Author: John Bocskay

Husband, father, teacher, writer, American expatriate.

Back From The Dormant

After a couple of years languishing in the Great Blog Graveyard, Sweet Pickles and Corn is up and running once more. Before we get started, I’d like to take a few moments to address our faithful and long-suffering readers’ most burning questions.

What happened to the old Sweet Pickles and Corn?

The short answer is ‘inertia’. As Isaac Newton pointed out, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body on a sofa tends to stay on the sofa. Despite the all the initial enthusiasm and good intentions, this seems to be the fate of most blogs: they sputter, run out of gas, and lie abandoned by the big electronic roadside in the sky.

The more charitable explanation is that we were busy. Three of us wrote books last year,

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Anonymous SP&C blogger at work.

another was waist-deep in an MFA program, three SP&C alumni moved overseas, and another moved across the peninsula. The truth lies somewhere between these two explanations.

Why are we starting it again?

We find ourselves now in a much-diminished K-blogosphere, in which many long-standing and much-beloved blogs have passed on. Does Korea need a resurrected Sweet Pickles and Corn? Readers can decide that, but we aim to try to fill the gap.

What is this new Sweet Pickles and Corn?

Those of you who were readers of the old SP&C may remember it as a bit of a grab bag by a bunch of people living in Korea, and writing mostly about Korea, if sometimes by default. The new Sweet Pickles and Corn is going for a similar tone but a more narrowed focus: it is a “Korea blog” by design, and as such, will take Korea as its focus. Culture, events, news, commentary, humor, reviews and other Korea-related brain droppings are all fair game.

What’s up with that name?

The name Sweet Pickles and Corn was initially chosen as a nod to the pizza side dish and topping that often appear in Korea, and was meant to suggest the quirks and minor absurdities of life here that our blog would take as its focus. I suppose the name will still function that way, but there’s another sense in which I’ve come to like the pickles and corn symbol: as a common example of a cultural borrowing with a Korean twist.

Not everyone is a fan of corn on pizza (I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other), but whether you like it or not, it’s a small but common example of the many opportunities to view the familiar through a different lens. I often find that the interesting things about Korea are not always the uniquely Korean creations, but the unique way that Korea re-purposes and re-invents cultural imports and ultimately makes them their own. Sometimes it’s a hit, and sometimes it’s a miss, but it’s seldom boring, and this, in a nutshell, is our lofty aim here: to hit, to miss, and to not be boring. Or something like that.

What do I do now?

Sit back, pull up a small tub of your favorite fermented vegetable, and enjoy!

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South Korea’s CARS Epidemic Enters Fourth Decade

A Yangpa News Special Report

SEOUL – The OECD has announced that 5,869 South Koreans died of CARS in 2014, which marks the 30th consecutive year that the number of fatalities from the epidemic has topped the 5,000 mark.

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One of Seoul’s many high-risk areas

CARS, or Catastrophic Automobile Ramming Syndrome, is believed to affect nearly a quarter million people a year in South Korea. In a country of 50 million, this means that nearly everyone can name a close friend or family member who has been stricken by CARS.

Delivery driver Kim Yeseok has had several bouts with CARS and survived, but some of his friends were not so lucky. “Last year I lost two colleagues to CARS,” said Kim, “A Sonata and a Bongo, to be precise.”

While most victims of CARS survive, many suffer a range of severe symptoms, including massive trauma, internal bleeding, paralysis, compound fractures, third-degree burns, lacerations, coma, profuse bleeding, and death.

The World Health Organization has traced the beginning of the CARS epidemic in part to the rise in private automobile ownership in South Korea. “Since 1985, when the number of privately owned automobiles exceeded one million for the first IMG_8976time, South Korean CARS-related deaths have consistently been among the highest of all OECD nations,” said Doctor Park Jin-hyuk.

While there are a variety of treatments for CARS-related symptoms, experts say that prevention is the best medicine, and that people can greatly reduce the risk of CARS by following a few simple precautions. “Slowing down and wearing a ‘safety belt’ are effective,” says Doctor Park, “but the best thing may be merely paying attention to the warning signs. You can usually see CARS coming and take effective countermeasures.”

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Despite the epidemic south of the border, North Korea remains largely free of CARS

Despite the perennially high death toll, the South Korean public maintains a relatively calm attitude about the threat of CARS. “Actually, I am very worried about MERS,” said Seoul pedestrian Lee Soon-ja, voicing a popular concern about a disease which at press time had killed a total of 16 people – roughly the same number who are killed by CARS in a typical day in Korea. “I was just now reading about it on my smart phone as I was crossing the street. It’s utterly terrifying.”

Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the water had drained from the intersection back to the sea, but the sustained battering had shredded the esplanade that had recently been built along the sea wall. Heavy paving stones lay scattered all over the road and had rendered it impassable to the street-hugging sedans and sports cars common in that part of town.

A group of about thirty men and women had formed a line and were passing large stones off the street hand to hand and stacking them on what remained of the walkway. I wandered around and photographed the carnage, but soon began to feel guilty that my neighbors were doing all the work while I was farting around, so I started picking up stones and adding them to the stacks that were rising by the curb.

I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian fellow named Alex who was doing the same thing. It turns out he lives in the building across from mine and had been watching the storm like me from his window.  We chatted and joked about finally getting some exercise as we lugged dozens of the heavy stones off the road.

About fifteen minutes later a middle-aged Korean man from the cleanup crew approached us with an incredulous look on his face. “Wow! Thank you so much for your help!”

Why is he making a big deal about me? I thought. Everybody else was working too, most of them harder than I was. Just as I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at being singled out for praise when there were thirty other people doing the same thing, he informed me that my assembled ‘neighbors’ were in fact Haeundae district workers who had been dispatched to clear the road. Dressed in plain clothes, they were probably office workers who had been hastily conscripted into an emergency road crew, and they had arrived there so quickly after the storm that both Alex and I assumed they were locals who had spontaneously pitched in to get the traffic moving again.

This revelation made me feel a bit silly for a moment, but I was kind of enjoying it, talking and getting to know my neighbor. We kept working, now joining the line and passing the big stones hand to hand. A man came around and gave us a pair of white work gloves. After the largest stones had been moved they handed out shovels to pick up the smaller ones. After fifteen minutes of that, the job was done, and a woman handed out bottles of water and Choco pies. A man from the work crew asked me for my mailing address. I gave it to him, had a second Choco Pie, and went home feeling good about having gotten out of the house that day.


With our neighborhood back in order, the storm was already receding from my mind when a piece of mail arrived for me the next day: a thank-you card from the Haeundae District Office.

That was nice, I thought.

The day after that, I got a call from Alex. He said a reporter from the Haeundae district newspaper had called him and asked if she could interview us.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

We met her the next day in Alex’s apartment. As we sat around the table sipping coffee, she asked us why we decided to help clear stones off the road.

I told her the truth: I wrongly assumed that the people clearing the street were my neighbors, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything to help. What I didn’t tell her was that if I had known they were working for the city, I would have just taken some photos and left. I thought the implication was certainly there, but if she asked me directly I was prepared to spell it out for her: I wouldn’t have helped.

She didn’t ask. Her next question was, “In your hometown, do you help when there are disasters?” and it was instantly clear to me that she had not come all the way over here to interview some schmuck who volunteers because he doesn’t know any better; she was here to write about an exemplary citizen, a paragon of civic virtue. I smiled.

“Not really,” I said. I wanted to give her something but I was drawing a blank. There haven’t been any real disasters in suburban New York since the eradication of the natives in the 17th century.

“The worst thing that happens is sometimes we get a lot of snow, like a blizzard. Sometimes I’ve helped people dig their cars out of the snow or clear their sidewalk or their driveway so they can get out. Things like that.”

She was nodding and scribbling down the exotic details of shoveling a Westchester driveway, while noting well the implications it carries for – dare I say freedom? – in a part of the world that has effectively no public transportation. Much of this detail would find its way into her finished piece, a moving tale of two foreigners who spring to action in times of crisis to keep their hometowns safe, the traffic flowing, and their neighborhoods beautiful.

choco pieAs she was leaving, she thanked us again on behalf of Haeundae District. I told her the Choco Pies had been payment enough, and she laughed.

I wasn’t joking.


A few days later Alex called again. “The mayor would like to meet us,” he said.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

There was no saying no, so a few days later I found myself standing in the office of the Haeundae district mayor, a portly fellow in a dark suit shadowed by an entourage of six other men in dark suits. The reporter who had interviewed us snapped photos as the mayor thanked us, shook our hands, and awarded each of us a plaque that read:

Thank you very much for voluntarily participating in the Typhoon Sanba recovery efforts in Haeundae Marine City. Your invaluable service has greatly inspired and motivated us to develop Haeundae into a global city. We sincerely appreciate and admire your selfless dedication.

After posing for an official photo in front of a backdrop panorama of Haeundae Beach, we sat with the mayor and his entourage around a large table and sipped excellent tea while we recounted our story. As we spoke, a large TV monitor behind us was displaying a slideshow. I wasn’t aware of having been photographed that day, but someone had shot at least two dozen photos, which now played in a loop for the mayor, showing Alex and me in various action poses: picking up stones, passing them off, carrying them away, and laying them in stacks. The staff guys watched the slideshow, nodding and murmuring. When one photo showed me carrying three stones at a time, they murmured a little louder.

There wasn’t much of a story to tell, so the reporter helped  flesh it out with the other nuggets she had gathered, informing the mayor of my former career of digging my countrymen out of deep snow.  I took the opportunity to thank the mayor and his staff for responding so quickly to the storm. It really was fast, and it occurred to me that if it had taken longer, I wouldn’t be having tea and chatting with him right now. The reporter didn’t mention the part about us not knowing that the cleanup crew were city workers, nor did I. There just didn’t seem to be any point in bringing it up and spoiling the party.

Besides, it wasn’t as if they were using me to support a war I didn’t believe in or a product I knew to be harmful. Perhaps there were ulterior political motives – who knows? – but on the surface they seemed merely to be looking to tell an inspiring if slightly fabricated story that might guilt-trip a few nouveau riche types into being slightly more civic-minded. If that was the worst of it, I could live with that.

When the time came to leave, the mayor again took my hand and said, “Remember me!” Was that the point of all this – to make allies among the foreign community so that we’d go home and tell our wives and friends what a swell fellow he was, or maybe even to encourage us to vote for him myself if I ever got around to applying for the permanent residency visa? Or maybe this is just how you say goodbye to people when you’re the district boss – a way of reminding the faithful that someday they may be called upon to return the favor.

Whatever the case, I assured the mayor that I would indeed remember him. We said goodbye, and with my plaque tucked under my arm, I found my way outside.


In front of the building, Alex and I joked about being local heroes. “The next time they call will be to give us a parade and keys to the city,” I said, but that call of course never came. It also turned out to be the last time I saw Alex. He went back to his high-flying IT job, and I walked home along the beach quietly re-assuming my humble alter-ego: teacher, husband, and proud resident of Haeundae, Busan, Korea, Earth.

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Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

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Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person, which points up another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own: the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.

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Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, embracing criticism is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to engage in transformative introspection or to brook well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that mindset, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an uninvited truth; that happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience, a tacit acknowledgment that we become travelers by becoming open, but that we can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.

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Hello there, sailor.

Editor’s note: this piece recently appeared on Outside Looking In.