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

23 August, 2008

Unfit to Be Tied

By Aaron
23 August, 2008

Of the Westerners living in Korea (military excluded), Americans are a minority - or at least it sure feels that way. Very often, in fact, I find myself the only citizen of the United States at a dinner with foreign residents in Korea. The conversation at such social events seems inevitably to turn nowadays to the ongoing US presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, and when it does, all heads turn toward me, the lone American.

"So, who are you voting for?" they all want to know.

This non-American 'They,' for the most part, are greatly in support of Obama, and it's easy to see why: Obama is far and away the more telegenic of the two main-party candidates, and this is usually the primary basis of a person's opinion on US politics when they lack a keen grasp of the issues at stake in domestic American affairs. They wait in anticipation for my reply, all the while assuming that, come the first Tuesday in November, I'll be voting for Obama. Were I to make such a pledge, I'd be immediately and roundly congratulated for being such a broadminded citizen of the world, for seeing the international light and helping humanity to take a great stride toward perfection.

Inevitably comes the question and, inevitably, I disappoint those around me. I'm resigned to the the reality that one of these two men, McCain or Obama, will be the next president, but I'm not resigned to happiness at the prospect. I may vote for one of them, or I may do something drastic - go all third party, say, and vote for Bob "Borat's Cheese" Barr, or perhaps I'll just write in Brandon Roy's name and take solace in the fact that he's the best leader the Portland Trailblazers have had in a generation.

Where McCain and Obama are concerned, I have reached the following roadblock on my path to a decision:

  • The Republican Party has so damaged everything it's touched over this decade that I have a hard time justifying a vote for McCain. He may or may not be an effective president, but his party is clearly in need of a time-out, as my sister would say to my three year-old niece in a moment of misbehavior. One point for Obama.


  • The Democrats look poised to gain a commanding majority in the next Congress and, in the interest of a healthy system of checks-and-balances, I prefer that the executive and legislative branches of American government not be controlled by the same party. One point for McCain.

All of which leaves me with a quandary, and so perhaps I'll end up taking that modern, very American path: avoid making the tough decision and just pass it off to someone else. In the event, I might even stand to make a small profit, which also happens to be a very American thing to do.

Muddy's Mojo at Newport

By Aaron

A favorite story of mine from the history of American music:

When the Rolling Stones, who took their name from the Muddy Waters tune "Rolling Stone," first came to America they asked to visit Chess Records in Chicago where Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf, amongst others, had recorded the music that so shaped the Rolling Stones.

There in the Chess offices was Muddy Waters on a ladder painting a wall to make ends meet. prompting Mick Jagger to quip, "in America you don't even know who your own famous people are."

Seeking the Exquisitely Mundane

By Aaron

One reason we don't have a TV - and the reason I wouldn't watch it if we did have one - is that I find too great a fascination in the mundane, and if there's one thing to which television and film are increasingly allergic, it's the mundane. For instance, I was quite enjoying I Am Legend - the Will Smith vehicle of last winter - until the zombies showed up. Absent these monsters, I could have happily passed two hours watching Smith survive in Manhattan as the last human alive in a post-apocalyptic world, a prospect that by itself probably scares the evolutionary bejeezus out of everyone at a very molecular level. But no, blockbuster convention calls for zombies and so we got zombies.

The same was true for The Sopranos, one of the many HBO series that have become classics on par with some of the memorable films of our time. I once heard Roger Ebert remark that a film is never about its subject, but rather, a film is about how it's about its subject. Owing to their cinematic qualities, Ebert's words can rightly be said of the best HBO shows, such that The Sopranos, despite being set amidst the New Jersey mob, is no more about the mafia than Raging Bull is about boxing. Instead, the show is the story of a man trying his damnedest to be a decent, if not exactly stellar, father and husband in a fast-changing world...while also being a kingpin in the local mafia. As with the zombies in I Am Legend, this mafia angle of The Sopranos ends up being the least interesting, though not an uninteresting, element of its narrative arc.

I suppose I'd broaden Ebert's observation, then: a good story is never about its subject; that story is about how it's about its subject. And for me, a story's success - particularly in TV and film - hinges on the degree to which it finds the splendor and the spark in the mundane particulars of the daily life portrayed.

All of which brings me, in a circuitous sort of way, to Six Feet Under, HBO's five-season series 'about' - tread carefully, Aaron: there's that dangerous word again - the Fisher family and their mortuary business. But of course, as I said, the story goes beyond this. To be worth its airtime, any show which deals so explicitly with death must be more fundamentally about life, and in this regard, SFU succeeds, at times even going to excess in its dosage of life. There are plenty of funerals, embalmings, wakes and viewings throughout the series, and every such scene reminded me that, as the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch said in the excellent documentary The Undertaking, "a good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be."

I won't be spoiling much of the show by saying that it starts with a death, ends with a death and is pocked by death throughout. Interwoven into all this mortality, however, is the life of the Fisher family, which - and this is a testament to the show's production team - is probably the first TV family with whom I felt like I was living in closer and closer quarters as the show progressed. This, as you might imagine, is a mixed blessing: the characters are developed to a degree seldom seen on television (outside of, perhaps, The Sopranos and The Wire), and as a result, there are times when you feel like you've added another family's drama to your own. But if this familiarity can at times make you as exasperated with and tired of the Fishers as you are of your own kinfolk, there will also be times where you are drawn into the Fisher's lives and, afterward, can only marvel at the writer's knack for creating such finely drawn and complex characters.

It's unfortunate, then, that the conventions of television seemed to take over the series, dictating from on high that the Fishers cannot simply be a normal family with troubles here and there like everyone else. No, they have to be the most trouble-prone family in Los Angeles: addicted, compelled, always getting knocked around in bouts of angst and clobbered by existential this-or-that, and just plain pussywhipped by their own neuroses. And that's only what each person does to him- or herself. I won't even get into the rotten hand that God seems intent on dealing them at every turn, as though the Good Lord was looking to revisit his time with Job. The mundane, I guess, just didn't pass muster win the test audiences. Watching this series, in fact, I occasionally wondered if I hadn't accidentally downloaded The Amityville Horror, or if the Fishers might not be living in a haunted house - which, given that this is a funeral home with dead bodies in the basement, they are in a sense.

On a more personal level, I enjoyed watching my Korean wife, Na Young, watch Six Feet Under. If there are two things with which Koreans, by and large, are unfamiliar and which thus put a fright into them, it's illicit drugs and homosexuality. By the standards of this peninsula, Na Young is quite a liberal-minded person, but she is the product of a Korean society that still has very draconian drug laws and which, to a unbelievable degree, still doubts - or at a minimum rages against - the existence of homosexuality amongst Koreans. There is drug-use aplenty in SFU, but of these two issues, the show's portrayal of gay relationships as no more or less dysfunctional than and drama-ridden than heterosexual relationships, and my wife's reaction to those portrayals, has been the most intriguing. As well, it's been interesting to watch her ponder the notion that sexuality is a far more fluid notion than most people - again, especially in Korea- would care to admit. You might, therefore, consider a viewing of Six Feet Under for no other reason than that it makes for an excellent conversation piece, particularly in intercultural marriages.

God > Algebra

By Aaron

A friend of mine has a daughter who attends - or is about to attend, I can't remember - high school in the United States. Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk when this fellow came up to me with a smile on his face, knowing how I feel about religion and therefore knowing how much I'd appreciate the paper in his hand.

What he handed me - and what you can see in the above image (click to enlarge) - is a page from the textbook that his daughter has been studying this summer at a local institute in preparation for her American coursework. The book is Algebra 2 for Christian Schools, published by the easily-caricatured Bob Jones University.1 Opening the book at random, I landed on the first page of chapter 2, which focuses on linear inequalities and begins:

Inequalities are all around us. For example, some people are richer, stronger, faster, or smarter than others. God has bestowed the gifts necessary to serve Him, and each person receives such gifts in unequal measures. Likewise, Christians differ in the amount of authority and responsibility under God. Parents, pastors, coaches and employers each have varying numbers of people under their authority, and God intends for us to obey each of the authorities he has put in our lives (Eph. 6:1-5). Mathematical inequalities enable you to quantify and study inequalities in life.

That religious types try like, um, hell to get their point-of-view into science classes doesn't surprise me. It displeases me, but it doesn't surprise me. But math? Really? I spent my first two years of high school in a conservative Christian high school but, while the teacher would occasionally pray at the beginning of class, the integers and parabolas remained undiluted by any theology.

I can only assume that this book offers a bang-up mathematics education, because it sure seems, on the surface at least, to waste a lot of class time on religious platitudes. Maybe this institute - a secular company - took a look at the book and decided that the math content is good enough that they could overlook the Bible lessons. Then, too, the person charged with designing curriculum might honestly feel that the importance of eternal salvation > a few minutes of class time.


1 "A Negro is best when he serves at the table." / "I'm not a racist." - Bob Jones III

20 August, 2008

You Sure About That?

By Aaron
20 August, 2008

I can't decide whether to lay the blame for the following mental contortions at the foot of KOTRA or the JoongAng Daily, both of which certainly deserve their fair share of mockery. The JoongAng yesterday published this article, headlined "Korean Market Still a Draw: Kotra," the first and last paragraphs of which read as follows:

Foreign companies are still positive about investing in Korea, despite the slowdown in the United States, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency yesterday


“At this time, we are becoming more cautious about investing in not only Korea but all other countries as well,” answered a Japanese chemical company.

To be fair, though, the troopers over at KOTRA either need to get their heads examined or have their optical prescriptions checked, because they've obviously been ignoring or misreading the recent reports on Korea's economic competitiveness. For instance, take this 1 August report from the Chosun Ilbo:

Korea’s foreign direct investment is in record decline, as companies withdraw their assets from the country in favor of rival Asian cities, such as Singapore.

The Bank of Korea said on Thursday that foreign investment recorded a net outflow of US$886 million during the first two quarters - meaning foreign investors withdrew more money from Korea than they invested.

At this point, reported the Chosun yesterday, even Korean companies are skeptical of their home environment:

"Small and medium-sized enterprises are making investments overseas due to high domestic costs, including increased personnel costs and land prices,” said Dr. Jung Hyung-min, a fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

“Large conglomerates are investing overseas to advance into new markets. Business environment should be improved. But it has not been improved even under the Lee Myung-bak administration," he added.

As a service to the KOTRA staffers, I'd like to kindly recommend that they bookmark Brendon Carr's excellent Korea Law Blog for his incisive analysis of these and other matters (see: here and here).

Find, Drill, Refine

By Aaron

For anyone interested in the flow of world events, global energy markets surely outpace most competition nowadays where complexity, intrigue and economic reach are concerned. The rising price of oil has been blamed on everything from increased demand in emerging markets, instability in the Middle East, dastardly speculators, and the fact that dead people aren't fossilizing into more oil at a sufficiently fast pace. In all the commotion, however, I've seen little mention of the role of state-run oil companies and their rising influence over the past decades, which, amongst other reasons, makes Jad Mouawad's article in yesterday's IHT a compelling bit of reading.

As late as the 1970s, Western corporations controlled well over half of the world's oil production. These companies — Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Total of France and Eni of Italy — now produce just 13 percent.
Today's 10 largest holders of petroleum reserves are state-owned companies, like Gazprom of Russia and Iran's national oil company.


Western [read: private] companies are far better than most national oil companies at finding and extracting petroleum, experts say. They have developed advanced exploration technologies and can muster significant financing to develop new fields. Many of the world's exporting states, however, have spurned their expertise.

It doesn't help matters when the leading exporters of oil - the "states" of the state-run companies - happen to be some of the most dysfunctional governments on earth. Saudi Arabia and Russia, the two biggest exporters, may have oil - and lots of it - but they have little else in the way of economic dynamism, much less an educated population, to show for their years of reaping petro-profits. Ultimately, we court delusion when we expect that such economically monochromatic states will somehow, overnight, adopt the most technologically advanced methods of oil exploration and extraction, let alone global best management practice.

Of course, even if these companies - state-run or otherwise - could somehow improve their extraction of oil, they would still be faced with an increasing shortage of global refinery capacity.

Living in Korea, I've felt rather insulated from many of the current economic woes sweeping the world and, especially, the United States. To be sure, our investments aren't exactly going gangbusters, and the cost of food has been ticking steadily upward, but compared to the lives of most Americans I know, I feel relatively sheltered. Yes, a gallon of gasoline in Korea is somewhere in the neighborhood of $8/gallon, but I can only guess at that number because we so seldom visit a filling station these days. We spend slightly less than US$40 (40,000 KRW) every second month to fill up our Hyundai Atoz, a car that, however emasculating it may be to drive, at least has the virtue of efficiency on its side. Of course, we spend about $200 per month on public transportation, but if nothing else, we can spend our daily commutes reading up on world energy markets.

More Medical Tourism

By Aaron

Perhaps the folks over at The Economist have been reading idiots' collective (i.e. pieces like this). I can only assume that such is true, given this article in the 16 August, 2008 issue:

Tens of millions of middle-class Americans are uninsured or underinsured and soaring health costs are pushing them and cost-conscious employers and insurers to look abroad for savings. At the same time the best hospitals in Asia and Latin America now rival or surpass many hospitals in the rich world for safety and quality. On one estimate, Americans can save 85% by shopping around and the number who will travel for care is due to rocket from under 1m last year to 10m by 2012—by which time it will deprive American hospitals of some $160 billion of annual business.

...which followed this article in the 14 April, 2008 edition:

What is getting people excited today is the promise of a boom in mass medical tourism, as a much bigger group of middle-class Americans prepares to take the plunge. A report published last month by Deloitte, a consultancy, predicts that the number of Americans travelling abroad for treatment will soar from 750,000 last year to 6m by 2010 and reach 10m by 2012 (see chart). Its authors reckon that this exodus will be worth $21 billion a year to developing countries in four years’ time. Europe’s state-funded systems still give patients every reason to stay at home, but even there, private patients may start to travel more as it becomes cheaper and easier to get treated abroad.

Hell, the best tonsillectomy I've ever had was performed in South Korea.

16 August, 2008

Attn: Guro Citizenry

By Aaron
16 August, 2008

In one of the alleys near our house is posted a sign which reads: "The Cleanest Alley in Guro," which is a bit like saying that someone is the tallest midget or the brightest moron - faint praise, to say the least. And being of questionable brainpower myself, I have lived - voluntarily - in Guro for over two years. I'm now beginning to fear, however, that the old Korean adage which says that "you can move to Guro anytime you like, but you can never leave" may be more than an idle slice of the local idiom.

In the past, back before I was seduced by the allure of Guro's relatively cheap housing prices (by Seoul standards anyway), I considered myself a compassionate person, with a fair bit of sympathy for the obstacles and difficulties faced by the lower classes of society. I'll admit it: I fell for that little swindle that excuses the foibles of the poor by saying that "they just never learned to behave better" or "they're too busy being impoverished to pay any mind to common courtesy."

Well, let's just say that my years in Guro - of living down here with the saltiest of Seoul's earth - have disabused me of most of that compassion. I'm not talking about the rickety cars dotting the streets, nor the tawdry fashions that pass for haute couture in Guro, nor, come to that, the dull-eyed women who clunk about in their pajamas, bawling brood in tow. Those things I can write off as the unfortunate product of their bringing: when the parents are rustic boobs, there's better than even odds that the children will emerge in much the same mold, and so on through the generations.

Having said that, I need to address myself here to the people of Guro, so I hope they're reading this (though, admittedly, an enthusiasm for the printed word is not a common trait in these parts):

1. You're never too poor to pick up your own garbage.

2. You're never too poor to not push people who happen to be standing where you want to stand.

3. You're never too poor to not vomit in a common apartment stairwell after you've had too much to drink. On the other hand, you are too poor to have wasted your money on so much booze in the first place.

I limit myself here to vague allusions, rather than indulging specifics as I'm inclined to do when discussing Guro.

[End abreaction]

13 August, 2008

One Collective Deserves Another

By Aaron
13 August, 2008

"Overlooking North Korea"
Photo by Ryan Pikkel

For anyone who has lived in East Asia, and especially for anyone who has ever lamented the region's Confucian leanings and tendency toward groupthink, David Brooks' column in the IHT this week ought to be of some interest. In it, Brooks wonders what the Beijing Olympiad might be telling us about the ongoing exchange between individualistic societies (such as the United States and Great Britain) and those of a more collectivist tradition (for example, China and its East Asian neighbors).

"We've seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present," writes Brooks of the opening ceremony, "a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China's miraculous growth."

High-tech or low, collectivism by any other name is no less collectivist. Brooks offers a decent overview of how citizens of individual and collective societies view themselves in relation to others, but his view of what this will mean in the future is rather less clear and thus less satisfying.

The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.


Either way, individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.

But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.

Of course, no one knows what this dialogue will bring and we would do well to remember that history and modernity don't move toward any one point of final resolution. And for all the talk of a "race" - be it economic, military, or social - between regions or countries, there is seldom a finish line at which one side can sit back in celebration and smoke a victory cigar. Even now, nearly twenty years since the end of the Cold War, we continue to see a Russia keen to exert its power over a former satellite that is equally eager to demonstrate its independence The Cold War may be over, but in this world the end of one problem generally signals the commencement of another.

Still, to the extent that one social structure ever defeats another, I have a peculiar mix of feelings as regards the future of collectivist societies and I am obviously not an objective observer. I happen to think that societies protective of individual liberties and quirks are not only more humane but also more conducive to economic prosperity over the long haul. As yet, I've seen little from the Confucian East Asian societies to demonstrate their ability to foster creativity and innovation on the scale that has become expected in individualistic societies, and which will become increasingly necessary in this modern economy.

This is not to say that Korea must become more like Great Britain if it wishes to further its economic growth, but Korea clearly needs to relax certain collectivist leanings. This includes not only a greater tolerance for the individuality of Koreans but also an acceptance of Others who fall outside of the traditional groups, such as immigrants, who will ultimately help ease the shock of a declining birthrate. So too for China, which has reached its current heights precisely by dialing back its insistence on collectivism and allowing individual - and often invisible - hands more control over the minutiae of daily life.

We must admit, though, that most planning - corporate, governmental, social - is more easily done in homogeneous societies where the diversity of backgrounds, cultural norms and presumed aims is less than in a heterogeneous society such as the USA or Britain. This sameness, however, often overrides its own safety lock. In a country like Korea or Japan, where the trammels of Confucianism are intertwined with the homogeneity, you have a culture that is capable of pulling together to show remarkable oneness of purpose when necessary, resulting in, for instance, Korea's rapid economic rise. On the very same day, however, that collective wrath can be aroused at the slightest provocation, turning the streets into a cauldron of aggregate idiocy (recent beef protests, anyone?). For this reason, crowds and collectivism scare me: whatever might be gained in solidarity with others is too often lost in waves of mass hysteria. A crowd is an unthinking entity, incapable of anything except movement in one direction, whereas only an individual can step back and say, "hold on for a second."

Francis Fukuyama took up these points - and many, many others - in 1994 in The End of History and the Last Man. You'll pardon the lengthy quote, I hope.

Asian societies lose a great deal by their group orientation. They impose a high degree of conformity on their members and beat back the mildest forms of individual expression. The constraints of such a society are most evident in the situation of women, where emphasis on the traditional patriarchal family has limited their opportunities for a life outside the home. Consumers have few rights and must accept economic policies over which they have little say. Recognition based on groups is ultimately irrational: at one extreme, it can become the source of chauvinism and war, as it was in the 1930s. Short of war, group-oriented recognition can be highly-dysfunctional. For example, all developed countries are now experiencing an influx of large numbers of people from poorer and less stable, attracted by jobs and security. Japan no less than the United States needs low-wage workers for certain occupations, but is perhaps the least able to accommodate immigrants because of the fundamentally intolerant nature of its constituent groups. The atomistic liberalism of the United States, by contrast, is the only conceivable basis on which large immigrant populations can be successfully assimilated.

But the long-predicted breakdown of traditional Asian values in the face of modern consumerism has been very slow in materializing. This is perhaps because Asian societies have certain strengths which their members will not easily dismiss, especially when they observe the non-Asian alternatives. While American workers do not have to sing their company's song while doing group exercises, one of the most common complaints about the character of contemporary American life is precisely its lack of community. The breakdown of community life in the United States begins with the family, which has been steadily fractured and atomized over the past couple of generations in ways that are thoroughly familiar to all Americans. But it is evident as well in the absence in any meaningful sense of local attachment for many Americans, and the disappearance of of outlets for sociability beyond the immediate family. Yet is is precisely a sense of community that is offered by Asian societies, and for many of those growing up in that culture, social conformity and constraints on individualism seem to be a small price to pay. (241-242)

In the end, I'm none too smitten with the either/or strictures of this discussion, which too often assumes that we'll either end up with lock-step, Chinese-style groupthink or fiercely rugged American individualism. I'm sure you'll agree: there's a gray area the size of the Pacific Ocean between those two. And as for these Olympics and their opening ceremonies, I'm unconvinced we stand to learn much about the future of China as a social or economic entity. Dictators have long excelled at pageantry - as evidenced by North Korea's Arirang Games, or Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics - but goose-stepping soldiers and synchronized pyrotechnics do not a dynamic society make.

10 August, 2008

Olympian Malarkey

By Aaron
10 August, 2008

August in Korea is the time of year when, as Tom Waits put it, God's away on business. And with the good lord shirking sentry duty, Satan invariably moves in to babysit and heats Northeast Asia up to a slow boil. 'Tis the season 'round here of sweaty asscracks, sticky nipples and weather pornography - that is, of browsing average temperatures for October on the Weather Channel's website and fantasizing about using blankets while sleeping at night.

Propitious numerology aside, I'm baffled at China's insistence on holding its much-ballyhooed Olympic games in this most god-forsaken month of the year, when, as hot, steamy and smoggy as Seoul is, Beijing is invariably worse. The Koreans, having conceded that August is a hellbitch of a month, had the good sense to hold their 1988 summer games in September, a lovely month when, despite daily temperatures hovering near 30 degrees celsius (86 degrees fahrenheit), autumnal insinuations of high blue skies and ripe orange persimmons signal to humanity that God still loves us and is on his way home.

The timing of the Olympics, of course, is ultimately of little import where the substance of the games is concerned. In the original Olympic games of ancient Greece, the athletes competed in the nude, both for the viewing pleasure of a culture that prized the aesthetic beauty of the athletic human form as well as for the benefit of the athlete himself. After all, have you ever tried to run a marathon in a toga? Not something I recommend.

Nowadays, however, if the athletes are clothed, the games themselves have become little more than naked displays of commercialized nationalism in which the sports are merely peripheral. If you doubt this, please take a moment to recall the last time you watched, much less feigned interest in, archery or handball. I'll venture that it was 2004, when, as now, the athletes were competing in the Olympics and when, as now, they had your country's flag plastered all over them. Quite simply, the Olympics are a collection of dull, obscure little sports that, if fun to do, are tedious beyond description to watch in the absence of national pride.

Which is why you really have to respect the television networks and the corporate sponsors for the way they're somehow able to gin up interest in a sport like badminton. A preexisting sense of nationalism on the part of the viewers certainly helps, as when a Korean is facing off against an American or, especially this week, when a Georgian is up against a Russian, but only a well-coifed sportscaster, with his orotund tone, could have you on the edge of your seat for the men's quadruple sculls without coxswain.

But even the International Olympic Committee, the TV networks, and the corporate sponsors have their limits, imposed by killjoy government censors. Absent these constraints, however, there is still more viewership and advertising revenue to be had. Does anyone really doubt, for instance, that a nostalgic reversion to the nude competitions of yore would send TV ratings for the games into the stratosphere, especially for gymnastics or women's beach volleyball? In the event, even I would be forced to reconsider my humbug stance on the Olympics, although in this weather I'd really rather not see the naked powerlifting competition.

09 August, 2008

A Triumph of Diplomacy (Question Mark Implied)

By Aaron
09 August, 2008

A brief update on my previous post:
Having weighed our available options, Na Young and I elected to follow a path of chickenshit diplomacy in dealing with #201's garbage collection. As neither of us had the gumption to confront the man directly, we wrote up the following note (translation below), taped it to his door and hoped that the old bastard was 1) literate and 2) considerate enough to realize that, you know, piling garbage in a common area isn't the best way to foster goodwill amongst one's neighbors.

It reads, in essence:

Begging your pardon, the people who live in this building find viewing the pile of recyclable goods a daily irritation. Though we recognize the great effort involved, we'd much appreciate it if you could move these items to a different place as soon as possible. And if, by chance, we have addressed this note to the wrong house, please accept our apologies.

Your Neighbors

And, sure enough, yesterday afternoon found this fellow outside with two other people, stacking, sorting and carting off his unsightly stash. I prefer to think that our note was exactly the kick in the britches he needed to get himself in gear, but Na Young is not convinced. She thinks he was sick, or perhaps merely out of town until recently. I say he's just lazy and that we'll probably face this same problem again in the near future.

06 August, 2008

Beware the Guro Abyss

By Aaron
06 August, 2008

When I was in my early teens, we lived next to a family of - how can I put this politely? - hillbillies, a ragtag clan of mountainfolk whose children ran about in soiled t-shirts and no pants and hid under the old Plymouth in the front yard when their uncle, who also lived in the house, came home. This was a solid, Wonder Years sort of neighborhood, the streets lined with modest 1950s ranch homes, and this family and their house stuck out like turds in a punchbowl. I heard that the father, Larry - the pater familias of what my mother called The Munsters - worked at the local Hewlett-Packard facility. When I learned of this, I thought, "OK, so they're not hillbillies, they're just eccentric. You know, computer geeks." Then I learned that HP had, in fact, hired Larry to pee on the weeds around their buildings.

"I can beat any candyass commercial weedkiller on the market," Larry told me one day when he spotted me hauling our garbage cans out to the curb. "My doctor says I was just blessed with first-rate urea."

He was standing shirtless in his oil-stained driveway, taking swigs from a can of Hamm's beer. Gettin' tanked up for work, he called this routine.

"You tell your dad to give me a call if he wants me to hit that patch of barkdust you got. See you got some unsightly weeds coming up over there."

This family moved away a few years later, taking with them the old Plymouth, their porch sofas and the turkeys they'd been raising in the backyard. By this time, I was working at a nearby video store and one of the frequent customers bought the Munster's house, fixed it up, and moved in with her husband and children.

"Don't worry," I told my mom when the U-Haul pulled up with the new neighbors' belongings. "They get their videos back on time."

* * *

One of the questionable benefits of living in Seoul's Guro district is its time-capsule quality, an ineffable ability to transport me back to a bygone time of pantsless children raised by men who take an obvious, public pride in their own urine. Now, however, instead of merely living next to the Munsters, I find myself surrounded by them. I've alluded to all this before, but I suppose the sentiment bears bluntness: Guro is where decorum and decency come to die.

No, I haven't stumbled across any more curbside nightsoil or dead chickens in the gutter, nor any flatulent old men on the local subway. Now it's the old bugger who lives with his wife on the second floor of our building - in unit #201, to be precise - who has succeeded in offending my civilized sensibilities, albeit hardly for the first time. Unbeknownst to him, this geriatric nuisance and I previously went a few rounds over his cigarette butts, which, until earlier this year, he simply discarded wherever he pleased in and around this building. Once I discovered that he was the clod responsible, I took to collecting the butts and depositing them in his mailbox, which seems to have solved that problem.

Now, however, he has become a rubbish collector. In Korea, the collection of recyclable goods is done largely by individuals - usually old folks looking to make some money, as those who collect the paper, plastic, aluminum and other such materials can sell them and earn a bit of cash. Fine, great: I'm all for incentivizing the process of recycling. Trouble is, our downstairs neighbor seems only to be interested in the first step of this whole process - that is, the collection. As we walk into our building, then, we are faced everyday with the sight of his haul, moldering off to the side and awaiting his sporadic energies. God only knows how long he plans to use this site as his own personal garbage dump.

The question thus arises: what to do about this fellow and his unsightly spoils? As I see it, I've got three options from which to choose: A) ask him either in person or in writing when he plans to rid our neighborhood of his trash; B) get some lighter fluid and matches and torch the damn heap; or C) do nothing. Between you, me and the fence post, option "B" is all-too-appealing, as it would deprive this fellow of his earnings as fair recompense for making his neighbors trudge past his pile of trash everyday. And not so long ago, I daresay I might have given this a try, but I've learned that my ideas rarely turn out as planned and, in trying to incinerate his trash, I'm likely instead to start the Great Guro Blaze of '08. Then again, there's scarcely anything wrong with Guro that an uncontrolled wildfire wouldn't fix.

Besides, I've come to expect and, unfortunately, accept this sort of ill-mannered conduct from my neighbors here in Guro. The expectation of such behavior, however, doesn't worry me, though the acceptance of it certainly does. Everyday I wonder: how long before I'm loosing my bowels on street, tossing my dead chickens in the gutter, or piling trash on our doorstep?

Not long, I fear.