Friday, December 31, 2010

It was the blankest year...

And it's over before it was done
There's nothing to fear
Filled with courage
They cannot conceive of wasting another year

  - Knapsack, "Steeper Than We Thought"

Normally I hate New Year's. New Year's Eve, specifically. First off, it's a couple's holiday, and I hate holidays that try to make you feel excluded for being single. Second, no matter how good a time I have, I always feel like I should be having a better time. It's nearly impossible to go out because every place is packed and the covers are always extravagant. On a good New Year's Eve I can swing an invite to a friend's party, which is usually OK but sometimes kind of a mess because I end up packed into a room with a billion other people trying to find conversation topics with a bunch of strangers and drunk, distracted friends. And some years I just end up at home with whatever roommate or roommates I have at the time, Dick Clark and the ball on TV, and a bottle of Miller High Life (the champagne of beers). Honestly some of the New Year's Eves at home have been among the best. It's relaxed, I'm among friends and I don't have to find a place to crash or drive anywhere at the end of the night.

I think New Year's Eve 2000 is probably the classic example of why I hate New Year's. It was the year after I had finished college and I was briefly living with my parents in Western New York. I think I only had about one close friend still living in the area at the time (most people with other options don't choose to stay in Buffalo, no offense to Buffalo - leaving home is just a Rust Belt reality for most people) but he went to Chicago for New Year's. I can't remember why I didn't try to join him. Might have been Y2K bug paranoia for all I remember. Probably had more to do with being young and broke. Anyway, this great punk band Libertine (not to be confused with that other UK band The Libertines that ended up getting a lot more famous) was playing at Mr. Goodbar in Buffalo so I drove into the city for the show. Apparently nobody else in Buffalo thought that seeing a band upstairs at Mr. Goodbar on the commonly accepted last night of the millennium was a good idea because the only people at the show were me, Libertine, the opening band and maybe one other paying customer. The great part was Libertine didn't blow off the show, they played their asses off for two paying customers. Still, it seemed a little ridiculous for the night of the most over-hyped New Year's Eve ever.

The other thing I don't like about New Year's Eve is that it has this inherent, overwhelming sense of loss. I know it's supposed to be a time to look forward and ring in the New Year and all, but I can't help but feel every year that we're throwing a big Irish wake for the previous year. We laud its accomplishments and pay tribute to all that will be missed, and in the morning we bury it and get on with our lives. Good or bad, the previous year is gone and it's never coming back.

2009 was a notably shitty year. The only really good thing that happened all year was the inauguration of the first US president in my memory that I've really respected. The 2008 financial collapse started 2009 on a bad note. I was already short on work when the stock market tanked in fall of 2008 (back in LA I used to work in entertainment, mostly temp or freelance), so I decided to start taking accounting courses online starting in January 2009. Because I figured I wouldn't be able to do 13-hour days on freelance gigs and still do my coursework I told all my work contacts that I couldn't do long-term gigs any more and I started looking for a full-time job as an accounting clerk or assistant. I even had a retirement party of sorts to celebrate my failure as a freelancer. No accounting gigs ever came, other than a couple days every month at one of the smaller studios. I actually ended up doing more freelance work in 2009 than I did in 2008, which still wasn't really enough to pay the bills. Around March I found about EPIK and teaching English here in Korea, so I decided to apply through an agency in LA that will remain nameless. It took forever to get my paperwork together - partly because getting anything done in broke-ass, Arnold-fucked California took forever and a day and three follow-up requests - and by the time I had it all together it was past the application deadline but the rep at the agency assured me that I was likely to be accepted regardless. (Apparently after the EPIK deadline he tried to submit my application to ETIS, the Seoul program, without telling me what he was doing.) By the time I got the final message that my EPIK application hadn't been accepted I had lost my roommates, thought I might be losing my apartment, and because of the timing I ended up getting fired at lunch on day one of a temp-to-perm accounting gig and in the process burning one of the world's biggest temp agencies because they didn't want anyone with any future conflicts. (To anyone who's ever looked at a dude living on the street and said "why doesn't that bum get a job," I will tell you from experience - it's not that easy to just "get a job.") Luckily I got some friends to move into my place with me, and I re-applied to EPIK in October directly through EPIK (and subsequently learned that all th expensive paperwork I had submitted was missing and half of it was wrong). Christmas Eve 2009 (the first day of the blog), when I learned I had finally been accepted, was probably the best day of the year for me. So a year ago, New Year's Eve 2009, I drank this toast to the evening: "Fuck 2009."

New Year's Eve 2010 was a lot better. I didn't even realize that it was the 31st until I got up in the morning and started making plans to go to Daegu to see Tron. Neither Mo nor I had the energy or the wherewithal to spend the whole night partying in Daegu so we made it a quick day trip. We talked about going to Busan instead - there's this Korean tradition that it's good luck to see the sunrise on New Year's morning, so we talked about catching the first morning train to Busan, but the earliest train arrived one minute after sunrise. So instead we stayed home, split a bottle of French sparkling wine and watched some K-Pop thing  and the ringing of some big temple bell in Daegu on MBC at midnight. In the morning we went up to the roof with our cameras and a bottle of cognac and watched the sun rise. So hopefully that means 2011 will be a luckier year than the last few.

All and all 2010 was a good year. There were mistakes and shortcomings, and there was stress, but I've been working, saving money and paying down bills; I've traveled; I've met some new people and I've seen a new part of the world. It's not always easy living in a strange culture in a place where you don't speak the language and there aren't many people that understand what you're trying to say, and it's unfortunate that some of the peculiarities of Korean culture seem to make it hard to make close friends with too many of the locals. (Korean friendships tend to be restricted to people of your age and social class, and Koreans tend to have tightly-knit social groups based on pre-existing relationships like school classes. So even above and beyond the language barrier it's really difficult to get into someone's social sphere here. But once you're in you've made a loyal friend for life.) I've been missing my friends and family in the States a lot, and I'll be happy to sink my toes into some California sand when I land for a visit in less than a week. But all things considered I'm very grateful to be here.

Goodbye, 2010, I'll be missing you. If any of you happen to be in America and you're reading this while waiting for the ball to drop, please enjoy yourselves, and drive carefully if you have to drive. I'll see you again soon. In the meantime... Aw, fuck it. We're gonna have a party.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Edited For Christmas

So, before I get started, Id just like you to observe this trailer and consider the following:
-      Somebody made a Rock Em Sock Em Robots movie.
-      Its not even called Rock Em Sock Em Robots.
-      That somebody is, in part, Steven Spielberg.
There are times when I have some misgivings about my decision to leave Los Angeles. There are times when I feel like maybe I was impatient and I should have stuck around to see if I could make better opportunities for myself. Then I see someone throw Steven Spielberg, Hugh Jackman and several tens of millions of dollars at a kitschy childhood toy, and I have absolutely no regrets at all.
The school year is winding down here. Right now its finals week so today Im in the teachers office all day with nothing to do. I already planned a lesson for next week, half-constructed another lesson and reviewed this years completed lessons so I can improve on them next year, so theres not a lot left to achieve at work right now. My non-work commitments are also wrapping up for the year. I dropped out of Korean language class this week. It had gotten to the point where not only did I not understand the current lessons, but some weeks I couldnt even remember what topic we had studied the week before. Plus there were only two classes to go and I kept picturing myself coming to the final class date and getting the certificate for completing the course  with perfect attendance, to boot when I hadnt actually learned anything, and the thought of it was just humiliating. My accounting courses are over for the quarter as well, thank Christ. Unfortunately I missed the deadline to submit course evaluations to my school, but that might be a good thing since it would have been hard to resist the urge to verbally tear my statistics professor a new asshole. So right now my only obligations are relaxing, planning my trip home, resisting the urge to buy another TV series from iTunes and checking out the latest World of Warcraft expansion. So far I cant tell you if Im impressed with Cataclysm or not. Honestly Im kind of bored with WoW altogether but theres not that much else to do here that doesnt involve a train trip to Daegu and spending money. Some of my real life friends in the US have been sucked back in by the expansion so I do get the chance to get together with them in the occasional Friday night/Saturday morning or Saturday night/Sunday morning joint session. Mostly Im sticking with the habit because Im too lazy to try to find another equally engrossing PC game that will run on my netbook. (Whats the deal with Civ 5, people? Should I wait until the first expansion comes out? Would picking up Civ 4 instead be a waste of money?)
Im definitely looking forward to coming home for a visit in January, although Im not as pleased about having to float the money for the trip on credit cards until I get my re-signing bonus in March. The little trend line on the Excel plot of all my debt is way above the target line now. I know itll come back down once that signing bonus comes in, but now that I can see the big picture of all my debts it makes me nervous to spend any money before I have it in hand. Plus its going to be difficult not to engage in a glut of shopping and fast food buying as soon as I hit American shores. Ive actually been browsing the websites of certain fast food chains to see what their current promotional items are. As much as Ive been missing greasy American fast food, I dont want to get back into the gastronomical habits I got into when I was in LA. Before I left I was perpetually either unemployed or freelancing on set. When I was freelancing, I was probably burning 3,000 calories some days, but meals on set were generally all-you-can-eat and on days off I didnt have time to cook healthy meals or buy groceries. When I was unemployed I was generally sitting around the apartment not feeling good about being unemployed and looking for any excuse to leave and do something enjoyable. In short, I ate a lot of junk in large quantities. Unfortunately my crappy, rusty scale was broken so I didnt realize exactly what I was doing to myself until I started seeing Facebook photos of myself with a giant bloated whale gut hanging out from under my t-shirt. So, as much as I dream of being able to gorge myself with American fast food again, Im also wary of re-inflating my waistline beyond the confines of Korean clothing size 110 (which, by Western standards, is not very large). The other day I learned online that one of my habitual fast food guilty pleasures from life in LA is over 2,100 calories. People, thats just not a good idea. Having lived here for a year and seen the way Koreans eat, its easy for me to see why the United States has a collective weight problem: people eat way too much, and way too much of it is junk calories from carbohydrates, cheese, grease and sugar. I wouldnt describe myself as svelte by any means after living here for a year, but at least its been easier to shed some of the awful eating habits I had when I was in LA. Then again, I cant credit Korean cuisine for all of the weight loss a lot of it has to do with having the time to prepare my own healthy meals instead of relying on fast food all the time. But I gotta tell you, Im counting the days until I can saunter up to the window at Tommys and order a double chili cheeseburger and those chili fries with so much processed cheese that theyre almost impossible to finish. And a giant bucket of Cherry Pepsi. And I noticed Papa Johns has a six cheese double bacon pizza now, too. Maybe Ill just cut calories by skipping breakfast
When I got here, I wasnt only surprised by the smaller portions but also the fact that most of my co-workers end up throwing away some portion of their lunch. I was raised in a good Protestant house where we were taught to never waste food, and I assumed since Korea went through a period of intense poverty after the Korean War that Koreans would similarly object to wasting food, but every day in the cafeteria some portion of my co-workers lunch ends up in the big organics bin for food waste. I voiced my surprise to one of my co-workers once and he explained that, in the old days, food waste went to the farm animals so people didnt see throwing away food as wasting it. Im assuming these days they do something else with the organic waste. At least I hope so, since most of what I toss out at home is eggshells and coffee grinds. Also I remember that feeding animal byproducts to animals was one of the things that was supposed to have led to the spread of mad cow disease, so considering the stink that was raised here over the supposed dangers of US beef I sure how theyre not still feeding garbage to their livestock here. But its interesting to observe the different attitude towards food. Of course now that Koreans have money and KFC and Dunkin Donuts everyone is worried about their weight, and apparently Koreans, who are generally very image-conscious, are now some of the worlds most fervent consumers of diet pills. Hmm. I guess development is a two-edged sword. Then again, obesity is probably a better problem for a society to have than malnutrition.
Ive been contemplating some sort of trip to celebrate my sudden glut of free time. I was talking to Mo about visiting Seoul but he hasnt been feeling well recently so I dont know if well be out tearing up Hongdae before the new year. I may finally go to Haeinsa Temple this weekend to see the Tripitaka Koreana. I had been wondering what to do about Christmas, since we have school up until the 29th, which prevented me from heading home before the holidays. Happily one of my co-teachers invited me today to spend Christmas Eve with his family. Im not exactly sure how the celebration of Christmas works here. Oh sure, there are tons of Christmas decorations everywhere, but Ive heard conflicting stories about to what extent non-Christians celebrate the holiday. For young people, it seems like a night to go out on dates or go out and party. I was actually contemplating going to church on Christmas morning just to do something to celebrate the holiday, since I cant be with my family. I know, to many of you thats about the least unusual thing I could do on Christmas. I was raised in a very Christian household, so if Im home with the family its definitely a part of the holiday regimen, but I'll admit it's been a little liberating to sleep in on Easter or go out for Persian food on Christmas night when I've been away for the holidays. I had prepared a page-long diatribe about how organized religion is full of shit to justify my position, but I don't feel like offending my family or religious friends this close to the holidays, so I'll summarize it thusly: I believe in God, but I have no faith in man's religion. There's a lot of wisdom in the scriptures of many religions, but as organized entities I find that all of them have erected shaky edifices from their solid bases. So, that said, why am I still tempted to go to church on Christmas? Well, in Korean culture, and what Ive seen of a lot of Eastern cultures, a big part of religion is respect for ancestors. Several times a year Korean families get together and wander off into the woods to tend to the burial mounds of their parents and ancestors. The younger generation is a little tired of it, in fact, from what I hear. But theres a very strong connection to family and roots here, and I think its been rubbing off on me. Maybe its that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing, I dont know. Honestly my family is kind of irritating. Theyre very idiosyncratic. For most of my life Ive been pretty happy to get away from them. This year, now that Im almost exactly halfway around the world from them, Im missing them a little bit. Almost enough to go to church, even though I think church is weak sauce. So there, if thats not a touching Christmas message then I dont know what is. Merry Christmas, one and all.
I had more to say, but if Seinfeld taught me anything, its to go out on a high note. Happy Holidays, everyone, in case I dont get a chance to post anything else before the 25th. Call Mom and tell her you love her. And tip your waitresses. Unless theyre Korean, then youll just confuse them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I am confusing...

So I get to school this morning. A little late, but it's not nine o'clock yet and I don't have any classes until third period so whatever. Yesterday I snuck out a little early. We usually have an English class for other teachers on Wednesdays at about 2PM at another high school in town, but I had heard from the teacher at that school that class was cancelled because the national exam is today, and apparently due to the exam no one was being let into that school after yesterday afternoon, because it's a testing site for the exam. So instead of sticking around our school Mo and I left at about 2:30 and went to Daegu to catch a movie. I probably should have asked permission before I left since we weren't actually going to the teachers' class but all the other Korean teachers who speak English were asleep in the office when I snuck out. As it turns out my school closed at 3PM yesterday as well, so we were only leaving 30 minutes early. Whatever.

So I get to school this morning, say "annyeonghaseyo" to the ajumma who sweeps the foyer, and head upstairs. As I reach the door of the 2nd floor teachers' office I realize there are no students on this floor. I try the office door. It's locked.

I head back downstairs to the 1st floor teachers' office to ask why the 2nd floor office is closed. The door's unlocked. I walk in. There's no one there. The kerosene stove is on and there's a kettle boiling on top of it, but no people. My zombie survival instincts kick in. I look for a cricket bat. There is not one to be found. Drat.

After a few questions in halting Korean with a bystander outside ("School... there is not... today?") and a brief interview with a few passing students I learn that there is no school today because of the national exam. Funny how no one mentioned that too me.

Oh well, no hard feelings. I've been meaning to catch up on my sleep and World of Warcraft playing anyway.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I thought you were dead!

So, today was an interesting day at work. Let me tell you about it.

There's an instant messaging program we use at my school that also serves as an internal email system for memos and such. The memos are almost always in Korean but I usually make an attempt to decode them with Google Translate. Mind you, Google Translate is not very good at translating Korean (not that any other software I've seen is) but it usually helps me get the gist of what's going on.

So I get to school, fire up my computer, and there's a memo. I translate it and all I can really make sense of is the word for "teacher," the date and time for a funeral, and a name in Korean. I don't immediately recognize the name, in part because in Korean it's considered rude to address someone by name so I've never really learned the names of too many of my co-workers. The ones I work with regularly I usually know on a last-name basis: Mr. Park, Mr. Lee, Ms. Kim, what have you. I only know the first names of a handful of my teachers. It's even worse with my students. I don't really know any of their names. Every once in a while they figure that out. Hopefully they're not too offended when they do. Hey, you try to learn three hundred Korean names that you never hear or see and see you well you do.

So anyway, my first thought is, hey, maybe some retired teacher died, that's sad. I move on.

I step out of the 2nd floor office to get some hot water and make a cup of coffee. Everything is instant here. Nothing to be done about it. The hot water from the water cooler on the 2nd floor isn't working, so I go downstairs to the 1st floor teacher's office. When I step in I realize it's time for the weekly teachers' meeting and I'm interrupting. Whoops. I try to slink over to the water cooler with my least distracting slink. Eventually a teacher kindly points out an empty desk (my old desk, strangely enough) and I sit down.

At this point I start thinking about the memo, and it hits me - hold on, what if one of the current teachers died? I start thinking about the initials of the name I saw and realize they match the initials of one of my co-teachers. I look over to his desk. It's empty. I look around the room. Everyone looks kind of sad, but then again it's Monday and four days before the National Exam of Doom so that's not too surprising. Now I am confused and concerned. Is one of my co-teachers dead?

So by the time I get back up to the second floor office I'm not completely sure why no one's told me that one of my co-teachers is dead but things like this tend to slip my other, living co-teachers' minds sometimes. Not that I blame them, exactly. They're all extremely busy and sometimes I don't think they think about the fact that something that was announced to them in Korean - perhaps even with me in the room - is something they need to explain to me in English. (Sometimes I think they subconsciously believe that we foreigners really do understand Korean and we're just acting like we don't. Or something.) I'm not really bold enough to ask them about it because I can't think of any way to phrase the question that isn't going to sound like The Stupidest Question In The World. ("So... I hear Mr. P is dead? Is that right?") I'm kind of irritated that no one's explained to me what's going on, though. Especially since I have a class scheduled with Mr. P as co-teacher. Today. Immediately after lunch.

I go to my first class, teach it (it's a success, I suppose, although it involved a little tooth-pulling to get the kids to speak), then corner my co-teacher Miss K before she leaves. "So," I say, choosing my words carefully, "I saw something about a funeral tomorrow?" "Yes," she replies. Not the information I was looking for. I regroup. "Who died?" I ask boldly. "Mr. P's father." "Ohhhhhhh," I reply, like someone who has just come up with the answer to a trivia question we had all been discussing but none of us could answer, "I thought Mr. P was dead." "No," she replies. "That's a relief," I say.

So that, combined with the Bills beating the Lions early this morning, has made this a decent 33rd birthday for me, all things considered.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Nothing to Write Home About

(This blog post was written on multiple dates, so don’t expect the time sequence to make sense. Deal with it.)
So, before I get to the post, two items of business:

1) I’m taking this statistics course this semester and I fucking hate it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I have anything against statistics. Far me it from me to hate on an entire discipline of mathematical analysis. What I can’t stand is the course and, by extension, the instructor. Instead of having a normal course with normal homework assignments, normal quizzes and a normal exam at the end, this course has “practice” homework assignments that are ungraded, an extra set of “quiz preparation” questions, and then a weekly quiz, with the weekly quizzes comprising 65% of the total grade. So basically I have to perform a raft of complicated statistics problems which counts for nothing but generally needs to be completed to understand the quiz, followed by another raft of complicated statistics problems which absolutely must be completed to understand the quiz, followed by a timed quiz that’s mostly trick questions or questions that aren’t really directly related to the “practice” homework or quiz preparation problems. The other 35% of the grade is this special long-term mystery project which, as we near the halfway point of the course, we’ve only received one segment of to work on. This course is ruining my life. I can’t leave town on the weekends (although I still do) and I can only just barely complete the work for my other much more important course during the week once I complete the work for this fucking statistics course, and it’s not like I can even blow off a week’s homework and hand in half-completed work because the homework isn’t graded. Since my name isn’t on this blog (granted, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out who’s writing it) I’m really tempted to end this paragraph with a statement like “Professor Realname, who teaches a Business Statistics course for UCLA Extension, drips rusty razor blades from her perforated asshole,” so that when anyone Googles Professor Realname’s name they might be forewarned what a lousy experience her garbage shitstain class is. But that would be immature, so I won’t.

2) I am consistently amazed what a guy can do to a Korean cop and get away with. More than once I have seen some guy, usually shitfaced, arguing with a Korean cop and getting physically violent (not throwing punches but definitely pushing and shoving and resisting direct orders) and not getting the shit beat out of him with batons, walkie-talkies, Tasers or flashlights, which, as an American, astounds me. Case in point: tonight when I came down to the train platform to wait for my train I saw a police officer wrestling with a drunk, yelling guy with a backpack. Fifteen minutes later – and after the platform had become much more crowded - I see the same guy, still inebriated and apparently unincarcerated, knock over a trash can, pull off the giant metal ring at the top and start throwing it, ring-toss style, at an overhead lighting fixture, repeatedly. As my train was leaving some guy in a suit was scolding him and asking him to sit down. That’s it. I guess part of the chummy, monocultural thing they’ve got going on here means everyone is supposed to have each others’ backs and let the small stuff slide, but regardless, I’m amazed how people really have absolutely no respect for the police here, and the police have absolutely no compulsion to throw down and bust heads. Maybe it’s the whole Confucian hierarchy thing – peace officers must be further down the chain from drunk yahoos. You don’t have to do much to a cop in the US to wind up face down on the ground in handcuffs and in a shitload of trouble. I don’t blame the police for that – their job is basically to deal with assholes all day; I don’t envy it. But stuff that would get you twenty cops, a weekend in jail and a couple broken ribs back home gets a scolding here. To each his own, I guess.

I think the job has officially reached that point where it’s become routine. The exoticism has worn off. Now it’s just another gig with an apartment to take care of and weekends to try to fill and a check at the end of the month to throw after a pile of bills. Not that I mind. After years of underemployment it’s relieving just to have a steady job where I might actually make a difference in someone’s day. (I’ve probably said that before, but fuck it, I’m not going to start re-reading my own blog to keep from repeating myself.) In a way this job is kind of like that part of the Joseph Campbell monomyth where the hero finds a quiet place to settle down and forgets about his overarching raison d’être for a while. I don’t know if I’m really on some quest to do something else. Has anyone ever written a story like that, where a dude sets out to do something great or kill something really big, and halfway through he discovers it’s not worth it and settles down to raise goats and he’s never the worse for it? Somebody should write that book. I guess it would be a little boring, but who said life had to be exciting, really?

So what was the last thing I blogged about? Jeju? I probably said I was going on some trip after that, right? Probably didn’t happen. I think I had planned to do something for the long Chuseok (a.k.a. Korean Thanksgiving) holiday in the middle of September, but I think I ended up spending most of the week in my apartment playing video games instead. Money was tight and I was kind of exhausted. I went to Seoul at some point to meet up with an old college friend of mine and his girlfriend. We went to some club. Secretly I hate clubs because I hate dance music (for real, Mister Deejay, am I supposed to get excited when you play the same goddamn beat for four hours and every once in a while you throw in some Casio fill and flash the par cans over the stage?) but I didn’t want to be impolite by suggesting we go somewhere else and you know how it is with those places, you always end up going now and again in the hope that you’ll actually discover something to enjoy about it or actually get laid or something. (Where did my peaceful farm with my goats go?) But it was good to see them. I went to Andong for the annual Maskdance festival the next week. (I think it was the next week, I don’t remember.) It was all right. There were masks. There was dancing. There were plenty of mildly grotesque things to take pictures of. There were Korean children in Swiss outfits yodeling and playing cowbells. I was supposed to meet up with one of the new foreign teachers and his friends but they went to the traditional village in Andong for a fireworks display that never happened (it was raining) and I missed the last bus. I ran into some other foreign teachers I know from orientation but they were in a state in which they probably wouldn’t have remembered that I joined them, and I wasn’t really in the mood for that sort of scene. I also accidentally ordered and ate half of a roughly $17 dinner of fried squid. (When you ask for a price and a Korean holds up two fingers and says something, pay close attention to whether he or she says “ee man” (twenty thousand) or “ee chun” (two thousand).) I had planned to spend the night but I ended up catching a late bus home. Best to cut your losses in that sort of situation. This weekend I ended up back in the Andong area with one of my co-teachers and his family to check out a nearby apple festival. It was actually really nice. I needed the break from my coursework (despite the fact that I’m going to have to complete it tonight when I get home because of the trip) and I’m starting to get to that age where spending time with someone else’s family is actually kind of nice instead of being kind of a drag.

There’s some new co-teachers in town. We’ve got another guy from South Africa, a couple girls from Michigan, a dude from Vancouver and a girl from Toronto. We’ve gotten together a couple times for drinks and conversation. They’re all fine people.

I’m back in Korean class. Apparently the equivalent class this summer to the class I took this spring covered more of the textbook than we covered in spring, so I had a little catching up to do. Still haven’t really caught up. The last class was mostly very basic grammar and vocabulary, and this class is using a little more vocabulary than the last one (I’m expected to know a few more verbs than “to be,” “there is,” “to do” and “to go” this time around) so I’m having a little trouble keeping up on it. I don’t really have enough time to get serious about studying Korean, and I’m not 100% sure I would if I had it. Once you figure out how many situations you can deal with using “Hello,” “thank you” and gestures, the impetus to learn a language greatly decreases. I just plain don’t understand this language. In many ways it’s completely upside down and backwards from English. I’ve gotten to the point where, when I hear people speaking, I recognize sounds and my brain says “hey, those noises are a language, they mean something” and sometimes some of the sounds seem like words I’ve heard before and ought to know, but other than numbers I don’t really understand any of it. Some days Korean class is like trying to read James Joyce while someone kicks you in the balls. I guess now I can appreciate what my students are going through a little more keenly.

By the way (speaking of Joyce) if I ever write another blog post more rambling and disconnected than this one please send someone to test me for drugs. Sorry, I ain’t slept much.

Several key boredom indexes have definitely hit high water marks. A lot more of my dishes in that Café World game on Facebook are on gold plates. I also finally hit level 79 in World of Warcraft. I’ve been trying to finally get a character up to 80 (the top level) before the next expansion comes out in December but with my current course schedule I’m not sure that’s going to happen. I’m feeling some trepidation about hitting top level. Part of it might have to do with the fact that I feel like a fucking loser even admitting I play. (It’s a great game if you don’t take it too seriously. Really, it is.) Leveling up in WoW is pretty easy – jump through the hoops and enjoy the false sense of achievement and the fancy graphics. (People who have been playing the game for years and ground their way up through levels as fast as possible might not remember the sensation they got the first time they walked into Darnassas or Thousand Needles, or flew into Icecrown. It’s a really stunning, immense game in terms of design and graphics.) Once you hit 80 there seems to be this expectation that you take the game seriously and you should actually possess some sort of skill at it. There’s also a lot of emphasis on collecting better gear at the top levels, which typically involves a lot of time-consuming group quests and daily quests. Me, I play when I have nothing better to do. Originally a couple New York friends of mine who are into role-playing games and things got me to try out a free trial and got me hooked. (Never trust a product where the first taste is free.) Unfortunately they were about 15-26 levels in at the time and therefore I couldn’t play with them until I leveled up. Which I what I did. I think I even started another character to be a better match with their group. So I reached their level and then found out they had both quit because they didn’t feel like paying the monthly fee and/or they had better things to care about (like careers and families). But I liked the game so I kept playing. Sometimes one of my friends who got me into the game would get a free trial offer and come back for a month or two, but in the meantime I messed around with other character classes and explored the game. At some point (maybe already in the beginning) I found out that my roommate at the time, miraculously, played on the same server I did, except all my characters were low level and Alliance and he had a top-level Horde ‘toon. So I started leveling up a Horde character. Of course my roommate also quit before I got anywhere near his level – something about not wanting spend 2-3 hours a night or more on the game anymore, I think. Later I found out that some other friends of mine in New York played on a different server. Same story – started a couple new ‘toons, people lost interest or quit, I moved on. So all told, three years after starting the game, I have about twelve characters spread across two servers and none of them are at top level. I suppose maybe that shows a lack of focus or conviction or something. I talked to my old roommate about signing back up when the next expansion comes out, but he said something along the lines of “I’m not sure I want to do that with my life again,” like if you invited a recovering alcoholic to a wild party or a recovering coke addict to do a couple rails with you for old time’s sake. Honestly I don’t blame him. Would you? Regardless, I’m not sure this whole top level thing agrees with me. It’s like when you run into someone who plays fantasy baseball and they know stats on everyone in the league and you’re sitting there like “I’m a baseball fan but I just like to watch it when it’s on, does that make me less of a fan?” But it’s a fun game and I’m in a small town in Korea so it’s not like I have a whole bunch of other stuff to do with my free time. When I had free time, that is.

Speaking of the World Series, I'd like to congratulate the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies for not going to the Series and ruining another year of my life. Keep it up, boys.

So the US congressional elections were tonight. Looks like the Democrats are so inept they can’t do anything with a super-majority, and the Republicans are so inept they can’t manage to ride their self-created “wave of populist anger” into a victory in both houses. So, two more years of gridlock, then? Is that the master plan? I guess that’s okay because “government can’t do anything right,” right, conservatives? (World War II would have been so much nicer as a private enterprise…) The ship is sinking, why bail water when we could just resort to cannibalism…

Some other stuff probably happened in the last two months but I can’t remember which stuff was the good stuff right now and I want to get this blog post finished before I decide to do some other stupid thing instead, like sleep. I’ll throw it into the next post, which at this rate will probably come in mid to late December. I guess the only other momentous things are that I bought the second half of my plane ticket to visit home in January, and today I signed my official notice to renew. So it looks like I’ll be here for at least another year. Fuck the kraken, I just want to spend a little more time with my goats. They still haven’t learned the difference between “tired” and “tiring”…

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 3)

Hello hello. I was planning a long, extensive blow-by-blow recounting of my trip to Jeju this summer, but now I've been home for two weeks and I'm sick of these blog posts taking hours to write. So I'm going to give you the short version. Okay, shorter version. And there may be some extra "o"s because the Hangul sticker I stuck on the "o" key on my keyboard cover is coming off and I'm too lazy to buy a new set of stickers off eBay. So if you don't like it, deal.

Jeju is a resort island not too far off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Many Koreans like to refer to it as "the Hawaii of Korea" while many foreigners prefer to refer to it as "not nearly as exciting as Hawaii." Having never been to Hawaii I have no basis for comparison. There are two ways to get to Jeju from Korea: plane or ferry. The plane trip only takes about an hour but it's a little more expensive and if you're traveling during peak season you have to book well in advance. I didn't start planning my trip until I figured out that I couldn't afford my planned trip to Taiwan so I took the ferry, which travels overnight from Busan. If you have the time and don't want to spend extra money, I highly recommend the ferry, there's a great party atmosphere on board so it's a lot of fun. On the way to Jeju I shared a three-person cabin with a stranger with a large backpack and another stranger that wandered in drunk late at night and never left. He was still asleep when I disembarked in the morning. But that's why I called the top bunk.

The best thing about Jeju is probably all the natural volcanic formations on the island. On day one I headed straight for the Manjanggul lava tubes, visited the hedge maze on the way back to the bus stop and ended the day at Seongsan Ilchulbong (a.k.a. Sunrise Peak) at the eastern tip of the island. It was a great day but by the time I got to Seongsan Ilchulbong I was so ludicrously drenched in sweat that I spent about an hour on the floor of my hotel room lying in a pool of the stuff trying to get my energy back. Korea is hot and humid as fuck in the summer, and Jeju is no exception. On the plus side, the floor of my hotel room was linoleum so my back made fun fart-like sounds whenever I moved. At night I ran into a Canadian couple sharing some beers and eating chicken with a few younger Koreans. One of my newfound Korean friends, trying to make conversation, came up with this chestnut about yours truly: "You. Bruce Willis. Face, yes. Body, no." I can't say it was totally unfair. (To my credit I've lost weight since I've been here. I'm not sure how much since it turns out my scale in LA was broken and weighing light, but I'm definitely on different belt loops now.)

On day two I headed southwest and ended up in Seogwipo and the resort town of Jungmun. Saw some waterfalls, found a minbak in Jungmun (boarding house), and decided that I was ready to murder just about anyone in the word if it meant that I would never perspire again. (Koreans don't sweat. They don't use deodorant either, apparently for that reason. I don't know how they do it.) For dinner I ended up at a Western-style bar and restaurant called Gecko's where I drank a few too many pints of Guinness with some Irish gentlemen and played darts with an American chap with an extensive beard. I think one of the best things about being an English-speaking ex-pat abroad is that you run into all sorts of oddball misfits, drifters, scalawags and other assorted characters that you end up swapping stories with exclusively because of your shared mother tongue. The Irish gentlemen were extremely friendly once they understood that I knew how to get my balls busted, and they were proud to see that I was drinking Guinness, although one of them soured a little after he commented that I must be Irish and I told him my whole family is German. There were no ill feelings, though. Guinness is a wonderful, magical thing.

When I had procured my room at the minbak, the manager had asked for 25,000 won, I had communicated that I wanted to stay for two nights and needed a shower, and she had responded by asking for 30,000 won. At the time I assumed that, despite my nonexistent command of Korean (luckily the Korean word for shower is "sya-weoh") and her poor command of English, I had successfully communicated my plans and gotten a great deal for two nights. Not too long afterward I realized that the conversation may not have been as effective as I had thought and the manager might not have realized that I planned to occupy the room for two nights. Since I was planning to hike Mount Hallasan and leave most of my possessions in the room the next day, I figured the managers would probably realize what was up the next morning when they peeked inside and saw a lot of dirty T-shirts and other assorted flotsam around the room, but I was a little worried nonetheless. Eventually I decided to scrawl my best approximation of "Afternoon I return" (오후 저는 돝아가세여, if I remember correctly) on the back of a receipt and left for Hallasan the next morning hoping for the best.

Mount Hallasan, Korea's highest peak, was a great hike.  ("Mount Hallasan" may be redundant since I think "san" means "mountain.") On the advice of my guidebook (Lonely Planet's Korea (Country Guide) - pick up a copy at and make me a buck) I took the Eorimok trail up and the Yeongsil trail back down. This western approach doesn't lead all the way to the rim of the volcano's crater, but my research had indicated that the trip to the rim was for more advanced climbers. I never even saw a trail to the rim on my trek, but the terrain certainly looked steep. The Eorimok trail started with a fairly steep but even climb through deciduous woods and leveled out into a grassy plane above the tree line. I took the trail up to the Witseoreum shelter, then took another trail which was open but under construction part way around the crater until I turned back to return to the Yeongsil trail. The Yeongsil trail didn't seem too exciting until I got to the section that hugs the edge of the mountain and gives a spectacular view of all the peaks and valleys around Hallasan. I'm glad I took the other trail up, though, because the Yeongsil trail was more or less an endless trek down a slipshod staircase of boulders. These Koreans with the friggin' rocks, I don't understand it. Do they want to break their ankles? I was also glad that I picked up one of those collapsible walking sticks before I got on the ferry in Busan. At the base of the Yeongsil trail there was a building that I thought was a temple at first but turned out to be a general store, which was better than a temple since it had ice cream. On a hot day, given a choice between enlightenment and ice cream, I will happily take the ice cream.

When I got back to the minbak the manager was attempting to communicate something I didn't quite understand. Eventually her husband managed "money" and I gave them another 30,000 won. All was well. And they gave me a roast sweet potato. You gotta love Korean hospitality.

Jungmun has a lot of tourist attractions, but the less expensive minbaks are up the hill from the more expensive "pension" hotels, resorts and attractions. (There were a few pensions up the hill where I was, including a Smurf-themed one that I wished I had noticed before I selected my lodgings.) I was pretty exhausted from the
trip up Hallasan but I managed to stroll down the hill towards the beach and at least take a look around, in the hope of finding a place to eat. I swung by the outside of the Teddy Bear Museum, Museum of Sound and Chocolate Museum (only the most high-minded entertainment in Jeju), went past the Pacific Land dolphin and monkey show facilities and ended up at Jungmun Beach. I think I only got my feet wet twice on the whole trip despite the fact that I was on a tropical island. Honestly going to a crowded beach isn't so fun when you're a chubby, pale, hirsute lone foreigner who's often carrying all his possessions on his back. (That was probably the thing I liked best about the island beaches in Tongyeong - no crowds!) I checked out a much-touted seafood buffet near the beach but it was packed and cost more than I was willing to spend. Down the street from my minbak there was a row of Korean-style restaurants  but when I checked them out most of them had nothing available to eat for one person. Some of them even flat out sent me away and told me to go further down the street. This is probably my one major complaint about Korean culture: there is absolutely no place in Korean society for an individual on his or her own. Especially when it comes to food. The dishes at most of the larger restaurants are cooked at the table and only served in large portions designed to be shared with a group. Typically they don't even have anything for a lone diner. Also, if you're out to eat in Korea and don't want to have what your friends are having you're shit out of luck. If the group is going for samgyeopsal, you're eating samgyeopsal or nothing. (Well, nothing but side dishes.) If I had walked the other way I would have walked into town instead of the tourist district and I might have found a hamburger stand or kimbap shop, but I really wanted to try some local Jeju specialties like their famous black pig. As it turned out I eventually found a place that had haemulpajeon (seafood scallion pancake) on the menu, which is technically a side dish but I wasn't in the mood to get technical about a thing like that at the time. Never did get to try the black pig. Clearly I need to do more to subjugate my individuality.

My last day on the island I went to Jeju City so I would never be close to the ferry terminal for my departure. I think it's good to schedule at least one day in a vacation that's more or less a blow-off day - it cuts down on the stress from feeling like you have to be doing something amazing every moment of your vacation. I caught a movie, got some passable Mexican and excellent Indian food, and saw the Samseonghyeol Shrine, where the three brothers who founded Jeju are traditionally believed to have sprung from three holes in the ground. ("Well, well, well," I uttered, stumbling upon the three holes.) I think the best part of that trip was the animated story of the three brothers with its hilariously just-off English translation. I'm not sure why but I kept thinking that if you gave the whole thing a death metal soundtrack it would make for an unusual but passable episode of Metalocalypse. Lines of narration like "The brother ate meat and wore leather clothes" definitely added to that impression.

The trip back was not a highlight as I had voluntarily bought a third class ticket instead of booking a cabin. I knew third class involved sharing a room with many other passengers and sleeping on the floor, but I hadn't realized that I would be on a rough carpet with no pads or blankets save a brick-sized vinyl-covered foam block. I don't exactly remember the conversation between me and my co-teacher when I booked the return ticket but I definitely should have asked more specific questions about the accommodations. Plus the dude next to me slept at an angle so his legs were all up in my shit all night. What the fuck, dude, sleep perpendicular to the wall like a normal person. Jeez.

So that was the Jeju trip. Now I'm back at school for another semester of English educationalizing. Next week's lesson is all about Chuck Norris. I'm trying to keep it fun this semester.

Chuseok, a.k.a. Korean Thanksgiving, is coming up in a week or two, and I have the whole week off but no travel plans as of yet. I talked to Mo about traveling to Andong but he wants to see if he passes his driving test first. So I don't know if you'll be seeing a part four installment in a couple weeks or not. For now I'm just preparing to enjoy my break between quarters for my accounting classes, and trying to meet all of the new Western teachers. One of them is in my building - another South Africa gentleman. Seems like a nice guy.

That's it for this installment. Tune in... later. And buy some shit off Amazon. How about the Jim Jarmusch classic Dead Man or Judas Priest's Screaming For Vengeance?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Death on the Installment Plan

Hey there. Not much to report. I'm in my last week of summer classes. We've been doing world travel this week, with class themes loosely based on English-speaking countries around the world. I'm thinking about wrapping it up with a Glastonbury Festival-themed UK lesson on Friday, but I'm not sure if I want to make my kids spend the class analyzing Radiohead lyrics. ("Teacher! Thom Yorke not happy!")

As far as I know all the other Western teachers in my town are away on vacation right now, so for the next week and a half I've pretty much got the place to myself as far as the English language is concerned. I plan to squander the peace and quiet on coursework, Starcraft II and the third season of Mad Men. I just finished the TEFL certificate I've been working on back on Monday, so that's one less course to deal with. Earning it doesn't really affect my pay since I have a Master's degree unrelated to English or teaching, but I thought it would help my teaching this year. But since we all know that, according to neoliberal thinking, money is the only thing in life that's worth anything, I guess I'll just toss it on the pile of useless degrees and certificates I've been building since undergrad. (Better save some space at the top for the accounting certificate...) Kind of amusing that right now the least expensive degree is the one that's most relevant to my career...

Speaking of money, finances have been on my mind this week since I've been budgeting for my trip to Jeju-do and figuring out how to have enough left over to pay the bills. I opened a new bank account here and I'm working on opening a new on in the States that together should save me at least $35 a pop on wire transfers. I also ended up making a spreadsheet of all my credit card balances since I landed here so I can track my progress towards paying them off. Happily the slope of the line on the graph is headed towards, zero, barely. (Guess those accounting classes are good for something...) Right now I'm just a little more that one payment behind schedule. I suppose that's not too bad with moving expenses and all that, but with compound interest the bigger the dent you can make in the beginning, the more it pays off in the long run. After Jeju-do I should be able to chill out on the spending and get back to making some serious progress on paying my bills, and I've started budgeting for vacations (and the eventual move back home) so I'm not caught by surprise again like I was in July. It's just so tough to be responsible when there's a new shiny thing around every corner. Like that bicycle I've been wanting. And there was that ₩100,000 desk chair that I saw at Costco, that sure would beat the kitchen table chair I'm sitting in right now... (I hate to buy furniture here that I know I'm only going to use for two or three years and then get rid of, but considering how much time I spend at the kitchen table at  my computer, a nice comfy chair would really be worth it.)

So I know I talk a lot of misery and gloom and doom in this blog, but that's mostly my gallows sense of humor coming though. I can't remember if I've said this before, but I really am having a good time here. It would be nice if it were easier to meet people and spend time with them here, and I definitely miss all my friends back home, but I'm in a stable job, I'm doing satisfying work that I enjoy, my stress level is down, I'm paying my bills, I've lost weight (still a few hundred grams away from getting back down below 200 pounds, grr...) and I'm seeing a lot of new and interesting places and experiencing a lot of new and different things. There's stuff I miss about LA (and there's stuff I absolutely don't miss in LA), but overall this has been a really rewarding experience so far. It's just kind of a shame in this modern age that a guy has to go halfway around the world to find a good job with decent pay and an affordable cost of living. That's globalization for ya, I guess.

Better wrap this up. Those Zerg aren't gonna splatter themselves...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 2)

So! My adventures in the deep south of South Korea... I wanted to kill off all my coursework and find a suitable backpack for day trips before I left town, so I didn't end up heading for Tongyeong until the Tuesday of my vacation week. In Masan I had to take two cabs to the express bus station because apparently there are two types of express bus stations in Korea (inter-province and intercity, or something along those lines) and I only knew the word for the wrong type. Some day I would really like to gain a functional use of this language, although I'm still constantly amazed by how many social functions a guy can manage to get through using only "Hello" and "Thank you." (It's kind of like being Chauncey Gardner in Being There.)

With some help from a tourist map and the Lonely Planet Korea Country Guide I started exploring Tongyeong from the Gangguan Port. I wandered up to the nearby sculpture park, then hiked over to the ferry terminal to check out island excursions and the possibility of grabbing a ferry instead of a bus to Geoje-do. After that I wandered over to the lauded Undersea Tunnel, which turned out to be about as exciting as walking through a concrete tunnel. (The picture on the tourist map made it look like it had windows or aquariums or something, but those turned out to be backlit signs.) From there I caught a bus over to the Hallyeosudo View Cable Car. I should note at this point that it was somewhere in the mid-thirties with high humidity (that's Celsius for all you Yanks - look up the conversion yourselves) while I was doing all this walking and since I was almost constantly carrying all my luggage on my back I was pretty much drenched in sweat all day every day. Now I understand why Korean hikers always where those polyester day-glo jerseys everywhere - cotton never dries. Anyway, for some reason, despite the fact that I was a damp sponge with a daypack at this point, I decided to hike down from Hallyeosudo instead of taking the cable car back. I would also like to mention at this point that the Korean approach to hiking trails is somewhat different from standard American practices. For example, most Americans forging a trail up or down a mountain would make a longer, less steep trail with a series of switchbacks. The standard Korean practice is, shall we say, a little more straightforward. In short, I found myself on a narrow, muddy trail (there must have been a stream or spring that infiltrated it at some point) mostly made of a series of loose boulders that had been tossed together to make a sort of uneven staircase. Hard on the thighs on the way up, tough on the knees on the way down - not to mention dicey when you're wearing a daypack, walking on wet rocks without a walking stick or pole and you're a little bit dehydrated. Strangely, when I emerged from the trail and hit a gravel road at the bottom I was greeted by a roadside collection of middle-aged Koreans on exercise equipment who were nice enough to point me towards Yonghwasa Temple. There's a surprise around every corner. Dynamic Korea.

I hopped a bus towards the excursion boats terminal because I thought that was where the ferries to nearby islands left from, but on the way there I ran into a local teacher from Canada who explained that they actually leave from the terminal back on the other side of the inlet that I had visited earlier in the day. I ran into her again at the nearby Tongyeong public beach, which turned out to be kind of a bust because I couldn't find any lockers for my pack and I didn't want to leave it anywhere to go into the water. (From my guidebook I had thought I could find a hotel nearby to leave it at, but again I had fallen victim to confusing the two ferry terminals.) Of course I didn't make any friendly effort to suggest to the teacher that we could meet up again or that I should get her contact info, but let's face it, that would be out of character. Instead I ended up catching a bus back to the other ferry terminal, found a yeogwan (backpacker's hotel), showered, looked for food, wussed out and got a burger at Lotteria, went back to the hotel and turned in early so I could catch an early ferry. I could have gone out but I was exhausted from all the walking I had done and my groin was regretting that I didn't pack any Gold Bond so I wasn't in the mood to paint the town red. Most of what was around the ferry terminal looked like love motels and seedy noraebang anyway. (More on Korean nightlife for the solo traveler in the Gohyeon segment.)

The guidebook said Yeonhwa-do was the must-see island in Tongyeong but my local acquaintance had mentioned that Bijin-do had the best beach. I felt a lot more like floating in the ocean that doing any more hiking so I hopped the early morning ferry to Bijin-do on the morning of day two. Almost didn't get off in time because I didn't quite understand the urgency of the disembarkation announcement. Once I arrived on Bijin-do I pretty quickly decided that I had made the right choice. The island is actually two islands connected by a sand bar and a strip of rocks, and if you were ever looking for a place to get away from it all and lie on the beach, Bijin-do is the place to do it. I only wish that I had know that there are a scant handful of hotels there or I would have tried to make reservations to stay the night. First order of business was to find breakfast. As I alluded to earlier, traveling in Korea is a little strange for a solo backpacker and one of the reasons is the food. Koreans like to go out to eat in big groups so a lot of restaurants don't have an extensive a la carte menu. Also the dish of choice by the ocean tends to be raw fish - big piles of all types of raw sea life served with kochujang, a type of soy paste and hot pepper sauce - and a $20 plate of raw fish really didn't appeal to me as a good way to start the day. Besides, I had enjoyed piles of the stuff in Namhae and I wasn't sure it was a good idea to jump back into it (especially without some soju to kill any possible bacteria). I ended up ordering a $8 set menu of broiled fish, soup and enough side dishes for a group of four. But getting a chance to float in the ocean and sit on the beach reading on a tiny island more than made up for any misgivings about breakfast. (By the way, if you're a working class stiff looking for a way to get ahead in a strange foreign country and you're looking for some good beach reading from a complete misanthrope who travels the world looking for a way to get ahead, you can't go wrong with Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.)

Back in Tongyeong I grabbed some chungmu kimbap for lunch, which was not nearly as can't-miss as the guidebook had suggested. (Squid, pressed fish paste and daikon radish kimchi? Who cares if it's a well-known local dish, honestly?) I then started hopping buses to get to Goeje-do, a large island not too far east of Tongyeong. I wasn't too sure what I was going to do when I got there, but by the time I got to the bus station in Gohyeon it was nightfall and threatening rain - plus I was drenched in perspiration again - so I found a motel and checked in, figuring I would sample the local nightlife. Now, a funny thing about traveling in Korea is that a majority of the affordable lodging, which tends to be clustered around bus and train stations and ferry terminals, is what the locals call "love motels." These motels are infamous in Korea as places where couples - some married, some fooling around, some involved in an exchange of currency for services - come to, shall we say, fuck. The locals are somewhat embarrassed by how widespread the phenomenon is - and since everything is so packed together here there's no way to shove them all into some poorly-traveled back-alley -  but it's become such a part of the social fabric that they're generally grudgingly accepted. (I ran into a teacher at a private language academy who had a class discussion about the necessity of love motels, and one of the "pro" arguments from his Korean adult students was along the lines of "we need a place to go where the kids can't hear us screwing." Korean families tend to live in fairly compact apartments.) The hotels tend to be clean, comfortable, fairly well-maintained and inexpensive, so they've become dual-purposed by travelers as well as tryst-ers, as long as said travelers don't require a family-friendly environment free from niceties like condoms and business cards from prostitutes. The one I stayed at in Gohyeon was fairly low-key other than the mood lighting and the free pornography on TV. Let me take this opportunity to tell you all about Korean pornographic videos. Now I've seen some fairly unusual pornography in my day (by accident, of course) but Korean porn is something else. They don't seem to be able to show genitalia, penetration, or all that other good stuff that's in run-of-the-mill hardcore pornography, but they still seem to have a taste for the type of rape fantasies and inappropriate sexual advances that you sometimes see in Japanese movies and porn (that I've seen by accident). So imagine naked couples going though all sorts of contortions to simulate sex in positions that don't visually serve up any wiener or taco, but also scenes of a guy molesting a sleeping girl on a bus and similar fare. Well, I guess if anyone wanted to argue that morality is a social construct, there's your evidence in full, poorly-lit color.

(I started using this Amazon Associates monetizing gimmick in this post for no good reason... I wonder if Amazon sells any Korean pornography I could link to?)

After a quick shower I decided to hit the town in Gohyeon and see what was up. Most of what was around the bus station was once again bars, love motels, PC bangs (internet cafes) and noraejujeom. Once I asked an acquaintance of mine back in my town, who I've been helping on and off with her English (no, that's not a euphemism for anything), to explain the difference between a noraebang (karaoke room) and a noraejujeom while we were walking past one in town. She started by saying, "Well, it's a singing bar... Usually they have... hostess girls..." That was the point where I changed the subject since I realized I might be asking a female acquaintance to explain something unseemly to me. The funny thing about smut and vice in Korea is that it all seems to be out in the open yet behind closed doors. I guess it's all part of that whole public "face" thing - out of sight, out of mind. Being here you hear all sorts of rumors about goings-on in coffee shops and barbershops with two poles, and trips with co-workers that start at a noraebang and end at a brothel. (Luckily my co-teachers and dedicated family men so I've never had to deal with the embarrassment of that scenario, thank Christ.) As a foreigner, though, when you pass a nightclub or a noraejujeom with silhouettes of female bodies or a light-up inflatable column ad with a scantily-dressed young girl on it, you don't know whether it's actually some sort of cat house or burlesque, or if they're just selling karaoke or nightclubbing with sex. Generally, to be safe, I always assume the formal and keep my distance. Besides, everything in Korea is a group activity, including brothels from what I hear, and if a lone foreigner or small group of waegooks wander into a brothel here they supposedly immediately get the crossed-hands "X" sign from the old lady behind the counter and get sent away. (At least that's what I've heard about the red light strip in Daegu, but I don't even know where it is.) As a side note, the light-up balloon signs outside the noraejujeom in Goheyon all had pictures of the same young girl in a bikini, and on a lot of them people had burned cigarette holes in the girl's eyes and delicate areas. C'mon, guys, that sort of thing just ain't right.

(I hope that if my co-workers ever find this blog and figure out who I am, it's not a worse offense to talk about the goings-on of the sex industry than to indulge in it...)

I had passed a bar in Gohyeon that advertised itself as a "Western Beer Bar" so I decided to check it out. They wouldn't let me sit at the empty bar so they put me at a table for eight by myself. The beer was all either  overpriced or piss, or both (they were out of Sam Adams and the only Canadian beer was Moosehead... and who the fuck imports Genesee beer to Asia, fer chrissakes??!?!) so I polished off two as the rest of the bar filled up with groups of Koreans together in their tight-knit groups. As I said, traveling solo in Korea is not easy. When it came time to pay the check I couldn't even get the staff's attention - I was close to just leaving the cash on the bar without receiving the bill and walking out. After that I decided to give up, go to a PC bang and play World of Warcraft to kill the evening (yes, I am a nerd, get over it) but I couldn't get my American account to load up on a Korean computer. So I turned in early again and decided to get a jump start on the morning.

I was too sunburned to go back to the beach and didn't feel too much like hiking so I got on a bus and found my way to Geoje Haegeumgang, a rock outcropping off the coast of the southeast corner of the island. Geoje Haegeumgang is apparently Korean National Scenic Site #2, which makes me wonder even more how this whole Korean compulsion to rank order historic sites and treasures really works. When I was at the National Museum in Seoul there were several displays of pottery and other historical artifacts that were presented right next to each other, like, "This vase from the Three Kingdoms period is National Treasure #119. That means it's better than whatever #120 is but not quite as nice as whatever #118 is. This nearly identical vase next to it... well, it's just OK." I guess it's possible that the one vase belonged to some king and the other one belonged to some schmuck, but still, how do they decide on the exact order? Regardless, when I arrived at Geoje Haegeumgang I was impressed with just how unimpressive a rock outcropping it was and how little of it I could see due to the morning mist. Undaunted, I jumped on a ferry boat to get a closer look.

There were some crabs on it. That was kind of cool.

When the boat landed at the wharf someone handed me a note that said "1:35". I didn't understand what I would possibly have to do at 1:35, and when I tried to ask someone about it in broken Korean, apparently what I said was understood as "It's 1:35?" rather than "What's at 1:35?" since the only answer I got was "Yes." When I got off the boat, I realized that we were not back at shore like I had thought - we were at Oe-do, and 1:35 was the time to come back to the boat. Well, how about that. Oe-do is a small island of manicured flower gardens and Greek revival columns. I was going to skip it, as a certain guidebook I copiously pimped earlier had described it as boring, but as it turns out it was the best part of my trip to Geoje-do. The walk around the island was an enjoyable constitutional (despite the daypack, 30-plus degree heat, humidity and copious perspiration I mentioned earlier) and the gardens were truly something to see, especially if you're packing any sort of camera. There were also some sculptures that could only be described as "naked babies wrestling." (I'd post photos but I dropped six rolls of film off at the photo shop last week and they're still not done. Oh, Dynamic Korea, how I love you and your cute little quirks sometimes.) I also saw a lot of nice beaches in Geoje-do from the bus on my way back to the express bus terminal in Jangseungpo, but I didn't have the time or energy to stop. Maybe next time.

So all in all it was a good trip, and it was nice to get out of my tiny town, get some sand between my toes and take in some more Korea. I never made it to the Pohang fireworks festival because I ended up having to catch up on my coursework and somehow I got an intense stomachache right before the last train I could catch to get to Pohang in time. Summer lessons have actually been a lot of fun - even though it's a new lesson plan every day, the classes are smaller and shorter and I have more leeway to make them fun and informal. This week all the lessons are about movies and I'm hoping to do a short video with the kids by the end of the week. After summer school at my school and one week of English camp at a nearby elementary school I get another three days off, and I should be heading to Jeju-do to see what all the hype is about.

OK, it's 1:40 in the morning and the only good reason to be up this late is if I'm playing Starcraft II with my old college buddies in America, which is not what I'm doing right now. I'm going to bed. Blogging takes too fucking long.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 1)

Holy cats, it's been a whole month since the last time I posted? Ouch. Time flies, I guess. Especially when so much of your energy is focused on planning future vacations and trying to balance your checkbook well enough to have enough money for your vacation. Sadly my vacations this month and next come days before I get my monthly paycheck, so it's been a balancing act all month to conserve enough cash to be able to get out of town for a few days. But you know how it is. Imagine it's a month from now, suddenly it is. (Hmm... how many more Bluetip references can I slip into this blog? We'll see...)

The first half of the school year is over, and I'm currently finishing off day one of my four days of vacation. The vacation plan has mutated several times since I started working on it. First I was considering Ulleung-do, but then I found out the ferry tickets are too expensive and generally travel to Ulleung-do in peak season requires reservations. Strike one. I was planning on going to Pohang for the fireworks festival, but then I found out the fireworks festival is next weekend, not this weekend. Strike two. I thought about going to the infamous mud festival in Boryeong just to check it out. For the uninitiated, the town of Boryeong in Chungcheongnam-do has a beach side spa that's renowned for its healthful mud. Several years ago they started a summer festival to promote it, which was eventually discovered by the waegook community and has apparently has become more of a miry bacchanal with every subsequent year. Now, I see nothing wrong with getting drunk and being foreign in large numbers, and I can see the attraction of doing this in a giant mud pit, but personally I'm not much for the whole rolling around in mud thing. Put succinctly, I am not a hippie. (Also I'm a fairly portly gentleman who does not relish opportunities to appear shirtless in public. As "Wet Hot American Summer" defined it, I'm one of the indoor kids.) Regardless, I was thinking about going for the day and scoping out the scene until I found out that getting to Chungcheongnam-do from my part of the world is a royal pain in the ass, as is returning from Boryeong to the nearest city. Since lodging for the mud festival is apparently impossible to obtain without advance reservations and most bacchanals tend to stay mellow until after dark - and who wants to try to navigate their way home across a foreign country drunk? - I decided that the mud fest would probably not be a good day trip. Maybe next year. In short, foul tip, count stays 0-2.

By the way, my favorite thing about the Boryeong mud festival is that nearly all domestic (and by that I mean Korean) advertisements for the festival depict a group of mud-covered young foreigners, mostly women in bikinis, yet most of the Western promotional material I've seen for the festival, such as the pic in the Lonely Planet guide, shows groups of soiled Korean youths, again with a few prominently placed good-looking females. Exoticism, or blaming the other? You decide! (Personally, I'm happy to put politics aside and celebrate it all in the name of having a good time. Everyone loves beer, mud and hot bods; no reason to get all serious about it.)

My current plan is to hop a train for Masan tomorrow morning and proceed from there via express bus to Tongyeong in Gyeongsangnam-do (the province immediately south of mine), and hopefully head from there after a day or so to Goeje, Korea's second largest island. It's close, it's cheap, it's an excuse to leave my apartment and there'll be water, sights to see, trails to trek and hopefully some sun. (It's the rainy season right now, so there's no guarantee of sun wherever I go. I'm a little bummed that it's going to be Tuesday before I can actually hit the road and technically I've been on vacation since Saturday, but I had a lot of coursework to get out of the way and after my recent trip to Seoul (more on that in a moment) I figured I'd better spend a day or two looking for a decent backpack. Traveling in Korea on a budget often involves carrying your stuff around with you rather than immediately checking into a hotel or stowing it in your car, so it's important to pack light and have something comfortable to tote your stuff around in.

Since Wednesday was the last day of school, Thursday the teachers were kind enough to invite me on their two-day getaway to celebrate the end of the semester. The plan: head by chartered bus (package tours seem to be one of the most popular forms of vacation here) to Namhae, another island in Gyeongsangnam-do, do some hiking, hit the beach, eat a lot of raw fish, drink a lot of soju, sing a lot of karaoke (the preferred term here is "noraebang," which means "singing room," indicating the private room where the singing usually happens) and visit a spa on the way back. The trip didn't exactly go down without a hitch - by the time we got back to the hotel at night it was pouring rain, and it continued to rain for all of the next day, so there was no beach time. Also I of course managed to get completely smashed and make an ass of myself at the hotel after dinner, but apparently that's the point of drinking in Korea. (By the way, if someone here asks you how many drinks you have in a week, never tell them more than one. Koreans don't really understand the concept of wine with dinner or a beer after work; to them "having a drink" means getting fall-down drunk and nothing else.) It's also fortunate for me that few of my co-teachers speak much English. At least I hope they don't. The next morning I discovered why the slogan of Korea's most popular brand of soju is "Good Morning," - a few of the teachers were still sipping it at breakfast. I, however, was in one of those hungover states where a little hair of the dog is not going to help - you're either going to have to get piss-ass rolling drunk all day and be twice as sick the next day, or just deal with it. I opted for the latter. Luckily I spent most of the day sleeping on the bus due to the weather, so by the afternoon I was actually feeling halfway human. We had lunch at Bugok Hawaii, a hot spring and water park rolled into one in Gyeongsangnam-do. After lunch came my first Korean spa experience, which was horizon-expanding if anything. The basic idea of the Korean spa or bathhouse is that you all get bare-ass, Full Monty naked and hang out with a bunch of other naked dudes in pools of water. Surprisingly -in stark contrast to the Western concept of a bathhouse - this involves no crystal meth or overt homosexuality. Personally I was extremely glad to be nearsighted once I got inside since it saved me from having to observe too much man-ass and wang in full resolution. Being a tubby, hairy, blonde, circumcised Caucasian individual I felt a little bit body-conscious throughout the experience, and honestly I don't see how the whole thing would have been dulled by the inclusion of swim trunks, but hey, when in Rome. Apparently it's tradition for close friends or fathers and sons to wash each other's backs at bathhouses, but to my infinite gratitude no offered to do mine. One thought did strike me as I was sitting in green tea-infused hot water trying to keep my face away from other dudes' junk as they entered and exited the water: that somewhere, perhaps on the other side of a thin wall, was a room full of naked women were also showering under artificial waterfalls and lounging in pools of spring water in a state of absolute nature. I wanted to be in that room. I would still have wanted a towel to cover my shame, but I would have appreciated the sense of inclusion.

A couple weeks before the Namhae trip I finally made it to Seoul for a weekend. Didn't get to do nearly as much as I wanted to there but I got the chance to snap some pics of some temples and palaces, eat some good Mexican food in Seoul's foreigner enclave, Itaewon, watch Aussie-rules football with a large group of Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans, and check out a couple of jazz bars with some of Mo's acquaintances. I also spent the night in a jjimjilbang, which is probably best translated as a "naked hotel." Okay, strictly speaking the jjimjilbang is another type of bathhouse with gender-separated sleeping rooms, but that doesn't describe the experience nearly as well as "naked hotel." Oh, sure, they give you a pair of shorts and a T-shirt when you com in, strip, and abandon all your worldly possessions in a locker, and the genders are allowed to mingle in the floors with the snack bar and the arcade, but I still missed my underwear. The jjimjilbang near the train station in Seoul is actually pretty nice, I highly recommend it if you need a place to sleep and take a shower for about 12,000 won if I recall the price correctly. This particular jjimjilbang had bunks instead of just letting you sleep on the floor and the facilities were very nice. At the same time... maybe I'm just a prude, but I personally believe that breakfast and the male genitalia of strangers should be kept separate, and such was not the case in the lobby/locker room in the morning. What's with the nudity, Korea? You have pants. I've seen them. Why not use them?

Gaar. It's past 11PM and I want to jump on an early train to Masan tomorrow. This is why I haven't been blogging - there's not enough hours in the day. Especially with accounting courses stacked on top of the husbandly duties I owe myself and my living space, and the occasional attempt to see a little of the countryside. Okay, what else was on my mind... Korea didn't win the World Cup, so that's unfortunate. I went to Daegu for what were to be Korea and the USA's last matches, and saw the Korea/Uruguay game in the rain in Daegu's municipal stadium with a fairly healthy crowd of Koreans and a few Pakistanis. I've decided that I'm probably not going to Taiwan next month - can't afford it after the Philippines trip. Maybe in September if I'm a good steward of my resources. I'll probably go to Jeju-do instead when I get my vacation at the end of August. Been watching a lot of The Wire courtesy of iTunes, my iPod and a TV adapter, which so far has been the easiest way for me to get Western TV and movies. This summer's movie selection in theaters kind of sucks and some of the good stuff like Toy Story 3 isn't coming out until after school lets out. Inception is out Wednesday so I've been ducking spoilers on social media outlets all week. Korean classes in Daegu are done for the quarter, I still can't speak much Korean and I'm waiting until fall to start up again because of trips and such this summer, but I did get a perfect attendance certificate for my efforts. Remind me to look up the Korean word for "express bus terminal" before I leave tomorrow morning. Hmm, suppose I should pack before then too, huh?

Stay sexy, world. I'll try to post another update once I get back from my travels this week and next weekend.