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29 Dec

Christmas and its aftermath – The year is coming to a close, and I wanted to get one more entry in before we turn the page to 2007. It is now four days past Christmas—I had wanted to write this the day after Christmas, but it’s amazing how time flies when you’ve got time off and you can finally kick back for a bit. But it all worked out for the best, because now I can talk about two films (well, three, actually) that I’ve seen over the past few days. But I’ll save that for later. First I want to make my official report on Christmas for family and friends. We’ll start with the tree on Christmas Eve.

This is the same tree we had last year, but we’ve upgraded a bit (notice the addition of the shiny red orbs). The presents are all wrapped and placed neatly in front of the tree. Like last year, Hyunjin picked up all the presents and shook them to try to figure out what each of them were. Maybe it’s because she never did the Christmas thing as a little kid (not to American standards, at any rate), but she really is like a little kid when it comes to Christmas presents. I remember opening up presents as a little kid on Christmas morning. It was always an exciting time, but as I got older I hung back more when it came to opening presents. I guess that’s only natural, but being the oldest brother probably accelerated the process a bit, especially when my youngest brother Matthew came along. But watching Hyunjin open up her presents I can almost understand what it’s like to be a parent watching your kid on Christmas morning. I say “almost,” but I guess what I really mean is that I just get a taste.

This is the aftermath of the present opening ritual, discarded wrapping paper and all. My presents include the four books stacked on the right and the second season of Lost DVD set from my Stateside family. The books are: Oracle Bones, a book on the changes that have taken place in China in the modern era—I saw this one on a “best books of 2006” list online, and it looked interesting; The Ghost Map, about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic and how it was defeated—another book that is on a number of best lists, but there’s been a lot of buzz over this book in general, and I really wanted to read it; Book Row, a history of book shops on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan—I wanted this one because the location features fairly prominently in my most recent NaNoWriMo novel and I wanted to do some research (and I also just love history and books); Reading Like a Writer, a book that was on the same list as Oracle Bones and caught my attention immediately—the title alone should be enough to explain the contents and why I want to read it. I haven’t dug into any of these books yet, mainly because I’m still caught up in Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I started reading piecemeal on the subway during this past semester but am now bent on finishing. I’m not yet halfway through, but it’s been fascinating so far. It seeks to answer the question of why some areas of the world developed more rapidly than others, and it goes far beyond the usual reasoning. That is, rather than just giving the pat replies concerning agriculture and hunting-gathering, etc., the author continues to ask why—every time he comes to what seems to be an explanation, he again asks why that should be the case. I’ll be able to say more about it when I’m finished, but so far it’s a great read.

Hyunjin got me two things that will serve me well: a digital scale and a tin of high-quality, organic Darjeeling tea. The digital scale is something that I had mentioned one day after using our old mechanical scale while making bread. The mechanical scale is not that precise, and I wished aloud that we had a more precise digital scale. Hyunjin scoffed at the idea, telling me that the mechanical scale worked just fine. And then she turned around and got me the digital scale for Christmas. Pretty sneaky. It was definitely a surprise. The tea was less of a surprise, but just as welcome. I don’t drink coffee, which is almost a national drink here in Korea, so to compensate I have turned to high-quality loose teas. Not that I don’t go slumming with tea bags every now and then, but I’ve got some pretty expensive teas in my cabinet. This Darjeeling now takes the top place on that scale—you really don’t want to know how expensive this stuff is.

Hyunjin got a variety of things: vitamins, a crockpot cookbook, earrings, and some DVDs from the Stateside family. As you can see in the photo, the two DVDs are the second Pirates of the Caribbean film and The Producers. I got her some socks—yeah, I know, but she needed socks and these were nice ones! You can’t really see them in the photo. They’re on the left of the tree, but they’re dark and kind of in the shade anyway. I also got her something not in this photo—a pair of “Western boots” (what we would call “cowboy boots”—or, I guess, “cowgirl boots”). They’re not in the picture because Hyunjin was wearing them for the week before Christmas. Apparently boots like these have been a lifelong dream for her (her words, not mine), and there was no way she was going to wait for Christmas to go strutting around in them. And who am I to stand in the way of my wife and her lifelong dream?

The presents were opened late on Christmas morning because we had to go to church first. I probably mentioned this in my Christmas entry last year, but Christmas isn’t a family holiday in Korea. It’s either a church holiday or a completely secular holiday to be spent with friends. I suppose this is not surprising, considering that Christmas is a fairly recent import, but it’s still a bit annoying to have to go to church on Christmas morning.

Anyway, after opening the presents, preparations began for Christmas dinner. I was the man in charge, and preparing dinner was a huge bundle of stress for me. We bought a turkey at Costco, but the birds were nearly twice as big as last time—the smallest ones they had were 8.4 kilograms (about 18.5 pounds). The thing only barely fit in the oven, and despite attempting to allow as much time as possible for it to cook, it took an hour longer than we expected. This picture below is me taking the final skewer out of the bird (I had skewered it shut to keep the stuffing from falling out). Believe me, I feel exactly how I look here.

In the end, though, the bird was properly cooked and everyone gathered around to exclaim at its size. “Everyone,” by the way, ended up being thirteen people, yours truly included. We had started out with four—myself, Hyunjin, and her parents—but we knew that we needed more people to help us eat the gargantuan fowl. So we invited Hyunjin’s youngest aunt on her mother’s side for starters. She lived for some time in the States and loved our last turkey dinner, so we couldn’t leave her out. We also invited Hyunjin’s sister, Hyundeok, and her husband. That made seven, and for a while it seemed that was going to be our final headcount. Then Hyundeok’s parents-in-law decided to come, making nine. My father-in-law had been at church all day and was driven home by another couple who are close to the family. Knowing how much food we had (and having permission to invite as many people as he could), he asked them to come. Somewhere along the way we ended up with another couple, but I’m not sure how that happened. I was glad to see so many people show up—the more the merrier, as they say—but it made it that much more stressful when the bird refused to cook all the way through.

Like I said above, though, in the end the bird cooperated. In addition to the turkey—which, like last time, turned out to be very moist—we also had garlic mashed potatoes, bread stuffing (made with homemade bread, of course), plenty of giblet gravy, a green salad, steamed broccoli, spiced carrots (this was Hyunjin’s dish—carrots with raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar—absolutely delicious), and, of course, kimchi. You can see it beneath “little aunt’s” arm in the photo below.

Even though I was technically the head chef, everyone in this photo pitched in. Hyunjin (to my left) was in charge of most of the vegetable dishes, Hyundeok (front left) and “little aunt” (front right) were all-around assistants who handled thankless tasks such as potato-peeling. Eunho, Hyundeok’s husband, mashed the potatoes and helped me make the gravy (I did it roux-style, and with the amount of liquid involved it’s really hard to do it alone—unless you have three hands). We’re all pretty beat here, but we’re also glad that it’s over and we finally get to eat. I’m sure slaving all day in a hot kitchen had something to do with it, but everything was delicious.

For dessert I brought out my good Earl Grey (which has actual bergamot orange blossoms in it, in addition to the essence). It’s not as good a quality tea as, say, Darjeeling or Assam, but I didn’t want to open up my new loose Darjeeling quite yet. The highlight of dessert, though, was what you see in the next photo.

These are (were) the last two survivors of the batch. This photo was taken yesterday, shortly before the cupcakes were devoured. I don’t remember exactly what they are called, but it is a recipe from my Aunt Nancy that was adopted by my mother and then adopted in turn by Hyunjin. They are basic chocolate cupcakes with a marbling of cheesecake-and-chocolate-chip filling, and they are delicious. They were a big hit with our guests. It’s always a pleasure to introduce my Korean friends to delicious foods from back home. Little do they know of my sinister plan to turn them into a nation of roly-polies, one dinner party at a time.

Most of the day after Christmas was spent in a daze. Hyunjin cooked soup from the leftover turkey carcass, and we watched The Princess Bride while that was boiling. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s always a joy. I do know that I ended up waking up on Wednesday morning with a cold, which was unfortunate because I had plans to head to school early and stay out all day. I went to school as planned, did a little research in the library, met Joel for lunch (he treated me to a nice Thai meal), and then headed to Myeongdong to meet Hyunjin. There we went to see Happy Feet. We would have seen it in our neighborhood, but the only showings were dubbed (rather than having subtitles), and I refuse to see a dubbed film. The only theater we could find that was still playing the subtitled version was Myeongdong, so that’s where we went.

I had read a review of the film at the A.V. Club that was quite favorable, and I’ve come to more or less trust the reviews there. It got a 77% cumulative rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great, but it isn’t bad, and I wanted to give it a shot. To cut to the chase, we really enjoyed it. There seems to be a glut of animated animal films these days, but Happy Feet rises above the pack. The animation is very good, the voices are done well (I didn’t find Robin Williams as annoying as the A.V. Club reviewer), and the story is quite strong. I read somewhere that it played on current events, mainly the “you’re either for us or against us” rhetoric, and I went into the theater expecting to see that. I don’t remember where I read that, but I disagree. It definitely deals with the clash between tradition and change, but interpreting that narrowly as a comment on U.S. politics strikes me as “frog in a well” thinking. In fact, I think it could be easily interpreted as a comment on Korean society—especially when you hear a character urging others to “heed the wisdom of our ancestors.” A phrase like that might seem silly in the West, but it’s rather common in Korea. I think this ability to interpret the message in a number of different ways is the sign of a universal theme and a good story.

But let’s face it—we didn’t go to see a deep and thoughtful story. It did indeed turn out to be more deep and thoughtful than I had expected, but in the end we were there to have fun, and have fun we did. I don’t share most of the reservations I’ve read in negative reviews—if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like Happy Feet.

After leaving the cinema we went back down to Sillim, where Hyunjin met Hyundeok for dinner and I met some of my classmates for an end-of-the-year party. I used my cold as an excuse not to drink too much, but I still ended up getting home after midnight. This made yesterday a wash as far as getting anything done. I slept late and woke up cold-free, and the only thing we managed to get done yesterday was watching The Producers. If you read my account of our trip to New York this past summer, you’ll know that we saw the musical on Broadway while we were there. One of the reasons Hyunjin wanted the DVD was so that she could figure out what was actually going on as far as the story was concerned. She enjoyed the production very much, but she told me later that she was in the dark when it came to certain plot points. I can’t say that I blame her—there was an older couple in front of us who seemed to be in the dark most of the time as well, and I’m pretty sure they were native English speakers.

When my mother was looking for the DVD she asked me whether we wanted the original film or the new film. You see, The Producers was originally a film from 1968 directed by Mel Brooks. It was made into a musical in 2001, and the 2005 film was an adaptation of the musical rather than a remake of the original. Since the main reason Hyunjin wanted the DVD was to catch up on what she had missed during the musical, it was a no-brainer—we went with the new version. I couldn’t help wondering about the original film, though. I think at some point I’ll have to see it.

The new film got very poor reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and I can understand why. It ended up being very faithful to the musical production—the only variations were the addition of actual Manhattan location shots—but this was exactly what Hyunjin wanted. It both filled her in and served as sort of a memento of the production that we had seen on Broadway. Had I not seen the musical, though, I wouldn’t have been able to appeal to that sentiment. I remember laughing through most of the musical, but the laughs were much more subdued and spread out when we watched the film version. Part of that was having been exposed to the gags once already, but another part of it was that it just lost something in the transition.

What strikes me as most odd, though, is that the director is apparently aware of the difference between the genres. During the closing credits, a new musical number plays: There’s Nothing Like a Broadway Show. In this song, Matthew Broderick (who is an amazing singer, by the way) sings about the magic of seeing a show on Broadway. How could the director be so oblivious to the fact that none of the things Broderick mentions can be carried over to film? It makes me wonder what her goal was in this film version.

I know that sounds like a rather harsh review, but we still enjoyed it, and I’m glad we got the DVD. For one, we got to see performances by the original cast—Will Ferrell’s performance alone made it all worthwhile. And I must admit that even I wasn’t too clear on the central premise when we saw the show on Broadway. I suppose there is something to be said about the fact that I didn’t really care that I didn’t understand the premise, but at least the movie made things clearer, even if only because we were seeing the show for the second time. When it was over, Hyunjin said, “So that’s what it was about.” I thought that was kind of funny, and it’s a testament to the power of the musical genre that you can be in the dark on the plot and still laugh through the show.

We saw yet another film today, this one in the cinema again. I had wanted to see the new James Bond film, Casino Royale, for a while, and we finally got our chance. The verdict? I enjoyed it quite a bit, but Hyunjin said it was “so-so.” Then again, she’s never been a big fan of Bond films, so I didn’t really expect her to love it. She did say that she thought Daniel Craig made a good Bond, which is interesting because she’s not a Bond freak. I’ve heard complaints from people who whine that “Bond isn’t blond!” Come on, people. Look at the range of actors that have played Bond throughout the years. You’re telling me that there’s more continuity between, for example, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan simply because they both have dark hair and dark eyes? Give me a break. I thought Craig was a great Bond, blond hair/blue eyes and all.

If I had to choose one word to describe the film, it would probably be “gritty.” This is keeping all of the other Bond films in mind, of course. Bond films have been known for being over-the-top and unrealistic in general. In Casino Royale, though, Bond bleeds. He gets dirty. He makes mistakes that cost lives. There is none of the glamour of being an international man of mystery. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. You still have the Aston Martin and the suits and the high life, but it is tempered by the grit. When Bond takes on the bad guys, he doesn’t walk away straightening his bow tie, he walks away with his shirt drenched in blood. It has all the elements we’ve come to expect in Bond films, which is good and bad. It’s good because we know what we’re in for, but it’s bad because, well, we know what we’re in for. Although I didn’t have the ending pegged exactly, I was pretty close. But you don’t see a Bond film to see twists and surprises—you go to see the world’s coolest spy kick butt and take names. And Casino Royale, in my opinion, delivers the goods.

So there you have it: Christmas and its aftermath. I have a bit of translation to do over the weekend, but mainly I’m going to try to take it easy. The new year begins next week, and although I’m not doing the resolution thing per se, it is the year in which my dissertation will be completed, so I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I have two months before the next (and final semester) starts, and I intend to make significant progress in January and February. By the time the semester starts, I hope to have the structure nailed down, the theoretical background section written, and most of the section on trickster gods written (I’ll be submitting a paper on trickster gods in March to be presented at a conference of the Korean Oral Literature Society in May). The remainder will be done over the summer. It’s hard to believe that I’ve come to the final lap. It’s a bit scary, too. I know how fast time can fly, and I know that I really need to buckle down in January if I expect to get anything done. I imagine I’ll be spending a lot of time at the library.

I’m still considering doing a brief weekly podcast here at Liminality, but I don’t have anything finalized for that. Maybe I’ll give some thought to it over the weekend. If I do it, it will definitely be simple—it’s going to be a busy break, and I don’t need to make even more work for myself.

Thanks for reading in 2006. Have a happy and safe new year, and I’ll see you in 2007.

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