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

31 July, 2007

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

By Aaron
31 July, 2007

Before moving to Korea in the spring of 2002, I had Graham Greene on the brain - imagining myself passing the summer monsoons beneath lazy ceiling fans on the screened porch of some crumbling colonial villa; sipping gin-tonics while watching the rickshaws pass below on the flooded streets of Seoul; a small-scale civil war raging in the countryside.

Would that it were, and it never was.

I ended up not in an old-world mansion but in a one room flat in Bundang - a bedroom suburb of Seoul - directly above a shop that made and sold traditional Korean rice cakes. Every morning at 0600 sharp, the proprietor would fire up the machine that pulverized steamed rice into a gummy, gooey resin that was then made into the rice cakes. The first time this machine woke me up - on my first morning in Korea - I was sure that some hellion was assaulting my metal door with a sledgehammer, trying to force his way in and burgle me blind. I looked around for a method of self-defense, grabbing a bottle of shampoo, and thought, "no, I wanted the war in the countryside."

With the exception of holidays and Sundays, I never slept past 6 AM again until ten months later, when I finally moved to a new apartment in a strictly residential building. It wasn't all bad, though. I had to teach early morning classes in those days - as in 6:30 AM early - and so I was usually out of bed and on my way out the door by the time my trusty Rice Man set about his morning poundings. If nothing else, he saved me the trouble of setting an alarm clock, which actually added an extra twenty-two seconds of free time to my days.

Saturdays, however, were another matter: I really would have preferred to sleep late - until 6:15, say - but my cakemaker downstairs worked on Saturdays and if he was up, so was I. As a favor, I once asked him to delay his morning routine a bit, but the response I got was, shall we say, less than neighborly. Unless, that is, you happen to live next to Dick Cheney.

I began to feel like I too was in the rice cake racket. Resigned to the sleeping hours of a geriatric, I took to going to bed earlier to ensure that I'd get enough sleep. Out with friends at a bar on a Friday night, I always tried to slip away by 9:45.

"You'll have to pardon me," I'd say. "We have to be up early tomorrow. Another day of rice caking awaits."

It was all a far cry from Graham Greene.

In his collection of essays, Sunrise with Seamonsters, Paul Theroux observes in reference to Greene's 1935 trek through Liberia that Greene "clearly liked the idea of utter awfulness," thriving on seediness and hardship and deprivation. I did, too, and still do when I get the chance, which isn't often here in the ROK. Idealizing my life in Korea, I imagined a world that, even at the best or worst of times, never existed. The Japanese didn't build in Korea the grand homes or buildings that the British brought to India or that the French left in Indochina, and while getting a gin-tonic in Seoul has never been easier, it's still damn near impossible to find a lime. All of which is irksome, yes, but hardly anything that would've thrilled our man Graham.

It's not that I wanted to be raped, pillaged or burned, but as Greene himself said, "seediness has a very deep appeal...It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back." Pardon me, then, for expecting more from Seoul than Itaewon's Hooker Hill, and I have no doubt that more than one westerner has been much dismayed at the shortfall of magic mushrooms at the Gyeongdong medicinal market, as promised in an old edition of Lonely Planet.

To my great chagrin - and rice cake shops notwithstanding - Korea offered no great hardship. There were no marauding cannibals, malarial jungles, or - excepting the shady employers - predators lurking in the undergrowth. True, there was the distant threat of tuberculosis but I would have preferred crocodiles. A person - namely, me - can't call up his family back home and announce proudly, "I almost got TB last week." On the other hand, who doesn't perk up and pay attention when, at a cocktail party, you mention that while living in Korea you had to be always on-guard against crocs as you walked to work everyday? Name me one person who wouldn't listen to that story.

Some - again, me - complain that life in Korea is hard, littered with all manner of stones in the pathway to happiness. Au contraire, monsieur. If anything, it isn't hard enough. Within my first week here, I wondered why I'd flown twelve hours around the world just to live a suburbanite's life that I could have had 30 minutes away in Beaverton, Oregon. Perhaps there's just something to be said for living the tract-home life on a temporary visa.

"All immigrants are colonists," Theroux points out in a different essay in the same book, "in the sense that they carry something of their national culture with them: ideas of comfort, religion, business, and appetite are part of their language, you might say."

I didn't come over here looking for the comfort I had back in Metropolitan, USA. Fortunate for me, then, that I - as mentioned before - live in Guro. I like that this area hasn't gentrified or gone upmarket, that it remains as a last bestial outpost of Korea Raw. For the same reasons, however, the residents in these parts tend to be a pack of rustic boors. Savages, actually.

I'm even worried that a civil war is in the offing.

26 July, 2007

My Ajumma. Our Money.

By Aaron
26 July, 2007

Our money came out of hock today. Well, some of it and from some sort of hock, anyway. Na Young, my wife and ever the aspiring money-manager, is a fan of long-term savings accounts - the ones that automatically withdraw a prearranged amount from your normal account each month and then pay you 5% interest for the pleasure of holding onto it for you. Six months, or ten, or one year later, you go down to the bank and collect your due. If you're my wife, you'll hand it back to the teller and re-up for another year. You'll always feel the hellhounds of inflation gnashing at your ankles with such investments but it beats keeping the money under the Sealy or gambling it away on emu futures.

Na Young, for a number of reasons, wears the money-wrangling bat wings in this house. Language, of course, is a concern: we'd be in the poor house in a week flat if our financial solvency hinged on my Korean language skills. The labrythine corridors of securities and insurance and banking are challenging enough for a native speaker, let alone someone as completely at sea as myself.

Beyond the language, though, Na Young handles our money because she's consistently more concerned with it than I am. I get worked into a stew once in a while over our finances - storming and sizzling about where'd this or that money disappear to - but I wasn't blessed with Na Young's consistency or concern for money. Naturally, I recognize that we need money, and I'd rather have it than not have it - which is why I work and try to get as much for my labors as possible - but I don't aspire to wealth and I don't particularly like to think about, much less chase, money.

My wife became an ajumma long before she met or married me, having kept the books for her parents for a number of years. In Korea, the wives handle most of the household money, doling out allowances to their husbands as they would to their twelve-year old child. I don't get an allowance, per se, but I do try to keep track of my daily expenditures - I try to hold myself to 10,000 krw per day - though this is my own self-restraint more than anything else. If you want any numbers other than mine for our household, though, you'd better talk to Na Young. She's the ajumma.

Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, Na Young and I want to leave Korea and live elsewhere. Before moving, however, we have set certain goals for ourselves - educational goals - that require money, and lots of it. And when we've met our marks in Korea, we hope to move back to the States and continue our educations. Our life, our monthly budget sit-downs, our every day - they've all become, as a result, a never-ending math equation.

Someday, I'm afraid, when we do finally make the caper across the Pacific and set up shop Stateside, I'll be charged with managing our money. It's only fair. Na Young has done a bang-up job with our finances, but to do it more-or-less alone isn't easy and she'll deserve a break by the time we move, if she doesn't already. Once she sees me directing the money, however, she might be inclined to step back in with a quickness and do it herself, just to keep us in bread and better.

She is, after all, the ajumma.

21 July, 2007

The Future Will Be Better Tomorrow

By Aaron
21 July, 2007

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Owens, once made me be Dan Quayle for a day. In retrospect, it's a wonder that Child Services didn't intervene and stop her, but this was the Moral Majority, Reagan-America of the 1980s and Mrs. Owens - in addition to being tailor-made for the era - scared the bejeezus out of everyone. She was what Victor Hugo would have called a self-extinguishing torch.1 Her life's joy lay in publicly mocking our class' nosepickers (which, as in any fourth-grade classroom, was everyone) and in telling us that anyone who viewed pornography would, ipso facto, become a serial rapist. Suffice it to say, then, that this was a woman who didn't even read Playboy for the articles.

In the autumn of 1988, as the United States scrambled find a successor for Ronald Reagan before his rigor mortis set in, I entered the fourth grade.2 In the spirit of civic education, Mrs. Owens decided that our class would stage a real-time simulation of the presidential election between the Bush/Quayle and Dukakis/Bentsen teams. From the outset, our teacher left little doubt about who was to win this grand celebration of American democracy. For the role of Bush, she chose Jason, who could quote the Bible in three languages and who volunteered to clean the chalkboard erasers everyday. Dukakis, by contrast, was portrayed by the class' champion nosepicker, Nick. I was then tapped to be Dan Quayle, while a boy named Brandon - who spent his recesses pretending to be an android named T-352 - got what to me was the best role in the whole production: Lloyd Bentsen, the only man in the whole roundup who wasn't a complete boob. I protested, but to no avail.

"You, Aaron," said Mrs. Owens, "are no Lloyd Bentsen." And she meant that as a compliment.

Mrs. Owens, in fact, saw the role of Dan Quayle as a reward for my studious ways and, of course, Jason and I won handily in the class election, confirming Mrs. Owens' view of her class as a group of righteous young Republicans. Truth be told, we won because Mrs. Owens threatened to cancel our Christmas party if Dukakis pulled in more than 20% of the vote.

Following our victory - and the shower of balloons - I had to stand before the class and make my vice-presidential acceptance speech:

"Welcome," I began, "to President Bush, Mrs. Bush, and my fellow astronauts..."

I made the speech, accepted the victory and continued to stew at having been forced into the role of such a barefaced nincompoop - even now, almost twenty years later, I worry that some of Quayle's cretinism may have rubbed off on me. How else to explain the produce of this site? Our philosopher-in-residence here at idiots' collective, Friedrich Nietzsche, once warned of taking on such roles when he told me, "if you stare into the abyss long enough, Aaron, the abyss stares back at you."

From the safe distance of those twenty years, I'd like to ask Mrs. Owens, were I to bump into her at the gimchi counter of my local Seoul supermarket, what business she had wedging her political beliefs down the gullets of nine year-old kids. And make ye no mistake, that's exactly what she was doing. Holding a mock election in an effort to inspire civic awareness in students is a dandy idea, if done right. Mrs. Owens, however, failed to heed those latter three words. For her, this electoral revue was her chance to inculcate us with her hateful political agenda - and once our Christmas party was laid on the line, we knew we'd better start sponging it up.

Judging by the news of late - and pictures like the one above - such offenses are as common as ever, especially in Korea. As you may have heard, the Korean city of Pyeongchang recently lost its second bid to host the winter Olympics - this time to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 games. Now, I'm not much concerned either way with who hosts the Olympics, but I understand why the Korean government and the adult residents of Pyeongchang - out yonder in the mountains of Gangwon Province - would want the games to come knocking at their door, what with the economic benefits and international exposure such an event can bring to a peckerwood ski town in the wilds of Northeast Asia. Adults are therefore allowed to be disappointed at Pyeongchang's defeat.

I'll bet good money, however, that the kids in that picture - or in any of these - didn't have the foggiest notion about how the bids and decisions of the IOC operate. Some cursed adult full of nationalistic spite manipulated those children into an emotional lather, no doubt convincing them that a hundred puppies would be drowned if Pyeongchang lost the Olympics. Elementary school-aged children should not care this much about the political wrangling of a corrupt group of men in Guatemala City - and they wouldn't care if adults would just let them be kids.

Child abuse - at the risk of hyperbolizing - really does come in all forms, and manipulating the emotions of youngsters for the political or religious satisfaction of adults is certainly one of them. Seeing those pictures of crying girls reminded me of Jesus Camp, a recent documentary about a charismatic Christian summer camp for kids, who spend their vacation honing their "prophetic gifts" and learning to be warriors for Christ. It's a terrifying film, actually, bringing to mind the Hitler Youth and, oddly enough, The Exorcist.

Instilling a sense of morality and civic duty in one's kids is all to the better, but there's a vast gulf between raising a responsible citizen who doesn't talk in a movie theatre and producing catechized little jingoists who grow up intolerant of differing points of view. Unfortunately, a good many parents - many of whom are well-intentioned - still don't understand this distinction and continue to raise grim, small-minded children who will one day become teachers and force decent schoolboys to be Dan Quayle.

1 "There is in every village a torch: the schoolteacher, and an extinguisher: the priest." - Victor Hugo

2 I'll do the math for you: 28.

16 July, 2007


By Aaron
16 July, 2007

I've never lived in a war zone, never traveled in a war zone, and never covered a war during my time as a foreign correspondent here at idiots' collective. I am probably a sissy, but as my ultimate mettle has never been tested, I can't say for sure.

But I suspect that I am.

As a youngster growing up in Pigsuckle, Washington, I had some serious problems with ear infections, such that the crack-and-bang of 4th of July fireworks used to send me screaming under the picnic basket in pain. My ears eventually settled down and I learned to enjoy fireworks - for a while anyway, but not anymore. Living in Korea has changed that.

Or, to be more precise, living next to North Korea has changed that. Machine gun fire, artillery, rockets - I don't claim to know what most of them sound like up close, outside of a 500 seat multiplex, but neither do most other people. So I wonder, if the North ever got up to attacking southward again and set to shelling the place in prelude, how many of us would know what was happening before one of those rounds landed in our kitchen sink? If such an abrupt end to the armistice should ever come, a lot of us here in Seoul and at other points along the border will just dismiss the noises in the distance as the opening ceremonies of the annual Hi, Seoul! festival.

Until, that is, the air raid sirens begin to wail.

I don't claim to know thing one about living in a war zone, but having Kim Jong-il for a neighbor is something that is never far from the mind and it makes dismissing what you think is the sound of fireworks less than automatic.

When I lived in the United States and heard the familiar explosions, I would say to myself, "those are fireworks." Now I hear the same sounds and say, "those are probably fireworks."

It makes a difference.

15 July, 2007

Best Bib and Tucker

By Aaron
15 July, 2007

Every morning on my way to Daerim Station, near our house, I pass the same fellow with his bicycle. He's always decked out in yellowing spandex biking clothes - beany hat included - rolling his bike with his right hand and holding a cigarette in his left. The whole ensemble accentuates his potbelly right well, to be sure, but I've never actually seen this guy on his bike. Not that it matters: he's dolled up like a biker, like a dedicated sportsman and a top athlete, and that's what really matters.

Whatever you do and wherever you do it in Korea you'll find this sort of person. He can't go for a walk on the 300 meter hill behind his house without Gearing Up, in most cases with boots that cost more than my car, a pricey backpack filled with all manner of unnecessaries, and the requisite tin cup clipped a-jingle by a carabiner to the pack. The older hikers in Korea, taking it a step further, have a notion that their pants must be tucked into their multi-colored, knee-high socks - some fool attempt at the lederhosen look, no doubt. How any of this makes hiking more enjoyable no one has yet explained to me, but that's how the hikers on TV - and the Von Trapps - dress, so the folks around here will be damned if they aren't going to outfit themselves in photocopy fashion.

It's the appearance they're after, goddamnit, and they must - even risking bankruptcy - be ready for the rigors of Denali, which could jump out at any time, from behind any tree, on Cheongyesan and ambush them, laughing at their make-believe lederhosen. In the event, they can chuck their tin cup at the rigors and hightail it back to the odaeng-soju tent at the trailhead.

Pick your activity - bowling, golf, tennis, pig wrestling - and you're sure to find appropriately-attired Koreans doing their best to look that part, having spared no expense in their quest to do so. A coworker of my wife, to take another example, recently decided that she wanted to try downhill skiing. She immediately went out and bought everything but the snow on the slopes, at a cost of several hundred dollars. Went skiing, hated it. She's since discovered that ski clothes aren't of much use in her favorite hobby: sitting in a Coffee Bean on Teheran Road, taking cell phone pictures of her friend's mochaccino to post on her Cyworld page. But for those few hours at Phoenix Park, she fit in and didn't have do it in one of those ghastly rental snowsuits. Crisis averted, money well spent.

Our amply-ventered biker and the aforesaid snowbunny are apt distillations of the Korean fetish for appearance over substance - indeed, over reality. This is a nation of image consultants, of superficial cosmetologists who'd chase down a Ford Pinto if it were painted pretty enough. Dressing the part in no way impacts their ability to do an activity, but it does accomplish the all-important goal: looking better-equipped than anyone else, and they can't do this if they're dressed in any ordinary old feathers. It's not enough to just go bowling and rent shoes. No, you've got to drop a few hundred on designer bowling shoes and a velveted bag for your bowling ball. Anything less just wouldn't look right.

Everywhere I go in Korea, I feel like I'm at the most vanilla masquerade party this side of a Kingdom Hall, as though a specific costume has been selected for each and every activity and, if you're not wearing the prescribed uniform, you're not actually doing what you think you're doing.

Should you find yourself on a Korean hillside on a weekend, be sure to keep your eyes open for the legions of office workers out on their forced team-building walk. In addition to the hiking tackle of above, these people will probably be wearing matching t-shirts and hats - because they're not a team if they don't good and goddamn well look like a team. If it doesn't appear to be, then it patently isn't.

And in my case, I have a short summer vacation coming up in a few weeks and thought I might do some hiking here in Korea, just to keep myself out of the bars and off the streets. As such, I'm off to the North Face store to drop $500 on a jacket, to the Raichle store for some $400 hiking boots, and to wherever it is they buy those dingy little tin cups. It would be a shame, after all, if I climbed a mountain only to find that - because I was underdressed - I hadn't actually climbed the mountain.

11 July, 2007

Hit Me

By Aaron
11 July, 2007

Round about a month ago I put a stat counter on this site to see how much traffic it was getting and from where. Turns out I ought to just post the data from Statcounter, it being a damn sight more interesting than anything I ever knock together out in the IC tool shed. As evidence, I offer the following search strings, which have recently led visitors to this site. While I suspect that most of our callers were disappointed with what they found in these parts, the phrases are probably nonetheless a revealing snapshot of the content herein:

i've been bitten by a wild cat in korea, should i get rabies shots

wayward nurses

give up Jesus for a camel driver with nine wives

genetic idiot

why did Buck Owens wear his coveralls backwards

women of India making urine in toilet

when your in-laws are idiots

The most important lesson I've learned, however, is that I should be running a Shakira site. Somewhere in the murky past, I made a passing reference to this Colombian chanteuse and that post still draws 'em in like nickel night at a whorehouse. Perhaps, then, I need to be giving folks that for which they come, be it Shakira or wayward nurses or the women of India making urine in a toilet.

08 July, 2007

The Grand Barking Order

By Aaron
08 July, 2007

I unfolded my copy of the Joong-Ang Ilbo this morning to see a story that was - superficially, at least - encouraging. Korean cities have decided to start holding dog owners responsible for the safe treatment and behavior of their pets, levying fines on those who don't leash, care for, and otherwise treat their dog as befits man's best friend. The law also states that, before you can kill a dog, you must knock it unconscious. Just how one might humanely render the dog thus, the article doesn't say.

All of this, of course, sounds like an ace-high idea, but I'll bet my next month's pay check that nothing comes of it. I've lived here for over five years - not long by objective standards, but long enough to know that the police haven't enforced the laws keeping motorcycles off the sidewalks, nor the law about stopping for red lights, nor, to any consistent extent, the anti-prostitution law. Why should this one be any different? If the Korean police aren't interested in keeping people safe from other people (i.e. getting motorcycles on the road where they belong), why would they bother with keeping them safe from unleashed dogs or, for that matter, keeping the dogs safe from unleashed people?1

Or maybe I'm wrong - and I hope I am - but no one ever went broke betting on the passivity of the Korean police in the past fifteen years. Pardon my pessimism, then, as yet another overdue law goes unenforced.

1 The law states that children under the age of 14 are not to hold the dog's leash. The law does not state, however, that children under the age of 14 ought to be on leashes themselves. I'm lobbying for an amendment to this effect.