Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to Keep Everyone Employed - Or Korean Window Washing

As can be expected, I've been learning a lot about Korean culture and especially the Korean business culture and work ethic.

It is absolutely amazing how hard Koreans work - most work six days a week with 12 hour days. Only recently has the two day weekend been introduced, and it seems that many people ignore it. This strong work ethic is testament to how quickly Korea has risen up in status - turning from basically a peasant agrarian economy to a modern economic powerhouse in the past 50 years.

For all the work that Koreans do, it turns out that they don't get paid that well, or for the time that they actually work. Overtime is expected and not reimbursed - the thought is that if you have to work overtime, it shows that you are struggling and can't actually get your work done in the time allotted. It is not considered overtime if you aren't getting paid for it, so you don't report your overtime work - you just do it.

Minimum wage is ₩4,000 per hour (about $3.00) and people work their asses off for it. While Korea is cheap for things like food and services, Seoul is especially expensive for housing, and many people live with their parents until they get married. Here are some prices (in USD):
  • Haircut (with drink, shampoo, cut, shampoo, back / scalp massage) $15 (including tip)
  • Bi Bim Bap (big delicious bowl of rice and veggies, maybe a little meat) $3.30 (you don't tip)
  • Daily metro commute $1.34 (round trip)
  • 30 minute taxi ride $7.45
  • A cup of horrible coffee $2.25
  • A carton of 20 eggs $3.34 (we get the good kind)
  • Five kilos of rice $8.92
  • One month's electricity / gas bill $85 (for our 212 sq ft studio)
  • One month's rent for our studio $558
  • One Vittoria Roundeneer tire $26
Income: $3 x 8 hours x 6 days x 52 weeks = $7,488 per year.
Rent + utilities: $558 + $85 x 12 months = $7,716 per year.

As you can see, housing is disproportionately expensive, especially for people who make minimum wage. This is why people live with their parents for years, or live out in the suburbs where things are much cheaper. I don't know how many hours of work people actually get paid for, but I know it isn't the 12 that they put in. Many things in Korea are copied from the US, so there is a good chance wage is calculated from an eight hour work day.

*It should be noted that our apartment is brand new, in a good location, a five minute walk from the metro station and only five stops (four miles) from a main business area.*

As there is almost no state-provided social security system, many older people are either supported by their families (respecting the elder members of your family is very important) or work, or both.

The other day as I was waiting for students to show up, a whole brigade of older women came through the conference room, washing windows. This is a classic example of how Korean business works - many people, highly stratified positions and questionable efficiency, paired with the ability to financially support a large number of people. I think the thought is that paying a bunch of people very little is much better than paying one person a regular wage.

A list of the interior window washers and duties:
  1. Window Washer: Washing the windows
  2. 1st Squeegee: Squeegee most of the windows
  3. 2nd Squeegee: Squeegee what 1st Squeegee missed
  4. 1st Rag: Standing on the window ledge, drying water off the sides of the windows
  5. 3rd Squeegee: Squeegee what the 1st and 2nd Squeegees didn't get
  6. 2nd Rag: Drying the bottom of the windows
  7. 3rd Rag: Cleaning the window ledges where 1st Rag stood
  8. 4th Rag: Drying anything anyone else missed
  9. 1st Blind Closer: closing half of the blinds
  10. 2nd Blind Closer: closing the other half of the blinds
I don't know what to say... at least they all have an income? It was crazy to watch all these people filtering through the room. To their credit, they managed to clean the 7 windows before any of my students came in.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sara brought back the bikes!

Man I'm stoked - Sara took a little trip to the US and brought our frames back here Korea. Since she was just bringing frames (size / weight / solo traveler restrictions) I had her bring my Litespeed instead of my Redline. I figure if I'm going to be building a bike up anyway, might as well be this damn nice frame I've been sitting on for so long.

Sara brought her Bianchi, which she's ridden for well over 15,000 miles, now on three continents. She's going to convert it to fixed gear - her first - which I'm excited about. Both of our bikes have vertical dropouts, so we ordered a pair of White Industries ENO Eccentric hubs to make them behave themselves.

Since I'll be riding on titanium, I figured I might as well go for a carbon fork (ti forks are $$$)... Since I can be pretty rough on forks, I chose the White Bros. Rock Solid Carbon. No rake, disk mounts (that will go unused), some shock dampening and is a mountain / xc fork so hopefully can take some abuse.

Bad picture, but it ain't much to look at till its put together. I haven't figured out how I'll get all the components together yet - LSD probably. Hope they will let me do my own wrenching.

It'll be interesting riding a mountain frame fixed - I grew up on geared mountain frames, but in Portland my stable was solely a fixed road bike and a fixed polo bike, both set up like mountain bikes.

I'm a bit apprehensive about knocking around the fork... I know how hard I knocked my Redline and polo bike around and they took it well, just like steel should. This new bike is going to be my commuter / polo / dicking around bike all in one, so it will definitely take some abuse... I can't wait to see how hard a direct hit carbon can take!

Bonus picture: LSD bought a vintage campy tool set.

Practically worthless. 100% awesome.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

LSD Expansion Party

Well howdy there. Quick update - we went to the LSD Fixed Gear shop expansion party and met a ton of people who are interested in playing polo.

They don't fool around here in Korea - the party was complete with a wall of logos and "Fashion Portal" photographers who were there to scout for trends.

To the left is just a small part of the photos from the party.

And well now, I just remembered I had a business card from one of the photographers... turns out I made their homepage. I have no idea what they are saying (you have to register for the site to click further and registering requires a social security number.)

Anyway, I assume their homepage changes quite often, so here is a screenshot for posterity's sake. (Click on the pictures for bigger resolution.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Exotic Sushi Night

One of Sara's students took her, myself and his other teacher out for sushi the other night. We went to a place he's been going to for years - Ni Ko Japanese Restaurant. It is the sort of place where the owner has his picture on the big sign out front and his business card too.

It just so happened that the owner was there that night. Instead of ordering rolls, fish or whatever, you order the level of how fancy you want your sushi. It is all you can eat after that. Since the odds were pretty good we were the first white people who had been there in a long time, we got an amazing assortment of sushi, as well as many "service" items, aka free stuff, and also special stuff that the owner only carts out when he likes you. It also should be noted that he didn't cook many things - his role was mainly to have drinks served to him and to tell some people what to cook.

We started out with the most amazing tuna I've ever eaten. It was category defining. The flavor put all other tuna to shame. Not just shame... I'm at loss for an adjective to describe how good it was. Other tuna, once realizing how not up-to-par it was, committed ritual suicide... it was that amazing.

Anyway, we moved onto a variety of other fish:
  • Salmon - very good
  • Whitefish of many types - the texture was very stringy... not a fan
  • Sea Urchin - horrific texture... like slimy goo that held together
  • Eel - always good
  • Blowfish - the infamous Fugu - see below
  • Sea Cucumber - I passed, but Sara loved it
  • Abalone - strange flavor - it was still alive in the display case
  • Scallops - great
  • Shrimp - meh
Also on the menu:
  • Fried mountain potato - delicious
  • Korean pancakes with scallops, shrimps, eggs, green onions
  • Tempura things - I have no idea... not very good
  • One sushi roll - called "gimbap" - very tasty
  • Seared tuna with crispy leeks - holy crap was this delicious
  • Clam and lemon soup - very delicious

The seared tuna.

And to drink:
  • Beer - Cass is a pass
  • Hot Korean sake - good fruity notes
  • Soju - tastes like rubbing alcohol smells
  • Mushroom water - tasted like water
  • Raspberry wine - drank a full bottle of it
  • Tea - why drink tea when you got all the other stuff?
I'm pretty sure that this covers what we ate... I had a lot to drink, so I'm not entirely sure. Also, as a side note, we were told that about half the stuff we were served were either 1. aphrodisiacs or 2. potency enhancers. All the food was either offered off of a plate that you took from the chef with your chopsticks, or he just put it onto your plate with his hands.

Some upside down cups.

A potato.

An interesting tradition is that the chef gets to decide what he wants to drink and you order them booze. Waitstaff too. The trick is that once you bought them booze, they can't ask for it, so you have to offer. If you are offering too much to fast, they get loaded, since they can't turn it down as it would be impolite.

Some notes on the Fugu:
We ate its flesh, its skin and its intestines.
  • Flesh: very interesting texture... not sure if my palate is sophisticated enough to notice the flavor though
  • Skin: delicious like only skin can be... it was in a vinegary / salty sauce that was too much for me
  • Intestines: imagine a marshmallow that has been roasted so the outside is firm and the inside is gooey. Now imagine that it is fish guts. I actually really liked it, although I doubt I would ever eat it again.

Slapping the poor fugu

The fugu is in a total fugue

No video, so here is a poorly put together gif!