Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

28 June, 2006


By Aaron
28 June, 2006

Riding the bus to school one day as a fourth grader, I and the other students on board happened to see a couple having sex in their bedroom, right in front of a large bay window without curtains. Gerald, from a family of Romanian immigrants, claimed he'd seen it all before in Bucharest, while Greg, who was the nephew of drag racer Ed "The Ace" McCulloch and whom others only liked for that reason, was too busy talking about his uncle's latest quarter mile time and missed the whole thing. Anyway, Mr. Defer, the driver, had us going at a pretty good clip so, at best, we saw only a flash of skin and hair. But everyday thereafter, when we passed that house, all talk stopped as we watched hopefully for another show - and wouldn't you know it, we never did get lucky.

Now, I realize it's not polite to look uninvited into other folks' houses, but damn is it ever hard to resist. From the stairwell of our building, I can see into at least four other apartments: one in which the kids play too many computer games, one in which the father always wears a tie, even on sundays, and two where steaming rice seems to be the most interesting thing that ever happens. Everytime I walk downstairs, I have to make a conscious effort to not glance into these other houses, which is most often a losing battle.

I shudder to think what people would say after looking through my windows, which, at close range, only the old couple with ugly furniture in the next building can do. In the morning, for example, I usually put water on for coffee before I get in the shower. After drying off, I hang up the towel and set the coffee to percolating while I get dressed. The way I figure it, if people haven't seen it before they won't know what it is, and if they have, they won't be surprised. But then I also think, why give them for free what they'll pay for?

That anyone might even want to look in on my life is, to me, unbelievable. By any measure, evaporation ought to make for better viewing than the minutae of my days. But that's voyeurismm for you: we watch not because the other person's life is more interesting - it's usually not - but rather to confirm that other people are trapped in the same ruts, playing the same video games too often, and not staying quite as digestively regular as they'd like.

After seeing the lives of my neighbors, however, I've concluded that my life is a damn site better than theirs: I don't have kids, I don't wear ties on Sunday and my furniture, while cheap, isn't too terribly ugly. Of course, I've never volunteered this information to my neighbors because - and I suppose this hardly bears mentioning - a good voyeur is better not seen and not heard.

23 June, 2006

My Beautiful Laundrette

By Aaron
23 June, 2006

My mother did most of our laundry until my sister and I hit our teen years. At that point, though, we started complaining because everyone in the family was about the same size and we were forever finding our clothes in someone else's drawers. At one point, my stepdad wore my younger sister's jeans to the Washington Park Zoo's annual display of Christmas lights. I assume - and hope - that this was an innocent mistake on his part.

"Do your own laundry, then, and quit complaining," my mom said, when I'd once again found my socks and a few pair of my Hanes in my stepdad's drawer.

So I did, but not before I went through basic laundry training. According to my mother, you're supposed to sort clothes into three categories: whites, darks, and mediums. Whites and darks I understood, but I never have been able to grasp the idea of the latter. Laundry is not a difficult chore, and the very idea that someone came up with a 'medium' category means they were analyzing the whole process far more than necessary. Really, it's not so difficult: whites you bleach, darks you don't. Adjust dryer accordingly.

Problem is, I don't have a dryer, nor do most other people in Korea. They all still prefer hang-drying, a favorite of tenement dwellers everywhere. Most of the time, my lighter clothes like socks and underwear dry overnight, but occasionally it takes longer when the air is exceptionally damp.

As happened last week.

Getting dressed for work one morning, I realized that, as it had been raining all night, my socks were still wet from the previous evening's washing. I checked my sock drawer: no clean, dark dress socks. So I had a quick look around the apartment to make sure I didn't have a dryer that I'd forgotten about. While doing so, my eyes fell on the microwave.

"Works for warming up the dog when he's cold," I thought.

I grabbed a pair of black socks and tossed them in the microwave, setting the timer for one minute. When the timer rang, I checked them. They were steaming and drier than they had been, but still damp, so I restarted them for two more minutes. About a minute later I noticed the smell.

Evidently, these were not cotton socks. I opened the microwave to what looked - and smelled- like a burned plastic bag, smoking and smoldering in one helluva stench.

"Well, if at first you don't succeed..."

I grabbed another pair, gambling that they were cotton and shoved them into the microwave, setting the time for two minutes. And indeed, two and a half minutes later, I had warm, dry socks on my feet.

All of which just shows that, if at first you cook your socks, try, try again. And don't wear your daughter's pants to the zoo. It could send the wrong message.

I'm a Word

By Aaron

This is what we get for letting the Dadaists write ESL lesson plans. I found this idea (no, it wasn't mine) for a warm-up in a stack of old teaching materials and, I must say, it was probably the non-sequitor final question that made me keep this in my files at all.

I’M A WORD: You are now a word. Write down the word that you want to be. Talk to the other words in the class about life as a word. What do you like about yourself? Do you like your spelling? Do you like the way you are pronounced? Are you a useful word? Do you have any words you don’t get along with? What are your plans for the weekend?

21 June, 2006

Headline of the Day

By Aaron
21 June, 2006

Interpret this one however you please.

From my copy of today's Joong-Ang Ilbo (English edition):

"Seoul Worries About Prostitutes' Exodus to the U.S."

Localities: Guro

By Aaron

I was on the Seoul subway the other day, somewhere between Sindaebang and Sillim Stations. I was sitting at the end of a row of seats and to my right was a sixtyish fellow, his head bowed, deep in thought. To his right sat a twentysomething girl, reading a book. Suddenly, the old fellow lifted his right butt cheek and let rip with a bench-rattling fart. Twentysomething Girl looked at him like, "watch where you're aiming that thing," but by this time the guy had returned to his ruminations.

I mention this because we're finally free of the Dragon Lady (money's in the bank, by the way) and completely moved from Nakseongdae to Daerim, part of Seoul's Guro district and not far from where the above episode took place. According to Na Young, however, I'm not supposed to tell anyone that we live in Guro.

"It'll ruin our image," she claims.

Little does she know that we haven't actually got an image to ruin, though I do take her point. Historically, Guro was to Seoul what Pittsburgh was to the States: a festering pustule on the national (or municipal, as the case may be) backside. Filled with factories, slums and meatpackers, the place got so bad that, when an urban renewal campaign was undertaken, the subway authorities elected to change the names of half a dozen stations and leave the coal smoke images behind.

Nowadays, the Guro landscape is being covered with new high-rise apartments, office complexes filled with venture companies and, I've noticed, gopjang (soup with beef or pork intestines) restaurants. Granted, the area remains rough around the edges, but at least I'm not wading through rivers of hog's blood on my daily walk to the train station.

03 June, 2006

Return of the Dragon Lady

By Aaron
03 June, 2006

For the background story on this post, read Enter the Dragon Lady.

Saturday evening found me wrestling with a seventy year-old woman. My opponent was as balmy as the June evening and, though the outcome was never in doubt, she certainly put up more of a fight than you might imagine. I emerged the victor, she tore her dress, and the police just looked bored and underpaid.

Attempting to put an end to the key money dispute, Na Young and I dropped by my landlady's house (directly above mine) last evening. After initially saying that she would refund the entirety of my key money by mid-June, this woman changed course and decided that she would deduct an extra $200 because, as she put it, "she might have trouble renting the room."

Not my problem, I informed her. Let's stick to the contract. She accused me of being selfish, at which point I calmly informed her that any additional deductions from the key money would be met with a call from a lawyer.

In Korea, if a person can't repay the tenant's key money, the government will often step in, sell the property and repay the debts itself. The prospect of lawyers and foreclosures, therefore, put the landlady into something of a panic and she quickly tried to start a negotiation. What about $150? No? $130?

Na Young and I stood up and headed for the door, informing her that the conversation was not a negotiation and, furthermore, was over. Shoes on, we headed down the stairs with Dragon Lady on our heels, squawking and hollering all manner of nonsense. I unlocked my door and ushered Na Young into the house ahead of me. When I got in and tried to close the door, though, Landlady decided that she needed to be inside, too. I blocked her way, at which point she went Barry Sanders on me and pushed for a first down. Na Young, for her part, ran and hid in the bathroom (thanks for getting my back, babe). When a couple minutes of simply holding my ground failed to deter her, I ushered my geriatric adversary out the door. Gently, of course, but firmly.

"Rumpus room's now closed. Goodnight."

At some point in all this, she caught her dress on the door jamb and tore it. But she did finally go upstairs and quit her caterwauling.

No more than ten minutes later, though, the cops showed up and we could hear her outside relating the entire saga - amounts of key money, why Americans don't understand her, and the state of her morning bowel movements - to them. Na Young calmly and with that disarming smile of hers informed the cops that Dragon Lady had tried to cross our line of scrimmage, as it were. As Na Young was explaining this to the officers, the landlady busied herself calling out to the passersby on the street below,

"Hey, look at me. I'm fighting with a foreigner."

The cops eventually took Na Young at her word and told the landlady to stay home, calm down and buy her own new dress. Making their report, though, I could see that this was not what they'd envisioned when the signed on for the force.

"I thought it would be all nightsticks and mustaches, not old women with torn dresses."

But Time is a funny character, indeed. Not thirty minutes after the cops left, the real estate agent showed up with someone to look at my apartment, someone who apparently wants to rent the place. Now the landlady's happy, says she'll refund our money appropriately and hopes Na Young and I will have a happy life together.

"Sorry about the dress," Na Young told her.

"Oh, that? It's nothing," she replied, seeming to forget everything that had happened less than an hour before.

It now seems that all is well in Nakseongdae. But Na Young's not ready to let me forget about tearing the dresses of old women.

02 June, 2006

This Show's Mine. Find Your Own.

By Aaron
02 June, 2006

I do most of my work in and around Seoul's World Trade Center complex - which also houses COEX Mall - and I usually have a midmorning hour or two on the weekdays to fritter away between appointments. Killing this time can be something of a trial, though at least the COEX food court has tables where one can sit peaceably, read a book and not be run in for loitering. The problem with this area, though, is that the huge TV monitors have been running the same commercials for months and, by sitting in the food court for more than ten minutes, you run the risk of having a Samsung mp3 player advert in your head for the rest of the day.

My methods for passing this time go through stages. Earlier this spring, for example, I generally ended up in Starbucks with a coffee and scone (you pay dearly for the coffee here but the chairs are comfortable). That trend stopped, though, when one of my clients began to bring me coffee earlier in the morning, thus rendering a stop at any coffee shop unappealing. Starbucks does carry the International Herald-Tribune, however - available at a discount to the morally flexible - so I still find reason to drop by once or twice a week.

Of course, wandering through the mall is always an option. There's a decent, if overpriced, bookstore, some rotating art exhibits, and an aquarium - again, overpriced - that I haven't visited yet. But lately, I've taken to wandering through stores that hold no interest or relation to me whatsoever, like a clothing store for middle-aged women. I wander through the store, feeling up the fabric like George Costanza, asking about availability of sizes, and then wandering off with a cursory 'thanks.' C'mon, now, don't read too much into this.

This week I hit on a new idea to pass these breaks. Like Edward Norton's hobby of visiting support groups in Fight Club, I've begun to frequent the trade shows that are continuously running through the convention center here.

Today, for example, was the Imported Goods Fair. I filled out the registration form, listing myself as the CEO of a import/export firm and got a 'VIP Buyer' badge. I'm not sure if this designation meant anything but I think the Pakistani rug makers showed me a bit more deference than if I'd been wearing one of the more pedestrian 'Visitor' badges. The Hungarians and Tunisians were sampling wine, which I would have tried had I not been drinking a cup of - yes, you guessed it - Starbucks coffee, the South Africans were giving out flag stickers (for chrissakes, stickers? Bring on the damn wine.), and the Chinese were ready to make anything and everything for me, from bags to shirts to gall bladders. The atmosphere was a bit too subdued, really, but I'll put that down to the time I visited (10 am). Overall, this trade show gets a solid B.

The coming weeks promise a bang-up schedule of shows for COEX, which means my mornings stand to be better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

A few of the highlights:

Korea Alcohol & Liquor Expo 2006: Starts 15 June. Oh, you can be damn sure I'll be at this one when the doors open at 9 AM. Purpose of visit? To get liquored up and do some impregnatin'.
The 20th Solution & Contents Exhibition of Kroea: First, I need to find out where or what 'Kroea' is, after which I'm looking forward to finding out what the hell this show actually shows. I figure I'll go in there with a few personal problems and seek out solutions.
Pharmanex g3 Seminar: Beats me. This one, amazingly enough, is even more vague in its title that the previous one. Sounds like a drug industry hoedown, though, and I know from experience than the pharmaceutical companies put on one helluva clambake (why else would Vioxx be so expensive?), so I figure I better at least show my face. Maybe I can even wrangle some free samples of Xanax or Cialis.