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

26 August, 2007

Dare to Be Surprised

By Aaron
26 August, 2007

"Much what I had expected."

- Herbert Spencer, on seeing Niagara Falls

One day in Delhi, my wife and I were resting on a park bench when a man approached us carrying a satchel and - rather furtively, as though he were pushing heroin, hash, sexy girls - offered for a small fee to clean our ears. Na Young (that'd be the wife) was dumbfounded but I, nonplussed and not wanting to be penetrated by passing strangers, just waved him on and went back to my copy of the Hindustan Times.

Had I been thus propositioned on my first day in India I might - might - have been a bit more puzzled, but as it was, we'd been in India for five weeks by this time and believe me, walking the streets of an Indian city for even a few hours will quickly dissolve the human capacity for surprise. The appearance of a streetside ear-cleaner is a yawn after weeks of infinite poverty, cows with legs growing out of their necks and gangland shootings at the intersection you crossed just two minutes before.

"Such is India," becomes the tint on your glasses. The country very quickly ceases to amaze as the outlandish becomes commonplace.

Even more, though - and even worse - is that my own capacity for surprise had dissipated long before we ever set foot on the Subcontinent. Na Young, taken aback as anyone should be at the collage of India, seemed doubly shocked at how matter-of-fact I remained toward the chaos around us.

"For god's sake, Aaron, the waiter has a cobra around his neck. Don't tell me that doesn't shock the shit out of you."

Okay, granted, that occasioned a doubletake, but I've long since come to grips with the fact that this is an astonishing world, both for the better and the worse. Suffice it to say, then, it's hard to be shocked when you expect it. I don't mean that this enormous world has been exhausted of wonder, but the boundaries of the so-called Human Condition have long since ceased to astound me with their breadth.

While living in Central Europe I made the requisite trek to Poland and to what were, in the tragically-recent past under Nazi Germany, the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. As I was boarding the bus in Krakow I caught someone trying to pick my pocket. It was a young kid, probably about the same age as I was at the time, and I grabbed his wrist without knowing what I was going to do next. What I wanted to do was break his wrist, stomp him into the ground and empty myself of the rage I felt toward him. Instead, I just let go of him and got on the bus. Auschwitz, and even the prelude to it, does that to you: the place is a monument to fury unleashed and its aftermath, and I felt guilty in being angry. The bus also happened to be pulling away without me.

Trouble is, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a hot stop on the tourist circuit, not unlike the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Checkpoint Charlie: to enter, you must first squeeze past the bundle of Korean package tourists making their 'V-is-for-Victory-not-Peace' sign and posing for shit-grin pictures beneath the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate. Get past them and you'll still be forced to queue up to view the display of human hair - intact braids included - that the Nazi barber sheared from incoming prisoners, or to see the pile of shoes collected from the feet of, figuratively at least, millions. This is a place and these are images that every person should see, but waiting in line can't be the best way to come to the whole experience.

I'm reminded, as one often is while recalling visits to Nazi death camps, of an episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart is watching a violent television show. At the height of an especially gruesome scene, his mother walks in and, seeing what her son is watching, turns off the TV.

"Mom," says Bart in exasperation, "if we don't watch the violence how are we supposed to become desensitized to it?"

Auschwitz-Birkenau left me numb, unfeeling. Many other visitors spent their time in line crying at the vicarious horrors through which they were suffering, and truth be told, I tried a few times to choke myself up, to summon a human response to a tragedy so in-human. Nothing doing. Which is not to say that I ambled about cracking one-liners about renewable energy to the other guests, only that I wasn't as shocked as I felt I should be.

I can only chalk this up to our modern society - to growing up in an era stamped by the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, and the wars of Yugoslavia and the Sudan. Simply seeing, reading and hearing the details of such iniquity had, from an early age, shown me that humans are capable of the worst of which a mind can conceive, and that, what's more, it was all still happening. As well, and like any American schoolkid, I'd seen endless reels of documentary footage of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps. I read in stomach-turning detail the books on the subject. Short of actually living through the experience myself - or riding in with the Soviet liberation army - I knew what to expect of the place and had cordoned off my mind and emotions in preparation.

That I had in months previous to my Auschwitz pilgrimage also visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic only made me more jaded. And by the by, in the event that you're planning a trip to Europe, allow me to take this opportunity to warn you against the Continental Death Camp Tour. On the first stop - at say, Dachau - you'll be appalled. At the second - maybe Ravensbrück - you'll feel disgusted. By the last stop, the Anne Frank House, you'll just skip the tour and end up doing lines of low-grade cocaine in the bathroom with a French-Canadian named Dirty Frank. As itineraries go, this one's a fast-track to despair. Fortunately for me, then, I gave it a miss.

Someday, of course, I'll find myself traveling in some distant land, or perhaps my own neighborhood, and I'll be confronted by an image or an event so startling that I'll have to stop and take a moment to be thunderstruck. I hope so, because I still believe that this world is large and bizarre and nothing like home.

22 August, 2007

The Years of Living Dangerously

By Aaron
22 August, 2007

My wife came home the other day after having dinner with one of her longtime friends, one of a surprising many who - despite being thirty-some years old - has never had a boyfriend, much less been kissed and, even less, been scandalized. Na Young, I've learned, keeps company with a clutch of prudish schoolmarms, though this being Korea that's not as bad as it sounds. This, after all, is the only country in the world where even the clerk at Dunkin Donuts - not normally your paragon of feminine beauty - is worth jumping the counter to ravish. So if schoolmarms they must be, by all means make them Korean.

Still, how depressing is it that all of these delightfully eligible thirty-somethings have made it so far and so long with so little to show for it? It may not be valium-and-vodka bleak, but it's certainly pushing the outer limits of a life wasted. What the hell is high school for - and college if you care to push your luck that far - if not for driving fast, drinking to excess, first-timing drugs, screwing anything that moves and generally causing your mother's hair to fall out from worry?

"Anything that makes your mother cry," PJ O'Rourke once wrote, "is fun." 1

Indeed. And if, when you finish high school - ideally as a graduate - you're not dead or a parent, in prison or married, well then you'll probably do just fine for yourself in this world. Which is to say that you'll end up married, with a mortgage, a minivan, kids that cause your hair to fall out from worry and, eventually, dead. Point is, there's time aplenty for all that, once you reach adulthood and after you've indulged every last atavistic impulse and tested the final ounce of God's tolerance for your feckless behaviour.

High school, at all events, is not for listening to your guidance counselor, minding your manners or going to Bible study groups on Friday nights. Hell, if I'd have done any of those things, I have no doubt whatsoever that I'd right now be working as an admissions representative for some Midwestern college, wondering what it feels like to be seventeen years-old and hurtling along the backroads of Yamhill County, Oregon at ninety miles an hour in an '81 Celica while the blond from history class wiggles out of her spaghetti-strap top in the passenger seat. An office cubicle can wreak all manner of hell on a man's mind, and I thank the good lord everyday that I don't have to work in one.

Pity these friends of my wife, then, who've settled into lives as teachers and civil servants without ever having known the illicit joys so central to the teenage experience, and even more that their twenties passed in the same priggish austerity. Being an insolent twerp when you're sixteen is expected, doing so at twice that age quickly becomes intolerable jackassery. The train bound for Acceptable Juvenile Mischief passes, sadly, but once - miss it and you're shit-out-of-luck, stranded on the platform of Propriety for the rest of your days.

Take note, kids.

1 Republican Party Reptile, PJ O'Rourke.

Down Every Road

By Aaron

"If you lived there you'd be home now."
- anonymous

We moved again after I finished the second grade, as we had every year previous and would do every year thence for some time to come. This time, we were moving from Milton-Freewater, Oregon - that much we knew. We were leaving a rented doublewide trailer with a swimming pool, surrounded by several acres of tidy pastureland, grass sprawling in all directions and fronted by a lonely country road. Where we were going, where we were to end up, was rather more open-ended.

My mother had recently finished college in Walla Walla, just across the state line into Washington, bringing to an end a four-year period during which one or the other of our parents were in nursing school, learning the ropes on catheters and colostomy bags, birth and death. They had finished school and so it was time to leave again, as we had left Boise and Loma Linda and Alberta and Sprague River before that. I was dimly aware that we were moving west, somewhere nearer the Pacific and the Cascades, to a place with jobs for the parents and new schools for my sister and me and a Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Portland. The presence of a Spaghetti Factory meant that we were moving up, headed for a life more cosmopolitan and that I would soon be a man-about-town.

We were not a clan of high culture; we couldn't afford to be. In Walla Walla, a special night out to celebrate a graduation or the birth of a child or a passed kidney stone meant a trip to Sea Galley on Tuesday night for all-you-can-eat fish & chips and one trip to the salad bar. Portland, I imagined, would change all this. We would eat at the purple-roofed Spaghetti Factory on the Willamette River - that mahogany-paneled franchise of la dolce vita - where the waitress brought your salad to the table for you and, if you finished everything on your plate, you could choose between vanilla or spumoni for dessert. Clearly, getting the parents through nursing school would pay great dividends where class and sophistication were concerned.

We had an '84 Honda, a Ryder truck holding all our belongings, an oil-burning Jeep Cherokee pulling a tent-trailer and no house waiting for us. The plan was to stay in the tent-trailer at an RV park until the parents found a house to rent, to buy, or to claim via squatter's rights. And so we became indefinitely, albeit not hopelessly, homeless.

In the evenings, after the days' house-hunting hours had been exhausted, my father and I watched the 1987 NBA Finals - Lakers versus Celtics - in the recreation room at Mulkie's RV Park on Oregon Highway 18, just west of McMinnville. Finding a house wasn't easy and the series went six games. We watched all of them on bar stools in that empty rec room; we watched as the Lakers won and Magic took the MVP trophy; and we watched as the days turned into weeks and Mom and Dad still couldn't find a house.

But it didn't seem to matter: we were, in my mind at least, camping. Mulkie's was largely empty at the time, especially during the week, and so we had ample room to run and play. It never occurred to me until sometime later that those weeks must have been onerous times for the parents; they simply did such a remarkable job of making out like this was all some kind of planned vacation. That eight year-olds have low standards of amusement didn't hurt, either. My mother would take my digital watch - with its stopwatch feature - and tell me to see how fast I could run the perimeter of the park.

"Nine minutes, thirty seven seconds," she'd say when I returned to where she sat at a picnic table, going over real estate listings or the local classifieds. "I think you could get it under nine. Why don't you give it a shot?"

And so I'd take off, finding this fun and not realizing what she was up to. I doubt she ever even started that stopwatch.

We landed - for our usual year, at least - not in Portland near the Spaghetti Factory, but in Whiteson, a hamlet somewhere between McMinnville and Not-Much-Else, in a rented house across the street from a kindly old man named Mr. Penny who collected seashells but who didn't bring salad to my table or offer spumoni ice cream for dessert. Down the street was an abandoned road - buckled and dark with overgrown brush and long ago blocked off to traffic - that ran into the woods and came out about a mile distant near the highway that ran on to Amity and Salem. My aunt and cousins came to visit once and we went for a walk down there on Saturday after church.

"Looks like a perfect place to kill someone and dump the body," remarked my aunt.

I hadn't thought about it before but I imagined she was probably right, being an adult and knowing about such matters.

That fall my sister and I entered another school, my third in three years and by no means the last. Our transience being what it was - specifically, transient - I was forever coming into new situations in media res, as if walking into a movie theater twenty minutes into the film, having missed the set-up. I became detached at an early age from what happened in these schools and from the students who had clearly been there since the movie began - those who lived and died where they were born, who through their children and grandchildren "could hold a place in a kind of eternity," as Annie Dillard put it. I also needed everything to be explained to me: why those families didn't speak to each other; which teacher let you eat glue and which ones didn't; who held the title of Big Augur in these parts. Between first and fourth grade, I attended a new and different school each year. I came late to a lot of movies.

This drifting life continued until I moved to Seoul five years ago. Until then, I figured I was too far gone down the road of roving to ever plant myself in one spot for more than a year. The parents eventually divorced and remarried and settled down, but I kept going, from Oregon to Washington, DC to Europe, to Idaho, back to Oregon and finally to Korea. I've now lived longer in Seoul than in any other city, but I - now we, being married - don't intend to stay forever.

Still, being officially an outsider, as I am here, has a deep appeal. Living in the United States, I felt like the foreigner even if I looked like I belonged - moving about on a yearly basis simply has that effect. As a white male in Asia, however, I am plainly the interloper and am not expected to conform to, or to even understand in many cases, the mores that guide local behavior. I consider this my license to detachment.

The United States won't be a foregone conclusion when the time comes for us to leave Korea and live elsewhere. Likely, maybe, but not preordained. Thomas Wolfe, as he is oft-quoted, said that you can't go home again, although he also bid us to look homeward. The tease. What his book titles don't say - not least because it would make for one helluva long book title - is that looking homeward, much less actually going there, is unthinkable if the place you left wasn't home anyway.

17 August, 2007

Watch Out, Watch Gone

By Aaron
17 August, 2007

Jirisan National Park
South Korea

There is a universal law - of averages, of luck, of the-gods-wanna-trifle-with-Aaron, I don't know - that on any train, in any country, and of all possible seats, I will be placed next to The Children. It's my lot in life to sit near children who cry, children who run about in shoes that make squeaking noises, children who grab the corner of my newspaper, children whose parents think it amusing that their offshoots should behave thus. That I should always end up next to them on trains seems mathematically impossible, but there you are, it happens.

No surprise, then, that the young boy in front of me last Wednesday morning spent the entire Seoul-Namwon train ride turned around in his seat saying "hello, hello, hello, hello" to me while I tried to read - to read, oddly enough, Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. Finally, as we sped through the outskirts of Jeonju, I looked up at him and, narrowing my gaze, said lowly, "you really should have been a blowjob."

I was going to Namwon to meet my friend Mark, a freelance journalist here in Korea who has been, for the past five months or so, traveling around the country working on a book about the place and his interactions with the locals. What Bill Bryson did for Britain in Notes from a Small Island, Mark hopes to do for Korea in his upcoming tome. Truth be told, he's obsessed with Bryson these days, reading and rereading Small Island in an attempt to find the secret to Bryson's success as a travel writer. In his spare time, though - when he chances to put Bryson down - Mark has striven to see Korea in as many different ways as possible. He's biked it, hiked it, sailed it, walked it, and driven it. But he had never done any of them with me.

And so we went to Namwon.

* * *

* * *

Our original plan was to spend three days kayaking down the Seomjin River from Namwon to Gwangyang Bay, where the river empties into the ocean, in the far south of South Korea. Looking at a weather forecast that called for typhoons and continual thunderstorms, however, we elected to postpone the river trip. Instead, we opted to hike the ridgeline of Korea's oldest national park, Jirisan, and to stay a few nights in the shelters interspersed along the spine.

The weather, of course, changed at almost the exact minute we made this decision, becoming clear and calm, if hot as August tends to be in Korea. Figures. God's had it in for me for some years now, ever since I told him straight out that I don't believe in him. Now he has a briar in his butt and has, for lack of anything better to do with his time, taken to proving his existence by monkeying about with my vacation plans.

But we'd already canceled the kayak rentals, so after stopping to pick up supplies in Namwon, Mark and I made for the park. As he wheedled the car up the mountain, Mark began rattling off the highlights of the year...

"I saw some men hanging a dog. I cut it down and let it go and the cops were after me."

"A Korean guy with green eyes told me I'd ruined his fucking day, quote unquote."

"A man with leprosy finally tracked down the family that abandoned him decades ago, only to have them move, change their number and cut him off anew."

"All that's going in the book. You'll be in the book, too."

Wonderful: my fast track to infamy, as the man who abandoned the author and scuttled his plans for A Walk in the Woods Redux, for some doomed reunion of Bryson and Katz. Just wait, you'll see.

* * *

* * *

We found a room for the night at a guesthouse at the entrance of the famously beautiful Baemsagol Valley, overlooking a river tumbling down from that same valley. The plan was to lock in a good night's sleep and set out early in the morning.

...which never happened, at least not for me and not where sleep was concerned. I've come lately to fear that I am an occasional insomniac, there being nights where my mind won't - in the absence of chemicals - sit down, shut up and let me sleep. Such was the case on Wednesday night: I laid in bed, listening to the river and trying to find the 'on/off' switch for my brain, becoming more restless, less sleepy, and more tired with each hourly beep of Mark's digital watch. I finally drifted off into a worthless sleep around, I suppose, 4:30 and awoke two hours later to the sound of my alarm.

My first inclination was to weasel my way out of hiking that mountain, to beg off like a nancyboy and sleep away the morning to the rush of the river. It certainly would have felt good, though not right. In the mountains, a man has to put his notions of comfort and pain on ice and just go up the goddamn hill, leaving behind all the mollycoddlement and emotional castration that comes from living in a city, compromising his space, pandering to the needs of others. Besides - and here was the most basic truth - there was a mountain outside the window, and where whiskey was made for drinking and ships made for sinking, mountains were made for climbing.

* * *

A lack of sleep tends to make me jumpy as a cat for fear of falling asleep if I so much as sit down, so I was doubly anxious to hit the trail and cover some elevation. For some reason, though, it was 7:30 by the time we put boot to path, and I was off like a cannon when we did. I was so wound up, in fact, that I never noticed when Mark evidently stopped to read a sign or tie his shoe, and that was the last we saw of each other.

I covered the 9 kilometers to the first rest hut in three hours. Stepping from the trail, I set to filling my water bottles from the spring, only to hear my name being called from the hut's doorway.

"Ahron? You Ahron?" It was the hut manager.

"Ne, Ahron imnida," I said.

"Prenduh, call prenduh," he said, making a phone motion with his right hand.

Turning on my cell phone - a cardinal sin of hiking, if you ask me - I immediately saw ten text messages from Mark: where'd you go? Why'd you go? I lost the trail. I'm at the bottom. Are you OK?


Climbing to an open area, I found a signal and rang Mark, who was indeed at the bottom of the mountain, some nine kilometers below. And he had, indeed, somehow lost the trail, which seemed inconceivable to me, especially in a well-trod Korean national park. The trail, after all, tends to be the only thing in the forest that's not, well, forest. Mark was also worried that I'd deliberately abandoned him, that I'd left him alone and at the mercy of the busloads of ajummas unloading in the parking lot at the base.

"There's a lot of them down here, Aaron, just piling off the buses," he said distractedly and with a hint of alarm. I could almost hear him shake himself back to his senses before he said, "So you're more like Bryson, eh? You like hiking alone."

* * *

* * *

Alone or with somebody, either/or, as long as I can climb the hill. I enjoy sharing the view with a friend or keeping it for myself, but either way, I don't talk much while hiking. You want to chat, you go to a coffee shop, and if we must talk on the mountain, let's do it at the top. The walking is contemplative.

As Mark was, by his own admission, physically and mentally not up to trying the ascent again, I would cover almost 25 kilometers of rocky Jirisan trail by myself, with only the dozens of other hikers for company - hundreds if I'd decided to sleep in one of the shelters.

Around 2 pm, I came upon the first shelter open for hikers. Around 2:03, I left. In the open area surrounding the low plywood structure were hundreds of hikers eating noodles, washing their feet in the stream, chattering noisily. I chanced a look inside the shelter itself: dark, dreary, damp, depressing. I was already soaked with sweat - relative humidity on Thursday was rated at 100% - and didn't fancy another lousy night of sleep, least of all squeezed amongst dozens or even hundreds of similarly rank hikers.

I hiked another kilometer or so down the trail and found the first mapped path leading down the mountain. It was, according to my topographic map, going to be a steep hike - a buttkick, my stepfather would say - as evidenced by the pink trail line running directly against the elevation contour lines. In the event that I was too much of a mooncalf to get this hint, the mapmaker had been kind enough to indicate that, although the top part of this trail was short at only 2 km, it required an estimated four hours to descend.

All of which only made me even more eager to see for myself. After about fifteen minutes of picking my way timidly downhill, however, I realized that this was what my grandmother would call "a whing-ding of a bad idea." The trail was not only steep - although it was certainly that, pitched as it was at about a 70 degree angle - it was obviously seldom-used and littered with large, jagged rocks, making every step down the trail more of a leap. What's more, the entire hillside was covered in these rocks, making the trail hard to follow at times. It occurred to me that, as likely places to break a leg go, this was a whing-ding. Feeling like a cowed fool, I turned on my cellphone and checked to see that I'd have a signal in the event that I needed a helicopter evacuation. No problem there at least.

I continued for a few more minutes before looking down at my watch to see how long this half-baked escapade was taking, but what I saw was only an empty left wrist. Apparently one of those rock-to-rock hops had been sufficiently jarring as to knock the clasp of my watch loose, which let the timepiece slide right off my sweaty, sunscreen-soaked wrist and land god-knows-where on the hillside behind me.

I felt like crying. I'm not given to strong shows of emotion, and I realize that a watch is just a thing - entirely replaceable - but this watch was different. My wife gave me that watch, a simple Victorinox, when we'd been dating for less than a year and I treasured it as a connection to her, wherever I happened to be - and at that moment I was on a lonesome bouldered hillside with exhausted, quivering muscles and who-knew how much farther to go before I'd get off of it.

I shrugged off my pack and sat down, on a rock of course, against a tree. I wanted to go back up the mountain and find my watch, but I wasn't sure my legs would support me in my efforts, nor that the watch hadn't fallen into one of the countless crevices between the rocks. In the end, I decided that I'd do better to get myself safely off the hillside before dark and back home to my wife, watch or no watch.

Quite amazingly - well, amazing to me anyway - I covered that supposedly four hour stretch of trail in less than an hour, stepping from the woods onto what looked like an old logging road, running smoothly downhill and vanishing around a bend, at 3:01 pm, which I knew thanks to the clock on my phone. A Korean couple sat resting as I staggered from the trees. They smiled sheepishly when I asked - in, I'm proud to say, flawless Korean - "who's fucking idea was it to take that trail?"

"Real smart, eh?" replied the man, trying not to meet his wife's bitter, tired eyes.

Another 5 kilometers of walking brought me to the village of Eumjung, in one of the most fetching valleys I've yet come across in Korea. Descending into town, I stopped on a hillside overlooking the village and watched as the clouds did a time-lapse race across sky and over the rugged green hills. I started to feel dizzy, in fact, and wondered if - from a lack of food and rest - I wasn't hallucinating. Better keep moving, I reasoned, and so I stumbled past lush green hillsides covered with pepper farms, rice fields and what, at a distance, sure as shit looked like a marijuana patch. Again, though, I suspect I was hallucinating.

Some ninety minutes later I was on a bus into a town with guesthouses, showers, restaurants, cold beer and no rocks. Within fifteen minutes of stepping off the bus, I was in a guest house room, stripped naked of my sweat-dripping clothes and with take-out food in front of me on the table. I flipped on the TV and there on cable was the film on which I worked as an extra last summer. And there, come to that, was me, looking cool and first-rate in a tailored suit as I chatted with Um Jung-Hwa.

I looked down at myself and back at the TV, deciding that no matter how hungry I was, I'd better take a shower because I stunk more at that moment than even my own acting.

13 August, 2007

Gifts of Elegance and Taste

By Aaron
13 August, 2007

For my first Chuseok holiday in Korea, my employer gave everyone a gift set of Spam. Surprisingly enough, I'd never had Spam before that, and I quickly discovered why: it smells like a dead witch's vagina and it tastes like cat food. In Korea, though, giving Spam as a gift is a surefire hit, as Korean people actually eat it quite often - voluntarily, even.

"If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste [in Korea]," writes Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, "you might try Spam."

So the company for which I worked, despite being run by some of the most inelegant, tasteless nitwits this side of the Cuckoo's Nest, tried to curry our favor with a box of Spam. Who, they evidently reasoned, could be but charmed by such refinement?

Later that day, I was in my apartment - above the rice cake shop - and had just opened the gift box, wondering what in tarnation I was going to do with nine cans of tinned meat, when my neighbor Ian stopped in for tea. We did high tea in my apartment in those days because someone had given Ian, as a gift, a bottle of Vietnamese snake wine and Ian swore the snake wasn't dead, that it was watching his every move through the glass and silently judging him. He kept a towel over the bottle, which seemed to keep the snake quiet, even if it didn't altogether settle Ian's nerves. Between his snakes and my Spam, we were clearly being run out of the country.

Hearing me mumbling about what to do with all my newfound Spam, Ian grabbed a can, popped it open and began to spoon it into his mouth. After a few generous bites, he held the can out toward me and asked, "hey, you want some?"

When I was young, my family didn't eat pork - which Spam contains, along with pigeon spleens, moose lips and used catheters - so I only ever knew Spam from its iconic logo and Monty Python's Flying Circus. I suspect, though, that the smell of Spam alone would have put my parents off even if it had been free of cloven-hoofed meat. Unlike other children's parents, ours loved us. So when Ian offered that can - when I smelled Spam for the first time - I declined, finally understanding what Nietzsche meant when he said that "Spam and evil are God's prejudices."

To hear my mother-in-law tell it, Spam became popular on the peninsula in the wake of the Korean War, when American GIs used to trade their rations of it to unsuspecting locals for something edible - a young child, say, or a fencepost. Koreans came to see Spam as not only a symbol of a higher standard of living but as exotic cuisine available only to that select few of dubious privilege: you know, the ones who drive German cars, live in penthouse suites, and eat tinned meats. And, damn it, haven't we all thought, when imagining what we'd do if we won the lottery, "by god, I'd eat Spam more often."

As he got about a third of the way through his can of Spam, Ian began to take on the look of a man who has just seen his mother making tender with the family donkey down in the barn. He stared down at the can for a long moment, holding his breath, and then looked at me.

"You want the rest of this?" he asked. When I declined, he set the can down and walked back to his apartment, from whence I heard nothing apart from the odd moan for the rest of the afternoon.

A few days later, looking for something for dinner and realizing yet again that I hadn't done the grocery shopping, my eyes settled on the stack of cans in my cupboard. I put the olfactory memories from Ian's visit out of my head and, because SportsCenter was due to start in fifteen minutes, decided to fry up a few slices of Spam and see what could make Koreans stock entire supermarket aisles with the stuff.

It tasted, in short, unlike anything I'd ever eaten before, unless we're counting the time I mistook a vial of my stepdad's laboratory specimens for leftover mayonnaise. I tried to eat a whole slice, honest I did, but I quickly learned why the North Koreans had agreed to negotiate an armistice at the end of the war: the US threatened to carpet-bomb their country with cans of Spam if the Korean People's Army didn't halt at the 38th parallel. The North Korean leaders may be sadistic, staunch and silly, but even they had the heart to not subject their citizens to Spam, which is more than I can say for my employer.