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

22 January, 2007


By Aaron
22 January, 2007

One morning when I was fourteen years-old, I was jarred awake at five o'something A.M. by a shaking house and my naked stepfather who stood in my bedroom doorway yelling at me.

"Aaron, get over here," and adding when I failed to rouse myself with due haste, "goddamnit, it's an earthquake."

It's always taken more, however, than a violent act of God to send me running for the company of naked men - a lot more - and by the time I reached the doorway the quake was almost finished. But there we stood for a few seconds anyway as the house shook and shimmied all over its foundation. And then, just like that, it stopped and all was quiet again until the neighbor's dog set to barking.

My stepdad, thankfully, went and found his bathrobe and then turned on the TV in the living room. There on KGW was some pretty little news anchoress, all well-coifed and made-up like the producers had just that minute hauled her out of the pantry and set her in front of the camera.

"The reports are still coming in," she said, "but it seems the Portland area has just experienced an earthquake."

Seems?, I thought. What's she think that was, a horse fart? I sure as hell wanted someone to give me a good explanation for why I was being yanked awake by screaming naked men and nothing less than an earthquake was going to suffice.

The station then cut to a reporter somewhere out in the city - "on location," as though where you're sitting right now isn't "on location" - and he looked more human, like he'd just been hauled out of bed by a naked man and a shaking house. This fellow's name was Walden Kirsch, I think, and KGW always seemed to send him out on the most hazardous assignments, like an icy freeway where 18-wheelers would come skidding up and jack-knife right behind him. I always figured someone at Channel 8 had it in for that guy.

"Portland got an abrupt awakening this morning at approximately 5:27," Walden started. "But from where I stand there seems to be no visible damage. This place looks exactly like it did at 5:26."

And the news just kept breaking.

They eventually cut back to the studio and confirmed that Portland had indeed been through an earthquake, though the epicenter was actually down in the puckerbrush town of Scotts Mills. Still, the 5.6 magnitude meant that it had shaken my naked stepfather out of the shower and sent him running for my room. So sure enough, goddamnit, it was an earthquake - my first and, until Saturday at least, my only.

In fact, I wasn't even convinced by the first rumblings of this most recent one. I've been under the boot of a kinghell cold lately and attributed the movement of my chair to either the Nyquil or the fogbank rolling around inside my head. Just ask any cough syrup-drinking, suburban American kid - they've all been through an earthquake. Then I remembered that I hadn't taken any Nyquil and the building began to sway again.

That there's an earthquake, I thought to myself as I went to get the Nyquil. Strangely, an earthquake - like an orgasm or, I suppose, an enema - is a sensation that, once you've been through one, you always recognize. In the absence of DXM anyway.

This particular quake registered 4.8 on the Richter Scale (which was not, as you might imagine, named after Norman Vincent Peale) and centered in Gangwon Province on the east coast of Korea - or, as it's known internationally, the Coast of Japan. Given the structural standards of Korean buildings, I shudder to think what a larger quake - of, say, 4.9 - would do to the Seoul skyline and, more importantly, my own apartment building. So just to be safe, I'm standing naked in my doorway as you read this.

17 January, 2007

Gifts That Keep On Giving

By Aaron
17 January, 2007

A personal and thoughtful gift is probably the worst thing you could give the average Korean person. Well, maybe not the worst. I suppose cholera or a kick to the groin would be less welcome than, let's say, the perfect cookie jar, but not by much. The only truly welcome gift for a birthday or anniversary or other big occasion in Korea is money, filthy lucre or cash on the barrelhead. Folks here are genuinely disappointed when they get a gift perfectly suited to them and only them. The upshot is that this makes gift-giving remarkably easy, if all too uninspired and impersonal. And the opening of gifts, as you might imagine, has lost any suspense it may ever have had, because - let's face it - the contents of all those envelopes isn't too hard to guess.

Owing to this local obsession with money, I've become progressively lazier and uncreative as a buyer of gifts. For my North American relatives, I do my shopping online and, as a result, they usually end up with another generic gift card to Bed, Bath & Beyond, which ultimately isn't much different than just handing them an envelope full of cash. In fact, pegging the money to a certain store may be even worse. It sure beats the alternative, though - that is, sending holiday boxes of vaccum-packed dog shanks - and at least they can choose their own cookie jar.

But Na Young and I are headed to the States next month for a short visit and our trip will coincide with three family birthdays, so I'm again in the position of needing to find that "perfect gift" and, as I said, I'm hopelessly out of practice at this sport.

Now, I love books and reading. I try to get through at least two or three books a month; I make time every day to cuddle each of my books and let them know how special they are. I founded the first library in Korea. As you can guess, I also like to give books as gifts, but just because a person loves something doesn't mean that his love is shared by everyone else. A person who enjoys pornography, for example, shouldn't assume that his Grandma Edith will appreciate receiving the director's cut of Wayward Nurses, Vol. 14. Rather, the art of gift-giving requires that you consider the recipient's interests and personality and then select an item based on that consideration. Grandma Edith, to use my previous example, would probably be much happier with a DVD of Up & Cummers, Vol. 83, but it might take a few moments' thought on your part to know this. You can't, after all, just throw smut at your grandmother. You've got to put some thought into it.

Even if you know a person's interests, however, there's no guarantee that he'll like a book on that subject. A man's love of fly-fishing in no way indicates that you should buy him a copy of John McPhee's The Founding Fish. Similarly, an illiterate person may not enjoy a book about a woman who can't read. In my experience, though, everyone enjoys a book about themselves, which will make shopping for Gandhi or Napoleon Bonaparte one the most pain-free experiences of your life.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn't be writing this if I'd figured out what to buy for my Stateside family. No, I'd be basking in the knowledge that I had found just what they wanted, needed or, barring that, what was in the half-price Chinese import bin at E-Mart. As it is, I'm fighting the urge to visit and just buy a few Bed, Bath & Beyond cards. I hear they have some lovely cookie jars.

16 January, 2007

Southbound & Down

By Aaron
16 January, 2007

In 1989, when I was ten years old, my mother wedged my younger sister and me and a couple cheap suitcases into her '86 Camaro and drove ten hours down Interstate-5 to Vacaville, California to visit my aunt's family who, because my aunt was an Air Force nurse, lived on Travis Air Force Base. Bush One was in the White House, gas was less than $1.00/gallon, my parents were recently divorced, I'd been forced to get glasses earlier that year, my San Francisco Giants lost to Oakland in the "Battle of the Bay" that October, and the Germans knocked out a certain wall and renovated Berlin.

The best of times, the worst of times. The most middling of times.

My mother - the hardest working woman in show business - was a nightshift nurse on the obstetrics ward of the local hospital where she brought into the world screaming kids who would eventually grow up, get ugly glasses, enjoy the curbs and gutters of shared custody and cheer losing causes. Working nights left her tired most of the time but you wouldn't have known it from the way she drove on this particular trip.

You would have been forgiven for thinking that the local posse was after us, because, in fact, they were. By the time we returned home to Salem, Oregon, my mother had amassed 43 tickets for speeding and fifteen for violations of her choice.

"You seem like a nice woman," one state trooper told her, "so I'll let you choose. I can cite you for speeding, tailgating, reckless endangerment or for your son's ugly glasses. Your choice."

On our drive home, crowds lined the interstate to cheer as we sped past, tailed by a line of riled "smokies," as my mom referred to them on her CB radio. My sister and I stood in the front seat, our heads out the T-top roof and my sister's pigtails flapping in the wind, waving at the adoring masses. Near Grants Pass, two brothers in blue polyester suits - Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette - offered my mother $80,000 to run blocker for an illegal load of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta. She declined, but by then her red Camaro had become an I-5 legend. My mom and the man who eventually became my stepfather have resisted pleas from the Smithsonian and the car now rests, restored and semi-retired, in an Oregon garage.

Amazingly enough, though, the drive itself was the least interesting part of that trip. In California, I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first and only time, ate my first (vegetarian) Vietnamese food in Oakland and dove behind the car seat when I saw a guy with a mohawk in Berkeley. Quite a smorgasbord for a kid with big glasses from Salem, Oregon.

One morning - perhaps even the morning we left for our cannonball run back to Oregon - my uncle drove us over to the Travis airfield, filled with burly C-130 planes being loaded and heading off to Panama to topple Manuel Noriega, which US troops apparently did by blasting rock music at his compound 24/7. So in addition to rifles and MREs, those C-130s were probably being stocked with cassette copies of Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, another high point of America in the late '80s, much the dismay of mothers and dictators everywhere.

Watching the soldiers load those planes was the most memorable part of that trip for me, certainly more indelible than tofu wantons or easterly breezes across San Francisco Bay. My parents, even as they voted, were never what you'd call politically-minded, but I nevertheless have numerous memories of them trying to explain why the US was embroiled in Country X.

"Well," they'd say, with some hesitation, because they didn't know either, "the world will be safer without __________." Wherein I would insert Qaddafi, Noriega, Saddam, Milosevic or whoever ran Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Grenada, Lebanon, Iran or Idaho.

Of course, my position was certainly preferable to that of a kid in Beirut, Managua or Tripoli, where parents had to explain why, for better or for worse, US troops were coming ashore. Mine merely had to explain why they were leaving. All I had to do was watch them load up, move out and then I could go home and watch the invasion - with its "Welcome to the Jungle" soundtrack - on CNN or Good Morning, America. Knowing the good guys from the bad guys was always a lot easier when Slash and Axl Rose provided the backing music.

And so, here we are, seventeen years later. Another Bush is in the White House, embroiled in another war that started against a familiar face from my childhood. Gas is $2.50/gallon. My eyewear has improved only marginally. The Giants, even with a cranked up Barry Bonds, are hopeless. And that red Camaro is still in the family, but my mother no longer works nights and hasn't had a speeding ticket in at least fifteen years. Some things, thankfully, do change.