alexasiablog

Alex in Asia

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Olympics and an Exert

Sorry for not posting for a while, I’ve been distracted writing other things. I’ll put a short excerpt of one of those other things on here, just to prove I’m still alive and literate.

 

Korea has Olympic fever. More specifically, Korea has Kim Yu-Na fever. For whoever doesn’t know, Kim Yu-Na is a figure skater, and if a figure-skating world ranking system exists—it probably does, I’d imagine—she is right at the top. And she is an absolute goddess here in Korea. If you talk to a random sample of Korean children, which I more or less do for a living, most of them will tell you that Kim Yu-Na is the person they admire most in the world.

 

Soon, in just a few short days, Kim will skate for the gold medal, and the whole peninsula will be watching. Mothers will hush their children, brothers will put a steadying arm on their sisters and exchange glances of nervous anticipation. Soju will be sipped—ew! I still think soju is gross—volumes will be turned up, and then, after midnight local time, Kim will take to the ice. She will start out slowly, but the superiority of her form will be immediately apparent. The other skaters, while world class in their own right, cannot hope to match her for grace and power. She has the unique skill of making each twist and turn of her program look easy and incredibly difficult at the same time—easy, because she does not seem to be exerting any effort, and difficult, because who but Kim Yu-Na could hope to make such art on the ice?

 

She will finish her routine, flawless as always, tens of thousands of hours of practice, culminating in a single moment. She will sit just off the ice while awaiting her score, stoic and unreadable, her fate cruelly left in the hands of subjective, possibly biased and xenophobic judges. She holds her breath, and so too does Korea. Her archrival, Mao Asada of Japan—have I mentioned how much Koreans dislike the Japanese? Because I cannot stress enough how much Koreans dislike the Japanese—has already turned in a nearly perfect routine. It will be close

 

She might win.

 

If she does, she will unite a whole country in fit of Olympic ecstasy. People will rush out onto the streets in celebration, normally reserved businessmen and housewives shouting, chanting and embracing, drunk on victory (and also soju, which is still gross). She will show the world that Korea is not a country to be ignored, but to respect and fear. She will pay back Japan (and China, because why not?) for a thousand years of one-sided warfare. She will prove the superiority of the Han race, igniting a re-purification of Korean bloodlines!

 

Or, she’ll choke

 

And now, an out of context paragraph from some other writing I’m doing

 

Evie spent the rest of the ride staring out the window at the limited sights of semi-urban Tuscon. It was an ugly place, inorganic, and trying both too hard and not hard enough to be something other than an aggressively irrigated hub on the way to someplace more promising. Had she been there under different circumstances, she might have found it admirable, or Romantic even, a city where no city should be, maintained by engineering and determination. But she was there for the trial of her father’s killer, so she hated every inch of manicured, green grass that refused to yield to the desert heat and just fucking wilt already.

It was surprisingly dark for a place that spent so much energy keeping itself hydrated. A place like that seemed to call out for artificial light, just to go with the artificial everything else. Evie was unaware that in the early 70s Tucson had enacted a dark sky ordinance, establishing maximum nocturnal illumination levels in order to limit the light pollution that was starting to interfere with a few local observatories. She would have found it fitting though, to learn that the dark was, in its own way, artificial as well, having been legislated into existence against the protests of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce (of which her father, due to a convenient tax loop hole intended to attract out of state business, had recently become an adjunct, non-voting member).

Tipping and Dehumanization

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before or not, but no one tips in Korea. Cab drivers, bar tenders and waitresses all get by on their—presumably inflated, but considering how they treat workers here, maybe not—hourly wages. In a lot of ways, this is nice for consumers. Because prices in Korea are listed with tax already included, when you order, say, some Soon-dae-gook-bap (soon-dae=pig intestine, gook=soup, bap=rice, so basically pig intestine soup with rice. I promise, it’s actually not bad. I like it extra spicy) for 5,000 Won, you will end up paying 5,000 Won, as opposed to the 8,000 or so you would pay if forced to add tax and tip.

Still, there are disadvantages, both practical and otherwise. When I order my usual Jameson, neat, Korean bartenders have the infuriating habit of measuring out the whiskey in a shot glass before pouring it. This drives me insane, and I do my best to subtly register my displeasure. Usually I just kind of stare and sulk, but last night I gave the bartender a sort of a pleading look, and he splashed in some more booze from the bottle. Then I tipped him. Generosity is contagious, and everyone wins. What could be simpler? This concept is sadly lost on Koreans.

Either way, this sort of nonsense would never happen in America—or any tip-positive country—for several reasons. First, I feel like it is pretty universally understood that a neat whiskey should include more than just a single shot. It’s insulting; the act itself demeans my importance as a customer. A measured drink tells me that my 5,000 Won has paid for exactly so much whiskey, and not a drop more, while the bartender is relegated to the status of vending machine, taking in cash, dispensing a beverage. We are both reduced to our most basic roles, two sides of an equation where $(X)=1.5 oz*liquor(Y)—it dehumanizes us.

On a more practical level, a bartender expecting a tip would never be so pedantic. Even if it’s just a pleasant fiction, tipping forces some degree of camaraderie between server and served, turning the relationship from purely functional into something at least resembling mutual humanity. The bartender knows the size of his tip depends largely on customer satisfaction, so he pours accordingly. Pouring the minimum amount of alcohol, he knows, would result in the minimum tip, and is therefore avoided.

But it’s not just another exchange, a little more alcohol for a little more money. It creates a certain mood, an ambiance. A tipped bartender is more inclined to talk with customers, listen to their stories and commiserate with them, if for no other reason than to secure future tips. Inevitably, a congenial atmosphere is cultivated. Drinking makes people want to talk, and talking makes people want to drink. A wonderful, social cycle is initiated around the bartender, a benevolent fulcrum balancing conversation and drinking both. And of course this deserves a tip, even as tipping allows it to occur.

“Wait,” the cynic might say, “is not honest disregard superior to feigned sympathy? Is it not better to be alone than to pay for company? Is the bartender, not, in some ways a prostitute, and you his John?”

“Shut up and/or fuck off,” I might reply, because at some point fiction becomes fact. Tipping, conversation, human interaction, no matter their impetus, are always real. It’s why people go to bars, why they pay that 500% mark-up rather than drink alone (getting laid has also been known to factor into it). In moments of loneliness and boredom, we seek out company and alcohol, and tipping is a part of that. It brings us together.

So fuck the local custom. That’s worth a tip.

A Final Note on Grief and a Trivia Story

I have grieved, but never alone, until now. Let me clarify. I am not alone in Korea. I have friends. I have drinking buddies, even a potential love interest or two, but none of these people knew and loved my grandfather. Earlier today, I met a girl for coffee. Both the girl and the coffee were wonderful, but halfway through my latte, I thought about what would happen if I told her my grandfather had died recently. She would have made all the proper sympathetic noises, and would have most likely meant them, but she would not have grieved with me. You grieve for the person who died, not the people who knew him, no matter how much you sympathize with their feelings. And so, unless Lester Baum made any life long friends during the Korean War, I’ll be on my own in this.

In case any friends or family should be overly concerned about this, I promise, I’m fine. I loved my grandfather, and now he is gone, but life goes on. If my father’s death taught me anything, it is that even when you are consumed with grief and sadness, the rest of the world is not. The sun will callously insist on rising each morning, even if you would prefer if it took a few days off while you got your shit together. And really, your only choice is to rise right along with it.

Now, on to lighter things. I wrote this just before last weekend, but didn’t feel like posting it until now.

I am furious. Not disappointed rather than angry, but both, plus livid, incensed, and any other words or phrases you can think of that mean just generally pissed off. I better explain.

The other night I was at one bar or another enjoying a casual drink, when I started talking to a girl. The girl—Karen—told me about a trivia night she organized for expats at a bar downtown. Now, I love bar trivia. I love all trivia really, but especially when you mix it with moderate to heavy drinking. To be completely honest, what I really like about trivia is the chance to show off a bit, to massage my ego, which always wants for some massaging. I know my sins (vanity, pride and gluttony mostly, with a few others mixed in just for variety), and I don’t see any harm in indulging them once in a while, so long as nobody gets hurt and everyone else gets drunk.

So the following Wednesday, I invited my friend James to make the trip up to Traveller’s Bar, where the contest is held.

Digression:

Korean has the tendency to turn people into unwilling vegetarians. Meat is just about the most expensive thing in the country—besides maybe non-domestic booze—probably because most of it has to be imported. As many map owners know, Korea does not have a ton of land, so Koreans generally farm grains and vegetables, rather than graze cattle, on what little land there is. Apparently, you get more calories per acre growing buckwheat than you do raising heffers, so meat is rare and costly. My favorite meal is Udon and kimbap, the first being shorthand for udon soup, served with fried tofu, seaweed, scallions, and some flat, starchy things of mysterious providence. Kim bap is sort of the Korean equivalent of a California roll, and literally means seaweed rice. It features those two ingredients wrapped around pickled radish, scrambled egg and various vegetables, served sans wasabi or soy sauce. Sounds gross I know, but it is only $1.50 a roll and I can’t get enough of them. Every meal, of course, comes with a side of kimchi and usually some pickled radish and/or a bowl of broth as well.

Anyway, after a week of that diet—which again, I actually quite like—I was definitely ready for some protein. Traveller’s is owned by a Canadian, and its menu features what can charitably be described as a bacon cheeseburger, even if the Korean language doesn’t seem to have a word for medium-rare. Still, the beef was just a perk, I was there to answer some fucking trivia questions. James and I split a pitcher of something called Red-Rock, which while not great, is definitely a marked improvement over the local Korean beers, which are slightly thinner than water and not nearly as flavorful.

Around when we were finishing our meal, the girl from the bar—hi Karen—stepped up to a microphone at the front of the room and started explaining the rules. They were pretty standard, and I won’t bore you with them.

Throughout the first round, James and I were confident. We knew most of the answers, made educated guesses on others, and were stumped by only one or two. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that we were the most animated and energetic people in the bar. The other groups were somber and workmanlike, writing down their answers as if they had never left their jobs, and this was just one final assignment they had to complete before going home. While we high-fived and celebrated, they murmured and conferred. While we enthusiastically finished our pitcher and ordered another, they drank with expressions of dutiful compliance rather than pleasure, like getting drunk was a mildly inconvenient favor they were doing for a friend.

I handed in our answer sheet, still confident, and went back to await the results. They read out the answers before giving the score, and again, James and I were the only one’s celebrating. I wondered if I had accidentally gotten too drunk; such things have been known to happen. Otherwise I could not figure out the disparity in energy levels. Our final tally was 11 right out of 13, so we figured to be, if not in first, then at the very least tied for 2nd out of a dozen or so groups. Nope.

We were in last, with almost every other team getting a perfect score. Right away, we smelled some pure, unsalted bullshit. I have not spent half my life face down in a book to come in last place at bar trivia. No, just no.

“Cheaters!” I yelled out to the bar. A girl from the table next to me decided to reply.

“Excuse me. We did not cheat. Maybe you just lost.”

“Of course you guys didn’t cheat,” I said. “but everyone else definitely cheated. We are probably the only two teams that played honestly. Congratulations on your perfect score.”

I bet she was the biggest cheater of all. God I hate her.

Of course, I knew the how and the why, and half wanted to just leave, but James convinced me to stay for another round and at least confirm our suspicions. So we stayed, and we confirmed.

Smartphones.

Fucking smartphones.

Every team was discreetly—or, in some cases, not so discreetly—Googling underneath the table. I did a lap around the bar just to confirm that no one beat us fairly, then got my coat and left with James.

I wish I could put the cheaters into one group, and say that it was only the army guys, or the local contractors, or even just the Hagwon teachers, and therefore manufacture some excuse that would catch all of them in the same net. I could write their perfidy off as a product of circumstance, as the result of a particular and specific set of conditions that would force any reasonable person to cheat at bar trivia. But it wasn’t just one group. Everyone cheated. Privates First Class (maybe even officers), ESL teachers, I even think I saw a local girl on her cell phone when they asked about scientology.

The most depressing thing was the uniformity of it. Everyone cheated, everyone scored perfectly. Why? It can’t be for fun. For the prize? I assume they’ll all just end up splitting it. It’s possible there was some kind of tacit agreement, an understanding that if everyone cheated, it would be like no one did, or at least turn the competition from a test of knowledge to a test of Google skills. I honestly don’t know. There was an element of surrealism to it, to see perfect score after perfect score after perfect score, knowing that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Aware, that is, but silent, no one reporting anyone lest they all be reported, a dynamic equilibrium, Mutually Assured Destruction. Pathetic.

I comfort myself by assuming that these cheaters lead sad, empty lives. The kind of lives where a couple of morosely sipped drinks, minimal conversation and some furtive internet searching represents an apex rather than a nadir. The next day, James asked me if I wanted to try again next week, see if it got any better.

“What are you,” I replied, “some kind of optimist?”

Eulogy, by proxy

My grandfather taught me many things. He taught me how to sink a putt and hit a drive. To play blackjack and shoot craps, and that if you say something often and loudly, people will believe it’s true. He taught me a million bad jokes and one or two good ones, how to check the pressure of a tire and build a house out of playing cards. He taught me to never under-eat and always over-tip, that it’s possible for one old man to know every single person at a woman’s basketball game. Most of all, he taught me that the world is full of people waiting for someone to take an interest in them, to ask how they are doing and mean it sincerely.

He was a man who greeted anyone and everyone with a smile and a joke. He was on a first name basis with the entire Hartford area, and on pretty good terms with the rest of the world besides. He always knew whose mother was sick and whose wife was having a baby, and there never was a pretty waitress or mean old croupier he couldn’t make smile, even before he started tipping, which he did enthusiastically and often.

He believed, as we all know we should but sometimes cannot, that there is nothing more valuable than human connection, even if it’s only for the space of a quick word and a handshake. People loved him not because he was charming or funny or smart or kind—though he was all those things and more—but because they knew that he loved them back, deeply and unconditionally.

Bowing and a Birthday wish

Bowing is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it, even if I don’t always understand some of the finer points of bowing etiquette. My technique is a little off, too. My bows are abrupt and spastic where they should be dignified and graceful, and I have the unfortunate habit of kicking my left leg in when I dip my head, so that the whole thing turns into a kind of involuntary curtsey. But I’m working on it, and I feel that I can only get better with more time and practice.

 

I also need to learn when it is and is not appropriate to bow. At the most basic level, the bow is a sign of respect towards an elder or a superior. And no matter how many grade-school teachers insist otherwise, respect rarely ever goes both ways, and so bows are not—and should not—always be reciprocated. I have a difficult time with this. When someone bows to me, I feel compelled to return the gesture, almost as a corrective, as if to say, “no, no, no, I think there’s been a mistake. If you really knew me, you’d see that I am not, in fact, bow-worthy. Here, have it back.” And then I return the bow. I am fine with that though. Even if other people, other expats even, can stand there with grace, dignity and poise while receiving a bow from a waiter or cashier or someone, I can’t.

 

My problem probably has something to do with a lack of familiarity. America, as you may have noticed, suffers from a severe dearth of bowing. Besides eight-year-olds taking strip mall karate classes and gymnasts just finishing their floor exercises, there is very little bowing in the USA (maybe also ballroom dancing? Is there bowing in ballroom dancing? It seems like there might be bowing). Korea, in contrast, is saturated with bows, teeming with them. So to an American in Korea, making the transition from one extreme to the other, bowing can seem more meaningful than it actually is. Every time I bow, I still feel like I am taking part in a solemn exchange, a grave and serious transaction—whether of material goods or simply psychic energy—even if I am only grabbing a beer from the corner store. Koreans, on the other hand, who have built up a tolerance for the innate solemnity of the gesture, are able to bow—or not to bow—without so much as a second thought. They make it look easy, too, without any of the tics or hiccups that characterize my awkward efforts.

 

I need to learn to emulate this attitude, to take my bowing in stride, to do it with a casual, even perfunctory air. I want to be able to perform a bow as if it is just one of two dozen or so bows I will mete out that day, which, after all, it is. Until then, I think I will be cursed to a life filled with over-bowing and quasi-curtseys, closer to jerky head nods than anything else. Still, as I said before, it is really a lot of fun.

 

Also, I want to wish a very happy (late) birthday to my little brother ben and my little sister Katie.

 

Ben—even though you have blonde hair and blue eyes, for 18 years you have stubbornly refused to be anything other than the perfect little brother. You are the best of all of us, and never let that change.

 

Katie—I’d call you beautiful, but I don’t think you need any encouragement on that front. I’d call you brilliant, but I don’t want to lend credibility to that malicious rumor going around that says you’re smarter than me. So I’ll just say I love you (both), and Happy 18th Birthday.

 

 

Jaywalking and the Revolution

No one jay walks. Even when the roads are empty, even when everyone is drunk and stumbling home from the bars, they will not, under any circumstances, cross that road until the light changes. There are even sensors on the edge of the sidewalk that, when they detect you creeping forward, will warn you—in an insistently polite, chipper and feminine voice—to back up and wait for the light to change. The wait takes forever too, at least 2-3 minutes, which maybe doesn’t seem that long but absolutely is.

 

So of course I jay walk whenever I get the chance. I’ll wait casually at first, blending in—as much as it’s possible for a 6 foot tall white person to blend in here, anyway—while I look for an opening. If I spoke enough Korean, maybe I’d even make some banal, grating small talk. “Overcast again, huh folks?” or, “So Daegu FC lost again? The bums.” Then, when the cars stop coming, I make my move. I don’t run; it would be beneath my dignity. I just give a quick nod to whatever little old lady is standing beside me, then stride across all four lanes with what I imagine to be confidence and style.

 

The long wait means that some decent sized crowds tend to congregate, sometimes as many as a couple dozen people end up standing on either side, facing each other down like rival posses. When I break ranks, all those pairs of eyes end up squarely on me. Half burn a whole in my back, while the other half stare with expressions ranging from preoccupied indifference to stern disapproval. I like to think that a lesser man would hurry himself up at this point, whether out of shame or embarrassment or self-conscious insecurity. Not me though, I just keep the same measured pace, and try to make as much eye contact as possible with the people waiting across the street.

 

I just don’t understand why they wait. These people are busy. Presumably they have someplace to be; otherwise they wouldn’t be out walking in the first place. And yet they wait. They bow to that most callously impersonal of all government regulation: the street sign. I hope one day to lead an exodus, to inspire everyone by my brave example. Sometimes, while waiting, I feel the urge to make an argument in that direction, but my Korean is hardly good enough to order a drink, never mind incite an act of civil disobedience, however mild and innocuous it might seem.

 

But one day, maybe, when the roads are particularly deserted, and my fellow pedestrians are in a particular hurry, we will all gather at the edge of the sidewalk, and there, we will make a collective decision. First, we will look at the DO NOT CROSS sign, preferably with an expression of casual, roguish indifference. Then we will look at each other, and although no words will be spoken, an agreement will be made, a tacit understanding. No longer will we bow to the petty tyranny of Korean traffic laws, our looks will say. And then with a comradely nod, together, we will cross the street. Hand in hand—or not hand in hand, I’m flexible on this point—with grandmothers in puffy, shapeless coats, young businessmen in painfully earnest sweater-vests, and whoever else is there, I will march with my new Asian brethren like an army heading to war, confident and eager for victory. Word of our deed will spread, down to Busan and up to Seoul, to the Hagweons and Army bases, even across the DMZ and into Pyongyang, where millions of oppressed North Koreans will suddenly look upon their dear leader with newly opened eyes, and rush the streets in a frenzied jaywalking orgy, toppling the regime one crosswalk at a time. One peninsula, one land, no more waiting for the fucking light to change.

Schooling and a Theory

There is something about the Korean educational system that seems to evoke well-meaning condescension in every westerner that comes across it. The issue—for the 99% of you who are unfamiliar with the Korean schooling ethos—basically comes down to memorization. Korean students memorize a lot, as in almost exclusively. They don’t so much teach to the test—a term that implies that there is some idea beyond the test that it is intended to measure—as they teach the test itself. The test doesn’t measure knowledge; it defines it.

There is a great enthusiasm and reverence for tests here. A lot of career paths are guarded by infamously difficult exams, like so many trolls patrolling so many bridges. If you manage to pass one of these exams, for instance the foreign service exam, your life can more or less be considered successful. If you pass two of them, you are obviously destined for greatness. Three, and you’re a legend.

Backtracking a bit, all the memorization and test prep tends to crowd out the things that are near and dear to my liberal-arts-majoring-heart: critical thinking, analysis, understanding concepts, and so on. Believe me when I say I’m not trying to fight the system. I have yet to walk into class and set the textbook on fire.  This is not the story of a dedicated teacher risking his career to inspire his students—white saviors are a bit old fashioned anyway. Theirs not to reason why, right? I do what I’m told.

Besides, who says they have it wrong? Koreans do tend to kick our American asses on standardized tests, and they more than hold their own when they go to American colleges. This is the part when someone says, “yes, but did you know that there are, like, zero Korean Nobel prize winners! Their approach fails to promote creativity!” Because creativity is generally considered something that can be taught in schools, and most (if not all) great artists credit their primary school educations with providing the impetus for their later work. In all fairness though, the above straw-man has a point. Creativity and innovations are somewhat lacking in the country. Samsung copies Apple. Much of Korean cuisine is highly derivative of Japanese/Chinese dishes. Fine. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the schools, and luckily for the people who are still reading (hi mom! How are the pups?), I am prepared to put forth an alternative theory.

By the way, this is my own particular brand of well-meaning condescension. I never said I was immune.

Korea is a country that values conformity. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Korea is not a country that values nonconformity, but either way you get the idea. Individualism and nonconformity are so ingrained in the American psyche that we just assume they must be universally considered positive qualities. Not so in Korea. Maybe it’s the Confucianism history, or maybe it’s the ethnic, racial and cultural homogeneity,  or maybe it’s something else, but it’s definitely there. Just to give an example, I saw a commercial the other day that featured an entire city, dressed in the same clothes, singing and holding hands. I kept waiting for the twist, like when that blonde girl in the orange shorts broke the screen in that apple commercial from the 80s, but it didn’t come. It was an ad for a bank.

SIDE NOTE: Before I go on, yes I realize that there is a lot of conformity in America. Yes, the ideals of nonconformity, individuality and “being yourself” are often used to sell people the same clothes and music that everyone else wears and listens to, but the important part is that they are selling points, so shut up. You never read a children’s book or watch a movie (or even see a commercial) where the moral of the story is to do your best to fit in.  Sensibilities would be offended.

Innovation, meanwhile, is a fundamentally rebellious act, rugged individualism taken to its practical extreme. Before you reinvent the wheel or discover a new way to measure the age of ink, you have to start with the assumption that not only is the old, accepted way of doing things wrong, but that you can do better. For all our other faults, this is a notion that comes easily to Americans, who are taught to sneer at tradition, but not Koreans, who learn to revere both their elders and the way things have always been done.

OK, the sermon is over. Most of that is probably wrong, or worse, unoriginal, but there it is. I hope everyone understands I’m not trying to say “hey Korea, your doing it wrong.” I’m just processing my experiences the only way I know how, by comparing them to what know.  If anyone wants to talk about it, or maybe just compliment me, email me @ alex.lucas.cion@gmail.com

Anyway, hope the think piece wasn’t too boring, and I promise next time I’ll just tell a funny story about going out and drinking with the locals. Until then, bye, and  have a great new years for me. I will be working 9 AM on January 1st

Alien Registration and Moral Relativism

            The South Korean government is not concerned with the convenience of foreigners. I got a visa before I came, but for me to do anything that would leave a paper trail—opening a bank account, getting a cell phone—I need something called an Alien Registration Card, and to get an ARC, I need to do all sorts of different things. The school where I work has a guy to walk me through the process, so my job has mostly been to show up, decipher a lot of hand gestures and pointing by Korean-speaking bureaucrats, and pass a drug and health test.

 

            There was no reason I should be worried about any of this. I’m in reasonably good health as long as no one makes me run, and I knew the drug test was coming so I was sure to be on my best behavior for the ninety days prior to my flight—but still. Some part of me was sure that twenty-four-plus years of hedonism, amorality, and degeneracy would catch up with me, that even though my blood and urine might be clean, some part of me would still carry the detectable traces of every questionable decision I have ever made, every “why not” and “maybe just one more.” I assumed like this whole process was meant to weed out people like me, to ensure that young Korean minds would be entrusted to only the most upstanding of citizens—something I have never, ever been accused of being. In short, I thought I was going to pay for my crimes, both real and imagined.

 

            And yet… nothing. I passed. They let me in. The ARC is in the mail, and soon I will be on the grid and in the system and officially legitimized by the power of the Senate and People of South Korea

 

            Obviously this called for a celebration.

 

            So in keeping with the tradition of exonerated criminals everywhere, I went and got drunk. Since It will still be a few more days before I am eligible for cell phone ownership, and since some cursory knocking on a few friendly doors went unanswered, I went off on my own to Commune’s.

 

            A quick digression on drink prices: one whiskey will cost you about as much as a three course meal, which is still only about $7 American. Imported beers are equally expensive, and Korean beer makes a Keystone taste like ambrosia. Wine is just about the one thing in this whole city that costs more than it does in the states, with a bottle of Yellowtail—you know, the one with the kangaroo label—going for $15 American at your nearest 7/11. The most popular drink is something called Soju. It is about 40 proof, comes in 12 oz bottles, and tastes like Smirnoff Ice mixed with rubbing alcohol and the tears of children. Just vile, awful stuff.  I usually go with whiskey, and maybe an imported beer or two for variety.

 

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Jameson, neat, and started talking to the guy sitting next to me. Stefan was 30, Canadian, and a veteran expat, having already completed a one year teaching contract. He could tell right away that I was new—I wasn’t drunk enough (yet) to lose the self-conscious stoop in my shoulders signifying my status as a unwrapped, fresh-off-the-boat Americano—and invited me to tag along with a group of locals and fellow expats.  I have to go teach soon, so I’ll just give you the bullet points.

 

There are a lot of little pop-up bars that serve “bag drinks,” which are drinks that come in, you guessed it, plastic bags. They are usually the about the size of a walk-in closet, covered floor to ceiling in neon graffiti. There is a straw involved as well.

 

I really have to do a whole post just on dating in Korea, but really the best way to think of it is to take the sexual mores and gender equality of the 1950s, then add cell phones. It is, in a lot of ways, a deeply misogynistic country, full of things that can make a liberal westerner start to squirm a bit. Late in the night, one of the local girls in our group  got aggressively hammered, and her friends—both male and female—encouraged me to seize this opportunity to hook up with her. They were earnestly perplexed when I refused, and couldn’t understand why I would have a problem with it. The usual disclaimers apply: this was a group of people not necessarily representative of blah blah blah, you get the idea.

 

Honestly, I’ve thought a lot about that moment: not just the way this girl’s friends offered her up to me, trussed and prepared like a sacrifice to the American lust gods, but about my condemnation of the act, and the sense of moral superiority it gave me. I’m keeping an open mind about everything I see and experience, and I know I have no real right to judge a culture and people that are not my own. I’m just a tourist, really, and guests don’t make the rules. But on the other hand, some things are just objectively wrong—like nonconsensual sex. If I had touched that girl, it would have been rape. If someone else touched that girl later in the night—which I didn’t witness, but unfortunately seems kind of likely—it would have been rape, too. I can’t explain all the different ways I don’t want to be a missionary, saving the souls of the barbarous locals via forced baptism into the church of the secular humanist. I’m really all for moral relativism, but there are limits.

           

Here is the place where I draw a conclusion, where I reconcile the part of me that is fascinated with the country with the part that is repulsed by it. But I got nothing.  I’m sorry if this was a little dark, but I figure I might as well write the things that are on my mind.

 

I’m still loving it here, and it’s been, on the whole, a fun and exciting first week.

 

Peace and Love friends

The City and Alex Finds a Bar

Daegu

 

Daegu (or Taegu. One is the new spelling, the other is the old, not sure which is which) is the third largest city in Korea, and looks like what would happen if Joseph Stalin got drunk one night and let his mildly handicapped nephew design a shining new Soviet metropolis, then sobered up and stopped the project halfway through. There are two kinds of streets, large, four-lane main roads and side streets, which are like alleys, only it’s possible to walk through an alley without getting run over by a mid-sized Kia. The side streets are straight, narrow, and arranged seemingly at random. Sometimes, you can detect the faintest trace of a grid, only to have it interrupted by a street cutting through at an oblique diagonal.  Koreans also maintain a strong cultural taboo against street signs, agreeing only to name, number or label the most major roads, and probably not even those without a lot of polite but insistent complaining.

 

            It is an ugly city by day. Everything (except the coffee shops) is marred by corrosion, and the bright colors of the storefronts are faded, like cake frosting without enough food coloring. The architecture really does look Soviet. Most of the buildings are squat, square and concrete, with the occasional gleaming skyscraper only serving to make its neighbors even less impressive by comparison.

 

            At night, though, it becomes something else entirely. If you are standing outside at just the right time, you can see the neon lights flick on one by one all up and down the street, and you almost expect the cars to start flashing their headlights in solidarity with their suddenly beautiful city. In an instant, the drab, sun-starved tangle of thoroughfares and alleyways transforms into a Technicolor retro-futurist acid trip. And the people change, too.

 

            During the day, most Koreans dress like they spent the previous night studying mismatched scraps from an LL Bean catalogue. There are sports coats, there is tweed, and by god there are sweater vests, none of which do a particularly good job of matching anything else a person might be wearing. But at night, like vampires, the freaks come out to play: K-pop wannabes with androgynous clothes and faces, hair bleached and teased into elaborately impractical polygons, girls in shiny white thigh-high boots and mini-dresses, showing off the specific stretch of thigh for which Korean men have a particular affinity (there’s a name for it, but it escapes me), and couples walking and holding hands in matched sailor costumes (I know). It’s spectacular.

 

            It may be early, and I usually try to avoid this type of commitment, but I think I found my favorite bar. Two nights ago, I went out to dinner with Molly (southern bell, sad she went home), Nicole (engaged to a local boy, apparently difficult to pry away from him), and Eliza (a wonderful blend of fun aunt and kindly grandma, a surrogate for whichever female relative you happen to miss the most at that moment) as a sort of farewell party for Molly. After dinner we went to a place called Commune’s. I’ll try to describe it.

 

            The bartender, Hen-Shi, speaks fluent English, though Commune’s isn’t like Traveler’s, which primarily caters to expats and has a website where you can vote on which football game they’ll show on tape delay that night. Commune’s attracts a nice mix of locals, Americanos, and, for whatever reason, Slovakians, all of whom coexist in peace and drunken harmony. The décor would make a Brooklyn dive proud—thousands of old records line the bar, and the walls are covered with vintage posters of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and all their friends. That night Hen-Shi played great music and showed us pictures of his trip to China, everything from the Great Wall to skewers of spiders and scorpions sold by street vendors as delicacies (EWGROSSEWGROSSEWEWEWWWWW). We talked, we laughed, we drank, and even made some abortive attempts at dancing. It didn’t quite feel like home, but that would defeat the purpose of leaving. Ill just give it the best compliment you can give a bar, and drink there again tonight.

 

            Bye for now, and more to come

Welcome to Daegu

OK, Korea. Alright then.

 

            I wish there was a first thing I noticed, something so immediately and insistently different that I just had to share it right away. But there isn’t. Instead, things are different here in a million little ways that add up to something completely alien.

           They don’t do sizes in coffee shops. If you want a coffee or a latte, you get one small 8 OZ cup no matter what. It’s pretty expensive, at least compared to everything else. I just got back from lunch, where I had a bowl of udon noodle soup with fried tofu, a sushi roll (they don’t call it sushi, which is something different, but there was seaweed, rice and crab) and a drink, which came out to under $6 American, or 5,600 Won. A coffee will run you about as much as an American Starbucks, but when you can get a three course meal for the same amount, it starts to feel pretty steep.

            Also, no tipping. They don’t tip here. Some restaurants, but by no means all, will leave a tip jar on the bar, but tipping for service is neither required nor expected. I still feel guilty dropping a 10,000 Won bill for a 9,500 Won meal then waiting for change, but the one time I tried to leave something on the table the waiter ran after me and gave it back. Oh well, when in Rome I guess.

The Koreans are largely friendly, though there is a definite strain of xenophobia in the country. They have spent their entire history as a consolation prize in the endless war between China and Japan, with each country taking turns occupying the peninsula in accordance with a rise or fall in their military fortunes. The Japanese had them last, and there is still a lot of bitterness about WW2 around here. Some of my students have helpfully explained the perils of trusting the inherently devious Japanese, and none of them particularly like the half Japanese kid in the class, the poor guy.

Their work ethic is incredible, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about it later, but for now I’ll just let everyone know that the Korean people have collectively discovered a miraculous new synthetic material. It is harder than diamond or quartz, and completely resistant to any pressure applied to it. Instead of using this new material to enhance their space program, or even as a form of body armor, they have decided to make their mattresses out of it. I can only assume that they mistrust a comfortable night’s sleep, regarding it as a gateway to sloth and idleness.

I’m going to have to save most of my cultural observations for later, since it’s almost time for me to head to work and do my part to mold young Korean minds. I’ll only say that I am exploring and learning new things each day. I have been spending a lot of time with my predecessor, Molly a 23-year-old Tennesseean (Tennesseeite? Tenneseeian? She’s from Tennessee) who is basically straight out of central casting as the sweet, pretty southern girl. She leaves tomorrow, and I will definitely miss her.

 

Goodbye everyone, and more to come