One Night in Russia with a Bunch of Damn Crazy People

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blog executive loungeI was only supposed to be in Moscow for three hours. This was my connecting flight – from Seoul to Moscow, from Moscow to London. I wasted time eating candy bars and trying to fix my hair in the bathroom mirror, unaware that I would end up getting stuck in the Moscow airport forever, seemingly living there like Edward Snowden. There were lots of Russian people and Chinese people walking around the airport and none of them were wearing red, which I found disappointing.

A mere twenty minutes before my flight, I got into the queue, looking at my watch and wondering why we’d missed the scheduled boarding time so badly. There was a short American girl in front of me with long brown hair. “I heard somebody say that the flight’s been canceled,” she said, shaking her head. “God I hope not.”

I agreed, as I’m sure everyone else would have too if they heard her. I highly doubted there would be anyone who’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind it. Today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, whenever. I’m in no rush. Not like London’s going anywhere!”

Some more time passed and then we were all led away from the flight deck and into a large empty waiting area. We were told that there was a problem at Heathrow and all flights had been canceled. So that was that. We would be spending one night in Russia, in a hotel next to the airport. There was a process though that would take some time, because they had to give us special visas or something to that effect, make sure we weren’t secret agents sent in from the West to find and rescue Pussy Riot.

“This is ridiculous!” the girl with brown hair shouted. “How long are we going to be stuck in this waiting room?”

Hours, it turned out. The Russians collected our passports and disappeared with them. We were told that we had to stay in the waiting area and, as the name of the area implied, wait. Time ticked away and little by little everyone started losing their minds, yelling at the poor blonde lady working at the desk or voicing their displeasure into the empty air.

“This is incompetence!” some dude hollered. “Either get me to the hotel or let me out of this waiting room!”

“Where is my passport?” a lady complained. “Where did he go with it? I am so unhappy right now! I want my passport back!”

Tension filled the room like the smell of rotting vegetables constantly fills my apartment. People’s moods got worse and worse, their faces drenched with sweat and hatred. It was like being stuck in the control room of the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only not with Kennedy, but with a bunch of lunatics who didn’t know what the heck to do except complain about the Russians.

“This is the worst airport I’ve ever experienced!” someone announced. “I’m never coming here again!”

Well, why would you? Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker, originating from a new airport worker, a tall man standing behind the counter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we apologize for the inconvenience. As a token of our apology, we will be offering free passes for the Executive Business Lounge to our passengers bound for Heathrow. Please come up to the desk and claim your passes.”

In the blink of an eye, the rage evaporated. People rushed to the counter to get their passes to the Executive Business Lounge located inside the airport terminal with the sort of enthusiasm I would have had if they were offering free shots of vodka. Furious frowns disappeared. Shouts of hatred ceased. The Executive Lounge had turned this angry mob into a bunch of bizarrely happy and content individuals. The waiting area, in an instant, had become Whoville on Christmas.

"Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!"

“Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!”

“This is great!”

“I’ve never been in the Business Lounge!”

I stood there and stared. What the hell was wrong with these people? Is that all it took, some passes to the airport business lounge, to appease them? Five minutes ago they were ready to loot the place and hang the blonde desk woman from the rafters, and now they had huge smiles on their faces, as if they were going to break into song and dance. For some reason I pictured them singing “It’s Raining Men” of all songs. Hallelujah. The passports came back and we were given a choice of going to the hotel or spending the night in the business lounge. I went for the hotel while others filed out, dancing their way to the lounge.

The next morning I returned to the airport and saw the girl with the brown hair.

“Did you go to the hotel?” I asked.

“No, business lounge.”

“How was it?”

Her hair was all messy and there were bags under her eyes. “It wasn’t anything special.”

We boarded the plane and headed off to London. I hoped that the stewardesses had some upgrade passes to First Class, just in case somebody tried to hijack the plane and had to be persuaded not to.

*

Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

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chinese thanksgiving oneThree days after Thanksgiving, I sat down on my computer and typed “why are there no turkeys in Asia?” into Google. This had been bothering me a lot. For the last two years, my Thanksgivings have been filled with odd turkey substitutes, strange stand-ins, as a Butterball turkey has become about as rare a delicacy as foie gras or steamed caterpillars. Last year, my girlfriend cooked me a fatty duck steak; this year, my Thanksgiving dinner was headlined by leg of lamb.

But that wasn’t all. Earlier in the week, pizza delivery had helped me understand the true nature of Thanksgiving. Nestle (pronounced like the chocolate) – my boss at the school in China where I work – had called a full staff meeting on Monday. “We know that Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she said, “and that this is an important holiday for our foreign teachers. To celebrate, the school will be getting pizza delivered for lunch.”

It was an awesome gesture on Nestle’s part. True to her word, there were six large pizzas waiting for us in the break room on Thanksgiving, all nicely laid out the same way I imagine the pilgrims set up their spread of corn, apple pie, and canned cranberry sauce. The Chinese teachers seemed excited, smiling graciously as we all greedily snatched up chicken wings and slices of pepperoni pizza. Miss Wang, who supervises the foreign teachers, snapped picture after picture, as though she was documenting something that would one day appear in a Chinese history book.

chinese thanksgiving twoChowing down on my third piece of pizza, I stopped to notice what was going on. All the Chinese teachers were there, drinking Coca-cola and munching pizza alongside the teachers from America. It dawned on me that this, as odd as it may sound, was what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. It was just like the corny stories we’d been taught forever, the Native Americans and the pilgrims all sharing food and celebrating. The same thing was happening before my very eyes, and it wasn’t even going to end with one side massacring the other and taking their land. Two races of people had become bonded, side-by-side, a big happy family, enjoying life together and gaining weight.

A Chinese woman with a huge smile on her face appeared, holding a digital camera. “Wow!” Miss Wang said. “We need to all pose together. This is the woman who runs the school website. She will take a picture of us.”

Focused on my fourth piece of pizza, I slammed the crust into my mouth and chewed on it while the website lady took a bunch of pictures. Part of me felt bitter about this, the photographs making me feel other, an outsider. Look at the foreign people eating their pizza, how precious! I mean, you don’t see me following Miss Wang into a Chinese restaurant and photographing her eating Kung Pao Chicken, do you? I started to wonder if this was in fact a real Thanksgiving or if it was just a photo op, something the school would use to promote itself. Were the smiles real or fake? Was the intention to graciously provide for us, or simply to create promotional material that would, possibly, help the school recruit better teachers who would, in turn, take our jobs?

I shrugged. The intentions didn’t matter – this was about people and everyone was having fun. Maybe the story of Thanksgiving is really just the narrative version of a photo op anyways, and if there were cameras back in the day, that first Thanksgiving would’ve been full of posing and posturing as well. I felt thankful that this wasn’t the case. All the old photographs I’ve ever seen of Native Americans make them look tough and mysterious. My impression of them as a people just wouldn’t be the same if there was, in existence, a snapshot of Sitting Bull with a big chunk of green bean casserole stuck in his teeth.

That doesn’t exist on the Internet, and neither does an explanation for the whereabouts of the turkeys in Asia. All my Google search brought up was a bunch of pages telling me why a turkey, as in the bird, has the same name as Turkey, the country. It’s because the British bought the birds from Turkish merchants, and believed they had been imported from Turkey (although they were actually from Madagascar). So it was all a stupid mistake on the part of the white man, exactly like calling the Native Americans “Indians.”

I guess a name is only a word, and its significance is what you make of it. Just like how Nestle and Miss Wang could happily call a bunch of pizzas in the break room “Thanksgiving,” or how I could call all the people eating beside me “family” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

*

She Dreams of Snakes and Bites Herself

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snake-AmyZhung Zhung comes to work with a swollen lip.

“What happened?” I ask her.

“Last night I had a bad dream,” she says. “It was horrifying. In the dream, I was crying. And then when I woke up, it was very sticky around my eyes. So I must have been really crying too, just like I was in the dream.”

“That must’ve been a very upsetting dream,” I say. “What was it about?”

“Snakes.”

“Snakes?”

“Yes. They were attacking me and biting me. Now my lip is puffy. I must have bitten down on it during the dream.”

This interests me because I’ve never had a dream like that. I’ve never been attacked by snakes or spiders or a pack of dingoes, nothing. I’m not sure what it says about my subconscious. Maybe I subconsciously trust animals, like dogs instinctively trust humans. Or maybe I just feel very safe in life, out of harms way. I find myself stupidly envious of Zhung Zhung.

I want to be attacked by animals in my dreams, too.

Later, she tells me more. “In a dream,” she says, “a snake is a metaphor.”

“For what?” I ask, although I think I know the answer (penis).

“A baby,” she tells me. “People say that snakes in dreams represent babies. That’s why I was very happy about my dream. It could mean that I will have a baby soon.”

“That’s interesting,” I say, nodding, positive that a snake in a dream does not represent a baby.

“But my roommate,” she continues, “says that a snake in a dream is really a metaphor for something else. She says that the snake means there is somebody that has a crush on me. I think that could be true. There could be somebody with a crush on me.”

After some more talk on her dream, I shake my head and say, “Really, though, isn’t the most important thing about your dream…isn’t it that these snakes were attacking you? Isn’t that even more important that what exactly they represent?”

“Why?” she asks.

“Well, it means either you’re going to be attacked by someone who has a crush on you, or you’re going to give birth to a baby, and it’s going to attack you.”

Zhung Zhung looks at me funny. She doesn’t say anything else, just thinks sullenly about her impending doom and bites back down on her swollen lip.

*

And In Your Bank, I Deposit My Sanity

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blog bank piggy bankSometimes I think about how much simpler life was when I was a kid. There were so many things back then that I didn’t have to worry about. Paying taxes, watching the height of my cholesterol rise, getting hair on my nipples, impotence, and, most importantly, having to remember a million passwords. When you’re a kid, a password is just some random noun that you have to mutter to get your friend to let you in his tree house.

“You want in? What’s the secret password?”

“Bagel sandwich.”

Bam. You’re in. That’s all it took. But then I got older, and passwords got increasingly more complicated. I started needing passwords for just about everything. My email, my WordPress account, online banking, my ATM card, the electronic lock on my door, stopping Gort from destroying the earth. Everything. And not only were passwords becoming more prevalent, they were getting more involved as well. A simple noun or a sequence numbers didn’t cut it anymore. Nope, for my own protection, passwords must include capital letters, numbers, and at least 8 characters, so that hacking into my Facebook page has become as difficult as cracking the Da Vinci Code or getting a girl’s phone number (for me anyways). In the future, one can only guess that passwords will get even more complex, requiring everything from punctuation to emoticons to strange symbols.

“You want in? What’s the secret password?”

“Oh. It’s Bill/198228/!?!/ ; ) /The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

All of this is to preface how I recently lost my mind in the bank, and all because I forgot a stupid password. I’d been living in Beijing for about a month when it happened. After getting my first paycheck from my new job, I ran off to the ATM to cash in, thrilled, ready to pull money out and do something awesome with it, like go to McDonald’s or buy a mop. I switched the ATM from Chinese to English and followed the instructions, not realizing that soon the horrors of modern security would entrap me, like a fat man who puts an alarm system on his jar of Slim Jims.

“Invalid Pin,” the machine said. I got two more chances, and then the machine cut me off.

“What? I only get three shots?” I said to myself. “I was just warming up.”

blog bank pin numberThe next day, the same scene repeated. Thus, I found myself sitting in Bank of China, a paper slip in my hand with a number on it, waiting to see a bank teller who probably spoke no English. Three hours passed. Finally they called me up. “Hi,” the bank teller said, “Please show me your passport.”

“Oh,” I said, “I, um, don’t have it.”

And that was the end of that. Back on the bus, a total failure. But I returned to the bank the next day, this time equipped with my passport. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours once, shame on you. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours twice, then you have a lot in common with the last two Lord of the Rings movies. Anyways, I ended up waiting a mere hour and a half on the second trip, before finally being called up to the teller.

(Apparently banks in China have notoriously poor service, due to the fact that they’re all government run. This leads to them being seriously understaffed and not particularly motivated by the ‘customer is always right’ mantra.)

“Nee Hao!” I said, enthusiastically. Then I tried to explain what was going on.

The teller was baffled. She called over the manager, who could speak some English. “What is the problem?” she asked.

“Well, it’s my fault, really. I can’t seem to remember my pin number.”

“I see,” she said, motioning to a keypad on the counter in front of me. “We can help you change it. Just type your pin number on the keypad.”

“Um, but that’s the problem. I don’t know it.”

She looked confused. “You don’t know it? Try to guess.”

I typed in a few numbers, again failing miserably. “Can’t you look it up in the computer or something?”

The manager practically burst out laughing at this suggestion. “It is your secret number. How are we supposed to know what it is?”

I stared at her like she was crazy, and she stared at me like I was crazy. “Because you’re the bank. You’ve got to have the number on file someplace…”

The teller twisted the computer screen to show me. “See?” the manager said. “In our computer system, in the password spot, it just says xxxxxx.”

“So how do I change it?”

“You can only change your password by typing in the original password.”

“What? This can’t be happening. Don’t you have a procedure for what happens when someone forgets their password?”

“No.”

“But this has to have happened before? Are you telling me that nobody has ever forgotten their password before?”

“No,” she said. “You are the only one.”

She really said that, and she was serious. It was not a sarcastic statement. We decided, finally, that I would have to fill out a form declaring my card lost (or something to that effect), and in one week the bank would be able to wipe the pin number out of the system and replace it. “Fine,” I said. “While I’m here, though, I’ll need to withdraw some money.”

“That’s impossible.”

blog bank bail out“Huh?” I was beginning to get upset. I told myself to keep cool. “I have no food. I need to eat. What do you mean it’s impossible?”

“It is impossible to withdraw money without putting your pin number in.”

“But I’m here,” I said, my voice wavering with desperation. “I have my ID. Here’s my passport. You know it’s me. Are you seriously saying I can’t have my own money because I forgot the pin number?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I cannot let you withdraw from your account unless you type in correct number. It is for security.”

The next twenty minutes were not the proudest moments of my life. I yelled. I demanded my money. I lectured the manager on the nature of passwords, how they’re supposed to stand in for identification when there’s just a machine there, nothing that can look at a person’s proper ID, and how this was insanity, the importance of the pin surpassing my being there, in physical form, me, my body and face, my real identity. Who was I? Had I become some number in a computer that nobody knew? I shouted until the security people came over. Five o’clock came and the bank closed. I refused to leave. I accused them of stealing my money. I had to eat and they were killing me. Again and again I waved my passport around and stated my name.

What did it matter? I’d lost the key, forgotten the combination to my locker, and I eventually left the bank with my head held low. Defeated. Rejected. Over a month would pass before the bank finally resolved the forgotten pin number problem. In that time I did what any person living in the modern world would do, and I put every last living expense I incurred on my credit card. See, MasterCard believes it’s really me…as long as someone keeps paying them every month.

I sat in my apartment after the bank incident and thought about things. I could lose my passport, have my face sawed off in a terrible carpentry accident, change my name to Cap’n Crunch, and none of that would make much of a difference, not as long as I kept track of all my usernames and passwords. A digital version of me had taken my place, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if I woke up one morning and I was gone, replaced, by some sort of computerized file.

What if the entire universe is based on code, and most of us just don’t know it? The cure for cancer, the key to finding love after forty, the secret to losing back fat – they probably all exist, somewhere, and are just very powerfully password protected.

*

The Strange Spot On This Planet That I Call Home

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Back in November, I interviewed for a job in Beijing, China. Two weeks later, I’d signed a contract. A few months after that, I was on a plane to Beijing Capital International Airport. What greeted me – the place where I found myself – let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. Yesterday was nice and sunny and so I went for a stroll and took some pictures. And thus I present to you my new home, for better or for worse. Cheers!

This is the outside of the campus where my apartment is. Right off the bat, I want to say that my school is pretty awesome and that I really believe there's some good edumacating going on here. The job is, in all honesty, pretty dope.

This is the outside of the campus where my apartment is. Right off the bat, I want to say that my school is quite awesome and that I really believe there’s some good stuff going on. It’s a school I’m proud to be teaching at. Yes.

In front of the campus is a two lane highway. A public bus comes about one every ten minutes. Apart from the bus and some cars, the area is pretty open and empty.

What follows is my journey any time I wish to go off campus. Out in front of the school is a two lane highway. A public bus comes about once every ten minutes. Apart from the bus and some cars, the area is really empty.

Evidence of emptiness.

Evidence of emptiness.

The bus takes about 15 minutes to get into town and stops running at 7:30 pm. Now, if I don't feel like taking the bus into town, there is a village. It's a short walk. Here are the stairs that mark the starting point.

The bus takes about 15 minutes to get into town (not downtown Beijing, that takes 90 minutes) and stops running at 7:30 pm. Now, if I don’t feel like taking the bus into town, there is a village. It’s a short walk. Here are the stairs that mark the starting point.

Up the stairs, and down the winding path through the trees.

Up the stairs, and down the winding path through the trees.

Four minutes through the trees bring us to an exit. The village is close.

Four minutes through the trees brings us to an exit. The village is close.

Now it's a walk down this stretch of road. Again, this isn't the Beijing I had pictured. But, like anywhere, one gets used to the surroundings. Especially when there's a random head by the side of the road.

Now it’s a walk down this stretch of road. Again, this isn’t the Beijing I had pictured. But, like anywhere, one gets used to the surroundings. Especially when there’s a random head by the side of the road.

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We've finally reached the village. Hurray!

We’ve finally reached the village. Hurray!

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Here is the grocery store. There are always dogs outside...

Here is the grocery store. There are always dogs outside…

...and exciting rides for kids.

…and exciting rides for kids.

In all seriousness, the village is pretty depressing. It's an extremely poor area. Last semester, my school brought in children from the village's elementary school, so that the wealthy kids attending my school could talk to them and learn about their lives. My school planned to involve the kids from the village more this semester, but we were told that the elementary school in the village was shut down. Closed. No one seems to know what the children in the village are currently doing during the day.

In all seriousness, the village is pretty depressing. It’s an extremely poor area. Last semester, my school brought in children from the village’s elementary school, so that the wealthy kids attending my school could talk to the village kids and learn about their lives. My school planned to involve them more this semester, but we were told that the elementary school in the village was shut down. Closed. No one seems to know why, or what the village kids are doing now that they don’t have a school.

Village barber shop. Reminiscent of Super Cuts.

Village barber shop. Reminiscent of Super Cuts.

Probably it's needless to say that I wasn't to pleased to be living here at first. But I'm getting into it. It's okay. Here's Mickey Mouse. At Disney World, they say it's a small world after all. That isn't really true. The world isn't small at all, but when you stay in one certain place long enough, I can see how it feels that way.

Probably it’s needless to say that I wasn’t too pleased to be living here at first. But I’m getting into it. It’s okay, nothing to complain about. Here’s Mickey Mouse. At Disney World, they say it’s a small world after all. That isn’t really true. The world isn’t small at all, but when you stay in one certain place long enough, I can see how it feels that way.

Tension and Fury with the Elderly on the Seoul Subway

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blog subway fightPart One – In Which I Bash an Old Lady with a Suitcase

The Seoul subway is packed, just like always, and, also like always, I’m in a shitty mood. It’s mid-January and I’m headed to the airport, on my way to Hong Kong, a giant green suitcase containing half of my worldly possessions by my side, ready to make the trip with me. To get to the subway train, I must go down a staircase. I lift my suitcase, carrying it with both hands like a battering ram, and head down the stairs, taking the first step at the exact moment the train arrives. Approximately 8 million people get off the train and start walking up the staircase, flooding it, a tidal wave of Asians, coming right at me.

I sigh. I’m hugging the wall on the right hand side, as I feel I should be. One would think the people going up would do the same, two lanes, street traffic, headed in opposite directions, but they’re not. They’re spread out. This doesn’t deter me. I put my head down, the green suitcase held out before me, and walk with great speed, gaining inertia as I descend.

“Excuse me!” I yell. “Coming through!”

People duck out of the way, dodging me and muttering angry things in Korean. At least they’re moving, and I’m getting close to the bottom. But then I see an old woman, right in my path, walking up the stairs while texting. Why is an old woman texting? Why hasn’t technology passed her by, and who the hell is she talking too? Probably the retirement home, to tell them she’s escaped. She’s completely oblivious. It’s like a game a chicken and one person is asleep behind the wheel.

“Watch out!” I shout. That seems more pleasant than, “Move, bitch, get out the way!” The old woman continues towards me with her head down. I decide not to veer off, as I have heavy luggage and she should be the one that moves, and we collide. The suitcase wallops her good. She staggers to the side a bit and lets out a furious scream, shocked by what’s happened. I respond by saying “Pay attention!” and then make my way to the end of the staircase.

I don’t look back. It wasn’t my fault.

Maybe she’s learned a lesson about the dangers of texting. Or I’ve given Old Lady 21st Century something to blog about. Because she probably has a blog, with an upcoming entry called, “The Damn White Bastard Motherfucker.”

blog subway fight twoPart Two – Things Get Tense with an Old Man

Mid February. Back in the subway station, a black suitcase this time, containing the second half of my worldly possessions. Another flight, the last leg of the move. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the train, my suitcase beside me like a son (in a bag, I dunno). There’s no one else in the general area and I’m poised to drag my luggage right onto the train when it comes. And then another person appears.

He’s old, probably in his sixties, with wrinkled skin and an Oakland A’s cap. Despite the fact that I’m obviously first in line, the old man doesn’t fall into place behind me, but instead stands directly next to me. I start to feel tense. There’s no reason for this – it isn’t crowded. Why can’t he just let me and my luggage get on the train first? I know that he’ll push his way by me. It’s happened a million times before with these old Asians. I grit my teeth. There’s no way I’m letting him ahead of me.

The train arrives, doors open. I pick up my suitcase and start heading on. The old man goes darts forward, and I feel his body press up against me, trying to push his way past. I guess I could simply let him go, but that’s ludicrous, and instead I position myself in front of him, cutting off his path. He doesn’t yield. Pushes harder.

That’s it. I’m pissed.

blog subway fight threeI turn and put my hand directly in the center of his chest and shove him back. “Stop it, God damn it!” Like the old woman I bashed with the suitcase, he’s shocked. I make my way onto the train and he steps on after me with hate in his eyes and his jaw agape. “Can’t you wait a second?” I say. I’m sure he doesn’t know a word of English but I don’t care. “I’m getting on the train. Don’t fucking push me.”

Riding the train, I start thinking. Really, if I’m honest with myself, standing on the platform before the train came, I was kind of hoping he would try to push past me. I wanted to do something, make a stand, just as I wanted that old lady to keep walking up the staircase so I could ram her with my suitcase. In truth, I was sick of Koreans being rude on the subway, and I was salivating at the opportunity to confront someone.

“My God,” I thought, “I’m like the George Zimmerman of the Seoul subway.”

Sometimes, standing up against something, be it thieves in the neighborhood or rude people on the subway, becomes a matter of personal need, an action waiting for a target. Maybe I shouldn’t have been such an asshole on the subway. I looked up at the monitor to see where I was.

Dorimcheon. I looked back at the old man and hung my head in shame.

I’d gotten on the wrong damn train.

*

I Don’t Want To Shower, I Don’t Want To Blog, And I Don’t Want To Eat Brain

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blog showerI could feel the funk settling in. My floor was littered with unwashed clothes, and I hadn’t showered in two days. That’s the thing about depression – there are generally signs of it everywhere. See, depression doesn’t sneak up on you like Oscar Pistorious’ girlfriend on Valentine’s Day; it slowly makes itself at home. One day you sleep until noon but shrug it off. Then, before you know it, you haven’t shaved in two weeks and you’re suddenly listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell.

Well, at least that’s what happened to me. Relocating to China was beginning to wear me down, bum me out. Moving someplace new, really, is a lot like buying a porn magazine. Sure, the new issue of “Juggs” is thrilling for a day or two, but pretty quickly it gets boring, depressing to own, and you want it to go away. So was the case with China, at least in the early stages. The first few days were fun, but then I didn’t want to see its breasts any more, metaphorically speaking.

“Hey,” I said on the phone, calling one of the school coordinators, “I don’t mean to complain, but I can’t get any hot water in the shower.”

“Oh, you know it gets turned off, right?” she responded.

“No, I had no idea. What time does it get turned off?”

“7:30 AM.”

As soon as the number left her mouth, I knew I would not be showering again. Sure, getting up at that time would be fine when classes began. Until then, while the school was on vacation and I wasted the two weeks away memorizing the lyrics to “Blue” and attempting to feel better about myself by watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” there would be no way I’d be able to wake in time for the hot water. No, I would become dirty and disgusting, like a homeless person or someone vacationing with Carnival Cruise Lines. I considered my options – taking a cold shower or investing in a good bottle of cologne and bathing in the style of so many great Italians before me – and decided to just sleep more.

blog firewallWriting this blog also seemed impossible. The Great Firewall of China was proving to be a greater foe than I had anticipated. Without exaggerating, I seriously spent about 10 hours trying to put a stupid Mitch Hedberg picture in my AIDS post, getting kicked offline by the proxy server over and over again. “Son of a bitch!” I shouted. “When I read there were Internet blocks in China, I didn’t expect that to apply to me!”

And then there was food. It took about a week to find a grocery store that stocked it. Finally I did, and I ran back home with delight, having purchased a whole chicken, cooked rotisserie style. I got home and cut it up with kitchen scissors. Starving, I devoured it. At one point, I was trying to gnaw the flesh off some part of the chicken – what appeared to be a wing – and was having trouble. I took the chicken from my lips and looked at it.

“What the hell is this?” I thought. Right after that I rotated it in my fingers, like it was back on the rotisserie, the image turning right side up, and that’s about the time my heart stopped. “Dear God…it’s the head!”

blog chicken headYes, apparently the head of the chicken is not removed in the grocery store, and I had been nibbling on it. It was a horrifying sight to behold. Brown, soft and gelatinous, its empty eye socket stared up at me. “Fuckin’ shit!” I screamed, throwing its face back down onto my plate. It had to go, immediately. I grabbed a fork and thrust it down upon the chicken head, puncturing it through one of its eye sockets. Dinner had turned into a nightmare, and there was a gooey brown head on the end of my fork like a piece of fudge brownie from hell.

Afterwards, the chicken head flushed down the toilet, I sat on the bed and shook. I felt like a murderer. Terrible thoughts ran through my head. I pictured purchasing a bucket of KFC and opening it to find Colonel Sanders’ decapitated head inside.

Thankfully, things started getting better. Just as depression is quite apparent at its onset, it’s easy to tell when it’s left too. Things began to make sense and a new routine started to form. Plus, I got my passport back, which meant a quick trip to Korea to see my wonderful girlfriend, and if anything can get a guy over the self-loathing that comes from having eaten something’s scalp, love can.

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8 Cool Things I Will Miss About Korea

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korea milkisThis coming Tuesday, I will get on a plane and leave South Korea, where I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years. All in all, they’ve probably been the most important years of my life, as I’ve grown into a better, stranger person, and I’ve met all kinds of interesting and unique people. Looking back on my time here, I compiled a short list of 8 essential things that I will most certainly miss when I leave the land of Milkis and Kimchi.

korae pomato1. Pomato – Pomato is like a little Korean fast food chain with restaurants all over Seoul. It’s awesome. For four bucks, I can get a wicked bowl of tofu soup. Pork cutlets, kimbap, pig intestines – you name it, Pomato got it. Plus the staff of unfriendly middle aged ladies gives it a good atmosphere.

korea smoking2. Smoking – Despite violent anti-smoking protests like the one pictured to the left, there’s smoking all over the place in Korea. Everybody smokes and cigarettes are super cheap. In December, an anti-smoking ban was passed, outlawing smoking in certain places (like large establishments), but I was out last night, and as I chain smoked in the warmth and comfort of several bars, I saw no difference between now and the way things were pre-smoking ban. That’s good, because it’s really cold and I would not want to go outside and compromise my health.

korea heated toilet3. Heated Toilet Seats – They might have these everywhere, but I never experienced one before moving to Korea. It really is like sitting on a thrown, and the feeling of having your badonkadonk warmed is vastly underrated. I hope everyone one day gets to use a heated toilet seat – as soon as I realized my school had one, I knew exactly what I was doing during break time.

korea dong dong ju4. Dong Dong Ju – This is a Korean liquor that is served in a big cauldron with a scoop.  It’s quite strong and tastes a bit like Milkis (carbonated milk drink). They make it from rice and a white person like me gets to feel hip and cultured drinking it while sitting on the floor in an Asian establishment.

korea animal5. Korean Animal Words – Knowing how to say the names of animals in another language is fun! “Go yang ee” means cat; “Kang a gee” is puppy. “Saja” is lion; “Nakta” means camel. My favorite is “Toki,” which means rabbit. Furthermore, cats go “yowng yowng” instead of meow, and dogs say “mung mung.” On another note, Jesus is not called Jesus, but “Yay Su.” That’s good to know, in case you’d like to use the Lord’s name in vain in multiple languages.

korea black noodle6. Korean Chinese Food – It’s delicious. Absolutely delicious. The typical Chinese dish consists of noodles in a black bean sauce served with sweet and sour pork. Odd sidebar: There’s “Black Day” in Korea, which is like Valentine’s Day for single people, and the tradition is that people eat Chinese black noodles to celebrate how miserable single life is.

korea bunny bow7. Ridiculous Head Ware – Korean girls like to coordinate. Super short skirt? Check. High heels? Check. Bunny ears? Oh yeah. Check mate. Bows, ear hoodies, lamb hoodies – these are the tools Korean girls use to find a man and avoid having to eat the dreaded black noodles.

korea north korea8. North Korea – Just because they’re funny.

That’s today’s list of awesome things that I will miss. Tune in next time, when I will present my grouchy list of things that I will be glad to escape!

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Won Seok Wonka and the Krazee Kimchi Factory

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I remember that time. It still exists in my head, kept well, the memory’s shelves dusted and lawn trimmed. Everything was bizarre. Fan death, the idea that an oscillating fan could steal your breath and kill you in your sleep. Double eyelid tape, butt pads, skin whitener. Ordering a live octopus and having it cut up with scissors, then chewing up the severed tentacles as they wiggled around like inchworms. Hooker karaoke, intestine soup, black goat tonic. Men who looked prettier than some of the girls I’ve dated, and women who wore super short miniskirts in snowstorms. Rice wine, soju, neon lights and vomit on the street. Electronic music – Fantastic Baby! – and schools that required students to bring their own toilet paper.

This was the Korea I stepped in to. One second I was on a plane, listening to Boston’s Greatest Hits (favorite track: Peace of Mind), the next minute I was in some anime dream sequence, like I’d pulled a golden ticket and was shipped off to Won Seok Wonka’s Krazee Kimchi Factory. If an orange-faced-green-haired midget approached me in a bar two weeks after I’d gotten to Korea, I don’t know that I would’ve batted an eye.

“Oompa Gangnam Style!” the Korean Oompa Loompa would have shouted, and I would’ve just nodded and gone with it. The place was fun and freaky. They buried live pigs and ate dogs, got surgical procedures to increase the slope of their forehead and committed copy-cat-suicide if a favorite celebrity took his or her own life.

But lately, shit just ain’t the same. I walk around a Korea that hasn’t changed one bit since I arrived here over two years ago. It’s drab, depressing. Things like rampant alcoholism, which seemed real rock ‘n’ roll when I got here, now seems sad. Like it’s not a good thing. Even all the beautiful girls bum me out. They’re doll-like, manufactured, assembly line. The neon lights don’t seem so bright anymore. It rains a lot and nobody looks at each other on the subway.

Two years might do that to a place. Korea, it seems, has lost its weird appeal. The place seems downright normal. We’ve spent lots of time together and I’ve seen it without its make-up.

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Every now and then I go to the bank and wire money back to the USA. My girlfriend asks me why I do this. It’s actually not a bad question. “Well,” I’ll say, “that’s my main bank account. I’m sending money home.”

Home. The use of the phrase is a turn-off, like how most women react to the dreaded c-word. She makes a good argument. I haven’t been to the US in over two years, and I don’t plan to return any time soon. I don’t have anything there, no house or home or friend’s basement where my record collection and blow up doll have been keeping each other company for the past 800 days. Nothing’s waiting for me, with the exception of some bill collectors, and I’m in no hurry to finally meet them.

The thing is, I try to tell her, I have to have someplace to belong to. I don’t want to think of myself as transient, nomadic, a man with no home like Marco Polo or Woody Guthrie. And it feels funny to refer to the US as something other than “home.” It’s sort of similar to when I was 19 and living in an apartment with four of my friends. On Sunday mornings, I’d jump in my car and tell them I had to go “home,” and when I said that, I meant my parents’ house. The apartment was temporary. I still had a room dedicated to my existence at my parents’ house, and as long as that room was still there, not being used as a library or a shrine to the Buffalo Bills, then God damnit that was the place I’d call home. Sure felt more like it then the mattress on the floor I slept on in the apartment.

But the room in my parents’ house eventually let go of me – I was replaced by a new computer.  It seems like my American bank account is the new version of the room I grew up in. It’s what makes the US still my home. My parents kept my Elvis Costello poster and my suit, the only one I owned, a blue ensemble that I would call on once or twice a year, and the bank account keeps all my money for me.

It’s about the same, just slightly less sentimental.

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I’ll never call Korea “home.” I could live here for the next 20 years (which is a ridiculous notion – I’ll never live that long) and I still wouldn’t feel like anything other than a tourist. Which, after some thinking, I’ve decided is mostly by my own choosing.

For all my plans to avoid the US, I still know what’s going on there. I read Huffington Post and other similarly slanted news sites daily and make too many political posts on Facebook. I watch the Oscar movies every year. I know what’s on the Billboard charts and get nervous when bad storms hit New York. In short, I still care about what’s happening in the USA. I’m interested.

And Korea? As groovy as the place is, I just don’t care that much about what happens here. The presidential election is this month, and I have no idea who’s running. I don’t even know what the issues might be. I don’t study the language and I avoid the entertainment like it’ll give me angina. I’m bored with hearing about the culture. I have no clue as to what’s happening in the news. Why? Because, bottom line, I don’t give a shit.

Home might be where the heart is, but it’s also where the head is. Wait, let’s change that – it sounds dirty. Home is also where one’s interest is. You would think, logically, that when the weirdness wears off a place, when things stop being polite and start getting real, that it would be a signal you’ve found a place to call home. But it doesn’t always work that way.

There’s a different feeling after the novelty is gone, I guess. I might not have a home, but I’m not really lost. This place, conversely, has lost me.

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On Leaving Korea: Hands Off My Mayo, Punk

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The broccoli in Korea has vanished. I’m not sure where the hell it went, but it’s gone. For the past two weeks, the area of my grocery store that used to be home to the broccoli has vacated, as though the broccoli packed its things and headed West, in search of a new place to live where it won’t always have to play second fiddle to kimchi. It didn’t go alone, either. The broccoli apparently convinced the salsa and green olives to go with it. Everything in the grocery store seems to have disappeared. There’s no chicken and I can’t even find the brand of tuna I like. Sometimes I walk into the grocery store, throw my arms up in despair, and leave with the hope that the loss of my business will encourage the little Asian lady that works there to hire some private detectives to go get my broccoli back.

In about one week, I’ll be gone too. I thought about that as I scanned the shelves for mayonnaise. “Get the smallest container you can find,” I said to myself. In a few days, I’ll be out of my apartment and some new guy will be taking my place. He’ll teach my students and sleep in my bed, which I guess were only ‘mine’ for a limited time to begin with. “Don’t buy a big thing of mayo,” I continued. “Get something you can finish in a week. I’m not stocking this next fucker. He can go buy his own damn mayonnaise.”

I don’t know why I’m so against leaving things for the new guy, but I am. The ironing board and toaster oven I bought will be going to my girlfriend as slightly used presents. I look at the new toilet seat I recently installed and shake my head, “That lucky guy doesn’t know how good he’s got it.” The new toilet seat is amazing. It’s like a throne. It’s so good, sometimes I pee sitting down just for the luxury. And now it will be his, whereas, when I arrived, I was handed over something vastly inferior. I inherited a pink bed and a half-eaten cake in the freezer.

If you’re curious, I replaced the bedding and no, I didn’t finish the cake.

Leaving a place where you’ve lived for any amount of time can be a lot like breaking up. When I got to this apartment, I found it ridiculously small and shabby. A couple months later, I didn’t even want to be in this country anymore and I certainly didn’t have much fondness for my job. But now that I’m leaving, I’m only able to see all the good qualities in everything. I’m filled with regret. “I love this place,” I find myself thinking. “I love this apartment and I love Korea and I love all my students. Oh my God, what have I done? I’m leaving the best thing I ever had!”

It’s exactly like how, after a breakup, the girl quickly goes from intolerable to amazing, and suddenly I don’t want to part with anything. Get rid of the pictures of us together? You’re crazy, man! It’s almost the same way I won’t let go of the toaster oven. That shit is mine, and it’s going to my girlfriend’s apartment, so I can come back in six weeks and, I don’t know, make toast I guess. Lots and lots of toast…unless the chicken and the broccoli are back by then.

Similarly, just as the first person you date after a breakup doesn’t seem good enough, my next step – backpacking around Europe for a month and a half – seems tedious. I go through the Lonely Planet book, jotting things down, going, “Yeah, I guess I’ll go to Stonehenge…it’ll pass the time until I come back.” No one has ever been as melancholy about going to Europe as I have been. The Louvre? Oktoberfest? Nah, I just want to sit in my little apartment. On the toilet seat.

Maybe before I leave, I’ll write a short letter to my replacement. “You’re getting a tiny apartment,” it will say, “a job that will exhaust you, and a grocery store that doesn’t stock any food. Congratulations, you lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

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