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!)