Month: October 2014

Creatures of the Night: Hongdae Edition

Some things in life are like a box of chocolates: You always know what you’re going to get. (Hint: it’s goddamn chocolate in that box of chocolates, Forrest. What the fuck else were you expecting?)

For instance, if you—a young Western expatriate living in Seoul or thereabouts—decide to roll into the capital’s famed Hongdae bar/club district on a Saturday night, you know exactly what you are going to get. Your night out will be the same damn thing, beat for beat, of the last time you went to Hongdae. Your night in Hongdae will be another cycle of a time loop, like Source Code or Groundhog Day (“Ground Hongdae,” if you will.)

So this is what will happen. You, the young expat in question, will take the subterranean passage into the city along with a small band of thrill-seeking cronies. You will disembark at Hongik University station and hike the Everest of escalators and stairs and finally break onto street level. Welcome to Hongdae. Welcome to lights, schwarma vendors, kiosks selling socks and iPhone cases, bars stacked three high on both sides of the alleys. You will be pulled along by the energy of the crowd, and you will bump into packs of young Korean women because they’re using their Samsung smartphone cameras as mirrors to make a pore-by-pore inspection their faces, instead of focusing on the business of walking.

It’s important to remember you will not be in Hondgae by choice. You will be there because Hongdae has beckoned you. It demands your attendance. It is a magnet that draws in all the idiots abroad, all those who are somewhere between college and thirty, those somewhere between vagrancy and the shackles of Responsibility. You will be there because you know Saturday nights in your prime years are a currency that depletes much faster than you care to consider. You will be there because you’ve heard many an older person talk about life back in Their Day, and this is Your Day.

You and your posse of Hongdae Whores will strut through the noisy alleys. You will stop at a 7-11 and pick up tall gold cans of OB and keep on strutting. Somewhere in this bright maze is a pub, and you will enter it. Of course you’re starting the night at a pub while you’re in Asia. The authentic Korean bar will come after. This pub will be a bustling place on the second floor. They’ll be playing “Ride Wit Me” by Nelly and tall windows will let the city lights in. You will have a hefty draft Cass and someone will pick up the pool cue and someone else will play darts.

Then you will meet a Canadian named Paul who has spent many moons in Korea, and he will tell you that how much he loves “the culture” here. Probably because he is told daily that he is a hansum man. The second person you will meet will be named Jason, and Jason has already blasted through a full bottle of soju and suddenly his arm will be on your shoulders because dude! he’s totally from where you are, back in your home country! This makes you best friends. You would rather not talk to Jason, but talking to people in bars who you don’t want to talk to is like 70% of what you do on a night out anyway.

So you will meet some Germans and South Africans. You will meet some Scots and some Brits. Some Kiwis and Aussies. Just a sea of white, like milk mixed with milk. Yawn. Just a bunch of hooligans with the same biography and the same disdain for an early Sunday wake-up time. By the time you get another frosty mug in your hand you will observe a loud American named Brad (probably) who works downtown, smokes like his last name is Draper, and can’t even say “hello” in Korean, and he doesn’t plan on learning, bro! And in the corner, there will be the token squad of Europeans and their poseur American counterparts, looking up at the flatscreen, where there the DVR’ed Manchester United will be playing.

Following “Bad Romance,” the first of Pharrell’s many 2013 #1 singles will start playing. You will hear fast stomps on the stairs just before four American soldiers blow through the door. You will know they are soldiers because of their haircuts—which will be high-and-tight, their eyes—which will be deep, frantically churning wells of sexual frustration, and their T-shirts—which will be tighter than the 2000 US Presidential election. They are freight trains of testosterone, built to do damage. They will attack the bar and occupy it like a beachhead. When it comes to Saturday night in Seoul, they can and they will go from go from zero to sixty in 2.7 seconds. They will begin ripping tequila shots, and between each of these said shots they will murder even more brain cells by headbutting each other. They are emissaries to Korea, here all the way from the Planet Douche. But you can’t blame them, they are products of their environment, and their curfew clock is ticking.

The plot will thicken ever so slightly as a soldier pivots and hands you a shot. It’s Jaeger, bro. You don’t want to drink Jaeger. But you will do that shot because America, because freedom. If you’re not American, you will still do that shot because Yeah, remember that mistake we made with invading Iraq? the soldier will ask you. Wouldn’t want that to happen to your country, now would we?

The shot will hit your system and express itself as a chemical explosion. Blam—the fire will flash through your bloodstream. The embers will reach your head and a tingle will begin behind your cheeks. And then you will, for the next twenty minutes or so, be immortal. Like a jet taking off, you will lift out of your own body, reaching a stratospheric level of false confidence. If you are a female, that large Canadian named Paul you’ve been avoiding will suddenly seem like he’s worth talking to. You know, the guy who self-identifies as a rugby player yet by the looks of him probably hasn’t hit the pitch since before the “Harry Potter” actors hit puberty. If you are a male, you will meet a small, scared-looking female ESL teacher named Sarah, or maybe Lucy, who was dragged here by her friends, and you will initiate a conversation by demanding to know where she is from. She will answer your question and you will get very excited because hey, that’s where you’re from too—

When you re-enter your own head, you won’t know where you are at first. You will be inside a dark, loud, shapeless room. Do not panic. This is normal. Your vision will unblur just as, funnily enough, “Blurred Lines” starts playing. You will now be in a sea of Koreans in a basement establishment named Go Go Club or Ho Ho Bar or something, dancing atop speakers the size of Panzer Tanks. You will be perfectly content to stay in this Korean club, your own personal heaven, slingin’ won till the break of the dawn.

Hours will pass. Then the scene will cut in the montage that is your night and you’ll be on the street throwing paper airplanes made out of club fliers that say NO COVER! Another jump cut, and you’ll see some foreigners you know on the curb outside 7-11, slumped over like they’ve been executed by firing squad. Cut again, you’ll suddenly be on the sidewalk with a greasy white box in your hand, trying to eat your weight in pizza. A crossfade and then it will be dawn and you will be back on the train, feeling vaguely melancholy and looking at your phone, wondering why you’re now Facebook friends with some American soldiers.

You are the young expat. You don’t always go out in Seoul, but when you do, you go to Hongdae. And when you go to Hongdae, this is what will happen.

Editor’s note: This piece previously appeared in April 2014 on Fred Colton’s blog.

The Good, The Bad, and The Hagfish

by John Bocskay

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly lives in mud 150 meters under the sea.

I ’ve always loved the Korean word for fish: “mulgogi”, a compound formed from the words “water” (mul) and “meat” (gogi). More than simply labeling a common class of aquatic creatures, “mulgogi” suggests a way of looking at the world, a very East Asian orientation that assumes all things that swim to be edible unless proven otherwise.

Much of Korean seafood strikes the average Westerner as very different, and some of it as downright bizarre: fermented skate, with its powerful ammonia smell; sea cucumbers, whose similarity to an actual cucumber begins and ends with its oblong shape; and live octopus, which is both alive and an octopus. The list goes on, but perhaps no other creature better exemplifies the Korean commitment to sampling the totality of the world’s sea life than the hagfish. Though hagfish are found all over the world and have been known for centuries, they are only eaten in Korea and by the Korean diaspora in Japan and the United States. Even the Chinese – about whom Koreans joke will eat every four-legged thing except the table – lay off the hagfish.

You may have seen them in the tanks at Jagalchi market , these pinkish eel-like creatures the Koreans call ggomjangeo resting in a knotted oimg_CA00195741mass awaiting the fillet knife. You may have eaten them there, seen them skinned alive, chopped up and thrown still writhing onto a grill with red pepper sauce and onions and served with sesame leaves and garlic. Once you get past the idea of food squirming on the grill, ggomjangeo bokkeum is actually quite tasty. It has a firm, springy texture, and presents some odd shapes as the intestines curl like shirtsleeves, but it ends up tasting more like the same yangnyeom sauce you enjoy with your fried chicken. Some eat it because, like all things vaguely penis-shaped, the hagfish is thought to be a male “stamina food”. Whether you get a rise out of it or not, grilled hagfish is far from the strangest-tasting food you will ever put in your mouth, but considered as an animal, it is arguably one of the biggest oddballs you will encounter on the Korean menu.

Total Weirdo

For starters, the name is misleading. The jangeo part of the name means ‘eel’, though hagfish are not even remotely related to eels and bear only a superficial resemblance to them. The English name hagfish isn’t much better, because as it turns out, they’re not true fish either: they have no jaws, stomach or true fins, and have primitive eyes that sense light but can’t resolve images. Scientists are not even unanimous on whether to classify the hagfish as a vertebrate – an ostensibly unambiguous category – because it is the only known creature to have a bony skull but a spine made entirely of cartilage. The hagfish is so hard to classify that when Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, first encountered one in 1754, he declared it to be a worm, a classification which managed to stand for nearly four decades until it was corrected.

Today we know that the hagfish is an ancient animal – a so-called living fossil that has changed little in over 300 million years and is more closely related to the common ancestor of all vertebrates than it is to any other animal living today except the lamprey (another total weirdo). While scientists continue to debate its place in the evolutionary tree, current opinion strongly suggests that the creature on your dinner plate is a charter member of the proud lineage that gave the animal kingdom its very first spinal column.

Ain’t Got No Alibi


Say cheese!

While “fish” may miss the mark, “hag” is not unfair. The hagfish is widely considered to be one of the ugliest animals in the world, because it manages to combine nearly every quality we find repulsive in animals. It looks harmless enough sitting there on the bottom of the tank with its little whiskers (called ‘barbels’) reminiscent of catfish, but just below them, tucked out of sight, is a mouth so creepy that fans of H.R. Giger have wondered whether the retractable mouths of his cinematic aliens were inspired by the hagfish’s ‘rasping tongue‘: four rows of tooth-like “rasps” that project from the mouth (which opens horizontally, by the way), grasp the flesh of its prey and haul it toward the gullet.

The hagfish’s diet doesn’t win it any admirers either. Once thought to be exclusively a scavenger – another class of animal that no one loves – it is now known to subsist mainly on large, deep-sea worms, a revelation which merely elevated it from a revolting opportunist to a revolting predator. It does scavenge part-time, however: when the carcass of a dead whale or other creature settles on the bottom, thousands of hagfish follow their single nostril to the buffet. Using their rasping tongues, they burrow into the carcass and eat it from the inside out, thus combining the most gag-inducing features of vultures and maggots into one charming package. They’ve also been known to use their unique skill set to infest the bodies of fish trapped in nets, which naturally has done little to endear them to fisherman around the world. Though they certainly chow down like vertebrates, they have the distinctly invertebrate ability to absorb nutrients directly through their skin, which comes in handy when you are literally tucked in to your meal.

“He slimed me”

Despite all that, one of the most remarkable and literally repulsive features of the hagfish is not the way it eats but the way it defends itself from being eaten. If you’ve taken a close look inside a tank full of hagfish, you may have noticed strands of milky filaments swirling around the tank he-slimed-melike old cobwebs.  When a hagfish is bitten by a predator (or seized by a middle-aged woman in pink rubber boots) it quickly emits a copious amount of slimy mucus which instantly reacts with water to become a tough, stretchy glob that envelops its body like a cocoon. This slime clogs the gills of would-be predators, who gag on it and spit out the hagfish unharmed thanks to its tough skin (belts, wallets and other accessories are made from it and sold as “eel leather”). Once the danger has passed, the hagfish twists into a knot and slides the knot down the length of its body, whisking off the slime in one motion. This defense strategy is extremely effective; the hagfish has no known aquatic predators because it has evolved over hundreds of millions of years – not to be smarter or faster – but to be chewed on, found repulsive, and spit out intact.

The slime has also acted as a turn-off to all but the most determined human diners, and is the source of its genus name Myxine (from the Greek word for slime) as well as its more colorful nicknames slime eel and snot eel. It turns out, however, that hagfish slime is edible. Because it’s composed of protein, it is said to be used as a substitute for egg whites, though I’ve yet to find a restaurant anywhere that uses it. Who knows: maybe with a slightly catchier name and a kickass marketing strategy, hagfish slime omelets could be finding their way to a breakfast menu near you.

hagfishslime1A less far-fetched scenario would be finding a use for it as a fabric. A team of researchers at the University of Guelph, Ontario is looking for ways to replicate the tough, stretchy fibers in hagfish slime and spin them into a renewable fabric that could one day replace non-renewable oil-based fabrics like lycra, spandex, and nylon. They’re not there yet, but hagfish hotpants remain a theoretical possibility.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the hagfish, like the size and health of their populations, how they reproduce, how to tell their approximate age, and their precise role in ocean ecosystems. Information like this is critical for managing hagfish fisheries, which are currently unregulated in the United States (which is actually where most of the hagfish in Korea now come from). If there is a less likely candidate for overfishing than the hagfish I hope I never meet it (or eat it), but it’s worth looking after them all the same. After all, they may be weird, but they’re family.

Author’s Note: October 15th is Hagfish Day, a holiday created by to remind people that even the ugliest creatures need our conservation efforts. Whether you decide that the best way to celebrate Hagfish Day is by eating a hagfish or by not eating one is up to you. I won’t judge.