Tag Archives: South Korea

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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President Park

Yesterday in class I suggested that my students say “What do you think of…” instead of “Howabout…?”, since the latter is a pseudo-Konglish-y phrase thrown around all the time by even the most advanced learners as a segue from one topic into another—“Howabout Ameleekano?” was the inspirational disaster hurled my way in a fascinating discussion of coffee preferences (“Why do you like it?” “It is very delicious.”)—and as a more interesting example and possible kindler of more fruitful conversations I said the students could ask each other what they thought of Park Geun-hye, the new president of South Korea and the daughter of the dictator and (more-or-less) founder of the country, Mr. Controversy, Park Chung-hee. There was at once a collective gasp from the entire classroom. Eighteen students gaped their mouths and eyes: I had committed some sort of faux pas. A few minutes earlier I had used the word “porn” to help a student explain why he didn’t like checking his email, a risky term to employ in such a conservatively uptight place, and the only response was a series of knowing smirks; but Park Geun-hye seemed to actually frighten them. Finally after a lengthy pause one girl who spent six months in New York City—and spent the last class being wooed in English by the aforementioned possessor of the porn-laden email inbox—“Do you have a promise tonight?”—explained that talking about President Park was too serious and left it at that.

Although I wasn’t alive when the previous President Park was in power, I’ve read a thing or two about him, and while I supported his daughter in the election over her “liberal” opponent, who represented the garbage dump of a district in which I used to work and who was foaming at the lips at the thought of kissing Kim Jong-un’s fat, distended fingers—I also can’t help but feel a little frightened when I read in the news that President Park has made a speech or met with some foreign dignitary or offered to extend a hand to North Korea’s clenched fist. It feels as if the man has squeezed the assassin’s bullets out of his body and pulled himself up out of his grave to rule the country again, forcing dissidents into gulags or lining them up before firing squads, erecting factories and apartment complexes wherever he plants his feet, and squeezing every last penny he can from his American and Japanese backers, just before publicly denouncing them to crowds of screaming patriots. Not every newspaper or magazine article constantly refers to the new president as Park Geun-hye; for brevity’s sake, and for terror’s sake, journalists sometimes just write “President Park”, though President Park died over thirty years ago.

The students at the university are mostly liberals—a note on usage: in South Korea, liberals support North Korea, dislike or despise the United States, and believe that South Korea’s enormous conglomerates (like Samsung and Hyundai) should be broken up or weakened; conservatives oppose them; it would be better to refer to liberals here as nationalists, while conservatives would seem to be more international in flavor—and this means that they probably voted for the other guy. Now in American terms I’m pretty far to the left (I voted for Obama twice but I’m completely against the drones and consider much of his presidency a disappointment), but in Korea I’m a conservative, and I think it’s madness to even consider sending aid to the North—a former ambassador just penned a New York Times editorial which should have been called “Let’s Try To Buy Off The Fascists With Food And Money One More Time!”—but this is an idea that probably lies very close to the hearts of many of my young students.

I remember reading a story somewhere of an old Jew who survived the Holocaust telling his children and grandchildren about how paranoid he still was: he would still make mental lists of all the people he knew, and guess which ones would turn him in to the Nazis if they were somehow to come back to power, and which ones would shelter him if he had nowhere else to go. As I’ve written before, these Korean college students are nice, polite, and hardworking, but I can’t help suspecting that if columns of triumphant North Korean soldiers were doing the goose step past the tombs of Gyeongju, my students would be belong to the former camp, rather than the latter.

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North Korea Launches Another Motherfucking Missile

The news came on the tele in the lunch room, and after images of slow-motion rockets ascending into the blue sky switched to a conference with the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, surrounded by his usual coterie of faceless besuited middle-aged technobureaucrats, their private discussion was mistakenly broadcast:

LMB: So, uh…
TB1: I know.
LMB: What do you guys think we should do?
TB1: I don’t know, what do you think we should do?
TB2: I don’t know, what do you think we should do?
LMB: Look busy and concerned.
TB1 & TB2: Okay!

The folks up North, at least the rich ones who can watch South Korean TV, must be giggling maniacally with their fingers stuffed in their mouths, while Kim Jong-un himself, the sexiest man alive, is ordering his butler to deliver a second barrel of lobsters stuffed with caviar and champagne for his lunch…in addition to another round of ICBMs.

On a more serious note, as Choe Sang-hun writes in the New York Times, anyone who is anyone is, at this moment, “trying to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless attempts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions”.

I would like to posit that since both diplomacy and warfare seem to be completely pointless, since China is never going to stop writing the North Korean government as many blank checks as it demands, since the North Koreans themselves are apparently mesmerized by the glamor of their Leader-Cum-Sex-God, defense is really the only viable option. Is it ridiculous to suppose that a system like the famous Iron Dome could be used to disable a barrage of North Korean nuclear missiles? I know that Reagan’s Star Wars was something of an 18th Brumaire-esque joke during the second Bush administration, but those nuclear missiles Kim Jong-un is dreaming of are not intended for the South, since nuking it would render the place more or less uninhabitable. His ultimate goal is probably to hold America hostage while he undertakes a second invasion to unite the two countries under the leadership of the Kim dynasty once and for all. Or at least that’s my theory. Others assert that the missile is merely intended to shore up domestic support, which is fair enough, though in the long run these weapons could very easily be used for a different purpose.

Meanwhile, in busy sunny South Korea, speculators at The Marmot’s Hole suspect that this ignoble action will deliver the South Korean presidency, currently up for grabs, into the hands of Park Geun-hye, a conservative hawk, since the opposition candidate, Moon Jae-in, is dedicated to the idea that the North Koreans can be bribed into becoming South Koreans. Park has always been ahead in the polls, so far as I know, so she probably would have won next week’s election anyway; and, because every politician and his mother is corrupt to the bone in South Korea, I would vote for her as well, as I’d prefer to have my corrupt officials castigating North Korea instead of personally driving trucks stuffed with cash across that cold bare windy 38th parallel.

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Near Bo-gyeong Temple (or 보경사, Bogyeongsa).

Yesterday just before a bunch of us Koreans—I felt included in the group—were going to start hiking up a gorgeous mountain, I ran into a bathroom to take a piss. Urinals always make me nervous even though I use them several times a day, and when I do I always take the urinal that’s up against the wall, distant from the sink, and then twist myself around and lean forward so as to conceal my nethers from prying eyes, even though I think I’ve only ever encountered one random bathroom-goer, in all my long years, who appeared to be curious about the shape, form, and general appearance of my Sejong Daewang.

So I pissed my bladder dry and walked out, but as I was returning to the group a random young Korean man who was on his way to the bathroom accosted me. “Oh, hello!” he cried out, his eyes widening, as if mine was the first white face he had ever seen with his own eyes—I answered him with the barest politeness although I should have completely ignored him—“Whel al yoo flom?”—“America,” I gruffly automatically replied, without looking at him and while also quickening my pace—“Oh lee-yo-lee? Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?”—“Uh huh”—and he asked something else—“Uh huh”—and by that time I was twenty feet distant, and he and his stupid friend were laughing snidely over the encounter.

For the next hour I burned, I seethed, from that laughter, and even though I shouldn’t have let it get to me, and even though my Korean wife, A., said they were just laughing to save face after getting blown off, I obsessed over of all the horrible things I could have said to him—in Korean, no less, as I had just tried to translate an English poem to some Korean friends on the drive over, and my linguistic abilities are not quite so pathetic as the typical white American. “Whel al yoo flom?” “I just got back from your mother’s —-, and boy was it delicious!” “Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?” “To seduce, corrupt, and impregnate your mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, and wives, of course!”

What else can one do about the small population of snide young men who enjoy reminding foreigners, through their idiotic greetings, that they really are not welcome here? Last weekend I was walking back from getting some work done at the university, and unfortunately there was some kind of high school group playing games on the track, which meant that a group of idle high school boys was walking around while begging, pleading, with their eyes for someone to beat the the living daylights out of them. I tensed my body, steeled myself for the encounter—if I’ve got a couple of seconds I’ll even try to think up something mean I can say to them in Korean, if they do indeed accost me—and they did. “Hey man!” one of them shouted as they passed me, holding up his hand in a greeting, his eyes wide with condescending friendliness. I glared at them but didn’t answer.

A couple of his friends laughed in that same snide way—look at how stupid these foreigners are—and that’s when I finally decided, after enduring three years of this shit, that I had had enough. I turned around as they walked away, extended my upper jaw out over my chin, and shouted out—“Aeego chay-meet-da!”, Oh god it’s funny!, mocking their laughter.

The waterfall at 보경사 with Hanja, always a sign of class.

Them’s fighting words, as one of my less likeable high school teachers used to say. A few of them laughed nervously, and that was the end of it—but although violence is wrong, I would have loved to attack all of them, right then and there. They would have totally fucked me up (about eight seventeen year-old males versus one pasty twentysomething), and they might even have killed me (some high schoolers recently did away with a college student up in Seoul after some kind of argument over a video game), but oh man, I would have loved every second of it, because anything is better than just taking their abuse and walking away. It really does require a saint to deal with this kind of shit—Gandhi deserves that epithet, Mahatma, no question about it, because it is so much harder to just let it go.

But it felt good to lash out at them; I was trembling with a ridiculous sense of triumph the whole way home.

Koreans have also complained to me about roving bands of high school boys, and other young men, but I think most foreigners just ignore them and try to put up with their bullshit. After all, their lives are completely miserable in every imaginable way, and they really have nothing to look forward to except endless misery. Imagine this life: an impossible test which will determine the entirety of your future at the end of high school, followed by two years of getting screamed at in the military, followed by working like a slave in a soulless conglomerate (if you’re lucky), followed by getting married to a woman you don’t even really like as a result of endless social pressure, followed by having children you never have the time to see, followed by retiring and not knowing what to do with yourself because you were never given the chance to develop any kind of an interest in the world, followed by never even wanting to see your children because they hate you and blame you for all of their problems. These kids have a lot of reasons to be angry, and I’m actually surprised that they don’t explode more often. Foreigners provide an outlet, because (but for one notable exception) they don’t fight back—even though I think they should. If us waygs freaked out more often, maybe fewer of these assholes would bother us.

Once in Deokcheon, which ranks up there as one of the least-desirable neighborhoods in the country, I was walking around with some foreign friends, one of whom was a rotund black woman. All of a sudden a Korean high school boy ran up to us and pointed and laughed at her while his friends looked on with approval—I can still see him cackling with glee, crouching down halfway like a gremlin—and though my friends just ignored him I was enraged, because that was seriously not cool.

My wife A. has informed me that Koreans have an equivalent to “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You shame your family, your ancestors, etc.”—“Stop painting your parent’s faces with shit.” (부모님 얼굴에 똥칠 하지마라) I’ll be using this line in the future; there’s also an equivalent to “Mind your own business” or “Fuck off”, which is useful when random old people start ordering you around as if they own you, something which has happened, I’m sure, to every single outsider who has stayed in Korea for more than a few days. One of the monks at my university has been trying to get a foreign professor to edit yet another stupid paper on how the world will be saved if everyone just becomes a monk—he’s been pestering her constantly, asking her when she’s free, calling her—and she’s refused repeatedly, but he might not get the message unless she tells him to get a life. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of a bigwig. A cleaning ajumma also yelled at me while I was taking a piss in the bathroom, although I’m not exactly sure why, and actually as a result of that encounter I learned this useful Korean sentence—fuck off, 너나 찰하세요.—mind your own business, literally “Or only you do well?”, (even though this is conjugated politely, A. tells me it’s fairly mean).

(this post becomes too long at this point—the rest is only for those readers who are interested in the extended cut!)

The Cave Of Several Skulls!

So, anyway, back to yesterday’s hike. That hello put me in a bad mood for the better part of an hour. I didn’t want to hang out with the Koreans anymore and I didn’t want to live in this country anymore, either. We just sank a ton of money into flying back to America this summer, and my parents suggested that we look for jobs during our visit, and in the midst of my anger I thought it wasn’t a bad idea at all, because sometimes I really seriously am totally sick of being a racial minority. I’ve been gravitating toward African American literature lately because although their situation is and was far worse than mine, there are still some parallels, and I’m interested in seeing how these people (Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison, specifically) deal with this shit—in addition to laughing at the unending antics of Tea Partiers who are surrounded by white people all day, every day, for their entire lives, while simultaneously complaining about increasing racism and discrimination. They don’t know, they can’t possibly know, anything about it; and I think it’s impossible to understand it unless you have felt it directed at you for such a long time that you begin to want to lash out at people you encounter on a daily basis. I’ve just gotten a tiny little taste of being objectified, of being a white person rather than a human being, and believe me, it totally fucking sucks, every single fucking time.

The constant little things, too, get to me. I had been looking forward to this outing because my wife’s friends are nice and the entire journey was an opportunity for me to practice my Korean and for them to practice their English. Everybody wins. But my conversational attempts fell on flat ears. I wanted to impress them, so I randomly tried translating a poem (kind of a faux pas, to suddenly burst out in a few lines of Longfellow), and talked about a few other weird subjects that were not exactly related to what Koreans apparently usually talk about (family, friends, and Kang Ho-dong), and all I got in return was a few nods and then silence. It reminded me of my high school days, when my own oddness was still fairly untempered, and many of the people I spoke with would look at me as if I didn’t belong on this planet.

Once the hike got going they spoke to each other but they didn’t speak with me. And, admittedly, I still have quite a long way to go with Korean, so speaking with me can be kind of a challenge. I can usually get the general idea of what my wife is saying while the words of others require a great deal more effort. I lack confidence, in conversing with them; my wife is also fairly used to the strange rookie forms I use, and so she can understand my Korean when other Koreans can’t. All of us usually use her to translate when she’s around—but when she’s not around, it seems as though they get what I’m saying (or that they do an incredible job of pretending to get what I say).

But as my wife said, Koreans look at me as a white person, and because of that they don’t know what to say to me, because white people are so obviously different. I don’t fit into the paradigm. I even got hit with a “this food is spicy” and “you are so good with chopsticks” despite living here for three years—this was a well-intentioned reminder that I am no different from someone passing through the airport in Incheon. Part of me wants to be treated as a fellow Korean, but I likewise recoil from entering that system of medieval hierarchies, where I am supposed to automatically agree to every idiotic thing old people say—a Buddhist nun told me, two or three weeks back, that if I drink too much cold water I’ll get sick; this was on a very hot day while I was wearing a suit; she seemed somewhat surprised when I told her, no, I think I’ll be okay, thanks for your advice, and then downed the cold water in question, gleefully, right in front of her, while a Korean would have accepted her advice and waited until she left to continue drinking—and where I have to waste my life in the military for two years and then drain whatever remains of my soul into the bowels of a vast, indestructible chaebol; I would also have to treat my wife like a servant, rather than an equal. I can’t just pick and choose what I like (as I find many liberal religious people do, in ignoring the Dalai Lama when he says that contraception is evil, or the passages in the Bible dealing with slavery); I have to either take the entire culture, if I want Koreans to treat me as one of their own, or leave it, and suffer through who knows how many more snide random hellos. But it’s also impossible to take the entire culture, to be accepted, because I don’t look like them, and that’s really all that matters.

The emphasis on appearances here is staggering. On Kakaotalk Story, a Korean equivalent of facebook, twitter, and free instant messaging, all wrapped in a single package for your cellphone, Koreans are constantly taking and posting and commenting on pictures of themselves, and nothing else. Contrast that with facebook, or at least my facebook wall, where everyone is doing their best to look as intelligent and artistic as possible—posting interesting news stories, pretty photographs, or polemics on why Israel or Palestine is evil. Then look at the difference in homes from these two cultures. Every single Korean home I have visited, without exception, is covered with airbrushed studio pictures of the family. A Buddhist family might have some Buddhist artwork up and about; a Christian family might have a Bible lying around—my wife’s family is a severe exception, to use Mitt Romney’s terminology, as they have a number of exquisite paintings of dragons, bearded monks, and Chinese characters, which would fetch a few thousand dollars if they were to be auctioned off in America. A typical American home is different. An American family will make some attempt to show off its style. There will definitely be pictures of the family on the fridge, but their faces won’t dominate every single open space, as they do in Korea. Paintings, fancy photographs, cool posters, intelligent-looking books and DVDs and CDs—all of this stuff is vital in a household belonging to people who have been to college. They want to show off their brains, and not their faces; hundreds of people on that hike I mentioned were taking photographs of themselves and their groups in front of the scenery, but they rarely if ever seemed to notice the scenery by itself.

Several times I’ve run into this strange expression Korean parents use if they think a child is cute. They’ll say he or she looks like a doll (인형, in-hyung). There’s a similar expression in English, something like, oh aren’t you a doll, but I feel like it’s so ridiculous you could only use it sarcastically, since dolls are actually kind of terrifying, in their robotic, inhuman perfection. Several people have complimented me by saying that I look like a mannequin, and others frequently post messages on my wife’s Kakaotalk “wall”, or whatever the hell they call it, saying that photographs of me look like they come from a shopping catalogue. They appear to believe that I look good, even if many of them also appear to believe that I don’t belong here—after all, few Koreans would ever tell a grown Korean man that his chopstick use is excellent. Just a couple of days ago a crazy ajumma, a complete stranger, called me a pretty boy, a handsome guy, after staring at me with loving awe for ten or fifteen seconds. I appreciate the thought, but I find all of these expressions bizarre, and did not encounter them, not once, in America, while they sometimes come up every day in Korea, because here your appearance is absolutely all that matters. The same shit happened for two years when I found myself pretending to teach English in a Korean public school, while the students pretended to learn, and the administration pretended to approve. So long as we all acted out these shallow roles, which were completely absent of any depth, content, or value, everyone was happy. At least on the outside.

All of this relates back to The North, where all the insanity in the South is amped up about as far as it will go, because there seems to be far less foreign influence there to dilute it. The people appear to have no self-awareness of any kind; maybe because no one is able to contradict a superior, or tell him, like, hey, fatass, howabout you go easy on the pastrami? The tours to the country focusing on grand socialist promenades are notorious, and were commented on with amusement by foreign reporters visiting to check out the rocket launch because everything was so obviously fake. There was one news story I can’t find about a tour bus full of reporters that took a wrong turn and suddenly wound up in one of the thousand wretched hovels that litter the North Korean landscape, and while the driver and the keepers were embarrassed about allowing this slight glimpse of the truth, this breaking of the image, this loss of face, the reporter who described this event said that although the town was a dump it wasn’t really anything special in the annals of poverty and human degradation. Nonetheless, heads might roll from that mistake, because for once there was absolutely no way for the North Koreans involved to market their nation as a worker’s paradise—to airbrush the family photographs.

Image is all that matters, and the dichotomy is bizarre—you look good, Ian, but you can never be one of us—but for whatever reason the Korean taste in images differs markedly from the taste of the West, in that Westerners, for once, appear to be slightly more clever and discerning than their Korean counterparts. The ridiculous ads on Korean websites for facial (and now tit-tial) surgery might help dupe Korean women into turning themselves into silicon mannequins, but I think they would horrify and disgust most Western women, who prefer to depress and objectify themselves by watching commercials and looking at magazines with impossibly beautiful models and celebrities.

Related to this is the accepted truth and fact that for whatever reason, Koreans North and South really don’t know how to advertise themselves—which is one reason why absolutely no one in the West knows a god damn thing about this country, and why I also think it’s been viewed as a sort of path of exchange between far more interesting cultures in China and Japan for decades in the Western academic world. Local advertisers know how to make women feel miserable, and men inferior, but as for interesting foreigners in this place—look at our kimchi! look at our huge cities! look at all the stuff you can find in China or Japan! isn’t it clean! isn’t it sparkling! The promenades and parades in North Korea are no different. Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I really do believe they put those parades on because they want Westerners to think that North Korea is paradise. The shows are not just for the benefit of the local enslaved populace; why else would they be broadcast to the outside world?

Before I came here I was totally unaware that companies like Samsung, Daewoo, LG, Hyundai, Kia, and god knows what else, were even Korean, and while I have lately been vexed as to why those friends I mentioned on my facebook wall who seem to lose their shit on a daily basis over antics in the Middle East or Tibet don’t seem to give a flying fuck about the twenty million people who are imprisoned in the world’s largest concentration camp, North Korea, I think the Koreans themselves are to blame: Tibetans, Palestinians, and supporters of Israel’s nastier side are much better at getting the message to the outside world, and each group is made up of all kinds of different people, while I’ve never even heard of a foreign organization established to free North Korea, though I suppose such organizations must exist. The fact that I haven’t heard of them (while Free Tibet, the Anti-Defamation League and even Students For Justice in Palestine are household or almost household names) and the fact that the American media never refers to North Korea as what it is—a concentration camp state, the answer to the question of what would happen if the Nazis somehow transformed themselves into Asians and then took over a small part of Northeastern Asia for six decades?—just goes to show that they are being as fecklessly run as the agency in charge of putting out tourism ads as well as the office in charge of public education—run by people who believe that although I look good, I don’t belong here.

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A Prominent South Korean Writer Expresses Her Sadness For The Death of Kim Jong Il

So Kim Jong Il was a weird guy—and how nice is it to refer to him in the past tense?—but hidden among his more famous quirks is the fact that there are prominent South Koreans who support him and have expressed genuine sadness at his death. One of them is a famous writer named Gong Ji Young, who in response to a photograph of South Korean protestors celebrating the death of the Heinously Dear Leader tweeted the following—“Shame on you!” (“정말 부끄럽구요 쫌!”). Various politicians aligned with the Democratic Party have also apparently expressed their condolences.

(news is over, opinion follows; the preceding paragraph would have been impossible to write without A.’s help)

Now I am a communist, partly because communism is cool again, but also partly because Christopher Hitchens called himself an especially conservative Trotskyist, a title I would like to adopt for myself even though most of my knowledge about Leon Trotsky comes from Animal Farm. Nevertheless, armed with an amateur’s knowledge of the issues I essentially hope that our capitalist economy will become more democratic, peacefully, over time. This opinion places me far to the left of most people. But in South Korea I am a conservative.

It is a hallowed South Korean tradition to despise whoever is in power, and as the current president, Lee Myung Bak, has been around for several years, you will be hard pressed to find a single person expressing support for his policies, which mostly benefit a small group of incredibly rich old Christian men. But people hate him for a lot of good reasons. The economy, his strongest asset, is doing okay but that’s really because everyone here is working like slaves (everyone, that is, except for me) and because the country appears to sell a lot more than it buys—particularly in the case of ships, cars, electronics, cellphones.

The man does not care about the environment, the underprivileged, or freedom of speech, sacrificing everything and everyone in the name of money, and he is also—as the North Koreans call him, and everyone else in this country—a puppet of the United States, having just signed what would seem to be a fairly unpopular Free Trade Agreement with America (which some Koreans believe to be more of a threat to their security than the North (Japan also is considered to be more dangerous)). For these reasons I should probably not support him. But I do.

For all his faults, the man doesn’t give anything to North Korea. Not a dime. Not a grain of rice. And because every dime and grain of rice would go toward maintaining the elite and the military in that country, I support the idea of starving it of resources and allowing it to collapse on its own, because the North Korean army is too powerful to be destroyed without killing huge numbers of innocent people, and the North Korean people themselves appear to be too weak or too unwilling to take down the regime on their own. This may seem callous, but I think the people who are starving to death in the North right now will continue starving regardless of whether or not anyone sends them aid. Some people might say that aid should be sent along with people to monitor its distribution, but in Asia that would mean losing face, because the poverty in North Korea would be exposed for all to see, and nothing could be more shameful, because horrible things are okay as long as nobody else knows about them. The Northrons (or Norks) will allow countless people to starve before allowing themselves to be humiliated like that.

A more liberal politician is probably going to be elected to the presidency at the end of next year as the result of the current backlash against President Lee, which means that the status quo will remain the same except for North Korea. The South will, quite promptly, resume sending everything short of nuclear weapons to the North in the name of solidarity with everyone’s racial brethren (seriously), and these actions will probably prolong the North’s eventual collapse by months, years, or even decades. America’s policymakers will probably support this move as well because people seem to think that the leaders of North Korea actually want to give up their weapons, their mansions, and their power, in exchange for nooses and cold prison cells. This would not be logical anywhere outside of North Korea; I don’t know why it is logical inside North Korea.

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The Cold War In Miniature

At least one of us is prepared.

I was in quite a good mood early this afternoon as I went on a sprightly walk down the sunny street to get some lunch, stepping around SUVs jammed right up against the glass entrances of flower shops, cafes, and convenience stores. One karaoke place displays a giant, grainy image of young naked Nordic children playing in a band, with their little uncircumcised penises clearly visible. I remember a young woman tucking herself out of sight behind a rectangular pillar of cement. The world was finally looking up.

In Korea you must always laugh and cringe as you say this, but I went to gimbap chongook, or gimbap heaven, a chain restaurant that serves quick, cheap, passable Korean food to individual customers—the last part is the most important because in this communal society most restaurants will refuse to serve you unless you go with a friend. And as I was diving into my bibimbap, or rice mixed with vegetables and kimchi, and lapping it up, and groaning in joyous paroxysms, all while trying to understand the conversation of some loud middle-aged Korean men—the only words I could make out were first!, second!, third!—and while watching a single jaundiced (yellow-eyed) waitress rush about to serve quite a catch of maybe fifteen patrons, with another single woman working in the kitchen to feed them, the news came on, and for once we weren’t looking at the same videos of factory-bred cattle, hideous modern government buildings, and middle-aged suited technocrats.

I had gotten up to pay at that point. The old waitress took a minute or two to get to me, and as I waited, and as she rushed about, the television began playing something that had been produced in North Korea. Reporters and anchors from that country always sound completely ridiculous to us: the whining, wailing, deep-throated elderly voice of this ajumma is what I heard, sitting before a backdrop of pine trees and Mount Baekdu, the Olympus of Korea, where Dangun (the Adam of all Koreans) as well as Kim Jong Il, were born. There were a few words beneath, switching back and forth, but I could make one of them out: 사망, samang, death—okay, who has died? No, it couldn’t be, impossible…

The text switched back, and there it was, written in Hangul: 김정일. Kim Jong Il. Dead. Everyone had gone quiet by then. The moment millions of people had been waiting for and talking about had finally arrived. Any change in North Korea was impossible while that man lived; his death may mean nothing, but at least now there is some chance, some opportunity, for reform.

“Oh my god,” I said, fairly loudly, in the relative silence. A war could start any minute! The man had died mere moments ago!

I checked my phone, ready to call A., but she had texted me first. KIM JONG IL IS DEAD. Then, a moment later: I KILLED HIM. I rushed home through the chill of the sunny street that was completely normal before but now drenched in significance. I won’t forget the car that pulled out, the two college students I saw walking toward me…

After returning, dancing, eating, jumping, and singing a certain song from The Wizard of Oz, came the facebook posting. This was the silly joy that I would remember with some bitterness after I found myself penned up in a freezing concentration camp. Gyeongju is relatively safe, but we’re planning to go to Seoul on Thursday for our baby’s first modeling shoot, and I told A. that I won’t be going without this on my head—and proceeded to don a steel pot. I remembered jokes about the obscenely loud farting of my father-in-law. He would fart, the house would shake, and his mother would say the war is starting.

Speculation of any kind is almost pointless (although this piece is a lot of fun) because we appear to know more about the far side of the moon than North Korea, but we should hope for the best (a unified Korea) and prepare for the worst (war with China). It seems that the Dear Heavenly Amazingly Fuckingly Great Leader actually died several days ago, and that whoever is in charge now—some believe it to be this anonymous man (it is almost certainly not the very young but anointed successor)—decided to keep the story under wraps while presumably getting things ready for the big announcement. Because North Korea is a dictatorship, they were probably purging people left and right.

The strangest thing about South Korea, mentioned in this great article, one of the greatest I have ever read about the two Koreas, is that people here don’t seem to care that much about the North. Americans probably care a lot more. Life here goes on as if nothing has happened. To be sure, people are talking, and thinking, but they’re not raiding grocery stores, and they’re not stocking up on weapons, because something fucks up in North Korea at least once a year, and I think that after five decades of yearly fuckups you really just have to throw your hands up and relax. Seoul could be leveled any minute. Toxic gas could start raining down from the sky here, above sacred Gyeongju, any second. But it’s been like that forever, and I can’t think of any country that has knowingly committed suicide in history—the people up North may be crazy, but they’re not suicide bombers, and they know that they will be destroyed moments after they order the destruction of the South. M.A.D kept the US and the USSR at bay for decades, and the same is true here, because Korea is the Cold War in miniature.

And I was getting excited about recent reports that the North was on its last legs, something that people have been saying for twenty, thirty years. India will go on, is the line repeated in a slim volume by the despised V.S. Naipaul, and I think the same goes for North Korea.

Speculation is useless. We can’t be sure of anything. But I can be sure that there will be plenty of speculation, and plenty of alternately lame and amusing jokes, at the faculty meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Assuming, of course, that there is a tomorrow afternoon.

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It was in Seonggeon, a district of Gyeongju, at my in-laws’ house.

The family had finished feasting themselves on the usual array of pungent brown stews, uncooked tentacles, and spiced, pickled cabbages. Now they were gathered around the baby and the television, their attention alternating between the former’s gurgles and the latter’s grainy black-and-white images of tanks rolling over muddy hills.

The family, in their casual clothes, had occupied the master bedroom alone, sitting on a blanket that had been spread over the floor; the younger brother’s two friends, having only just arrived, were in the living room, standing in the doorway while overlooking the scene of heartwarming filial bliss before them—one perhaps not so different from the straw-strewn Nativity dioramas you come across around Christmas.

The father remembered that one of the two college students in the doorway was renowned as a singer. Suddenly he clapped his hands and demanded, Herodically: “Sing!

The singer obliged him. He was also known for his high English scores. He looked at me and asked, “Do you know R. Kelly?”

“Yes,” I replied. “The child molester?”

As he did not know the phrase he ignored me, nodded, smiled, and began singing “I Bereeve I Can Fry”. And I, sitting on the floor with the family, blushed to the roots of my hair. The man sang through the entire song—and he did not just sing, he yelled, clutched his chest, squeezed his eyes shut, he caterwauled with passion and violence.

Flushed red on the floor, I thought I was embarrassed for myself, or perhaps somehow attracted to this young man, who was dressed head to foot in soiled denim, even though I generally do not blush when I find people attractive. I could not explain my behavior.

He finished the song, he bowed, people clapped, the gods chortled.

But as I thought back over the absurdity of this event I realized I was not embarrassed for myself so much as for him. He was not a terrible singer. According to my wife he recently won some sort of local singing contest. The song itself may have been the product of an infamous child molester but it’s still fairly common; it’s not as though he was singing an obscure anthem from NAMBLA. Honestly it was pretty impressive that he was able to sing a song in a difficult foreign language. I made fun of his accent earlier, but he got most of the words right. So why, then, was it all so ridiculous?

I don’t know! But it was! The denim! R. Kelly! Screaming bad pop music at the top of your lungs in a crowded, confined space—a Korean nativity scene! Minus lambs, plus tentacles! Perhaps I was merely jealous of his talents and boldness. I’m not sure. But I do know that he followed up on this song by asking my wife and I for free English lessons, which I guess he expected to get thanks to his vague connection with our family.

In his words, he basically wanted to hang around our apartment and listen to my wife and I speak English to each other. Of course as you can imagine we were both thrilled by this proposition. In our diminutive living space, strewn with old food and garbage bags bursting with shit-filled diapers—in our kitchen, crowded with bottles which are themselves filled with rancid goatmilk—in our lives, packed with endless baby-related responsibilities that prevent both of us (but mostly my wife) from doing anything that does not involve tossing a four month-old infant up to the ceiling from early in the morning to late at night—there is more than enough time to entertain a random college student who is after a service which costs other people fistfuls of cash to acquire. Sure. No problem. And while you’re at it, why don’t you ask for my phone number in front of everyone, so that if I refuse I’ll look like an asshole. That’s it. Perfect.

The next event which confirmed the embarrassing nature of the first occurred while I was walking home from the university at nightfall after a rather long day. I ran into this student, whose name I don’t actually know, while he was walking (still clad wholly in denim) with his fairly attractive girlfriend: he accosted me, introduced me to his girlfriend, we bowed to one another in that awkward Korean way which demands that each person watch the other while bowing to make sure that everyone is showing the right level of respect, and then he explained something to his girlfriend in Korean—while I plotted my escape. Chance flashed before my eyes like a golden sparrow; I seized it. “I’m sorry, I really have to go,” I said, and he looked at me, threw his head back, opened his mouth nice and wide, and guffawed.

And then of course, like the most heartless pickup artist, he never called me.

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I Work At A University

Gong—the clanging of the evening gong throbs through the afternoon and the sunset glows on beds of auburn pine needles—gong—and never in my life did I think that college students would look younger than me, but here the typical daehaksaeng is a bony gangly youth who jiggles from place to place like an amoeba, wholly unaware of how closely he resembles the children I used to corral back in Busan, I mean really, he’s just a child who’s lengthened out a bit—gong—and they astound me when they say they are reading Kafka or that they like Tarantino movies or that borders are merely subjective human ideas or that they are reading philosophy and psychology because those fields provide a better grounding for their study of Buddhism, because no Koreans have ever said such things to me before, and if I were to speak of such things to them, I would be met with silence and blankness—and then a deep blue gong comes resounding over the parking lots where the laughing students walk—the sun goes down beneath the boxy haze of Gyeongju, over the Elder Brother River where you can look down over the bridge and see blocks of ancient stone lying broken in the brown silt, and the ruins that are everywhere because unlike the rest of the country it is here in this place where the bones leftover from thousands of years of history may still be seen wherever you go—and the next gong reminds you that things were not always the way they are now—the hairless monks in loose gray robes walk beside bimbos in miniskirts and golden stilettos, their black manes swaying around their milkwhite necks, their marble shoulders, and everyone is smiling, but one of the professors was fired for making out with a student on campus, and that does indeed strike me as abusive (the making out, not the firing) because these college students still have one foot in their high schools and many of them seem like children playing dressup—here in this small town you can run into people you know and chat with them, unlike in Busan, that massive hive of nothingness—and at the final gong which vibrates the air for miles around, the time has come to pack up and go.

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Life And Work

A cool windy day as I dash this off outside in Banyeo, a distant suburb of Busan, an extension of the city’s vast cement tentacles which was nonexistent to me until about two weeks ago. Sometimes Napoleon fought with so many hundreds of thousands of soldiers that he would forget entire legions, hidden behind the hills on his flanks; it is impossible for the mind to grasp the endlessness of Busan, even if at the same time, for the most part, by walking one street in this city, you’ve walked them all. The array of restaurants, academies, convenience stores, and hospitals repeats itself in new patterns that always follow the same general tasteless theme of gaudy neon and plastic and concrete almost wherever you look. In Banyeo there is a little more greenery, and incredible numbers of high-rise apartment tenements stacked alongside one another like enormous dominos. Otherwise Banyeo is indistinguishable from the rest of Busan.

There is a new development in my life I want to talk about. I feel content with my work. I feel happy and satisfied when I leave my apartment and head out to earn money. The idea that this could happen never once occurred to me. There is actually a kind of thrill, now, in teaching or tutoring very small groups of students for astronomical sums of cash; I can feel my enthusiasm for the language infecting them, and this feeling from them re-infects me again, and bounds into them, and into me, back and forth, until the hours come to a quick close and I walk away with quite a bounce to my stride—smiling, happy, satisfied, content. I work for myself, and my family; our lives improve, and I begin to think of myself as actually having a career.

A few months ago I would have believed this feeling to be impossible. A philosopher once said that any work done for money was fundamentally evil, a sacrifice of your time to the gods of greed and base necessity; I believed that work was something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible so that I could return to the real work of imagining entire universes out of nothingness. And from looking at the jobs on my resume, you really can’t blame me for thinking that way; dish-washing and herding cats in a Korean public school are both not the most exemplary occupations, but most of my working adult life was spent that way. Teaching literature to college students and gardening were brief reliefs from all that drudgery.

And at the same time writing has hardly changed at all—it’s still just as much of a struggle as ever, with the same incredible mounting self-doubts, and the same total lack of payoff (beyond the reward of writing by itself). I can write for hours and hours and feel even more dissatisfied and disappointed than when I began; I never stop because I feel as if I’ve written enough, I only stop because I’m distracted by something else.

Little has changed, regarding writing. The titanic struggle to publish an ebook was fruitless thanks to unknown technical problems, and I’ve put off giving that gauntlet another shot for five or six weeks now, although I will eventually give it another go; I have spent an incredible portion of my life writing, and beyond some prize money I have not earned a single cent from doing so, and hardly a wink of recognition or even acknowledgment from anyone—and this blog hardly counts, I’m talking about my book! I write in a void. It is so the opposite of my “career” here, which I feel to be advancing by leaps and bounds month by month—writing, by contrast, is a stagnant plod through an endless field of tar.

Because so few people even recognize the fact that I am writing at all, and because the accolades of my handful of readers are so generous and at the same time so general, and because their criticism is more or less nonexistent (the greatest artists often being the subject of the most savage attacks), I have only dug myself deeper into that tar pit; my writerly self-doubt has assumed monstrous proportions, where everything I compose is utterly weak, meaningless, worthless, and beneath the gods whom I love to read; I do not know where to go, what to say, or how to say it; all this at the same time as my confidence as a teacher grows and grows, as my love for my nascent family (which I also thought I would never have) deepens.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing, but until now I had never thought I could live a happy and content life without struggling to compose literature.

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And we’ll build a row of identical boxes and sell ’em all off and treble the profits!


I’m so far gone now in Korea that a place like this seems attractive to me: row after row of identical high-rises, apartment complexes, monolithic blocks of cement, twenty stories tall, with tar for parking lots poured out in the gaps in between, and enough white or gray or black cars to fill up every space.

I’m at the Daewoo Marina Apartment buildings in Haeundae, a five minute walk from the beach with all the umbrellas and the women in stilettos on the sand, and if you look up at the sky you can see the massive new towers of glass rising up into the clouds way out in the distance like a nightmare from one of the racist short stories of H.P Lovecraft.

There are also, strangely enough, lots of trees around, plenty of bushes and flowers, and even a few square feet of grass—real grass, that rarity of rarities here in the land of tar and cement and dirt—so that the air smells strangely of—dare I say it—nature, life, photosynthesis and sun and rain, chlorophyll, hummingbees powdering themselves up with pollen inside who knows how many vibrantly ultraviolet blossoms?

It does seem desirable, as I sprint as fast as my legs will carry me, hammering the sidewalk in my very-uncomfortable-yet-possibly-fashionable shoes, late, twenty fucking minutes late, to my part-time job here—it’s nice and quiet, there’s no one around, you kind of feel like you’re out in the suburbs, there are almost boulevards here, on the checkered sidewalk that’s destroying the soles of my feet as I slam down, again and again, sprinting at a speed that would be much faster in sneakers. You feel like you might even catch sight of a house somewhere.

Inside, each apartment is about the size of several American dorm rooms linked by a hallway, but the residents have to be paying through the teeth to afford such fabled Korean luxuries as the apartment with more than one room and the residential zone with vegetation—to say nothing of the access to the Sea of Japan, which of course the Koreans prefer to call the Sea of Korea (the “East Sea”, i.e., the “Most Definitely Not Japanese Sea”).

The strangest sort of employer awaits me inside one of these apartments, a nice Korean woman who speaks English at such a ridiculously fast speed that I believe she must think I am an idiot because half the time I cannot follow what she is saying to me and have to ask her to repeat herself. But the even stranger thing about her is that she’s had several very young and very wealthy kids under her tutelage for the last few years, and all of them speak English at an incredible level of proficiency.

There are lots of English teachers here who have had to deal with lots of crazy Korean kids who don’t speak a word of English: try to imagine, now, if all of them spoke English fluently, and you could understand all of the weird, wacky, random things they’re constantly shouting at each other. I am now teaching—or, rather, bantering with—those imaginary little children, for about eight hours a week. They are still curious, open-minded, eager, and far from jaded. Their maddening schedule of five different private schools a week, on top of public school, has not yet destroyed their natural love of learning.

It’s a pleasure to teach them in this odd place in which I feel a very Korean and very un-American desire to live.

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