Tag Archives: America

Superficiality (The Photo With The Résumé)

I remember a passage in Plato’s Symposium, which I don’t have with me and which I don’t really have the patience to find, and it was a typically Platonic, gnostic sort of passage regarding levels of intelligence and wisdom: the lover of souls and minds is superior to the lover of bodies, probably because the soul is immortal, godlike, and perfect, while the body is made of temporary stuff, a Protean Ship of Theseus, constantly changing, impossible to define, and soon reduced to dirt “stopping up a bunghole.” One of my more sensuous friends complained about Plato’s disdain of the physical world and his seemingly Buddha-like adoration of the mystical and the unseen, but at least in the case of Socrates we can tell rather easily why it’s important to focus more on the mind than the body:

…once I caught [Socrates] when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike — so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing — that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.

(I lazily stole this quote from wikipedia)

Socrates, the notoriously ugly man, is the shining source of ancient Greek philosophy, God-The-Father in the hypostases of Himself, Plato the Holy Spirit and transmitter of His Words, and the mutable Son, crucified on the rood of exile, the most human of them all, Aristotle. But to judge Socrates based on his looks, you would feel nothing but repulsion; this sickening Matroyoshka doll is full of infinite beauty.

I live in South Korea, a country where it is standard business practice to demand a photograph along with your resume every time you apply for a job, and where, at the moment, it seems my wife is the only Korean woman in her twenties who has not surgically lengthened her nose and enlarged her eyes to look as much as possible like the impossible Platonic ideal of Korean beauty (who herself looks as if one of her parents is a grey, and whose avatars, in the incarnate form of various celebrities, are plastered to every wall, window, and screen, in the country). This isn’t to say that plastic surgery or superficiality is unknown to America, my home, but in Maine and Massachusetts, where I spent most of my American life, I can’t remember ever seeing someone walking around with Joan Rivers’ botoxified face or Pamela Anderson’s cubical breasts. It always seemed like more of a West Coast thing, since in California people are prancing outside in the sunshine all the time where the whole world can see them, while four years ago in rainy Maine I was holed up for two months straight before I got on the plane for Korea. I was only able to see the sun when this plane rose up above the clouds…

No company I’ve ever heard of in America asks for pictures along with résumés. That’s not to say people don’t discriminate based on appearance, but a person’s achievements are, at least ostensibly, considered more important; in Korea, too, a (K)Ivy League degree is what gets you your coveted Samsung-wage-slave-corporate-cubicle-cog-in-the-machine-I’m-so-happy-I-don’t-have-to-think-for-myself-anymore lifetime gig: not your fake nose. Still, superficiality really seems to reign supreme in this place: products are primarily sold by simply pairing them with the faces of celebrities: my son cannot go outside without being complimented (catcalled) by middle school girls and old ladies, probably the greatest victims of this anti-woman culture, people who sometimes make a point of telling my wife that my son is only beautiful because all mixed-race children are beautiful; it has nothing to do with our genes—as if our genes belong to us, rather than we to them.

I am also not immune in any way to being infected by this superficiality.

I was talking with a Chinese friend two days ago: he was bothered by the claim, made by some Koreans, that their country possesses a five thousand year-old civilization. The wikipedia page for the History of Korea was once Orwelled by one of these Korean patriots, who made a point of stating that Korean civilization was one of the oldest on Earth, but thankfully after much wrangling and wrestling this absurd line was finally removed. There were videos on youtube declaring that Koreans invented the airplane, and the very best, a Korean-made satire of these ridiculous claims, has found the true origins of pizza.

These different Asian countries, China, Korea, Japan, and others, are all proud and fiery and nationalistic, and yet it bothers them that numerous incredible technologies were first invented in America. Korea’s portfolio, at least according to the English wikipedia, is comparatively slim. And so historians and nationalists stretch their histories back as far as possible, since, superficially, that looks impressive—though if you were to ask King Gwanggaeto about his nationality: “Hey! Are you from Korea?”, he would say: “What’s Korea?”, since the idea of the nation-state is only about two centuries old, and before that people were loyal to leaders or faiths rather than flags and passports—and this historical superficiality is linked to the physical superficiality that forces women to spend millions of won, to risk their lives, in fact, to alter their faces: the dangerous and destructive and simplistic and un-Socratic belief that if a person looks beautiful, that person’s thoughts must also be beautiful.

This isn’t just tied to Samsung’s relentless pirating of Apple’s ideas, or China’s notorious intellectual theft of America’s military technology: it goes back to human evolution, as well: why human beings triumphed over their competitors in the primitive primordial savannah. Cheetahs are faster, lions are stronger, elephants are bigger, ants are more numerous: but humans are the smartest beasts of all, and their brains are what pushed them ahead of their competitors in the distant past, and their brains were still revolutionizing philosophical thought in the Athenian Golden Age, and their brains are still changing the world now, and so long as a country like Korea believes that physical appearance is important enough to warrant a photo stapled to every résumé, so long will it be destined to follow and copy those who recognize the Platonic importance of the mind over the shifting untrustworthy mirage of the body.

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Individuality

It’s come to the point where I can predict the answers to most of the questions I ask in my conversation classes. “What’s your favorite kind of music?” “Balla-duh.” “Who’s your favorite actor?” “Won Bin.” “Why do you like him?” “He is so sexy.” “What do you like doing?” “I like sleeping.” “What are your plans for this weekend?” “I’m going to a cafe to talk with my friends.” “What’s your favorite kind of coffee?” “I like Americano.” “Why?” “It is very delicious.” And on and on.

There are numerous exceptions, naturally. I spoke with one guy yesterday who spends two hours of every day pumping iron, and has been doing so since middle school. Another girl gives a lot of her free time to helping out at the local orphanage. One of my younger students spontaneously declared that Dokdo is not important—it took almost four years, but a Korean finally said this to me. Yet another complains that everyone on Korean TV looks the same because they all get plastic surgery.

There is uniqueness and individuality here, though it can take time to find, and the language barrier is difficult to surmount. How many of you, after all, can explain why you like your favorite movie in detail in Korean or any language besides English? I’m reading a bilingual edition of Animal Farm right now, and it takes me thirty minutes to get through a single page.

But the language barrier isn’t the only explanation: just by looking around Korea one sees that it’s a homogenous place. Even my old Chinese teacher complained that the Koreans all dress the same (and she came from a poor family in Guilin, not exactly the richest part of China!). The buildings are all the same. There is no variety. These are easy generalizations to make, and I don’t think they’re untrue; despite all the ridiculous paeans to Seoul, there is more beauty, uniqueness, quality, and even friendliness, on a single Manhattan sidewalk, than the entirety of that other megalopolis, and anyone who wastes two thousand dollars on a trip to Seoul expecting anything other than a city of apartment buildings and highways clogged with white Hyundais is going to want their money back.

And then there’s the plagiarism. I taught writing at my university for a year, and have to say that despite warning my students in English and Korean in every single class not to copy from the internet, despite spending hours illustrating how one can paraphrase rather than copy useful material, despite warning them that they would get Fs when I inevitably discovered that they had tried to pass off someone else’s work as their own, something like ten or twenty percent of them still turned in papers with whole paragraphs ripped straight from the internet. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Rumor has it that most of their professors and most of the leaders in this country worked their way to the top by plagiarizing the living shit out of every single last assignment they were ever given, from kindergarten straight to the end of grad school.

In Korea it’s not a big deal if you dress, act, and think, the same exact way, as everyone else. You must conform to the crowd, while in America you must conform by being unique. You cannot dress the same way as anyone else. You have to like bands that no one has ever heard of. You need to be able to discuss obscure foreign films. Some people will think you’re lame if you can’t spout off a twenty-minute tirade on the flaws in Derrida or Foucault (or if you use the word “lame”). And if someone else starts a conversation about something cool you’ve never heard of, you have to counter with something cooler that they’ve never heard of, or else you are stupid and worthless. The crazy thing about this culture is that there’s nothing better or worse about it than the Borg-like conformity in Korea. Conforming, or being unique, for the sake of conformity, or the sake of uniqueness, is equally brainless. Ideally we would all like what we naturally like without being pressured by the opinions of others.

This individuality thing is a bit of an illusion, regardless. I always come back to this, but Borges said something like, a coin flipped an infinite number of times will always give you the same result: humans think they are different from one another only because they don’t live forever.

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That Is Mannerless Speaking

While standing in line at the new Starbucks in town—why did I even go there? the green tea latte was $6!—and listening to Hanggai in my earbuds, I heard a woman behind me shouting, in Korean, “It’s a foreigner! It’s a foreigner!” I turned around and looked at this woman, who was shouting for the benefit of her toddler, then standing far beneath us. Rolling my eyes, I turned back to the front of the line, but the shouts of “It’s a foreigner!” continued unabated, and I thought, yes, this is it, finally, the moment I strike back, after almost four years of listening to people talk about me as if I can’t understand them, the end is here, this is the turn of the tide.

The earbuds come out.

“That’s really impolite,” I say in English, turning and facing the woman again. Then, after a moment of searching for the words in Korean, my eyes shifting back and forth, I utter them: “그것 예절 없는 말이요,” adding: “외국인 이해 할 수 있어요.” Foreigners can understand. The woman smiles and nods.

The earbuds go back in.

I return to standing in line, and the woman stops shouting that I’m a foreigner.

I’ve never commented on the manners of a complete stranger to that stranger’s face. You’ve got to be pretty goddamn barbaric to drive me to do so: and before someone comes in here whining about how this is a different culture which I should respect, remember that Koreans complain constantly about being racially singled out in America and, particularly, Australia. They know all about racism. It’s wrong to talk like this in my culture and it’s wrong to talk like this in their culture, but people do it anyway in both cultures.

The Korean grammar isn’t perfect, but my wife told me later that I probably got my point across.

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Citizenship

I maintain my sanity in the playplace, which is mobbed with children and parents—at least a hundred swarming an area the size of a large living room, my son among them—by attempting to convince various Korean children that I am Korean. I once read that this was possible online, and so now whenever a Korean child asks me if I’m a Korean, or where I’m from (“Which country person are you?”), I respond by telling them that I’m a Korean. Few of them ever seem to believe me—they usually laugh, freak out, and run away—but about a year ago one notable child attempted to quiz me on my knowledge of the Korean language (if one speaks Korean well, one is almost certainly a Korean) by asking what me what a mouse was. “Cheega moya?” “What is the mouse?” He asked, and at the time I didn’t know, so I looked to my wife, who was standing nearby, and she shouted, in English: “Animal! Animal! Say it’s an animal!” But I’d forgotten the Korean word for animal (dongmool), and I failed the test.

What is a Korean? I’ve been asking various Koreans this question, and the answer seems to hinge upon race and language. If both of one’s parents are Koreans, and if one speaks Korean fairly well, then one is a Korean; Koreans here on the half-peninsula notoriously consider their overseas brethren, born and raised in America or Australia or elsewhere with only a distant knowledge of their homeland’s language, history, and culture, to be not quite Koreans, while also not quite foreigners. The question of what constitutes American citizenship is also not so easy to answer, but it likewise seems to hinge mostly upon language: most Americans I think would have a difficult time considering you an American if you couldn’t speak English. I would like to add that a belief in freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the right to a better life through hard work, are also necessary components of American citizenship, but there have been plenty of fascists in American history—at this very moment numerous online forums are trolled and patrolled by conservative American commentators who believe that people should be jailed, executed, or exiled, for espousing liberal beliefs—and few people would deny that they are Americans.

Another thing I’ve noticed about this question of citizenship is that, obviously, children younger than about five years seem to have no idea that I’m any different from a normal Korean. Maybe they notice my larger-than-normal nose and my larger-than-normal green eyes and my unusually pale facial features and my strange hair color and my scraggly beard which no Korean man my age would ever wear, but if they do, they don’t seem to find it worthy of comment. I lived in New York City as a child and was constantly surrounded by other races and cultures; several of my teachers were black, and I knew they were black, just as I knew that white teachers were white, or female teachers were female, but the difference wasn’t really a central preoccupation of mine (I believe my principal concerns were matchbox cars and baseball). The mystery is that once these Korean children reach the age of six (or thereabouts), some of them realize that I’m not one of them, and that realization is so strong that it’s difficult for them to avoid expressing it in some way—either by pointing me out to their parents, by gasping at me and staring, or by coming up and asking me where I’m from. In contrast, I think that few American children—even children raised in the middle of nowhere—ever behave this way.

Like I said, this is a mystery, but my guess is that there are two culprits. One is the television. People here watch a lot of it, and whenever a foreign person comes on the screen, the viewers need to be reminded in some way (either with bold letters or with bolder voiceovers) that that person is a foreigner. Americans also watch a lot of TV, but if a foreign person is displayed on the screen, the viewers aren’t usually explicitly told that that person is a foreigner, so far as I remember (foreigner is itself a strange word that English-speaking people don’t usually employ outside of the airport; Koreans use it constantly to reference anyone who is not Korean). I suspect that if Korean children weren’t regularly exposed to thousands and thousands of hours of television, they wouldn’t feel the same overwhelming urge to react to my presence in the same way their televisions react to the presence of foreigners. The second culprit is simple nationalism.

Why do Korean TVs act like this? Why does the tiresome idea of nationalism or citizenship still even exist in the 21st century? Why must I get my passport stamped if I decide to take the ferry over to Japan, but not if I drive to Pohang? Beats me. But in a place like South Korea, where you really feel the force of nationalism a lot more than on your native soil, the concept seems that much more useless, arbitrary, and ridiculous.

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Ghetto Playground Liberation

I knew there was a lot of garbage in Korea, I’ve written about the garbage here a thousand times before, it’s even how my book about this place opens up, during my trip to America one of my relatives even commented on how dark and depressing an opening this was—and yet, this morning when I ventured outside into the molasses-thick humidity at the behest of my son (yelling at me to put on his shoes in Toddlerese and then yelling at me while pointing to the door), and went to the deserted and very poor excuse of a playground that we frequent merely because it is close to the apartment, I was still astounded that people anywhere could live like this.

I wanted to take a picture of the trash and start a tumblr blog about the garbage here in the spirit of Blackout Korea, but I hadn’t brought my phone, so you’ll have to just imagine the pseudo-gazebo carpeted with newspapers, beer cans, and cigarette butts; the piles of beer bottles, napkins, and paper cups for instant ramen in the bushes; the cigarette butts and cigarette cartons scattered all over the place, along with the occasional little puddles of drying phlegm. A delightful place to take a child. It’s like this everywhere. People have had little parties for themselves and left the refuse behind.

The same old thoughts returned to me, as I re-acclimated to Korea, having only been here for several hours after two months in far cleaner and toddler-friendly America: if you go inside a Korean car, or a Korean house, everything is spotless, every time, but if you walk outside in Korea, you have no choice but to get used to the garbage. The reverse is true of America, which is usually pretty damn clean on the outside and likewise somewhat cluttered within.

When we first arrived in the rather amazing airport at Incheon and devoured our first real bowls of Korean food in two months I thought that I had to make a special note in my phone to remember an earlier vow I had made, to return to America, and live in Brooklyn, and not get sucked into Korea again. To not get too comfortable here with the food and the people and the places I missed. Even as we drove into rainy Gyeongju, and circled around the river lined with boxy gray cement buildings, I found myself feeling very content. The forests seemed lush and green, the skies were heavy with rain, swarms of cicadas were screaming from the branches of every tree.

But then with the baby and the garbage, while walking along one of the filth-strewn sidestreets to the ghetto playground, I was just, like, what am I doing here? The same thought came to me back when I was finishing college and hanging around Maine, coupled with a kind of desperation: that I must do something before I turn into a boring person who has become complacent with a situation that should be far better than it is. There are things I love about this place, but I think and perhaps even hope that the prophecy told to me by one of my coworkers will come true: I will not always be an English teacher in Korea.

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I Miss Korea

Yeah guys, you heard it here first: I’m glad I’m going back. I fell in love with the bars of my cage a long time ago. I’m glad, at least, that we’ll get moving soon. My dad told me awhile back he met someone recently who had walked across the entire planet, just as I had been thinking that I would like to do the same thing on a bike that I had constructed myself, so that I would understand what to do in the event of breakdowns and not be left to the mercy of those notoriously unscrupulous bike repairmen!

But then an electric car would be fine, especially if I could sleep inside, exploring North and South America, stopping whenever I found anything of interest for as long as I pleased. My wife and I are going to have enough money to do that one day, we’re going to free ourselves in the same way Boxer wished to free himself and study the alphabet—free ourselves not from the cycle of rebirth, but the cycle of work—and enter the nirvana of standing on a beach in Bali before a slow explosive sunset of purple and yellow and think that we can stay there for years if we want to, that there is no concern to hurry us along as we sculpt the wet sand with our bare feet. Travel, and not dangerously conspicuous consumption, will be our decadence.

Yeah, yeah, yeah—I can’t have that now (though who knows, perhaps I can!), but to move about is good enough, and in a month’s time I’ll be back in that little apartment that overlooks the highway and the trucks and the motorbikes, the flat pane of the river, the mountains that curl like the galaxies of Picasso’s Starry Night, the square buildings of the university clustered over to the side of the diagonal bridge. I’ll be back, devouring cheap spicy food, hugging my in-laws, enjoying the company of all, walking to school to declaim like Demosthenes before classes of college students, nothing short of a real bounce to my stride, planning my next venture to lands known or unknown.

This place, America, it’s nice, quiet, relaxing—the wet green grass is like an intoxicating bed! it puts you to sleep, like the flowers before Emerald City—and you’ve got to accept that you’re stuck where you are, but in Korea there is still a feeling in the air that you can make it if you really want to, and we will.

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The Boy Reads At Last

Early this morning I dreamed that all the animals had gotten out of the zoo and were running rampant through some new little city my family was living in, and at first I could see the lions chasing after the buffalo through the tall golden grass outside and I only wanted to photograph them with my cellphone, and snapped a good picture of a lioness leaping toward our wooden hotel through the grass, a ghost at first and then fully-formed as she drew nearer to us on the second floor. Then I yelled at someone to lock the door to protect my son, but as I woke with mounting dread I sensed that the lion would come for us anyway, and after I was awake the dream continued playing on inside my mind’s movie theater: the lioness bursts through the door and wants to go for my wife and child, I get between them with a big knife and go for the lioness, but she mauls my throat and kills me easily, the blood draining out of the punctures in my neck.

In the last few days my love for my son has grown because he has started to enjoy reading. I know I shouldn’t say this, and that I’m acting a little like the unfeeling ultra-conservative oriental father Wang Lung, whom I’m reading about in The Good Earth (which I started to get a better feel for old time Korea)—loving the boy for what he achieves rather than unconditionally, but I didn’t realize how worried I was about this, over the past few months, that almost every time I approached him with a book he would push it away almost immediately. My East Coast American Elitist self suppressed the thought that he would turn out to be something horrific—a sports star! a KPOP star!—even though I had said to myself repeatedly that the boy was free to choose whatever he pleased, so long as he dedicated himself to it in the same way that I have dedicated myself to writing, that my father has dedicated himself to guitar playing, that my mother has dedicated to her gardening and her previous professional life; his Korean parents and aunt and uncle have all worked very hard to succeed (his grandma and grandpa pulling themselves up with their own labor and cleverness from dire poverty to the middle class, his aunt starting and maintaining a successful hair shop, his uncle joining the Military Police in the army, a position, I’m told, that had hundreds of applicants and only two openings), and so long as he does this, I thought, I would be happy. But there was always this little fear of anti-intellectualism inside me, that he would grow up into an Ayn Rand-loving Republican if he didn’t start enjoying Goodnight Moon, despite all the evidence for his goodness and intelligence.

I used to write frequently that these people had worked like slaves to achieve what they did, but they were not slaves because they earned money and had hope of advancing themselves without risking their lives attempting to escape, so I have stopped using this expression.

After having read a statistic, that kids who read are better off than kids who don’t (duh), I redoubled my efforts, as they say in Star Wars, and checked online for less than five minutes to see if there were solutions to this issue. Three bits of advice were key: keep at it, read in a ridiculous voice, and let him turn the pages. On the first day we tried reading a few times and it was the same thing as always. He would grab the book out of my hands and throw it away. I didn’t get angry and I let him do what he wanted, but kept pressing him, and then on the second day I tried again, this time lifting up the next page for him just enough for his finger and then asking him to turn it for me. He understood me and did it—he can understand a lot more than we all think, even if he can only say a few words—and because he had some control over the book, he enjoyed reading a lot more, and now goes through several books each time we read together (at least twice a day), enjoying them and asking me to read his favorites to him again.

I criticized Korean parents for spoiling their children and letting them do as they pleased so long as they did well in school—this was also a bone of contention in my own house, since I was a bad student (unaware, despite what many mentors told me, that if I merely tried harder I would get the A’s I wanted) while my sister was good, which meant that I was being punished for bad grades while she never was, although I’m sure my mom will post a dissenting comment about this here (I am merely trying to pre-empt her).

As a parent rather than a brother I understand this now. When I saw my kid enjoy these books I felt for the first time that there was really nothing to worry about. As long as he’s reading he’ll be okay. He’ll have the wits he needs to provide for himself and pass our DNA on to the next generation; I was a lazy student until I went to a great college that is not famous, but I was always into reading, and now look at me: the wheel of fortune has been turning in my direction for almost a year: I work a job that I can be proud of.

I’ve noticed myself feeling far more content with this boy than ever before because of these books (much as a farmer might be content to see his baby working the soil), and even rethinking the idea of trying to get him a sister. Almost everyone, everywhere, has been pressuring me to do this, because everyone knows the kid’ll be screwed up if he doesn’t have a sibling (regardless of plenty of evidence to the contrary), but because I didn’t want to get married or have kids there was a sense that I had lost all control and agency over my life. The one thing I held out on was having another kid: this, at least, I would be able to control, as I worked at the university during the day, took care of my son in the afternoon, and tutored kids in the evening, all while living in a strange foreign country that I would hate if it were not for the company of my helpful, bright, and highly ambitious wife. There was always this hope inside of me that I would have more of my freedom back soon enough, that the boy would get older and easier to handle in a few months or years, and that soon things would be just as carefree as they were before my wife and I got pregnant, though in those days I was not proud of my job (working at an elementary school in Korea, which any American without a criminal record and with a college degree can do) and I had much more of the manchild in me. Now that things seem all set with the boy—for the time being—I’ve begun to reconsider this sibling business.

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The Koreafication Of America

During my first torturous months in Korea I found some solace in the idea that my new home was a small country and that it was possible to escape to a better world just by hopping on an airplane. Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment, but with some horror I kept recalling a line from Star Trek: First Contact, when the Enterprise is surveying an alternate-timeline Earth that’s been assimilated by the Borg, and Data, running his fingers over a beeping console (as usual!), looks up and says something like: “Population nine billion. All Borg.” In the midst of ever-worsening depression and culture shock, I would replace the word “Borg” with “Korean”, and start to shudder as though I had wrapped my hands around an electric fence, wondering if I could even survive in a world that had been turned into Korea.

A more disturbing truth is that the Americafication of the entire planet has been underway since the end of the second world war, and that the world envisioned by WALL-E is possibly inevitable, without the spontaneous happy ending—but that’s another rumination. Here I want to muse on the Koreafication of America.

The profile of that country was on the rise before I even arrived, and the very trendy-looking Korean flag, with its I-Ching bars, its Taijitu whorl, the bread-and-butter of any tattoo artist, has been showing up a lot more often than I remember (although now I’m obviously positioned to notice it more). Just yesterday I watched a short documentary on the New York Times website—am I the only person on Earth who will admit to a reverent love of this newspaper?, regardless of how much Noam Chomsky (rightfully!) despises it?—I watched this brief documentary on how a rising factory complex in Haiti is (naturally) destroying the local ecosystem, displacing local residents, and taking advantage of an extremely low minimum wage (something like three dollars a day), all in the name of sweatshop labor, although as one official in the documentary smirkingly says, his factory is not a sweatshop because they’ve installed a few cheap air conditioners on the premises. I clicked the link because you can see a Korean flag in the preview frame, and was not surprised to learn that this factory was some sort of joint venture between Korean and American companies.

These days it seems like those pesky Koreans have their fingers in every pie. When I first left for that little half-peninsula it was almost as bizarre as taking a trip to the far side of the moon, but now everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s worked there, and everyone has at least one Korean friend or acquaintance or student they want to tell me about, and there’s an LG television in my family’s living room and Samsung cellphones in most people’s pockets, although at least up here in Maine everyone appears to prefer Japanese, German, and American cars to Hyundai motors—a minor fact I wouldn’t have given a damn about before I became brand-conscious in The Land Just To The Left Of The Land Of The Rising Sun.

One incredible moment occurred a couple of days ago when one of my friends (an American fan of KPOP!) told me that Korea is probably the cultural capital of Asia, as its music, its movies, TV shows, fashions, consumer items, things, essences, enjoy a prominence in that vast region of the world which cannot be understated.

But here in America I’ve noticed a different sort of Koreafication, where certain ideas, some big, some small, have been cropping up—things which I did not notice or which did not exist before my sojourn in Korea. Two days ago I saw tiny televisions mounted to some of the racks in a local grocery store, which I thought was purely a Korean thing (the aisles are still mercifully full of customers rather than cha-cha-ing workerjummas); but actually the most significant change (which may be totally subjective) could be the new emphasis on getting ahead in one’s education by attending after-school test preparation centers, by hiring expensive tutors, or by even holding your kid back an extra year before she attends kindergarten, to give her an edge over the other little bastards and ensure that she turns out to be a doctor, an entrepreneur, or a lawyer, by the time she finishes up at either Harvard or Yale.

I know that some American parents have always been crazy about ensuring that their unremarkable children become remarkable as the result of the attainment of material lucre (and I will always have a chip on my shoulder as a result of not being born into one of these illustrious families), but perhaps in response to the widespread tightening-of-the-belt, the perceived need to hunker down, after most of the world’s money was stolen by a few of the fine folks working at Wall Street, more parents (or more reporters) appear to believe that their children will not be happy unless they first make themselves miserable by getting yoked to the gravy train.

At the same time, as I read about this stuff almost every day in newspapers and magazines, I look out the window across the street at a very successful summer oceanography camp for kids of most ages, and see them winding down most afternoons with barbecues and games of volleyball, which would be unthinkable in Korea, where every spare moment must be devoted to the attainment of wealth, and where you cannot stop until you are the richest, most successful, and most beautiful person everywhere you go. My wife is an example of this worker bee productivity, as she cannot rest without thinking up new get-rich schemes, and can be observed, now, on the Seal Harbor beach, notepad in hand, jotting them down in unreadably cursive Hangul, so devoted to getting rich that, like Lee Myung-bak’s typical brother, she will probably not stop until she gets convicted of bribery and thrown into jail. Just yesterday she told me she wanted to get a bigger apartment, take a break (probably permanent) from school, and use that apartment to tutor people—a safe enough venture, except we would need to borrow the deposit money from her parents, who would probably have to borrow that money from a bank. She explained all of this to me without any awareness that she wanted to build our fortune on money laundering, and even after I pointed this out she was like, whatever, Koreans do it all the time.

Some of the Korean kids I know tell me they want to go to America because they can really be free here—they wouldn’t really have to study and they could play as much as they liked, all while acing their easy classes, if they could just find a way of saving up enough cash and making it through customs. From what I’ve heard about the ardors of emigrating to this place, it seems like swimming or kayaking across the Pacific might be the most practical option for them.

It’s only minor and slight, this instance of Koreafication, and I know there are a lot of freethinkers out there who are aware that this is a rat race, that life is sansara, and that no matter how far we get in the dash—the space between the dates on our tombstones—we all still wind up plugging the same bungholes, as Hamlet says. Before that eternal moment occurs, it might be better to dedicate ourselves to smelling the roses rather than the cheap sheets of paper used in Kaplan testbooks.

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Fatty Pork Rinders And The Bizarre

Until now America has been the standard I used to judge other nations and cultures—this place is normal, and everywhere else is at least slightly bizarre. The fact that I’ve lived for three years in a country that most people on Earth, except for that country’s elderly citizens, would consider bizarre, has now made everything on Earth alien to me. Why, for instance, does the nice waitress at this very decent restaurant have to keep bothering us about whether our meals are okay?—when in Korea you can just press a button on the table to call one of them over if you need something. And what’s the deal with tipping? Don’t you guys know the service is just as good if the culture everyone has been born into knows nothing about these newfangled western ways?

My wife was sharpening her knives before we came here, and she’s been gleefully pointing out everything she can find that’s wrong about America since our arrival, paying particular attention to the same things that I bitched about back when we were in the Daehan Mingook. All the foreigners I know in that country can’t stand the way old people act as if they own the place, and while here that may not be so true, the bellies we’ve seen prowling about these phlegm- and pornographic sticker-free sidewalks are a different sort of boorishness and obstreperousness, a different kind of fuck you, an advertisement of the fact that these people do not take responsibility for one of the few things in their lives that they probably have some control over—the size of their stomachs, and the amount of money all of them are going to be costing their fellow taxpayers when their endless heart bypass surgeries are finally funded by the rest of the nation.

I know it’s not going to make me any friends in this country to complain about the obesity epidemic, and I also know that it’s a lot easier to stay thin in Korea for a host of reasons. The food is healthier if you can stay away from the meat barbecues, the western food is so expensive and so terrible that you don’t want to go anywhere near it, and the country is so small and so crowded that you spend most of your time walking around from place to place (in buses or subways or on the bare highways), rather than driving, in America, where the country is so incredibly spread out that you can’t get anywhere without sitting down in a car for at least twenty minutes.

America is also much more comfortable. I mean, the chairs and couches are actually pleasant to sit in, where in Korea people squat if they want to rest their legs, or just pile up on their hardwood floors after working a typical twelve hour day, or fight you to the death for a coveted spot on one of the subway benches (or very obviously refuse to sit next to you if you happen to stink of foreign corruption). The science of ergonomics has yet to reach the land where no one sits down. It’s so uncomfortable there that it’s often better just to stand, which is what I usually did when I had to take the subway. But in America everyone’s sitting all the time, and if I’m not careful I’ll start to drowse the moment I sink into one of the many unbelievably pleasant couches my parents have managed to stuff into their little house.

It seems I’ve become more Korean than I first realized. The carpets bother me more—the clutteredness of American homes, the way an object will vanish into the morass of junk the moment you drop it. The dogs need to be kept outside, things need to be recycled and composted, and wouldn’t these beautiful forests be put to better use if they were cut down and replaced with ball-bearing factories staffed with Burmese migrant laborers? I want to wail on the horn whenever a car gets in my way, and yesterday I struggled to keep it together as I waited a couple of minutes in line for some incredibly good doughnuts at a nearby restaurant that would not be considered nearby in Korea, where most of the stuff you need is within ten minutes’ walking distance, rather than an hour’s driving distance.

But I think the most frustrating thing about America is the political intransigence of the dying Republican Party. This bizarre philosophy, that government is the problem—something that is only true when the government is not of, by, and for, the people—cuts its wounds deeper into this country every year. It would be nice, for instance, if I could hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in a few hours—and wouldn’t it be amazing if the entire country were connected by bullet trains in the same way as Korea or Europe—but instead I have to drive for nine hours, and go through the hassle of parking and navigating, because government is the problem. It would be nice if my entire family weren’t afraid of getting hurt or getting sick, and that we had access to the same socialized medicine that every other wealthy nation has, but that’s not going to be true for another few years at least, because government is the problem.

This leads me to my next point: Americans are more political than Koreans. They talk more. They can have arguments, and even completely different political opinions, without suing or imprisoning one another. Even the oldest generations have gone through universities, while only the current generation has managed to find the time to get educated in Korea. People are full of questions (though the opening but polite barrage is almost always the same), and can talk about anything with you forever, even if you are both perfect strangers, while Koreans, for whatever reason, don’t seem to ask you that much. The culture discourages questioning, the language barrier certainly makes people reticent, and sometimes non-Americans think they have “our country”, our very own nara, figured out just from watching the news and a few blockbusters, while I think in reality America is so diverse that it’s impossible and even wrong to generalize—except when it comes to health care and fat people.

Someone told me a long time ago that it’s difficult to drive around this place, to explore its numerous beautiful little towns, its perfect forests and mountains and rivers, its cities that have more character and culture in a single block than all of the rising megalopolises in Asia put together, the general friendliness of the people (the way several of them have already apologized for minor mistakes, and smiled warmly, where I wouldn’t get the time of day in Korea for the same insignificant issues), the endless banquets of incredible food, the unlocked doors, the feeling of peacefulness that pervades the land—it’s difficult to be here, and to enjoy it, and to reconcile that enjoyment with the wars this country wages around the Earth, the shameless corruption of most of the government (yesterday I believe the future President of the United States, His Everyday Guy Romneyficence Willard Mittington The Umpteenth, was openly dining with the Koch brothers, America’s most notorious robber barons), the slow but sure annihilation of the natural world to provide a little comfort.

Gotta go now, more later!

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Lotus Eaters

There haven’t been any posts for twelve days because I was busy finishing up work at my university, getting ready to go to America, leaving for America (which took at least two days), and then lost several more days getting over the debilitations of very intense jet lag, which have reduced my wife and my son and I to utter zombitude, leaving us all exhausted during the day and wide awake in the very middle of the night. I’ve made the trip back and forth to Asia several times now and it always seems much more difficult to come to America than to head back to the world’s factory.

It may have something to do with the peace and languor here on Mount Desert Island, where my body is almost trembling from the lack of frenetic noise coming in through the windows. As anyone who knows anything knows, Korea is a noisy place, and although my family lives in a decent apartment, we happen to overlook a typical four-lane highway that is roaring, rattling, and wailing with continuous tractor trailer traffic from about five to one in the morning. Taxis honk their horns, cars screech and nearly collide, and late at night when the road calms down a little there are still plenty of drunk university students screaming their heads off.

Here in the living room the dogs are napping, I can hear a jingling wind chime somewhere, as well as the wind running through the leaves like a distant waterfall, the ticking of a clock, a bee bumping up against the window, the beautiful call of a robin. Green oaks soar like skyscrapers up through the windows, and a car drives down the road about once every ten minutes, at the most. The contrast is so stark I feel shell-shocked, especially because I spent over a year in Korea without being able to escape. Even in a relatively small city like Gyeongju there are few moments I can remember that are a tenth as peaceful as this.

The differences are so pronounced it really does seem difficult to believe that Maine and Korea are on the same planet; I’ve nearly completed a book about Korea, and I’ve toyed with the idea of producing another volume, maybe a sequel, about how strange America seems to someone who has been in Asia for a good long while.

At an oceanography summer camp across the street the students spend a lot of their time laughing, playing, eating, and talking. This morning as I was trying to wear out my baby son in a nearby playground I briefly spoke with two young children without being objectified, insulted, or otherwise degraded, in a language that I understand with some ease, while in Korea there is a decent chance that if I venture out into public with my son but without my wife to lash out at any wrongdoers I will probably be reminded in some form, subtle or violent, that I do not belong there.

America may not be the greatest nation on Earth, but it certainly seems to be the one with the most variety, even in the whitest state in the union, and one of the most sparsely populated. Yesterday I dragged my exhausted wife to the beach, where my son immediately preoccupied himself by eating sand, rocks, seaweed, and god knows what else, while also drinking seawater; during this walk we heard people speaking Italian, French, and possibly German, while there was a woman from South Asia walking around with her son while wearing a white sari. A family of what I believe were Sikhs got on a bus at the airport, where almost all the workers seemed to speak at least two languages while also possessing accents that were sometimes very difficult for me to understand.

An old cotton-haired woman from Maine with a ridiculously thick accent (chowdah, lobshtah, deeya) explained without significant frustration that she could not understand a worker named Ahmed, who wore a suit and who appeared to be one of several people at the gate in charge of making sure that old people made it onto their flights; as this occurred two other workers conversed in what was probably Spanish, Ahmed spoke to one of his friends in what was not Arabic, and two black workers smiled at a young white boy with white hair as he jumped and danced, barefoot, a few feet away from his increasingly frustrated mother. The passengers were almost all white, while the workers were almost all not. In spite of this incredible diversity, everyone seemed to get along just fine, which is not what the Korean inside me would expect, since strength comes from conformity and homogeneity.

Even the commercials on TV are diverse. I usually hate TV, since I am a white person who has completed at least four years of higher education, but since I felt a bit fagged and fashed yesterday, too dazed from god knew how many sleepless nights and grueling days, I found myself unable to do anything except sit in front of the brand new flatscreen Korean television my uncle bought for my parents, and watch the colors flash and flow. Everyone complains about the sexism and racism in commercials here, but they haven’t lived in Korea, where there are not many different kinds of commercials: cellphones and cars (directed toward the young and characterized by cool people doing cool things with lots of trendy Konglish, and always ending with an English slogan read by a deep-throated American), life insurance (middle-aged trustworthy ajoshi-in-a-suit before a white backdrop discussing the issue with a plastic-surgeried mannequin at a bright heavenly call center), and food, with pale white families eating instant noodles in pale white houses and smiling or sometimes even shivering with what cannot be anything except electrode-stimulated orgasms. Cute children will cutely show how much they enjoy getting icecubes from Samsung’s excellent refrigerators. If you happen to be riding a train you will be subjected to extremely formulaic commercials for large conglomerates which always feature suits in hardhats shaking hands in front of steaming, bulbous factories of unbelievable dimensions, sprawling from horizon to horizon. Annoying celebrities push skin-whitening creams, always dabbing it on their pointer finger tips before rubbing it in to their cadaverous cheeks while wearing ridiculous silvery dresses in black studios. Young beautiful models have fun drinking the worst liquor on the planet, known as soju.

In America there is so much more variety—even in the advertisements, to the extent that watching them is honestly pleasant. There are abundant numbers of fat, ugly people trying to sell you things, and numerous people who do not belong to the dominant white caste, always noticeable in the ads for small business colleges. There was one that even featured a single mother studying on her laptop in a bus with her child beside her—something like that would be unthinkable in Korea, where, as you know, families never divorce, children are always born into wedlock, and homosexuality does not exist, as such social illnesses are an outgrowth of western decadence. Here they also show such shocking amounts of cleavage that I was immediately scandalized, since most Korean women appear to be whores with their legs but grandmothers with their chests. The shows are cool too. This morning I saw flipped back and forth between a group of scientists trying to solve the murder of a child who died in Roman Britain about eighteen centuries ago and a show about UFOs in Alaska. There are a lot more ads for websites than I remember from my last visit a little more than a year ago.

It’s ridiculous to say this, and everyone knows it, but Americans are really tall and really fat. If there aren’t too many young people around I’m usually at least half a head taller than everyone else in Korea, but in America I feel like a hobbit, almost embarrassed by the strange way in which I have managed to not become morbidly obese, unlike almost everyone else. We visited Wal Mart a few days ago to purchase the numerous supplies we need to take care of our son—scandalized by prices which would astound most Koreans, who assume that everything in America is more expensive (most things are cheaper, restaurants are not, while everything is of a higher quality)—and saw a woman who looked like the troll in the bathroom from the first Harry Potter movie. Her fatness outdid anything I have ever seen in my life. It was monstrous, depressing, astounding; my mom saw her and, after mentioning that she was smelly, my dad explained that fat people have trouble washing all of their rolls.

The land is lush, broad, endless. A long rainy spring in Maine has covered everything in a cool temperate jungle, with thick grass and leaves bursting out of the earth and tumbling in tidal waves over the streets, threatening to swallow them up. At my family’s house there’s a mix of improvement and decay: new appliances and electronics along with the same incredibly old PC, the same thirteen year-old subarus that need to have five hundred dollar repairs done every few months (the transmission in one of them is going to give out any day now), the same wall-to-wall carpets that reek of dog fur and cat piss. I’m happy to be here.

The fact that I no longer seem to possess a permanent, comfortable home has meant that everywhere I go everything is bizarre to me; the entire world is an unfamiliar adventure, and I am happy to exist inside it.

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