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

24 May, 2008

Bulbir Singh & The Owl

By Aaron
24 May, 2008

"No, Bulbir Singh, you shall never know what a woman means and wants, so stop wasting your time."
-The Owl

I save the strangest things. I found the following newspaper clipping - taken from a December, 2003 issue of Kuala Lumpur's New Straits Times - in my files this morning. If you've ever wondered what Bulbir Singh and a man who calls himself The Owl have to say on the subject of women - and really, who hasn't wondered? - then look no further.

(click image to enlarge)

17 May, 2008

Yonder Lie the Crossroads

By Aaron
17 May, 2008

I've been self-employed - wonderfully, blissfully self-employed - for the past three years. In fact, I can't even remember what's it like to have a boss, a staff meeting, an HR director, or a specified amount of vacation time.1 A few companies have hinted at or offered me positions at various times, but always the negative muscle memory of Korean bosses and soju-soaked "team-building" outings have prompted me to politely decline the invitations. My resolute independence, however, may soon be tested.

A couple weeks ago, the CEO of a large local engineering firm approached me about a position on the strategic planning team, a position which the company would essentially create specifically for me and in which I would study emerging markets. I've done similar work for this company in the past on a contract basis, and research is my favorite part of my job, but given the nature of that work I'm forever being pulled in ten directions at once as I try to meet the needs and deadlines of multiple clients in a variety of industries. Taking this job, then, would allow me to focus on one field and, with any luck, nail down a bit of expertise in something other than Bumper Nuts.

Still, my mind keeps returning to the jobs I've previously held in Korean companies, wherein bosses tend to see themselves more as managers than as leaders and where a foreign employee's opinions and suggestions are often discounted because that person doesn't "understand the Korean situation." In yesterday's edition of the New York Times, Martin Fackler described such a situation in Japanese companies, but his account could apply equally to this peninsula: "[Japan] has already gained a negative reputation as discriminating against foreign employees, with weak job guarantees and glass ceilings."

Fortunately, this is not a job I was seeking. I'm scheduled to meet with two other executives on Monday morning to discuss the position, to see what it entails, and whether or not I'm ultimately even interested in it. Truth be told, the decision only becomes difficult if the job is worth taking, as I'd then be forced to weigh any potential benefits against the millstone of another Korean boss. But hell, if that millstone appears too large, I'll just go back to riding the range alone.

1 One downside of self-employment: you feel
really guilty for taking a vacation.

11 May, 2008

The Gonads of Abundance

By Aaron
11 May, 2008

In that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour, in which exchanges are seldom made, and in which every man provides every thing for himself...Every man endeavors to supply by his own industry his own occasional wants as they occur. When he is hungry, he goes to the forest to hunt; when his coat is worn out, he clothes himself with the skin of the first large animal he kills; and when his hut begins to go to ruin, he repairs it as well he can with the trees and turf that are nearest it. Attending to his own immediate needs, he has scant time remaining in which to fashion aluminum testicles for his horsecart.

When I was about eleven years old my grandfather showed me his latest invention, one which he was certain would forever change the world by freeing humanity from that most taxing burden: flatulence.

His contraption certainly had simplicity - if not efficacy - on its side. It was a plain wooden spoon, its handle split up the middle and held apart by pieces of toothpicks, thus forming a ladder which rose from the pan as one stirred the food.

"The farts'll just climb up this ladder here and hop right out of the pot," my grandfather explained with evident pride.

At the time, I could scarcely understand why anyone would want to eliminate farts, which were by far the funniest thing imaginable for an eleven year-old boy and the primary reason for eating beans. Still, I had to admit that the spoon was a pretty neat idea, even if it would never approach, say, the polio vaccine or double-sided tape in its global impact. Unlike Jonas Salk, however, my grandfather had seen fit to compose a poem - entitled "Ode to a Bean" - to enclose with each spoon he sold (excerpt):

Ain't cavvy-ar
Ner beef nice'n lean
It's a hunk of dry bread
An' a plate full of beans

Now, they's mitey good eatin
An they's nurshin too,
But they make me right gassy
An' they might bother you.

Not jist wunst ner twice
Ah bin given advice,
Like, cook ' em with cabbage,
Er cookin' 'em twice.

Ah bin told t' cook em
When the sun has gone down,
Or throw in a carrot
To soak up the sound

But none o' these things
Has ever hept me
As much as this bean spoon
Tho there's no gawrntee.

So y'all otter buy one
Fer what it mite do
It's uh mitey cheep way
To get a chuckle er two.

- By The Gas-Powered P-P-P-Poet. 1

Of the countless pleasures afforded us by life in this modern world, surely an abundance of luxuriant frippery ranks near the top. Humans, particularly in the wealthiest countries, have divided, subdivided and atomically split labor to such a degree that they now have ample time and space to indulge their appetite for frivolity - a primary reason for the wealth in those wealthiest of nations. Oh sure, there remain to be solved the problems of world hunger, global warming, and infectious disease, to name but a few, but hey, not everyone can be Muhammad Yunus or William Easterly. Each person is blessed with an individual set of talents, and so men like my grandfather give us anti-fart spoons while others bestow upon humanity ornamental testicles for our cars and trucks. That's right: Bumper Nuts, an item rivaled in sheer knickknackery only by the Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Having a modicum of self-respect, I should state unequivically that no Bumper Nuts will ever dangle from the bumper of my car, though if ever a car was in need of some testicular oomph, our current car (a Hyundai Atoz) is certainly it. I am, however, deeply grateful to live in a world where people have the time and affluence to come up with such frivolous adornments. After all, a relative prudishness was not the reason that 19th century Americans failed to invent cast-iron balls for their buggies. No, indeed. They failed to dream up such a thing because they were too busy churning butter, sewing gingham skirts, and battling cholera. Had our ancestors been blessed with our modern division of labor you can bet that they would have had a pair of testicles, scrotum and all, swinging from the conestoga all the way to Oregon.2

You could be forgiven, however, for worrying that a culture which spends its time on such trivial pursuits may be on the verge of collapse, if not from sloth then certainly from an obsession with trifles. What, we could fairly ask as an example, is to become of a country more concerned with the death and insanity of celebrities than with the death of its own citizens in a neverending war? Why, in the face of skyrocketing food and energy prices, would a person spend their time designing genitalia for the nation's gas-guzzlers? Fair questions all, but as Richard Bernstein wrote in the IHT last year, despair, however attractive, is unwarranted:

Years ago, when the world was locked in a deadly ideological battle, the dissident Czech writer Josef Skvorecky reminded us that in a democratic society the pinups and pornography and pulp fiction were necessary, or certainly inevitable, accompaniments to expressions of quality and genius. The freedom for one entails the freedom for the other.
And anyway, said Skvorecky, it was important not to be become so despairing of bourgeois democracy that one is tempted to replace it with something serious and revolutionary.

The media under revolutionary regimes is very serious — no national preoccupations with the mysterious deaths of dysfunctional models, just the elevated and ennobling stuff that the party leaders are concerned with.

The same America, then, that gives us Bumper Nuts and the Sofa Toilet also gives us the internet, lasers, and oral contraceptives. And whether we treat ourselves to a set of Blue Balls or not, we can at least be thankful that we live in so prosperous an age as to have the option.

1 Thanks to my dad for excavating this poem from the family archives.
2 Not everyone is so taken with Bumper Nuts, however. Several American states have even tried to ban them, thus far to no avail.

08 May, 2008

A Lonely Horn and One Sad Note

By Aaron
08 May, 2008

Mark Twain on marriage:

What a world of trouble those who never marry escape! There are many happy matches, it is true, and sometimes "my dear," and "my love" come from the heart; but what sensible bachelor, rejoicing in his freedom and years of discretion, will run the tremendous risk?
"Connubial Bliss," Hannibal Journal
4 November, 1852

Both marriage and death ought to be welcome: the one promises happiness, doubtless the other assures it.
Letter to Will Bowen
4 November, 1888

I sometimes feel, here in South Korea, that I'm living in a nation of undercover Mormons, amongst a people a whose highest aspiration is a ring on the finger, a brood in the bassinet, and all else be damned. I was reminded of this last week when a co-worker, a neurotic Korean fellow (which is to say, a Korean fellow) of about thirty-five years, confided in me his plans to get married by the end of this year.

"Congratulations," I said. "I didn't even know you were dating anyone."

"Oh," he said, with a touch of confusion, "I don't have a girlfriend."

I sighed and explained to him that a girlfriend was something of a prerequisite to matrimony - unless, of course, he planned to order a bride COD from Vietnam or use the club-and-drag method.

Besides, I asked, why the rush?

"I'm 35," he reminded me, as though that explained everything.

I've met this man before, in the form of three-quarters of the married Korean male population. Bred from a young age for stud duty, they spend their 20s consumed by finding a female - ideally one in the full throes of estral panic - willing to wear his ring, bear his children and with whom he'll snuff out the last vestige of his individual self.

They are, often as not, a miserable lot where wedlock is concerned.

Full disclosure: I have been married for two years to a wonderful woman, but marriage, as a generality, is not something I recommend to anyone. It is, as Ellen G. White wrote in a rare moment of sanity, a most galling yoke and one that should only be discussed in specifics. That is, it's one thing to say "I want to marry [name]" or, at a minimum, "I want to love someone enough to marry them." It's quite another level of folly, however, to say generically "I want to get married," but without being able to answer the crucial "to whom?" question. Those inclined toward the latter, in my experience, are the most likely to marry out of a romantic notion of the institution rather than from a sense of actual, personal love or commitment to another individual. Sometimes these couples figure it out, make the relationship work, other times they don't. Perhaps in partial consequence of this, the divorce rate in Korea's rapidly liberalized society now ranks among the highest in the world, while the married-but-miserable rate is, I suspect, somewhat higher.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't occasionally miss being single. Which is not to say that I resent my wife or her presence - quite the opposite, actually - only that being young and single is one of those rare moments of freedom, between the time when one leaves his parents and when he gets yoked up with a woman of his own. This period of life is a relatively modern luxury, borne of rising living standards and a prolonged adolescence, and one that only the last two or three generations of Western youth have been privileged to enjoy. Fortunately, I was one of them and, as a result, won't spend the rest of my days wondering about the mystery of living alone.

Even today in wealthy, modern Korea, most twenty-somethings are compelled, more by the high cost of living than by cultural mores, to remain at home with their parents, such that the blithe years before marriage often pass without the young person really knowing independence. James of The Grand Narrative sums it up well:

...the phenomenon of most Koreans living with their parents until marriage is less a timeless, unchanging part of Korean culture that most Koreans will claim, and more a simple reflection of the financial difficulties of living away from home without parental support, most notably the low wages in the service industry and astronomical costs of “key money” required for renting. Of course, legions of homebound but financially-independent Koreans in their mid to late-twenties would beg to differ, but then if financial circumstances had forced me to spend my early-twenties living with my parents then viewing it as “normal” and part of my national “culture” would have allowed me to cope with it too.
What usually happens is that a young person moves directly from their parents' home into a house with their new spouse. The few lucky younguns who do manage to live alone before marriage are often loathe to admit that they enjoy it, that having a space of one's own might be a pleasant interlude between the grueling years of school and the impending wedding vows looming just over the horizon.

"It's alright," they say, "but kinda lonely."

This reticence, no doubt, stems from the fact that Korean society stresses the importance of group connections - to family, to fellow alumni, to fellow hometown natives - at every juncture and, as such, enjoyment of living alone is a sentiment not expressed in polite company. You'll be hard-pressed, for instance, to find a Korean person forthright enough to say, openly, "I love my parents, but goodness I can't stomach sharing a roof with them."

And so, marriage has become the most tactful way to get the hell out from under the parental bumbershoot. Combine this with a cultural obsession with being married by the age of thirty and you end up with a large regiment of couples who marry more for the institution and the perceived escape it offers than for any deeper emotional reason. Can I quantify the emotions that follow in the wake of these ill-advised unions? No, but you can damn near cut the collective sense of letdown with a knife when you put a group of married men or married women together in a room and get them talking about married life.

In the past, children served as a diversion of sorts from any marital emptiness, and probably they still do in many instances. Nowadays, though, young Korean newlyweds are slowly - slowly - beginning to expect more out of their marriages, to rightfully see it as less a business merger for the sake of reproduction and more a joint venture for mutual satisfaction.

"Goddamnit," they say, "I'm more than just breeding stock. And what the hell's a bassinet anyway?"

04 May, 2008

Typed, Printed and Spelt All Wrong

By Aaron
04 May, 2008

I can count on one hand the number of people with whom I still exchange hand-written, posted letters. In fact, I don't even need a full hand, as I still correspond via the postal service with only two people. The first is a luddite friend from university for whom email is the province of replicants and commodities traders, and who insists on a #2 Dixon Ticonderoga as his primary mode of communication. The only other is my 87 year-old battleaxe of a grandmother who, to my knowledge, has never even laid hands on a computer, much less clicked 'send' on an email. Back in 2003, however, she sent me a letter in which she wrote:

Oct 6 thereabout Thot Id tell you about Doug Batchelor was going to Korea to hold meetings Im not sure if it is Seoul or not hes real interesting to listen to he lived in a cave found a bible in the cave read it till he became a preacher he has a book that tells his storie he dicided going naked was the thing to do found himself in town before he realized he wasn't dressed he could of gone to jail we are having pretty nice weather get cool at nite...1

I can't say for sure but I think my grandmother was fretting over my mortal soul in this letter, though I took the story of Doug Batchelor more as a warning of what awaits letter-writers like myself, people who cling to antiquated modes of correspondence. And if, as penance for an undue love of the written letter, I must become a huckster caveman-cum-evangelist, then so be it. I may have followed modernity into the realm of email and webcams, iPhones and Blackberries, but I retain an unabashed reverence for the hand-written word on a piece of paper.

"What cannot letters inspire?" asked Heloise, in a letter to her lover Abelard. "They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions. They can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present. They have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it. Letters were first invented for consoling such solitary wretches as myself!"

Heloise, the wretch, had fair cause to wonder what her letters might inspire, though I doubt she had much reason to worry. After all, it's not like life could have gotten much worse for her. By the time she wrote the letter above, her uncle had castrated Abelard (her lover) and Heloise had preempted Hamlet's advice and gotten herself to a nunnery. As you might expect, it's a story that unfolds with far more elegance and pathos through letters than it would have through, say, email or text messages.

I doubt, too, that Thomas Jefferson, knowing only the medium of email, would ever have written to his friend on Christmas Day, 1762, to bemoan the ruination of his garters and minuets:

"The cursed rats ate up my pocketbook which was in my pocket within a foot of my head. And not contented with plenty for the present, they carried away my jemmy-worked silk garters and a half-dozen new minuets that I had just got. Of this I should not have accused the devil - because you know, rats will be rats."

I feel safe in saying that I've never received an email that approached the grace of Heloise's letters, or the palpable sense of bemused choler expressed by Jefferson. Still, if Abelard, Heloise, Thomas Jefferson and Doug Batchelor are any sort of precedent, my future as a letter-writer certainly doesn't look too bright. Following in their footsteps, I fear I'm destined to end up living naked and castrated in a cave after the rats have had their way with my jemmy-worked silk garters.

And as go the letter-writers, so may go the United States Postal Service, which estimates that personal mail has dropped off by about a third in the last thirty years. In fact, I've come to imagine that instead of a sprawling bureaucracy, there remains but a single mailman sitting alone in his office as a sort of governmental Maytag repairman just waiting to carry the occasional letter that I or my kinfolk actually write. And these kinfolk do, occasionally, find cause to write, as my cousin did in what surely ranks as the least festive Christmas letter ever written:

If you need to get a hold of us David's cell phone is the only one working right now, he's # is (000) 111-2222. Our computer is not working right now so we can't get online we will let you know when were back online. David's mom has moved back to Nashville this last week from Pigeon Forge. We got her a couple new tires for the Lumina for Christmas.

The art of the letter, however, has been in decline for years. As with my cousin's letter, hand-written notes nowadays serve mostly as a cumbersome alternative when the modem craps out and you can't send your holiday greetings via Hallmark's website. I have little doubt that, within a generation or so, both the practice and the art of letter-writing will largely disappear forever and few people will ever have known what Auden meant when he wrote:

And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

But I and my grandmother - and, hell, maybe even Doug Batchelor - will know. That is, if we're not living naked in a cave.


1 A well-kept secret within our family - and one that has somehow eluded literary historians - is that my grandmother once had a brief, torrid affair with James Joyce in Trieste, influencing him stylistically and encouraging him to write
Ulysses. He offered to leave Nora to marry my grandmother, but she spurned his many proposals and returned to the bright lights of Eagle, Idaho to marry my grandfather.

02 May, 2008

Loyalty, Fantasy, and the Polity

By Aaron
02 May, 2008

In his book Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett explains (by way of Dwight Eisenhower and General Motors) why religious skeptics like myself are forever frustrated by American elections - more so, that is, than your average voter.

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower nominated Charles E. Wilson, then president of General Motors, as his secretary of defense. At the nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wilson was asked to sell his shares in General Motors, but he objected. When asked if his continued stake in General Motors mightn't unduly sway his judgment, he replied, "For years, I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." Some in the press, unsatisfied with this response, stressed only the second half of his response - "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" - and in response to the ensuing furor, Wilson was forced to sell his stock in order to win the nomination. This was a fine object lesson on the importance of being clear about priorities. Even if it were true, other things being equal, that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, people wanted to be clear about where Wilson's loyalties would lie in the rare event that there was a conflict. Whose benefit would Wilson further in those circumstances? That is what had people upset, and rightly so. They wanted the actual decision-making by the secretary of defense to be directly responsive to the national interest. If decisions reached under those benign circumstances benefited General Motors (and presumably most of them would, if Wilson's long-held homily is true), that would be just fine, but people were afraid that Wilson had his priorities backward. Imagine the furor that would have been provoked had Wilson said that for years, as a good Methodist, he had believed that what was good for the Methodist Church was good for the country. (362)

By the same token, we are right to question the relationship between Barack Obama and his pastor, Jeremiah Wright - or between any other candidate and their religious order, for that matter. In a difficult time, when interests collide, to what ideas and to which individuals will they be loyal? Those of us who put our first allegiance with secular systems of democracy recognize the wisdom of freedom of religion, and I for one defend it even when it interferes with my own personal worldview, but candidates who claim to be religious make me question where their true loyalty lies.

Loyalty, however, is but one part of this question, especially where it concerns religion. Gullibility - of the media, of the voters, and of the candidates themselves - deserves equal discussion. American presidential candidates have, over the past thirty years, been compelled more and more to take an unofficial religious test as part of the price of running for office. Unfortunately, the superficiality of religion as a political issue not only degrades discussion of spiritual matters, it also insults the intelligence of both candidate and voter.

How is it, for example, that Reverend Wright is deemed paranoid for saying that the American government created AIDS to kill black people, but not for preaching that God helped Moses part and then close the Red Sea to kill an army of Egyptians? Each in its fantasy suggests great spite but only one, the latter, is acceptably discussed by a candidate's pastor. Both are fiction, but at least one - the AIDS tale, with a tenuous precedent at Tuskegee, as noted by Wright - holds a promise, however slight, of plausibility.

In any presidential election, Americans are charged with choosing the most powerful leader on the planet, an individual entrusted with the world's largest economy and a nuclear arsenal capable of obliterating life on earth several times over. And, as such, if we learned tomorrow that John McCain was a wiccan or that Hillary Clinton was a scientologist, we'd rightfully disqualify their candidacies in our minds immediately. No one, we'd say collectively, who subscribes to such self-evident balderdash should be allowed within ten miles of The Button.

Why, then, should we hold Christianity to a different standard? Why are the utterances of Obama's pastor any more absurd than those heard and believed by millions of parishioners - many of them our elected leaders - every week? You know, the stories in which God helps Joshua topple the walls of Jericho, or in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead or...well, most anything beyond "love thy neighbor" and "thou shalt not kill."

Why wouldn't we want as president a person capable of admitting to a healthy agnosticism on spiritual matters?

"I don't know if there's a god," this candidate would say, "but if there is, I don't pretend that he talks to me or that I have a personal relationship with him."

All else being equal, a person capable of such honesty - both intellectually and politically - is someone I might trust with The Button.

1 Image by Doug Westbrook