Archive | September, 2013
September 22, 2013

The Geography of Thought



The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why

by Richard E. Nisbett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



While this book certainly sheds a lot of light on the different approaches in the thinking of Easterners and Westerners (and the origins of both), that does not necessarily add up to an enjoyable or engaging read. This book comes off a bit like a graduate thesis and certainly has done the homework to back everything up.

Having lived in South Korea for the last two years, I have often wondered about (and even laughed out loud at) the subtle cultural differences in my day-to-day life here that touch many aspects of life. What has up until now seemed to me like a case of inconsiderate behavior, can now be more easily explained and understood in the context of Eastern thought as outlined early on in this book. I have often times referred to Koreans as completely UN-considerate (sic) as a whole while at the same time being polite (often to a fault) on an individual or professional basis.

For example, my ability to enter or exit elevators, escalators, and public transportation easily is sublimated (i.e. trampled) for the greater good of everyone else to get on or off quickly and with little fanfare. What I have for so long perceived as a rude and thoughtless lack of common courtesy is actually a much larger perspective of societal harmony at work. Ironically, this is something I had always thought I wanted. Once I learned to literally go with the flow and not take the overall absence of any awareness of me as an individual, I began to not only release my anger and outrage, but I have been able to use their Eastern logic to my advantage moving forward. It is everyone for themselves, so if you are late for the elevator or too slow in grabbing a seat, too bad.

What the book does not address, however, and what I still cannot understand is the paradox that results when traditional Eastern philosophy clashes with South Korea’s extreme focus on appearance and the unabashed vanity that results from it. Traditional appearances masked by rampant plastic surgery, excessive make-up, and all-out worship of brand-name fashions seem to directly contradict Eastern logic and instead embrace the Greek-based idea of agency or individuality. I also have likened it to an entire country of purebreds that sadly want to remove distinctive traces of their genetic heritage and in fact be mutts modeled after the unattainable ideal of Western beauty.

My line of thought before reading this book was a desire to understand what real difference appearance makes if you are all simply cogs in the machine, forever linked to your part in society? Why is individual attractiveness important when Asians do not view people out of the context of the particular role they happen to be in? It seems to me now it is actually the result of a desire to not stand out and therefore going to drastic lengths to NOT be different from anyone else.

I have also felt that South Korea as a country suffers from a massive inferiority complex and that chip lives largest on the shoulders of the post-war generation. Given the tumultuous history of the peninsula, this is understandable, and may have been the driving force behind the amazing success of their economy since then. However, the second-class status of women in this society and the don’t ask-don’t tell taboo and double standards of sexuality and prostitution, makes the generalizations of this book all the more confusing.

What’s even more interesting is that neither philosophy seems to have led to a society filled with happy and contented citizens. Koreans seem work very hard to live lives centered on the good of the family. While overall, Korea does seem to be harmonious as a society, most of my co-workers seem to dread time spent with their family and truly resent the expectations that erase their individual desires and freedom. Most Salary Men (life-long corporate employees) and people I encounter walk around like tortured mindless zombies, incapable of even imagining an escape from their sad destinies.

Westerners on the other hand maintain relationships with their families in relation to their status as free thinking and self-motivated individuals. As a result, American society is in the final stages of a massive collapse as a result of greed, corruption, and unchecked selfishness. Depression, health issues, obesity, and massive consumer debt are all the direct result of the failure to think of the good of the whole versus the rights and perspective of the individual.

Ultimately, I came away with the feeling that both sides have something to learn from each other, especially with regard to what some would call “common sense.” It turns out that depending on how you were raised and where you are from, this term can mean two completely different things, and that explains why my particular version of it is always in short supply while traveling throughout Asia. It also explains why now I will have a whole new definition of it should I ever return to the United States.

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September 20, 2013

Jagalchi Fish Market



Sometimes the best part about living in Korea and being centrally located in Daejeon is the easy freedom and simplicity of booking a train ticket to quickly take you someplace new or different. It is much like I imagine living in Europe somewhere and having that mythical and romantic-sounding creation, the “Eurail Pass.”

There is not necessarily a danger in having a preconceived notion about how such a thing would work or how it would make you feel to travel by rail throughout Europe, but I am learning that it is positive and healthy to have goals and ambitions. Having expectations, however, with regards to traveling, reading, or just plain living, is the wrong way to experience life.

Having again run out of books and somewhat bored with too many recent trips to Seoul, I decided it had been too long since I had returned to one of my favorite parts of South Korea, the magical port city of Busan. Not only is it home to beautiful beaches and a great second-hand bookstore (Fully Booked), it also has an amazing fish market that I have strangely failed to visit. Cheymus and Olivia agreed to look in on foster kitty, Bean, and I found a terrific guesthouse near (literally on top of) Jagalchi Fish Market, Korea’s largest seafood market.

A rare KTX derailment in Daegu pushed my trip back by a week and it was certainly strange to see delayed arrival times on the big board at Daejeon Station for the first time. Perhaps this was an omen to postpone the trip, which I actually was happy to do. All of Korea was thrown into gridlock by the disruption to the normally punctual and efficient Korail system. Taking a bus was an option, but as I have previously mentioned, flexibility is the traveler’s best friend. It also underlines the expectations versus reality debate.Jagalchi Map

Jagalchi Fish Market, in the neighborhood of Nampo-dong in Jung-gu and Chungmu-dong, turns out to be an amazing feast for the senses, as well as the palate.  What’s even more amazing is that, when viewed on a map, the market seems to be located next to a piece land (Yeongdo-gu) that looks remarkably like a real fish!?  The outdoor vendors selling live, freshly caught, or frozen varieties, are all lined up in stalls that seem to go on forever, as are the adjoining restaurants with fish tanks and friendly “barkers” or “Jagalchi Ajummas,” ‘ajumma’ meaning middle-aged or married women, encouraging you to choose their offerings or step into their shops.

Not only is this a wonderful way to look into the past at a simpler time in Korea, it is essentially a giant free aquarium full of rare, unusual, and apparently edible bounties from the neighboring sea. It was only later that I learned that most of Korea is currently avoiding seafood due to increased fears of radioactive contamination stemming from the Japan tsunami, and subsequent nuclear plant meltdown at Fukushima.

Perhaps it was best that I didn’t know this in advance as it most certainly would have prevented me from enjoying two of the best fried fish meals I have ever had (sorry Cape Cod). It might also explain why some of the vendors were reluctant to appear in my photos or attempts to shoot an Instagram video of the non-stop action. As I have since learned, most are fearful of foreigners reporting negatively on the market (and their livelihood), despite a nationwide ban on seafood from Japan, which has met with repeated requests from Tokyo to lift the embargo.

What made the weekend stay even more enjoyable was a thoroughly wonderful stay at Terra Guest House. Terra, formerly Korea Guest House Jagalchi, is conveniently located directly above the indoor portion of the market in a newer building. Not only is it one of the biggest and most well appointed hostels I have stayed at here in Korea, it boasts one of the most beautiful views of the harbor and neighborhoods surrounding the market district. I booked a stay there the week before which was convenientlyt refunded due to the train accident, so I returned the following week with just a vague idea of its true proximity to the market. Using Google Maps once I arrived in the area, I was amazed to find it in the very same building I was strolling through. It was sort of like that scene in Aliens when Bill Paxton’s character is having trouble reading all the blips on his tracker.

Stunned and amazed at my good fortune, I went up  and checked-in after personally thanking the staff for their understanding about my previous reservation. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my favorite online reservation source,, does not typically offer refunds or reservation alterations, but I have found their customer service extremely helpful and responsive to assist with mix-ups and/or “acts of God,” like the train accident.  Furthermore, the staff at Terra also gave me a room at an even lower price for my troubles and was thoroughly kind and helpful for the duration of my stay.

Terra is also remarkably affordable despite its central location (just a few stops from Busan Station on the #1 Orange line) and premium amenities, including a complimentary breakfast (toast, coffee, juice, and cereal) and the rooftop view from the patio/deck that is a great way to take in the harbor any time of day or night. Someone will have to explain the whole “Continental Breakfast” thing to me sometime. What continent is it exactly that this breakfast originated? There is also a nice bathroom and separate huge shower area. The lounge is also big and comfortable with beer and coffee drinks available throughout the day (as well as a cute house kitty).  The whole place has free Wi-Fi and was not only relaxing, but also spotlessly clean and thoroughly modern. I cannot recommend this guesthouse enough and will look forward to staying there again on my next visit.

Now, about this matter of expectations versus reality…I guess I will save that for a separate post and let your mind wander a bit about it until then.

Busan Harbor from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

September 12, 2013

The Sound and the Fury

Readability006The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Add this book to my quickly growing list of books and authors that are highly regarded yet deeply disappointing to actually read. I understand that it was different for its time and it is supposed to be a little challenging. I really don’t mind spending time with a book that is both if it makes sense in even the most remote possible way. Rambling sentences, no punctuation, no discernible narrative, the endless introduction of new characters without establishing any existing ones, a lack of an even vaguely understandable time structure…these are all things that I as an English teacher deduct points for.

It all feels to me that over time everyone has simply agreed to heap critical praise and adoration upon this novel rather than try to explain it or actually admit that they hate it or don’t even begin to understand it. For me reading is about enjoying my free time by being taken somewhere else with characters and stories that are engaging or teach me something. I want to spend my limited amount of time on Earth using the amazing gift that is the written word by reading books that inspire me with the beauty of a well constructed sentence or a clearly conveyed thought or idea.

This book shows signs of being able to do that but instead ultimately comes off as lazy, unfocused, and experimental for its own sake. I am so glad my high school teachers didn’t make us try to endure this mess. I guess it is not for everyone and that I should begin reading any book without any preconceived notions about what it is, what others think about it, or what I should expect when reading it. That is not fair when taking in any work of art for the first time.

That being said, I am not even sure why I write reviews like this at all. I feel a little like I am hoping Faulkner himself somehow reads THIS REVIEW and feels bad about short-changing me as a hungry and patient reader. Perhaps I want someone else out there to tell me why I am wrong. However, when I am spending my precious time and money to do something I dearly love, don’t I have the right to get what I want out of the experience? After struggling through half the book, isn’t it my obligation as a consumer to put it down, bang out a grumpy summation and move on to something that makes me feel the way I want to?

Readability003After mulling this over a while, I decided to consult an expert. I recently asked Rebecca Foster, a prolific reviewer on many sites, including Goodreads and Bookkholic, about her views on the subject of literary criticism, pure reading, how best to approach finding and reading a new book, and when to walk away. Ms. Foster currently reads and reviews a staggering 250 books a year. I explained that since I moved to Korea I have replaced hours of TV viewing with hours having my nose buried in books instead. I went on to mention that my current dilemma (or challenge) with reading (and life in general) involves managing expectations versus reality. I am learning to live my life and travel with an open mind, yet I find it hard to do the same when looking for my next good read.

I love that so much information, background, and reviews exist at the touch of a finger, but I fear this is making it difficult for me to enjoy a book on its own terms and without preconceptions. Recommendations, awards, and “best-of” lists, like the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels, are also invaluable to me when determining what to add to my “Want To Read” list. Once I arrived overseas, I started out determined to read each book front-to-back to give it a fair chance to move me somehow. Since then, I have modified this to at least 100 pages. I decided life is too short to spend it reading bad literature. Ultimately, my real questions to Ms. Foster were these:

How do you approach a new book? When do you feel it is acceptable to put a book down and walk away when it isn’t engaging you? How do you read and review so many books without being influenced by the opinion of others?”

Her response was a breath of fresh air and a truly sensible perspective:

“Hi Matthew,

I certainly rely heavily on newspaper reviews, prize shortlists, and personal recommendations (including via Goodreads) to find new books to read. But, of course, this is all a subjective game – and even books with rave reviews that get onto the bestseller lists can be huge disappointments.

The best advice I’ve heard on how much of a chance to give to a book is from Nancy Pearl, who came up with the “Rule of 50″: give it 50 pages to grab you; or, if you’re older than 50, subtract your age from 100 and that will be the number of pages you should try. To be honest, though, I’m usually clear on whether a book will be my cup of tea within the first 20-30 pages. I wouldn’t want to waste any more time on a book I won’t eventually at least like, if not love. I mused on this and other things in an article about “readability.”

If I think I’m interested in a book, what I might do is skim some newspaper reviews and get a general idea of what people on Goodreads have thought of it, but I won’t read any details – certainly not any spoilers. Only after I’ve read the book will I compare my opinion with the critics’ in any depth.

In terms of where to start with a new author, I have a few different theories! I asked a number of friends whether they would read a) an author’s first book, b) an author’s most famous or bestselling work, c) their latest book, or d) whatever comes to hand. Most people seemed to go with b), or would take a friend’s recommendation of which book to start with. I published a general summary of the results here – and I’d be interested to hear what you think too!

All the best, Rebecca”

Readability002The article on “readability” is highly insightful and well written. I can now feel more comfortable moving on from a book that is not engaging or entertaining me. The “Rule of 50″ is half of what I have been practicing on my own, but perhaps a more patient approach overall is equally advisable, especially after doing your research first.

I too am constantly looking for that drug-like feeling or “ecstatic absorption” mentioned in the article that only a book can provide, so there is no shame in putting down a book and moving on to something else. Just as one book will open new doors and lead logically to the next one, sometimes the decision to move on is simply a matter of “not now” rather than “no.”

I think all of the ideas in the article on “Where to Start with a New Author?” actually have a lot of merit. Flexibility and open-mindedness seem to be the best attitudes for me rather than hard and fast rules. I am inclined to favor the serendipity (or synchronicity) approach recently as sometimes terrific books simply have a way of finding their readers at just the right time (or in the best sequence).

This can also be said in music about a good song or album, too. First novels and debut albums have a lot in common with respect to the fact that it actually took the author (or artist) their whole life to come up with the first one, whereas the sophomore effort may only take a year or two to create. The Doors put out all (six) of their studio albums over just four short years. However, some of my favorite artists are the ones that have challenged themselves to grow and change over the course of their artistic lifespan.

Readability004The band Rush remarked in their 2010 biopic, Beyond the Lighted Stage, about the different periods in their long career and say that (essentially) the fans that have sustained them the longest are the ones that are just as curious about their new directions and experiments as the band members themselves. I started listening to them right in the middle of their career with Signals and then worked my way back through their catalog and then forward with each new release.

I think you can do this with an author or genre, too. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as to start somewhere. Just as what is popular music-wise is rarely synonymous with what is good (I am talking to you, Justin Bieber), the best-seller list can be avoided altogether in favor of the “spirit of perversity” mentioned by Ms. Foster and following that less-travelled road can prove to be so much more memorable and all the more rewarding. Thank you, Rebecca, for putting me back on the good foot!

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September 1, 2013

Summer Break Pt.2: Kyoto

Day4Japan345The nice feature in splitting this trip into two blog entries (aside from claiming to already be halfway done) is that, in visiting two major and historic cities, it was almost like having two uniquely different and separate vacations. One of the most memorable parts was certainly the ride linking the two via the Shinkansen Super Express high-speed train while passing right by Mt. Fuji.

On the 2-hour journey I was able to read a terrific article Kim and Gary printed out from GQ about Kim Jong-Il’s personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. The article, Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi, describes the bizarre world of the late North Korean ruler from the inside from a rare survivor, and in fascinating detail.

If my time on the Korean peninsula has taught me anything about the behavior of the people who live here, it is that if it is strange, unbelievable, and seemingly defies all logic, it is probably going on somewhere on either side of the 38th parallel at any given time. A new book I recently picked up for a friend called “The Geography of Thought” will hopefully help explain why some of what Westerners call “common sense” is not at all common throughout Asia. The rest of the activity to the North, however, can certainly be attributed to the cult of personality maxim enumerated so well by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The rest of the quote, “Great men are almost always bad men,” is interesting, too, and is perhaps a good topic to address in another post entirely.Day4Japan307a

The train ride to Kyoto, coupled with a hot black coffee and salmon ciabatta breakfast sandwich from the amazing gourmet food market inside Tokyo Station, were the perfect way to relax a bit, take in some of the countryside, and go over the itinerary Gary put together for my two days in the former imperial capital of Japan. Train tickets in Japan are quite expensive compared to Korea and the Shinkansen is (surprisingly) not as fast as the 300 km/h KTX. However, the entire system seems to run nation-wide with a pride and on-time precision that is nothing short of amazing.

The few sites of note on my list for Kyoto included a visit to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), a stroll down the nearby Philosopher’sPath, and a stop in the famous Geisha district in Gion along Hanami-koji Street. This advanced scouting from Gary proved to be an invaluable lesson on the value of proper planning and research. I realized on this trip that you can only see so many shrines, temples, and pagodas before they all start to look alike. While at Kyoto Station I also realized that it is sometimes perfectly acceptable to be a tourist and take advantage of help from the experts.  Having an advisor at the tourism information center (inside the Kyoto train station) map out the buses and best routes to take, as well as having her help me find the exact location of my hotel, proved to be well worth it. The 10 minutes I spent there saved me countless hours of searching and embarrassed indecision and really set me off to explore the city with the confidence of a seasoned traveler.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

The rest of my time in Kyoto was amazing and unforgettable. While still a relatively large city, the flow, feel, and history of the area made for a nice contrast to my time in Tokyo. The more touristy first day in Kyoto was filled with a great blend of history, religion, and architecture, yet it provided me with yet another invaluable lesson in traveling abroad; leave blank spaces in your itinerary! It is easy to get caught up in all the things you want (or feel compelled) to see from all the tour books and travel shows. However, it is also important to remember that you are on vacation, and that a quiet afternoon reading a book or writing a postcard over coffee can be far more enjoyable than repeating the same busy routine day after day. In fact, isn’t that why we go on vacations?

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

This quote has popped up a lot in my discussions recently and I didn’t realize that it can actually be attributed to Woody Allen. I am in no way suggesting going on a big trip and having no plans at all. I merely feel that my most recent trips have been far more enjoyable because I was able to blend a bit planning and preparation with a flexible and open-minded attitude that allowed for improvisation, spontaneity, and time spent simply “being.” The few hours I spent at a (Seattle-based) Kyoto coffee shop gave me a great chance to truly relax and reflect of my gratitude and to focus on present moment awareness. The feeling I had watching the local people come and go and just taking it all in has proved to be the lasting memory of the whole trip. Moving to Korea was a huge decision and visiting Japan had always been a lifelong dream. Taking the time to slow down and just enjoy the reality of it all was not only an important step the process, but is in actuality a very simple key to a more fulfilling life.

Another part of the trip that proved to be fun was the decision to stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a “Ryokan.” Having saved quite a bit of money staying with friends in Tokyo for two nights, I decided to spend a little bit extra than I normally would have to stay experience the flip-side to my capsule hotel experience. Again using Agoda, I was able to find a room at a nice inn near Kyoto Station for a little less than $100. The only downside to using this site has been that in order to get the low listed prices, you have to agree to non-refundable reservations. While it can be helpful in determining the overall vacancies of any particular destination and can spare you getting shut out, the trade-off is giving up some of the above-mentioned flexibility for price. The lodging experience ultimately proved to be highly unique, albeit one that put my patience and positive vacation vibe to the test. Day4Japan414

The grounds, room, and other facilities were immaculate in every way  and every detail was thoughtfully considered. Having traditional Japanese tea after another great scrub and soak, on the bedding of the floor of my room, while dressed in the provided Yakata robe, was an immersive cultural experience well worth the extra cost of the room.

However, perhaps beyond the control of the staff, was an emergency, late-night road construction going on until 3 am right outside my window. After a few trips down to the front dest to inquire (complain) about all the noise, I finally turned to my Lonely Planet phrase book and found the Japanese word for refund, which is “haraimodoshi,” (払い戻し). Not only did this clearly outline my frustration and disappointment at the digging activity ruining my otherwise peaceful stay, it quickly got the construction halted once and for all. The following morning at checkout, the entire staff was extremely nervous and apologetic as they read to me a prepared (add sweetly rehearsed) statement in English explaining that my booking would be cancelled through Agoda and the room charges reversed.  Given the fact that my phrase book was purchased (used) in Seoul for less than 5 bucks, it more than paid for itself in just one usage – and for just one word!

The remainder of the trip was pleasant, relaxing, and the perfect compliment to the vibrant energy and overwhelming throngs of humanity everywhere you go in Tokyo. I caught one last train direct from Kyoto Station (which itself could be explored for hours alone) to Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka. In the future I would probably arrange to both arrive and depart from here instead and avoid the customs and immigration lines and congestion at Tokyo Narita (NRT). While I left blistered, sun-roasted, and exhausted, I did come in well under budget and can’t remember a more enjoyable,  fascinating, and transformative vacation.

While the idea for the Rock Traveler goes back to my grad school days at Antioch back in the late 90′s, I feel in many ways my identity as a traveler, writer, and true world citizen was born, fully-formed during five amazing days in the land of the rising sun.  どうもありがとう  - Dōmo arigatō


Summer Break: Japan from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.