George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. Continue reading
To begin, we go back in time to the end of WW2. The Japanese lost the war and were forced to relinquish control of their annexed Korean territory which they had established in 1910 and cruelly administered. The Soviets, who had only entered the Pacific theater of the war weeks before, were given temporary authority over lands north of the arbitrarily decided 38th parallel whereas U.S.A. was given the lands to the south. Continue reading
When I returned to Korea after a year traveling SE Asia, Italy and USA, I was curious what I would notice, what changed, what feelings I’d re-experience, what would bother, excite or challenge me this time. Turns out, it’s the same same but different. Continue reading
A new lethal disease from some far-flung corner of the world has made its way into the headlines again. MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) has invaded Korea and set the country in a minor panic as it has killed two people and infected dozens in only two weeks. Continue reading
I’ve lived in Korea for five calendar years and have traveled around the world as well as come back home to the USA a few times. People sometimes ask me where I live, and I noticed that there are a few questions people ask when they hear the words, “I live in Korea.” Continue reading
I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live? Continue reading
It’s my third Super Bowl in Korea. My third big game watched after work on Monday night like some kind of schnook eating spaghetti with ketchup and imitation Doritos, washing it down with a Ramen Cup. Football is the most American of all sports. Like most of us mutt based Americans, it’s a mixture of lots of different sports. But, it was always the sport that brings young boys desperate to hit each other a chance for semi-organized mayhem. Therefore, it was one of my favorites. Like soccer, all you needed was a big field and the requisite ball. But the big difference being in football you can smash your friends once the game starts.
My British and Canadian co-teachers didn’t understand my desire to go Internet, Facebook and cell phone blackout so as to prevent seeing the score before actually watching the game. Alexander was the prime mover of this little charade. “Oh, yeah, the Super Bowl. Broncos won in a nail-biter. You mean you didn’t watch it! Oh, sorry bro.” He was also the same mugg who robbed me of being unsurprised when the Eagles lost their playoff game in true Philadelphia fashion a month ago. It’s okay. I was expecting it being the only American at my school. I just kept my head down and put in my 9 hours.
I left a rather enjoyable day at school (my first day in two full weeks without feeling the effects of the nasty Korean flu) and headed to the chicken wing shop. I was surprised to hear the man spoke decent English. I put in my order for “red wings” and virtually sprinted down the street to pick up my cheese crusted pepperoni pizza. I had planned everything so that I could get the pizza just in time to run back down the street to pick up the wings as they were being individually and lovingly dusted with spicy sauce. Everything was coming up Milhouse!
The Jack Frost infused wind was biting my nose with the last breath of winter. BBQ meat, the ubiquitous perfume of Seoul, was wafting all around me in a warm smoky way. My pizza’s steam was heating my right hand and I had that anxious yet comfortable pre Super Bowl tension. Will Manning be able to handle the Seahawks nightmare secondary? Will “Beast Mode” come out running hard? Will Richard Sherman get a pick-6 to silence the haters? Will the big running attack of Denver bust up the Seattle D-line? Whatever happens, I’m ready because I don’t know and surprise is the element of sports that I crave. The revelation of winning is always surpassed by HOW they win. In every game, there is a winner and loser, but what will happen before the final buzzer?
So, my natural high of anticipation carried me, slightly panting, into Kyochon Chicken, a little hole in the wall delivery place to pick up my overpriced, but satisfactory wings. I had managed to avoid the KBS news broadcast in the pizza place and waited outside until the ajumma walked out my pie with a mixed smile of confusion and generosity. I had made it the whole day not looking at a computer or a cell phone and was almost home. I had 20 wings being put into a box, a pizza, chocolate, corn chips, an apple and beer. The game was queued up on the website and everything was ready to go. It’s a feeling American Football fans only get once a year. It takes patience to recreate it in a foreign land. I handed my card to the young man who was, as some are wont to do, eager to practice English. He said, “Hey, Shehawkuh! Football. Shehawkuhs win! Right?”
One of the best things about teaching ESL is that you meet awesome students. You can meet impressive, precocious youngsters who correct your grammar or wild, excitable hooligans that are incapable of sitting still. You can meet demure, sweet kids who draw you cute pictures or give you their last piece of candy. You can meet the kindergarten munchkins who’ll tell you they love you every day. You can also meet a kid like Samuel.
I’ve known Samuel for just about two years now. On his first day in kindergarten last year, he asked me if he could sing a song. I thought he’d stand up and sing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” or something juvenile and boring. He confidently strutted to the front of the room next to me and sang a popular K-Pop song called “Itaewon Freedom” complete with the dance moves! He sang until he forgot the words. The shy young 5-year olds sat smiling with jaws agape and clapped. My Korean co-teacher, Elly, laughed the whole time. I knew I found an extraordinary little soul. He didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) what peer judgment was, or embarrassment, or being cool. He just knew he wanted to sing, that’s it. Throughout that year, we’d let him sing and dance for new teachers, visiting parents, our hard-nosed principal and basically, he’d sing even if we didn’t ask him to. Anyone who saw my Facebook page during the “Gangnam Style” craze of 2012 summer remembers Samuel. He was wearing the backwards hat in my video of the kids playing conga drums to the song on our field trip to the local funny farm.
He’s a natural entertainer. I heard one story where, on another field trip, he went up to some typically shy high school girls for no reason and sang a song to them. They blushed and covered their mouths like they were talking to some cute English-speaking foreigner. Another day, our attractive young female intern was putting some papers together for a parent newsletter. I happened to walk by the desk and Samuel was casually singing and dancing next to her, as if teaching her the moves. It was apparent he had been there awhile, for she wasn’t even paying attention anymore.
This brings us to last week. I called my pretty co-teacher a foxy lady (because she is the teacher of the room called “Foxy”) and she didn’t get it. I said, “You know, like the song, Foxy Lady…(nothing registered on her face)…The song by Jimi Hendrix…(still nothing)…You know Jimi Hendrix right?” I couldn’t believe it. Neither she, nor any of these six intelligent Korean women had ever heard his name let alone his style of psychedelic blues, radical behavior and flamboyant fashion. I thought he was a household name. (At least they knew Bob Dylan.) But it made me think maybe that’s why Asia and Asians are so dissimilar to Westerners. Entertainment seems to be America’s number one export and the only thing we do well lately. Their world of entertainment is so far removed from the West. I’m not familiar enough with it to explain. But I know their silly TV shows, overacted dramas and outlandish Friday night K-pop extravaganzas are incomparable to the unmatched quality of SNL’s comedy, The Simpsons’ writing, CSI’s production, or even Glee’s singing (if that’s your thing.) There’s a reason American TV and cinema is shown around the world. There’s a reason Western bands and singers can sell out arenas all around the world. There’s a reason why PSY was only a temporary global phenomenon. But there is NO reason why you should know his name but not Jimi Hendrix. The reason is unfortunately, inexplicable. If I have to explain it, you won’t understand. I’m trying not to be intolerant and biased. I know there is great music, TV, and cinema from the Asian world. Perhaps their culture values others traits more than musical creativity. Perhaps their culture doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Perhaps their culture is okay not having a U2, Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix to call their own. But, by the same token, where would the world be without Confucius or Lao Tzu? Would they be the Beat poets or the Bob Dylan of the modern age?
It’s hard to get across my feelings. Maybe you agree or disagree that the Western world is providing better music and movies that the Asian world. Maybe it’s a matter of economics, and Hollywood and big record companies have more money to throw into marketing; but what I do know is that when Samuel sings “We Will Rock You” by Queen, and does a decent Freddy Mercury impression, I’m more happy and more impressed than when he does the horse dance and sings about snotty girls who are overdressed and underfed wearing high heels south of the Han River in Seoul.
It had been a hard month of preparation for an “open class” where the parents of our kindergarten students come to see their children’s progress toward English fluency. We had prepared fun lessons with interactive speaking and listening activities with ample parental involvement and were now ready for it to be over. The night went perfect. All three native English teacher’s classes were fun and exciting. I was riding a high of a small success; tired from a week spent sightseeing and stuffing myself with the best food Seoul had to offer as my sister, Elianne, and her friend, Alycia, had been visiting me. I felt I deserved a pizza. Good things were all around me, nothing extraordinary, just small bubbles of happiness fizzing in my mental soda, effervescent emissions of emotional elation. I get these sometimes. The buzz of self-actualization and being happy in the place you are is a great natural high. I think it’s the feeling of first time parents, sporting champions, and cats that just caught a mouse.
I felt jaunty and jolly. I left the pizza shop with an enormous box and a gluttonously asinine grin. I saw a small woman with a crutch, walking arm in arm with another woman. I just thought it was a grandma strolling with her daughter for a Friday night saunter. As I got closer, I noticed it was not an old woman, but some sort of a Benjamin Button type situation. This was a young girl with an elderly face. She was smiling and telling a story. She walked slowly and deliberately. She might have been fully-grown at about waist height. She didn’t give the impression of self-pity, yet I still had my typical reaction of: “be grateful for everything you have and hope that she is happy.” But, I was overwhelmed. I literally wept onto my pizza box behind a dirty truck. I cried for her situation, mostly because it was hard to imagine myself in her shoes. I am so lucky to have good health, good friends, great family, a decent job, a warm home, clean water, a full fridge (stocked with mediocre pizza), a closet full of clothes, disposable income, and the ability to live a life as I determine. I assume this girl might have most if not all of these things, and I am only being superficial in thinking she is any less happy than I am because she looks slightly different than I do. But, whatever it takes to get a strong smack in the face to remind yourself that the world is beautifully flawed, an irreconcilable contradiction, with a loving detachment for all its inhabitants, the more you can appreciate any brief glimpse of pleasure.
After composing myself, I walked past the BBQ restaurants filled with jovial conversations and satiated stomachs. I saw the cars pass on their way with presumably fit humans. Girls in tight black stockings and men in tight blue jeans walked around in autumnal comfort. And I felt the pervasive oblivion that traps us inside our own trivial problems around every corner. The coffee shops, ice cream parlors, and beauty salons that give us brief connections to distill the true isolation we all feel at times. Then I heard a cat wail. He was under a garage gate and had cute eyes that actually looked at me instead of watched me like the other street felines. He was hungry. He wasn’t interested in my pizza cheese, so I bought him a tuna can and observed his hunger and my desire for a good deed be satisfied together.
I seem to have a real fascination with the modern contrast of life. The simplicity and comfort fused with the complexities and anxieties mixing us into faltering amalgams of artificial confidence and impenetrable neuroses. I suppose it’s the world I choose. Or maybe it’s the world I inherited.
The people I see when I walk around the cities of the world simultaneously amaze, frighten, arouse, stimulate, disgust and amuse me. Some are unbearably attractive, others the kind of ugly that permeates from the inside out. Some are beautiful and life affirming in their actions, others make me feel complicit in their greed and cruelty, simply by being human. Some are good, some are bad, some are pretty, and some are not. I’m not looking to judge someone by their cover, but I am judging my own emotions and internal reactions to their external appearance and/or behavior. Without interacting or talking to these people, I form opinions about them, or just gaze in their direction in bemused wonder. Although it’s good that there isn’t one type of person or one style of person, it does make for some strangeness in my day, either on purpose or just by accident.
On the subway today, I saw a man with a rather grotesquely oversized face contorted in a grimace with an old flip phone to his ear. He was moving his mouth like a cow chewing cud. He seemed unaware of anyone around him. I saw hundreds of women in high heels, holding cell phones in short skirts. I saw hundreds of men in varied colors of plaid shirts also holding cell phones. I saw a dirty old beggar with the heavy-duty rubber leg coverings lumbering down the streets playing that pathetic, lonely, and distant homeless man music on some raggedy old radio. I saw all the smiles of the employees of my favorite restaurant smile at me in unison when I told them the food is great as usual. I saw a diminutive old man in shabby, ill-fitting clothes using the touch screen map at a subway stop. He had that twisted face of a smile, frown and squinting into the sunlight all at once. He confused me. I caught eyes with one nice looking girl; we shared smirks. I saw families walking together, babies in strollers, kids arguing about nothing, parents happy to be out of the house. This isn’t some crazy festival day, or a holiday full of traveler’s angst, it was just a dreary September Saturday in Seoul.
Last week, in Jeju Island, I was at a bus stop, when a woman approached me with a huge goiter on her neck the size of a tennis ball. It was highly noticeable. My friend, Alex, ran away, ostensibly to find a bush on which to urinate, but closer to the truth, he couldn’t handle her. She was grizzled, overly tan, sun-spotted and prone to staring. I thought to myself, yes, she’s scary, staring at you, holding a bag that’s dripping some mysterious liquid, but she’s probably just curious and old. I kept my face to her, while looking beyond her for the hopefully approaching bus. She suddenly spoke to me in the kind of voice in which you’ve heard cigarette-smoking snakes or dying vampires speak. A rather unsettling chill ran down my spine and settled in my sweaty shoes. She asked, in Korean, about my friend who ran away. Who knows what she said, the only word I could translate was “man” and she pointed in his direction. I managed a few polite Korean words to explain I didn’t know, but whatever information she wanted, she wasn’t going to get it. We hailed the next taxi that passed and left her at the eerie deserted bus stop as the sun slipped down over the hills.
Not all people are pure weirdness incarnate. Some are capable of inspiring poetic lust, adoration or hedonistic passion simply by their walk, their talk or their charismatic aura. I’ve seen women that I’m certain I could learn to love and spend my life with pass by me, escaping into the ether of the daily shuffle. Their smell, or their shape, or their enchanting smile can captivate me and stay with me for any number of days. It’s amazing how much my feelings are connected to appearance. Yes, it’s slightly superficial, but with six billion people in the world, I’m entitled to some sort of vetting or examination test. I think we all do it do a certain degree. There are some people that match our internal inspection test and make us feel the wonderful, loving butterfly chills; and others that give us the creeps or make us feel the infinite sadness of the world through their eyes and we get that icy chill of mortality from them. You don’t have to travel the world to fall in love across the street or find the finite nature of society in a poor man’s empty cup; you only have to keep your senses aware, welcome your emotional reactions, and then act accordingly.