On Friday evening my team went out for dinner and noraebang (Korean karaoke).  My friend and his wife from Beijing also joined us.  We had a great time.  We traveled to Gangnam south of the Han River and dined on fried pork, banchan (side dishes), and spicy tofu soup.  I don’t recall the name of the dish, but it consists of slabs of fatty pork bacon fried on a grill.  It’s a heavy meal that would make Dr. Atkins proud.  Unfortunately, my friend’s wife is vegetarian, a fact that escaped me when my Korean colleagues were deciding where to dine.  Fortunately, she was a good sport, and she was able to patch together a vegetarian meal from the banchan and tofu soup.  It is tough being vegetarian in East Asia—even dishes that appear to be vegetarian such as kimchi often include hints of meat or are fried using animal (e.g. kimchi is often made using sardine or oyster bits).  Vegetarians usually can find solace in Seoul at Buddhist restaurants, although it limits their dining options.  The carnivores among us softened the heaviness of the pork by wrapping it romaine lettuce with spicy green onion slices and red pepper paste.  Lettuce is an interesting alternative to bread, pitas, or wraps.  Koreans also wrap food in sesame leaves, which have a sharp, acquired taste.  I’m not too fond of vegetable wraps because they can be really messy when the meat is too juicy.  We also polished off a few bottles of soju, Korean rice alcohol.  Soju helps lower one’s inhibitions when it comes to singing noraebang in front of a group of people. 

After dinner we walked a few steps to the noraebang.  The Korean word “noraebang” (노레방) literally means “song room.”  The word “bang (방),” or room, is a suffix that describes many different entertainment/service establishments, including PC방, or Internet Café, and chimjilbang (침질방), or Korean bathhouse.  The word “karaoke” is a Japanese term widely used in many foreign languages, including Chinese and English.  However, independent-minded Koreans choose to refer to “karaoke” by a uniquely Korean name.  This may be due to Korea’s traditional relationship with Japan.  Koreans adopt many foreign words and phrases and Koreanize them.  For example, the Korean word for “auto show” is “mo-tuh shyo (모터쇼).”  Native English speakers are thankful Koreans have adopted so many words from the English language.  In fact, whenever common words such as “mountain” (nam, 남) are used in foreign names, Koreans transliterate them.  Hence, the Rocky Mountains are the 로기 마운틴“, or Ro-gi ma-oon-tin”, not “Ro-gi-nam.”  The Japanese term “karaoke” is a glaring exception.  The word can easily be transliterated into Korean.  Thus, it’s interesting to me that Koreans call “karaoke,” a global phenomenon that began at a snack bar in Kobe, Japan, by a uniquely Korean name.  If “karaoke” had been imported from the U.S. and was widely known by an English name such as “American Idol wannabe,” I have a hunch that the Koreans would have Koreanized the English term.  After all, an Internet Café is typically referred to as a PC방.  It’s just a hunch. 

Anyway, I digress.  After dinner we went to the noraebang to sing our hearts out.  The room was very small, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.  Padded seats lined each side of the room.  The door was at one end of the room, and an LCD screen featuring music videos hung on the other.  The sound system was good, and I thought the strobe light for disco effect was a nice touch.  We thumbed through a thick book of songs and chose Korean and Western songs to program into the song system.  I was surprised to see how current many of the songs were.  The noraebang we visited was very up to date in its music selection and featured songs that topped the U.S. music charts earlier this year.  I sang a few solos and a couple duets.  I have a pretty good voice, so I’m not too embarrassed to get up in front of people and sing.  I can’t hit the high notes, so I learned very quickly not to imitate Steve Perry from the rock group Journey when singing “Open Arms.”  Korean songs featured video footage of the Korean artists performing their songs, whereas Western songs featured random video footage from around the world.  The funniest moment was when I chose to sing the song “Africa,” a classic by the group Toto, and the accompanying video featured scenic shots of Prague, Czech Republic.  Prague is a long way from Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti!  My rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” were crowd pleasers.  All of my Korean teammates are good singers, veterans of noraebang.  One in particular has an angelic voice.  She is well known among colleagues as an excellent noraebang singer, and I daresay she could launch a music career with her voice.  We sang for about an hour and wrapped up the night fairly early after our time ran out (noraebang rooms are rented by the hour).  I enjoyed my first noraebang encounter in Korea so much that I’m planning to do it again next week.

Note to BJJ:  Thanks for your kind words.  You’re absolutely right.  I feel better now.  I try to strike a Zen pose when it comes to missed opportunities, although every once in awhile it feels good to blow off some steam.  The latest on the assignment saga is that the hotly contested job has been posted and is open to those who have been in Seoul longer than four months.  I’ve been here about two months.  Applicants are now jockeying for position.  I think I know who will be chosen and have an idea where I will be headed (when they get the job I will get their assignment).  The rumor mill is going full bore right now.  You have to love the old rumor mill.  I’ll keep you posted.

The Emissary’s Battle

This is the first draft of a story I wrote this week.  It is primarily dialogue.  I will add descriptive narrative in the next draft.  This story is based on a fictional world I created many years ago.  Enjoy!

The Emissary’s Battle

Trouble brews in Elvendell, Land of the Elves.  Adurelain, son of Adurelair, Overlord of Elvendell, has befallen an assassin’s dagger.  Demeri, Honorable Emissary of King Sceptere of Somoland, Realm of Men, appeals to Adurelair to end his threat of war against Dwarfberg, Home of the Dwarves.  Can Demeri persuade one bent on vengeance to desist?

Demeri the Emissary stood before the throne of Adurelair, Overlord of Elvendell.  King Sceptere’s envoy to the Land of the Elves beseeched the king to hear her appeal.  The grief-stricken Overlord acknowledged her presence with a faint glance of his distraught eyes.

“O great One, I come bearing words from the King of Somoland,” Demeri said with measured breath.  “The king sends you his utmost condolences on behalf of the realm of Somoland.  Your loss is great, and our land is pained by Elvendell’s terrible sacrifice.  O that fate could be unmade would we join you in unmaking it.”  The withdrawn Overlord ignored Demeri’s somber greetings.

Demeri continued.  “My king asks you to consider his appeal.  The Huntsmen who patrol the edges of our realm caught wind of news of a stray Gnome wandering through the mountains that divide our two lands.  He may very well have been making his way back to Gnomea after carrying out his foul deed.  Gnomes do not pass lightly through our lands.  Our King’s ears believe that the Gnomes carried out the assassination of your son in the guise of a Dwarf to spur you to assail the land of Dwarfberg.”

“You speak lies!” Adurelair hissed, thrusting an accusing finger at Demeri.  Adurelair rose ominously from his throne, his lithe body steeled with rage.  His piercing eyes bore into Demeri as lance on flesh.  Demeri cringed and covered her eyes.  “Do not whisper lies in my ears, Speaker of Man.  My son’s body is still warm, yet you come to deceive me with rumors and lies?  Do not burden me with your lies!  You seek to derange my thoughts.  It was not a Gnome, but a Dwarf who killed my son.  The evil remnants defiling my son’s room belong to a Dwarf.  This have I seen with my own eyes.  The scent I smelled is that of a Dwarf.  Dwarfberg will pay for stealing away the beloved hier to the throne of Elvendell.  Dwarfberg will pay with blood.”

Demeri bowed humbly, shielding herself from Adurelair’s tirade.  Her guards reached out to her, trying to pull her away from Adurelair’s venom.  Demeri pushed them away, raised her voice and meekly outstretched her arms towards Adurelair.  “O Great One, I beseech you to stay your armies!   This evil deed was not done by the Dwarves.  Please, you must understand.  I was informed that the dagger you found was stolen by a Sprite from the House of King Bergorod one moon ago.  I have not seen the dagger that took your son, but I can tell you that it bears the seal of the King of the Dwarves.  The King’s servant saw a Sprite steal the dagger in the darkest hours of the night from the King’s private armory.”

Adurelair interrupted, “The Sprites have no grievance with Dwarfberg.  The Gnomes are sworn enemies of the Dwarves, not of the Elves.  I do not see why a Gnome would take my son.”  

“King Bergorod believes that the Sprites and Gnomes formed an alliance and that they planned to use his dagger to precipate war between the Elves and Dwarves,” Demeri continued.  “The offending Sprite remains at large, but his possession of the dagger reveals more than his identity.  King Bergorod’s moles pursued the Sprite as he crossed into Gnomea.  They believe the dagger fell into the hands of the Gnomes, who carried out the evil work of the Sprites by sending an assassin into your fair land.” 

Adurelair glared angrily at Demeri, his cobalt eyes shimmering.  “Why was I not told of this?  Why did Bergorod not tell me of this news?  Now my son is dead, killed by Bergorod’s dagger.  Even if my son was not taken by a wretched Dwarf, Bergorod and his ilk will still pay for their silence.”

“Your Highness, the King of the Dwarves believed that the Gnomes would turn his dagger against the heart of Dwarfberg, not against the beloved son of Elvendell.  He did not know what evil purpose would be fulfilled by the dagger’s thrust.  King Bergorod sought counsel from my King because the dagger had passed through the Realm of Man into Gnomea.  He was unaware that the dagger would fulfill its fiendish purpose in Elvendell.  His Emissary could not warn you because he was expelled from your court after Dwarven mines were discovered in Elvendell.” 

“I do not believe you,” Adulelair said warily with an aggrieved voice.  His voice rose again.  “Dwarves undermine my Land.  We will never live at peace with the Dwarves if they continue to conspire against us.  My son is dead.  Elvendell’s heir is gone.  Bergorod is to blame.  So too is Somoland, Land of Man, if it conspired with the Dwarves to kill my son.”

Demeri struggled to deflect the Overlord’s accusations.  “O Great One, Somoland and Dwarfberg have not conspired against you.  Our lands seek to live in peace.  Please understand that this is what the Gnomes and Sprites want.  Long have you fought the Sprites within your borders, and long have the Gnomes lived at war with the Dwarves,” Demeri tried to reason calmly as her knees shook.  “If the Elves ride against Dwarfberg, then your enemies will have won, Your Highness.  They will have brought their twin enemies to the brink of destruction.  The Gnomes will fulfill their ancient claim to Dwarfberg’s lands, and the Sprites will overtake Elvendell.  Your great lands will fall.”

“Emissary, I shall banish you forever from Elvendell for your insolence.  You insult the memory of my son with your clever stories.  Harsh will be my retribution against Somoland if you stand in the way of justice.”

Demeri flinched and turned away.  She cried out, “Great One, please wait!  Remember what happened with Vexsios.  Do you remember Vexsios, a memory of your youth?”

Adurelair suddenly froze, puzzled.  He stopped, and his face dropped as he fell into thought. 

“Ages ago, your beloved father nearly fell victim to the Sword of Man.  Elven guards seized the one who wielded the Sword, the rebel Sprite named Vexsios.  Vexsios stole the Sword from my King’s father, Amulet of Somoland and sought to bring our lands to blows.  Please remember the past and see that it returned with a vengeance.  Where the Sprites failed in taking your father’s life, they succeeded against your son.  Please, I beseech you to remember Vexsios and stay your armies.”

Anger receded from Adulelair’s eyes.  They the faintest glimmer of tears glistened in the corners of his eyes.  A pause ensued, and finally the Overlord answered, “Yes, I remember.  I remember now.  You…are right, Emissary.  Sinister forces may have caused my son’s death, as you say.  I heed your words, Emissary.  I will stay the armies of Elvendell to give this further consideration.  I must uncover the truth.”

A Rant against the corporate ladder

Today didn’t start out so well for me.  I attended a manager’s meeting and found out that I will be a “designated hitter” when it comes time to rotate to a new job at work.  Everyone else received a firm assignment.  I have often been in limbo when it comes to this career, so I am not surprised.  As they like to say, sometimes I have to “suck it up.”  I am one of the newest employees in a cluster of employees who arrived in the past nine months, so it isn’t surprising that I am held in limbo while others received assignments.  My assignment is contingent on someone else being chosen by the Powers That Be to move on to another highly-sought-after position.  Translation—after one of the veterans is chosen for the hotly contested job, they vacate their assignment, and I get to do the job they were originally assigned to do.  Gee, thanks.  I hate to complain, but the Fates have not been kind to me in their recent job forecasts.  So much in this line of work depends on timing—being in the right place at the right time.  For me to be in the rear of a cluster of employees means I will likely be passed over some great opportunities in favor of more veteran folks.  Seniority definitely counts.  Highly visible jobs?  No, those will go to the veterans.  Short-term assignments in other countries?  Probably not—those are earmarked for the ones passed up last time.  A good follow-on assignment when I’m finished in Seoul?  Not likely—most have already been taken and the Powers That Be are funnelling us into the jobs they want us to do, not necessarily ones we want to do.  It’s hard to be an optimist when you see a dark freight train chugging your way.  These opportunities come in vicious cycles, meaning that the first employee who followed me will slide into the top position for the next cycle of opportunities.  They will be positioned to be in the right place at the right time.  In hindsight, it might have been better to arrive about a month later in order to fall into the next cycle.  Will I complain at work?  Of course not!  I’ll suck it up and try to do my best to avoid falling into a job rut.  Ranting on a blog to an unknown audience is cathartic to me.  Thanks for reading.  I am definitely not alone in my frustration over job competition.  I’m sure that many people feel this way at work when they’re trying to climb the corporate ladder along with everyone else.  The trick is to climb the ladder without getting trampled while trying not to step on the backs of others.

Fortunately, the day ended with a smile.  I dropped my vehicle off this morning to be repaired (check the archives to read more about what happened to our poor car).  I returned at the end of the day to pick up the loaner vehicle lent to me until our car is fixed.  It turned out to be a brand-new Lexus sedan!  It’s beautiful.  I was shocked that they gave me such a nice rental.  I’m used to renting compact cars, not luxury sedans.  I personally prefer Bimmers and can’t wait to buy my own 5-series BMW.  However, this Lexus is very, very nice.  I hesitate to drive it around in chaotic Seoul traffic.  It’s a rental car, but I would hate to scratch or wreck it.  I’ll have to come up with some reasons to drive it around town.  Driving home in a Lexus was a nice end to a rather trying day.  I told them to take as long as they’d like to repair our car.

Tonight I joined some colleagues for buffalo wings and beer at a local pub.  I met a Korean friend of one of my coworkers.  She humored me by helping me practice my meager Korean.  She was patient, corrected my grammatical errors, and spoke Korean clearly and succinctly.  We carried on a brief conversation about language and travel.  I joked that I had learned how to talk about nuclear weapons in Korean, but I didn’t even know how to order a beer.  I was trained to conduct deep discourses in Korean, but I’m still lousy at chitchat.  She’s used to spending time with Americans and conversed freely in both English and Korean.  She even laughed at my wacky humor.  Contrast this experience with another Korean I met earlier today at lunchtime.  A Korean and Korean-American coworker invited me to join them for lunch.  We met up with my Korean-American coworker’s girlfriend.  She spoke no English and rarely spent time with foreigners.  She hardly said a word during our meal, although afterwards she freely conversed with someone on her cell phone.  I tried speaking a little Korean, and she nodded and smiled, but we did not have a conversation.  I felt as if my presence had put a damper on the meal, as if the conversation were muted because I was there.  This was completely unintentional. 

I find awkwardness to be one of the biggest challenges when trying to meet Koreans.  Many Koreans, male and female, are shy when it comes to getting to know foreigners.  I’ve heard that for the most part this isn’t due to a lack of interest.  I’ve been told by locals I know well that most Koreans are generally intrigued by foreigners.  It could be that they assume foreigners do not speak Korean and are self-conscious about speaking in a foreign language.  It could also be that foreigners are much different than Koreans—aliens, as it were.  Americans are particularly gregarious, a trait that can come across as abrasive in Korean culture.  I am usually open and jovial, so my friendliness may actually work against me when it comes to meeting Koreans.  I’ve been told by my Korean office mates that I’m considered “nice” around the office, but I have much less contact with Koreans than I would like.  I am slowly finding opportunities to get acquainted.  It’s a slow and arduous process reaching out across cultures to make acquaintances.