Saturday, December 31, 2011

So This Is the New Year...

Well. I guess this officially makes updating my blog a New Year's Eve tradition. I thought about going out, but then I thought about how much I wanted to avoid this song (warning: not a good song):

Instead I've got this blog, whatever's on TV tonight, the Criterion 3-disc version of "Brazil" and the second-cheapest spumonte available at HomePlus. I'm not sure if I'm going to make it up to the roof by dawn to see the sun rise, but since I did it last year and this year has been fairly good, I feel like if I don't do it this year I'm setting myself up for bad luck. I'm not really that superstitious but with certain charms and jinxes I feel like it's most pragmatic to defer to Pascal's Wager and just go with the flow. Or maybe I'm just intensely paranoid. Whatevs.

I'm not feeling quite as philosophical as last year tonight but I am feeling good about leaving for my vacation in roughly 48 hours. As you may know from following this blog religiously as if your life depended on it - as I'm sure you all do - I've been planning a vacation to Malaysia for roughly, oh, let's say, a year. Last year I was a little disappointed at vacation time because I realized that flying out of Korea without planning well ahead is expensive and vacationing in Korea is, well, not as cool as vacationing somewhere with beaches, monkeys and tropical weather. So I started saving my money and buying travel guides so that I could make my winter  vacation this year worth it. So why Malaysia, you ask? Well, first, when I was in grade school, there was this:

Along with this annoying segment, 3-2-1 Contact showed a lot of interesting stuff about the unique animal, plant and traditional human life in Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. That was probably the first time I became aware of Malaysia and the amazing biodiversity in Borneo, although I didn't really know anything about the economic development going on in the country, which would soon have us talking about Petronas Towers instead of proboscis monkeys when people mentioned Malaysia. I'd also heard a few things about Singapore over the years - a lot of stuff about shopping malls and chewing gum being illegal, admittedly, but it still seemed like an intriguing nexus point in the global marketplace worth exploring. Then, last year at the end of either the spring or fall semester I had some class periods to kill so I showed the kids some of the BBC's Planet Earth documentary, which featured more of Borneo. "Hey," I thought to myself, "I bet Borneo isn't that far from Korea," once again falling into my old habit of believing that everything in East and Southeast Asia and Oceania is right next door to Korea. (As it turns out, Kuala Lumpur is approximately the same distance from Korea as Los Angeles is from New York in the USA - in other words, not close. Discovering this was about as surprising as when I realized, as the crow flies, that I would be flying approximately the same distance to visit New Zealand from here as I would if I were going there from Los Angeles. That was pretty much the death knell of my quixotic dream of trekking the Milford Track on my way back home in 2013.) So anyway, in addition to agreeable weather and educational television, I heard good things about Malaysia and Malaysians from everyone I met who has traveled there (unlike a certain nearby island nation that will remain nameless, cough cough Indonesia). Beyond that, it just seems like an engrossing little juncture in the world, with the Malay, Chinese and Indian populations combining all their different influences in the culture, not to mention the historic influence from Islamic and European traders over the years. Also, when I called the hotel in Kuala Lumpur to ask about their luggage storage policy the first guy I talked to spoke excellent English, so that's a good sign. Plus, their flag looks just like the US flag but with a star and crescent. What's not to love?

I really want to find a t-shirt with this on it to piss off the unwitting Islamophobes back home.
The funny thing is, I've been looking forward to this vacation for so long that at this point the anticipation has almost burned itself out and now I'm more concerned with the little, day-to-day concerns, like what it's going to be like being in yet another foreign country (two, if you count Singapore separately) on my own for 17 days, whether this endeavor's going to be more expensive that I anticipated, whether I'm packing too many pairs of shoes (my plan was to wear boots and bring flip-flops for the evenings and beaches, but then I realized that I wanted to rent a bicycle in Singapore and biking in either boots or flip-flops is not a good idea) and how strictly AirAsia is going to enforce their 7kg carry-on luggage allowance. I suppose I've also been feeling a little less trapped here with my vacation time coming and with the school year shifting into Finals Mode weeks ago. (I haven't taught a real class since the first few days of December. I think my students have learned a few important things about Batman this month, though.) I'm sure all the little nagging worries will melt away as soon as I get off the plane and it's warm and I can go, "Hey, there's Petronas Towers," and take pictures of Petronas Towers and enjoy myself. Besides, I may never get the chance to take a vacation like this again. I've got hopes and vague plans to go to Japan and Thailand/Vietnam/Cambodia (and maybe Hong Kong on the way to Thailand) before I leave this job but God knows vacation time in the US is a rarity and I've got a lot of catching up to do on the corporate ladder before I can count on having the time or money to do extensive globetrotting again. Also I suppose there's a chance that I won't be interested in carrying all my luggage on my back and staying in hostels once I get too much further beyond 30. Well, personally I don't believe in dwelling on the things you can't do or might never do in life when you could be focusing on what's good in the present, so for now I'm just going to concentrate on getting some good photos, some street hawker food and some sand between my toes.

Oh, before I go - you're probably wondering how things are here with the Dear Leader of our crazy neighbors up north shuffling off this mortal coil and the funny fat kid taking charge. I guess I would describe the attitude here as equal parts anxiety and resignation. I don't think anybody thinks things are going to be imminently less crazy above the DMZ, but I don't think anybody's anticipating an immediate invasion or anything either. I mean, the Kim dynasty and the North Koreans have always been crazy, opaque and unpredictable - is it really going to be much different any time soon with a baby-faced 28-year-old in charge?

So, 2011? Not bad. The Bills won a few games. I bought a new camera. The job's good and the people are nice. And I'm going to Malaysia. I mean, there was also the Gulf oil spill and the tsunami and earthquake in Japan and the flooding in Pakistan and Thailand and the stupid stupid stupid US government and stuff, but all that stuff mostly happened to other people. So all in all, a pretty good year. Cheers, everyone. "Should auld aquaintance blah blah blah, dah dah dah Auld Lang Syne..."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What To Do, What To Do…

Well, its finally happened. Ive finally completed the accounting certificate program I started three years ago before I left the States. Add to that the fact that my classes for the year are finished (were doing nothing but self-study sessions prior to the final exams next week, and theres no way Im attempting anything other than showing a movie after exams are done) and, well, let me allow the Stone Roses cough, er, ah, I mean the Soup Dragons to sum it up for you

Despite the lack of a parade, bronze statue, banquet in my honor or other momentous event to celebrate my completion of the certificate program (I cant even attend the graduation ceremony, since itll be next June in LA and Ill be here then) it still feels like a pretty significant achievement. It seems strange now to think back to that moment in late 2008 when I was a copiously moustachioed (long story) temporary mailroom clerk at a music publisher in LA, watching the world economy fall down around me, and coming to the realization that, as an adult over 30 without a decent job still struggling to cover basic expenses in a highly competitive job market with over $50,000 in student loan debt and mounting credit card balances, maybe it was time for a fairly radical career change. I didnt exactly picture myself right here, right now back then Im not sure what I was foreseeing back then exactly, other than a tiny light at the end of an otherwise rapidly dimming tunnel. The process wasnt easy at times before I left the States to do this job I was doing production work six days a week, thirteen hours a day and trying to complete all my coursework on my one day off. (Whenever conservative, 54 percenter types get on their high horses and say things like, Why dont these lazy unemployed people get jobs? or, Why dont these whiny liberal arts majors go back to school? I really want to shake one of them by the shoulders and say, Why dont YOU try actually doing that some time, and find out how easy it is?!?) Now here I am three years later, sitting at a desk in Korea reading Anna Karenina on my computer whilst managing self-study sessions for antsy, exhausted high school students. Crazy world.

As welcome as the change from intermittent freelance work to a full-time job has been, at times its felt like Ive been working sixteen-hour days, five or six days a week for the past two years. The amount of study required for my certificate program has varied wildly from quarter to quarter as different courses had much different workloads. My first year here I was even trying to complete a TEFL certificate and take Korean classes one day a week while I was studying, working and trying to maintain a modest home. So this sudden realization (more in the accounting sense than the mental sense in this case) that I suddenly have very little to do at work and much less to do at home has been kind of a shock to the system for me, like taking a fish out of dirty pond water and suddenly putting it into a clean new fish tank. I honestly have no idea what to do with myself, to some extent. Ive been growing pretty tired of playing the handful of video games that I own. A friend of mine has been trying to get me to join some online games with him, but Im concerned that I dont really have the motivation to become competent enough at a game to play it in a competitive environment. Ive been too lazy to go back to the local video store since the Haeundae incident of earlier this year, and since watching DVDs on my TV involves moving my laptop to the floor and rerouting some cables Im often too lazy to carry through with the effort. (I know, that doesnt sound like a lot of toil and trouble, but think about it when do you want to watch TV the most? Exactly when you have absolutely no desire to put any sort of effort into entertaining yourself.) Im genuinely trying to make an effort to read books, but, you know, theyre books. Snore. Plus books have to be bought or downloaded and I hate reading off the computer at my desk. (Please keep in mind while reading this that this is a recounting of my attempts to relax, and as such gross sloth is not only acceptable, but also a key element of the pursuit.) Its getting too cold to go outside and hike. Ive been exercising every day at my schools fitness room, but that only kills an hour or so every night. Ive been considering buying a guitar but I want to wait until I come back from vacation this winter to see what my finances are like before I invest in one. The stuff on TV is in Korean and the people outside are talking the same gibberish for some reason. So in the meantime Im at somewhat of a loss for how to fill my waking hours in the evening. Mind you, I just completed my coursework yesterday, so this is still a rather new problem. Im sure Ill have it figured out in a few days or a week. Either that or Ill finally figure out how it is that people can actually bring themselves to sleep for eight hours a night. (It seems like such a waste of time to get more than six or seven. I mean over a lifetime, thats like [fumbles with calculator] 57,816 excess hours lost to somnambulance? Unacceptable.)

Vacation planning has occupied some of my time at school. Now that Im going back through the guidebook I bought for my trip to Malaysia, Im starting to realize that I dont have the time or money to do everything I originally wanted to do on the trip. Part of the reason is that the guidebook goes into lush detail describing exciting trekking and scuba diving adventures available in Borneo, which are wonderful to read about but generally too expensive, too time-consuming, too far-flung or too far out of my expertise in outdoor sports. So far Ive only discovered one or two adventures that I really wanted to partake in and could reasonably pursue that I cant squeeze in because of time and logistical constraints. Regardless, Im really looking forward to the trip. Its probably best that I dont try to pack too much into my itinerary so that I can take an afternoon off to rest if I need it or squeeze in some sort of adventure that I hadnt anticipated if I want to. There is such a thing as overplanning, despite what the more fastidious elements of society (and Word spell-checker) will tell you.

Christmas is coming. Christmas in Korea is weird because Korea has all the Christmas trappings with no actual Christmas. There are Christmas trees and Christmas decorations and Christmas music everywhere, but as Westerners understand the holiday, theres no actual Christmas at the end of all of it. Its kind of a big Christmas tease all the Christmas foreplay with no Christmas release at the end. (Youre quite welcome to keep that mental picture, by the way.) In Korea, Christmas is mostly a time for young couples to get together and have dates. Yes, somehow Korea decided it needs a *third* Valentines Day instead of Christmas. This definitely does not jibe so well with my mental picture of what Christmas should be, which involves family and gifts and cookies and a fireplace and eggnog. (LOTS of eggnog.) Some of my friends here in town are planning a celebration for the night of Christmas Eve, but it still doesnt seem the same (despite the fact that I have gone to great lengths to attempt to make eggnog from scratch for the party). Granted, I cant exactly import my family (or a fireplace, for that matter) into the country just to celebrate Christmas, but Christmas looms large on that list of Western things you just cant get here (along with really good pastrami, baguettes that arent rock-hard, dry red or white wine, and, unfortunately, store-bought eggnog).

Meh, thats all Ive got for now. Ill probably touch base again some time after I arrive in Kuala Lumpur for vacation, or perhaps after I get back to Korea. OBLIGATORY CLOSING SONG!

(Postscript: I was going to include a link to the White Stripes video for "Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," but that turned out to just be Kate Moss dancing in her underwear, and that seemed kind of sexist. So I'm including this video instead:)

(Other Postscript: Hey, Eastbound and Down, Season 2 is available on iTunes now! My problems are solved!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Three Weddings and Two Festivals

Hello again. Dont tell anyone but Im penning this at work. I also spent all morning working on some accounting homework I was too tired to do last night instead of working on lesson plans or school-related stuff. My 1st graders are in Jeju on a class trip this week so I had no classes yesterday and only one today, and Ill have only one tomorrow and none on Friday due to some test. The nice thing about this job is that there almost always seems to be a day or week off when you really need it. It could be an unexpected holiday (the anniversary of the school founders death, for example), an unexpected test, the countys sports day, a mid- or end-of-semester exam, the week before an exam when your co-teachers ask you to allow extra classes or student self-study during your class period, Koreas national end-of-high-school exam The list is endless. Its almost enough to make a guy feel put upon when he actually needs to teach a full week of classes with no weird scheduling conflicts. Almost.

It was already several weeks ago, around the time of the midterm exams (which were absurdly early this semester we only had about 4 1/2 weeks of my class before the mid-term break, in part because of Chuseok and that self-study week before the exam) that I started to reflect on just how quickly time flies here. It seems like only yesterday that I was coming back to school from the summer session and contemplating how much longer I should wear my short-sleeved shirts to work, and already today I had to wear a cardigan to work for the first time since last winter. (It was 3 degrees outside this morning and still the school has all the doors and windows in the stairwells open. I would like to put forward the motion to recognize that COLD AIR IS NOT FRESH AIR, PEOPLE.) Winter vacation in Malaysia, my brief jaunt home to the States and even the next contract are all looming near-future events now. Its a strange thing to contemplate. Maybe I just dont have enough to occupy my mind here other than the intricacies of the US tax code (its a course Im taking this quarter) and the passage of time. Maybe I need a new hobby. Maybe I should get a pet. No, wait, I already abandoned one pet back home, I dont need to put another living thing in limbo here. Maybe I should grow a plant instead. Meh. I should probably wait until next spring to do that. Oh well

The news this time around is all pretty bland. Ive been using my schools fitness room daily and Ive dropped some weight. Im already down a pant size and I was using yet another new notch on my belt for a couple days before I brought that pizza home from Costco last night. I wonder if my friends will even recognize me when I come home to visit. (Not that Im bragging or anything.) I went to the Jinju Latern Festival earlier this fall with some other foreign teachers from my town, but we didnt want to spend the night so we had to run to the bus station just as they were launching the fireworks and lighting the lanterns on the river. I had a good time, though. I likewise made an underwhelming trek to the Liquor and Rice Cake Festival in Gyeongju. Originally I was planning to make a weekend out of it to explore the city maybe even rent a bicycle and cruise the sights, which Ive been meaning to do, if only as an excuse to ride a bike again. As it turns out one of my co-teachers got married that weekend (more on that in a moment) so I decided to do the festival as a day trip instead. I left early to make the trip up to the Seokguram stone grotto in Gyeongju (which was a little bit of a disappointment the interior is behind glass and the exterior is covered by rocks and grass so its hard to get a really good look at the impressive stonework involved in building the thing) and was supposed to meet up with some friends from my town at the festival later in the day, but my friends cancelled at the last minute. It didnt make sense to try to get in touch with people I know who live in Gyeongju at that point since it was obvious I wouldnt stay too long, so I circled the festival, bought a ceramic shot glass on a string that resembles a bell (I can see where that might come in handy in the future at least), ran into the same English teachers I usually see at festivals that involve heavy drinking (theyre nice folks, dont get me wrong, its just funny how it always seems to be the same people), dodged an angry Phillies fan who didnt much like my Cardinals cap, sucked down all the free samples I could, bought a largely unremarkable bottle of makgeoli and headed back home. Its good to acknowledge when you cant force a trip to be a good time and know to cut your losses.

So yeah, one of my co-teachers got married. I found out about the wedding at the beginning of the week when it happened. Before that I had briefly met her boyfriend, but I had no idea they were even engaged until I got the electronic invitation. The invitation was pretty impressive, albeit delivered only a short time span before the impending nuptials. Apparently theres a thing they do here for modern style weddings where the bride and groom get together before the wedding and do a photo shoot at a photography studio for the invitations. The bride and groom wear different dresses and tuxes (respectively, of course) and pose together in various rooms with various complementary tchotchkes. (There was kind of yester-tech-y feel to some of the stuff in my co-teachers pictures old television monitors and stuff like that which appealed to my inner geek. I would share the pictures but Im not sure if the invitation is still online and Im sure that would be an egregious violation of my co-teachers privacy.) They threw in the obligatory hanbok photo at the end of the set as well, to keep the traditionalists happy. My first reaction was, Hey, the grooms not supposed to see the bride in the dress before the wedding! but that reaction was soon mitigated by the realization of how much made sense about the arrangement. The way I see it, theres all this pressure on a bride to pick the right dress for the wedding, and then she wears it once and stuffs it in a closet either forever or until she feels like pulling it out and making herself feel bad about how much weight shes gained. With this photo shoot thing, the bride gets to try out every dress that she could possibly want for the wedding, and gets a souvenir for the effort to boot. So the bride can try out the short and flirty dress without worrying about scandalizing the great aunts, or go for the dress with the ridiculously long train without worrying about practical issues of mobility, or whatever. Plus, if youre going to only wear the thing once, why not buy one and rent five? Makes perfect sense to me.

The wedding itself took place in this purpose-built wedding hall that was a little like a giant wedding airport. There was another wedding scheduled for my co-teachers wedding terminal something like 50 minutes after our scheduled start time, which I knew because everything scheduled in the hall was listed on big LCD monitors all around the building. The employees at the wedding hall were already setting up flowers and photos for the next wedding as my co-teacher was completing hers. When I met my co-teacher just before the wedding, she was perched in an out-of-the-way annex in her dress (she went bold and got the one with the long, unwieldy train, by the way) on what I could only describe as a bridal throne. This was a slightly strange experience for me, since my reaction was, I know you, I see you and work with you every day at work, but now youre in a strange room on a throne. What am I supposed to do here? Luckily it didnt last long. All the staff from our school was invited, and everyone who came showed up without their spouses or families, the same way you wouldnt consider bringing your spouse or your family to any other work function. The ceremony was mercifully brief, with a big showy light show and a song from the groom, and everyone who attended talked through the whole thing like it was no big deal to be talking through a wedding. After the ceremony we all filed down to the banquet hall for a buffet dinner, except for the bride and groom who were apparently spirited away to some other private family ceremony. I was in and out of the place and on my way home within an hour and thirty minutes. Honestly I have to admire the efficiency.

Some of you are probably reading this and thinking, Oh, how awful, theyve Westernized their marriages and its so terrible because its so us and white and not at all them and Asian. As you may have guessed from my tone, Im thinking that your thinking is full of shit. Lots of people in the modern world choose to have modern weddings instead of traditional weddings. I think most of the best weddings Ive been to have dispensed with as many traditions as possible. One set of my friends, for example, had a non-traditional wedding that I thought got everything exactly right. When they got married, they put everyone up in a hotel for the weekend (not a super fancy place, but a very nice one), wore regular clothes to the ceremony, brought their dog, did the vows like it was no thing, and had dinner and everything else immediately after the ceremony, more or less in the same room. (My gift to them was to convince all of our mutual male friends to grow moustaches for the wedding. The wedding pictures are freakin amazing.) In my opinion, this is the way to do a wedding. No prince and princess shit necessary. Just let all of your friends and family get together in one place at one time, get everyone a little tipsy, get them to buy you some appliances and celebrate your relationship. Lets be fair, whatever realization you had that you wanted to be together, and whatever promise you made that you would stay together, probably happened long before the wedding, and if making that promise legally binding really means that much to you then youre probably not very good at keeping promises. So in short, and especially as someone with a Y-chromosome, I like the wedding-in-a-big-box concept. One-stop shopping. Find the best product at the best price and pay the guy. No muss, no fuss. Wedding traditions are all kind of ridiculous anyway. One of my other co-teachers told me that traditionally Korean couples had two weddings, one in the brides hometown and one in the grooms. The ceremony took place and the spouses parents house and the whole village was invited. Ive also been told that traditional Korean ceremonies involve a LOT of standing, bowing and more standing, like to the point of being kind of brutal to watch. Also, traditionally it was the first time the bride and groom had ever met. A wedding like that, while a nice tradition to preserve and cherish, doesnt really work in the modern context. So theres no reason not to have a modern Western wedding for your co-workers and extended family and do the traditional stuff somewhere else while your co-workers and family fill up on ham and raw salmon. Traditions are great and all but there also comes a time for them to step aside and let modernity take over. For example, when my cousin got married she had a non-denominational ceremony outdoors. Nothing unusual about that in this day and age, really. Up until the moment just after the toast, when one of the grooms relatives yelled, Mazel tov! I had never thought about the fact that my cousins new husband was Jewish. (My cousin, like most of my family, is extremely blond and Lutheran.) Im guessing the religious differences werent all that important to my cousin and cousin-in-law, or they had found a way to work them out, since they got married and all, but if they opted for a strictly traditional ceremony they would have had to argue about whether theres going to be a priest or a rabbi and who has to convert and all that shit. Theres no reason to have to do all that personal stuff publicly. So anyway, the moral of this story is, if you insist on getting married for some dumb reason, please keep shit short and simple like they do in Korea. And please have an open bar, because cash bars are lame. Also please feel free to get totally gay-married because theres no reason to make a fuss about that either because marriage is lame anyway. Meanwhile, I will be here, remaining single, and being not at all bitter about it.

Alright, thats enough local color commentary for now. Nothing that exciting is looming in the immediate future. Im currently in first place in my friends fantasy football league and looking forward to the fact that this situation could never possibly change and theres absolutely no way that I will suffer any sort of comeuppance. (Not that Im bragging or anything.) Im bound for Busan this weekend to enjoy Halloween and a hopefully not-cancelled-due-to-rain fireworks festival. And one of the other teachers is asking me to go to the fitness room now so Id better wrap this up. Mazel tov for now, suckers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Farther One Travels, The Less One Knows

Hey all, Look at that, one month to the day! I am a consistent blogger once again!

We're now entering what is, if I'm not mistaken, the fourth week of the current semester. There's not too much that exciting going on. I bought some decent beers (Duvel! Kozel! Fuller's London Pride! Erdinger! Leffe Brune! Hooray!) and some packets of curry spices from HomePlus so my belly is happy. I bought a really expensive pair of flip-flops a few weeks ago, but I'm justifying it by the fact that I waited the whole summer to buy them. I quit one video game and bought a couple others. I joined a fantasy football league. During Chuseok, I actually watched football. Sunday NFL games are usually on from 2 AM Monday morning until about noon Monday afternoon here so there's no point trying to find a way to watch them. This year Chuseok fell on a Monday, however, so we had Monday and Tuesday off, giving me the perfect excuse to go nocturnal and watch the opening weekend of football (sans the Thursday opener, sadly). Getting up at 2 AM to watch football until 3 PM and then try to get some sleep might seem a little crazy, but it seemed worth it at the time. Could have been the football withdrawl, I don't know. Maybe it was the whole September 11th thing. Spending the tenth anniversary of September 11th in a foreign country was a little strange, especially since it kind of lasted for close to 36 hours with the time change. Personally I was kind of glad to be able to avoid it--I don't like to revisit that day. But remembering the date with a day of NFL football seemed appropriate somehow. And I've got my reservation to see the memorial when I visit New York in February. Anyway, I'm just glad the Bills won the only one of their games that I'll probably see all year, and handily. I take back most of the awful things I've said about Ryan Fitzpatrick. (I'm sure he understands.)

There hasn't been that much fascinating, interesting stuff to report. I did go to the Daegu International Bodypainting Festival, which was a fun event for a shutterbug like myself. There are so few creative arts festivals or museums outside of Seoul that it's surprising that something as daring as the Bodypainting Festival is going on in boring-ol' Daegu. Earlier this summer I went to the fine arts gallery in Gwangju, which is associated with the  big Gwangju biennial, so I was expecting big things. Most of the art there was so boring (Ooh! It's the same damn waterfall that Asian artists have been drawing for centuries!) that I wanted to impale roadkill on rusted cars, light it on fire and photograph it. (YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO STEAL THAT IDEA.) The Bodypainting Festival isn't especially avant-garde--a lot of the work looks like it would be at home in a sci-fi/fantasy video game--but it was still cool to see the creativity at work. I also liked the fact that a lot of the work was done by local design students. And of course the whole nakedness thing is a little brash for Daegu. Some other people I know who had visited past festivals complained that they were a little creeped out by the number of older men at the festival ogling the models while they were preparing for the judging and performance, but I honestly didn't see anything too unseemly along those lines when I was there. Maybe the models were in a more completely prepared state when I was there--I can imagine that the preparation in outdoor tents must feel a little more revealing before the base coat goes on, no matter how hard the artists try to shield the models from the public eye. The promotional videos they showed at the event showed a few male models in the competition, but there was only one at the event this year. Not that I'm complaining. I think what shocked me the most wasn't the nudity aspect, but the fact that at the end of the show the models walked through a crowd of drunks and down a dark asphalt path to get back to their outdoor prep area. Trust is a beautiful thing. Trust, and a lack of lawyers looking for lawsuits.

The bodypainting and costuming was quite beautiful, too. Let's not forget that.

I guess the only other big news is that I officially intend to renew for a third year. I don't think anybody should be surprised by that decision. If anything I was more worried that something was going to happen to yank the rug out from under me before I could renew. There's been a lot of crazy rumors floating around among the foreigner population here lately. A lot of teachers are concerned about the fact that the province of Gyeonggi-do defunded GEPIK, after instituting a hiring freeze earlier in the year, and now all the teachers in the province seem to be in limbo. (I still don't know what the relationship is between GEPIK and EPIK in other provinces, but given the separate acronyms I've been led to believe that there's some sort of significant separation.) There also seems to be a general trend in the country towards viewing teachers in general as having special privileges and not working as hard as other Koreans. In a way it's kind of comforting to see that there's more than one country that can be driven by crisis to hate teachers, even one that worships education. And worships spending long hours at work. Korean sources like to blame Korea's low labor productivity rates on large concentrations of workers in service industry positions and the informal economy, but I'll bet it also has something to do with the number of hours Koreans are at work, which is the highest per worker in the OECD. Part of Korean business culture seems to be that no one goes home until the boss goes home, which isn't just a great way to depress your productivity by guaranteeing that your workers are spending a lot of idle hours browsing Naver, but also a great way to instill a crab-bucket mentality when it comes time for a recession.

On top of that, there seem to be a lot more stories and rumors kicking aroundabout Koreans just plain not liking foreigners. Personally I don't take a lot of stock in those stories. I think a lot of things that prompt Westerners to think that Koreans are "racist" are just cultural misunderstandings. I'll admit, Korea is a fairly closed society. It's difficult to forge close friendships with the locals (at least by Western standards) and Koreans don't really embrace foreign influence the way some more blended cultures with longer histories of foreign influence, colonization, international trade and immigration do. But I think foreign teachers also do things to reinforce some of the negative stereotypes that already exist here. I don't think there's a good reason for Koreans to believe that we're all child rapists with AIDS (and I've seen the evidence of what Korean men get up to in Southeast Asia--don't think we don't know what you're doing at those clubs in the Philippines, guys) but a lot of foreign teachers don't seem to have gotten the message that just because you can have an open container in public and find prostitutes at juicy bars doesn't mean that you should. And since we're foreigners, we're going to be held to a higher standard than drunk old farmers because we're a lot more visible. It may not be fair, but it's the rules of the game. The same way that foreign English teachers might panic when they hear a story about a vigilante spying on foreign teachers trying to catch them breaking the law is the same way that Koreans will overreact when they read about a foreign teacher assaulting an older couple on a bus in Seoul (warning: the linked video is not a happy video). It's important not to let rumors, innuendo and the worst elements of a group color your opinion of a whole culture or collection of people, especially when it seems like there's so little communication and exchange of ideas between the two groups sometimes.

But, long story slightly shorter, it appears that I've been invited to stay another year. I'll admit that there were a few days there where I was contemplating asking to be moved to a different school in a bigger city. I love my school to death, but my town is a little isolated and it would be nice to have a few more Westerners to mix with. But in the end the rational decision won out. I know my last blog posting was a little glum, but with the world economy being what it is it makes more sense to stay and keep the stable job for another year, and it made more sense to stay at my school than to roll the dice and possibly end up at a crappy school. I'm trying to make more of a concerted effort to get out and meet people, so I'm sure this current social lull will pass in time.

Speaking of which, lately I've been thinking about what I should do with my spare time when I'm here next year. My accounting courses will be finished by December, which will give me a helluva lot more free time evenings and weekends, and I'll have enough lesson plans prepared for school that I shouldn't have to do more than some minor tweaks to them when I'm at work during the week. I know some other teachers have tried stuff like taekwondo school and belly dancing classes but I'm not sure if either one of those is my speed. I know there's a kendo school next to my school, but I think most of the participants are elementary kids and my own female students, so I don't think I want to get involved with beating (or more likely, getting beaten by) little kids and a bunch of Korean schoolgirls with a bamboo rod. I may give Korean lessons another try if I can find a language exchange partner to help with some additional practice outside of class. I've been thinking about buying a new acoustic guitar and finally learning how to play, especially since I saw some of the acoustics here that are available for under $150. (Unfortunately I don't know the quality of any of the brands available in Korea. I'm familiar with Samick and Cort, but a lot of the cheaper acoustics are made in China and I don't recognize any of the trade names used here. I do know Samick and Cort manufacture guitars for a lot of good American brands--I have Korean-made Schecter and Danelectro electric guitars back home and they both rule--but I'm also a little wary since my first guitar was a Samick acoustic and it's a piece of shit. Admittedly it was a really shitty Samick, and $50 less than a similar low-end guitar from Yamaha. But I've gotta say, I've seen a lot of good-looking guitars at dirt-cheap prices here, and unless there's hidden manufacturing defects you can usually hear or feel if there's something you don't like about an acoustic guitar.) At some point I'll have to review for the CPA exam, but I don't think that takes an entire year. I've thought about working on a screenplay (why abandon entertainment when you can keep pulling at the scabs?) but I have the age-old problem that I don't feel like I have an idea that's solid enough for a feature screenplay. (And I don't have enough access to American TV to write a TV spec. Maybe I should invest in some more NBC comedies from iTunes...) I suppose I could spend more time watching football (cough cough I mean soccer, sorry) but Arsenal is off to such a bad start that I would consider switching allegiances to Barca if Korean TV ever showed La Liga. There's also the age-old issue of money. Next year I should have more cash saved up for vacations and such, although I'd prefer to take it home with me and invest it or spend it after I've paid all the moving costs from coming home. (At some point I realized that it's the same price--and distance, as the crow flies--to fly from Seoul to New Zealand as it is to fly from LA to New Zealand. That kind of put a damper on my dreams of trekking the Milford Track as a goodbye trip.) But next year I'll also have to pay Korean taxes, start paying back some loans and pay some moving expenses when I return home. Anyway, I guess not knowing what to do with your free time is a good problem to have. Especially in the country with the longest work hours in the OECD. Better not let the locals see me enjoying myself...

(I just cracked the Leffe Brune. OH MY GOD WHAT A GREAT BEER. Belgians rule at beer.)

Alright, I'm tapped. I'll be back in a while with more crazy stories. In the meantime, here's the obligatory parting song...

Friday, August 19, 2011

No Joy in Mudville?

Hey there. So, it's summer. Summer vacation, to be exact. Initially I didn't want to use my vacation this summer. My original intent was to save it so I could use it all this winter, which technically isn't allowed in the contract but a lot of school allow teachers to do it. After crunching some numbers and talking things over with my school, however, I realized that I probably can't afford to take a vacation long enough to use all of my summer and winter days off, and since there would probably be time over the summer when school would be closed or I would be sitting at my desk in an empty office with nothing to do, it made more sense to just use the vacation days instead of causing administrative problems or moral dilemmas for the school. What can I say, I am both a schmuck and a team player. I count those among my better qualities.

My first three days of vacation were put to good use. First I headed to Daecheon Beach to check out the infamous Boryeong Mud Festival. The town started the festival to promote their supposedly cosmetically beneficial mud, but eventually people (including a large number of foreigners) discovered that the festival is a marvelous excuse to roll in the mud and get really, really drunk. I stayed at a hotel with a gang of four strangers from Gyeongju (who turned out to be fantastically nice people) and despite my best intentions I don't think I spent more than thirty minutes without a beer in my hand. Luckily I had a good time and nothing stupid happened, although Facebook now has pictures of me shirtless, which is something I usually try to avoid. (I've lost a pant size since I came here--which is good because a size 34 is "extra large" in some stores in Korea--but according to the National Health Service I need to lose another nine kilos to stop being considered obese. Well, fuck.) I've also come to realize that I may be the only American between the ages of 18 and 38 who has no tattoos. What can I say, I've never had the money to waste on tattoos, or a decent body to display them on. (I did recently joke that when I finally pay off all my credit cards I'm going to get a tattoo on the hand that I reach into my wallet with that says, "Think again.")

The next day I got up early and said goodbye to the roommates, whom I never saw again. (That's a lie. I saw them again a few weeks later at the Pohang Fireworks Festival. They might be reading this right now on Facebook, actually. Like I said, nice people.) Since I was already in Chungcheongnam-do I figured I would do some traveling and see some of the famous Baekje sites around the province. You know, because the best thing to do with a monster hangover is to strap on a backpack and walk around in the sun in mid-July in Korea. I followed that up with a trip down to Mokpo, mostly just to say I've been to Jeollanam-do and check off Dadohae National Park from the list of sites in the front of the Korea Lonely Planet. The problem with my plan was that I tried to pack way too much travel into too few days. Buyeo was nice (if you look up "bucolic" in the dictionary there might be a picture of Buyeo) but by the time I got to Gongju the famous Baekje tombs were already closed. I spent the night in Daejeon but I mistakenly stayed near the wrong KTX station, and even though I got to the station by about 7:30 AM I had just missed the KTX to Mokpo and had to wait 2 1/2 hours for the next one. Since I got to Mokpo late I had to skip the boat tour to Hong-do and the rest of Dadohae National Park and decided to hike up the local mountain instead. Because, like I said, the smartest thing to do in Korea in the summer in the middle of the day is hike up a goddamn mountain. I went to Gwangju the next morning but by the time I got there I had pretty much had my fill of hiking, museums, temples, tombs and other assorted Korean vacation options. Honestly I was glad to be home in air conditioning. I silently vowed to never undertake a solo backpacking vacation in Korea again.

The main problem with that was, I still had five days of vacation coming. Shit fuck.

Korea has school year-round but for foreign English teachers the summer schedule can be kind of a joke. (For the kids, apparently, it's miserable. In my conversation classes I would ask my students if they were looking forward to the summer and the answer was almost always a unanimous "no.") Unless you're a part of an organized week of "English camp" you usually get stuck trying to plan new lessons every day on your own for a group of kids that have been press-ganged into taking your class because letting the English teacher shirk the whole summer would just be too un-Korean. Don't get me wrong, my school and my co-teachers did their best to schedule a decent summer program for me, and I had a lot of fun in most of my classes. Unfortunately my last class of the day had some sort of conflict with an "important" class, so sometimes with no warning I would go from having six kids showing up to only one. This was especially wonderful when I, for example, had planned the final class for a week-long project and brought video equipment and bought GODDAMN SNACKS and had one student show, after six students had clearly and unequivocally stated that they would be in class. I don't want to complain too much--it's the Korean government's dime so they call the dance--but it's also hard not to get angry when the native English teacher gets treated like an expensive piece of furniture, or when your class gets bumped for something "more important" like math or studying for some exam or a goddamn assembly to check the length of the girls' skirts. Not to mention that time I got locked inside the teachers' office and had to climb out a window to get out. Guess I better learn the Korean phrase for, "Is anybody in here?" one of these days. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut, though, since I keep hearing rumors about how Koreans are unhappy with how expensive and foreign and drunk native English teachers are, and how they keep trying to find ways to replace us with robots.

(The linked article and video, by the way, have to be my favorite of the Korean English-Teaching Robot stories I've seen online. See what they did there? They used a robot to stick a white face on a Filipino teacher! That's sheer genius. I mean, I would be perfectly happy if they replaced us with robots that work, or better qualified teachers from India or the Philippines. The problems are that most of the robots I've seen online suck, and Koreans want to learn English from a "perfect" native speaker, which usually implies a Westerner--preferably a white American. I'm not going to bust out the "R" word here, because that sort of accusation is usually only good for starting fights. But it's funny to see how whiteness has become a commodity in the age of globalization. For example, you can rent one of us in China. Who says we don't make anything in America anymore? We make and export whiteness!)

So after three weeks of playing the Dancing English Bear on a reduced class schedule (yet another reason I really shouldn't complain, but still do) I had my last five days of vacation coming. The problem here is that unless you plan well in advance it costs a minimum of $500 to get a flight out of Korea and my ass is broke. At this juncture I have a confession to make--the main reason I took this job is because I'm up to my ears in debt. I've never had a steady job because I've always been working freelance in entertainment or temping while I was out looking for better opportunities. Like many people, I was stupid, and carrying too many credit cards, in my twenties. (Worse yet, I was stupid and carrying credit cards in New York City.) A lot of expenses from film school (hell, from applying to film school) that weren't covered by student loans got put on those same credit cards. So by the time the economy went tits up in '09 I had no good job, enough student loans from film school in forbearance to finance half a mortgage in the Rust Belt, and a mountain of credit card debt. So I packed up and moved to Korea in the hopes that I could pay off the credit cards before I finished the coursework I'm doing online and had to start paying the student loans. It was the only way to survive, other than moving in with my parents in Buffalo. (I don't want to be disrespectful to my parents or the city of Buffalo, but honestly there's days when I feel like I'd rather filter buckshot through my grey matter than resort to that option.) So far I'm on schedule to pay off those cards, post a year's worth of student loan payments and still bring a chunk of change back to the US with me when I go back in 2013. (Better check with my school and make sure they're going to let me renew before I get too engrossed in that plan, I suppose. Usually renewing is a formality, but hey, I'm intensely paranoid.) Anyway, paying down those bills involves staying on a pretty strict budget. After last summer I started budgeting for vacations, but when I started crunching numbers for the trip to Malaysia I'm planning to take this winter (and of course the trip home to see friends and family) I quickly realized that, while most of the other English teachers here are jetting away to take a holiday in Cambodia or China or Thailand this summer, I was going to have to stay in Korea. And--sorry, I have to be brutally honest here--Korea is pretty fucking boring. After being here for a year and a half I feel like I've seen pretty much everything interesting in the country. Add to that the miserable heat and humidity in the summers and it does not add up for a good vacationing environment.

So, I stayed home. "Staycation," as we said back during the recession. (Yes, I am using the phrase "back during the recession" with a maximum of bitter sarcasm.) Started re-watching The Wire. Bought Portal and played through it. Thought about finishing the final level of Starcraft 2 but then I realized I didn't care. Climbed one of the local mountain peaks. Might climb another before the weekend is through. Became nocturnal. Ate a lot of mac and cheese from Costco. Did homework. Cleaned the sixteen square meters I live in. Good times.

I don't want to be too melodramatic about this, but lately living here and doing this job has felt a little like a self-imposed prison term. Debtor's prison, I suppose. Maybe it's because I've been spending too much time this week sitting in a four-meter-by-four-meter square concrete cube with only one window. (Or maybe it's because I've been spending too much of that time re-watching The Wire and playing Portal. Honestly, my concrete cube is a helluva lot nicer than the first place I lived in Brooklyn. Not being located over a chop shop in a rat-infested corner of East Williamsburg already put the current place ahead in that race. Jesus, I bet that shithole is a six- or seven-figure condo now, considering how that neighborhood has changed. Maybe I should go check it out this February and laugh.) Maybe it's because I can't see my friends and family except during visitation hours. Maybe it's because the inmates are always changing but the bosses are always the same. Maybe it's because there's this world outside that I know I can't be a part of. Maybe it's because, not unlike Alcatraz, I know I'm surrounded on four sides by water and fences and I can't leave until I've done my time. Maybe it's because Bill Fitchner is always chasing me while popping painkillers out of his pen. Maybe it's because I made a lot of choices that didn't work out in the past and now, no matter how right those decisions seemed at the time (all part of the game, right?) and no matter what I'd rather be doing now, I have to stay here and pay my debt to society (or at least society's banks) and hope I learned something from the experience.

I'll admit, if teaching English in Korea is like a prison, then it's the world's most pleasant prison. The kids are great, the people I work with are fantastic, I've got mountains to climb in my backyard, and the food's gotta be better that prison chow. I can drop my soap in the shower to my heart's content. Nobody's going to get pissed off and stick me with a shiv (unless they find that blog piece I wrote about Dokdo a couple months ago, heh...). And when it comes down to it, I could leave at any time with thirty day's notice for nothing less than the price of a plane ticket and the loss of a guaranteed income. And I don't want to leave. At least not until I've paid my debts (and I find out if the United States still has a sane president).

I think mostly I'm just afraid that I'm going to spend the next year and a half in this fantastic job experiencing things that I'll never forget--and probably never be able to come back to and enjoy again--counting the days until I can go home and start my life over again. You never realize you're going to miss a place until after you've left.

A friend of mine told me years ago that some cognitive scientist types figured out that college alumni donations go up dramatically when alumni reach a certain age, because they forget all the bad things that happened and only remember the good things. I guess there's something to be said for living in the here and now and not dwelling too much on the past or the future. Maybe I'll find something in the near future to help me get back into that space. I sure hope so.

Anyway, thank Christ this vacation ends on Monday and I can go back to teaching...

(And now, a song about that time you accidentally moved to New York.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Territorial Pissings

Hmm, so my last blog post was about 10 weeks ago? Sorry, I've been busy. Strangely, 10 weeks is also the length of the quarters in the online classes I've been taking. Coincidence? It's funny the things that make you notice the passage of time. For me, it's my t-shirt collection. Usually I keep two collections of t-shirts on hand: the Good T-shirts, which are reserved for situations in which people might see me and expect me to be wearing a clean and reasonably well-maintained shirt, and the Knockin' Around T-shirts, which are reserved for exercise, manual labor, sleeping and other occasions that are somewhat likely to ruin a Good T-shirt. When a Good T-shirt becomes too obviously worn, stretched or stained to stay in the Good T-shirt pile, it moves to the lower strata with the Knockin' Around T-shirts. I've noticed lately that several of my shirts from grad school have been relegated to the Knockin' Around pile, which has reminded me that it's been five years since I finished grad school. The thing about t-shirts is, since they tend to be distinctive and a lot of mine can be traced to specific institutions (schools, freebies from old jobs, souvenirs, favorite barbecue restaurants) they're fairly easy to date. Unfortunately, they're also a constant reminder of what's in the past and what's slowly coming unraveled by time. Kind of like having an archaeological record of a lost civilization in your closet. Sigh...

So what have I been up to? Work, mostly. Paying bills. Trying to plan my winter vacation (which currently involves browsing some guidebooks for Malaysia and Thailand and trying to figure out how many days of travel and how many plane tickets my expected savings will allow). Cursing myself for having frequent flyer miles on three different airlines, all in amounts that I can't use. Saving money, spending money, paying down ten years of debts and occasionally figuring out how to survive for two weeks on 50,000 won. (It's doable if you don't leave the house and have a fair amount of food from Costco packed away in the freezer. Getting paid only once a month can be a real bitch sometimes.) The good news is, I'm solvent, my balance sheet looks better every month and I'm enjoying myself. On to the specifics...

First, let me introduce you to my new baby...

28-85mm macro zoom, not a one or a zero in sight
I picked her up in the Chungmuro district in Seoul during the weekend of the Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha's Birthday. I had brought an old Yashica manual camera with me to Korea, and at some point last year when it was malfunctioning I checked out an FM2 body at one of the camera shops in Daegu and instantly decided I had to have one. Why buy an upgraded used 35mm camera in this digital age, you ask? Well, first and foremost it was about half the price of a comparable Nikon D5100 kit and the pictures are just as good, or better. Second, after two or three years of photo classes in undergrad and an MFA concentrating in cinematography, I'm used to shooting on film. No use letting all that education go to waste. On top of that I enjoy shooting a roll of color slide film or black and white negative now and again, and no matter what you say about the "Hipstamatic" program on your iPhone, there's no substitute for the real thing when it comes to certain film stocks. Above and beyond that, it's all nostalgia on my part. But you can pick up manual focus lenses for pretty cheap and Nikon isn't making any more FM2 bodies, so I figured it was worth investing in one now before they get any rarer. If I can save up enough money I might invest in something like a D5100 as a going away (or would that be coming back?) present when I finish this job, but that's still a ways off in the future.

In addition to the trip to Seoul for the Lotus Lantern Festival (which was tons of fun, by the way... Buddhists really know how to party!) I went on a trip sponsored by EPIK to the Korean islands of Ulleungdo and Dokdo. What is Dokdo, you ask? (What follows is a shorter version of a long rant that was only posted for about a day, so if it seems like stuff is missing, don't panic, it's intentional.) Dokdo is a group of two disputed islands in the Sea of Japan (whoops, I mean "East Sea") roughly halfway between Korea and Japan. Korea says the islands are part of Korea, Japan says they're part of Japan. You can look it on Wikipedia under "Liancourt Rocks", or read this article from the International Herald-Tribune, if you want some more background information. Honestly, I find the whole dispute really silly. But despite the fact that these rocks are essentially meaningless in any practical sense, they have a cult-like following in Korea as a symbol of national pride. There's a picture of Dokdo in the administrative office in my school. There are models of Dokdo in train stations and booths dedicated to Dokdo at festivals around the country. In 2005, when the prefecture in Japan that claims Dokdo as part of its administrative territory declared a 100th anniversary celebration for their claim on the rocks, Koreans reacted with appropriate, rational, level-headed restraint: protesters beheaded pheasants (the Japanese national bird) in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, one man set himself on fire and a mother and son cut off their own fingers. In fact, I'm not sure if I should even be talking about this issue for fear of offending my co-workers or the higher-ups at EPIK. (Ha ha ha, good thing this blog is anonymous. Sure, I re-post it to my Facebook page, so my co-workers who are my Facebook friends can read it there with my name emblazoned on it, but still... blessed anonymity, hooray!)

Koreans seem to think that if they bring foreign teachers to this island and spend a few days presenting lectures and distributing Dokdo propaganda it will inspire the teachers to spread the word on how Dokdo is clearly--I mean you can barely see the islands from Ulleungdo on an unusually clear day, what more evidence do you need?--part of Korea. I wanted the free trip to Ulleungdo, and getting paid to skip school seemed like a stupid thing to turn down, so I signed up for the trip to see what I might learn. What I learned, in a nutshell, is that the Dokdo issue is pointless at best and needlessly destructive at worst. First and foremost, the islands are uninhabited (bordering on uninhabitable) and have been for most of their history, except when people have been occupying them to try to claim them for Korea or Japan. The status of Dokdo could change the territorial boundary between Japan and Korea in the East Sea, but right now there are no actual disputes of substance regarding fishing or mineral rights in that area. Second, the only people in Japan that care about Dokdo are a few old conservative coots that haven't figured out Japan lost World War II yet, and  in my experience I've found that types like that are best ignored. Japan probably wouldn't care about Dokdo at all if they didn't have ongoing disputes with Russia and China over islands that are much more important to them. Koreans take a lot of pride in how these islands are "our land" and the easternmost boundary of Korea, but to me that all seems like a lot of insubstantial nationalist posturing. A country should take pride in its history, culture and accomplishments, and by those measures Korea has plenty to be proud of without concerning itself with rocks in the ocean.

To me, it seems like the most substantial element of the Dokdo conflict is Korea's continuing grudge against Japan, and I don't see grudges as something that should be a point of national pride. Yes, Japan did a lot of bad things in Korea (and China, and Malaysia, and numerous other places) during the colonial period prior to World War II, and yes, there have been other military conflicts with the Japanese going back to antiquity. Yes, the United States has probably had a more sympathetic ear to Japan over the years, including when the peace agreement that ended World War II and left the status of the island in dispute was drawn up. But guys, that was 65 years ago. The Japanese government that colonized Korea doesn't exist today, and the government that does exist is a peaceful, democratic one. Whatever dissonance exists in the Korean mind over their inability to shake off Japan themselves and punish them for colonizing Korea isn't a thing to be celebrated. Revenge is an ultimately empty and pointless pursuit. (And you know where I learned that from? Korean movies.)

As a modern, democratic state, I think Korea has a responsibility not to perpetuate old grudges with other peaceful, democratic nations. However the Korean people feel about Dokdo or the Japanese, the Korean government could be politely and diplomatically silent about the issue. Instead they've built a museum and an observatory on Ulleungdo and pay every year to bring foreign teachers to the island to beg for understanding. It's pathetic to see a country so enslaved by the darkest parts of its history. I've occasionally heard my students or other Koreans say rude things about Japan and I mostly laughed them off. I've probably even slipped up and said a few joking things about the Japanese that I wouldn't attempt to defend out of context. One of our orientation speakers, who was definitely too young to remember World War II, was nice enough to explain exactly why he hates Japan, even though he has Japanese friends. Most of the time I've been here I've compared it to the attitude of Red Sox fans towards Yankees fans and vice-versa. Sure, they hate each other, quite fiercely and vocally even, but I don't know a Sox fan that wouldn't save a Yankees fan if he were drowning. And I don't think Korean people really hate the Japanese--they watch Japanese cartoons, sent aid to Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, and are generally nice to any foreign visitors who come to Korea, no matter where they're from. I think they've just repeated it to themselves so many times that they've convinced themselves that they hate Japan, and worse, that it's an acceptable part of being a proud Korean. Which is why it's so vexing to me to see Koreans get so worked up over this Dokdo non-issue. Today, whenever I see Dokdo in a poster or a train station, I don't see the friendly, compassionate side of Koreans, who are so generous and kind that they would give you the shirt off their back if you needed one, that I see every day. Instead I see this unjustifiable, irrational, persistent grudge they have against another peaceful, generous and friendly group of people. I used to think Dokdo was just one of those Korean idiosyncrasies--like opening windows in the middle of winter for fresh air--that I would never really sympathize with but could learn to tolerate. Now that I understand more about Dokdo, it just makes me sad to see people embracing such a pointless grudge as a point of national pride.

I'm sure the United States probably has some elements of our foreign worldview as ridiculous as the Dokdo issue. I mean, we still have out ridiculous grudge against Cuba, even though they haven't done anything to anyone (other than Cuban citizens) for years. If Cuba suddenly annexed Puerto Rico one day I'm sure there would be a war, but then again there are people in Puerto Rico who might have some things to say about the development, unlike Dokdo. We've got this wholly ridiculous, xenophobic anti-Muslim thing going on right now back home that I'm extremely ashamed of, but it's not like the US government is building a "Muslims Did It" museum at Ground Zero. Admittedly if Afghanistan tried and convicted Terry Jones in absentia for burning a Koran and forcibly extradited him to Kabul for execution, I'm sure we might do something about it even if we were a little bit sympathetic. (That's probably the most apt comparison I was able to come up with, since that's another issue dominated by extremists and media hysteria that's based on an entirely inconsequential act.) But then again, Terry Jones is a US citizen so we have some responsibility to protect the idiot from himself. And sure, we're bombing Libya on pretty thin pretexts (I'm gonna blame that one on Britain and France, though) and we're supporting a regime in Bahrain that's killing its own people. But I don't think we're necessarily proud of all of that stuff. Well, I'm not, at any rate.

Anyway, a great man once said, "Never discuss politics or religion with your friends," so I've probably said too much already. Like I said, my goal with this post isn't to offend my Korean friends or co-workers, and I am grateful for the trip and the days off from school that I got from EPIK. But EPIK clearly thought they had a responsibility to show Dokdo to foreigners, so I feel I have a responsibility to share my reactions with other people, even though the trip didn't quite have the intended effect on my opinion. I'll shut up now.

Right, the trip. Ulleungdo was wonderful, even though the high-speed ferry on the way there should be rechristened "The Vomit Comet." It's a beautiful, peaceful little island, just large enough not to feel claustrophobic but not so big as to not feel like an exotic getaway. We ate a lot of excellent food and did a lot of hiking on some beautiful walking paths, including an especially dramatic section that follows the lower edge of cliffs along the ocean on the southeast edge of the island. The trip to Dokdo, on the other hand... We took a ferry there, we disembarked onto a concrete boat launch platform (never actually set foot on any natural surface of Dokdo), we wandered around for 10 or 20 minutes and took some pictures, we saw some seagulls and rocks, we got some free postcards and then we got back on the boat. It wasn't exactly how they described the pilgrimage to Mecca on the travel brochure. If you're a foreigner, under no circumstances should you ever pay to go there. (Ulleungdo, on the other hand, is worth every penny.) If you're a Korean, and you're convinced that seeing a Korean rock in the middle of an uncaring ocean will give you some sort of important swelling of national pride, well, I guess it's your money.

Our Rock
By the time we arrived at the Dokdo Museum and Observatory at Ulleungdo on the final day, I was so disenchanted with the whole non-issue of Dokdo that I just wanted to leave and never come anywhere near Dokdo again. It's sad that an island as beautiful as Ulleungdo has to be saddled with this spiteful, pointless political issue that has nothing to do with anything but a line on the map and some unresolved history. Forgiveness is a beautiful, natural thing. Grudges are ugly. Ulleungdo would be a much nicer place if Dokdo sank into the East Sea. But then again I suppose the people who aren't ready to accept history and move on would find some other line in the water to draw if they didn't have a rock to plant a flag on.

The absolute worst thing about the trip was trying to put a good face on it when I got back to school the next day. I still felt pretty genuinely sick and angry about the absurdity of the whole thing, but I didn't want to offend any of my co-workers by saying that right off the bat. Mostly I just repeated, "Ulleungdo was wonderful," when asked about it, and pertinently left it at that. A couple teachers told me how they had tried to go to Dokdo on trips to Ulleungdo and weren't able to land because of the weather, and how lucky I was to actually land there. I didn't feel lucky. I felt like a schmuck that had been suckered into joining a fight he didn't understand and was getting congratulated for knocking some other poor schmuck's teeth out. It didn't feel good.

Ugh. Enough about Dokdo. Remind me to never go anywhere disputed again. Except maybe Taiwan. Taiwan was nice and they seem to be dealing pretty well with the whole not-being-officially-recognized-as-a-state thing. I would go back to Taiwan. Good food, too. Hooray for Taiwan.

In positive travel news, over the Korean version of Memorial Day I took a much nicer trip up to some places in Gangwondo, namely Samcheok and Donghae. I guess car-owning Seoulites are more widely knowledgeable of the beaches and good times to be had on Korea's upper east coast, but it's a six- to eight hour train trip from my province (whereas Seoul is about two and a half hours from my province via KTX) so people where I live don't travel up there very often. (People where I live all flock to Haeundae Beach in Busan. Even though there are multiple beaches in Busan, everybody goes to Haeundae. Dynamic Korea.) Somewhat ironically, I had also gone to Haeundae before leaving for Gangwondo because I wanted to see the sand festival there. I spend a few good hours taking pictures and visiting the Busan aquarium, which is awesome, so I have no regrets. In Gangwondo I visited several beautiful sandy, uncrowded beaches, hiked through the most amazingly vast cave system I've ever seen (Hwaseongul caves, outside Samcheok) and ate some really good scallops and shellfish with friends at a restaurant along the beach in Donghae. It's kind of funny to me that eastern Korea has such amazing beaches and yet you can go to them on Memorial Day weekend and they're still half-empty. Oh well, more beach for me. Don't come! It's awful and it takes to long to get there! (Heh heh.)

So that's my life. Summer quarter starts next week, so I guess I'll regale you again around August 31st with takes of seducing Russian track stars from the Daegu IAAF Track & Field World Championships. Na zdorovie!

When I was an alien... Cultures weren't opinions...