Saturday, January 29, 2011

I am a passenger

Man. Fourteen hours sure is a long commute.

As I write this I’m sitting in the Tom Bradley terminal of LAX waiting for my flight back to Korea via Shanghai. Some Chinese dude sitting behind me is listening to pop songs on his phone extremely loudly without headphones. He is unaware that, if he continues, he will soon be getting an earful of Carcass. (Always carry death metal with you in case of an emergency.)

Part of me feels like I should be a lot more concerned about leaving again and going back to Korea for another year, but I’m not. Right now it doesn’t feel much different from going back to work after an eventful long weekend. When my friends talk about the distance it seems so much more severe. I guess to them I’m very far away and inaccessible, and to me it’s nothing more than a very expensive airline ticket and a violated contract. (Not that I would do that.) I don’t know why the idea of going back to Korea doesn’t feel more scary and alien and isolating. I know I’m coming back some day and I’m pretty accustomed to living there so to me it’s really no big deal. I wonder if experienced astronauts feel this way about going to space. Ground control to Major Tom …

Experiencing a city as a visitor is always more pleasant than living there, even if you’ve lived there before. For one thing, you don’t have to go to work, which is nice. (I wonder if someday we working people will describe the concept of a vacation to our children wistfully while we mine gas on Saturn’s moons for the GE/HSBC/Samsung Mineral Conglomerate.) As a visitor you get to avoid all the bullshit and stress of holding down a job and maintaining a home in a place but you still get to go to the mall and eat all your favorite foods. (I never did get that meatball sub I was craving on this trip. I meant to get one at John & Mary’s when I was in Buffalo but I got a Special Royal – Italian sausage and cappicola, toasted, with mayo – instead. No regrets, no remorse.) On top of that when you’re visiting everyone’s always happy to see you and they go out of their way to go out with you and have fun. There’s no boring weekends and there’s no “maybe next week when I get my paycheck” nights. That said, this trip wasn’t exactly a wild debauch. Most people aren’t quite as excited about vomiting and hangovers once they round 30, myself included. But I do think I managed to squeeze in some face time with most of my favorite friends. (Note to friends I may not have seen: don’t worry, you’re still among my favorites, but there are a lot of you and you live in a lot of different places these days.) I also managed to sample many of my favorite regional cuisines, buy clothing in my size and pick up most of the stuff that I was supposed to bring back for people. (There was some lotion that I was supposed to get from Bath & Body Works for a friend of mine in Seoul but she never gave me the full name and I don’t think I was ever in a mall with a B&BW. Hope she’s not too disappointed.)

The trip began in LA, where I realized that it’s not possible to rent a car if you’re carrying an expired driver’s license and the unexpired one is at your parents’ home in Buffalo. Luckily I managed to get to a friend’s place in Burbank and couch-surf my way around Burbank, Hollywood and Santa Monica for the rest of that leg of the trip. It was a pretty laid-back extended weekend – I watched a lot of football, met a bunch of folks at a bar one night and closed my account at a certain bank that suddenly wants $10 a month for me to keep an account open. (I guess “Free Checking For Life” means the life of the bank, not the life of the account holder.)

On Tuesday I boarded a plane for Buffalo to see my family. I used to hate visiting Buffalo because I thought it was boring and depressing. There’s also a certain sense of arrested development that kicks in when you’re sleeping in your childhood bedroom and you have to borrow your parents’ car to go anywhere. This time around it really wasn’t so bad. I got wined and dined, we had a late Christmas celebration and another small party so I could see some of the extended family, and I spent a lot of time driving over to my sister’s place so I could use her high speed internet. (My parents are still on dial-up. Sometimes staying at their house is a little like living with a wood stove and an outhouse.) A friend of mine from high school also happened to be in town for the weekend for a family event so we spent some time bar-crawling Buffalo and drinking craft beer. My friend’s brother works for one of the local papers and we chatted a little about the ins and outs of living in Buffalo instead of a major center of commerce and media. When I was in my 20s I couldn’t wait to leave the place, but looking at it now Buffalo has a lot of good things going for it right now. Rent is dirt cheap. There was no housing market collapse because housing prices never rose. You can get a place to live and work for $300 a month, and if you’re not choosy about things like electricity you can get a mansion for free. There are museums and a major university, there’s a fairly lively theater scene, there’s even an NFL franchise (for as long as Ralph Wilson is alive, at least). Los Angeles may have sun and bottle service, but when you can get a house for $100K in Buffalo and a place within an hour of LA could run you close to $1 million, are those things really worth $900 large?

After about a week and a half in Buffalo I came back to LA (with a rental car this time) and headed up to San Francisco to see one of my college friends who moved there shortly before I left last year. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that in my four or so years in LA I never really travelled anywhere in California north of San Bernadino – when you’re working freelance as a grip and a juicer you’re always perpetually working, exhausted or broke. So finally getting up to San Francisco was a really great experience. We visited Muir Woods (which are no mere woods – ha ha, that joke never gets old), Fisherman’s Wharf, the “Step By Step” houses (or was it the “Full House” houses?) and did some bar crawling and sightseeing around Haight-Ashbury and the Mission district. Again, every city is much nicer when you’re a visitor but I have to say I liked San Francisco a lot more than Los Angeles. You can walk. There are businesses there other than entertainment and real estate. They have great beer everywhere. There’s great coffee. It’s extremely queer-friendly and metal-friendly. There’s public art. Every bar has at least one Melvins album in the jukebox. I’ve heard it’s expensive as hell to live there and the public transportation’s crowded, but it’s not like Los Angeles is ever going to win any contests based on its cost of living and its piddling rail system (and while we’re on the subject of public transportation I’d like to reiterate a big “fuck you” to the city of Beverly Hills). A lot of my friends still insist they love LA, but the more time I spend in other places the more I realize that LA is not my type of town. I hate the sun. I don’t care whose name is on my clothing. I hate driving. I don’t mind the cold so much. I cut my own hair. Really, other than the entertainment business, Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater and most of my closest friends, what is there for me in LA?

(As an aside, someone just arrived at our gate with a giant hopper full of duty-free goods in individual plastic bags. From the look of things cigarettes and cognac must be pretty expensive in the People’s Republic.)

Despite the fact that I love almost nothing about LA, I feel compelled to give it one more try whenever I come back. I don’t want to believe that I’m letting that MFA in film production completely go to waste, for one thing. And like I said, most of my closest friends are in LA. A lot of them have moved there from other places in recent years, and some of them are really enjoying it there. (Then again, some of them are talking about joining me in the accounting or foreign language teaching professions.) Maybe I’ll like LA a little better if I can come back and actually get a steady job and a stable place to live. But it’s all conjecture at this point. I’ll be in Korea for at least one more year and, unless the economy is booming or I’m really tired of living overseas, I’ll probably do the TEFL thing for at least two more years so I can pay down some bills and save up a little more resettlement money before I come back. And if Sarah Palin gets elected President I may move to Communist China for four years. (I’m not a traitor, I’m a patriot. Every popular resistance movement needs contacts on the outside.)

Regardless, I’m about to board a plane for Shanghai, so it’ll probably be at least a year before I come back, barring some major catastrophe. (Attention, Kim dynasty: don’t get any fucking bright ideas.) Teaching English isn’t really such a bad gig. I would consider sticking with it for a lot longer if I didn’t miss my homeland. (I recently learned a fancy French word for that feeling but I’ve forgotten it so I’ll have to look it up later.) The expat life can be kind of lonely. It takes a certain type of personality to really embrace it, in my opinion, especially if you’re single. (It’s the type of personality that embraces anonymous barstools and related anonymous pleasures, from what I’ve seen.) My friends back in LA did mention that I seem a lot happier since I left, though. I’m not surprised – I definitely left LA at a personal nadir. I guess right now I should probably be worrying less about the future and thinking more about English lessons and spending another year in Korea. Plus I’ll be in Shanghai for fifteen hours starting in about fifteen hours. No reason to get all introspective about shit when I’ve got something like that to look forward to. Anyone care to recommend a restaurant near the Bund?

[Post script: two days later…

There’s something vaguely absurd about being back in Korea after spending three weeks in the United States. Maybe it’s just jet lag. Maybe it’s the sense of peace and isolation from not being a guest in someone else’s living space for the first time in three weeks. Maybe it’s the fact that I just spent some time contemplating how to get food that’s not kimbap or noodle soup without cooking it and without walking too far for it. Could be anything, really.

Shanghai was kind of a bust. My plane landed a little late, it was cold and raining and when I got to my hotel it was getting late and the Bund was a 45-minute cab ride away, so I did the sane thing and stayed in the area of the hotel. I met an American gentleman in the business of importing bamboo products in the hotel shuttle so we found a local place for steamed dumplings and had a couple beers. Since I’ve learned some very basic survival Korean I had kind of forgotten how difficult it is to function in a place when you speak none of the language. Guess I’ll have to experience China first-hand some other time.

Oh, and that French word I was talking about… dépaysement. Bust it out the next time you want to look smart and French-speaking.]

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