Park Geun-hye’s Troubled History Led to Her Impeachment

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. The Soviet prop was Kim Il Sung, a revered Communist figure from the peasant class, having served in the Red Army as well as due to his bona fide anti-Japanese record. He had fought guerilla battles against the Japanese imperialists through Chinese aegis since his teens. The U.S. army found their own man, opposite in almost every way. Syngman Rhee was highly educated, of royal stock, virulently anti-communist and had spent years in exile in the States and China away from the horrors of Japanese colonial activity in Korea.

This cursory glance at the past provides so many gaps needed to fill in to get a full understanding, nevertheless, we move on. Both countries were keen on reunification in their own guise. But with incompatible ideas of government, conflict was inevitable.

The Soviets provided enormous military contributions to the emerging North Korean state. America was more focused on re-building a destroyed Japan across the water leaving an opening that was breached in June 1950 when the North Korean tanks steam rolled across South Korea in mere weeks.

After three years of brutal fighting and devastation, leaving millions of dead in Korea and China plus thousands of others from the U.S. and U.N. contingent, the DMZ was established, nothing gained but much lost from the initial 1945 treaty and the cold war had begun.

Into this arena stepped Park Chung-hee, the currently impeached president (Park Geun Hye’s) father. He was an autocrat intent on transforming the decimated country. From 1960-1979 he ruled with a contrasting iron fist and a golden touch. Although authoritarian and unelected, Korea began to build a modern country with skyscrapers, highways, trains, and new manufacturing jobs focused on exporting. Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and LG were born, becoming known as “chaebols” which translates to “wealthy clan.” These chaebols were and continue to be completely rife with nepotism and historically resemble the ancient “yangban” (educated class) of men who were from wealthy families and were able to pass the rigorous government tests giving them high places in the old Joseon kingdom.

In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer assassinated Yuk Young-soo, the wife of Chung-hee and mother of Geun-hye. Geun-hye became the de-facto first lady at 22. Her father was then killed in 1979 by a South Korean CIA agent, largely in part to his intense relationship to a shady cult leader and mentor to both Parks, named Choi Tae-min, a central figure of this current political catastrophe.

Choi was a five times divorced Buddhist who converted to his own form of Christianity blended with shamanism. Following the death of Geun-hye’s mom, Choi told the young first lady that he could convene with the dead via dreams. Eager to talk to her deceased mother, she invited this shadowy fellow into her inner sanctum where he quickly filled the void of two murdered parents with visions and rituals. Having spent the majority of her life in the gated, insular Korean presidential residence: “Blue House,” she wasn’t very cognizant of con men and trusted the man whom her strongman father trusted.

After the 1979 assassination left her without a family, Geun-hye retreated from public life, but remained close to the leader Choi Tae-min and his equally suspicious daughter Choi Soon-Shil. Right wing generals ruled the country for years as Korea grew into a tech powerhouse. They held their first democratic election in 1987, hosted the 1988 Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and joined the “Asian Tigers” to become a top 15 economy.

Geun-hye was elected to Korean Parliament in 1998, slashed in the face by a madman as she unsuccessfully ran for president in 2007, before winning in 2012 and becoming the first woman president in a highly male-centered country. No doubt she held additional prestige from her family name, but she had also, unknown to the populace, held onto her ties to the Choi family.

I was in Korea at the time of her victory, yet unconcerned with regional politics except for the recent death of Kim Jong Il and his baby faced, pudgy successor. However, it was impressive to see a woman president who seemed to have a certain polite gravitas below her pant-suit exterior.

In April 2014, an overloaded, under-regulated and mismanaged ferry (Sewol) left the northern port of Incheon bound for the magical island of Jeju in the south. After leaving late, they rushed the transport through faster but rougher waters. The captain retired for a nap. The unaccompanied rookie third mate turned too fast to overcompensate for choppy water, the ship listed, capsized and eventually sunk. Park Geun-hye was nowhere to be seen for hours. Speculation ran wild. Anger intensified. Without proper rescue efforts, the passengers were doomed. The passengers included hundreds of high school students going on an extended field trip. Things got worse as investigations went up the crooked ladder of responsibility.

The “Quick, Quick” culture of Korean business led to poor choices on the part of the captain to rest before escaping himself after ordering everyone to stay onboard, the ferry operator to overload, the port authority to fail to check weight regulations, and ultimately the government to moderate them all. Park was seen as obliquely culpable or at least ineffectual. She responded to this criticism by invoking her father’s strongman tactics and blacklisting artists, musicians and movie makers. The Busan Film Festival, Korea’s largest international festival, lost half of its government subsidy after screening a documentary about the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

Two years later, a portable hard drive was discovered in Choi’s office containing secret state documents, revised speeches of the president as well as the daily schedule of meetings to be conducted with the president. Choi was unelected, unknown and unconnected to the government yet she had improper, profound knowledge and influence upon an increasingly unpopular president who had seemed to be listening to this woman as a magic 8 ball of poor decisions.

It was particularly embarrassing to proud Koreans that their president could be abused and manipulated by a glorified tarot card reader. Then it was revealed that Choi solicited donations from the giant Chaebol companies to her private charities in return for favorable government regulations. Then it was revealed that Choi bought Park’s cheap clothes with government funds and kept the change. Then it was revealed that Choi edited Park’s speeches. Then it was revealed that Choi’s daughter was given unearned entrance to a prestigious university, EWHA, and concurrently given passing grades despite lack of attendance. At the time of the scandal, the daughter was living like a queen in Germany riding million dollar horses basking in the glow of an Asian Games gold medal and swimming in millions of elicit euros.

Every weekend, for months, millions of Koreans descended on downtown Seoul with candles, masks, effigies, signs, and a singular desire to oust the weakened leader. It came to a head this week as the Korean parliament confirmed her impeachment.

Choi is currently in jail awaiting trial, as her daughter waits for extradition orders in Denmark. Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung was also arrested for his role in the scandal. Korean law prevents a sitting president from trial. But, in two months, she will be a private, pension-less citizen and presumably will face trial.



Losing a Pet



Her name was Hanil (하늘). In Korean, it means “sky.” She was a Shih Tzu, which in Chinese, I imagine means “Sits on You.” She loved to sit on me. If I was on the couch, she was on the couch; if I was in bed, she was on my foot mat. Before she got sick, she would try with grunty zeal to jump up on the couch or bed. She followed me around the house and barked if I closed the bathroom door. She followed only me on dog walks. She needed no leash, because she never strayed from my feet. When we drove, she would jump across the dead man’s zone of used cups and chocolate wrappers in the elbow console just to get to my warm lap. She was brown and white with big black cataract eyes. She used to roll and rub all over my scattered clothes trying to absorb the smell. She loved me and I loved her back.

Hanil was fifteen when she moved into our new apartment this March. Jordan’s mom couldn’t take care of three dogs alone, so Hanil came to live with us. She got along with the two boys, Hershey and Alvin, but used to try to eat their food if they were too slow to the bowl. She loved food. She ate in gulps. She ate everything you put in front of her. She had recently gotten mouth surgery to fix a broken jaw. Now, all her food had to be soaked in water to allow it to soften because chewing was no longer an option. She still ate well for a while. Then, when she stopped voluntarily eating, we had to feed her with a small syringe. Jordan would cook vegetables, eggs, and meat, then blend them into a healthy slurry. I’d hold her head tight as Jordan tried to slyly sneak the food into her growling maw. We knew she was really sick if she didn’t want to eat.

She got sick in the kidneys and used to pee almost hourly on the tiled bathroom floor so we could wash it down the drain. I’d hear her little feet with overgrown toenails clicking her way on the hardwood floors to the bathroom. We’d have to wipe up her feet after to prevent pee prints, and that includes the midnight hours. She was so sick and could barely jump up the raised step out of the bathroom. I’d give her a little push from her belly.

The vet said she had very little chance to live because of how far along the kidney disease was. We took her for a last trip to the beach. She did okay with the heat of the day and chill of night and relished the chance to sit on my lap for extended sessions of Korean weekend traffic. I complained about the traffic, but should have just enjoyed the lap time. We don’t always realize the impermanence of life while stuck in traffic. When we got home, I researched the internet and found a cocktail of Azodyl, kidney purifier, and vitamins B & C could help. After one day of treatment, her faced perked up, her step got bouncier, she started eating again. She still looked old, but was acting young. We got our hopes up.

I ordered another three-month supply of everything, since she was doing so well, I could save on the shipping. The hot summer days and humid nights passed as she snoozed in the A/C, she slept by my bed, sat on my lap for preseason football, we went to the park, we walked at night, she barked for me to open the bathroom door, and things seemed normal.

The disease was stronger than the medicine. On Thursday night, I took her out for a moonlight walk. She used to keep up with me, only stopping to pee or poop. This time, her head was down and she was just going through the motions, a sort of mechanical walk. She wasn’t sniffing the bushes or wandering around, she was just trying to keep up. She didn’t pee or poop. I picked her up, rested her on my arm, she wrapped her front paws around my wrist and we went inside.

Friday morning, I’m rushing around after walking the boy dogs, brushing my teeth, styling hair, drinking coffee, taking morning pills, eating yogurt and getting dressed in my daily rush of daybreak. Hanil usually followed me from task to task. That day, she only made it to my closet to say good morning before laboring back to her bed on top of my workout shorts.

At work, I got a message that Hanil was very sick and needed to go to the hospital. She’d been to the hospital a few times before, got an IV drip and was released. Cautiously optimistic, I went to my Friday night work dinner with all the teachers, but left early to try get to the hospital. Hanil was resting.

Saturday afternoon, we got to the vet clinic after a big pizza lunch. It was clear something was different. Her head didn’t leave the pillow when I touched her. Her back didn’t arch when I rubbed between her shoulder blades. She was very still save for breathing.

We sat for a few hours beside her little cage. I was under the impression she was going to get better again, so we went upstairs to hit golf balls at the fenced driving range to relieve some stress. Later, I took Hershey and Alvin, who had been patiently waiting in the parking garage all day, out of the car for their night walk. I got slightly lost meandering thoughtlessly, thinking of the little pup’s life with us. I thought of how, years ago, when Jordan and I were first dating, Hanil sat with me, creating a calming influence for me in a strange new house. I remembered, during my interview for James’ TV show, Hanil sat with me on camera, giving my nervous hands something to do. I thought of all the naps I’d taken with her as an armrest. Basically, if I was in her vicinity, she was next to me. She’d given her love, affection and attention to me constantly. That’s the thing with love from pets, it’s always there, so you think it will always be there. I got back to the clinic around 22:00. Jordan managed to get us a private room. Hanil was still hooked up to the machines and randomly twitching from the ammonia poisoning that was now soaking her insides. The odor was pungent and upsetting.

An hour passed, I had to move the car out of the garage and feed the dogs dinner. Moments later, I got an urgent call beset by panic. “Come in, Hurry!” The mind doesn’t prepare you for death’s horrorshow. Hanil was receiving CPR and in the process, her eye had nearly burst out of its socket, her white tongue hung listlessly out of her sad jaw and they were pressing upon her chest in a brutal, rhythmic pulse. I exclaimed curses and begged them to stop. The last few minutes were terrible as I waited for someone to translate to me what happened. But, I knew.

Back in the little private room, we wrapped her in a blanket and sat sobbing. I wanted this terrible day to end, so we began the 70-minute journey to World Pet, a crematorium near the ocean. In the countryside, crying and confused, Jordan asked, “Where is she now?” I began a sentence when from our right, out of the cornfield, a meter-wide wing span swooped in front of the car, forcing us to brake in terror amid our stunned screams. It was a beautiful owl. We cried and trembled in fear before imagining a wonderful thought. It was our hope than Hanil traded in her sub-par eyes through re-incarnation for the animal kingdom’s best.

World Pet had a nice, clean candlelit altar, incense hung in the air. The man brought us a small box into which we placed a flower and her body. A long, lugubrious half hour later, we had a tiny urn and box which read “Hanil is in the origin of the soul. September 11, 2016.” The general burden of that date was not lost on me as we exited to the sound of deep rolling thunder. There was distant lightning as a misty rain fell. The rain fell harder as we drove away. It stopped suspiciously quickly after we mentioned how it felt like Hanil was crying with us, and the road was dry the rest of the way home.

Our little apartment was full of painful reminders: Tupperware full of blended foods, medicines and syringes scattered on the table, mesh shorts piled in a cozy circle beside my side of the bed, wet tissue for cleaning up accidents. I was home, and finally able to cry, unabated into my pillow.

The sun rose in a gleaming yellow flood upon our living room. We hugged and stared the distant gaze of loss that all pet owners feel at some point. We whimpered in sadness and tried to assure ourselves of her good life. We grieved and thanked her for her love. We wondered if she heard.






A Short List of 20 Little Differences

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. The language is a hard barrier, but comforting in that you don’t have to constantly eavesdrop out of curiosity. The public transit is fantastic. The food, as referenced many times before, is outstanding.

So I realized, it’s the little differences. Example. Well, you can go to McDonald’s and order a quarter pounder with cheese, but they don’t have any real hard “R’s” in their language, so you have to say, “Qwatah poundah wis cheejuh.” It’s not that difficult, but you feel slightly condescending and infantilizing to the counterperson, who is probably grateful that you spoke in a dialect they can understand. I’ve approached the counter and seen waitstaff run to grab their colleague who speaks English and then giggle along as I give my order. Therefore, here is a completely random: “short list of little differences in Korea”.

  1. Bathrooms have bar soap. This is not exclusively true, but in any random public bathroom you can expect to see a bar of Irish Spring sitting in a putrid marsh of ancient bubbles and stagnant water. Sometimes it’s jammed onto a small pole so you just kinda grab it like a “you know what” and get a little soapy.
  2. Old people can be either extremely cute, lovely and helpful OR mean, rude and disrespectful. But I imagine they feel the same way toward us foreigners. It is also highly dependent on how you are behaving at the time.
  3. There are NO public trashcans. This is incomprehensible. Trash is laying all over the place waiting to be picked up by neon vested men when they could just put a big black receptacle on corners to assist the 10 million Seoulites who need to toss their granola wrapper and coffee cup.
  4. Karaoke is a private, not public affair. In the U.S. I remember singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and thinking, “I’ve made a huge, tiny mistake” as I bored the drunken crowd with my somehow off-pitch falsetto and histrionic gyrations. In Korea, you pay 20$ and 5-10 friends sing and dance together with plenty of soju libations.
  5. School NOT sports. Kids don’t play after school sports. They go directly to hagwons, i.e. “cram schools.” They may play some pick up games on Sundays in tiny playgrounds, but I rarely see a ball in hand without a bag on back.
  6. TV is all undisguised reality and cooking/eating. The reality shows aren’t beautiful people in beautiful places. It’s a Dad feeding ramen to his baby. It’s a guy who owns a pig and a dog. It’s an old man hiking. It’s old ladies making kimchi. The cooking shows are kind of commercials for a restaurant or locale in Korea with everyone slurping and exclaiming, as far as I can tell, the only compliment for food, “mashida”–which translates loosely to “has taste.”
  7. Baseball is a crazy event with hot cheerleaders, constant singing/chants and balloon waving. In USA, it’s called the national pastime and according to George Carlin, “a 19th century pastoral game…where the object is to go home and to be safe at home!” Here, it’s like soccer hooligans switched sports.
  8. There are no dryers. Yes, laundromats have them, but who will walk down the street to do a load? With apartment space at a premium, they just use the drying racks. I wonder if they know about the stackable washer/dryer.
  9. Fans can cause death. This is an old wives tale, and completely ridiculous. I lived in Texas where you use both A/C and fans. The fan didn’t push the air away from my mouth thereby rendering me unconscious leading to eventual snoozing asphyxiation.
  10. Food trash is separate. This makes sense. I’ve heard they used the methane from food trash to make energy. And if you’ve ever smelled week old, laid out in the humid summer kimchi, you’d want that smell working for you.
  11. Shoes come off inside. I tried to maintain my shoes off routine back in Philadelphia, but my socks kept getting so dirty! With small apartments (my bed is literally 5 steps from the door) you need to maintain cleanliness.
  12. People are terrified of dogs. My dog does look like a wolf, but my friend walks her 12 year old spaniel and says she sees the faces of terror from Koreans as they sprint away. I think they’re afraid of the returning karma for eating dogs for so long.
  13. Parks have exercise equipment. Lots of parks have only old lady type machines for stretching and pseudo toning, but some have pull up bars, body weight machines or an actual bar with plates for bench press. How long before those weights got stolen in America?
  14. Every activity requires perfect “gear.” This is a bit of the conformity complex of Korea. They can choose the color, but the style is the same. If you’re hiking, wear the cool mountain trekker get-up. If you’re biking, spandex and fancy shoes. If you’re swimming, cap and goggles. If you’re riding the subway, earplugs and smartphones.
  15. Diversity is basically non-existent. Sure, there are a few hundred thousand foreigners in Seoul, which is maybe 5% of the population. That means that at any given street corner, subway platform, ATM, food stall, music performance, park or beach, you are usually the only one with natural brown hair or blue eyes. And if not, you eye that foreigner with suspicion.
  16. Girls show legs but never cleavage. The girls have long, soft, shapely legs and generally less up top. Work what your mamma gave ya. This is best evidenced by K-Pop girls.
  17. Men like to dress preppy. No socks, rolled cuffs, button down, sweaters tossed purposefully casually over the shoulders, shiny watch and clean shoes. It’s like they saw that poster from my Catholic prep high school and made it the cultural norm.
  18. Side Dishes are free and unlimited. This goes along with the outstanding food tradition of Korea. The kimchi is free and delicious–mashida! Ask your waitress at Applebees for more vegetables for free and see if you get it.
  19. There are 3 kinds of beer, all with the same taste. Drinking is mostly obligatory and since all three kinds of beer suck, and soju is flavorless rubbing alcohol; it makes partying more of a chore than a tasty accident. To be fair, micro brews are booming and soju is now flavored…they’re learning.
  20. Men smoke the equivalent of Virginia Slims like a gangster. They have these little slim 100’s and hold them like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Smoking is already not cool, and the thin tobacco holster isn’t helping.90_pulpfiction_royale

Why MERS Matters

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. In 2003, SARS became a major concern when it killed over 700 people in six months before finally being contained. There are hundreds of epidemics throughout recorded history, with the deadliest coming before the age of modern medicine. That knowledge gives us an unjustified confidence that with science, we will always be able to contain these pathogens.

If we can learn anything from Hollywood movies like Contagion, Outbreak or even the fictional zombie apocalypses, we know that eventually, some badass virus with a malicious swagger will come along to remind us that nature’s innate, self-sustaining cruelty doesn’t respect our revolutionary medical remedies. These biological anomalies, these parasitical, self-driven monsters can be seen as nature’s cure for overpopulation. In the same way that there is a food chain to maintain balance, viruses have or will one day have transplanted themselves above humans atop that sequence.

Our precarious global population explosion of the past two hundred years, most notably since the 1960’s at around a one billion-person increase per 15 years, must be unsustainable. Climate change, as effected by massive deforestation, factory farming, unsafe pollution levels, melting glaciers and humanity’s unwillingness to observe let alone reduce the causes could be influencing both the macro and microscopic levels of life. Not only could many coastal cities be flooded within a century at current levels of sea rise, but also the tiny organisms surrounding us may become more malevolent and destructive.

Why should we be so arrogant to think that nothing could stop these paradigms of perfection known as people? Why should we believe in the power of science to save these specimens of superiority from disaster? There is no cure or vaccine for MERS. Fortuitously, it isn’t highly contagious and we seem to be able to contain it due to fairly quick (less than a week) symptom detection. What happens when there comes along a little bug, a little bug who studied human behavior, and learned how to be passed along through the air or through skin contact or how to stay dormant for weeks? The idea should be terrifying. Barring a calamitous, yet nevertheless inevitable meteor strike, a pandemic is the next most believable end for modern society.

I see my confusingly confident friends haughtily lambasting Korean parents for keeping their children home from school. I see Facebook hater groups laughing off school closings due to this serious disease as if it was a pre-cancellation for a typhoon that never arrived (see: Typhoon Bolaven). Yes, Korea will probably quarantine the right people, an unlucky few will die and the panic will subside. I’m just worried about the time when quarantine becomes numerically unfeasible, the unlucky become the majority and the panic becomes hysteria. Until then, maybe we should cancel school this week. It’s better to be safe than sorry. <wink>


Top 6 Responses When I Tell People, “I Live in Korea.”

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.” Centuries ago, it was called the “Hermit Kingdom” as there was so little known of the oft forgotten peninsula between the two formidable Asian giants, China and Japan. Before I came here, I didn’t know much either and probably would have asked these same questions. So, this is not a post designed to shame the clueless or disgrace the inexperienced. After all, we’re all experts and idiots in one area or another.

1) “North or South?” OR “Aren’t you afraid of North Korea?”

Although Kim Jong-Un is a plump, egomaniacal, scion of brainwashing zealots and a perfect case of foolish nepotism, his nation is of no more concern to South Koreans than Americans are afraid of a Canadian military attack. I’m greatly exaggerating the point; however, North Korea’s craziness remains north of the 38th parallel. Because of the war in the early 50’s yet despite the historical relation, today’s North and South are polar opposites. The yearly U.S.-Korean joint war-games usually pisses off whichever rotund Kim happens to be dictating at the time and some military posturing ensues.

Where South Korea has TV, Internet, excess amounts of delicious food, political and for the most part (Confucian society (i.e.: collective hierarchy) is deeply ingrained and restrains many social processes)) societal freedom, North Korea has none of that, and instead has statues and framed photos of their god-kings. It’s a stupid response but even stupider and hurtful when posed to an actual Korean. My Korean girlfriend hated when we traveled through SE Asia and people would ask her, “North or South.” North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave the country for fear of them never returning, or worse, returning with a tacky t-shirt and knowledge of an open and free world outside their tiny half peninsula of despotic tyranny.

*A better question: “How is the South Korean government changing their policies regarding maritime guidelines in response to the Sewol disaster?”

 2) “Do you eat a lot of sushi?”

This one isn’t really that bad, because there is sushi in Korea, but it is more of a Japanese dish, not Korean. The sushi in Korea is expensive, but can be found anywhere. It’s a dish that is too clean and polished for normal Korean cuisine. Most Korean food is in combination or mingled form, like soups or the numerous side dishes called “banchon.” Japan is orderly and beautiful, like sushi. Korea is rushed but satisfying, like BBQ. Obviously comparing a country’s attributes to food is a generalization, but sometimes apt.

*A better question: “Do you eat a lot of kimchi?”

 3) “What’s the weather like?”

This one has an easy answer for me because Philadelphia is on the same parallel lines of the globe as Korea, so we have similar weather, vegetation and trees. But not every foreigner is from my latitude, so this one can be a good question for those from the southern climes or another hemisphere. Technically, the weather has four seasons, but winter is the boss. He arrives in time for Halloween in an angry, horror show snowman suit complete with whistling Siberian winds and bone chilling temps. Summer is sticky, hot and humid and has a month of almost perpetual rain, whereas spring and fall are completely wonderful with blooming flowers or flamboyant colors of autumn foliage respectively.

*A better question: “Does Chinese pollution affect you?” (Yes, it does.)

4) “I have a friend/relative who teaches in ___________.” (Not Korea, but it’s their only contribution to such an outlandish statement and a mild confusion of all Asia as one.)

I actually find this one to be endearing. Asia isn’t a place many people will visit in their lives. It’s literally on the other side of the world from the Americas. The follow up to this question is, “Do they like it?” And the answer is usually affirmative, which makes for an easier introduction about my reasons for living here. Asia opens up new possibilities and increases cultural awareness. Smelling the street fires of Cambodia, partying in Thailand, feeling the history of Vietnam and Laos, bowing in Japan, people-watching in China or laying on the beaches of the Philippines seems like such a distant dream until you live within one hour of the immaculate Incheon airport. Traveling is a major perk for expats. The road is a liberating place to feel comfortable inside of your own anxiety. Since you are a foreigner, there is a certain amount of exemption from the strict societal frameworks of some Asian cultures. You can get away without bowing, but if you do, you’re golden. You can get away without speaking the language, but if you do, you’re heaped with praised. Which brings me to the next point…

*This one was a statement, but anyway—a better question: “Why did you move there?”

5) “Do you speak Korean?”

When asked this, I inevitably ask myself, “Why don’t I speak Korean?” I’ve lived in Korea for several years and I’ve just never committed to fully learning the language. There’s many excuses: difficulty, lack of time, everyone speaks English, but they’re not good excuses. Some foreigners will devote some time and get decent or even fluent enough to be a part of the crazy Korean reality TV scene. I fell into each category. The Korean alphabet took me one day to learn, but the speaking part is not so quick to absorb. After work, I barely have time to juice my biceps at the gym, shower, eat a meal and watch a quick Daily Show before it’s time to hit the sack and do it all again! Also, it’s true that anybody you hang out with will speak English. Yet, the inherent truth is that maybe you could meet new (non-English speaking) people if you could communicate in their language.

*A better question, so that you won’t make me feel apathetic and lazy: “How do you say, ‘Thank you’ in Korean?”

 6) “I’ve always wanted to do that.” (You can.)

This is the rare response from the person whose eyes light up with the phantasmagorical dreams of Oriental life with bustling floating markets, neon-lit crosswalks, bizarre street foods, copious rice paddies, or sparkling emerald waters. These people are genuinely interested in your experience. They want to know more. They want to know how you did it. OR, they are not interested at all, completely happy in their life and had thought about it once in passing during a sunny happy hour in the week after university graduation. The fact is, anyone with a college degree can teach in Korea or Japan. Non-college graduates with at least a desire to teach, travel and live abroad can go to Thailand, Vietnam or China. It’s a wide-open world for English speakers. I’ve even met Filipinos, Germans and Dutch who speak such good English that they get hired as “Native Speakers.”

*Again, another statement—but a better second question is: “Do you think I would like it?”

I recommend the experience to most people. One-year contracts go really fast; and a friend of mine told me long ago that everyone should teach at least once in their life. If you are working in a job that isn’t your career, recently had a bad break-up and need to get away, living at home and don’t know how to move out, desire travel opportunities or simply crave an adventure, this is a good choice.


Seoul is not Vienna

“Seoul is not Vienna.”  They were some of the first words my American friend and I exchanged on our new Korean cell-phones.  It does not have the classic architecture we are used to seeing in European video montages.  It does not have the tiny alleys with overhanging flowerpots of Rome, the myriad of dessert stores filled with cute ponytailed girls like Paris, the dirty, seedy charm of Berlin, the cozy fireplace pubs of Dublin or the late night tapas and midnight serenades of children like Seville.  What it does have is alleys filled with neon lights and squirmy squid, expensive cakes at places called Paris Baguette, posh, symmetrical skyscrapers and outdoor tents for heavy consumption of the local firewater—soju.  Children are awake for all hours of the night; they can be seen in their school attire sometimes until ten at night.  They also go to school on Saturdays here.  The charm is different in Asia than Europe.  The charm lies in the smog, in the conspicuous consumption, and the blatant live to work lifestyle.  The charm lies in knowing that sixty years ago, this country looked like a moonscape.  The civil war that America found its way into blew apart this country and led to the creation of the DMZ.  The “miracle on the Han” or aka Seoul’s rise to a prominent exporter of goods and intellectual property provides the south with the reason to work hard.  They know what they have accomplished in a short time.  They know that 60km to the north lies a land where hard work is compulsory and dedicated to the “Great Leader”.  They know that education and labor is important to success.  The Europeans are quite the opposite, napping Spaniards, laissez-faire French, cappuccino sipping Italians bear a different burden of balancing living well by working hard.  Of course, the Germans are a whole different breed, somewhere in the middle of self-loathing and arrogance of their accomplishments.

But the persistent stench of urine and seaweed in my neighborhood of Dong-jak hasn’t reached the level of charming through its unpleasantness yet.  The cultural shock of eating squid weekly and seaweed daily is a bit of a stunner.  The idea of eating out being cheaper than cooking at home is unusual, but agreeable.  The times when seeing a blonde head feels like an eye smack.  The city of Seoul is vibrant and dynamic, but it is powerfully, wholly Korean, despite the Western influence of McD’s or Starbucks.