An Expensive Lesson

How much is an idea worth? How much are the words that I write worth? How much is an hour of my time worth? As with many people, I greatly overestimate the value of my time and ability. It’s one reason why I can’t quit my job—I believe the pay is reasonable compensation for my time and ability—and one reason why I don’t like picking up extra private tutoring or editing jobs—the prices I feel I should charge I also feel are not moral. It’s also one reason I don’t blog as often as I should—the compensation is purely social and I’m not a social person. But the fact is that I waste a lot of time doing things with no inherent value. I should at least be reading books in my free time, but I’m probably the least well-read writer I know.

Anyway, these were the questions I found myself debating the other week. A couple weeks ago, my laptop crashed. I came home from a long day at work and turned on my computer. It was working just the same as any other day, but it wasn’t connecting to my home Wi-Fi, which it was in the habit of doing occasionally when I used it outside of the apartment. So I restarted it. It shut down fine, but where I should’ve got the ASUS loading screen, I got the blue screen of death. I didn’t think too much of it at the time because it would crap out every once in a while, but about 36 hours later, it still wouldn’t work despite trying everything I could think of.

The thing about my laptop, it was a shitty, bottom-of-the-line tablet PC so it had a tiny hard drive. Considering space for the operating system and necessary programs such as Office, there was almost no space left. Of course, there was a slot for a micro SD card, which is where I put most of my files. But my most important files, the files that I accessed most often I left on my hard drive. Of course, those files were my next two novels, the first of which I had maybe 30-40 pages of notes, a detailed outline about 60-70 percent finished, and certain important passages written out in detail. The second was mostly preliminary research, but there was a great deal of it.

The day after it crashed, I luckily had a few hours of free time, so I took the bike out, first to Yongsan only to find the ASUS repair center had closed down, then to various spots on Naver where they said there were ASUS repair shops near my house—Shindaebang, Noryangjin, Heukseok—but they were all dead ends. In the end, I went to this data recovery center near Hakdong, and they said they’d call in two days with a quote. “We’re among the top 3 data recovery centers in Korea,” the guy assured me.

A week passed and nothing. I couldn’t get through so I took my bike out there and the guy told me that they had to send it to another center in Busan and that he’d call me the next day. Two days later, he told me that it’d cost probably 700 bucks to fix. I told him that the price was too steep so he said he could try a different place for about 500. I said I’d think about it.

500 bucks for two Word files? 500 bucks for maybe three months of work (the last time I backed up the files)? 500 bucks for words I wrote that I might never write again?

In the end, I decided against it. When I consider that I actually lost money on my first book and that even when not factoring in the money I threw away in printing the book independently, my profits versus the time spent in writing and editing the book equals out to pennies per hour. I also didn’t lose the ideas for the novels, just parts of the ideas and many words that I may never get back, but for the more developed of the two books, the fact is that it was not even a complete first draft and after editing, the final manuscript may not even include those words or ideas at all.

Hopefully, one day, my words and ideas will be worth more than this. Instead, I’ll just have to take this as a lesson that I paid for not in terms of money but in terms of months of work. Kids, remember to back up your files.

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Print News Interview: The Korea Times

This is two weeks late, but I finally managed to get an article in The Korea Times, thanks to Sam Paterson. It was in the July 23-24 weekend edition and the July 22 online edition.

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Photo courtesy of Frederic Ojardias, one of three friends who still read the newspaper

When I first started promoting the book, I was unsuccessfully in getting The Korea Times to publish an article about it. I never got a reply the first couple times I contacted them, and there was interest after my first radio interview, but it was shot down by the editor at the time. As a result, I didn’t get my hopes up after doing the interview, and I was surprised on the morning of the 23rd, when Sam sent me an e-mail saying that it had been published, followed by messages from the few friends who saw it in the paper.

All the books at Kyobo (there were only five to begin with) finally sold out at the end of the last month as well. I’ve talked to my contact at Kyobo and hopefully I’ll get them back on the shelves in the coming weeks.

The article

 

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Summertime Busy

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and a long absence means either that I’ve been doing a lot of writing or relatively none at all. More often than not, it’s the latter. Not that I haven’t been writing. While there is no news regarding the Korean translation of the memoir, the textbook is in the hands of my cousin for translation, and I’ve been focusing on my first two novels when I have the time. The problem is that the summer is always the busiest time of the year for me in terms of my day job.

During the July intensive session, I see the most students out of the year in classes that require a lot of prep. I also get at least one group of students who want to get an early start on preparing for the last round of the entrance exam for the National Diplomacy Academy, which has taken the place of the foreign service exam. For this month, I have seven groups of four or five students each to coach in English debate, accounting for more than half of the applicants that made it to the final round. This will overlap with a special camp I teach for students from Chiba University for two weeks at the end of this month. As a result of all this work, I usually pass out early when I get home from work at night, which is usually when I do most of my writing.

The summer is also when I’m relatively the most social. I don’t know why people choose to visit Korea in the summer. It’s always either stiflingly humid or raining, and these days, it seems like every couple days I get a text message alert about a heat wave or monsoon. A former co-worker and the primary editor for the memoir visited from Albania, a drinking buddy and game developer who hopes to develop a game loosely based on my experience visited from Canada, and a graduate school hubae who shares my love for drinking during the day visited from the US. Interestingly, all of them are expats; the editor is American, the game developer is French, and the hubae is Korean. So lots of drinking and traveling around Seoul, which has also eaten up a lot of my free writing time. I’ve also had a few weird experiences in the past couple months, which I’ll save for the next one or two posts.

While talking to my game developer friend, I was reminded that I actually cut out a great deal of content from the memoir, at least 150 pages worth of material. Sometime this year, when I have a little more time, I’ll go through the early drafts and try to share some of those stories here.

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Banned Books

During my second stint at the Battle Simulation Center in the August of 2005, I was threatened to be reported to the DSC (Defense Security Command) for reading a translation of an autobiography of Che Guevara. It was an idle threat by a bored officer, but the fact is that I brought the book on base without having it approved by the company commander. All outside books have to be approved by the company commander and stamped for verification. I actually could have been punished if the captain had had a spine, but I was getting more rash and apathetic toward the end of my service and didn’t think much of it.

Earlier today, I was preparing class materials for a discussion on banned books, and I found that in 2008, the Ministry of National Defense updated its list of banned books on base. There are 23 books on the list. Of the 23, the books I could find on English news sites and other resources were Noam Chomsky’s What Uncle Sam Really Wants (2007) and Year 501: The Conquest Continues (2000), Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007), and Hyeon Gi-yeong’s A Spoon on Earth (1999). Apparently, Chomsky wrote in response that the MND should be renamed “the Ministry of Defense against Freedom and Democracy.” Sounds like something from a Harry Potter book.

I was oblivious to the fact that this was an issue in 2008—I was preoccupied with drinking, avoiding writing my thesis, and drinking to avoid writing my thesis—but military officers filed a petition with the Constitutional Court, arguing that the ban infringed on soldiers’ basic rights to happiness and freedom of ideas. The Constitutional Court upheld the ban in 2010.

I recently got back in touch with the Korean poet-writer who offered to edit my book, and he’s currently looking for publishers although I get the feeling that he hasn’t edited it yet. I guess he’s seeing if there’s interest before he invests his time. Anyway, one of the reasons I didn’t initially plan on doing a Korean translation of the book was I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out whether the book would be a violation of information security and whether the government would consider the book subversive or anti-government. I personally don’t think so, but who knows with the government’s oversensitive and irrational standards.

The list:

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Image taken from: http://photohistory.tistory.com/11959

Here is a very quick and poorly done translation of the image:

Pro-North Korea
North Korea’s Missile Strategy (2006), Gwak Dong-gi, Mun Gyeong-hwan, et al.
North Korea’s Native Culture (2000), Ju Gang-hyeon
A Spoon on Earth (1999), Hyeon Gi-yeong
History Has Never Led Me Astray (2006), Heo Yeong-cheol
Why the 80 Percent Are Controlled by the 20 Percent (2007), Ha Jong-gang, Hong Se-hwa et al.
North Korea’s Economic Development Strategy (2006), Jeon Yeong-ho
Unification, Our People’s Last Blue Ocean (2007), Jeon Sang-bong
Companion (1992), Baek Nam-ryong
What Uncle Sam Really Wants (2007), Noam Chomsky
Auf der Universität (1999), Theodor Storm
Nuclear Weapons and the Korean Peninsula (2006), Choi Han-uk

Anti-government, Anti-American
Crimes by US Troops in Korea and the ROK-US SOFA (2002), National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea
Salt-flower Tree (2007), Kim Jin-suk
Blood Falls from the Flowers (2004), Kim Nam-ju
Year 501: The Conquest Continues (2000), Noam Chomsky
Our History (1993), Jo Seong-oh
Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007), Ha-Joon Chang
Critical Biography of Kim Nam-ju (2004), Gang Dae-seok
21st Century Philosophy (2004), 21st Century Corea Institute
History of the Republic of Korea (2003), Han Hong-gu
Our God (1996), Kwon Jeong-saeng

Anti-capitalism
Die Globalisierungsfalle: Der Angriff auf Demokratie und Wohlstand (The Global Trap) (1996), Hans-Peter Martin, Harald Schumann
The Guerillas of the Republic of Samsung (2008), Pressian
* Apparently 19 more books were added in 2011, all fitting in this last category

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How the hell did I survive in the Army?

I just finished my first translation of the memoir into Korean, and I’ve come to realize just how awful my Korean is, even after living in Korea for 10 more years. The translation is pretty embarrassing as it is, and if the Korean writer who said he’d the edit the book doesn’t get back to me, there’s no way I’ll find a publisher for this crap. I had to take out a lot of descriptions because I couldn’t figure out how to express them, my spelling is awful even with MS Word helping me out, and although there wasn’t too much to begin with, I had to take out a lot of the humor because I’m still unsure what counts as humor in Korea. It’s a hot, steaming pile of garbage, but I did my best and am at least happy that I was able to finish it so quickly.

I wish I had known that it would only take two months to do it last summer, when the Korean writer was still interested in the book. He responded promptly up until the last few weeks, and I hope that the lack of contact is because he is so immersed in what I’ve sent him or at least busy trying to figure out just what the hell I wrote. If he doesn’t get back to me, I’ll have to try to find a cheap editor or a publisher who will provide an editor for me.

As I was translating the book, I also discovered a lot of mistakes. For example, the Professor’s name wasn’t Hyeon-seok but Koh Hyeon-seop. It’s not a major error, only the first one that comes to mind. I discovered this particular error because I don’t remember anyone’s full name—only first names or trainee numbers for conscripts and last names or positions for officers—and at least for the dialogue in Korean, it’s necessary. So I had to go through all my old notes and notebooks and hope I had written them down somewhere. Unfortunately, I had only written down full names for when I was first in Daegu because I had so much trouble remembering Korean names. I still do, but it was almost impossible for me back then.

I also had to dig up a copy of the field manual I stole as I was getting discharged and rely heavily on the internet for Korean terms because I don’t remember them, either. I’m happy I could remember what I did and find what I didn’t, but there are still some terms I’m pretty sure are slightly off or different from the particular brand of jargon we used in Daegu and Afghanistan.

It’s a crazy thought, but I sometimes wonder if I should just leave it as it is because it really shows how bad my Korean still is. But there are parts that I’m sure are travesties to Korean grammar and some that are completely unintelligible, and as the director at my first hagwon job in Korea used to say when I tried to speak Korean to my kindergartners, I would just make people stupider for hearing it.

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Bboguri

* Since my last post was not related with either the book/writing or the Army, I thought I’d post something Army-related, something I haven’t done in a long while.

I was mindlessly surfing 9gag the other day when I saw this posting titled “How lazy can you be?”

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It’s actually not an issue of laziness per se. Cooking ramen is not particularly difficult or time-consuming, and lazy people usually eat it straight from the pot. Of course, if you eat ramen in the way pictured above, you don’t have to do dishes, but it’s hard to get an optimal soup base-water ratio and end up with very little soup, which is a big minus.

This style of making ramen is called bboguri (뽀글이 or 뽀구리), and as far as I know, this is primarily a Korean Army thing. I don’t know any civilians who wouldn’t spend another 100 won to get the cup version of a ramen. But when you’re making 20,000 won a month as I was when I was in the Army, the extra 100 won adds up quickly.

We didn’t eat ramen like this all the time. Actually, every squad gets a monthly allotment of cup ramen, one box of yukgaejang sabalmyeon (pictured below). However, it goes quickly. It’s mostly the sergeants with a lot of seniority that are eating them because they are tired of eating chow (짬밥), and they have first dibs on communal goods.

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We ate bboguri when the communal ramen was all eaten or when we wanted a different kind of ramen and had to pinch pennies. With the water issue as mentioned above, it actually works better with “ramen” that use water only to soften the noodles, such as jjapageti (짜파게티) or oddugi spaghetti ramen (스파게티).

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For normal ramen: Open the wrapper carefully on one side, break up the noodles a little, add some soup base and dried vegetables, pour in hot water, close up the top with the unseparated wooden chopsticks or a binder clip, wait a few minutes, stir and enjoy.

I can’t think of any reason a civilian would have to make it. Maybe if you went camping and couldn’t get your hands on cup ramen or were worried about garbage. Or maybe you want to experience a small bit of Army life. If you do try it out, let me know what you think.

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How to recover an item lost in a cab in Korea

* This post has nothing to do with any of my books or writing. I only thought it might be helpful for some people, especially those who can’t read Korean and don’t have access to Korean resources. If you want, you can skip ahead to the informative part at the end.

The background

I lost my hat last week. I left it in a cab, mostly because I was fairly drunk and dead tired. It was three in the morning. I’ve lost my fair share of stuff in cabs—countless gloves, scarves, umbrellas, and two phones—for the same reason and usually around the same time of night. I’m not going to give up drinking so what I learned this past week is invaluable for someone like me.

Normally, I don’t care much about losing things. I’m also excessively absentminded, and it comes along with the territory. But it was my favorite hat. Some guys collect sneakers; I care about hats. It was also a gift from my buddy Mark, who no longer lives in Korea, and it’s a Chicago Bears hat. The Bears haven’t been popular with anyone for a long while, but I grew up in Chicago and the Bears are my team, even if they can’t get their shit together. You can find a million Yankees hats in Seoul, but even specialty stores rarely have a decent selection of Bears hats.

I shouldn’t have been drinking—my doctor says I shouldn’t for another two weeks—but my friend Dennis was leaving Asia and there was no way I wasn’t going to drink. After some really nice Han-u for dinner, we ended up heading out to Itaewon to get a table at Glam. It’s definitely not my kind of scene—I prefer 2,500 won beers at Bonggu Beer—and the asshole bouncers at Glam give me a hard time every single damn time. I’m not bougie enough for their establishment, and they have so many damn rules. They wouldn’t even let me walk in with my cane when I was recovering from my motorcycle accident. This time, it was my hat and backpack. I had to take off my hat and backpack and carry them in my hands to get in.

We had already had three bottles of wine at dinner, but getting a table means buying bottles, so we had vodka, champagne, a shooter in lieu of ordering food, and whisky from my flask. When it was time to call it a night, I was halfway down the stairs when I remembered that I had left my hat inside. I ran back in and got it (but couldn’t put it on), left, and jumped in a cab. It was only the next morning that I realized I had left my hat in the cab. I was too hung over to do anything about it, so I didn’t get around to doing anything until Monday.

The Steps

Anyway, here’s what you need to do if you’ve left something in a cab. This is only possible if you paid with a credit card (or check card). If you paid with cash and didn’t use a service like KakaoTaxi, you’re out of luck. (If you used KakaoTaxi, you can look up the license plate number on the app, but it’d take some detective work to track down the cab company and find the driver.)

Some of these steps might be redundant, but these are the steps that I found on Naver and followed to get my hat back.

  1. Find the transaction information. If you get a text whenever you use your card, all of the necessary information is there. You need the date, time, and amount of the transaction.
  2. Call the customer service number of the bank/credit card company. In my case, I bank with Shinhan, and the Shinhan Card (not Shinhan Bank) customer service number is 1544-7000. The operator gave me the customer service number of T-money Taxi and the license plate number of the cab.
  3. Call taxi customer service number to get the cab company information. The operator gave me the phone number of the cab company and the license plate number of the cab (again).
  4. Call the cab company and they will give you the taxi driver’s cell phone number. I called the driver, but it turns out he left my hat at the company. I called the company back, and they confirmed that they had my hat. I just had to provide information to prove it was mine (color and logo).
  5. Work out how to get your item back. If you don’t mind paying some money, you can probably negotiate with the driver to have him/her drop off your item when they are in the neighborhood, but the weather was nice enough to take out the bike to the Banghwa-dong, near Gimpo International Airport, and I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of talking to anyone on the phone anymore and I’m cheap and didn’t want to remunerate the driver for his troubles.

If you can’t speak Korean, you’ll have to recruit the aid of a Korean speaker to get you through the steps. Even though I’m not bad at Korean, I still had the owner of the coffee shop I frequent make the calls for me. I don’t like talking on the phone.

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This is the closest picture I could find on the Internet, but my hat has midnight blue stitching instead of gray. While looking for the picture, I found another nice hat. I’m going to try and see if any of my students that are visiting Chicago this year can pick it up for me.

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