his own homeland, whether that be America or Korea.

The best parts of the novel, in my opinion, are when Henry recalls his childhood memories with his parents, especially his father. As a 2nd gen kid myself, I could easily relate to a lot of frustrations that Henry had with his parents. One great example is how he wished that his parents could have talked to him freely and openly as he perceived his White friends' parents did with their children. Of course, his wife then tells him that that's not all that great either.

Unfortunately, I think the book suffers in the second half because it switches gears in an attempt to go into "espionage thriller mode". Henry works as sort of a shady corporate spy who ingratiates himself with certain targets in order to extract compromising information from them for his firm's clients. From what I understand, Lee Chang Rae was using this as a metaphor for the invisibility that Henry feels as an Asian American man. The issue of invisibilty is a great one to base a novel on, but the way it was executed in the story felt like a distraction to me. Maybe I'm a little biased because I greatly prefer "ordinary" stories whose dramatic tension lay in the all-too-realistic scenarios and possibilities, as opposed to extremely unusual premises. But I would've preferred if the novel did away with the high-concept spy stuff and made Henry even more of an everyman.

I'm also wary of Asian American writers that are held up to sell "cultural experiences" to a mostly non-Asian audience, especially if those writers aren't all that familiar with their ancestral culture to begin with. Despite his unAnglicized name (which may give the impression that he's a recent immigrant), Lee Chang Rae has actually lived in America since he was 3 years old. He was educated at Exeter and Yale, and his wife is neither Korean nor Asian. Not that this should take away anything from him because Asian American is as Asian American does, and there's no single Asian American Experience.

But American society's tendency is to pigeonhole prominent minorities as spokespeople for their demographics. The character of Henry Park grew up in an immigrant working class environment where he and his family faced blatant and open racism. But a lot of Asian Americans grow up in middle class environments because their immigrant parents are doctors, lawyers, or professors; and they face their own struggles with identity and racism, even if people have never screamed, "Chink!" at them. Some Asian Americans aren't immigrants at all and have been in America for many generations, even speaking only English at home. What I'm trying to say is that Lee Chang Rae can only represent just a segment of the diverse Asian American population, and that there should always be room for more than just one spokesperson.

Overall though, I still enjoyed the book, if only because there's such a lack of Asian American literature out there, especially ones that have attracted mainstream recognition and acclaim as this one. I'm looking forward to reading his later works to see how he's changed and developed as a writer.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Prescription for Cinematic Amnesia

Ever have this experience when you can't remember any movies you've watched in the past few months? Like, someone will ask you if you've seen any good movies recently and you draw a complete blank? Even though you know that you've seen and enjoyed quite a few in that time period?

I hate it when that happens, so perhaps for the sake of my own sanity, I'll periodically just jot down the movies I've watched, here on this blog. The following are the ones that I watched over winter break.

A Man and A Woman (Un Homme et Une Femme)

A movie for the senses. Beautifully shot, especially the blue tones. And the voiceovers sound as though someone is whispering into your ear. A really barebones story, but if you're more into character and atmosphere than plot, this is a good movie, especially since it clocks in at a pretty breezy 102 min. It also has that really famous theme song that you've probably heard but never knew where it came from. I don't really understand why there were those long race car driving sequences though. I know that the guy is professional driver, but some of those sequences seemed gratuitous.

From cool blue wash...

To a nostalgic sepia tone

Strangers on a Train

I've never been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Out of all his movies, I think I like The Birds the best because there's not as much hamfisted pop psychology and is just a creepy movie about birds going berserk for some reason. Strangers on a Train was okay, but I thought that the actor who played the good guy was a bad actor. And the villain was perhaps just one prance away from being campy.

Still not a Hitchcock booster.

Brief Encounter

Oh good, after watching this movie, I won't have to think of The Seven Year Itch when I hear Rachmaninoff. As you can probably tell, I didn't like that movie much. Something about having to watch an old guy lust after Marilyn Monroe and feeling manipulated to sympathize with him just wasn't that entertaining.

Anyway though, I liked Brief Encounter though. I loved how painfully ordinary it was. The protagonist is a plain housewife whose highlight of the week is taking the train on Thursdays to go watch movies by herself. The man she meets is a doctor. Neither of them are that wealthy, glamorous, or beautiful. In fact, they're almost your stereotypical dowdy British people. Which is what makes their short-lived romance more affecting. Richard Linklater must've seen this movie before making Before Sunrise. That just goes to show you that no matter if you're repressed post-war British citizens or Gen X drifters, you can always find love on a train.

Kiki's Delivery Service

This movie is similar to Whisper of the Heart and Spirited Away in that it's about a young girl who has to overcome her own fears and insecurities. But what made Whisper of the Heart special to me was how beautifully mundane it was. The story is little more than about a young girl who gets a crush on a fellow student and also tries to write her first story. Yet somehow, the movie makes us invest our feelings and empathy into Shizuku, the heroine. And Spirited Away is its exact opposite in terms of realism, unless you live in a world where talking radishes and giant babies are everyday sights and evil big-headed witches constantly try to enslave you in their bathhouses.

Kiki's Delivery Service sits in between as a fantasy rooted in realism, which didn't work as well for me. Perhaps if those two other movies hadn't existed, I would've liked Kiki's Delivery Service more. And as per Studio Ghibli, the animals are adorable and full of personality.


Blue Marriage

Lee Yeon Hee! Okay, I'll admit that I was really excited about this movie because Lee Yeon Hee was in it and she's #3 on my Korean girl list. Happily, it was watchable and pleasant enough. The story revolves around 4 couples who are all about to get married but face their own issues. One couple has to deal with each others' pasts. Another has issues with routine and boredom. Another has problems because they're actually in a shotgun wedding. And the last one has to come to terms with insecurity.

I found two of the stories to be more compelling than the others. First, Gun Ho and Vika were interesting because it dealt with the issue of foreign brides in Korea (Vika is from Uzbekistan). It also dealt with the story realistically, making Gun Ho deeply worried that he is just being used for citizenship purposes. It didn't just Hollywoodize the story where the middle-aged schlubby guy gets the hot girl just because.

And So Mi's story was good too, and not just because it involves Lee Yeon Hee walking around Jeju Island in a blue dress. Her story deals with the troublesome issue of complacency and stagnation, and how even if a couple is as picturesque as her and her fiance (played by 2PM's Taecyeon), there still needs to be some spark and passion in the relationship.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Winter Break: Foods From Seoul

With 3 weeks off for break, I had just enough time to choose to either settle in comfortably at home or perhaps go traveling for a bit. I chose the former, which meant that I stayed in Seoul, met with friends, ate my favourite foods that I missed, and worked on some personal projects that I had neglected due to school. So because everybody loves to read about and look at food, I thought I'd just write about some of my favourite things that I got to eat this break. Most of these foods are pretty common, so I'm not saying anything revelatory or illuminating, though if you're not Korean, some of these things may be unfamiliar to you.

Unfortunately, most of the pictures here weren't taken by me. I always try to take my own food pics, but this time around, I guess I was too busy trying to eat everything that I couldn't take 5 seconds to snap any pics.

Chuncheon Dakgalbi (Chicken galbi)

This was perhaps what I was most looking forward to enjoying. It's a common enough food in Seoul, but pretty hard to find in the U.S.. I remember the first time I ever ate this, I was a bit confused because I thought that by "dakgalbi," I would just be eating chicken cutlets marinated in galbi sauce. But instead, what we got was a big circular iron griddle pan in the middle of the table, upon which a heap of chicken, cabbage, potatoes, rice cakes, and a large dollop of red sauce were placed.

I have to admit that I wasn't too crazy about this dish at first. It was all right, at best. But after I ate it a few more times, I started to warm up to it. It's very flavourful and a little spicy, though not overpoweringly so. Now, it's one of the things I crave the most when I go back home. Unfortunately, many of my close friends there don't like dakgalbi that much. I actually almost missed out on eating this because of that reason. Luckily, I was able to go with a friend on my last day in town!

Perhaps the best part of this dish is that even after you're supposedly done eating, you're not! If you leave some leftovers, you can order some rice and they'll mix it in with whatever's left on the pan for some delicious dakgalbi fried rice.


This was my first time having real sujebi. I had had small portions before as side dishes at some Korean restaurants, but my friends assured me that they weren't close to the real thing. When I went to Samcheongdong with a friend of mine, I wanted to try this seemingly simplistic food that consists of flat, thin pieces of rice cakes in a rich broth.

It was one of those foods that I thought couldn't make for a full meal, but I was absolutely stuffed by the end. The taste was similar to that of kalguksu, or maybe ddeokguk (rice cake soup that all Koreans eat on New Year's). I liked the texture of the rice cakes, which were almost like thick sheets of paper.

Samgyeopsal (Pork belly)

I wanted to enjoy a night of an unabashed bingeing on pork and soju, so I got together with a group of dudes and went to Sinsa to do just that. I remember the first time that my mom fried up some samgyeopsal for me, many years ago. Frankly, I was a bit put off by the taste of fatty and uncured pork, especially since I was used to marinated meats when it came to Korean food. But now, it's probably my favourite thing to eat when at a Korean BBQ joint.

I also took a couple of non-Korean college friends who were visiting to Hongdae to eat samgyeopsal and galbi. They loved Korean BBQ but didn't quite know how to eat it. Just for future reference, all those little dishes full of greens and such can be consumed at once if you want! I don't like to think of "proper vs. improper" ways of eating things, but I do think that there are ways to eat that make food definitely taste better. And eating Korean BBQ by utilizing all of the lettuce wraps, ssamjang (sauce), roasted garlic, and roasted kimchi makes for an infinitely more satisfying experience.

Ggot deung shim (Beef sirloin)

A generous friend of mine took me out to a restaurant called 무등산 (Moo Deung San) in Cheongdam for some ggot deung shim, which is beef sirloin (I think). It's unmarinated and uncured, so it's just pure meat flavour, which you can enhance with some salt, pepper, and olive oil. I said before that pork is still my favourite meat when it comes to Korean BBQ, but it's always a nice change of pace to try beef as well.

Yangnyum Pork (Marinated pork)

Saemaeul Shikdang is one of the places that you can probably find on every other corner in Seoul. It's a very unpretentious BBQ chain that's well-known for its marinated pork and kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew). It was also the place that my co-worker friends and I would go to often after work or for hweshik (company dinner), so I have a lot of good memories and sentiments associated with this place.

The yangnyum pork is my favourite because it's hard to find a similar dish elsewhere, at least in my experience. The meat is thinly sliced, which gives it a deliciously light quality. But it also means that it cooks quickly and burns easily, so you need to pay attention to the grill. And of course, the kimchi jjigae is very good, and I don't even like kimchi jjigae that much.

The fire also is good for warming your hands on a cold January night!

Salted Mackerel

Korean-style salted mackerel is one of my favourite foods. It's really simple but so tasty. I like mine very salty and kind of dry. A couple of winters ago, I went to an alley in Dongdaemun that had all these restaurants that served up all kinds of fish that were roasted on an open fire right in front of you. I want to go back there next time I go home.

Mandu (Dumplings)

Dumplings are the ultimate comfort food. They're good, available everywhere, and they just look so cute, don't they? Though I prefer Chinese-style dumplings (xiao long bao is my favourite food, after all), Korean dumplings, aka mandu, are very good as well. I love how each type of dumpling endearingly has its own unique shape.

Cup ramen
There's just something indescribably good about eating instant ramen out of a styrofoam bowl. I love Shin ramen and the like, but there are times when I just want cup ramen and nothing else will do. I never went to school in Korea, so I don't have the nostalgia of eating cup ramen at convenience stores with my friends. Even then, there's something very comforting about eating something that only requires hot water to prepare.

Korean ramen

When I think of Japanese ramen, I think of Ippudo. When I think of Korean ramen, I think of Shin ramen. So it was a new experience to try non-instant Korean-style ramen at this place right off of Garosugil. It was pretty good, though I'll always be partial to the instant kind most of the time.




Though obviously not native to South Korea, I can't imagine many other places that have better fried chicken than here. I went to Hanchu for its pepper-infused fried chicken, as well as its fried stuffed peppers. I ordered from Kkanbu, a chain restaurant, because one appeared within walking distance from my apartment (yay!) and it has more American-style fried chicken.


When I first heard of gamjatang, I thought it was a kind of potato stew because that's what gamja means in Korean. Or maybe there's a more obscure definition that I'm not aware of. Anyway, if it does mean "potato stew," it must've been some kind of bait-and-switch tactic to trick vegetarians into ordering it because it's really a red stew with big hunks of pork bones and meat.

Spicy galbi-jjim (Braised galbi)

This was my second time to this restaurant, 매운 갈비야. It wasn't as spicy as I remembered it, though there are about 5 levels of spiciness and we may have ordered a lower level than last time. Galbi-jjim isn't my favourite, but having it once in a while is good, especially if it makes you sweat on a cold winter night.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Love From Another Star: New Crack Drama!

I like to consider myself a person of my times, but I'm not always "with it." Take music, for example. I wish I could say that I keep up with current music, but I mainly listen to what has now become my college soundtrack. I once listened to "What Makes You Beautiful" and thought, 'Wow, what a catchy new song!' In 2013.

Greatest computer game
of all time
Or computer games. I've pretty much stopped playing games made past the mid-2000s, and I look all the way back to 1998 as the pinnacle era of gaming. Half-Life, Starcraft, Fallout 2, Thief: The Dark Project, and Grim Fandango? Come on, game over.

And as for TV shows, I've rarely ever followed a show as it was concurrently airing. Last season's Game of Thrones was an exception. And this year, with Breaking Bad, though I had watched all 4.5 seasons before the home stretch, I let the final half-season pass me by until I rushed to catch up at around the series finale time. Same thing with Korean dramas. Every time I've started a show, I've had the option to marathoning it because the series was over, often by a number of years. I could go as quickly or as slowly as I liked.

With Man From The Stars, I'm experiencing for the first time what it's like to have to wait while being in the dark about what will happen next. It's thoroughly frustrating because Man From The Stars is a very good show and I haven't experienced a "crack drama" like this since History of the Salaryman from a few years back. It's been a while since I've felt compelled to watch 5+ straight hours of a show, but this one made me do it.

Opening intro from the show

Man From The Stars (also known as You Who Came From The Stars) is romantic comedy about a 400+ year old alien who falls in love with a superstar actress. Yes, this was a concept that could've gone very badly very easily. I admit that, based on its paper pitch, I most likely wouldn't have watched it had I not seen a few scenes in passing on TV. As odd and silly as a central premise may be, it's hard to turn away Jun Ji Hyun and Kim Soo Hyun are on screen together, shot in beautiful hi-definition.

Jun Ji Hyun is more than just a pretty face... She's really funny too

Kim Soo Hyun isn't too bad-looking either, and he can hold his own against JJH

The basic story is that Do Min Joon (DMJ, played by Kim Soo Hyun) is actually an alien who got stranded on Earth about 400 years ago in Joseon Korea. He has incredible powers, including super strength, the ability to teleport, and the useful skill of freezing time for everyone except himself. However, he has learned to live life quietly (until the day he can finally leave) so as to not attract attention and to not interfere in the lives of others, especially since he believes in fate and wants to let things happen as they are meant to happen. He's kind of like Isolationist Superman.

CSY and DMJ are next door neighbours and they constantly fight

Flash forward to modern day Korea. DMJ has accumulated vast wealth and knowledge over the centuries and now works as a professor, which is belied by his youthful appearance since he hasn't visibly aged. Meanwhile, Chun Song Yi (CSY, played by Jun Ji Hyun) is the biggest female star in Korea who is far from the graceful and elegant beauty that her management company tries to portray her as. Despite all efforts by her managers, she constantly and publicly reveals herself to be vain, ignorant, and foul-tempered. Somehow, just as DMJ has found an opportunity to return to his home planet, he and CSY meet and potentially complicates his desire to leave, especially since she greatly resembles a girl whom DMJ fell in love with 400 years ago.

You can tell you're watching a bad drama when you don't even care to root for the protagonists. Perhaps you even want them to fail because they constantly in stupid, torpid, or unrealistic fashion. And you can tell you're watching a good drama when you become invested in even the secondary or tertiary characters.

DMJ and Lawyer Jang's conversations are some of my favourite in the show

Man From The Stars does the latter. There are the likes of Lawyer Jang, who is DMJ's sole friend and confidant. Even though Lawyer Jang is now an old man and DMJ is actually several centuries old, they interact almost like schoolboys and it's very funny. Also, there's Hwi-Kyung, who's far more entertaining than the typical second male lead because he's such a sheltered ditz. And there's Miss Hong, the unfortunate proprietor of a comic book store who's forced to serve the same 2 ill-mannered geeks who haunt her establishment 24/7.

But the main attraction (and not just physically) is the chemistry between the two leads. Relative status is important in Korean society, but it's completely upended here because while DMJ is much older and more learned than CSY, he looks barely older than a college student. Meanwhile, CSY is a superstar celebrity who is supposedly older. But she's also much more childish compared to him (being 400 years younger tends to do that), not to mention much less knowledgable about everything.

More bickering ensues

If you've seen the movie The Thieves, you'd have seen a similar romance dynamic between Jun Ji Hyun and Kim Soo Hyun, except he was much more lovestruck in that role. I think the makers of this drama wanted to capitalize on that chemistry, and it's been working well so far.

Not only that, but the character of CSY on her own is awesome as well. As mentioned before, she has a lot of personality flaws, but she's also loyal, honest, and not afraid to speak her mind. She reminds me of some of my favourite K-drama heroines like Kim Sam Soon (from My Name is Kim Sam Soon) and Baek Yeo Chi (from History of the Salaryman). Watching her get angry or cranky is one of funniest parts of the show.

So if you're looking for a big, expensive, and star-laden Korean drama and don't want to have to resort to watching The Heirs (sorry, can't help but hate), give Man From The Stars a try.

DMJ has the pimpest apartment ever

PS If people are wondering where they can watch all these dramas that I talk about, go to The availability and video quality are great, and they all have subtitles (for any non-Koreans).

PPS Kim Soo Hyun is very good at rocking the skinny tie. I am very envious.