Tag Archives: Travel

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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Literary News

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

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

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Kingdoms In The Sun

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You find whoever you’re looking for whenever you’re not looking.

Ian James was lost in Asia. Having slogged through six months of teaching English in a South Korean public school, he escaped to Indochina to ply the waves of the Mekong River and wander the city-sized temples of Angkor Wat, romancing whoever he could find along the way, struggling to find a purpose to his existence. This search for love and meaning seemed hopeless until, at last, he found her: Gold Silver Jade, the heir to the throne of the Korean Empire, clopping along the streets of Busan in gleaming stilettos.

Standalone sequel to Teakettle Mountain, Kingdoms In The Sun is a genre-bending travelogue, mixing the memoir of an exile with the fantastic shaman-laden history of modern Korea. Dark, amusing, and unpredictable, you won’t be able to put it down.

Get the Kindle book on Amazon for $2.99.

And now, an excerpt—

THE DEMON

Several years of patient misery later we find Yi as a rather marriageable eighteen-year-old woman consulting the services of a matchmaker, formerly a certain shaman and philosopher. The city outside her old house with the sign in both Chinese and Korean letters is roaring because it seems as though every tinderwood lean-to in Gyeongju is being swept aside and replaced by a four-story rectangular apartment block of bright pink cement. Bulldozers are roving rampant through the city, along with dozens of cheap Doosan cranes, backhoes, and dumptrucks, while thousands of helmeted construction workers are pouring into the troughs left in their wake, hauling away the debris and erecting the largest structures anyone’s ever seen, usually in two months or less for each building. These operations are all directed by young men in strange suits and ties that flap up against their shaven faces in the dusty wind.

The cement flows in rivers. Government offices, motels, Turkish Bathhouses, karaoke rooms, restaurants, schools, light industrial factories with blue-striped smokestacks, a hospital, a dozen pharmacies, a university, two new bridges to span the Elder Brother River and two to cross the North Stream that flows into it, banks, a train station, police and fire stations, bus stations, even gas stations, all with English signs that nobody can read, with strange English names written in the Korean alphabet, like “Chelluh Menshyeon”—Chère Mansion—which people can sometimes sound out, though nobody knows what they mean. The apple orchards are cut down, sculptures from the Shilla Dynasty are accidentally dug up and then purposefully carted away into the new national museum, and the president himself orders his army of workers to carve out a new lake and erect a complex of enormous modern hotels, golf courses, and theme parks for the tourists who will soon come to see the giant Buddha in the mountain and the grassy burial mounds whose bellies are being disemboweled with pickaxes and toothbrushes by teams of archeologists.

Capitalism is attacking this nation. American and Japanese money is pouring in, and everyone is working around the clock. Yi and her family can afford to eat rice now and then, although most of the time they have to stick to prepackaged noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They treat themselves to meat no more than once a month. Hot tar ozone fills the air, as does the scream of machinery, while airplanes are floating in the white sky like bits of silver origami, and trains are pounding along the tracks as fast as the workers can lay them, and hordes of little children are running around everywhere. There are squarish boxy cars on the roads—motorbikes—green taxis designed like cigarette packs on wheels—all honking like they’re getting paid for it.

Every single man spends every single moment of every single day smoking cigarettes, and they all start this habit the very moment that first follicle of pubic hair sprouts out of their crotches. The decadent days of the meter-long tobacco pipes that only the yangban nobles could afford—resting them on their ashtrays—have receded into the ancient past, although you can still find some of these pipes gathering dust and pollen in the junk stores at the traditional markets.

Sitting on the hard wood floor before a squat wood table, the two women, the old and the new, shout through the machine-gun clattering of a nearby jackhammer, as sunlit dust billows through the gaps in the walls. Neither one can hear the other—

“What? What? I can’t—”

“Check this one out! Good prospects! Has a trade! A tailor! You can never lose a trade! You’ll eat rice every day! Meet Mr. Bak!”

“What—?”

The matchmaker slaps down a black-and-white photograph of Bak looking handsome and serious while refusing, like everyone else, to smile in front of the camera.

“You’ll never have to worry about food if you marry this one!”

“What?”

Bak was a remarkable creature, resilient like a volcanic rock that’s still burning with glow long after the end of the eruptions which gave birth to it. His family had descended from far more recent nobility: up until the 1990s Busan was producing most of the world’s shoes, and his parents had owned a prosperous shoe factory in the heart of the city back when it was Fuzhan under the Japanese. Then, one day, before the war, the factory burned down, they lost everything, including the joke-bo, or the family’s entire genealogical history, a series of very old books which set down the names and occupations of their ancestors extending back two thousand years to the days when people in Korea were not yet capable of producing bronze. Bak’s tough ritzy mother, glammed up in gems, was reduced to penury. The stones went to the shareholders and loan-collectors; rather than start over from the very beginning again her husband liquefied his mind in alcohol and expired late one evening by collapsing into a dirt street and choking on his own bile. After conceiving her second child with him—the first was stillborn a decade before, though since she was a daughter only the mother mourned the loss—this woman struck out on her in own in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Korea, where she opened up a restaurant in a traditional market near the old Japanese train station. Here there were a few relatives around who might be able to help her out now and then on those increasingly frequent occasions when she didn’t possess a single won to her name.

There was also another set of relatives in Busan, although this group didn’t help her at all. Her husband had been rich enough to afford a second wife, a concubine, or chup, and through this wife he’d sired an entire family which was so wealthy they lived in a house with a courtyard and a water fountain. She begged them for help each time they got together to sacrifice on the anniversary of her husband’s death, but they always refused because it made them happy to see this first original and legitimate wife, this powerful woman, forced to the most pathetic desperation. It was pleasing to see her beg, and even more pleasing to gently, politely, turn her down.

Her second child, Bak, was a screamer from the first, and caught nearly every illness known to man, though because of his family’s poverty his immune system had to fight off all of these diseases without the aid of food or medicine. His mother was so poor she couldn’t afford to eat rice more than once every couple of weeks; even getting his fingertip pricked by the local acupuncturist was far beyond her means. In her own words, Bak “nearly died four times.” He rounded out his grave childhood illnesses with a bout of polio which shriveled up his right leg and left him barely able to walk on his own for the rest of his life, catching the disease a decade after a vaccine had been found for it in the Beautiful Country. His leg was now thinner than his arm.

He’d already learned to walk by that time, but after the days of shrieking and vomiting and sweating had ended his mother found that whenever she stood him up, he fell down again, like a marionette with no one to hold the strings. She was forced to carry him in a white sling on her back as she cooked spicy red stews, washed dishes, and waited on tables, enduring daily questions from her customers (“Why can’t your boy walk?” “What’s wrong with your son?” “You know your baby’s too big for that sling!”) with smiling patience long after he was a heavy two- and then three-year-old with his long legs dangling down her back.

But this was only the beginning of his troubles. Bak’s single mother had to work at her restaurant all the time, locking up her shop between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, and dinner and ten at night, to hawk the city’s best gimbap on idling trains. Sometimes she had no choice but to leave her toddler trapped inside her little windowless apartment with some food and the human equivalent of litter boxes, in the absence of running water. There he passed the time by screaming his heart out by the door.

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Nice New Review Of Teakettle Mountain

On Amazon.com

Teakettle Mountain is a wonderful and humorous portrayal of life in South Korea. The detail is amazing – of the people, the place and the culture, as well as the pace and structure of life – absolutely fascinating. I feel like I’ve boarded a plane and physically visited the country.

Ian James’ grip and use of language is a joy to read. I didn’t curl up with the book, Teakettle Mountain curled up with me, and didn’t let me out of its embrace until I had read the last word. It is so full of wonderfully original descriptions it was difficult to find a favourite, and after much deliberation I’ve chosen: ‘Ms Yoon, who spoke American English as though she were a textbook that had been electrified and, Frankenstein-like, bought to life.’

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all nicey-nicey and touchy-feely – it’s uncomfortable reading at times. Ian James has chosen honesty above political correctness when writing about his experiences and observations and, as a result, I felt like I really was reading about people, rather than characters or. caricatures. He applies the same acerbic honesty to his observations about himself, and this was truly a joy to read – roll on part 2!.

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I Think I’m Turning Ko-re-an

“My very chains and I grew friends…”
—Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon

I thought Korea was the worst mistake of my life when I first came here. “It was the worst, most painful, mind-destroying, horrible moment!” As I recounted in my first book, I flew into Gimhae in the middle of the blazing summer, and spent six months surrounded by the filth and garbage in western Busan, my misery only occasionally relieved by the friendships I made, though it was likewise compounded by my memory of the joy of life in liberal arts school, where I spent four years climbing trees, talking about and reading and writing books, and re-enacting several times daily Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. Life was a dream. In Korea it became a nightmare.

Escaping to Indochina for a few weeks and then finally getting together with a nice Korean girl changed all that. I wish I could say that I came to appreciate this country thanks to some inner transformation that anyone can duplicate—“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”—but living in a tiny apartment in western Busan and working at a public school where I was screamed at for four hours a day, five hours a week, by hordes of children, in the company of teachers who (from our first meeting) made little attempt to conceal their complete disdain for me, did little to make this place endearing. I counted the days until my contract ended, thought several times daily of “pulling a runner”, and spent more time than you would think gazing out across the Nakdong River at the planes taking off from Gimhae. I found solace in whining, constantly, as well as by perusing blogs that never cease to criticize this place. My wife changed all that.

And on my occasional pilgrimages back to America I realized how Korean I had become. At the airport in Detroit I was amazed at the tallness, fatness, and contentedness, of the people around me. How come they aren’t all fighting each other while they wait line?, how come they aren’t all glaring at each other judgmentally?, how come they’re wearing colorful clothing?, how come they seem relatively pleased with themselves?, I wondered. I moved to Gyeongju, and ceased to notice the garbage, phlegm, and vomit as much as before, though that simply might be because there’s a little less of it here than back in the cesspit that is western Busan. Finally, by the grace of a miracle whose awesome mystery still lies far beyond the grasp of my worldly intellect, I somehow landed a coveted university job which I continue to believe I do not deserve.

Now four years have passed. I am twenty-five. I have spent almost a fifth of my life here; that makes me, more or less, twenty percent Korean, which means that there’s now a little Korean voice inside of me at odds with the graduate of the incredibly liberal liberal arts school. One part of me thinks everything related to Dokdo is incredibly stupid; another likes singing the Dokdo song. I ask students to address me by name but inwardly wince whenever I don’t hear myself addressed as “professor”. I speak and understand some Korean and still recoil with disbelief when the perfect gibberish pouring out of their mouths and my own makes sense to me. One part wants to wander the world in shorts and a t-shirt while another is terrified of leaving the house without a laundered suit. One part thinks people should be free to look however they like; another believes a woman is a prostitute if she bares the slightest hint of cleavage, while a man who does not shave is obviously homeless, and dark skin is always a sign of laziness and poverty. Animals are dirty; animals must be saved. The list goes on.

I can not only eat, but also enjoy, Korean food for breakfast. I become overly excited when I encounter people from exotic foreign countries: while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk I overheard two young men speaking Japanese and had to restrain myself from randomly screaming that I thought Kurosawa was the most amazing filmmaker ever. I feel a compulsion to visit Mount Baekdu. The slightest delay is intolerable. My child must be the best student. Living in a nice Hanok house in the country would be cool. Money is important. I cannot gain respect without first possessing the nicest, fastest, and most expensive car on the market.

The consciousness of the half-peninsula flows through me, and I think through it, absorbing a little here while pushing out the rest there: the craziest thing about this transformation of chains to friends is the realization I’ve been feeling lately that there is no need to return to America permanently. When I first arrived I was ticking off the seconds to departure, and now I’m fine with sticking around for the foreseeable future, an idea that only came to me in nightmares in the beginning when I saw myself eventually turning into one of the angry old Korean men sitting on a public bus in a heavy old-fashioned suit and hat and tie, glaring across the aisle of time at the young white lazy foreign youth who’s obviously come to our country to steal our money and our women: and for no other purpose.

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The Unknown Gyeongju

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Cherry blossoms? Who gives a damn? I’ve been to Seokguram. I’ve seen Bulguksa a thousand times. I’m going to have a seizure if I even glance at the tumuli again. The idea of wandering inside the Heavenly Horse Tomb fills my heart with bile. To hell with Gyeongju! I’ve seen everything worth seeing! I’m going to Japan!

There are already green buds on the trees here, and warmth is flowing through the air: the cherry blossoms are coming, and when they arrive in the first few weekends of April the city is going to be so mobbed with Korean tourists you won’t be able to stick out an arm without knocking off someone’s poker visor. On top of that, you’ve probably already come here a few times by now, and you undoubtedly think you’ve extracted every last drop of fun from the palpitating fruit that is the city of Gyeongju, but you couldn’t be more wrong. As one of my friends said, in Gyeongju, there’s so much to Gyeong-do!

Here follows a list of Gyeongju’s numerous and worthy off-the-beaten-path attractions, where you’ll find few if any tourists:

1. Baekryulsa, pronounced Baek-nyool-sa (백률사)

Located right beside a highway that’s at least a five-minute taxi ride from the bus station, Baekryulsa is not only home to a spectacular thousand-year-old statue of multiple Buddhas, but also happens to be the (supposed) final resting place of Ichadon’s flying head, which was severed with much gusto from his ready, willing, and able shoulders some fifteen centuries ago. A small temple is located at the top of a stone staircase that winds up through a grove of creaking bamboo, and while the architecture there is really not so remarkable, the temple’s foundation dates from the Silla period (the stones supporting the structure are noticeably older), and there’s a nearby bell which depicts Ichadon’s remarkable martyrdom. More wonders are apparently to be found by hiking up the mountain, but I can’t vouch for them personally.

The Buddhas are larger in person. That flowerpot on the left is twice the size of an average-sized man!

The Buddhas are larger in person. That flowerpot on the left is twice the size of a man! Though some men are larger than others.

2. Geumjangdae (금장대)

One of the newest additions to the city is located right above what must be its oldest relics: a series of petroglyphs that were carved into the cliffs at least two thousand years ago. Reconstructed last summer, Geumjangdae is a large Korean gazebo in the traditional style, and commands a gorgeous view of the Elder Mountain River, or the Hyungsangang, as well as the city of Gyeongju itself. A peculiar sign out front states that it was once the favorite meeting place of Joseon court poets, guerillas fighting against the Japanese, and UFOs. This is a perfect location to relax from the madness of the tourists; you can see it on the right as you pass over the bridge to the Dongguk University Hospital.

Not just a fine ceiling but also a nice lock screen background.

Not just a fine ceiling but also a great lock screen background.

3. Schumann & Clara (슈만과클라라)

This cafe is, to my very limited knowledge, the nicest in Korea, and although you should be prepared to shell out five thousand won for a cup of coffee here, and while you’ll also have to endure the presence of at least a few of the ubiquitous and idle bujammas (buja, rich + ajumma = bujamma), the interior is filled with classical music records, and the speakers in the cafe’s walls are probably the only ones in the country that are not playing KPOP. Located maybe fifteen minutes’ walking distance from the bus station, just to the left of the bridge facing Dongguk University.

4. Yeonhwa Baru (연화바루)

This is Korea’s vegetarian mecca, a restaurant that will serve you five, six, or seven courses of unbelievably delicious monk food for the rather appropriately high price of eighteen thousand won per person. The women who run this place couldn’t be nicer and are used to serving foreigners who got sick of samgyupsal years ago. The restaurant can be found just above the tomb of King Muyeol (무열왕릉), five or ten minutes from the bus station, and you may have to explain that to your taxi driver, as it’s so out of the way that they sometimes don’t quite know where it is. Another (mostly) vegetarian restaurant, Pyeong-sa-lee-ga-neun-gil (평사리가는길), can be found in nearby Chunghyo; except for a few thin slabs of pork on a single plate, their multiple-course and multiple-orgasm menu is meatless.

5. Jinpyeong’s Tomb (진평왕릉)

The large grass hill which possibly belongs to illustrious King Jinpyeong of the Silla Dynasty is located way out in the Bomun countryside, and is really excellent for all of those weary souls who are desperate to escape the mountains of garbage and the constant honking of the Korean megalopolis. Rice fields extend deep into the blue mountains, and frogs can be found in the grass. If you don’t have a car, make sure you get the number of a call taxi company so you don’t get stranded out here.

These trenches are full of frogs.

Drinking from these trenches will not enhance your experience.

6. The Hanja School, or Hyang-gyo (향교)

Lots of traditional weddings take place at this ancient structure, and they are all apparently open to the public. Last summer my wife and I randomly wandered into this place and were treated with free bam, or chestnuts, as well as shikay (식혜), a very tasty sweet malt rice drink. Follow the village musicians clashing their gongs through the Gyerim Forest, just past Chumsungdae (Asia’s first astronomical-observatory-cum-bread-oven), to get here.

Not the worst place to get hitched.

Not the worst place to get hitched.

7. The Gyeongju Cultural Center (경주문화원)

A collection of administrative buildings from the late Joseon period, when Gyeongju was Gyeongju-Eupseong, they later became Gyeongju’s first museum under the Japanese. Two enormous gingkos in the back are five centuries old, and there is also a tree that was planted a hundred years ago by the Crown Prince of Sweden, who visited the city and apparently discovered one of the Silla Crowns. The best Jeongshik restaurant in the city, Chung-ha Hanjeongshik (청하한정식) is located directly across from the entrance, where a very decent pescatarian meal can be had for six thousand won; if you wander around the neighborhood in the direction the train station you might also find the old city wall, which is connected to Gyerim Elementary School (계림초등학교). One of Korea’s only remaining colonial-era Zen temples is also nearby, as is our favorite traditional noodle place. Gooksheecheep (국시집) can be found across the street from Hungmoo Elementary School (흥무초등학교). The noodles there are both cheap and excellent, but the Park Chung-hee calendars on the walls are even better.

This place is overflowing with culture.

This place is overflowing with culture.

There’s at least a day of activities here, and you can enjoy all of them without being ogled, greeted, or catcalled by the crowds of bored Korean schoolchildren perennially getting dragged around to each of Gyeongju’s massive cultural sites. I lived in Busan for two years, and with the exception of Haeundae and Nampo I think that Gyeongju has a lot more to offer in a much smaller space.

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Pohang

Yesterday my wife and I embarked on a foolhardy journey from Gyeongju to Pohang, driving there in our new car to get me a driver’s license from the nearest Examination Office. This trip was remarkable for numerous reasons. The first was the distance: these two cities are so close that as soon as you leave one you enter the other, and even with my wife’s studiously cautious driving we managed to get there in under half an hour. I had assumed for no good reason that the distance was greater, and that the country itself was bigger, but by having a car the distances between places shrink down considerably, to the extent that if there were a bridge built from Busan to Japan—one can only dream!—the drive would probably not exceed a couple of hours.

The second was the blighted appearance of the countryside. I couldn’t take any pictures, as I was busy navigating using an excellent Korean map app, or maappp, which has magically convinced my wife that we don’t need to spend several hundred dollars on buying a computer to find the way for us—despite the smallness of Korea and the abundance of signs and turns, it’s rare to find a car without a singing talking beeping computer navigator mounted to the dashboard—but I can still describe the scene lain out for us: cement apartment buildings, gas stations, furniture outlets, an empty strip mall with posters left up for its grand opening back in November, strawberry farms with blue or black tarps spread over long half-cylindrical metal houses, and huge factories with bright blue rooftops and towering smokestacks billowing out white poison gas. Still, this was better than nearby Ulsan, where these smokestacks are actually on fire.

In short, beneath the mountains, every inch of land was being used for industry. I’d heard from someone else who works at my university that it’s illegal to own land in Korea without actually using it. Supposedly if you don’t make an effort to turn a profit from the land you own within a year or six months, if you don’t develop it, that land reverts to the government, which meant that this person in question (I’ve forgotten who it was) has to work on the farm he’s inherited from a recently-deceased relative, or hire someone else to work it for him, or else he’ll lose it.

Anyway, back to the trip. My wife told me that Pohang was a horrible place to live in, and I’d heard the same from several other friends who were stuck there for a few months. We arrived on a dreary rainy day and discovered that though we were on the outskirts of a substantial city of over half a million people it really seemed like there was no reason to go there. I had actually been to the city several times before over the years, visiting one of its garbage-strewn and refuse-choked beaches as well as hiking up around Bogyeong Temple, which would have been nice if there hadn’t been thousands of other people on the trail at the same time—but beyond this hike, which should probably be undertaken in the morning during a weekday to avoid the crowds of gawkers who are far more interested in Korean damsel-snatching foreign nationals than the beauty of their own country’s rapidly-diminishing countryside, Pohang appeared to be a place that is only inhabited by those who have few alternative options, as it seemed to possess nothing that is not already possessed in abundance by other Korean cities. We saw boxy clusters of cement apartment buildings and drove down roads lined by chain stores, all sad and dark in the smog and the rain.

We found the Examination Office in a place called Mundeok (or Moonduck), whose amusing name probably translates to Door of Virtue, and lost no time in arguing with the bureaucrats in residence: though my driver’s license information had been certified to be authentic by Maine’s Secretary of State, and even stamped, it still had not been apostilled—this bizarre word is the bane of foreign English teachers dwelling in Korea, as Korean employers can only legally recognize diplomas or other documents that are marked with its magical fraud-proof stamps—and so the officials, the bureaucrats, the uniformed ajummas who, as my wife said, would be working in that office for the rest of their lives, were unable to allow me to take the ridiculous Korean Written Driver’s test, which I had lost two days of precious life studying for, and we were forced to retreat, but not until after my wife demanded that the ajummas in question find a picture of the exact document that they required. They lost no time in using Korean search engines to do what they do worst: find things not directly related to Korea. It took them half an hour to print out and then hold up an apostille from Latvia, among other oddities; though I realized later that since Latvia and Korea are both signatories of the Hague Convention (which is where all of this apostille business originates), this document would be legally recognized here, and an apostille from Maine would probably look fairly similar.

We departed and lost most of the day for nothing. I went for a nice long hour-long run in the rain in an attempt to achieve something noteworthy for Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013, a day that will never return again to the universe, and while thinking about writing this blog post snapped a single picture along the way. This is what most of the drive basically looked like:

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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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This Project And Then The Next Project

I’m just sittin’ here wonderin’…what to work on next. My first novel about Korea is done, and will be published soon, either traditionally via paper or radically via internet or perhaps even both; there will be three novels total, of about a hundred and fifty pages each, and they will all include a photograph for each chapter, with some chapters being a paragraph long and others being dozens of pages, though all have interesting titles (“Opposite World”, “How Grandma Became A Shaman”, “The Hotel Of Insanity”) and the book itself was designed so that if you happened to pick it up (as though you could pick up an ebook!) and turn it to a random page, you would be sucked in at once, unable to put the thing back down again until you finished.

Here is a passage selected at random, I swear, to prove my point:

In a daze she walked the streets of Gyeongju, escorted by one of the dragons, who had transformed himself into King Aejang, though he had the face, tusks, and bristles of a wild boar, striding beside her in clashing jade armor. How would she break the news to her family? she wondered, scarcely noticing him. Where would she go after she abandoned them?

Whoa, what the hell is that! The first book is perhaps the best but also the most boring, and deals with my experiences in Korea—ah, alack!, how many times, O Internet, have I heard the weary expatriate exclaim, while sunken into the bosom of his near-native Korea, of the need to write or to act out his or her experiences there—O, how wearisome! The inside jokes! The common complaints one has both heard and expressed a thousand times!

I wanted to start a contest here, for those who have lived long enough in Korea to actually enjoy it, for writing the most newby-ish first impressions:

I’ve only been in Korea a few hours, and I just wanted to ask everyone—what’s that smell? And what’s up with these women? What are they called again? Ajummas? I just met my students and my co-teacher. The kids were really nice and laughed so hard at everything I said, and although my co-teacher kind of gave me the cold shoulder I’m sure everything will work out okay if I just reach out to her. I’m planning to go to this place called Itaewon where a lot of foreigners hang out. We’re going to eat this thing called samgyupsal or something and drink Korean beer. Should be interesting.

Etc.

The first book was an attempt to explode such lines. One drifts off to sleep as one hears them in Korea, shouted over the inane music of some trashy bar, murmured while pacing the green-bricked sidewalks, because they are inevitable, and everyone thinks them sooner or later for good reason. I have spoken and written them numerous times.

The second book concerns a few weeks in Indochina, recently parodied in the latest edition of the New Yorker (to my obscene relief: if the New Yorker and I are both putting out the same kind of stuff, I must be doing something right, right? (though naturally her piece is more polished)), as well as sundry interesting stories related to my wife’s family, extending back into the mists of farthest antiquity; while the third book is about our adventurous life together. These two latter books are at least in their second draft form and merely require me to go over each word a few hundred more times, altering, deleting, adding, and beefing up, wherever my eye stops or lags as I peruse.

They are all obviously meant to get your attention and to distract you, to excite your interest, amusement, and discomfortable disgust.

But after I’ve published them on amazon and the iBookstore and after they’ve made, at best, a few hundred dollars, as well as a few vicious one-paragraph reviews (“like The Dog Farm but more annoying and pretentious”)—this I will consider the equivalent of blockbuster success, going to my grave content at having produced both a biological offspring as well as a literary one, passing on my genes (though I am really theirs) in the form of words and cells.

The question then comes: where next shall I turn my pen? I cannot rest on these astounding laurels, not even for one moment! An old friend once told me to have the next project ready before I finish the current one, lest I slip into a depressed state and spend my days creating nothing, as I once did for six miserable months. As I’ve been a writer for a very long time now, with plenty of unfinished projects left in my past; as I just re-picked up the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline And Fall, otherwise known as the best motherfucking book ever (they should put this blurb on the cover of all future editions), and was inspired to try and rewrite the story of the extraordinary Max Thrax, the titanic barbarian who ruled the Roman Empire for a few years; nobody really liked the last version I wrote, and nobody really liked the novel about colonizing another planet that I also wrote (spending a year on each), but I will not cease to annoy so long as I draw breath. It might be better for me if I were simply content to produce finished products for myself alone, and it is true that almost all of the writing I do is done merely because it’s harder not to write than to write (to quote Tolstoy for the thousandth time), but where’s the thrill in that?

What indeed is the point of putting a photo up on facebook if no one is going to give me a red number and “like” it? We are social creatures! Or, as a professorial monk said while I stupidly edited his ridiculous academic paper for free (he ignored all of my non-grammatical concerns with his ideas (“If only everyone could be monks, then everything would be great!”) and his sloppy methodology (“Everyone knows that global warming is happening! Who needs even one source to prove it?”))—We ah leebeng een duh guhlobal beelleejee!

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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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