How Grandma Became A Shaman

[Kingdoms in the Sun, a time travel adventure fantasy romance set in modern and pre-modern Korea, has been re-released!, and the chapter that follows concerns my wife Jade's extraordinarily bizarre ancestry. More chapters will follow in the coming days.]

Throbbing through Jade’s bloodstream were DNA strands belonging to a general from hallowed antiquity—Kim Yoo-shin, whose fiery kites had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time fourteen centuries ago. The man could also move objects with his thoughts alone and see things that had not yet occurred. In the Samgook Yoosa, one of the oldest Korean historical texts, it was written that Kim Yoo-shin dreamed up the future of his land, and told his companions, the Hwarang Flower Warriors, that while he was frightened by his vision of towering gray stone castles filled with more people than he’d ever seen and deafening rivers of screaming metal turtles roaring around them in square moats, and that while he knew it would all come to pass thanks to his efforts to bring the peninsula under the dominion of King Moonmoo, he’d still fight on nonetheless, because he couldn’t bear the thought of allowing this green and pleasant land to fall to the Tang.

But the centuries between his triumphs and the birth of Jade’s mother Yi weren’t so kind to this branch of the clan. They grew thinner and smaller as the equinoxes precessed, and with increasing desperation they worked the earth that sprouted fewer crops each summer, rising and falling in a blurred montage, the crops, the sun, the people.

Like most Koreans of her generation Yi was born into crushing poverty. Her country was one of the poorest on Earth at the time, and as far as anyone knew her ancestors had been scrounging a living from the dry rocky soil since at least the tenth century. A handful of rice, to them, was a luxury. They mostly subsisted on millet, since these were the days when North Korea was a prosperous nation propped up by the industrial wealth of the Soviet Union, while the South was a backwater dictatorship still recovering from years of war, decades of colonization, and millennia of serfdom and despotism. Those people spent their lives aching for food.

At Seoul’s heart there were horses clopping through the streets, while today’s grandmotherly Sea Women of Jeju Island were all young, taut, and tanned—diving into the ocean without oxygen masks, rippling in the blue murk, spearing fish, plucking shells and seaweed, wrestling whitetip sharks, and going home to sleep in stone houses with straw rooftops shaped like loaves of bread. Live pigs were tied up and strapped to the backs of bicycles, water buffaloes ploughed the fields, and people walked dirt roads under towers of firewood. Today’s steel glass cities were wretched shantytowns perched over rivers of filth. Most buildings were as short as the average person.

Life was already hard enough for Yi’s mother (Jade’s grandmother), but a run of bad luck, combined with gongs clashing like lightning in the black mornings and rice bowls shattering against her shack’s walls only to reappear unbroken within the proper cupboard the next day and her naked babies floating and laughing dappled in the sunlight that poked through the roof—all this convinced her to visit Gyeongju’s old medicine woman.

After chanting the incantations a pall of white smoke puffed around Yi’s mother, and the shaman saw two sinuous dragons with porphyry scales slithering through. Their eyes were pale crescents, their moustaches were green zigzags—these were the troublemakers behind the recent poltergeist activity, and they would continue their antics until Yi’s mother bowed down to submit.

The old medicine woman turned to the spirit of death, who sat cross-legged behind Yi’s mother on the cold dirt floor in the corner of her house of piled stones, which had a wooden sign outside that said Philosophy in Chinese letters. He was dressed like a nobleman in black robes, and he wore a black conical broad-brimmed hat, with a string of smooth wooden beads stretching under his goatee.

Yi’s mother turned around, saw nothing, and then looked back at the shaman. “What is it?”

“Your new boss,” the shaman said.

In his black robes the nobleman nodded and rattled his wood-beaded necklace.

He nodded, rattled—appeared!—and Yi’s mother leaped back and yelped.

Death spoke without moving his lips. “You know how this goes, don’t you?”

Yi’s mother threw herself onto the dirt floor and bowed on her hands and knees. “If I don’t become a shaman you’ll take my eldest instead.”

Death turned away. “That’s right.”

“If you already knew the answer,” one of the dragons said, “why did you come here?”

Yi’s mother was sobbing into the floor.

“Did you want me to reassure you with lies?” the shaman said.

“I’d hoped you could convince the gods to leave me alone,” Yi’s mother said.

“They don’t care about you, and they never listen to me,” the shaman said. “They just want your bones. Yours ring the right way when the gods tap them, mine are the same.”

Yi’s mother stood, bowed, wiped the tears from her eyes, and walked out.

Death stared through several broken-down shacks to an old slave who was shivering under his tattered bedcovers, coughing fog and memory into a room without windows.

You won’t go alone, Death said to the slave, and to Yi’s mother.

One dragon attended the old slave, another flew beside Yi’s mother walking Gyeongju’s dirt roads. How would she break the news to her family? Far better not to see them at all, too painful to part like that, a shame to be a shaman.

She stops on the dirt road between all the rotten fruit and vegetable sellers, who stare at her through the rising sunlit dust as if they know everything, and there is a man wearing a straw hat and a frayed frock coat with the brown threads popping out of the hem in the shoulders.

“Get the fuck out of my way,” he says, shoving past.

A bulbous pickup truck coated in rust rumbles by.

Where can I go? she thinks.

“I can take you,” the dragon says in a voice that disappeared a long time ago.

He turns north. “Follow me.”

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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This website has moved!

I’m gearing up for the release of a new book, which also means a new website.

Abuse!

She’s not my student—she’s my friend—and she attends one of the better middle schools in Beautiful Gyeongju. During our last conversation she revealed that one of her teachers punishes her students by, first, holding her fingers almost like a long-nailed vampire or ghoul, and, second, by raking them against the asscheeks of her disobedient pupils. She whacked one such student several times with a meterstick or a pointer or something, and he was so badly hurt he had to go to the hospital, telling my friend that his behind was covered with black and blue welts.

They’re usually punished, physically, for not doing their homework.

One other teacher at this proverbial good school, who teaches Home Economics, is also remarkable: she apparently comes to class, tells the students she doesn’t feel like teaching them, and then walks out, leaving them to their own devices. On the rare occasion when she does actually stay in the classroom, she spends her time quietly organizing the contents of her purse.

HOW FAR THE APPLE HAS FALLEN FROM THE TREE

The Story Of Gertrude Berg's Great Grandson...

The Story Of Gertrude Berg’s Great Grandson…

...Living In Korea

…Living In Korea

Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

But I was inspired to return briefly to my defunct website to describe an encounter I just had at a restaurant with my two-year-old son as well as a family of Koreans, who sat down across from us and commenced to parrot everything I said in English while simultaneously commenting, in Korean, on what my son and I were doing. I told my son to have some rice in English, and the boy across from us told his father the same thing in the same language, explaining that it meant 밥 먹어라 in Korean. His father went on to say “habbuh some lie-ssuh” about thirty times to the rest of his family, who were all very much amused by his antics. My son then lifted up a fork to eat the rest of his rice. This is strange in Korea, where people only use steel spoons and chopsticks to eat Korean food, forks and knives being reserved for unhealthy and barbarous western cuisine. When I heard the boy across from us say “pokkuh” with surprise and amusement, I looked up at him and his family—for the first time—and discovered that they were all staring at us and smiling.

I couldn’t resist. I berated them, in Korean, for treating us like zoo animals. I know I conjugated my verbs politely, but the emotion inside of me was so strong that I can barely remember what I said. I can remember seeing those amazing smiles of theirs—those “The Foreigner Is Going To Amuse Us” smiles—fade into extremely awkward and stilted “We Don’t Know What To Do” smiles as I said something like, “Is this funny? Is this funny? If you went to America, and spoke Korean, and heard people speaking Korean around you, you would feel bad. For us, we feel bad. It’s not funny.”

Simplistic it is, and I may not have even gotten that much across. Who knows. But it did shut them up. I addressed all of them, as well, looking mother and father and older brother and younger brother straight in the eyes, and they were so surprised they said nothing back. When I finally glanced down to my son, who was still eating white rice with his fork as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all, they were still smiling at me like mannequins. It was spectacular. I told my son to finish up, and actually started laughing with him. We paid, thanked the restaurant’s owner as politely as we could, and walked out.

Maybe I would have let it go if they had done the same thing to me before yesterday, when I suspect one of my college students pretended to ddong-chim me for the amusement his friends. I only saw him do so out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not even really sure that’s what he was doing to begin with, but I didn’t yell at him for it—I let it go, actually, when I should have flung him out of the classroom, and because I let it go, the anger seethed inside me, twisting in my gut like a knife for the rest of the day, through the night, and all the way into this afternoon. I regretted my restraint, and I will probably wind up yelling at him in the next class we have together.

But as a result of this restraint and subsequent regret I decided to unleash the fury of my silver Korean tongue, my second soul, at the exact moment I encountered a fresh instance of barbarism that was not only directed toward me, but toward my son. Some readers may think I was less than diplomatic, but seriously, they were talking about us as if we were zoo animals—they were insulting us, right in front of us, as if we didn’t care. I mean, who does that? Who goes to a restaurant—which was otherwise empty, by the way—and starts talking about the people sitting right next to them as if they’re an exhibit in a museum? Who does that, and then smiles pleasantly, as if the people on display don’t care—as if those people enjoy being dehumanized? I shouldn’t have said anything, honestly. What I should have done was pull a Klaus Kinski. I should have picked up my bowl of hot soup and flung it at the boy’s father and said HAVE SOME RICE!

On a related note, last night, a boy came up to me while I was trying without much success to remember the passcode required to get inside a massive apartment building, where one of my students was waiting for me. I was several minutes late and feeling extremely frustrated. He walked up to me, and said, in English, “where are you from?” Without looking at him and also without thinking I said “your mom”. He said, “your home?” And I said, “no, your mom.” He stopped talking to me after that. I then remembered the passcode and got inside.

One more slightly related story. Another blogger has recently related a complaint about Korea’s four-thousand-year history. An older Korean in-law came up to him and said, “did you know Korea has a four-thousand-year history?” or something like that, and it made this blogger feel bad. I found this encounter interesting for numerous reasons, one of those being that a friend from Hampshire engaged in a rather epic battle with a Korean nationalist to remove that exact same [ridiculous] claim from wikipedia’s History of Korea page.

I told my (Korean) wife about this encounter, testing her to see if she would make the bogus claim that Korea is the oldest country on Earth, and she had the presence of mind to say “everyone has a four-thousand-year history”, or something to that effect. And for most of my readers, particularly those reading from beyond the half-peninsula’s shores, that is a truism, but inside Korea it really is possible to encounter people who believe that they could go four thousand years back in time and talk with their ancestors in modern Korean about the scientific wonders of Hangul and the spectacular beauty of 우리 나라 Dokdo over a bowl of spicy kimchi stew.

Now, in four years of dwelling in Korea, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who believe these things. One was a random retired schoolteacher. Another was kind of crazy, and introduced himself to me by declaring that an American soldier had killed his grandmother. A third was my mother-in-law, who said that Korean scenery is the most beautiful in the world (my wife corrected her and said that other places are much more beautiful, but why does there even have to be a contest? Parts of Korea are beautiful, parts of the rest of the world are beautiful, everything is wonderful). That’s it. For the rest of the hundreds or even thousands of people I’ve spoken to, these issues have not come up.

But, on the off-chance that someone does come up to you and decides to pick a fight by saying “my country is older than yours” or “my alphabet is prettier than yours”, I recommend fighting them back. I won’t speculate as to why these people act this way, but I do know that by simply nodding and smiling and saying wow, that’s interesting, they aren’t going to stop. That family I berated, for instance, will probably think twice about discussing other foreigners as if they are zoo animals in the future…although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the exact same thing again in the exact same place and got yelled at in the exact same way, only to ask themselves, “why are these foreigners such assholes?”

First, the claim that Korea is four thousand or five thousand years old or whatever is based on a text called the Samguk Yusa which was written seven hundred years ago. This text does say that an ancient Korean dynasty was founded a long way back, but in the same breath as saying that its founder, Dangun, came out of the sky, talked to bears and tigers, and invented medicine. Thus!, telling people that Korea is older than [insert country here] because it was founded by Dangun is really no different from saying that Greece was founded by Zeus or that England was founded by a dragonslayer named Beowulf or that Iraq was founded by Gilgamesh. Ancient civilizations were present in all of these places, just as they were present throughout much of the rest of the world—some were hunting deer, others were building pyramids, why is one better than the other?—and there is some historical basis for these myths, but can we really trace a direct link between our world and theirs? Would anyone from that period of history feel comfortable or at home in ours? Would anyone from our period feel comfortable or at home in theirs? Why do we then claim them as our own? Why, also, do we sometimes associate ourselves with sports teams made up of muscular men who want nothing to do with us? And why do I see colors when I rub my eyes?

Second, the claim that Hangul, the Korean script, is scientific. It is not a myth. People do say this. I’ve asked them what they mean when they do, and they immediately say “I have no idea.” I’m not really sure what they mean by scientific—what hypothesis is the written language testing or proving?—but there is a direct link between certain letters of Hangul as well as certain letters of the Roman alphabet, so if Hangul is scientific, the Roman alphabet is scientific too (even if these letters descended from arbitrary Egyptian hieroglyphics). The letter ㅂ looks and sounds like a B; the letter ㅋ looks and sounds like a K; the letter ㄴ is sometimes pronounced as an L; the letter ㅣ is sometimes pronounced as an i; the letter ㅍ looks and sounds like the Greek equivalent π. Other letters resemble one another: ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄹ are all fairly familiar-looking to Westerners who know nothing about Hangul. So if someone comes up to you and says Hangul is scientific, you can say, hey, great, my alphabet is scientific, too!

A final note. The first paragraph I wrote here implies that I am desperate to leave Korea. And, to tell you the truth, when I find myself walking around the trash-strewn streets of Gyeongju with my son, I can’t help but feel ashamed. I’m like, really, Ian? This is the best you can do? You’re going to raise your son in a place that smells like diarrhea? When your parents raised you around Park Slope and Acadia National Park? Don’t get me wrong. I like Korea. I speak Korean. I’ve married a Korean person. I have a great relationship with her parents. She has a great relationship with mine. My son is half-Korean. I thoroughly enjoy my job at a university in Korea. But when I think of my son walking around these mountains of garbage, bent over multiple-choice exams in a hagwon at twelve in the morning, listening to yet another group of idiots say hello to him in English, I can’t help but consider that a failure. I can’t help but feeling to the depth of my soul that I am capable of more. We’re getting out of here. He’s going to live in a place that treats him like a human being. America has its problems, but jesus christ, as least the kid can go outside. And my insane hope to break free from all of this insanity is to write a book that people actually read. Or to just get a decent job.

I will escape, one day, and you’ll read about it here, when I do. Then these ridiculous stories about zoo animals in restaurants will end forever.

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Literary News

Item. Teakettle Mountain will be available for free starting in about two hours (Around 12AM Tuesday Pacific Time / Around 4PM in Krrrreeeya) until Friday at the same time. Snap up a copy before it’s too late!

Item. After several rejection letters, an agent I queried has requested more materials for Sorabol, which I’m currently attempting to publish via more traditional methods, after having already put it up on amazon as a kindle ebook. It’s still very possible that he’ll pass on it after taking some more time to look it over, but I think I’ve passed a sort of milestone in the authorial cursus honorum—getting a reply which is not a rejection form used for the slush pile.

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Rules For The Korean Road

1. Pedal to the metal at all times. Even before you start the engine. Even when you are outside of the car, you should leave a brick on the gas pedal, because speed makes men stronger.
2. If you drive an expensive-looking black car, it’s okay to run over children and old ladies. In fact, the police will fine you if you don’t.
3. Honk like you’re getting paid for it. Install fake police sirens to help convince other ( = lesser) people that you are in charge and know how to deal with every situation far better than they do.
4. Since signaling causes you to lose face by revealing your intentions to your enemies, don’t signal, unless it’s a fake-out.
5. Fill up your tank with paint thinner and then bribe the mechanic to write a fraudulent insurance form once the car inevitably breaks down to win.
6. U-turns should only be attempted when the other side of the road is heavily congested with rapidly-moving traffic and old people pushing carts piled high with cardboard. Honk for safety.
7. Park anywhere except designated parking areas. The corners of busy intersections are the best, as are sidewalks.
8. Roll down your windows and throw compost, feces, and empty soju bottles at the police, since they can’t do anything about it. To ensure their compliance, wear a realistic-looking mask of an old Asian man.
9. If you’re driving a huge tractor trailer, don’t worry about tying anything down in the back, since things will probably be alright, and if they aren’t, you can always fake a serious injury and blame your enemies, especially if they don’t have a camera installed in their car. Also: tie up your dog in the bed of your pickup truck and leave him or her there all day and all night for his or her entire life, and enjoy the fact that no one will ever criticize you for doing so.
10. If you wear a seatbelt, you are a signaling a distrust of your own immense driving prowess to your passengers and the other drivers on the road, who will immediately exploit your weakness.
11. Drive away quickly, swerving and honking, if (when) you run someone over.
12. Cutting off other drivers is okay because you are more important.
13. Destroy all bikers.
14. Stoplights are only for little people (red is the new green).
15. DO drink and drive.
16. Carseats and seatbelts make children uncomfortable, and since their comfort is more important than their lives, don’t worry about using such newfangled foreign contraptions when you drive.
17. There are no colors except black, white, and gray.
18. Turn off your lights at night, roll up your windows inside tunnels, and use a small Jesus / Buddha figurine attached to the dashboard to ensure safety.

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Exercitus

I’ve been doing the New York Times’ Scientific Seven Minute Workout for a few months now, and I’m noticing more results than I ever did just by running for an hour every two or three days, but with a few caveats—I work out for at least an hour, not for seven minutes; I record the time I spend doing these exercises, adding fifteen seconds to each whenever I do them; I eat whatever the hell I want (like a singularity, I can consume an entire pizza in less than a second); I walk or bike everywhere I go, and only get inside cars on weekends. I started this workout with a lot more dedication than usual because of its simplicity: I don’t have to waste my time or money going to a gym, I don’t have to embarrass myself in front of everyone sweating like a pig, flushed like a pig, outside, and all I need is a floor and a chair.

It’s a pain in the ass, it’s agony, but I love it. I’ve never sweated so much in my life, actually. The sweat drips from my hair like streams from mountain rocks, mountain lichen; by the time I’m done it looks like someone has spilled water all over the floor. I’ve noticed, also, that while the temperature here is almost always over ninety degrees Fahrenheit, or thirty degrees Celsius (or so…), and while I’m drenched with sweat minutes after stepping outside, my shirt blossoming with darkness, my hair plastered to my forehead, the heat just doesn’t really both me that much. I’ve accepted the sweat, and life goes on.

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