Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stay Positive

Top Ten Best Songs About Crushing Incessant Boredom, In No Particular Order:

1. "I'm Bored" by Iggy Pop
2. "Dull" by Samiam
3. "I Wanna Be Sedated"/"I Just Wanna Have Something to Do" by the Ramones (tie)
5. "Bleach Boys" by the Dead Milkmen
6. "Longview" by Green Day
7. "Lurker II: Dark Son of Night" by Jawbreaker
8. "Bored to Death" by Government Issue
9. "Bored" by the Deftones
10. Meh, who cares anyway...

Twelve weeks and change to go. (Not counting the two weeks I'll be in Thailand, of course.) Ugh. I am so ready to get on a fucking plane and get out of here. Except I'm scared shitless about what I'm going to run into once I get home. I'll need to get a new job. I'll need to find a new place. I'll need to spend a bunch of the money I've been working so hard to save here. I'll need to make my résumé look like it's coming from someone employable. I'll probably need to stay with my parents in the Rust Belt for a little while, at the age of thirty-five. And I'll need to give up the only steady job I've had in twelve- or fifteen-odd years that was actually engaging and meaningful. That's probably the part that bothers me the most. Of course I could always come back if this all turns out to be some flight of whimsy and I'm destined to stay here (assuming the EPIK program is still around, that is). I am making sure to go out on good terms and not burn any bridges. Or burn the boats, if I may be so bold as to allude to a positive and negative conflagrant metaphor for the same situation. (Fire is cool. Huh-huh.) At times like this it seems like it'd be nice if life was completely cut-and-dry, and pursuing one opportunity never came at the cost of another. But in this case, I think it's time to risk the comfortable situation for the big money and the fabulous prizes behind door number two. Or in other words, as the great philosopher Randal Graves once stated, more succinctly and with some slightly greater degree of vulgarity, I need to shit or get off the pot.

But it's definitely time to go. It's a mistake to stay here too long. I've seen it too many times. People get into a negative space in their heads, every little thing about being here starts to drive them nuts, and they end up pushing an annoying ajusshi in front of a train or something. It's not pretty. There's nothing wrong with Korea per se, but being here can wear on you. Or at least it wears on a lot of people, myself included at this point. It's been a great experience overall, but as The Bard apparently did not say, all good things must come to an end. The unfortunate thing is, what's happening now is exactly what I said I did not want to happen months ago when I was contemplating my final year in Korea. (I thought I wrote a blog post about this at some point, but I can't seem to find it now.) The last thing I've been wanting to happen this year is for me to spending my final months counting the days until I can go home - which, incidentally, as I write this, currently number about ninety-two, give or take a few. Or seventy-eight if you discount the Thailand trip from the total. An experience like this is too unique to squander by counting the pages left to rip off the calendar every day. On the other hand, winter is not the most exciting time to be in Korea. The holidays and festivals are pretty much over until the end of February, it's freezing cold outside and often just as cold inside. (I'm not sure why Koreans still choose to eschew central heating - some sort of fear of duct work? - and I definitely don't understand the rationale behind their habit of routinely leaving windows open in winter because WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE, IT'S FUCKING COLD OUTSIDE.) Also, as I mentioned in my last post, the oddities of the Korean school year mean that I may have nothing constructive to do at school from approximately next week Monday until the day I leave, depending on winter camps. Still, there has to be a better use of the time than simply counting backwards to zero.

I've been trying to nurture some constructive hobbies this year to prepare for exactly this eventuality, but I'm at a bit of a loss at times to fully embrace any of them for various reasons. The list of shortcomings: they're too expensive (scuba diving, travel), dependent on better weather (hiking), too frustrating (guitar), too unhealthy (drinking), too infrequent (movies), pointless (Korean lessons), kind of boring (reading), require an activity partner (dating, rampant indiscriminate copulation), or I've grown out of them (video games). I have an NFL Game Pass subscription I'm splitting with another teacher, but otherwise there's not much to fill the evenings and even less to do at work in between classes. It's a little too early to start seriously looking for work (nobody hires between Thanksgiving and Christmas anyway) and I'm not in quite the right creative state of mind to carry through with my threat to write a screenplay right now. Ho hum.

I did recently cross one last item off of my Korean travel list - I finally went to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea. Now that was a trip, in more ways than one. It's easy to forget when you live here that you're mere kilometers away from one of the most heavily-armed borders in the world, but there's no avoiding that fact when you're right there at the thirty-eighth parallel inches from the insanity. On the day that I visited, we weren't actually able to go into one of the blue buildings in the JSA (as seen in the movie JSA!), where you can take a few furtive steps into the North, because they were being painted. But we did get to see some of the soldiers who stand on the border at all hours in strategic positions so as to not get shot if suddenly somebody begins firing on them for no reason. (The guides at the JSA made it sound like kind of a shit detail, although those soldiers who are standing there are some of the ROK Army's finest.) We also got to see the monument where two members of the US Army were axe-murdered while trimming a tree (true story), the "Bridge of No Return" where former President "Wild" Bill Clinton almost got shot by North Korean guards (also a true story), and one of the secret North Korean invasion tunnels discovered by the South, which is now partially open for tours but still has a large dump tank attached to it so that it can be flooded at a moment's notice (presumably not necessarily before the tourists can evacuate) if the North suddenly decides to use it to try to invade. There's also a "train to nowhere" rail connection that was built during the "Sunshine Policy" period but was subsequently blown up on the North Korean side when things went sour, which now only travels back and forth between two stations on the South Korean side. I believe I saw a grand total of one North Korean - on guard at the JSA - during the whole tour, although who knows how many snipers were hidden in those woods...

On the southern side - the only side we were able to visit, of course - most of the media presented about the DMZ, excluding historical accounts of arboreal axe-murder insanity and defector fire-fights, is either about DMZ's status as a de facto protected - albeit heavily mined - natural wilderness ("The miracle of the DMZ!" exclaimed a poorly-translated video presented at the invasion tunnel, in reference to nothing specific) or a lot of incredibly optimistic and perky talk of eventual reunification. I think most Westerners who haven't been here don't really understand the relationship between North and South. Most Westerners (Americans, at least, in my experience) essentially see the conflict as one of two eternal enemies, one of which would invariably wipe out the other if given the chance. In actuality, the two countries are more like an old married couple with irreconcilable differences who have separated but refuse to carry through with the divorce, expecting the other spouse to crawl home and admit that they were the one who was wrong about everything at any moment. Koreans don't even really acknowledge that they live in two separate countries. In all my time here I've never seen a map of Korea that showed the South without the North, and they don't always bother to highlight that inconvenient line at the 38th parallel either. Koreans in South Korea almost never refer to "South Korea," or anything as "South Korean" - North Korea is "북한," literally "North Korea," but otherwise it's all simply Korean things in Korea. (Or "Corea," if you want to get ultra-nationalistic about it, but I'm not even going to get into that anti-Japanese silliness right now.) Unfortunately, I don't see how this attitude allows for any future in which the two Koreas could separately co-exist as peaceful equals, if, for example, the North suddenly stopped being run by insane people and running its economy into the ground through gross mismanagement and sanctions brought upon themselves due to their militarization and their nuclear program. Then again, stranger things have happened. On the other hand, I do really admire the patience of the South Korean people when it comes to how they deal with their crazy cousins to the North. Since I've been here, North Korea has torpedoed a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island - and those actions pale in comparison to some of the other skirmishes between the two Koreas since the armistice - and yet the two countries still exist right next to each other in relative peace, all things considered. It's hard for me to imagine the United States not bombing the crap out of any sovereign state that attacked a US warship or shelled US territory, especially after the last roughly thirteen years. But as much as North Korea is famous for its isolation and the DMZ seems like an intraversable boundary to normal relations, the country isn't nearly as cut off from the world as you might think. In fact, there's still even a road and a checkpoint linking the two countries, so that managers and commerce can still travel to the Kaesong Industrial Complex operating across the border from the South. (I'm not sure if the checkpoint was staffed when I saw it, and I definitely didn't see any vehicles cross, but the crossing was definitely in a passable state.) Part of the lack of even more hostility between North and South is clearly born from pure necessity - even the rosiest projections of a war between North and South involve a lot of civilian casualties, as Seoul is well within shelling distance of the North and more than half of South Korea's population lives in the metro area - but I think another big part of it comes from the natural abhorrence of the Korean people towards another war among brothers, like what happened in the Korean War. Things definitely didn't go so well the last time, after all. And technically, that war isn't even over yet...

Still, two things above and beyond all this were most shocking about the DMZ to me. The first is the thought that, just north of this imaginary - albeit heavily mined - line on the map, amid the bizarreness of the world's largest flagpole and flag rising from up from a completely false city built entirely for the benefit of binoculars on the southern side, hundreds of thousands or millions of people are starving, and it's all for no reason other than bad government. You could argue that it takes two sides in a conflict to create and enforce sanctions, but when it comes down to it, left to a state of nature (and barring warlords or some other governing party) the North Koreans would probably at least have rice to eat instead of having to subsist on grass and field mice while they sell heroin so they can build faulty rockets. The second is the question, "Wait, what are we doing here?" Don't get me wrong, I'm proud that the support of the US has allowed the Republic of Korea to blossom into a stalwart, thriving democracy and a center of new technology with an advanced economy. (There was some direct or tacit support of some fairly sketchy dictators along the way during that process, but hey, you can't make an omelette without occasionally purging a few hundred bad eggs.) At the same time, having reached the end of the bad ol' days when silly spats between capitalism and communism tore apart the world, it's hard for me to see our place in what's essentially a silly spat between Koreans and Koreans. To be honest our tour guides from the US Army didn't seem too excited about being at the DMZ, "miracle" notwithstanding, though they do serve proudly and bravely alongside the ROK Army nonetheless. But it's stuff like this and - to a much milder extent - silliness like the Dokdo thing between Korea and Japan that makes me wonder how it is that governments always seem to get embroiled in destructive pissing contests and hurting their own people when they're supposed to be helping people live together in better ways. Well, clearly that's a mystery I'm probably not going to work out on my own any time soon. Perhaps I'll have to leave those questions to roam free at the 38th parallel, not unlike all that ostensibly protected wildlife, unanswered. Watch out for mines...

So yeah, the final episodes of this long-running series of adventures seem like they're mostly going to be focused on me trying to keep myself entertained and constructively occupied while trying not to drive myself crazy with homesickness. Or me attempting not to waste all my money and destroy all my brain cells partying with other teachers who are also tired of being here, or looking for a few more good times before they leave, or who just plain like to party. I wasn't planning to go out this weekend, but then another teacher in town had a friend from back home visiting, and then the next night I ended up at an after-the-fact Thanksgiving celebration. Usually there's a married couple from the US here that organizes a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone in town, but they had to go back to the States at the last minute to handle a family emergency, so for most of the week I didn't think I was going to have much of a Turkey Day at all. On Thanksgiving night I managed to get together with a couple of the other Yanks in town, along with some teachers of other nationalities, and we split a couple pizzas, so before last night's celebration I thought that was going to be the extent of this year's Thanksgiving celebration. But I guess it's not so bad to miss a Thanksgiving here and there. Besides, in only ninety-two days I can finally come home...


Postscript: You know what? All this time I've been afraid of counting the days until I leave for fear of driving myself crazy with the waiting. But I've been thinking about it all wrong. I am going to count the days. But not so that I can imagine myself into a future time when I'm back on American soil. I'm going to count the days so that I can remind myself to make every last one of them worth it. I'm gonna download some calendar pages and get a big fat red marker and everything. Only ninety-two days left in Korea! Let's make it count, everyone!

[Addendum, 1/9/13: I mentioned in this post that, at the time of my visit to the DMZ, I had to wonder why the US is still so deeply involved in what I tend to see as a strictly Korean conflict. Well, a few weeks ago the DPRK was kind enough to remind me why we're still camped out in the Korean peninsula. The recent rocket launch appears to have been harmless in and of itself (personally I'm mostly just disappointed that they beat the South into space), but it was definitely a reminder that, in the modern age, regional conflicts can easily become global, and, like it or not, in many of these conflicts it will be the US Army that remains the cop that's there when we need them for years to come.]

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