South Korean rice farmers look North

According to the Hankyoreh Seoul’s policy of witholding rice aid to North Korea is driving down the price of of the grain, prompting thousands of farmers to take to the streets in protest.

Approximately 30 thousand South Korean farmers convened together for a National Farmers’ Convention to ask the government to address plummeting rice prices on Tuesday.

The main cause of plummeting rice prices is the government’s decision not to send rice aid to North Korea, (they said)… During the previous administration, 400 thousand tons of rice were sent to North Korea annually, whereas the current administration has stocked up over 800 thousand tons of rice. (Protesters) say the excess reserves of rice are one of the main causes of the steep decline in the price of rice.

As if to add insult to injury, Seoul recently offered 10,000 tons of imported corn aid to Pyongyang, which further riled local rice growers and was, being far less than what  was  expected, rebuffed by the North as “narrow minded.”

With this year being a bumper crop year, a bag of 80 kilograms of rice is now traded at around 130,000 won, about 15 percent lower than last year.

Farmers are razing rice paddies out of anger, stacking bags of rice outside as they run out of storage space and dumping the surplus rice in the South while millions of people are starving in the North as they are short of some 800,000 tons of rice…

According to the local human rights group Good Friends, parts of North Korea are suffering from one of the worst food shortages in over eight decades. “People live on acorns and herbs they collect in mountains while the better-off eat mostly porridge to save rice, not just in Hamgyeong but also in South Pyongan Province,” it said.

so many mouths

A more salient factor behind the drop in prices could be the fact that Koreans are simply eating less of the one-time staple, and much of what they are eating is increasingly coming from overseas. As globalization continues to take hold, the local diet has become far more international.

Rice, which once determined a person’s financial status and served as the beloved staple of Korean food, is becoming less symbolic and losing its appeal here as the country increasingly opens its palate to the world and moves toward globalization.

During the 1980s, the average Korean consumed 130 kilograms of rice annually. As of last year, it stood at 76 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to two servings a day versus four several decades ago.

One of the approaches to resolving the dilemma facing farmers is promoting consumption of rice-based products like makkeolli, the fermented rice wine that goes oh so well with a meal of barbecued bacon.

Exports of traditional Korean rice wine surged by more than 20 percent in the first nine months of this year mainly due to strong demand from Japan, a government report said yesterday.

Exports of makgeolli, or rice wine, reached $3.56 million totaling 4,380 tons up until September, the Korea Customs Service said.

I’ve recently spotted canned versions of the drink, which usually come in plastic green bottles. I even saw a packet of garlic flavored makkeolli. But again, the problem is that most of the rice used to produce makkeolli and similar rice based products comes from abroad, meaning local farmers are not likely to benefit from the stronger sales.


Killer coffee

My office is about a 20 minute walk from where I live, with four different routes all of which take roughly the same amount of time. Depending on how spritely I feel — and how many cups of coffee I’ve had — I could either go uphill or down.


Mix coffee it aint

The former winds through scenic alleways before opening onto a view of Seoul’s mountains and the first coffee shop on that particular route. Continue down past the second, then the third and fourth coffee shops and turn left at the Starbucks. In fact, all roads lead to Starbucks, whether its the one on the main strip or the other branch tucked into a comely little courtyard.

The first time I came to Korea ten years ago the hardest thing to adjust to wasn’t the gusting minus 27 winds or the stares and whispers of migukin every time I walked past. It was the fact that the only choices I had when it came to my morning brew were hazelnut or Maxim, the Korean version of Tasters Choice. Ugghhhh. Mornings were horrendous as I stumbled about the streets of Seoul in search of a decent cup o’ joe, like a junkee looking for his fix. I shudder at the memory. But oh how times have changed.

A colleague of mine who grew up in Soeul once recalled the times he used to spend lounging in the local tea houses, or dabangs,which once populated Insadong and other areas. Most of these are long gone, replaced first by Starbucks and later by gourmet coffee houses that even to this long-time addict take the drink just a bit too seriously.

Even in temples, where tea once enjoyed a pride of place not far beneath the buddha himself, old fashioned coffee grinders and black powders from Kenya, Brazil or some other far flung destination have begun to replace the old hand-made ceramic tea sets. The poor old leaf never stood a chance against the bigger, brawnier bean.



A british friend of mine refuses to patronize Starbucks. He says all the little cafes that he prefers have been bled dry by the proliferation of that spawn of Seattle (which he also seems to dislike for some reason). One afternoon we opted for the little no-name place across the way from 스타버크스 (pronounced something like suhtabahkuhsuh), and I ended up with an americano that tatsed like the styrofoam cup it came in.

So as Seoulites are rapidly being weaned off of tea and increasingly suckled by the bitter-sweet brew, I end this with an email I received this morning warning of the ill side effects brought about by coffee addiction. Coffee drinkers beware…

Pesticide Exposure

Chances are the coffee you drink is made from beans grown outside this country.

Coffee beans are known to be a heavily sprayed crop, and the U.S. has limited input and control over the type and quantity of pesticides used in the countries from which we import.

Aside from the damage coffee alone can do, pesticides are contributors to a wide range of health problems, including prostate and other cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and even miscarriages.

Metabolic Damage

Coffee stimulates your adrenals — the hormones that activate your fight or flight re­sponse. If your adrenal hormones are stimulated too often, which is bound to happen if you are a daily coffee drinker, your adrenal glands may eventually burn out.

When your adrenals no longer function effectively, your body will go in search of a re­placement hormone — which happens to be progesterone.

Progesterone has its own full-time job to do, part of which is to keep your body’s estro­gen in balance. As your progesterone is used up compensating for your exhausted ad­renals, you run the risk of becoming estrogen dominant.

Estrogen dominance can lead to osteoporosis.

Coffee also raises the acidity level of your blood, causing calcium to be pulled from your bones and teeth for use as a buffering agent. The combination of estrogen dominance and high blood acidity puts you at an even greater risk for osteoporosis. In fact, research has established an undeniable link between coffee consumption and hip fractures.

A Pick Me Up? Don’t Kid Yourself!

Fatigue is the number one daily complaint among Americans. Are you using coffee to combat feelings of tiredness and low energy?

Caffeine is a strong stimulant and will deliver a temporary jolt, which may feel like a burst of energy to you.

But the truth is, coffee only gives you the illusion of energy and not the real thing. Over the long-term coffee actually depletes your B vitamin supply, and lack of B vitamins depletes your energy.

If you struggle with fatigue and low energy on a daily basis, your body is telling you it’s time to assess your health and lifestyle choices. Drinking coffee is not the answer to chronic feelings of weariness and lack of energy.

A Much Healthier Alternative to Your Coffee Habit

As my regular readers know, my first recommendation for a healthy beverage is always pure water. It is by far the best choice you can make.

But if you’re looking to kick your coffee habit to improve your health, a cup of high-qual­ity green tea can be a great alternative as a warm, soothing morning beverage.

No Reservations – Korea Pt. 1

Anthony Bourdain in Seoul. It’s an old video but entertaining. Enjoy!

The best falafel in town



You’d never guess. It’s not New York, Tel aviv or Cairo.

Years ago I was travelling in the north of Thailand and found myself in the city of Chiang Mai. For those who’ve never been, Chiang Mai is everything that Bangkok is not. There I met a young Israeli, a former soldier and Sephardic Jew whose parents had immigrated to Israel from Morrocco. He invited me to join him for a meal at a little hole-in-the-wall called Mama’s Falafel.

The key to a good falafel sandwich is the pita bread. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I thought pita meant the stale, cardboard like dics you found in plastic bags on store shelves. Not so at Mama’s. The owner, an Israeli woman who married a Thai and settled in Chiang Mai, imports  all her ingredients and hand makes everything, especially the pita. Soft, warm and spongy to soak up all the spicy sauces, as my friend said, “You are lucky to find falafel like this in Israel.”

Over the meal, which included a cup of Turkish coffee so strong it set my eyeballs to quivering, he described what it felt like to lead a group of young soldiers through hostile territory. The tension, fear. I don’t recall his name, but I remember the intensity in his voice, his dark complexion revealing his Semitic roots. Then he began to talk about racism in Israel.

He said he was from the southern regions, where many of the residents were in fact Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. He told me about how many of the Ashkanazi Israelis, those of European ancestry, looked down on their Sephardic cousins as culturally inferior, more Arab than Israeli. Blatant discrimnation is what he said.

An editorial in the New York Times by Benny Morris explains the fear that is building among Israelis about the future of their state. Demographics and geography are stacked against them, while a growing number of Arab Israelis are increasingly rejecting their nationality in favor of their Arab identity. Their Arab bretheren.

This heightened insecurity is, Morris explains, a key factor behind the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza. But what Morris doesn’t explain is the reason for the dissafection felt by scores of Arab Israelis. Why are so many of them rejecting their Israeli identity? I’ve never been to Israel, but judging from my conversation I’d venture that what my companion described has something to do with it.

The politics of language

Tongue tied

Tongue tied

For two day’s running now I’ve gone out with my co-workers for lunch and regretted it both times. If the wall is about as close to a conversation partner as I’m gonna get, I’m better off eating alone. But it got me to thinking about all the variables that go into making communication possible, or not as the case may be.

I work as an editor in Korea. Every day I look over stories written by non-native English speakers, polishing here, tweaking there, all the while conscious of two things: their egos and the insecurity that comes with operating in a foreign language.

Over pots of boiling stew and shots of soju, my colleagues broke off into conversation. Not nearly fluent in Korean, I would occasionally interrupt to ask what they were talking about, hoping to work my way into the dialogue. No luck. Then — and this isn’t the first time — they started speaking to me in Korean. And it gave me the feeling that they were trying to turn the tables on me. After putting up with my edits all day, they wanted to use my inability in the Korean language to put me in my place. It worked.

Walking back to the office, I mulled over the little tug-of-war that had just played out over lunch. Was my speaking English at the table seen by them as trying to take the upper hand in the conversation? Is it fair of me to expect that people use English? On the other hand, is it fair of them to expect me to master Korean? Lord knows there’s plenty of folks in the U.S. and elsewhere who want to make English or French or whatever language is dominant a prerequisite to citizenship. A fascist idea if you ask me.

I see language as a tool to facilitate communication, not as a weapon to weild over those less fluent. I’ve got friends who do not speak more than a few passing words of English and yet somehow between my caveman Korean and their stray vocabulary we manage to communicate, sometimes more so than when I am with fellow native-English speakers. Not so with the bunch I work with.

I suppose in the end the key to good communication doesn’t really lie in language at all, but simply in the desire to communicate. That rule of thumb, I believe, can be extended to a wide range of affairs, from disarmament talks involving North Korea and the U.S. to luncheon encounters with bitter co-workers.

As an aside, over lunch today an older Korean gentleman sitting across from me struck up a conversation. It was a little joint that serves rice porridge, good on cold winter days when you’re a little hung over. He said not many foreigners – hear that word a lot here – ventured into the place and complemented me on my Korean – hear that a lot here too.

I’m still not convinced he wasn’t gay, especially since he kept throwing out Italian and French words and raised his eyebrows when I told him I was from San Francisco. Still, his English was impeccable and his Chinese wasn’t bad either. He said a person who speaks more than one language has more than one life. I’m inclined to believe him.

China’s image abroad: a preschooler’s perspective

Yesterday I went to pick up my son at his preschool, in a little nondescript building at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of Seoul. My wife and I took our shoes off at the entrance and slipped into the sandals they provide, which always make my feet look bigger than they really are. We followed the laughter down the hall to his classroom, filled with five and six year old’s bumping into eachother as they ended the day’s Lego class.

All heads turned as I walked in, the most glaring evidence of my son’s distinctness from his fellow playmates. At three and half — or four in Korean age — he is of course too young to be embarrased by the questions my presence would raise among older, meaner kids. He ran up to me, and then past me and did a little dance as he went to get his shoes. We were headed to E-Mart to buy him a toy, a bribe I had promised to convince him to go to school earlier in the morning.

As I waited the kids approached, giggling as they practiced their English. “Hello, my name is Janice… heeheeheee.” They pointed at me, repeating “waegukin” or foreigner over and again. “Where,” I’d say jokingly, looking behind me for the stranger they saw. Then I told them I was Chinese. Ni hao.

They were silent for a moment, and then burst into laughter when they realized I was kidding. Then, in unison, they came up to me and said, “Do you like melamine?” Now I was silent. These are babies. They play, they run, they laugh, they cry. Their world’s are made up of cartoons and candy, and now toxic Chinese imports as well. “Mellllamine,” they said, drawing out the ‘l’ sound, “is bad for you.”

Of course it is. It’s used in making plastic for Christ’s sake, and has no business being in food or baby formula. But it struk me that as soon as these kids heard the word China, melamine was the first thing that came to their impressionable minds. Not its history, or its language or culture. No, what China conjured for these kids was a toxic industrial poison.

Every country has biases against its neighbors. To Americans, Canadians are a bunch of… well, they’re just not American. And as for Mexico, we just won’t go there. Those same prejudices exist here too, and yesterday I got a glimpse of how they’re formed early on. Parents telling their children to stay away from all those treats they used to enjoy.

“They’re from China, they’re bad.”

I see an ad on CNN every so often promoting tourism to China. Images of the Great Wall, a row of red lanterns above an empty canal and a group of smiling shoppers in Shanghai flash across the screen, with a knowing voice telling viewers that China is everything they can imagine.

I’ll say.

Beef fallout: Online witch-hunt and drunken stabbings

A story in Korea Beat relates the arrest of activists who organized an online boycott of those companies advertising in media outlets that published stories critical of the anti-beef protests that erupted in May.

As per the translation from Korea Beat:

Prosecutors are pushing back against participants in the boycott of companies that advertise in the Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo and Dong-Ah Ilbo, revoking their right to travel abroad, seizing property from them and serving them with subpeonas in a heavy-handed investigation.

The boycott, titled ” “Media Consumers’ Movement Citizen Campaign,” appeared on the Internet portal Daum Cafe, which has itself become the target of a revision seeking to make public the identities of Korean netizens.

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